Category Archives: 2014

The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard)

For most of The Guest, the script doesn’t matter. Either the acting or the filmmaking carry the scene. The first act is this fairly standard, fairly obvious—albeit beautifully produced—drama about an all American family in crisis after the death of the oldest son, a soldier, killed in action in the Middle East. Dad Leland Orser is a verbally abusive drunk who also feels inadequate for not making enough money (in rural New Mexico). Mom Sheila Kelley is just sad. And dealing with Orser. High schooler Brendan Meyer is super-smart and mercilessly bullied. Daughter Maika Monroe works at the diner to save for college and has to hide pot-head boyfriend Chase Williamson from the fam. Then Dan Stevens knocks on the door—actually, Dan Stevens knocks on the door first and then the film establishes the family and really quickly, really efficiently. The strangest thing about The Guest having script problems is the plotting flows perfectly; writer Simon Barrett basically just doesn’t have any ending and he doesn’t have enough character development. Otherwise, the script’s good.

Anyway—Stevens. He’s the dead son’s comrade and he promised to tell each family member how much the dead son loved them. Stevens is just a good, nice guy, which is apparently exactly what the family needs. Kelley doesn’t have a son back so much as a pal. Kelley’s a missed opportunity. She’s a narrative prop, moved around for effective, but her performance is great. The film really doesn’t do enough with her. She’s around a lot but she doesn’t get any character development. She’s just sad about dead son and worried about her family. She also doesn’t have a clothes dryer, which is important later on. She and Stevens are really good together. Actually, Stevens is really good with everyone—Orser, Meyer, love interest Tabatha Shaun—except the one person it turns out he needs to be really good with—Monroe.

And it’s both Stevens and Monroe’s fault, but maybe more director Wingard and writer Barrett’s. Because eventually they at least need to have some spark and they never do, which seems almost intentional and a really wrong-headed move on the film’s part. So, eventually weird things start happening—like Stevens helping Meyer with his bully problem and Shaun with a pushy ex-boyfriend—and Monroe overhears Stevens on a mysterious cellphone call and just has to start investigating. Everything about that plot development is bad—anal-retentive Stevens having his super-shady but not super-shady at all phone call in hearing distance, Monroe immediately going Nancy Drew (the character’s written differently in each act), even the direction is forced (in the wrong way). Because first act Monroe is supposed to be crushing on Stevens, whereas second act Monroe is convinced he’s the devil and then third act Monroe is aware he’s the devil but operating indifferently to that belief. It’s not a good part for Monroe, especially not in the third act; the writing is just too thin. Also the film kind of dumps Monroe in the second act as she’s Nancy Drewing to follow everyone else. Well, the guys, not Kelley.

But it’s always an engrossing thriller. Wingard, who also edits, which seems right, knows how to present Stevens for maximum effect and Stevens is the whole point. Again, why Nancy Drew Monroe if she’s not going to take point but whatever; Barrett’s script has a lot of issues. Wingard’s got a tone he’s going for and hits it; making the film around any narrative issues for most of its hundred minutes. Steve Moore’s music and Robby Baumgartner’s photography are both excellent and enable that tone. If Wingard had been able to succeed with The Guest, it would’ve been something. But not failing is something too. Though having Stevens helps. And Monroe and Meyer and Kelley and Orser. The cast is right, the script is just a little wrong.

Also, Lance Reddick as Stevens’s former CO needs to be great and then isn’t. Reddick’s the third act surprise and it’s a flop.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; director of photography, Robby Baumgartner; music by Steve Moore; production designer, Tom Hammock; costume designer, Kathleen Detoro; produced by Jessica Calder and Keith Calder; released by Picturehouse.

Starring Dan Stevens (David), Maika Monroe (Anna), Brendan Meyer (Luke), Sheila Kelley (Laura), Leland Orser (Spencer), Tabatha Shaun (Kristen), Chase Williamson (Zeke), Joel David Moore (Craig), and Lance Reddick (Major Carver).


What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi)

What We Do in the Shadows is strong from the first scene. An alarm clock goes off at six. A hand reaches over to hit snooze. Only it’s six at night and the hand is reaching from a coffin. Shadows’s a mockumentary (though I sort of want to start calling them docucomedies after this one); the unseen documentary crew’s subjects are four Wellington, New Zealand vampire flatmates—directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, Jonny Brugh, and Ben Fransham. The vampires have promised not to eat their documenters.

