Blog Archives

Rock of Ages (2012)

by Steve Habrat

It is always great to see a musical on the big screen these days. Every once and a while, the genre has to resurface to show audiences that there is still life in that old dog yet. Now we have Rock of Ages, a heavy metal musical that promises to be “nothin’ but a good time.” I wish I could say that Rock of Ages is a good time but in actuality, it is a fairly choppy and inconsistent time with a flimsy story and too many characters left underdeveloped. Rock of Ages certainly gets the flamboyant glam rock appearance of 80’s hair metal correct, but for a musical that is fist pumping to rebellious 80’s sounds, the film is lacking the danger that is associated with genre. Everything here seems a little soft, especially our two leads that belt out beloved 80’s tunes that sound like watered down alternative covers. Rock of Ages plays things a little too safe for my tastes, refusing to let things get too out of hand or the bouncer will show up and toss you out on your ass. This is rock n’ roll on a three-drink limit and calling it a night at 11:00 p.m. It seems that Tom Cruise’s eager-to-rock Stacee Jaxx is the only one who showed up to really get this party started.

Rock of Ages begins in 1987, with small town girl Sherrie Christian (Played by Julianne Hough) traveling from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. She arrives on the sunset strip and bumps into Drew Boley (Played by Diego Boneta), a barback at the heavy metal club The Bourbon Room who dreams of becoming a rock star. The two immediately click and Drew ends up talking the cranky Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Played by Alec Baldwin) into giving Sherrie a job as a waitress. Meanwhile, Dennis and his right hand man Lonny (Played by Russell Brand) are trying to arrange a final farewell concert for Stacee Jaxx (Played by Tom Cruise) and his band Arsenal at The Bourbon Room, which would rake in enough dough to help Dennis out with unpaid taxes. On the other side of town, Mayor Mike Whitmore’s (Played by Bryan Cranston) ultra conservative and heavy metal hating wife Patricia Whitmore (Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) discovers that The Bourbon Room has not paid taxes in quite some time. Along with several members of her church, she sets out to rid Los Angeles of The Bourbon Room and the rock n’ roll image that grips the city. Meanwhile, Sherrie and Drew are busy trying to make their dreams of becoming famous come true and in the process, they fall in love with each other.

Incredibly unfocused and messy, Rock of Ages can’t decide which plotline it wants to focus on. It jumps here and introduces a character there while failing to develop that character properly. Director Adam Shankman and his screenwriters Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo (who is responsible for the Broadway musical), and Allen Loeb try to make it all about Sherrie and Drew pursuing their dreams, but the young talents fail to really make us root for them. They are just pretty faces that are out of place in the sea of big hair and denim vests. The film largely ignores the plotline about the conservative Patricia trying to act as a wrecking ball to the heavy metal genre. I’m still trying to figure out how this plotline comments about the music scene today, especially when the most shocking thing in music right now is what kind of an outfit Lady GaGa will step out in next.  Furthermore, the screenwriters were absolutely clueless about how to properly lead-in to a musical number, each one more forced than the last (and one of the screenwriters is responsible for the Broadway hit!). This may all be fun on the stage but it only works in small spurts on the big screen.

Rock of Ages tries to conceal the messy plotline with an ensemble cast of up-and-coming talent mixed with established faces, making things even bumpier than they already are. Julianne Hough has the looks but she just never works as a heavy metal fanatic who weakens in the knees for Stacee Jaxx. She looks like she would have been more interested in the rising boy band craze of the late 80’s rather than Jaxx, who faintly resembles bad-boy Axl Rose. When it comes to her voice, she has a decent enough coo but it wasn’t made for these head bangers. Her Sherrie (who dots the “I” in her name with a pink heart) is a little too sweet for this scene of puke, sweat, fishnets, and whiskey. Diego Boneta doesn’t fare much better, never once coming off believable when decked our in ripped jeans, work boots, and black t-shirts. Just like Hough’s Sherrie, Boneta’s Drew is a bit too soft for The Bourbon Room’s crowd. In a scene where he is supposedly upset with Sherrie, he takes to The Bourbon Room’s stage and awkwardly grunts that he “wants to rock!” Everyone watching him glances at each other while wearing a look of “Is this kid serious?!” I was wondering the same thing.

The supporting talent is largely wasted or pointless. Zeta-Jones as Patricia sizzles from time to time but the film practically forgets she is the antagonist. Paul Giamatti is in the mix as Stacee’s money hungry manager Paul Gill, who is more than willing to trim his new talent to fit the latest trends in the music industry. Baldwin and Brand are reduced to standing around and scratching their heads over how they are going to save The Bourbon Room and ranting on about how glorious rock n’ roll is. They are also present to serve as comic relief, most of which falls painfully flat. The sexy Malin Akerman shows up as frizzy-haired Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack, who wields the most sex appeal in Rock of Ages. She disappears just as quickly as she appears, which is a shame because she gets one of the film’s best moments with Cruise’s Stacee. Also present is Mary J. Blige as Justice Charlier, the manager of a strip joint who serves absolutely no purpose in the film whatsoever. The director and screenwriters ask us to care about her but we know nothing about her, which makes it extremely difficult. The best one here is Cruise as Stacee Jax, a rock legend who literally rises up from a sea of scantily clad women and booze. He steals the best lines, gets the best musical numbers, and shows the most depth of any character in this thing. Bravo, Cruise!

