Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb – Film Review

Museum poster

Publicity tells us that Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is the third and final film of the series, but success at the box-office usually dictates otherwise.   That would explain why the seemingly conclusive ending still has something of a crack in the door ready to be opened for a fourth if need be, just in case.

In this third outing, there’s trouble at the museum.   During an important gala reopening at the Hayden Planetarium, those historical figures that come alive once the sun sets run wild in front of the up-scale, socialite guests who think they’re watching a clever animatronic show.   The museum relics were supposed to put on a well rehearsed, dazzling performance to impress the guests, but something odd has happened to the magic Egyptian tablet that brings everyone alive, and it all goes wrong.

The powers within the Tablet of Akmenrah are suddenly disappearing and the only way night security guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) can save the day, and nights, is by taking the tablet across the pond to the British Museum to find out from Pharaoh (Ben Kingsley) what needs to be done.   Accompanying him on the trip to London will be the regulars; Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), Attila (Patrick Gallaher) and the pint sized Owen Wilson as Jedediah with Steve Coogan as Octavious, not to mention the monkey plus a new Neanderthal character called Laa who somehow looks a lot like Stiller.   Of course, why any of these characters need to be with Stiller on the journey to Europe is never really clear, but without them there’d also be no movie.

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Once in England, heralded by a shot of every major tourist sight of London backed by an excerpt of London Calling by The Clash, bringing the golden tablet to the British Museum causes a few new historical characters to come alive, though surprisingly, instead of the rich quality of personalities that could have made things really interesting – I’m thinking Shakespeare, maybe even Churchill – the film instead goes for Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) a fictional character from a fantasy.

Still, by presenting the sword wielding knight as a clueless comical knucklehead with a charming British accent (Lancelot is French) who thinks that the golden tablet is really the Holy Grail to be returned to Camelot, having the non-historical character running rampant makes for some funny dialog and two cleverly inventive sequences.   When Roosevelt introduces himself as the President of the United States, Lancelot smiles, shakes Teddy’s hand and cheerfully declares, “I have no idea what that means.”   Plus, during one chase sequence, Lancelot and Stiller’s Larry jump into an M.C. Escher lithograph of false perspectives and struggle on the steps to infinity, while in a second, even funnier sequence, Lancelot comes across the famous London Palladium where Hugh Jackman and Alice Eve are performing in a revival of Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot.   Lancelot storms the London stage demanding to know who this Huge Ackman is and why is he pretending to be King Arthur on a fake set.

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It’s amazing how common place today’s CGI special effects have become.   The incredible is already taken for granted, thus scenes of unbelievable imagination and perfect execution now appear somehow regular.   Years later, we can still marvel over the incredible puppetry of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad or the earlier version of Clash of the Titans – there was always something magically special about that slightly jerky movement – yet because the realistic effects of today are automatically assumed to be great, that stunning awe factor is gone.   The special effects in Night at the Museum are, just as you would imagine, terrific, yet they never seem overly special (in truth they really are, we just expect them to be this good) plus framing the film with a standard screen ratio instead of a broader widescreen reduces that epic feel to something smaller and less grand.

However, look for good support from some familiar faces including Dick Van Dyke and the late Mickey Rooney, plus Britain’s Ricky Gervais as the museum curator, Australia’s Rebel Wilson in a small though funny role as the British security night guard, and Robin Williams to whom the film, along with Mickey Rooney, is dedicated.

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Running at a brisk ninety minutes, Night 3 feels over before it’s even begun, but even though the idea and theme of historical characters coming alive at night in a museum worked best in the original where the gimmick was fresh, this third and maybe final episode remains a funny and pleasant enough diversion for a family audience during the holiday season.   In fact, the younger you are, the better it will probably seem.

