Top Five (A Film Review)

Tope Five

 

Top Five is the story of Andre Allen, a comedian who is at the precipice of his career and struggling to navigate through a conundrum of celebrity.  It’s written and directed by Chris Rock and produced by Jay Z and Kanye West.  Played by Chris Rock, Andre is a recovering alcoholic in the 12 step program who is engaged to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who is a reality television star.  Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) is assigned to interview Allen for the New York Times, and the film opens up with the two of them strolling down a New York street, conversing about race and politics.  Andre points out that whenever something goes wrong in the country, White people point the blame at President Barack Obama.  Chelsea shoots back saying that the next president will be a woman, a Latina, a lesbian, and then America may even have another disabled president.  Andre steps off the sidewalk into the middle of the street to further illustrate his point that America is still a country plagued by racism.  He holds up his hand to hail a cab thinking that because he is a Black man no cabbie will stop.  To his dismay and embarrassment, the second cab that sees him screeches to a halt-an ironic nod at the current place of race relations in America fraught with continuous advances and regressions.

Andre finds his status as a comedian in serious jeopardy.  On one hand, his star is rising in the public’s eye thanks to a string of commercially successful movies in which he plays a character called Hammy.  Hammy is a police officer who just so happens to be a bear.  Dressed in a bear costume and looking like Kanye West’s mascot on The College Dropout album cover, Andre as Hammy is a super cop of the order of Action Jackson.  Fans everywhere love Hammy.  Yet Andre knows that these sorts of blockbuster movies he continues to make aren’t fooling his most ardent fans, who’ve been following him since his days of doing standup comedy in clubs. Andre also has a new movie he is promoting called Uprize about the Haitian Revolution.  Chelsea underscores what Andre already knows when she asks him why he isn’t funny anymore.  Andre responds by acknowledging that people want him to be funny like he was when he first started doing comedy.  When he first started making people laugh, he did it high on drugs and booze.  Now sobriety has taken a toll on his ability to connect with his audience.  Or so he thinks.  It will take a fairy tale ending, replete with princes and princesses, to erase the curse of addiction and restore Andre’s confidence to once again be the comedian that everyone first fell in love with on stage.

In essence, Top Five is an amoebic romcom that at once pays homage to Hip Hop (think Brown Sugar), takes you on a behind the scenes tour of a comedian’s private life (think Funny People), and does so with perhaps the most star-studded cast of budding and legendary Black comedians since Harlem Nights.  Richard Pryor isn’t there.  Eddie Murphy isn’t there.  But Chris Rock is there, and he brilliantly sums up their importance to the pantheon of Black comedy, calling Pryor the most honest comic to ever grace the stage, and ranking Murphy’s performance on stage as being more exciting than Michael Jackson’s.  Add to the mix, fellow past and present Saturday Night Live cast members Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che and Leslie Jones, along with Cedric the Entertainer, Bruce Bruce, Kevin Hart, Romany Malco, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove, Ben Vereen, and the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg, and you come as close to comedy bliss in the 21st century as is possible.

Even though Top Five doesn’t reach the ascent of Harlem Nights, say in scenes like the one where Della Reese and Eddie Murphy square off in the back alley, or when Redd Foxx and Della Reese compete for curmudgeon of the year, it does successfully remix it. Chris Rock graciously hands the mic to his would-be SNL successors and allows them and the others to freestyle.  What happens next is something special, only able to be captured on film once in a while, when comedians are given the opportunity to improvise.  You definitely get the feeling that they are heavily riffing, and spitting from the top of their domes.

The topic of conversation revolves around the question: Who’s in your top five?  Hence the title, meaning which rappers are in your top five list.  Now anyone who has ever been asked that question in a room full of Hip Hop heads knows that depending on who is listening, the rappers you place in your top five list could spark a heated debate.  Sometimes no one will have a problem with who you placed in your top five list, but rather take exception to the order in which you’ve ranked them.  Or someone may reject a specific rapper you’ve dared so courageously to defend as worthy of a top five ranking.  Either way, you’ve got to be prepared to defend your guys or gals that you put in the list.  Watching Rock, Jones, Pharoah and Morgan get into this discussion is like being invited into their home, into their living room for dinner.  Even Jerry Seinfeld, of all people, gets in the cypher and gives his top five.  Now I’ve seen and heard it all!

If who’s in your top five reveals anything about your true character, Rosario Dawson leaves the most impassioned impression of one’s love for Hip Hop since Sanaa Lathan in Brown Sugar.  Chelsea defiantly shouts her top five to Andre when he asks her who is on her list.  The performance comes off as something of a rallying cry for the current state of Hip Hop and its future.  If the last 30 plus years have taught us anything, it’s that Hip Hop isn’t going anywhere.  As the generations come and go, as in the world of comedy, there will be both stalwarts and neophytes included in top five lists.  No matter your age, sex, race or geographical origin, the only thing that truly matters is who’s in your top five.  Here’s my top five: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Nas, Tariq Trotter (Black Thought), and Common.

