Bawdy Sophistication, In-Jokes and Cameos Galore in Chris Rock’s Top Five

Top Five

Chris Rock’s stand-up prowess and HBO boundary ripping hilarity never successfully translated to the big screen where, to be honest, his most memorable work was his voice-overs in the Madagascar series.  So here he is now, in the beginning of middle-age, trying to get his groove back by writing, directing and starring in Top Five.

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who has decreed he wants to be taken seriously now after years of staring as a wise-cracking bear-suited cop in the idiotically successful Hammy the Bear series.  His first serious film, the Haitian slave-revolt biopic Uprising, is hitting theaters just as his marriage to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) is set to air on Bravo.  On the fateful day before his bachelor party, a NY Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) follows him around NYC for an in-depth interview.  Along the way the pair riff on life, love, politics and pop culture while making pit stops in Allen’s old hood to meet the family and friends he left behind as he climbed the ladder out of the ghetto and into Hollywood stardom.  The cast features great turns in small roles from some of my favorite comedians including Tracy Morgan and J.B. Smoove, as well as countless cameos –  some of which (DMX singing “Smile”) work, and some of which (Adam Sandler doling out marriage tips) don’t.  There’s also a “watch out, world, here she comes!” spin from Leslie Jones who proves she’s waaaay funnier than her strained bits on the current season of SNL.

Despite its obvious eschewing of the entertainment business and celebrities and its tenuous parallels to Rock’s own career, Top Five miraculously avoids becoming an insular cell of wall-to-wall in-jokes (though there are plenty).  For most of its cameo-laden run-time, it’s actually a sophisticated romantic comedy where Dawson’s character has her own ulterior motives that lead to enjoyable banter and palpable chemistry.  Both leads relish in bouncing off each other’s energy with Rock finally fulfilling the promise he has always shown and Dawson fulfilling the promise she showed over a decade ago in such films as Sidewalks of New York and 25th Hour.  As fabricated as their “all in the same day” whirlwind tour of the city becomes, you root for something real to take root because the two are so engaging and delightful to watch. Continue reading

Crazy Mothers, Scrappy Kids, Idiot Fathers and Humorless Dictatorships in The Babadook, St. Vincent, Wish I Was Here and Rosewater

It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.

All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter.  Here’s the rundown:

Babadook Poster 1

First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD.  In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born.  Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored.   The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia.  The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future.  The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes.  The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound. Continue reading

A Walk Amongst the Tombstones in Laurel Hill Cemetery

Laurel Hill 35

Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia’s East Falls’ section overlooking the Schuylkill River between Kelly and Ridge Drives is one of the oldest cemeteries in the nation.  It houses such pop culture artifacts as Veteran Stadium seats surrounding Harry Kalas’ microphone-shaped tombstone and Adriaaaaaane! Balboa’s fake grave.  It’s also the eternal resting place of numerous historical dignitaries from various wars and the Philadelphia area along with countless family plots dating back to the early 1800’s.  The gardens of the dead there are sprawling, monument-laden and fecund with stories told and untold.  It’s a perfect spot for an autumnal stroll as the towering trees sheading their brightly covered leaves under the waning sun cast a perfect light on the splendid environs.

Below are photos I captured on one such Sunday stroll.

Continue reading

The Cathedral of Space and Brand Survival in Interstellar

Interstellar 3

Christopher Nolan might not be the incomparable artiste that Paul Thomas Anderson has become, the lyrical poet that Terrence Malick succeeds at being, or the rabble-rousers that the sicko David Fincher and the pop pastiche-aholic Quentin Tarantino are…but damn it, he’s the best Brand there is in Hollywood.  You know what you are getting every time you see a Christopher Nolan film, and unlike, say a Michael Bay, you should be ecstatic you’re getting it.  He’s going to entertain you and make you think while conjuring his own impossible cinematic dreams, attempt (sometimes clumsily but always admirably) to tap into a zeitgeist, dazzle you with his technical skill, twist the plot and up the dramatic ante every time he steps behind that camera.

His sprawling space opera, Interstellar, is no exception.  It is at times wondrously ridiculous and miraculously beautiful in its ambitions

In the not so distant future, food is running out from over-population and environmental calamities that have produced a new Dust Bowl.  There people are forced into farming as society has transformed from one of innovation to one of scraping by that has been branded as “caretaking.”  It is here where the widowed Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) eeks out an existence with his son and daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy as a child and Jessica Chastain as an adult), while he dreams of his lost opportunity to be an astronaut after a test flight crash and the disbanding of NASA years earlier.  The boy has already been tested by the school system and found to be a perfect candidate to be a farmer, while the smart-as-a-whip Murphy gets suspended for bringing a book to school that teaches the Lunar landing as a fact and triumph of the human spirit, when the new consensus teaches it was Cold War propaganda (and no one should ever dream of space travel again as growing food is the only noble pursuit).

