“Spy” (2015) Review

Despite having the most unoriginal title for a spy satire, Paul Feig’s latest action/comedy finds plenty of original humor per his fearless style of comedy. He once again uses Melissa McCarthy in a role that emphasizes her glee over girth, but doesn’t play dumb about her capabilities. You won’t see McCarthy doing daring jumps off high peaks to avoid an explosion, but you will see her get involved with smarts and instinct that are believable. But, most importantly, Spy is hilarious while still paying its respects to the genre.

It’s refreshing to finally see McCarthy back in a role that challenges her more as opposed to her just phoning it in as the bloated dunce of pictures such as Identity Theft and Tammy. She starts off as the most interesting character of the plot – a desk jockey for secret agents in the field. As Jude Law dashes around lavish locations – shooting bad guys in a tuxedo – McCarthy directs his every move from the proximity of the enemy to the ETA of backup. She’s tactful with her response, but giddy about her crush on the man she watches over.

Eventually McCarthy will have to end up in the field, but the script swiftly skips the training montage. It turns out she’s already been trained well enough and is ready to do her job. Initially assigned with working recon, she’s given secret identities the likes of cat ladies and frumpy saleswomen. Her secret weapons come in the disguise of baby wipes and a Beaches watch. As you might expect, she’s not very favored by her organization. Even Jude Law fails to read the signs of her flirting. Rather than being a series of mean-spirited jabs that could engulf the picture, McCarthy simply laughs along knowing she’ll eventually get her moment to rise above that mountain.

While we watch her climb, she’s a general riot in more ways than one. I especially dug her fight scenes the way she frantically tries to wrestle away knives and guns with a comedic grip, but capable strategy. It’s so strange to see a woman outside of ideal appearance for an action star able to hold her own in the spy game. And, unlike some ludicrous idealism that could easily make such a picture go off the rails, her determination and victories are believable. Well, for about as much reality can be solidified in a picture with guns and nukes.

But McCarthy isn’t alone as she has plenty of strong actors to play from. Miranda Hart is perfectly cast as the overly eccentric co-worker who tags along as much she can as McCarthy’s fast-talking sidekick. Rose Byrne makes for a great ambiguous villain that scowls with her royalty status among terrorists. My favorite supporting character is undoubtably Jason Statham who appears to be reprising his role from the Crank movies the way he rattles off his insane moments of action in the spy field.

While Feig does a fantastic job playing up the characters and comedy, he still brings some class to satirizing the spy genre. The soundtrack sets the perfect tone, the locations are lavishly decadent and the action is very intense. Even the opening and closing credits embody the true spirit of a spy picture with respect and cleverness. It should also be worth noting how bitingly violent the picture is featuring everything from impaled hitmen to melting throats. It could be written off as just a shock element, but there’s something just so funny about a secret agent who accidentally shoots the bad guy in the face when he sneezes.

The movie does have its small lulls as when the plot goes a bit heavy on the reveals and the camera remains on just a tad too long for improvisation. Those minor qualms aside, Spy is a well-oiled machine that delivers on Feig’s brilliant level of clever comedy and his surprising direction of action. Similar to Feig’s The Heat, McCarthy once again acts as the glue with her amazing wit and exceptional comic timing. And while it certainly has a progressive edge with its largely female cast in an R-rated action picture, it’s still a hilarious picture first. Take note of how McCarthy’s appearance acts as a part of the joke, but not THE joke. You’ll see her struggle with her self-esteem in passive-aggressive nuggets, but you won’t see her fall on her butt or break a seat with her weight. Such gags are too easy, too tired and out-of-place for a picture that succeeds as the most pleasing spy comedy since Top Secret.

“Smosh: The Movie” Review

We live in a time where online videos have supplanted television in popularity with younger audiences. They’d rather watch somebody play video games or make a spoof on YouTube. But what price does that popularity serve in the long run? As the viral sensations end their reign in the fast-paced world of online fame, the movie and TV studios attempt to piggyback on what little money there may be left to extract. Even though it may seem as though the two boys of the Smosh YouTube channel have hit it big with their own movie, it will most likely be as far as they will go. They’ve had their fifteen minutes of fame and presenting them in a feature-length movie perfectly displays how they can’t hold 90 minutes.

