Not Quite Top Ten (Top Five, Chris Rock)

Not Quite Top Ten (Top Five, Chris Rock)

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7.25 out of 10

Chris Rock’s Top Five is all about the experience of a rich black man, which, if we’re paying attention, makes the film autobiographical, and in a way that both serves and detracts from it. Andre Allen, a comedian with a growing disdain for being funny, has rejected his celebrated recurring role as a bear that’s a police officer. The Hammy series has made Andre famous, lots of money, and is most likely the basis for his relationship with a reality star, Erica Long (played with minimal screen time and ho-hum by way of crocodile emotions by Gabrielle Union). With their wedding coming up (the lead up to it being aired on her reality show), Andre is also busy promoting his new film, an uplifting and serious release about a Haitian slave revolt (urbanely titled “Uprize!). Andre is the lead, the writer and the director, mimicking Rock’s polygamous relationship with Top Five.

Andre and Rock seem nearly identical. Both are comedians, both with plenty to say about everything from favorite rappers to being black in America, but, funnily, Andre’s filmography puts Rock’s to shame (which may be a retroactive correction by Rock). Chris Rock hasn’t starred in a franchise film, a trilogy, a sequel, nothing really but mediocre one offs. He’s still a rich man—his standup roots touched upon lightly through Andre’s surprise set at the Comedy Cellar late in Top Five—but his films have, at best, been forgotten like a bad joke. Top Five is Rock’s best film effort, and I’ll admit I didn’t expect it. A tight script insulated with Rock’s raunchy humor and a grab bag of insight is what makes Top Five a strong adult comedy. It’s important enough to underline: this is an adult comedy, and I don’t say this because of its R rating. It harkens back to Woody Allen’s “dramas with laughs,” which I am paraphrasing from what Rock said of Allen’s work in an online interview he did with Vulture. It’s not hard to see the influence. The film opens with Andre and Chelsea, a reporter who is following Andre as part of a New York Times piece she is writing about the former funny man. This is the chance for romance, by the way, and Chelsea is a piercing romantic counterpoint to Andre, masterfully played by Rosario Dawson. Back to the first scene: we see Andre and Chelsea walking and talking, debating the level of change currently experienced by black Americans. It’s intellectual sparring, zingers and one-ups, and the punch line is followed by a cut to a title shot. Throughout Top Five, there is a lot of walking and talking, creating a third character by way of New York City. Even some of my fellow theater-mates pointed to the screen, giddily whispering not so quietly over the armrest about the different landmarks and neighborhoods Andre and Chelsea traverse. If this is Woody lite, it’s because Rock fell in love with the same city and with a similar aesthetic.

Rock’s an experienced black man. He’s been one all of his life. Listening to the dialogue reveals more than his wit and affinity for using potty mouth to communicate sociological musing. He’s an insightful dude. But with Chelsea and Andre working as both antitheses and mirrors of each other, there’s a bit too much gushing out the spout to pour a sensible glass of water. The idea of a “top five” presents itself first at a party scene where Andre brings Chelsea to meet his downhome people. Spirited group chatter breaks out as everyone lists his/her top five favorite rappers. And when Tupac comes up, it’s enlightening to imagine him as the political leader who never was, as one partier anoints him, and conversely agreeable to picture him with top billing in a Tyler Perry film, as Andre breaks it to us. But later, again, a top five list comes up, this time in the middle of the drama, when Chelsea and Andre confront their romantic magnetism. Here the message becomes mixed: are all black people supposed to have a “top five?” Or am I being too white about this? Maybe it’s a cute callback for marketing purposes. It’s not the first time Rock has used music taste as an allegory for identifying and questioning cultural segregation. In his 2007 film, I Think I Love My Wife, Rock’s character is schooled by his romantic interest after a glance at his iPod. She accuses him of having “nigga ears” and informs him “white people make good music, too.” Top Five is a trial-and-error of sex greased comedy and soapbox prescience. A later scene shows a defeated Andre throwing a fit in a grocery store. When the police arrive, there’s a confrontation on security cam cut to a defenseless Andre on the ground being encircled and stomped. With grand juries across the country voting on cases of police brutality, this passing image in Top Five appears deftly perceptive, a truthfully emotive moment fighting to take frame against a bunch of other thoughts from a man using the movie camera as forum.

