Friday, December 19, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings, Top Five

                        Mid-Life Crises, Then and Now
                                        Reviews by Ken Burke

 The 2 movies under consideration this week really don’t have much of any common-connective-link (except for the idea of the protagonists trying to retool themselves in new directions after major initial successes, if you don’t find that too blasphemous concerning Moses; if so, you might want to click out now because it’ll just get worse), therefore I’ll deal with them in separate reviews.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ superbly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the dazzling, radiant brilliance.

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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2014’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 22, 2015 I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2014 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received  various awards. You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here, and what wins the awards)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
 I realize that all of these opening statements may put you to sleep before you even get to the reviews, but I’ve found, via feedback, that I need to say them somewhere to avoid repetitious explanations, yet if I put it all at the end hardly anyone ever reads it before asking for those same answers so thanks for wading through all of this opening drivel and now on to what you came for.
                                       Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Another take on the Torah/Old Testament story of the freeing of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, led by Moses under God’s direction, with lavish production values.

What Happens: Based purely on what Scott presents in his megabucks movie ($140 million budget), we begin in the ancient Egyptian empire, 1300 BC (or B[efore] C[ommon] E[ra] for those who don’t think we should be dating our calendars from the supposed birth of Jesus—although many modern scholars calculate that even this demarcation point is off by at least 4 years too late, so that we should now be in 2018, but as Einstein [as well as Stephen Hawking and Christopher Nolan] showed us, time is a relative concept anyway), when a huge Hebrew population was held in bondage building great monuments in and near the capitol in Memphis (near the Nile delta) during the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (John Turturro), his son, Prince Ramses II (some accounts say that Ramesses would be the more accurate spelling, just as would be Moshe [or Moishe] for Moses—but if we want accuracy, this movie isn’t the place to find it as Ramses was born in 1303 BC yet just 3 years later on screen he’s a man in the prime of young adulthood; at any rate the Prince is played here by Joel Edgerton), and his adopted-nephew, Moses (Christian Bale), who was supposedly fathered by an unnamed Egyptian general (we all know—as this movie will later reveal—that he was really the son of a Hebrew slave, who sent him in a basket down the river to avoid the edict that all first-born-Hebrew boys should be killed in order to thwart a prophecy that a leader would rise up and liberate his people; he was then found and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter as a member of the royal household, with his sister Miriam [Tara Fitzgerald] also taken in as a servant, again without knowledge of her heritage by the royal family).  Moses and Ramses are raised as if they were brothers, both are gallant warriors who take part in an opening, well-staged battle against the Hittites (whose territory during this time was just north of Canaan, which further complicates the historical-Biblical inconsistences, given that the Egyptians actually controlled the area that the Hebrews ultimately escape to; more on such discrepancies later in the review), yet a hidden tension grows between the 2 because Seti feels that well-focused Moses would make a better successor than his own impetuous son, encouraging Ramses to take the opening he needs to banish Moses when spies overhear his near-sibling being told by Hebrew leader Nun (Ben Kingsley) of his true heritage, then report their wicked news to corrupt Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) who was about to be punished by Moses for his crimes.  In order to protect Miriam from harm, Moses accepts his revised fate, then is sent to wander the wilderness near the Red Sea (Ramses is still conflicted, given that Moses saved his life in that battle with the Hittites).