Taking YouTube celebrities out of their medium and throwing them into a movie make you realize how ill-suited they are outside the website. In the same sense of having a feast of Big Macs for Thanksgiving, the junk food nature of the medium presents itself far too clear in movie form. Smosh: The Movie confirms this theory as a movie by YouTube celebrities about YouTube celebrities is just not interesting, creative or all that funny. Considering it’s a platform of content that doesn’t need any payment, you get what you pay for which happens to be nothing (or 10 seconds of your time for an advertisement before the video).

The script is proof positive that these guys are better suited for producing five-minute skits than a movie. Anthony Padilla and Ian Cox play themselves as slackers living with their parents. Anthony wants to move up in the world by starting with a pizza delivery job while Ian wants to stay a homebody gorging on YouTube videos. A chance for commentary on the nature of millennials? Of course not! This is more of a strange romance in how these two guys are more concerned about getting the girl than where they’re going to be in the next ten years.

The only way Andrew believes he can get the girl is if he removes an embarrassing video of himself from high school off YouTube. The only way Ian can get the girl is if he tracks down a woman he knows only from a butt massage video. Their missions combine when they visit the YouTube company where the only way to remove a video from the site is to enter a virtual reality of all the popular videos on the website. This provides the format for inserting as many YouTube cameos and familiar search results on-screen for the boys to interact with in the simulation.

I’m fully aware that the YouTube obsessed youth will most likely find a gleeful joy from all the surprise appearances of their favorite viral personalities. And, yes, the movie does require that you have knowledge of these popular video creators to get the jokes they make. If you don’t, you’ll be left scratching your head about why Mark Plier appears in a corner of the screen to project loudly into a microphone. But for what it’s worth, I’m aware of Plier and I get the reference – I just don’t understand why it’s funny. That goes for most of the movie which I guess is supposed to be funny by talking about YouTube within a movie. There are some rather painful points that attempt to kowtow to the audience as if to say “what’s the deal with video buffering?” Whatever creative edge Smosh might have had in their online videos seems to have been sidelined for references and a get-the-girl plot that wears thin.

Fans of Smosh and hot YouTube talents will probably get a kick out of this collection of creators, but I tend to think about movies in the long-term. Will the youth of today still be entertained by this picture ten years from now? It’s highly unlikely given the longevity of such crazes as Afro Ninja, Annoying Orange and Fred. Many who grew up during those years are looking back on such fads with nostalgia as opposed to humor. This makes Smosh: The Movie more of a viral video snapshot of our time than a comedy that can be enjoyed out of its online audience. Any teenager who bought this DVD will most likely forget about it in a bin – only to find it years later and laugh about what they thought was cool at that age. This is disposable comedy with an expiration date which, depending on your thirst for quality content, may have already passed.

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” Review

I’m struggling to find the right words to slay Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 without using “fat” or “stupid.” It’s rather hard since that’s all there really is to the character and direction of this sequel to the 2009 picture nobody asked for. There’s no cuteness to his idiocy since he has virtually no heart. There’s no humor in the slapstick which mostly involves Kevin James falling flat on his butt. Even the fat gags were incredibly lame to the point where I expected the movie to give up and just make “you are so fat…” jokes. But there is one other word that comes to mind in the way that it is practically plastered all over the picture: sellout.

This movie was shot at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas. It is the first movie to take advantage of Las Vegas’ new tax credit for shooting movies. The movie will slow down at various scenes to point out the decadent of the hotel’s interior and exterior. The owner Mr. Wynn himself shows up in the picture for a brief cameo. If this is all sounding quite familiar, you may recall the similar movie-making tactics of Happy Madison productions. Many a movie has been produced under the banner by shamelessly appealing to the location-sponsoring overlords. The cast and crew don’t seem to mind as they get a vacation out of the ordeal. Take a look at the special features for Blended where Adam Sandler and his friends seem to be having a ton of fun in Africa when not shooting their terrible romantic comedy there. I have no doubt that Kevin James and company probably had a lot of fun as well shooting in Las Vegas – more fun than the audience will ever know.

The story is practically copied and pasted from the original script with a find and replace from mall to hotel. Wouldn’t this technically make Blart a hotel cop in that he’s operating outside his domain? He attends a security guard convention to be honored for his work as the tubby hero of the earlier film. Dragging along his college-anxious daughter, the hotel comes under attack by terrorists who are smart enough to use detailed technology to steal from the building, but not smart enough to dispatch a pudgy Blart. It’s a strangely odd farce in the way Blart is able to disable such evil men in between getting beaten up by animals, hit by cars and falling on the floor from lack of sugar. His action methods don’t have some cunning nature to his weight either – he’s fat when the movie wants him to be and a lucky hero when the script wills it so. No Kung-Fu Panda style for this tubby cop.

