About samtunningley

I am a lover of film and music. Typically, my entries will focus on analyzing, critiquing, and rhapsodizing these subject areas.

REVIEW: What We Do in the Shadows

What-We-Do-in-the-Shadows 3 What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Written by: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer

The staying power of the “mockumentary” never ceases to amaze. Right when the genre seems to have been flogged to death, something new emerges to inject more life. What We Do in the Shadows, the new film from co-directors Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waitit, is its latest triumph. Lying close to the sweet-natured deadpan films of Christopher Guest, its innumerable successes come from, among other things, a clear love and dedication to the form. The directors, who also star in the movie, shrewdly take on everything from hokey History Channel infotainment to MTV reality shows (The Real World and True Life, especially).

There is nary a second that isn’t filled with some sort of visual gag, sharp quotable or savvy edit – and almost every decision is a success. Viago (Taika Waitit) is a modest vampire living in a New Zealand estate with his three flatmates Petyr (Ben Fransham), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement). The four have consented to a documentary crew following them around in the months leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – the big annual event for all things evil.

Viago is the kind romantic, yearning for another opportunity with a lost love; Deacon, an ex-Nazi vampire, is the “badboy” of the group; Vladislav is an ages-old pervert who used to torture innocents by, literally, poking them; and Petyr is the 8,000 year-old monster downstairs, kept locked away and out of sight (and resembling a certain Murnau creation). When not drinking the blood of humans (Viago notes, the unfortunate part of being a vampire), the guys are content on leading a relatively low-key existence. Immortality, they concede, certainly doesn’t mean one is excused from doing the dishes and sweeping the hallway. What We Do in the Shadows Waitit and Clement constantly play on the vampire mythos clashing against (or, rather, adapting to) modern-day banalities. In a scene near the beginning, the guys roughly sketch each other on sheets of paper to deal with the serious problem of having no reflections while getting ready to go out. Once out on the town, they must be invited in to the clubs, which results in begging the bouncers for entry. The hurdles in getting a victim back to their place seem endless, and when they actually do manage a mild success, it’s often fumbled through their clumsiness and rusty tactics.

Deacon, fortunately, has a servant named Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) that, in addition to doing upkeep work, assists them with collecting victims, in the hopes of being turned into a vampire herself. When she brings two “virgins” back to their house, the plan backfires, and one of them, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), is turned into a bloodsucker and new member of the family. From that point on, the happy house shifts into a power struggle between the old vampires and the new – the dynamic compromised by Nick bringing in a human friend, Stu (Stuart Rutherford), and bragging about his new vampire abilities at the bar (“I’m the guy from ‘Twilight’”).

Nick resembles that disingenuous housemate all-too-familiar on reality shows; the one who gets his rocks off from heavy drama, consistently (and, sometimes, unintentionally) stirring up trouble. And this certainly isn’t the only way the film resembles reality television – it includes a re-enactment, an intervention, a montage of trying on clothes and talking-head confessionals. Divulging some of the best gags would be doing a major disservice to the film, which is best served cold, but the highlights are numerous – and many indulge a keen familiarity with the most pervasive documentary tropes.

The movie is brisk, and almost exhaustingly clever. If not all the jokes land (and a few don’t), it has more than enough to cover for the occasional lag into uninspired territory. Its charm is rooted in a script that pays loving tribute to vampire lore and cringe comedy (In an interview with The Dissolve, Clement and Wahiti cite This Is Spinal Tap as a major inspiration), and a cast of uncommonly likeable characters. Those familiar with Clement’s television show Flight of the Conchords will already be accustomed to the actor/director’s brand of Kiwi-comedy, mastered by this point, drawing laughs most often from naivety and awkward situations. What We Do In The Shadows is more of the same, but done so well it feels brand new again.

Grade: B

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REVIEW: The Immigrant

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The Immigrant
Directed by: James Gray
Written by: James Gray & Ric Menello
Starring: Marion Coitillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner

The American Dream, that simulacrum of perfection and success, has been scrupulously examined in a number of films released in the past year.  From the party-girl criminals of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to the celebrity-minded teenagers in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring to Michael Bay’s abhorrent bodybuilders in Pain & Gain, filmmakers, mostly established auteurs, are examining what it means to live in a country essentially founded on an illusory sense of entitlement. Most people living in this country nowadays know (or, at least, should) this isn’t how our (oligarchical, downright cruel) society works, but all anyone can do is try and live a life based on these bygone notions of freedom.

The aforementioned films took this idea to its endpoint, dealing with characters so far off the deep end—jaded from real-world banality—that they will do almost anything to reach an easy existence. James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant” portrays a character yet unaware of the Promised Land’s true nature; the totality of her being rests on a false promise.