But there’s a lot of eating. Shadows is straight comedy. It’s funny when Waititi can’t figure out how to properly eat a victim, even though he’s almost four hundred years old. See, Waititi (as Clement tells the camera during the first act setup) was a dandy. Waititi is Interview with the Vampire, Clement is London After Midnight in terms of look while Vlad the Impaler (actually poker) in backstory. Brugh’s just a vampire. Fransham is Nosferatu, in some great makeup.

Waititi is the Felix, Brugh’s the Oscar, Clement’s in between. He does his chores, but he thinks Waititi is too much. Fransham is in a cement crypt in the basement and basically just eats people. He never cleans up either; his hallway is strewn with spinal cords and bones. It’d probably bother Waititi more if Brugh weren’t causing such problems upstairs. Plus, neither Brugh or Clement want to take the time to cover furniture before killing their victims. The blood’s getting on the nice furniture.

The first act sets up the life of modern Wellington vampires. How they get their victims—either seduction or Brugh having his familiar, Jackie van Beek, procure them—and how they socialize (they can’t get into many night spots because they need to be invited in). van Beek ends up introducing Cori Gonzalez-Macuer to the fellows, giving the film its main narrative. Gonzalez-Macuer becomes a vampire and, for about three minutes, it seems like the film might move to his perspective but no. Young know-it-all vampires are dopes; Gonzalez-Macuer is a dope and the film’s more about how the flatmates deal with having him around.

It’s not too bad, however, because he’s got a really cool friend (Stu Rutherford) who comes along. Rutherford’s human, but he’s so cool nobody’s going to eat him. Especially not after he shows the vampires how to use the Internet.

The film’s got a built-in structure—the documentary is about this annual undead ball and they’re going with the vampires. The ball shows up late in the film and, while it functions as the climax (or immediate precursor to it), it never feels that heavy. The “documentary” doesn’t change in tone. There’s no added emphases. Action just plays out like action plays out the rest of the time. The film’s meticulously edited, with this occasional asides to subplots. The asides are so successful you want the documentary filmmakers to show up just because they’ve got such an interesting take on their subjects. They’d be interesting characters. And not just because they’re so dispassionate about all the killing.

The killing is incidental.

All of the performances are great. Directors (and writers) Clement and Waititi are the best. Clement’s got something of a less showy role (though a more showy wardrobe) but gets to have some subtext while Waititi plays for more obvious laughs. He’s got his own subplot, but it doesn’t do anything until the end, when it’s just for a great laugh or two. Lots of great laughs in Shadows. Meanwhile, Clement’s subplot turns out to be tied to the main narrative. It’s complicated for the narrative but not so much for Clement, who instead has to imply a bunch in his performance. It all works out just right, of course, because Clement and Waititi do a fantastic job with Shadows. They’ve always got the right tone, the right joke, the right plot development.

Brugh, Gonzalez-Macuer, and van Beek all give strong performances. Brugh’s Oscar Madison so he’s mostly for a certain kind of laughs, but he’s also got great quirks. Gonzalez-Macuer is a sincere doofus. van Beek quietly suffers (she wants to be a vampire but Brugh keeps putting it off because vampires are shitty to their familiars).

There are a lot of vampire movie references in the film, including ones you might miss even if you’ve seen the movie. It’s more important to get the reference being a reference than to actually get the reference. The film leverages obvious genre tropes for humor, not specific references. Shadows is exceptionally well-executed.

And the special effects are perfect too.

Also—superb supporting performances all around, particularly Karen O’Leary as one of the cops who gets called out to check on the vampire house; superb supporting performances are no surprise because everything in What We Do in the Shadows succeeds.

Clement and Waititi, their costars, their crew—everyone does spectacular work.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; directors of photography, Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen; edited by Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Jonathan Woodford-Robinson; music by Plan 9; production designer, Ra Vincent; produced by Emanuel Michael, Waititi, and Chelsea Winstanley; released by Madman Entertainment.

Starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), Jackie van Beek (Jackie), and Elena Stejko (The Beast).


