Review of “The Happytime Murders”

In a world where puppets are alive but treated as second-class citizens, a private investigator puppet named Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta) is hired by bombshell and sex addict Sandra (performed by Dorian Davies) to find the person blackmailing her. Phil recognizes something in the blackmail note made from cut-out letters and goes to a local puppet porn store. While in the back looking through their records, a gunman wearing a hooded trench coat walks in and kills everyone in the store, including Mr. Bumblypants (performed by Kevin Clash), a character on a 1990’s TV show called The Happytime Gang. The police come to investigate the murders including Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). She and Phil were partners when he was the first and only puppet ever to be allowed on the police force. An incident nearly killed Connie and ended both their friendship and Phil’s career on the force. They don’t like each other but police Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker) orders the former partners to work together on solving the crime. As more puppet bodies pile up, including Phil’s brother Larry (performed by Victor Yerrid), there is an obvious connection to The Happytime Gang and to Phil as he always seems to be in the vicinity of the murders. FBI agent Campbell (Joel McHale) arrests Phil but Connie knows he’s not guilty as their time working together has rekindled their friendship. Since The Happytime Gang is coming back on the air via reruns on a cable network, the entire cast is set to profit. Which ever cast member is left standing at the end is probably the killer or is it?!

“The Happytime Murders” is an R-rated comedy from the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Brian Henson, under a banner called Henson Alternative that focuses on adult content. The movie is filled with bad language (coming from both puppets and humans), violence (directed at both puppets and humans) and sex (mostly only between puppets but not always). The production was sued by the makers of children’s show “Sesame Street” over the tagline “No Sesame, All Street.” The lawsuit was tossed out and the film was released without further controversy. Considering the opening weekend box office, it could have used a great deal more bad press as “The Happytime Murders” has nothing to be happy about as far as its performance. It has a very low Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores and opening day audiences gave the film a C- on an A to F scale. Perhaps I’m weird and dumb, but I liked “The Happytime Murders.”

What gets the most attention in the film is the mixing of humans and puppets in an otherwise normal world. We aren’t told why or how the puppets are alive and that doesn’t really matter. They are treated as less than human by humans (the puppets call us meat bags) and they are marginalized in society. We see the puppets have their weaknesses just like we do: The have odd taste in pornography, they indulge in smoking and alcohol, and many of them are addicted to drugs, specifically sugar. They often live in the seedier parts of town and do whatever they must to satisfy their cravings for powder or crystal sugar. Some drink maple syrup for their fix.

That description of the more down-and-out members of puppet society required a great deal more world-building than most movies invest in their human characters and settings. “The Happytime Murders” could be looked at as a metaphor for human relations with the marginalized members of our society and how they are treated as less than. With a slightly better execution, I believe “The Happytime Murders” could have been the kind of subversive comic statement that could have opened a few eyes of people that just came in for a few laughs. Sadly, the movie’s tone does sudden shifts from comedic to tragic to mundane and never allows any one moment to breathe for more than a few seconds.

The story is also a bit rote with a twist that is telegraphed from practically the opening scene. I enjoyed the mystery for a while, but it soon grew tiresome as puppet after puppet is dispatched in progressively more graphic ways. There are interesting characters sprinkled throughout, like Phil’s secretary Bubbles played by Maya Rudolph and a couple of puppets seen for only a moment that provides an argument against cousins marrying, but these are too few and far between. We focus mostly on Connie and Phil as they are forced to work together and rediscover their mutual admiration for one another.

Melissa McCarthy isn’t taxed as an actress in the role of Connie Edwards. She is either a foul-mouthed hard ass or a foul-mouthed good friend. Either way, we’ve seen this McCarthy before and will likely see it again. I suppose it depends on the surrounding players and the quality of the material as to whether this standard McCarthy performance is considered good or bad. For me it was very middle of the road.

