Month in Review: November ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Time sure flies when you’re posting once a month! This November I think I spent more time growing a beard than growing my list of movies I need to keep tabs on. Now that we’re officially in the swing of the holiday season, awards chatter (and those WONDERFUL Christmas jingles . . .) have picked up dramatically. And there are questions. Lots and lots of questions. What movies are you most anticipating as this year comes to a close? What movies are you going to try and avoid because of crowds? Will Ridley Scott turn a miracle with All the Money in the World? What if Dunkirk takes home Best Picture? Could it be any more poetic that the great Daniel Day Lewis is choosing to bow out of the limelight after one more collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson? And how will Phantom Thread stack up in the PTA pantheon?

There’s as much to chew on there as there was at Thanksgiving dinner. Without further ado, here’s my November in a nutshell. Movies AND music combine in this month’s round-up! Let’s do it!

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!


New Posts 

New Releases: Thor: Ragnarok

Blindspot Selection: The Usual Suspects (1995)


Asbury Park in a Blur

On Saturday, November 18, my dad and I took a two-hour jaunt south to famed Asbury Park, New Jersey to catch Dream Theater on their 25th Anniversary tour commemorating the release of their classic ’92 album Images & Words. By the time we got there it was long after dark, and a relative ghost town, most of the shops along the boardwalk darkened in their off-season slumber. The show at the historic Paramount Theater was my fifth DT show overall, our second experience together and in as many years, and for me it’s the one that won’t be topped.

While I will forever lament my inability to time travel back to the mid-’90s, before the band’s front man and singer James LaBrie ruined his voice thanks to a bout of food poisoning, there’s something uniquely entertaining about the way he tries to compensate in the live setting. In his older age, for the notes he can’t hit (that F-sharp at the end of Live Another Day comes to mind) he simply substitutes volume for pitch. That tendency, along with the gesticulations, are the kinds of quirks that tend to leave the most lasting impression. That and Petrucci’s attempt to grow a Gandalfian beard. By the time I saw him, he was halfway there.

Saturday’s official setlist (for those interested):

Act I
Intro sample: “The Colonel” (taken from Two Steps from Hell’s album Skyward)
“The Dark Eternal Night” (Systematic Chaos)
“The Bigger Picture” (Dream Theater)
“Hell’s Kitchen” (Falling into Infinity)
“To Live Forever” (Images & Words b-side)
“Portrait of Tracy” (Jaco Pastorius cover by John Myung)
“As I Am” (Train of Thought) — segue in/out “Enter Sandman”
“Breaking All Illusions” (A Dramatic Turn of Events)
Intermission
Act 2 — “Happy New Year ’92!” sample
“Pull Me Under”
“Live Another Day”
(James LaBrie notes the strong whiffs of marijuana in the crowd. Proceeds to give the thumbs-up)
“Take the Time”
“Surrounded”
“Metropolis Pt1 Miracle and the Sleeper” — segue in/out Mike Mangini drum solo
“Under a Glass Moon”
“Wait for Sleep”
“Learning to Live”
Encore
“A Change of Seasons” (A Change of Seasons EP)

Another Two-fer

Coco · November 21, 2017 · Directed by Lee Unkrich; Adrian Molina · An absolute feast for the eyes and for the soul, Coco is another richly entertaining and emotionally nourishing adventure that follows a young boy in his quest to live a life just like that of his idol, the great Mexican singer/songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) has more than stage fright to get over if he wants to make it big. For generations the Rivera family has banned music because it is believed to be the source of great emotional pain, caused when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and child to pursue a career of fame and fortune. Rejecting music outright, each subsequent offspring turned to shoemaking as a way to make ends meet, and now that burden has fallen to Miguel. Yet for him the plucking of guitar strings is as natural as putting one foot in front of the other, and soon he finds himself going to extraordinary lengths to prove his talents as well as the fundamental flaw in his family’s extant beliefs. Coco, steeped in the resplendent color and conceptual profundity of Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” festivities, offers audiences both a reliable Pixar package and a unique opportunity to experience culture as few animated films have before. Pixar isn’t taking as big a creative leap as they did when they conceived of a plot about what’s going on inside a child’s head, but they manage to arrive at a similar emotional depth with the way Coco gives equal weight to both cultural and individual values. (4.5/5)

