Swing Vote (2008)

Swing Vote (2008)

In an unprecedented (and implausible) turn of events, the latest U.S. election between Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammar) and Democrat candidate Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) has resolved itself in a complete dead heat. The heat is so dead, in fact, that its outcome lies in the hands of just one citizen; Ernest ‘Bud’ Johnson (Kevin Costner), a New Mexico resident and deadbeat dad, who earns a reprieve after his vote malfunctioned. Given the obligation to complete his vote and decide the election, Bud becomes the most famous man in America, leading to courtship from both political parties. Bud gleefully exploits this new-found attention, much to the chagrin of his civic-minded daughter. As the date of his vote looms and the fate of both the country and his relationship with his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) in the balance, will Bud do the right thing? What is the right thing anyway? Lucky for Bud, this movie isn’t that interested.

The main problem with partisan satire is in alienating about half of your potential audience, and also courting accusations of satiety. Once seen to take sides, you are to an extent no longer the outsider. No longer the archetypal Pueblo Clown figure, favoured by the likes of Stewart Lee and high-brow comedy theorists, mocking the system from some exterior vantage point and — above all else — never doing voiceovers for the Prudential. To do so will firmly place yourself within the narrative, and undermine any effort to ridicule the process.

Now the problem with bipartisan satire; Republicans. Not so much a specific judgement on those who vote Republican, or even particularly the fiscal conservatism at its bedrock. It’s more a call on the homopobia, racism, gun-coddling, historical revisionism, and Galtiphile exceptionalism that clings to that particular bedrock like so much foetid barnacle.  A bipartisan approach is ultimately a re-enforcement of the status quo, communising every polarising issue. Swing Vote, amounting to little but a middling vehicle for what will optimistically be known as ‘mid-period Costner’ by the more resilient pockets of his fanbase, is this form of cop-out. It at least cops out with a compelling premise, one with potential, but only gets round to sprouting on screen.

There’s a lot to be done with the idea of a single voter deciding an election. It could be used to address the illusion of mandate, where ideas of competition, and ‘winning’, trounce the more democratic ideal of accurate representation. Similarly, it could be used to attack the disproportionate influence of the swing states themselves. What’s the real difference between a loveable dufus picking an election and a few hundred thousand Floridans doing much the same in 2000? Perhaps you could satirise the electoral college, a controversial system whereby a series of state representatives vote in the citizen’s stead. Or perhaps one could pluck the last taboo of Democracy. Do we actually need it? Perhaps things would be more efficient if one person just decided everything for us? If not, what can be done to remedy our disparities?

Swing Vote isn’t very interested in any of these big questions. At the most, it’s a lightweight, overly saccharine critique of political apathy, with no analysis of endemic social causes of disenfranchisement. “Bud” Johnson is modern Hollywood’s idea of a south-west Everyman, which never says more about the south-west than it does the attitude of Hollywood. He’s dumb, he’s lazy, and can’t hold a job on account of his dumb laziness. To cap it all off, he drinks Budweiser, and is named ‘Bud’, hopefully not because of the Budweiser. Not to say that there’s nobody out there who fits that particularly broad silhouette, but to hang an entire movie (and an ostensibly political one at that) on someone who doesn’t appreciate the stakes or even care that much about the outlandish turn of events that comprise his story, is patronising. His loveability stems entirely from Costner’s residual on-screen charm, something always rather more niche among a pantheon that includes the likes of Tom Hanks and…I don’t know…Tom Selleck? Whatever.

The main bulk of what could be considered ‘an satire’ occurs during the second act. Both campaigns, spurred by the opportunity of appealing to — and winning by — Bud’s vote, egregiously abandon their policies and make counter-intuitive pledges. GOP President Boone supports gay marriage, while Democrat Greenleaf becomes virulently pro-life, all based off sound bites from Bud’s lackadaisical interviews. The result is buffoonish, jarring queasily with the mawkish sentiment prevailing elsewhere in the picture. It’s as though Swing Vote, somewhat ironically, doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. The critique is squarely on the political class’ appeal to popular interests rather than internal ideology, without ever having to concede the merits of one policy over another. Gay marriage, or being anti-gay marriage, is just as good/bad as being pro-life, or pro-choice. There’s no interest on the part of the film-makers to get their hands ‘dirty’.