 Moses ultimately makes his way to the desert lands of the Sinai Peninsula where he comes upon a tribe who follow the religion of the Hebrews and their singular God (unlike the many Egyptian deities), Yahweh, although his name is never spoken here, He just calls himself “I am,” in accordance with the written original. While Moses isn’t convinced of this new twist on religion (nor has he previously been swayed by prophecies and omens, as were his “relatives” at the Memphis court), he does settle into this new community, marries Zipporah (María Valverde), has a son, Gershom (Hal Hewetson), then during a rainstorm when he’s attempting to gather some lost sheep he wanders up onto the forbidden mountain where he’s knocked unconscious in a landslide, waking to see a burning bush and a child talking to him with authority.  This child, Malak (Isaac Andrews)—a name that simply implies a messenger angel from the Almighty—seems to be speaking for God who commands Moses to return to Egypt and liberate his people.  Here we get into additional extra-Biblical-accounts, with Moses first demanding the Hebrews’ freedom in a private encounter with Ramses, then (along with his long-lost-brother, Aaron [Andrew Tarbet], and a hearty slave, Joshua [Aaron Paul]) training a resistance army when the new Pharaoh refuses; but, after Ramses’ troops counterattack, God gets serious with the famous plagues: the Nile runs red with blood; flies, lice, and locusts swarm on people and crops, with further damage coming from hailstorms and darkness; the Egyptians are sickened with boils; livestock suddenly die—yet Ramses remains adamant, even killing several innocent slaves each day until Moses can be forced out of hiding.  Finally, God gets really vicious (as Moses sees it, given his past connections with these Egyptians, although it just amounts to payback for the slaughter that occurred shortly after Moses was born), sending the Angel of Death as a black cloud over Memphis to kill the first-born-sons of the Egyptians, includes Ramses’ boy.  After that, the already-stupendous-special-effects with the plague scenes get even more dynamic as the 400,000 Hebrews march across the desert and perilous mountain passes (where many of Ramses’ 1,000 chariots fall to destruction on their pursuit over this narrow trail) to be confronted with the Red Sea, only to have it retract so they can trudge across before it comes crashing down again as most of the remainder of Ramses’ army is obliterated (yet Moses and Ramses, who were ready for a final mano-a-mano fight just as the waves hit, both somehow make it to the opposite shores even though they were in the middle of the seabed when the tsunami waters engulfed them).

Oddly enough, the publicists didn't give
 me much to work with on Exodus ...
 After that, we get a fairly quick wrap-up of the events taken from the Book of Exodus (minus the details on how various rituals are to be rightly performed—you’re welcome to read the whole thing if you like, in a Jewish Virtual Library text, in my attempt to get a translation as close to the original Hebrew language as possible) as God, still talking through Malak, dictates the 10 Commandments for Moses to hew into stone as a response to our quick view of the throng of refugees down at the bottom of the mountain gathered around a golden calf, then we come to closure as the journey back to Canaan is still in progress with a now-much-older-Moses riding in a wagon, next to the Ark of the Covenant protecting the inscribed laws.  (I guess that if Scott doesn’t choose to do a sequel where mighty warrior Joshua finally leads his people into their ancestral homeland—after first subduing the fierce people who have taken up residence in their absence [any comment I make about how that seems to mirror something that’s been going on since 1948 is bound to anger one side or the other regarding a 2-state-solution [?] between Israel and Palestine, so I’ll just leave the possibilities of filmic and real-world parallelism to your individual sensibilities as you see fit]—then at least this current movie can be run on a double-feature with Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981] as those precious stone tablets finally find a new home, coming full-circle it seems, in a secret U.S. government storehouse out in the Nevada desert—although we don't really know that yet in Raiders ...)

So What? As has been shown already this year with Noah (Darren Aronofsky; review in our April 3, 2014 posting), even if your action-oriented-reimagining of time-honored-religiously-based-stories seems to mint money at the box office you’re going to run easy risks of either not seeming faithful to the nature of what some consider to be sacred texts (see the 3rd suggested link for Exodus … far below to get a sense of how offensive it is to those who see it as heresy) or for not challenging those texts enough with an interpretation that more actively revises what other segments of the audience see as myths (as was attempted in a far-less-monetarily-and-critically-successful-fashion earlier this year with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a version of a clearly-mythological-hero in Hercules [Brett Ratner; review in our August 7, 2014 posting], with the twist that he might not be the son of Zeus nor so miraculous in those 12 labors after all).  Certainly, Scott has tried to appeal to contemporary sensibilities by presenting Moses as a warrior with great battlefield skills (no sense of that at all in the written Exodus noted above), as well as an ongoing skeptic where some of God’s dictates are concerned (even to the point of silently acknowledging Ramses’ horror that any deity would order the slaughter of innocent children—although if Ramses and his predecessor Pharaohs truly see themselves as gods then he’s being hypocritical for not acknowledging that his father ordered the same fate for the Hebrew babies, just as his people have held the Hebrews in vicious slavery for 400 years)—further, he offers some nice satire when Seti and Ramses are checking the rough draft of the hieroglyphic account of the Hittite battle prior to it being carved into stone, showing how history has always been constructed and edited by the ruling classes even when such “news” is presented as an accurate account (throwing into question a lot of what we hope to understand about our distant past, including the validity of the “sacred” Exodus text vs. more secular remnants of Egyptian dynasties).  Yet, for those who say that Scott has attempted to present various types of scientific explanations of the plagues (crocodiles attacked humans on the Nile, setting off the literal “blood bath” which made the water undrinkable and killed off the people’s food source of fish; the polluted water brought forth the frogs seeking a new environment; the dead fish stirred up the flies carrying diseases, etc.—even the parting of the Red Sea appears to be the result of a meteor crash creating havoc with the tides) that less-than-fully-dedicated-true-believers have offered as a means of giving physical credence to supposed miracles, the explanations are given through Ramses’ desperate-to-explain-advisor (Ghassan Massoud), attempting to preserve the dominance of the Egyptian theology rather than admit subservience to an “intruder god,” but this Grand Vizier character is intentionally shown as laughable (even to Ramses) so the power of the traditional Judeo-Christian Creator is never really questioned, nor is the supposed historical record of Moses, the flight of the Hebrews out of Egypt, and the acceptance of the domain of this reasserted God by the grateful migrating Hebrews (although contemporary arguments exist against all of these).

