ROCK STEADY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Williams

THE no­table fea­ture of Tom Cruise’s act­ing ca­reer has been its re­mark­ably con­sis­tent qual­ity. Un­like most Hol­ly­wood stars, who have their ups and downs, Cruise’s per­for­mances have been uni­formly dull and for­get­table. A lit­tle harsh? I don’t think so. It’s not that there haven’t been great suc­cesses ( Top Gun, Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble), and some fine films ( Mi­nor­ity Re­port and the deeply enig­matic Eyes Wide Shut). It’s just that Tom’s best films would al­most cer­tainly have been ev­ery bit as good, or bet­ter, with an­other name above the ti­tle.

But things may be chang­ing. In Rock of Ages, a mu­si­cal ex­trav­a­ganza based on the glam rock era of the 1980s, Cruise plays an age­ing rock idol called Stacee Jaxx, and the part seems to have been made for him. Who else could bring to it such a con­vinc­ing air of ma­lign smug­ness and lan­guid self-ab­sorp­tion? It may be the best thing he has done.

Based on a 2006 Broad­way show writ­ten by Chris D’Arienzo, Rock of Ages has a sound­track crammed with fa­mous tracks from the 80s. And the an­swer to the big ques­tion is: yes he can. No one would call him an­other Pavarotti, or Michael Jack­son. And I don’t for a mo­ment be­lieve the film’s direc­tor, Adam Shankman, when he as­sures us that Cruise spent five hours a day prac­tis­ing his singing for the film. But make no mis­take, he can sing. He has a light, well-ar­tic­u­lated voice that goes well on its own and can be beefed up for the big en­sem­ble num­bers. Ev­ery­one was sur­prised when Ni­cole Kid­man man­aged to hold a tune in Moulin Rouge!. But I think Tom is a bet­ter singer than Ni­cole, and cer­tainly bet­ter than Pierce Bros­nan in Mamma Mia!. If only Stacee were a nicer char­ac­ter.

It’s a big, splashy, warm-hearted film, with some beau­ti­fully staged pro­duc­tion num­bers. And, un­like most mu­si­cals, this one has a good story. There was a time when the plots of mu­si­cals hung on noth­ing more than some­one say­ing, ‘‘ Hey, why don’t we get together and put on a show?’’ But in Rock of Ages we get a rather sweet boy-meets-girl story as well as a darker sub­plot in­volv­ing the mayor of Los An­ge­les (Bryan Cranston), who is cam­paign­ing to rid the city of vice.

The mayor wants to shut down LA’s Sun­set Strip, where a cul­ture of sex, drugs and rock ’ n’ roll is cor­rupt­ing the city’s youth. Driv­ing the cam­paign is his schem­ing wife, nicely played by Cather­ine Zeta-Jones, who proved her song-and-dance cre­den­tials in Chicago and in Rock of Ages de­liv­ers one of the best and boun­ci­est num­bers ( Hit Me With Your Best Shot), belted out in a church with a cho­rus of re­li­gious zealots, com­plete with sexy gy­ra­tions.

I liked the two fresh-faced young­sters — wannabe rocker and song­writer Drew (Diego Boneta), who dreams of mak­ing the big time in LA, and small-time Ok­la­homa girl Sher­rie (Ju­lianne Hough), who lands a job as a wait­ress at the Bour­bon Room, the big­gest and seed­i­est rock venue on the Strip. The Bour­bon Room is the first tar­get of the mayor’s clean-up cam­paign and needs a big run of success to ward off fi­nan­cial col­lapse.

En­ter Stacee, front­man of the rock group Arse­nal, who is plan­ning to launch his solo ca­reer. When Stacee makes his first tat­tooed and leather-stud­ded ap­pear­ance at the Bour­bon Room women swoon in his pres­ence. There’s some fine comic busi­ness with an awestruck fe­male re­porter from Rolling Stone (Malin Ak­er­man), who coaxes some gnomic ut­ter­ances from Stacee for her read­ers be­fore join­ing him in an­other of the show’s best tracks, I Want to Know What Love Is.

I’m as­sum­ing that all th­ese songs will be well known to rock fans of the era, but Rock of Ages is a film for all ages. My one com­plaint is that it’s about 20 min­utes too long and some of the jokes and sit­u­a­tions are laboured.

But at its best it’s brash, funny and noisy, the blend of in­ti­macy and spec­ta­cle works well ca­reer ahead of him playing ma­ture-aged rock stars. IF Elena were a Hol­ly­wood film, and not a Rus­sian one, we would prob­a­bly take it as a straight­for­ward psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. Well, per­haps not en­tirely straight­for­ward — the story is too grim for that — but as a kind of chill­ing moral­ity tale, not far in spirit from the noir clas­sics of the 40s, with their ap­petite for greed and be­trayal. Elena is a film Claude Chabrol might have made in France in the 50s, with his black hu­mour and clear eye for mid­dle-class de­gen­er­acy. Only in Rus­sia, per­haps, will it be seen as a vi­sion of a coun­try in moral dis­ar­ray, where ‘‘ hu­man­i­tar­ian ideals are be­ing de­val­ued, lead­ing peo­ple to turn in­wards, grav­i­tat­ing to­wards their an­cient in­stincts . . . sur­vival of the fittest, sur­vival at any cost.’’ The quoted words are those of the film’s direc­tor, An­drei Zvyag­int­sev, and he should know.

