Uncharted Cinema #4: What We Do in the Shadows

wwditsTaika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, New Zealand, 2014, 86 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I had wanted to see this but missed it. I’m glad I get the opportunity now. I expect it to be light, funny and clever. I don’t know what else to expect besides an amusing but forgettable time.

After: What we Do in the Shadows is the latest comedic take on the vampire genre. This one is played as a mockumentary following a quartet of vampires living together in a flat in New Zealand.

A lot of the humor comes from the the different spins the filmmakers put on the typical problems that all mortal roommates have. Those problems are compounded by the fact that the roommates are all from very different eras, and have very different needs.

The main subject of the documentary is Viago (writer/director Taika Waititi), a british dandy from the 1800’s. Jermaine Clement (the other writer/director) plays Vladislav, a sort of Vlad the impaler dark-ages type vampire. Jonny Brugh is Deacon, the young brash vampire from the turn of the century, and Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the old nosfertu who lives in the basement and has been around for thousands of years.

We are introduced to their day to day and a bit of the modern vampire culture that the movie creates. It’s funny, and clever, and there are some great sequences. Eventually, things take a turn when a new vampire, and his mortal friend, are introduced into the mix.

The whole thing satirizes the points of the modern vampire trend pretty well, but you could argue that there isn’t enough meat here to warrant a feature. That being said, everyone was game to make it work. The production values are really good, and the filmmakers wringed every drop of comedy out of the simple premise that they possible could. The result is smart, amusing and definitely fun.

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Uncharted Cinema #3: The Great Magician

greatmagicianTung-Shing Yee, Hong Kong, 2011, 128 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I picture this one being very similar to the Detective Dee films. A CGI martial arts mystery/action/drama. I’m not a huge fan of those films. they have too much CGI, claustrophobic cinematography, and messy scripts. Maybe this one will be better!

After: Well, it turns out The Great Magician is very similar to the Detective Dee series. If you liked those, you would like this. And the inverse, in my case, is also true. I found it strange how similar they were because, as far as I could tell, the films don’t share any creative talent. Maybe movies like this are just the style of popular cinema produced in the Hollywood of China and Hong Kong? (Often referred to as Chinawood. No, I’m not making this stuff up, folks!)

Whatever the case, one must, as always, attempt to judge a film on its own merits before comparing it to others. This one is about a time in China when the country is on the brink of change. Warlords hold power, a people’s revolution has just been squashed, and foreign powers are vying for a foothold into the nation.

At the center of all this stands Bully Lei (Ching Wan Lau), one of the Warlords central to the conflict. But he is more concerned with gaining the love of Yin (Xun Zhou), who he wants to make his seventh wife. The first six of whom add some comic relief to the film.

Coming into the picture late is the titular magician, Chang Hsien (Tony Leung). His skill and renown in magic are unparalleled, but what is his true motivation? We soon come to realize that he is the ex-fiance of Yin, as well a student of the revolution who wants to use his magic skills to kidnap Bully Lei. The tension between Bully, Chang, and Yin is what drives the film.

Unfortunately, there is so much more going on than just that, and the film drowns in sub-plots and extraneous dialog. The craft of the film making isn’t enough to save it. There is far too much CGI, both in the magic, the martial arts, and the period sets and action sequences. The cinematography is odd and muddy. It felt almost like I was watching a video game be played instead of watching a film.

The acting all around is fine, as well as some of the old-fashioned slapstick comedy. If the film concentrated more on the parts that worked, instead of putting in everything but the kitchen sink, then it would have been much better. As it is now, the film is a dreary mess with some fun things trying to peak through. Unfortunately, they were snuffed out before I had a chance to enjoy them.

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Uncharted Cinema #2: The Closet

Le_PlacardFrancis Veber, France, 2001, 84 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I haven’t heard of this one! A french comedy staring Gérard Depardieu? You can’t go wrong with that. And the plot sounds like fun. Also, with a film this short it should move quickly.

