02/11/15 9:00am
02/11/2015 9:00 AM |
photo courtesy of Unison Films

What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
Opens February 13 at the Landmark Sunshine

It was already a well-worn literary technique when Bram Stoker used it, presenting Dracula partly as a sheaf of firsthand accounts about a toothy phenomenon stalking Europe, and you might consider the vérité-style new film by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement to be only the latest attempt at true fiction. Tweaking a number of pretenses at realism, recent and not so recent, What We Do in the Shadows is a note-perfect comedy generally in the tag-along, self-absorbed style of a housemate reality show. But starting with that title—with its breathless implication of an investigative scoop—it’s also a parodic look at the absurdity of vampires in a contemporary age, which somehow mixes both lazy flatmates and terrified familiars (i.e., bound servants).

Framed as a product of the New Zealand Documentary Board—cameramen were granted immunity from being, well, eaten—our glimpse at how the undead half lives begins with cuddly, fussy, fuzzily German-accented Viago (Waititi). He takes us on his chipper morning rounds, waking up the others and chattering away in voiceover with the blithely mundane manner of hundreds of (living) TV-doc participants before him: “I just really like having a good time with my friends.” Like grumpy old cats, they squabble but stick together, and span an inhuman stretch of history in their eternal life: Vladislav (Clement) from the Middle Ages, Viago himself a dandy from the 18th century, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and finally Ben Fransham’s Petyr—the name, spoken, could belong to a software technician—who’s a hilariously preverbal example of the Noseferatu model, still in a stone crypt.

Viago et al. are, crucially, not even remotely bitter about how far their existence is from Translyvanian castles and villagers held in terrified thrall (they’re almost a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for the chill gentrification of Wellington, NZ). Broad-shouldered and imperiously mustachioed, Clement brings the goofy stature of characters from Flight of the Conchords; Brugh’s Deacon, obtuse about his familiar’s impatience about earning immortality for doing his shit work, adds an element of prickly unpredictability (though all are prone to hissing hover fights). And in fact, improvisation games are a key touchstone for the imaginative elaborations on vampirical daily life here—the sort of point-of-view exercises in which someone is told to offer a first-person account from an imagined, blinkered perspective.

Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is one more vampire that joins the group and threatens their secrecy by reckless boasts during the long nights out—clubgoing being a key social and nourishing activity. And one other name does in fact belong to a software technician: the hilariously ordinary Stu (Stuart Rutherford), a nervous human bystander who’s along for the ride and helps out with new technology. Clement and Waititi—who honed the film over several years, long after its supposed expiry date with the Twilight all-or-nothing-adolescent-angst empire—succeed through sharp, sometimes off-kilter one-liners rather than the supposedly squirm-inducing pauses of The Office or the broad-as-a-barn target practice of Christopher Guest. And I haven’t even mentioned the werewolves…

02/11/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Directed by Spike Lee
Opens February 13

Self-reflexivity pervades Spike Lee’s remake of Ganja & Hess, including references to the dance opening of Do the Right Thing, a love of the Knicks, and the director’s 40 Acres and a Mule production company. This levity alters Bill Gunn’s poetic, somber original, and it gives Lee’s latest a youthful humor that’s been missing from his work for the last decade. Even after anthropologist Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) is turned into a vampiric addict by a cursed, ancient knife, he initially gets most of his daily drama from his white liberal peers, who pepper him with oblivious microaggressions and tokenism and even demand that he add vodka and lemon to this new, red organic drink of his.

Lee’s film largely follows its predecessor in plot, letting Hess grapple with his new nature before introducing the mysterious, erotic Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) into the mix to complicate the blood play. But it diverges mostly sharply in how the director’s aesthetic preoccupations are prioritized. Gunn’s hallucinogenic work used collages of synchronous and contrapuntal imagery to suggest a fractured, unreconciled set of indigenous, forced, and willfully assimilated histories that make up African-American identity. But Lee works in concrete and even flourishes like a double-dolly of Hess floating toward repentance are rooted in crisp shots uncluttered by too much detail. One shot, of Hess slumped in a clinic waiting room corner, the camera placed so high his head barely sits within an angled frame, even recalls the modern master of expressionistic realism, Pedro Costa.

Lee’s more literal approach occasionally grinds the film to a halt, especially in the heightened bourgeois ennui of the second half. Nonetheless, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus recalls the self-financed comeback work of Francis Ford Coppola, in which a drastically reduced budget paradoxically frees its maker to indulge his wildest whims. This can be seen in the numerous small flashes of idiosyncratic visual stamps throughout, as well as in larger narrative transitions like the film’s most revitalizing moment, a lengthy detour at a church service entirely given over to an ecstatic performance by a youth band who appear to be preaching the Gospel According to Michael Jackson.

02/04/15 2:16pm
02/04/2015 2:16 PM |


Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Directed by John Patrick Shanley

Before Shanley was the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Doubt (but after he was the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck), he wrote and helmed this big-budget comic-fairy-tale curiosity, whose narrative plays out like Woody Allen’s filmmaking evolution in reverse: it starts as smart, existential black comedy and ends in broad, zany caricature. Seemingly so insecure directing the Doubt movie 18 years later, with its attention-seeking camera angles and soaring musical cues, Shanley here is a confident cinematic master; it’s an Allenish film not just in tone but also in its sophisticated, superwidescreen cinematography (by Stephen Goldblatt), as terrible a victim of pan-and-scan as Manhattan. The excellent cast features not just Tom Hanks at his youthful best and classic character actors in bit parts (Dan Hedaya!) but also Meg Ryan, in three roles in three hair colors in three acts as three love interests. Her versatility will impress even a jaded New York cinephile who long ago wrote her off as romcom bullshit. Henry Stewart (Feb 4, 8pm, at IFC Center’s “Celluloid Dreams,” with Shanley in person)