Thursday, August 25, 2011

This Is Spinal Tap (Reiner. 1984)

"These go to eleven...."

Rock and roll seems like something that takes itself far too seriously. As most of us know, in the 1980's America had an fluctuation of what are now known as "hair bands". These groups were famously less concerned about the artistic direction of their music and more about the women, money and image that accompanied fame. Though it almost seemed like some of these bands were actually mocking themselves, it did not take long for the comedy team of Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner to come up with one of the funniest screenplay ideas of the entire decade with This Is Spinal Tap.

Spinal Tap is a hair metal band that has agreed to allow a superfan, Marty DiBergi (Reiner), to document their lives and processes. Shot in the now famous Christopher Guest mock-umentary style, this is a film that captures a very specific aspect of comedy. With little remorse for the feelings of the actual bands being parodied, Spinal Tap made the audience laugh by using the "you were all thinking it" brand of humor. Whether you love the big hair decade's musical outputs or not, it is pretty apparent that making fun is warranted. The things we see and hear from Spinal Tap are right out of the book for many existing and successful rock bands. The movie looks like real life.

And real life is what This Is Spinal Tap became. This is the fist time that we see the hilarious trio of Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean doing what they do the very best. They became their characters and sported looks to match the ridiculous, pretentious and meaningless things that they were saying. As the band hits some rough patches, DiBergi's camera is able to show us what we are not supposed to be seeing. This is the footage that every episode of Behind the Music wishes they had. It is made hilarious by how oblivious to the joke that the cast seems to be.

Another thing that makes the film work is that the subject matter has become such a romanticized aspect of the 80's that everyone will forever get the jokes. We as moviegoers are familiar with what the cast is making fun of with This Is Spinal Tap. Everything from ridiculous hair metal lyrics to outlandish costumes and sophomoric sexual innuendo is shown in a strangely satirical and intellectual frame. This Is Spinal Tap is a furiously immature film from its content, but it is so well crafted with sharp and recognizable satire that it comes off as ingenious comedy.

My favorite thing about this movie is the music. Yes, Spinal Tap is an under-talented rock band with an inability to sell tickets in the movie, but their music has stood the test of time. Spinal Tap (a FICTIONAL band from a movie) was so well received musically that the three comedians have been awarded Grammy's and have had national tours. They were even named the 75th greatest artist of hard rock by a VH1 special series. This was a better ranking than actual hard rock acts like The Misfits, Tool, Marilyn Manson and King Crimson.

With This Is Spinal Tap, Guest and Reiner managed to create a believable mythos that has carried on past their mockumentary. This is a hilarious movie that is good for a laugh in any mood.

This Is Spinal Tap: A-

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fish Tank (Arnold. 2009)

"I like the way she says c**t." - Me

Katie Jarvis was discovered by casting directors while in a shouting match with her boyfriend at the Tilbury train station. As a person, one could say that she was doomed for the type of life we wish against. Pregnant at sixteen and living in the slums of an Essex living unit in London, Jarvis was the walking embodiment of a troubled youth. It seems that fate played a hand in introducing the teenager to film director, Andrea Arnold.

For Fish Tank, Arnold created a character that is not unlike her leading lady. Mia is foul-mouthed, from a broken home headed by a violent and promiscuous mother and virtually unwatched for several hours each day. She spends her free time getting into fights, breaking into houses and hip-hop dancing. She is, like Jervis, doomed to a life of trashiness and lower-middle class obscurity.

Film works at its best whenever it can mirror reality and make the audience care for the characters. This is the most working aspect of Fish Tank. Jarvis is incredibly convincing because there is obvious truth behind her performance. You can see in her eyes that she is not faking. Her emotions are real and they radiate off the screen. We believe her. The audience hurts for her.

In a life like Mia's, it would be hard to think of a worse possible case. This is where Arnold introduces the audience to Michael Fassbender's character, Conner. Here is a man that reinforces the creepy feelings in our stomachs. A married man with a child, Conner is sleeping with Mia's mother. He also takes an unnatural liking to Mia. Some people call Conner a pedophile. And yes, by lawful definition that is what he becomes. Some critics, like Ebert, just see him as immoral and disgusting with no actual lustful desire toward children.

What I like about the film is that they let you decide for yourself. Everything is seen from Mia's viewpoint, so the audience does not get any of Conner's back story. We see hints and clues to a possible normal life, but we are left to assume which mystery they solve. He may be an evil pedophile who was after Mia all along. He may be a scumbag who was looking for a screw. Heck, his wife may have been into the whole thing. We never find out.

When looking down into a fish tank, a person is spying on the life of something that cannot escape the life that has been chosen for it. From all angles, the walls are clear and allow us to voyeuristically peer through and into something private. I have no idea if my thought on the title has anything to do with why Arnold named the film, but the name seems fitting in this respect.

Fish Tank is an aesthetically raw and emotionally piercing film that seemed to dramatically fly through its over two hour running time. This is an exhausting motion picture. It does everything it can to the audience before abandoning them with a happy-ish (but not really) ending. One of the newest films in the 1077 is also one of the best that I have seen so far.

