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Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, 2015)

Quickly shedding its trope-laden coming-of-age facade in favor of something unique and kinetic, Dope tells the tale of young Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his Yo! MTV Raps-era obsessed compatriots in the days leading up to their high school graduation. Intelligent and branded as geeks by the wannabe gangsters that harass them, the trio finds unfailing solace in each others’ company, playing music as part of their own punk band when Malcolm isn’t stressing out over his Harvard admissions application. When an innocuous run-in with a local drug dealer procures an invitation to an ill-fated party, the friends’ collective resolve and resourcefulness are tested as they’re forced to embark upon an increasingly life-threatening endeavor.

On paper, Dope reads as a quirky, seriocomic take on the typical South Central L.A. formula – multiple adolescents struggle to break the shackles of impoverished conformity to make something of themselves because fuck labels. It’s as much a commentary on the importance of perseverance amid this adversity as it is an erratic, more genre-specific yarn emulative of obvious ’80s inspirations, and for as much as it succeeds in capitalizing on this dual personality, it also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.

In flip-flopping between its tonally disparate components, it becomes clear that Dope‘s aesthetic charm and sensibilities are better suited for something entirely comedic, of which it’s decidedly not. As it occasionally veers into more heavy-handed territory, I couldn’t help but wonder why Famuyiwa couldn’t employ the circumstantially relevant setting in a purely narrative manner, forgoing attempted thematic heft in favor of telling a breezy and engaging story. Breezy it is and remains, augmented by a requisite sense of urgency to coincide with Malcolm’s predicament, however a ball-dropping resolution fails to evoke what you never thought it was trying to in the first place.

Imbued with a high-energy sense of self that’s unfortunately hamstrung by needlessly weighty creative choices, Dope is more enjoyable than not on the basis of its unique and frequently compelling core narrative. Stellar performances benchmark this offbeat, musically-inclined and palpably quirky affair, Famuyiwa’s adherence to setting specific tropes benefiting situational elements more than the grim ’90s-era dramatic fare Dope harkens back to. It’s admittedly more enjoyable than not by a considerable margin, it’s just a shame that Famuyiwa’s inclination to employ the angle he does drags the film down considerably on the basis of execution.

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Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, 2015)

Confidently imbued with a trademark small-town lyricism, Manglehorn is David Gordon Green’s latest, intermittently peculiar and arguably most self-important work to date. As the titular aging locksmith, A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino) epitomizes the contemporary curmudgeon. Angry at the world and unable to shake the memory of love lost, Manglehorn’s self-imposed isolation remains a serviceable impediment for him to overcome. Tentatively sparking a relationship with a local bank teller amid a failed attempt at reconciling with his estranged son, our man remains awash in a sea of misery as he struggles to leave the past behind.

Like a bulk of Green’s favorable body of dramatic works, Manglehorn is ostensibly about (a) flawed individual(s) and their tonally varied journey toward an inevitable crux and/or corresponding epiphany. Slight as they may be, Green’s preceding efforts have carried with them a low-key singularity that’s meant to emphasize authentic humanism over the cloyingly melodramatic. All the Real Girls – my personal favorite – and last year’s Joe come to mind, both of which employ characters and predicaments in a way that’s emblematic of the romanticized way Green illustrates these locales. Although unbalanced in terms of narrative and sustained heft, these films effortlessly engage on the basis of relatability and a subdued but affecting melancholy.

In steadfastly continuing the return to form sparked by 2013’s Prince Avalanche, Manglehorn is admirably indicative of the director at its helm but fails to maintain an overall evenness that would position it atop the best of its kind. Barring the contextual familiarity of Manglehorn’s heartache, the narrative’s peppered with an air of uncertainty comparable to Manglehorn’s muddled sense of self as it trudges along. “Lovin’ you is the only thing I ever done right,” the lovelorn grump croaks prior to an exchange with a female friend, of which fittingly suggests just how slight and one-note the film’s narrative arc is and remains throughout repeated (failed) attempts at procuring our involvement through mystery.

For as deservedly lauded Pacino’s nuanced performance is, the central character remains more compelling than the emotional turmoil that haunts him. The relationships established throughout are key in ushering Manglehorn toward a potential epiphany, yet they fail to overpower the trifling narrative impetus warranting it. Further shaken by a stab at magical realism in the form of stories told by relevant supporting characters, Manglehorn fails to transcend any particular character-driven benchmark in the realm of the similarly subdued.

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Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

Like many of my co-generational peers, Jurassic Park was and still is a stellar source of cinematic wonderment. I personally credit Spielberg’s original film with my earliest memories of fondness of the medium, the dinosaurs and corresponding visual spectacle serving as icing on the cake as I steadfastly wore out my VHS copy of the film. Barely impressed by its immediate successor and even less so by a largely panned and considerably wacky third installment, the law of diminishing returns appeared to have taken its toll until this present era of nostalgia pandering reared its ugly head once more.