I’ve Seen These (National Gallery, Imitation Game, The Babadook, Interstellar, Foxcatcher, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Rosewater)

National Gallery

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6.5 out of 10

Prolific documentarian, Frederick Wiseman, lets the camera do the gushing for him as he turns it onto, and inside, the National Gallery in London. There are lots of close-ups of what is of most interest, the artwork. Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Turner and other artists of centuries past are paid both a visual and verbal due. The works are discussed in great detail, and Wiseman’s film takes on the quality of a great trip to the museum. Plenty of insight, history, and philosophy are given by a host of people working within the house. We are treated to behind the scenes operations, as well, including budget meetings, restoration processes, private tours, and lighting tests for a new exhibition. National Gallery is an informative, tranquil film of tremendous length—it runs a full three-hours, which, if you are being honest, is essentially the length of time you tell yourself your going to spend at the museum whenever you get around to going.

But Wiseman’s film exposes a biting detail—the National Gallery suffers from whitewash. Yes, watching the crowds trudging through the museum, taking classes, or working to upkeep and run it, are largely made up of white people. It’s not as much a secret as it is an old chestnut to admit the white privilege in regard to the fine arts and its historians and academics. It may be a byproduct of the subject matter, but it’s a detail you can’t deny, right up to the end, as the film bids farewell with a series of close-ups of paintings, all of them portraits of whitey.

Imitation Game

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5 out of 10

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays prodigal mathematician Alan Turing, is about the most English man I’ve ever seen. He looks like he has been carved out of wood. However, when his coiffed hair rustles and he starts stammering he trades in all his physical charm for an Oscar plea in this runaway biopic/drama set during World War 2.

Turing and a small group of code breaking mathematicians are tasked with solving the Nazi encryption device, Enigma. Told through three time periods—during the middle years of the war, in Turing’s then present of 1951, and his schoolboy past—Turing’s story is given the Too Fast Too Crappy treatment. I admire some of the social consciousness of the film—Turing was a closeted homosexual, and his sexuality is challenged many times, but doesn’t ever overshadow his undoubted genius. However, being a socially conscious film doesn’t mean it’s a good film. A nod to a gay historical figure can’t save the overarching narrative, flat characters, and the suffocating hokeyisms. Turing starts out the “irascible genius,” as one of his colleagues proclaims, but he wins them over with an apple and a joke. Literally a bag of apples and a bad joke.

Morten Tyldum, the director, and writer Graham Moore, must have done little with Andrew Hodges’ book. Either that, or it’s a dull book. Turing’s story is triumphant and inspiring, but we will mostly remember him for creating the first computer. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be able to type this wonderful review. I’d have to write it by hand. Yuck. Hand cramps, no thank you.

Keira Knightley is Joan Clark, a young woman of twenty-five who is brought onto the team by Turing after her rousing performance on a cross-word puzzle and some other brain test. She is brilliant, as well, and her subservience to her parents’ want to marry her off is halted by Turing’s insistence on keeping her around. He likes her, respects her, proposes to her, but can’t diddle her. Fortunately, despite her flatness, Joan is given some life by Knightley’s spirited performance. She and Turing go together like Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda. In fact, they are the Mary and Rhoda of World War 2.

The Babadook

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4 out of 10

According to William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, The Babadook is one of the scariest movies of all-time. According to me, it isn’t. It’s a hyper, sometimes silly, film with a carrot-on-a-string type of horror model. It doesn’t really pay off, as we never get to see the Babadook in action for more than flashes, Instead, this movie straddles the fence of allegory, baiting the viewer to realize obvious connections in order to give the film its due. I’m more inclined to give it doo doo.

The story centers on a widower, Amelia (Essie Davis), who is still grappling with the death of her husband seven years later. She has a rambunctious, anxious, hyperactive and fantastically intelligent son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), to add to her stress. When a mysterious children’s book pops up on the shelf, entitled Mister Babadook, she reads it to Sam, and, if I do say so, the plot of the book plateaus rather abruptly. It’s all about a monster named the Babadook who, once you let him into your house, will not leave, and will bring death to all. Pretty lame right? I mean, where’s the seven dwarves, or some princesses or something.

