Undead comedy should have died sooner: What We Do in the Shadows

B- Mockumentary

  • Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

This vampire mockumentary from New Zealand feels a bit like an article in The Onion or The Borowitz Report. The headline and the first couple of paragraphs are very funny. But as you go deeper into it, you experience longer waits between laughs.

The basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentary camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in Wellington (they call it a flat, but it looked like a house to me). They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences.

Initially, the movie finds plenty of laughs about the situation. A vampire’s digital alarm clock goes off at 6:00pm. He opens his coffin, and rises out of it like a flat board being tilted up. But as he does it, he smiles into the camera, as if to say “Look what I can do!”

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A modern vampire’s life has other joys…and problems. They wear wild and crazy clothes, some of which they take from their victims. They have human slaves. On the other hand, drinking the blood of a living person can make a real mess. Their arguments can go on for eternity–literally. And eating just one French fry produces the grossest projectile vomiting imaginable.

The vampires’ different personalities clearly produce conflict. Our primary connection to their world, Viago (Taika Waititi), is fussy, tries to be tidy (he asks his mates to please put newspaper on the floor before biting someone), and wants everyone to be comfortable. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the youngest at 183, is a bit of an adolescent rebel. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) has a very dark but sexual personality. 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) looks like Nosferatu. He seldom moves and never speaks.

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But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. To keep things going, the filmmakers bring in some not-particularly interesting conflict. Brand-new vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) thinks his new situation so cool that he has to tell everyone. Obviously, you don’t want your neighbors, or the police, to know that you’re killing people for your own nourishment. (The cops in this film are geniuses at not noticing what’s really going on.) But this begs the question: If they don’t want mortals to know that they’re vampires, why did they agree to make a documentary?

At times the movie can be quite impressive. Even the generally dull second half has a smattering for very funny jokes. And someone really took the time to create the excellent, low-budget special effects, most of which I’m pretty sure were done in the camera.

The film was made by the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, which I’ve heard good things about but have never seen. Shadows is a fun idea for a movie. But after that idea has been played out, the fun comes only occasionally.

At least it’s better than the last vampire comedy I reviewed.

A Wilder Weekend and the PFA

As part of its series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder, the Pacific Film Archive screened three of his films over the weekend. I caught them all.

Ninotchka

I was delighted to discover that this Ernst Lubitsch-directed comedy was part the Wilder series. We should celebrate Wilder the writer as much as Wilder the director. To my mind, the PFA pays far too little attention to screenwriters; I don’t believe they have ever done a series on a particular filmmaker noted primarily for writing scripts.

This was my first big-screen Ninotchka experience. I had seen the movie only once before, by myself, on Turner Classic Movies. This was a big improvement. The Saturday 6:30 screening was well attended, and the audience came ready to laugh. The PFA screened the film on what appeared to be an excellent 35mm print. I say "appeared" because the PFA’s website says it was a DCP. It sure looked like film to me.

Ninotchka had the misfortune of being out of date when it was released. This very funny political and romantic comedy is set mostly in the romanticized, city-of-lights version of Paris–a Paris that could only be created on an MGM sound stage. But by the time the film was released, France was at war with Germany, and there was nothing romantic about Paris. A prologue gets around this problem, assuring us that "This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

Within two years of its release, the Soviet Union–the primary target of the film’s satire–would be our brave ally in the war against Hitler. The star, Greta Garbo, would also be a has-been by then. After Ninotchka, she made only one more movie.

Garbo plays the title character, a loyal Russian and even more loyal Communist, who comes to Paris to supervise three bumbling comrades representing Moscow in a jewelry sale (the jewels were confiscated from aristocrats). But once there, she meets a charming man (Melvyn Douglas). She’s also charmed by the luxuries of capitalism.

This was Garbo’s first comedy (the ads proclaimed "Garbo laughs!"), and she’s wonderful in it. She plays Ninotchka initially as a stereotyped, joyless, humorless ideologue, but she melts into a warm human being. And throughout it all, she displays the comic timing of a vaudeville veteran.

The movie is clearly anti-Communist (my favorite line:  “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) But it also depicts the Russian aristocracy in exile as vain, shallow jerks with serious entitlement issues.

