Saturday, March 7, 2015

Review: What We Do in the Shadows

Version I Watched: Theatrical release.

History: This mockumentary from New Zealand was based on a 2006 short film of the same name. It was eventually made into a feature by Taika Cohen and Jemaine Clement who are most well known for creating Flight of the Conchords, but also made the original short this was based on.
Pulled together from nearly one hundred and twenty hours of mostly improvised footage the film was premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It would eventually see a limited release which is going on right now (March 2015.) With a budget of only a little over $1 million the film has easily earned back what was put into it.
The film has been getting mostly positive reviews. It even holds a surprising 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, a source known for being pretty harsh in their reviews. To put that in perspective, What We Do in the Shadows holds a higher ranking on their site than most of the best picture nominees (Boyhood and Selma have it beat, Whiplash is equal) at this year's academy awards, jumping just 2% past Birdman, the best picture winner.

Personal History: I didn't even hear about this until I saw a trailer when I went to see The Imitation Game a couple weeks ago. My wife and I were laughing our heads off at the trailer alone, turned to each other when it was done and said "we have to see this."

Review: Vampires have really lost their edge in the last decade or so. And no I'm not talking about the Twilight series. It seems like whenever vampires show up in modern movies they're a lackluster bunch of style over substance. Sure the Blade movies were pretty cool but they were also terribly shallow. Not to mention the shit-tastic Underworld franchise. I have been clamoring for more interesting vampires to come along but my hopes have been low because the results have been mostly terrible...
...with the exception of Let the Right One In and Thirst that is...
...and I clamor because vampires are really cool and interesting characters that are way more interesting than the overly-stylized action movie vampires that are presented in most modern movies. That's a deeper discussion for another day, and while What We Do in the Shadows isn't that super serious character analysis of a vampire it sure as hell is one of the best satires on the vampire character that I've EVER seen!

What We Do in the Shadows takes a slightly overdone concept but does it well in a way we haven't seen for years. They are followed around by a documentary crew (making this a mockumentary) and are recorded as they go about their daily life, all leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade. Similar to This Is Spinal Tap or a Christopher Guest movie. And really this has to be one of the best examples of that kind of comedy since Christopher Guest's peak.

The hilarity ensues immediately with the brilliant characters that live together in this large house in New Zealand. They all are very different in execution and style, all owning their character, living it beautifully. Their performances reference popular and iconic versions of old vampires. Including but not limited to a traditional Lugosi, Nosferatu, and even Gary Oldman's take from the 1992 Dracula film.
A lot of the comedy comes from them being goofy idiots who are out of touch with modern times and how they conflict with each other in their living situation. Still in this goofiness they perform it all straight. At no point did I feel like they were playing to the audience with a wink as if to say "Hey! Hey! Did you catch that joke?" like so many other satires have done in recent years.
And that's where I really give credit to What We Do in the Shadows. They take their years of comedy knowledge and skill and make something that'd definitely goofy... but is also earnest. You feel a sense of depth and connection with these characters that have a limited screen time because the movie isn't even ninety minutes. Even their non-vampire friend Stu using simplicity as he spends most of the movie sitting in the background with a blank stare on his face.

All done utilizing a bundle of mostly improvised footage.

Which brings me to my thoughts on that method in general. While I was watching and laughing like crazy I couldn't help but admire the level of quality in the comedy despite it being improvised. It made me wonder about a lot of other comedies that are heavily improvised and the best examples I could think of were, again, This Is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest movies.
I also thought about movies like Anchorman and whatever Judd Apatow is putting together. While I've enjoyed some of those movies quite well they have many fatal flaws, many of which this movie did not have. I always get annoyed with how long some of those comedies get while incorporating too much serious material, which works for some but is a buzz kill for others. Then they'll seem to not know how to cut jokes as to include as many as possible despite relevance to the story or the tone of the scene.
Not that long ago I watched Anchorman 2. I did find it funny but I found it very unsatisfactory as a movie. It had zero structure and a lot of references or jokes for the sake of being jokes. It made a lot of little sense in the long run and instead felt like an extra long, live action episode of Family Guy. Not saying it was bad, just not as pleasing as it could have been.
What We Do in the Shadows accomplishes so much for such a goofy comedy. A lot of the things I mentioned that these other comedies fail to do, whether they're trying to or not, are in fact accomplished here. I cannot stress enough how satisfying this movie was not just as a comedy, but as a story and as a movie.

So much fun with so much character and such great jokes make this one something to remember. Yeah it's silly and doesn't take itself seriously but at least it doesn't bring attention to it like other comedies. So many other comedies seem to feel a lack of confidence so they try to bring awareness to their intentions as much as possible in as simple a way as possible. Not here. Not a chance.
It's only hitting select screens in it's theatrical run so it may be tough to get to. When you get the chance see this movie because it is absolutely hilarious in all the best ways possible. Without a doubt the ultimate vampire comedy. Sure as hell a lot better than Dracula: Dead and Loving It... but it's not much of a competition against that.

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