But strange things start happening.  Automatic technology (drones and plows) begin acting up.  There are gravitational anomalies happening.  And Murphy thinks there is a ghost in the farmhouse trying to deliver her a message.  It all adds up to father and daughter stumbling upon a secret base where, lo and behold, Cooper’s former professor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), is leading an underground NASA team that has discovered a wormhole beyond Saturn and is plotting manned voyages to search for inhabitable planets on the other side.  The very survival of the human race is dependent on their mission, and they want Coop to pilot the next one which will be headed by Dr. Brand’s own daughter, the aptly named Amelia (Anne Hathaway). Continue reading

Nightcrawler or How to Start Your Own Business

Nightcrawler

Wow…what a scathing satire Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler would’ve been in say…1994 or 1995 on the heels of the OJ Simpson “White Bronco Chase” that was ushering in a new age of television reporting.  What a horrific view of what was to come…a prescient prediction of how bad it could get (and did get) if we continued down that road.  Instead, it’s 2014, and Nightcrawler crashes into screens, oddly anachronistic, taking place in some bizarro-world where local nightly news still matters and no one seems to be aware of YouTube and social media.  Honestly, who was this film made for?  Scared senior citizens without computers who still watch the nightly news?

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man with no back story who claims to have learned everything on the internet (this, along with his use of the GPS on his phone are the only things that hint at this being a present-day set story), happens by accident upon an accident late one night on the LA streets and is mesmerized by the free-lance film crew (headed by Bill Paxton) capturing video they plan to sell to Channel 6 (whose cool red-lit antenna atop their studios evokes 666…wow…subtle).  Very quickly Lou applies all of that self-help, business 101, go-getter bullshit he read on the internet and begins to crawl the nights searching for anything that bleeds to sell to the Channel 6 news director (Rene Russo).  It’s not long before things escalate and Lou begins to take drastic measures, where he skirts the law and common decency to turn the stories and events he captures into more sensationalistic leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal, thankfully, takes full control of the film.  His performance is what makes Nightcrawler worth watching.  Continue reading

The Sound and the Fury of Birdman

Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (from an a script inexplicable penned by the director and three others) might be a film about a washed-up action star writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it’s that old Shakespeare quote about life being, “…a tale.  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.  Signifying nothing.” which inspired the title of William Faulkner’s alleged magnum opus (I’m not going to go off on a side-rant here about how Light in August is really his magnum opus and not The Sound and the Fury, which to me was always so…well…kinda like this Birdman here…self-indulgent) that runs through a viewer’s mind while watching Michael Keaton ACT!

Birdman is the super hero Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played twenty years ago and made him a mega-celebrity.  The Carver play is the intimate character-driven art piece he so desperately wants to restore his street cred and remake him into an Actor rather than a celebrity.  Inarritu’s film, in which the Birdman, the man who played him, and the play he creates exist, is exactly the type of film that people who watch only movies like Birdman (as in the explosion filled super hero movie within the film Birdman, not the actual film Birdman) think people who go to watch films like Birdman (the film, not the movie within the film) go to watch.  I can tell you now, Birdman, at times, is the worst type of those types of films that I like to watch.   It’s also, at times, maddeningly brilliant.

Inarritu’s central conceit is all so very meta and insular, appealing to those who believe in the myth of the tortured artist (“What do you risk?” Keaton blusteringly asks a brusk Broadway critic, “I RISK EVERYTHING ON THE STAGE!”) and those who live it.  It’s been dissected many times before.  It brought to mind the lines from a classic episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat and man-purse and the building super Silvio mocks him saying, “No, he’s very fancy! Want me, love me! Shower me with kisses!”  So then, how does a Director and a Cast make this often mocked mindset seem fresh and meaningful?  Surround it with sound and fury. Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: Eldorado (Series Finale)

Boardwalk Empire Blank Opening Title Card

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Eldorado

Season Five: Episode Eight (Series Finale)

Directed by:  Tim Van Patten

Written by:  Howard Korder & Terence Winter

The Spin:

AS ALWAYS, BEWARE OF SPOILERS:

Did anyone following the season’s arc really doubt it would end this way?  Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) may have made the claim to Nucky that “there is still graciousness in this world,” but like any great anti-hero tragedy…there is more likely justice.  And there are the damned and the damned.

