No Concessions: “Anvil!” Smashes Through Spring Movie Doldrums

Written by Film, No Concessions

In this week’s installment of No Concessions, Bob Cashill has his cinematic face rocked off by Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

April showers bring May flowers, or, in movie flora, Wolverine and Star Trek. Maybe it’s the rainy weather, but I haven’t been overly motivated to write about anything I’ve been seeing. It happens every time this year: Our screens get choked with films that aren’t quite big enough for the summer, but are too small to attract much awards season fuss at the end of the year. That’s not to say that there aren’t good pictures around. I’ve heard the positive word-of-mouth on Adventureland, the kind of “in-betweener” that critics and audiences motivated to find it embrace, and State of Play is the sort of starry studio movie I’m usually game to spend a couple of hours with. But I haven’t made it to either one, and with each passing week they inch closer and closer to the vast and all-devouring maw that is my Netflix queue.

Mindful of my duty during this dull patch, I have seen a few movies, mostly, I admit, at the art house across the avenue from me. (Even that takes effort.) There was the artful Bobby Sands bio-drama Hunger, an account of the IRA hunger strikers in Britain in the early 80s that you really need to see during Lent; it’s a co-production from Mel Gibson’s company, and the scourging and misery in his Passion of the Christ has nothing on it. I almost generated a few column inches, but couldn’t do it; the bloody toilets and the maggots and the shit on the prison walls and the ascetic aesthetic of the rigorous filmmaking just sort of defeated me as the deadline drew near. You don’t leave a movie like Hunger; you escape from it, better for the experience, maybe, but drained and crumpled.

Sin Nombre, that rare film cooked up at the Sundance Institute that doesn’t feel completely empty of spontaneity and love of craft, is more the thing, and as immigration thrillers go it has to be more involving that the ill-fated Harrison Ford movie Crossing Over, which crossed over into oblivion. The train-set sequences, as a family of migrants and their unlikely protector, a gangland enforcer escaping from his comrades, run the gauntlet from Honduras to Mexico and the U.S. border, are excitingly shot and have a genuine you-are-there immediacy. It’s the kind of debut feature that audiences will seek out as the filmmakers make a nombre for themselves with bigger-budgeted fare. I ran out the clock on this one; by the time I was ready to say a few words, it was already gone, but it may still be out there on the indie circuit.

I didn’t have to go far at all to see The Great Buck Howard, which bowed on the HDNet Movies channel prior to its brief theatrical release. Outside of John Malkovich’s typically eccentric portrayal of an illusionist whose act and attitude is stuck in the 60s, a problem for the greenhorn road manager (Colin Hanks) trying to bring him up to date, it’s the kind of end-of-the-line showbiz story you’re better off waiting for on TV, so it struck me as rather self-defeating to premiere it on TV. Not that I didn’t laugh during Malkovich’s mumbling-singing of “What the World Needs Now,” the “variety” portion of Howard’s creaky act, or his cultural cluelessness when he briefly hits it big and makes the contemporary talk show circuit—he’s an actor whose antennae are constantly twitching, finding weird nuances to roles that are uniquely his, and the hit he took in the Madoff scandal may oblige him to keep taking these quirky parts in little movies. (He’s the headliner on HDNet Movies, which is where I caught his impersonation act in Color Me Kubrick, and he’s in something that aired last night called Mutant Chronicles, which begins its token theatrical run today.) Hanks’ dad, who produced the film, has a handful of scenes as his disapproving father—yes, Tom Hanks is at that stage of his career where he plays disapproving fathers.

Buck Howard’s writer-director, Sean McGinly, started out in showbiz as the roadie for The Amazing Kreskin, and based the picture on those hanging-by-the-fingernails experiences. Which brings me to the documentary that roused me from my cinematic slumber, Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Its director, Sacha Gervasi, has had his brushes with greatness: He co-wrote The Terminal (starring—I love the circularity of it all—Tom Hanks) and according to his IMDb entry fathered a child with Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell. The seeds for Anvil!, however, were planted earlier in his youth; he was a baby-faced roadie for the title band, in what passed for its salad days.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (a great title; obscure but blunt) begins with a murderer’s row of heavy metal gods, among them Lemmy and Lars Ulrich, offering testimonials to the greatness of the group—not as if they were still banging out the hits, but as if they had gone down in a flaming plane wreck not long after their moment of glory, when they performed at a Japanese mega-concert in 1984. They are not, however, dead, but living in their native Toronto and working at just-getting-by jobs, which amounts to the same thing. Being metal, the frontman, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, leads a life of noisy desperation, saying “shit” and “fuck” more times in a minute than most Canadians say in their lifetime.

