Wednesday 27 May 2015


(Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)

Chemistry is so important to on-screen romance. And in this tale of one woman and three men, it is important that she have some chemistry with at least two of them.
And while Cary Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts have an undeniable bucketload of chemistry as the two leads here - Batsheba Everdeene and Gabriel Oak, and yes, like Dickens, Thomas Hardy had a serious case of give-your-characters-apallingly-unsubtle-clues-to-their-personalities-in-their-names-itis - that mysterious quality is conspicuous by its absence in her scenes with Michael Sheen (as Mr Boldword) and Tom Sturridge (as the caddish soldier Frank Troy). And while that works in the movies favour in one sense (we really really want Batsheba and Gabriel to end up together), it absolutely does not in another (there is never really any doubt that Batsheba and Gabriel will end up together).
Still, three of those four actors are fine, and Sturridge is easily hateable as Frank, partly because the character is utterly unsympathetic and partly because he is so terrible in the role; modern and smug and posturing, he fails to communicate the suffering that has made Frank what he is.
Vinterberg's film does a good job of capturing what makes Hardy, well, Hardy. The landscape is a character here; beautiful and terrible and ever-present. Cutaways of nature between scenes suggest the small scale of the human problems on display. Passion broils beneath the surface of everyone, and Mulligan and - especially - Schoenearts do a good job of showing that, with each of their scenes seeming  on the brink of something. It always looks fantastic, with a rich palette of browns and deep greens reflecting the earthy passions of Hardy's world in contrast to the more delicate tones of Jane Austen, say. and while novelist David Nicholls' script skirts romcom cliche, it never quite mis-steps, instead finding the simple dramas in Hardy's tale.
All in all it works because it treats the cliches of period romantic drama as if they are not cliches at all, as if they are the best thing ever. And that makes them feel somewhat fresh.

Tuesday 26 May 2015


(Brad Bird, 2015)

Narratively, Tomorrowland is a mess.
It has a charming but disposable prologue that goes on for about ten minutes longer than it should. It starts after that, then restarts a while later. It doesn't introduce its big star until almost half way through. It doesn't really explain who the bad guys are or what they're doing until the last act, meaning that we don't understand what's going on or what the stakes are for most of the film. Even then it all culminates in a pretty stock "blow-up-the-big-bad-device" ending, with a couple of simultaneous fights going on. Much of the story is made up of (admittedly impressive) action sequences, though they never flow into one another and rarely arise organically from the story. Inbetween the action scenes, there is a hell of a lot of what Bird identified in The Incredibles as "monologuing", as characters explain the story to one another (and the audience).
There are many good things too. This is an ambitious and even personal blockbuster film, about optimism and dreaming. It's very earnestness is unfashionable, and it makes that unfashionability part of its theme.
The design is fitfully lovely and sometimes lazy (the future as a pastel world of odd fashions and flying skate-boards, essentially), and after taking forever to set up the relatively dull real life of its heroine, Casey (Britt Robertson), it feels like it skips through the interesting stuff later in the film at hyper-speed, making the climax rushed and under-explained.
The cast are solid - Clooney gives good grump, young Raffey Cassidy is excellent, and Laurie monologues better than most - and Bird delivers on thrills and incident, but it never really works, hamstrung by that bizarre structure, and the way so many incidental details are far more fascinating than anything happening in the main plot.
And then there is Bird's usual theme of special people, doing special things, twisted here around a strangely polemical disappointed tone: how dare we mess up the future and let down the dreamers and the optimists? We could have built a utopia! Instead all we want to do is sit around and watch disaster porn.

