(On Cable TV, November 2015) Hype is a wonderful, dangerous, terrible thing. It gets people through the door, but it sets up expectations that may not be matched. I started hearing about What We Do in the Shadows when the film made its way through film festivals, picking up good word-of-mouth as a vampire comedy that played with the conventions of the genre. I was over-primed to see it, which may explain that my reaction at the end of the film was definitely more muted than I expected. While I liked the result, I found it far less compelling than I’d hoped for. It’s certainly interesting as a concept: Four vampires living together in Wellington, pooling resources to survive in a world that has changed considerably since they first turned. Add to that the complication of trying to find sustenance in an increasingly watchful society and there are a few good ideas here and there, especially when the characters are meant to reflect various sub-archetypes of the vampire myth. Coming from the New Zealand film industry, What We Do in the Shadows often feels fresh, making choices that an American film wouldn’t have attempted. Writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi certainly know what they’re doing: The film isn’t without its choice moments or quotes (“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves” is terrific) and the humor makes most of its mileage by confronting the sublime nature of vampirism with the ridiculousness of everyday existence. This being said, I’m not a big fan of the found-footage aesthetics (or credibility) of the mockumentary style adopted by the film, and the type of humor favoured by the film often seemed to target a slightly different audience. Never a big fan of improvisation-driven comedies, I found this one to be slacker than I’d liked, with long lulls between laughs that never went beyond chuckles. On the other hand, well, What We Do in the Shadows is something different, and it tackles a geek-favourite subject. That makes it worth a look… and long as your expectations are in check.
(On TV, November 2015) Charm can beat ludicrousness, and so it is that this modern take on The Parent Trap doesn’t suffer too much from its reality-stretching premise thanks to the comic talents of no one else but… Lindsay Lohan in her debut feature film role. Lohan’s fate since then has been the stuff parental nightmares are made of, but in 1998 she is pure teenage bubbly charm as she plays a pair of long-lost twins reunited at a summer camp. The rest of the plot is predictable as the twins conspire to change lives and bring their estranged parents back together, but Lohan is a delight as she goes from British stiff upper-lip to Californian whimsy. Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson are fine as the parents targeted by their daughters, but it’s really Lohan who steals the show here. In her feature film debut, director Nancy Meyer is at ease depicting the same kind of over-privileged characters in wish-fulfillment settings that would characterise her subsequent films. The broad strokes of the plot are familiar (all the way to how a romantic suitor for the father is conveniently and definitively dispatched) but this is a film best served by its execution, small sequences and actors doing their best to be charming. As such, it fulfills its goals and leaves the audience smiling. Don’t ask too many questions about the premise, though, otherwise your brain will melt trying to figure out how to get there. In retrospective, The Parent Trap is now more powerful as a striking beginning for Lohan and, to a lesser extent, Meyer, than a standalone comedy.
(Video on Demand, November 2015) With a few modifications, Southpaw would have made a splendid Rocky II: It begins with a boxer in the prime of his life, winning fights, enjoying his money, loving his wife and doting on his daughter. But it doesn’t take much for all of it to be taken away, and much of the film is spent going through this riches-to-rags story and then looking on as the protagonist digs himself out of the hole he’s fallen into. It’s a relatively familiar story (although the triggering incident twenty minutes in the film will surprise many who haven’t seen the trailer), but it’s generally well-executed enough. What really shines here is Jake Gyllenhall, physically pumped-up and ripped to a degree that may shock fans who aren’t used to seeing him in such peak condition: beyond the physique, he brings his usual intensity to a role far more aggressive than most of his previous performances and the result is often mesmerizing. (Compare him in Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler for an astonishing slice of filmography spanning just three years) Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams don’t exactly stretch themselves in supporting roles, but they each bring what they do best. Curtis “50 Cents” Jackson and Naomi Harris have all-too-brief minor roles, while Oona Laurence is remarkable in a tough child performance. Director Antoine Fuqua thankfully leaves some familiar tics behind in delivering Southpaw (it’s not quite a gratuitously violent nor as obsessed with police elements as many of his previous films, or instance) and he’s able to direct familiar boxing scenes with a good amount of power. It’s not quite a feel-good film (despite the triumphant ending, viewers will have to crawl along a lot of mud alongside its protagonist to get to the good parts) but it’s satisfying enough. Southpaw’s not meant to be subtle, but it lands its punches.