CINEMA: Heavy Metal Blunder

anvil_poster_1.jpgANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2009, directed by Sacha Gervasi, 90 minutes, U.S.)
X-MEN ORIGINS: THE WOLVERINE (2009, directed by Gavin Hood, 107 minutes, U.S.)


Audiences seem torn between laughter and admiration when introduced to the Canadian metal band Anvil, the unlikely stars of this critically acclaimed new documentary.  In the early 80’s the band briefly ran with giants like Metallica and Bon Jovi.  Where many bands around them climbed the highest peaks of success, Anvil has soldiered on through a couple of decades of unbroken decline, still playing regularly at sports bars and weddings, rather than arenas.  “Hold on to your dreams” is the popular mantra but at what point should you realize that your teenage dreams might be preposterous at age fifty?

Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (not the Meathead) are Anvil’s vocalist and drummer respectively, and they’re brothers-to-the-end, holding out to make their rock and roll dreams come true although their families, fate and their (lack of) fans seem to be conspiring to kill their buzz.  When a European tour arrives like a holy reprieve, will it be a triumph or just another reminder that for Anvil, the gig is up?

Melding together some of the best moments from This Is Spinal Tap and The Wrestler with a cold hard shot of reality, Anvil!: The Story of Anvil captures the gallows humor and desperation of middle age, where visions of glory are traded for prayers for mere survival.  Lips still rallies his BFF Robb with the inspirational cheer, “We’re gonna be rock stars” but confides in the camera he’s happy just one more night of glory and one more stage on which to play the Anvil anthem “Metal on Metal”.

What some critics seem to miss is that beyond Lips and Robb’s unsophisticated, working class demeanor, there is a lot of talent.  Anvil may not be a truly great band, but they are a great metal band, delivering songs with pulverizing force (Reiner is a thunderous skins pounder) and a stage show that makes the most of Lips’ impish personality.  Sure they’re drenched in eighties stylistics but Anvil play with enough verve and crunch to make them at home on any hard rock bill.  Despite all the humor that comes at their expense (and no one describes  the senior center menu like the part-time caterer Lips) the band Anvil delivers the rock and roll goods with the fervor of true believers.

Throughout the film though, Robb and Lips’ faith is tested like they were a couple of head-banging Jobs.  They start off their tour playing some larger shows with heroes like Michael Schenker of U.F.O.; that glory doesn’t last long though as the tour quickly degenerates until they’re playing in a tiny bar with a cardboard box in the window with the name “Anvil” scrawled across it in magic marker.  Filmmaker Sasha Gervasi was a one-time roadie for Anvil and the apparent trust they share allows the band to spill all their crazy hopes and pain with a deep honesty that makes you care whether this forgotten rock footnote might still have a moment of glory left.

The film leaves the band on a small triumphant note but the final chapter is being written now.  Will the clear-eyed love that this film has for its subjects give Anvil one more shot at the big time?  You leave thinking the bands has turned a corner, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was only three other attendees at the evening show I attended.  Go see Anvil, the story’s ending is resting in your very hands.

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x_men_origins_wolverine_1.jpgIf the Lips’ irrepressible optimism springs eternal, what can you say about a critic who attends the first midnight screening of the new super hero opus Wolverine (or as it is actually awkwardly titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine) despite the fact that the studio has side-stepped any screenings for film writers?  Maybe it was my unexpected affection for Iron Man, last summer’s well-received Marvel superhero adaptation, perhaps a longing to be present at the opening of the summer blockbuster season but for whatever reason I was in the whooping and hollering crowd last night that was revved up for the first showing of Hugh Jackson’s steel-clawed origin story.

Trading in the sedate morning critic’s screening to sit knee to knee with excited fans does have its perks though; its encouraging to see that the general public also wants to jeer at the sight of Matthew McConaughey, bad CGI and ads for military recruiters.  And if I was left underwhelmed at this by-the-numbers special effects extravaganza, its good to know much of its target audience was grumbling at the end as well.

Directed by South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) the story opens with the boy mutant Logan mistakenly killing his own father, leading the adult Logan (Hugh Jackson) and his brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) to use their powers to fight innumerable wars through history.  If they’re heroic Nazi killers in WW2, things get ugly by Vietnam and Victor’s MyLai style atrocities cause the brothers to part ways.  These feuding good/evil brothers bury the hatchet though when a shadowy contractor (Danny Huston, continuing his father John’s acting tradition of playing malevolent men of power) puts together a commando team to storm a Nigerian diamond smuggler in search of a meteorite with special qualities, qualities that will turn Logan’s bones into a unbreakable alloy and give him the power to be The Wolverine.

With Liev Schriber, Hugh Jackman and Danny Huston in the cast it is exciting to think they have the acting chops to break out into a scene from Ibsen if they so chose.  Of course they don’t; instead the perform the standard superhero repertory, including jumping away fromCGI fireballs, charging each other before freezing in  mid-air, Matrix-style and of course screaming in anguish as the camera pulls away overhead into the stormy sky.  Minor Marvel characters like Gambit and Deadpool received some whoops from the crowd at their arrival yet neither the characters nor the actors that play them could make much of a dent in the marauding lack of imagination that is constructed into the heart of this soulless contraption.  Staying through the final credits for one last zingless zinger, the audience left the theater at 2am with a groan, moaning about work tomorrow and amusing themselves by listing “The Five Stupidest things in the Wolverine movie”.  Welcome to summer moviegoers.

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