There’s a passively lazy tone throughout the movie the way it goes through the motions. In a scene where Blart’s blood sugar is low, he crawls on the floor towards the dripping of a child’s ice cream cone. He secures a few drops in his mouth and regains his energy. Not enough energy to suddenly perk up and leap off the floor in a heroic return to form, but merely enough to slowly rise and walk away. I suppose the joke was that he consumed ice cream drops. Or maybe it was the sight of Blart crawling on the floor. Or maybe there is no joke and it was intended as a serious commentary on low blood sugar. Whatever the intent, it is alien in the way the movie will stop dead for several of these scenes that are so unfunny they have transcended boredom into a white space devoid of anything interesting on-screen.

But this time Blart has some help in the form of security guards from around the country. A chance for new and interesting characters? Nope – they’re required to be just as one-note and simple as Blart. All of them are proof of the wasted potential in this picture. There’s a large black woman who has served as a mall security guard at the Mall of America in Minnesota. She has no interesting stories to tell. She has no unique accent or traits of the region. She has no method of security that differs her from the others. But she is fat which means she can smash her chubby frame into the bad guys with ease.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is not funny, entertaining or overly offensive – it’s just a dead zone of comedy where ideas come to die and clichés come to cozy up. I sat there watching Kevin James go through the motions, slide across the floor and waddle through this tired and recycled script. I did not laugh, wince or grit at the screen. I just sat there staring off into space, getting lost in the picture and hoping that somewhere underneath the assortment of moving images was a joke. To my surprise, there was. Deep within Kevin James’ bulging eyes, I could see the reflection of the director Andy Fickman behind the camera. Peering closer, I could see into Andy’s eyes as well. And deep within his eyes I could see the true joke in all of this: it’s me. I watched this movie. I wrote about this movie. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 exists in this universe thanks to the people who watch it out of curiosity or their love for Kevin James’ brand of comedy. The joke is that a movie like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 exists and that it can not be so easily halted by the likes of critics.

And then I realized Blart rhymes with fart – one guilty chuckle to pull myself back from the void.

“An American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success” Review

Once more into the American Girl franchise I plunge. By now, I’ve become used to the formula. I open the case, dig my way through the coupons of the expensive dolls and strap in for another enduring tale of little girls saving the day. Grace bakes at her family’s bakery that is struggling with bills and old equipment. She wants to start her own cupcake business and dreams of being on Master Chef Junior. In the first 10 minutes, I saw exactly where this was going. At least, I thought I did.

Because right as the plot is starting up – seemingly out of nowhere – Grace has to go to Paris for her extended family and to learn more about baking. This doesn’t become the central plot and is mostly treated as character building filler. It’s as if the writers had two scripts and couldn’t decide on just one. Or maybe their budget for shooting in Paris came midway through production of the Master Chef script. For whatever reason, the woes of Grace’s family struggling to make ends meet with their bakery is put on hold for 70% of the movie so that Grace can run off to Paris and learn to be the best baker.

This section of the film is entirely unneeded and practically defeats the purpose of real character growth. Most of the time it’s best to build up a character from zero to hero, but Grace doesn’t exactly start off as a bad chef. In fact, she’s a great chef. All she really does in Paris is step up her game from great to the best. What kind of a narrative is that? Perhaps if there were some more cockiness or doubt in her mind you might be able to sympathize with her more. But before Grace even went to Paris she was already starting her own cupcake business with her friends and having a great time. Sure, she learns some lessons from her trip in Paris such as how to be a team player, how to cook more creatively and how to better read people. But did you really have to go all the way to Paris for the second act just to learn all of that? Apparently we do because Paris makes for some great cinematography which you better believe the filmmakers milked.

Much like the Paris arc itself, the movie finds various subplots to busy itself. There’s subjects focusing on dealing with a new baby sister, trying to impress a hotel to serve your desserts and how to find your passion for baking. There’s also a cute dog included in these hi-jinks by the name of Bon Bon because cute dogs are almost a requirement with direct-to-video family movies. This is all filler and there’s little reason to care how any of this plays out as it is merely a means of keeping the running time above an hour. Most of these events are played up way too high for slapstick and goofy comedy that is better suited for a sitcom. Maybe it is at just the right level for a direct-to-video movie, but this is still a sharp contrast to the tone of previous American Girl movies.

