DOPE (Full Review)

One of my favorite comedies with a predominantly African American cast is 1999’s The Wood starring Omar Epps and Taye Diggs. Few films manage to capture the camaraderie and angst of young black teens growing up together like that film did. Dope is the latest film from Rick Famuyiwa, the same director that brought us that classic film as well as another of my favorites, 2002’s Brown Sugar.

DopeTeaserPosterNarrated by producer Forest Whitaker, Dope let’s you know what it is from the start: A teen comedy with something strikingly important to say. The film follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a self proclaimed black nerd who idolizes 90’s hip hop culture, makes straight A’s and has dreams of attending Harvard. He plays in a rock band with his two friends; Hispanic goof Jib (Tony Revolori), and lesbian tomboy Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Together they spend their days running from bullies, avoiding street gangs, and genuinely trying not to circumstantially die in the mean streets of Inglewood, California. After a beautiful girl (Zoe Kravitz) invites Malcolm to a party hosted by a notorious drug dealer (rapper A$ap Rocky), life starts to get crazy for the three teens. Caught up in a drug mix up, they are forced to figure out what to do with a backpack full of “molly”.

At times, the film is as chaotic as someone actually on drugs, but solid structuring helps navigate the often incoherent plot. A strong soundtrack, fused with some of the best hip hop songs of the late 80’s and 90’s, also helps establish a vibe that is similar to Famuyiwa’s past films. But the element that makes the film solid from start to finish is without a doubt the cast. Led by a strong performance from Shameik Moore, one that is reminiscent of Sean Nelson’s in The Wood, this film shines on the charisma of its young actors. The greatest comedies have clever jokes, great delivery, and entertaining slapstick. Moore excels in all three as does the vast majority of the rest of the cast.

But Dope is also more than just a comedy. Wedged between the comedic exterior is a film about the struggle and desperation any young teen has when trying to find himself or escape a negative environment. One scene in particular, involving a gun, hammers this point home in beautifully dramatic fashion. The film also manages to include some very poignant commentary on the nature of race, although this aspect isn’t as strongly executed.

Dope is dope, in every sense of the word. And it is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in quite a while. It may get lengthy, and at times the plot will be as difficult to comprehend as a psychological thriller, but you’ll laugh out loud and also be enlightened several times before the credits role.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out (Full Review)

There are great computer animated movies not made by Pixar (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Despicable Me, Wreck-it Ralph), but for two decades, Pixar has been the gold standard. This title goes beyond just making movies that entertain kids, because kids will pretty much enjoy anything animated. Pixar animation studios is the king of the industry because of their creativity and attention to detail. Sure, the studio had some off years (Cars 2)… but more times than not, Disney/Pixar has delivered animated classics: The Incredibles, A Bug’s Life, Up, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Monsters Inc., The Toy Story Trilogy. And just when you think they can’t be anymore inventive, along comes Inside Out.

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterPixar’s newest film brings viewer’s into the world of the mind. In particular, the mind of an 11-year old girl moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. Guiding her every action inside of the headquarters in her mind, are her emotions: Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kailing), Fear (Bill Hader), and the leader of them all, Joy (Amy Poehler). After a mishap following Riley’s disastrous first day at a new school, Joy and Sadness set out on an adventure to recover Riley’s core memories before she suffers an emotional breakdown.

There is so much more to this movie than meets the eye. Much like Wall-E and Monsters Inc., this film creates an intricate world that is fascinating from start to finish thanks to beautiful animation and a perfectly crafted story that gives each of its main cast a moment to shine. It is also filled with several hilarious, and surprisingly deep side characters like Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s pink imaginary friend. The film doesn’t quite have the memorable laughs like many Pixar films before it, but there’s still plenty to chuckle at. Much of the humor is marred in subtlety that will undoubtedly fly over a child’s head, but make every adult in the audience laugh out loud.

