A predictable 'I Origins,' and a look back at the greatest movie of all time

Nothing kills a movie that’s coveted a slow, methodical buildup more than a heavy dose of convenient plotting and characters that over-explain the film’s central idea.

Thanks very much, Michael Pitt, but I already knew that your new sci-fi inflected drama “I Origins” was about the eternal science vs. spirituality debate, I didn’t need your character to spell it out for the third and fourth time.

It’s a shame, because writer/director Mike Cahill’s last movie, “Another Earth,” explored emotional devastation as a way into an interesting sci-fi concept. This time out, he’s using the same formula to lesser effect.

Pitt plays Ian, a cocky young scientist who says up front that he’s looking to debunk the idea of intelligent design by looking for patterns in the human eye, so you know right away that he’ll be in for some kind of surprise. His new lab assistant Karen (Britt Marling) is obviously smart and driven, so you know there will be a discovery soon.


While you wait for the inevitable plot to kick in, Cahill spends a lot of time on the relationship between Pitt and a beautiful model named Sofi played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. Although this part of the plot has its fare share of conveniences, it’s almost forgivable because Sofi seems to exist on another plane entirely, so if there’s some sort of mystical force at work in the world, Sofi is tuned into it.

Ian and Sofi look cute together, and spend a lot of time in bed, but as the initial power of their unique meet-cute (which involves one of them wearing a mask and some spontaneous bathroom sex) wears off, many of their conversations are maddeningly trite. The actors hold it together, though, and make some of the dialogue easier to overlook.

When “I Origins” shifts away from their relationship, the movie really starts to feel forced. You can feel Cahill’s hand leading you down the path toward another “discovery,” and you can only hope the end will justify the means. Put simply, it doesn’t. A third-act quest to India is full of eye-rolling moments, and the situation itself brings up all kinds of other socio-economic issues the film isn’t equipped to handle.

“I Origins,” at Liberty Hall now, is a miss, but Cahill shows an innate ability to create an air of mystery and coach naturalistic performances out of his actors. If he can get out of the way of his own story, his next film could be revelatory.

This is 30 Years of Spinal Tap

On Monday, Liberty Hall will turn the amps up to 11 for a 30th anniversary screening of the greatest movie ever made.

You read that right, Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” about a fictitious British heavy metal band in decline, is the greatest film of all time.

It wasn’t necessarily the first mockumentary (some consider that to be Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”) and isn’t even the first rock mockumentary (that distinction goes to Eric Idle’s “The Rutles — All You Need is Cash”), but it perfected the form and its influence is felt today.

"This is Spinal Tap"

"This is Spinal Tap" by Eric Melin

Before I tell you this story, let me just preface it: I was young and impressionable and mockumentaries weren’t the staple of filmed entertainment that they are today. They were virtually nonexistent.

When I was a kid, I rented “This is Spinal Tap” on VHS. I was just starting to learn about the history of metal bands and was wearing out every Def Leppard, Scorpions and Judas Priest cassette I could get my hands on.

I had heard about Spinal Tap from Circus magazine — whether it was an add for the soundtrack or a straight-faced interview with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer in character as members of the band, I can’t remember — and it seemed like they had a deep, rich history.

As “This is Spinal Tap” parodied mop-headed early-'60s pop (“Gimme Some Money”) and late-'60s flower power rock (“Listen to the Flower People”), I was enthralled. Spinal Tap has really grown as a band over the decades, I thought.

As they toured America in support of their “black” album “Smell the Glove,” it was fascinating to see how the music industry worked, from a you-are-there perspective. I hated laughing at them when they got lost underneath the stage in Cleveland, or when a 3-foot-high Stonehenge stage prop was lowered from the ceiling onstage, because I felt bad for them. They may have lost some brain cells along their two-decade career, but these are likeable blokes — and these tunes aren’t bad either!

After the credits rolled on the documentary that I was sure to watch over and over again, a blue screen came up with some bright onscreen text for people like me who hadn’t figured it out yet:

“The band Spinal Tap is fictional. And there’s no Easter Bunny, either!”

Whaaa? I immediately raced to the VCR and hit rewind. Sure enough, this band I had just fallen in love wasn't real. They were actors. They wrote and performed these songs themselves. Never mind that I had already sat through an end-credit sequence that explained all that! I was watching the outtakes rather than reading the actor’s names, otherwise I might have recognized David Letterman bandleader Paul Schaffer as the local radio PR guy. It's a testament to how real the film feels that I didn't.

Not only was “This is Spinal Tap” ahead of its time, but it is full of truth. Having played in bands pretty much all my life since my teenage years, I can tell you that Spinal Tap moments happen all the time, especially when you’re on tour.

I’ve been lost underneath the stage before. I’ve seen lots of stage mishaps like the ones in the film. The three main personalities in the band are picture-perfect send-ups of real-life band dudes, and I can safely say that there are plenty of rock-star types way more self-centered and delusional than the ones in Spinal Tap.


In addition to being riotously funny and oh-so-clever, “This is Spinal Tap” is rooted in real emotion. The lifelong friendship of lead singer David St. Hubbins (McKean) and lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest) is truly tested. The movie takes a melancholy turn. The attention to detail in these situations is matched by the amount of care that went into hitting all the character beats, not to mention the improvisational genius of the supporting cast.

In terms of innovation, influence, and eminent re-watchability, “This is Spinal Tap” measures up with the best. Is it the “Citizen Kane” of mockumentaries? No doubt. But it’s more than that.

Thirty years on, it’s easier now to call it a post-modern classic in every sense of the word — and with that perspective, I’m hereby proclaiming “This is Spinal Tap” the greatest movie of all time.


Chris Johnson 8 years, 7 months ago

There's something else that makes This is Spinal Tap so great - the soundtrack. If you like the movie, you have to get the soundtrack. The lyrics are insanely funny and the music is spot-on. It's really good music. You'd never know it's parody until you actually pay attention to the lyrics. I still listen to the soundtrack all the time.
If you are a fan of the folk era preceding the time portrayed in This is Spinal Tap, then you have to at least listen to the soundtrack for A Mighty Wind. The movie itself isn't quite up to par with This is Spinal Tap, but it's still pretty good. The music and lyrics, though, are also spot-on and great fun to listen to.

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