Movies: ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ & ‘Is There Anybody There?’

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Where do washed-up rock acts go to die? Anvil! The Story of Anvil relates the history of the titular also-rans, a heavy metal group that, despite early success — and the wild adulation of Slash, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and Motörhead frontman Lemmy — has slipped into utter obscurity. Not that they’ve completely given up: 30 years into their career, singer Steve Kudlow (a.k.a. “Lips”) and drummer Robb Reiner are still at it, despite lousy day jobs (catering and demolition, respectively), record label indifference and a severely diminished fan base. Their tenacity is either admirable or insane.

Filmmaker Sacha Gervasi follows the band on a disastrous European tour, then into the studio as they record what they hope will be their comeback album. Throughout, Steve and Robb display not the slightest awareness that their sound — and especially their lyrics (featuring musings on divination with animal entrails) — is thoroughly anachronistic. It’s no fun watching someone flog a dead horse for 90 minutes, but the music is thankfully not the focus here. Rather, it’s the inviolable, big-hearted bond between the two men. Whereas Metallica’s Monster proved its members to be spoiled jerks, Anvil! chronicles an authentic bro-mance, one that has survived its own share of fights, but without the consolation of money or success.

It’s moving enough, at times, to bring tears, although one can’t help but wonder if Steve and Robb might have made more prudent life choices were they not so committed to one another. Regardless, the beat goes on. If Anvil! does even remotely well, expect the band to be playing at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost near you very soon.

Is There Anybody There? is a film about aging and death that races along at a clipped, eager pace, keeping it from getting bogged down in a slough of sentiment. Credit director John Crowley with a useful gift for narrative rhythm and an even better one for casting. Michael Caine grits his teeth as Clarence, a magician whose budding senility (he writes things on his hands as a hedge against forgetfulness) obliges him to move into a retirement home. He hates it so much that he immediately attempts suicide, only to be saved — literally, then emotionally — by the attention of 10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner). The son of the retirement home’s feckless owners, Edward’s death-encompassed home life has engendered a taste for the occult, and Clarence’s occupation taps into his obsession. Despite a separation of 60 years, they forge an unlikely friendship.

We have seen this gambit before, the one where a weathered geriatric and an impressionable tyke find themselves reluctantly yoked together by circumstance, only to discover they have much to teach one another about life, love and redemption: Central Station, Alice in the Cities and even Bad Santa are some of the more salient examples. Is There Anybody There? doesn’t turn the model on its ear, but is distinguished by a careful avoidance of the mawkishness that usually infects such films — and an unusually morbid tone. Edward desperately wants to know what happens after death. Clarence is dying. Their exchanges are long on sincere, sometimes aggrieved, debate.

Crowley sets the tone nicely here by giving much of the film a gray, rheumy look to match Clarence’s fading lucidity. A score dominated by ethereal theremin solos provides an equally effective complement to Edward’s belief in the supernatural. The only misstep is Clarence’s final decline and death (only a spoiler for the extremely naïve), which is too rushed to be credible. Is There Anybody There? strives to look death in the face, but never at the expense of its brisk rhythm.
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