WHEN: 1:03am EST, June 17th, 2012

WHERE: My apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)

FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV

COMPANY: None, but I did try to make a simulacrum of today’s inspiration.

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Exhausted, a little sleepy, a tad moody from unrelated events but ready to power through, eating buffalo bleu cheese potato chips and drinking a glass of milk

BIRTHDAYS OF NOTE: While I did my weekly viewing of Top Gun on the 17th, I was preparing for a very special birthday write-up on the 18th. No, not Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland, but good guess. Ladies and gentlemen, today noted film critic and professional Rob Schneider bitchslapper Roger Ebert turns the big 7-0.

In my mind, he’s at a Citizen Kane-themed birthday party. The food is six different breakfasts.

A while back, when I’d probably only watched Top Gun 8 or 9 times this year, I realized I was way too far into this maddening experiment without having consulted Mr. Ebert for his opinions on the film. Upon reading his review, I was amazed at how much I agreed with him. Not that I never do, but this one short, simple take on the movie shot right to the core of why I feel so incredibly… blah… about it.

In this review (which you should give a read before continuing), Roger mentions four other films. I decided that I would marathon them all, leading up to this week’s Top Gun viewing.

Prior to this marathon, I converted Mr. Ebert’s review into a series of critical points to analyze while watching all five films. Therefore, this week’s viewing is a little different, as I was typing it up out of chronological order. I’m skipping Reactions of Note in order to make it a little more readable, but if you must know, most of my reactions were “typing” or “that’s interesting, Roger.”

So, what does His Thumbness have to say about Top Gun?

The air scenes are brilliant and the earthbound scenes are grimly predictable.

I’ll confess; when I first saw this movie, I had no idea Goose’s number was up. And I did not predict that Maverick wouldn’t win. This is not a compliment; they set up such a pile of clichés that I didn’t even give it enough credit to throw us something like that. I assumed I was in for 90 minutes of training, followed by Mav pulling some risky maneuver (that was foreshadowed 56 minutes earlier) during the very last hop and winning all the marbles. I suppose when you’ve seen as many movies as Roger Ebert has, calling plot points is second nature. But yes, the ground is not the place to be in Top Gun. And truly, the air doesn’t hold my interest very much any more either, but it’s impressive work nonetheless. (I think I need to schedule a bonus viewing where I watch just the air scenes, then just the ground scenes.)

It knows exactly what to do with special effects.

It mostly knows, but man, that inverted dive… it’s so choppy and fake. However, Ebert wrote his review in 1986, a time when the most recent portrayal of the Hulk was not up to the task, cinematically, of using a demigod for a hammer. We’re a bit visually spoiled these days, so I can let that slide. However, considering that I never stop to say, “Ha! That’s clearly a model plane,” they must have done something right. Much like CGI, I only know something isn’t real because it isn’t technically feasible, like blowing up a full-sized jet. Besides that, I’m sucked in by the realism of the aerial scenes, even if I don’t particularly care what happens to the people involved.

It doesn’t have a clue as to how two people in love might act and talk and think.

I’ve always felt uneasy judging film romances. There’s nothing worse than sitting on a couch with someone telling you how realistic dialogue is and you couldn’t disagree more. (Remember the endless conversations on this topic surrounding Juno? No? Your life wasn’t filled with those conversations?) I’ll say this, though; I never romanced no dame like Tom Cruise does in Top Gun. Maybe I’m a shy wallflower type, but Maverick comes at Charlie like he’s trying to put something in her drink. And she… almost welcomes the challenge? Agh. The word that springs to mind when it comes to their relationship is “gross.”

It presents seven or eight aerial encounters that are so well choreographed that we can actually follow them most of the time, and the movie gives us a good secondhand sense of what it might be like to be in a dogfight.

On this viewing (good ol’ #25!) I really paid attention to the choreography, and it’s remarkable. Yes, there are continuity errors in regards to numbers or wing positions, but really watch the actions of the jets. A pilot looks left, his cockpit rocks left, his plane spins left. Unexpectedly, an enemy aircraft pops into view, but you can follow where it is and what it’s doing in every cut. Great attention was paid to making each movement clear, consistent, and exciting. You really do feel like you’re there. Thumbs up, movie.

The love story between Cruise and McGillis is a washout.

Their love story is so bad, it makes me want to warn anybody I know whose relationship sounds similar to break it off. “He sang my favorite song!” Whoopty fuck. And I’m not saying Becca and I aren’t partially in love because we could marathon Eerie, Indiana any given week, but there has to be more than that. And Maverick and Charlie aren’t even head-over-heels in love. She spends much of the movie loving how much she hates him or hating how much she loves him or whatever drama queen shit gets her engine revved up. (Answer: car chases. Tangent: Ebert’s review of Crash is fantastic. The good one.) I think a brilliant parody of this sort of relationship is perfectly presented in the rehab sex scene from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which transcended being a satire of the biopic and instead skewered the broader genre known simply as “Hollywood.” In Top Gun, Maverick and Charlie are putting off kissing each other for no discernible in-story reason. It’s for the people beyond the fourth wall with a fetish for unnecessarily restricted sex scenes. May you all find someone who will hit you in the crotch with a (metaphorical?) shoe.