The film overall works for me because of the warped world we’re in and the humor. We aren’t ever allowed to forget there are puppets living and walking among us. That gets repeatedly banged into our heads. It isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds and plays a big role in why McCarthy’s Connie is the perfect person to investigate this case. The humor is anchored in the ridiculousness of the premise and hammered home by a scene that plays a big part in the trailer: The puppet sex scene. Phil and his client engage in a loud and violent sex act in his office while the police and FBI wait in the reception area. While the scene is over-the-top in the trailer, it gets expanded and goes even bigger in the film with a particularly memorable Silly String finish. It’s the kind of bizarre and crude scene that should be the thing fans talk about in 30 years when this movie will likely be considered a comedy classic. That is the most out-there scene in the film, but there are plenty of others that are also very funny and almost as crude (an octopus and a cow shooting a homemade porno comes to mind). It isn’t consistently funny, but “The Happytime Murders” delivers enough laughs to make it worth the price of admission for at least a matinee.

“The Happytime Murders” is rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material. The previously described sex scenes along with a BDSM film playing on the screen of a porno theater are the most graphic sexual situations. The drugs shown being used are actually candy, powdered sugar and colored crystal sugar. There are no real-world drugs shown. Foul language is common throughout.

It isn’t art, but “The Happytime Murders” isn’t the catastrophe most of the critics are making it out to be. Admittedly, I didn’t enter the theater with very high expectations as I was aware of the low scores on the various review aggregators; however, what I saw was a subversive comedy taking pot shots at society and the treatment of those considered to be “lesser” and how that notion was garbage. Could it have been done differently or more effectively? Probably, but this film isn’t the complete disaster many make it out to be. I believe it’s worth giving a chance and make up your own mind. I did.

“The Happytime Murders” gets four stars out of five.

Three new films open this week in what is considered the final week of the summer movie season. I’ll see at least one of the following:


Operation Finale—


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Review of “Ghostbusters”

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) is about to become a tenured professor at Columbia University when she is approached by Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley, Jr.) the owner of a historic home in New York City. Gilbert co-authored a book on the paranormal with Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) Musgrave found on Amazon. He says the home he owns is haunted and wants Gilbert’s help to remove the spirits. Gilbert is shocked to be confronted by the book she disowned years ago and tracks down Yates at the small technical school where she works. Gilbert confronts her former friend and colleague about the book when she becomes aware of another person in the lab, engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Gilbert tells the two how she was approached by Musgrave with the book and they want to be taken to the home so they can investigate. In exchange, Yates says she’ll consider taking down the book. At the house, the three women encounter a ghost that spews slime all over Gilbert, renewing her belief and interest in the paranormal, while also getting her fired from Columbia. She decides to join Yates and Holtzmann in their hunt for proof of ghosts that can be brought into the laboratory and studied scientifically. Meanwhile, mass transit authority worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) has an encounter with a strange man named Rowan North (Neil Casey) who talks about the coming cataclysm. She writes him off as another kook but sees him on the security monitor jumping off the platform and walking down the track. She follows but sees a strange device that sparks then explodes. Immediately afterwards, she encounters a ghost. Tolan is able to find Gilbert and the others in their new headquarters located above a Chinese restaurant. She tells them what she saw and they go and investigate bringing along some equipment Holtzmann has created. They run into the same ghost that tries to attack them while they are almost run over by a train. Tolan, who has vast knowledge of New York City history, joins the team and along with Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their frightfully dumb but handsome receptionist, and they become the Ghostbusters.

Not since the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman has the publication of a cast been greeted with so much anger and hostility as when the rebooted female “Ghostbusters” became public. The cries of destroyed childhoods and worst idea ever were deafening. Director Paul Feig and his four new Ghostbusters were targeted for the kind of social media scorn usually reserved for people caught abusing puppies and kittens on video. The first trailer was one of the most disliked videos ever on YouTube. Without seeing one second of the movie, many commenters declared it the worst film in history. Now that it has come out I’m pleased to announce your childhood is safe because the movie isn’t a time machine that can go back to kill your parents and is actually a great deal of fun.

