Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

The hardest thing about watching “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” is convincing yourself that this is a real documentary about a real band, rather than a parody. The similarities to “This is Spinal Tap” are absolutely uncanny. This is a story of aging rockers who delude themselves that their day is not done. Their attempt at a European tour is a depressing shambles. They speak in bizarre non-sequiturs: Fan - “Why aren’t you playing better venues?” Drummer - “I can answer that in two words, no, three, ‘We haven’t got good management.’” Strangest of all, Anvil’s drummer is named Robb Reiner. Who was the director of “This is Spinal Tap?” Wait for it….Rob Reiner. The film really seems for a while like a straight-faced put-on, an inside joke for rock documentary fans, but from what I can tell, the band Anvil and the story are real.

Drummer Robb Reiner and Guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow started Anvil in the ‘70’s, and the band was one of the vanguard of the metal movement that peaked with bands like Metallica. Much as the New York Dolls are considered a lesser known proto-punk band, Anvil was apparently the cutting edge of heavy metal in the early ‘80’s. This documentary features testimonials from members of Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax about how Anvil influenced them. The band never quite broke into the big time, however, probably because they are Canadian. I’ll bet they were notorious for cancelling gigs to go eat fries and gravy.

“Anvil! The Story of Anvil” finds Robb and Lips working menial jobs in their home of Ontario, living for the occasional tiny gig, turning fifty, and still chasing that elusive rock and roll dream. A European fan named Tiziana writes to offer to manage them on a tour of Europe, where they are supposedly still big stars. That turns into the farce mentioned earlier. Then they rekindle a relationship with their old producer, Chris “CT” Tsangarides. They borrow enough money to have CT produce their thirteenth album, “This is Thirteen,” but ultimately fail to get any record labels interested in their self-produced effort. And so it goes, a constant series of ups and downs, with the ups being illusory, and the downs representing reality.

The thing is, the story could be depressing, but somehow Lips’s childlike optimism carries us along and keeps his band-mates going, from one fading glimmer of hope to the next. Robb is more of a realist, and he frequently threatens to give up the dream and quit. Lips comes across as something of an idiot savant, or maybe just an idiot, but it is nice to see these guys’ wives and some of their family support them. In one heartwarming scene, Lips’s sister loans him a sizable sum to help produce their album. In another scene, Rob’s wife chastises his sister for suggesting that he should give up playing. Still sporting ‘80’s hair and wearing a rock t-shirt, Mrs. Reiner says, “We love the music and the bands. This is just what we do.”

“This is just what we do.” To me, that is the theme of this film. Many would look at the guys in Anvil and shake their heads at the folly of aging rockers still trying to “make it.” The thing is, what else are these guys going to do? Some people watch TV in the evenings, or go bowling, but when the guys in Anvil get off work, they pick up their instruments and play. Lips might seem deluded to some, but I think he is actually very wise. If you are lucky enough to have a dream, you should hold onto it. In this life, it isn’t achieving your dream that is the greatest thing; it is having a dream to chase.

Lips sums it up quite well himself:

“For all this horrible shit that I gotta go through, I’ve got Anvil that gives me my happiness.
The way I look at it, really, is that it could never be worse than what it already is. If it never got better, that’s the way that it is. It could only get better.
On the other hand, if it did get worse, at least this time, after all’s said and done, I can say that All has been said and done, instead of ‘I’ve left a lot of things undone.’”

An interesting post-script is that due to the critical and popular success of “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” the band has enjoyed a massive resurgence. Heavy Metal isn’t exactly en vogue now, but there are still enough fans around that Anvil is now playing to packed houses and earning enough, finally, to quit their day jobs.

5 stars

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Good revenge flicks have a few rules. Number 1 is that the bad guys have to commit an atrocity so bad that it will justify all the mayhem that is to come. “Inglourious Basterds” is about Nazis, so no problem there. The hero or heroes are then empowered to engage in wholesale slaughter, but Rule Number 2 is that they only hurt or kill people who deserve it. Rule 3 is that the story must stay at least minimally plausible. I’m all for movies that engage in total flight of fancy, obvious fairy tales like “Edward Scissorhands” or “The American Astronaut.” That tone isn’t right for a revenge movie, though, because it distracts from the audience’s ability to project ourselves into the role of the hero, dispensing simple justice to people who rarely seem to get what is coming to them in the real world. That is the cathartic value of a revenge movie, and for me, “Inglourious Basterds” failed to provide that because the movie violates rules 2 and 3.