By the time the movie actually gets around to the Master Chef Junior third act, I just didn’t care anymore. Grace needs the prize money to buy a new oven for the bakery? Of course. Grace’s competition is a snobby chef who was born with a silver spoon? Sure, why not. It’s not like there’s any logical development or flow to any of these events or characters. Why bother building up a nemesis for Grace throughout the picture when you can just slam him in the climax at the last act? To the movie’s credit, I will admit that Grace does a lot of baking and that there is a lot of good looking food in the movie. That is, when it’s not being splat in faces or slipped on across the floor for a meager attempt at a laugh.

As far as these American Girl movies go, Grace Stirs Up Success is a surprise for how flat it falls on its face. With uneven storytelling and a heavy reliance on slapstick, it’s baffling how such a script could be whipped up with two decent stories fused to become a lackluster combination. If it had just been Grace Goes To Paris or Grace Saves The Bakery, the movie would at least have a flow. Still, kids may get a few laughs from the hi-jinks and enjoy the shots of France. At it’s highest, this is a rental.

“Get Hard” Review

Get Hard is the Hart/Ferrel buddy picture that can’t decide if it wants to be Trading Places or Stir Crazy. It is this inconsistency with tone – coupled with a heaping helping of racist/stereotype gags – that prevents this movie from showcasing the true comedic talent of its two leads. It’s a bitter shame considering that Kevin Hart and Will Ferrel have a likable dynamic. You have to squint in between all the bits that end up being more duds than smiles, but it is present. They’re both quick on the draw with the comedy and can hold their own in any improv scene. But when thrown such a lackluster bone as Get Hard, it’s easy to miss.

The setup is simple enough. Will Ferrel plays a corporate hedge fund manager that is living the pompous and oblivious life of a wealthy elite. He has a large house, a hot wife who loves him for his money and Mexican landscapers that put up with his offensive nature for money. Kevin Hart plays a struggling father with small car wash business, desperate to elevate his daughter into a safer school. He’s not exactly poor, but still hasn’t reached that comfy level of the lower-middle class. The two characters meet within a parking garage where the interaction proceeds about as you’d expect for a rich white guy and decent black man. It isn’t until Ferrel is caught by authorities for illegal practices with managing funds that he comes to Hart, begging and pleading for help in how it wasn’t him who committed these crimes.

The problem is that the immediate issue of clearing Ferrel’s name is not addressed. The two just assume that prison is inevitable. So instead of solving the crime – which actually takes about two minutes once they reach that point – Hart spends the majority of the movie training Ferrel for prison. The whole joke of this premise is that Hart doesn’t actually know anything about prison, drawing most of his knowledge from his imprisoned cousins and prison movies, but Ferrel assumes he does based on his limited knowledge of African-Americans. And the stereotypes fly as the two actors are forced to fill time in a script that wasn’t very well-thought.

I really want the Hart/Ferrel dynamic to work, but it’s hard to find the funny when these two are reduced to the most amateur of comedy writing. Believing that the prison sentence will lead to rape, Hart takes Ferrel on a field trip to a gay part of town where he can practice performing oral sex on a man. While Ferrel has one of his most awkward encounters with genitalia in a bathroom, Hart nervously squirms in his chair while a gay guy tries to pick him up. I suppose these two scenes are supposed to be funny because penises are shocking and gays are perverts.

But Get Hard doesn’t just apply stereotypes to homosexuals. The duo visit a white supremacist meeting place which, of course, is a biker bar of neo-Nazis with more hair on their chins than heads. The latino characters are all house workers and landscapers with mannerisms more quirky than relatable. The only twist comes with a black gang that are comically well-informed of the financial market. Outside of their favorite topic, they’re still chugging 40’s and smoking weed while threatening to bust caps into rear ends. With so many cartoonishly savage character running amok, I could just barely root for Hart and Ferrel on the basis that they’re too dim to be evil.

And why put the movie in a box so small? I could sense by the world building that there was something relevant and timely to this setup. Why not take a stab at finding more humor in such a separation of the rich and poor than just phoning in this corporate mystery/prison training story? I don’t why I thought the movie could be something more. Perhaps it was just out of the anger from such tired devices and watered down commentary on racism.

