Kubo and the Two Strings is Pure Magic

kubo-main_0

Bryan and I watched Kubo and the Two Strings last night, and I immediately understood why it wasn’t a commercial box office success when it premiered in U.S. theaters in 2016.

Kubo features stop-motion animation in a world that’s come to expect the sheer perfection of CGI. While it’s an animated film, Kubo is most certainly not suited for kids. The story does not hold to traditional American storytelling tropes, takes magic to a whole new level, and portrays historical Japanese culture.

And while these are some of the reasons Kubo likely didn’t achieve box office success, they are the reasons you should drop everything you’re doing and WATCH THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW!

Quite frankly, this film left me breathless.

First of all, Laika Studios’ stop-motion animation is spectacular. With Kubo, they’ve achieved a whole level in the art form. (Just watch the trailer for proof.) The majority of the scenes were damn near seamless in execution. The only reminders for me that this was a stop-motion film were little hints around the mouths of characters as they spoke and the distinct style that is associated with this type of animation. Truly, the artistry alone is worth watching this film.

If you know any of Laika’s previous films (like Coraline, ParaNorman, or The Box Trolls), you know they aren’t afraid to get a little dark. Well, I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Kubo is fucking terrifying. Like vengeful floating witches in Kabuki masks terrifying. Like if you let your young child watch this movie they are likely to have crazy imaginative (and gorgeous) but truly horrifying nightmares. The villains in Kubo are ruthless; I mean, our titular character and 11-year-old hero only has one eye because of them. The threat of bodily harm, death, and destruction is palpable throughout this story. And the world is vividly portrayed, upping the creep factor tenfold. For me, all of this works together to heighten the tension and draw me in. If you like spooky stories, Kubo is a must see.

I absolutely love that Kubo draws inspiration from Japanese folklore. From ancient samurai to festivals that bridge the divide between the living and the dead, from the art of origami to the importance (and inherent magic) of storytelling, Kubo does a beautiful job representing ancient Japanese culture (at least to the best of my knowledge – I don’t proclaim myself an expert!). Though it would’ve been nice if the voice actors were of Asian descent (as in Disney’s Moana), Kubo is still a delight in terms of representation of both another culture and a different approach to storytelling.

The last thing you should know about Kubo is that it packs emotional punch. Central to this coming-of-age story are themes of family, loss, life, death, and protecting those your love. I got all the feels during the climax and ending of Kubo (luckily, I’m battling a cold, so Bryan thought I was blowing my nose because I had to). And that’s just how I like my stories—with characters I care about and messages that stir something within me.

Seriously, just watch Kubo and the Two Strings. Allow yourself to get caught up in magic. Remember why family is so important. Drown in gorgeous art. And don’t blink, because you just might miss something incredible.

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Legends and Labyrinths

As a kid, I remember the thrill of clicking on the TV in my bedroom after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. I turned the volume down low, so low anyone in the hallway outside my room wouldn’t hear it, even if they pressed their ear to the door. Because I took such great precautions to avoid getting caught watching movies past my bedtime, I had to lean toward the TV and remain still to hear the sound, which often resulted in a crink in my neck. I suffered many a sleepy morning, but it was worth it to watch whatever I wanted, alone in my room.

I always found something to watch, usually movies TV stations wouldn’t play during daytime peak hours but were okay with playing in the dead of night. They didn’t expect anyone to be watching at that time. But I was.

Legend movie poster

One of the movies I remember distinctly is one of Tom Cruise’s early films, a dark fairy tale directed by Ridley Scott called Legend. As a kid, I loved fairy tales. Not the sweet and bubbly ones where everyone gets married, and evil gets what’s coming to it. I read those, sure, but I also read the versions where body parts are hacked off, marriages are not always happy, and mermaids die. So Legend, with its terrifying portrayal of evil, fit neatly into my personal fairy tale canon.

