Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review: This Is Spinal Tap

Director: Rob Reiner
Year: 1984
Score: 9/10

1984-a-thonIt’s such a privilege to review this classic for Forgotten Films’ 1984-a-Thon, a celebration of the many wonderful films released in 1984 (which – as well as being a landmark year for cinema – also happens to be the year of my birth). Not only that, but I was lucky enough to revisit it in a cinema (thanks, Golden Age!), always the best way to experience a film you love, especially a comedy.

Mockumentary is one of my favourite genres. Done well, it allows for parody (ranging from acerbic to affectionate) and hilarious comedy, all within a framework that is inherently satirical. It invites viewers to come along for a potentially ridiculous ride while granting them the comforts of familiar documentary tropes (even as, in many cases, those very tropes are themselves being sent up). Best of all, it’s almost always playful, having fun with long-established cinematic and televisual forms and conventions. No other genre so consistently and faithfully winks at its audience.

Over the past few years mockumentary has become mainstream and is now a standard format for television sitcoms (The Office, Modern Family and Parks & Recreation being the best-known examples). Decades ago things were different. When This Is Spinal Tap was released, there had only been a handful of similar films before it, and nothing quite like it. With the glut of mockumentaries available to us now, it’s hard to fully appreciate how casually groundbreaking it really was, and what a surprise it would have been for its audiences.

Marty Di Bergi: Why don't you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top number, and make that a little louder? [one of the most brilliant long pauses in comedy history] Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

Marty Di Bergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top number, and make that a little louder?
[one of the most brilliant long pauses in comedy history]
Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

Taking the ostensible form of a documentary about a British rock band on the verge of collapse as it embarks on a doomed US tour, the film walks the line between plausible and ridiculous perfectly. It’s filmed with all the rough edges of an actual doco; combined with the heavy use of improvisation, this creates a sense of verisimilitude which greatly bolsters the humour and satire. The fact that the music is all real (albeit largely written for the film), and some songs are performed almost in full, plays directly into this.

On the subject of the music, I must admit I’ve been listening to it for years and can call myself a Spinal Tap fan. Gimme Some Money and (Listen to the) Flower People are perfect parodies and catchy tunes, while Hell Hole and Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight are hilarious rock anthems that genuinely rock. There are a few duds, such as Heavy Duty and Sex Farm, but to be fair, the band is supposed to be terrible, so that’s kind of fitting.

The performances are excellent, particularly given all the improvisation. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest may get higher billing, and they’re both very funny, but to me Harry Shearer is the unsung hero of the film. It’s also fun to see Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby and a barely recognisable (being so young) Anjelica Huston. I didn’t even notice Dana Carvey.

For what it's worth, this is my personal favourite gag: Lt. Hookstratten: I would like to get the playing on about nineteen hundred hours if that's satisfactory. I make it now, it's about eighteen hundred and thirty hours. Derek Smalls: So that's, what, fifty hours? David St. Hubbins: A hundred and twenty hours?

For what it’s worth, this is my personal favourite gag:
Lt. Hookstratten: I would like to get the playing on about nineteen hundred hours if that’s satisfactory. I make it now, it’s about eighteen hundred and thirty hours.
Derek Smalls: So that’s, what, fifty hours?
David St. Hubbins: A hundred and twenty hours?

To be blunt, This Is Spinal Tap is basically a sketch comedy idea stretched out to feature length. While that’s usually a recipe for disaster, in this case there’s enough material (effectively amounting to discrete sketches that get strung together), and so many other factors that make it good (acting, improvised dialogue with endless gags, great music, etc.), that it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Lastly, some recommendations. If you like This Is Spinal Tap, check out the many Christopher Guest mockumentaries that followed it (especially A Mighty Wind, which I personally like even more; that might have more to do with my love of folk music than its actual relative quality, but it does also feature what amounts to a Spinal Tap reunion). I’d also recommend Woody Allen’s Zelig, Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver, and most of all, Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (another mockumentary with music and satire at its core).

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Review: Neighbors [a.k.a. Bad Neighbours]

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Year: 2014
Score: 7/10

I admit I was impressed by the technological wizardry that enabled footage from Taxi Driver, Meet the Fockers and several other Robert De Niro films to be seamlessly incorporated into this scene.

I admit I was impressed by the technological wizardry that enabled footage from Taxi Driver, Meet the Fockers and several other Robert De Niro films to be seamlessly incorporated into this scene.

Good-natured mash-up of raunchy frat boy comedy (think Old School) and new parents comedy (think Up All Night, or what happens between Knocked Up and This Is 40). It’s reasonably funny – I laughed here and there – but it doesn’t rise to the level of my favourite comedies because it doesn’t have quite enough jokes or silliness or memorably ridiculous characters and situations.

As always, Seth Rogen is Seth Rogen. Rose Byrne is well cast and gives her best comedic performance since Two Hands. Zac Efron is fine too, though his character is a touch one-note at times.

Many of the supporting characters feel like missed opportunities. While the non-central frat boys aren’t actively unfunny, they could have been so much more. Same goes for Rogen and Byrne’s divorced friends; I like Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, MADtv) but he’s not used all that well, and Carla Gallo is awful (though, to be fair, she had very little to work with). Why is Hannibal Buress’ cop character given nothing funny to do? And why does Jason Mantzoukas get so little screen time?