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The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)

So much of The Babadook is so good, it almost doesn’t matter the film’s third act is a series of little disasters. Director (and writer) Kent does such an exquisite job with the film until then, she can basically coast to the end credits. The Babadook is a spectacularly made film; Kent’s direction, Simon Njoo’s editing, Radek Ladczuk’s photography, Jed Kurzel’s music, and Alex Holmes’s production design are all phenomenal. Most of the leads Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman’s performances are great. For most of the film, Kent finds a perfect balance between being creepy and defining that creepiness. In the end, the creepiness is symbolic, which is it’s own problem, somewhat separate from the other third act issues. Except intricately tied to them because Kent’s finish for the film means there’s only so much she can do in the third act. Given the wobbly ending, it’s even more impressive how much of Babadook is good. Kent really does delay having to give into the finale building until the last possible moment.

Davis and Wiseman are almost always onscreen. Davis is a single mom, Wiseman is her somewhat strange six year-old (he’s about to turn seven, cue plot point); his father (Davis’s husband, Benjamin Winspear in flashbacks) died driving Davis to the hospital to give birth. She’s haunted by it. Wiseman’s haunted by it. It’s all very heavy. And kind of shocking it wasn’t a problem for Davis until Wiseman’s seventh birthday. She really delayed her breakdown.

The inciting action for the film is Davis reading Wiseman a story about The Babadook from a mysterious pop-up book Wiseman finds on the shelf. It’s a majorly disturbing book, even for a regular child and Wiseman’s extra sensitive. As the film starts, pre-Babadook read, Davis (and Wiseman) haven’t been getting good sleep. He’s scared of monsters and makes sure Davis knows it. Wiseman’s even building monster-fighting weapons; Rube Goldberg style. They’re important for the plot–and the character development (the friction between Wiseman and Davis). It’s a great detail. Babadook is full of great details. Kent’s writing of the first seventy minutes (the film runs just around ninety total) is fabulous.

For most of the film–even when it’s not–the film’s from Davis’s perspective. She’s trying to deal with the social awkwardness of Wiseman (he’s obsessed with monsters, which is kind of underdeveloped as it turns out; monsters under the bed or in the closets, monsters). Once they read the story, his awkwardness and behaviors escalate. He gets kicked out of school, he gets into it with his cousin and loses his aunt as a babysitter (the relationship between Davis and sister Hayley McElhinney is strangely more for comedic stress relief than character development). So by the second half of The Babadook, it’s just Davis and Wiseman alone together in their scary house where scary things are starting to happen.

Of course, there’s also the chronic lack of sleep thing, which is also an underdeveloped part of the ground situation. Kent avoids excessive exposition… but she also excessively avoids exposition. That approach lets her get symbolic with things, sure, but it leaves the film without much else, at least symbolically.

One of the most nightmarishly successful things Kent does in the film comes in that problematic third act, as Davis starts to entirely breakdown, becoming verbally abusive towards Wiseman (and threatening physical abuse, though only the audience knows its because she’s read more of the Babadook book). Most of the action takes place over one night. Kent doesn’t track time, instead following Davis’s extremely sleep deprived perception of the night. Kent keeps the same style devices the film’s had until this point, making The Babadook all of a sudden feel like this endless, horrible, threatening night. It’s fantastic filmmaking.

It just doesn’t add up narratively.

The acting is good. It’s all on Davis and Wiseman. She’s fantastic until the denouement; it’s not Davis’s fault. Kent just doesn’t figure out a way to bring the character back from the brink. From over the brink. Davis is fine in those scenes. Effective. She’s just no longer building this complex character, she’s doing muted pantomime. Even when the film’s outlandish, it’s never outlandish. Kent keeps it in check.

Wiseman goes from having incredibly loud, with concerning behaviors (again, one of Babadook’s stumbling blocks is how he and Davis never had to serious address them before the film’s present action) to being quietly terrified. It’s a strange character shift, like he forgets how to express himself. Some of it is a plot point–sedatives–but some of the shift is just so Davis’s own concerning behaviors can take centerstage.

The film’s a technical marvel. Kent, editor Njoo, and cinematographer Ladczuk do true wonders with the digital video. They make Babadook expressionistic while never breaking with the reality constraints of the setting. Sometimes it’s how the scene’s lighted, sometimes it’s how it’s cut. Kent directs the hell out of this picture. The script has nowhere near as much ambition, which doesn’t matter for most of the film. Between the acting and the filmmaking, the script not having the same intensity or energy doesn’t hamper The Babadook. The rest makes up for it.

