Saturday, May 30, 2009

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Directed by Rob Reiner.
Starring Michael McKean and Christopher Guest.
In a Nutshell: A heavy-metal band is profiled during their American comeback tour.

The movie that launched the mockumentary genre, stripped away the empty self-importance of rock music and helped make Christopher Guest a cult comedy icon. So does it still go to 11 (sorry, unavoidable), even after the years of endless praise and almost predicable appearances on every comedy laundry list? Oh yes. As technically faultless as Zelig is, This Is Spinal Tap succeeds as a far greater comedy and study of the music industry. Its focus is on Spinal Tap, a fledging heavy metal band that gained their fame for being “one of England’s loudest bands.” The band mates are vacuous and show little grasp of cognition, but the film never ridicules them or forces us to feel disgust. We love them because their pursuit of rock star glory leads them into the black hole of musical careers; malfunctioning stage props, failed signings, Air Force performances and so on. But even as the misfortunes come one after the other, the band members’ optimistic sensibilities remain so that they can still stroke their brittle, attention-craving egos by continuing to reclaim the limelight. It’s never cruel and is respectable towards its targets, which is perhaps the reason why it has sustained such a long shelf life.

The movie manages to push the humor as far as it can go without completely breaking the reality (spontaneous combustion not withstanding), particularly with the music, which sounds generally bad enough to be the real deal. But the movie’s true durability is not just in the comedy but in the way it has made a punchline of every self-important rock band since. Having been embraced by the industry it’s mocking, no longer can any band inflate their egos without the inevitable comparison to Spinal Tap. In the end though, This Is Spinal Tap is a classic. Delusions of grandeur, limited I.Q.’s, fading celebrity, and the music industry’s mechanisms are ripe for satirizing and the film hits every mark. It never settles for gentle laughs, but never seeks to wound. There’s not too much else I can discuss without going to into a retelling of my favorite scenes, but it’s a gem and deserves its legacy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Zelig (1983)

Directed by Woody Allen.
Starring Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.
In a Nutshell: A psychiatrist tries to understand the nature of a human chameleon.

Not one of Woody Allen’s better known features, but worthy of mention. Zelig is a near perfection of the mockumentary format, though perhaps not the best overall example of the genre. The plot involves a man named Leonard Zelig (Allen) who can take on the characteristics of any person he is in the presence of (and not just physically). He takes the nation by storm during the 20’s and 30’s prompting a psychiatrist (Mia Farrow) to cure him of this abnormality. The film’s strength lies less in the comic premise itself (which is a bit one-note, albeit a slight commentary on identity struggle) but the technical detailing. Thanks to old newsreel footage, blue screen technology and a variety of cinematography techniques, Leonard Zelig is seamlessly integrated into early America. Even when the premise begins to wear out its welcome, Allen’s insertion of himself into bygone American is incredible. Taking full advantage of the flaws and limitations accompanying early media (as well as his recreation of American doctor testimonials) the film works mostly through the presentation itself.

But given that Allen took such care to make Zelig look as authentic as possible, it’s too bad he chose himself to star. I would doubt that an unknown taking on black, Chinese, obese, etc. characteristics would be as funny as seeing them on the Allen. And since Allen’s performance is mostly in small grabs of archival footage (much of it dialogue-free) and photographs, so it’s not like an actor of great depth or gravitas was needed. But that does show the limit to the Zelig character. Allen doesn’t give the character much more personality beyond the concept, and the role is very easy for him to play. In keeping with the documentary feel, the movie could have had a greater life with an unknown (or at least someone not as recognizable) that could give a more chameleon-esque performance, doing away with the more overt dialogue from the doc’s commentators. I did not dislike Zelig, but by Allen playing to his limitations, too much of Zelig is explanation over performance. The format is brilliantly deadpan and well perfected the mockumentary format before Christopher Guest and makes it a quickly enjoyable movie. But it is just too bad Zelig couldn’t have offered more Zelig.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Alphaville (1965)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina.
In a Nutshell: A secret agent must destroy an oppressive computer in a dystopian future.

Boy, is this a strange, strange movie. I should mention to not make this your introduction to Jean-Luc Godard, preferably start with Band of Outsiders or Breathless, even if you are twice the sci-fi nut I am. It takes some time to settle into the film’s style (including lots of seemingly inapt music and bizarre shots), but the end makes Alphaville a very fascinating riff on noir pulp and Americanized science fiction. According to my Netflix sleeve, it was filmed entirely on the streets of Paris, and though Godard has effectively transformed it into a dark, absorbing futuristic setting (and not with a bunch of robots or policemen in Robocop style outfits). Eddie Constantine as secret agent Lemmy Caution from the Humphrey Bogart mold. His mission; to destroy a supercomputer that has controlled or eliminated free thought and emotion from the city of Alphaville. Basically, Godard’s commentary against technology, predating both the novel and film of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Despite all the absurdity, Godard has a given a haunting tale on technology’s control and the incessant need to apply logic to everything. Shots such as the citizens flaying around without their computer overlord are particularly powerful (as well as a sequence at a diving board that would take too much time to explain without context). What really gives it that punch was Godard’s refusal to make the film too futuristic. The post-modern buildings and neon signs wouldn’t seem all that special without the cinematography and the dead, controlling mood of the future. We don’t feel disconnected from this society because it is all too familiar (or at least it was back in the 60’s in France).