The story is of a group of American commandos, all Jewish, who volunteer to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France to carry out a war of terror against the German occupiers. Their mission, according to leader Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is “killin’ Nazis.” It’s a great fantasy setup, really. How many people, past and present, Jewish and otherwise, would love the idea of engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis? Who wouldn’t want to kill Nazis? The Basterds, as they are called, pursue their job with gusto, gaining infamy among the Germans for their brutality, which includes beating captives to death with a baseball bat and carving swastikas onto the foreheads of those they release. Then the dream assignment comes along. The entire German high command, including der Fuhrer himself, is set to attend a German propaganda film premiere in Paris. They set out to help a British secret service agent blow the place up. On top of all that, the Basterds aren’t the only ones with plans to destroy the place.

The acting is generally excellent. Melanie Laurent is particularly good as Shosanna, the only surviving member of a Jewish family slaughtered by “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa, a chillingly astute Nazi detective, is the best character in the film, although there are occasions where he breaks into a bizarre clownishness that ill-suits the tone of the rest of his performance. Brad Pitt fits himself pretty well into Tarantino mode, although his Southern accent leaves something to be desired.

Now for those rules I mentioned. First, Rule 2, which says that the heroes must be just. If the Basterds stuck to killing and torturing hard-core Nazis, the movie would be all right. There is one scene I cannot get past, however. The Basterds have successfully ambushed a small German patrol, and they are interrogating three prisoners, trying to find out about the location of another patrol. When the German sergeant rightfully refuses to betray his fellows, he is threatened cruelly, and then beaten to death with a baseball bat. This is a Tarantino movie, so of course the entire scene is especially graphic. Now if this were Adolph Hitler being bludgeoned, or even a concentration camp guard, I’d be okay with it. These are just low-level, regular German army grunts, though, and it is disturbing, to say the least, to watch our protagonists torture and kill them. Perhaps Tarantino was actually trying to make a point about the nature of war and violence, but in any event, this scene ruins the movie as a revenge flick.

Lest you think I am simply squeamish, I would like to compare the baseball bat murder to the Marsalis Wallace rape scene in “Pulp Fiction.” That scene probably wouldn’t be considered quite as shockingly graphic today, but when the movie came out, the scene had people walking out of theaters. The deal was, though, the movie had earned the right to show us that. The entire buildup of Butch’s story line made it inevitable that he would grab that sword and go back to help Wallace, despite the fact that they were trying to kill each other in the previous scene. If that meant that we had to see a glimpse of homosexual rape, it fit the story, and in the end, justice was done and the right people were killed. Nothing in “Inglourious Basterds” justifies the baseball bat scene. We all know that the Germans committed atrocities, but these particular Germans are just soldiers as far as we can tell. If the Basterds killed Germans in battle, then fine. If they had to kill those prisoners, then they could have given them a quick, clean death. Their cruel tactics in that scene are unfitting in what is otherwise a cathartic revenge fantasy.

That brings us to how the film breaks Rule 3, the one about being at least somewhat plausible. “Inglourious Basterds” is way too much of a fantasy. I had heard that it was a “re-imagining” of WWII, but I never guessed just how re-imagined it is. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded the big-concept style if Tarantino had bothered to make the plot even remotely plausible, but this is the ’70’s porno version of a revenge movie. (The doorbell rings, and it's a couple of Nazis having an argument about who is better at killing Jews. They want you to judge, and by the way, would you mind holding their baseball bat for them?) Tarantino has always been a master of respecting plot details and dialogue, but in “Basterds” he treats these things as minor signposts on the road to “killin’ Nazis.”

Some have suggested that the film is Tarantino's parody of other movies, that this is his version of a western or a Charles Bronson flick. Maybe that is his intention. "Kill Bill" was his version of a kung-fu movie, and "Grindhouse" was his parody of, well, grindhouse movies. I guess I just don't like this mission Tarantino is on. I liked it better when he was making good movies rather than making fun of bad ones.

I am a bit puzzled at the awards-season attention “Inglourious Basterds” is receiving. The movie is very well-acted, and it’s worth seeing just for the performances by Diane Kruger (as a German movie star turned Allied spy), Melanie Laurent, and especially Christoph Waltz. This is a movie with great acting, but a flawed script and, frankly, uninspired direction. I suppose you could try to credit the film as an over-the-top comedy, but the movie invests too much and requires too much investment from the audience to get off that lightly. I have been a big fan of some of Quentin Tarantino’s work, but I was disappointed by “Inglourious Basterds,” and I like it less the more I think about it.

2 stars out of 5.