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.)

jemaine - conchords
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).

jemaine - vampire
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!)

jemaine- people
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 ). 

jemaine - regia
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).


Favorite Halloween Flix #1: Not Your Grandpappy’s Bloodsuckers

One by one they slip into our cities and towns under cover of darkness …. bloodthirsty, terrifying and badly in need of a good dental plan.

I’m referring to vampires, the hot trend in Halloween hits these days. 

 30 Days of Night is one of the more imaginative films in the genre. 

30 Days - poster

The pic is set in Barrow, Alaska. And what better place for vampires  to chill out than a town where the sun doesn’t shine for a month during winter. 

To quote vampire leader Marlow (Danny Huston): “We should have come here ages ago.”

Danny Huston - Sinking His Teeth Into a Role
Danny Huston – Sinking His Teeth Into a Role

Marlow and his band of toothy villains proceed to slaughter the townsfolk. It’s up to fearless young sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett); his plucky ex-wife, Stella (Melissa George) and ornery snow plow driver Beau Brower (Mark Boone Jr.) to stop them. 

These are not your grandfather’s Draculas. As Brower says: “Just because something stopped Bela Lugosi (star of the original 1931 Dracula film) doesn’t mean it can stop these things.” 

I’m giving the pic two fangs up for the manner in which Brit director David Slade (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) captures the look of the graphic novel  on which the film is based. 

The 30 Days of Night graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith)
The 30 Days of Night graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith

However, if you feel Mr. Slade plays a little too fast and loose with the source material you may not be alone. Mr. Hartnett, Ms. George and producer Rob Tapert hint in the DVD extras that they would have liked some reshoots but ,according to Mr. Tapert, “David didn’t want them.” (Hmmm. Do I detect some “creative differences” between the lines?)

Mr. Slade maintains in the obligatory “Making Of” featurette that he isn’t going for the gross-out factor here. Nevertheless, there is enough fake blood sprayed around that FX coordinator Jason Durey reveals they bought the stuff in bulk. 

Like Danny Huston says on the DVD, if you want a gentle film, rent Lassie. 

30 Days - DVD

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 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)

CULT FILM FAVES: From Dusk Till Dawn

Some things a man doesn’t forget.

Like a young Salma Hayek channeling her inner vamp in a killer dance routine that is singed on my brain. (This is shortly after Senorita Hayek co-starred in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and before she became the Oscar-nominated  actress/Emmy Award- winning producer we have come to, ahem, know and respect today.)

Salma Hayek in From Dusk to Dawn - Muy Caliente
Salma Hayek in From Dusk to Dawn – Muy Caliente

Nice to see Seventies blaxploitation stud Fred Williamson get a kick at the can. Both Rodriguez (who directs From Dusk ) and Quentin Tarentino (who wrote the script and co-stars, with George Clooney) , are fans of so-called “grindhouse” cinema so I gotta figure casting the star of  Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem was a mutual decision.

Fred Williamson In His 1970s Prime
Fred Williamson In His 1970s Prime

There are also personal faves like Brenda Hillhouse, Tarentino’s  former acting teacher (yeah, we can see how well that turned out), future Machete star Danny Trejo (let’s face it, what horror movie casting director could resist this battered mug) and legendary “splatter movie” make-up artist Tom Savini (as a character called “Sex Machine”.)

Juliette Lewis and Harvey Keitel in From Dusk to Dawn
Juliette Lewis and Harvey Keitel in From Dusk to Dawn

Not to mention the original Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel, cast as a preacher and former Hollywood wild child Juliette Lewis as his  daughter.

George Clooney (with a bad haircut) and Quentin Tarentino (with glasses) as the bank robbin' Gecko Bros.
George Clooney is the one with the bad haircut. Quentin Tarentino is wearing glasses (as if you didn’t know)

I could write the plot on the back of a popcorn bag: George and Q play bankrobbin’ brothers who kidnap the Rev and his daughter and wind up in a bar in the Mexican desert populated by cops, bikers and vampires … lots of vampires! (This ain’t the cuddly Twilight types , more like the cold. remorseless kind in 30 Days of Nights.)

What starts out as a nervy action thriller gradually turns into a wildly over the top horror movie which seems more  concerned with creating  gross-out special effects than telling a good story.

If At First You Succeed ....
If At First You Succeed ….

Nevertheless, the movie must have earned a modest profit because it spawned a direct-to-video sequel (From Dusk to Dawn: Texas Blood Money) and prequel (From Dusk to Dawn: The Hangman’s Daughter). Rodriguez and Tarentino were listed as “executive producers” (whatever that means) of both releases.  

Not to mention a feature length documentary Full Tilt Boogie  which gives an intimate glimpse into the shooting of the pic and its stars (more about that in my next post.)