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Monday, July 9, 2012

Film Reviews: Metal Hair and Popping Pecs

On Saturday, I went to a screening of Rock of Ages ready for lots of laughs at the film's expense. To my surprise, I quickly realized that the filmmakers were already in on the joke, and I found myself laughing with it as opposed to at it. As the tagline (and the song) says, it ain't nothin' but a good time. God knows it was eons better than that train-wreck adaptation of Mamma Mia with the chameleon-eyed Amanda Seyfried and Meryl "I Have Three Oscars So Fuck You" Streep.

The plot is really, really simple: small town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) goes to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune but falls for a barback, Drew (Diego Boneta), working at the legendary Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip. Drew gets Sherrie a job as a waitress and they fall in love, and  he gets the opportunity to make his performing debut at the club when the opening act for the lite metal band Arsenal, led by the legendary Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is a no-show. But he thinks Sherrie has slept with Jaxx in his dressing room and the trouble begins. First, they quit their jobs and break up. Then she becomes a stripper at a nearby men's club and he signs with Paul Gill, a sleazy promoter (Paul Giamatti) who persuades him to forsake his rock and roll roots and become the frontman for one of those horrible '80s boy bands.

Meanwhile, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of mayor-to-be Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), is launching a campaign to clean up down the evil rock clubs on the Strip, especially the Bourbon, where Jaxx is scheduled to play. Of course, it turns out that her righteous indignation stems from him leaving her in the lurch after a long-ago one night stand. And Mike is having an affair with his secretary, which leads to a number in which Patricia performs Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" accompanied by other GCBs in a church while he's bent over a desk in the rectory getting spanked by the secretary. Is there a clause in Cranston's contract specifying that every project he works on must include a scene of him in tighty whities? And should I put the phrase "bent over a desk" together with the word "rectory"? Doesn't sound right somehow.

There's more — the Bourbon Club's dissolute owner, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) finally admits his love for his assistant, Lonny (Russell Brand), and the two sing Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" to each other. Brand usually makes me want to heave, but here the scenes of him making eyes and coquettishly tossing his hair at Baldwin are pretty funny.

Cruise's Jaxx has a sex scene/duet of Foreigner's "I Wanna Know What Love Is" with a Rolling Stone interviewer, the ridiculously-named Constance Sack (Malin Akerman). It's also pretty funny — they engage in some athletic foreplay on an air hockey table, and at one point he's singing to her butt.

Jaxx is one of Cruise's stranger characters, burnt out by fame and years of self-abuse. We first meet him passed out under a pile of groupies, shirtless and tattooed and sporting a Satan head codpiece. When you take into consideration that authentic strangeness of the real Cruise, it's rather a distressing sight. It's like seeing Joan Crawford playing herself in Mommie Dearest instead of Faye Dunaway — one weird mask on top of another. And since I consider Cruise to be the Joan Crawford of the new millennium, the analogy fits.

The make-believe Hollywood depicted in the film is hilarious. The exteriors look like they're pulled straight from an Ed Wood epic, and the Bourbon Room is a lush theatrical space with a giant stage that allows for pyrotechnics, something the modestly-sized clubs on the Strip would never be able to accommodate or be cleared for by the fire department.

The film's designers did a fair job recreating the famed Tower Records store at the corner of Sunset and Horn, but the bulk of the inventory seems to be used records selling for $9.44 apiece. First off, Tower never sold used records (except maybe in an outlet location) and $9.44 was about what a new record cost in 1987. And I certainly don't recall any Tipper Gore-like Christian women carrying protest signs in front of the Whisky at that time. But maybe I'm nitpicking.

Critics really savaged Rock of Ages. It's certainly not a masterpiece; it's just not that bad, and everyone involved seems to be yocking it up (except for Mary J. Blige, who has a nice presence but seems to think she's in a se-e-e-e-rious movie). It was okay and I enjoyed it while I was on, but I probably don't need to see it again. Unless I have to choose between it and a Duplass Brothers movie. Then take me back to the Bourbon Room...posthaste.

Another sort of musical, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, got much kinder notices than the previous film, but in many ways it's just as goofy. It's saddled with a really contrived script, but it's bolstered by good performances from Channing Tatum (whose real-life experiences the film is supposedly based on), Matthew McConaughey and Cody Horn (daughter of new Disney chief Alan Horn). Tatum puts his looks and likeable personality to good use as the eponymous Mike, McConaughey has a field day as strip club owner Dallas, and Horn, playing the big sister of Mike's stripper-in-training, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), has offbeat looks and an offbeat acting style, which makes for a refreshing change from the usual vapid starlets (see Amanda Seyfried).

One day, Mike is working on the same construction crew as Adam, but when the younger man is fired, he takes him under his wing and to Xquisite, the club that he and a bunch of his buff friends strip at. There's quite literally a 42nd Street-style "you're going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star!" moment when Adam, who is nicknamed the Kid, is pushed onstage to reveal his tender flesh for the first time to a howling pack of cougars clutching singles.

Celebrating the Kid's success until the wee hours, they get back to the apartment he shares with his sister, Brooke (Horn), who regards Mike with a kind of bemused suspicion. Even when she goes to the club to see what's going on for herself, she takes Mike at his word when he reassures her that he'll keep an eye on Adam — and keep him out of trouble. Famous last words.

Of course, Adam is a shallow little asshole who does bad things...not because he's intentionally bad, but because he's a shallow little asshole out for a good time. Exhilarated by the lifestyle Mike has brought him into, he says, "I think we should be best friends." But soon he's breaking away from his teacher and doing what he wants to do anyhow, and it ends up costing Mike dearly.

Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer and editor (as he frequently does) creates some interesting visuals and makes some artistic choices that are refined without being obtrusive. Some scenes are shot with unusual angles, and the Miami exteriors are heavily filtered in stifling yellows and greens that make the humidity practically ripple off the screen. All the strip numbers are staged, costumed and choreographed to a hilarious degree of perfection, as if Busby Berkeley had been resurrected and put to work. But no, there are no overhead shots of the guys scissoring their legs in unison, although that would've been a hoot.

It's interesting how the dynamics between the sexes are depicted in the film. The two main female characters are rather strong and independent. Olivia Munn plays Joanna, Mike's easygoing fuck buddy, who wants nothing more from him than sex. Brooke is a completely different story. Fiercely protective of her baby brother, she seems like just a baby herself and displays signs of — gasp! — still being a virgin. All the other women, the clubgoers, serve merely as conduits for the theater audience, grabbing at the dancers' rippled abs and firm buttocks because the moviegoers can't.

Tatum brings a bit of depth to Mike, the not terribly bright huckster who experiences a crisis of conscience. And McConaughey's Dallas is a character Freud could have a field day with. You're never really sure of his sexuality — he does seem to be having too much fun gently caressing Adam's shirtless torso while showing him some dance moves. And he's definitely misogynist, fond of reminding his team, "Who's got the cock? You do. They don't."

Other roles, filled by sort-of-famous Joe (True Blood) Manganiello and Matt (White Collar) Bomer are virtual cameos. Bomer has maybe one or two lines, and a story arc about him enjoying watching other men have sex with his wife is nipped in the bud before it can even begin. Otherwise, all the strippers are depicted as being hyper-heterosexual, even while they're shaving their legs and shopping for G-strings.

Despite the sordid premise, there's not much more flesh exposed than you can see on an average day at the beach in Brazil...maybe less. And nobody — male or female — should ever flap their butt cheeks. It's just not attractive. I refer to Divine in Female Trouble for a most egregious example, but it happens in Magic Mike, too.

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