Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav are vampires who are finding that modern life has them struggling with the mundane – like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs, and overcoming flatmate conflicts.
Running Time: 1hr 26min
MPAA Rating: R
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi want to suck your blood
The New Zealand comedians star in What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire mockumentary.
re are two kinds of horror comedies: the scary kind and the silly kind. The scary kind—from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein(1948) to An American Werewolf in London (1981) toDrag Me to Hell (2009)—keep the laughs and the chills strictly segregated, building tension and then releasing it in a laugh (and, sometimes, cutting short that laugh with an even bigger scare). The silly kind—from Young Frankenstein (1974) to Shaun of the Dead (2004)—erase the line between the two, turning the monster into an object of burlesque. This latter strategy is a tricky business that goes wrong more often than right, as you may know if you’ve ever seen Love at First Bite (1979) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It(1995) or Dark Shadows (2012). Once you’ve mixed the red and green paints together, you’d better get just the right shade of brown or you’re going to wind up with something that looks like shit.
When silly horror comedies do work, there’s usually some other color blended in as well. Young Frankenstein never gets old for me because screenwriters Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, working in the depths of the Watergate era, imbued the movie with such sweet nostalgia for the monster movies of their childhood. Shaun of the Dead (which, incidentally, has a pretty good scare quotient despite its more ludicrous aspects) amps up the social satire of the George A. Romero movies, its zombie apocalypse set in a North London so gray and tedious that half the population seem like zombies already. Add to this list What We Do in the Shadows, a riotously funny vampire comedy from New Zealanders Jemaine Clement (HBO’s Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (writer-director of Boyand Eagle vs Shark) that opens Friday at Music Box. I’m so sick of vampires I’d have pounded a stake into my own heart not to have to watch this, but it turns out to be a pitch-perfect spoof of MTV’s The Real World and a sly satire on millennial slackerdom.
Ominous titles announce at the outset that the film documents a secret society in New Zealand in the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade, an occult gathering. The “secret society” turns out to be four vampires sharing a flat in the college town of Wellington (where Clement and Waititi went to school together). The genial Viago (Waititi), a 17th-century dandy, affects the frilly shirts and jewelry of the Hammer horror movies; Vladislav (Clement), a 12th-century hypnotist and impaler, favors the swarthy pop-star look of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Petyr (Ben Fransham), apparently even older, is a mirror image of the rodentlike bloodsucker inNosferatu; and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), the baby at 183, is the “bad boy” of the group, Viago explains in his ongoing narration to the camera. Viago is the good boy, calling the others together for a flat meeting to point out that Deacon hasn’t done the dishes in five years (a quick insert shows a kitchen sink and counter stacked to the ceiling with bloody dishware). Deacon, in his own defense, asks why the housekeeping matters when the only people they bring home are those they’re going to kill.
Clement and Waititi have got the reality-show format just right: the direct-address interviews, the confessional voice-overs, the zoom-in reaction shots. They’ve also nailed the reflexive self-absorption of reality-show casts; showing the documentary makers around his old dungeon, Vladislav confesses, “I tended to torture when I was in a bad place.” Viago is a vain fashion plate, though as he notes, dressing well is difficult when you can’t see your own reflection in a mirror. Deacon is a shameless hedonist; asked what he did the night before, he replies, “I transformed into a dog and had sex.” Petyr doesn’t speak, but he’s a party animal in his own right; when Viago rouses him from his basement tomb, the cement floor is all blood and bones. “It’s a spinal column, yuck!” exclaims Viago. The Real World vibe persists as the four pals get dressed in their finest threads and head into the streets in search of victims (though the first people they encounter assume them to be male hookers).
Incongruity is funny—that’s why improv artists pair up random words from the audience—and the filmmakers get a surprising amount of mileage from combining vampires with The Real World. The show’s psychological hook has always been the chance to watch divisions fester among people trapped in a single house, and Clement and Waititi score plenty of laughs filtering this through the familiar vampire lore. Petyr has bitten a young loser named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and added him to the household, which causes friction with the others. “I don’t think Nick should have been turned into a vampire,” Deacon confides to the camera. “He’s such a dick.” Nick further complicates the situation by bringing his human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), whom the others agree not to eat only because he’s an IT guy who solves their computer problems. Less fortunate is Deacon’s human slave, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), who’s spent years waiting on him hand and foot in hope of achieving eternal life. “They don’t even wear shirts, they wear blouses,” she complains over an ironing board. “It’s this big homoerotic dick-biting club, and I’m stuck here ironing their fucking frills!”
Silly horror comedies, if they’re done right, can transcend their silliness by reconnecting with the fantastic elements that have drawn people to the horror genre since the silent era; Mel Brooks understood this when he rounded up some of the old whiz-bang laboratory gadgets used in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) for his own Young Frankenstein. The same goes forWhat We Do in the Shadows, which revels in its modest special effects; when Viago and Deacon clash over some household matter, they fly up in the air on invisible wires. And there’s always the gore. In one of the funniest sequences Viago hosts a young woman at their flat; he likes to show his victims a good time before they die, and he gives her flowers and treats her sweetly before sinking his teeth into her neck. Unfortunately he makes a mess of things, blood spraying out of her carotid artery; the botched killing leaves both him and the woman’s corpse covered in blood. Trying to recover from the embarrassing incident, Viago observes, “On the upside, I think she had a really good time.” So did I.
A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breath-taking female A.I.
