The Review: “Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin’ – this is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.”
Recognise it? It’s the narration from Happy Man, the random black guy who wanders into shot like a Morgan Freeman tribute act in Pretty Woman at either end of the film. Pretty Woman has become an all time classic in many eyes, taking two unlikely bedfellows – big business and prostitution – which actually have distinct parallels. Somehow, those two feel an easier marriage than rock music and the musical, which in theory should work better together. Now, I’m an expert proponent of the air guitar, wielding an imaginary axe as well as the next man, but at the same time I’m also a fan of musical theatre (not, in this case, a euphemism), but while the two share musical notes and a tendency for the flamboyant, they feel like two magnets with the same magnetic pole, both with a strong attraction but unable to connect to each other. Can Rock Of Ages prove this theory wrong?
No. No it can’t. What Rock Of Ages actually consists of are a succession of rock standards sung in a musical style, stripping away the essence of what made them great in the first place. There’s a few, like Extreme’s “More Than Words” that have a softer rock style which make an easier transition, and a couple of performances on stage where the song can be played straight rather than musical-ised. The biggest success on that front comes from the biggest film star in the world playing the biggest rock star in the world: Tom Cruise lets his hair down and has an absolute blast as Stacee Jaxx, accompanied everywhere by a baboon and ending up face down in his own swimming pool with absolute grace, he does a fair job with the big songs and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, especially in his interview with Malin Ackerman’s smitten journalist.
The rest of the cast, not so much. Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough are utterly forgettable as the star-crossed lovers, doing a moderate job with the songs and very little else. Catherine Zeta Jones attempts to take huge chunks out of the scenery at any opportunity, sharing almost no screen time with her husband Bryan Cranston while the movie attempts to work out which of them, or indeed Paul Giamatti’s manager, should be the antagonist. Most of the laughs, such as they are, are left to Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin as the rock promoters, and if you can get past Brand’s accent – attempting to do for Birmingham accents what Dick Van Dyke did for Cockernees – then he and Baldwin make a reasonable double act, especially in their unexpected duet.
The key difference between the likes of Pretty Woman, and indeed director Adam Shankman’s previous work on the Hairspray remake and the episodes of Glee he’s directed, are that there’s a sense of fun sorely lacking in places. Rock Of Ages has neither the true camp value of the best tongue-in-cheek musicals or the best rock performances, and there are long stretches where you long for something – anything – interesting or just plain different to happen. Overall it’s enjoyable, but it’s unlikely to be inspiring singalongs in London cinemas twenty years from now, and the plot is so simplistic that it struggles to justify the two hour run time. The key similarity between this and Pretty Woman are how dangerously easy it is to fall into the sex industry in Hollywood; apparently a few days working in a bar, hanging round on the Hollywood sign and some relationship difficulties are just about enough to push you over the edge. Take heed, any young girls – some dreams come true, some don’t, but keep on dreaming. Just make sure it’s a dull sex dream with Tom Cruise in it.
Why see it at the cinema: Russell Brand’s Woilver’ampton accent has to be heard to be believed, and there are a couple of good songs sung well (as well as several more good songs sung quite averagely). If you hoped never to hear Journey’s now ubiquitous Don’t Stop Believing again as long as you lived, then move right along, nothing to see here.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: You wait ages for a Russell Brand film and then two come along at once. Or maybe you don’t; there’s as many people who run screaming at the sight of the scruffy English dandy as who enjoy his schtick, and this remake is an attempt to play on Brand’s particular qualities. He managed to successfully break out of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, getting his own spin-off and it was one that did its best to play to his strengths and his background, allowing him the role of the reforming addict who had a larger than life stage presence. Arthur feels like another attempt to do that, fitting the role to the perception of Brand’s character, but all that serves to do is to show that it’s as easy to get that right as it is to get it badly wrong.
Brand follows in the footsteps of Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach, a spoiled rich man with a kid’s outlook on life. The other thing that Arthur has is a drinking problem, although sometimes you feel Arthur’s drinking problem is nearer to that of Ted Striker than a real alcoholic, with Brand alternating between affecting the comedy slurring practiced by Dudley Moore in the original and sounding completely sober, often in consecutive scenes. His Arthur is a comedy drunk, except someone seems to have sucked out all the comedy from his performance, with the most risqué action being to snob a complete stranger at a restaurant. The loss of comedy, crucially, seems to stem from Brand attempting to channel Dudley Moore rather than putting his own stamp on the role, but he’s given precious little to work with and there’s a definite whiff of 100 studio executives in the editing room making sure that anything too unpalatable doesn’t make the cut.
While the comedy fares pretty poorly, some other elements do manage to rise above the material a little better. Most of those centre around either Helen Mirren, who’s far too good for this and isn’t afraid to prove it repeatedly, or Greta Gerwig. The movie is at its most effective either when Mirren is acting pithy or when Brand and Gerwig are casually flirting and throwing random thoughts into the conversation. There’s a whole host of other famous names involved, from Jennifer Garner in the thankless prospective wife role to Luis Guzman as the quiet chauffeur Bitterman, but none of them make any real impression either way.
