Tag Archives: Billy Crystal

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).

Guest Review: Monsters University

Director: Dan Scanlon
Year: 2013
Score: 6.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Note: this film was previously reviewed by Movies and Bacon here.

"And we're just about done! I won't use these obviously but just to finish off the film, why don't you pop your clothes off?"

“And we’re just about done! I won’t use these obviously but just to finish off the film, why don’t you pop your clothes off?”

Oh, Pixar, what have you done?!

Pixar are one of my favourite companies in the whole wide world. The way that they take any situation, however benign and insignificant it may be, and just dream about what story might become simply staggers me. And they do it over and over – A Bug’s Life, Toy Story and its sequels, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and let’s not even get on to the masterpiece that is Up. Every single one shares something in common; good triumphs over adversity. Now however we have Monsters University, and the message is as stark as it is cold – no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want it, no matter how dedicated; sometimes, you will never be good enough. And that, to me, is very very sad.

As the title suggests, the plot follows Mike and Sulley through university life, long before they’re working for Monsters Inc. Sulley’s character has been very cleverly reverse engineered from the original; an overly confident slacker relying on hereditary talent to get by, eventually learning the value of good work ethic, strength of character and morality. Mike on the other hand shares no resemblance to his original form; hardworking and calculating, and filled with burning ambition. A likeable character of course, but not connected to the original.

Goodman and Crystal turn in excellent performances, as does a surprisingly impressive Helen Mirren (voicing Dean Hardscrabble), and all add depth to a plot desperately trying to distract you from an inevitable ending of disappointment. It also contains some surprisingly epic lines (“When you lose, no one will remember you” “Maybe, but when YOU lose, everyone will remember you”) and the relationship between Mike and Sulley grows and develops in a charming way. But you just can’t get away from the disappointment of cold cutting reality that rings through the whole film like the dull toll of a lone funeral bell; no matter how hard you try, you will never be good enough.

I don’t want this from a Pixar film! I don’t care how hard you try and sugar coat the ending, it’s failure. If I wanted to think about a world of failure and misery and cold crushing reality, I don’t need a film for that, I have reality. I want to believe a goldfish can swim halfway across the world to find his disabled son. I want to believe that an old man can fly his house to South America using balloons and a fat kid. I want to dream! And shame on you Pixar for pissing on my chips.

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.