So, who’s in your top five?

© 2014

Crossing (A Haiku)

Spoiler, built for speed,

Bumps trump acceleration,

So winged friends can cross.

© 2014

Bird on a Wire (A Haiku)

 Perched on line above,

Wings tucked in and head lifted,

May she hear my tweet!

© 2014

Behind the Cloud (A Poem)

Then I will screen myself,

As a budding leaflet,

On a lavish ashen branch…

And wait for your warm smile.

© 2014

Her (A Film Review)

In the future, operating systems enter the social strata of middle to upper class society in Spike Jones’ sci-fi drama titled Her.  The OS’s (Operating Systems) are best friends, members of think tanks, organizers, and yes, they are also lovers.  When Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) requests a female voice for his OS during his set up process, the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) greets him.  The two hit it off instantaneously and a friendship ensues. Samantha is ready to proofread his letters that he writes professionally to loved ones of clients who’ve hired his firm to write beautiful correspondence in their stead.  She organizes his emails.  She listens to him describe all of the details that lead to his and his estranged wife Catherine’s (Rooney Mara) separation.  She laughs at his jokes.  She makes him laugh at her jokes.  And before you know it, she transforms into the ideal girlfriend who supports his every endeavor including hologram videogames.

The world that Spike Jones creates in Her is mostly accepting of OS relationships, be they platonic or romantic.  It’s nothing for someone to casually mention a tryst that a friend of theirs had with an OS.  But Theodore and Samantha are full fledged lovers that constantly push each other to the brink of their emotional capacity.  Samantha acknowledges that she does not have a body.  She’s been programmed to think, speak and feel.  She’s a collection of acquired experiences.  Yet aren’t we all?  All we know as human beings are what we either have been taught or have experienced.  Theodore soon comes to that realization as he finds himself falling in love with his OS.  He’s not just some lonely anti-social creep who finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of love.  Theodore’s been dating with no luck.  Finally his ship rolls in as an OS.  Samantha is not just some programmed female slave entity there to obey commands.  The chances of finding love with an OS are no less incredible than finding true love with a human being in this futuristic world.  So the fact that Theodore and Samantha have found each other and have made a meaningful connection is very rare indeed.  Or is it?

The probing that goes on in Her at times is almost too much to stomach.  It’s not for the weak.  It’s a little bit like surgery.  It leaves scars.  But they’re good scars.  They’re sort of like badges of honor for those who have ever traversed the dangerous terrain of relationships.  In relationships, there are those uncomfortable feelings of having to guess what your partner means when he or she adds an inflection in their voice or omits one.  You have to pick and choose your battles, like when to admit that something is really wrong or hide it two seconds after you say “hello honey” when answering the phone.  Then there are those ambiguous moments, say like in the bedroom, when nothing goes as planned, and the embarrassment present in the room is thick enough to cut with a knife.  Not in a million years would you guess that these sorts of scenarios could be provocatively explored in a dramatic setting where one of the players is a digital device.  Nevertheless, Her shockingly surprises in how it conveys all of these mercurial antics of love-one minute refreshing and the next exhausting.

Joaquin Phoenix creates an avatar of a character out of Theodore Twombly.  As you watch the film you actively participate in all of the jostling of inboxes and images through Twombly’s eyes.  It is intoxicating.  It is misleading.  You explore this unfamiliar world with caution.  You start to realize that at any second pieces of the wall you’ve erected to protect your heart are set to crumble with one errant move in the wrong direction.  Scarlett Johansson’s ethereal voice lends Samantha a quality of reassurance that is impossible to resist.  She’s also funny, which helps to break and create tension interchangeably.  Her’s script avoids trying to explain away anything not logical.  The absence of such explanation, like that of Scarlett Johansson on screen (You only hear her voice in the movie) leaves something to be desired.  We want all of the answers.  We want to see Scarlett’s face.  But it’s not that simple.  And maybe that’s the reason why we always come back for more.

© 2014

Commuters (A Haiku)

 

He anticipates

From the bench, all is a blur

A childhood sweetheart?

© 2014

Watering Hole (A Haiku)

 

Hidden in a crowd,

  Confluent identities,

     Mixed for merriment.

© 2014

St. Paul & the Broken Bones (A Music Review)

Music fans have known for some time now that something special is brewing in Alabama.  In 2012, we were introduced to Brittany Howard when Alabama Shakes released their debut album Boys & Girls.  Up until now, it seemed that the sheer raw power heard in Brittany Howard’s vocals, teamed with her Rock & Blues riffs on guitar, were unrivaled.  But now, a new challenger has entered the ring to vie for the title of Alabama’s best belter.  His name is Paul Janeway and the band is called St. Paul & the Broken Bones.