Monday 25 May 2015


(John Sayles, 1987)

Matewan is a masterpiece. John Sayles' best film, and one of the greatest and most overlooked films of the 1980s, it tells the story of a Miners Strike in West Virginia in 1920 which eventually ends in horrible violence.
Sayles is a fascinating director. A true independent, with a maverick streak, he writes, directs and edits each of his own films, writes novels and short stories, acts in other films as well as working as an uncredited script doctor on bigger movies for the studios, notably Apollo 13. He was in the middle of a rich seam of creativity in the late 80s, when he made Matewan. His next film, Eight Men Out was set in the same historical period as Matewan, but in the utterly different world of East Coast Baseball. The two films do have some thematic similarities, with their stories of groups of comrades facing coercion, moral courage and the damage wrought by politics.
Sayles has always been a great writer. Each of his films, from his first, "Return of the Seacausus Seven" (1980), is beautifully written, with wise, truthful, rounded characters, nice, frequently witty dialogue and unforced, organic plotting. His visual style has been more of an issue. He can be slightly pedestrian visually, though his storytelling is always clear and his editing is natural and smooth. His solution to his visual limitations seems to have been to hire the best Directors of Photography he possibly could.
Matewan had a budget of just $4 Million, which is a tiny amount for such an ambitious film which is so dependent on a convincing, detailed period recreation for its authenticity. Sayles wisely recruited the great Haskell Wexler as his cinematographer, and as a result, Matewan is hauntingly beautiful, full of muted, dusky lighting and striking compositions.
Its plot details the arrival in the town of Matewan of a young, idealistic union Organiser, written by Sayles and played by Chris Cooper as an almost mythic figure. His attempts to unite the striking miners and the immigrant scabs brought in by the Mining company result in an escalation of hostilities by the company's thuggish strike-breakers. Alongside Cooper, there are appearances by actors who would become Sayles' semi-regulars like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell. There is also a striking performance from Will Oldham as a young miner-cum-preacher. When I first encountered Oldham in his guise as a musician, some years after I had seen the film, I was shocked to discover that the man responsible for this music was the actor from Matewan. He's as startling a screen presence as he is a songwriter, and indeed all of the films performances are strong. Sayles has always been a fine director of actors. But perhaps his most obvious gift is a talent for Altmanesque multi-character narratives, such as City of Hope, Lone Star and Sunshine State. Matewan flirts with this sub-genre, following the effects of the strike and Cooper's arrival upon many of the people involved. Sayles' work generally has a significant political component also, and Matewan is perhaps his most explicitly political film, with its portrayal of a labour dispute as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, informed by the cynicism the distance of 60 years of labour struggle in America has provided him.
That struggle finally erupts in the film's climax, inspired by the historical "Massacre of Matewan", when the Union thugs and the miners battle in the town. Sayles' screenwriting for the studios has tended to take in more genre material than his own directorial career, but Matewan's finale seems to suggest a classic Western scenario, with the two sides meeting on a railway line before an apocalyptic gunfight begins. The shooting of this sequence itself evokes Sam Peckinpah or Walter Hill, with heads exploding like ripe fruit and the air ringing with the reports of fired weaponry. Its a fantastic, ferocious climax, unlike anything else in Sayles' career, and all the more powerful and surprising for that. It also shows him - in collaboration with Wexler - as a visually exciting director, in perhaps the only straight set-piece he has ever attempted in his career. But he shows us the consequences of such violence - characters lie dead and bleeding. Others weep over the bodies of their loved ones, and Sayles' camera takes it all in, just as it had the carnage beforehand. Its a great ending to a great film in what remains an interesting, unique career.

Sunday 24 May 2015


(Cornel Wilde, 1967)