It is too bad that much of the comedic, comic strip-esque moments can conflict so much with the dystopian noir. It’s creative, but it does jar the viewer out of being sucked into the movie like a good movie should. Brazil had moments of even greater absurdity, but never acted as though they were not integral to that universe. Alphaville may have been too movie-ish for some likings, but Godard’s message about technology control still resonates. And future filmmakers would do themselves good to study Godard’s methods at stylizing the future from modern-day Paris. Sure, it’s far more retro than 2001:ASO, but no less captivating. Still a strange, strange movie though.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Directed by Fran├žois Truffaut.
Starring Charles Aznavour and Marie Dubois.
In a Nutshell: A mild-mannered pianist is drawn into his brother’s life of crime.

Another French noir film, this one carrying itself far differently than its contemporaries. It doesn’t deal with hardened, murderous criminals, sultry dames, long shadows along dark alleys and the swagger of its morally ambiguous hero. No, Shoot the Piano Player is far lighter than the other films, but just as good, thanks to the piano player, Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour). Charlie is not the sort of dangerous personality that most noir can be founded on. He’s timid, thoughtful, and above all, wants nothing to do with his criminal family’s shenanigans. The film is given with a largely piano score (consistent with Charlie’s job as a once famous pianist) that sets a mood more romantic than mysterious. This failed to connect with audiences upon its release with hallmarks that at the time were rule breaking for a crime movie. But those elements (overly long music numbers, Charlie’s voiceovers where he expresses his agitation about the fairer sex, criminals more idealistic than thuggish in their musings, warm-hearted prostitutes) add a casual enjoyment to what could have been a hard-boiled tragedy and would have been lost in the landscape of dark noir dramas.

It is a bare story, with a lot of time for the character and plot to meander around. In flashback, we see Charlie’s previous life as a more infamous pianist (under his real name Edouard Saroyan) that led him into trouble. Now, he is married to the barmaid Lena (Marie DuBois) and the two have long conversations about love and trying to restart Charlie’s career in music again. Ever since his first wife’s suicide, Charlie has been content to live in his sealed off world with his kid brother and prostitute neighbor, playing for restless crowds at late-night pubs. But while Lena gives him the confidence to break out of his shell, it is that newfound daring that leads him into trouble with his older brother’s criminal activity.

In my final thoughts, while I was not expecting such a playful movie, this movie is a great precursor to the tongue-in-cheek crime movies of today. Aznavour is touching as a sensitive romantic lost in his own thoughts while this odd world pops around him. It may be joshing you around even when somebody is being held at gunpoint or kidnapped, but it’s not without substance. It is the love Fran├žois Truffant has for Charlie and his semi-seedy, uncluttered life that really makes this film shine.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Directed by Louis Malle.
Starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet.
In a Nutshell: A broken elevator inconveniences a murder plot.

Yup, another French noir film and this one is scored by the legendary Miles Davis. This film was the first by legendary noir director Louis Malle, and it is one breathtaking debut. It has a wickedly dark sense of humor and is an engaging parable on the price of grand romanticism. The plot is wonderfully uncontained and irregular; a man named Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) who plans with his lover Florence (Jeanne Moreau) to murder her husband and live the high life. However, en route to leaving the crime scene, the power goes off and he is stuck in the building’s elevator. During this, a teenage couple, swept up in their own romanticism, steal Tavernier’s car and (in the male’s case) identity as they themselves commit murder. While Tavernier is physically stuck, albeit with an incriminating alibi for the teenager’s murders, a ghostly Florence wanders the streets, believing that Tavernier left her for the female teenager. Quite the inopportune of plot twists for Mr. Tavernier.

I admit to not having been totally emotionally involved with this movie, even when all was said and done. Tavernier, Florence, and the teenage couple are given no real likeability in their immorality, they exist to either be screwed over by the plot’s mechanisms or move it forward in delightfully misguided ways. The closest there is to a real character is Moreau as Florence who spends much of the film roaming the desolate streets, having felt abandoned by her love. At first I was bothered by Moreau’s performance, which looked like she was just ambling around while being hypnotized (even when being arrested on a mistaken prostitution charge). Though I gradually awoke to the idea that she was supposed to act trance-like. She may walk around like a hollow shell, but Moreau is so good at looking detached, I almost mistook it for flat acting. The teenagers make for a nice parallel between the more mature and equally blinded by love couple. Though their grand gesturing is much more pathetic thanks to their naive youthfulness.

It seems to have been Malle’s intention to have so little involvement with the protagonists, much more eager to watch his characters squirm about through the plot. Malle would go on to direct much greater films, but Elevator to the Gallows, with its jazzy haunting score and disconnected performances makes it an elegant descent into humanity’s lesser quality. Would highly recommend, but only as a start into more Malle films.