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Review – Rock of Ages (2012)

Rock of Ages gave me goosebumps.

I know, right? How stupid is that? Why would a silly little musical with rock songs from the 80s produce goosebumps in anyone? It happened more than once, too. At first, I tried to rationalize it by thinking “Well, it is a bit chilly in this theater, so it has to be because of that.” But the goosebumps returned, and only during some of the film’s many song numbers. Cold air wouldn’t abide by such a pattern, so the goosebumps had to be genuine.

Maybe it’s not so strange, though. I do love the music this movie indulges in, though only really from looking at it in the rear-view mirror. I was born in the early 80s, but I didn’t start caring about music until the mid-90s. By that time, bands like Def Leppard, Journey, and Twisted Sister were long gone from the pop culture spotlight. My love for their music would grow later on. This fondness thus stems from retro rather than genuine nostalgia, I guess you could say. Through hindsight, only the good parts of the 80s hair metal culture has remained in the public consciousness for people like me to latch on to. I don’t much care about the nasty excess and shallowness of the era. I do care about the shallow things, though: the catchy songs and the colorful aesthetics.

This is a mindset that Rock of Ages deliberately taps into. Everything about this movie is glitzy and polished. The songs aren’t so much the best of the era as the Greatest Hits thereof. Most of the singing is clean and lacking in texture – due to the slight autotuning, no doubt. Oh, the movie toys with “darker” elements in its plot, but it’s of little substance. Rock of Ages is all about celebrating the shallow things.

Like all jukebox musicals, the story is built around the lyrics of the songs selected. The year is 1987. Small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. She meets Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rock musician who works at the fabled Bourbon Room club. She too gets a job there as a waitress, and the two fall in love. Then PROBLEMS and OBSTACLES arise, as they tend to do. Dennis (Alec Baldwin), the club’s owner, has trouble making ends meet. He hopes that big-time rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) will revitalize business with a planned gig there, but Stacee is notoriously unreliable. There’s also the right-wing wife-of-a-mayor Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose main goal in life is to rid the city of sinful rock & roll completely.

The story is, to put it bluntly, weak. Clichéed developments run rampant everywhere, and there’s little about the going-ons that could be described as compelling even if one was feeling charitable. It could be easy to describe this as an inherent problem of the subgenre, but that would be to take the easy way out. Others have dabbled with the format and at least shown better intentions, if not necessarily results. Mamma Mia may have been a dud of a movie, but at least it presented a clearly defined mystery (“Which of these tree men is Amanda Seyfried‘s daddy?”) as its hook. Or you could look at Beatles musical Across the Universe, which while following a familiar formula still presents its story in an emotionally effective way. Compared to both these films, the plot of Rock of Ages is thin air. We can reasonably guess how things are going to turn out, and even if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t care.

Luckily for Rock of Ages, musicals can succeed in spite of lazy storytelling as long as the song numbers are good. The ones in this film are certainly passable. Yeah, I could have done with more of a raw edge to some of them, and more esoteric song choices would have been welcome, but there is a lot of joy and energy to everything. Gleeful indulgence in rock music is something I always find thrilling, and a club full of people singing along to a performance can be a thing of beauty. Whether it’s Boneta detailing his rock star dreams through “Jukebox Hero”, a rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by two unlikely suspects, or any of Tom Cruise’s big stage performances, I found myself with a big smile on my face more than I’d have expected. Not everything is a hit, though. A recurring problem is songs being shortened and hobbled, and others being mashed together into medleys that don’t quite serve their purpose. Then there are some numbers that are just plain bad. Chief amongst them would be Zeta-Jones’ performance of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, complete with awkward kicking choreography that had me cringing.