After: A boring and bland every-man accountant, played well by Daniel Auteuil, loses his job in a big firm. The reason? Well, he’s just so unremarkable and they need to let go of someone so he is chosen.

After some fortuitous circumstances involving his neighbor (played well by Michel Aumont) he decides to get his job back by pretending to be gay. You see, the number one product in the company is condoms. And they don’t want to be known as a company that fired their only openly gay employee.

So they rehire him. He attempts to act as normal as possible and let his coworkers believe what they believe. It’s funny how their opinions of him change, even though he doesn’t act any differently.

Complicating matters is the extremely homophobic fellow employee played by Gérard Depardieu. He had it out for Auteuil since before he was fired, and now he has to play nice and tow the company line.

The film has some funny moments as things get more and more complicated for our hero after he “comes out”. Depardieu is especially funny. But I’m not sure if this film is progressive or offensive. It depends what the climate around homosexuality was like in France in 2001. It feels very dated now.

Whatever your views on the subject, the film is amusing but never really goes anywhere. No one learns or grows, and the film inexplicably ends without wrapping anything up. It’s very jarring and left me a bit cold.

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Uncharted Cinema #1: Bunny Lake is Missing

bunnylakeOtto Preminger, USA, 107 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I have always believed this to be a remake of The Lady Vanishes. I’m a fan of Otto Preminger’s Laura, so I’m expecting this to be a solid classic mystery.

After: This definitely is a solid, classic mystery, but so much more as well. Carol Lynley plays a mother, Ann Lake, newly arrived in England with her five year old daughter Bunny. She drops Bunny off for her first day of school before leaving in a rush to deal with the movers and other errands.

When she gets back to the school to pick up Bunny, the child is not there. Not only that, but no one at the school has seen her. And, actually, the audience hasn’t seen her either. And that’s the central conceit of the film. What is going on? Did the girl run away? Was she kidnapped? Did she actually exist at all?

Complicating matters is the fact that Ann is a single mother and can’t seem to produce any proof that Bunny exists. Her surprisingly attentive brother (Keir Dullea), who they just moved in with, doesn’t help either. It’s a setup that has been used before, but this version of the story is one of the best.

What I liked most was that the script was filled with great characters. Lawrence Olivier is great as the police chief overseeing the investigation into the missing girl. Even the smaller roles were written and acted with care and detail. They weren’t your boiler plate bit parts.

The owner of the school is a kindly old woman who listens to audio recordings of children describing their nightmares. The doll hospital is run by an old man who can barely walk but loves his patients like they are real people. The landlord is played with vim and vigor by Noel Coward, and is pompous, eccentric, and a little bit creepy.

They are all memorable roles that make up the pieces of a memorable story. At some point you realize what actual is going on, and the suspenseful final act kicks in. It delivers some real tension, true scares, and some very good camera work.

This film doesn’t age at all and has a lot going for it. Preminger is certainly no slouch behind the camera. The movie feels fresh and original and was a great way to start out this Uncharted Cinema project.

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My Favorite Films of 2015

It’s that time for me once again to vomit forth my Favorites Films of the Year. This is my opinion, but I think all of the below films are worth your time. Oh, there are others for sure, but the tradition of a top 10 prevents me from including them. Tough choices had to be made but I went with my gut.

Don’t put too much importance on the order. I agonized way too long about ranks and then gave up when I realized it doesn’t matter. Next year I might take a stand against ranked lists but not this time. I’ll be posting my top 10 reasons why I would do that soon. In the meantime, check out these films:

10) Crimson PeakGuillermo Del Toro, USA, 119 min.crimson-peak

Old school big gothic drama. Del Toro’s talents work very well for a genre like this and it shows.