The Babysitter · October 13, 2017 · Directed by McG · The latest offering from the director of Charlie’s Angels takes an almost perverse pleasure in serving bullies a dose of their own medicine in a violent, profane and generally antagonistic tale about an outcast teen who learns a shocking truth about his babysitter. Australian actress Samara Weaving inhabits the role of the “hot but psycho” babysitter whose trust is violated one night when young Cole (Judah Lewis) begins to spy on her when she thinks he’s gone to bed. Somewhere in this sloppily made, middlingly acted drama you may find amusing if not righteous commentary about standing up for yourself and fighting back against . . . well, cult-y babysitters who hit (and hit on) you. It might have even worked as a suggestion of where sexual frustration begins its descent into sexual deviation. Alas, the film is more immediately concerned with the cosmetic — cleavages doused in blood-syrup; abdomens scarred by sexy wounds; the generally ridiculous way people lose their heads over things. Any number of more meaningful readings could well be accidental. The Babysitter gets decent mileage out of shameless exploitation, but it very easily could have been something more than a goofily-acted male fantasy.  (2.5/5)


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: my dad’s iPhone!; http://www.impawards.com

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Taxi Tehran)

jafar-panahis-taxi-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Jafar Panahi

Directed by: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker seemingly undeterred by the consequences of his actions. Those consequences have, as a matter of fact, formed the basis of some of his oeuvre, such as his acclaimed 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, wherein he captured a day in his life under house arrest. Presently the writer-director is serving a six-year sentence and is not allowed to leave his country for perceived propaganda disparaging of the Iranian Republic. Despite such restrictions, which also include a 20-year ban on filmmaking, his latest is available to stream in many countries not his own.

The dissemination of Taxi is in itself a minor miracle. The particulars of how it has come to surface in international streaming services like Netflix remain unclear but if the hula-hoops he had to jump through just to get the aforementioned 2011 piece submitted to the Cannes Film Festival is any indication — allegedly he had to stuff a thumb drive containing the film inside a cake which was snuck across international borders — you can safely assume distributing Taxi was no easier.

While Panahi’s directorial limitations are immediately evident, he gets creative by posing as a cabbie while filming via dashboard cam his interactions with ordinary Tehranis. A few recognize the man while others, such as the opinionated first passenger who goes on a rant about upholding stiffer penalties for lowlives who steal from the poor, remain oblivious. Each patron that gets in this cab offers some small window into life in a less tolerant society, and while the narrative device is a little contrived — I can’t imagine every taxi driver having such interesting interactions with all of his customers in a single shift — it certainly works, and it works incredibly well for a director who is essentially giving the middle finger to the Iranian government.

Some of the people he picks up are more forthright than others — a woman selling roses, for example, even breaks the fourth wall with her candid commentary about life in Iran as a woman and how she feels about the punishments that have been forced upon Panahi as a filmmaker. She even advises her friend on the segments of this film that he should probably get rid of because of their blunt honesty. Clearly Panahi didn’t feel the need to censor himself, which, of course, is the point.

Panahi’s niece also features prominently as an aspiring filmmaker attending arts school. Even though she’s telling her uncle all about the rules her instructors have delineated about the kinds of subject matter they can and cannot film — more often than not they regard the latter, specifically anything that would cast an unfavorable light on life under Sharia Law — she’s really informing us. An intelligent young girl becomes the conduit through which Panahi expresses his own outrage over being censored.