MPAA Rating:  PG   Length:  90 Minutes   Overall rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Annie – Film Review

Annie poster

There’s probably a whole generation or two who have no idea that the song It’s a Hard Knock Life came from a Broadway musical.   In 1999, rapper Jay-Z sampled the song and called it Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).   In order to use the catchy sample with permission, the rapper is said to have told composer Charles Strouse that, as a child, after seeing Annie on Broadway, he was so influenced by the theme that he wrote an essay about it at school and won a writing competition.   He was lying.   But it got him the permission he was looking for.   At the time the rap was the artist’s most successful single to date.

Shawn Jay-Z Carter is now listed as one of the several producers for the new, updated version of Annie released just in time for the Christmas season, though Broadway purists beware: whatever you know about the show is best left at the door.   Comparisons will drive you crazy, particularly in the area of the beloved score.

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In this new re-telling, Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis from the acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild) is Annie Bennett, a child from a Harlem foster home who wants to find her parents.   Billionaire Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx in an update of the Daddy Warbucks character) is running for mayor of New York City.   After rescuing Annie from a speeding truck, an event that a passerby records and uploads for everyone to see, Stacks’ political approval rating suddenly climbs.   In an instant he’s become a child-saving hero and the city loves him for it.   Taking advantage of his sudden rise in the polls, Stacks creates a publicity event by becoming Annie’s temporary guardian with plenty of photo ops.   Annie, full of bright ideas, particularly when it comes to getting out of her foster home on a more permanent basis, tells Stacks, “I bet if I moved in with you, you’ll become President.”   It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work; at least, as far as the mayoral race is concerned.

The change of time, place and character is initially handled well. In an opening classroom setting, a young white girl with red curly hair called Annie gives a show-and-tell presentation to the class.   Upon conclusion the teacher then calls on a second Annie, the one he calls Annie-B, a young black student who proceeds to engage the class with a hand-clapping, desk banging Stomp-like rap heralding FDR’s New Deal, a moment meant to faintly echo the original’s New Deal for Christmas.   The baton is passed and a new Annie is established.

Cameron Diaz is Miss Hannigan who here is a failed pop/rock singer fallen on hard times.   She now makes ends meet by taking in five foster children while collecting the money received from the state.   “I was almost one of Hootie’s Blowfish,” she laments when looking back on where things went wrong.   Director Will Gluck has Diaz deliver most of her lines with the broad strokes of a vaudeville performer.   The character is comically bitter of what life has served and she takes it out on her foster kids.   While the style may seem better suited to a theatrical pantomime performance, there’s actually a spark of the original Miss Hannigan in her exaggerated manner – she’s the spoiled brat who never grew up – plus her moment of redemption that comes later is surprisingly nicely played.

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There is no Rooster and his gangster-moll girlfriend posing as Annie’s long-lost parents.   They’re replaced by a couple of actors auditioned by Miss Hannigan to play pretend.   Gone, too, are all the Christmas scenes at the White House.   Plus, Annie’s signature phrase ‘Leapin’ Lizards’ is now the name of a band on stage at a nightclub who accompany Diaz and crooked campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) on a jazzy version of Easy Street.

Knowing the original and watching the new is like witnessing something odd that exists only in a parallel universe; you know the characters even though they’re different and you know where the story is going even though it’s taking a different route, plus you know the songs, sort of, but if the Jay-Z sampling in his Ghetto Anthem drove you nuts then steer clear.   Updates and changes to familiar characters are okay if they’re working – Jamie Foxx is perfectly fine as Stacks, so too is Rose Byrne’s Grace now played as an English rose, and once you get used to the style, Cameron Diaz’s over-the-top Colleen Hannigan is funny – but playing around with the score may cause heartburn.

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Because of the change of time from the depression era to present day, many of the original songs with their 1933 references are gone.   There’s no N.Y.C and both A New Deal for Christmas and We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover are missing.   What is left are re-arranged as pop/rock numbers that would not sound out of place in a night club, thus standards such as It’s a hard Knock Life and Tomorrow have a driving beat, I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here begins with a pounding drum riff reminiscent of Toni Basil’s ode to Mickey and that great production number sung originally by the foster kids while listening to Annie on the radio, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, is reduced to an over-produced background theme used to accompany Annie while she attends a movie premiere.   It sounds awful.