The relationship between Rogen and Byrne is handled nicely, even if the emotional moments between them don’t feel especially relevant to the main storyline (the battle with the frat). The only ways to fix this would have been focusing more on them as a couple and the difficulties of raising their baby next door to a frat house (the baby is pretty much forgotten after the first act), or making a different relationship (such as the strained quasi-friendship that develops between Rogen and Efron) the emotional core of the movie. Still, this feels like an odd complaint to make about a comedy; I suppose I’ve been spoiled by comedies with more ‘heart’, and now have somewhat unfair expectations. Thanks a lot, Community and Parks & Recreation!

I wish there were more jokes. I wish the frat party scenes had been just a little crazier – perhaps more in the vein of Project X. And I wish I wasn’t completely over Christopher Mintz-Plasse. But I shouldn’t be so critical; as far as comedies go these days, this one’s definitely at the better end of the scale. If I’m picking a Nicholas Stoller movie, I’d still go for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but this is worth watching too.

Guest Review: Up

Director: Pete Docter
Year: 2009
Score: 9.9/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Meth – not even once.

Meth – not even once.

My two boys are now at an age where they remain enthralled throughout a film, which has given me an excuse to work my way through the Pixar back catalogue again. First name on the list, without a moment’s hesitation, was Up, as it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

Following the death of his wife, elderly widower Carl decides to live their unfulfilled dream and move to Paradise Falls. Along the way we are treated to an odyssey of emotion, one which at various points has the potential to render you a blubbering wreck. This is the beauty of Up; it offers some of the most emotive performances ever committed to film, and all through the medium of animation.

The first few minutes of the film show the life of Carl and Ellie; from childhood, to joyful love-filled marriage, to the tragedy of not having children of their own, through to rising above this and living loving and happy lives. From there we feel the heart-wrenching sadness as Ellie passes away, and we see Carl become moulded into an angry and embittered old man.

The film thunders on with the irrepressible enthusiasm of Russell, who’s still filled with joy despite the tragedy of his home life. We see the parental warmth blossom within Carl as he tries to maintain his vision of getting his house to the falls. We see the single minded exuberance of Dug the dog, and in Charles Muntz the neuroticism of a life spent unrelentingly chasing a dream.

With one of the most touching endings of all of Pixar’s many many success stories, Up is a spectacular triumph. The depth of the characters is almost endless, and with bitter sadness entangled around the child-like dream unfurling in front of the viewer offers something quite profound.

My two year old son, however, was unconcerned by this. He wanted a balloon (a blue one), and then decided that he wanted a dog.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: Good Will Hunting

Director: Gus Van Sant
Year: 1997
Score: 7.5/10

Rest in peace.

Rest in peace.

I’m listening to Elliott Smith while I write this review. I rarely need an excuse to dive back into Smith, but this time I have two: his songs permeate Good Will Hunting so thickly that I’d be humming him anyway at this point, so I might as well listen instead; and I know of no better mourning music.

The person I’m mourning is, of course, the great Robin Williams. Much has been written about him over the past couple of weeks, and I’m not intending to add to that, except to say that he was a supremely talented man who brought me a lot of joy and will continue to do so as I revisit his work.

I hadn’t seen Good Will Hunting since its theatrical release seventeen years ago, back when I was young and naïve and entirely deserving of the condemnation Sean (Williams) serves Will (Matt Damon) in the park bench scene. Given that, and the fact that it was the film for which he won an Oscar, watching and reviewing it seemed like a fitting tribute.

This is a thoughtful and moving film, probably my favourite of the Gus Van Sant films I’ve seen (though ask me another day and I might choose Milk instead). It’s not short and it sags a little in the second half, especially in scenes without Williams or Minnie Driver. However, the ending is solid and there are some very nice emotional beats along the way.

Williams’ performance is excellent, showing restraint, warmth, pathos, depth and nuance. He truly is the heart of the film (and I was surprised, upon revisiting it, that he doesn’t appear until the 33 minute mark). As for his co-stars, Damon is fine in the lead role; Driver gives the best performance I’ve seen from her; Stellan Skarsgård is memorable if unsubtle; and Ben Affleck is a noticeably weak link.

In fact, Affleck’s character seems entirely superfluous. I recognise the narrative and thematic purpose of Will’s group of friends (or “retarded gorillas”, as they’re labelled at one point), but really, there’s no reason at all for their ringleader to be played by Affleck. He brings nothing to the role beyond a retrospective “hey look, it’s Ben Affleck!”, and the sense that he only got it because he co-wrote the script with Damon. At least his brother Casey is interesting to watch as another of the gorillas (though that may be more to do with my appreciation for Casey’s later work), especially knowing that he apparently improvised quite a few of his lines.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the script, which scored Damon and Affleck Oscars. As far as entries into Hollywood go, their’s was pretty remarkable, moreso when considering the heights they would both go on to reach.

Van Sant’s direction is relatively straightforward, letting the actors do their work and thankfully avoiding stylistic flourishes that might have distracted from or undercut the story. Even when the film loses steam, there’s enough momentum to carry through to the end. Somehow, despite the fake-sounding Boston accents and the familiar nature of many of the key moments and conflicts, it never quite tips over into cliché-ridden or saccharine tosh. Elements such as the liberal sprinkling of Smith tunes – which fit well with the mood of the piece and add an air of melancholy and maturity – are especially helpful in this regard.

Reading this review, my score of 7.5 might seem a touch low, given all the praise. It’s not a perfect film; in fact, I’d hesitate to even call it great. However, it’s iconic, has much to like, and serves as a wonderful showcase for Williams’ non-comedic acting chops. For those reasons, I can wholeheartedly recommend it, especially for fans of Williams or anyone who either hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen it since its original release.