Taxi, a slight but intriguing documentary, leaves plenty of food for thought. Panahi’s creative abilities allow it to be something more than just a childish tantrum, it’s a quietly righteous political statement that deserves our undivided attention, one that makes this reviewer feel fortunate for all the privileges he has living in a nation where movies about porno stars, civil rights dramatizations and less flattering portraits of presidents (both past and present) not only can exist but allow us to evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong in our society.

jafar-panahi-in-taxi-tehran

Recommendation: An intriguing film that sheds light on both the state of the Iranian film industry as well as the larger culture surrounding it. There’s probably nothing in here that will surprise anyone but what might surprise you is just how effective Jafar Panahi makes a film with such limited resources (plus the fact he’s not even supposed to be filming at all adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings). It’s an important film that I believe many people need to see and it has certainly whet my appetite for more from a director who has proven he won’t be ignored. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com; http://www.imdb.com

Embrace of the Serpent

embrace-of-the-serpent-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Ciro Guerra; Jacques Toulemonde Vidal

Directed by: Ciro Guerra


This  review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. I would like to give a shout-out to James for allowing me to talk about this unique cinematic experience. 


Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de La Serpiente) was Colombia’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards, proving that for director Ciro Guerra the third time is the charm. His first unsuccessful submission happened to be his very first feature, the 2004 drama Wandering Shadows, and the second in 2009 for The Wind Journeys. Guerra of course lost to Son of Saul director László Nemes, but he shouldn’t have. In fact this is the kind of experience that just begs the question, why can’t foreign language films also be eligible for Best Picture?

Guerra’s epic excursion through the beautiful but harsh Amazon rain forest is not just last year’s best picture (and by a mile), it’s one of the most raw, most vital experiences you are ever going to have. It’s a religious experience (quite literally in some senses) — an unforgettable journey whose spiritual and cultural pulses are so tangible the film ceases to be a film and instead becomes a snapshot of a reality many of us have conveniently forgotten. Though the account is fictional, portions of the narrative have been inspired by the experiences of early 20th Century western explorers and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of Colombia. The drama is so authentic it induces pangs of despair that only documentaries on harrowing subjects like genocide and other forms of persecution are able to. Of course this film, at least tonally, isn’t quite as heavy as something like Son of Saul, but it touches upon a subject that is just as heartbreaking: the devastation of native populations in the wake of western expansion.

Embrace of the Serpent, shot in a seductive grayscale, follows two stories set roughly 30 years apart. The first finds German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) searching for a cure for a serious illness he’s come down with having spent many years in the Amazon. The scientist’s actual journal entries form the basis for Bijvoet’s outstanding performance and they also play a prominent role in the narrative itself. Said diaries are filled with illustrations and scribblings he fully intends to bring back and use as a communicative tool between vastly different societies. In his quest to avoid dying a miserable, jungly death Theo seeks the help of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last of his own tribe. As a younger, more hostile man he is portrayed by Nilbio Torres in a performance you simply must see.

That a white man has encroached upon his territory unsettles Karamakate deeply and he’s unwilling to help until Theo makes it clear he isn’t here to profit like most westerners have by extracting the rubber from rubber trees, a practice that has led to the enslavement, torture and eventual diminishing of “savages” across numerous western outposts. Theo has been traveling by canoe with a more westernized local, a twenty-something named Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) who is constantly chastised by Karamakate for betraying his own people by adopting western customs like wearing a tee shirt and pants. Everyone is on edge and it is in this state of utter distrust we beat a path through the dense jungle, in search of the (fictional) yakruna plant, whose hallucinatory powers are considered Theo’s best chance for survival.

Guerra entwines this saga with Karamakate’s experiences in 1940 with American explorer Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis). He’s hoping to continue Theo’s work by similarly documenting his travels. He too holds an interest in the yakruna plant, only Karamakate claims he can’t remember where it can be found. Thirty-one years older and that much further removed from the customs and rituals of his people, he is portrayed as an impossibly lonely and broken man by Antonio Bolívar. His lowest moments confirm that sometimes the most powerful evocations of human emotion come in the form of the quiet sob.