Beach Red is the story of an American attack on a Japanese-held Island in the Pacific during World War 2. It opens with an almost 40 minute long sequence of the preparation for and action of the landing on the Island's beaches by the Americans, then follows one unit as they move inland, sending out various recon patrols and encountering pockets of resistance. This sort of material had been covered in a hundred films before, as well as in such novels as James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" and Mailers "The Naked & the Dead". But Wilde avoided the cliches of many of those films while adopting a sensitive, meditative approach suggesting he was aware of the novels. Beach Red uses several risky stylistic techniques in its attempt to tell this story differently. Wilde uses first person point of view shots. He throws in moments when we hear the men's musings in brief snatches of voiceover as they think their frightened, selfish, sentimental thoughts. His Captain thinks, a little comedically : "Would there be Wars if clocks were never invented?" Other men ponder their own fear of death, their chances of survival, their loved ones at home. He also features visual flashbacks, generally played out in artful montages of still photos, representing (surprisingly effectively) the memories playing through these men's minds under high stress. Men remember wives, lovers, children, houses. Several key men are given actual flashbacks, always to encounters with women. Wilde's own flashbacks to his wife (Wilde's then-wife Jean Wallace) are poetic and melancholy, the effect lessened slightly by images of his son playing with a toy gun leadenly intercut with shots of men dying on the battlefield.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because Wilde's film seems to have been a definite influence on Malick's sublime The Thin Red Line.
Beach Red features a moment where the advancing Americans troop though a field, passing by a still, ancient-looking native farmer, as does The Thin Red Line. Both feature cutaways to the Island's wildlife, both treat the Japanese defenders sympathetically, even acknowledging their inner lives (Wilde with flashbacks, Malick with a voiceover). Both feature conflict between pragmatic, stoic Sergeants and liberal, sensitive Officers. Beach Red may be Wilde's most beautiful film, it's lovely attempt to capture the play of shadow and light beneath the jungles canopy only slightly bettered by Malick's film. Wilde's film also seems to have influenced Saving Private Ryan, in the horrible violence of its beach landing scenes (which of course seem utterly tame in comparison with Spielberg's ordeal) and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in its even-handed portrayal of the Japanese side of the conflict. Violence and what it morally reveals about mankind was obviously a theme which interested Wilde, since it is central to The Naked Prey, Beach Red, and his next film as director, No Blade of Grass (1970). Beach Red stands out as a memorable and inventive combat film, and again its success is partly down to Wilde's determination to concentrate so singlemindedly upon the action at its centre. We are shown nothing of the wider campaign, and only learn of the men's pasts as they tell one another. Instead we follow them through this primordial jungle and all of the surreal horror of battle together. Distant explosions are picked out by Wilde's camera, but he is only really interested in what is happening inside these men as they deal with the violence closer to hand. The idea of violence reducing men somehow, tearing them away from civilization, is suggested. The film's most memorable moment may just be the one which best fuses the interior and exterior worlds of one soldier - as he lies dying by a tree, mentally listing his conquests, Wilde shockingly pours blood in a thick drip down a still photo montage, and the man dies.


(Cornel Wilde, 1965)

The Naked Prey was a big step forward for its actor-director Cornel Wilde and is probably his most fondly remembered film today. Adapted from the story of the Trapper John Colter and his pursuit through Wyoming by Blackfoot Indians, the film relocates the action to Africa. Wilde is a hunter guiding a party of privileged white men through the Savannah when they cross and greviously offend a local tribe. The tribe attack the party, kill everybody else (in some excrutiatingly inventive ways), and strip Wilde naked before sending him racing off alone, a group of them prepared to hunt after him for sport. But Wilde is not prepared to go so easily, and he fights back as he flees, steadily evening things up. Its an utterly distinctive and interesting film, which is an uncomfortable watch in its opening act, for its casual cultural assumptions and stiff dramatics. Once it becomes a chase movie, Wilde strips the narrative down entirely until the action is brutal, the setting somewhat elemental, the characterisation incisive and sparing - everything is cast aside in a rush of narrative momentum. Wilde's character is never even given a name. He is just "the man", an obvious nod to the wider meaning Wilde was searching for. As a director, he had a great eye for action, and the action scenes here are all tense and exciting as Wilde's character steadily eliminates his hunters one by one. And those hunters are humanised - we see them fight amongst themselves, experience doubt and anger - though never anything less than relentless and frightening. For all their awkwardness, the film's early scenes seem to criticise the obvious racism of the colonial ruling class, and its use of the songs of the African Nguni tribe was far ahead of its time for a Hollywood film.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of The Naked Prey is that it focuses upon the chase at its centre until that chase becomes a subject worthy of such examination. It is revealed as a complex ritual, a metaphor for human survival in the world, for man's relationship with his environment, a testing ground of strength and courage. Mainly, it strips away civilizing instincts, leaving both pursued and pursuer little better than animals. Wilde seems obsessed with man's choice to use violence as a sort of means of expression and the moral consequences of this choice, and the opening narration almost summarises the film's themes : “And man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts, and their way of life was his.” Its emphasis on this almost dialogue-free, zen-like approach to action as a subject in and of itself has been somewhat influential - Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is virtually a remake, transplanted to Central America, and the Coen Brothers (who remade the film on Super-8 as teens) were presumably influenced by it in their approach to the aborted To the White Sea (there are even similarities with the chase segments of No Country for Old Men.


