Yesterday I took in a perversely designed double feature of Shaun the Sheep Movie and Straight Outta Compton — with the idea that juxtaposing a G-rated family-friendly animation and a “hard-R” gangsta-rap epic might illustrate something about the “duality of man” (as Full Metal Jacket‘s Private Joker would say) — and found myself thoroughly enjoying and appreciating both precisely because of this juxtaposition.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton/Richard Starzak, UK, 2015) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 8.0
Produced by the venerable Aardman Animation Studios, Shaun the Sheep Movie might be devoid of the explicit social criticism and full-blown surrealism that makes ostensible “kids films” like Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Babe: Pig in the City such subversive delights but it’s nonetheless within hailing distance of those crazy masterworks in its delightful premise of a cute critter plunked down in an imposing urban setting (in this case the titular sheep must venture into the generic “Big City” to rescue his amnesiac farmer/owner). In case you weren’t aware, Shaun is completely free of spoken dialogue for the entirety of its 86-minute running time and thus harks back to the days of silent cinema in its use of pure visual humor and image-based storytelling; the way a group of live sheep camouflage themselves against a large bus-terminal poster advertising a trip to the country is but one example of the film’s many splendid sight gags. Whenever the human characters do speak, their voices sound like gibberish — not unlike the adult characters in a Peanuts cartoon — and the Chicago Reader‘s Ben Sachs has convincingly argued that the wordless filmmaking that results recalls the majesty of silent landmarks like Sunrise and The Crowd. I ultimately found the lack of reliance on dialogue/verbal humor incredibly refreshing and would rate Shaun the Sheep Movie a close second to Inside Out as animated/family film of the year.
Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, USA, 2015) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 8.5
Straight Outta Compton is the best superhero-origin film of recent years (even better than X-Men: First Class, dude) in the way that it charts the rise of rap supergroup N.W.A. by first introducing each of its individual members and then pitting them against the music-industry supervillains (i.e., Jerry Heller and Suge Knight) who threaten to tear the team apart. The fact that Compton has already become a cultural phenomenon must be seen as a testament to how hungry general audiences are for an alternative to Hollywood’s lily-white summer programming. While the film is ultimately a triumph of directing over screenwriting (it is, as its critics have noted, worse off for soft-pedaling N.W.A.’s misogyny), there are still a million reasons to go see this on the big screen. Chief among them: it’s the first post-Ferguson film to acknowledge America’s police brutality and racism problems and — even though they may be couched within the framework of a musical biopic and period piece — their unflinching depiction still feels monumentally important for this reason. Plus, from a cinematic perspective, the whole thing is beautifully realized by F. Gary Gray (Friday) who, along with the great D.P. Matty Libatique, makes the Compton-milieu of the late 1980s and early 1990s come thrillingly alive. Most surprising of all though is how emotional it all feels, teetering at times on the verge of turning into a full-fledged male-weepie, but always remaining anchored by Jason Mitchell’s charismatic-but-naturalistic star turn as Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. One question lingers: after Love and Mercy and now this, has it become a rule that musical biopics must cast Paul Giamatti as a sleazy character in a bad hairpiece?