From my TCM viewing, I gave Ninotchka a B. Now I’m promoting that to B+.

Some Like It Hot

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Some Like it Hot, in 35mm, 16mm, broadcast TV, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. The last time I saw it theatrically–before this weekend–was a disappointing screening some years ago at the Cerrito, with a lukewarm audience and a 35mm print was looked like it had lost a fight with the shredder.

But Saturday night at the PFA, Some Like it Hot played as it should. The DCP looked crisp and clear, without sacrificing the film look. And the audience loved it. The laughter was consistent almost throughout.

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I’ve already written a Blu-ray review, so I won’t go into detail about the movie. I will say that it’s quite possibly my favorite non-silent comedy. Using a gangster situation to drive its men-in-drag plot, it mines deep belly laughs from gender roles and expectations. Two starving musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) witness a gangland massacre, then hide out from the mob by dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band. But the band’s lead singer is played by Marilyn Monroe, who tends to bring out their masculinity.

This was a great way to revisit a beloved and funny masterpiece, one that I gladly give an A+.

Btw, here’s an interesting coincidence about the two movies screened Saturday night: They both starred iconic leading ladies: Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. And each one was that star’s penultimate completed film.

The Apartment

I first saw The Apartment on a rented Laserdisc some twenty years ago. I’d seen it several times since, but always at home. Sunday night was my first time seeing it on the big screen.

I wrote about The Apartment extensively in my Blu-ray review, so I’ll summarize quickly: Deftly balancing comedy and dead-serious drama, Wilder examines the way powerful men exploit both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. Fred MacMurray plays the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves.

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Seeing it with an audience is a treat. It doesn’t provide the steady rumble of laughs that Some Like it Hot generates. But the laughs come almost simultaneously with gasps of concern and horror. Wilder makes us laugh at sexism and exploitation, while reminding us that it’s not a laughing matter.

This may be Wilder’s only film with role models. Lemmon’s neighbors, a doctor and his wife, are sensible, kind, loving human beings. (They’re also, interestingly enough, unquestionably Jewish.) Their concern for others is never mocked.

The PFA screened The Apartment off a DCP. It looked fine, but not exceptional.

Bisexual Iranian Immigrant Comedy Not Great–But Appropriate

C Comedy

  • Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan

There’s nothing really wrong with Desiree Akhavan’s autobiographical tale about a twenty-something woman trying to find her place–professionally but mostly romantically and sexually–in Brooklyn. But there’s nothing really right about it, either. The concept is very much like Girls, but the execution lacks the HBO series’ humor and incisive  characterizations.

The lead character, Shirin, is an Iranian immigrant who grew up in America and is culturally far more a New Yorker than a Persian. She’s bisexual–more gay than straight–but she can’t bring herself to come out to her completely secular, obviously liberal parents. Akhavan plays the part herself.

When we first meet Shirin, she’s just lost her job and broken up with her girlfriend. She gets a new job soon enough, although it’s one for which she’s woefully unqualified. She also finds a new girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Actually, I’m not entirely sure that Maxine is the new girlfriend, or the old girlfriend seen in flashback. Most of the movie’s thankfully short runtime is committed to the ways Shirin drives Maxine away. I occasionally suspected that the narrative jumped back and forth in time, but it wasn’t clear.

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Whatever time she’s in, Shirin comes off as a self-centered, alcoholic brat. She complains. She mopes. She doesn’t give anyone a straight answer. She goes to bars, drinks heavily, and sleeps around. Then she blows her top when she catches Maxine kissing a man.

But she’s not quite a complete jerk. There’s a slight sense that her problem is really immaturity; that someday she’ll grow up and become a decent human being. Occasionally, I even found myself rooting for her.

The film’s other characters appear to exist only for Shirin’s benefit; so she can have someone to talk to…or to have sex with. Even Maxine, who initially comes off as an intelligent and principled human being, soon turns into nothing but an object for Shirin’s frustrations.

The marketing material I received touted the film as a realistic, character-driven comedy in the tradition of Annie Hall. I think I chuckled mildly a few times.

Just Appropriate is just okay.

