Thursday 7 May 2015

Review: Top Five

Year: 2014 (U.K release 2015)
Director: Chris Rock
Screenplay: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union

Synopsis is here:

A smart online colleague of mine (and actual real critic) recently informed me on how much he disliked Top Five. I’ll be interested to pick his brains on his distaste for the film, as I value his cultured perspective. Despite this I can’t say I’ll agree with him on this. Chris Rock’s filmography may be an uneven one, but here, with Top Five, Rock delivers a spirited and fun feature with a performance to match.

Top Five opens, with plain white fonts on black background while Kayne West and Jay-Z’s Niggas in Paris (both musicians are also executive producers) glosses over the speakers. An odd combination, yet one that quickly displays Rock’s intentions. The titles may not display the iconic Windsor font which appears on nearly every Woody Allen film since Annie Hall (1977), but Top Five credits give the suggestion that Rock is looking to try and follow one of his influences. Once the film opens fully, the allusions to Allen become more apparent.

The city wandering and cultural pondering that inhabits Top Five as its characters travel around New York, typically suggest Woody Allen. Yet it’s hard not to consider the likes of Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) either. It’s Rock’s focus on hip hop music, black comedians and racial politics however, as well as alcoholism, which pushes the typical, white middle class 1st world problem dynamic to a new paradigm. We don’t often see this type of populist cinema deal with people of colour and when they do, they don’t have the backing.

What’s bothersome is that Chris Rock’s film happily shows how hard this has been missed. Rock is no Allen. He’s certainly no Linklater. But Top Five’s warm charm and great conversational chemistry between the unconventionally appealing Rock and the sorely underrated Rosario Dawson is immensely refreshing. Meanwhile the film as a whole, is set around Afro-American/Hispanic culture and never feels like it “loses” the so-called universal appeal that producers fear goes missing in “urban” features. Despite the character's professions and statues, both Rock and Dawson manage to retain the reliability of both Andre and Chelsea respectively.

The film’s weaknesses are apparent. Some of the crasser jokes hold some decent comedic timing, but feels like they’ve been shoehorned into the wrong film. Meanwhile the plot’s various threads start some efficient conflict, yet are too often left unexplored. Gabrielle Union’s celebrity wannabe is flat, but it's clear she could do more with it. More could easily be said about the film commentary about criticism and how it affects artists. Particularly at a time where the internet has pulled the discussion into sharp focus.

Despite these blemishes, Top Five continued to be delightfully entertaining throughout. Rock, whose attention is clearly more on the screenplay and performances, hires Chilean cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro (Melancholia) to capture New York at its most vibrant. Claro bathes the scenery in glossy soft lighting which compliments the energetic qualities of the cast. The film’s knock around screenplay (possibly with large quantities of improvisation) is consistently enjoyable. So much so it cheerfully distracts the fact the clear fact that Rock is once again directing himself flirting with two of the most attractive black actresses’ currently working. Such elements should be smugger than they appear. However, Top Five is far more interested in keeping you smiling. By the way: Pharaoh Monche, Vast Air, Biggie, Jay-Z… and Q-Tip. Subject to change.