After reading the book, Sam swears the Babadook is with them, but when Amelia begins to believe him, we’re left to wonder just what the hell is going on with Aussie children’s literature.

Jennifer Kent, the first-time feature film director/writer of The Babadook, uses a lot of visual tricks to give the film an edge, but coupled with the plot, little of it marries into coherency. It’s a jumpy film and, at times, an aggressive one. Perhaps the most effective aspect is the claustrophobia we feel as Amelia and Sam alienate everyone around them with their loony lamentations of monsters and stalkers.

For me, the scariest part of the experience was when I was on line to buy tickets. I gave a couple of bucks to a homeless person, and received an appreciative attack of kisses in gratitude. Even though I paid fourteen dollars, for my buck the best horror film I’ve seen out of Australia is Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971). The worst part of the whole film is that the Babadook isn’t even scary. Hell he’s barely visible. It reminded me of a Tim Burton creation, without the whimsical Johnny Depp to make me feel the…well…whimsy.

Interstellar

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8 out of 10

Christopher Nolan ups the ante in his ninth feature film, Interstellar, as the plot, writing and visuals all reach astronomical levels of bloated drivel. That’s not totally fair—I actually found the visuals, for the most part, to be overwhelming, in a good way, working in tandem with the largeness, darkness and isolative quality of the movie theater experience to create a mini-outer space for all to float through. I’ve seen many Christopher Nolan films, as have most casual and serious moviegoers. He’s a big budget auteur of popular cinema, or, he’s a self-serious bad screenwriter. However you want to size him up, Nolan’s films are events. Interstellar may underline most of the bad habits Nolan has fine tuned over his career, but, for once, it is easier to ignore his shortcomings for the massive technical achievements, ones, however brief or steeped in mimicry, are a riot to watch.

Coop (Matthew McConaughey, in yet another starring role in the actor’s star hot run of roles) is a farmer in a not-too-distant future where Earth is plagued by rising nitrogen levels, sputtering agricultural production, and a disregard for any of that silly scientific nonsense of the past. People need food, not astronomy, and Coop, a star gazing romantic, is left to wonder where humankind is headed.

Then, he learns, by stumbling upon a secret NASA base working on mankind’s next move. The plan is to hop galaxies and/or dimensions to find a new planet to inhabit. Coop loses the overalls for an astronaut suit, joins a small team of scientists (led by Anne Hathaway, who plays Coop’s smartly short-haired companion, Brand), and takes off to find the answer to which new planet humanity can abuse.

At the heart of this space adventure is a story about a father and his daughter. Coop abandons his whip smart little girl, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), for what could be dozens of years. She grows up to look a lot like Jessica Chastain, and to become a NASA scientist, like her father might’ve wanted, but with a space shuttle load of resentment for being left behind to die. In the middle of the heart of this father-daughter tale is a ghost story, and surrounding that is nearly three-hours of space travel, tidal waves, cowardly astronauts, scientific jargon made nearly inaudible by a booming score, black holes, worm holes, and buttholes.

There have been comparisons made to Kubrick’s 2001 and for obvious reasons. Beyond a rather stark imitation of the end scene of Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece from 1968, there’s a smartass robot named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) making the same type of anthropomorphic quips as HAL did so many years ago. I want to go on record as saying a) 2001 is overrated but still better than Interstellar, b) these comparisons are facile and take away from Nolan’s achievement, and c) there’s no giant baby!

I wish I could ask Christopher Nolan to not write anything ever again. But I can’t and he wouldn’t care if I did. With all the problems that have plagued many of his films, from 2010’s mind-numbing Inception to 2012’s bloated Batman triquel The Dark Knight Rises, none of these still existent issues upend the visual stimulation and fun of his newest and best film.