The ensemble cast is a collection of proven comedy pros mostly current or former cast members of Saturday Night Live. Wiig, McKinnon and Jones along with McCarthy prove more than capable of delivering the laughs with a script by director Paul Feig and writer Katie Dippold that gives them plenty to work with. McKinnon proves to be the biggest scene stealer with lines delivered in a way that invokes a sense of threat and menace while also being funny. She aggressively attacks her character and a great deal of the technobabble she is responsible for fearlessly. It is the kind of performance that would make her a breakout star if she wasn’t already popular from her run on SNL.

Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin is a deadpan delight as he plays a character that is almost too dumb to live. Hemsworth is a hidden comedic gem that is now exposed to the light of day with a performance that creates laughs with the simplest of actions. He steals the movie almost as often as McKinnon.

The movie moves at a lightning pace and spends very little time in any one location. This actually proves to be a bit of a detriment as the story isn’t terribly well developed. We are introduced to the main villain of the film and watch as he puts his plan in motion but we are left to guess what exactly led to his turn into a bad guy. He is treated poorly by those around him and I suppose that is meant to give us an idea of what his whole life has been like but it isn’t terribly clear. The rest of the characters also aren’t very well defined or unique other than Leslie Jones’ Patty. She is the “average person” in contrast to the educated eggheads. While each has their quirks, none of the Ghostbusters really is a well-established person. That is something that may need to be addressed in promised future installments in the series (stay to the very end of the credits for a clue as to what the next film might be about).

Visually, “Ghostbusters” is a dazzling film that more than makes up for shortcomings in the story. The ghosts are vibrant and probably better delineated than the main characters. The tools and weapons the
Ghostbusters use prove to be as dangerous to the users as to the ghosts. They also provide a great deal of visual flash and avenues for humor.

“Ghostbusters” is rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some crude humor. The Ghostbusters are attacked on numerous occasions by ghosts of various types. None of it is gory. We see a character thrown out a window. A possessed Ghostbuster tries to kill two others. A character electrocutes himself. The test of their weapons creates some peril. The crude humor is a fart joke. Foul language is nearly nonexistent.

Most of the surviving cast of the original 1984 film shows up in cameos. Even Harold Ramis who died in 2014 gets some screen time. This reboot realizes it has big shoes to fill and pays respect to its elders. This isn’t an attempt to turn your fondest memories into some kind of Title 9, equal opportunity statement. “Ghostbusters” is an effort to breathe new life into a franchise that hasn’t as much as twitched since “Ghostbusters II” in 1989. Aside from several aborted movie ideas and a video game with the original cast providing the voices this film series has been dead as a door nail. Getting in a huff because a very talented group of actors were selected and they all happen to be female is misogyny pure and simple. If you put your Twitter feed on blast and announced your hate for a movie without seeing a single frame you are an awful person that needs to take a hard look at yourself and start making some changes. Also you need to see this movie and realize what a moron you were.

“Ghostbusters” gets five stars.

This week, an animated sequel, some dark horror and the final frontier are all waiting for your attention. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Ice Age: Collision Course—

Lights Out—

Star Trek Beyond—

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Review of “Spy”

Bradley Fine (Jude Law) is one of the CIA’s top agents; but he admits he couldn’t do his job without the support of CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) who feeds him information through an ear piece.  Fine is sent on a mission to apprehend Raina Boyanova (Rose Byrne), the daughter of an Eastern European arms dealer that Fine recently killed by accidently shooting him in the head when Fine sneezed.  Boyanova has a tactical nuclear device that is available to the highest bidder.  To keep it from falling into the wrong hands, the CIA sent in Fine; however, Boyanova gets the drop on him and kills him.  She knows someone is listening and rattles off the names of all the CIA’s top agents, warning them to leave her alone or they will meet the same fate.  Susan sees and hears the whole thing and cries because she has a crush on Fine.  During a meeting with CIA Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) and other CIA agents including the hotheaded Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), Cooper offers to go into the field since no one knows who she is outside the agency and track Raina to her meeting with arms dealer Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) who has contacts with a particularly dangerous terrorist group.  Ford is livid and insists on going in guns blazing to get the location of the bomb from Raina.  Crocker disagrees and puts the wheels in motion to put Cooper into the field.  Ford quits in disgust.  Cooper is given a new identity that is decidedly not as sexy as she had hoped and is paired up with another analyst who is also her friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart), who will guide her through an ear piece just like Cooper did for Fine.

