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Out in Theaters: ‘THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’

A visual sugar rush, The Lego Batman is Bayhem for 5-year olds. A skittle-colored collision of kid-friendly set pieces and jokes that never manage to be as clever or irreverent as its predecessor, even when peppered with good-natured and adult-oriented laughs throughout, this overactive spinoff hosts a collection of pop culture friendly winks and nods with references spanning the last 60 years of cinema but the overabundance of side characters and endless maze of action sequences leaves the animated film feeling dizzying, muddled, overwrought and headache-inducing. Read More

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Out in Theaters: TOP FIVE

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Of Top Five, comedian all-star Chris Rock notes that he wanted to make a movie that felt like his stand up routine. Rather than divvy up the goods – this joke for the movies, this one for a live show – as he had done in the past, Rock melts all the goods down, like an aging alchemist performing a do-or-die swan song. He stirs a fair share of heavy drama amongst the renown comedic fare, throwing flashbacks to hitting rock bottom amongst games of jump rope, providing narration to stories that end in semen-stained bedsheets and rectal tampons while illustrating a battle with a wicked case of the alchies.

Back in 2003, Rock released his directorial debut Head of State – in which an inner-city politician (Rock) becomes president, pre-Obama era – to middling reviews. The bombastic, leather-jacketed motherf*cker from the stage had turned his style on its head, offering watery gags over ripe satire in a politically doltish comedy that stank of his Grown Ups‘ compatriots fare. 2007 wasn’t much kinder to his directorial work as I Think I Love My Wife was met with even less enthusiasm. It seemed the world had given up on Chris Rock the actor.

Since then, Rock has been seen lending his visage to the vacation-bait Grown Ups “franchise”, borrowing out his voice for Marty the Lion in the popular-with-kids Madagascar series and offering an unexpectedly potent dramatic turn in Julie Delpy‘s adroit 2 Days in New York. His return to the director’s chair could not have seemed less warranted and yet could not have been more inspired. With Top Five, he’s finally hit his groove.

Debuting at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Rock’s latest inspired a bidding war for the distributions right for his film, raising eyebrows across the nation as to just what Rock the director, the writer and the actor had in store.

The anticipation was warranted as Top Five arrives a bombastically hilarious, meaningfully introspective assault on the funny bone. Rock plays a shade of himself; a quasi-washed-up comedic actor famed as the title role in the critically flattened Hammy the Bear buddy cop films. Alfie Allen (Rock) has more recently turned his eye to dramatic roles, starring in a serious – and seriously awful – Haitian revolutionary film he keeps referring to as “the Haitian Django.” With a televised Bravo wedding on the uptick and a make-or-break interview with a noted NYT reporter, played by a half-shaved Rosario Dawson, Allen’s losing it.

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Featuring a Who’s-Who of comedy cameos (Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Whoopie Goldberg, Adam Sandler, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer), Rock’s struggle is one of finding his voice. In the comedy cellars where he earned his bread and butter and became a fast rising star, he feels lost. As parallel, Rock hasn’t done a comedy special in half a decade. We’re well beyond the shouting, Chris is bearing his soul.

For a three-time Emmy winner who’s performed more sold out shows than The Beatles, Rock bears emotional welts – the scars of easy money; the busted ego of a sell-out. Here, he’s repenting for his comedic sins. Here, he proves he’s worth sticking around with.

As news of the Sony inner circle and their utter distain for Adam Sandler films makes the unfortunate internet rounds, there couldn’t be a better time for Chris Rock to split off and reassert himself as the proud, angry, shrewd, tender comedian that he can be. Top Five is a must – for Rock’s career and comedy fans both.

B

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Out in Theaters: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR

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An argument could be made that Sin City: A Dame to Kill For isn’t really a movie. There’s no real story to speak of, and what does try to pass as a story is a shambled mess of ultra-violent non-sequiturs; a collage of half-thought through ideas that never add up or mean anything in the context of one another. A movie flows through a collective of ideas adding onto one another to create a cohesive narrative. This is like someone cut up a bunch of comic books and glued their favorite parts together. And that someone is 12 and loves blood and boobies.