The Interview at the New Parkway (Spoiler: The theater didn’t blow up)

I haven’t written anything yet about The Interview and its assorted release problems. Why should I? Everyone else has already written about it. Besides, I was on vacation.

Now I’m back. Sunday night, my wife and I saw Kim Jong Un’s least favorite movie at the New Parkway. Perhaps it was a case of lowered expectations, but I enjoyed the movie–for the most part.

Of course I didn’t go because I thought it was the best film currently in theaters. I went to support free speech and free cinema. I went because if someone tries to stop a film from running in theaters, there’s a moral obligation to support that movie.

Because of the threats, The Interview became one of the rare big Hollywood features to open simultaneously in theaters and on pay-per-view streaming. This day-and-date release, as it’s called, just may be the future of the movie business, but for the present is only common with low-budget or foreign films not likely to make much money in the US. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Magnolia released Pioneer day-and-date. Since it’s subtitled, contains no superheroes, and–at least in my opinion–is a mediocre picture, its commercial prospects weren’t promising.

But we chose to spend the extra money to see The Interview theatrically. After all, the hackers didn’t threaten to blow up homes where the movie was showing. Besides, comedies are always better with the crowd.

I’ve been to the New Parkway several times, but this was my first experience in Theater 1. The layout was very different from Theater 2, which I described in 2013. It’s smaller, and the room doesn’t dwarf the screen. Instead of living room furniture, it has tables and chairs, and feels like a coffeehouse.

And what about The Interview?

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It starts out hilariously, as James Franco’s brainless, party animal of a TV host interviews Eminem. This is the last person you want as your partner on a CIA mission to assassinate North Korea’s dictator. The unfortunate man who has him as a partner is his far more intelligent producer, played by Seth Rogen (who also co-directed). Despite the wonderful setup, and a number of great bits along the way (Randall Park plays the evil Kim wonderfully as another party animal), the movie sags. In the last act, it becomes an action film, with great splashes of blood, multiple severed fingers, and good guy bullets proving far more fatal than bad guy bullets. It still manages some good jokes along with the way, but they’re overshadowed by the mayhem. I would have preferred a clever ending to the big action extravaganza we get.

I give it a B.

Oh, and by the way, despite the previous threats, no one bombed the theater.

Harold and Maude–Still funny and inspiring after all these years

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans were embracing non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably.

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I revisited the movie Friday night on Blu-ray. I can’t say I love it as much as I used to, but it’s still touching and very funny. And its message is still a good one. But the ending bothers me considerably now much closer to Maude’s age than Harold’s. I give it an A-.

I first saw Harold and Maude a year or so after its original release, and fell in love with it immediately. I saw it countless times in revival movie theaters over the next decade. In the last 30 years, I’ve seen it only twice. The first time was on Laserdisc in 1996 or ’97, when I showed it to my son–who was really not ready for it. The second time was last Friday night.

As the story begins, Harold (Bud Cort) lives in a huge mansion with his very proper and aristocratic mother (a very funny Vivian Pickles). He appears to be about 20, with no responsibilities; he doesn’t work or go to school. But he has hobbies. He drives a hearse. He attends funerals. And he tortures his mother by staging fake suicides. Many of the movie’s biggest laughs come from Pickle’s mildly annoyed reactions to his ghastly fake deaths; she’s clearly used to them.

Then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), another fan of funerals. She’s almost 80. She loves life–her own and others. While Harold is quiet and introverted, she’s loud and open to anything. She talks about her past political activism. She jokes, flirts, dabbles in the arts, and steals cars so that people won’t get too attached to material objects.

And of course she’s exactly what Harold needs. She opens him up and allows him to see that there is more to life than death. Within the space of a few days, they become close friends, then lovers.

The story could easily become sappy, but writer Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby avoid the trap with broad and effective humor. Harold’s shrink, priest, and war-monger uncle are almost as funny as his mother (the priest has a short but pricelessly hilarious monolog near the end). Two encounters with a frustrated cop bring additional laughs. And a running gag where Harold continually sabotages his mother’s attempts at finding him a bride are priceless.

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Even watching it alone–not the best way to see any comedy–I was laughing out loud much of the time.

