What We Do in the Shadows (2014): The Perfect Vampire Comedy

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) Dutch movie poster

“What We Do in the Shadows” is one of my favorite films of all time. This is the perfect horror comedy that has some brilliant sendups to other vampire films in the characters they are while still inhabiting an original compelling universe. Suffice to say I highly recommend this one. Waititi and Clement are at their best in direction, writing and acting.

As said above this was directed and written by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

The story is a documentary following the lives of vampire flatmates Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and the ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham) in the lead-up to the Unholy Masquerade.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world of “What We Do in the Shadows” is fascinating. This is our world but inhabited by vampires, werewolves, ghouls and witches who have organizations and host parties and are trying to get by unnoticed. It is fascinating and gives an interesting dynamic to be explored in the documentary.

The Soundtrack – Plan 9 created a popping soundtrack that feels timeless given the immortals the story is following. It is catchy but also gives moments for reflection.

The Comedy – The comedy is hilarious. The film is done mockumentary style so there is a lot of situational dark comedy of the vampires living their lives as most of the humor works with them being “fish out of water.” From here Clement and Waititi only take the premise deeper with the characters and situations they create.

The Characters – The characters arcs are what make the film compelling as in this film most of the character situations change by the end. It is really well done how they are all weaved together.

Jackie – Jackie is Deacon’s “Familiar,” basically a vampire servant who wants to become one herself. Deacon continues to deny her this and we get to see how she brings them people and cleans up the messes after they’ve eaten the people. By the end she has become a vampire though as after Nick’s exile he changes her.

Deacon – Deacon is the worst of the bunch as in he’s the most unlikable and egotistical. Petyr was the one who changed him into a vampire and he sees himself as a rockstar, but he has to be pushed to do the dishes. We see his caring side come out though when he believes Stu is dead, showing he has some dynamic to his character.

Anton – Anton played wonderfully by Rhys Darby is the leader of a pack of local werewolves. They clash with the vampire flatmates on a few occasions with Anton being the one keeping back a fight. Later when they change they end changing Stu into a werewolf which leads to a peace and the possibility of friendship with the vampire flatmates. He’s one of my favorite characters in the film, though I have a few of those.

Petyr – Petyr is over 8,000 years old and takes inspiration from Nosferatu in appearance. He never talks but his approach to feeding is to turn any person he drinks from into a vampire. The implication from the story is he probably was the one who turned all the flatmates. In this way he is way more generous with immortality than the others who hold it pretty close. Deacon as the greatest illustration of the selfishness. In the end he is killed by the sunlight when a vampire hunter breaks in through a window in his basement home leading to the sunlight killing him. Ben Fransham does a great job acting entirely through facial expressions.

Nick – Nick is turned by Petyr when he manages to escape the flatmates trap and is ambushed outside their home. His arc is making peace with it as we see him grow to hate being a vampire after celebrating it initially. It is after his exile for telling the vampire hunter he was a vampire, which lead to Petyr’s death that he is exiled and seems to find some balance and identity in himself after leaving. He introduces the group to Stu, who is their favorite human and who they like more than Nick and who Nick first tells he is a vampire.

Vladislav – Vladislav, known as Vladislav the Poker is based off the Gary Oldman “Dracula” and was once a warlord and ruler. He fell from power after he and his wife broke-up, who he calls “The Beast.” Jemaine Clement gives this character so much nuance as you see his sorrow, ego and adapting to the modern world. His arc by the end of the film is confronting his ex and their eventual getting back together in their toxic relationship.

Viago – Viago is terrible but also a bit of a sweety. His approach is to make others feel comfortable and to have a good time before he kills them. He’s also a romantic too and pines for the woman he had moved to New Zealand for in the first place. He is the peacemaker of the group and can be a bit passive-aggressive while also being a bit of a troll towards the other vampires who aren’t the flatmates. He’s my favorite of the flatmakes, closely followed by Vladislav and Taika Waititi plays him brilliantly. In the end he reunites with his original love, who is now an old woman and turns her into a vampire.

Stu – Stu has the best arc in the film and is really the heart of it. He is the human friend of the flatmates and Nick’s best friend. He is protected by the group when the Unholy Masquerade wants to eat him and the group believing he is dead is something they take harder than Petyr’s death. His good nature and tech savvy endear him to the group and he is the reason that the rest of the werewolves are welcomed as potential friends after he is made one of them when he is attacked and bitten by one after the Unholy Masquerade. Stu Rutherford did a great job playing him.