Nine years ago, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller were truly onto something with Sin City. Their electrifying visual palette – stark blacks-and-whites accented by flourishes of blood red and bastard yellow – wasn’t just a new ballgame. It was a whole damn other stadium. But for all the success and acclaim their co-directorial debut received, the aesthetic trend never caught on.

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Be that because Miller nosedived that visual flair into the ground with the widely panned The Spirit or because it felt like an aesthetic signature that only worked for something so rooted in the comic world and violence is unclear. What is however abundantly clear is that in the nearly 10 years since the original’s release, the largely black-and-white, entirely CG graphics have stagnated and soured. Their visuals do look straight from the pages of a hardcover graphic novel but they also lack any consequence and any gravity. Each blow is goofily powerless. Each sword strike looks like it missed. The over-seasoned and thoroughly mannered dialogue do little to convince us otherwise. But they sure do try.

This wouldn’t be such a monumental problem if the whole movie wasn’t a symphony of slamming cars, chopping off heads and getting thrown through pane glass windows. And boobies. For all intents and purposes, Miller’s sparsely imaginative storylines boil down to poor plot devices that get someone’s face from point A to point Through a Glass Window. That is intention numbers one through five. Six through ten consist of getting a dame from point A to point Naked. Seriously, if you can prove to me that this movie wasn’t one long con to reunite Jessica Alba with a stripper pole, I’ll pay your ticket price.

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The craziest part is, for all the excessive nudity smeared throughout the flick, none comes from Alba’s Nancy, a stripper who spends the majority of her screen time onstage slapping flesh on hardwood and slithering around on all fours. You see, the boob award goes to Eva Green and her magnificent tata’s. That sex-kitten/minx manages to expose her simply awesome breasts for 90% of the time she occupies the space. When she’s not flipping nude into a pool, rubbing and tubbing up her silky smooth breastoids or macking out with anything with a pair of lips, she’s slipping off her garnets like they’re made of live rattlesnakes. Seriously. Chick lives in the buff. Why she doesn’t work at the strip club is beyond me.

At said Strip Club – Sin City‘s equivalent of Friend‘s Central Perk – one can stumble upon rapscallions of all shapes and sizes. Here, Alba gyrates like a made-up mechanical bull as box-faced Marv (Mickey Rourke) and other scalawags drown their sorrows in booze, taking in fully-clothed Coyote Ugly shows. I swear, Kadie’s Strip Club is the only place in the movie you won’t find a naked lass’ ass.

Here at Kadie’s, the movie reveals itself for the big show of sexy, stylized, senseless smut that it is. Here, plot lines are born and die without a smidgeon of fanfare. Here, characters rub elbows like they live in a small town of 2,000 residents. Here, lives the deus ex machina that is Marv, an individual whose sole purpose is to help characters murder other characters. He’s more MacGuffin than person, more meat than man. He’s only there to get peps out of a fix but has no storyline of his own. I guess someone out there needed to cut Mickey Rourke a paycheck.

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Characters slither in and out of Kadie’s to grab their few minutes in the sun and bump uglies with the charter of vixens sprawling indoors. Joseph Gordon Levvett is compelling as a smooth-talking gambler but his plot line goes absolutely nowhere real fast. Alba, reeling from the loss of loved one Hartigan (Bruce Willis), eventually goes through a wardrobe change supposed to signal character progression but none is emotionally present. She goes from whoring herself with dangerous men to hurling herself at dangerous men and then all of a sudden the screen goes black. Nothing really happens. Just lots of murder and titties.

In the most movie-like portion of the film, Josh Brolin steps in for Clive Owen and captures the only almost-fully formed story of the bunch. However, his saga is littered with major congruency issues and logic problems of its own, the least of which is why he seems to believe that suiting up with a bad wig will make him look like an entirely new person. You scratch your head that someone actually wrote this stuff down.