The plot is rather simple: Jack, an innocent wood-dweller and presumably the very first animal whisperer, loves the fair and noble Princess Lily. To show her his devotion, he takes her to see the unicorns, the physical embodiment of the Light, all that is good and pure in the world. Lily is enchanted by the unicorns and moves close to touch one. At that very moment, a demon from the underworld shoots the unicorn with a poison dart, then cuts off its horn. As a result, darkness descends upon the valley. The remaining unicorn and Lily are herded into the underworld, where Darkness (see: the Devil) seeks to kill the last of the unicorns to rid the world of goodness—and seduce Lily. Jack, with the help of woodland fairy friends, must overcome great obstacles and battle Darkness to reinstate the natural balance between good and evil and save the woman he loves.

I adored this film as a kid. Every time I came across it late at night, flipping through stations, I’d always watch it. I was just as enchanted with the movie as Lily was with those unicorns.

I realize now, as an adult, my attraction to Legend had everything to do with seeing the fantastical beings I’d imagined in my head on the silver screen. They were given life and magic. And while I watched these characters, I became a part of their story, a part of their world. And there is nothing better than that sort of experience for a burgeoning storyteller.

When David Bowie died from cancer last month, my friend, Nikki, and I immediately scheduled a Labyrinth viewing party. By party, I mean the two of us with a bottle of wine and Thai food.

LabyrinthFor many of our generation, the tale of a baby brother stolen from Sarah (played by an incredibly young Jennifer Connelly) by Goblin King Jareth (Bowie) in a bizarre showing of … love? … is a seminal piece of our childhood. We remember the wonder (or fright) we experienced watching Jim Henson’s puppets flit across the screen. We remember the music, catchy tunes that most of us can sing verbatim if asked to do so. We most definitely remember Bowie’s glittery, rock star hair, tight pants and riding boots, and strange allure. We weren’t supposed to like him because he was a villain, and yet …

I tried to watch Labyrinth with my fiancé, but the film was lost on him. He never saw Labyrinth as a kid, and though he was open and understood it was a dated film, it simply didn’t work for him. All he saw were David Bowie music videos, awful dialogue (this part is true), and a fun but not altogether special assemblage of characters.

I realized then that watching movies as a child is so very different than watching movies as an adult. The childhood wonder of seeing something new cements films and worlds and characters in our imaginations as precious gems, remembrances of key moments of childhood – possibility, awe, and love. That nostalgia is what allows us to re-watch films that, in other circumstances, we’d deem absolutely horrid.

LegendLast night, I invited Nikki over to watch Legend with me, and I was nervous. Nikki hadn’t seen Legend before, and it had been a good 18 or so years since I’d seen it. I remembered it with love, but would it hold up? And would I be forcing my friend to watch something that didn’t play a role in her childhood and, thus, would just be terrible?

At the end of the night, Nikki and I had discovered a few basic truths about Legend:

Legend is Labyrinth’s big sister. The scandalous one. The one who takes great pleasure in scaring the bejesus out of you. They share a lot of the same thematics: puppetry, adventure, the overall goal to win over evil – but Legend presents it in a much more grownup way. This film boasts a PG rating, but it was created at a time when the PG-13 rating was just gaining traction, and I’m sure movie studios were sorting out what qualifies as shocking. In my opinion, Legend is pretty shocking. The monsters, demons, and Darkness (again, the Devil—played wonderfully by Tim Curry, still slightly recognizable beneath a crazy makeup job) are terrifying. Nikki and I thought we’d have nightmares.

Tom CruiseTom Cruise’s legs should enjoy their own billing. When we first meet Tom Cruise’s character, Jack, he drops out of a tree wearing a Peter Pan-meets-Tarzan ensemble and lands in a deep squat. It’s the kind of thing I do in yoga classes. From there on out, Jack’s legs are always on display, and he’s often lunging and crouching and flexing. Even when Jack discovers an outfit of gold armor, its coverage ends at his upper thigh, gladiator style. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the gams, and Tom must’ve built tremendous strength during filming.