But the big saving grace of the film is Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx. He has never played a character quite like this one. Stacee is a blend of any number of rock band lead singers; there’s definitely traces of Axl Rose, David Lee Roth and Jim Morrison in the mix. He’s a diva, self-indulgent, hooked on booze and sex to the point where they have ceased being pleasure. He’s weary of a life he has become addicted to, which manifests itself in amusing ways. In one scene he looks eyes with someone important from across the room and makes his way over for what’s sure to be a heart-felt conversation, only to be sidetracked by a random groupie whom he starts making out with. Stacee just looks at his important someone with a semi-apologetic glance. “Sorry, can’t help it. This is who I am. Stacee fucking Jaxx.” There are moments in the film where Cruise is downright mesmerizing, even when the actual events are so ballsy and preposterous to raise many an eyebrow (watch out when “I Want To Know What Love Is” starts playing.) Guy Lodge at In Contention has written a great piece on this performance, and he articulates things much better than I could hope to. I’ll just note that this might well be my favorite performance of the year so far, and probably Cruise’s best work since Magnolia, or at least Collateral.

Compared to him, however, all the other actors fade entirely. Young leads Hough and Boneta are good singers, but they lack chemistry for their required romance. I don’t foresee this film launching either’s career onto the next level. The rest of the cast are filled with familiar names, but with so many actors, there’s not enough room for any to shine. That they all play thin clichées doesn’t helpt either. Other than those already mentioned, we also find Paul Giamatti as Slimy Manager, Mary J. Blige as Kind-Hearted Strip Club Owner, Malin Åkerman as Introspection-Inducing Reporter, and Russel Brand as… well, as Russel Brand, really. Seeing these names and characters, you can probably work out roughly what to expect of the performances. Other than Cruise, none of the actors in the film are likely to surprise you.

If I had to summarize Rock of Ages with one word, it would be “uneven”. There are passages of the film where the songs are really good, the comedy hits its marks, and the hum-drum plot is kept unobtrusive. Then there are other stretches where everything is just groan-inducing. There’s also some degree of filler here, which leads to a bloated running time of over 2 hours. Still, the overall impression I was left with at the end was a mildly positive one, though I fully recognize that this is not a film for everyone. If you despise musicals, Rock of Ages won’t change your mind. If you’re not a fan of 80s rock, there’s little reason to bother either as the main appeal of the film will be lost on you. Not even Tom Cruise’s amazing performance is enough to make this one a must-see. But if you’re like me and love musicals, are fascinated by Tom Cruise, and can’t get enough of Bon Jovi and Poison, you’re likely to find something to like here.

Score: 3/5

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Posted by on 27 June, 2012 in Reviews

 

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My Top 10 Favorite Movies of 1995

As usual, this goes by release year as listed on IMDB.

Honorable mentions: The City of Lost Children, Copycat, Heat, Senior Trip, Welcome to the Dollhouse

10 – CLOCKERS (Spike Lee)

“Who the fuck is Rosa Parks?”

The plot of Clockers may be about a murder mystery, but it has a wider scope than that. Not surprisingly when it comes to Spike Lee, the film deals with black people in New York. There’s tension going on between them and the white cops, but also under the microscope here are the crimes the African-Americans inflict upon each other. It’s an intriguing film thematically, but it’s also some of Lee’s best story-telling that I’ve seen, and it all comes together through his trademark audiovisual style, with bright colors and an effective use of music. There’s also a pretty great Harvey Keitel performance in here. Clockers is not the director’s best movie, but it definitely deserves to be talked about more than it is.

9 – GET SHORTY (Barry Sonnenfeld)

“Rough business, this movie business. I’m gonna have to go back to loan-sharking just to take a rest.”

There’s a lot to like about Get Shorty. The numerous movie-related references and meta-jokes are sure to tickle the fancy of most cinephiles, but the humor is still broad enough to appeal to anyone. Having wonderfully constructed dialogue lifted straight from the Elmore Leonard novel helps too. Throw in a twisting plot of a loan-shark trying to get his foot – and more – into the doorway of Hollywood, and you have one hell of a fun ride. Has John Travolta ever been cooler than in this one?

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 14 June, 2012 in Lists, Top 10 of a year

 

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My first ever cast screening (Eat Sleep Die)

During the movie:

“Oh, hey, I recognize that man. I saw him as we entered the theater. And there’s the guy we talked to on the train here.”

At the party after the movie:

“I recognize all these people! They were all in the film!”