At the very least, both candidates are allowed to be in two minds about their ridiculous pandering, something that composes the majority of their character definition. It’s never that convincing, however, that either side would take this much of an ideological plunge on so flimsy a presupposition.

When the time comes for Bud to finally (spoiler alert) get his civics lesson  and, by extension, an active part in his own film, it’s an extremely perfunctory montage. Not to mention an extremely-late-in-the-game montage, occurring as it does well into the third act. Downhearted and chastened by the public turning on him for being a national embarrassment and effectively holding the election hostage, Bud makes amends by requesting to chair another national debate between the two candidates. Here he makes an impassioned introductory speech, apologising for his errancy and effectively blaming society’s problems on himself and his ilk. The system isn’t so much in error, or unfairly weighed against its people. It’s our fault for not properly engaging with the system. For not working hard enough, not making enough sacrifices, not having enough aspiration etc. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it’s an egregiously conservative coda for a film so otherwise bent on political ambiguity. Counting the vice-presidential debates, this would make for the fifth debate in a dramatically overrunning election. It’s amazing that the crowd are so pleasant!

Swing Vote was released in American cinemas on August 1st, 2008, a few months before the Obama/McCain election was to dramatically change the political landscape. Like many western democracies, the US is in the thrall of two-party centrism, where their relatively slender disparity consolidates people to often bitterly opposing clans. The wake of Obama’s victory, however, has exacerbated the US ‘culture wars’ to such an extent that the idea of both parties being “as bad as each-other” feels increasingly anachronistic. Swing Vote is more interesting as a political what-if? than as a movie, which is partly why the bulk of this review has focused on these implications, rather than its dramatic worth or the quality of performance. Perhaps another movie down the line will take these ideas more seriously, or at least have more fun.

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Looper (2012)

It’s the year 2044. Time travel has yet to be invented but, evidently, it soon will. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, a mob assassin with a particularly niche speciality in despatching targets, already bound and hooded, sent from thirty years hence. In 2074, nano-technology has rendered body disposal nigh-impossible, leading crime syndicates to use a highly illegal one-way time machine that escorts their victims backward to an untraceable destruction. Complications arise when Joe is overpowered by one of his targets. To compound the problem, the target is his older self (Bruce Willis). With both versions of Joe on the run from the mob, and each-other, who will  or should — be the one left standing?

Despite there being nothing in our understanding of science that outright denies time travel as a possibility, narrative fiction always sacrifices some logic at its altar. Even films that adopt a hermetic ‘closed-loop’ approach (12 Monkeys, Los Cronocrímenes) still leave themselves vulnerable to bootstrap paradoxes. As with the majority of stories, the best approach is to establish your parameters early, as coherently as you can, and don’t break your own rules unless you have a good enough reason. Looper succeeds in spades, partly as the characters have such clearly identifiable motivations and aren’t simply arbiters of contrived metaphysics. Similar to the thematically-fraternal Inception, these mercenary attitudes help anchor the audience among the compelling absurdity. For example, a couple of scenes may handwave the brain-frying chrono-mechanics as too complex, or unimportant to the task at hand. It avoids any sense of smug fourth-walling, as the characters have either an emotional imperative or decidedly bigger fish to fry.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe Simmons