This is going to be a short review because “Spy” is just about a perfect action comedy.  Melissa McCarthy is perfect in the role of Susan Cooper, a behind-the-scenes gal who just needs that one break to shine and show what she’s got.  McCarthy is a fearless performer who doesn’t mind looking goofy and sometimes unsympathetic in order to sell her character.  McCarthy is given more than just humorous moments in “Spy.”  There are scenes where she must express painful emotions and even announce her unrequited love for a spy that she believes betrayed her and the agency.  McCarthy is able to convey a far more nuanced performance than one might expect from a broad and raunchy comedy.

The rest of the cast is also asked to deliver complex performances and they all shine bright.  Rose Byrne as the main bad guy is brilliant.  She’s supposed to be a cold, aloof and deadly socialite who also is taking over her late father’s criminal empire; however, that veneer of icy perfection is always on the edge of cracking if things don’t go exactly to her liking.  This usually leads to a sting of expletives and some very funny business.  Byrne proved her comedic chops in “Neighbors” with Seth Rogen last year and merely added to her humorous resume with “Spy.”

If there is a surprise from any of the performances it comes from Jason Statham as the powder keg of an agent Rick Ford.  Statham’s performance isn’t that much different than what he did in “Fast and Furious 7” or his “Transporter” movies or any other of his films.  That’s precisely why it’s so funny.  Statham’s Ford is constantly bragging about how he has suffered incredible injuries and everyone he’s ever loved has been killed by the object of his investigations and yet he still manages to get the job done.  The interactions between Ford and Cooper after his stories reach a point to extreme silliness are some of the film’s best scenes.  While these two characters are at constant odds with each other the chemistry between McCarthy and Statham is undeniable.  They obviously enjoy playing with each other and I’m sure the DVD will be filled with outtakes featuring the pair.  Those may be the funniest parts of the movie we’ll have to wait for.

If the film has a weakness, and it’s tiny, it’s the stunt work during some of the action scenes.  The actual stunts themselves are great; however, when the action is supposed to be carried out by McCarthy’s character and it’s obviously a stunt person wearing a wig and matching outfit, it pulled me right out of the film.  This only happens a time or two but it is so obvious it is jarring.  There is also a stunt near the end of the film where the replacement of McCarthy is far more seamless but the stunt itself makes it clear someone other than the star is doing it.  It’s a tiny quibble but I wanted to point it out so you can be on the lookout for more bad stunt doubles when you see the film.

“Spy” is rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity.  There are several fights mostly of the acrobatic variety.  Some are bloody including seeing a knife stabbed through a woman’s hand.  There is also a fight scene where a man has his ankle graphically broken when it is stomped on.  There are also a couple of vomit scenes.  There are a couple of scenes where a foreign agent gets very handsy with McCarthy’s Cooper.  There is also a sex act briefly shown but there is no nudity.  I cannot remember any nudity in the film at all.  Foul language is common throughout the film.

“Spy” is about the most consistently funny film I’ve seen in a long time.  While there are some action scenes and shots of the skyline of whatever European city the story takes us to, there is very little wasted time getting to the next set up of jokes or physical humor.  The entire cast is given a chance to show off their comedic abilities and no one disappoints.  Even the characters that are playing it as straight as possible deliver significant laughs regularly.  It is the kind of action comedy that should be studied by everyone in Hollywood and copied relentlessly.  Writer/director Paul Feig should receive every possible award for this gem of a film.  See it then see it again so the movie industry knows this is the kind of film they should be making more of if they want to have a nice fat bottom line.

“Spy” gets a very enthusiastic five stars.

Next week only one film opens in wide release, so I’ll be reviewing “Jurassic World.”