I once again find myself frustrated with Kevin Hart for being a solid comedic actor trapped in terrible script. The man has chemistry as seen in his previous buddy pictures, Ride Along and The Wedding Ringer. And while those scripts were tired scenarios for a buddy comedy, Get Hard is a massive misfire for both Hart and Ferrel. I did find their pairing amusing as when the two end up fighting some corporate goons and when Hart regales Ferrel with a fictional tale of his past ripped from Boyz in da Hood. But for every smile generated from those scenes, there’s twice as many sighs for the gags that fall straight to the bottom. They must have known they were in a bad movie once Will Ferrel has to don the apparel of Lil’ Wayne in a black neighborhood. At least the two of them seem to be having some fun together even if we’re not.

 

“A Few Best Men” Review

A Few Best Men is an Australian bachelor party film that features a ram on the poster. Based on bachelor party movie logic, we can expect one of the following to happen to the ram:

-The ram will be kidnapped.
-The ram will be dressed up in makeup and sexy underwear.
-The ram will be given beer and weed.
-The ram will die and be revived back to life.

All four are aspects are present in this film as it goes for broke with the animal comedy. Should we expect anything less from a bachelor party movie? Is it any surprise that drugs are involved in a wild night the groom and his men can’t remember? Are we supposed to be comedically creeped out by the expected off-beat drug dealer involved? And how much are we supposed to laugh at characters that exist more as joke robots than real characters?

One could blame The Hangover for this strange resurgence in the bachelor party film, but let’s not throw that film quite so far under the bus. There was at least some legitimate character and an intriguing mystery behind The Hangover’s cavalcade of gross-out humor and vulgar gags. That is what made the film so likable and it floors me that most filmmakers seem to entirely miss this point. With A Few Best Men, we’re not given real characters so much as we are given cartoon characters fashioned from the Hangover template.

We have our frustrated, straight-man groom freaking about his friends coming to Australia for his wedding. We have our pensive, awkward tagalong who ends up with all the bad luck right from the start when he makes a poor choice in mustache styles. We have our wild card who dabbles in drugs and danger with his funny lines. And there’s a fourth one who isn’t as memorable, merely existing as the fourth member so we can completely rip off the Wolf Pack from The Hangover.

You’d think having the wedding out in the rural countryside, away from the swaying vices of the big city, would be a safer location to have a bachelor party. But the foursome manage to find a way to have their bachelor party turn into a morning after disaster. They steal drugs from the local pusher of the area who has an unhealthy obsession with the pensive member of the group. They get the prized sheep of the father-in-law stoned and dressed in sexy apparel. And what bachelor party would be complete without the cliches of a gimp mask and a bare bottom with a foreign object lodged between the crack?

From there the story is just a predictable cavalcade of simple jokes for some witless blokes trying to repair the damage of their antics on a wedding day. Given that most of the film takes place on the day of the ceremony, you can expect lots of misunderstandings and slapstick where everything goes wrong with colliding forces. You can almost hear the collective sigh when a car forced into neutral makes its way toward a giant, spherical decoration which will inevitably roll down the aisle like a bowling ball. That’s a joke better suited for a Beethoven movie than some crazy bachelor party flick. The cast is decent, but they’re only doing the best job they can with a script that feels like half-thought jokes from one episode of a sitcom. Even the addition of Rebel Wilson to the cast can’t save the comedy this film is so desperate to reap. I can’t blame the film for relying on abusing the sheep at this point since a sheep in sexy clothing is at least mildly amusing. At least the film will gain some attention from PETA if nobody else.

A Few Best Men is too drunk on its own unoriginal ideas of bachelor party humor and needs to go home. It’s a bitter reminder of how much more stock needs to be taken in these productions. This is a comedy destined to fall by the wayside as the cheap, Australian version of The Hangover. I wish it could lift itself from that simple description, but it just doesn’t make much of an attempt to elevate itself out of that repetitive pit of tired comedy.

“Inherent Vice” Review

Inherent Vice is more of a ride than a story. It stages far too many characters, plot lines and events into a messy stew and dares you to keep up. The film proceeds at a stoner’s pace fitting the hippie protagonist’s mindset in 1970’s Los Angeles. The story continues to build and build, layer upon layer like a topping tower of excess. What exactly is it about? It starts off with a detective trying to stop a wife and lover from conning her husband out of her money by sending him to the nut house. Then it twists into a conspiracy involving neo-nazis. Then a drug boat is thrown into the mix. Then a crazy cult centered around an actor becomes yet another ingredient. And on it grows like an out of control kudzu in all directions.

