What We Do in the Shadows


A flat portrait.

A flat portrait.

(2014) Horror Comedy (Unison/Paladin) Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Rhys Darby, Jackie van Beek, Elena Stejko, Jason Hoyle, Karen O’Leary, Mike Minogue, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Ian Harcourt, Ethel Robinson, Brad Harding, Isaac Heron, Yvette Parsons, Madeleine Sami, Kura Forrester. Directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

When you get a bunch of people together to live in a single flat, usually it’s for economic reasons – after all, shared costs are less. When you do though, it is imperative that you try to find people with shared interests and common backgrounds. Without something to hold the group together, harmony disappears and you get chaos and anarchy.

In an unassuming suburban flat near Wellington, New Zealand live four gents who tried to head off conflict by gathering because of one common characteristic – all four of them are vampires. When a documentary crew arranges to follow them about and try to get an idea of their daily routines (all of them wearing a crucifix for safety), we are given an insight to just how ordinary the undead truly are.

That’s the premise for this hilarious comedy from the guys behind the cult HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav, a 16th century despot with a penchant for torture whose confidence was shattered after the humiliating defeat at the hands of his arch-nemesis known only as The Beast. Taika Waititi (both of whom co-wrote and co-directed) plays Viago, an 18th century dandy who pines for the human woman who got away and conducts flat meetings on the chores chart.

Brugh is Deacon, a 19th century aristocrat who finds that doing dishes is beneath his status as a vampire and has let them pile up over five years. Finally, Fransham is Peter, who is 8,000 years old and really doesn’t say much of anything. The four of them are doing their best to remain inconspicuous and blend in, particularly when they go out looking for victims to feed on.

One of them, Nick (Gonzalez-Macuer) is accidentally changed into a vampire. He’s pretty delighted by it, telling all and sundry that he’s a vampire, much to the consternation of Deacon, Vladimir and Viago (Peter doesn’t really say much of anything). However, he does bring into the group Stu (Rutherford), a computer programmer who is a cool guy who gets accepted into the group more than Nick himself. Also hanging around is Jackie (van Beek), a familiar who runs most of their errands during daylight (they have quite a spectacular reaction to it) and does their bloody laundry in the hopes of someday getting eternal life for herself, although she feels her biological clock ticking – as in she’s in her mid-30s and doesn’t want to spend eternity as a middle aged woman. All of this is leading up to the biggest social event of the year for vampires witches and zombies – the Unholy Masquerade but this year’s event has put the house into a quandary. This year, the Guest of Honor at the ball is none other than The Beast.

This mockumentary is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places and you don’t necessarily have to be a vampire movie fan to get the jokes, like when the dim-witted police officers come to the home to investigate neighborhood complaints of smoke coming out of the windows and shrieking, and end up lecturing them on the lack of smoke alarms in the house.

Of course, it DOES help if you know at least a little bit about vampire lore but most of it you can figure out. Some of the funniest sequences involve a run in with the flatmates of a pack of werewolves whose canine scent is offensive to the bloodsuckers. When Viago sneers “Why don’t you sniff your own crotches” to the pack, one of them shamefacedly says “We don’t smell our own crotches; we smell each other’s. It’s a form of greeting.”

The tropes here are classic vampire, which is a good thing because I think most horror fans appreciate it more – the Twilight series is pretty much left out of it as are most of the Young Adult vampire mythologies, as well as modern stuff like the Buffyverse and the kind of Gothic vampire works of Anne Rice. No, this is more or less Bram Stoker and Hammer horror on display which to me anyway is a very good thing.

Most horror spoofs are godawful at best but this doesn’t fall into that category and Clement and Waititi both carefully avoid falling into that trap. Most of the humor comes from the ridiculousness of the everyday situations the flatmates find themselves in. While some of the sequences work better than others and the humor can be a bit dry, overall it works extremely well. The effects are nifty enough for a micro-budgeted indie which means not a lot of CGI and more practical effects, which also makes a case for those who prefer their horror more of the throwback variety. While it must be cautioned that those with weak stomachs for gore might find some of the scenes here pretty bloody, this is definitely tonic for a time of year when most of the cinematic offerings are particularly cringeworthy.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places and never descends into spoof. Classic vampire stuff.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places and a bit droll throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, plenty of blood, some unsettling images and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hill where the vampires have a run-in with the werewolves was also used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vampires
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Lazarus Effect

Seventh Son


"No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?"

