It always annoys me when a movie is written off as “just funny” or “only scary,” as if those were easy hurdles to clear, and the very least a comedy or horror movie can do. Making people laugh consistently is one of the most difficult challenges in entertainment, even if the laughter is of the cheap or vulgar variety. The vast array of unfunny comedies and non-frightening horror films attest to the difficulty of generating even a smattering of chuckles or scares.
At the same time, a comedy generally has to do more than earn laughs to be satisfying. Accordingly, What We Do In The Shadows, an inspired vampire comedy from Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Boy director Taika Waititi, made me laugh more than any film in recent memory. It is, I can say without hyperbole, a laugh riot, yet it’s so plotless and shapeless, it barely qualifies as a film.
Borrowing more than a page or two from the Christopher Guest playbook, What We Do In The Shadows takes the form of a mockumentary, chronicling the lives of a quartet of vampires. There’s Vladislav (Clement, a movie star in the making with incredible screen presence), a Vlad The Impaler-type who’s lost some of his mania for village-slaughtering and blood-soaked orgies, following an epic battle with a creature known only as “The Beast”; Vlago (Waititi), the effete, sweet true romantic of the group, who still pines for his true love even though she’s grown into old age while he stays forever young; Petyr (Ben Fransham), an ancient Nosferatu-type who mainly keeps to his coffin; and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), a Nazi vampire who suffers double discrimination as both a reviled fascist and a blood-sucking ghoul.
The film follows these four as they prepare for a massive undead masquerade that brings the vampire and zombie communities together. In a more promising subplot, they make the mistake of vampirizing an obnoxious dude-bro, and regret it when he turns out to be the kind of blowhard who loudly, drunkenly announces to anyone who will listen that he’s a vampire. He does have one positive attribute, however, in the form of his good-natured best friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford), whom the vampires all like so much, they essentially adopt him as their mascot even though, in their words, he’s “pre-deceased.”
What We Do In The Shadows generates consistent chuckles and some massive belly laughs out of the surreal incongruity of centuries-old vampires dealing with the mundanities of everyday life, like the fussy Vlago’s frustration that no one is using the flat’s chore wheel, or setting down towels or newspapers before they bleed their victims. The sight of ancient, dandified vampires riding a public bus or dancing in a rinky-dink New Zealand nightclub is funny enough, but the filmmakers show a real genius for contorting and spoofing the conventions of the horror genre in fresh, inventive ways.
The only thing keeping this gut-busting comedy from being an instant classic is the lack of plot. What We Do In The Shadows is being released in partnernship with Funny Or Die, which makes sense, since the film often feels like the longest Funny Or Die skit ever created. Thankfully, it also feels like the funniest. It’s a gut-busting exploration of what happens when vampires stop being polite and get real. Sure, it’s only hilarious, but that’s enough.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip To Italy is, if anything, even less of a film than What We Do In The Shadows, and for good reason. Like 2010’s The Trip, The Trip To Italy is edited down from a six-part miniseries that originally aired on the BBC. Fans of The Trip will, for better or worse, know exactly what they’re in for in this follow-up. Stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return as thinly fictionalized versions of themselves. Coogan is the dry-witted, arrogant single man, and Brydon his goofy, family-man sparring partner as they embark on a culinary trek through Italy, eating delicious food and admiring beautiful scenery.
The Trip To Italy switches up the central dynamic by having womanizer Coogan behave himself throughout the trip, while Brydon cheats on his wife. Otherwise, it’s business as usual, as these two incorrigible smart-asses discourse on everything from Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill to romantic poets to their beloved Michael Caine.
Early in the film, the duo vow not to resort to dueling impressions. Still, they seem to be doing twice as many, from Marlon Brando in The Godfather (a particular source of obsession for Brydon, since he’s touring the Godfather’s homeland) to Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises to Caine and Sean Connery. At a certain point, however, they go so overboard on impressions that even Rich Little would implore them to cut it out.
At other times, it feels like Coogan and Brydon are workshopping material for stand-up sets at the BBC’s expense, but while The Trip To Italy is shamelessly self-indulgent and derivative of its predecessor, it’s also a hoot, a lively, engaging romp through the psyches of two men blessed with explosive comic chemistry.
Director Joe Swanberg has been churning out movies at a rate that makes Rainer Werner Fassbinder look like Stanley Kubrick by comparison. Swanberg’s movies often aren’t good or bad: they just are. He’s written and directed four feature films since December 2012 alone: Drinking Buddies, All The Light In The Sky, 24 Exposures, and now the Yuletide comedy Happy Christmas.
I have exceedingly modest expectations for his projects, in part because they tend to be equally modest in scope and ambition. I was thoroughly surprised and impressed, if not quite blown away, by Happy Christmas, which might be Swanberg’s best film to date, and has been one of the nicest, most unexpected surprises of Sundance 2014.
The film begins on the usual note of stumbling awkwardness, but it quickly develops a pleasing, consistently funny comic rhythm. Anna Kendrick, who was grievously underused in Drinking Buddies but is utterly charming here, stars as Jenny, a free-spirited 27-year-old who comes to Chicago to stay in the basement of her more responsible older brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their almost inconceivably cute baby.