I could get used to going to movie premieres/sneak previews/cast showings. Hypothetically, that is. I don’t expect to get many more opportunities of this kind. Yesterday, I attended my first one, and I had a great time.

The film is called Eat Sleep Die (original Swedish title Äta Sova Dö). A couple of friends of mine had landed bit parts in it, and one of them invited me along to this cast showing, which was something like the second ever screening of the film to anyone.

I wasn’t the only one who was new to this kind of thing. Eat Sleep Die is the feature film debut of director Gabriela Pichler, who won a Guldbagge – Sweden’s equivalent to the Oscars – for her short film Scratches (Skrapsår) two years ago. Furthermore, none of the actors had any real acting experience. This was something new, in one way or another, to everyone.

While the film was playing, you could still tell that there was a certain something in the air. You’d hear a chuckle sometime even when nothing funny was happening, presumably from someone who just saw him/herself on the big screen for the first time ever. A whispered word here and there, somehow very different from the usual chatter you might hear in cinema. I know I certainly smiled broadly when one of my friends appeared in a scene, or when a familiar local landmark became the focus of a shot.

When the credits had finished rolling, Pichler invited every cast member down to the stage. This turned out to be a bit over half of the people present by my estimation, but there were still plenty enough of us left seated to applaud them all heartily.

After the film, we were all treated to finger food and champagne. I’m not the best in the world at the whole mingling thing, but it was a lot of fun to hear people talk about their experience with working on and seeing the movie. Some felt that they had stumbled terribly over their lines, an opinion that was always met with “Really? I didn’t notice that at all from you” from the other guests. A lot mentioned that many of their scenes had gotten left on the cutting room floor – a reaction Pichler had warned before the film that many would have, as they had shot a lot and had to get the movie down to a reasonable running length. What most everyone seemed to agree on was that this was a great one-of-a-kind experience.

In addition to exchanging a few words with some of the actors – who all seemed like great people – I also got to chat briefly with Pichler herself. She turned out to be a very kind person who was very thrilled about the whole thing – the film, the process, the positive reception from everyone, and also everything that still lies ahead for her and the movie. She was worried that the sound hadn’t been quite right on this showing, something I and others had noticed as well, with the dialogue at times drowning in other parts of the audio. It might have been due to this one particular theater we had been in, but it was something they were going to look into regardless. This lead to a discussion of how different various cinemas can be, and how Avatar‘s 3D had worked much better in that place than in that other one, and then on to Prometheus and so forth. Talking to her was a lot of fun.

All in all, I had a great time. As I said earlier, I have never attended anything of this kind before. No film festivals, no launch parties, no nothing. Getting to be one of the very first to see a film, and to then hang out with the people involved in making it, was very cool. I hope I get more opportunities like this in the future. If not, that’s fine too. Either way, I’ll always have this one to look back on fondly.

Big thanks go out to the people involved for a superb event! I’m very grateful to have been allowed to attend.

Oh, and as for Eat Sleep Die? You know, the actual movie? It was good. Very good, in fact. I might write a review of it at some point, so keep your eyes open.

Eat Sleep Die (Äta Sova Dö) is about life in Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost province. It follows 20-year-old Rasa (Nermina Lukac) as she deals with being suddenly unemployed. The film will open in theaters in Sweden sometime in late summer or fall of 2012. Before that, it might also play at Venice International Film Festival.

From left to right: Emil (Movie-Talking Swede), Gabriela Pichler (director), Daniel Nymberg (actor), Milan Dragisic (actor).

 
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Posted by on 7 June, 2012 in Misc.

 

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Review – Prometheus (2012)

I wasn’t keeping up with all the advertising for Prometheus that arrived before its release. I saw a trailer for it at cinema once, and a friend insisted that I just had to see this one clip of Guy Pearce giving a speech. Neither told me a whole lot. I skipped the rest of all the viral marketing stuff, for the usual reasons. I went in knowing precious little about this movie, and having now seen it, I’m convinced this was the right course of action. There is nothing to be gained by having knowledge of a film where the lack of knowledge plays such an integral part.