A lot of people lambast this movie. And I get it. The dialogue, like Labyrinth’s, is not always cohesive with the action. Sometimes, it’s just strange … and bad. Tom didn’t have his acting chops firmly in place at this time; he was very green. There are holes in the plot, and our suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far. But there are a lot of things this film gets right. The cinematography is gorgeous (and won quite a few awards after Legend’s release). The set designers truly outdid themselves in creating the contradiction of lush, beautiful woodlands and the harrowing halls and twisted corridors of, well, hell. The puppetry is unreal (there’s a witch in a swamp that is the epitome of terrifying), the dubbing is done rather well, and we have to remember this was a time when CGI was not the immediate solution. There are definitely special effects at play in this film, but by and large, a lot of it is practical. It’s an undertaking and quite the accomplishment.

Tim CurryAnd I’d be remiss to not acknowledge the incredible talent that is Tim Curry as Darkness. He’s deplorable but elegant. He’s charming and manipulative in the way that the most wonderful villains are (in my opinion). Then again, Tim Curry can really do no wrong.

All in all, the night was a success. I introduced Nikki to a cult classic and a very specific piece of my childhood. And me? I was cozied up under my comforter again, watching something I knew I shouldn’t be. It was a fun throwback.

And today, thinking and writing about Legend, I can’t help but smile, which only goes to prove my hypothesis: those first moments of magic, mystery, horror, and wonder that we experience as kids will remain with us forever.

I Want a Baymax for Christmas

Photo by flicker user "DisneyLifestylers."

Photo by flicker user “DisneyLifestylers.”

I’m inspired to create a Christmas list this year, because I most definitely want a Baymax. If you don’t know what a Baymax is, go see Disney’s latest feature film Big Hero 6. Immediately.

Big Hero 6, a Marvel Comics property that’s been Disney-fied, is the story of 14 year old ‘bot fighter and boy prodigy Hiro Hamada. Knowing that Hiro is headed toward a teen-hood of genius delinquency in the hyper-urban and progressive landscape of San Fransokyo, his older brother, Tadashi, takes Hiro to his “nerd lab,” a science geek’s ultimate dream on the campus of his college. In the nerd lab, we meet Baymax, a marshmallow of a robotic health care provider that Tadashi has been developing. (And that is when my love story with Baymax began, because he is immediately adorable!)

Hiro geeks out on all the amazing scientific advancements in the lab. He decides to apply to college and put his abilities to good use. However, the night Hiro presents a new invention—microbots, tiny robots controlled by a brain-powered neurotransmitter that can assemble any which way—a fire breaks out and Tadashi is killed in the blaze. (I’m sorry, but that’s a necessary spoiler.)

In the weeks following Tadashi’s death, Hiro is devastated and forfeits his chance at college. Then, one afternoon, Baymax, who has been moved into the bedroom Hiro used to share with Tadashi, is reactivated. The reactivation of Baymax signals the beginning of a friendship between the robot and the boy.

Soon, Hiro begins to suspect that his brother’s death wasn’t an accident and worse yet, someone may have stolen his invention. Someone who wants to use it for evil instead of good. Hiro will need to push his intelligence to the test to learn the truth—and maybe even save the world.

What follows is a beautiful origin story of the Big Hero 6 (Hiro, Baymax, GoGo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) chock-full of ridiculously cool science, lessons in loss and grieving, social commentary on what can happen if technology gets into the wrong hands, and my favorite part, a low-battery (see: drunk) Baymax.

Though it deviates from the origin story seen in Marvel comics, Disney did a nice job balancing old Marvel and new Disney content. And yes, there’s a cameo by Stan Lee!

And I have to say, in an age where we need more and more of the younger generation to go gaga over science, this movie is the perfect advertisement. I wanted to go home and build something. And I don’t do engineering or science or robots.

But make no mistake about it, Big Hero 6 isn’t just for kids (Baymax’s “drunk” scene proves that tenfold—low batteries, mm hmm). This film handles some very adult themes while remaining fun and vibrant for younger viewers, another balancing act Disney seems to have perfected in the last decade or so.

