This Is Spinal Tap (Netflix)
Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is the movie that perfected the “mockumentary” format, and did it so flawlessly that it almost seems real. Reiner—who made his directing debut after years of playing “Meathead” on TV’s All in the Family—stars as filmmaker Marty DiBergi. Upon hearing of a new album and a new tour by the legendary heavy metal band Spinal Tap (which uses a German umlaut over its “n”), he decides to make a film about them. An astounding array of things go wrong, from the album (Smell the Glove) being released with a totally black cover and no label, to the “Stonehenge” set mistakenly being built in a minuscule size.
The English band members, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer)—as well as an ever-changing roster of dying drummers—read their reviews, demonstrate their amplifiers (“these go to 11”), and fight with each other. There’s even footage of them from the 1960s, attempting a Byrds-like jangle-pop sound. The actors and Reiner co-wrote, and improvised, the movie together, and the jokes are never less than dead perfect; even the songs strike a clever balance of being hilariously awful while still sounding like they could be actual 1980s hair-band tunes. Despite its age, the film remains a popular cult classic, and, to this day, any real-life rock band worth its salt carries a copy on the tour bus at all times. Look for Fred Willard, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby, Patrick Macnee, Anjelica Huston, Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, and others in small roles.
52 Pick-Up (Hulu)
Lowest-common-denominator producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus hired acclaimed director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and writer Elmore Leonard for this aimed-at-adults thriller from 1986. Leonard adapted his own novel, telling the story of Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider), a successful, married industrialist who gets caught sleeping with a younger woman (Kelly Preston). Three masked criminals threaten him and blackmail him. Since his wife (Ann-Margaret) has just thrown her hat in the political ring, it’s a bad idea for any dirt to come out. When the stakes are raised and murder enters into the equation, Harry takes the initiative and begins shaking down the bad guys, one by one.
Frankenheimer holds everything together with determination, and keeps things firmly moving even when they turn ridiculous. Somehow, the inherent humor in Leonard’s work isn’t really highlighted here; no film would pick up on it until Get Shorty emerged in 1995. But part of the movie’s success is the colorful rogue’s gallery, starting with smarmy 1980s preppie bad guy John Glover as the mastermind, plus Clarence Williams III (TV’s The Mod Squad) as the strong, silent, murderous type, and Robert Trebor as the nervous, sweaty type. Beautiful pop star Vanity plays a stripper and some porn stars of the era (Ron Jeremy, Amber Lynn, etc.) can be glimpsed at a party.
A Simple Plan (Hulu)
Though Sam Raimi made the all-time mad-genius cult classic Evil Dead trilogy as well as the entertaining, personal Tobey Maguire/Spider-Man trilogy, this astoundingly brilliant, highly mature film noir is arguably his masterpiece. Based on a novel by Scott B. Smith, who adapted the screenplay, A Simple Plan (1998) tells the story of rural brothers, the educated Hank (the great, recently departed Bill Paxton) and slow-witted Jacob Mitchell (Billy Bob Thornton), who discover a crashed plane in the woods. And, on the plane, there is a sack of money amounting to $4.4 million. Hank wishes to turn the money in, but eventually he is convinced that they should keep it.
However, fearing that the money is stolen or dirty, Hank proposes that they stash it and wait until spring; if the plane is found and no one mentions the money, they are free and clear. However, the temptation of that much money brings out the worst in everyone, and soon paranoia and greed are running rampant. Raimi’s usual kinetic style is slowed down here, perfectly adapting to the rude darknesses within, and focusing on frozen, dead, wintry spaces. Bridget Fonda is terrific as Hank’s wife, who has her own influence. The movie received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, and for Best Supporting Actor for Thornton, whose struggles, as Jacob, to express himself and to keep up with the others are quite moving.
What We Do in the Shadows (Amazon Prime)
Mockumentaries and vampire movies have both been done to death lately, but in the hands of Jemaine Clement, best known for Flight of the Conchords and as the giant crab Tamatoa in Disney’s Moana, and Taika Waititi, who directed Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the genres find a fresh bite. Written and directed by both Clement and Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows (2015) tells the story of several vampires who are also roommates. The 862 year-old Vladislav (Clement) hopes to be the guest of honor at the upcoming annual Unholy Masquerade. The 317 year-old Viago (Waititi) likes to call house meetings; and 183 year-old Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is a self-stylized bad boy.
The demonic-looking 8,000 year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) lives in the basement. Newcomer Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) was supposed to have been a snack, but is now the latest undead member of the household. He and his human pal, Stu (Stu Rutherford), create all kinds of new trouble. As a documentary crew films them, they are caught doing silly things, as well as creative things. Since they can’t cast a reflection in a mirror, each roommate is entrusted to sketch one another as they get dressed up for the ball, to make sure they look good and sharp. This is the kind of movie that may seem silly or offbeat at first glance, but gets funnier and funnier the more you think about it.