It’s a film that’s easier to talk about for its characters than its story. Seen as more of an anthology of dialogue-driven scenes, each conversation presents some quality actors given plenty of material to play with. Joaquin Phoenix is in top form as the tripped-out private investigator Doc, stumbling around Los Angeles in his mutton chops and dirty feet. He relies on info and strange companionship from Josh Brolin as Bigfoot, a detective/Adam-12 starring character with a weird obsession for chocolate bananas and Japanese-made pancakes. Martin Short is a riot as a perverted dentist/drug dealer. And Owen Wilson plays an undercover agent with who seems just as lost and confused as Doc in this mess of a story.

But just what is this film about? Perhaps its stoner atmosphere of a stoner P.I. is a script best diagnosed by those of similar mindsets. The dialogue is kept lucidly vague and overly decadent to the point where it almost requires a hippie dictionary to translate. It’s also rattled off at a pace fast enough to just barely keep up with the ever-changing story. It felt like a slightly more grounded version of Roger Corman’s The Trip in which Peter Fonda goes on a crazy drug-induced journey through the city. But while Fonda’s trip was more random and weird for the sake of weird, there’s a strange method to the madness of Phoenix’s tracking of leads. I’m still not too sure what it was, but the original author Thomas Pynchon certainly dares us to find out what it is through some unique characters.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson does little to glue together this disassembled jigsaw puzzle of a 1970’s caper/romance/drama/whatever Pynchon intended. He merely paints the pieces with an old-fashioned 35mm finish and a stylish palette of the 70’s era. Much like films in the same presentation as The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is beautiful to look at, hilarious to follow, strange to witness and maddening to comprehend. At some point in the film, you’ll just give up trying to follow the multiple plot lines and just bask in the charisma of its characters. It certainly makes the film more enjoyable, but at 148 minutes, you’ll start to miss your brain being on to engage in a story.

Inherent Vice is just a wicked mess of psychedelic ramblings strange enough to make Hunter S. Thompson’s work seem mainstream. It takes perhaps too long of a drag the way it keeps the freeform plot fluctuating for a staggering 148 minutes, but there’s enough balances of weird dialogue scenes that it’s never entirely boring. This is certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea considering Paul Thomas Anderson might’ve slipped too much trippy into this story/ride. But I was more than content for it being so loose with its story and fresh with its characters. If you can find humor in Martin Short freaking out in a car with drugs or Josh Brolin screaming in Japanese for pancakes, you’re on safe ground with this movie.

“Top Five” Review

Top Five is the third film Chris Rock has written, directed and starred in. Now at age 40, Rock has crafted a comedy that is a rather personal story. It’s not quite his autobiography picture, but it rings with so many awkward truths and concerns for a comedian who pines for the better days. His character of Andre Allen is a comedian who no longer feels funny as he directly tells some hecklers on the street. And yet everyone seems to want him to be funny as they call him out for his highest-grossing film character which he woefully regrets playing.

There’s a definite comparison between Rock’s role as the zebra Marty in the Madagascar pictures and his Top Five persona’s notable performance as Hammy the cop bear. He probably feels the same aggravation with bystanders shouting “Afro Circus!” as they spout his Hammy catchphrase “It’s Hammy time!” in this movie. The biggest difference being that his Madagascar character doesn’t have a beer named after him (I hope). He desperately tries to distance himself with more serious roles as he plays the lead in a Django Unchained revision of history. But all any of the radio interviewers seem to want to talk about is when there will be a Hammy the Bear 4. He cares so little for these interviews he actually plays video games while delivering one over the phone.

But then New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) manages to be the most honest person he’s met. After some squabbling about their interview, they soon hit it off big with true stories of their similar paths. Both of them have been alcoholics and have some stories to tell about their experiences. The sex they’ve had has been strange and awkward which they don’t feel as embarrassed sharing with one another. These two are destined for one another, but still have a few more disclosures to get out of their system before they can make that leap. Namely, Andre has to find a way to deal with his staged marriage to a power-hungry celebrity.

Though very meta in how the story mirrors Rock’s feelings about stardom, the movie is still very funny in its own right for hitting several notes. When Andre hangs around a crowded room of his family, they crack all sorts of rips on each other about their shortcomings that they all seem to take in stride. When Andre talks with Chelsea about his past, he leaves in every nasty detail about his most awkward parties. There’s even some dropping of the curtain as when Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg appear as themselves to give Andre some marriage advice. The best they can muster is don’t get caught cheating and have the wife sign a prenup.

