Movie Review: “What We Do in the Shadows”

Starring
Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Directors
Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement

“What We Do in the Shadows” sounds like a bad comedy sketch – a “Real World”-esque reality show with vampires in place of horny millennials – but it’s actually a really funny satire of the vampire subgenre that’s done in the deadpan style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Of course, because of the loose, improvisational nature of the film, not every joke lands, but the ones that do are laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a result, the movie can feel a bit uneven at times, especially when it begins to lose steam in the latter half, though that’s partially due to the fact that many of the best gags occur early on. And while that inconsistency prevents it from being the comedy masterpiece that some people have suggested, the funny bits (as well as the ones you’ll likely miss the first time around) are what make “What We Do in the Shadows” such an entertaining import worthy of repeat viewings.

Filmed in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, a documentary crew granted protection from its subjects follows a group of vampires – including Victorian dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), medieval torturer Vladimir (Jemaine Clement), resident bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) – living together in Wellington, New Zealand as they deal with the dull minutiae of everyday life as an ancient bloodsucker. But the vampire lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it’s hyped up to be, which unwitting victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) soon learns when he’s invited to one of their dinner parties, only to be served as the main course. After being sucked dry and given the mixed blessing of eternal life, Nick attempts to make the most of his newfound vampire abilities, while ushering his fellow housemates into the 21st century with the help of human friend and computer specialist Stu (Stuart Rutherford).

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Blu Tuesday: Nightcrawler, Laggies and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Nightcrawler”

WHAT: When he witnesses a freelance cameraman filming a car accident one night, go-getter Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes that he’s found his calling. After trading some stolen loot to a pawn shop in exchange for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis hits the ground running, eventually selling his first footage to sleazy news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). But once Louis gets a taste of success, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the best shot, even if that means crossing lines that aren’t meant to be crossed.

WHY: Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the 2014 – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema, but “Nightcrawler” tells its darkly comic tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more terrifying than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a first-rate thriller highlighted by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material, and Louis Bloom is the pinnacle of this career rebirth – a wickedly entrancing and transformative piece of acting that’s fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral disposition, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal’s commanding performance, because it’s the quiet intensity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Dan Gilroy, producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, as well as the making-of featurette “If It Bleeds, It Leads.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Laggies”

WHAT: After her high school sweetheart (Mark Webber) suddenly proposes after ten years of dating, slacker woman-child Megan (Keira Knightley) panics, running away for the week to collect her thoughts under the guise of a self-improvement seminar. Instead, Megan hides out in the home of her new 16-year-old friend, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose single father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), is more than a little bewildered by the whole situation.

WHY: Lynn Shelton loves a good awkward situation, and though the central plot of her latest movie isn’t as uncomfortable to watch as the ones in past films like “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” the idea of a grown woman hanging out with a bunch of teenagers is nothing if not strange. Thankfully, “Laggies” finds the heart and humor in Megan’s newfound friendship instead of making it seem pathetic or creepy, and a large part of that is down to Keira Knightley’s charming performance. After spending nearly a decade starring almost exclusively in stuffy period dramas, it’s nice to see the actress mixing it up with more modern roles, because it gives her the chance to showcase another side of her personality. Knightley brings a childlike energy to Megan that makes her immensely likable, and she’s supported by a pair of solid performances from Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell in good but unremarkable roles. “Laggies” is without a doubt Shelton’s most mainstream movie to date, albeit with a decidedly indie flair, and while it’s almost too sweet and innocent to leave much of a lasting impression, it’s also not a bad way to spend two hours.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Lynn Shelton, a pair of production featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Kill the Messenger”

WHAT: While working as a Senior Investigative Reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) uncovers a story about the CIA permitting the sale of cocaine in the U.S. to fund a rebellion in Nicaragua, unwittingly putting his career and family in danger when he becomes the target of a smear campaign.

WHY: Some actors may be hesitant about “selling out” by doing a big Hollywood blockbuster, but if successful, it can go a long way towards getting smaller, more personal films off the ground. Case in point: “Kill the Messenger,” a passion project for star/producer Jeremy Renner that probably wouldn’t have been made were it not for the actor’s involvement in a certain billion-dollar franchise. But while Gary Webb’s true-life story about the cost of seeking out the truth is certainly interesting enough to warrant the big screen treatment, the film is a pretty conventional political thriller that skates by on Renner’s strong performance. The supporting cast is also stacked with talent, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt and Michael Sheen, but with the exception of Rosemarie DeWitt as Gary’s wife, many of them are glorified cameos. The biggest problem with “Kill the Messenger” is that it’s a tale of two halves – the investigation and the backlash that Gary received as a result of his report – and while the former makes for some engaging viewing, the latter portion seems to poke more holes in the story than support it, despite a convenient piece of text at the end that confirms Gary’s findings were correct. Still, it’s a pretty humdrum ending for a story that so many people were passionate about telling.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director Michael Cuesta, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and a trio of short featurettes on the cast, filming in Georgia and real-life drug trafficker “Freeway Ricky” Ross, played by Michael K. Williams in the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “The Voices”

Starring
Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith
Director
Marjane Satrapi

Ryan Reynolds has starred in some pretty big movies over the last five years, and while they’ve helped cement his place on the Hollywood A-list, many of them (“Green Lantern,” “R.I.P.D.”) have done more harm than good for his career. The actor has had really bad luck when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking, but he’s proven that he can carry a movie on his own, particularly when there aren’t hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. In fact, he’s done some of his best work in smaller independent films like “Buried” and “Adventureland,” and that trend continues with “The Voices,” a flawed but amusing dark comedy that plays like a delightfully strange mix between “Doctor Dolittle” and “American Psycho.”