Running Time: 1hr 48min
MPAA Rating: R
So it is that Ex Machina immediately enters the running for the best science fiction film of the year just by following through on the promise of its concept. It knows what it wants to tell us, and frankly we’ve heard it before. But it flashes some terrific little variations on the expected formula, along with shades of real darkness that assures you it’s playing for keeps. If we know what it’s going to say, at least we don’t have the slightest idea how it’s going to say it, and in that, it finds a quiet sort of brilliance.
At its crux stands Ava (Alicia Vikander), the world’s first functional artificial intelligence created by a maverick genius (Oscar Isaac) who has devoted the resources of his gigantic software company into her creation. He’s been laboring over her in complete solitude for months, but now he has to put her to the test: can she convince another person that she is more than just pre-arranged responses? So he ferries in one of his brighter employees (Domhnall Gleeson) for a week of thorough testing to see what happens.
Naturally, nothing goes the way anyone intended, and naturally Ava has more up her silicon sleeve than her male overseers suspect. Director Alex Garland cloaks her machinations, and the ensuing suspense, in the film’s bigger question: does having a soul mean that this construct is human? Or is it something entirely new, something that (naturally) we may not be able to control as well as we like?
The film can’t help but show its Frankenstein roots, but Garland spruces it up by linking it to 21st century geek culture. On one side stands the Internet mogul: pretending to be your buddy without letting you forget he can destroy you, and using his copious intelligence to ignore his even more copious flaws. His employee is all sweet romanticism and detached observation: the shy genius who no one ever noticed except as an object of bullying. Their traits give the story a cutting-edge feeling, and show us again how Mary Shelley’s monster remains as pertinent today as it was when she first wrote about him.
But the real kick – the part that leads Ex Machina delicately towards greatness – is that neither of these male geek icons stops to think about how Ava might have her own ideas. They both project what they want to onto her: creating in their minds a pleasing image of her rather trying to understand what she really is (and what she is might not match what either of them think). It launches a delicious little barb against the GamerGate crowd among other things, throwing a pro-feminist loop into what had been a garden-variety (if quite well executed) surpassed-by-our-creations story.
Add to that some exquisite technical details (creating suspense out of silence and tension around the unspoken) and a quiet bit of special effects wizardry (Ava displays a brilliant bit of concept design), and Ex Machina turns into the kind of film that science fiction fans pray for. If it ends up forgotten, that’s only because we’ve seen this path walked too many times before. And that would be a shame, for few films are able to walk it with the thoughtfulness and maturity that this one does.
Cautionary tale features a fictionalized and highly exaggerated take on the use of marijuana. A trio of drug dealers lead innocent teenagers to become addicted to “reefer” cigarettes by holding wild parties with jazz music.
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1hr 6min
When millionaire James King is jailed for fraud and bound for San Quentin, he turns to Darnell Lewis to prep him to go behind bars.
Running Time: 1hr 40min
MPAA Rating: R
In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, a cynical drifter agrees to help a small, gasoline rich, community escape a band of bandits.
Running Time: 1hr 34min
MPAA Rating: R
Reviewed By John Ferguson
In the near future, crime is patrolled by a mechanized police force. When one police droid, Chappie, is stolen and given new programming, he becomes the first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
Running Time: 2hrs
MPAA Rating: R
by Brian Gibson for Vue Weekly
Poe; Shelley; Verne; Wells. It’s no Dickensian coincidence that the 19th century, that era of idea-driven novels, birthed sci-fi. By the 1920s, the most forward-looking sector of the Industrial Revolution’s genre-fiction factory, along with emerging film studios, was cranking out electrifying extrapolations, futuristic fears and incredible imaginings writ large and small. Set around 2020, Neill Blomkamp’s iRobot odyssey Chappie, for all its over-written shell and whirring pace, gets enough brain power and battery energy out of its central-processing idea to make for a rollicking, thought-rousing ride.
Blomkamp and his District 9 co-writer Terri Tatchell return us to a crime-ridden Johannesburg, where robot-cops are apprehending or killing street-gangsters. But Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the programmer behind Tetravaal’s assembly lineup of automatons, completes a consciousness-code to try on sidelined Scout 22 just as a trio of robbers—Ninja (Die Antwoord rapper Ninja), Yolandi (Die Antwoord singer Yolandi Visser), Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo)—decides to kidnap Deon in the wild hopes of rejigging a robot to help them in a heist.
There are system flaws: an under-developed boss (Sigourney Weaver); Deon’s simply resentful, vaguely religious co-worker Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman); too many threats and story-strands yanked together too quickly and busily in a future-world more scuzzily anti-humanist than deeply, questioningly dystopian.
But, following from the startlingly vital movements of the reborn Scout 22 (voiced by Sharlto Copley)—christened “Chappie,” from the South African-English phrase “happy chappy”—the story’s adrenalized pursuit of questions about evolving consciousness and struggling conscience is a real rush. In his first few days, our robo-boy, taught variously by nasty adoptive father Ninja, concerned mother Yolandi or his intellectual “maker” Deon, gains comprehension and evolves understanding in fascinating and eerie jerks and spurts: painting (like a printer) and reading a kid’s book (the too-obvious story of a black sheep), then teenage acting-out and finally adult heroism. And there’s his horrible (and allegorical) persecution: beaten and set alight by a gang of youths taking him for a police-droid; hunted down by Moore, zealously bent on hyper-militarizing the police. Best of all, though, is this titanium-tale’s final act, where not just family but human-ness is radically rebooted.