Speaking of such stars, there are plenty of surprise cameos that include Kevin Hart, JB Smoove and Tracy Morgan amid many more. All of them get their moments to shine without feeling too out-of-place for the story. Though I have to admit one of the most hilarious moments was watching DMX try to sing outside his comfort zone in a horribly off-key manner. But the pleasing cap to the film is seeing Chris Rock finally get back on a stage and perform some stand-up comedy. He certainly hasn’t lost his touch as a thought-provoking and edgy comedian who pushes buttons and makes you laugh. If there were any doubt that Chris Rock is losing his true sense of humor that made him an icon of Saturday Night Life and the stand-up circuit, Top Five is proof that he is still alive and well.

Top Five is some of Chris Rock’s best work in a long time, due in part to writing what he knows best: himself. It harkens back to a sense of classic Chris with the type of comedy he should be doing more of. If you miss that version that was buried after years of Madagascar sequels and Adam Sandler romps, this is the movie to renew your faith in the comedian.

“The Interview” (2014) Review

After all the controversy over the Sony hacks and North Korea threatening America if they released The Interview into theaters, is this comedy any good? While it’s certainly nowhere near the level of controversial buzz it generated, yes, it was a funny picture. It will not be fondly remembered as the satire that stabbed violently at the ordeal of North Korea with telling wit, but did manage to be humorous for what it wanted to be. Given Seth Rogen’s previous comedic projects (This is the End), it wasn’t exactly aiming for the furthest heights of satire.

That being said, there is some cleverness given to its semi-meta premise. James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a talk show host that thrives on the most scandal-worthy conversations with celebrities. Eminem comes on the program to reveal that he’s homosexual and his lyrics were acting as clues for these years. But all these interviews to little satiate his producer/friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) and his thirst to produce better television. Seeking to be more professional, the two end up landing the most exclusive of interviews with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un (Randall Park) in his native country. Of course, acquiring such exclusivity attracts the CIA that want Dave and Aaron to act as secret agents and take out the dictator.

The humor for this let’s-kill-a-dictator plot is on par with Rogen’s line of comedy. There are no shortage of weed and penis jokes in stock to please the most bro-worthy of college boys. Foreign objects are placed inside rears and limbs are severed in the name of shock. But when the script can pull itself away from a-typical low-brow, there are a few nuggets of insightful satire on North Korea. The Korean children bred and conditioned for entertainment play guitars for their guests with disgustingly perfected smiles. The grocery store Kim stages for his visitors is a fake which makes for a great reveal once James Franco finds himself wronged. Throughout their stay, Franco believes all of Kim’s words while Rogen politely nods along being aware of all his tricks. It’s a predictable, but playful enough dynamic for the dolt and the straight man.

The comedy is somewhat grounded by an arc for Dave and Kim. The two find themselves developing a friendship in their manchild lifestyles of too much play and a want to be taken seriously. I was rather surprised at how much the movie held back in transforming Kim into a goof – thanks to both the script and Randall Park’s performance. He’s certainly silly the way he favors Katey Perry as his music-to-drive-tanks-to, but rarely over the top with emotions and secrets. If the real Kim Jong-un favors the presence of Dennis Rodman, being in possession of a Katey Perry song seems very plausible.

There’s a romance between Seth Rogen and a female NK soldier, but it’s mostly background dressing for Rogen to get in a few laughs as the nervous spy. As Franco is laid back and easy-going as he grows to love Park’s Kim, Rogen gets to do most of the spy work with his mishandling of secret weapons. He even wedges in a few fight scenes since I swear it must be a requirement in his contract that he does some slapstick.

Perhaps it’s just all the controversy surrounding the movie’s release, but it felt as though the satire should have gone a bit further. Seth Rogen and his co-director Evan Goldberg spent a large amount of time doing research on this subject from as far back as when Kim Jong-ill was still alive. It’s a little disappointing that after all that work and a desire to make something a little more relevant of the times, the end result is one that fills in most of its blanks with toilet humor. Rather than have more fun with focusing on the culture of North Korea, Franco and Rogen spend most of their time bickering in a guest room about (what else?) weed and penises. Maybe they secretly knew they were treading in hot territory and wanted to play it a tad safe.

While The Interview doesn’t redefine Rogen and Franco’s comedy careers, it’s good for a few laughs both insightful and dumb. Most of its base humor is deserving of a chuckle and the few digs at North Korea are well-thought. For not having as much bite, there is enough satirical bark at media and dictators to offer more than I expected. To think that a nuclear war could’ve broken out over such a comedy is more laughable for how there was such a big stir over such a low-brow farce. There’s also of bit of reflection in the character considering North Korea has made a multitude of propaganda films, but one suggestive piece of satire on our end causes outrage. Art reflects life – not that I’d considered The Interview a piece of art. It does rhyme with art though.

