Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Movie Review: This Is Spinal Tap

United States, 1984
U.S. Release Date: 3/2/84
Running Time: 1:22
Rated: R (Profanity, mature themes)
Cast: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Tony Hendra, June Chadwick, David Kaff

Director: Rob Reiner
Producer: Karen Murphy
Screenplay: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer
Music: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer
Studio: Embassy Pictures


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Anyone who has ever been a member of an 80’s glam-rock band, has seen one on stage, or has just watched one of those “Behind the Music” TV spots, will enjoy in the brilliance of This Is Spinal Tap. Its characters are exceedingly pathetic; its antics are blatantly preposterous; and for precisely these reasons, Spinal Tap is downright hilarious. In terms of its comedic and cinematic excellence, Tap most certainly sits among the top. Spinal Tap is truly the greatest and most ground-breaking “mockumentary” and one of the funniest films ever brought to fruition.

This is Spinal Tap documents the life of the United Kingdom’s “loudest” band entitled Spinal Tap. The band consists of David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) on lead vocals, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) on lead guitar, Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) on bass, Vic Savage (Tony Hendra) on keys, and a variety of drummers who sadly always perish from some unlikely cause.
In the film, documenter Mary DiBergi, played by the film’s director Rob Reiner, attempts to capture both an understanding of Spinal Tap’s change in musical interest over their 17-year life – through behind-the-scenes interviews and footage – and the highlights of their current United States tour.

The band has just unleashed their 15th album, “Smell the Glove,” and in promoting this musical marvel, the band pumps out such hits as: “Hell Hole,” “Big Bottom,” and “Sex Farm.” However, American audiences don’t seem to be taking a liking to Spinal Tap’s sound, and the band can no longer pack the large arenas like they once could. When David’s girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick) arrives on the scene, she takes over as band manager; the group further spirals into shame—accepting gigs at the local Air Force base and playing the opening act for a puppet show.

Throughout its curt 82-minute running time, This Is Spinal Tap overflows with opportunities to induce laughter. From Derek Small’s staged metamorphosis pod not opening on cue, to the 18 inch model of Stonehenge being lowered from the rafters—followed by the quote, “Our prop was in danger of being crushed by dwarfs,” Spinal Tap ensures that you’ll laugh so hard, that you will not only strain your abdominals, but you will also witness a near bodily earthquake.

In addition, Spinal Tap is chock full of celebrity cameos. For instance, Ed Begley, Jr. plays the band’s first drummer; Fran Drescher plays Bobbi Flekman, Tap’s public relations person; Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey serve as two mime waiters; Paul Schaffer covers the hilarious role of Artie Fufkin—quoting “Kick my ass,” over and over again; Angelica Houston plays Polly Deutsch, the band’s prop design specialist; and Fred Willard makes an appearance as the Lieutenant in charge of the Air Force base’s entertainment.

With all of the pros aside, this must-see recommendation does come with one caveat: in order to fully enjoy all of the laughs that are meant to be had, you must be privy to both the ridiculousness of ‘80’s rock and the ongoing challenge that aging musicians face in trying to keep their rock-star status afloat. With these two aspects in mind, it is nearly impossible for any viewer to leave his/her seat unhappy.

Even though Spinal Tap is centered on a fictitious band, the film truly feels like an authentic documentary every step of the way. (For more of this eccentric and sardonic filming, check out Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.) By taking a stab at nearly every rock ‘n roll convention, Reiner’s film defies logic and becomes both ridiculously funny and insanely intelligent. With a perfect mix of idiocy and ingenuity, the entire production team amplifies the picture “up to 11.” Spinal Tap is a bona-fide classic, the quintessential “rockumentary,” a film that tackles its own texture, and a justifiable cult phenomenon.

Christopher Guest’s character Nigel says it best when he quotes, “There is a fine line between stupid and clever;” and within the world of Hollywood, a better truth could not be spoken. Fortunately for Spinal Tap, its positives can be found on both sides of the line. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Movie Review: Diner

United States, 1982
U.S. Release Date: 3/5/05
Running Time: 1:50
Rated: R
Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser

Director: Barry Levinson
Producers: Jerry Weintraub, Mark Johnson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Studio: MGM


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Have you ever entered a restaurant to convene with company more so than to dine? For some reason, when friends meet at table, familial bonds develop; it’s not only the served sustenance that keeps them nourished, but it’s also the communal conversation and the ephemeral laughter. Barry Levinson’s directorial debut, Diner, skillfully depicts a succinct link between six friends’ love for gravy fries, cherry-cola, and each other.

