DVD Review: “Top Five” 3.15.15

I stumbled cross this movie after seeing a trailer way back in December before seeing another film in the theater. I’ve always liked Chris Rock – in not so much looking at his career as an actor, but more as a comic. He was part of some of my favorite years on Saturday Night Live (1990-1993),  and his HBO stand up performances were up there with some of the best from the list of some of the best Black comedians – Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy to name a few. I also thought he was perfectly cast in his role in the documentary “Good Hair” (2009). I’ve always looked at Rock and considered him one of the last few remaining Black comedians that can actually write. And it was interesting that just the other day, I was going back and forth with one of my co-workers, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Black entertainers, particularly those of the mid to late 20th century, who stated that he felt like the death of Black comedy ended with Richard Pryor. Which I think is true to some extent. While I like guys like Dave Chappelle and Rock, the majority of Black entertainers, especially comedians, in our current climate, just aren’t very funny (I’m looking at you Kevin Hart!). However I did bring up to said co-worker that I liked Rock, and considered him to maybe be the last in the short remaining list of Black comedians with real talent whose career has longevity (sorry Chappelle but you came onto the scene much to fast and left much too early). So when I first so the trailer for this film I took note of it when it said “written, directed, and starring Chris Rock” and was almost immediately sold. But what actually sealed the deal for me was that it looked like it was something that was clever, with real creativity, that separated itself from what you might expect of a Chris Rock film (and certainly that of any Tyler Perry movie). Given my being a semi fan of Rock as a writer, I decided to check this one out as soon as it became available on DVD.

Rock plays a fictitious film actor named Andre Allen (the last name being an overt nod to Woody) in an opening scene that involves a long tracking shot of him walking down the streets of New York City with a reporter (played by the always reliable Rosario Dawson). He spouts diatribes about the ever-changing times in America (his stabs at politics and president Obama are hilarious and only something that could come from the mind of Rock). The Dawson character is trying to convince Rock to allow her to do a piece on him for the New York Times, with him not really wanting or willing to commit. You see his career has hit a low point, and he strives to do something more dramatic but he’s been typecast into doing films like the “Hammy” franchise (imagine Smokey the Bear but with an AK-47!). He’s currently promoting his first foray into dramatic acting territory with a serious film called “Uprize” that looks like something Steve McQueen might have made if he set out to make “12 Years A Slave” a comedy. This on top of trying to juggle the press and his flailing career, as well as upcoming marriage to reality TV star (played by Gabrielle Union) and the days leading up to which is all going to air on the Bravo network. An obvious choice for his media hungry wife which he seems to be conflicted about but goes along with it anyway. Andre finally commits to allowing Rosario’s reporter to cover and do the piece, in hopes that maybe she’ll write something that will revitalize his career and give it some rejuvenation. Throughout this process she uncovers many truths about Andre that have yet to be revealed. Many of which involve deeply personal aspects of his life. That’s where the film really starts to build in terms of story, and much of what we learn about Andre’s deeply troubled past is shown in a serious of flashbacks (most of them downright hilarious) as the two of them stroll around the city working the press junket and getting ready for his big wedding.

There was a lot of strong elements encompassed in this film which as I expected, mostly came from within the writing and script departments. Rock gives us his version of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (1963), Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), and something that clearly seems influenced by the Richard Linklater “Before” Trilogy. It starts off and mostly stays solid with one joke after another, with many (and I mean many) cameos from just about everyone we’ve seen Rock be involved with in the number of different projects he’s done over the years. Like the films of Woody Allen, there’s a cynical undertone to a lot of the dialogue in the script, but with more satire involved in what it means to be an entertainer in the increasingly demanding film industry. Some of the flashback sequences I spoke of above are simply hilarious, particularly the ones involving Rock with Cedric The Entertainer, Dawson’s journalist revealing her more brazenly honest sex life in some of her past relationships, as well as Andre’s bout with alcoholism. The latter of which takes on a funny but sad tone that comes across as a bit more honest even despite the confounding situations that it got him into. It maintains a serio-comic edge throughout its almost entire duration when even if at times it seems a little overstuffed with ideas. That and about two-thirds of the way through there’s a revelation that came across as being a bit contrived which takes place while another shift in plot is formulating that also seems cliché. Though to Rock’s credit the razor-sharp script and witty dialogue mostly make up for it falling into typical romantic comedy movie tropes. I also thought it handled and straddled the line between serio-romantic comedy and drama rather well. With a script that came across as both original and inventive. For those of you looking for a comedy with a bit more of an edge like one of Rock’s comedic contemporaries, Louis C.K., then this might just be the comedy for you. It’s smart, funny, and refreshing, and even if you don’t necessarily like the film’s feel or tone, I can assure you it will at least be worthwhile for the sheer amount of great cameos in it. Let’s hope that Rock has more tricks like this one up his sleeve.