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Reviews of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Top Five”

From a Biblical hero to a legend of comedy, this week’s movies run the gamut. In one, God is a central character while the other features no references to God at all. Each has their merits and one is far more uplifting than the other.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Moses (Christian Bale) grows up in the palace of Seti (John Turturro), Egypt’s Pharaoh, along with Seti’s son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Moses and Ramses are cousins but have grown up together as close as brothers. Seti’s seer reads the entrails of a goat and sees a new leader emerging as one hero saves the life of another hero. This concerns Ramses as he and Moses are about to go to war with the Hittite army camped at their boarder. During the fight, Moses saves Ramses life. Seti wants Rameses to go to the slave labor camp and investigate conditions there. Moses offers to go in his place as inspecting a slave camp is beneath the future leader of Egypt. During his visit, Moses notices the overseer of the camp, Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), is living in luxury fit for a king and warns Hegep he may be arrested for stealing from the Pharaoh. During his inspection of the camp, he meets with the leadership of the enslaved Hebrews. One of them, Nun (Ben Kingsley), pushes Moses to the point of anger. He later gets a note to Moses to meet him at his home. Curious, Moses shows up and Nun tells him the true story of his birth, his being put in the basket and set adrift in the river and the sister of the Pharaoh finding him and raising him as her own. Two spies also hear the story and pass it along to Hegep. Sometime later, Seti dies and Rameses becomes Pharaoh. Hegep then approaches Ramses and tells him the story. Ramses threatens to cut the arm off of Moses’s nanny who is actually his sister and Moses admits the story is true. Moses is then sent into exile in the wilderness where he stumbles upon a village and meets Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and her father. Moses becomes a member of the community and marries Zipporah. The couple has a child and Moses settles into the life of a husband, father and sheepherder. One night, three sheep begin running up the nearby mountain. Moses chases after them despite being told God forbids anyone from climbing the mountain. A storm breaks out and causes a mud and rockslide, burying Moses up to his face. While buried, he sees a young boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews) standing in front of a bush burning with a blue flame but not being consumed by the fire. Malak is wise beyond his years and Moses realizes it is God. Malak tells Moses he needs to go back and free the Hebrews. Telling Zipporah of this, she thinks he was hallucinating due to his injuries. Moses heads back to the city despite Zipporah and his son’s objections and begins an insurrection, training the Hebrews how to fight, with the goal of setting his people free.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes some liberties with the biblical tale on which it is based. Some events are truncated, others are excised all together and still more are created out of whole cloth. If you approach the film as a reverent retelling of the Bible story or a modernization of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “The Ten Commandments” you’ll be sorely disappointed. Much of the approximately 140 minute running time is spent looking at the scenery of Spain where much of the film was shot and Joel Edgerton wearing too much eyeliner. The film only really comes alive during the opening battle scene, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Much of this is thanks to the talented computer artists who made the crocodiles that attack every boat on the Nile and each other to turn the water to blood, who created the hordes of lice, flies, frogs and locusts, and who caused the massive hail storm that batters the ancient city. Otherwise, the movie is a bit of a dull slog with the power struggle between Moses and Ramses about as interesting as watching a modern political debate.

The combination of overly stretched story and dull dialog makes “Exodus: Gods and Kings” rather emotionless. While the production hits many of the expected story points and takes an interesting look at God’s and Moses’ conversations, it does so with such a detached point of view that it makes the film feel more like an uninteresting documentary. Forgive my personal injection of opinion but these films should engender wonder and awe in the audience. While the movie is visually stunning much of the time it never actually stuns the heart. Filmmaker Ridley Scott seems to be satisfied to let the audience create their own warm feelings about the characters and the story and doesn’t sense a requirement to crank up the wonder factor. The parting of the Red Sea is impressive, especially when it comes crashing back on the Egyptian army, but everything before and after that does nothing to excite our souls. I’m not looking for a film that causes a revival to break out in the theatre. I’m just looking for something that stirs the soul and takes advantage of what should have been an uplifting story. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” doesn’t do that.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. The opening battle scene shows people and horses being shot with arrows. There are also numerous stabbings with swords but none of it is gory. There are many dead animals in various states or decay in the film. We see numerous lambs slaughtered but again, it isn’t gory. We get a look at a piece of goat entrails but it looks more like a chicken liver. One of the plagues is boils and that is somewhat gross. There are no language issues.

