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Top Five

Wild • Annie

December 18, 2014

Top Five (** ½) R

 Though it may be not be a total home run, Chris Rock’s latest film project Top Five is, at the very least, an inspired endeavor. That’s more than one can say about most of the great comic’s cinematic output during his three decade film career. Top Five at least offers some depth, a few genuine laughs scattered about here and there and food for thought from time to time. That’s more than such endeavors on Rock’s resume as Down to Earth, I Think I Love My Wife, Pootie Tang and Death at a Funeral. If it isn’t perfect—the phrase ‘wildly uneven’ comes to mind when describing the film—at least it’s a step in the right direction. If this is where Rock’s career is heading as he approaches the age of fifty then I’m curious what’s next on the horizon.

Rock has said in interviews that the film is inspired by Woody Allen’s criminally underrated 1980 film Stardust Memories.

Chris Rock & Rosario Dawson in Top Five

Having that knowledge going into the film, it’s more than a little evident that Rock has loftier ambitions with this picture than we’ve come to expect when seeing something labeled as a Chris Rock Film in years past. Rock is, without a doubt, one of the greatest comics to grace a stage in the last fifty years and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to turn out cinematic product equivalent to what he’s known for doing on stage. With Top Five you at least feel as if he’s trying to do something of merit. The fact that he allegedly wrote it during the shooting of the atrocious Grown Ups 2 clearly says something. Perhaps he just felt guilty that he was accepting a paycheck for something as bad as that aforementioned film and felt compelled to give something back.

Rock wrote, directed and produced the film as well as giving himself the lead role. In the film he’s the recovering alcoholic actor/comic, Andre Allen. Allen is portrayed as an actor and comic of some talent who has prostituted himself out by starring as a character in a series of kid’s film known as Hammy. He’s clearly lost his way after several marriages and a bout of alcoholism, the latter of which he’s still attempting to steer clear. Now, he’s bankrolled a serious film and is hoping to restart his career and be taken seriously once again. The film is for the most part framed around an interview being conducted by a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson). The reporter and Allen walk the streets of New York City discussing varied subjects and even at one point in the film visit Allen’s family, all the while harboring a mutual attraction to each other in spite of Allen’s upcoming nuptials to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union).

It’s also worth mentioning that Top Five is filled with interesting and inspired cameos from many other comics—Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Tracey Morgan, etc. Though the film’s improvisational feel drags it down from time to time it’s still worthy of a look. And that’s more than I ever expected to say about a Chris Rock film.

Wild (*** ½) R

Reese Witherspoon has spent the better part of the last decade and a half languishing in fare way below her sizeable talents. With the notable exception of her Oscar winning performance as June Carter Cash in the 2005 film Walk the Line, there really isn’t much to talk about in terms of Witherspoon’s career choices as too many of them can be filed under ‘instantly forgettable.’

All of that is likely to change with her lead performance in director Jean-Marc Vallee’s adaptation of author Cheryl Strayed’s best selling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Rarely has the actress been so fully invested—and believable—as a character and it’s only one of the many reasons why the film is so incredibly compelling and moving. You feel yourself having the difficult emotional catharsis that Witherspoon’s character has during the course of the film. And when she finally has the emotional break, long in the making, during the film’s final fifteen minutes when she chances upon an angelic little boy and his grandmother on the trail, you feel her pain. It’s certainly one of the most affecting female performances I’ve seen all year and quite a revelation both physically and emotionally.

As previously mentioned, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir serves as the basis for the film’s screenplay, although the actual screenwriting credit goes to the great novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby. Hornby has proven to be quite adept at crafting great onscreen characters in such films as High Fidelity and About a Boy (both are his novels) and Wild should go down on his resume as another great example of the great writer’s talents.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild

The film’s story relates the actual journey that Strayed made after going losing her way on life’s path. Reeling from the death of her mother, Strayed also watched her marriage dissolve following her tendency to fall into bed with men of questionable character. Add to the mix the young woman’s unfortunate descent into drug abuse and you can get an idea why Strayed felt the need to reset her life by hiking the 1000 plus miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in Mexico and eventually winding up in Canada.

The acting in the film is great, but it must also be mentioned that the technical choices in the film are also top notch. Director Vallee, who helmed last year’s awards darling, Dallas Buyers Club, has proven himself even more adept with this film. His choices of music and sound design, coupled with his exemplary editing choices, (working under the pseudonym, John Mac McMurphy and alongside co-editor Martin Pensa), serve to put the film into a whole other realm. For me Wild is one of the most emotionally rich and rewarding film experiences I’ve had all year. I just hope, come awards time, that voters have taken note and remember.

Annie (** ½) PG

Several years ago there was much talk as to where the Oscar nomination of child actress Quvenzhané Wallis might take her, in terms of an acting career. Well, we now have the answer and the answer is Annie. Wallis scored the lead role and does just fine with it I suppose. Trouble is, that after such a stunning performance in a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, for which she was nominated, you can’t help but wish that she would have chosen to lend her talents to something a bit more substantial than a nearly five decade old musical.

The problem doesn’t really reside with Wallis’ performance but rather the lackluster staging by director Will Gluck, here helming a musical for the first time. Gluck, if you recall, was the filmmaker behind the superb comedy Easy A and that’s where his talents reside. I could easily imagine a director more at ease with this sort of thing—think Rob Marshall, director of Chicago—squeezing some energy out of this material but Gluck apparently just isn’t up to the task. The musical sequences just seem to hang there with nothing new to behold except the urbanized, hip hop beats pounding on the sound track in tandem with the auto tuned musical voices of the cast.

And speaking of the film’s songs, most of the iconic tunes from the film remain intact in one form or another but are chopped up and abridged to the point that it detracts, instead of drawing us into the story. There are a few new songs here, most of which are unmemorable, but that should be no surprise since rapper Jay Z is credited as one of the film’s producers and as such is surely eager to sell soundtrack albums.

Rose Byrne & Wallis in Annie

The story remains virtually intact but the filmmakers have instead chosen to set the action in modern day Manhattan as opposed to the 1940s of the original Broadway play and 1982 film. Annie (Wallis), of course, is looking for her parents and living in a foster home under the eye Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) who in this film is portrayed as a failed singer/dancer who had lofty dreams of being a member of C and C Music Factory and Hootie and the Blowfish. I mention that because it’s about as much character development as you’re going to get in this film, but I digress. At any rate, the orphan Annie is taken in by multimillionaire, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx). Stacks is running for mayor and sees the orphan as an opportunity to gain more votes but eventually comes to genuinely care for her. Slate’s assistant, Grace, is portrayed by the versatile Rose Byrne and comes off best of any of the actors in the picture.

The major problem that dogs Annie is that it just seems needless, when all is said and done. There’s no attempt at social commentary in the picture and there’re numerous opportunities where some substance would have served the film well. As it stands it’s an innocuous endeavor that isn’t likely to take the place of earlier incarnations of Annie anytime soon.

Wild is playing in Charlotte, Annie opens this Friday, 12/19 & Top Five has opened.

Questions or comments? Write Adam at filmfan1970@hotmail.com.

 

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