Rocky Top

Top Five

by George Wolf

Just a few minutes of Chris Rock’s standup act will tell you he’s one of the funniest people alive. Read one of his interviews and you’ll see he’s also smart and thoughtful. His work on the big screen has delivered uneven results, but with Top Five, his talent and his vision are finally in perfect sync.

It’s Rock’s third feature as writer/director/star, and he finds gold in the old adage “write what you know.”

Stand-up veteran Andre Allen (Rock) has left the clubs behind for success in Hollywood, thanks mainly to the “Hammy the Bear” franchise where he stars as a wisecracking, crime-fighting Grizzly (catch phrase: “it’s Hammy time!”) But Andre has come to a crossroads, in both work and life.

He wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but his new film about a Haitian slave uprising is having trouble finding an audience. Meanwhile, he’s engaged to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) who feels anything out of camera range doesn’t matter.

So Andre is in no mood for an interview with the New York Times, a paper that has a long history of trashing his work. Ambitious reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) softens his stance, and their interaction grounds an insightful look into what’s on Chris Rock’s mind.

It’s a lot: celebrity culture, race relations, sobriety, fame, love, sex, even Angry Birds are in Rock’s crosshairs, as he riffs from one topic to the next and back, not unlike a tightly packed monologue. Rock shows much growth as a director, and his confident, often out-of-sequence approach not only keeps the pace feeling brisk, but it makes sure the cheesy sequences (and there are a couple) don’t get the time to take root.

Chris Rock the actor still suffers some unsteady moments but has never been more appealing. Dawson helps. She has the talent to lead without upstaging, and they create a comfortably sweet rapport.

Even before Adam Sandler show up as himself, you’re reminded that this might be what he and Judd Apatow wanted Funny People to be, until that film dissolved into a self-indulgent overreach.

Top Five is obviously a very personal statement, but it’s also got the heart, and the smarts, to become universal.

Funny and entertaining? That doesn’t hurt, either.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Help Me, I’ve Been Hyp-no-tized!

By George Wolf

 

The head-trippy space so eloquently invaded by Christopher Nolan in films such as Memento and Inception seems to have caught the fancy of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).  In Trance, Boyle gleefully plays with perception and reality as he unveils a mostly effective noir tale of the hunt for a stolen art masterpiece.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an employee of an exclusive London auction house who opens the film by explaining his game plan for safeguarding art masterpieces during any heist attempts.  While Simon is narrating, we see a heist being organized, leading up to the moment when ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his thugs steal a prized work.

Simon owes Franck an old debt, but attempts to pay it off with the location of a lost painting are stalled by Simon’s claim of amnesia.  And so, the group understandably turns to…hypnosis.

Stay with me, because this is when things get freaky. Once Simon begins visiting hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), all lines begin to blur.

What is real, and what is a hypnotic suggestion? Who is plotting with whom, and is all that nudity and sex merely subconscious desire?

Boyle, in films such as Slumdog, 127 Hours, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Shallow Grave, has shown that his choices regarding pacing and visual style are often masterful.  With Trance, Boyle seems energized by his new genre playground – so much so that the questionable leaps taken by the script are swept aside with little regard.

The core story was first hatched by current “Dr. Who” writer Joe Ahearne in a TV movie from 2001. Frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge has expanded the screenplay to keep your head swimming with possibilities, as heroes turn into villains, past becomes present, and then back again.

The solid cast is anchored by Dawson, who reaches beyond anything we’ve seen from her so far with a layered, emotional performance in a role that makes frequent demands. She answers them all, and becomes the film’s center of gravity when too many elements threaten to spin out of control.

Trance is engaging and entertaining, but I’m guessing Boyle was after a bit more. Instead of leaving with a feeling of wonder as you spend days trying to get your head around it, you’re more likely to view Trance as clever, forgettable fun.

Verdict-3-5-Stars