(On TV, February 2019) I’m certainly not the only (North-) American cinephile for whom writer/director Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows was a revelation, and who started looking for his earlier work. While I’m still looking for Boy, I was lucky enough to catch Waititi’s first feature-length film Eagle vs. Shark on TV. The good news is that despite its low budget and limited production means, Eagle vs. Shark manages to be a striking, film-literate take on romantic comedy tropes. There’s quite a bit of kinship between this film and Waititi’s own later Hunt for the Wilderpeople in that it defies expectations, plays with the medium and features strong character work in an atmosphere that’s not afraid to reach for absurdity at times. Eagle vs. Shark may take place in small-town New Zealand, but it’s exceptionally accessible to international audiences. Well, if they can stand it, because the not-so-good news is that cringing and proxy humiliation are the film’s favourite emotions as it goes out of its way to make viewers feel embarrassed for its lead characters. The closest analogue I can find is Napoleon Dynamite, and that’s not necessarily a recommendation. The male lead is screwed up, the female lead is screwed up (albeit not as unpleasantly so), the lead’s entire family is spectacularly screwed-up and this is a film all about them. There’s no way out until the end. Waititi cameos as the film’s lone admirable character—and he’s long dead in the narrative. Jemaine Clement is a comic treasure (his voice alone is worth preserving for future generations), but he seemingly delights in making his character as unpleasant as humanly possible. There are clear limits to how a non-stop cringe fest can be enjoyable, especially when the audience spends most of the film screaming at the heroine to GET OUT OF THERE and forget about the protagonist. That’s not exactly the best set of ingredients for a heartwarming comedy (indeed, by the final reconciliation we’re not left entirely happy), so consider yourself fairly warned about the film’s effectiveness if that’s not your cup of tea. Still, I’m rather glad that I caught Eagle vs. Shark even if I have no intention of seeing it again. I think that Waititi is undeniably brilliant, and having a look at this early effort was worth the trouble … and the second-hand embarrassment.
(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, October 2013) My memories of the original French film Le Diner de Cons being positive but distant, I found this Americanized remake to be duller but still relatively amusing. Sure, its lead character isn’t as morally corrupt as in the original, but let’s face it: American audiences would much rather see a good-guy protagonist unencumbered with moral complications than struggle with nuance in a comedy aimed at the broadest possible public. The basic plot remains the same as in the original, as high-society types meet regularly to showcase their “idiots” and one said idiot has devastating repercussions on the protagonist’s life. Beyond that, the details vary quite a bit. Veteran filmmaker Jay Roach’s direction is professionally unobtrusive, his camera leaving all the fun to the actors where it belongs. As such, Dinner for Schmucks isn’t too bad, even if much of the film’s strengths come in meeting a variety of absurdly off-beat secondary characters. Paul Rudd is his usual everyman straight-guy, while Steve Carrell gets to play sweetly dumb. Meanwhile, the best moments go to a few comedians making the most of their screen time: Jemaine Clement as an artist unhinged by self-confidence, Zach Galifianakis as a deluded-mentalist IRS supervisor and Lucy Punch as an insatiable stalker. It’s not a deep or meaningful film, but it’s ridiculous enough to earn a few laughs, and that’s all it’s supposed to be. Special mention for “lovely stuff you can only see in big-budget movies” goes to the charming mouse dioramas created by the Chiodo Brothers.
(On DVD, January 2012) After Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, I already know that I’m not a fan of Jared Hess’ brand of so-called comedy and wouldn’t have attempted watching Gentlemen Broncos if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s tangentially about science-fiction writers. Not SF writers in our universe but in Hess’ typical Midwest Pathetic Kitsch aesthetics, SF writers in an alternate dimension where trashy forties pulp SF has become the dominant aesthetics of the genre as of 2009. (One imagines a world where Heinlein remained healthy throughout his years in the Navy, became admiral and never wrote the stuff.) Not that one would expect realism from Hess, whose love for hum-drum small-town settings can’t hide grotesquely dysfunctional characters. Gentlemen Broncos isn’t about its weak plot or weaker jokes as much as it’s about the awkwardness card played every thirty seconds, stretched over too-lengthy doses of meaninglessness. Everyone is a moron in this film and if Hess remains somewhat attached to them in a non-condescending fashion, it’s not an affection that translates into an enjoyable viewing experience. There are, to be fair, a number of interesting things buried deep in the muck: The opening credits are ingeniously designed through SF paperback; Michael Angarano is sympathetic as the teenage hero (albeit never more than when he finally shows some spine), Jemaine Clement has a very nice voice and can build a memorable comic character as a SF professional plagiarist; and there’s an interesting take on the creative process as we see the same fantasy filtered through three different minds. But the rest is the kind of stuff for which “cult movie” was defined: Intentionally stilted, deliberately perplexing and consciously crude in an effort to isolate itself from the mainstream. You can almost see in Gentlemen Broncos the blueprint for a much funnier film (in fact, you can see it in the trailer) –it’s a shame that Hess’ worst instincts are holding back the material. The “rental exclusive” DVD contains no special features, which isn’t exactly a disappointment.