If this story wasn’t true, they’d have to invent it. Indeed, they already did. “This is Spinal Tap,” one of the most outrageous, influential, and utterly hilarious movies ever made, is a “mockumentary,” a fake documentary about a heavy metal rock group on a disastrous tour in support of a disastrous new album. “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” is an actual documentary about an actual heavy metal rock group on a disastrous tour in hopes of making a new album and it is hilarious and touching and completely captivating.
Like all great documentaries, this is the story of a passionate dream. Guitarist Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (not to be confused with one-b Rob Reiner, who directed “This is Spinal Tap”) met as teens in a small town near Toronto and have been performing together for four decades. They had a brief brush with success in the 1970’s, when they performed at a festival with acts that have since gone one to sell hundreds of millions of CDs, and their Metal on Metal album is considered seminal to the genre. But for some reason, they never made it despite subsequent alliterative albums like Worth the Weight and Hard n Heavy. The eternally optimistic Lips has a day job delivering school lunches. But when a European fan calls to say she has booked them on a tour, they drop everything and go. Everything goes wrong. But, as Lips says, at least they have a tour for things to go wrong on.
There are some nice little bows to “Spinal Tap” — a producer whose amps go to 11, a drive by Stonehenge. And the inspired title lets you know from the beginning that it is cheekily subversive, even of its own pretensions. It never takes itself or the band too seriously. But the passion of its characters for rocking out hard and for the partnership they share is perfectly suited to rock as the ultimate affirmation of life in the face of The Man in all forms, from club managers who don’t pay to recording executives who don’t get it to time that goes by too fast. The support of their families and their unquenchable commitment to the music is ineffably moving. It is funny and surprising but filled with heart.
Everything that made the adorable “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” so winning is missing from this tired and formulaic sitcom of a movie about an American tour guide in Greece. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” with writer/star Nia Vardalos, was filled with charm, heart, originality, and vivid detail. Now Vardalos stars — but did not write — “My Life in Ruins.” It is as tired as its title, a drawn-out sitcom of a movie that tries to charm us with thin jokes about ignorant tourists who travel around the world but don’t want to see anything.
Vardalos plays Georgia, an American of Greek heritage who went to Greece to teach but lost her job and is now stuck working for a small company with two tour buses. The other guide gets the one with the good air conditioning and the happy, easy-going customers. Georgia gets the bad bus, the bad hotels, and the cranky tourists. Plus the guy who is always making corny jokes (Richard Dreyfuss) — not that they are any better than the rest of the jokes in the movie — and some Australians who appear to be cheerful but whom no one can understand. Georgia sees this as a way to teach the visitors about the glory and history of Greece, to have them “bask in history” and “to be a part of the birth of civilization.” But they think they are on vacation and what she has in mind feels too much like work. All they want to do is eat ice cream and buy souvenirs.
And the new tour bus driver has a name that sounds like a bad word and a huge fuzzy beard. You think she’ll be surprised when she finds out that he speaks English and understands what she’s been saying? You’re right! You think it will be funny when it happens? You’re wrong. You think the tour bus driver will shave and turn out to be handsome so that Georgia can recover her “kefi” (Greek for mojo)? You’re right! You think it will make the movie entertaining? You’re wrong!
Vardalos looks uncomfortably skinny and as though she knows she could have written a better script. “Saturday Night Live’s” Rachel Dratch is wasted as the kind of tourist who is always looking for the Hard Rock Cafe or an international branch of Curves. And then there is the warring couple with the mopey teenage daughter who — here’s a surprise — won’t take the earbuds out of her ears. The stereotypes are not awful because they are predictable. After all, they become stereotypes because they happen so often. They are awful because they are so thin and superficial and phony. It is ironic that while Georgia is whining about how tourists do not appreciate the grandeur and history of the ancient ruins, the movie itself feels as though it is the cinematic equivalent of a chintzy souvenir. It is a shame to spoil the beautiful scenery with these vaudeville-era jokes. Georgia may find her kefi in this film, but the script never does.
The two-doofus comedy probably goes back to ancient times, so why not set it there? The always-funny Michael Cera and the frequently-funny Jack Black join forces like Hope and Crosby in an only intermittently-funny movie that is just a series of sketches set in ancient days — prehistoric, Biblical, Roman, and Egyptian. Cera plays Oh, a gatherer, and Black is Zed, a hunter. They are pals who are evicted from their stone-age village and wander off, meeting up with Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and the residents of Sodom. In yet another “what was the MPAA thinking” moment, the film has been assigned a PG-13 rating, despite jokes about incest, circumcision, orgies, castration, and ingestion of human waste.
The juxtaposition of modern sensibility and prehistory provides some funny contrasts. Oh and Zed are amazed to see their first wheel and when they ride in their first vehicle they raise their arms as though they were in a roller-coaster, even though it cannot keep up with a guy strolling alongside. And then they get their first carsickness. Some things are eternal — like insecurity with the opposite sex, bullies, and the bad guys having English accents. And it is fun to see a modern perspectives combined with ancient situations.
But more doesn’t work than does. Cain does not just kill Abel; he pounds him — and any potential for humor — into the ground. It isn’t enough that a pagan priest be corrupt and gay; he has to be hairy. The movie is too spotty to be comic and too listless to be heretical. There’s no point to it, just a series of gags — in both senses of the word.
Title aside, there is not much imagination in this formulaic story of a daddy who discovers the value of his daughter’s imaginary friends — and then learns that it is his daughter who matters most of all. But I am an unabashed sucker for daddy-daughter movies, the little girl is adorable, and I was immensely relieved to see Eddie Murphy in a movie that is not terrible, so I found myself smiling.
Murphy plays Evan Danielson, who is very good at his job as an investment advisor but not very good as a husband and father. Although he and his wife Trish (the always-graceful Nicole Ari Parker) have recently separated, his primary concern is his competition at the office with Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a competitor at the office who uses his Native American heritage to sell his investment ideas to clients.
Perhaps because of the separation, Evan’s daughter Olivia (adorable Yara Shahidi) has become very attached to a security blanket she calls her “goo-ga.” When it is over her head, she talks to her princess friends. All of this is distracting and frustrating for Evan, who is caring for Olivia full-time while Trish is busy with work. But then he discovers that Olivia’s imaginary friends have some real-life insights into the companies he is analyzing. And as he spends time with Olivia to get access to the secrets of her imaginary friends, he discovers how much more important she is than any investment or promotion or client could ever be.
This much we knew going in. And parts don’t work at all. The entire Whitefeather plot line is clumsy and borderline racially insensitive, especially when it involves his son. There is too much about business and investments that will be confusing to children. Martin Sheen is underused. But DeRay Davis as Danielson’s former football-player friend is wonderfully natural and leaves us wanting to know more about his character.
Basically, it’s a little “Liar Liar” and a little “The Game Plan” and lighter-weight than both if such a thing is possible. But there is a reason this theme connects so successfully. As with “The Game Plan,” the little girl has the power in this relationship. She is not a bully or a brat and she is not selfish. She is wise and has a degree of control that is a very compelling and reassuring fantasy for children. By encouraging her father to do silly things she helps him to relinquish his own sense of control and need for success and connect to his capacity for fun and play. Shahidi and Murphy have an easy chemistry on screen that comes across as authentically sweet. Murphy will never be a subtle performer but he limits himself to just one role and seems to enjoy portraying the straight-laced but superbly professional Danielson and allowing him to thaw without overdoing it. And any time Murphy does not overdo it, that’s worth seeing.
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Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander star in "The Danish Girl," directed by Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"). It is the true story of transgender ...
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