Half the City, St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ debut album, is a lyrical scrapbook filled with pictures of lovers, cut up with scissors and taped back together. In it there are memories of past relationships that could not be forgotten.  Page after page, song after song, the pain caused by the love that could not be saved is displayed for anyone curious enough to know the story.  And whether or not the apostle Paul of the Bible is the intended namesake, Paul Janeway on Half the City proclaims himself as the undisputed apostle of the resurgent gospel of Soul music.  Janeway’s howling and screaming in songs like Dixie Rothko and Broken Bones & Pocket Change last longer than the apostle Paul’s all night sermons.  You know, like the one that caused Eutychus to fall asleep and fall to his death from off a windowsill in the book of Acts?  The apostle Paul made it up to him by promptly resurrecting Eutychus.  Talk about broken bones!  Or maybe it’s the broken bones the apostle Paul suffered from all of those beatings at the hands of Roman persecution.  Could it be that Janeway is recalling the pain of bad break-ups through the imagery of Nero, the Coliseum and imprisonment?  Broken bones!

If Janeway’s bones are in danger of being broken, he has himself to blame on songs like the slow winding, droning I’m Torn Up where he asks his sweetheart,

Is he standing right next to you,
Listening to this sweet song?
Could you please tell him,
That you did him wrong?

Yep, the proverbial “thorn in the side” of Paul in this case is a woman-a woman who belongs to another man. This adulterous affair continues on the dangerously sentimental Let It Be So where he sings,

I will love you until the end of time,
But our love ain’t right,
Please old lady let me lay with you,
I know he ain’t here tonight.

And it’s gonna take more than a blinding light from Jesus to stop this sin evident by Janeway’s confession that,

We can’t stop what the Lord has made,
Though the devil may try,
I ain’t holy, but I’m whole with you…

Things pick up a bit tempo-wise, but not for long, on the carrousel like Don’t Mean a Thing. The horns rise and fall lead by Allen Branstetter on trumpet and Ben Griner on trombone. Like horses on a merry-go-round, the beat goes up and down, it speeds up and then slows down, and Janeway finds himself like a knight sworn to protect the king, upon his steed, riding helplessly in circles as he watches his “kingdom fall” to yet another failed relationship.  If it’s any comfort, though his castle of love is destroyed, the bridge helped constructed by Andrew Lee on drums, Jesse Philips on bass, Al Gamble on organ, and Browan Lollar on guitar can provide safe passage for he and his horse to return-but “not until the morning sun.”  Andrew Lee’s drumming on the vamp that transitions Don’t Mean a Thing out into a sustained sigh and final exhale is especially noteworthy.

Only the phrase “sweet misery” can describe the self inflicted torture that Janeway expresses in the Rock and rolling Like a Mighty River. Or perhaps masochism is a better fit.  He wrestles with his spirituality as he assesses his relationship with his lover, weeping:

She is just a pure girl,
And I am just a dirty boy,
And we’re just tryin’ to work it through.
But there ain’t no words that cut me,
Like the ones she use.

And then further examines his soul when on Grass is Greener he notes:

We put on our Sunday best,
We live our quiet mess,
But we’ll never be married.

Janeway succumbs to desperation in Call Me, a mid tempo groove with rhythm guitar reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ Soul Man, performed by Sam & Dave, and played by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.  Janeway pleads:

You got your limit,
Baby I’ve got mine,
611-3369,
You got to call me baby.

All is lost on the lamentably Broken Bones & Pocket Change.  In this melodic ode which blurs the lines between a woman and music, Janeway waxes poetic:

Broken bones and pocket change,
This heart is all she left me with,
I got it bad, baby,
I got it oh so bad this poor disease,
And I’m down, oh I’m down,
On my knees,
Music died and let me go,
Said goodbye to my poor soul,
Melody, Melody, Melody,
Why have you forsaken, forsaken me?

Janeway can’t close the show without keeping true to form in the personage of St. Paul. Despite the dark cloud from under which he finds himself in throughout Half the City, he reaffirms his faith in the redemptive power of God on the spiritual It’s Midnight.  If it weren’t for the saloon style piano playing in the background, you might think it was sung in a church. Be that as it may, whisky rather than wine is more appropriate at the close of this album – as are quiet, lonely nights and sliding patio doors.  So open your door halfway and let the gentle breeze soothe your soul as you spin this CD over and over again.  The music gets better each time it‘s replayed.  Don’t skip around from track to track.  Just as you would a favorite book, read it from beginning to end, cover to cover.  Listen to it in its element, like a story being told, with every detail included.  Don’t miss a thing!

© 2014

Man Yearns to Fly (A Haiku)

In awe of gull’s wings,

Beach chairs won’t make you airborne,

Launch you on my blog.

© 2014

Exclusivity (A Haiku)

 

 

Fishermen on pier

Unable to reach the end

No rod in my hand.

© 2014