Friday, June 26, 2015

DOPE is, In Fact, a Super Dope Movie

DOPE Review:

- Dope is the kind of movie that has "breakout" written all over it. It's got several performances that - if there's any justice in Hollywood - will be star-making. And it's a movie that should put writer/director Rick Famuyiwa on many more people's radars. The film - a potent blend of comedy and drama - is a Big Lebowski-esque neo-noir set in the rough neighborhood of Inglewood, CA. It tells the time-honored story of a regular guy getting in way over his head, getting roped into a crime story that he had no intention of getting roped into. But what's unique here is that Famuyiwa brings an amazing sense of authenticity to what is also a stylized and over-the-top film. The characters and setting all feel real and lived-in - as much a legit and vibrant slice of Los Angeles culture as Lebowski.

If The Big Lebowski was a stylized look at Los Angeles' middle-aged hippies, stoners, and burn-outs, DOPE is an almost-as-stylized look at a group we haven't much seen in pop-culture until now: the urban geek. DOPE's hero, Malcolm, is an African-American, inner-city nerd. A smart dude who eschews trying to be gangsta for a look that pays homage to his 80's and early-90's-era retro hip hop and rock heroes. He's in a nerd-rock band, he reads comics, and he looks like he walked out of a Kid n' Play movie. He runs with a group of other inner-city outcasts - including Diggy, a brash lesbian, and Job, a shy, mixed-race geek - who also serve as his bandmates. Malcolm is a good kid - he's trying his hardest to graduate high school, get into a good college, and get out of Inglewood. But things take a turn for the not-so-great when he and his friends decide to attend a party thrown by a local drug-dealer. The reason, of course, boils down to a girl who Malcolm is crushing on. But the result is that gunfire breaks out, a drug deal goes bad, and the dealer ends up stashing his drugs in Malcolm's backpack. Suddenly, Malcolm is caught up in a conflict that he wants no part of. And things only escalate from there. Malcolm - a quiet guy who usually keeps to himself, is now caught up in an insane world of drugs, sex, violence, and people who want to kill him.

Malcolm is played by Shameik Moore, and it's a fantastic central performance. Moore totally sells the comedy of the film, but he also gives Malcolm a lot of heart. We really root for the guy, because we are made to understand just how precarious his future is - if something happens that jeopardizes his college admission interviews, he's potentially seriously screwed. Later on in the film though, we see Malcolm grow. He becomes more assertive, more take-charge, and even a bit ruthless in his dealings. In the Big Lebowski, The Dude is the Dude and always will be. But in DOPE, Malcolm is a character that does change a lot over the course of the film. Meanwhile, there's an equally knockout performance here from Kiersey Clemons as Diggy. A loyal friend and take-no-crap individual, Diggy is a great character, and Clemons completely shines in the role - threatening to totally steal the movie. Tony Revolori is also really good as Jib. The three as a group have a great chemistry. The movie has some other strong supporting performances, and some familiar faces pop up, including Zoe Kravitz and Blake Anderson of Workaholics. But the three leads really make the movie.

DOPE is bursting with energy, and Famuyiwa really does a great job of blending tones and styles to create an effective genre mash-up. The movie is often very funny - with some really strong, memorable dialogue. And it's dense - it's the kind of movie that packs a lot in, and that can only benefit from re-watches. There's also some really kinetic action, and a lot of intensity as Malcom increasingly finds himself a target for all manner of shady types.

My one issue is that the movie's ending, to me, falls a little flat - in particular, with a fourth-wall breaking scene that feels like too much of a departure from what we've seen before. The movie goes down some interesting roads that make Malcolm and his friends a little less likable than they start out - and I also wonder if the movie goes a little too far, and perhaps doesn't realize how Malcolm's actions will cause shifting audience sympathies. Regardless, there are a couple of points in the film where I think the movie could have ended, and it would have provided a more effective exclamation point to the story.

But man, DOPE is one of the must-see indie movies of 2015 so far. Its characters and its setting are brought to life with such vibrancy that it inevitably will stick with you. And there's a humor and intelligence and energy to the movie that really makes it pop. This is a unique voice being given a forum to speak, to tell a story - and in today's world of cookie-cutter films, that to me is pretty damn dope.