The recent crop of Biblical or faith-based movies has been a mixed bag of quality. “Son of God,” while reverent, looked cheap and smacked of an effort to cash in on the success of the History Channel special from which it was edited. “Noah” turned the reluctant shipbuilder into something of a psychopath. “Heaven is For Real” was a sweet story that still managed to upset some religious groups. “Left Behind” is possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. While “Exodus: Gods and Kings” isn’t as bad as “Left Behind” it also isn’t as good as “Heaven is For Real.” It should have been much better.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” gets three stars out of five.

Top Five

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) started his career as a standup comedian. Becoming hugely successful, he starred in a series of comedy films where he was dressed in a bear costume and was playing a police officer named Hammy. The Hammy films were huge successes and made Allen very rich. His life became a whirlwind of TV appearances, commercial endorsements, family and friends asking for money, drugs and alcohol. He was dating reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who helped him get clean. Allen and Long are about to be married in a wedding that will be filmed as part of her reality show on Bravo. Wanting to branch out from comedy, Allen is out promoting a drama he stars in about the Haitian slave uprising. Despite his desire to move on to something more serious, people constantly ask him when he will make the next Hammy movie. Tagging along is New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who is doing a profile of Allen. At first closed off and protective, Allen eventually warms up to Brown as she refuses to put up with his obfuscations and sound bite answers and asks why he isn’t funny anymore. He begins to tell her about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, his efforts to get sober and his daily struggle with substance abuse. She tells him she is also in recovery. Brown follows Allen all day as he picks up his wedding tux, finds out the wedding rings have been changed without his knowledge due to the reality show people, does numerous interviews about the new film with satellite radio hosts and begins to worry the film will be a flop. Along the way, secrets are shared and discovered, old friends remind Allen of his roots and lists of top five hip-hop artists are shared.

If “Top Five” has a weakness, it is that it lacks any real story. The film follows the characters as they go through a series of ups and downs over the course of a day. We see some resolutions to the various issues and problems that are brought up along the way and are introduced to the concept of fame and the price one must pay to acquire it. It is about as close as a fictional film can get to being a documentary about celebrity and what that now means in a world where being a housewife in New Jersey can make you famous. It is at times hilarious, depressing, honest, painful and joyous. Despite its lack of story, it is worth your time.

Chris Rock is essentially playing himself. While he does continue to perform standup, Rock has appeared in some movies that he admits were done just for the paycheck. “Top Five” is his attempt to make something he can be proud of and that isn’t just comedy. Rock not only stars but wrote and directed the movie. His directing style is a bit jumpy with frequent camera angle changes for scenes that might have been more effective if they had been shot from only one perspective. Still, “Top Five” is a very moving, funny and serious film. The main character is going through a crisis involving his self-worth. He thinks he can’t be funny since he isn’t drinking anymore and worries he will be forgotten if he attempts a comedy comeback and fails. He’s marrying the reality TV star because he feels he owes it to her, not because he truly loves her. He feels guilty because he’s leaving his old friends behind him when they helped him get his start. Andre Allen is a man being pulled in a thousand different directions and he’s close to breaking apart. While he puts up a veneer of confidence with a healthy dose of arrogance, Allen is concerned his career might be over. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown is going through a certain bit of crisis herself. Brown is the single mother of a 10-year old girl and also lives with her mom. She hasn’t had the best luck with men and during her evening with Andre makes a discovery about her current boyfriend that ends their relationship. Brown uses fake names to write puff pieces but uses her own name for the stories she is proud of. Her pen names, she has a couple, come back to bite her late in the film. Brown is just trying to make her way in the world and would like a companion to join her on the journey. Both characters are finding the things they thought would make them happy come up a bit short. It’s a story most of us can relate to even if we aren’t famous comedians.

