REVIEW: “What We Do in the Shadows”

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These days good comedies are a rarity which makes finding one all the more special. The genre’s landscape is overloaded with obnoxious raunchy comedies and shallow Sandler-esque toilet humor. If you aren’t a fan of those two brands finding an enjoyable modern comedy may be a chore. But “What We Do in the Shadows” is one of the rare exceptions – a highly original comedy that is also smart in its open embrace of absurdity.

Calling the film “smart” may be stretch for some, but I think the filmmakers are devilishly perceptive. Co-writers, co-directors, and co-stars Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement are very well aware of the type of humor they are employing. The Wellington, New Zealand duo create a concept so ridiculous on the surface yet pulsing with focused energy and a satiric edge. It shows smarts in its concept, smarts in its execution, smarts in its structure, and perhaps most importantly smarts in its ability to maintain a genuinely funny premise from start to finish.

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While pondering a way to describe the film I kept coming back to ‘a vampire mockumemtary meets “The Real World”. It presents itself as a found-footage reality show and/or documentary. The first thing we see is a cheap, grainy production graphic from “The New Zealand Documentary Board”. From there we are immediately injected into the world of four vampires living together in a Wellington flat. Our perspective is through the lens of a documentarian’s camera.

First we are introduced to the four vampires. The 379 year-old Viago (Waititi) is a good-hearted 16th century neat-freak. Vladislov (Clement) is an 862 year-old medieval fashionista. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngster of the bunch – 183 years-old and a bit of a rebel. And then there is 8,000 year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) who hisses more than speaks and has an uncanny resemblance to Count Orlok from “Nosferatu”. All four are uniquely funny which makes their quirky camaraderie a real treat.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the vibe Waititi and Clement are shooting for. The dry, deadpan humor. The constant awareness and conversations with the camera. The straight-faced approaches by the actors regardless of a scene’s nuttiness. All of it contributes to a movie which genuinely feels like a reality show or a documentary. It just happens to be spotlighting vampire roommates from different eras with very limited connections to the modern world outside their doors.

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Occasionally they go out to enjoy a socially awkward night on the town. Other times we see them having a “flat meeting” to discuss house duties. There are an assortment of camera confessionals talking about everything from lost loves to frustrations with roommates to favorite torture practices. And there are several funny bits after the boys are introduced to the wonders of YouTube, eBay, and Skype. Most of these scenes are given to us in pinches which are the perfect portions. They also toss in a very small handful of side characters who serve the story nicely.

“What We Do in the Shadows” is such a breath of fresh air. It’s a comedy that consistently delivers laughs without clinging to unfunny cliches or the hot current genre trends. Rarely does the movie miss a beat and its cleverness shows itself in a host of ways. It is subtly subversive, subtly satirical, and openly absurd. Waititi and Clement craft one very funny movie that clearly isn’t a film for the movie masses. I can see some people rolling their eyes and some people dismissing it altogether. I found it to be a hysterical reminder that there are comedies willing to do their own thing and do it very well.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Men in Black 3”

Let me preface this review by saying that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the previously two “Men in Black” movies. But I was certainly in the minority. The first “Men in Black” earned just under $600 million at the box office. The sequel brought in another $440 million. Obviously expectations are high for this third installment and it’s $300 million budget. Both Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are back as is director Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer.

It’s been almost 10 years since we last saw Agent K (Jones) and Agent J (Smith). K is still the stiff-as-a-board, emotionless, straight-shooter, J is still a rapid-fire wisecracker with attitude to spare, and aliens are still on earth masquerading as humans. They both still serve as operatives working for a secret agency commissioned to protect the Earth from alien threats. This time their main threat is an alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement). Agent K apprehended Boris back in 1969 and put him in a lunar prison designed specifically for him. But Boris escapes and travels back in time to kill Agent K before he is able to thwart his original plan. After noticing K’s absence and a difference in the timeline, J travels back to 1969 a few days prior to K’s death to protect him from Boris.

The movie starts off looking and feeling just like a “Men in Black” film. Funny exchanges between K and J and alien confrontations get the movie off on the right foot. There’s also a really cool time travel sequence as J heads back to 1969. It’s here that the movie both introduces it’s biggest asset as well as hit it’s biggest speed bumps. Josh Brolin plays the younger Agent K and he is fantastic. I swear there were times where I completely believed I was watching a younger Tommy Lee Jones instead of someone doing a Tommy Lee impersonation. Whether it’s his accent, his nicknames, or facial expressions, Brolin nails a 29-year old Agent K.

But while Brolin shines, the story really spins it’s wheels. There are a few back-in-time set pieces and late 60’s details that are fun but they get lost in the story that’s really pretty flat and lifeless. The humor loses it’s pop and seems to rely much too heavily on Will Smith’s quick wit. There’s great chemistry between Brolin and Smith but even it gets bogged down in the sometimes drab exposition. I have to admit, I found myself struggling to stay focused and interested in what was going on especially when an all-knowing alien named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) enters the picture. I did enjoy Emma Thompson and Alice Eve as the older and younger Agent O and the movie is a visual delight. I just wish there was more energy and substance to go with the movie’s stronger points.

While I did have issues with the middle of the movie, it was almost made up for by a really good and surprisingly tender ending. There’s no way I can go any further without spoiling things, but I’ll just say that it makes you look at all three “Men in Black” movies from a different perspective. The ending is well conceived and even though there were a few questions that immediately came to mind, it really worked for me.

“Men in Black 3” most certainly isn’t a great movie but it’s definitely an upgrade over the almost unwatchable second film. Then again, that’s not really saying a much. MiB3 starts off strong and has a nice ending but it’s what’s in between that keeps it from being as good as it could be. Brolin is the highlight and he’s a lot of fun to watch. There are also some other pretty good performances. As I mentioned, the visuals are high quality, exactly what you would expect. But none of these pluses can outweigh the minuses. There’s just not enough substance or humor to make this anything more than an okay movie.

VERDICT – 2 STARS