Looper acts for the most part as a pulpy future-noir (simpatico with Gordon-Levitt’s somewhat theatrical make-up effects), where its mid-21st century backdrop wheezes at the strain of contemporary mammon. Obsolete, ugly vehicles are augmented by belated technology, while a bloated population of destitutes contrast the loopers’ perennial party and mischief. It’s a future chillingly recogniseable in its mundanity, without tipping over into Children of Men-style outright despair. None of this dystopia is dwelt on thoroughly in the film, serving more as casual signifiers of our characters’ ethical bankruptcy. Young Joe  our resolute protagonist, despite the one-on-one marketing  is a bastard, and not merely a pretend bastard one sometimes finds in these sort of movies. You know the type; he probably drinks coffee from a styrofoam cup, gets slapped by ‘hussies’, then shoots a bunch of people who were ‘bad’ anyway. Young Joe is a cold-blooded, avaricious junkie, but likeable in his upwardly-mobile aspiration. The film does an excellent job of balancing sympathy between him and the more repentant Old Joe, causing audience allegiance to vacillate. However, largely to its credit, the film never quite embraces this simple ‘Him vs Him’ trajectory, choosing instead to give flesh to its mythology, without overcomplicating the already pretty complex. It’s a swerve that will alienate those who would prefer a more sinewy approach to the material than the psychodrama it becomes. Particularly as that subtle transition leads to a slightly sagging mid-section,  notable only in contrast to the high watermark of its surroundings.

The great strength of Looper is in its commitment to genre filmmaking without using it to justify bad storytelling or production. A tremendous litany of popular influences spring to mind during the runtime, yet it effortlessly manages to recontextualise these notes to a unique whole. There’s no pseudo-Kubrickian yearning beyond its grasp, or petulant wallowing in sci-fi ghettoisation. The script is smart, the performances are sharp (child actor Pierce Gagnon is uncannily good, to the point where his performance seems like an elaborate visual effect), and it looks fantastic for a thirty million dollar picture. Even without the attractive premise, it’s a stylistic breath of fresh air from someone with a small nudge from karma  destined for big Hollywood-shaped things. Director Rian Johnson is best known for the similarly genre-savvy Brick, also starring Gordon-Levitt, which memorably adapted noir sensibilities to a high school setting. Looper is much larger in scope, but uses its modest budget to a liberating benefit. One stand-out sequence is so astonishingly macabre that tonally it’s almost too upsetting to fit with the rest of the film, but far too good for the cutting room floor.

Emily Blunt as Sara

Much hay can be  made of the fact the time-travel machinations appear less and less intuitive upon subsequent mulling, in spite of the attention to detail that is woven. But that particular hay only makes for a comfy pedant. The real fact is that Looper sticks to its premise and, most importantly, doesn’t taunt the viewer with reductive trickery (in contrast, a recent Doctor Who episode involved our hero strictly adhering to the whim of a dimestore novel, written in the future and transported to the past, under fear of paradox). Unbefitting such a hokey title and premise, there’s a pleasingly mature social commentary, not just in terms of haves and have-nots or fate-related gubbins. Both overt and implicit, it’s about recursion. For all our attempts at reinvention, we still leave ourselves vulnerable to the same old mistakes. Violence begets violence, and more harm than good can come from the imposition of a well-meaning man with a gun. The latter moral is not easy to pull off within an action story, but Looper, as with much of its high-conception, is well-judged enough to pull it off.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

An unspecified time after a terrible tragedy hits a small-town American community, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) begins her new job in a menial travel agency, a poor facsimile of her previous career as a globe-trotting journalist. Ostracised from her community and enduring regular humiliation in various guises, Eva attempts to gradually rebuild her life, reflecting upon the events leading up to the tragedy: Her marriage to the affable, easy-going Franklin (John C. Reilly) and, most crucially, the troubled development of their son Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller). Kevin is a supremely difficult child, increasingly cold and adversarial towards Eva, testing both her patience and affinity with motherhood. It becomes increasingly apparent that Kevin is in some way complicit in the tragedy, but how much responsibility should Eva share?