Fish Tank: A

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hour of the Wolf (Bergman. 1968)

"The Hour of the Wolf is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die."

Sometimes a filmmaker does not feel the need to do anything conventional with his/her art. From the surrealist movement to expressionist horror, some plot lines are just better left unexamined. This is how I feel about Ingmar Bergman's lesser known work, Hour of the Wolf.

When it comes to film making, it is hard to deny the technical brilliance of Bergman. His filmography reads off like a well prepared list of the greatest movies ever made. Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal (1957), Cries and Whispers (1972) and Persona (1966) have all been deemed significant for the film snob due to their interesting shooting styles and oft-thought pretentious symbolism. Hour of the Wolf is, to me, drastically different from anything that Bergman had made before or after.

The biggest difference is the lack of direction in the plot. There is no real hero, villain or relatable figure in the story. Instead, we get a tortured and mentally slipping painter named Johan. This is a character that gives the audience almost nothing to work with to create a mythos. He is haunted by horribly frightening dreams that force him to sit up in all hours of the night. He explains the horrors of what he sees to his loving wife, but her support goes unnoticed. An unhappy ending seems inevitable for Johan. But, then again, we never really know if what he is seeing/saying exists.

I would not say that Hour of the Wolf does not make sense. It does. Bergman just decides to have the film make sense to only him. In a surreal method of plot-devising, the great director never flinches enough to give the audience reality. Everything that happens is the beginning of a new mystery, even though no mystery ever gets solved.

From a conventional standpoint, this is a film about a man going mad. But I almost wonder if Bergman wanted the audience to think conventionally. Is the action on the screen really happening? If so, what does it mean? Should it mean anything? Why should I care? No question is answered. It is as if only Bergman gets to know the methods behind the madness.

With that being the case, Hour of the Wolf is a slow and challenging film to get through. I enjoyed the level of surrealism that Bergman implemented, but it was still a sparsely enjoyable experience in viewing. Maybe I am lacking the maturity that allows a viewer to become a part of Johan's world. Maybe I was begging to have the ending explained to me like in any other cookie-cutter piece. Either way, this film was moderately impressive, but mainly forgettable due to the lack of urgent plot involvement.

Hour of the Wolf: C

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Buffalo '66 (Gallo. 1998)

"You adore me, you love me, you cherish me, Jesus Christ you can't live without me."

As a follower in the Cult of Roger Ebert, I am almost required to hate Vincent Gallo. As an actor, Gallo is almost talentless. On the other hand, his writing and direction could be ranked with the most original and interesting filmmaker aspects I have ever seen. In the film, Buffalo '66, we are introduced to a character with no desirable qualities. From the beginning the audience is disgusted by Billy Brown. Mainly because they assume he is a heartless ex-convict with a tendency to spin lies for his loving mother.

After tumbling into a lower level tap dancing class, Brown kidnaps the strangely adolescent looking Layla and forces her, almost too easily, to pose as his wife. He renames her, gives her a new back story and even threatens to kill her if she does not comply. Even though she has been thrust into the unloving arms of a violent stranger, Layla remains calm. This is the dynamic that made the movie work for me.

Right quickly we will go back to the character of Billy Brown. Eventually we see, through box-cut flashbacks for development, that his home life is nowhere near what the audience had originally pieced together. His father is a creepy, abusive old man who lips along to Sinatra covers with the idea that he is actually singing. His mother is negligent due to her over-fascination with the Buffalo Bills.

And when I say fascination I mean exactly what I imply. The Brown family album features pictures of O.J. Simpson and other Bills greats. The loving mother only has one picture of Billy in her possession, and it features him and his childhood puppy who was punted to death by the father.

But Buffalo '66, for me, is not about the horrible and complicated life of Billy Brown. I look at the film as a tortured love story between two obviously damaged souls. Gallo's Brown is a violent, aggressive potty-mouth who sees himself as a victim of several unfair circumstances.

Across the table from him is Layla. Played flawlessly by Christina Ricci, this character is submissive, yet feisty. With no actual back story given for her, the audience is left to imagine how she became the person that we see on screen. She is dressed like a teenage Barbie doll on drugs. By appearance alone you guess that her attitude would be as undesirable as Brown's, but she is sweet and tender. She attempts to care for her fake husband. She falls in love with him.

The thing that stands out most about Buffalo '66 is its unwillingness to fit into any conventional cinematic genre. Everything from shooting style to story progression is meticulously different from the mainstream. Our hero is a scumbag, and our leading lady looks like she could be fifteen years old. That makes the erotic pole dancing tap routine one of the more unpleasant scenes in the film. It is almost like Gallo wanted the audience to lust for the jail bait.

Buffalo '66 is a surprisingly original, heartfelt and entertaining movie. It does seem slow at certain points, but the dialogue is crisp and the characters are well designed. Outside of Gallo, the acting is above average with Ricci being the anchor of the main cast. I liked this a lot more than I expected.

Buffalo '66: B