At this point I’d say 2 vampire films make it into my favorite films. This film and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I think Coppola’s “Dracula” has the possibility to be but I’ll need to watch it again. Great comedy is hard to write, especially in regards to film versus television but this is something Waititi and Clement did brilliantly. I’ve heard great things about the show too, so I plan to see that as well. Suffice to say, I highly recommend this amazing film.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Jojo Rabbit (2019): A Masterpiece of Satire and Heart

Image result for Jojo rabbit poster

     Taika Waititi is brilliant. “Jojo Rabbit” is one of the best satires I have ever seen as it mixes the feel of a Wes Anderson film with the biting edge of a Mel Brooks comedy. This film has so much heart and the powerful message alone are reason enough to see it. This might be my favorite film from Taika and will most likely make my Top 5 Films at the end of the year.

The film was directed and written by Taika Waititi and based off the story Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.

The story follows “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a German child at the end of World War 2. He’s fully bought into the Nazi propaganda and has an imaginary friend Hitler (Taika Waititi). His world is soon changed when he finds his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is sheltering a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Characters and Performances – The main characters are wonderful. You have the naive Jojo who grows out of the fascist propaganda over the course of the film. You have his mother Rosie who is fighting against the Nazis trying to spread the word of resistance through Berlin, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson do. Elsa is the heart of the film as the Jewish refugee who forms a friendship with Jojo over the course of the film.

The Satire – The satire is brilliant. Like Mel Brooks mocked Hitler in “The Producers,” Taika does this hear with a cartoonish Hitler who acts like a child that is eventually seen by Jojo to be the insane man he is. It is gradual but we see how it is from made up mythological stories that Hitler built his brand on in the lies told about what it means to be German and the lies about anyone considered an enemy of Germany. Be they Jewish, Romani, Russian, etc. Over the film you see this revealed in the people fed up with the lie or those embracing it even as it ruins their lives and those of the people around them.

Dangers of Fascism – One of the strongest themes of the film is the danger of fascism. In it you see how the populace suffers and only a very small group of the delusional are those who profit from the status quo they create. A women’s role becomes to bear children for the Empire, minorities are killed off and anyone who is injured or damaged is cast aside and forgotten about. Any difference from the ideal has no place and it is this ideal that is used to blind enough people to fulfill the will of those in power. This film illustrates all this beautifully and it is part of what gives the film so much power.

The Emotional Core – The emotional core of the film is in witnessing everything Nazism has destroyed and our heroes finding life at the end. Elsa lost her betrothed and family to the Nazis. Jojo goes from “Othering” Elsa to becoming her friend and it is powerful seeing him go through deprogramming himself from all the fascist propaganda. Jojo’s mother is hung for fighting against the Nazis and in the end one of the Nazi soldiers who protects Elsa risks his life to save Jojo. These moments lend the film so much power. It is this heart that makes it more than simply a brilliant dark satire.

The Cons:

Ending Length – This was a film that could have gotten to the final scene faster. The last third of the film drags at times, which does a good job of putting you into Jojo’s mindset but also hurts the narrative flow, since before this I never noticed pacing at all. This is the only con I could find though, which says a lot for how great this film is.

This is a powerful film that is well worth your time. The message of fascism’s danger and the evil in “Othering” people is relevant as ever now. I hope more people see this film and that the message is taken to heart. This film is a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see what other films Taika Waititi makes in the future.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 Near perfect.

 

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – A Great Movie Trapped in a Good Movie

   This was a movie that could have been one of my Top 5 Marvel Cinematic Universe films. I really wish this could have been a Planet Hulk type film as the Hulk and Sakaar are the best parts of this film are everything having to do with the Hulk, the good is the Thor movie this film is trapped in, which is very much a Marvel by the numbers. It wants to be “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” but the last films didn’t do the work for us to get that emotional investment. I’ll get into what I mean deeper into the review. For my non-spoiler thoughts though, it is well worth checking out, it is a good movie that is a lot of fun.

The film was directed by Taika Waititi, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is exiled from Asgard by a returned Hela (Cate Blanchett), who seeks to conquer Asgard and the known universe. Thor finds himself broken and is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena on Sakaar for the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Now in a race against time he must get back to Asgard and find allies to save Asgard from Hela.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Cinematography and Soundtrack – The cinematography is colorful and pulls you in immediately and when tied with the soundtrack creates the feel of being in an 80’s rock album. Especially with ACDC’s “Immigrant” as the main theme song of the film. The style of the film is unique too, it looks like a B Movie done with an A Movie budget.

The World of Sakaar – I wish the entire film could have taken place here. Everything interesting takes place on Sakaar. It is where Valyrie is living as a mercenary collecting fighters for the Grandmaster and also playing with Hulk. This world is fascinating as the trash and beings from all over the universe fall into the portals above this world. The Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum is also a real treat and should have been the main villain of this film and the film should have taken place here. Hela should have been saved as a bigger bad for later, there are enough “Conquer the universe” villains in the MCU.

