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Top Five (2014)
Day in the Life of a Self-Conscious Celebrity
Clearly a personal project for writer/director/star Chris Rock, Top Five isn't quite a comedy and isn't quite a drama. It nestles snugly, firmly into the in-between, dispensing funny little slices of life alongside serious, self-searching notes about midlife insecurity and the desire to make something more of yourself. Rock basically plays himself, a longtime comedy superstar who worries that his silly wide-appeal earlier works have trapped him in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and alcoholism. His character is grounded and real, afraid to play anything for big laughs because the pressure to meet earlier comedy heights is so crippling. For the most part, it's the story of his swift rapport and burgeoning relationship with a tailing New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson), which clicks on all cylinders. The two work so well together, it can be enjoyable just watching them interact over the inconsequential, and that's the real draw. Don't go in expecting riotous laughs; it's funny, but also sweet, and an effective stepping stone to broader subjects.
Mou gaan dou (2002)
Hyper-Focused, Twisting, Thrashing Hong Kong Detective Thriller
The inspiration behind Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed, this Hong Kong original contains the core fabric of that story but few of its offshoots. It's strictly the tale of two double-agents, working both sides of the law in a desperate race to be the last man discovered, as the stakes climb steep and swift. Rapid and concise, it speeds impressively through some very tricky waters, effectively ratcheting the tension to an almost-unbearable level through both plot and cinematography. As a non-Mandarin speaker, it's often tough to keep pace with the lightning-quick subtitles, but strong performances from the two yin-and-yang leads saves the day on more than one occasion. Ballsy and cold-hearted, I wish the American adaptation hadn't spoiled so many of the twists for me. I have a hunch the ending would've been twice as jolting if it hadn't.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Heavy and Bittersweet, Unexpectedly Funny, Supremely Powerful - Wes Anderson's Best
For my money, Wes Anderson just doesn't get any better than this. The Royal Tenenbaums is where he strikes that perfect blend of heartstring and humor, spontaneous weirdness and obsessive attention to detail. The family itself has enough history to carry an entire franchise, but the film doesn't bother to wallow in it for long; there's just too much going on in the foreground to spend more than a few savory moments on back story. Loaded with talent, it pulls everything from its cast. Whether it's Gene Hackman as the conniving, two-faced patriarch with a sudden need for intimacy, Anjelica Huston as his long-sacrificing ex-wife, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow as their never-had-a-childhood offspring, or the vast array of eccentric, colorful supporting characters, it's tough not to appreciate each as a leading-caliber performance. The Royals' tale is vivid and real, emotive and wounded but also spirited and playful. It resonates in a modern setting, especially, when so many of our friends' and family members' tightest circles are similarly dysfunctional. Layered and complex without feeling superficial or overstretched, it's a whole bundle of emotions, flavors, sights and senses smashed into a single, rich, evergreen portrait. I feel this one in my heart's private pantry and my stomach's deepest pit. Wonderful.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Too Intent on Building a Franchise, ASM2 Forgot to be a Film
A confused, overstuffed follow-up effort that's strangely empty, given the classic stories inside. *ASM2* plays like a very good, well-intentioned script that was watered down and padded by too many cooks in the producers' kitchen. That leads to a rough, inconsistent tone, which often parades directly from one plucky bit of light banter straight into a dark, brooding, heavy plot development, then back again. Imagine if Adam West's Batman had rounded a corner in the 1960s and stumbled into Jack Nicholson's Joker parade from the first Tim Burton movie.
It's a wasted effort from Andrew Garfield, who's as close as we've had to a perfect rendition of the wisecracking Spidey everyone knows from the comics. His rendition of Peter Parker could still use some work, feeling a bit too "bro" for me, but a strong, essential bond with Emma Stone - his Gwen Stacy - smooths over most of those ruffles. Jamie Foxx is a puzzling choice as his main foil, too, in a limp-wristed role that's more pitiable than fearsome. Still, they march him out to a climactic fight scene, which rings as hollow and meaningless as the rest of his arc. More wasted acting chops.
The film can be a visual treat, especially when we're sailing through the skies on a zipline and Spidey's contorting his body into all manner of inhuman poses, ripped straight from the glossy covers. During the heat of battle, though, heavy doses of strobe, shakycam and jump-cuts can make it downright painful to keep up. I wanted to like this much more than I actually did. In all sorts of ways, it feels so much more authentic and grounded than the four efforts that came before, but it tries to do too much, drastically changing speeds and moods far too often. Let's start over again, I guess.
This Small Package Packs a Lot of Punch
The least godly of all the Marvel heroes, Ant-Man is just a mildly intelligent, crafty guy, down on his luck but pure of heart, who catches the eye of a reclusive genius and becomes heir to his technological throne. It's not intergalactic like Guardians, it boasts no billionaire playboys like Iron Man, no political intrigue or mythological hijinx like Cap or Thor, and while all of those absences do make it feel like less of a heavyweight, they also give it a unique sense of relatable identity. This is the little guy (womp womp), one of the unwashed throngs, who dares to climb Olympus and greet the immortals. I can get behind that. It's also a great showcase of the merry Marvel mojo, casually blending well-timed wisecracks with steep ideas, loud action sets and a heavy dose of worldbuilding. That constant sense of a shared landscape, long a cornerstone of the comic book's universe, has begun to bear ripened fruit recently, and Ant-Man profits from the mere association. Truly, it's his interactions with the characters we already know, no matter how secondary they may be, that makes this seem like more than just another origin story. Paul Rudd does a nice job of pulling off the leading role, not too wacky nor too straight-laced, and his essential chemistry with Michael Douglas (the aforementioned genius) carries the picture a nice, long distance. Great effects work gets us the rest of the way, with a whole armload of inventive, fascinating, smirk-inducingly cool expositionary scenes leading the charge. Think Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with more balls and a much bigger budget. It's not the best of the Marvel lot, but it's among them, and I can't wait to see where the character goes from here.