Like most Disney movies (and some comic books, too), succeeding in the face of adversity (ahem, the death of family members) and the healing power of friendship are central to this story, so you leave the theater feeling uplifted and full of hope…And desperately wanting a Baymax for Christmas. There were so many times I wanted to reach out and give that robot a big hug!

Big Hero 6 is one of my favorite movies of the year. And it’s not just the comedic bits of the film or the mind-blowing animation (the flight sequences and travel into another dimension are superb!). There’s a lot we can learn from Big Hero 6—and specifically Baymax, because he holds the story together, he provides a much-needed link for Hiro between the living and the dead, he heals those that may not know they’re hurt, and he makes us feel good—just like he was programmed to do.

Santa, you know what to do.

Sex and Savagery: A New Breed of Villain

Photo by flickr user "Colony of Gamers."

Photo by flickr user “Colony of Gamers.”

What do Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness have in common? Yes, they are both summer blockbusters. Yes, they are both modern imaginings of celebrated franchises. Yes, they are both filled with action, great characters, and awesome CGI.

But what I really want to talk about today are hot villains. In Iron Man 3, you’ve got Guy Pearce playing Aldrich Killian (cue the swooning). In Star Trek: Into Darkness, you’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch (Cumberbitches unite!) playing the infamous Kahn. And when these guys are on screen, you aren’t sure whether you’d rather kiss them or kill them.

It hasn’t always been this way. Classically, villains heralded from fairytales and other regional stories. These stories were didactic in nature; they were both entertaining and educational. They taught you a very valuable lesson. Don’t go wandering in the woods by yourselves, children.

In more modern storytelling, villains provide the catalyst for a story. I mean, you don’t have a story without conflict. Something or someone has to make our heroes act and change. Otherwise, we wouldn’t really root for them. And how can you get through the dog days of an Arizona summer without rooting for heroes on the big screen?

It’s pure entertainment. Now I’m not saying there aren’t some lessons embedded in these summer blockbusters (Iron Man 3 – appearances can be deceiving; Star Trek – it takes both heart and logic to defeat evil), but we don’t go to Harkins to learn a thing or two. We go to the theater for explosions and cool technology and, in my case, to watch Benedict Cumberbatch run through Starfleet.

Photo by flickr user "The_JIFF."

Photo by flickr user “The_JIFF.”

So why is the sexy villain such a good draw?

1.   Okay, not like it’s news, but we girls tend to be attracted to bad boys. I don’t know if it’s the edge or the leather or the ignorance of authority…but it’s hot. No one wants to wind up with a bad boy, but we sure as hell want to date or make out with one during our lifetimes. The dude equivalent is Megan Fox.

2.   Subconsciously, villains are more terrifying if they are beautiful. Think about it. Pretty things lure prey in, seemingly harmless and with no pretenses. In the cases of Killian and Kahn, they both look like they are human, just like you and me. So when they turn, we didn’t see it coming.

3.   Our relationships with them are more complex. Geez, I know Aldrich Killian is the bad guy, but his butt sure looks good in those pants. We forget who to root for because we’re attracted to them. It’s an interesting psychological conundrum, which can be pretty fun.

4.   It taps into the savagery of the human race. Neither Killian nor Kahn are quite human, but they do retain certain human qualities that we can relate to. So when they unleash the dark and devious parts of them…we have to admit that we would all be capable of the same if we didn’t have moral compasses. It’s the same reason people read up on serial killers and the like when they aren’t homicide detectives. Human psychology is interesting. And human savagery is just under the surface, latent and ready to strike.

5.  It’s not like movie studios don’t know that a sexy villain or leading man will entice  ladies to accompany their boyfriends and husbands to summer blockbusters. Hollywood, I’m on to you. And you’re doing a brilliant job.

So I say bring on the summer blockbusters.

Which, of course, is synonymous with bring on the sex and savagery. Though it’s short-lived and the good guys always win in the end (as they should), you have to admit – it’s a little fun to flirt with danger.