“No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?”

(2014) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, Antje Traue, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo, Timothy Webber, Lilah Fitzgerald, Marcel Bridges, Libby Osler, Primo Allon, Taya Clyne. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

In Hollywood’s seemingly unceasing attempt to grab the newest Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen from a Young Adult novel series, they have moved on to their latest attempt with a cemetery full of potential candidates who didn’t make any sort of box office impact behind them. So will this enter that final resting place of dismal cinematic failures or will it be the next license for the studio to print money?

Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last of a once-vaunted but now nearly extinct order of Knights, the Knights of the Falcon – more popularly known as Spooks. That’s because this particular order hunted the supernatural, witches and dragons and such. In order to be effective in such a venture, they are all made up of the seventh sons of seventh sons, which makes them stronger than ordinary humans as well as more sensitive to magic and wizardry.

With his most recent apprentice (Harrington) indisposed, Master Gregory needs to find one in a hurry. That’s because one of his most powerful foes, Mother Malkin (Moore), a particularly powerful and malevolent witch, has escaped her entombment in a mountain and becomes more powerful by the moment with the approach of a once-in-a-century Blood Moon. She has the means to perform a ritual that will allow her to be all-powerful and to strike down Gregory which will allow the witches of the land to rule with impunity.

Gregory seeks Tom Ward (Barnes), an honest hard-working sort whose mother (Williams) seems to know more about what he’s in for than she’s saying. Gregory doesn’t have time to train Tom properly but he’ll just have to learn on the job; Malkin is gathering her forces including her right-hand witch Lizzie (Traue), master assassin Radu (Hounsou) and were-cheetah Sarikin (McClure). There’s also young Alice (Vikander) who Tom becomes sweet on but she’s actually Lizzie’s daughter, which complicates things.

All will come to a head in the witch’s castle high in a forbidden and desolate mountain range where a sacrifice needs to be made for the witch to become all-powerful. With the world at stake, can Gregory the aged knight triumph with an untested apprentice at his side?

Like many of the Young Adult fantasies to come our way in recent years, there is a heavy reliance on CG creatures which here have a kind of Ray Harryhausen-like aesthetic, only without the jerky movement of stop motion. One definitely has to give Bodrov, who wowed Russian and American audiences with the epic sweeping Mongol back in 2007, props for the respect.

Unfortunately, he has a very weak script to work with, one that was evidently written by Captain BeenThereDoneThat. We get an untested young protagonist who seems destined to fail, despite trying his hardest time after time but when a significant event occurs, he finds the power within himself and turns out to be even more powerful than anyone ever imagined. Most of those who litter the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed have very similar storylines.

Sadly, this doesn’t have a Jennifer Lawrence or a Daniel Radcliffe either. Ben Barnes is an attractive young actor and he’s certainly got the looks that you need to pull in the hormonal teen girl crowd, but he’s got about as much charisma as his character name implies. Not to knock Barnes who shows moments of talent, but this kind of part requires charisma of a once-in-a-blue-moon sort. Barnes does his best and makes a likable lead, but not a messianic one.

Bridges and Moore, both familiar with Oscar (and in Moore’s case, likely to become even more familiar shortly) get to chew the scenery and they have at it with abandon. In Moore’s case, she becomes a sexy femme fatale who has been wronged and who has seen her people persecuted. If only the writers had chosen to explore that aspect of it more and make Mother Malkin less of a black hat and more of a tragic villain, this might have been a far different – and far better – movie.

Bridges mumbles and slurs his speech like a drunkard (which, to be fair, Master Gregory is) which wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s donned a similar affectation in his last four films. His Van Dyke beard looks a bit anachronistic considering this is supposed to be set during a medieval period but I can overlook that. There’s just little chemistry between him and Barnes so there’s a distance between the two characters that belies the fatherly affection that Gregory displays later in the film.

Part of the problem is that for a Young Adult series to succeed cinematically, it has to appeal to an audience beyond the target. In other words, Old Adults have to find something to latch onto as well, thus the casting of Bridges and Moore. However, the lead character needs to be charismatic and memorable and Barnes simply has not shown that he has that kind of screen presence, not as Prince Caspian and not as Tom Ward. Not yet anyway.