For the uninformed, Jurassic World is meant to be a sort of direct sequel to the 1993 original film by way of concept as the titular theme park finds continued success on the same island, of which exists directly adjacent to the ill-fated original site. Managed by archetypal workaholic Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the park and its biologically engineered main attractions are subjected to a risky revitalization effort in the form of a fully-spliced new specimen – the Indominus Rex. When said experiment predictably goes tits-up, Claire, her visiting nephews and Naval engineer-turned-raptor whisperer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) are thrust into the thick of a rapidly escalating bout for survival among thousands of similarly affected visitors.

As it inevitably employs callbacks akin to what one could and should expect of such a sequel, a reworking of John Williams’ instantly recognizable score and the like remain unavoidably omnipresent but mostly non-oppressive. Instead, Jurassic World‘s needless existence is constantly hammered home as a bulk of the proceedings do little to illustrate just how ignorant and generally incompetent nearly all of its key characters are. Not only do the proceedings lack palpable heft – the ethical arguments over dino rights ring as dated as ever – but the events that occur reek of base-level human ignorance throughout the central desperate bid to maintain affluence through reinvigorated public turnout.

Barring the inconsequential stupidity of sparse side exposition, the most head-scratching of which exists in the form of Zach and Gray’s parents’ impending divorce, the sheer beauty of the fictional Isla Nublar and its corporate-peppered tourist trap is one very well-realized slice of world building. Every nook of this space is developed with an attention to detail that’s alternately arresting and timely by way of product placement, however it’s all rendered negligible as absurdity in the form of intended raptor militarization serves to merely thicken the otherwise one-note conflict. All things considered, Trevorrow navigates questionable creative choices to middling aplomb, a particularly out-of-hand sequence involving a destroyed aviary punctuating what’s largely mundane blockbuster fare.

Jurassic World is at its best a needless slice of big-budget nostalgia pandering. In entirely lacking humanity throughout an unfailingly shaky script penned by four collaborators, we’re left with nothing remarkable outside of a lovingly crafted tourist trap and basal commentary on the perils of greed in an increasingly consumerist society. The visual spectacle is in tact and indicative of 2015 benchmark standards, yet redemption remains lost on the pratfalls coinciding with an overbearing adherence to the original film’s formula and subsequent draw. All told, Jurassic World is a presumably high-grossing blockbuster that’s telling of obvious studio motives and the public’s peculiarly sustained interest in revisiting well-worn franchise legacies.

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Spy (Paul Feig, 2015)

Confidently disproving naysayers on their path of continued success, repeat collaborators Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy don’t so much perfect their rapport with Spy as they do round out a laudable trifecta of R-rated fare. Focusing on exemplary CIA analyst Susan Cooper (McCarthy), a tragic turn of events plops her smack in the middle of a gestating nuclear arms deal. Tasked with inconspicuously tracking the whereabouts of those involved, Susan’s efforts are compromised by the involvement of bumbling rogue agent Ford (Jason Statham) and an unsolicited if necessary infiltration of Bulgarian bad girl Rayna Boyanov’s (Rose Byrne) crime ring.

For as repeatedly vocal people have been about McCarthy’s typecast, both her and Feig have proven once again that her chops as one of the most talented and versatile comedic actors of this generation are for real. Despite the narrative drawing obvious inspiration from similarly stilted super spy territory, the beauty here is in the details and no, I’m not just referring to the female lead. As out-and-out R-rated fare, Spy exploits alternating strengths by way of vulgarity-laden character exchanges and deft enough action, the latter of which peaks during an inventive late-in-the-game kitchen brawl with an enigmatic assailant.

As to be expected, McCarthy is at her best when a necessary persona shift throws her into crass, semi-improvisational overdrive. A line concerning Byrne’s Rayna’s comparison of Susan to her trainwreck of a (deceased) mother rings exceptionally effective, my embarrassing gasp-riddled giggle fit serving only to remind me that the timing of certain dialogue is far and away Spy‘s strongest suit. Like The Heat before it, the violence in Spy doesn’t shy away from being, well, violent as it’s imbued with a levity that helps the film effectively maintain its tone.

One’s opinion of Spy is directly contingent upon how you feel about the three-peat creative team-up on display. It remains serviceable spoof material in the realm of the decidedly violent and vulgar, however fans of Bridesmaids and The Heat‘s sensibilities will assuredly enjoy what’s on display here, performances especially. Employing its “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mantra with an effectively McCarthy-heavy gusto, Spy is essentially more of the same from Feig in a disparate narrative wrapper.