 

Photo licensing info: Colony of Gamers The_JIFF

5 Reasons Skyfall Sizzles

Photo by flickr user "ocd007"

Photo by flickr user “ocd007”

The name is Brown, Tiffany Brown, and I’m ready to deliver five reasons why you should buy a ticket and go see Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, in theaters – if you haven’t already. If you have, you deserve a cookie – or perhaps a martini, shaken, not stirred.

SPOILER ALERT: While I don’t plan on divulging major plot twists and whatnot, if you haven’t seen this film yet and you want to experience some of the details on your own, just take my aforementioned advice. See the movie, come back, and then nod enthusiastically as you read this blog entry.

1. Daniel Craig is sex on a stick. I know, surprise, surprise, she starts with the eye candy, right? Well, it’s hard to miss Craig’s devastating good looks and the charismatic way he moves about the screen, dodging bullets and adjusting cufflinks after jumping onto a runaway, disengaged, half-trashed train car. And that’s because the film emphasizes it, knowing that James Bond is a sex symbol and true fans would scream for someone’s head if he weren’t dreamy and hypnotic. Though I know there are girls out there who have an issue with Bond being played by a blond man, I have no issue – thanks to Craig’s chiseled jaw line, lean, but fit frame, and his commanding presence. That’ll do, Craig, that’ll do.

By the way, I would like to start a female petition worldwide that would require all men to wear fitted suits, knee-length pea coats, and leather gloves as frequently as possible. Who’s with me?

2. Javier Bardem plays a scary fucking villain. Two infamous villain performances that always seem to be referenced as the best of the best are Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger as The Joker. It’s no coincidence that these performances led to Oscar wins, because they are utterly terrifying. Well, I’d like to submit Javier Bardem as a contender to form the trifecta of bad ass bad guys. Bardem plays Raoul Silva, a cyber terrorist who is cold, calculated, and most definitely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. You know those people who are just a little off, so they are innately unpredictable and incredibly disturbing? Yeah, mix that with influence, hyper-intelligence, and a taste for revenge and you get Silva. Bardem’s natural accent, a new hair color, and the subtle manipulations of his mouth (such a smart actor’s choice that truly ties into the character’s past) really bring this villain to life and separate Bardem from his previous romantic/comedic roles in Love in the Time of Cholera and Eat Pray Love. Dare I say I smell an Oscar nod for this role?

Shanghai. Not a photo from the film, but beautiful nonetheless. Photo by flickr user "Weijie~."

Shanghai. Not a photo from the film, but beautiful nonetheless. Photo by flickr user “Weijie~.”

3. The film is visually stunning. If you are someone who appreciates aesthetic and attention to detail, you will love this film. Honestly, you could watch Skyfall on mute and still be completely mesmerized for its duration – it’s that brilliantly crafted. The opening credits – in grand James Bond tradition – play behind an opening theme song. As Adele wails, a cornucopia of images flood the screen – female silouhettes, guns, underwater seascapes, deer antlers – which all tie into the story, but of course, you don’t know that until later. There’s a section of the movie that takes place in Shanghai, and the glimpses of China during those scenes are breathtaking, especially when neon lights and projected moving images come out to play on glass skyscrapers. There are shadow fight sequences with nighttime in Shanghai as the backdrop that play with the senses, create anticipation, and hearken back to aesthetic styles of early Bond films. The costuming is also impeccable, from 007’s Tom Cole wardrobe to the stylish office clothing of those employed at MI6 to the dresses worn by beautiful women in the Shanghai casino (Swarovski was thanked by the producers in the credits if that gives you any indication of the luxury of the casino garments).

4. This film understands that it is not the first. And what I mean by that is that the film is littered with classic James Bond references. The shadow fighting I referenced earlier is an aesthetic example. Bond drinks his signature cocktail in the casino in Shanghai – shaken, not stirred. Bond’s Aston Martin comes out to play. The movie ends with the classic image of Bond’s silhouette turning to fire a shot at the audience. Even the musical score contains notes of original James Bond music from previous movies. The nods are respectful and they firmly entrench Skyfall in the catalogue of Bond stories.