(James Gray, 2007)

James Gray's third film as writer-director, We Own the Night, feels generally a little too familiar. It covers territory audiences know well from a clutch of other films - New York Cops hunting down a drug ring, a man caught between friends and family, loyalty, violence, the dark streets of the American city in the past three decades, guilt, justice, revenge. You've seen it all before. You've seen it a few time sin the last decade, in fact. You've seen American Gangster or The Departed. We Own the Night is like a younger brother to those two films - its stars are less starry, its director less of a name, its budget and running time obviously less inflated.
Gray is a true auteur - he has written and directed each of his films, and they share his thematic concerns. He is interested in family, in violence, in guilt and responsibility. He is a gifted director. Each of the films is directed with a confidence and inventiveness that is remarkably assured. The problem seems to lie with his writing, which can be uneven. He writes some beautiful scenes - sparkling dialogue and powerful emotions brought to the surface, realistically and painfully - but also some real clunkers. The plotting - particularly in We Own the Night- can seem horribly second-hand and derivative. When in doubt, resort to violence, seems to be Gray's way. But his characters can ground the films with their painful dilemmas, each of them conflicted and agonised by their lives.
What is most distinctive is Gray's seriousness. Each of his films is sombre and darkly atmospheric, intent on its own little tragedy. The Yards seems bent on turning itself into a mini-Godfather with its seeming mission to look like a John Alton-shot film noir in colour and its operatic heights of tension and release. Indeed, each of his films is beautifully lensed, and Gray deserves praise for his classicism, his determination to shoot films uncorrupted by modern editing styles and lighting techniques. It gives his work a timeless look, warm and lived-in yet never shrinking from the grubbiness of the urban underbelly they observe. His skill as a director is most apparent in the impact each of his set-pieces delivers. We Own the Night, for instance, delivers a couple of stunning scenes. The first, a deafening, bloody police raid on a drug factory in a tenement building, is preceded by an equally impressive build-up of tension as one character feels that exposure as a police mole is close. The second is a car chase along a highway in a rainstorm. Here Gray's cutting and shot choice is exemplary yet never predictable, keeping the scene exciting yet intimate, horrific and convincingly confusing as it is. The film's finale - a bracingly suspenseful and visceral pursuit on foot through a field of reeds - is another example of his gift for set-pieces, as is the central fist-fight in The Yards, perhaps the most realistic ever put on film. He is adept at evoking clammy fear, the dread of discovery, the adrenaline of sudden violence, always a you-are-there feeling of inhabiting a scene, perhaps because his approach to such scenes is always fresh and different.
Despite all this the best scene in We Own the Night is the opening credits. I say "credits" although there are none. The movie's title is only visible as part of a badge in one of the photos making up the opening photo montage. This montage is composed entirely of period photos of NYC police at work - and a few evocative crime scene shots - from the 70s or early 80s. These photographs tell their own vivid and intriguing tales, with the faces looking out from some of them, the perfectly captured moments of real life, real police, real criminals, drug paraphernalia. You can almost smell some of the rooms, the stink of sweat and cigarettes. The photos are all black & white, full of subtly textured greys, and reminiscent in many cases of the work of legendary crime scene photographer Weegee. An instrumental, loungey lite-jazz reading of "I'll Be Seeing You" by Jackie Gleason's Orchestra plays over the top, its elegiac sadness counterpointing the bleak starkness of some of the images. Its a strangely potent sequence, and a reminder of the unequivocal power of the still photograph to capture an instant. It sets an aesthetic standard the rest of the film has significant trouble reaching, though Gray and his excellent cast give it a good go.