The musical numbers in Rock of Ages have clunky lead-ins but they do manage to be a bit of fun. The best is Cruise’s reflective and soaring “Wanted Dead or Alive”, which shakes the stadium walls and the dueling “We Built This City/ We’re Not Gonna Take It” at the finale. Rock of Ages quickly laughs off other musical genres—proudly declaring that rock n’ roll is here to stay while every other musical genre is nothing but a trend. Has rock n’ roll really gone anywhere? Is there any current threat to it out there that would justify this film hitting theaters now? I didn’t think so. In the end, Rock of Ages wants to be the ultimate party film of the summer, but it has nothing to celebrate. The best parties are built around something fun that justifies pounding shots of whiskey and waking up with a raging hangover. Rock of Ages is all glammed up for a party that wound down back in the 90’s.

Grade: C-

Iron Man 2 (2010)

by Steve Habrat

With 2008’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau set the bar extremely high for the Iron Man franchise. While it left us all starving for more of the cocky hero, there was the feeling that if there is a sequel, it will most likely be unable to live up to the stellar first installment in the series. My fears were slightly confirmed in summer 2010 when I rushed out on my birthday to see Iron Man 2, which ended up being one notch below the original Iron Man. Sadly, Iron Man 2 was an even more expensive trailer for the upcoming Avengers film and not even really bothering to act as it’s own film. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Iron Man 2. It was clear that Favreau and Marvel Studios rushed the sequel into production and they simply drew up a loose story just so audiences wouldn’t have to wait until 2012 to see Iron Man rocket across the screen again. It was also apparent that nobody wanted to tinker with a good thing. Iron Man 2 tries desperately to capture the same clinking and clanging action, the sweet romance, and the clever laughs that made the original such a must-see, but there is too much interference from Marvel which takes some of the flesh and blood out of all the studio steel.

Iron Man 2 picks up with the world at peace in the wake of the Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing the Iron Man armor to the world. The U.S. government is harassing Stark to hand over his Iron Man armor over to authorities but Stark maintains that it is his own property and all the other foreign competitors are miles away from emulating his powerful weapon. Stark is also finds himself harassed by rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Played by Sam Rockwell) who desperately wants to create his own line of armor of his own. While racing in the Circuit de Monaco, Stark is attacked by a mysterious man named Ivan Vanko (Played by Mickey Rourke), who has designed a powerful suit of armor of his own with lethal whip-like contraptions hanging from his arms. It turns out that Vanko’s father was an old partner of Stark’s father Howard, who was deported after he tried to profit from technology that he worked on with Howard Stark. Hammer takes notice of what Vanko has done and he recruits him to create a line of deadly drones that he can unleash on Stark. Stark, meanwhile, finds himself slowly being poisoned by the palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive.

Iron Man 2 introduces us to two new characters including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up in a brief cameo in Iron Man) and secret agent Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Played by Scarlett Johansson), who acts as Stark’s new personal assistant. Both Fury and Romanoff are present in Iron Man 2 to simply allow the film to set up Iron Man’s place in the Avengers film rather than actually enrich the whole experience. While it is a neat Easter egg for diehard Marvel Comics fans, at times Romanoff seems a bit irrelevant in all the action, as she posseses the bigger role in the film over Fury. This is the exact problem with Iron Man 2, it reeks of studio involvement and control. It is very clear that Marvel demanded Favreau work these characters in at any cost and it takes a minor amount of the enjoyment out of this film. I wish things had felt more natural, much like they did in the original Iron Man. The one character that is allowed to grow is Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played this time by Don Cheadle), who gets his wish to don the Mark II suit with some pretty hefty modifications and transforms into the scene stealing War Machine. Cheadle outshines all the forced characters that have been worked into Iron Man 2 and I loved it when Favreau would explore the destructive friendship between him and Stark.

Robert Downey, Jr. also gets the chance to build upon his raucous playboy Tony Stark, taking him down the darker routes that the first film slyly avoided. In Iron Man 2, Stark realizes that he is near death from the palladium core in his chest. He desperately searches for a new design but he also has accepted his death and he is determined to live out his last days in boozy style. In the comic books, Stark was a big drinker and it was nice to see Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux work that aspect into the film. I know many fans were upset that this aspect of Tony Stark was glossed over in the original film. At times, Stark’s one-liners seem a bit forced and frankly not as sharp as they were in the original film. Further troubling, Downey, Jr. seems like he is pushing the funnies out rather than allowing them to flow naturally. Nonetheless, he is still having a great time as Stark and his enjoyment is incredibly infectious.

Iron Man 2 ends up getting a handful of juiced up bad guys to terrorize Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke shines as the vengeful Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a frankly much neater villain than Iron Monger (I did enjoy Bridges!). The electrifying showdown between him and Stark at Circuit de Monaco steals the entire movie and had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it. Equally cool is the snide Justin Hammer, who desperately wants to upstage Stark and humiliate him. Rockwell is basically filling the businessman villain role that was left open from the first film and he does it with just as much enthusiasm as Bridges did. Paltrow also returns in a stronger role than she had in Iron Man, finding herself promoted to CEO as Stark Industries and courted by the stumbling Stark. Favreau and Theroux still can’t help themselves and once again find it necessary to toss her in harm’s way, making her character flirt with the typical superhero girlfriend in distress.

Iron Man 2 attempts to be bigger than the original film, with bigger showdowns, more armored brawlers, extended action, and spiced up special effects. I wish that Iron Man 2 would have taken on a personality of its own and Marvel would have backed off the project. I feel that if Favreau wouldn’t have had Marvel breathing down his back, there may have been a different outcome. Yet there is still fun to be found in Iron Man 2, especially the final battle with Iron Man and War Machine battling a group of deadly drones created Hammer and Whiplash. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 did not feel the need to convert itself into 3D, which I think was a wise decision since 3D was all the rage (and still is) at the time. Overall, there is a bit of magic missing in Iron Man 2 and that is mostly because the film goes through the same song and dance that the first film did, just building slightly on its character which I suppose is a positive. It’s no Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight but Iron Man 2 is still a spirited follow-up to its predecessor.

Grade: B+

Iron Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.