Saturday, 16 June 2012

Rock of Ages 2012

When Tom Cruise appeared on Jonathan Ross's couch a few months back to promote his most recent Mission: Impossible venture, he briefly spoke about Rock of Ages and I knew then that I had to watch the film. As much respect as I have for Cruise's serious acting efforts, I seem to appreciate him most when he plays slightly dirty, bad-guy characters. Case in point: Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (1994), Frank in Magnolia (1999) and, more recently, legendary Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (2008). So, he was my sole point of interest in this film, but as it turns out, there was more on offer here than just one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood today.

Based on a very successful Broadway musical of the same name, Rock of Ages is set in the late 80s and tells the story of Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a young girl from Oklahoma, who moves to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career. Here she meets aspiring musician, Drew (Diego Boneta), who works as a bartender at The Bourbon Room and he gets her a job as a waitress at the famous club. Drew and Sherrie quickly develop 'feelings' for each other and are almost blissful. Enter notoriously debauched rockstar, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who is due to perform at The Bourbon Room, and Drew's band is roped in to open his concert. Stacee finds time before his performance to first harass and then woo Rolling Stone reporter, 'Constance Sack' (Malin Ackerman). Due to a series of unfortunate incidents, Drew thinks it is Sherrie that Stacee has just slept with and, heartbroken, he mistreats her and tries to get famous by 'selling his soul to the devil', who in this case is Stacee's very corrupt manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti). Rejected and humiliated, Sherrie quits her job and starts working as a pole dancer just to make money. More disasters ensue in everyone's life and there are other sub-plots: one with club owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and club manager Lonny (Russell Brand), another with the mayor's puritanical wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and yet another involving a dance bar owner, Justice (Mary J. Blige). But this is a musical after all - and the right partners get together in the end, with happiness and success all around.

Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta can certainly sing, but neither is really an actor. They go through the motions and are not exactly terrible, but that is where 'praise' for them ends. Thankfully, this is just ostensibly their story, and the actual work is done by the stellar 'supporting role' actors. Paul Giamatti is sufficiently slimy, Alec Baldwin is ever-endearing, Russell Brand (who is really growing on me) is smart and sweet, and Malin Ackerman mixes geeky and gorgeous with absolute ease. I wish I could continue in this manner for Mary J. Blige and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I really, really can not. The former, with her admittedly extraordinary voice, is more wooden than Pinocchio (she practically makes Cher look emotive) and the latter is ageing so badly that her lack of acting ability stands out even more than ever before.

Anyhow, it is the main attraction of the film, in every sense of the word, who deserves  special attention. Tom Cruise is mind-blowing. I wish he had done this role ten years ago, when he was younger and had the face and body that would have made his 'Rock God' performance even more convincing - but even at this age, he is the right choice. He's a little Axl Rose, a little Alice Cooper, and of course a little every-other-major-rockstar-that-ever-lived. Everything - from his hair to his make-up, from his expressions to his body language, from his stance to his tattoos - is pure magic. The screen crackles when he's on it and I lived from scene to scene just to see him. It's true that Stacee Jaxx is the main highlight of this musical - but it is Tom Cruise, effortlessly playing Stacee Jaxx, that is just a little more special.

Finally the other star of the film - the music. Yes, they're mostly remixes and covers of 70s/80s rock, but that's the best thing about it. You know and love all the songs and are dying to sing along. And all the actors can sing - they really can. Unlike Mamma Mia (2008), where you just cut them some slack because they seemed to be having fun, this soundtrack is a lot riskier. Rock fans will not put up with the slaughter of their anthems. So, I'm grateful that everyone has the voice (or the supporting studio back up) to make it all work. And Tom Cruise is actually good. He's no Jon Bon Jovi or Axl Rose, but he's good.

Overall, the film has lots of weaknesses. Anybody who has seen the stage musical (I haven't) will probably find this to be a cheap imitation, anyway. Some of the dialogue is so bad a third-grader could do better and the premise is terribly stale and dated. If it's directly lifted from the stage musical, then all I can say is that it may very well work on stage, but on film it falls flat way too many times. There's nothing new on offer here and nothing smart to make you forget you've seen all this before.

And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Yes, there's no accounting for bad taste!

It's cheesy and predictable, but it's fun and familiar too. The star power is definitely a huge draw - and I would fully recommend it for the nostalgic music and 'the' Tom Cruise. But please watch it at your own risk and with lowered expectations. You have been warned that this is an imperfect film, which can be lots of fun if you let it take you for a silly ride.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Raid 2011

Indonesian film Serbuan Maut (released internationally as The Raid) has taken the world by storm. Screened as the Official Selection at a number of well-reputed film festivals, it's being touted as 'the best action movie in decades' (Twitch).