“Birdman” Review

In the very first shot of Birdman, we see a fireball descend from the sky. The movie then cuts to Michael Keaton’s character Riggan Thompson levitating in his dressing room in nothing but his underwear. His grisly voice can be heard and although his back is to the camera we can tell it is not his natural voice. The voice remarks “How did we end up here? This place is horrible; smells like balls.” As we soon learn, Riggan is in a terrible place: a theater filled with people just as egotistical as himself. But this is his own grave that he dug so deep he can’t help but laugh to the bottom when the dirt entombs him. And we the audience are taken along on this rollercoaster of a maddening ride through his messed up mind and the destructive personalities surrounding him.

Riggan Thompson is a washed up actor who used to be well known in the 1990’s as the star of the Birdman superhero movies. The poster of him in the Birdman costume looms over his dressing room as a painful reminder of what he used to be. On his TV, an entertainment report focuses on Robert Downey Junior’s Iron Man franchise being a billion dollar success. It’s another life Riggan loathes, regrets and envies. Birdman now haunts his mind as another character, beating down his own ego as he tries to force Riggan back onto the easy street of doing superhero movies.

Birdman is the little voice of Riggan’s doubt that he is not a stage actor, writer or director. He constantly questions why he bothers trying to create a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Riggan is constantly at battle with this aspect of his psyche that has made him so far gone he starts hallucinating superpowers. In private, we see him fling objects around his dressing room with his mind. On the streets of New York City, he soars above the masses like a graceful bird. The next thing he knows, his dressing room is in shambles or he’s standing on top of a building ready to plunge. He doesn’t relay his personal demons to anyone he works with and the few he does brushes it off as jitters.

Having once been admired in the spotlight, Riggan’s respect has diminished in his inner circle. His daughter turned assistant (Emma Stone) has a bitter disrespect for being ignored by her dad as a child and into adulthood. His new lead actor (Edward Norton) looks down on Riggan being a man of the stage directed by a man of the silver screen. His lead actress and love interest Laura is bitter and torn about them not being able to have kids. His lawyer Jake is so angrily concerned with the bottom line that he is more than willing to lie his ass off to Riggan just to get the show off the ground. And even the local critic Tabitha despises the man so much she flat-out tells him she’ll write a scathing review of his play before she witnesses one scene.

Why does Riggan surround himself with such detrimental characters to his psyche and bank account? He needs them. Without them, he would have no reason to climb, no reason to bleed and no play to create. They are the challenge that reminds him of how alive he needs to be for the greatness he hopes to achieve.

The cast of the movie is perfectly playing to their personal strengths. One has to wonder how much of Keaton’s performance is based off his personal experience playing Batman in the Tim Burton movies. While arguing with his Birdman persona about how he cannot return to the superhero movie game, he shouts “it’s not 1992 anymore” referring to the last time Keaton portrayed Batman in Batman Returns (1992). He then lifts up his shirt in the mirror to display everything that he’s become from his scalp to his belly comparing himself to a “turkey with Leukemia.” He even mentions to interviewers in the film his reasoning for passing on Birdman 4, possibly referring to Keaton’s true reasoning for not going along on with the other two Batman films of the 1990’s.

Edward Norton also plays a bit of a meta character in the way he nearly destroys the production with his backstage and onstage tempers. He challenges Riggan in rehearsals, throws a drunken tirade during a preview showing, wrestles Riggan to the floor in the break room and even goes so far as to nearly rape one of the female actors on stage in a bedroom scene. And yet he seems to merely be playing the role of the diva until he retreats to the roof for a cigarette where he unloads his honesty on Riggan’s daughter. He laments how he’s never himself until he’s on stage. It’s possible he’s never himself similar to the way Peter Sellers joked that he had his true personality surgically removed.

Birdman was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, best known for his “trilogy of death” that included Amores perros (2001), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). All three of those films were told in a non-linear, anthology format of connecting stories. While those were emotional journeys of trying to find life after death, Birdman attempts to find some life before death. Or maybe life during death as there are many who theorize Riggan officially kills himself at several points in the picture and that the final act is his own purgatory vision. Whatever your theory, Birdman is an infatuating and dizzying character drama that I will absolutely love examining and dissecting for years to come.