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REVIEW: Post Tenebras Lux

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Post Tenebras Lux
Directed by: Carlos Reygadas
Written by: Carlos Reygadas
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Willebaldo Torres and Eleazar Reygadas

Carlos Reygadas has been building towards this film his entire career. His first two features, Japón and Battle in Heaven, were made by a young talent with a strong proclivity towards sex and violence and an almost spiritual worldview—films that remain impressive, but also feel like the work of a director still settling in. His next outing, Silent Light, took that spirituality even further and left behind the more provocative elements, crafting a film that was a bracing technical and emotional achievement. Post Tenebras Lux (which translates to “Light After Darkness”), far and away his best film, brings the luridness of the earlier work to co-mingle with the more religious and philosophical nature of Silent Light. It is also the director’s most personal film to date, offering a much more opaque and baffling vision than any of his previous work.

The almost unanimously cold reception says much more about the critics reviewing the film than it does about the director who helmed this vision. If we’re dealing with something that feels out of reach, intellectually or otherwise, it seems almost customary in the film world to immediately dismiss whatever is on the screen (or, in Post Tenebras Lux’s case, pan it as a “massive failure”). I offer a different assessment: this is a radical exercise, but also one that stands as easily the most inviting film Reygadas has made. It is a work of insurmountable beauty and mystery, and one that beckons the viewer inside its impossible world.

Post Tenebras Lux opens with two extraordinary sequences that could very well be the best Reygadas has ever filmed. The first shows a very young girl running through a field at dusk and naming off the roaming animals. The girl, Rut, is both actual daughter of the director and the fictional daughter of the central family here.  This announces the film’s almost home movie intimacy right from the start (his son is also featured.

As she is wandering, the sky starts to darken, rain clouds gather overhead, and an air of menace seems to take over the screen. The title flashes, one word at time, over the pitch-black rain clouds and crashing thunder. On a purely technical level, it is astonishing—reminiscent and on par with the sunrise/sunset scenes from Silent Light. After this remarkable scene, another one immediately follows: an animated Devil, seemingly arriving home from work, is seen creeping through a house at night carrying a tool box, and silently peeking into a child’s room. Though these scenes do not squarely fit in with the main narrative, they still have a whole lot to do with the thematic ideas on display.

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There are a few other scenes that also remain detached from the story (most notably, the English rugby match and the futuristic French orgy), but they also give the film its weight. It is deeply concerned with patriarchal domination, with family as a unit, with upper/lower class divisions as well as guilt and uncontrollable rage.

Some have labeled this as a mid-life crisis film, and I don’t think that is very far off. It is autobiographical in the most unsettling sense. The “main” story is about a family that lives in the Mexican countryside. The father is presented as a sex-starved and violent presence, brutally beating one of the family dogs to death in an early scene.

One of the things I found difficult to reconcile with in the director’s early work, notably Japón, was the animal violence.  Although the scene in Post Tenebras Lux is still brutal and rightfully off-putting, it is shown off-screen. He later admits that he cannot control his violent impulses, and his wife always seems to be tip-toeing around him, estranged and uncomfortable, as if something terrible is just waiting to be unleashed.

Through all of this, there is story concerning a worker for the family that is weaved into the movie’s tapestry. It is through this character’s connection to the family that Reygadas shows a strong class divide, as well as a division on a smaller scale in both of the families. The film seems to have a large slant towards collectivism (this becomes especially clear in the cryptic last line of the film) and working together for the greater good. Unveiling much more of the plot would be doing the movie a great disservice. The best scenes come through with such a surreal vigor that the element of surprise is best left retained.

Throughout Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas incorporates a strange fish-eye effect—apparently, a screw-up while shooting that the director and his DP Alexis Zabe chose not to correct—that is less disorienting than it is beautiful. It gives the outdoor scenes a ghostly radiance that feels at home with the dreamy atmosphere conjured up. Aesthetic decisions like this one show a filmmaker, often ridiculed for imitating one of the greats, taking bracing risks. This is a film that feels very much like something new and exciting, and if some of the ideas seem muddy or out of reach to some, it also feels like a deliberate decision and not a misstep. The negative critical opinion has lent it no favors, and it continues to be disregarded as some sort of misguided venture that is too ambitious for its own good. This further supports the unfortunate notion that cinema is meant to be plot-driven, to be easily digestible and glued to the same tired format. Post Tenebras Lux is art-house cinema at its most inspired—miss it, and you’re missing one the year’s great films.

Grade: A

REVIEW: Prince Avalanche

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Prince Avalanache 
Directed by: David Gordon Green
Written by: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Joyce Payne and Lance LeGault

There are two sequences in Prince Avalanche, the new David Gordon Green film, that are among the best the director has ever done. The first is a quiet moment near the beginning of the film between Alvin (Paul Rudd), a highway worker that is re-doing the roads after a vicious fire, and an older woman that he finds searching among the ash and rubble. The woman explains to him that the fire destroyed her home, and she is looking for her paper pilot license that was lost in the burning. Alvin quietly suggests that the license may have burned away in the flames, and the woman looks at him with utter devastation. It is an extraordinarily moving, semi-improvised scene that finds the director returning to the warmth and poetry that characterized his early work.