 True, we don’t get the stately religious power of the Almighty nor the commanding presence of the prophet as we do with Charlton Heston’s version of Moses in the enduring images of The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956), but I don’t see how anyone could watch Exodus: Gods and Kings and not acknowledge the presence of God’s implementation of the plagues, miraculous parting of the Red Sea, and interpersonal encounters with Moses (while no mention is made of it in this current movie, one reason that Moses is conversing with an angel-stand-in is the dictate that no human could experience the actual appearance of God [Yahweh if you prefer] and live, so to make the dialogues between Moses and his mentor more visually interpersonal we need to see something there—and certainly this boy-angel doesn’t seem to be simply delivering the word from on high but is taking direct command of what is said, as if he’s merely a ventriloquist’s puppet that we turn our attention to while the real control comes from elsewhere).  Whether this attempt to humanize Moses (with his warrior credentials, his initial rejection of his birth story, his willingness to continue as part of the Egyptian hierarchy until the threat is made to cut off Miriam’s arm, his disagreement with Malak over rebellion strategy [he’s willing to wage a year-long-war-of-attrition in order to turn the Egyptian masses against Ramses, leading to a nationwide demand to free these slaves, but he’s overruled in favor of more immediate action through the plagues]) while still acknowledging that God is running the show here will result in wide-audience-embrace by both religiously-faithful and secularized-skeptics alike is yet to be seen. (A bit over $24 million in domestic grosses is a solid opening-weekend-debut but by no means spectacular—especially compared to the massive $121.9 million for the purely-fictional-action-story, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 [Francis Lawrence; review in our November 26, 2014 posting], along with the huge $94.3 million for Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn; review in our August 7, 2014 posting], or even the $56.2 million for the animated Big Hero 6 [Don Hall, Chris Williams; no Two Guys review—sorry but my ticket budget only goes so far]—while this article argues that even Noah’s $362.6 million global take doesn’t turn a great profit on a $125 million budget, plus massive advertising and distribution costs, while small-budget-flagrantly-religious-movies such as God’s Not Dead [Harold Cronk; $2 million budget, $62.6 million gross] and Heaven Is for Real [Randall Wallace; $12 million budget, $101.3 gross, with foreign-box-office a non-factor for these examples—and have you noticed the institutional-bias that there aren’t any Two Guys reviews of either movie?] so if Hollywood really wants to appeal better to the faithful maybe they should follow overtly-religious (despite actions that indicate otherwise) Mel Gibson’s path with The Passion of the Christ [2004], which offers plenty of visceral impact, yet turned a $30 million budget into a $612 million worldwide-gross, with about 40% of that coming from overseas—or at least allow aspects of religion into otherwise action-based-fictional-stories as Spielberg did with Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [for the Holy Grail].)

