Jemaine Clement – Straight Outta N.Z.

With his blocky features and dorky glasses, Jemaine Clement reminds me of my Grade Eleven Physics teacher, Mr. Prokopetz (Y’know, the one that had a nervous breakdown midway through the term.) And yet, this most unlikely of media personalities has carved out a career with the most. um, unlikely kind of material. Mr. Clement swam into the North American pop cultural consciousness as one-half of the half-witted musical duo “Flight of the Conchords” (The other half – played with masterly composure – was fellow New Zealander Bret Mackenzie.)

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Bret and Jemaine – Striking the Right “Con” CHORD

 I watched Season I on cable and Season 2 of the HBO series on a DVD I got from the library. Rhys Darby is poker-face perfect as the duo’s woefully inept but egotistical manager, Murray, and Kristin Schaal is suitably zany as their devoted fan/groupie, Mel. The series also features David Costabile – usually cast as an unsavory  type – in a rare comic role as Mel’s boyfriend/husband.

The 2014 film What We Do In The Shadows teams up Mr. Clement with fellow Kiwi oddball Taiki Waititi in a deadpan goof on vampire film cliches. (Mr. Clement and Mr. Waititi share writing and directing duties.) Taiki Waititi also acts as the narrator of the Office– style mockumentary,  an almost 400-year old bloodsucker named Viago. Mr. Waititi is perfect in the role with the deer-in-the-headlights look and too-broad smile of someone who has never been on camera before. Mr. Clement’s character is named Vladislav (naturally), a dour vampire with fright wig hair, mustache and goatee (and minus the glasses).

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Jemaine Clement as Vladislav – Taking Aim at Vampire Flix

The film asks us to imagine that the two share the house with 183 year old “bad boy vampire” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000 year old Petyr (Ben Fransham), a double for the toothy villain in the 1920s horror classic Nosferatu. Trust me. This is not your (great) grandfather’s vampire.  Dracula creator Bram Stoker may be turning over in his grave. (If, indeed, he is truly deceased.) These blood-sucking housemates wash dishes, grumble over chores. tidy up the house after a messy kill and go nightclubbing together. (Mr. Darby plays Anton, one of the werewolves who challenge the vamps to a fight.)

The film not only takes aim at familiar vampire tropes but also spoofs documentary film-making itself, with the camera going out of focus, documentary visual cliches and, even, footage of one of the characters talking while driving (a favorite of documentary  film-makers.)

Some over-enthusiastic critics have called the film “an instant cult classic.” First of all, the adjective “instant” makes me edgy and only time will tell if it’s a “cult classic” (the phrases “scream with laughter” and “howl with glee” have been done to death.) However, if you appreciate the dry wit of Conchords, you should definitely rent or buy the DVD. (I got my copy at the local video store.) You don’t have to be knowledgeable about vampire flicks to appreciate it, but, if you are, this pic should be just your type. Blood type, that is. (Oops!)

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No, that’s not Jemaine  Clement in another clever disguise 

Mr.Clement get to keep his unique Kiwi accent as Will, a transplanted graphic novelist living in NYC and struggling to get over the sudden collapse of his marriage in People, Places and Things.

jemaine - stephanie
Stephanie Allynne (as Will’s cheating wife) and Michael Chernus (as, well, the cheatee.)

 It’s basically a family flavored rom-com but given that Mr. Clement is in the starring role (although American film-maker Jim Strouse wrote and directed ) the flick is reliably quirky. In addition to coping with his new single status, Will must also deal with taking on responsibility for his two adorable little daughters (real-life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby, who steal every scene they are in.)

jemaine- with girls

To supplement his meagre income, Will is also an art teacher and one day one of his students (Jessica Williams, a star for the future) offers to introduce him to her divorced mom (Regina Hall, demonstrating a range not offered by her limited role as a cop on F/X’s Justified ). 

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Regina Hall at a screening of People, Places and Things.

Will’s misadventures as a divorced dad and possible lover form the basis of this sweet, funny film (recommended).