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San Andreas (Brad Peyton, 2015)

Everyone loves a good ol’ fashioned cataclysm and, as avid admirers of disaster cinema as a subgenre, our desire to see city skylines topple in the most oppressively effects laden fashion typically outweighs skepticism. As the latest entry into this ever-expanding canon of schlock, San Andreas illustrates the very real threat of the titular tectonic plate separating itself entirely from the United States mainland. Triggering a so-called “swarm event” that ensures imminent and total destruction through several consecutive quakes, the catastrophe prompts L.A. rescue worker Ray (Dwayne Johnson) to employ his skill set in an effort to retrieve his soon-to-be ex-wife and daughter. Chaos ensues.

It’s hard for me to avoid nigh-think piece territory when discussing this type of film. Comparable to the superhero market in terms of both allure and volume but unavoidably lacking in personality, disaster films do little more than viscerally engage throughout reliably shoddy narratives. San Andreas employs what I consider the Mad Libs model in this regard, unashamedly molding itself after its predecessors amid a different enough but not entirely satisfactory scientific explanation of what’s happening. Superlatives are thrown around by a bookish fortysomething with glasses, of whom frantically gesticulates at a computer screen with a lot of red shit dotting a map that screams inevitable doom.

Enter stock key players and whatever bond they share, the Alpha in this case being that of The Rock whose professional knowledge influences his frustratingly gorgeous daughter’s ensuing co-struggle with two token British youths. Gugino’s character only exists as a thankless auxiliary impetus for Johnson’s Ray, of whom fails to do anything but survive as divorce fallout fails to engage us more than hurdling a fucking tsunami via speedboat. It goes without saying that emotional heft is cloying and ineffectual at best, the relationships established serving only to add the film part to what’s otherwise a natural disaster simulator.

These things need not dissuade you from seeing the unmitigated shit show that is San Andreas. As I sat in my seat, embarrassingly assuming the role of “that guy” by laughing at the schadenfreude-instilled bits of bystanders abruptly biting it, I always knew what to expect but didn’t really care about how things could improve. It’s the kind of film that ensures a particularly one-note experience, more specifically one that’s punctuated by a setting and certain special type of catastrophe that hasn’t been seen elsewhere. San Andreas just so happens to be about a series of earthquakes trying to exterminate a West Coast populace, select members of which remain front-and-center because of their attractiveness and the filmmakers’ obligation to produce but a semblance of substance.

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Results (Andrew Bujalski, 2015)

I’m no stranger to the wonders of the effectively subdued “mumblecore” mold of low-budget, character-driven filmmaking. Results – as comparable in formula as it may be – forgoes typically aimless and nameless for the palpably opposite. Focusing on fellow (bickering) personal trainers and coworkers Kat (Cobie Smulders) and Trevor (Guy Pearce), the duo’s lives are increasingly upended by the reeling portly Danny (Kevin Corrigan): a recently rich beneficiary with money to burn and no clue how to burn it. Viewing health as a viable option, Danny’s involvement with Kat graduates from professional to tenuously personal – much to the chagrin of the ever-eyeing Trevor.

For as subdued in tone as Results is, the film uniquely and thoroughly dissects the quandary established throughout these individuals’ evolving relationships. It deftly traverses a path of imminent and calculated turbulence, from Danny’s first peculiar meeting with Trevor (“I want to be able to take a punch,”) to the unfailingly awkward Kat-conducted training sessions inside his eerily vacuous mansion. Their interplay is frequently subdued and trivial in an authentic sense, of which remains an appealing attribute throughout this exclusively character-driven affair.

To those who appreciate Bujalski’s approach, nuanced unpredictability does more than the most convoluted of comparable efforts does nowadays. It’s ostensibly a brooding romantic comedy in the grand scheme, yet Results easily thrives thanks to its characters’ distinct personalities and the efforts of those who portray them. These individuals’ lives are thoroughly dissected enough for us to grasp who they are, why they’re doing what they’re doing and formulate an opinion of all if only to be surprised or underwhelmed.

As a characteristically low-key if discernibly more accessible effort from Bujalski, Results is alternately concise and complex in examining the three conflicted individuals at its core and the chemistry to follow. For as reductive as it sounds, it’s a film about people being people – something that’s intent on evolving specific types of individuals in potentially relatable situations for involvement’s sake. Excitement is sparse for sure, however Bujalski’s whip-smart observational touch does wonders for the proceedings as character development and interplay trump convolution.

