Reviews

A Raging Conflict Between Talent and Testosterone: 'Top Gun'

Top Gun remains one of the most vibrantly shot and outrageously sexual Hollywood blockbusters ever released.


Top Gun

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG
Studio: Paramount
Release date: 2013-02-19

Let’s get it out of the way: Tony Scott’s suicide last summer was as shocking and saddening a Hollywood tragedy as I can remember. The world lost a great entertainer and a massively influential director of big-budget spectacle, and in a truly disturbing fashion. Seeing his broad grin during the Oscars’ “In Memoriam” segment last week brought all these feelings back home.

Top Gun bears not a trace of this shadow. Drenched in evening sunlight and glistening with sweat, Scott’s best-known work blasts off like a rock opera take on the 1939 film, Only Angels Have Wings, in one of the early memorable scenes as the characters get to know each other is a piano singalong; characters with Hawksian callsigns like Goose and Merlin indulging in peppy cockpit banter before Cruise’s Maverick makes his mark on the opening sequence with an aerial stunt that sees him flying inverted over the (presumably Russian) bogey and snapping a Polaroid. “I crack myself up,” he chuckles, like a Bugs Bunny at War cartoon: “Ain’t I a stinker?” Later, the Only Angels Have Wings echoes as a key relationship cements itself in a singalong around the piano at a bar.

Embracing Top Gun’s particular pleasures means sifting through its only occasionally amusing swaths of dead wood, the first of which surfaces in Commander Stinger’s paradigmatic loose-cannon tirade after Maverick’s opening transgressions against flight protocols. Real name Pete Mitchell, the Maverick character essentially embodies a raging conflict between talent and testosterone. The talent’s easy to admire, Maverick’s apparently genetic wankery less so. Of course, he can’t so easily come to terms with the late Duke Mitchell’s reputation as a similar flight risk; as he whispers in one of many dull, moody third-act scenes, the past is “classified”.

For those willing to endure some of the most ponderous Bruckheimer-approved boorishness ever committed to film, though, Paramount’s Blu-Ray will fulfill all your needs. Scott’s only Hollywood credit when he was approached by producers Bruckheimer and Don Simpson was The Hunger, a dusty lyric poem about vampires whose chiaroscuro visuals ripple throughout Top Gun’s sunset flight scenes. Add Kenny Loggins and you’ve got a Malick-ized music video: Days of Heaven with wingtips instead of wheat. The 1080p transfer preserves the grain and texture of an original print, not just in the golden hues and shadows but in the reds, greens, and blues of a digital image that looks so good you’ll want to reach out and stroke it.

Plenty has been written about Top Gun’s man-love quotient and comparative lack of heterosexual spark (the only love scene between Maverick and Kelly McGillis’s Charlie is lit in blue-backed silhouette with all the chemistry and sizzle of one of The Hunger’s expositional interludes), but where the film really gets fun is when Charlie challenges Mav’s advances and he actually rises to the occasion. Of course, the karaoke come-on that ignites their relationship and his subsequent restroom intrusion might have been far less welcome if Charlie hadn’t witnessed the sheer level of male-on-male chemistry aroused in the barroom singalong... or if audiences in the summer of 1986 knew more about Tom Cruise. The sound of an engine revving bookends the outrageously cheesy “Take My Breath Away” seduction sequence, first as Maverick speeds away on his motorcycle and Charlie writhes restlessly on her sunroom lounge and then, after his calculated elevator tease, as she pursues him across town and through a red light to express her respect for his work in the cockpit.

It’s not just Cruise’s creep/scamp of a pilot who paces this sequence, it’s the wry decision to space out each moment of romantic tension with the same opening synths from “Take My Breath Away”, as measured a usage of music cues to construct a sort of filmic foreplay as had ever been released for consumption by bored teenagers. To continue the Only Angels Have Wings line of inquiry, Scott’s film accomplishes a keen bastardization of the earlier picture’s fraternal themes, as well as a neat inversion of its romantic politics: Charlie’s already assimilated into the Top Gun commune, and it’s Maverick who must win her over, however routine that task proves for his capabilities.

Like most movies pitched as “Star Wars in ________”, Top Gun sags considerably in the mopey third act that lets the dialogue shoulder the entirety of Maverick’s emotional development, in a series of expository exchanges on the topic of his father’s legacy and perpetual, in Goose’s words, flying “against a ghost” (which the Wachowskis would literalize in Speed Racer’s opening over two decades later -- who said CGI was bad for characters?). Cruise, too understated here when grandiose grief is really called for, barely reacts until he’s given the opportunity to show up and do his thing in the finalé: a triumphant dogfight and the celebratory bro-hug with Val Kilmer’s Iceman, the movie’s other beach-blonde flirt.

It’s perfectly reasonable to point to Maverick’s way-too-strong overtures to Charlie as a classic example of Hollywood misogyny, no less that she ends up chasing after him before the movie’s half over. Remember, though, that the volleyball scene rife with all-consuming competition comes right before the former peels out for the mellow, weirdly gauzy dinner at Charlie’s. Dig the sheer triumph and welcoming, brotherly embrace of that deckside climax... now try to frame Charlie as the true object of desire.

Bruckheimer and Simpson’s cooperation with the military, plus Scott’s blazing commercial sensibilities makes Top Gun absolutely the proto-Michael Bay film, but their titillation is respectably knowing, not to mention a few shades more subtle than a zoom-in on Megan Fox straddling a motorcycle. Top Gun‘s flaunting of its built-in sensuality was at the very least a breakthrough in big-budget excess; the movie might have no respect for a woman’s personal space, but what could be worse is that the guys get all the good sex.

Extras: Same as the 2008 Blu-Ray, with storyboards, music videos to supplement the (truly incredible) soundtrack, interviews with Cruise, a commentary featuring Scott, Bruckheimer, screenwriter Jack Epps, Jr. and concurring opinions by a crew of Naval experts, and the massive, 2.5+ hour “Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun” to fulfill all your archival Tony Scott footage desires. You’ll get your fair share of Bruckheimer, too, but the sheer excess of this package should balance out the tan. With both a 3D and 2D Blu-Ray, plus the complementary digital copy for those who’d rather squint at it on their phone, this is the definitive home release of Top Gun.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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