the Buzz for June 23rd, 2012


Mary J. Blige & Julianne Hough — “Any Way You Want It”
(from Rock of Ages [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]) — Any Way You Want It - Rock of Ages (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

I had already fallen out with many a critic this month over the rampant, gracelessly gleeful bashing of the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, who makes his hotly-anticipated return to dramatic series television this weekend with the premiere of HBO’s The Newsroom. See, I suspect that, because Sorkin has now overseen a couple of dynamic, dynamite programs that are focused on the inner workings of television — ABC’s late-’90s hybrid masterpiece Sports Night and NBC’s magnificent mid-aughts flameout Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — and because in said series, Sorkin has had some not-so-nice, not-so-veiled commentary for those who make their livings writing about the medium, most of the advance reviews of Newsroom that I have taken the time to read have seemed to be less critiques of the actual show than they are critiques of Sorkin himself, whose work is marked by several easily-mocked signatures (crackling, whip-smart dialogue; scenes of actors walking fast and talking faster; impassioned, electrified, idealistic speechifying on any number of relevant topics, as though it’s such a crime against creativity to present characters within the framework of a story who — gasp! — want the world to be a better place than it currently is and who take steps, however small or meek, in an attempt to make that happen) and whose brain operates on a plane so far above theirs (and, hell, all the rest of ours). (It bears noting that many of these same writers have been sharpening their knives for Sorkin ever since NBC and Warner Bros. essentially forced him out of The West Wing in 2003, and you could just see them rubbing their hands together and laughing wickedly when Studio 60 crashed down in flames four years later.) Naturally, one is led to believe that many of these people are simply seething with jealousy because Sorkin is leagues smarter than they are and, furthermore, is never afraid to present his work as though he knows this fact; ergo, the hysterical harangues centered on the way Sorkin writes rather than what he writes. Aaron certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, but this hoary horseshit nonetheless drives me mad.

Here’s what else makes me crazy: film critics who seemingly believe that their possession of a black-and-white byline means they can no longer enjoy the singular thrill — the thrill that, if we’re lucky, we all first experience as children — of spending two hours in a dark, enclosed room full of total strangers (who, when everyone is doing it right, are just as primed and excited as you are) training ours eyes on a ginormous white screen and surrendering our minds to an ever-unspooling series of moving pictures whose lonely, only reason for existence is not to teach us a history lesson, nor to make some statement — be it grand or bland — for or against the wavering whims of society and/or the human condition, but simply to make us smile for a spell. I can’t even begin to speculate what exactly any of the writers who thoroughly trashed the film were expecting to see when they sat down to watch Rock of Ages, Adam Shankman’s feather-light but enormously fun film adaptation of the smash Broadway musical. A pleasant patchwork of surprisingly well-aged ’80s guitar rock tunes — among them, Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” (presented in the film as a marvelous mash-up with Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night”), and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” — fashioned into a story of a star-crossed pair of impossibly gorge whippersnappers chasing dreams and destiny amidst the loud razzle-dazzle of Sin City (a.k.a. Hollywood, circa 1987), Ages never presents itself as the second coming of Gandhi; it’s just a hilarious high-concept popcorn flick, a couple of easy, breezy hours you won’t mind never getting back, a film that never stops winking at us to make sure we know that it knows it, too, is always in on the joke.

Beyond the music (which is stitched together pretty flawlessly, crafting a pitch-perfect aural mosaic of the era from which it springs forth), the saving graces here are the performances. Yes, indeed, Tom Cruise goes a soupcon over the top as aging rock god Stacee Jaxx (taking his motivational speaker role from Magnolia to a whole new level of self-deluded megalomania), but, as the aforementioned star-crossed young ‘uns, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta make for affably harmless leads, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is a slow-burning riot as a buttoned-up bible-thumping bitch-on-wheels with the heart of a man-hungry minx beating beneath her bountiful bosom. And the riveting revelation here is Blige, tearing the roof off the joint as a bittersweet blues-mama who owns a high-class strip club into which our hapless heroine stumbles on an aimless rainy night. I don’t know how deep into the planning stages Blige is on her next album, but her bewitching voice — still oozing with soul, no doubt, but also burning with gravel and grit — slides so seamlessly onto these percussive, primitive gems, one becomes certain as Ages struts toward its money shot that Miss Mary could totally have given Ann Wilson and Lita Ford a run for their considerable money back in the day. (No jokes, here: if Blige decided her next project should be a Pat Benatar covers record, I swear to Jesus I’d be the first fool in line to buy ten copies the day the album dropped.) And if you axe me, any critic who can honestly say he or she wasn’t tapping his or her toes throughout the entire duration of this film’s running time needs to dig deep and try like hell to rediscover what made them fall head over heels for the uncompromising magic of movies in the first damn place.