Set during the Christmas Season of 1959, in the city of Baltimore, Diner showcases a pack of brotherly best friends who are wrestling with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) is having trouble communicating with his recently wed wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin). Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is set to tie the knot with his fiancée, but first, his soon-to-be bride must pass a quiz on Eddie’s beloved Baltimore Colts. In the meantime, Boogie (Mickey Rourke) – the sly hairdresser/law student – digs himself into deep debt with the local bookie, and Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) drinks his troubles away; Modell (Paul Reiser) continues to “beat around the bush,” and Billy (Timothy Daly) pleads with his pregnant girlfriend to marry him so they can raise their child together.

As the young men discuss everything from women and football, to rock n’ roll and cars, first-time writer/director Barry Levinson does a praiseworthy job. Levinson succeeds in vacuuming the viewers’ focus into characters that are amiable and relatable. He cleverly incorporates both a spectacular spat over a roast beef sandwich and a superb discussion between Eddie and Shrevie concerning the married life. In addition, Levinson also makes the wise decision of keeping a trivial character’s face hidden from sight to avoid any unnecessary attachment.

Serving as the springboard for all seven of the film’s main players, Diner elevated every one of its twenty-somethings into Hollywood success. Even though Rourke and Guttenberg basically scrapped their acting careers with boxing and the Police Academy series respectively, both shine as if they were on their way to superstardom. On the other hand, while Stern and Barkin both dole out emotionally superb performances, Bacon and Daly merely blend in with the background.

Unfortunately, Diner does exhibit a few weaknesses in cohesiveness, attention to detail, and establishing a core built on emotional sentimentality. The film’s intro and outro feel void of much-needed drama, and its pacing could be better throughout. Perhaps the most tiresome of Diner’s downfalls is its inability to make musicians look like musicians. When anyone playing a musical instrument is visible, no effort is taken to make their hands appear remotely in rhythm with the recording. Nonetheless, the picture’s faults (big or small) do not bog down the production enough to cause the film to be forgettable.

The picture’s best aspects are in its witty chatter and its coming-of-age camaraderie. Diner is a film that champions conversation and promotes personal growth. Moreover, it is Steve Guttenberg’s lone shining moment and much more intellectually appetizing than Porky’s as an 80’s anthem for young adults. In fact, in most cases, the post-pubescent connection with the characters is so strong that you feel like you’re sitting in the nearby steel-and-vinyl booth—eavesdropping on the young men’s friendly banter.

Through the metaphorical comparison of a single frame found mid-film, which depicts the marrying of ketchup, Diner’s theme can be perfectly realized. Just as the tomato paste slowly slides from one glass bottle to another, Diner’s male characters shift from immaturity and manhood; their old self is left behind, and a new feeling of being complete, full-hearted, and actualized is found. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Movie Review: Red Eye

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 8/19/05
Running Time: 1:25
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, profanity)
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox

Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Chris Bender, Marianne Maddalena
Screenplay: Carl Ellsworth
Music: Marco Beltrami
Studio: Dreamworks


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With Red Eye, director Wes Craven has stepped outside of the box. Not within his horror comfort-zone, Craven manages to prove that he is capable of creating a cerebral thriller unlike his typical fare. Red Eye represents a tremendous growth in Craven’s career and quite possibly the peak of McAdams’ and Murphy’s as well. Red Eye is a taut, condensed suspense thriller that, just like its leads, is fresh, electric, and in no way congealed.

While attempting to return to Miami on a red eye flight, Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) meets Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy). Jackson seems charming at first, but Lisa soon realizes that his intentions are sinister. Lisa must comply with Jackson and assist him in assassinating the Director of Homeland Security (Jack Scalia), or else her father (Brian Cox) will be killed.

Despite its lengthy set-up, Red Eye’s tension crescendos up until the film’s final scene—where time is finally allocated for an exhale. Even as the wheels meet the runway and the leads begin to play an action-packed and intelligent game of cat-and-mouse, the film's apprehension caroms to an increasingly heightened level. Not only does Red Eye solidly snowball its tension throughout, but it also maintains plausibility around every corner.

Rachel McAdams' performance should give off a high--similar to the altitude of where the plane flies. Yes, she really is that good. The fear and intensity that she so effortlessly displays not only sets her apart from all of the previous air-heads that Craven has utilized, but it also places her on the path of becoming the next American Sweetheart (i.e. Julia Roberts). After The Hot Chick, Mean Girls, The Notebook, Wedding Crashers, and now Red Eye, McAdams has continuously compounded her acting ability, and some how she just keeps getting prettier too.