But there are dark sides to the story, and not just in the funeral and suicide gags. Maude lets on briefly that her life has included some serious suffering. And one shot, so short you might miss it, tells you just how horrible her past had been.

Ashby handles the sexual part of their relationship carefully. There’s only one chaste kiss. The only time you see them in bed, they’re on opposite sides and not touching. The film is rated PG.

I can’t discuss Harold and Maude without mentioning the songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. At his artistic height, he was a brilliant singer and songwriter (if a bit didactic), and his songs fit this film perfectly, both musically and thematically. It seems impossible that the man who wrote "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" would become a fundamentalist who would embrace the call to murder a novelist. But we have to face the fact that it happened.

Now I would like to discuss the ending. So if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want your first screening spoiled, you should stop reading this now.

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Okay. Is everyone here ready to read about the ending?

Maude commits suicide on her 80th birthday, just before Harold was to propose. It’s not entirely a surprise. Some casual comments she makes beforehand suggest her plan. "I’ll be eighty next week. A good time to move on, don’t you think?"

Now, if she was decrepit, miserable, and facing a horrible and fatal illness, I could understand her action. But she’s a very young 80, living life to the fullest. She’s just acquired a lover a quarter of her age. She has a lot to live for.

The filmmakers could have found a better ending. She might have rejected Harold’s marriage proposal, and sent him on his way, explaining that she doesn’t want to be tied down. She could be facing a horrible and fatal illness, and wanted to go before the symptoms took over her life.

Either of those could still have motivated Harold to do what he does in the movie’s wonderful last few seconds, when he drives his car over a cliff, then walks away strumming a banjo.

James Garner and Some Forgotten Western Laughs

James Garner’s recent death left me thinking about some of my favorite films starring the low-key star. And one title, rarely mentioned today, leaped up immediately: Support Your Local Sheriff.

That title pretty much guarantees that the movie would be forgotten. A topical joke in 1969 (a popular conservative bumper sticker of the day read "Support your local police"), it just seems weird to people too young to remember the reference. The title has aged; the movie has not–or at least not as much.

Although marred with some serious flaws (more about them below), this western parody makes good use of Garner’s talent and star appeal. As the fastest draw, the most accurate sharpshooter, and the smartest man in the unnamed territory, Garner gets to play his laid-back, unflappable persona at its calmest, all the while showing off a sense of comic timing that seems almost unfair in such a handsome leading man.

Most comic protagonists start out utterly inept–the worst possible person for the job (consider The Big Lebowski and anything starring Bob Hope). But Garner here plays the opposite. He’s always a step ahead of everyone, and never seems truly worried. While remaining calm and polite, he keeps a blood-thirsty murderer (Bruce Dern) in a not-quite-finished jail with big open spaces where there should be iron bars. (It helps that this particular killer has the brains of a drugged sparrow.)

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Comic westerns have been a movie mainstay for about a century. Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope, Don Knots, and Jackie Chan all made them. When the Marx Brothers made theirs, they stole the title from Buster Keaton’s entry in the form and the plot of Laurel and Hardy’s. But if there’s a comic western that understands the western genre as well as Support Your Local Sheriff, I haven’t seen it. The plot comes from Rio Bravo, with a little bit of High Noon thrown in.

Garner did a number of westerns, and the cast is peppered with veterans from the glory days of the genre. Walter Brennan (Red River, Rio Bravo) does a comic variation of his vicious patriarch from My Darling Clementine. Henry Morgan (High Noon, How the West was Won) shows off the low-key timing he would soon bring to the sitcom MASH, and has some wonderful comic dialog with Garner. Dern (Hang ‘Em High, Will Penny) does wonders as a fool who thinks he’s a tough guy. But it’s Jack Elam (The Comancheros, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), who steals the picture as Garner’s somewhat reluctant, wild-eyed sidekick. Director Burt Kennedy and writer/producer William Bowers were also western veterans.

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Overall, Support Your Local Sheriff provides a healthy collection of big laughs, with a real understanding and love of the genre it’s lampooning. But as I said before, It’s far from perfect.

Consider Jeff Alexander’s horrendous score, which has the horrible habit of telling you when you should laugh. Alexander provides a few good musical moments–especially in a sequence when hired killers come to town. But for the most part, the music just annoys the audience, and hurts more gags than it helps.

