Sunday, April 01, 2012

Thank God For The Model Trains

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

3 ½ Stars
Rated PG-13
Running Time 1:29
First published May 15, 2003

It’s always fun to see great actors clicking on all cylinders. And that’s really what’s at the root of A MIGHTY WIND, the latest “mock documentary” (the director claims in interviews to hate the term “mockumentary”, so I’ll refrain from using it in deference to him) by Christopher Guest, who previously skewered small-town theater in the very funny WAITING FOR GUFFMAN and dog shows in BEST IN SHOW.

Guest’s target this time is the folk music scene of the 1960s, a period in which performers like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, The New Christy Minstrels, and The Kingston Trio were pounding the BILLBOARD charts and appearing on network television shows like HOOTENANNY with great regularity. It was also a period of great political and social upheaval in the United States, a climate that was enormously important to the development of the folk scene, but which has been ignored by Guest and his co-writer/star Eugene Levy. Whether this decision by the filmmakers was dictated by today’s conservative political tenor, I don’t know, but any portrayal of ‘60s folk music without any reference to Vietnam doesn’t feel right.

Or perhaps I’m taking things too seriously. Guest certainly doesn’t. His setting is a memorial concert for Irving Steinbloom, a legendary folk impresario who handled most of the 1960s biggest groups. His son Jonathan—a nervous, stage-presence-challenged sourpuss played by Bob Balaban—decides to organize a reunion of his dad’s bands to headline AN ODE TO IRVING, a concert to be performed at New York City’s Town Hall and broadcast live on public television.

Those groups include The Folksmen, a trio of genial middle-aged faux-hipsters that also serves as an unofficial Spinal Tap reunion, in that they are portrayed by Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean; The New Main Street Singers, a “neuftet” of sweater-vested squares that includes only one original member (Paul Dooley); and Mitch & Mickey, a once-romantically-involved duo who made a huge splash when they kissed on a national television show during their hit, “A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow.” Levy and Catherine O’Hara, who have been performing together since their Second City days in Canada during the early 1970s, portray Mitch and Mickey in WIND’s best performances, which will surely stand among the great comedic achievements of the year.

And that’s what I mean about watching actors at work when they have characters with meat to them and they truly “get” what their roles are about. The often-thin line between comedy and tragedy has rarely been tightroped with as much bravado as in the scenes involving Levy and O’Hara. O’Hara’s Mickey left the music scene completely after the duo’s personal and professional breakup, eventually landing in the suburbs, married to a catheter salesman. For Levy’s Mitch, the split was more emotional, following two unsuccessful solo albums with a stay in a mental hospital. Essayed by Levy (who also strummed a guitar in his very first film, the Canadian horror movie CANNIBAL GIRLS) in a gray wig, landing-strip beard, and constantly bemused expression, Mitch is a ‘60s casualty whose misfortunes, absurd though they may be, make him more human than WIND’s other characters combined. O’Hara’s deft “straight man” helps Mitch & Mickey emerge as a colorful, dramatic couple, almost independent of the subtle skewings elsewhere in Guest’s film. The rest of the cast is in equally fine form, even with less defined characters to play. Fred Willard receives the biggest laughs as a gleefully obnoxious and insincere former sitcom star who has taken over management of the New Main Street Singers, while Ed Begley Jr. scores as a Swedish Jew in charge of the telecast.

As wonderful as the acting is, A MIGHTY WIND would never have worked without strict attention paid to the period detail, mainly in the form of (fake) old album covers and film clips and especially the music. Like they did in SPINAL TAP, Guest, McKean, and Shearer have painstakingly recreated the sound and vibe of ‘60s folk music, while adding an almost imperceptible mockery to it. It’s always fun when good performers have to pretend to be bad ones, and the amount of detail that went into shaping these songs is admirable. So admirable that, despite the silliness of the lyrics they’re singing, you might be surprised to find yourself sitting in teary suspense as Levy and O’Hara perform their climactic number.

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