The second sequence is a drunken montage concerning Alvin and Lance (Emile Hirsch), Alvin’s work partner and the brother of his girlfriend. The two begin taking shots together and are soon trashing their work site and throwing their supplies in joyous, drunken abandon. The montage is set to Explosions in the Sky, a group known for their grand bursts of emotion, and the song builds to a jovial climax over the chaotic imagery. These scenes co-existing in the same film, both masterful in their own right, is sort of why Prince Avalanche doesn’t really work. It is also what makes the film a fascinating experiment, bridging the major gap between the bromantic world of Pineapple Express and the tender honesty of George Washington.

The plot, loosely adapted from the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way, is essentially a character study on these two road workers as they re-model the streets. Lance is obsessed with getting laid (of course!), and he talks openly about his sexual frustration while at work. Alvin, on the other hand, frequently sends letters to Lance’s sister, persistently trying to keep their relationship steady. The performances here are charming enough, but the characters rarely move beyond their sketched-out archetypes—Lance is the slightly clueless, yet sincere, counterpart to the more levelheaded and serious Alvin. It is a classic odd couple, but it’s also something that we’ve seen before many times (often in Green’s own work).

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This wouldn’t be a big problem if there was simply a better film here. Much of the beauty that came so naturally in George Washington all feels a bit forced. The film was shot in the breathtaking countryside of Texas, and the cinematography from Green’s frequent collaborator Tim Orr looks fantastic, especially considering the film’s remarkable $60,000 budget. But the shots of nature, of a caterpillar crawling across a log to a skunk eating a turtle (seriously), all feel quite out of place when stuck between conversations of fingering a girl at a weekend party and Alvin farting. What remains is a weird pull-and-tug between vulgarity and naturalism, and it might have been a bit too much for Green to pull off.

What we have here, instead, is an enjoyable, if very slight, film from a talent who needs to find his voice again. It has been compared to Waiting for Godot and, indeed, the film contains a hefty amount of humor and surrealism, including a weird, recurring truck driver character. The difference, though, is that Green is unwilling to breach standard comedy and aim for something larger, and so we’re left with a film that feels a bit undercooked.

Grade: C+

REVIEW: A Field in England

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A Field in England
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Written by: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt and Peter Ferdinando

Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is, at once, the most exciting and the most perplexing film that he has made so far. That is saying quite a lot. It is a period piece set during the 17th-Century, while England is in the midst of a Civil War, but defining it as a “period piece” seems almost crude. It is so far removed from the films often associated with that stuffy genre, residing much closer to the mystical movies helmed by Spanish director Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is a cult film in the making, with its pleasures largely derived from the sheer mind-trip opacity of the direction—the film, much like Wheatley’s other work, takes us in one direction and then throws us in another.

Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is an alchemist’s assistant who meets up with three other travelers after fleeing his master during battle. The travelers—Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and Friend (Richard Glover)—are on a search for the nearest ale-house. Eventually, however, the group comes across a sinister man named O’Neil (Michael Smiley), who holds them captive and forces them to find a treasure in the eponymous field.

The twist in all of this is that the field is full of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and O’Neil uses them to control the men while they dig. The plot, at least in writing, seems relatively easy to grasp, but Wheatley adds an excess of psychedelic flourishes to keep the viewers in as much of a daze as the characters.

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The film can be obscure to the point of bewilderment, but that is mainly why it works. Wheatley, just like in his masterpiece Kill List, does not expect the audience to connect every dot together. The joy to be had while watching this is to simply ride along with Wheatley, even if some of the ideas will remain locked inside the director’s mind. It is enough, in this case, to enjoy the pure auteur vision at work.

And what a vision it is—the film is shot in gorgeously lush black and white and contains some of the most impressive and understated effects seen in any recent film. From the sun slowly being blotched out into black, to the plot halting at random in order for the characters to hold poses that convey their psychological states, to the flurry of whirling and spinning editing that washes over the screen during the men’s mushroom trip (which, surely, has to rank as one of the most impressive drug sequences of all time).

Wheatley uses more classical techniques in his editing, which is part of the reason his film looks like nothing else out there right now. The visual aspects of this film are simply stunning. That is not, however, to be flippant about the metaphysical aspirations at play here. This is a film with a dark heart beating at the center, and its concern with human nature is part of what lifts above standard midnight-movie fare.

This keeps in line with all of Wheatley’s work, which is too frequently reduced down to violence and incomprehensibility by critics. The point of Wheatley’s work, if there is an overarching one, is to use his, clearly vast, knowledge of genre films to explore the outer limits of these films and their relation to audience expectations. “Kill List” is a hitman film, but it isn’t just a hitman film, just as “Sightseers” isn’t just a comedy and “A Field in England” isn’t just a period piece. They are all very dark and visceral exercises in movie subversion and have a whole lot to say about humanity. Dismissing Wheatley as a director who solely relies on violence and confusion would also be dismissing an important and major talent.

Grade: B+

Editor’s note: As you may have noticed from the byline, we are excited to add Sam Tunningley to our writing team with this post.  He will be contributing reviews and other posts occasionally.  You can read more about him on the Writers page.