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New Films: Top Five & Exodus: Gods and Kings

top five

Top Five
Written & Directed by Chris Rock

“Top Five” is a good but not great movie. It could have been a better movie if Chris Rock the writer and director had cast somebody other than Chris Rock the actor. Or if perhaps he had cast himself in something other than the lead role which is too demanding and, in turn, unintentionally ironic.

This is a very well written film and the direction is also pretty good, for most of the film – but the weak parts are the parts in which Rock has to direct Rock. As an actor, Rock needs a more accomplished director to pull out a good performance and as a relatively inexperienced director, Rock needs a more accomplished actor who can work with less direction. Or at least that’s how it comes across and it’s consistent with comments others have made about the difficulty of directing oneself. Oddly, this is most notable when Rock is mugging for the camera – he actually does a very good job in the more serious and subdued moments.

“Top Five” tells the story of Andre Allen (Rock), a successful standup comedian and actor most known for three films in which he played a lowest common denominator gun toting bear. He’s also a recovering alcoholic who’s secretly scared that he can’t be funny while sober. The film follows him during a period in which he’s opening a supposedly serious film about a Haitian slave uprising, and generally attempting a transition to more meaningful projects. He’s also about to marry his reality star girlfriend in a televised wedding that seems to have been born more out of much publicized and pragmatic inevitability than actual love.

What’s most interesting in all of this is that despite successfully lampooning the celebrity lifestyle and the trappings of fame and fortune, the story is surprisingly universal in the depiction of insecurity. At his core, he’s a person who has been very successful at one pursuit and who now fears that he no longer has what he once had. He’s not moving on because he truly desires something new – he’s running away from something he thinks he’s lost. It’s the kind of story that will ring true for anybody who fears that they might have peaked already – with or without addiction thrown into the mix.

In writing content like this, it’s hard not to see writer/director Rock in the role that actor Rock is playing. It’s a serious project about the human condition at the same time as being an extremely funny film. And so Rock is making a similar transition to the one being attempted, more poorly, by Andre Allen in the story. Which makes any shortcomings in the process seem a little too close for comfort.

But, still, it really is very funny and Rock is supported excellently by Rosario Dawson as a reporter, with her own history of addiction and insecurity, trailing him around in search of an authentic story. Several of the other performances come in scenes that feel more like comedy skits than pieces of a larger project, including several with familiar faces, and friends of Chris Rock, playing themselves as Andre Allen’s friends.

I’d like to see more of Rock as a writer and as a director. I’d also like to see more of Chris Rock as an actor. I’m just not convinced that I want to see more of him doing all three things at once. Although, if that happens, I’d prefer to see him relatively quiet and subtle. It doesn’t have to match Andre Allen’s attempt at being serious – there’s a lot of “Top Five” that’s genuinely funny without also being broad and borderline slapstick. And that’s when it shines.

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Directed by Ridley Scott

Interestingly, the writing credits for “Exodus: Gods and Kings” don’t appear to include any nod towards the source material – which is obviously quite well known. But then the original author(s) might not initially recognize this adaptation, but for the familiar names.

It’s obviously tough to adapt a religious story that’s respected by multiple faiths without annoying somebody but it’s also hard to determine whom, if anybody, this particular adaptation was supposed to satisfy. It’s not fast and loud enough to satisfy folks who have no interest in the religious content and who just want a sand and sandal action film. And it strays too far from the original texts to feel much like a faithful adaptation for the faithful.

In the Exodus of the Torah and Bible, Moses seems aware of his background as a Hebrew child adopted into the Egyptian royal household – and the first adult act ascribed to him is the intentional killing of a slave master. By comparison, in the film, an upbringing that’s barely a transition between verses in the text suddenly becomes a masterful and seemingly longstanding career as an Egyptian General and tactician – a role he’s so effective at that the Pharaoh favors him over his own biological son. It makes for some grandiose storytelling but it also transforms Moses from, essentially, a proud Jew and a reluctant Egyptian into a proud Egyptian and a reluctant Jew.

The film is also quite indecisive in terms of the way it portrays events seen to be miraculous in a religious context. On the one hand we get quite specific plagues inflicted on the Egyptians by a God figure depicted throughout the film as a small boy. On the other hand we get the parting of the Red Sea depicted more like a well-predicted low tide. And the overall Exodus march seems largely truncated but for this one set piece, in favor of the upfront story of General Moses. And perhaps the stronger tone of these parts, and the less ambiguous character, is what makes Christian Bale seem more secure in the earlier parts of the film.

On top of these problems, this is one of the most blatant examples of racial whitewashing in any recent film. This is the Middle East as populated by white Hollywood actors – including some well known white female faces given almost nothing to do. But perhaps the most jarring example is that of a white actor in very deep brown-face makeup. Even assuming that John Boehner wasn’t available for the role, there had to have been actors of that skin color and ethnicity who could have taken the part without being airbrushed on a daily basis.

That said, the film is well made and produced – it’s just that it’s all a lot of technical expertise and showmanship in support of the wrong story and, in terms of appearance and authenticity, the wrong people. Ironically, it’s a film that makes you want to leave en masse.

New Films: Top Five & Exodus: Gods and Kings via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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