The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



The early '90s were an amazing time. Hip-hop culture was at its peak, and it swiftly moved into the mainstream, thanks to musical artists like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, TV shows like In Living Color, and movies like New Jack City. The party didn't last, though. Eventually, like everything else, it became a commodity and was subsequently watered down. Today's hip-hop fashions are far less fun, and while there's still some good music being made, it's often very thematically similar. (How many songs about smoking weed or going to “the club” can there be?) Dope, hitting DVD and Blu-Ray on October 13, is, at its very best, a throwback to that time when the joyful hip-hop of Kid 'N Play bumped up against the social consciousness of N.W.A., and all of it mixed together to create something whose force couldn't be denied.

The movie is structured like many coming-of-age stories, in that it focuses on a high school student, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), struggling to write a college admission essay. (His is a scientific attempt to determine the exact date Ice Cube was rapping about in his classic song “It Was a Good Day.”) Malcolm and his two best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), are geeks obsessed with early-'90s hip-hop. They even dress the part. One day, Malcolm does a favor for local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky); in return, he gets an invite to a big party. During a police raid, Dom shoves several huge packets of drugs into Malcolm's backpack. Here's where the film differs from most coming-of-age stories. Malcolm has to get rid of the stuff, while being pursued by a second – and far less benevolent – dealer. His attempts to do so lead to a series of adventures with his friends, plus a burgeoning romance with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), a girl from the neighborhood.

Dope is a comedy that combines some very funny references to its hero's hip-hop obsessions with a distinctly quirky sensibility. The supporting characters include an aspiring rapper who can't pronounce words that start with a soft C, a white computer hacker who doesn't understand why he's not allowed to say the N-word, and a black market criminal who puts people through a bizarre test before working with them. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa (Brown Sugar, The Wood) also uses offbeat stylistic choices to tell his tale. Among them are split screen, rewinding the image, and, occasionally, juggling the time frame to withhold key pieces of information until the exact moment we need them.

Famuyiwa also carefully uses rap songs from artists like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and Digital Underground. (Additionally, Pharrell Williams wrote some tunes that are performed by Malcolm's band.) These songs punctuate what's happening on screen, while also helping to establish a tone that is reminiscent of the early '90s. Perhaps the highest compliment one could pay Dope is to say that it feels as though it might have come out of that era.

Underneath the comedy and the music is a surprisingly subversive spirit. For most of its running time, Dope seems like a breezy romp about a kid who's in over his head and trying to get out. The last fifteen minutes feature a shift, one that starts when Malcolm reads his revised essay to the camera. From his last line, it becomes clear that the story is about something much deeper. Dope suggests that even the smartest and most ethical of kids can find themselves stuck in the mire of crime when they come from a background of poverty or live in an area where it's commonplace. Malcolm is an honorable guy, but once in possession of those drugs, he's got to save himself. There's no other option. He didn't ask to be in the predicament; he was thrust into it. We live in a time when young black men are unfairly labeled “thugs” for any slight misdeed they may be part of, while the word is never used to describe white men, even when they do something horrible. Dope never uses the word “thug,” although the idea is there: you can't judge someone until you understand the whole picture of who they are.

Anchored by a charismatic breakthrough performance from Shameik Moore, Dope succeeds as both a comedy and a character study. It has an abundance of exuberant energy that consistently entertains, yet you also come away with some substance to chew on. In the '90s, I'd have called the movie “funky fresh.” Today, I'll just call it terrific.

( 1/2 out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Dope hits DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack on October 13. There are two bonus features included on the Blu-Ray.

"Dope Is Different" runs three-and-a-half minutes, and features director Rick Famuyiwa and his cast members discussing the conscious attempt to avoid cliché with the movie's characters. Going against inner city stereotypes was a priority, and everyone involved expresses the desire to get across a message that you can be intelligent and ambitious, no matter where you come from.

"Dope Music" also runs about three-and-a-half minutes. It focuses on the influence of old-school rap in the film. Pharrell Williams appears to talk about the songs he wrote for the soundtrack. There's some cool footage of the actors in-studio recording them. Music is a crucial element in Dope's success, so this look at how it was carefully integrated is a useful feature.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are outstanding. Crank your speakers when you watch it.

Dope is rated R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence-all involving teens. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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