See­ing Elena as a metaphor for mod­ern Rus­sia — its fes­ter­ing so­cial un­rest, its en­demic po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion — cer­tainly makes it seem more dispir­it­ing than it oth­er­wise might have been. It would be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a bleaker por­trayal of life in a mod­ern Rus­sian city.

It’s not clear where the film is set. The do­mes­tic back­grounds look com­fort­able enough, but for much of the film we are on the by a smok­ing nu­clear power sta­tion. In a long opening shot we study the out­side of a house, framed by leaf­less win­try branches. Then we cut to Elena (Nadezhda Mark­ina) as she wakes from her night’s sleep, dresses re­luc­tantly and pre­pares break­fast for her hus­band, Vladimir (An­drei Smirnov), who greets the day with a sim­i­lar lack of en­thu­si­asm.

Vladimir is a busi­ness­man, prob­a­bly in his 60s — not, per­haps, one of the new breed of Rus­sian oli­garchs but well enough off to be able to spend his days at home. We never see him do­ing busi­ness or go­ing to an of­fice. His man­ner is hard­ened, tac­i­turn, se­vere. Elena, who has a kindly care-worn face and once worked as a nurse, is now a full-time house­wife. And each has chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage.

Elena’s son Sergei (Alexei Rozin) is a was­trel who re­fuses to get a job, de­spite hav­ing a wife and child to sup­port. Elena gives him enough money to keep him go­ing, but it is money she has to beg from her hus­band, who keeps tight con­trol of the house­hold bud­get. Though Vladimir is reg­u­larly per­suaded to part with some cash, his pa­tience is run­ning out. Why can’t Sergei find work? Why can’t he join the army? (Th­ese are also ques­tions we ask our­selves.)

It’s one of those films where the pace is slow and not much seems to be hap­pen­ing. But Zvyag­int­sev gen­er­ates a mood of ex­tra­or­di­nary tension and un­ease. Elena seems re­signed to a life of do­mes­tic servi­tude and de­mean­ing sup­pli­ca­tion. Then, one day, swim­ming at his gym, Vladimir suf­fers a heart at­tack and is vis­ited in hos­pi­tal by his es­tranged daugh­ter Katya (Ev­ge­nia Konushk­ina), an­other lost and an­gry soul who treats him with con­tempt.

Like Sergei, Katya has never worked; she off­spring who you know will be sick and doomed, since the par­ents are sick and doomed them­selves’’). But Vladimir loves her de­spite ev­ery­thing. He de­cides to make a will in which the bulk of his es­tate will be left to his daugh­ter, with a mod­est an­nu­ity only for Elena. Th­ese in­ten­tions he con­fides to Elena her­self — a grave mis­take, as it hap­pens.

In many a Hol­ly­wood thriller rel­a­tives have con­spired, alone or with lovers, to get their hands on some de­luded hus­band’s for­tune. Hu­man na­ture was seen to be ir­re­deemably base, but th­ese were no more than crime sto­ries, af­ter all, with jus­tice done in the clos­ing scenes. Zvyag­int­sev takes us into deeper and darker ter­ri­tory. His char­ac­ters are trapped in lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion. There is no com­fort to be found in hon­est work or ser­vice. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is stunted. Ev­ery­one seems to be hooked on tele­vi­sion game shows and ab­sorbed in their phan­tom worlds of smart­phones and elec­tronic toys. Sergei kicks a ball around with other young drifters and, when the mood takes him, is ready for a spot of vi­o­lent gang war­fare with other neigh­bour­hood thugs.

Zvyag­int­sev is best known for The Re­turn (2003), about a fa­ther who re­turns home af­ter a mys­te­ri­ous 12-year ab­sence to sub­ject his two sons to harsh dis­ci­pline on a re­mote is­land to test their man­hood. Both films are marked by quiet des­per­a­tion and ugly, sim­mer­ing ten­sions be­tween par­ent and child. Has Rus­sia lost faith in fa­ther-fig­ures, in the benev­o­lent au­thor­ity of the state? Elena is dis­tin­guished by per­for­mances of haunt­ing in­ten­sity from the main cast, cam­er­a­work of chilly deso­la­tion from Mikhail Krich­man and a sin­is­ter, mi­na­tory score from Philip Glass. What­ever we make of Zvyag­int­sev’s larger the­sis about

Show us yer tatts . . . Tom Cruise keeps it real as a self-ab­sorbed age­ing pop idol in the mu­si­cal Rock of Ages

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