Bottom Line Final Comments: In regard to that last bit of run-on-rambling in the just-above-parenthesis 
(I know, I have to clarify which sideways comment I’m referring to), about big-box-office-results being generally more common for purely-fictional-action-stories, I do have to note that such a descriptor may also be more accurate for Exodus: Gods and Kings than is the “religious epic” moniker (although “legendary epic” might be more defendable, with the understanding that such a conception would lump this movie and Noah in with the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings trilogies, so if you haven’t already crossed this site off of your Web-browsing-possibilities, please hear me out for a minute).  While the story of Moses as primary prophet of the Jewish people, the Passover-linked-escape of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the giving of the Law from God to Moses during the 40-year-wandering of these tribes in the desert (as a harsh punishment from God to the newly-freed-captives for not being willing to go directly into Canaan [but that comes later, not in the Book of Exodus], else you’d really have to wonder how, even without the aid of GPS, it took them so long to make the relatively short trek from the shores of the upper Red Sea into the Promised Land) is well-known to most anyone raised in the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim faiths, there appears to be little—at best—archeological/ historical evidence that any of this took place (including the slavery and a mass movement into Canaan from Egypt) or that Moses even existed, although there is a strong indication that the very-short-term-period of Egyptian monotheism (under Pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamen) may have been a major factor in the genesis of Judaism, however it occurred.  (I’m not going to burden you with excessive links on these topics, but do some Internet searches of your own to see what I’m talking about, including corroboration from a good many Jewish scholars, although that’s not about denigrating any of the great monotheistic faiths—nor denying the centuries of documented persecution of Jews ever since the Romans finally abolished their country in 135 AD [or CE]—as much as it's about focusing instead on a covenant between a Higher Power and human beings rather than specific acts in ancient times, rules for rituals, etc., so that just as scientists can be devoutly religious while understanding the complexity of relations between the physical and the metaphysical, so can scholars dispute the letter of ancient texts without denying their spirit in giving ongoing guidance to a contemporary world where plagues from an angry Deity and harsh punishments for required-rite-infractions aren’t necessary for an approach to understanding what can’t be seen or touched—because, let’s face it, not only should we be horrified at any god or earthly ruler who orders the annihilation of any large segment of a population, especially very young children, but also what kind of Supreme Being makes a special connection with a given group then allows them to be held in slavery for hundreds of years without taking action Himself to rectify this injustice?  At least that’s how I, agnostic that I am, see these matters; your disputes are welcome.)

 Any Being capable of turning water into blood or pushing the seas back far (and long) enough for thousands of people to walk across the exposed land is capable of directly smiting a cruel Pharaoh, but that doesn’t seem to be how this Almighty Father chooses to operate, yet He can show his anger toward the Egyptians for their sins, which he allowed to continue unabated for generations while taking His own sweet time to finally call forth a skeptical savior.  It should be clear enough by now that, despite my Catholic upbringing, I’m no apologist for Christianity nor its heritage (while acknowledging the immense good works done over the centuries by many of the monotheistically-faithful, along with expressing my hope that today's Pope Francis and other religious reformers can help finally bring about some global-social-justice), but that’s not why I’m less than enthusiastic about Exodus …  It’s more that I feel, just as with Noah, that self-proclaimed atheist/agnostic movie directors are merely trying to do no more than take well-known-cultural-stories, throw in a good number of familiar names in the promotional materials (chief case here, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, widow of Seti, fierce momma-bear protecting her cub, Ramses, from the usurper, but with hardly 2 lines of dialogue—not that DeMille didn’t have his own overstuffed collection of unnecessary-but-recognizable faces such as Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, and Vincent Price in his bombastic, baroque, pseudo-pious epic [which, oddly enough to me, ABC always dusts off at Eastertime rather than an actual Jesus movie such as King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) or The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965)—the latter with the ultimate in movie-star-product-placement, John Wayne as the Mt. Calvary centurion on Good Friday]—although I admit that DeMille’s movie was exceedingly more successful with critics and audiences that either of these Jesus epics), and search for a way to make these overtly-religious-tales into something more palatable for the non-believers and don’t-really-cares that will likely be more drawn to a contemporary Hollywood spectacle of Biblical proportions than will the devout who’d prefer a rendition they’re more familiar with and less distracted by in the casting.