As for Cillian Murphy, if there is a better living actor to play a villain in all of Hollywood, he/she has surely not yet been discovered. After spiraling off of his astonishing success – with a potato sack over his head – in Batman Begins, Murphy returns to the big-screen as an even more potent threat. The man’s facial features alone are enough to creep out any moviegoer, but because Mr. Murphy’s acting is so good, he makes it hard for viewers to turn away from the sight of him.

With its inclusion of a scar on Lisa’s chest and everyone asking her if she is alright and if she is sure, Red Eye creates a heroine who is admired by her hotel guests and coworkers, yet simultaneously insecure and unsatisfied. Only revenge and the inherent protection of the two most important men in Lisa’s life can cure this discontent. Despite Lisa’s choice to safeguard herself from love, she discovers her physical and emotional tenacity, and thereby begins to love herself.

On this level, Red Eye is deeper than your run-of-the-mill thriller. It is far from far-fetched and positively one of the most airtight thriller since 2002’s Panic Room. Certainly, as you unfasten your seat belt to exit your seat, you will be more enthused with Red Eye than irritated. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Movie Review: Super Size Me

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 5/7/04 (limited); 5/14/04 (wider)
Running Time: 1:38
Rated: Not Rated (Profanity, occasionally disgusting images)

Director: Morgan Spurlock
Producer: Morgan Spurlock
Written by: Morgan Spurlock
Studio: The Samuel Goldwyn Company


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In the United States, food portions are larger than in any other country, and so are the people. Some have coined America’s rapid increase in obesity a “sudden epidemic,” and most pin this outward expansion exclusively on the fast food industry.

To prove that fast food is the driving cause of Americans’ growing girth, first-time writer/director/producer Morgan Spurlock attempts a 30-day McDonald’s binge (or as one doctor calls it a “Mac Attack”). Before overindulging in nothing but Mickey D’s, Spurlock lays out a few rules. He must eat three meals a day—entirely comprised of items on McDonald’s menu. He must order every item on the menu at least once, and he must “Super Size” a value meal when asked upon ordering.

Prior to partaking in this gluttonous experiment, Spurlock enlists himself under the care of three different physicians: a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a family practitioner. Spurlock also seeks additional counsel from a dietician and an exercise physiologist. In each of the doctor’s professional opinion, Spurlock shows outstanding general health—spot-on blood pressure, normal cholesterol, low triglycerides, and flawless liver and kidney functions. However, by the end of his McDiet, the results are shocking.

Throughout his month-long pig-out on quarter-pounders, Spurlock maintains both a witty attitude and a lack of concern in depicting his degradation. Surely, vomiting out of a car-window and hearing your girlfriend complain about your energy-level in the bedroom is embarrassing. Nonetheless, Spurlock willingly depreciates himself, and in doing so, he keeps viewers entertained and enthused.

While Spurlock’s ingestion of fat is the film’s primary focus, the picture’s most intriguing moments are derived elsewhere. Through a series of various interviews with lawmakers, health experts, kids, and cooks, Spurlock reveals stunning facts and numbers. His conclusions – concerning the overall declining health of our nation and the impact that a corrupt and immoral food industry poses – are both informative and captivating. Spurlock’s interview with a few kids sums up the shock value best, when the children instantly recognize a picture of Ronald McDonald over a depiction of Jesus Christ.

While the Academy Award nominated documentary does take on a satirical overtone, its excellent graphics, super-shocking statistics, and engrossing information stress the gravity of the subject matter. Its aftereffects are daunting enough to prevent anyone from pulling up to a drive-thru after viewing. In fact, some may be so utterly disgusted with fast food that they will ban every processed food found between buns.

Is it a coincidence that six weeks after Super Size Me premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, McDonald’s expunged its “Super Size” option from their menu and suddenly became more diet conscious? I think not. Because the savvy Morgan Spurlock sacrificed his health, there may be hope for healthier choices when it comes to eating fast and inexpensive food.

Even though Super Size Me could have used crisper organization and a more in-depth analysis of both corporate social responsibility and the conundrum between economics and ethics, it is still a must-see. My order is in for Super Size Me to be projected on the moon; that way, our entire nation will be better informed about what the human body should be able to distinguish as waste before consumption. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005