It’s of course naive to consider director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Schriver’s best selling book as in any way prescient of the recent shootings in Aurora, Illinois. However, the pending case of James Eagan Holmes does help highlight a recurring problem in attempting this subject matter. Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) is a found-footage video diary of two teenagers preparing to execute a Columbine-like attack. Despite the optimised effort at portraying reality, very little of the run-time is spent with any real rumination of their motives. In a similar manner to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, another high school massacre movie released in the same year, it’s more an exercise in ruthless banality. The point is presumably that such terrible crimes are either beyond the pat conclusions of three-act narrative, or that as an audience we’ve yet to earn the cathartis of a psychological buffer between ourselves and the perpetrators. On the surface, and at the risk of trivialising atrocity, the real-life background of Holmes would attest to this point. Beyond his social ineptitude, accumulation of weaponry, and of course his alleged mass killing, there doesn’t appear to be much to single him out as nefarious. In the context of a drama, it leaves the production in a bit of vacuous state.  If we don’t glean any real lesson or insight into our characters and situation, what’s the point?

There is no point..” opines Kevin, rather helpfully, partway through the film, “that’s the point“. However, despite this nihilistic corroboration, We Need to Talk About Kevin deviates from its thematic predecessors in three main ways. Primarily, it eschews a linear approach for something more lurid and stylised, albeit ruthlessly grounded in events. In fact, it’s a production tour-de-force that should, if accounting for a modicum of innate justice, bring Lynne Ramsay to the forefront of respected contemporary directors. This is particularly in light of the endless precession of washed-out gangster films and derivative zombies that comprise the majority of the British film industry’s output. Secondly, the film never in all honesty portrays Kevin as a ‘normal’ kid compromised by social influence. For one thing, he lacks the ‘jocks picked on me’ defence and is the product of an ostensibly affluent environment. Almost from his birth onwards, Kevin is nakedly malevolent and sociopathic. Thirdly, the film is told entirely through the perspective of Kevin’s mother, Eva, whose flashbacks to his upbringing are potentially unreliable. It’s possible within the logic of the story that Kevin’s unpleasantness is magnified through the prism of Eva’s masochistic hindsight.

In the supplemental material, cast and crew attempt to paint a film with no good and evil people. That’s certainly a more noble aim, rather than the reductive notion that ‘evil’ is a tangible or innate affliction. Unfortunately, it’s not the prevailing assumption of the film that one is left with. On the upside, Kevin is a truly memorable creation, particularly when coming of age as a cold, bullying, yet unerringly perceptive youth. He singles out his mother for victimisation at an implausibly early age; it’s simply never convincing enough that his personality stems organically from Eva’s maternal antipathy. The knock-on effect is that we never interpret her as truly culpable in her own struggles, not even subsequently. As a psychological insight into those who commit such atrocity – presuming that as an intention – it fails. Its successes, however, neatly eclipse these admitted disappointments.

From the opening shot of billowing curtain leading out to a twilight patio, it’s evident we’re in different territory than a standard genre affair. The composition is frequently stunning, every other shot providing a desktop-worthy snap. The film drenches itself in symbolism, much of which rewards with subsequent viewings. Every transition seems carefully built for healthy musing, as aural and visual callbacks are elegantly intimated. Editor Joe Bini should be singled out somewhat for this; seamlessly bringing us back and forth through time without a loss of coherence is no mean feat.

As has been noted among Ramsey’s previous work, there’s a frequently vivid use of colour. Chiefly red, most explicitly in the paint attack suffered by Eva’s new house, her resulting clean-up punctuating the movie. The colour is there in children’s toys, police lights, food thrown petulantly against a fridge etc. The scenes of Eva literally cleaning off red paint from her body and environment may smack of thuddingly literal imagery – a problem the film periodically suffers from – but the cumulative effect is potent and satisfying. For a film containing so much repression and denial among the central characters, the colour serves almost to throw it all into sharp relief. It’s this sense of hyper-reality that helps buoy the film during its broader psychological moments.

