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

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

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!

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Boardwalk Empire: Friendless Child

Boardwalk Empire 5.7

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Friendless Child

Season Five: Episode Seven

Directed by:  Allen Coulter

Written by:  Howard Korder, Christine Chambers and Riccardo DiLoreto

The Spin:  Coulter masterminded his best Scorsese impression, harkening back to the style of the Marty helmed pilot, with montages and narration and a tick-tock-gun-shot-gavel-pounding score accentuating this written-by-committee penultimate episode.  It was a refreshing and impressive piece of workmanship coming off the jaw-dropping events of the previous episode and the scattershot nature of the season prior to this.

AS ALWAYS, BEWARE OF SPOILERS:  The gang war between Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Nucky reaches a fever pitch that results in the nabbing of Ben Siegel (Michael Zegan) as a bargaining chip.  Luciano one-ups Nucky, however, by nabbing Eli’s eldest son (Ben Rosenfield) in return.  Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: Devil You Know

Boardwalk Empire - Chalky and Daughter

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Devil You Know

Season Five: Episode Six

Directed by:  Jeremy Podeswa

Written by:  Howard Korder

The Spin:  SUPER DUPER SPOILERS AHEAD – A skipping record plays over the closing credits of Korder’s masterfully penned slow-build to the two-fold finale, and Daughter Maitland’s (Margot Bingham) rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” haunts the hour as our dear Chalky (Michael K. Williams) makes a deal with the devil Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) in order to give Daughter and her/his daughter a chance (even if only in a dream).  It’s been a roller coaster season of highs and lows and mostly frustration, but Korder, who has always been the most reliable of the Boardwalk scribes, operates on this one with the expert precision of a Shakespearian surgeon.  Did anyone ever really doubt this was a tragedy?

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Is Gone Girl the Greatest or the Worst Hate Story Ever Told?

Gone Girl Rosamund Pike

I’m drinking a glass of wine as I write this review of Gone Girl, as I imagine this is how many fans of the book enjoyed reading Gillian Flynn’s twisted and twisty tale of the worst marriage ever.  I didn’t read the book, so the twists came as genuine surprises to me, and I credit my fellow critics for not really spoiling much in their reviews when the book and film are so damn spoilable.

But the thing you have to know about David Fincher’s film adaptation (spun for the screen from Ms. Flynn’s own hands) is that EVERYTHING about it (okay, and maybe this is a spoiler, so sue me)…is a ruse. Continue reading

It is Happening Again

twin-peaks-25-years-later

Did the faithful ever really doubt that we would see them again 25 years later ?

Twin Peaks is Happening Again…on Showtime…for a limited 9 episode run in 2016 to be directed in whole by David Lynch with scripts by Lynch and Mark Frost.  It will pick up exactly 25 years later just as Laura had always promised us.

I really can’t think of any better news or anything else to say.

Get that coffee and pie ready.  2016 is gonna be a damn fine year for television.  Damn fine!

And smell those trees!

(And as a side note, I’d like to think the Flying Spaghetti Monster and I had something to do with this, and by that, I mean we had nothing to do with this)

Check out the official news on Variety.

Now Let’s Rock.

twin-peaks-01

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Boardwalk Empire: King of Norway

Boardwalk Empire 5.5

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – King of Norway

Season Five: Episode Five

Directed by:  Ed Bianchi

Written by:  Steve Kornacki

The Spin:  The title of tonight’s episode refers to the picture of the king the Norwegian Mrs. Muller hangs in the kitchen.  Turns out she’s been having drunken afternoon tristes with Eli (Shea Whigham) who can only barely remember a thing.  Too bad his memory gets jogged by the mustachioed regent, and Mrs. Muller chose to reveal the tawdry details at a disastrous dinner where Eli’s pregnant wife had come to visit from Atlantic City, a dinner that could only have gotten worse if say, I dunno, the Feds had shown up.  Oh, they did.  The Muller formerly known as Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Eli have been paired as a some sort of tragic comedy team this year where they try to one up each other with their sad, ironic life events.  Two former law men nabbed by the feds who now want their help getting the books on Capone so they can nail him on tax evasion – what a joke.  And sadly it was about the only interesting turn of events tonight.

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Boardwalk Empire: Cuanto

Boardwalk Empire 5.4

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Cuanto

Season Five: Episode Four

Directed by:  Jake Paltrow

Written by:  Christine Chambers, Howard Korder and Terence Winter

The Spin:  There’s been a melancholic pall hanging over Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season.  Yes, it’s the last, which is sad enough alone, but it’s also strangely fitting that in the real world the actual current Atlantic City is on a generational decline with the closing of multiple casinos (most notably the lavish Revel) and nothing seeming to go the city’s way.  Watching the flashbacks to “The Education of Nucky Thompson” where the city was but one resort and a modest boardwalk before the turn of the 20th century reminds those localized to its current perils just how far the city has come and how long the way down is (I fear in the real world we ain’t seen nothing yet about how down and out AC can get).  You see this mirrored in the lethargy of 1930’s Nucky, a man who’s gonna have to wake up.  And could Capone’s warning call to Nucky about Luciano’s insinuation that the Italians should cut out Nucky from their empire at the end of tonight’s episode be that wake up call?  Nucky is a man who’s come so far (from Dickensian beginnings so painstakingly tailored in the flashbacks) and runs the risk of falling ever harder.

The episode oozed a calming dread in almost every scene.

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