Reviews

'Top Five' Is the First Film to Fully Showcase Chris Rock’s Genius

Top Five is one of the most original and satisfying comedies in years.


Top Five

Director: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Cedric The Entertainer, JB Smoove, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Anders Holm, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones
Distributor: Paramount
Studio: IAC Films, Scott Rudin Productions
US Release Date: 2015-03-17

Ever since Bring the Pain, Chris Rock’s iconic HBO special from 1996, the comedian has rightfully been regarded as one of the most talented stand-up acts of all time. Biting and irreverent, Rock is arguably the only one who can make sex jokes sound intellectual. “Men cannot go backwards sexually, women cannot go backwards in lifestyle,” Rock quips, and we laugh because we know that there's an element of truth there. It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, to find that Top Five (2014) is the first film that fully showcases Rock’s genius.

This isn’t to say that all of Rock’s previous films have been terrible. His performances in Nurse Betty (2000) and 2 Days in New York (2012) are excellent, and I Think I Love My Wife (2007), his directorial interpretation of Éric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), is better than its critical reputation suggests. However, none of these films could have prepared us for Top Five, Rock’s magnum opus, the closest he’ll ever get to his idol, the iconic New York filmmaker Woody Allen.

Rock has expressed his admiration for Allen in numerous interviews, and we can see Allen’s influence throughout the film. Top Five is set in New York, and like Allen’s films it is a romantic comedy about neurotic intellectuals. What stops the film from becoming a rip-off, however, is Rock’s pop culture sensibility. If Marshall McLuhan’s cameo in Annie Hall (1977) appeals to Allen’s elite demographic, then the appearance of rapper DMX in Top Five is hilarious to those with working-class roots. For all of the similarities, it’s fair to say that Allen would never open his film with Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas in Paris”, a boastful rap song about, well, being in Paris.

Rock stars as Andre Allen (the name is likely a nod to Woody), a successful stand-up comedian who "sold out" in pursuing his film career and wants to be taken seriously as an actor. He is engaged to reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), and spends most of his time promoting his film Uprize!, an inspiring drama about a Haitian slave uprising. Rock is aware of the absurdity, and it’s a testament to his talent that many viewers will likely want to see a finished version of Uprize! in the future.

The film is set in a single day, and most of it focuses on the relationship between Andre and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter assigned to interview Andre. Their relationship is the center of the film, and it is a pleasure to watch Rock and Dawson bring these characters to life.

Like Birdman (2014), Top Five is about fame, ego, and obsession. In one of the film’s standout scenes, Andre visits his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and he is reminded of his roots. The feelings of warmth and familiarity have not subsided, and there’s a sense of community that Andre cannot replace in Hollywood. The ease with which Andre interacts with his old friends and family, played wonderfully by Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che, and Sherri Shepherd, contrasts the strained relationship he has with his self-obsessed fiancé. Rather than pity those he left behind, Rock fondly recalls his old neighborhood, and it’s one of the most loving tributes to African-American culture in recent memory.

Although Top Five is a comedy, there are unflinching moments of brutal honesty, such as when Andre and Chelsea discuss the difficulties of sobriety. In these scenes, we glimpse the price of celebrity, and the reality of bouncing back after a public breakdown. It is common practice in today’s culture for celebrities to enter rehab after a scandal, and Rock shows the human side of this struggle. Recovery is a painful process, and rarely has a mainstream comedy depicted it with such authenticity.

Much has been made about the film’s surprise cameos and supporting players, in particular a scene-stealing Cedric the Entertainer, but this is Rock’s film. Unlike most mainstream comedies that come out of Hollywood, Top Five defies conventions and bursts with energy. It is vital and alive, and has much in common with Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie. A freewheeling spontaneity flows through the film, as if Rock is at last uninhibited to make art on his own terms.

With the exception of a hilarious commentary by Rock and co-star JB Smoove, the Blu-ray doesn’t offer any worthwhile bonus features. The deleted scenes and outtakes aren’t enough to convince the costumer to purchase the Blu-ray instead of stream the film for a cheaper price on their computers. Regardless of your viewing preference, however, Top Five deserves your time and attention.

For some reason, the film didn’t explode at the box office like it should have. This is problematic, especially since Rock was all over the place promoting it. Let’s chalk it up to bad timing, and hope that Top Five is soon rediscovered. It is the best comedy of 2014, and the most original and satisfying attempt at the genre in years. It reinforces Rock’s status as the funniest man in show business, and proves that with the right material, he is a fantastic filmmaker with a fresh perspective.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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