 Scott’s visual dynamics in Exodus … are outstanding, just as the concept that someone who was raised with a vision of himself as being within the realm of Egyptian royalty would have a hard time coming to grips with his actual slave heritage and the further burden of being a leader of people who hardly know him within their context while he’s taking orders from a grumpy child (Bale has even said of his character that Moses “was likely schizophrenic … and barbaric”), but even at 2 ½ hours there’s not enough meat to this meal, instead too much of the appetizers of who Moses was as the bright star in the palace, how he clumsily stumbled into a meeting with a God who does nothing to bring about a complete-worldview-change in this former-royalist who’s now being told to abandon his immediate family to take on a seemingly-impossible task, along with questions about why we're not getting more substance about the night of Passover in its clash of liberation vs. lamentation, more of a sense of what is to come when these newly-freed-people now have a future with earthly and heavenly leaders who will offer them a destiny barely dreamed off until now (but, then, we see little of the Hebrews' perspective at any time, just that of Moses in his one-man-savior-role).  For all of its 1950s-based cheesiness and glossing-over of then-contemporary-social-inequities, DeMille’s version of this story gives it a sense of narrative-appropriate-loftiness that I’m just not feeling from Scott’s much-hyped-updating, no matter how sincere the intentions were. 

Will Exodus ... Take Proper Aim on the Box Office?
  And, finally, as even the “Hellywood”-hater, noted in that 3rd link far below, says, Scott has followed DeMille (and most every other Tinseltown-based-Biblical/ancient-times-production) by casting European types in the main roles whereas the characters are Semitic (admittedly, a type of European, in DNA terms—as are other Mediterranean and South Asian peoples, but if such a person as Moses even existed around 1300 BC he surely didn’t look much like Christian Bale any more than Jesus likely looked like Jeffery Hunter or Max von Sydow); however, as Scott explains here"'I can't mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,' Scott says.  'I'm just not going to get it financed.  So the question doesn't even come up.'").  Certainly, arguments are made all the time that casting should be more inclusive, that characters from this era and location (for example) shouldn't look like they were brought in from L.A., London, and Sydney, but given that the 2 leads in Exodus ... are English (Bale—his preference, even though he was born in Wales) and Australian (Edgerton) for producing and return-on-investment purposes, at least I guess we can accept that for family-continuity-sake it then becomes acceptable to hear additional British-type-accents from Turturro and everyone else, even though that just perpetuates the Euro-American-perception of world history that we're learned all too often from old movies (still, it's just another oddity to get past, along with that child-angel, who may be supposed to imply the innocence of youth but to me just comes across as a petulant brat who seems to have wandered over from a horror movie about spirits of the damned still seeking revenge on the living).  So, in trying to find an appropriate Musical Metaphor to comment upon this massive, visually-impressive, serious-but-in-my-opinion-seriously-flawed-approach to the epical story of Jewish nationhood I flirted with the silly enunciation number from Singin' in the Rain (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen; 1952), "Moses Supposes" (at, with Kelly and Donald O'Conner as Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown learning the transition to sound movies from a dialogue coach [Bobby Watson] before destroying his lesson completely), or even something more triumphant such as "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" (which, admittedly, refers to events that supposedly come a bit later, when the Hebrews conquer their way back into Canaan), with this rendition by Mahalia Jackson at (video date unknown), that at least works thematically in terms of being a likely-early-19th-century American slave song, also about freedom and salvation based on the memory of the Hebrews' liberation.  

