While most sports movies tend to take themselves very seriously, with triumphant underdogs and platitude-filled speeches in their third acts, some sports just inherently lend themselves to comedy. Bowling is a great example of this, as evidenced by the success of films like the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Poker is another, though the game itself is so relatively inactive that it’s debatable whether it should even be called a sport, and Zak Penn‘s underrated improvisational comedy The Grand takes full advantage of a poker tournament’s many humorous possibilities.
Similar to the revered work of Christopher Guest and his regular ensemble of actors in films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Penn assembles a talented ensemble cast and gives them direction on who their characters are, then leaves the dialogue and the development of situations largely up to them. In fact, the poker tournament at the center of the film is a real tournament, and its outcome was undetermined in the script; the winner at the end of the film actually just beat the other actors, regardless of narrative expectations. This approach gives the film extra vitality and excitement, and with so much room to breathe, the cast creates lively, hilarious characters that often riff on and expand their real public personae.
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When “This is Spinal Tap” premiered twenty-five years ago, the now classic mock-documentary…or “mockumentary,” if you will…about lightly-brained, heavily sedated British metal stars on the skids received good reviews but unexciting box office. Considering that most people who saw it – and understood that it wasn’t a real documentary — thought it was one of the funniest movies they’d ever seen, it wasn’t too big a surprise that it soon became a very significant cult hit via home video. What was a bit harder to predict was that a film featuring three only moderately well known comedian/satirists and directed by then first-timer Rob Reiner would become one of the most influential comedies of its era. It certainly wasn’t clear that lines such as “this goes to eleven” or “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” would enter the general musical and cultural lexicon, and that, decades on, “mock docs” would remain among the most popular of low-budget movie subgenres — and not only for comedy.
Still the biggest surprise of all was that, as musicians, improv geniuses Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, turned out to be better at music as a sideline than most of those who do it fulltime. Not only could the trio play rockers like “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm” live with brio and dexterity, “unplugged” versions of such vintage Tap classics as “Listen to the Flower People” and “Give Me Some Money” were among the highlights of their early live shows. Of course, the shows were funny, but the big surprise was how well played the music actually was, wowing both metalheads and metal-haters (that would be me) alike.
It didn’t end there. With Christopher Guest emerging as the most reliable comedy-mockumentary director of his time with such irony fests as “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show,” Guest, McKean, and Shearer became the Limelighters/Kingston Trio-like Folksmen. The group figured prominently in Guest’s affectionate 2003 poke at the folk music scene, “A Mighty Wind,” leading to the inevitable gigs where the geeky but oddly talented folk music threesome would open for the bombastic boy-men of Spinal Tap.
Six years later, however, Guest, McKean and Shearer would, in preparation for an upcoming Spinal Tap reunion, take the ultimate step of acoustically performing a collection of Tap and Folksmen classics as well as new material not as any of their off-kilter comedy personas, but as themselves for this spring’s 30-city “Unwigged and Unplugged” tour, which is now officially underway.
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Already a sensation in its native land of Australia (where the show is the best-selling TV-DVD in the country’s history), it’s probably best to go into “Summer Heights High” knowing as little about its various accolades as possible. After all, “Kath and Kim” was also supposed to be an Australian critical darling, and while that may be true of the original series, the American remake starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair is so terribly unfunny that we can’t imagine that’s the case. That isn’t to say that “Summer Heights High” isn’t completely deserving of its rave reviews, because even though it isn’t technically produced by HBO, it could very well become the network’s surprise hit of the fall season.
Best described as a mockumentary in the style of a Christopher Guest film (though it’ll also draw comparisons to the BBC version of the “The Office” for its awkward brand of humor), the series stars creator Chris Lilley as three different subjects of a high school documentary. There’s Jonah, a foul-mouthed, Polynesian delinquent who enjoys break dancing; private school mean girl Ja’mie, who’s at Summer Heights on a student exchange program; and Mr. G, the school’s eccentric drama teacher known for such unconventional productions as “IKEA: The Musical” and “Tsunamarama ’06,” a disaster musical scored entirely to the music of Bananarama.
Discussions will no doubt take place over which of Lilley’s characters are their favorites, but the great thing about “Summer Heights High” is that they’re all so unique that it’s virtually impossible to favor just one. It’s actually a little scary at just how good Lilley is (especially as Ja’mie, whose girlish mannerisms are spot-on), and his work here is nothing short of genius. Lilley isn’t the only star of the show, however, and though a majority of the other characters are played by actors, the fact that they’ve been mixed into a real-life environment (the series was shot at an actual Australian school) really helps the validity of the documentary style.
“Little Britain USA” may be the one getting all the press of the two imports, but by the time “Summer Heights High” has finished its eight-episode run (beginning on November 9th at 10:30 PM), it’ll likely be the bigger success. It’s just a shame that there won’t be a second season to look forward to, because not only would it be an excellent addition to HBO’s annual line-up, but the opportunity for an hour-long team-up with “Flight of the Conchords” is almost too good to pass up. That shouldn’t deter you from tuning in, though. “Summer Heights High” is one of the most original comedies I’ve ever seen, and if it accomplishes anything during it’s time on HBO, it’ll be to transform Chris Lilley into the next Ricky Gervais.