If You Can Imagine Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a Ballet …..

…. you  have something in common with idiosyncratic auteur Guy Maddin.

Guy Maddin (Before he Started To Look as Cryptic as His Films)
Guy Maddin (Before He Started To Look as Cryptic as His Films)

The filmmaker admits he was more of a Frankenstein guy while growing up but he began to see the possibilities when choreographer Mark Godden introduced him to Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s adaptation of the Bram Stoker horror classic.

I have seen more than my share of vampires on television and in movies in the last few years. However,  I can safely say this 2002 version of the horror classic is unlike any other you may have viewed.

Mr. Maddin has always been  obsessed with the look and feel of pre-talkies cinema and when he saw the ballet company’s take on the time-honored tale he began to envision a film which would fit in with his own unique sensibilities.

As he told The New York Times: “When they quit doing bourrées and pas de deux they ended up doing… silent-movie acting… but far more elegant, because dancers learn to mime with every fibre of their bodies.”

I’ll be honest with you. What I know about ballet I learned from Black Swan. Sure, I’ve been to a couple of live performances and even met members of a troupe when I was covering arts and entertainment  for a local cable TV outlet but I hafta  say the special  appeal of the art form eluded me.

And yet there is something about the agility and grace with which  the performers move through their roles in this film  that is a wonder to watch.

Mr. Maddin’s interpretation of the work is like a surreal silent film,  dialogue flashing on the screen (see below),  orchestral music  filling the soundtrack (in this case, a menacing, melodramatic score by Gustav Mahler) and yet filmed with a kind of post-millennial cunning.  (Mr. Maddin put Vaseline on the camera lens to achieve an almost hallucinogenic effect. There are breathtaking color washes to reflect the mood of  the events  onscreen and sound effects where you least expect them. )

guy- title cards

The film-maker  says he read the source novel before shooting and discovered some themes not often seen in versions of the Dracula legend. For example, Victorian England apparently had a fear of immigrants  (that would explain the title role being played by a gifted Chinese-Canadian dancer/actor named Zhang Wei-qiang, pictured below sinking his teeth into the lovely neck of Tara Birtwhistle as Lucy Westernra)

Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (now available on DVD)
Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (now available on DVD)

ACM (The Australian Center for the Moving Image) calls the film “a fluid and deeply romantic experience where the camera becomes an extension of the dancers’ graceful rendering of the outsider … repressed sexuality and animal abandon.”

Works for me.

Although he is hardly a household name in his native country Mr.  Maddin  is a big deal among U.S. cinephiles. (In 1995, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at  Telluride Film Festival, the  youngest filmmaker  to receive the honor in the history of the prestigious fest.)  There are books about his art (Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin  by Caelum Vatnsdal is only one of the volumes listed on Amazon) and documentaries (Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, narrated by Tom Waits.)

He is also something of a cult hero overseas. He has been the subject of retrospectives in France, Holland and Australia (Mr. Maddin  has ten feature films to his credit).  Paris Match hailed him as “the Canadian David Lynch.”  The comparison may be flattering but it is also inaccurate (even though, come to think of it, his scripts can be as impenetrable as, say, Lost Highway and Isabella Rossellini, the former Mrs. Lynch – and star of Blue Velvet – has appeared in several of Mr. Maddin’s films.)

Isabella Rossellini in 2003's The Saddest Music in the World
Isabella Rossellini in 2003’s

    The Saddest Music in the World       

 

Personally, I prefer the term “Maddinesque”, employed by usually loquacious American film critics when simply no other term will do to describe what is going on in yer typical  Guy Maddin film.

Just in case you were wondering, this ain’t my first  rodeo (as they might say on the Canadian Prairies). Loved Mr. Maddin’s My Winnipeg, couldn’t figure out Keyhole (“It will become crystal clear upon your third viewing” the director promises Andrew Pulver on guardian.co.uk. Maybe that’s my problem. I only watched it once.) 

Guy Maddin (After He Started Looking As Cryptic as His Films)
Guy Maddin (After He Started Looking As Cryptic as His Films)