The unfortunate exception to that is Nick Nolte, who plays the bride’s father and gets about three scenes. The first of these is meant to be mildly threatening but actually comes over as toe-curlingly embarrassing and almost kills the movie stone dead. It’s symptomatic of the wild shifts in tone which director Jason Winer seems ill-equipped to cope with. It doesn’t really work as a comedy, attempts at pathos fall flat and it’s only the partial romantic success and Helen Mirren that prevent this being a total write off. Sad to say, if you want to see one Russell Brand movie released this April, you should make it Hop, which at least allows Brand to be more Brand. Arthur is as embarrassing as a drunken relative at your school play, and a lot less amusing.
Why see it at the cinema: The audience I saw it with laughed once, so there’s not much to be gained there, but the Grand Central Terminal scenes do benefit from a larger viewing area.
The Score: 4/10
The Review: Russell Brand is absolute comedy Marmite, pure and simple. It’s legally not permitted to have any sense of ambivalence for the big haired, roughly accented Mr Katy Perry, so your tolerance for him will determine whether or not you can stomach this. While it might look like a cute fluffy bunny, the personality is absolutely Brandian and although it’s been sanitised for the kiddies, if the waffly ramblings and strangled rantings aren’t your cup of tea then it would be best to turn back now. Seriously. Stop reading this review, there’s nothing for you to see here. Come back later when I’m dissecting a four hour Norwegian art house sci-fi romance. Right – they gone? Time to confess that I’ve been partial to a bit of Brand ever since his dinkle-obsessed Big Brother days, and although I wouldn’t condone his behaviour in Sachsgate, it was blown rather out of proportion. So I am entertained by Russell Brand, and actually Hop captures him on a good day.
With that established, it’s time to look at the very concept of Hop itself. Many movies over the years have attempted to tap into the Christmas spirit of good will, brotherly love, understanding and a benevolent fat man breaking into houses and swapping food for presents. So many, in fact, that new concepts for Christmas movies have been somewhat exhausted, leaving Hollywood to start attacking other holidays and festivities. While it’s easy to pin down the Christmas concept, the true spirit of Easter is harder to nail, if you’ll pardon the pun. So the Easter concept apparently consists entirely of leaving eggs in people’s gardens and leaving mystical chocolate rabbits for them. Tasked with this thankless objective is James Marsden, who has a gift for physical comedy and also for making a complete tit of himself, skills which are required frequently here.
The plot, what there is of it, consists of Marsden becoming vaguely obsessed with the Easter bunny after a sighting at a very young age. Cut to several decades later, and Marsden is dropping out at his parents’ house. (We’ll overlook the fact that he’s old enough to be the wrong side of a mid-life crisis, and that all of the animals involved should be very, very dead after this long.) So we watch the contrasts as Brand’s E.B. and Marsden’s Fred both rebel against their situations and attempt to find meaning in their lives. And that’s about it; obstacles present themselves, faintly humorous situations occur and Easter is placed in a mild amount of peril, the loss of which would leave children all over the world with slightly lower levels of chocolate. Other mild perils include untidy rooms and a tricky job interview, and Hop is about as non-threatening as it’s possible to be.
So what reasons to watch Hop? There are roughly three, and Brand and Marsden are two of them. Both are high energy, have a good double act and give the material more credit than it deserves. The other is Hank Azaria, who contributes a couple of voices, including a randomly Spanish chick who drives the plot in the last third. (You might remember him from such cartoons at “The Simpsons”.) Other than that, Kaley Cuoco trots out the same solitary facial expression she uses on The Big Bang Theory, Gary Cole is mildly wasted and Elizabeth Perkins has one of those “such-a-nothing-role-I-could-have-played-it-and-you-wouldn’t-have-noticed” roles. Tim “Alvin And The Chipmunks” Hill does as little with his direction here as he does there, so it’s the talent of the performers that will keep you engaged – and when I say you, it’s likely you’ll still be at primary school or very easily pleased if you are thrilled with this. There is, though, one last possible draw, and that’s an extended cameo from The Hoffmeister himself, who still acts as if he owns a talking car and generally wildly unbalances the film in the best way possible. When the three stars or The Hoff are on screen, it’s at least OK, but otherwise it’s as hollow as an Easter egg and about as fulfilling.
Why see it at the cinema: I love David Hasselhoff. If you love David Hasselhoff, then you could do a lot worse. Well, a bit worse. For everyone else, if you want to see Hank Azaria voicing a giant Spanish chicken, then step right up.