(Roman Polanski, 1971)

Polanski made Macbeth in the middle of one of the greatest runs of films in the history of cinema. He also made it soon after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. Both are evident in the film itself, a hugely accomplished Shakespeare adaptation that nevertheless always plays and feels like a Polanski film, filled as it is with darkness, violence, grief and pain.
What is perhaps most impressive is the atmosphere.  From the first sequence of the Witches on a beach, performing a spell as they bury items, the score by the Third Ear Band - which could have been played at any time over the last few centuries - and the muted, painterly cinematography of Gil Taylor combine to create an awful, almost physical sense of foreboding. Jon Finch plays Macbeth as a man weighed down by everything, only truly free amidst the violence of the last scenes, and Francesca Annis makes Lady Macbeth ambitious and manipulative, yes, but never the evil villainess some other actresses have given us.
Polanski struggles to make a few of the dialogue scenes sing - Macbeth engaging the assassins to kill Banquo is a real low point - but each of the set-pieces is fabulous, and the film works well at conjuring up a vision of the ancient, weird Britain hinted at in the play.

Saturday 23 May 2015


(Christian Petzold, 2014)

Petzold's control just gets more nuanced and precise by the movie. This noir set in the rubble of post-war Berlin and haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust is a frustrating, cold but compelling watch until an extraordinary climactic scene transforms it into something transcendent.
Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a Berlin singer who has barely survived Auschwitz and is horribly disfigured. After plastic surgery, while she awaits transport to Palestine, she searches for her husband Jonny (Roland Zehrfeld) through the ruins of the city and eventually finds him working in a nightclub in the American sector. Assuming she is dead, he doesn't recognise her but sees that she somehow resembles his wife and involves her in a scheme which involves her pretending to be herself while he remakes her in Nelly's image, adjusting her walk, hair and make-up, buying her clothes...
In this way an entirely twisted romance plays out, as Nelly re-learns herself through the eyes of the husband who hid and protected her but may have given her up to save himself.
Petzold has a minimalist, deceptively simple style that demands much of his cast. But Hoss and Zehrfeld are equal to the task, each delivering in tricky parts. Hoss is sensational, evoking her character's traumatised fragility in her face but also her body language, then slowly blooming as she re-discovers her husband and the reality of her past. Zehrfeld is always conflicted by what he is doing: desperate yet furious with himself, drawn to this woman he knows cannot be his wife. That intense final scene is all about their faces and they are both immense, giving it an emotional charge which is shattering.
Prior to that the film is a noir and appropriately tense. Berlin is all shadows and bombed-out houses, off-duty US soldiers and furtive encounters in alleyways. Petzold prominently references Eyes Without A Face and Vertigo. And yet the holocaust gives his film a sting unlike either of those films, best manifested in the character of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), working to get herself and Nelly to Palestine and sadly tracking down the evidence that the rest of their friends died in the camps. Her fate is cold and shocking, and it seems to foreshadow that ending, where Nelly's serial number tattoo is seen for the first time.