Photo by flickr user "Andrew Prickett."

Photo by flickr user “Andrew Prickett.”

5. Skyfall will tickle your funny bone. Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan are responsible for writing the screenplay for Skyfall. Apparently, three heads are better than one, because I think this trio nailed the required balance between drama and humor for this film. While James Bond is a haunted and damaged character, he has his cheeky moments of dry wit and sexual innuendo, which are needed to make him a well-rounded leading man. Raoul Silva is as funny as he is demented (and sometimes funny because he’s so demented). He’s almost a caricature of himself at times. The relationship between Bond and M, played by Dame Judi Dench, is usually tense, but their mutual respect and affective for each other comes out in smartass quips and interactions between them. All in all, there were a number of moments during Skyfall where I tipped my head back and let myself laugh out loud.

I don’t normally indulge in seeing movies more than once in the theater, but I just might need to go see Skyfall again. It’s quite the spectacle and while it will still be brilliant as a staple of my DVD collection, I think it may lose a bit of its glimmer when played back on a smaller-than-theater-sized screen.

Besides, I could think of much worse fates than watching 007 execute pull-ups and take down the bad guys.

Photo licensing info: weijie~
Photo licensing info: Andrew Prickett

How Rock of Ages Rocked My World

Photo by flickr user “Voitaco.”

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve riding around with my dad in his old Ford truck, listening to classic rock music on cassette tapes. I feel privileged to have grown up with the likes of Lynard Skynard, Queen, Elton John, The Eagles, and The Cars. That music has provided a soundtrack for me and my dad through the years.

Though Steve Perry was nowhere to be found, my dad and I saw Journey at Cricket (it wasn’t Ashley Home yet) when I was in high school, and I was definitely the girl who requested “Faithfully” at Senior Prom. When we did a classic rock dance recital during my high school years, I dedicated my solo to “Baby, I’m Amazed” to my dad and our Pointe piece to “Let It Be” is still my dad’s all-time favorite performance of mine.

It’s become a tradition for us to indulge in a classic rock concert as a daddy-daughter date annually. Our family has also been known to attend Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding when the lineup is good. My dad has told me that he’s proud of the fact that I got up out of my seat and rocked out hard when we heard Cheap Trick play “I Want You To Want Me” live at one such concert.

So when I saw the movie poster for Rock of Ages at a local Harkins theatre last year, I got nervous. Yes, the cast looked brilliant, but classic rock is so distinctive that usually covers or reproductions tend to sound cheesy when they’re produced for mass consumption. Now, I will admit that classic rock, particularly 80’s rock, is pretty cheesy to begin with, but that’s some of the fun of it. Add more cheddar and it’s just too much.

Case is point is Glee. Don’t get me wrong, I love Glee, but I’ve always had a hard time when rock numbers grace my TV during that show. Those covers, while great, lack some of the grit I need for classic rock to resonate with me.

I also know that Rock of Ages started as a musical and though I’m a theatre kid, I didn’t like the idea of the combination either. Musical theatre performers have a very distinctive sound vocally and it’s usually not incredibly compatible with rock and roll (with a few exceptions, of course, the rock musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent – but even those are peppered with classic musical theatre flair in terms of song style). I’d heard some of the cast recordings from the stage show and cringed. As with Glee, massively talented singers – just not my flavor of classic rock.

Photo by flickr user “Broadway Tour.”

Long story short, I was afraid this movie would royally jack the music that’s so nostalgic and special to me.

Some hope for the film blossomed when my dad called me and raved about Rock of Ages, saying that it was really funny and he thought I’d enjoy it. Since then, I’ve been toying with the idea of watching it.

A couple weeks ago at Redbox, Rock of Ages came up on the screen and I decided to take a chance on it. Two nights ago, I bought the movie.