It’s that intelligence, that dry wit and cleverness, that sets Inside Out apart and makes it a classic. The children’s movie genre is filled with two hours of slapstick goofiness for kids (the Madagascar franchise), but it takes true creativity to make a film that is both humorous and enriching for children and the adults who have to pay for them to get in. And Inside Out is as enriching as they come. The beautiful lessons about the importance of every emotion, not just joy, will resonate with everyone who sees this film. Just when you think Pixar is out of ideas and hell bent on giving us unnecessary sequels (Toy Story 4), they remind us why they are, and will likely always be, the Kings of animated film.

FINAL GRADE: A

Jurassic World (Full Review)

There’s a reason people love horror movies and thrillers. It’s that feeling you get when your heart races, your eyes get wide, and you start thinking “Oh s**t, oh s**t! RUN!” The first time I ever felt that feeling was when I first saw 1993’s Jurassic Park. I loved the movie so much, that I actually wanted to be a paleontologist when I was 5 years old. Two sequels followed, and while they were entertaining, they couldn’t quite capture the sense of wonder that encompassed the original. With Jurassic World, Director Colin Trevorrow and company hope they can recapture that magic that seems to have gotten lost over time.

Jurassic_World_posterFailing to include the theme park element in the plot was one of the biggest draw backs to The Lost World, and Jurassic Park 3. But this time, the park is now open. Set roughly 20 years after the catastrophe that saw dinosaurs run amuck following employee sabotage, the kinks of founder John Hammond’s groundbreaking theme park have been essentially worked out. Jurassic World, as it is now called, is fully functional with genetically recreated creatures ranging from giant sea monsters, flying pterodactyls and of course, the T-Rex.

But apparently, living dinosaurs aren’t enough. Tourists and investors want bigger and scarier and something fresh (there’s a metaphor for summer films in there somewhere). This leads to the park scientists, lead by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong reprising his role from Jurassic Park), bio-engineering the first hybrid super dinosaur named Indominus Rex.  You can guess what happens from there.

Many of the decisions made by characters in this film are incredibly dumb. I’m talking ‘exploring an abandoned cemetery’ or ‘hearing a scary noise and going to see what it is’ type of dumb. But it shouldn’t bother you, because we all want things to go south. We want park operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to ignore common sense and refuse to evacuate the island at the first sign of trouble. We want park C.E.O. Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) to try and capture the Indominus Rex alive to save his investment instead of trying to kill it. We want teenage brothers to foolishly wander off on their own in a theme park filled with deadly dinosaurs. We want raptor tamer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to be a badass who no one listens to despite the fact that he seems to be the only one who knows how to deal with the creatures. Why? Because those are the things that make horror films, disaster movies, and thrillers the most fun.

And Jurassic World is off the charts on the fun scale. Even before the inevitable disaster that sends everyone screaming in terror, the film captures the sense of wonder that a child would get at his first trip to the zoo. From the moment we hear John Williams’ iconic theme, we feel like we’re back in Jurassic Park, and that’s something none of the previous sequels manage to recapture. Once the chaos ensues, it is as heart pounding as ever even if it feels cheesy. The final sequence seems ripped right out of a Godzilla movie, and I enjoyed every second of it.

Jurassic World isn’t a cinematic classic with a ton of memorable characters. The one exception is Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady who is witty and cool from start to finish. And several subplots, particularly one about a government official (Vincent D’Onofrio) trying to weaponize raptors for the military, could have been left on the cutting room floor. But the movie is absolute gold as summer entertainment. More importantly, to fans who grew up re-watching the original over and over again, it is beautifully nostalgic.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Spy (Full Review)

Jason Statham should really consider doing more comedies. Who knew the guy had such a knack for it? The top billing may read “Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig”, but it’s Statham who actually steals the show. Not that McCarthy doesn’t hold her own. That isn’t the case at all. In fact, each member of this all star cast pulls their comedic weight to bring together one of the most entertaining action-comedies in quite a while.

Spy2015_TeaserPosterIn Spy, Melissa McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent, who despite being skilled herself, spends her days assisting super secret agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) from an earpiece and an office desk. That changes when wealthy Bulgarian heiress, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), discovers the identities of every CIA field agent forcing CIA head, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) to send soft spoken Susan undercover to prevent Boyanov from selling a nuclear bomb.