The attempts at humor mostly revolve around Gregory’s drunkenness leading me to think that this is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While the supporting crew – in particular Hounsou, Williams and Vikander – are satisfactory, Moore and Bridges are both fine actors having a fine time with Barnes trying to and falling a little short. This isn’t a bad film, you understand – there have been far worse in this genre – but it’s just fairly ordinary entertainment, making this a likely candidate for a headstone in the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice monster effects. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Some decent support.
REASONS TO STAY: Humorless. Clunky. Predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of swords and sorcery violence, some frightening images of monsters and mayhem and some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Harvey

Case 39


Bradley Cooper bids Renee Zellweger a fond adieu.

Bradley Cooper bids Renee Zellweger a fond adieu.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Renee Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Callum Keith Rennie, Adrian Lester, Kerry O’Malley, Cynthia Stevenson, Alexander Conti, Philip Cabrita, Vanessa Tomasino, Mary Black, Domenico D’Ambrosio, Benita Ha, John Carroll, Michael Bean, Lesley Ewen, David Patrick Green, Alisen Down, Jane Braithwaite. Directed by Christian Alvart

We are brought up to protect our children. They are precious and obviously important to our future as a species. There aren’t many parents who aren’t willing to give up their own lives for their children. What if, however, those children are evil?

Vancouver social worker Emily Jenkins (Zellweger) is given a heart-wrenching case of Lilith (Ferland), a little girl whose parents have been abusing her. The worst case scenario occurs when her parents attempt to murder the little girl. She is saved by Emily and Detective Mike Barron (McShane) who arrive just in the nick of time. Lilith is originally going to be placed in a group home but she begs Emily to look after her and with the blessing of the board Emily is allowed to take the traumatized child home temporarily until suitable foster parents can be found.

Heart-wrenching turns to heart-warming and then to heart-chilling as another child whose case Emily is working murders his parent. Barron tells her that the child had received a phone call from Emily’s home number the night prior to the crime. With Lilith suspected to be involved, an investigation is underway run by Emily’s friend and colleague Doug (Cooper). It doesn’t end well.

Although Barron is at first skeptical (and thinks Emily is in need of psychiatric help herself) but eventually comes on board, but by that time it’s too late. Lilith is revealed to be something terrifyingly evil in a child’s body. Emily is terrified but knows that if she doesn’t kill the entity, Emily will end up dead – and the carnage will start all over again with a different set of foster parents.

This is one of those movies that looked promising on paper, then generated some buzz with the casting of Zellweger and McShane (Cooper was cast pre-Hangover), then disappeared on the studio shelf where it languished for three years and several postponed release dates. Very generally movies that go through that kind of cycle tend to come to bad ends. Either a surfeit of studio interference turned a promising film into a miasma of differing visions and overly-thought out changes, or the movie was just plain awful to begin with.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised with this one which while not the kind of movie that makes year-end lists, was at least entertaining and even a little thought-provoking. Sure, the movie borrows liberally from other better films but let’s face it, most horror movies are guilty of that particular sin these days.

Children are often a taboo subject when it comes to American filmmakers – although we are dealing with a European filmmaker here. Sure, there are exceptions – but putting them either in anything more than minor peril or worse, portraying them as the cause of peril is generally considered off limits. For the most part, kids are portrayed as precocious little angels who get into trouble quite by accident. Rarely are they portrayed as malicious or evil other than to other children – and even then they’re mostly victims of circumstance. Case 39 takes a demonic child and makes her gleeful at the carnage she causes. This plays on something of a hidden fear for many – a perversion of innocence. That’s a powerful, powerful image.

However, the movie isn’t entirely successful. Zellweger’s performance isn’t among her best; in fact, she seems curiously lacking in energy. Some have characterized it as just going through the motions and while I can’t begin to pretend I know what her state of mind was filming this, it’s certainly a subpar performance for her. One can’t blame all of the movie’s shortcomings on her however – the movie often makes its points with a sledgehammer instead of a rapier, and sometimes the story is a bit confusing, giving me the impression that some important plot points were left on the editing room floor.

This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be nor as bad as the criticism of the film made it out to be. I suspect that some critics were reviewing the delay in release as much as the actual film itself, having made up their minds that a movie shelved the way this one was couldn’t possibly be any good. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination but it deserved better, both from the critics and the studio.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice exploration at our deeper feelings towards children,
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed and confused. Zellweger seems oddly listless.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing images, particularly concerning violence by and against a child as well as supernatural terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the arduous process of special effects make-up for a burn victim, as well as showing the digital effects creating a swarm of hornets as well as one on the pyrotechnics team.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $28.2M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Omen
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nightcrawler

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)


The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo

This is not the girl you want to mess with.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Annika Hallin, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Kohler.  Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

My wife was often heard to say to my son (and she heard this herself often as a child) that the truth will find you out. It usually does, too – although sometimes it can take many years before it finally shows up at your door.

Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is the publisher of Millennium, a left wing magazine in Sweden that goes after corporate and government officials mostly of the right wing variety. Blomkvist has just lost a libel trial against a wealthy Swedish industrialist and in six months time, will be sent to jail for it. He has temporarily stepped down from his position because of the scandal.

In the midst of this, he gets an intriguing offer from an aging Swedish industrialist. Henrik Vanger (Taube) is in his 80s, the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family living in isolation on an island near Stockholm. 40 years previously, his niece Harriet (Froling) disappeared and is presumed dead. Nobody knows what happened to her although everyone assumes she was murdered. Who done it? Well there’s a whole family of suspects.

As it turns out, Mikael isn’t the only one investigating. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) was hired to investigate Blomkvist and as she checks up on him, gets drawn in to his own investigation. She is one of Sweden’s best hackers and she has no trouble finding information Mikael can’t access. As time goes by, they discover that the Vangers have a couple of not-so-closet Nazis in the family tree. Salander turns out to have some dangerous secrets of her own and as Mikael closes in on the truth, nothing is what it seems – and it seems there may be something rotten in Sweden.

This is from the first book of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy which is wildly popular in Scandinavia and more recently worldwide. The motion pictures based on the trilogy are among the most popular ever in Sweden and are due to be remade by Hollywood, the first due out at Christmas directed by Oscar winner David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

So should you see these before seeing the remakes? I say yes. This is a world class movie, right up there with the best of Hitchcock and De Palma. The bleak Swedish winter landscapes create the perfect mood, with just the right number of twists – not too many, not too few.

The leads couldn’t be more different. Nyqvist is understated as Blomkvist. He is capable and intellectual but not what you’d call the typical heroic sort. He is more heroic in his convictions and ideals rather than as a physical purveyor of derring-do. He is a decent man caught in a situation that is way over his head, one he’s not nearly mean enough to handle.

Rapace however delivers a star turn as Salander. Lisbeth is a bundle of contradictory characteristics. Quiet and withdrawn in many ways, she also dresses in outlandish punk hairstyle and leather which inevitably calls attention to herself. There is a rage in her that’s just below the surface, a rage that comes out brutally when she’s raped graphically early in the movie. It’s a brutal scene that’s not for the sensitive and is anything but sexual. There are those who are disturbed by it, but considering the importance of the event in the series, it is a necessary scene.

I like the mood the movie weaves; it is a mood that contains the comfort of Scandinavian homes, the overwhelming fog of uneasy dread, the air of mysteries buried deep in the Swedish soil. While there is an Agatha Christie-like vibe to the first act, this is definitely the work of a mind whose roots are deep in the land of the Northern climes, where winters are deep, bone-chilling and soul-sucking. One can almost hear “Finlandia” playing on the soundtrack.

Even more to the point, these are characters that are real and compelling. Even the evil neo-Nazi bastards aren’t caricatures; there is flesh on all of these bones.  Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most interesting heroines to come along since Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has demons deep within her, most of them barely hinted at. She’s not always an easy character to like, but she’s always an easy character to be fascinated by.

There are people who won’t see this because it’s subtitled. That’s a shame; those who love thrillers will love this one. It’s not the most original plot; it’s just done in an original style. There’s a realism to it that works, as well as an air of melancholy that makes it Swedish. It’s not Hitchcock, but as this style of movie goes, it’s as good as anything that’s come along in the last decade.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted, well-filmed and well-structured – nearly an ideal mystery-thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is not really ground-breaking and the ending is not too hard to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence and some grisly images. There’s also a graphic rape, nudity, some sexual material and a bit of bad language (in Swedish but nonetheless).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noomi Rapace got her eyebrow and nose pierced for the film. She also learned kickboxing and lost weight. Incidentally, the actress playing her mother in the movie is also her mom in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Vanger family tree that may prove helpful in keeping up with the plot. There’s also an interesting interview with Rapace in which she discusses how she came aboard.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.4M on a $13M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl Who Played With Fire