My Grade: A-

Monday, June 22, 2015

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL Is the Emo Teenager With a Good Heart of Movies


- This is one of those tough movies to review. A blatant tearjerker, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is very effective at tugging at the ol' heartstrings, but it does so in a way that occasionally feels a little emotionally manipulative and a little too self-consciously indie-emo-quirky for its own good. That said, strong performances, unique presentation, and a general likability elevate it above standard teen melodrama fare. This is a movie aimed squarely at the awkward, gawky, slightly-pretentious teenager inside all of us.

Thomas Mann plays Greg, a high school loner who's decided to avoid conflict as best he can by staying under the radar and keeping human connection to a minimum. His one friend (who he refers to as his "co-worker") is Earl (RJ Cyler), a truth-spouting fellow outsider who shares Greg's love for classic movies. Together, the two make an endless series of knowingly quirky film parodies - but their movies are a secret from everyone but Greg's eccentric college-professor dad (a winning Nick Offermann). One day, Greg's Mom (an equally winning Connie Britton) urges her son to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who's recently been diagnosed with leukemia. She sees it as an act of charity, and Greg sees it as an annoying obligation. And Rachel, upon first meeting Greg, is in no great hurry to spend forced hang-out time with a random guy who's never previously been all that friendly to her (her mom, played hilariously by Molly Shannon, is much more excited about the whole thing). But Greg and Rachel hang out, and slowly but surely, they form a close bond - with Earl in the mix as well. The three become an unlikely trio of friends, but the specter of Rachel's increasingly debilitating illness looms over them.

The central trio of Mann, Cyler, and Cooke are all extremely likable and turn in some really excellent performances. Cooke in particular has been impressive of late in everything she's been in, from her role on Bates Motel to the underrated The Signal to this film - she always brings a lot of unexpected depth to the characters she plays. And she really wins you over as Rachel. Cyler too is really great as Earl. He comes from a rougher neighborhood that Greg, and doesn't wallow in the same sort of self-pity as his emo friend. Cyler is really funny, and Earl's straight-talk style provides a lot of the movie's best moments. Now, Mann is quite good as Greg. But his character is the hardest to really like of the main three. Greg feels too much like an amalgam of every high school movie geeky-protagonist cliche. He's got his high-school mapped out into easily-definable clicks? Check. He's got a pop-culture reference for every occasion? Check. He's got a cute girl that seems super into him but for some reason he ignores her because clearly he's not even in her league even though he's basically just a normal if slightly-awkward dude? Check and check. Greg can be annoying at times, but to Mann's credit he does layer in some genuine acting and emotion beneath the obligatory layers of quirk.

And as I alluded to, the movie's supporting players are fantastic. Offerman, Britton, Shannon - all excellent as Greg and Rachel's parents. Jon Bernthal also does very solid work as a sympathetic teacher.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon also does a lot to elevate this one above the teen-drama competition. Greg loves classic movies, and although it feels slightly cliche-ish, Gomez-Rejon makes it work by infusing this film with a palpable sense of fun and genuine affection for the films that its protagonist is so obsessed with. Seeing Greg and Earl's many film parodies could have been tedious, but they are presented with such a sense of whimsy and creativity that you can't help but dig 'em. Throughout the movie, Gomez-Rejon pays tribute to and slyly plays with classic film conventions as well - in the way that he shoots certain scenes and in the way he occasionally subverts expectations with the story. Credit also to writer Jesse Andrews (who adapted the screenplay from his own novel) for crafting a story that makes an effort to be a bit different.

Still, I do think that the movie is occasionally too movie-like and self-referential for its own good. The film tries at once to be authentic-seeming and slice-of-life, but also cinematic in a clearly-this-is-a-movie way. A lot of scenes - including the film's affecting but far-fetched climax - feel overly-contrived in a way that can undermine the film's stab at capturing authentic teenage life. By that same token, I think that Cooke helps elevate the role of Rachel, but there is still an element of manic-pixie-dreamgirl-ness to her that at times makes her feel like the classic only-in-the-movies dorky guy's dreamgirl. 

