Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

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: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Theatrical Edition

Director: Peter Jackson
Year: 2013
Score: 6/10

Toilet Dwarf™, the perfect accessory for any rustic restroom. Make your own King Under the Mountain!

Toilet Dwarf™, the perfect accessory for any rustic restroom. Make your own King Under the Mountain!

The Two Towers is my least favourite entry in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, suffering as it does from middle film syndrome (lacking both the joy/wonder of introducing us into the world and the catharsis of ending the story), so it makes sense for me to have similar feelings about The Desolation of Smaug. Of course, I won’t know for sure until the release of The Battle of the Five Armies later this year, but I’m guessing I’ll enjoy that more than this.

Many of my criticisms of An Unexpected Journey apply here too: over-length, unnecessary action sequences, padding the story out with extra bits that don’t add enough, and sticking too closely to the formula established in the previous trilogy. There are also some more specific criticisms to be made: the opening scene lacks ‘oomph’; the ending is weak, lacking even a semblance of finality, let alone resolution; the Kili-gets-injured-and-winds-up-in-a-love-triangle subplot is entirely superfluous and irritating, especially since the two other members of the triangle (Legolas and a female elf created for the movie and played by Kate from Lost) aren’t supposed to be in the movie at all; in the motion-captured-character-redeems-movie’s-final-act stakes, Smaug is no Gollum; the entire Lonely Mountain sequence is muddled; and Thranduil’s arseholishness, with no real redeeming features, quickly grates.

Having said all that, there are still some fairly enjoyable parts (the barrel sequence, for instance), and all the usual elements worthy of praise in a Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movie (action, visuals, music, casting, etc.) are still there too. As for acting, Orlando Bloom continues to think that squinting is the sole form of emoting available to him, Stephen Fry overdoes it a bit as the Master of Laketown, Sir Ian McKellen is solid as ever but seems to be overusing the move-bags-under-one’s-eyes-to-indicate-drama technique, and everyone else is fine.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition

Director: Peter Jackson
Year: 2012 (theatrical version) / 2013 (extended edition)
Score: 7/10

The real reason for the extended edition, of course, was so we finally get naked dwarves. The fans... go... wild.

The real reason for the extended edition, of course, was so we finally get naked dwarves. The fans… go… wild.

I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and my initial viewing of the theatrical (non-extended) version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in 48fps 3D, left me quite impressed but a tad concerned. It was an immensely fun ride, with Jackson’s familiar brand of humour-infused action, constant winks at the fans, a largely excellent cast (both new and returning), and a brilliant adaptation of the novel’s crucial ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter in the final act. Mostly it was just great to be back in Jackson’s immersive world; it isn’t quite Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but it’s equally impressive in its own ways.

I did, however, have reservations about the film’s length, the sense that many of the action sequences were shoe-horned in to pad it out as the first part of a trilogy (case in point: the entirely unnecessary rock-monster boxing match scene), the decision to split a fairly short children’s book into three lengthy films, and the often slavish beat-for-beat recreations of moments/sequences/arcs from the original trilogy. In a sense all of these concerns come down to the fact that this isn’t just a film adaptation of the novel; it’s very specifically JACKSON’S adaptation, in the style, vein and scope of his Lord of the Rings. That means we lose the childish frivolity and lightness I remember from the novel, and instead get a dose of Sauron-y seriousness and a bunch of extra bits, all designed to create parity with the original trilogy so this (together with the next two movies) will serve as a stylistically and narratively cohesive prequel trilogy.

I can't decide if the Great Goblin's chin testicles are as bad as or worse than Peter Griffin's.

I can’t decide if the Great Goblin’s chin testicles are as bad as or worse than Peter Griffin’s.

Watching the extended edition in preparation for the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I had roughly the same response but if anything my concerns grew: this is, after all, an even longer version – 13 minutes of additional footage! – of a movie I already regarded as bloated. For some reason I disliked the Great Goblin character (portrayed by Barry Humphries) more this time round. On the other hand, I found the emotional climax (Bilbo finding his courage and being accepted by Thorin) considerably more affecting, though I don’t recall any changes to the scene in this version that would have made it so. I also noticed and enjoyed the dwarves’ theme music, within Howard Shore’s excellent-as-always score, more than I previously recall.

For anyone choosing between the theatrical and extended versions, the bottom line for me is this: when I watch the trilogy in the future, I’ll be putting aside my concerns about length and unnecessary action set-pieces and ill-advised movie-splitting, so I might as well take the completist route and watch the extended version; the extra bits aren’t by any means fatal to the overall length, and they tend to play OK in a home cinema environment. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.

Review: 13 Assassins

Director: Takashi Miike
Year: 2010
Score: 7/10

Traditional samurai weapon #441: flaming bulls.

Traditional samurai weapon #441: flaming bulls.

Solid if slightly overrated samurai movie with good action scenes and excellent production values. The story offers very few surprises and the inevitable deaths of many of the titular assassins don’t pack much of an emotional punch. The antagonist is extremely one-dimensional; he’s sadistic, abusive of his power, and ultimately overconfident, but I couldn’t tell you anything else about him or his motivations. However, the real draw here is the samurai action, particularly in the spectacular battle that takes up most of the film’s final third. It’s also an interesting counterpoint to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies in that it shows how to better overcome the challenge of introducing and making the audience familiar with thirteen similar characters on a quest.