Frankly, the film is a mess, but the degree to how messy this re-telling will feel depends on how well you know or love the original Broadway show.   Younger family members who have no knowledge of Annie, either the John Houston film or the show, or even the original strip cartoon upon which the whole thing is based, may enjoy the updates, particular if they’re still playing Jay-Z’s sampling, but others may not be so happy.   Updating the Depression era to present day is an okay gimmick – fortunately the original remains intact and will long continue to play after this version fades – but decimating the score to this degree is unforgivable.

MPAA Rating:  PG   Length:  118 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Film Review

Hobbit poster

A friend once dictated his formula for success in a movie and it went like this: a big fight at the beginning, a little talking, then action until it’s over.   He’s going to love The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.   It has a terrific opening, then some talking, then once an hour has passed, it’s all about five armies battling each other until the bitter, violent end for the next hour and twenty minutes.   Plus there’s something about a Hobbit buried in there somewhere.

The release of Five Armies signals the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s bulging-at-the-seams epic telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, a trilogy that was supposed to be two movies until Jackson found a way of making it three.   The criticism that you could read the novel faster than you could watch all three films back to back – with extra padding reinstated for the DVDs – is both true and moot by this point, though it didn’t help that a couple of years ago, Tolkien’s son Christopher talked to French Magazine Le Monde and basically said Jackson had lost sight of what the books were all about.   He concluded by saying with a keen sense of drama, “There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.

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Jackson, of course, has taken little notice.   If the critical attack regarding prominence on the spectacular drowning the literary was intended to make the director rethink his conclusion, then not only has it backfired, but Jackson has actually upped the grandness of his violent vision; watching those armies of dwarves, men, goblins and elves, plus that endless array of repulsive looking battle-scarred creatures with staples in their heads and blades for arms feels like watching a war in real time.   “This is madness,” Gandalf (Ian McKellen) states, and he’s right, though it’s Billy Connolly as Dain, King of Erebor, who has the best comment just at the moment when he thought he might have the upper hand in battle.   “Oh, come on,” he wearily cries as even more characters arrive.

Movie-goers who like their films to be all-inclusive the one time around with a beginning, middle and end will not care for Five Armies.   What has now become the trend with serialized versions of popular novels continues here; there is no attempt to bring anyone up to speed.   If you’re fresh to The Hobbit this is not the place to walk in off the street and start.

From the beginning we’re plunged into chaos as the mighty dragon Smaug proceeds to destroy Lake-town making it a fiery furnace while frying most of its fleeing inhabitants.   The traveling dwarves plus Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins can only watch the horrific scene from afar while muttering “Poor souls.”   It’s a grand set piece.

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Smaug is perhaps the most terrifying of all cinematic dragons, effectively voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with a gleefully deep-throated, devilish menace.   His attack on the village is both realistic and horrific.   When the dragon is finally killed – no plot spoiler; this all happens before the opening credits – his plunge to death is truly spectacular.   This is the kind of sequence that would normally end a film, yet Five Armies hasn’t even begun.   With the conquest of the dragon and the opportunity for the dwarves to reclaim the gold in the mountain now clear you start to wonder, what next?   Isn’t it over?   That’s when the talking begins where new conflicts to overcome are created: everyone wants a piece of the gold, or as Gandalf puts it, “Dragon sickness sweeps into the hearts of men.”

As expected, the battles that proceed are a marvel of modern movie technology.   The widescreen is filled with images that are simply astonishing.   You’ll never be able to take in everything that Jackson places in his frame in one sitting, maybe not even in two, so rich is his eye for detail, but that’s not altogether a good thing when the fighting goes on for so long.   The titular character, Bilbo Baggins, takes a back seat in his own story as the battles and conflicts continue, one after another.

