As ever, I’ve left the films I was least interested in for last.
Top Gun: Maverick
I never saw the original Top Gun. It was promoted to me at length back when it was still in theaters, predominantly through the music videos for its two big hit soundtrack songs – Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone and Berlin’s Take My Breath Away. And the clips used in there were enough to convince me I wouldn’t like the film – that this would be a testosterone-soaked tale of a cocky-yet-talented rebellious chap learning humility, the values of teamwork, and how to respect women, and yet still committing a risky act of derring-do that would win him respect at the end of the day. …I was even more of a pinko-leaning hippie at sixteen than I am today and this was very much not to my taste.
I hadn’t been planning on seeing this sequel otherwise, since I got the impression it would be more of the same. I did have a bit of hope, though, after a conversation with some movie-buff neighbors who saw it on its release and said that there was a subplot in which Tom Cruise’s “Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell” has to wrestle with his own aging; that sounded like it would be an interesting wrinkle, seeing this man realize that having The Need For Speed wasn’t going to solve his problems any more.
But what I got ended up looking very much like the film I thought I was going to see with the original – Maverick getting in trouble for a test flight he wasn’t supposed to make, Maverick locking horns with his new superior officer (John Hamm), Maverick struggling to be the team leader that whips a new team into shape, Maverick bumbling through the rekindling of a relationship with an old flame (Jennifer Connelly), Maverick saving someone during a dangerous mission and then getting saved himself. Et cetera, et cetera.
At least it’s technically skilled. And even though I dislike most of his movies, it’s hard not to be at least halfway charmed by Tom Cruise himself. Some years back he was a guest on Chris Hardwick’s podcast, and I was struck by just how fascinated he is by everything about filmmaking – the entire process, from scene study to acting to stuntwork to filming to editing, is something he could happily talk about and do for hours. That enthusiasm comes through in whatever he does; and so while I’m not always into the films he makes with that process, I do think you can see his enthusiasm, and that in itself is endearing.
Not enough to earn him an Oscar, though. Maybe next time.
This was another film I had preconceptions about – at least, about the subject. I was never into Elvis Presley; I was only seven when he died, and so the Elvis in my head is the Vegas Elvis, a past-his-prime tacky guy who had settled into half-heartedly groaning his way through old hits for similarly-old audiences of people trying to recapture a bit of their youth. My father was more interested in the blues and R&B artists who’d originally done the songs Elvis made famous – so I was more into Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” or Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” first. I also haven’t had the best luck with Baz Luhrmann; his baroque style applied to things like Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet just seemed way too distracting.
But, if you think about it….Baz Luhrmann and Elvis kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? The flash, the sizzle, the spectacle? And so, this…kind of works.
The film is actually structured as an apologetic from Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’ old manager (or Svengali) towards the end of his life. Parker discusses how he discovered the young Elvis (Austin Butler) while managing small-scale carnivals in the South, and using some highly-developed conman strategies, molded the music-loving young outsider into a superstar. Whenever his pet got out of line, however, Parker would pull increasingly larger strings to yank Elvis back to heel – ultimately using a series of drugs to keep him compliant. It’s a story I’d heard before – but this film made me feel for the first time just how unfair to Elvis that was.
During this runup to the Oscars, I’ve been hearing the Best Actor statuette is a toss-up between Butler’s Elvis and Brendan Fraser for The Whale. I’ve been hoping for Fraser (his own comeback story with The Whale is about as touching as Ke Huy Quan’s), and hoping that Butler’s performance was just a flash in the pan….but I’m a bit worried for Brendan now. Butler gives a performance that isn’t just an “Elvis impersonation”, thankfully; it’s a little patchy, but it’s written that way, told through the filter of Tom Parker’s memory. But what Butler does with those patches is impressive. One scene in particular stood out for me – a scene shortly after Elvis’ beloved mother has died, and he’s holed up in his mother’s closet weeping bitterly while the press is huddled outside wanting to interview him. Parker knows that it would look good if Elvis made some kind of statement, and goes to calm him down. And for much of that scene, Butler’s Elvis somehow looks like the hurt little boy he feels himself to be. It’s not a makeup thing, it’s not a specific way he is holding his face or whatever – he somehow simply looks like he’s an eight year old who wants his mommy, and it’s heartbreaking.