For my barrage of complaints, it wouldn’t be fair to say that I hated Sin City: A Dame to Kill For because I quite honestly didn’t. I enjoy the ultra-violent, ultra-silly take on film noir. I chuckle at the trumped-up performances, meretricious violence and graphic sexuality on neon-flashing display. I gobble up the stubborn dedication to bring a comic book to life. But to claim that it’s not a bad, unnecessary, boorish slouch of a film would be a bold-faced lie. There’s little here that makes sense and nothing that will add to your understanding of Frank Miller‘s should-be compelling world of sin. Like 300: Rise of an Empire before it, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is just another chance for Frank Miller to show off how poor he is at extending franchises.

C-

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SXSW Review: CESAR CHAVEZ

“Cesar Chavez” 
Directed by Diego Luna
Starring Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich, America Herrera, Kevin Dunn, Mark Moses, Michael Cudlitz
Biography
PG-13

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For a biopic about a man with steely resolve and an unflinching soul, Cesar Chavez lacks the laser focus and steadfast heartbeat of an exemplar, or even a worthy apprentice. It’s a soft-skinned take on a boulder of a man, a notebook sketch of a behemoth. Not fearless enough to nose the camera in the dramatic mire, like a soldier to the cause in a personal guerrilla war, Diego Luna‘s film beckons a paint-by-numbers summary of the man’s greatest achievements, the spark notes of a six-plus year period that glosses all with thin coats, rarely taking the opportunity to remain in the moment and settle in with the hard-won emotional beats of the characters.  

Chavez himself earned popularity and legitimacy in the thick of the issues, making those things he stood for inseparable from his own problems. The issues of his brothers were not theoretical troubles but matters to immerse himself in. Rather than stand idle in the soft florescence of an office, Chavez took to backbreaking labor working the fields in the blinding California sun. But instead of going out to the battlefield and working shoulder-to-shoulder like the eponymous character, Luna’s film takes the straight and narrow, delivering a softball pitch right over the plate. Like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom before it, Cesar Chavez tries to take on too much without ever going deep enough in any particular plot of emotional soil. Trying to sow too many acres with too small a hoe, Luna’s spreads his seed thin. Accordingly, his efforts rarely solidify into the powerhouse moments they ought.

Playing it close to his chest and obviously passionate about the subject, Luna’s intentions are in the right place, he just so happens to make a dire mistake. He memorializes rather than understands. Chavez is a gentle obituary, not the scathing meditation that makes for good film. As this fact solidifies, Luna’s attempts to piece everything together feels like the King’s Men playing at Dumpty Humpty. Chavez, in truth, is a series of vignettes, cut with the themes of self-sacrifice and family but these elements are left dealt with in afterthought, never something tight and essential to the piece.

When I heard that Michael Pena – a massively talented and massively underrated actor – would finally get a certifiable leading role, I was frankly delighted and my interest in this project spiked. But taking up the mantle of Chavez, it feels that Pena got too wrapped up in mimicry. Luna’s camera doesn’t help though, it’s too flighty for any of Pena’s dramatic gravitas to settle in. Bogged down in photocopying, impersonating Chavez’s choppy cadence, his signature blend of TexMex intonation and penguin-like gait, there isn’t room for honest emotional reflection. Even a dressed down Rosario Dawson, playing up the chameleonesque nature of her illusive roots, is robbed of a single moment worth remembering. Such is the nature of the performances here; they’re squashed, condensed and never given room to breathe. For all the opportunity Chavez ought to afford Pena to stand out in a harrowing and brilliant performance, he never really has much of a chance to shine. He’s a flashlight in midday, washed out by everything else, unnoticeable from twenty feet away. But Pena can’t truly be blamed for the pockets of problems Chavez runs into. The issues are inherent in a script this deferential.

Too often are biopics achieved as glossaries, skimping over events like a sleep-deprived college student licking their thumbs and skimming as hard as they can. The best film biographies though don’t worry about the events so much as the emotions behind them. They need characters, and if sometimes that means bending the rules, so be it. The reason The Social Network was so compelling was not because Jesse Eisenberg was a pitch perfect Xerox of Mark Zuckerberg but because we had a crystal clear notion of who he was, whether that was necessarily Zuckerberg or not. Watching Idris Elba do Mandela or Pena do Chavez means nothing if we never reach a greater sense of what makes these men tick. We know the history, now deliver the feelings.

C-

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