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What initially made the first two films work – even though the events of the second by far exceeded the entertainment value of the bloated first – was the humor and likeability factor of the hobbit.   Casting Martin Freeman was perfect and it was he who grounded everything among the squabbling dwarves, goblins and elves, but this third outing is having none of that.  Part Three is more reminiscent of the spectacle that was Lord of the Rings with little room for humor or anything resembling a grounding factor, plus every character we’ve come to know, and some we might have forgotten, turn up to utter a line or two, whether they’re relevant to the story or not.   Director Jackson literally did not want to leave anything or anyone out.

A problem with continuous fighting is that is ceases to excite.   The opening scenes with the dragon far exceed the nail-biting factor of the final ninety minutes, and what was always a classic novel in children’s literature is now swollen into something children of a certain age perhaps shouldn’t be subjected to seeing.   You can admire the technical skill, but this is a story that could have made one great film that instead became three.   Three times the box-office, sure, and three times the riches, but when it comes to the question of whether the three films have lost sight of what the one book was all about, I’m with Christopher Tolkein.  Perhaps that dragon fever Gandalf talked of swept into the hearts of others beyond just the story.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  144 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Imitation Game – Film Review

Game Poster

The Enigma machine was invented by a German engineer at the end of World War 1.   Even though it was used commercially to encipher and decipher secret messages it was later used by Nazi Germany during World War 2.

The Imitation Game is a tasteful account from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, his first English-language production.   It tells of how Nazi military codes were broken by a team of British cryptanalysts and mathematicians led by computer scientist Alan Turing who thrived on solving puzzles.   The breakthrough was such a huge boost to the war effort that none other than Sir Winston Churchill later declared that the ability to break the Enigma was the principle reason why the allies won the war.

By all accounts, Turing was a complicated man.   His brilliance was unquestionable, but he was also troubled.   “I know things you do not know,” he announces as a voice-over during the opening moments.   “Pay attention.”

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing and he continues to excel.   Here he commands attention every time he takes center stage, which is most of the film.   There’s a matter-of-fact coldness to his character when trying to decipher the niceties of socializing, something of which he has no clue, yet at the same time there’s a touching, almost heartbreaking quality to his manner that opens up when we see him interacting and trying to deal with life outside of his project.   As Turing later explains, language is like deciphering a mathematical formula; people say one thing but mean another and he doesn’t always know what they mean.   He’s like TV’s Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory but without the humor.   With all his brilliance the one thing Turing cannot master is the ability to tell or understand a joke.

“Popular at school were you?” asks Major Menzies of MI6 (Mark Strong) after Turing has two team members fired for what he considers incompetence.   It’s Menzies who initially explains the importance of the operation to the team and the implications of what breaking the Enigma codes would mean to the war effort.   He concludes by pointing out that if any team member leaks a word of this to anyone outside of the room, “…You will be executed for high treason.”

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But Turing does tell someone which explains why he’s telling the story in a voice-over.   He’s not telling the story to us, he’s telling it to Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) after being arrested for an admission of having a homosexual relationship, a criminal offence back then.   The time is 1951 and the film uses the arrest as a bookend to introduce and close the film.   Detective Nock is sympathetic to Turing and tries to find something about the man by investigating his war time files, but there’s nothing there.   The information is classified, so the detective simply asks Turing to tell him what he did during the war.   Turing obliges.   “Pay attention,” he begins.

Had the film stayed within the bounds of showing how a team of brilliant men and one woman (an outstanding turn from Keira Knightly) solved the puzzle, The Imitation Game might have seemed stronger in its narrative than it is.   By framing the film with the scenes from 1951 then jumping back to tell the story in 1939 with further flashbacks to Turing’s days as a schoolboy and his friendship and affection for a fellow student named Christopher – it’s the name Turing gives his invention to crack the codes – the film itself becomes a puzzle.   Considering how fascinating and genuinely gripping the attempts to crack Enigma are on their own, the time jumps and the back and forward story explanations become hurdles to overcome rather than scenes that add a further understanding to Alan Turing.