Foxcatcher

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3 out of 10

Foxcatcher is a flat, predictable, manipulative and downright slow film. Bennett Miller does next to nothing to bring to life the complexity of John du Pont’s sordid relationship with Olympic champion wrestler-brothers, Dave and Mark Schultz. Du Pont murdered Dave and was then deemed unfit to stand trial by way of mental instability. These tragic figures of minute Americana are left as flat as the wrestling mat.

Mark Ruffalo is able, with few words and littler psychology, to bring older brother, Dave, to life in an offbeat way. His muscular back hunches and his eyes squint in defeat, as though he is asking, “Why can’t we all get along?” and meaning it. Locked up with Dave is younger brother Mark, played with bullish rage and exasperated dumbness by Channing Tatum. The two do their best with shallow-end character depth, wading in the water with floaties and snorkels and forcing some fun. They can’t save this film, or even salvage it, but when Ruffalo and Tatum train on the mats, they bring out the savage beauty of amateur wrestling, a vicious squall of swirling bodies.

Foxcatcher gives us a niche subject matter to sink our teeth into. Like Aronofsky’s daft drama, The Wrestler, gave professional wrestling a deserved look at its often dark reality, Foxcatcher let us juggle with an ancient art of suplexes and take downs. It is struggling to remain an Olympic sport, but amateur wrestling is a tense confrontation of muscle bound mat monsters well worth the timeless capture afforded by the big screen.

Steve Carell, on the other hand, looks ridiculous. He absolutely upends any chance Foxcatcher has at being taken seriously. Forget the deflated psychology and popcorn narrative, just listen to Carell try to embody the psychotic disconnectedness and self-consciousness of the wrestling enthusiast/heir of the du Pont fortune. It makes you cringe while laughing! He’s funny, either intentionally or not, and it’s a problem. Any great film can exercise nuance by bringing out a wide range of emotional responses from its audience, but Foxcatcher plays as an airless drama, afraid to inflate lest it might pop. To hear Carell give his lines the same pinch and punch comedic timing so effective in his prior work on The Office is the penultimate detail in the case against Foxcatcher. Carell is too talented to make such a dramatic misstep, so tonally off key in this Hollywood drama for dumbies.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

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5 out of 10

Ana Lily Amirpour uses black and white photography, plays with focus and plants devilish details to create a crisp, controlled aesthetic for her debut feature, A Girl Walks Homes Alone at Night. What doesn’t connect is the visual aesthetic to the tone. The angst and loneliness of the main character—known as “The Girl,” a street stalking vampire played by Sheila Vand—is closer to the Twilight saga than I would’ve hoped. The overriding and overreaching preciousness of Amirpour’s indie release suffocates the flames of originality hoping to be stoked by colorless film and a soundtrack of shoe gazing pop ballads. There’s little of substance in A Girl, not that a film needs substance to have a lasting impact. But, aside from a pit in the center of town filled with discarded dead bodies, there’s nothing scary, unsettling or intense. These hallmarks of the vast horror genre—boasting so many subgenres, there’s even ample representative qualities to exploit—are lightly touched by Amirpour, giving me reason to assume her cursory use of these elements serves her branding of the film to attract an indie audience hungry for indie horror. The only bit of unaffected performance and/or directorial influence in the film comes from a slithery, slimy, gyrating gangster, played by Dominic Rains. He is healthily involved in the opening half of the film, bringing a lively and wholehearted approach to making a character repellant. For his scenes, alone, A Girl stops being concerned with giving an audience what it thinks it will want and is wholly interested in making a movie.

Rosewater

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3 out of 10

I cannot think of a worse insult to a filmmaker than to call his/her work “amateur.” Maybe also saying, “it stinks,” in my best Jay Sherman impression. Both can be said of Jon Stewart’s cathartic and desperately uplifting Rosewater. Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist working abroad, is detained by Iranian authorities after purposefully misinterpreting an interview he did for Stewart’s The Daily Show in order to accuse him of being a spy. He is held in solitary confinement, interrogated and tortured. Stewart wanted to bring Bahari’s incredible story to us, but does so in a sickeningly sentimental way. There’s superimposed CGI affects to illustrate points Stewart cannot make otherwise. Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) is locked up for one hundred and eighteen days, but never loses his stubble or cleanly parted hair. If we’re going to feel the gravity of such a powerful story of modern day fascism, perhaps we’ll benefit from more provocative imagery. Everything from the score to the admirable attempt to emotionally complicate a bulging eyed interrogator yanks on our heartstrings like we’re a cow’s udders during buttermilk season.