There’s a brilliant symmetry to the way Guerra has chosen to structure the piece. The earlier timeline firmly establishes the tenuous trust-building process while the latter proves specifically how that trust can be so easily violated (there’s something we don’t quite buy into with the American explorer; Theo somehow seemed more genuine). The split narrative also affords the internal conflict churning inside Karamakata room to breathe and become an almost unbearable weight. He doesn’t give the outside world direct access to all he holds dear just the once; he goes against his better judgment twice. Embrace of the Serpent, then, becomes more about his resilience and his perspectives. He’s not exactly a man without flaws and his occasional misgivings about the white man can sting deeply (not all of us are monsters). Even so, the way the film concludes leaves little doubt as to where our sympathies should ultimately lie.

Guerra’s vision is distinctly his own. Embrace of the Serpent is an entirely immersive experience that taps into primal human behavior, one that is as cerebral as it is physical. One of the main concerns of the older Karamakata is not being able to recall his ancestral history because of past actions he himself has taken, while Schultes laments not being able to dream because of his work. But it’s not all about suffering. There’s a lot of beauty to be found as well, particularly in the visual aesthetic. Crisp black-and-white photography lends a sense of timelessness and an ethereal quality to the jungle. It’s an artistic flourish that contributes immeasurably to the sense of insulation we feel as we make our way towards the striking round domes of the Cerros de Mavecure, where the yakruna can be found.

Of course this would not be a proper review without discussing the serpent itself. Guerra restrains himself impressively in terms of how he allows the serpent’s mythological symbolism to influence his narrative. Derived from Latin (‘serpens’), the most obvious metaphorical application is the duality of good versus evil. In truth, you can apply it as metaphorically or as literally as you like: Guerra uses the birthing of a snake in an early scene to remind us that snakes are indeed a very real and dangerous entity, while Karamakata later describes the birth of creation as the descending of a serpent from the skies.

Spiritual connectedness also features prominently. At one point Karamakata is shown a picture of himself and, rather than recognizing the image as a moment frozen in time, he believes it to be his ‘chullachaqui,’ a hollow spirit form. Throughout we’re reminded once and again of a complex belief system thought to maintain order in this otherwise hostile and unpredictable environment. We’re never asked to embrace it but we are challenged to respect it. Karamakata believes Westerners are limited by their own ignorance (scientists can only think in terms of facts and observable phenomenon; those who seek riches can only think in terms of money and material possessions, etc.), whereas the native inhabitants of the jungle are much more attuned to the grander hierarchy of existence. This in and of itself is enough to open the flood gates for lively debate.

Embrace of the Serpent isn’t just a memorable watch, it is a significant cinematic achievement. Guerra’s assured direction and the mesmerizing performances from his small cast combine to form a visceral, challenging experience that simultaneously defends a dying way of life and homages some great survival/adventure films. Flavors of The Jungle BookLord of the Rings and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo — even Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto — are all sampled, but a part of me feels that this particular film reaches some psychic level that none of the aforementioned quite managed. It reaches far higher than the vast majority of Best Picture nominees have in recent years.

el_abrazo_de_la_serpiente_2

Recommendation: Utterly compelling stuff and hands-down one of the most extraordinary things this reviewer has ever watched. (Interestingly, in a year that has given us a lot of disappointments . . . A LOT . . . I have also been able to find two films that might make my all-time greats list, the other being the delightfully bizarre indie Swiss Army Man.) Embrace of the Serpent is a film whose dialogue is delivered primarily in native tongues but eight other languages factor in as well. Don’t let the subtitles scare you out of this. You simply just have to get your hands on this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 125 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.vox.com

The Invitation

'The Invitation' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Dinner parties tend to get awkward when guests start dropping dead.