 However, I finally decided to go with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (from their 1966 Pet Sounds album—I know I’ve used this twice already, which I try to avoid, but sometimes the fit is just too right to reject) at https://www. (with live footage from that time apparently synched to the recording, Bruce Johnson having replaced Brian Wilson on bass and high harmonies on stage at that point, when they performed as the basic quintet with no backup musicians, just as I first saw them in early 1967 in Austin, TX) because Exodus: Gods and Kings clearly leaves us with the impression that God, indeed, only knows why horrible circumstances evolve within His realm yet are allowed to continue unabated (another contemporary parallel that I’ll leave to your further consideration), why divine intervention is used in this story only as a bargaining device with Pharaoh Ramses (in the written version it’s even more mysterious to me, in that God keeps “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” so that plague after plague must be used to further damage the Egyptians, as well as send their army to destruction even after the Hebrews have been allowed to leave) rather than for swift and final liberation (this is clearly a Deity you don’t want to piss off, as many further Books of these old stories will verify), and why Bale can’t get at least one triumphant “By God, we did it!” image to equate with Heston’s grandiosity in the older version (OK, cheap shot; I know that this Moses is supposed to be much more humble—except in war—but I just don’t get nearly enough of a sense of him as a leader, more like he’s always being led by God while doubting in himself at every turn after his fall from semi-royalty).  It’s obvious I’m not the only one with qualms about Exodus …, given the abysmal 28% positive rating in Rotten Tomatoes (somebody tell that guy in the already-noted Satanic Illuminati Exposed link that as much as he despises the Hollywood mentality, a major segment of the overall cinematic apparatus has dismissed this movie also, but for entirely different reasons) and the not-so-great 52% from Metacritic (a statistical surprise for them to be the more accepting of the 2 critics' groups).  You might like Exodus: Gods and Kings for the grandeur of its production values or even for its approach; I was intrigued but just not fully convinced, as I’m not sure Moses—if he ever existed—would have been either.  I can understand my lack of faith in this narrative, but I’d like to hear more from those who profess this particular tradition (who probably don’t account for much of my readership, though) as to how Scott’s reinterpretations are going over with them.
Short(er) Takes
                  Top Five (Chris Rock [screenwriter as well])
A famous standup comic/action-movie star wants to move to serious art, but even as his wedding to a reality-TV-star approaches he finds himself attracted to a reporter.

What Happens: 
(I’d intended to go into more detail on this movie but after practically rewriting the Book of Exodus on the last one I’ll keep it more concise [What's that you say? Edit?  Oh, how bourgeois! Actually, I do edit, so can you imagine how long these postings would be if I didn't?  Sorry, no intention of scaring you like that.]; however, if you want more details than I usually provide—although the Wikipedia editors say it “may be too long or excessively detailed” [my kind of journalism, but I guess I’ll never end up with a part-time job there]—take a look at this site.)  Andre Allen (Rock) has had a successful career so far: well-received standup comedian, Time’s Man of the Year in 2005, by 2010 very successful and beloved in his 3 Hammy the Bear movies (playing a cop in a bear suit whose catch-phrase is “It’s Hammy time!”), on the verge of marrying BRAVO reality-TV-star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union).  Yet, he yearns for a different, more artistic fame, so after admitting his alcoholism and being sober for 4 years he aspires to be taken seriously with Uprize, an historical drama about a Haitian slave uprising that he wrote, directed, and starred in (as Rock’s actual art and life start reflecting each other a bit, while also conjuring up easy comparisons to other stories about pop-stars-turning serious, as with the older Stardust Memories [Woody Allen, 1980] and the current Birdman [Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu; review in our November 6, 2014 posting] where Allen and Michael Keaton, respectively, portray similar situations of difficult mid-career-transitions, resisted strongly by their followers [Andre’s public and countless interviewers keep asking when he’ll make the next Hammy movie]).  In Top Five (a reference to situations where Andre and his friends exchange thoughts on who their 1st-5th all-time-best-rappers are, another situation that encouraged me to keep these comments brief because this is music I have little interest in nor connection with, barely recognizing any of the names that are thrown around easily by those much better in the know than I am), we follow Andre through a day in NYC, as he’s followed by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), trying to get an exclusive-content-interview with him even as they constantly clash over just about everything until they stumble upon her boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm), and his boyfriend which devastates her (yet providing us with funny flashbacks about his passion for anal probes from her) until she lets it slip that she’s the secret writer behind the film critic identity of James Nielsen, who has frequently blasted Andre’s movies.  Needless to say, he feels angry and betrayed.

 They go their separate ways, Andre to a strip-club-bachelor-party, where he gets marital advice from Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, and Jerry Seinfeld (as themselves) until Chelsea shows up, apologizes for her deception, seemingly catches a ride with Andre as he’s headed to the airport to fly west for the wedding but actually steers him to a comedy club where he has a successful return to the stage, then he drops her off at her apartment and heads for his flight before finding one of her shoes in his party-gift-bag—a reference to the Cinderella story that Chelsea’s young daughter has been rewriting where her female protagonist goes to a Prince concert.  Our movie ends here, with the clear implication that Andre’s going back to Chelsea rather than to his wedding.

