Monday, September 4, 2017

All Eyez on Me

Directed by Benny Boom.

2017. Rated R, 139 minutes.
Demetrius Shipp Jr.
Danai Gurira
Kat Graham
Dominic L. Santana
Hill Harper
Annie Ilonzeh
Keith Robinson
Jamal Woolard
Cory Hardrict
Clifton Powell
Jamie Hector
DeRay Davis

Over twenty years since his death, Tupac Shakur remains one of the most compelling figures in the history of hip hop, and all of music for that matter. He was intelligent, passionate, engaging, conflicted, and wide open with seemingly every emotion he ever had. He didn't just make people think. Lots of artist do this. He made people feel. You may not have agreed with whatever he was saying a given moment, but he said it in such a way you knew that it was of supreme importance to him and had no choice but to respect his viewpoint. Tupac was able to impart that type of sentence into nearly every word he spoke whether in an interview, or a rap verse. Complementing all of this, he led an extremely eventful life in the twenty-five short years of his existence. From his beginning as the son of a Black Panther Party member to finally being gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas, his story is ripe with cinematic possibilities. And so, we have All Eyez on Me

The movie begins just before our hero's birth, when his mother Afeni Shakur (Gurira), the aforementioned Black Panther, is being released from prison while pregnant with him. From there, we launch into what amounts to an extended montage of his early years. It includes lots of moving as Afeni is pursued by the FBI. It also includes lots of hard times. The story settles in Oakland with Tupac (Shipp Jr.) in his late teens and about to embark on the rap career that made him famous.

I mentioned that Tupac led an eventful life. Unfortunately, All Eyez on Me zeroes in on those events and is hellbent on fitting in every one of them. The problem is what should be the emotional core of the film is treated like filler to get us from one of those events to the next. This gives the film a very episodic feel, so much so you'd be forgiven if you thought this were a made-for-TV movie. It uses explanatory dialogue as a crutch. This breaks one of the cardinal rules of story-telling: "show, don't tell." Showing allows the viewer to become absorbed in the story. It engenders empathy by speaking to us. Telling doesn't allow us to be part of the proceedings. It alienates us by speaking at us. It never makes us in the audience do the one thing Tupac himself forced us to do: feel. Instead, it just checks boxes as it goes down the list of well-known moments from his life. Occasionally, director Benny Boom tries to inject the passion needed to make the film work, but he does so clumsily. The film's design never sets them up properly, they just explode, then dissipate almost instantaneously.

Most often, those scenes meant to be emotional revolve around two people, Afeni and 'Pac's close friend Jada Pinkett (Graham). Yes, the same woman who went on to her own successful acting career and even more successful marriage to Will Smith. All Eyez on Me takes great pains to make it clear the two were never romantically involved. It also makes it clear she is someone for whom he had great respect. Kat Graham is very good in the role. Danai Gurira is even better as Afeni. Whenever she's on the screen, it drips with the type of passion we expect and need from every part of this film. Sadly, she and Graham appear at such infrequent intervals they never generate enough momentum to carry those individual scenes. Good work is also turned in by Dominic L. Santana. His performance is better than that of R. Marcus Taylor's playing the same person in the far better Straight Outta Compton.

On the whole, the acting is a strength. It's what makes the film watchable. In the lead, Demetrius Shipp Jr. works hard to give us a good visual representation of Tupac. He naturally looks a lot like Shakur, which helps. He also has 'Pac's mannerisms down pat. It amounts to an excellent impersonation of Shakur. He hints at fully capturing the man's essence, but is held back by the film around him. The Tupac we're given lacks the conviction the man is known for, has mostly unclear motivations and confuses emotional honesty with the ability to quote Shakespeare. We get all this while hearing him say the words we know Tupac might say, the way he might say them, but almost totally void of the weight 'Pac ascribed to them.

The work of the cast shows they were committed to the project. Collectively, they show a commendable level of earnestness. We sense that they want to do justice to the people they're portraying. However, they are continually failed by the writing. Their efforts go in vain because the screenplay never provides the connective tissue needed to truly give the film life. Instead of soaring across the screen, their work skids along the runway without ever taking off.

Even within the one aspect of the film that works, there is one performance that crashes and burns in spectacular fashion and it's not really the actor's fault. Jarrett Ellis's portrayal of rap legend Snoop Dogg it is a laughable distraction, at best, cringe-worthy at worst. The reason this is not his fault is because of a technical decision made by Boom and/or his team. Instead of letting Ellis naturally play the role, his voice is dubbed over with that of the real Snoop. The dubbing is poor, I might add. It looks like Ellis is lip-syncing his own lines instead of speaking them. To be fair, Snoop is not listed in the credits, at least I didn't notice his name, so there is some room to debate whether it was dubbed or if Ellis is just that good at sounding like Snoop. I have heard him speak in an interview. Trust me, it would be a mighty stretch, but if he did I apologize to him. However, watching All Eyez on Me, it seemed pretty clear those sounds weren't coming from his own throat.

The fact Snoop is even in this movie highlights problems with the script. I'm certainly aware of the fact you can't effectively tell Tupac's story without Snoop being involved, on some level. However the story, and Snoop's part in it, are not effectively told. His part of the story includes tons of setup with no payoff. The rest of the film is all payoff with no setup. That payoff comes in the form of those events it focuses on, or the name-dropping it does. Nineties era hip hop fans will get a kick out of seeing avatars for Dr. Dre, The Dawg Pound, and other Death Row affiliates. Jamal Woolard reprises his role as The Notorious B. I. G. from the movie Notorious, another better music biopic. He is once again good, but in this case, underused like a lot of people important to the story. The whole thing feels rushed through, as if they were trying to beat some other Tupac movie to the theaters. Any good film, but especially a good biopic, pulls us into the world of its subjects. We truly feel what they feel because we understand why they feel it. All Eyez on Me never manages to do this. Instead, it hangs a Tupac poster on the wall along with a bunch of newspaper clippings and calls it a movie.

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  1. I thought about seeing it but I was also wary about the dramatic liberties it might take towards 2Pac. It seemed like they tried to make it gritty but didn't exactly get the nuances of what made 2Pac so special as I've seen docs on 2Pac and I've seen interviews with 2Pac during his prime. I knew they wouldn't get some of these elements that made him dangerous as well as sensitive. I'll probably check it out on TV but I'll probably expect the worst as 2Pac deserves better.

    1. Nuances, that's the word I was looking for. This film has almost none of them. It just shuffles us along as if we're rushing through museum exhibits.

  2. This was on my must see list until the reviews came out, so I skipped it in theaters. It's in my Netflix queue now, and I think I'll feel the exact same way you do.

    Man, it's a shame this film isn't better. :(

    I really do like the same actor reprising Biggie. I liked Notorious too.

    1. A crying shame. His life has given us enough material for several good movies. This isn't one of them.

  3. I couldn't bring myself to watch this. I do appreciate your review though - I feel like this movie kind of got lost among one controversy or another, all of it just sort of smoke. Sounds like it would have benefited from a tighter scope.

    1. A tighter scope would have been nice, and possibly allowed for a deeper examination of the man and the society around him.

  4. I agree the biopic "checks boxes as it goes down the list of well-known moments", and doesn't make as feel much