Comparisons between Prometheus and Alien are inevitable. Prometheus was first conceived to be a prequel installment in the Alien saga, but then reports came in that no, it wouldn’t be, but it would be like an “embryo” to Alien. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is between those two phrasings, but whatever. Even so, Prometheus is indeed a sci-fi movie made by Alien director Ridley Scott. It isn’t Alien, but there are times where it’s certainly trying to be. Not even counting certain broad strokes in the plot department, there are enough blatant references and callbacks throughout the film that anyone who has seen Alien before will be reminded of it, even if they have no prior knowledge of who directed it.

Set in the end of the 21st century, a science expedition from Earth searching for the origin of mankind arrives at a distant planet. Then stuff happens. How’s that for a spoiler-free plot synopsis? No, you don’t want to know anything more.

There is a lot of things I like about Prometheus, and the part that has really stuck with me these 1.5 days since I saw it is the acting. Two performances in particular stand out. The most immediately striking is that of Michael Fassbender in the role of the android David. Mannered, polite, efficient, and with movements that are just a tad off for a human being. And yet there are depths to the character, both of intent and of emotion. The other strong performance is that of Noomi Rapace, of Millenium trilogy fame. I had been a bit concerned about the Swedish actress’ transition to Hollywood; she did okay in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, but her character was so flat and unnecessary that she might as well not have been in it at all. Not the kind of thing to jump-start a new phase in one’s career. Her Prometheus performance is just what the doctor ordered, however. She plays Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist whose religious beliefs gives her added incentive to take part in the expedition. Particularly in the second half of the movie, Rapace shows a great affinity for the action genre with teriffic sustained power. Here is where her performance rivals her star-making one as Lisbeth Salander, and if this doesn’t lead to more big roles for her, I don’t know what will. That she does this without her character coming off as merely Ellen Ripley 2.0 is all the more impressive.

Without going into spoiler-y specifics, there are scenes in this film that I found almost spellbinding in their own ways. Some parts are pure visual spectacle to ooh and aah at. Others made me clench my teeth in suspense. Above all else, however, it’s the mysterious nature of everything that really got to me. There are times where Prometheus feels really nightmarish in a way, where you’re tossed from one situation to the next and aren’t sure what’s really going on at all. Highly effective stuff, and this is where I’m glad I stayed away from most of the promotional material. It felt like anything could happen. The film also doesn’t shy away from presenting some interesting thematic questions. Why is there this need for these people to find out who their creators are? What does the human-created android think about this? It all adds further weight to the more visceral moments of the movie.

Prometheus isn’t flawless, however. The first third or so of the film is a bit lacking. A movie like this needs a set-up phase to explain some of its key concepts and introduce its characters, but this one doesn’t quite keep things as interesting as one might hope. Compare this to Alien, where a similar portion keeps piling on a sense of foreboding dread more effectively. Another issues I had was with some of the dialogue, which feels stilted and awkward. I’m not ruling out that this was intentional – something to show the difference between our time and the future – but it’s still more distracting than immersive.

The dialogue problem is reasonably easy to look past. But had its first act been stronger, I wouldn’t hesitate to put Prometheus up there with the original Alien film in terms of personal enjoyment. As it is, it doesn’t quite measure up. The atmosphere isn’t quite as thick, and while the plot engages the mind to a better extent, it lacks something of Alien’s sheer gutsiness.

That said, it puts in a more than admirable effort. After all, “not as good as Alien” doesn’t say a whole lot considering what a great film that one is, and I wouldn’t even be comparing the two if Scott didn’t make it clear that he wanted there to be connection between the two. Standing on its own to legs, Prometheus is a thrilling and captivating sci-fi flick, and one well worth seeing in theater to get the full scope of what it wants to show you.

Score: 4/5

A closing note on the 3D: Don’t bother with it. There is a scene or two where it really adds something to the movie, but for the most part, it’s neither here nor there. I wouldn’t shell out the extra cash for it.

 
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Posted by on 4 June, 2012 in Reviews

 

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