Jerry Hickfang (Reynolds) just wants to fit in. A socially awkward but overall nice guy who works at the Milton Bathtub Factory in the small town of the same name, Jerry is trying to lead a normal life in the wake of a family tragedy with the help of his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver). When he’s asked to help plan his company’s annual picnic alongside bubbly British import Fiona (Gemma Arterton), Jerry builds up the nerve to ask her on a date. But Fiona stands him up in order to go out with some work friends, and when their paths cross later that night, he inadvertently murders her in the middle of the woods. At least, he thinks it’s an accident, but Jerry hasn’t been taking his meds lately, which is why he’s starting to hear voices – namely his loyal dog Bosco, who speaks in a Southern drawl, and his sociopathic cat Mr. Whiskers, who speaks in a Scottish brogue (both voiced by Reynolds) – urging him to kill again.

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Movie Review: “Jupiter Ascending”

Starring
Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth
Directors
Andy & Lana Wachowski

If the Wachowskis were a band, the label would have dropped them after “The Matrix Revolutions.” That was 13 years ago, just to give you a sense of how long Warner Bros. has been granting them multiple second chances to replicate the success of “The Matrix.” With “Jupiter Ascending,” it’s time to cut the cord. The movie is so spectacularly bad (think “MST3K” bad) that someone will inevitably document it for historical purposes, a la the “Troll 2” doc “Best Worst Movie.” The “Jupiter” documentary will be a cautionary tale of giving carte blanche to talent that, breakout hit be damned, just haven’t earned it yet, baby.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) and her Russian immigrant family struggle to make ends meet cleaning houses. What Jupiter doesn’t realize – until there are multiple attempts on her life – is that she is the reincarnation of a royal family member from another galaxy, the mother of three feuding siblings, all devising ways to assume more power. She is saved from certain death by Caine (Channing Tatum), a disgraced soldier hired by royal son Titus (Douglas Booth). Titus informs Jupiter of her significance to the family, and Jupiter is tempted by the appeal of living a better life, until she discovers the fate of those on Earth; it is merely one of many planets in the royal family’s possession, and its sole purpose is for the humans, once they have rendered life on Earth unsustainable, to be harvested in order to create a formula that grants the royals eternal life.

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Blu Tuesday: John Wick, Dracula Untold and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“John Wick”

WHAT: When his prized Mustang is stolen and his pet beagle (a final gift from his dying wife) is murdered, ex-hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) comes out of retirement to exact revenge on the one responsible – Iosef (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of a Russian gangster (Michael Nyqvist) – and anyone else who gets in his way.

WHY: Keanu Reeves has made some great action movies (“Speed,” “The Matrix”), as well as some not-so-great ones, over the course of his career, and though “John Wick” isn’t quite good enough to be counted among the former, it’s a fun little genre flick destined for cult status. Reeves is certainly in his element as the soft-spoken hitman, piling up bodies by the minute and almost always finishing them off with a bullet to the head. (Seriously, there are more headshots in this film than you can count.) The movie does get a bit repetitive after a while due to the rinse-and-repeat nature of the fight sequences, but those scenes are also what makes it so giddily entertaining, featuring an old-school sensibility that focuses more on the kinetic energy of the action than fancy choreography or camera movement. It also boasts an impressive ensemble cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick, not to mention Adrianne Palicki – who’s pretty much cornered the market on sexy, badass women – in an amusing supporting turn as a rival assassin. “John Wick” could have been really terrible, but it never takes itself too seriously, instead embracing the outlandish premise with such cool self-awareness that it practically dares you not to have a good time.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary with directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the fight choreography and five additional production featurettes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Dracula Untold”

WHAT: Decades after being taken hostage as a teenager and forced to fight for the Ottoman Empire, Transylvanian prince Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) has put down his sword in order to rule his people. But when Turkish sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper) demands 1,000 youths for his army – including Vlad’s only son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson) – Vlad refuses to submit, instead making a deal with an ancient vampire (Charles Dance) to give him the power required to protect his land from Turkish retaliation.

WHY: It seems like everyone is getting an origin story these days, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood treated its original bad boy to one of his own. Unfortunately, the last thing that anyone needed was another film that tries to humanize a classic villain with a backstory explaining why they broke bad, especially one as iconic as Dracula, because it completely undermines everything that makes him so fascinating. Refashioning Dracula as a misunderstood antihero is a difficult proposition on its own, and director Gary Shore doesn’t do himself any favors by having the Transylvanians speak with British accents. Whether it’s because Luke Evans was incapable of delivering a suitable accent, or Shore just wanted to move away from the stereotypical Dracula performance, it’s an odd and distracting decision, particularly when the rival Turks sound exactly as they should. Evans isn’t the worst choice to play Vlad, but while he has the right look and brooding presence, he delivers every line like he’s performing a Shakespearian adaptation of “300.” For all of its faults, however, “Dracula Untold” fails primarily for the same reason as Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” – the man before the legend isn’t as interesting as the legend himself. There’s a good reason this part of the Dracula lore remained untold, and it should’ve stayed that way.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Gary Shore and production designer Francois Audouy, scene-specific commentary by star Luke Evans, a video diary from the set, deleted scenes, an alternate opening and more.

FINAL VERDICT:

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