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Aeon Flux) invites you inside the strange goings-on of what was supposed to be a casual get-together among longtime friends, friends reuniting after a traumatic event. Paranoia and mistrust run rampant in The Invitation as painful memories from the past are dredged up and inauspicious developments in the present combine to form one of the most tension-rich environments you’re likely to get in a mystery thriller of its ilk.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Kusama’s latest film fairly predictable stuff. Even if you’re only half paying attention you’re likely going to make a good assumption as to how everything wraps up. The disastrous dinner party scenario isn’t played out per se but it is formulaic and there are certain limitations not even the likes of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who share writing duties here, can overcome. Still, writing within limitations doesn’t mean you have to restrict your creativity — if anything it means just the opposite — and this deliciously suspenseful, utterly engaging and nerve-racking story is proof these writers enjoy embracing that challenge. The main beats you can feel coming well in advance but there’s a wealth of material in between that make The Invitation a plump cherry to savor.

The story is about a man returning to his former residence after he’s accepted an invitation to a dinner being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is on the way over with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) when his distracted driving results in striking an animal in the middle of the road. So yeah, okay, maybe it’s not the subtlest way of foreshadowing what comes later but the moment succeeds in preempting tension that will rarely excuse itself from the narrative going forward.

That tension sets in in earnest when Will and Kira arrive and are greeted by friends they haven’t seen in some time. Things are definitely awkward, everyone needs a first drink. But everyone also seems a little . . . odd. Maybe that’s just the way Will is perceiving things. Bobby Shore’s camera sticks close by his side as he reacquaints himself with the house he once lived in. He’s quiet and stand-offish, resulting in a number of instances where friends come up to him and ask how he’s doing. Telling him they love him. Maybe it’s just the hosts that are off-putting. After all it can’t be easy listening to your ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) vehemently declaring how intent she is on living a life free of pain and grief now; how she wants a troubled past with Will to be forgotten and moved beyond.

Her husband David (Michiel Huisman) spouts the same gibberish, passionately reciting some bullshit philosophical utterances touted by a “grief support group” the two have recently joined. David even goes so far as to show everyone a video of what goes on during their “sessions.” (Yes, everything is now going to be in mystery quotes.) The contents are “fairly disturbing” to say the least. We continue to ride the night out from Will’s point of view, his mounting discomfort shedding the thin veil of subtlety it had earlier. He’s very suspicious of this David fella and not because he’s the guy his ex is now seeing.

To get everyone’s minds off of the weirdness he just subjected them to, David suggests they participate in an ice-breaking game called ‘I Want,’ a variation on ‘I Have Never,’ and the evening takes another interesting turn when Eden wants to kiss Ben (Jay Larson), the same guy she briefly became hostile towards for making a harmless joke moments ago. This is just one example of the woman’s erratic behavior. At this point we wish we could be Claire, a guest who has become so uncomfortable she just wants to leave, despite the hosts’ protests. Somewhere along the way an unexpected guest has arrived, an imposingly large man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). He’s from the same support group. Meanwhile, the partiers are still awaiting the arrival of Choi (Karl Yune), a friend who promised to show up early.

A talented cast and crew help Kusama realize the potential in her cult-themed thriller. Marshall-Green brings a quiet intensity to his part as a conflicted Will but aside from him there are no particular standouts; rather, the ensemble of relative unknowns fails to register a false note in their emotional responses. Major spoiler-related actions notwithstanding, people behave in The Invitation as you would expect them to in real life. These aren’t people you ever really like, something that actually works in the film’s favor as it merely compounds the stress. The characters are each their own oddball, constantly demonstrating behavior that could prove to be their own undoing. Best of all, no one character is defined by a singular emotional outburst; they have names, not labels.

Throughout, Kusama’s direction remains disciplined and keenly focused on the biased perception of an unreliable protagonist. (Or is Will the only sane one in the room?) Kusama employs flashbacks that occasionally feel heavy-handed but contrasted against the vagaries of Will’s shifty demeanor they become vital. They help us appreciate why this get-together was never going to feel normal. It’s her work behind the camera that ensures The Invitation remains a consistently rewarding watch, and despite the third act gut-punch losing a bit of its edge due to some blatant foreshadowing earlier, everything winds up in a snap that’s just too good to resist.