While “Top Five” isn’t funny throughout, it does manage to cause some serious laughs. Rock is primarily the straight man for most of the film and lets his numerous comedy friends carry most of the humor load. The number of comedians or comic actors in the film is staggering. Some may only be on screen for a few seconds while others play major roles. Still others provide a laugh or two then are gone for the rest of the picture. Some of the comedians who appear include Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, J.B. Smoove, Michael Che, Jay Pharaoh, Anders Holm, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shephard, Adam Sandler, Doug Stanhope, Bruce Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld makes a particularly strong impression as he “makes it rain” during Andre Allen’s bachelor party. The sheer number of comedians, both up and coming and legendary, must have made it a fun set to work on. While I’m sure the film was shot on a tight schedule (and on a budget of just $10-million), there are probably a couple of hours of funny material plus outtakes that ended up on the cutting room floor. When the DVD comes out, I’ll be looking for that edited material as a bonus feature. The presence of so many of Rock’s friends and colleagues must have made the often chaotic experience of making a movie just a little bit better. The comradery shows in the finished product.

“Top Five” is rated R for language throughout, crude humor, nudity, some drug use and strong sexual content. There are a couple of sex scenes in the film. One is used mostly for comedic effect. We see several women topless and the naked behind of man. There is some talk of sex outside of these scenes. There is a scene where pot is showed being rolled up and smoked. There is also discussion of using cocaine. Foul language is prevalent throughout the film.

While it certainly could have been funnier “Top Five” works as a comedy and a drama, following a man as he discovers what it is he truly wants in life. The editing is a bit jumpy and the acting is occasionally amateurish, but overall the film works to make us laugh and think a bit. It is a rare feat that those two goals are achieved in one film. “Top Five” is well worth your time.

“Top Five” gets four stars out of five.

This week, a musical orphan, a half-ling and a museum full of magic would love to entertain you during the holidays.  I’ll review one or more of these films next week.


“The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies”

“Night at the Museum:  Secret of the Tomb”

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Review of “St. Vincent”

Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray) is a drunk degenerate gambler who uses the services of a pregnant Russian stripper and prostitute named Daka (Naomi Watts). Vincent hates most people and other living creatures other than his cat and that includes his new next door neighbors Maggie and her son Oliver (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is recently divorced from her philandering husband and has taken a job at a hospital running CAT scans. Maggie has to work long hours and can’t pick Oliver up at school so she makes sure he has a cell phone and keys to the house to let himself in. On Oliver’s first day at his new Catholic school, some boys start picking on him and, during gym class, someone steals his phone, keys and clothes. Locked out of the house and having no phone, Oliver asks Vincent if he can come in and call his mom. During the conversation, Vincent offers to keep Oliver at his house…for $12 an hour. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Maggie agrees. Oliver seems to be happy at Vincent’s. Vincent’s cat takes to Oliver right away. In the days that follow, Oliver is introduced to racehorse betting, drinking at a bar and Abbott and Costello. Vincent also teaches Oliver a way to protect himself from a bully that comes in handy when a game of dodgeball gets out of hand during gym class. Vincent even takes Oliver to a nursing home to visit Sandy (Donna Mitchell), a woman about Vincent’s age who appears to have dementia. Vince puts on a doctor’s white coat and a stethoscope and listens to Sandy’s heart as he talks to her. There’s sadness in his eyes during these visits. He collects Sandy’s dirty clothes and takes them home to wash them. The fight Oliver got into leads to a call from the school to Maggie for a meeting. There she explains all the pressures she is under due to the divorce and work and now her ex-husband is taking her to family court to gain full custody of Oliver. Everyone around him is dealing with issues while Vincent appears to be oblivious to it all, drinking and gambling his way through life with Oliver occasionally at his side.

Bill Murray has made a career out of playing guys who don’t seem to give a damn about what others think of him. Some of his most memorable movies, “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Groundhog Day” and others feature a lead character that either lives his life on his own terms despite what others may say or actively tries to rub the faces of others in his opinion of them. Murray appears to live that way in real life if what we see in the media is true. He is famously difficult on some movie shoots, is quick to decline offers if he just doesn’t feel like working and is notorious for dropping in on dinners, parties and other gatherings and washing dishes or picking up the check and dares those in attendance to tell people about his being there claiming no one will believe them. Bill Murray is kind of an urban legend that is often true. In “St. Vincent,” Murray is playing “Bill Murray” turned up to 11 and that’s just fine.

