Tag Archives: Comedy

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).

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.

Review: The Great Dictator

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Year: 1940
Score: 8.5/10

Why don't you stop reading this review, google 'great dictator speech', and strap yourself in for the speech from which this still was taken. Go on, do it!

Stop reading this review, scroll to the bottom, click ‘play’ on the embedded video, and strap yourself in for the speech from which this still was taken. Go on, do it!

Unique blend of satire, comedy and deeply felt drama, the latter of which comes mostly in the form of the beautiful speech at the very end of the film. Even in isolation, that speech – embedded at the end of this review – is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Some of the sillier humour in other scenes, left over from Chaplin’s silent film days, detracts from the rest, but not enough to ruin it. All the Germanish gibberish spouted by Adenoid Hynkel is hilarious, largely because of Chaplin’s excellent performance aping Hitler. Beyond the dictator himself, there’s plenty of delicious irony and satire elsewhere in the film, such as the scene in which a Tomainian storm trooper protects a group of Jews from being attacked by a mob of his fellow storm troopers, not because he wants to, but because he’s ‘just following orders’.

It really is quite remarkable that this was made when it was, with filming commencing a week after Germany invaded Poland and the film being released before the US had joined the war. Chaplin apparently later said that he wouldn’t have made the film had he known the extent of the Holocaust (which was really only just getting started at that point), but I think the timing actually gives it greater power. It’s by far the best of the two Charlie Chaplin films I’ve seen.

Review: Modern Times

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Year: 1936
Score: 5/10

A woman, clearly in fear, being chased by a strange man. Fear of rape = comedy gold..? Not so much.

A woman, clearly in fear, being chased by a strange man. Fear of rape = comedy gold..? Not so much.

Hugely disappointing not-quite-but-almost silent film from Charlie Chaplin, inexplicably one of his most acclaimed.

It really didn’t work for me; I appreciated the obvious commentary on the ills of the modern industrialised world, and the ending – though abrupt – was quite nice, but the actual comedy largely fell flat.

Maybe I’m just not a fan of simplistic physical comedy? That would explain why most of the bits I laugh at in Marx Brothers movies are clever wordplay rather than slapstick humour. Speaking of which, it’s somewhat amusing that Modern Times has 100% more duck-related comedy than Duck Soup does.

Review: It Happened One Night

Director: Frank Capra
Year: 1934
Score: 8/10

Apparently this scene is the reason Bugs Bunny eats carrots. I shit you not.

Apparently this scene is the reason Bugs Bunny eats carrots. I shit you not.

Screwball comedy from Frank Capra about a reporter who stumbles upon a huge scoop in the form of a hunted socialite he meets on a long-distance bus trip – and the inevitable relationship that blossoms between them (partly because she appears to suffer from Impulsively Falls In Love Syndrome). It’s still utterly charming all these decades later. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are perfectly matched and by the end it’s hard not to root for them. The comedic elements are a little uneven but there are some raucously funny parts, such as the scene in which our couple fool a pair of detectives (with Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter) and the scene in which Gable demonstrates his hitchhiking techniques. It’s odd to realise that the use of newspaper headlines throughout the movie to signpost story developments would have seemed fresh and original when this was released. It’s also kind of funny that our endearing hero threatens a man’s children (he’s pretending, but still) and yet we continue to like him. The (unintentionally) funniest line is when Colbert says to her husband: “Promise you’ll never let me get off”. Highly recommended for fans of classic cinema or romantic comedies or both.

Review: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Director: Declan Lowney
Year: 2013
Score: 8.5/10

There's something so compelling and yet so disturbing about this image. Inevitably it brings to mind Buffalo "It puts the lotion in the basket" Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

There’s something so compelling and yet so disturbing about this image. Inevitably it brings to mind Buffalo “It puts the lotion in the basket” Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

Disclaimer: I’m reviewing this as someone with no prior exposure to Alan Partridge; I’m guessing I would have enjoyed it even more if I was already a fan, though it’s possible fans could be disappointed by it if the TV and radio shows that preceded it were better. I found this utterly hilarious. I would say it made me laugh as much as or more than any other single movie I watched in 2013 (and bear in mind that I watched 364 others). The script is incredibly witty, and Steve Coogan – clearly a master at portraying this buffoon, having done so many times in the past – adds much to that wit with his delivery and performance. Somehow even just the scenes of Partridge singing along to songs on the radio are comedy gold. Regional commercial radio is a pretty easy target for ridicule and the satire on show here is merciless and spot-on. Sometimes film adaptations of TV shows feel pointless (e.g. Get Smart), drawn out (e.g. The Inbetweeners Movie) or just like a longer episode of the TV show (e.g. The Simpsons Movie); in this case, while I may not be the best judge as I haven’t actually seen any of the series, it feels just right. Parts of the last third do drag just a little, and I could have done with more humour from some of the supporting characters, but those are really my only complaints.

Review: The Lego Movie

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Year: 2014
Score: 8.5/10

Lego Movies and Lego Bacon!

Lego Movies and Lego Bacon!