I understand the sensitivity of the subject matter. Bahari went through what most of us only have nightmares about, but Stewart handles the events with kid gloves. He wants to be sensitive to the point of surficial exploration. And if arguing against torture is the aim, well, I’m assuming a sensitive American audience already feels the same. There’s ample time spent with the people of Iran, good people, one’s looking to end their personal hell of dictatorial servitude, in search of their deserved freedom. Their story might act to unify those from the Middle East with those in the Midwest, but I wonder what audience is seeking Stewart’s film, ready to join in the rah rah sis boom bah of ending Iran’s stranglehold over its people’s freedom, forgoing the power of filmmaking for championing a glorified PSA made for a coastal audience unaware of its own sheltered intellectualism.

A Man With/Out a Woman (The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones)

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4 out of 10

Understanding the reasons why the western genre doesn’t work like it once did is as simple as watching Rock Hudson playing an Indian chief in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73. Much like “Modern Family” has replaced “All in the Family” as the acceptable television family dynamic, Brokeback Mountain should be the updated standard for how we view the Wild West. Tommy Lee Jones’ new film, The Homesman, circles the wagon back to the days of John Wayne booting the butt of an Indian girl, sending her barrel rolling down a hill. That little bit of racially charged misogyny is a knee slapping moment from John Ford’s classic, The Searchers (1956). But Jones may have forgotten it’s 2014, and it should take a little more tact to tickle the knee bone these days.

Jones is George Briggs, a crusty vagrant wanderer. After being discovered squatting in another man’s house, he’s left to hang by a local vigilante group. He’s saved by Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, an uncommon woman—i.e. thirty, unmarried and without children—who is gearing up to transport a group of crazy women across the country for help with their afflictions. For saving Briggs, Cuddy demands his accompaniment on the trip.

Briggs is like Rooster Cogburn with a mess in his britches. He whimpers wispily, dances bow-legged, and growls with the grizzled gruff of a burnt cookie cut from a mixed recipe of the two versions of True Grit­. Looking at John Wayne’s original run as Cogburn back in 1969 or Jeff Bridges updated turn in the Coen Bros. version, Briggs is a bad imitation of an amalgamation of the two.

Swank, on the other butt flap, is perfectly suited for the desperate exasperation quietly conveyed in Mary Bee Cuddy’s held breath. Cuddy is told, over and over, of her overwhelming plainness by men unwilling to accept her logic based marriage proposals. Bossiness is an additional critique her ghastly marriage targets offer to help avoid the painfulness of such shallow reasoning for rejection. The backdrop of the old west doesn’t dissuade me from feeling sorry for Swank’s character receiving the same superficial attack Swank herself has received in real life (an entire episode of NBC’s now defunct series, “The Office,” is spent debating Swank’s hotness). Her matronly bravery in accepting the task of accompanying a cage filled with crazy women across the dangerous open plains is drowned out by Brigg’s patriarchal awakening.

The Homesman could be construed as a deceptively socially conscious film, if you ask an idiot. While there is an undercurrent of appreciation for Gender X, it is misguided in putting Briggs in a position of fatherly importance. He abandons his drunkenly moronic selfishness in the face of three waling, dead-eyed loony women, and the ambitious but overmatched Cuddy. Briggs is the seasoned traveler, showing off his knowledge of the land when confronted by a group of Indians wearing war paint. Aside from the simplicity of the stereotypically savage Native American, Briggs exposes Cuddy’s naiveté by taking her horse as a peace offering to the killer injuns. Before that, Briggs hands Cuddy a gun and instructs her, in the probable case of his death, to shoot the girls, and then herself, in the head, lest she wants to be in the hands of the rape happy clan.

Briggs’ is a suffocating male presence. If John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart had all the answers throughout the golden age of the western in the 1940’s and 50’s, can’t we see what Swank has to say in 2014?