The story is simple enough: a SWAT team of elite cops raids a multi-storey building owned by a crime lord, in the hope of arresting him. Leaving aside the preliminary ten minutes, the rest of the film is the raid - a martial-arts-infested, non-stop-action treat where people keep getting butchered in the most innovative ways. A film like this does not necessarily need dialogue, and whatever dialogue there is, is simple and cliched. In fact, the character arcs come straight out of a bottle too: there is the cool-as-a-cucumber-but-ruthless underworld don; his two henchmen - one crazy and one calm; the rookie cop who is looking forward to becoming a father; the honest leader whose men would follow him into any battle; and the corrupt old man who only looks out for himself. Throw in the story of two estranged brothers, on both sides of the law, and some daddy issues - and the formula is complete.

Sound like a Bollywood movie? You bet! Except this is the film Sanjay Gupta has been trying (and failing) to make for years.

The formula may be stale, but the action is not. The film showcases what is apparently called Pencak Silat, a form of traditional Indonesian martial arts. It is fast, brutal and pretty extraordinary. Two of the main actors (said rookie cop and crazy henchman) are the fight choreographers of the film - and understandably they both get to have the most astounding fight sequences. In some scenes, the visuals are breathtaking - and in all, the pace is unrelenting.

Barring a couple of typical, must-have shots, the camera work is excellent for the kind of action it captures. It moves very quickly, covers all angles and never once bores. Of course, the editing is perfect too. But it is the music and sound recording that deserve a very special mention. All the brilliant choreography and cinematography in the world would have been wasted if this film didn't have the strength of the score. Every fight sequence carries its own little soundtrack, often very different to the previous one (this is saying a lot, considering there are a lot of fight scenes and barely any moments of respite). Even the soft humming sound of continuous gunshots works beautifully when it is used. The technical work is flawless and complements the breakneck speed of the action perfectly.

Don't get me wrong, though - this is not Ong Bak (2003). The fights are never that neat and Iko Uwais / Yayan Ruhian do not have Tony Jaa's grace. My knowledge of martial arts is limited at best, so maybe the difference is simply that this is a far more brutal and honest form of fighting than Muay Thai is - but visually, it is less 'precise'. Yet if you enjoyed the beauty of Old Boy's (2003) sequence where Oh Dae-Su fights a corridor-full of hoods, or the magic of Bourne Ultimatum's (2007) bathroom fight scene, The Raid is exactly what the doctor ordered - and then some.

I'm just repeating myself here, but the action in this film is on steroids - it's fast, brutal, relentless and ever so rewarding. Unlike Ong Bak, you never get a break in this film - it literally goes from one killing spree to the next. Not for the faint-hearted - but if you enjoy the genre, watch it NOW!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Believer 2001

I have always raved about Ryan Gosling's acting. In previous posts about Blue Valentine and Drive, I have had difficulty in toning down my admiration for this brilliant performer and his ability to steal a scene, sometimes with just his expressions and stance. Having seen pretty much all his films since Remember the Titans (2000), I was on a mission to catch the only three I have missed - and today, I finally caught The Believer, one of his earliest and most controversial works.

Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the film follows Daniel Balint, a young Orthodox-Jew-turned-Neo-Nazi, who, in his determination to kill Jews, joins fascist groups, gathers support from other believers of the 'mission' and somewhere along the way, is confronted by the stark contradiction of his identity against his philosophy. Underneath all his so-called convictions, lies the fear of exposure: no one in his new-found circle of supporters knows that he, himself, is actually a Jew. He is hounded by this dilemma and the loopholes in his belief system. He is intelligent enough to question his religion - but also, intelligent enough to question his hatred. This is his undoing.

Beautifully shot with hand-held cameras on high-sensitivity film, there is a documentary feel about the visuals, which works very well considering the story is loosely based on Daniel Burros, a real-life Jewish member of the American Nazi Party in the 1960s, who shot himself hours after his Jewish identity was made public by a New York Times reporter. The direction, too, is very strong - but I feel that the film is let down by a loose script. There isn't a lot of focus on the motivation of the characters, which is an essential ingredient when the subject matter is this disturbing. Films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), American History X (1998) and, more recently, This is England (2006), have scripts far more compelling - though, The Believer did remind me of all three (hence, the mentions). As with Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), I never actually engaged with the story through the entirety of this film, which is a shame because it could have been so much more powerful than it was.

Having said all that, there isn't a single scene where I feel that Ryan Gosling could have done better. The script may not have made Daniel Balint's motivations very clear, but both his comfort and conflict with his convictions were given life on Gosling's face. With very subtle looks, smiles, frowns, gestures and tones, Balint's entire persona is alive on screen. It is extraordinary that this was Gosling's first major role and even more shocking that he was barely out of his teens when he did this film. His acting is art-in-motion - and truly remarkable.

An interesting film, which could have been vastly improved with better characterisations, but is more than ably carried off with a powerhouse performance by its lead.