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The code is broken somewhere around the film’s midway mark.   What suddenly makes the film even more interesting is what follows.   The knowledge of being able to decipher Nazi messages has to remain secret, even from those in both government and the military.   There’s always the chance that someone, somewhere could accidentally reveal that the Allies know what the Germans are doing at any given moment.   Instead, the team now has to calculate the most effective manner of using and passing on this information, often resulting in sacrificing Allied lives in order to save many more.   When the tables are turned and it’s Turing who has to explain to Major Menzies the importance of keeping the discovery a secret throughout the war, Menzies ponders the situation.   “Maintain a conspiracy of lies at the highest level of government,” he says, then adds: “Sounds right up my alley.

Even though the framing and the flashbacks hinder the storytelling and stops a good film from becoming a great one, with its keen sense of English wartime period and good performances not only from Cumberbatch, Knighly and Mark Strong but also from Charles Dance as Commander Denniston, The Imitation Game still remains a strong contender for being among the best of the year.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  114 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Exodus: Gods and Kings – Film Review

Exodus poster

From the outset, when Exodus: Gods and Kings begins, situations and positions of ancient Egyptian power are already established.   Moses (Britain’s Christian Bale) is an adult, stepbrother Rameses (Australia’s Joel Edgerton) already has his eye on taking the throne, and Pharaoh (America’s John Turturro) hasn’t long to go.   The whole business of the baby in the bulrushes and his rescue by the pharaoh’s daughter has long ago occurred, so later when Ben Kingsley as Nun, a Hebrew slave, tells Moses the truth of the man’s real family background, a doubting Moses responds with, “It’s not even that good a story.”

Perhaps the first question you’ll ask once you realize what Exodus: Gods and Kings is really about is, why?   Why retell the epic tale of Moses and then tell it so badly?

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There seems to be an assumption throughout that audiences will already know everything about Moses and the freeing of the Hebrews after 400 years of slavery, thus when God (played by a young boy with a petulant manner and an English grammar school accent, no kidding) is dictating the ten commandments he never shares the rules with us, the film assumes we already know what they are.   How about that for an anti-climax?   When God looks down from Mount Sinai he shakes his head with disapproval as he glimpses the newly freed slaves building something.   If you know the Bible or have seen the Cecil B. DeMille 1956 epic run every year on TV at Easter – and really, who hasn’t? – you’ll know God’s annoyance is because they’re building a Golden Calf to worship instead of God and they’re partying with drunken, wanton gay abandon in a very un-Godlike manner, but those new to Moses will have no idea why the child/God is looking so glum; it assumes we already know what’s going on.   If that’s the case, then the first question remains: why?   It’s like reading a book with chunks of pages missing where your assumed prior knowledge has to fill in the blanks.

Long before the making of the film was completed, there was much controversy surrounding the casting of the project.   Artistically, the criticisms are founded, though commercially, a large-scale expensive epic such as this would never have worked had director Ridley Scott cast his players with geographically appropriate performers.

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Protesters can complain all they like, but an expensive epic and an established story would have little or no audience had unknown actors with the correct cultural sound and appearance been cast.   But the protesters still have a point.   When Moses talks with an English accent, Pharaoh is American and Rameses affects something between the two, there’s already something culturally odd going on in Egypt, but when Ewen Bremner turns up and makes little attempt to hide his Scottish brogue, it truly becomes unintentionally laughable.   True, the 1956 version had similar marquee-value issues of an all-white cast with a mixed-bag of English speaking accents, but the argument of race is voiceless when looking back at the casting climate of Hollywood in the fifties.   In 2014 it’s a different matter.

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Scott has an undeniable eye for breathtaking, well composed visuals delivered with a polished sheen, and Exodus is no exception.   The parting of the Red Sea and its return is quite simply awesome in every sense of the word, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army as men and horses sink in a horrifying, balletic slo-mo grace is astounding, and the deliverance of the plagues, complete with clouds of flying locusts, frogs, facial boils and a blood-soaked River Nile is extraordinary.   Cecil B. DeMille would have salivated at today’s technology.   But despite being the man who gave us The Duellists, Blade Runner and Alien, let’s not forgot this is also the same director responsible for such monumental missteps as 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Black Rain, Hannibal, White Squall, G.I. Jane, and worst of all, the monumentally awful though visually striking Legend where Tom Cruise was cast as some fantasy boy-like wood nymph.