While Murray’s Vincent does some pretty despicable things, he also will come through with a good deed done in a somewhat peculiar way. When he catches bullies beating up on Oliver, he threatens to attack their mothers then breaks one of the bully’s skateboards. These flashes of compassion wrapped in violence make Vincent nearly impossible to dislike. Considering he’s played by Bill Murray, he’d have to kill a basket full of puppies and kittens for the audience to truly hate him. Murray is like the grumpy uncle or grandfather who’s really a softie at heart. Granted, the softness if buried under miles of thorns, jagged rocks and broken glass, but it’s there. Vincent is a lovable drunken lecherous old man who needs an unconventional family far more than he knows even when he’s trying to push them away. Murray embodies Vincent fully and is able to turn all his deceitfulness, larceny and excess into traits the audience is willing to overlook.

While there are three well-known actors used to sell the movie on the poster, it is young Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver who shines almost as much as Murray. His role is written as someone who is far smarter than his years and sometimes approaches sitcom excess in his snark; however, Lieberher is a sweet-faced young actor who is able to stand up to Murray’s irascible curmudgeon. Lieberher seems to be unflappable as Oliver. When his keys, clothes and phone disappear from his gym locker, Oliver is upset but not deterred. He continues school in his gym clothes despite the looks and ridicule he gets from the other students. He isn’t afraid to stand up to the bullies even though he has no idea of how to fight them. Oliver is unafraid of walking through his new neighborhood even though he isn’t quite sure how to get home. Oliver is a good kid and Lieberher plays him with a kind of uneasy confidence that is endearing.

Both Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts are excellent as Maggie and Daka respectively. McCarthy is able to display her comedic talents as the harried single mother but also shines in the more dramatic scenes as well. Watts lays on the Russian accent a bit thick at times but she handles it well as the pregnant hooker/stripper Daka. Her lack of understanding in some social situations and her abrasive, no-nonsense personality combine to make Daka a very funny character. Daka also cares a great deal for Vincent and it is more than just a business relationship. She also likes Oliver even though their relationship starts off a bit rocky. Watts is nearly unrecognizable as the pregnant Lady of the Evening and seems to be having a great deal of fun playing the part.

The storytelling in “St. Vincent” is somewhat uneven with long stretches of mild misbehavior followed by sudden bursts of evil. All these moral downturns are preceded by some kind of crisis that forces Vincent to make a sudden and rash decision and he’s never held accountable for his actions. Some could argue that fate holds him accountable with all troubles life throws his way but that’s too quaint and easy an answer. He still has huge bills and debts to a bookie that aren’t taken care of but the story conveniently forgets all this to give us heartwarming moments. It makes for a lovely and sentimental movie but it also makes for one that loses touch with reality.

“St. Vincent” is rated PG-13 for language, alcohol and tobacco use, mature thematic material and sexual content. Murray smokes and drinks through the whole movie. Other characters smoke and drink as well. Concepts of dealing with personal loss, addiction and sickness are main themes of the film. There is one sex scene early in the movie with no nudity. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

“St. Vincent” is manipulative filmmaking. It shows you Vincent being mostly a horrible person who deals with people of questionable character and motives. Vincent appears to be irredeemable. “Appears” is the operative word in that sentence as the character has a deep history and layers of goodness he keeps hidden from the world probably to protect himself from the pain he feels. It’s only as we approach the end of the film that we get a glimpse at the real Vincent buried under empty bourbon bottles and cigarette butts. “St. Vincent” twists your emotions and wrings tears from your eyes in an ending that’s about as sappy as you’ll ever see. It isn’t fair…but it’s satisfying nonetheless.

“St. Vincent” gets five stars out of five.

Here are my thoughts recorded immediately after seeing the movie.

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