Being from Canada is theorized as leading to the disappearing act Anvil pulled as the peers it influenced became monsters of rock (“I’ve been trained my whole life to be polite,” Lips muses). I think it may be that its drummer is named Robb Reiner—a bad omen, given Rob Reiner’s direction of This is Spinal Tap, which debuted just as Anvil was fading from the scene. Robb, however, is stoic in the face of Anvil’s misfortunes, and consoled by his paintings, one of which depicts tiny people looking upwards at a colossal statue of an anvil. Robb looks and acts like a deadpan urban cowboy from a Jim Jarmusch film, but the image silently echoes what Lips (who more than lives up to his name) constantly verbalizes: that Anvil, which they formed in their teens, never got its due, and that it deserves another shot at the big time, though its members are now 50. (Or it could just be a big anvil. Another of Robb’s pictures, hung in the basement, is a turd in a pee-stained toilet.)

Anvil! is a film of false starts. A European tour, organized by their good-hearted but disorganized Czech manager (who is the fiancée of one of its members) comes to grief: a single audience member turns up for a Munich date, the band is cheated of its money by the owner of a grotty club that could be the set of Hostel: Part III, train connections are missed, and a trumped-up gig in a 10,000-seat Transylvania stadium draws a measly 174 headbangers. Self-producing a thirteenth album, which they hope will reverse their flagging fortunes, costs money, so Lips takes a job at a call center, run by one of his fans, who is known simply as “Cut Loose.” The assignment leaves him temporarily speechless.

Complete with a trip to Stonehenge, Anvil! is funny, but not in a satiric, Spinal Tap way. Gervasi likes the guys too much to let them nose-dive into self-caricature as they try to complete the record and land a distribution deal by the seat of their pants. Lips is a babbling brook, and Robb perhaps a better listener than speaker (he sums up the band’s troubles in “one, two, or three, words; it all comes down to the job of management”) yet they complete each other, and when they fall out over the new album the first truly dark cloud appears over the documentary. Lips is a glass half-full person (“at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on,” he says of the European misadventure) and a loving husband and father, haunted by his dad’s rejection of his artistic abilities; Robb, the son of an Auschwitz survivor who fully endorsed his son’s creativity, provides a certain balance that keeps their brotherly equilibrium at an even keel.

There are lovely instances of Anvil’s extended family banding together to keep the dream alive. But there’s no dream to keep alive if Lips and Robb’s lifelong union disintegrates, and Metallica isn’t sending in its Some Kind of Monster shrink to help out. I knew nothing about Anvil going into Anvil! (though I can’t help but like a band that has a song called “Mothra”) and it’s not necessary. What this documentary cranks to 11, loud and clear, is the power of friendship to blast through every setback, whatever the circumstance. That woke me up.

Last week, my colleague Lance Berry walked us through the red meat of the summer movie season. This week, I’m suggesting a few red wines to go with them. Films I’m looking forward to include Away We Go, with director Sam Mendes on a comic path following Revolutionary Road, with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph (June 5); Woody Allen having Larry David channel his neuroses in Whatever Works (June 19); Kathryn Bigelow attempting to break the curse of Iraq pictures with the buzzed-about bomb defusing thriller The Hurt Locker (June 26), Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen trying on a new fool-the-rubes persona as Bruno (July 10); the British war satire In The Loop, a festival circuit hit (July 24); Meryl Streep, as Julia Child, paired again with Doubt co-star Amy Adams in the biopic Julie and Julia (Aug 7); and Ang Lee looking back 40 years at a seminal summer event with the memoir-based Taking Woodstock (pictured, Aug. 14). Bored with spring movies? A change is gonna come…

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