Exodus: Gods and Kings may be the best example of a Ridley Scott feature to date.   The famed director has an eye for how things should look, but casting and story-telling, as illustrated here, were never his strongest points.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  142 Minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Top Five – Film Review

Top poster

“If this movie flops,” states animated talent agent Kevin Hart down the phone to his superstar client Andre Allen (Chris Rock), “We could be talking Dancing with the Stars.”

Top Five is the new comedy from comedian Chris Rock.   He wrote it, directed it and stars in it, and while Dancing with the Stars may not realistically be on the cards for Rock – at least, not yet – like his big screen counterpart, there’s a lot riding on his film.   But unlike Rock’s previous two outings as writer/director/star, this time around he’s on much familiar ground and has written about something of which he knows a lot.

Andre Allen is a hugely successful comedian.   A one time stand-up, Allen now makes movies.   He’s already made three, all with the same title but followed by different numbers: Hammy the Bear 1, 2 and 3.   Now he’s going serious with a big screen epic called Uprize! revolving around the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and no one’s interested.   “If you look at my comedy,” Allen says during a live radio interview, “It was always serious.”   The problem is, Allen is about to marry and the on-coming wedding is making more news than his film, and with good reason.

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Allen is about to marry reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) and the whole thing is being filmed as a TV reality show.   “Everybody wanted to Wife me,” Erica tells Allen while creating a whole new verb in the process,  “But I chose you.”   When Allen kisses his fiancée he wants to do it in private, but Erica, like everything else she does, wants it to be seen.   “If it’s not on camera, it doesn’t exist,” she tells him.   The issue with the attractive Erica Long is that she has no other marketable talent other than simply being the attractive Erica Long.   “I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t act and I don’t tell jokes,” she says in a moment of desperation, adding that this reality show… “Is all I’ve got.”   Sound familiar?

Then, on the release of his new film, Allen is forced to do a series of press junkets and radio interviews while shadowed throughout the long day by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who, it’s later revealed, happens to have a secret of her own.

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Considering his career trajectory, Rock’s Top Five contains some shrewdly observed moments of showbiz honesty.   The fact that the character opens his life and invites a reporter to share some of the most intimate moments of his day in a way no star as big as Allen would ever do is the kind of poetic license that’s easy to overcome – there’d be no film, or at least, a different kind of film if the journalist couldn’t share several of those private family moments with her subject – but where the film rises with its occasional biting satire it crashes with its more obvious crass humor and never ending flow of crude, rock bottom dialog where vulgarity is the punch line.

The film works best when the scenes appear to spring from a Woody Allen influenced setting.   When Rock and Dawson challenge each other with snappy dialog full of observational, true-to-life wit as they walk the streets of Manhattan or appeal for honesty in conversation from each other while riding in the back of limos or taxis, it all makes for both strong writing and acting from its performers.   Rock’s character complaining that fans keep asking why he’s not as funny as he used to be while he’s trying to make a landmark, serious production like Uprize! only serves to solidify the Woody Allen comparison.   After all, Rock the writer has even named his character Andre Allen.

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But Rock also knows his movie-going audience and he includes several flat-out tactless moments of extreme low-brow that, admittedly, had the majority attending the screening in fits, as did almost every other colorful expletive spoken, whether it was used for humor or not.   Considering how well observed and nicely balanced Rock’s presentation of the seriousness of alcoholism is successfully presented on a comedic platform, along with other nicely observed moments of fame, reality TV, fandom, and the entertainment industry in general, artistically the outrageous tastelessness feels shoe-horned in from another, different kind of comedy and it drowns out the satire.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  101 Minutes    Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film