Kelly envies and resents Jenny’s freedom from responsibility, and tensions simmer from the very beginning, but the two find unexpected common ground when Jenny suggests Kelly put her literary ambitions to work writing an obscenely commercial—and just plain obscene—erotic novel in the Fifty Shades Of Grey mold, a project whose brainstorming sessions provide some of the film’s biggest laughs.
Jenny, meanwhile, strikes up a tender romance with a soulful, pot-smoking dog-walker played by the always-sexy Mark Webber. Happy Christmas is full of nicely observed little moments and subtly insightful observations about the pleasures and limitations of domesticity, and how people’s lives often look much different from the outside than from their own perspectives. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Kendrick, who carries the film, and Lynskey, who makes what could be a joyless scold into a lively, three-dimensional character with a life force all her own.
Today was also baseball day here at Sundance, as Noel and I took in a pair of baseball documentaries that journeyed back to the wild, wonderful 1970s, when flamboyant facial hair and giant afros were the order of the day—an era where Major League baseball seemed only marginally less funky than Parliament-Funkadelic.
The Battered Bastards Of Baseball boasts subject matter worthy of its title. The slavishly conventional talking-head documentary—if you enjoy people talking against blank backdrops, augmented with clips, this is the film for you!—chronicles the strange, short, but awesome life of the Portland Mavericks, an independent Minor League baseball team owned by a journeyman character actor named Bing Russell, who at the time was best known for playing a deputy on Bonanza, but today is best known as Kurt Russell’s dad.
Kurt played for the Portland Mavericks and figures prominently as an interview subject, as does Mavericks batboy-turned-Oscar-nominated-filmmaker Todd Field. The team’s most famed player—Ball Four author and baseball pariah Jim Bouton, who was blackballed from the majors but found a home on a squad of proud renegades—is heard only at the end, in what I imagine is a clip from one of his audio books.
Nobody gave The Mavericks much of a shot at success, but they managed a no-hitter their very first game, and proved extraordinarily successful thereafter. They won games and broke attendance records while pissing off a Major League Baseball establishment that wasn’t too keen on being challenged by some actor and his team of misfits.
At one point, Field says the shenanigans The Mavericks were up to made the debauchery of Ball Four seem clean-cut by comparison, but the film does little to back up that claim, beyond reiterating over and over that the Mavericks were wild and crazy guys. Bastards defies the old dictate to show rather than tell: It’s maddeningly short on specifics. Everything is mapped out in the broadest possible terms, and at 80 minutes, Bastards barely scrapes the surface of its fascinating subject. It’s fun, and even sometimes affecting, but it could, and should, be so much more.
Dock Ellis, the larger-than-life subject of No No: A Dockumentary, played for the majors—most notably with the Pittsburgh Pirates—but he was a maverick in his own right, a man heralded as the Muhammad Ali of baseball for his colorful language and gift for provocation. Ellis is most famous for pitching a no-hitter while on acid, but he was also an outspoken voice for civil rights, and a man renowned for his eccentricities. Even in a baseball era chockablock with colorful figures, Ellis stood out. He antagonized managers, made a point of hurling the ball at opposing batters, and pitched every single game on drugs of some sort, as evidenced by countless clips of him with his feet on the mound and his brain floating somewhere high among the cosmos.
Ellis was the poster boy for drugs until the death of his friend and hero Roberto Clemente, and his own inability to control himself sent him on a downward spiral that nearly cost him his life. In his later years, Ellis reinvented himself as a drug counselor, and devoted the final quarter-century of his life to helping others kick drugs.
No No benefits from a funky, blaxploitation-style score from Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys and editing that gives the film a propulsive, kinetic rhythm. The film moves in a way conventional documentaries don’t: It’s funky, but the segments chronicling Ellis’ misdeeds and bad behavior are far more compelling than the segments on his second life as a drug counselor, which feel like an afterthought more than a bold, redemptive new chapter in his life. This is engaging stuff, for the most part, but it seldom transcends the solidness of a well-assembled television documentary.
Also seen: Jason Schwartzman plays a misanthropic novelist hellbent on a path of professional suicide in Listen Up Philip, Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to The Color Wheel. It’s a novelistic dark comedy about a fairly loathsome writer and his possibly even more obnoxious mentor (Jonathan Pryce)—a cold, caustic but well-acted and directed character study that’s easier to admire than it is to adore, though few actors are as gifted at delivering long strings of writerly dialogue as Schwartzman, possibly due to his background in Wes Anderson films.
This year has seen its share of Sundance documentaries about the dark side of the Internet, including The Internet’s Own Boy, an angry, righteous look at the life and death of Aaron Swartz, a computer prodigy who made a fortune getting Reddit off the ground, then turned to leftist activism and a push for greater government transparency. When the government decided to make an example of Swartz for violating a series of vague, open-ended laws, threatening him with a sentence wildly disproportionate to the crime, Swartz committed suicide at 26. The Internet’s Own Boy accomplishes the formidable feat of mining raw, quaking emotion from a case that centers on the unauthorized downloading of government documents and academic journals.
Tomorrow: Noel Murray on The Raid 2 and “a slew of horror/suspense.”