Saturday 16 May 2015


(George Miller, 2015)

One viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road won't be enough. There is too much detail, too much crammed into some of George Miller's frames for anybody to take in on first viewing.
This is what action cinema can do, Miller seems to be saying to the many hacks and charlatans who have come to dominate the genre since he made his last Mad Max film in 1985. This is what it can be. And what it can be is a relentless, absurdly beautiful steam train of narrative momentum, with no body fat, moments of incredible spectacle unlike anything in recent cinema, a minimum of exposition or dialogue, character who are defined by their actions, a streak of jet-black wit straight through the middle, and a grotesque edge which makes it almost queasily unforgettable.
Very loosely a sequel, the film picks up Max (Tom Hardy) wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland, still traumatised by past losses, as he is chased down and captured by a band of white-painted War Boys (whose chant does recall the Duran Duran song "Wild Boys", the video of which was a straight Russell Mulcahy-helmed Mad Max: The Road Warrior rip-off). They take him back to the Citadel, run by Megaton Joe (Hugh Keys-Byrne), a tumorous old warlord kept alive by a breathing apparatus attached to his face, who maintains order by rationing the water he has drilled for underground, keeps a farm of wet nurses to supply mothers milk, grows crops and guarantees obedience from his legions of soldiers through the mythology he has concocted, a mix of suicide bomber Paradise talk and Viking beliefs ("Valhalla" crops up repeatedly) with modern notions and chrome spray-paint.
Max is used as a "blood-bag", reviving ailing War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Soon he is chained to the hood of a car and hunting down the rogue Furiosa (Charleze Theron) through the wastes as she makes a run for it  in her War Rig (a huge, customised lorry) with Megaton Joe's entire stable of young wives in tow. Soon enough she and Max have made an uneasy truce, both intent on survival, as hordes of Joe's warriors chase them on an armada of vehicles.
Perhaps 15-20 minutes of this film are made up of dialogue, spoken by characters who are not otherwise engaged in violence of one kind or another. The rest is all action. And Miller is a master of action, orchestrating immensely complex sequences featuring dozens of vehicles which are never remotely confusing or incoherent. The audience always knows what is at stake and who is where. Cars flip and explode, ram and jump, actors are flung and shot and catapulted, and you can feel it all, understand why it is happening and how it relates to everything else. This is a terribly rare quality in modern cinema, unfortunately, and it gives every action scene huge impact.
Even the relatively sparing use of cgi is effective - a dust storm early in the pursuit made me wince as it buffeted Max. A three-way fistfight is brilliantly done, reflecting character and personality just as much as it does the preferences of the fight co-ordinator.
Miraculously, none of these action scenes feel remotely pointless or ostentatious. They all advance the story or illustrate character. Just like every one of the thousands of details here, everything feels thought-out and organic.
The cast vanish into these roles. Hardy and Theron share first billing, and if he lacks something of Mel Gibson's raw and volatile star power in the role of Max, he is still magnetic and convincingly desperate and resourceful, and his physicality makes him believable in the action scenes. When he vanishes into the cobalt at night and returns with a blood-splattered face and a bag full of guns, you believe he's been capable of some awful violence. Theron has more of an arc and makes the most of it, making Furiosa a commanding warrior who craves escape. Hoult is almost as good as the War Boy who loses his faith, and the rest of the cast all fit beautifully into this bizarre, somewhat unhinged world, bringing its corners and edges to vivid life.
It looks and sounds amazing, too: cinematographer John Seale came out of retirement for this, and his work is exceptionally vibrant. This is probably the most beautiful action film ever made. Junkie XL's score is thunderous and exciting too.
But really, this is all about George Miller. Always a meter storyteller, at the age of 70 he has surpassed everybody else currently working at this sort of material with what may be the greatest film of his career. This is a glorious film.