The Score: 5/10
The Review: It’s easy to wonder today how many of the spate of animated movies which have followed in the wake of Toy Story and other Pixar classics would have been made in the days of hand-drawn animation. Certainly computer graphics have opened up the opportunity to increase the level of detail on the visuals, both in terms of quality and content, but if any lesson should be learned from Pixar, it’s that story is the key – get that right, first and foremost, and the rest is complementary rather than essential.
The story here is a classic juxtaposition – Gru (Steve Carell) is an criminal mastermind working in the tough and competitive field of criminal mastermindery, but whose previous schemes have not met the success he’d have liked. His efforts to achieve prominence in his chosen profession pit him against up and coming evil genius Vector (Jason Segel), and in his efforts to get one up on his new nemesis, he’s willing to take any steps necessary, even the adoption of three unwanted orphans who turn up on his doorstep one day to sell cookies. His underestimation of the implications of this development only serve to complicate his efforts to achieve his greatest challenge yet – to steal the Moon…
So the story itself is fairly solid, and there are a few standout elements. The first is Gru himself, Carell going for an indeterminate Eastern-European style accent that actually gives his character just that – character. It’s easy to warm to him and also to remain sympathetic, despite his oddball plans. The little ones in his care are also extremely entertaining, be it the perfectly balanced orphan trio or the vast array of freakish-looking yellow minions, and the movie isn’t afraid to play on some of their stranger physical characteristics, which also generate some of the bigger laughs.
But, and there is a but, that’s all that really stands out. If you’ve seen the making of that gets cycled on afternoon TV and satellite channels, you’ll have seen how good Julie Andrews is as Gru’s mum – but she actually gets about four lines in the final cut. The plot itself has some rough edges (these criminal masterminds are oddly civilised and very formal for a bunch of evil criminals, even the cute and cuddly kind) that diminish its impact. It’s not fair to expect everything to have the large emotional impact of (yes, them again) Pixar, but it only engages the emotions a little, and also ends up being mildly chucklesome rather than laugh out loud funny. Most of the rest of the supporting cast, including an oddly miscast Russell Brand, also leave little impact. It should please your smaller minions and it’s good value for the whole family, but this is more “Despicable Meh” than anything else.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s some well-handled action sequences and generally lots going on at any one time, so the cinema does do Despicable Me some favours.
Why see it in 3D: There’s moderately effective use of the third dimension during the running time, but the end crecits are the most prominent 3D showcase, with minions competing to see how far into the audience’s faces they can get. Ah, my eyes!
The Score: 6/10
The Review: Ah, Russell Brand. About an hour before writing this review, I was making my weekly call to my mother to tell her about all the things I haven’t yet done with my life, and her one and only reaction to Mr Brand’s mention was “Eurgh! Oh! He’s disgusting.” And it would be fair to say that this British dandy splits tastes, and has managed to get himself a partly sullied reputation in the UK for some of the things he’s done in the past few years. Which is what makes him absolutely perfect to take on the role of a middle aged rock star who swans around looking like the scruffier end of the upper classes and uses phrases like “affable nitwit”. At times, Brand is so good in the role that you forget he’s actually playing a role.
But the fact that he’s so suited to the role may be what’s driven this spin-off from Forgetting Sarah Marshall which, like me, you’ve probably forgotten most of, apart from Russell Brand’s English rocker Aldous Snow. You may have also forgotten that Jonah Hill was in the original as well, but gets a different role here, as the man charged with bringing Aldous from London to LA with only three days to do it. This should give a road movie feel with added jeopardy, but mainly thanks to Aldous’ relaxed attitude, at no point do you ever really feel that he’s not going to get to the Greek on time.
The real problem is that this rock star takes an awful long time to truly find his groove. While both Hill and Brand are affable enough, there’s maybe too many sequences in the first half of the movie that are of the uncomfortable social situation kind, where you’re expected to laugh through your empathy with the characters predicament, rather than actual jokes. There are a sprinkling of Aldous’ rock star videos and songs, all of which are great, and a succession of celebrity cameos, most of which are not. There’s also maybe a little too much dwelling on the serious side of Aldous’ troubled life. But what really gets this movie into gear is a diversion to Vegas to see Aldous’ dad (the always reliable Colm Meaney).
This also brings the other central character, Sean Combs’ slightly deranged record exec Sergio, into the mix properly, and he’s a revelation. (Before you say it, no, we don’t need another spin off, he’s fine with what he’s done here.) From this point on the movie is laugh out loud hilarious, only occasionally flirting with the serious again, but the Vegas sequence and a trip to Aaron’s apartment are both real highlights. Thankfully the script doesn’t feel the need to hand out too many happy endings, but the real happiness would have been seeing a movie that was the consistent quality of the last third.
Why see it at the cinema: The early uncomfortable laughs will be made that much less painful with a large crowd in attendance, a few of whom will hopefully laugh. Then you can share that experience when the big laughs kick in later.
The Score: 6/10