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Tomorrowland (Brad Bird, 2015)

Only titularly influenced by the popular Disney theme park, Brad Bird’s second live-action feature is one of hammy optimistic priority, focusing on teenage dreamer/rebellious wunderkind Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) as her unfailing drive to change the world leads to both general and self-discovery. Thanks to a “T”-emblazoned pin and its unveiling of a mysterious futuristic utopia, Casey’s foreseeable search for answers lands her smack in the lap of curmudgeonly genius Frank Walker (George Clooney). Given Frank’s irrevocable link to the locale in question, the duo soon becomes codependent as Casey’s timely emergence promises to usher in the revolution two worlds desperately need.

During an arguably pivotal moment in Tomorrowland‘s ineffectual narrative, the young Raffey Cassidy’s Athena states “It’s not personal, it’s programming.” Barring how this quote’s significance is flipped later on, it’s in this moment that I became hip to Tomorrowland‘s convoluted yet reductive anti-doom-and-gloom bullshit. It could be that this particular film was commissioned to counterbalance the ceaseless deluge of dystopian fare – a topic referenced rather abundantly – as a means of studio-piloted programming, however the manner in which this objective is approached rids the entire production of a discernibly involving personality. A bit on-the-nose, certainly, but a valid point nonetheless as the script’s upbeat “We can do it!” mantra seldom resonates as anything but cheesy, simplistic and redundant.

It’s at this point that we’re faced with the script’s over-reliance on pseudo-science and corresponding, moreover requisite visual panache. Techno wizardry and its aesthetic implementation remains an unfailingly competent source of wonderment throughout Tomorrowland, especially during several particular latter-half scenarios. Although these key sequences are almost ruined by Robertson’s Casey’s insistence on asking question after question (after question) to aid both her and our comprehension, base-level visceral engagement perseveres until the next implementation of eye-rolling “Chosen One” tropes and the like.

I don’t mean to discredit Tomorrowland‘s overarching insistence that optimism deserves its place in today’s society. A latter-act spiel by a tyrannical other-dimensional overseer puts things concisely in perspective and, although it’s easy to discern exactly where we went wrong throughout the case he’s making, the film in which it’s articulated lacks the heft needed to leave a lasting impact. It lacks a necessary means of balancing between the rudimentary message it conveys and padded-out expository zaniness to help establish it as more than a middling misfire. The performances are fine – Clooney and Cassidy’s especially – and a familiar but effective aesthetic adds what it can, but make no mistake: Tomorrowland does little to revolutionize genre filmmaking in the slightest beyond a basal mirroring of dystopian ideology.

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TSBH: The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

This is it – the fruitful, bullet-blanketed crescendo of my ongoing project. Although presently pleased, I’ve been led to believe that Woo’s succeeding efforts are even bolder as epitomes of this targeted subgenre, the mere thought of such instilling within me an uncontrollable glee. Focusing on none other than Chow Yun-Fat as titular professional Ah Jong, The Killer‘s opening moments chronicle the man’s tragic disillusionment following the accidental blinding of an innocent bystander and lounge singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh). Ah Jong’s compassionate tendencies strengthen tenfold from here on out, his path toward righting his wrong hamstrung by the “one last job” that goes tits-up at the hands of his employer.

Woo imbues the thematically familiar with an almost schlocky melodramatic sensationalism amid balletic action benchmarks. The forced but effective chemistry between members of opposing factions, good and bad respectively, does its job in punctuating narrative simplicity with a non-oppressive dual sympathy card. On one hand, we have the slick and honorable Ah Jong: hardened through experience but morally upstanding; a steadfast adherence to going straight outweighing a need to do anything but grant Jennie her cornea transplant. On the other: archetypal supercop Inspector Li, of whom too thoroughly applies law abiding stubbornness to all aspects of his profession as he very well should.

Although entirely and familiarly at odds, we never can fully bring ourselves to root for one side or the other given the hotheaded young crime lord that wants Ah Jong and Jennie out of the picture. Ah Jong and Lee subsequently unite against this common enemy, forming a bond that transforms the at-first one-man army into a duo to be reckoned with throughout many a high-style instance of gunfire and bloodshed. The Killer‘s immediate influence on contemporary American actioners – slow-mo and the like a la The Matrix and so forth – remain apparent throughout said instances as the body counts rise.

As an epitome of both HK action cinema and the genre as a whole, John Woo’s nigh-masterpiece is also a masterclass in effective trope employment. The narrative, albeit agreeably light and prone to bouts of purposeful cheese, is affecting enough as emotionality remains key in perpetuating character motives. While the action is far-and-away of the highest possible quality – aptly fusing practical effects with Woo’s calculated technical wizardry – The Killer is as much a well-rounded piece of HK cinema as it is a frequently lauded cornerstone of the medium.