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No. 10: “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)

“I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.”
~~David St. Hubbins

Gearing up for his band’s Stonehenge-tinged concert, rocker/dim-bulb philosopher Nigel Tufnel* (Christopher Guest) serves up a delightfully vague introduction about the Druids, so mysterious that “no one knows who they were or what they were doing.” He might as well be talking about Spinal Tap, a heavy metal trio in which the members are legends in their own minds. So enraptured with their own mythology are these lovable dolts that they don’t find it odd they play venues with corridors that lead everywhere but the stage.

This is what Rob Reiner gets so perfectly right in “This Is Spinal Tap,” a satire (albeit a kind one) of giant metal egos wading infinitesimal pools of talent: He gives us an in-depth look at not one heavy metal band, but every larger-than-life band that ever existed. Spinal Tap is Everyband, a motley collection of stereotypes (a band member dead from choking on vomit; a Yoko/Paul-esque conflict that splits the band in half) that turn out to be as revealing and universally true as they are hysterical. The men who head up this band are idiots, but they are our idiots, DiBergi assures us, and through his admiring eyes we cannot help but love Spinal Tap, woman-degrading, glove-smelling album covers and all.

In the opening of “This Is Spinal Tap,” we learn that director Marty DiBergi (Reiner himself) has decided to take time from his dog commercial career to create a documentary of his favorite band, Spinal Tap, a two-decades-old English metal band composed of lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), named after the patron saint of quality footwear; lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest), who believes D minor is the saddest key of all; and bass guitarist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), who sees his role in the band as the “lukewarm water” that tempers the fire-and-ice combo of David and Nigel. DiBergi follows Spinal Tap as the band attempts to tour America and reconnect with fans. This is a huge mistake, the band assuming they have fans to reconnect with. Years of LSD trips and perpetually croaking drummers and horrendous albums — one’s reviewed as a “pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms”; another’s summed up simply as “shit sandwich” — have obliterated the American fanbase.

Nearly all of the droll, wonderful comedy in “This Is Spinal Tap” emerges from this tour, which rapidly devolves into a succession of misunderstandings and shabby bookings by their slimy manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). It’s like “The Three Stooges” meets VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” with razor-edged British humor lobbed in for good measure. Spinal Tap plays second fiddle to a puppet show. The guys “headline” a military dance and the aforementioned show where nobody can find the stage, so they don’t perform. Making matters worse is David’s shrewish girlfriend (June Chadwick), who clashes with Nigel over who deserves the credit for being Spinal Tap’s “mastermind.” Watching David, Nigel and Derek crash headlong into the reality of their disappearing fame is reason enough to manifest undying love for “This Is Spinal Tap,” with its mix of satire and slapstick. 

The film’s crack team of comedic actors and Reiner’s direction, though, seal the deal. Nobody whips out one-liners with more deadpan perfection than McKean, a blockhead who says things like “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” and doesn’t see how those words apply to him. Shearer’s the understudy here, but he makes a definite impression. Guest somehow manages to tap into Nigel’s oddly touching vulnerability and give us a thrash rocker who’s almost childlike in his naivete. Reiner nicely underscores these performances by treating “This Is Spinal Tap” as an authentic documentary, amassing hours of footage, and so we come to see David, Nigel and Derek as wholly human in their cluelessness; we laugh at their antics, but we want them succeed, or find happiness elsewhere. They matter to us, weird as it sounds, because Reiner makes them real people. And that’s the kind of achievement that never gets old.

*That’s Nigel “We’ve Got Armadillos in Our Trousers” Tufnel to you.

No. 6: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

“She is alive, or was an hour ago. If she is otherwise when I find her I shall be very put out.” ~~Prince Humperdinck

Giants and monsters and evil wayward kings, sword fights, gallant gentlmen on noble steeds, lovely damsels awaiting rescue, perfectly magical kisses and the prospect of love everlasting — it’s enough to put a person’s gag reflex to the ultimate test. But let not your esophagus revolt and your stomach turn, for “The Princess Bride” is not that sort of fairy tale. Not in the least. Oh, sure, Rob Reiner’s absurdly clever film about the courtship of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) and lowly stablehand Westley (Cary Elwes) contains all these expected elements. But every single one of them gets a little tweak, a shot of sly wit that blasts off the dust and cobwebs of yore and makes “The Princess Bride” the kind of feisty creation that feels fresher and funnier with every viewing. 

So how, exactly, does this “Extreme Makeover: Fairy Tale Edition” play out? How can it enrapture and intrigue us in ways that don’t feel like a quirky rehash of “Cinderella”? For starters, there are the characters, who fill the standard roles but refuse to play to type. Princess Buttercup, though lovelorn, isn’t quite the garden-variety lady-in-distress. She’s got a mouth on her, a temper and a brain too — and she’s not shy about using them all. Westley’s neither a boorish Healthcliff nor a mindless Prince Charming. He’s more apt to shred his foes with “you warhog-faced buffoon” than cry about lost love. There are sidekicks, but they do not serve merely as boring spacefillers; Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) have enough issues to get Freud’s head spinning. And the villains, including Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Tyrone (Christopher Guest), spend as much time being droll — who but a perfect scoundrel could pull off “please consider me as an alternative to suicide”? — as they do plotting evil deeds. Everyone who shows up in “The Princess Bride” has a distinctive personality that’s just a shade left of center, just enough to subvert our expectations.

Based on William Goldman’s equally fantastic book, the story itself, though, supplies intrigue aplenty. “The Princess Bride” employs that story-within-a-story method, with a wiseacre grandfather (Peter Falk) reading to his sick young grandson (Fred Savage), who’s really worried there will be too much smooching and not enough sword fights. There’s plenty of both in the tale Grandpa reads, an entertaining yarn about Westley and Buttercup, lovers separated by his quest to seek fortune on the seas. Prince Humperdinck takes the heartbroken Buttercup as his bride-to-be (he has his own motives, and all of them are unsavory), but there are hiccups in the sneaky prince’s plot, not least of which is Buttercup’s kidnapping by Inigo, Fezzik and their shrill employer Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the appearance of the mysterious Man in Black/Dread Pirate Roberts. Throw in an impending mawwage*, a life-sucking torture machine and a miracle man (Billy Crystal) with the power to rise the Nearly Dead, and you’ve got yourself a story so interwoven in its complexity that it makes “Syriana” seem like “Son-in-Law.”

By now we’ve covered what catapults “The Princess Bride” leaps and bounds above other fairy tales. Wa-hoo. But why does this movie deserve a place on our shelves and in our hearts? There’s no easy answer to that question. The script is full of piquant wit and infinitely quotable quips like “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder” and “You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” Maybe it’s because the likes of Patinkin’s damaged but resilient Inigo Montoya, set on avenging his father’s death, and Fezzik, a sad pariah plucked for a dreadful life of unemployment in Greenland, feel sweetly and surprisingly real to us. Or perhaps we return to “The Princess Bride” again and again because there’s some deep, primal, frightfully uncynical part of us that wants to believe in the happy ending, the world in balance, the magic.

And if there are a few Rodents of Unusual Size thrown in? Well, that just sweetens the deal.

*It’s what brings us togevuh today.