So What? The plot is simple here, the cast is full of some familiar faces to me (including current Saturday Night Live stars Leslie Jones and Jay Pharoah, previous SNL and 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan [before his recent horrible highway accident] as old friends of Andre’s; Taraji P. Henson and Gabourney Sidibe as themselves as actors in Uprize; Kevin Hart as Benny, Erica’s manager who’s trying frantically to save Andre’s career; Cedric the Entertainer as a music promoter in 2003 Houston whose escapades with hookers and drugs land Andre in jail, beginning his road to sobriety) and lots of others who are likely more familiar to rapper-aware-younger-generations (even as I’m writing and posting all this, I’m working around my 67th birthday festivities), Rock as Andre gets off a constant stream of humorous and socially-conscious comments (although this script was written awhile ago, some remarks are ironically-mind-stopping, such as President Obama being blamed for everything that goes wrong in this country because he’s Black or Bill Cosby as a master storyteller, before we had reason to wonder about some of those stories he was telling years ago concerning his innocence regarding sexual abuse of his coworkers), catches us off-guard at times (as when Andre finally gives money to an obnoxious older man he seems to know [played by Ben Vereen], then reveals to Chelsea that it’s his father), and allows this story to develop depth without gimmicks, especially through the impact of Dawson’s marvelously-sincere-screen-presence.  He also makes some very useful commentary about our cult of celebrity where private moments such as his bachelor party and wedding become TV fare on BRAVO, yet his fiancée (who manipulates their relationship for her benefit, such as changing their wedding-ring-styles so that they’ll look better on-screen) admits to him that while she’s furious with him for getting arrested during that long day where we follow his packed agenda (he wandered into a grocery store, saw a display of Hammy the Beer, and went ballistic), providing a televised scandal prior to their nuptials, she also needs his celebrity to justify her career, which she admits she can contribute nothing to in terms of actual talent (sounds like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to me, but what do I know about current pop culture?—Erica also tells Andre that she gave him a lot of oral sex so he now owes her for something he’s not that interested in; I have no idea where Kanye and Kim are at on that topic).  There’s nothing groundbreaking nor revelatory about Top Five, but it’s acutely written, flawlessly performed, disturbing in what is shows us about the fragility of on-stage-stars who battle their weaknesses in private, and sweetly romantic in its implied happy ending.

All of the Top Five Publicity Photos Are Very Upbeat
(more so than me about Blogspot's constant damn 

unfixable layout problems, such as the one right above)
Bottom Line
Final Comments:
I can’t really fault Chris Rock for his movie competing with the similarly-themed Birdman through the chance of production timing and release (which isn’t a big problem anyway because both have their clever, unique sensibilities around the basic theme of career-at-a-standstill-with-a-change-in-direction-needed), but the unintended coincidence does provide some distraction, just as the concept of suddenly meeting your better-intended-life-partner while you’re on your way to your wedding may be a bit too cutesy (but still hard to resist when these two actors provide such great chemistry with each other, even as their characters find themselves almost ready to drop their reservations—and underwear—for a quick nightclub-restroom-encounter because their bickering has successfully provided the age-old-trope of vicarious foreplay, where conflict slowly turns to lust).  Nevertheless, I applaud Rock for being witty, serious, inventive, and bluntly-foul-mouthed about situations that demand addressing (including a hypothesis that the hidden-racial-agenda of the original Planet of the Apes [Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968]—getting us back to Charlton Heston again, a White hero up against dark-skinned-brutes, as Andre explains it—led to the paranoiac-killing of Martin Luther King just a few days after the initial release of this sci-fi-standard); it’ll be interesting to see if Chris can carry this kind of perspective into another film that takes on the current, growing national crisis over police tactics and “matter”ed lives, which has evolved dramatically in recent months but too late to be incorporated as it might have been into Top Five.