Tilda Swinton is fantastic throughout, serving a tremendous dynamic of character as we track one woman’s emotional and existential descent. John C. Reilly gives a fine performance, though is a slightly bemusing presence; despite being a fine dramatic actor, his role seems to echo the kinds of endearing man-children that gave his career a deserved second wind. Franklin is a magnanimous sort, to the point of frustration, so it remains a logical fit. The chemistry between he and Eva is deliberately questionable, adding to the malapropros climate of the film. Ezra Miller luxuriates in the role of Kevin, the child actors (Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell) having already set the stage by playing the character at his more conflicted. Here, he’s given full license to exude pure, sweating ego and unaccountable contempt, yet somehow without nudging too much into cartoon.

We Need To Talk About Kevin sidesteps many real-world concerns surrounding these tragedies, such as gun control, religion or cultural identity. This isn’t quite a point against it, as hitting broader notes can strengthen the symbolic drive. It does however prohibit the film from making any kind of proactive stance, leaving it vulnerable to numerous self-defeating interpretations. It would be unfair to derive political assumptions when events on-screen are to an extent knowingly in excess of reality. Despite employing a sophistication that exceeds the majority of ‘evil kid’ genre movies, the film gives a more satisfying reading as liberal horror, or perhaps a feminist allegory about the sacrifices of motherhood. Eva is slapped, taunted and dehumanised throughout the run-time, yet appears to endure it voluntarily as a form of penance. Depending on your political leanings, the central folly of the Khatchadourian household is either an absence of communication, or an absence of discipline. It’s a tale of an ostensibly nice, wealthy family fatally disarmed by the apparent product of their own values. Beyond the peadophobic fantasy aspects, the fear at the heart of this story is ultimately primal and very palpable; its the fear that we’re vulnerable in our own home, by those closest to us. It’s also the fear – and knowledge – that problems we ignore don’t remotely go away.

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Shattered Glass (2003)

Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is a promising young reporter and assistant editor on The New Republic, a Washington-based magazine boasting an 80-plus-year heritage and ‘in-flight’ status on Air Force One. He has managed to gain popularity and acclaim within the magazine, as well as in his freelance career elsewhere, for providing vivid, humorous anecdotal articles detailing the often absurd or dramatic. After online journalist Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) at Forbes Digital begins to investigate ‘Hack Heaven’, a Glass article on computer hackers extorting a software company, his career and journalistic integrity is soon brought into disrepute. This controversy occurs subsequent to a recent changing of the guard at The New Republic, where popular editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) was ousted in favour of the less-experienced Charles ‘Chuck’ Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Is Glass a victim of politics, has he been duped by his sources, or is he just plain lying?

An admittedly abstract concern when adapting a true story about journalistic fraud, is that any dramatic licence taken with the material can be seen as fraudulent itself. Luckily, in the case of Shattered Glass, the scandal was heavily documented and transcribed, to the point where – at least, according to the claims of the supplied audio commentary – much of the events and dialogue is almost entirely verbatim. It’s an impressive feat to include so much direct pilfering of reality, without concession to a documentary or vérité format. Perhaps as a consequence, the more conceptual aspects of the story are less compelling, such as its framing device of Glass as narrator giving a magnanimous lecture to a classroom of high school students.

Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass

Shattered Glass is screenwriter Billy Ray’s (erstwhile co-creator of science-fiction series Earth 2 (1994-1995)) directorial debut, which was followed in 2007 with the thematically similar Breach, starring Ryan Phillipe as a promising young FBI agent accused of spying for the Russians. Partly as a consequence, and partly given the largely office-based, dialogue-driven events, the production never really raises itself above ‘competent’. There’s nothing in the way of bravura performance or stylistic flourish, but there’s also no scenery chewing or distracting editorial trickery. It’s a vanilla piece, something very much befitting a story about truth, and the trouble one has in defining it. The ambiguity lies not just in whether Glass is telling the truth (something admittedly unlikely from the outset) or how much of his work is fabrication, but in what exactly motivates Glass. As his behaviour appears increasingly manipulative, how could he possibly justify himself? The question is far from resolved, though the likes of Soderberg’s The Informant! (2009) provide a more in-depth account of a similarly-addled figure.