With this hilarious, thoroughly likeable film, writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller prove that their success with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (which I gave 9/10) was no fluke. Remarkably, they’ve now twice managed what the creatives behind most modern animated films strive for but rarely achieve: a film that works just as well for adults as it does for kids.

There are so many cultural references and gags that no child could possibly understand, but they’re interwoven with plenty of jokes for all ages (including constant physical comedy that probably only seems fresh because it’s all done with animated pieces of Lego), so it never feels overindulgent or likely to bore younger viewers. I watched it in a crowded cinema, accompanied by a 6 year old and a 7 year old, and it was great to hear the different reactions around me to the different styles of comedy. I’m not ashamed to admit there were several moments when my young charges turned to look at me, puzzled at what could be making me laugh so hard at a beat that went straight over their heads, but each time they quickly forgot my strangeness when they were themselves bowled over by the next gag.

So many of the voice actors seem to have been selected with me in mind: Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Will Arnett, stars of three of my favourite TV comedies (Parks & Recreation, Community and Arrested Development); Will Ferrell and Elizabeth Banks, both of whom I tend to enjoy; plus small roles for people like Will Forte (as Abraham Lincoln, of course) and Keegan-Michael Key (as Pratt’s boss), who I can’t get enough of. Pratt, it must be said, effectively plays a less cartoonishly stupid version of Andy Dwyer, his Parks & Rec character, but he’s so endearing that I can live with that. He’s certainly not as one-note as other TV comedy stars who have transitioned to movies (I’m looking at you, Michael Cera and Aubrey Plaza).

Some other elements worthy of praise: the animation is lovely and quite ingenious, especially the way water and laser weaponry are handled; the numerous homages to The Matrix, one of my favourite films, are nicely done without being overbearing; the song ‘Everything Is AWESOME!!!’ is pretty damned catchy; and the inclusion of live-action characters in the final stretch is a ballsy move that I think pays off.

I don’t have many criticisms. The biggest is the heavy-handedness of the obligatory ‘message’ section at the end; I could have done with more subtlety on that front, especially as it wasn’t as emotionally impactful as the equivalent section of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (though I suspect that’s an entirely subjective reaction). Another is my slight discomfort with the inescapable fact that this is a 100-minute ad for a brand of children’s toys. Lastly, I got the sense that some of the action sequences were a little lengthy in comparison to their entertainment value, so they may become tedious if the movie ends up on repeat rotation in my household.

These minor quibbles aside, it’s an extremely clever film that I wholeheartedly recommend. Lord and Miller’s style of humour is right up my alley, and based on its level of critical acclaim and commercial success, I’m not the only one. Chances are it will work for you too, dear reader, though it may also leave you with a mysterious and unshakable urge to purchase some generic non-branded interlocking brick toys.

Review: Machete Kills

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Year: 2013
Score: 5.5/10

There's only one possible caption for this: WINNING!

There’s only one possible caption for this: WINNING!

The joke wore thin before 2010’s Machete finished, yet Robert Rodriguez and Danny Trejo have attempted to wring another movie out of it (and based on the fake trailer at the start, there’ll be a third one too – this one set IN SPACE!!). They succeed probably as well as they could; it’s still got the same sense of fun and ridiculousness, there are some funny cameos (I haven’t enjoyed Charlie Sheen – billed here as Carlos Estévez – this much in years), and it remains somehow joyous to see Trejo in a lead role. Overall, though, there probably aren’t quite enough gags that work, there’s too much plot (who cares about plot in a Machete movie?!), and far too much of the second half seems to have the sole purpose of setting up the space sequel. Still, if you enjoyed the first one, and you go in with the right mindset, you’ll enjoy this one too.

Review: Silent Movie

Director: Mel Brooks
Year: 1976
Score: 3.5/10

Video games: the butt of bad jokes since 1976.

Video games: the butt of bad jokes since 1976.

The worst Mel Brooks movie I’ve seen, this is an almost entirely unfunny parody of silent films. It’s loaded with celebrity cameos that are presented as though they’re making fun of celebrity cameos, but they don’t help. There are lots of sight gags (what else can there be, really?), none of which land. It clocks in at only 87 minutes but feels interminable. I get the feeling nobody had the heart or balls to tell Brooks this was an idea worthy of a short film (or sketch) at best, not one worth stretching out over an entire feature-length film. The one bright spot is a brief appearance by the brilliant Marcel Marceau. Avoid unless you’re a Brooks completist.

Review: Duck Soup

Director: Leo McCarey
Year: 1933
Score: 7/10

Hugely influential film. This scene clearly inspired one of The Godfather's most memorable moments.

Hugely influential film. This scene clearly inspired one of The Godfather’s most memorable moments.

Considering it was made 80 years ago, this Marx Brothers comedy – regarded as their best – holds up well. I only belly-laughed occasionally, but I smiled, snorted and chuckled throughout. Some of the physical comedy is good (the mirror sequence being a special highlight, later reprised by Woody Allen in Sleeper to less success), but it’s the dialogue and wordplay that’s most amusing. In contrast, the musical interludes aren’t very funny. At 68 minutes, it’s short for a feature film, but the length feels just right. I imagine it plays very well to young audiences, presuming they can stomach its obvious age.