The love story is pale and unconvincing compared with the chemistry between Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business.

I think what makes the love story in Risky Business work is that it has time to grow. They have sex as soon as they meet; there isn’t even a cut from the moment De Mornay enters the frame. Then they let a relationship start to form. Meanwhile, in Top Gun, they run the tired old “will they, won’t they” formula, like sex is the endgame in the chess match of love. And God, Maverick had her in check three moves ago! I don’t even care if he wins, but the answer’s staring you in the face! Kiss this woman! Don’t think I’m rooting for it, I just hate when the obvious is delayed for no reason. In Risky Business, they get all the biology sorted out (in a far sexier way) and then Lana just plain doesn’t leave. That’s interesting. Joel doesn’t want a relationship… he wants this woman the hell out of his house. Then the stakes are raised to ridiculous heights (in fairness, ridiculous to a high school student), and in case you were wondering, Top Gun isn’t so good with high stakes. Yes, a movie in which planes explode repeatedly fails at injecting enough risk into the plot, especially when it comes to the love story. In Risky Business, I’m rooting for them to work through everything that’s fucked up in their lives so everything else has a chance to grow. I want to see Lana and Joel succeed; when Maverick and Charlie part ways, I could easily see her simply passed off as a girlfriend that just didn’t work out. And there’s always Carole

The love story is also pale and unconvincing compared with the chemistry between McGillis and Harrison Ford in Witness.

I like that, in the beginning of Witness, you don’t even necessarily think a relationship might happen. Ford is just a cop dealing with a situation, as is McGillis as a mother. When Maverick meets Charlie, it immediately feels like a forced introduction of our movie’s sex object. There’s real intrigue when McGillis spends time with Ford, not some weird, confusing love games that need a car chase to finally get the heart pumping. Witness gives reasons to pursue this relationship. Top Gun just picked a woman and decided to have her along. (Maybe that’s not fair; she’s an important part of the TOPGUN program, but hell, the movie might be more interesting without any love story, and just showing Charlie as a strong, intelligent civilian aviation expert getting her job done.) I’ve seen Top Gun over 20 times this year, and I still don’t know why Maverick wants to be with Charlie.

Not to mention, the love story is also pale and unconvincing  compared with the chemistry between Richard Gere and Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman.

I think Gere and Winger win the trophy on chemistry. How did Top Gun so poorly miss the spark of meeting, the playfulness of sex, and the, you know, talking that people in love tend to do every now and again? Hell, Gere and Louis Gossett, Jr. had a better relationship than Maverick and Viper. The grating nature of watching Top Gun over and over isn’t reducing the people in it to lifeless objects; they started that way. A movie like Officer filled with portrayals of real people is such a relief at this point in the experiment.

An Officer and a Gentleman obviously inspired Top Gun.

I sincerely do apologize, but this topic is going to require its own article. So stick around. I’m just going to say that watching Officer after a steady IV drip of Top Gun was like waking up in an alternate universe. Where things don’t suck. This sort of film would be a little off of my cultural radar, being a military movie and a romance and containing a guy who looks like Robert Wuhl, but I salute you, Mr. Ebert, for tipping me off that there is, in fact, a good version of Top Gun.

Cruise and McGillis spend a lot of time squinting uneasily at each other and exchanging words as if they were weapons, and when they finally get physical, they look like the stars of one of those sexy new perfume ads.

Seriously, do these two like each other? It’s the great mystery of the movie. I hope Top Gun 2 is about them trying to hatefuck their way out of an awful marriage. Pete wakes up every morning and groan-whispers, “You never close your eyes any more…” But Charlotte is long gone. She’s sleeping at the Kazansky house again. Pete calls, letting the word “bitch” fly six or seven times. Charlotte goes barreling through traffic, just so she can shout “second best” from the lawn. But Pete kicks down the front door and takes her right there on the grass, telling her he’s not second best at everything. She cries out “Goose” and he punches her in the neck. She feels nothing. She was sure it would work this time.

I’m sorry. What just happened?

There’s no flesh and blood here, which is remarkable, given the almost palpable physical presence McGillis had in Witness.