Now, to be completely honest here, my worst nightmare kind of did come true with this movie. Most of the rock music has undergone a pop treatment…but it fits with the rest of the story and it’s so much fun that frankly, I don’t care. This movie wasn’t meant to be an accurate homage to 80’s pop and rock; it’s meant to be a hyperbolic romp through 1987 with a nod to every cliche imaginable. So, I’ll let the music be what it is – something better than Glee or a musical soundtrack, but definitely not tantamount to Def Leppard. Would I ever expect anything to be as good as the original rock? No, so I’ll concede it here.

So, here’s what I especially liked…

Let’s start with the fantastic mash-ups. Who would’ve thought “Jukebox Hero” and “I Love Rock and Roll” would mesh so well together? And whoever decided to mix “Harden My Heart” and “Shadows of the Night” originally for the musical score deserves a cookie. The orchestrations are pretty fantastic, too, ringing with electric guitar and raging drums.

And seriously, who is going to be mad at Mary J. Blige singing anything? She adds some fantastic soul to the tracks.

Though the music can border on cheesy at times, the cast performs the hell out of every song and it’s so much fun. The movie captures the flamboyance of 80’s rock without pushing it too far into that annoying place where people are trying too hard and taking themselves too seriously.

This movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and that’s why it’s successful. You can tell that everyone who was on set from the costume designers to the choreographer (Mia Michaels – major plus in my book!) to the actors embraced the awesome 80’s and worked hard to make it both cheeky and at least remotely believable beneath the hyperbole.

And don’t even get me started on the pole dancing sequences! They cast some beautiful dancers and athletes in this film, so the ladies of Athena’s Club for Gentlemen are both raunchy and massively talented. Mia Michaels did a brilliant job incorporating traditional dance and syncopation into these sequences.

Now, let’s talk actors. My standout performances don’t belong to the leads of the film, but rather two supporting characters who completely steal the show in my opinion.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a “reformed” bad girl groupie now married to the mayor of L.A. Because she was burned by the gratuitous, womanizing Stacee Jaxx in her past, she’s now obsessed with bringing him down. Of course she secretly (well, not so secretly) is still under the spell of sex that Stacee casts over women everywhere. Boy bands, eat your hearts out. Stacee’s the real deal.

Photo by flickr user “Thomas Heyman.”

Zeta-Jones has the prim and proper exterior down to a science – and you can tell that she’s all kinds of hot and bothered just under the surface. When she and a hoard of church moms vow to take down Stacee Jaxx with their rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” I laugh hysterically every time. The conviction, the 80’s women’s suits, the hilariously frigid choreography – it’s amazing.

Let’s rewind and talk about Stacee Jaxx, played by Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages. If ever there was a character to embody excess, sleaze, 80’s hair band revelry, and lewdness, it’s Stacee Jaxx. Stacee is a scotch-guzzling, breast-touching, people-smelling, monkey-owning mess of a rock star and you can’t help but love him for it. The first glimpse we get of Stacee, he’s draped in four half-naked women, wearing leather chaps and a jeweled man panty, and completely shit-faced. Rock star gold.

It’s rumored that Tom Cruise has gone a little off his rocker in recent years (ever since his couch-jumping antics on Oprah) – and maybe it’s for the best. Because his portrayal of Stacee Jaxx is one of the best things he’s ever done. He has that hollow, I’ve-done-too-much-drugs, washed up rocker persona down to a “T.” He’s egotistical, completely out there, and dealing with the reality that he can’t get away from himself.

And then, of course, at the end of the film, Stacee is “rehabbed” by love and a new rock collaboration. When we see him in the final scene of the film, he’s sporting a cowboy hat, glasses, and an honest grin (wondering if Tom modeled this reformation after Bret Michaels perhaps?). Tom is successfully able to run the gamut with this character, from grimy gutter ball to redesigned rocker. It’s pretty fantastic to watch.

There’s so much more I could talk about…but then this homely little blog post would turn into a huge rant of love. So, I’ll leave you with this. See this movie. It’s a rockin’ good time!

NOTE: This movie is rated PG-13, but it should definitely be rated R. Just keep that in mind in case you’re sharing.