Other flaws include a clumsily-written romantic subplot (Joan Hackett plays the spirited ingénue), a slow first act, and a prospecting sequence that offers nothing and changes Garner’s character for some cheap laughs.

And the climax disappoints. It has its funny moments–some very funny moments–but there should have been more. After watching Garner outsmart everyone for over an hour, we have every right to expect a brilliant for the finale. Screenwriter Bowers failed to come up with one.

I can’t honestly call Support Your Local Sheriff a comic masterpiece. But if you really love westerns, this is a comedy worth catching. And a celebration of Garner’s comic strength.

Rediscovering The Big Lebowski

I saw The Big Lebowski at the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night–my first time seeing the cult favorite with an audience. Now I get it. I may be the last person to realize this, but on the big screen, with a room full of people, Lebowski is an exceptional comedy. The laughs are nearly constant.

And yet there’s more to it than laughs. The characters, although broadly drawn and larger-than-life, have a ring of truth to them. And the plot is as complex as a Raymond Chandler novel.

In fact, the story feels very much like something from Raymond Chandler, except that the protagonist is no Philip Marlowe. He’s a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned slacker and competitive bowler who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). In other words, he’s the least competent person you could possibly imagine to be placed in the middle of a Raymond Chandler story.

A bit of personal history:

Lukewarm reviews kept me from seeing The Big Lebowski when it was released in 1998–despite my already being a Coen brothers fan. But I rented it soon after it came out on DVD, and watched it when my then-teenaged son. (My son was also with me Wednesday night at the PFA; this time with his wife.)

Soon after I started this blog, I started recommending The Big Lebowski
when it played in local theaters. It wasn’t long before I realized that it played more one-night stands than any other movie. This perplexed me. I remembered it as a pleasant comedy but not a great one. When I started the letter grades, I gave it a B.

But it kept turning up. People obviously loved it. I even made jokes about it in my weekly newsletter, calling one Lebowski of Arabia and another A Lebowski-Free Week. Slowly, I began to suspect that I needed to see it again, and this time in a theater.

On Wednesday night, I finally did it.

As usual, Steve Seid introduced the movie, which the PFA was screening as part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010. This is the last of three American comedy series that the Archive has been running since the beginning of the year.

To help program this final series, the PFA "worked in cahoots with the East Bay Express," with readers recommending films. Seid called Lebowski part of a "great bowling trilogy" that also included King Pin and Spare Me, which is "about a kind of outlaw bowler who gets kicked out of the league because he has anger issues," and was advertised with the tag line "When you hear thunder, God is bowling."

Seid also brought out his father’s bowling ball. His father bowled until he was in his 90s.

The Big Lebowski is more than a bowling movie, and more than a Raymond Chandler story with a comically inept protagonist. There’s a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen to it–as if you could throw yourself out to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.

Consider Sam Elliott’s prairie philosopher narration, which sort of sets the scene but is stylistically at odds with everything else in the picture. Or John Turturro’s utterly bizarre turn as a bejeweled bowler named Jesus. Or the dancing dream sequence that looks like something out of Busby Berkeley, only weirder.

Amongst a great supporting cast that includes Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman at his funniest, John Goodman stands out as the Dude’s friend Walter–a Vietnam vet with a very bad case of PTSD. This is a guy who pulls a gun to settle an argument over bowling scores. On one level, Walter is the sort of dependable friend who will always have your back. On the other, he’s crazy, dangerous, and doesn’t think things through. The Dude gets into a lot of trouble because of Walter’s shenanigans.

The Big Lebowski is a blissfully vulgar movie. It just may have more f-words than any other picture shot. And it uses the word, and its constant repetitions, effectively to get laughs. The Coen brothers understand just how funny a word it is.

The PFA screened The Big Lebowski off of a DCP. As a rule, this doesn’t bother me; I like digital projection. But not this time. Universal’s transfer was over-processed. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. I suspect this was an early transfer, done before people realized that a film projected digitally should still look like a film, and not like CGI. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen a 35mm print.

But I suppose I have to accept the bad with the good. After all, "the Dude abides."

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