Recommendation: Despite its predictability, The Invitation is simply too well-acted and executed to ignore. It’s claustrophobic and intimate and awkward and tense and pretty much everything that makes the formulaic dinner-party mystery thriller great. An able cast helps convince while strong work from behind the camera marks this as a project clearly everyone believed in. A very fun and rewarding watch, highly recommended. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Forgiveness doesn’t have to wait. I’m free to forgive myself and so are you. It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Blue Ruin

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

From the opening shot silence dominates, ominously foreshadowing a journey fraught with tension and dread. It doesn’t take long to realize that something is wrong, to feel the disconnect between a vagabond and his surroundings. Macon Blair’s Dwight is floating through existence, living out of his car and presumably without a job. The comforts of our typical daily lives feel far out of reach even though they are quite literally right in front of him. Despite his disheveled appearance Dwight seems functional, making use of a few odds and ends to help him get through another day of living on the streets. But he’s clearly a broken man, a scruffy beard and unkempt hair and meals derived from what he can scrape out of trash cans being the most telling.

For at least the opening 20 minutes he remains enigmatic, inspiring an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Possibly a bit of frustration too — who is this guy? Empathy towards the homeless isn’t a necessity — if you’re not empathetic I can’t say I blame you as it seems more often than not their plights are derived from a long series of poor life choices — but in this case the issue doesn’t seem to be a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Drama begins in earnest when Dwight receives the news that the man responsible for the murder of both his parents is being released from prison. A policewoman asks him to come into the station, insisting that it’d be better for him to hear this in a safe place rather than being alone on the streets and finding out in the local paper.

Unfortunately the catalyst for the blood-splattering that is to come is less dependent upon the way in which he receives the information as it does upon how he will choose to respond to it.

Given the thrill of the discovery, it’s difficult to talk plot without ruining much of the experience so I vote instead we talk about how good Blair is in the lead. Um, yeah. He’s good. Evoking an emotional instability that borders on madness, Dwight comes across as a surprisingly threatening man even though his ineptitude at handling violent situations may say otherwise. That he’s out of his depth on more than a few occasions is a brilliant manifestation of Blair’s physical performance. This is a role that, rather than relying on extensive dialogue, depends upon how his countenance reflects a steadily more desperate reality. Such change is more often than not subtle but by the end the disparity is noted. It’s an incredible performance, elevating Blue Ruin well above your average revenge tale.

As good as Blair is, however, Jeremy Saulnier might just outdo him. He isn’t just responsible for allowing his lead to flourish under intelligent writing and precise directing, he’s painting a gorgeous backdrop through crisp, colorful cinematography that ironically romanticizes the lush landscape of Virginia, particularly Dwight’s hometown, a sleepy hollow interrupted by violence. Thickly forested hills serve as creative conceals for confrontations that don’t necessarily play out the way you might expect. In this film, Virginia is not for lovers; it is for survivors. It is for men who stand very little to lose.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Saulnier’s minimalist portraiture of a life gone awry it arrives upon a frozen plate.

Recommendation: Blue Ruin is a great example of minimalist storytelling. Dialogue-lite, it’s far more concerned with body language and subtle visual clues to keep viewers constantly engaged. The violence it does feature is rather vivid but it, too, is limited to moments that tend to be extremely effective. I loved this film, but I can see others having a problem with its deliberate build-up. It’s not heavy on action but it is heavy on great acting and beautiful cinematography. Give it a shot sometime. E-hem. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I would forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re weak.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Dope

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Rick Famuyiwa

Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance darling isn’t particularly revelatory filmmaking, but it’s much more intelligent than its dopey title suggests, rejecting racial stereotypes and erasing cultural gaps as confidently as it embraces its young leading trio as a righteous symbol of individualism.