The chemistry between the cast is solid and each character gets their comedic moment to shine. If you aren’t a fan of McCarthy’s potty mouth routine, then you’ll be turned off by this film. If you are anything near a casual fan of McCarthy, you’ll find her hilarious in this role. Byrne, who we’ve seen do comedy before (Bridesmaids, Get Him to The Greek, Neighbors) doesn’t miss a beat as the film’s villain and Miranda Hart is equally enjoyable as Susan’s unassuming best friend. But as mentioned before, Statham is a scene stealer as Agent Rick Ford, an obnoxious caricature of the characters Statham usually plays in his movies. He spends the entire film spouting off his numerous accolades while giving one hilariously unbelievable tale after another.

The film isn’t nearly as funny as Bridesmaids, but does include enough side splitting moments to put it a step above Feig and McCarthy’s last team-up, The Heat. And when it isn’t making you laugh, Spy manages to captivate with a fair share of impressive action sequences. After last summer’s flop, Tammy, it’s good to see that McCarthy can still hit our funny bones. And it’s also good to see an action comedy that manages to succeed at delivering an entertaining story about an unassuming hero that defies the norm.

FINAL GRADE: B+

May 2015 Quick Reviews

Summer movie season is in full swing. Here are some quick thoughts on some of the films that capped the month of May…

San_Andreas_posterSAN ANDREAS Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as rescue pilot Chief Ray Gaines in this earth quake disaster film about the San Andreas fault (mainly encompassing California) ripping apart. The film is pretty much everything you’d expect a disaster movie with The Rock to be. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

San Andreas is stuffed full of nearly every disaster movie cliché imaginable: A scientist that no one listens to until it’s too late (Paul Giamatti), a significant other that the main character must reconcile with (Carla Gugino), an offspring that needs saving (Alexandra Daddario), and a character who turns full a-hole when everything starts to go south (Ioan Gruffudd). But it’s still fairly entertaining. The action sequences are no less (or more) interesting than the events in films like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, but the 3D is a nice added touch. And as far as leads go, Dwayne Johnson is right in his element here, when he isn’t trying to show too much emotional depth. All in all, the film is decent time spent, but don’t expect anything earth shatteringly original. Pun intended. FINAL GRADE: C+

Tomorrowland_posterTOMORROWLAND In this day and age when spoilers are released via on-set cell phone footage and each movie gets four trailers to show you all of the interesting parts, Tomorrowland is an absolute breath of fresh air. Kept relatively under wraps, the story revolves around an intelligent, young girl (Britt Robertson) who is recruited to save a futuristic world kept secret by history’s best and brightest. George Clooney co-stars as the former child genius turned cynical recluse who reluctantly aids her on her journey.

The cast, especially Clooney, deserves credit for strong, emotionally grounded performances. The only problem is that this adventurous build-up comes to a highly underwhelming climax that manages to weigh down the entire film. And, although highly relevant, the movie beats you over the head with its overarching message. Still, kudos to Disney and director Brad Bird for withholding all of their secrets to make this film feel wildly original. FINAL GRADE: B-

Aloha_posterALOHA Where do I start with this one? I guess I’ll begin with the overly convoluted plot. Yes, a romantic comedy has a complicated story. Anywho, Bradley Cooper stars as a contractor for the military who returns to his hometown in Hawaii to help a billionaire (Bill Murray) with a satellite launch. Yes, that’s actually the plot. Emma Stone co-stars as his Air Force watchdog who falls in love with him and Rachel McAdams as his now married ex-girlfriend.

If the military and NASA dribble involving secret missiles and land negotiations with Hawaiian natives doesn’t make this film feel droll enough, the lack of chemistry between the characters will. The film is filled with awkward moments, and not the entertaining kind of awkward that makes you laugh, but rather those moments where you just want the scene to end. The most enjoyable moments in the movie come from Rachel McAdams’ husband, played by John Krasinksi who communicates non-verbally for nearly the entire movie. He provides some snickers in spurts, but other than that, this film is neither endearing or humorous. FINAL GRADE: D+