Witness is only the second Kelly McGillis movie I’ve seen, and I’m glad I did, because now I see that she has range as an actress. She’s very watchable as a plain, simple mother. Not that I don’t think she gives an acceptable performance in Top Gun; you can see that she’s at least trying to be a strong character when she’s doing her job, but then it all falls apart when she has to work in this terrible love story she’s been handed. In Witness, she shows a sense of longing and curiosity that’s certainly more subtle than Top Gun. I’m not saying it blew me away by any means. Romance is difficult, and it’s hard to do convincingly, especially when the script isn’t helping. I think McGillis does a fine job with both performances, but… I’m blaming external forces on this one. A weak story and poor direction forced her to give Charlie her all, but there’s not much to give. In Witness, everything is so natural. The way she smiles when Book’s sister asks if she’s Amish… that one moment shows more character than anything in Top Gun. Even the creepy wine stare.

In its other scenes on the ground, the movie seems content to recycle old clichés and conventions out of countless other war movies.

I probably should have prepped for this by watching a few more war movies. It’s not my preferred genre, and here at Cinema 52, we’re lab rats first, critics second. So, I feel I’m not equipped to judge this with actual examples, but yes, we’ve seen this camaraderie, this rivalry, this loss, and these daddy issues before. Couldn’t it have recycled more war and less training? Even just some interesting, character-driven training would have been nice.

Movies like Top Gun are hard to review because the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless.

Mr. Ebert, this is the sentence where I knew you could understand my pain and my joy. The first year of the Cinema 52 experiment was born out of the phrase: “A Movie You Don’t Love, But Don’t Hate.” And Top Gun is just such a movie. It really has some very wonderful pieces. They’re just hastily arranged and held together with ick. Knowing that you struggled with reviewing Top Gun gave me a surprising amount of comfort.

The dogfights are absolutely the best since Clint Eastwood’s electrifying aerial scenes in Firefox.

I had to wait an hour and a half into Firefox to see its “electrifying” aerial scenes. I had no idea they would involve tiny models superimposed over real sky footage with the use of motion control cameras. How did John Dykstra’s name being on the DVD case not tip me off? I thought I would be reminded of Top Gun, but I felt like I was watching The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The scenes are thrilling in concept, I’ll admit, but in execution, they look pretty fake. What we accept in the space of Star Wars, we don’t necessarily accept in the skies over Russia. Top Gun combines real jets with models and looks incredible. I do want to praise the editing in Firefox, but maybe editing works like sound effects; the better it is, the less you notice it. And I don’t really notice it in Top Gun. If Firefox was the best cinematic portrayal of aerial combat when it was released (and I have no doubt that it was), then I see how Top Gun blew it out of the water. Watching it now, I have a newfound appreciation for just how good each hop looks in Top Gun. Thanks, Rog. You made me like the planes again. For now.

Look out for the scenes where the people talk to one another.

I’ve been ripping on the romance all night, but Iceman and Maverick aren’t exactly doing Shakespeare, either. Who talks like this? Who calmly walks up to someone and says, “Here’s a list of reasons I don’t like you”? I would keep it quiet or explode with anger, but maybe that’s why I’m not a pilot. Goose’s kooky sidekick antics aren’t off the hook either. I enjoy some of their cheesy Hollywood dialogue, I really do, but they don’t speak the way a consistent pair of friends would. They make bets on sexual acts, ho ho. They sing together, ho ho. They have rehearsed, multi-step catchphrases, ho ho. Does this remind you of your charming best friend? Granted, John and Ty and I have rehearsed, multi-step catch phrases, but we don’t also pay each other to put our penises in designated places. I could probably use an entire article on the strange bromance that Maverick and Goose have, one where the upstanding and moral Goose lives vicariously through the sexual exploits of his best friend. But that’s for another time.

I originally wanted to write this birthday tribute because of that single sentence about how difficult it is to review Top Gun. I knew Roger and I were on the same wavelength, even though he wrote that when I was but a year old. Time is the ultimate test of a movie, and Top Gun is just as brilliant and terrible now as it was when it was released. And we agree on the acting, the predictable story, and how good the dogfight scenes are. I’m surprised he doesn’t get into the problem with all blockbuster third act action sequences these days, which is that stunts and special effects, no matter how good, are boring when we don’t care about the characters involved. This is certainly how I feel about Top Gun, and I’m sure Roger does too, and he implies it through critique of the flat performances. I like that he can still praise the flight choreography (and it should be praised), even if I’m not that excited by it any more. And I am very much appreciative that he includes films that excel where this one fails. This has been a very enjoyable movie marathon, even if the last movie in the stack was Top Gun.

So thank you, Roger, for your excellent review, and also to everybody involved in keeping your decades of work available online for anyone to read. It’s an important resource for anyone interested in film, as we very much are around here. Also, thank you for using the simple phrase “ho ho” to denote that a funny scene is in no way funny at all. It cracks me up, and I couldn’t resist ripping you off; I will cease and desist at once. If you ever find yourself in the Portland, ME area this year, Mr. Ebert, I’d be truly honored to have some company for at least one of the next 27 times I watch Top Gun.

27? Christ.

Happy birthday, Movie Answer Man.