Inside Out (2015)
Meaningful But Underexplored, it Feels Like Pixar Left a Few Things Unsaid Here
Kudos to Pixar for this one, because they really took a swing with an ambitious, risky, leftfield concept that I honestly didn't think could work when I first laid eyes on the teaser trailer. It does work, and it's often quite clever in touching a broad range of delicate subjects in a way that can be appreciated by audiences young and old alike; no small balancing act. It's uproarious and cute and heady, but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that we were just barely scratching the surface here, even as things began wrapping up. There's plenty brewing under the table, but it still feels superficial, and the big developments in the third act don't totally feel like they've been earned when the credits begin to roll. Granted, it's got a bushel of heavy messages to share, much more than many of its peers in the CG animation field, but when it's a delivery from the studio that brought us Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E, there's a certain unspoken standard to meet. Inside Out represents a rebound for Pixar, certainly the best (and most creative) of their recent efforts, but it's not as sweeping, engulfing, or rewarding as the classic pedestals of their back catalog.
Chappie's Got Loads of Spunk and Stunning Technical Tricks, But Little Else
It's part Robocop and part Short Circuit, as a malfunction-prone police android attains consciousness and sets about learning how to live. Along the way, his lessons grow decidedly human, as he falls in with a small gang of criminals and inherits their speech, style, and sense of political outrage. I'd file it right alongside Neil Blomkamp's first two efforts, District 9 and Elysium, in that it's a technically stunning dose of conceptual wonder, grounded with a strong topical message, that just so happens to fall into the framework of a terribly simple, overplayed basic storyline. It's easy to see the promise in this work, the intense seed of morality that Blomkamp has tried so desperately to inject into a pop sci-fi shell, but for all those lofty aspirations it feels astonishingly mundane. He doesn't squeeze much from his cast - Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are both unusually flat - and the constant stream of Die Antwoord propaganda is a bit befuddling. On one hand, the musical duo has legit street cred that makes the picture come across as more authentic and unusual, but on the other it's a great big reach to spotlight them as serious leading actors. As far as technical showcases go, this is top-notch. It really feels like the mechanical creatures are right there on the set, living, breathing and performing alongside their human counterparts. It looks like nothing else on the market, too, with fascinating art direction (and universally absurd hairstyling) that outright demands attention. A shame there's really so little to it, though, beyond a predictable set of general developments and a hollow, silly grand finale.
An Obvious, Straight-and-Narrow, Kid-Friendly Spin off
As straightforward as spinoffs can get, really. Kids love talking cars, and kids love toy airplanes, so kids will love talking airplanes too, right? And they do, or at least mine do, even if none of this cast has half the sparkle or charisma of a Lightning McQueen or a Tow Mater. Which should speak volumes, since both are pretty much the bottom of the barrel in Pixar's repertoire. As competition-focused racing movies go, it's middle of the pack - energetic and often lovely, but flat as a board and thoroughly predictable. Younger audiences will thrill to the frequent chase scenes, with a good mix of terrain thrown in as appreciable spice, but their chaperones won't find much material hiding beneath the surface. Cars had a timely message about the loss of the great American highway lurking under there, and at least Cars 2 had some buck to its script, but there's really nothing more to this one than a simple played-out underdog sporting saga. And hey, that's perfectly okay. There's plenty of room on the screen for bright, shiny, cookie-cutter kids' fare, and it certainly doesn't offend. It's just no comparison to the Pixar-branded forerunners that paved these lanes. Good enough for a quiet evening, no more, no less, and it gave my three-year-old boys a good dose of imagination fuel.
The Lego Movie (2014)
Light, Breezy Family Fun with a Deep Understanding of What Makes Those Little Bumpy Blocks So Appealing to Us All
Far more fun than the concept really had any right to be, braving new horizons while still remaining loyal to the beating heart of the product and its passionate generations of fans. Simply enough, this is a perfect encapsulation of the kind of imagination, enthusiasm, adaptation and sheer randomness that runs like lifeblood through the spirit of a happy childhood. It jabs in delightfully unexpected directions. It bends physics without an explanation (nor a need for one). It casually hops from one licensed fantasy to another, mashing Green Lantern with Gandalf, and doesn't even slow down to consider the repercussions. At the best of times, I felt like I was a kid again myself, lost in nostalgia and the infinite potential locked away within every new block. And while the last act overreaches in an effort to really hammer the morals home, otherwise this is pretty much a direct hit. Crafty, funny writing, a dazzling array of vocal talent and a playful, distinct visual style - this is the kind of family film I can always make room for.
The Loft (2014)
A Vanilla Wannabe Thriller That Swings Hard and Misses Harder
A group of five middle-aged guys share the only keys to a private, secret condo expressly for their extramarital affairs. One morning, a bloodied dead woman is found in the bedroom and the arguing and finger-pointing begins. This seemingly has all the ingredients for a great small-scale tension cranker, but ambition gets the best of it, it tries to go large, and the whole thing blows to bits on the launchpad. It's terribly acted, for one, which is something of a surprise given the healthy careers enjoyed by its stars. Karl Urban and James Marsden are well-seasoned, even if they aren't exactly leading men, and Eric Stonestreet - while miscast in a very adult role - should at least know how to carry himself on the screen. Instead it's amateur hour, where limp first-takes abound, and the finished product is something I would expect from a bit of Cinemax softcore, not a polished big-budget production. I don't care about, or even remotely like, a single one of the characters, the writing goes around in circles seeking every possible twist, and the ending really doesn't even make any sense. Points for the concept, and for a few scanty bits of eye candy, but otherwise this is a major whiff.