[B]

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Review: “The Skeleton Twins” 12.13.14

I guess I wasn’t entirely sure what drew me into wanting to see this film. Other than that I had heard and/or read mostly positively priases and it scored well on the various movie review sites that I visit. That and coming off the heels of two dark films that I watched last weekend in the form of both “Calvary” and especially “Nightcrawler” I think I was in the mood for a bit more lighter-fare. But even more so, I’ve particularly always been a fan of Bill Hader and often feel as if he’s much too underutilized in films and mostly plays bit parts. So the promise of seeing him in something where he played the leading man in piqued my interest from the start. Being in that I’m really a Saturday Night Live novice post anything 2000, I can’t say that I’m familiar at all of any of his work on that show. Along with co-star Kristen Wiig. I know neither of them from their work on that show, but rather from supporting parts in movies I’ve seen like 2011’s “Paul”, a movie in which both of them starred in. I also liked Hader in comedies like “Superbad” (2007), “Knocked Up” (2007), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008), “Pineapple Express” (2008), “Adventureland” (2009), and “This Is 40” (2012). Also, a lot of people don’t know this, but Hader was employed as one of South Park’s head writers for a couple of seasons. There’s a great “making of” South Park documentary that I caught on Netflix streaming awhile back. That shows Hader in his element as they give us a glimpse into the writing and making of a South Park episode. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, regardless of what you think about their show, are so unbelievably successful that they can pull in guys like Hader to write for them. And it’s through this documentary that I found myself developing a deeper respect for him as both an actor and writer. His sheer talent is undeniable. As for Wiig, I can’t say I’ve really seen her in anything outside of the afore-mentioned “Paul” (no I have not seen “Bridesmaids”) and in her hilarious supporting turn in the often much too underrated “MacGruber” (2010). So just based on word of mouth and the fact that I was looking for some lighter fare with a couple of young comedic actors I thought I would give this one a whirl.

The film opens to a rather coincidental and tragic event, both which take place on opposite coasts by 2 siblings – Bill Hader’s Lou and Kristen Wiig’s Maggie. It is through this mere act that the brother and sister are reunited after 10 long years of being estranged from one another. Lou, who seems to be in a very dark place and in desperate need of some much-needed love and support, gets an invitation by his sister Maggie to come stay with her and her husband (played by Luke Wilson, in a great supporting turn) in rural upstate New York. he takes her up on said offer and moves from his dismal life in Los Angeles to her much more suburban-esque home and lifestyle in upstate New York. As is with a lot of siblings, both on-screen and off, they seem to click almost right away and pick up right from where the beat left off. Lou hesitantly acclimates himself and is brought into both his sister and husband’s seemingly domestic home life, and given that she still lives in the same hometown in which they grew up on, starts to revisit some of his past. Facing past failures upfront and face to face, and we begin to learn a bit about his back story. Though while Maggie’s lifestyle seems to be idyllic from the outside. She too is also plagued with her own past failures and her inability to be the wife that her husband, Luke Wilson’s character, appears to deserve as he is a kind-hearted, compassionate, and loving husband. Who also seems invested in his brother-in-law Lou’s recovery from some of his past failures. The two siblings begin to learn that they’re really not much different from one another and are plagued by the same events that happened to them as kids, which makes things rather difficult and opens up doors to facing some of their let downs and disappointments from their childhood. It is through this bonding which things begin to resurface and they begin to realize that they’re not much different than one another. Even despite of them having spent so much time apart.

“The Skeleton Twins” winds up being one of the biggest sleeper hits of the year in terms of its genre. It’s a very sad but honest look at two siblings so troubled and scarred from their childhood that even while in the comfort of one another’s presence, their past seems to catch up with them and makes them face their true fears and disappointments about the flawed adults in which they’ve become. The film brough a lot of my own personal feelings to light, having lived a similar, somewhat tumultuous childhood. The way in which the two siblings’ bond is portrayed is spot on and both Hader and Wiig give complex, layered performances that felt sincere, real, and truly human. It just goes to show that two actors who are better known for their comedic work in, if given the right material, can truly shine as dramatic actors. In fact, I was so impressed by their performances, that I found myself totally immersed myself in the story and emotionally invested in their 2 characters, that I was taken by quite a surprise. There was a certain rawness, a certain authenticity if you will, that I have to say I didn’t think these particular leads could pull off. But they do and then some. Anybody with a sibling or siblings should be able to identify with a lot of the themes explored in this film. As it really does a great job at depicting the ties that bind while also acknowledging that the past may be through with us, but we are never through with the past (a quote lifted from Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999) ). There’s an emotional core to the story that seemed totally believable and had me invested from start to finish. Nevermind that I counted maybe 3 or more scenes that were so raw, so poignant, and so heartfelt, that I found myself either being completely moved by them or evoking a beaming smile. This is one of the saddest feel good movies that is executed almost perfectly along with being incredibly well acted, that I’d be hard pressed not being able to recommend it to just about anybody. This is a film that totally took me by surprise, and one that I would employ you to see as its maybe one of, if not the best, dark comedies that I’ve seen all year.

[B+]