Overall though, I liked ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, and its charms won me over despite some of my reservations about the film's slightly-trying-too-hard quirk-factor. The movie is indeed a charmer, and it successfully choked me up a couple of times thanks to a fearlessness at going all-in with its premise and not shying away from sadness and pain. Through it all though, the film balances out the melancholy with wit and humor and likability. Yeah, it's heightened and emo and a little *much* ... but what teenager isn't?

My Grade: B+

Sunday, June 21, 2015

INSIDE OUT Is a New Pixar Classic


- To distill complex ideas and concepts into easily-palatable art that can be enjoyed and appreciated by all ages is no easy feat. And yet, with INSIDE OUT, the geniuses at Pixar do just that. They create a film so thematically rich and resonant that I have to say - it left me somewhat floored. This isn't the first film or TV show to look inside someone's head and anthropomorphize emotions. We've seen it in works from the old sitcom Herman's Head to Epcot Center's defunct ride Cranium Command. But never has a look inside a person's head been realized - visually or thematically - with this much thoughtfulness and artistry. INSIDE OUT is not just the best Pixar movie in years, it's right up there in the top two or three films that the storied studio has ever produced.

INSIDE OUT takes us inside the mind of young Riley, a girl who's been uprooted from her life in the Midwest to hilly, hippy San Francisco. The trauma of the move, combined with all of the normal preteen anxieties and awkwardness, means that a lot is going on inside Riley's head. And the film shows us how all of that plays out by going all in - showing us the inner workings of Riley's mind via personifications of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust.

The movie brilliantly conveys how these core emotions develop from infancy and through childhood, to the point where, in the preteen years, they once again begin to evolve and change. Watching the film from an adult perspective, there's an undeniable sense of nostalgia-tinged sense of loss in seeing Riley slowly stray from childhood innocence into pre-adult hyper-awareness of reality. Wonderment and imagination is supplanted by stress, social anxiety, familial frustration, and all-too-acute self-awareness. The effect is like watching a band make intricately composed music out of a few basic notes. It helps that the emotion-characters are so amazingly realized. Their designs are perfect - totally embodying - simply yet effectively - what each represents. And the voice-acting is similarly fantastic. Amy Poehler is award-worthy as Joy - spunky, caring, determined. But what's really interesting here is the interplay between Joy and Sadness. Sadness, voiced in a memorable and at times heartbreaking performance by The Office's Phylis Smith, is perhaps the film's most stand-out character. In part because Smith makes her both painfully reflective of the way in which we actually feel sadness, but also because the movie emphasizes just how important Sadness is in order for a person to experience Joy. The two characters are companions in the movie, just as the two emotions are intertwined in Riley's brain. It's a powerful idea that's at once both simple and incredibly layered - that in order to be well-rounded, empathetic people - we need to be able to experience and understand sadness.

There's a deep sense of nostalgia for childhood innocence in the film - it will likely have you thinking back to formative moments of your childhood in a way you likely haven't in a long while. But INSIDE OUT is also an incredibly fun and funny film. Louis Black was a standout to me as Anger. As with the other emotions, Anger seems to perfectly embody the way in which our own rage-meters actually get triggered. But man, Black is also hilarious in the role, serving as a red-hot rage-machine counterpoint to the sullen Sadness and peppy joy. Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling's snarky Disgust and Bill Hader's neurotic Fear round out the movie's comedic trio. When Joy and Sadness leave Riley's control center on a mission to prevent catastrophe, the scenes of Disgust, Fear, and Anger left to haplessly hold down the fort are consistently off-the-charts funny and entertaining.

What's also interesting is that, even though we get such a complex look at what's happening inside Riley's head, that fact never really undermines how great of a character Riley herself actually is. Riley could easily have felt like a walking puppet whose strings are being pulled. But instead, she feels fully-drawn and someone that we really, really root for. We just want her to turn out okay, and we cringe whenever Anger or Sadness or Disgust takes over and seems to derail her from being happy and her best self. Similarly, we can't help but feel a sense of loss as we see her growing up at the expense of childhood flights-of-fancy, like her almost-entirely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing-Bong (voiced amusingly by the always-great Richard Kind). But again, what's great is that while Riley's emotions are universal, she herself is still a very specific character. That means that the movie can have some real fun when it shows us fleeting flashes of other people's heads. The results are often really funny, but it's also sort of poignant to see how we can all be so different and yet so uncannily alike. This is a film that espouses empathy, and it does so in a deceptively smart and nuanced way.

