He SAID: Dope

Scott F. Evans

Dope might just have one of the most appropriate titles in cinema history. Similar to narcotics, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest offering gives you an immediate high as it seems to present us with a new breed of young African-American protagonists. dope2You think that Dope just might paint an altogether different picture of life in Inglewood, California. Maybe it’s a slice of life meets coming-of-age flick set to a dope 90’s hip hop soundtrack. Maybe Dope just describes something fresh, fun and affirming. In this state of euphoria, you believe that Famuyiwa’s film is showing you something unique. Everything has a soft, mellow sheen to it.

But then the high wears off and the cracks start showing.

On the upside, Famuyiwa is a good writer. His dialogue is nimble and flows naturally from his actors mouths. It’s smart without being condescending. It’s plain, but never simple. Its humor sometimes relies too heavily on crassness but that could be attributed to the character’s youth and dope3socio-economic background. The characters he draws in the film are a little troubling but we’ll get to that shortly. The direction is solid if a little gimmicky at times, feeling like the forty-something director’s trying too hard to appeal to the post-millenials the film centers around. The flourishes don’t distract, but also feel completely superfluous. Other than a couple off performances, he gets mostly solid work from his cast. Famuyiwa and cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoot Inglewood beautifully with the picture being appropriately sun drenched and colorful. The music is, well, dope. The soundtrack is chock full of great head-nodders from what is arguably the last significant era of Hip Hop.

But then the high wears off.

Shamiek Moore stars as the film’s lead, Malcolm. Moore’s got charisma, eliciting a great performance from a character rife with contradictions. Kiersey Clemons stars asdope1 Diggy and Tony Revolori as Jib, Malcom’s best and seemingly only friends. Clemons and Revolori do solid work with these thinly sketched characters. All three are members of a garage band called Awreeoh. And other than Diggy being a lesbian, Jib an East Indian, and both loyal to Malcolm, there’s not much more to these two. They’re all supposed to be these genius oddballs, obsessed with fashion and music twenty years out of date, and hobbies that only white people are usually interested in. But it’s all surface, with none of it having any significance.

These feel like random traits given to them by a writer disinterested in actually exploring what it means to be different in a society that rewards uniformity.

We’re presented with two main groups in this film, Malcolm and his geeks and a motley assortment of thugs and gangsters. Rapper A$ap Rocky plays Dom, a dope6neighborhood drug dealer and gang leader. He’s passable, but lightweight in the role, feeling more like a poser than a real threat. Famuyiwa wisely keeps his screen time to a minimum. Zoe Kravitz, channeling her mother Lisa Bonet in this performance, is horribly miscast as Nakia. Kravitz and her spacey/detached surfer girl delivery, makes the least convincing hood chick in Black cinema history. She’s not a bad actor, just laughably wrong in this part. Roger Guenveur Smith gives an extended cameo as Austin Jacoby. But like Kravitz, he’s all wrong for the part. He gives an unsure dope4performance, like he wasn’t completely clear on his character’s motivation. And to add final insult to injury, Kimberly Elise shows up and is given nothing to do in the thankless role of Malcolm’s mother Lisa.

I really came down off Dope’s already meager high when Blake Anderson arrived as   Malcolm’s hacker friend Will. Even with this film’s faux outsiders and cartoonish gangsters, Will feels totally out of place, like he just wandered in off the set of a stoner comedy masquerading as a techno thriller. Anderson’s fine in the role, but the truth is it doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting. Will’s true purpose seems to be Dope’s token white character. This would be fine, if his main shtick wasn’t confusion about why he’s not allowed to use the “N-word” around Malcolm and company.

dope5Famuyiwa’s black characters drop “N-bombs” throughout the film (so much so that it feels forced). These kids are supposed to be different from the other hood residents; progressive, smarter and maybe even more enlightened. So why do they spew the word as frequently as the other characters, whom the film paints as regressive and ignorant? If Famuyiwa was really interested in exploring this issue, there would be some justification for this plotline. But he’s not. He gives us a brief comic moment and then it’s blown away, dissipating like smoke. It’s a little funny, but it’s really used to avoid a complicated subject that probably never should have been brought up in the first place.