Until the finale. And then there’s only so much the acting can do before the script trips it up. And then the script takes down the filmmaking too. Not entirely, of course, but sadly, just enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; director of photography, Radek Ladczuk; edited by Simon Njoo; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Alex Holmes; produced by Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; released by Umbrella Entertainment.

Starring Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Chloe Hurn (Ruby), and Benjamin Winspear (Oskar).


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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014, Nick Gomez)

A horrific crime. An infamous suspect. An unrelenting prospector and his search for the truth. Or not. I mean, technically most of the above statements could be used to describe Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, but none of them accurately captures the ninety-one minute TV movie.

There is some time spent on the crime. But Stephen Kay’s insipid teleplay already assumes Lizzie Borden’s guilt. It’s not about how or why Borden (Christina Ricci in a vacant performance) might have done the deed, but it’s also not much about how Ricci “got away with it.” There’s a trial sequence. It’s the worst part of the movie, which is saying a lot. Maybe because you finally get to see unrelenting prospector Gregg Henry come up against Kay’s bad writing. The writing lays waste to Henry, who ought to have some phenomenal part and instead doesn’t. According to the film, he doesn’t have much interest in truth. He’s justice-minded, sure, but without any convincing reasons for his passion. Once it’s clear Henry’s not getting any more character or any better scenes, he fades into the background.

Or it’s Steve Cosens’s lousy interior photography at the trial. Henry fades into that drab. But he could’ve had a good part. If the writing were better, if the direction weren’t weak. Director Gomez actually shows some interest at the beginning, when they’re recounting the murders. It’s not effect interest–the way he’ll frame a static shot to bring out the period details–but it’s an interest. It’s better than when he flubs a jump scare. Once he flubs the jump scare, it’s even more all over for Lizzie Borden. There’s just nothing to take seriously about it.

Ricci doesn’t have a character to play. Kay and Gomez have so little interest in Borden as a protagonist, they’re unwilling to commit to any characterization. At least Clea DuVall, as Ricci’s sister, gets to have emotional breakdowns. Ricci isn’t even allowed affect. No personality, no affect. Gomez’s direction is really bad. It’s goofy TV movie stuff a lot of the time, but it’s a goofy TV movie script so what else is he going to do with it, but Gomez doesn’t even help the actors. It’s so bad.

Also contributing to the endless depths of bad is the soundtrack. Lizzie Borden, set in 1892 New Jersey, has a hip, modern, country-twinged white man blues rock soundtrack. No women, however. The trappings of Ricci’s nineteenth century female are best exemplified through crappy songs. That anachronism is the only one in the movie. Unless you count Kay’s unbelievable court proceedings as anachronistic.

The guys have better parts. Shawn Doyle and Billy Campbell get through Lizzie Borden unscathed. They don’t try to hard, they phone it in, but they phone it in professionally. The parts are also better because they’re infinitely thin. Campbell’s the family lawyer who’s now defending Ricci. You’d think he might have some reaction to it. But no.

Oh. Right. The trial. The trial is terrible. The writing’s terrible, the direction is terrible. Gomez can’t get any intensity out of the proceedings, partially because Kay’s a bad writer, but also because there’s nothing to be intense about. The case hasn’t been made interesting. The characters haven’t been made interesting. It’s just awful stuff.

Stephen McHattie is the father. Historically, he seems like he was a bastard. Kay and Gomez make McHattie a bit of a grumbler, but he’s no bastard. Ricci might be a succubus though. It’s discomforting to what degree Gomez and Kay refuse to empathize with or even consider Ricci’s reality.

There are some terrible small supporting performances but it’s hard to blame the cast. It’s all Gomez and Kay.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nick Gomez; written by Stephen Kay; director of photography, Steve Cosens; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tree Adams; production designer, James McAteer; produced by Michael Mahoney; aired by Lifetime.

Starring Christina Ricci (Lizzie Borden), Clea DuVall (Emma Borden), Gregg Henry (Hosea Knowlton), Stephen McHattie (Andrew Borden), Shawn Doyle (Marshall Hilliard), Sara Botsford (Abby Morse Borden), Hannah Emily Anderson (Bridget Sullivan), Andrea Runge (Alice Russell), and Billy Campbell (Andrew Jennings).


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