INSIDE OUT would be an impressive film just by virtue of how spot-on it is in its representation of our memories, thoughts, and emotions. From the way our unconscious mind creates dreams and nightmares, to the way that an earworm ad jingle can get lodged in our brains, INSIDE OUT feels dead-on with its incredibly well-thought-out depiction of the human mind. Visually, Riley's mindscape is gorgeously rendered, with every aspect seemingly thought through to the last detail. At the same time, we never care about Joy and the rest of the emotions at the expense of Riley.

I could rave about INSIDE OUT for many more paragraphs, but I'll just compliment by saying that the film itself works in the same way as Riley's emotions do. This is a film that goes to some surprisingly dark and somber places, but in doing so it rewards us with true joy and heartfelt emotional connection. It's Exhibit A of what separates Pixar's best from the rest of the animation pack - they don't take shortcuts to get us emotionally involved in their stories - they don't hold back or pull punches, and that makes the payoff that much more meaningful. INSIDE OUT is a movie that will tug on the heartstrings of even jaded adults. But more importantly, there is an important and brilliantly-realized message here about understanding ourselves, and in doing so understanding and empathizing with others.

My Grade: A

Sunday, June 7, 2015

SPY Is the Best Melissa McCarthy Vehicle To Date

SPY Review:

- I've been a fan of Melissa McCarthy for a long time now. I loved her on Gilmore Girls way back when (yes, I'm a "Gilmore Guy"), and thought she was hilarious in early breakout movie roles in Bridemaids, This Is 40, etc. But I've also been weary of this multifaceted comedic actress being typecast repeatedly as the blue-collar slob who falls over a lot and gets the easy laugh. Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se - but too many movies have forced McCarthy into one-note, one-joke roles that quickly wear thin. But SPY is perhaps McCarthy's best starring movie role to date - she gets to play a multifaceted character who is smart and capable, but still funny and flawed. She also gets to play a part that not-so-subtly takes jabs at the actress' prior film roles, and the Hollywood system that to an extent forced her into them. It speaks to the fact that SPY is a much smarter movie than the marketing perhaps let on. It's also much funnier. It's a testament to McCarthy, to the strong supporting cast, and to director Paul Fieg - a guy who knows how to portray likable underdogs as strong, fully-fleshed-out, subversively funny characters. So don't write off SPY until you've seen it - it's deceptively good.

In SPY, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper - a CIA agent stuck with an unglamorous desk job, providing support and intel to Jude Law's James Bond-like Bradley Fine. But when things go wrong on one of Fine's missions, McCarthy is forced to go into the field to identify the mysterious badguys who took him out. And suddenly, the woman who everyone underestimated and condescended to gets a chance to show that she can handle herself like a boss.

It could have been cheesy and groan-worthy, but SPY handles its premise cleverly and with a keen sense of self-awareness. McCarthy's Cooper is still goofy and self-effacing, but we also get to see a side of her that is at times downright badass and not to be trifled with. A lot of the fun comes from the great dynamic between Susan and Jason Statham's would-be super-agent Rick Ford. Statham is basically playing a parody of the typical Jason Statham character ... and he's absolutely hilarious. We know that Statham has comic chops - witness the Crank movies as a prime example. But he himself has never really been the butt of the joke like he is here, and it's an unexpected turning of the tables. Law is also a standout here, as is Miranda Hart as Susan's more-awkward desk-jockey CIA friend. Hart and McCarthy have a really fun best-friend chemistry going.

The film works on a lot of levels. It's got some really fun action scenes, and functions well in general as a parody and homage to the spy genre. But it's also got an upbeat, positive message about defying stereotypes and breaking out of the cycle of being "typecast" in life. Some of the jokes don't land, and there are elements that feel a bit clunky (Rose Byrne gives her all as the villain, but her character is all over the map). But Feig (who also wrote the film) again proves himself as someone who can take ideas that seem generic on the surface, and really give them an added layer of depth both from a comedic and thematic perspective. SPY is one of the big, pleasant surprises of Summer 2015.

My Grade: B+