9) Hateful Eight - Quentin Tarantino, USA, 167 min.hatefuleight

This film flummoxed me. I went to see the 70mm Roadshow, which was a huge epic ceremonial event with a program, overture, intermission, etc. But the film is such a simple chamber piece story that it felt out of place. The 70mm experience was great, and the dialog, characters and scenes are Tarantino at his best. But those two didn’t match and it threw me off.

It sounds like I was disappointed. Hardly. Taking a step back this film is a rollicking and unpredictably good time. Lots of cool dialog. Lots of blood. And lots and lots of great acting from all involved.

8) Wild Tales - Damián Szifrón, Argentina, 122 min.wildtales

This collection of short stories is wonderfully bold and cinematic. And because it was made by one director, the style and theme remain consistent throughout.

7) Room - Lenny Abrahamson, USA, 118 min.room

The first half of this film is surprisingly emotional. And the second half is surprisingly tense. Those aren’t meant to be back-handed compliments. Just observations on how good the film actually is. Brie Larson is great in a very complicated role, but the real surprise is Jacob Tremblay as her son. Their relationship to each other and to those around them is very complex but they manage to bring the film down to earth by grounding it in real emotions. It was quite affecting.

6) Spotlight - Tom McCarthy, USA, 128 min.spotlight

This film is a procedural. And a good procedural needs to have a sense of urgency, a sense of discovery, a script that makes the mundanity of research seem exciting, and a goal that you care about. This film has all of those things, plus a very heartbreaking story, and a cast that invests in the material. It’s just a solid film that pretty much everything right.

5) Sicario - Denis Villeneuve, USA, 121 min.sicario

One of the most intense films I’ve seen in a long time. The world this film portrays is brutal, sinister, untrustworthy and uncompromisingly bleak. Emily Blunt is amazingly understated in this as the FBI agent who joins an anti-drug task force. It becomes clear quickly that not all as it seems. What’s great about the whole thing is that the story isn’t really about her. She is a vehicle for the audience to see the real story. A confused, scared but resilient vehicle that doesn’t know nearly as much as she needs to. Villeneuve continues to surprise and impress.

 4) It Follows - David Robert Mitchell, USA, 100 min.

ItFollows

What a great concept for a horror film! But even better than the concept is Mitchell’s unique direction. Very understated. Very confident and not in-your-face. He doesn’t spell thing out or throw things in your face. He just lets you see it slowly happen. And that’s a great style for this story. Not only that, but it contains some of the most terrifying and disturbing scenes in any movie in a long time. And the score! A vintage Carpenter-esque score is just the icing on the cake.

3) Kingsman: The Secret Service - Matthew Vaughn, USA, 129 min.kingsman

Matthew Vaughn continues to show everyone that he understands movies. He understands their history, their impact, and more importantly: what makes them great. He pushes all the right buttons in the audience, but in a way that you want them to be pushed. This making-of-a-secret-agent tale is an almost perfect crowd-pleasing action/comedy/drama. It knows its tropes so well that it uses them to coax the audience in and then twists them in surprising and fun ways.

2) The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos, USA, 118 min.TheLobster

Lanthimos’s follow up to Dogtooth is filled with the same distorted reality and deadpan humor. This time the story is about a world where everyone has to be part of a couple. If they aren’t in a couple, they are given time at a resort to find their mate. If they don’t, they are turned into an animal. Why? Well, that’s not the point. What is the point is the commentary on love and relationships, and telling a bizarre and entertaining story in the process. I laughed a lot, gazed in amazement even more, and thought about that ending for long after I’ve seen it.

1) Anomalisa - Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, USA, 90 min.
anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman has an amazing mind. He manages to be surreal, bizarre, and entertaining, all while examining real human emotions in unique ways. This is his latest fully stop-motion masterpiece. I don’t want to give away the plot, which is very simple, because as it unfolds you begin to appreciate how profound the ideas are. It’s very sad, complicated, and true. And it speaks volumes about relationships, love and loss. Experience it yourself, but be warned, you might not like what you learn about yourself.

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