As an actor, it could be said that Hayden Christensen became something of a victim of circumstance; this is assuming one could claim ‘victim’ after starring in two of the most profitable films in history. Among numerous criticisms of the then-current state of the Star Wars franchise, Hayden was singled out for his poor acting and absence of charisma. Shattered Glass is his only credit between those two gargantuan tentpoles so, if little else, is able to claim back a certain credibility from Darth Vader’s steely grip. Hayden acquits himself admirably, channeling a sulky persona and oily, ingratiating charm suitably onto a man of dubious allegiance and legitimacy. Regardless, the real acting highlight is Peter Sarsgaard’s turn as Chuck Jones, the recently promoted editor-in-chief who takes over protagonal reins when the investigation gathers wind. He plays it cool throughout, with a wariness and resentment of Glass’ bourgeoning celebrity, alongside a quiet professionalism that doesn’t let too much slip.

Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Jones

Beyond the ostensibly true events shown in the film, and their broad commentary on the nature of American journalism in the late 90’s, more intriguing is the depiction of the rise of modern media. Not much of Hollywood’s output has really addressed or tackled the tremendous sea change in communication over the past two decades. They’d still have you think everyone uses Bing, for example. Save for The Social Network (2010), the Hitchcockian scaremongering of The Net (1995), the cyber-anachronism of Hackers (1995) and a handful of other genre thrillers, little real hay has been made of the digital revolution and its myriad impact. It’s relatively subtle, but Shattered Glass at least makes distinction between the online journalists of Forbes Digital (who at the time faced an uphill struggle for legitimacy) and the relative complacency of The New Republic. The former can almost instinctively see through Glass’ story, particularly regarding the emails and websites he provides as corroboration. The conflict at the heart of the film can be read as between the analogue self-satisfaction of the past, and the digital efficiency of the present. Arguably, one can no longer hide our lies so easily, and the effect is profound.

Shattered Glass does suffer in its transitioning of fact into narrative, and is a slight tale in the wider context of non-fiction cinema. The transition of protagonist from Stephen Glass to Chuck Jones is a little clumsy, plus the finale doesn’t contain the rousing catharsis that it seems to be aiming for. The story, however, is fascinating; the film does well in dramatising the events with coherence and fidelity. It also amounts to a compelling morality play and an intriguing character study of Stephen Glass, albeit one that unabashedly lacks a diagnosis.

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Rock of Ages (2012)

Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world. She took the midnight train going for ehhh-neee-wheeeerre. Well, not anywhere, LA’s Sunset Strip. And it’s not a train either, by coach. Could be a midnight coach, I couldn’t say. Upon arriving, Sherrie immediately finds work in the notorious Burbon Room, which is facing both economic and ideological pressure from the mayor’s (Bryan Cranston) opportunistic campaigning. Hoping for a miracle, in the form of rock legend Stacee Jaxx’s farewell performance at their venue before going solo, will the Bourbon Room survive? Will Rock save the day? Will Sherrie find true love? Will anything else happen? Who knows? I do, and yes.

Now, it’s all very well for someone like me to bemoan the appalling degree of commercial precision that exists in something extolling the transcendent and implicit virtues of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, such as this. It’s also completely all-very-well to throw something, perhaps a shoe, at the movie screen upon discovering its entire dramatic arc rests upon a misconception so rudimentary that it’s a wonder how any of of them got dressed in the morning. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your whim), this is all very much part and parcel of the sub-culture that’s in celebration. The majority of criticism for Rock of Ages could just as easily be leveled at the music, making it something of a secret success if the music wasn’t so aggressively shallow. Despite what some of the dialogue, and partially the title, suggests, Rock of Ages isn’t really about rock ‘n’ roll. This is Hair Metal. It’s all there on screen, minus the drug abuse and gender confusion. In fact, the only reference to the latter is a gag where two guys at the bar are mistaken by the long-term proprieter for girls, because of their long hair. This is in a rock club. In LA. In the eighties.