Dope’s main problem is that Famuyiwa overreaches. He wants the film to be too many  things. At first it’s a cute chocolate-dipped coming of age film, about a left-of-center high school kid with Ivy League dreams. This story flourishes in the first half, full of charm and smart, brisk pacing. Then it takes a turn when Famuyiwa shoehorns a   convoluted crime element into the plot, effectively slamming the brakes on a really nice ride. While I feel that gangs and drugs are sometimes an inescapable part of life in certain communities, the plot twist feels inorganic and unnecessary.

dope7Famuyiwa seems to suggest that no matter how you live as a young black male… Geek or Gangster… a life of crime awaits. That’s troubling on more than a few levels.

Despite all of that, I recommend giving Dope a theatrical look. I had some fairly serious issues with it, but this little film has a lot of heart. In a summer filled with tired sequels and frivolous reboots, Dope is a fresh, if not altogether satisfying toke.

RATING: Theater

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He SAID: Focus

Scott F. Evans

Focus is… ok. It’s not exceptionally good or bad. Even with an R-rating (Smith’s first since 2003), this is another ‘safe’ Will Smith picture.

Focus is a con game film that can’t figure out what it wants to be. The mainfocus story is of veteran con-man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) mentoring rookie con-artist Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). But because this film also wants to be a romantic comedy, they start a complicated love affair. I’m not suggesting that con game films can’t have romantic comedy elements or vice versa, but Focus stumbles because it wants to be cute and breezy. That would also be fine, if Focus was a typical four quadrant PG-13 movie. With an R-rating, one expects a film with a certain amount of adult material. An R-rated film about con-artists increases that expectation exponentially. But Focus plays it safe, riding on Smith’s undiminished charisma and laying bets on audiences falling in love with Robbie as well. They got half of it right.

focus4Smith, unsurprisingly, puts in solid work. He’s a strong actor, and could arguably be one of the best of his generation if he chose edgier, less innocuous material. He underplays here, only occasionally falling back into a couple moments of his typical shtick. Thankfully it’s kept to a bare minimum and doesn’t distract.

Robbie’s the weak link. She’s not bad, but Smith practically buries her every time they’re on screen together. She’s a pleasant, but lightweight performer in a role that needs a more substantial presence. She’s utterly unconvincing as even a fledgling con artist. If Focus was just a lighthearted rom-com, Robbie’s cutesy performance would be perfect. But in this world of thieves and their criminal activity, she feels horribly out of place.

Gerald McRaney and Adrian Martinez round out the supporting cast. Like Robbie, these two feel like they’re in different films. McRaney plays Owens, head of security for a billionaire race car owner. McRaney plays the character just right: gruff, suspicious, and highly competent. It’s the kind of role the actor was born to play. Martinez, for some strange reason, plays a Middle Eastern con artist named Farhad. The character’s obviously supposed to be the film’s comic relief, and Martinez goes all out, playing him in the most disruptively broad fashion possible. Just like Robbie, Martinez’ performance would have worked better in another film.

The writer/director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are fairly solid ??????????????visualists. Focus looks great, and even though some of the performances seem out of place… the acting is sound. Ironically, the problem with Focus, is that it lacks focus. The script is schizophrenic, and can’t decide if it wants to be a romantic comedy or a crime drama. There’s some interesting scenes of the con team pulling off their smaller crimes. But the two main bits — the bigger scams — require such massive suspensions of disbelief that the film almost crumbles.

Beyond technical issues and performances, Focus treads dangerously on a social narrative that puts it firmly on the wrong side of history. Because even though Spurgeon and his crew of lowlife con-artists spend much of the time ripping off (mostly) innocent people, the film still wants them to be likeable. That’s especially troubling in this modern era of identity theft, with hackers victimizing working class people every single day.