And justice was served in the series finale.  Capone (Stephen Graham), who just when he was becoming a painful caricature yet again, has a heartfelt moment with his deaf son (yet again) and then laps up the limelight of his tax-evasion trial while tipping his hat in gentlemanly fashion to the fed that successfully infiltrated his gang.  Real men (even royal scumbags) know when to fight and know when they’re beat.

Meanwhile, Luciano (Vincent Piazza) is sitting comfortably atop his throne and orders a righteous hit on that vile piece of sweet talking human excrement Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), who finally gets what he deserves.  And in front of his blind blubbering followers, in public!  Oh, what sweet justice the lord hath wrought!

Continue reading

Drinking Wine in the Valley of the Moon

Robledo Winery 3

This is the third in a three-part photo series on my recent trip to San Francisco.  Click here for Killer Views of the City or click here for photos of Muir Woods.

A tour of Sonoma County Wine Country makes for a memorable (provided you don’t drink too much) day-trip while staying in the city.  We opted for Sonoma over Napa as we read it was more bucolic and laid back…and we weren’t disappointed.  Our choice of touring companies was also spot-on.  Green Dream Tours provide guided shuttle services that will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel downtown, stop at scenic overlooks along the way, and take you to family run wineries off the beaten path.  Their shuttles are limited to 14 passengers, and are perfect anecdotes to overcrowded anonymous buses.  They really make you feel like you’re out with a group of friends, and our driver and guide, Dakshina, couldn’t have been more professional, friendly and knowledgeable.

We stopped at three wineries as well as a brief sojourn in the “city” of Sonoma, which for those comparing is a quaint town of about seven thousand people vs. Napa which has swelled to a city of over seventy thousand. Continue reading

Muir Woods: A Cathedral of Trees

Muir Woods 42

This is the second in a three-part photo series on my recent trip to San Francisco.  Click here for Killer Views of the City or click here for photos from Sonoma County..

No trip to the San Francisco Bay area is complete without a day-trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and the famous redwoods of Muir Woods.  Word to the wise: go early (the park opens at 8am) before the throngs of tourists and locals descend and make parking and silence impossible.  We got there around 8:30am on a Saturday, and the timing was perfect for primo parking and thin crowds hiking the paths.  Another word to the wise:  the road up is winding, cliff-side, often without guard rails, and has no bike lanes but plenty of suicidal bikers competing for road space.  Once safely ensconced in the belly of the forest, the trees – amongst the tallest on earth and towering like cathedral spires – are astounding, and I could imagine Terrence Malick coming here to die and be buried so he can forever be under sunlight streaming through treetops.

Continue reading

San Francisco: City of Killer Views

Marin Headlands View 5

This is the first in a three-part photo series on my recent trip to San Francisco.  Click here for photos of Muir Woods or click here for photos from Sonoma County.

San Francisco is one of those cities that flaunts convention and tempts fate.  The bay, the fault line that promises destruction, the fog, the jutting and tempestuous hills…it’s a city that by normal rights shouldn’t exist (much like two of my other favorite cities: Amsterdam and New Orleans).  But when you’re there, you can see why people refuse to leave and continue to rebuild and adapt.  Iconic bridges (with the Golden Gate straddling into Marin County and the Bay Bridge connecting the city to Oakland), impossible hills, beautiful architecture, a temperate quasi-Mediterranean climate, and views to kill for make San Francisco the most beautiful city I have visited in North America to date.  You simply can’t understand the insanity of the views until you see them for yourself…and although I’ve tried…no pictures can really do them justice.  No wonder this is the city where hippies are eternal, the most daring of bicyclists flock, homeless people retire, and real estate prices soar higher than the headlands.

The following spots we found to be the best bets for leaving you gobsmacked:

  1. The view from the Marin Headlands scenic outlooks – just over the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge one can tempt fate and precipitously winding roads to end up at the top of the Marin Headlands (which moved upwards a full 40 feet after the 1989 earthquake) where along the way you can see exposed tectonic plates and once parked can enjoy nose-bleed, windblown-hair views of the bridge, bay, and city beyond.
  2. The view from atop Twin Peaks – right in the city proper not far from the Presidio and Golden Gate Park is this outlook that can be easily reached by car and will shock you with its amazing view of the city spread out below.
  3. The view from inside Top of the Mark – this swanky but laid-back old-school bar on the top floor of a swell hotel will give you the best building-top views in the city and is the perfect spot for a drink at twilight.

Continue reading