Hair metal, by and large, sucks. It’s vain, hedonistic, rampantly exclusive, but at least looked like a jolly good time for the people concerned. Growing up adjacent to that time and distant of place, with a fairly stilted knowledge of popular music, it was already evident that Hair Metal was more or less the evil anithesis to Thrash, or Death, or Speed (curse you, needless metal sub-genre labels!) Metal. The relatively cooler but still thuddingly male likes of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax et all don’t really get a look in on this production, except for a dance number set in a thoroughly vinyl-clad Tower Records store, where a few album covers make visual cameos (amusingly, a Christian Death LP can be clearly seen behind one of our doe-eyed protagonists). It’s not so much a celebration of rock as an apology for one of its most venal off-shoots.

Fleshgod Apocalypse LP cover just out of shot.

What it lacks in artistic integrity, it partway makes up for in some enjoyable lines and actors that are game for anything. Despite the outrageous artifice and absence of asymmetrical faces (save perhaps for Paul Giamatti’s turn as sleazy, handlebarred manager Paul Gill. Well, the handlebar’s pretty symmetrical, I suppose), there is at least a full commitment from all the participants. No-one seems to be phoning it in when they’d have every right to, judging by the subject matter – though perhaps not the paycheck. It’s also particularly nice to see appearances by comic talents Will Forte, Bryan Cranston and TJ Miller. All thoroughly underused, which serves to make their appearances more rousing. The fun is there, but it’s fleeting, revelling instead in a toothless facsimile of excess.

Camp is a slippery beast (fnar). It can be crass and simplistic, but attempt or consume it without the right attitude and you’ll flounder, or have a joyless time. With Rock of Ages, despite embodying the rich white guy’s killjoy appropriation of everything, there’s at least an embracing of its own camp. As Stacee Jaxx, Tom Cruise accurately embodies the kind of spaced-out douche you can really see frequenting impressionable hearts and minds. He also owns a comedy monkey. Under a more nuanced stewardship, the film’s sexism (Stacee’s rampant womanising and sexual magnetism ‘cures’ the uptight journalist character played by Malin Ackerman) and racism (the only black protagonist runs a strip club) could have been excused or even mocked. Instead they stand as awkward reminders of the fun we’re not quite having.

One of the by-products of the modern ‘karaoke musical’ is that the number of songs in the production inflates, then multiplies. There are over twenty seperate tracks woven into the story, not counting the two that play over the credits. One pop metal track takes over another, each one highlighting the paucity of variation more than the last. It’s most likely long been pointed out that Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ sounds identical to Def Leppard’s ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’, but if Rock of Ages achieves nothing else, it can help remind a whole new generation. They’re also used rather interchangeably, leading to them feeling more like filler than crescendos of otherwise inarticulate emotion. Believe it or not, the song ‘Wanted: Dead of Alive’ by Bon Jovi does not plough a particularly furrowed trench into the human condition.

Just out of shot, Cannibal Corpse.

Worse than this homogeny is the license to exploit tropes. There’s really no story here, or at least not one to adequately invest in. Save for one or two moments, events occur in lazy accordance with expectation. Catherine Zeta Jones, as the Tipper Gore/Sarah Palin-esque Patricia Whitmore, may get more than one song number to her character, but doesn’t really succeed in creating much jeopardy, as though it could not be decided if it’s an A or B plot. This would be no matter at all if the film could generate enough sense of jovial irreverence. Instead we have some likeable, some charisma-free celebrities romping for coins. Yes, a good time is had, but one never feels that privy to the party.

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