RATING: Matinee (for Smith fans)

He SAID: Gone Girl goes Too Far

Scott F. Evans

David Fincher’s Gone Girl is a frustrating piece of cinema. Up until about the last fifteen minutes or so of the film, I was completely engaged. Fincher’s direction was superb. Screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s dialogue was nimble.   The performances were all uniformly solid. I was following every Hitchcock-ian twist, turn and reveal. But then the script takes such an implausible third act hard right turn that it completely loses me.

Gone Girl is Flynn’s first screenplay, and is adapted from her novel of the same name. This must have been an actor’s dregone girl2am. The characters are complicated and Flynn constructs snappy dialogue for them to say. But her script is also a little too impressed with itself; it forces audiences to really work and keep up with its occasionally non-linear structure. The dates that periodically pop up onscreen are as essential as the dialogue, to stay abreast of the storyline.

Fincher is a craftsman. Every angle, composition, light placement and camera move is precise. It’s clear that a great deal of thought went into each and every shot. Looking at his filmography, you can see the maturation. His early work like Alien 3, Fight Club and Panic Room was clearly informed by his time directing music videos and slick commercials. His camera style was much more intrusive and grandiose.  With each successive film, including Zodiac, The Social Network, and now Gone Girl… you see the growth. His camera is settled and his shots at least seem practical. He’s abandoned the showy, obvious digital trickery of a lot of his early stuff, with cameras flying through walls and furniture, for a more subtle approach. You’re so completely immersed in the narrative, you never see Fincher directing.

The film is, for the most part, extremely well cast. As lead character Nick Dunne, Ben Affleck does gone girl3excellent work, bouncing between confused vulnerability and smarmy charm. This part seems tailor made for his specific acting style. The real standout in this movie is Rosamund Pike, as Amy Dunne. Revealing any real detail about her portrayal would spoil an important reveal in this film. Suffice it to say, her work is exemplary and fearless. Carrie Coon almost steals the show as Affleck’s faithful twin sister Margo. Kim Dickens does such natural work as Detective Boney, that she felt like an actual police officer. Neil Patrick Harris makes an appearance in a rare dramatic role, and plays completely against type as Desi Collings. He’s good here, but slightly distracting. That could be as much the fault of the character’s nearly absurdist nature as Harris’ comedic background. Also good (but also distracting) is Tyler Perry as Dunne’s attorney Tanner Bolt. This is a bizarre casting choice, as Perry is so specifically associated with his own often broadly comic work. He’s not bad, but he’s playing a more profane version of the same types of characters he always casts himself as, so it’s sometimes disconcerting.   But maybe that’s the point.

Although the studios are selling it as a typical bleak David Fincher thriller, there is a darkly satiric tone in gone girl 5Gone Girl that is not immediately apparent. There is so much going on during the film’s nearly three hour runtime that it’s easy to miss. Sometimes it feels like a straight up horror film with a seemingly unstoppable monster.   It’s sometimes a commentary on the media’s fascination with “Missing White Women” and its eagerness to blame the male significant other. It’s also a cynical examination of marriage and the relationship between two, basically dishonest people. And under all of that, there’s a distinct air of absurdity that starts out low-key and grows more profound as we get to the third act. And for me, that’s where the wheels come off.

gone girl6Gone Girl is a meticulously constructed motion picture and like every motion picture, it does require some suspension of disbelief. For my personal tastes, Gone Girl goes a little too far. It’s difficult to explore this issue without giving away the film’s climax, but here goes: Up until a specific point, everyone acts as people in these types of extreme circumstances would. Husbands fight for their lives. Attorneys provide their best services. Cops investigate all leads thoroughly. But for Fincher’s and Flynn’s ending to work, everyone has to stop behaving logically and accept a bizarre turn of events. It’s almost as if Flynn wrote her ending first and had to design the rest of the piece around it.

Despite this, Fincher and cast really display exceptional work that deserves to be seen on the big screen. So my recommendation…

THEATER