Category Archives: 1984

Movies released in 1984.

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).

Advertisements

Review: Footloose

Director: Herbert Ross
Year: 1984
Score: 7/10

Once I got past the ridiculousness of the premise (a rebellious teen moves to a small town where dancing has been banned!), I found this was actually quite a sweet, genuine and enjoyable movie. Great work from a young Kevin Bacon and John Lithgow, who completely commits to the role of the preacher behind the ban. Also look for Christopher Penn and Sarah Jessica Parker in supporting roles early in their respective careers; miraculously, Parker didn’t grate on me as she usually does. The montage in which Bacon teaches Penn to dance is a highlight; the Bacon solo dance sequence is a lowlight.

Review: Romancing the Stone

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Year: 1984
Score: 6.5/10

I did enjoy how briefly the head bad guy had possession of the emerald before he decided to give that nearby hungry crocodile a hand.

I did enjoy how briefly the head bad guy had possession of the emerald before he decided to give that nearby hungry crocodile a hand.

Tolerable but formulaic adventure romcom greatly assisted by a very appealing performance from Kathleen Turner. Her co-star Michael Douglas, who also produced, is merely passable. The identities of and relationships between the bad guys are a bit muddled, but I don’t think we’re supposed to be focusing on that. Worse, there are about 58 remarkable coincidences, which is about 57 more than I could stomach. Some of the music dates it in a way that isn’t flattering. Despite all that, when Turner does her thing, things get entertaining. I especially enjoyed the opening sequence.

Review: Amadeus

Director: Miloš Forman
Year: 1984
Score: 6.5/10

Amadeus

Looks like Salieri might actually be in a ’90s boy band.

I went into this expecting a straight biopic of Mozart; in fact, the main character is his lesser known contemporary, Antonio Salieri, played with conviction by F. Murray Abraham (who I only really know from Scarface, Louie and Homeland). Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for this performance, beating his co-star Tom Hulce, though I enjoyed Hulce’s performance as Mozart more (yes, even with that ridiculous laugh). I watched the 2002 director’s cut which, despite clocking in at three hours, didn’t feel overlong; there’s a lot to get through, so I didn’t mind the length. It’s very well staged, with solid production values and (as to be expected) excellent use of music. My primary criticism is that Salieri’s character and story arc – which makes up the bulk of the movie – didn’t engage me emotionally or even really interest me that much. Look for a young Cynthia Nixon in a very small role, and Jeffrey Jones (the paedophile actor you’ll recognise from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice and Deadwood) in solid support as the Emperor.

Review: Gremlins

Director: Joe Dante
Year: 1984
Score: 3/10

Gremlins

For reasons not entirely clear, the gremlins seem to love Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I only wish I’d watched that instead.

Yuck – I really didn’t like this movie. It suffers from genre identity confusion, ending up as a kind of children’s/horror/comedy hybrid with wildly inconsistent elements. It’s very difficult to imagine an appropriate audience; some of the sillier “humour” featuring the gremlins would really only appeal to young children, but the more violent and scary parts would probably be too strong for them. The framing device makes no sense since the character telling the story is absent for much of it. Characters often act with inexplicable stupidity, and the behaviour of the gremlins themselves is even more hard to understand (why on earth, for example, do they at one point imitate a group of carollers?!). The music is jarringly bad at times. The town seems almost entirely empty in most outdoor scenes; could they not afford a few extras to walk by? I liked Gizmo (what can I say, he was kind of cute), and seeing younger versions of Glynn Turman (Mayor Royce from The Wire) and Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) in small roles, but these glimmers of enjoyment weren’t enough to make up for the movie’s failings.