 As noted before, I don’t know enough about rap to offer a Musical Metaphor appropriate to the content of this story, but I do know that beneath all of the social commentary beats the romantic heart of a storyteller who wants to encourage troubled souls to find their soulmates so the chosen song could be a lot more sweetly-romantic than the hard surface of Top Five might imply.  I mean, it could even be as mushy as something I wrote in about 1967 with my long-ago-roommate, Jerry Graham (words mine, music his), called “Love Blooms in the Middle of the Rain” (which fortunately exists in no recorded form today that I know of, so you’re safe from hearing it), with the only lyrics I can remember being “Love blooms in the middle of the rain, sunshine is growin’ again, fields of lilies weave and bow, the world is younger now…”  OK, sappy, I admit, but does every catchy song—even those from recording artists much more famous than Jerry and me (not hard to accomplish, I admit)—have to be a minor work of art?  Is there really all that much substance to The Beatles’ “Mr. Moonlight” (one of the few they recorded but didn’t write [Roy Lee Johnson did, in roughly the mid-1950s], on the 1964 U.K. Beatles for Sale and U.S. Beatles ’65 albums), at 2MA, or Madonna’s “True Blue” (from the 1986 album of the same name) at  I don’t think so, but rather than try to rationalize some schmaltzy love song as being the hidden-heart of Top Five I’ll just play out the romanticized Cinderella theme with the magical transformations of “Bibbity Bobbity Boo” (from the 1950 Disney animated classic [directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson]) at https://www., so that these magic moments can fuel your own romantic fantasies until we meet again next week (I’m seeing The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies [Peter Jackson] as it opens on my birthday this week, but I’m going to enjoy some non-cinematic-time with my own romantic fantasy, my wonderful wife, Nina, so I’ll get back to you about the wrap-up of Middle Earth’s prequel-trilogy just before Christmas, after which I’ll take a week off to recharge my batteries).  In the meantime, I hope you find your own top 5 reasons for some holiday cheer, which Andre and Chelsea will likely soon be comparing, once they run out of rappers to rap about.
If you’d like to know more about Exodus: Gods and Kings here are some suggested links: (this site may contain the most data I’ve ever encountered since starting this blog—or at least it seems that way—so it may take quite awhile to download, depending on your computer; you may even get a “PLEASE UPGRADE YOUR BROWSER TO EXPERIENCE THIS SITE” message or one that tells you to at least upgrade to a newer version of Adobe Flash—so be prepared to consider those options, but if you do decide to bring your browser to a higher level of operation be sure and back up your important files first) (11:26 video from The Vigilant Christian organization’s Satanic Illuminati Exposed which chastises Exodus: Gods and Kings as another example of “Hellywood”’s [“the synagogue of Satan”] debasement of what they consider to be the authentic Christian message of Biblical “truths,” distorted terribly in this movie; I don’t subscribe to much of this but I do find it interesting how extreme the condemnation is by these “loving” Christians, although the narrator does end up praying for the salvation of anyone who might be falsely informed by exposure to this “Satanic” movie—for an interesting comparison, I encourage you to read Fiore Mastracci‘s much-more-reasoned-review at #!reviews/cwzt [skim down to find his specific commentary on Exodus ...] where this self-proclaimed-conservative, The Right Critic, also has problems with the “immoral … Humanism” nature of Hollywood films but comes to a completely different, positive response to Exodus: Gods and Kings which he explains in a clear fashion, even if I disagree a bit with his result)

If you’d like to know more about Top Five here are some suggested links: (this is one of those Red Band trailers with language fitting an R-rated movie; if you’d prefer a more standard, sanitized version here’s one at (20:01 Hip Hop Roundtable where actors Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson debate the top 5 rappers of all time with Angie Martinez, Ed Lover, Miss Info, Jayson Rodriquez, Datwon Thomas, and Shaheem Reid—this is for those of you who, unlike me, have any idea about the music and the musicians they’re discussing)

As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Exodus was better than I thought based on some reviews and comments. I would agree that casting European actors in these roles is suspect; also the story has little female presence. It is the right balance between sermon and action film to do very well with both audiences.

  2. Hi rj, Good to hear from you as always. I'll have to agree with your "right balance" concept as Scott's attempt to make his work more attractive to widely-divergent audience groups, but I still wish he'd made it a bit more majestic (not just well-visualized) overall. Ken