Loki – Loki is wonderful in this. His reveal of being Odin happens early on when Surtur tells Thor that Odin is missing. Loki is so much fun in this, he is sometime ally and sometimes enemy but always is serving himself and his ego. This makes when he gets tricked by Thor near the end all the more enjoyable as well as his relishing of Hulk’s pummeling of Thor. When he is exiled like Thor in the fight with Hela he gets in with the upper class of Sakaar easily, which is completely in character. He does eventually team up with Thor and Valkyrie as we see his good come out when he comes back to save the people of Asgard (though it largely because he wants to be loved by them…he did build a statue of himself when he was pretending to be Odin and do a play of “Thor 2” and his “redemption.” Hiddleson continues to nail this character as he continues to be the best part of the Thor films.

The Grandmaster – Jeff Goldblum plays the wonderfully insane Grandmaster in this. What we learn is he came to Sakaar back in the beginning and built it up to be his own source of entertainment. From the tournament, from references to his orgies this is a guy who doesn’t care about anything about his own amusement. He really is a great character and is a fun villain as his own ambition (cheating so Hulk will win the fight and keeping Thor locked up with Hulk) lead to his undoing and his people rebelling against him. He shows up at the end in an after credits scene so I hope he will show up in the future.

Asgard’s Past and What Asgard Means – A major theme of the film is that Asgard is not a place it is a people and that what a people are is important. Hela is the warrior who was with Odin when they made the 9 Realms and spread the will of Asgard through them. It was after peace time that she was trapped and erased as she wanted to keep fighting. I wish Hela had been addressed as we never get why she loves battle and war and her erasure from history is an evil that Odin is never called out on and Thor never recognizes. She was a female God who was Odin’s Right Hand in the end it meant nothing because Odin changed the past. Odin was toxic patriarchy and that is never addressed. I’m still putting this in the pro area for what could have been covered and for the importance of a people meaning more than a place. People are what make a place matter.

The Hulk Story and Hulk’s Relationships – Hulk is the best part of this film, he is friends with Valkyrie who trains with him and his relationship with Hulk is funny as he sees Thor as both a friend and a threat. Hulk is like a giant child who just wants to fight and win but we see him become more and become Banner once more after hearing Black Widow’s last video. From here Banner’s story comes in and in the final sacrifice becomes Hulk again to take on Hela and her undead army. This is by far the best Hulk movie and it is the great film trapped in the good film. I wish we could have got Planet Hulk from the comics.

Okay: Surtur – Clancy Brown’s voice is perfect for the God of the Fire Demons but he is a pretty useless villain. Thor easily defeats him and he exists only as a plot device to bring about Ragnorak, which is the only way to destroy Hela. I wish more had been done with this guy and that we’d received more history and motivation. He seems driven by prophecy but he is hypothetically so powerful, there is no reason he should be driven by that.

Hela – Cate Blanchett is a great actress and she wonderfully vamps this role up…but she gets no development. We never get why she wants to conquer or how Odin shaped her into the person she is, she simply does. This is lazy storytelling and the only reason she isn’t a con is because Blanchett is such a great actress and the costume design is on point. She looks like Maleficent and her giant wolf is Fenrir and army of the Dead are a lot of fun.

The Thor Story – Thor goes through the hero’s journey again. This time it is him realizing he doesn’t need the Hammer to be Thor as he is the God of Thunder. It is after discovering this he helps Valkyrie find herself as a defender of Asgard again and helps Hulk become Banner once more. He also shows Loki what it means to be a good ruler. This is all good, it isn’t bad but it is also Marvel by Numbers. There is nothing done here that wasn’t done butter elsewhere. I would have preferred more development of Valkyrie so she wasn’t just a support character or Hela having a reason for what she did. These are things that could have made this a great rather than good Thor story. The great story is Hulk and Thor trapped on Sakaar being gladiators that we don’t get nearly enough time with as in the end the Thor and Ragnorak story is what drives the plot, and that is only good, not great.

The Asgard story is a marvel movie by the numbers. Villain has world conquest plot but is stopped by the hero when he discovers the power of friendship and his own internal power. Thi is “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America” and the last 2 Thor films. This is a shame as Hela and Sakaar both could have been so much more than what we are given. Things change with the people of Asgard being nomads now, but it doesn’t have the same weight to it as the loss of of SHIELD in “The Winter Soldier” or the death in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Hell the great movie taking place on Sakaar could have led to a Planet Hulk type film with Thor, sadly at the end of the day this is a Thor film and that is what keeps it from reaching greatness. I’d still recommend this film, it is beautiful and fun and easily the best of the “Thor Trilogy.”

Final Score: 8.7 / 10