Cuddy and Briggs have sex, as if The Homesman needed to show some skin to bring in that younger male demographic. Lord knows I enjoy some old-man-on-uncommon-woman action. And, in a bout of progressive thinking by Jones, Cuddy has to beg Briggs to whip it out, after being turned down for yet another marriage proposal. It’s a consolation, of course, and one she should be happy to receive. Wearing bossy pants and a paper bag on the head may attract an old possum like Briggs, but it hardly got me back in the saddle, instead keeping my little stallion in the stable. If the strange relationship between Cuddy and Briggs harkens back, again, to True Grit, it adds a dash of incestuous implication in a moonshine-like affect. There’s some gruesome violence, too, and some morbid sequences involving the afflicted women and their origin stories. But that stuff is so passé, it takes a roll in the hay between Jones and Swank to set my stomach to churn like it’s making fresh butter.

The Homesman ends after Briggs has successfully delivered his crazy cargo and is left, alone, in a small town a bit more refined than his scruffy demeanor can fit into. He’s kicked out of a poker game, left broke and without purpose, heading for a ferryboat back to his wayward path. He spends some of his last dollars on a tombstone for a woman he loved, and here is where Jones wants us to realize the importance of a good woman. Without the womanly touch, Briggs is no more than an unredeemable drunkard. With the female influence, he’s the protective homesman we are meant to see the good in. Of course, after a sip of hooch and some hoedown tunes, the tombstone slips into the water and floats away, both from the boat and from memory. This final image of Briggs reveals the true nature of all men—drunks doing jigs to banjo music.

An Introduction

My name is Jules Neuman. I am a writer and I focus on film. I’ve watched a ton of movies, read some books, and been lectured and schooled time and time again by a great friend with a mind made for cinema (he’s also my podcasting partner). I am going to review everything I see in the theaters, either in longer reviews, or in groups of shorter capsule reviews. I have a podcast, Gooble Gobble, which is a comedy effort aiming to reveal obscure and/or forgotten films to light. You can find it and download on iTunes, or on our site (gobblepod.com). Please enjoy my writing and keep going to the movies!

Some Business:

I will employ the old 1-10 rating system. But, in order to be nitpicky, I will break each rating to quarters, which means I can go “7 out of 10″ or “7.5 out of 10″ or “7.75 out of 10″ to give myself some wiggle room. It’s my system and I’ll decimal if I want to!

With that in mind, here’s a rough breakdown of what these numbers mean to me so that they can mean something to you.

1-2 = Unwatchable. A truly terrible film that most likely shouldn’t have been made and I certainly should’ve received a refund for, whether I bought a ticket or not.

2-3 = Just really bad. Nothing I could get behind, nothing redeemable. In essence, this is worse than a “1-2″ film, because at least those have enraged me. This is just garbage on a big screen.

3-4 = Okay, it’s still really bad, but maybe there’s something to enjoy, or something to champion, or a good performance, subject matter or plot. It’s better than watching bad television, so go see it, just be ready to find the concession stand as the most exciting part of the evening.

4-5 = Now we’re getting there. It’s still “bad,” but in a looser, more care free way and with something(s) redeemable about it.

5-6 = 50/50. I loved this, hated that, liked this, didn’t like that, and then went home happy….enough. Definitely creeping towards “recommendation” territory.

6-7 = Technically a “good” movie, but didn’t butter my biscuit. But biscuits are always great, butter or no butter, so go see it!

7-8 = Now this is a good movie. I really enjoyed it, found something(s) insightful in it, and am very happy to have seen it. Some of these, if anything, will frustrate me for not being good enough to gush over.

8-9 = Whoa momma, why haven’t you seen this yet? It’s one of the better films of the year and it deserves your attention! Go see it and remember why movies rock!

9-10 = Something small is holding it back from being a masterpiece, but the word “masterpiece” means something different to everyone and perhaps is partly subjective by our way of watching, so it’s debatable anyhow. Just know that this movie is so amazing it demands your attention and submission to its greatness!

10 = Masterpiece. Don’t argue with me, or I’ll like you less than I already do.

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