Tuesday 12 May 2015


(George Miller, 1979)

This remains a tremendous oddity. Released at the tail-end of the series of "oz-ploitation" movies of the 1970s, it's exploitation roots are clear and part of its charm. It is full of unique idiosyncrasies, some of them supplied by Australian culture, others part of the narrative. Miller was still finding his voice, so there are plenty of clunky, clumsy, crude moments and scenes. But his genius as a visual storyteller is still more than evident.
The action scenes are largely terrific - visceral, brutal, exhilarating, and with a directness which is bracing, even shocking. Miller's style is so precise and powerful, it gives otherwise dull scenes a charge, even when the acting and dialogue is a little questionable. And it often is questionable. Scenes of Max (Mel Gibson) at home with his wife, sharing cute stories while Brian May's score ladles on the syrup can be hard to take. But then there is that weird factor. Max's wife plays the saxophone at home, for fun. His buddy Goose - the plot's sacrificial lamb, his fate a horror-movie death by fire revealed expressively during Max's visit to his hospital bed through gurgling sound effects, a single shot of a charred hand and Gibson's horrified reaction - enjoys a night with a bad nightclub singer. A stalk-through-the-woods sequence is revealed to be misleading (with a Boo Radley-esque figure) until it isn't. The chief of police waters plants topless, chewing on a stogie. The Toecutter's biker gang feel like they've come from another movie altogether, each of them chewing scenery, gurning, playing with props, each seemingly set on stealing the limelight from the others (no surprise to learn they were all Shakespearian stage actors, since their scenes feel much like an out of control improv session).
Against all this the splashes of horrific violence feel almost hallucinatory, and their impact is only increased. Gibson is all raw charisma and youthful beauty here, but you can see the star he would become. And yet Miller is the real star.

Saturday 9 May 2015


(Chris Rock, 2015)

Chris Rock is pushing himself in some unusual directions as he attempts to fit the talent that makes his stand-up so provocative and fascinating into cinema. So far, it hasn't entirely worked. On stage, using only his ideas, language and expressiveness, he can discuss anything, and flip between topics at will. His talent means an audience will always go with him. Relationships, sex, politics, showbiz, pop culture, everyday banalities, ageing - he can cover them all in a gig. And with Top Five he tries to do something similar.
But cinema - or cinema audiences, at any rate - demand that each narrative fits into a genre. It's how people understand what they're seeing, how they filter and adjust expectations, how they read stories and styles. And so Top Five is a romantic comedy, of sorts. It follows Andre Allen (Rock), a former stand-up turned Hollywood megastar, best known for a series of action comedies where he plays Hammy the Bear in a full bear suit (one of the best gags in the movie is the way everywhere he goes people constantly shout "Yo Hammy!" at him from the background) as he tries to promote his new film, "Uprize", about a Haitian slave revolt. Allen wants to be taken seriously, but the only thing the media are interested in is his forthcoming marriage to a huge reality star (Gabrielle Union). As part of the promotional circus, Allen agrees to having a New York Times journalist follow him around all day. That journalist turns out to be smart, beautiful, challenging Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), and as they get to know one another, Allen is forced to question some of his decisions and attitudes, and so is Chelsea.
That plot allows Rock to take plenty of shots at showbiz ridiculousness, but there are interesting ideas here about fame and the media, addiction and self-deception. If the big influences here seem to be Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, then the scattergun approach Rock chooses means this film is less consistent than their work. Some of the other material is suspect: much of the stuff about relationships is cliched bordering on retrograde, and there is more than a whiff of homophobia to one extended sequence in particular. But Rock's character is funny in a believable way, working himself up into a rant when forced to, and there are some really good gags here. He shared the yuks around too - alongside cameos for Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, DMX and Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps the best sequence in the movie sees Andre take Chelsea back to his roots, where an impromptu gathering of friends in an apartment is a series of riffs and friendly insults that does more to humanise him than the entire preceding hour.
Rock and Dawson are both good, but their chemistry is better - duelling intelligences, arguing and debating and bonding, all framed against New York in summer, shot gloriously by Manuel Alberto Claro, Lars Von Trier's usual D.P.
So: as a romcom, this works. But it's greater ambitions are what make it really interesting, even if it never quiet fulfils what Rock seems to be aiming for.