Dope channels an infectious spirit à la executive producer Pharrell Williams’ hit single ‘Happy’ via a cast brimming with fresh, relatively undiscovered talent, evolving its giddy comedic approach through a series of misadventures experienced by three geeky teens growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood referred to as “The Bottoms” — translated geographically, Inglewood.

There’s Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore), who’s trapped in the ’90s with his flat-top haircut and loud clothing; Diggy (22-year-old Kiersey Clemons in her first big screen role), a lesbian who cares not for what anyone thinks about her preference for dressing a little differently; and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s very own Tony Revolori), who may seem like a misfit but his 14% African blood speaks for itself, thank you very much. The threesome jam in a punk-rock band and are very close, but the film places extra emphasis on Malcolm as his investment in academics and in trying to get into Harvard make for a character that shames most archetypal movie teens. He’s focused on what’s most important to him, while trying to avoid ending up on the wrong street corner at the wrong time.

One afternoon he’s not so lucky, targeted by A$ap Rocky’s Dom as he bikes home from school down a particularly dangerous street. The encounter introduces Malcolm to a whole new world he’s woefully ill-equipped to deal with, a world where drugs, violence and gang affiliation reign supreme. When his delicate flirtations with Dom’s former flame Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) grant him admission into a club party, he ends up with some precious cargo in his school bag, subjugating him and his friends to the kind of sudden attention no one wants or needs.

Dope is sheltered comfortably under the ‘coming-of-age’ umbrella, making quick work of establishing an environment which its oddball characters desperately need to outgrow and move away from. Contrary to the relationship Malcolm shares with his geeky friends, it is with Nakia whom he chases the same light at the end of the tunnel. They both are college-bound hopefuls, though unfortunately Nakia’s aspirations hardly take center stage or much of the stage at all. The negligence doesn’t come at the cost of the film’s enjoyability, though Dope‘s failure to fully develop Malcolm’s female equivalent is a backwards step given its adherence to creating real people in real environments. Ultimately, Kravitz fulfills the requirements of a slightly less obvious token girl, one whose preference for book-smart boys rather than the street-wise thugs she’s surrounded by isn’t enough to escape cliché.

Nonetheless, and despite strong supporting performances, Moore’s fish-out-of-water remains the driving force behind Dope‘s emphasis on individuality. Malcolm, determined to put “The Bottoms” behind him, ironically turns to dope-dealing as a way to rid himself of the contents of his bag. Handing the bag over to the proper authorities is obviously out of the question. The narrative devotes most of its time to the boy desperately attempting to dispose of the stigma of a misled youth possessing illicit drugs and weapons. One scene in particular brilliantly showcases how close Malcolm comes to succumbing to stereotypes. Fortunately, the incident is a rare blemish on an otherwise thoroughly endearing character.

It’d be more accurate to describe the moment as Dope‘s most piercing truth about human nature, on how certain societal pressures render even the most strong-willed susceptible to change. Malcolm, even with his myriad rare qualities — you know, the kind that afford him a daily ass-beating in school hallways — is far from a role model. One of the more ridiculous but oddly satisfying cultural probes is this group’s fascination with talking as though they were from the street. They constantly refer to ‘bitches’ and ‘dope’ despite their physical appearance indicating they’ve rarely (if ever) been in tough circles, at least up until this moment wherein they’ve been forced to conform to them.

Dope‘s vibrant characters brushing shoulders with the brutal realities of street life in particularly impoverished communities like “The Bottoms” makes for surprisingly entertaining viewing. The title may betray Famuyiwa’s seriousness of purpose, but there’s no denying the dynamic energy and off-beat, charming performances from his young stars do its coming-of-age themes justice.

Recommendation: To belabor the point, the film’s title is unfortunate. It’s likely going to have a negative effect on attendance. Although, its wide release is exciting and the sharp wit and incredibly fun characters deserve to be seen by far more than those who are actually going to spend the money on a theater viewing. Anyone up for an alternative to this weekend’s major Pixar release ought to take a chance on this one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Some brother really needs to invent an app like Ways to Avoid All These Hood Traps.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com