Thursday, July 23, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015); WILD HORSES (2015); and DER SAMURAI (2015)

(New Zealand - 2014; US release 2015)

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS' Jemaine Clement and EAGLE VS. SHARK and THE INBETWEENERS director Taika Waititi wrote and directed this overrated but still affectionate and often quite amusing Christopher Guest-inspired vampire spoof, with a documentary crew following the nightly routine of four vampire flatmates prior to the annual Unholy Masquerade. Viago (Waititi) is the den mother of sorts, a worrisome bloodsucker who's always trying to manage the household and make sure the bills are paid and the chores are getting done.  That's the kind of absurdist humor that's on display throughout the film, and while it has moments that are very funny, it's a thin premise for a feature-length film (it seems like it should be one of those filmed SNL pieces that they call back to three or four times over the course of a show), with a really draggy middle that makes it feel longer than 86 minutes. There's also the perverse and jaded 800-year-old Vladislav the Poker (Clement), the younger--at just 183 years of age--and irresponsible Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who thinks it's "bullshit" that he has to do the dishes, and the ancient, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Frasham), with a new flatmate brought in when Petyr bites Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS works best when it sardonically looks at the impracticalities of vampirism, like neat-freak Viago spreading newspaper over the floor around a female victim in preparation for any bleeding out that takes place (and a real mess ensues when he accidentally bites the main artery, sending gory arterial spray shooting everywhere and confessing "That didn't go as I expected"). Or, when a depressed Vladislav lets himself go and starts showing his true age and opting to stay in for the evening as Viago implores "You don't look that good, but if you eat someone on the way..." The vampires also have a hilarious, ballbusting back-and-forth with a pack of asshole werewolves, with a scene-stealing performance by Rhys Darby as their hectoring leader, who sounds like a scolding parent when he informs his fellow lycanthropes "It's transformation night! Where's your track suit pants! Your legs expand when you transform and you're gonna rip through those jeans completely!" There's a lot of clever, deadpan humor throughout the film, but it never really rises to the level of laugh-out-loud funny or to the point where it can carry an entire film. It's likable and if you're a horror fan, you'll enjoy it, but it's not the new SHAUN OF THE DEAD. It's more like the new TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL. (R, 86 mins)

(US - 2015)

Stepping behind the camera for the first time since 2003's middling ASSASSINATION TANGO, the great Robert Duvall stumbles badly with the awful WILD HORSES, a rambling, self-indulgent home movie with two purposes: to allow Duvall to yet again play--wait for it--an irascible, ornery old coot and to give a leading role to his much younger wife Luciana, who has a total of three acting credits, two being in films directed by her husband. Duvall has helmed five films since 1977's little-seen, self-released rodeo documentary WE'RE NOT THE JET SET, and his directing efforts are small, often self-financed passion projects, with 1983's ANGELO MY LOVE scoring some significant critical acclaim and 1997's THE APOSTLE breaking through to the mainstream and netting Duvall a Best Actor Oscar nomination. With the barely-released WILD HORSES however, Duvall is all over the place as a writer and director, with a meandering story that goes nowhere and entirely too many scenes brought down by the atrocious non-acting of Luciana Duvall and a supporting cast of non-professionals from the Salt Lake City and Magna, UT area where the film was shot. Duvall's wife--truly one of the worst actresses you'll ever see--has a monotone delivery that makes her sound hypnotized and she repeatedly trips over her dialogue.  Some of the local actors pause their readings like they momentarily forgot their line, find their bearings and keep going. Then there's the poor kid playing Duvall's grandson, obviously distracted by the crew and looking directly into the camera several times in one scene as a reassuring Josh Hartnett visibly tries to keep him focused. It actually looks like Hartnett and the child were still rehearsing the scene when Duvall decided it was good enough. Personal passion projects with a gritty, DIY feel are fine, but there's a big difference between "naturalistic acting" and "people who have no business being in front of a camera." The 84-year-old Duvall has been a working actor in film and television since 1960. He's a living legend, but with all due respect, that doesn't excuse his attempting to pass this amateur-night vanity project off as a real movie.

The film opens with crotchety, gun-toting, Bible-thumping Texas rancher Scott Briggs (Duvall) finding his youngest son Ben making out with his best friend Jimmy in the barn. 15 years later, Texas Ranger Samantha Payne (Mrs. Duvall) re-opens an investigation into the disappearance of Jimmy, who was never seen again after that night on the Briggs farm. Scott remains close to his two older sons, Johnny (Devon Abner) and KC (Hartnett), and extends an olive branch to the estranged, openly gay Ben (James Franco), who ran away to live with his mother (wives leaving them years earlier is a recurring motif for Duvall's grizzled old cowpokes) and hasn't seen his father since that fateful night. Scott wants his sons home so he can finalize his will and set things right, which also involves revealing that family friend Maria (Angie Cepeda, also in the recent Duvall-as-cantankerous-old-bastard dud A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO), who's "like a sister" to the Briggs boys, actually is their sister, thanks to a years-ago fling. When he isn't mending fences with Ben, Scott, who obviously knows the truth behind Jimmy's disappearance, is pressuring the local law, who gave him a pass 15 years ago, into "encouraging" Payne to give up her investigation and leave him alone, and after multiple attempts on her life by goons in the employ of the corrupt deputy sheriff, she's not about to ease off on old Scott. WILD HORSES has the makings of an intriguing mix of family skeletons drama and revenge thriller, but Duvall can't be bothered to focus on either of those potentials. He's more interested in local color and capturing the chattering, non-professional actors being "real," which doesn't really translate to watchable cinema when they can't hold their own with experienced vets like himself, Franco, Hartnett, and BABEL Oscar-nominee Adriana Barraza as Jimmy's still-devastated mother. At times, it seems like WILD HORSES is trying to go for a THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA-type vibe, but Duvall's aimless script, lax direction, and unconditional love for his wife prevent it from accomplishing anything at all. (Unrated, 104 mins)

(Germany/UK - 2014; US release 2015)

This ultra low-budget, partially Indiegogo crowd-funded fusion of cult genres deserves some special mention for never self-consciously winking at the audience, like it's a prefab, self-aware cult movie. The film began as writer/director Till Kleinert's senior thesis for the German Film & Television Academy (though he already has one feature, 2009's THE LONGEST NIGHT, under his belt), and while its allegorical implications are perhaps a little too obvious, DER SAMURAI has enough wit, style, and spirit (cue the now-mandatory John Carpenter-style synth score!) to work quite well, and at just 80 minutes, it doesn't have chance to wear out its welcome. In a small German town near the Polish border, young police officer Jakob (Michel Diercks) lives with his grandmother (Ulrike Hanke-Haensch) and gets zero respect from his colleagues or the townies. He's mocked by his boss for hanging bags of meat in the woods to attract a wolf that's been terrorizing neighborhoods, and gets an oddly-sized package sent to the station addressed to "The Lonely Wolf." A strange phone call sends him to a seemingly abandoned hovel where he finds a nameless, transvestite squatter (Pit Bukowski) who says the package is for him. It's a samurai sword, and the squatter--Der Samurai--goes on a rampage of violence and destruction across the town with Jakob in pursuit. Der Samurai's constant chatter about how he and Jakob are one and the same and Jakob's constant failed attempts at displaying any sense of manhood or masculinity certainly make gay panic one very likely subtext. For a while, it seems as if Kleinert might even be going into Chuck Palahniuk territory with the way he seemingly goes out of his way to avoid having Jakob and Der Samurai in the shot together when other characters are involved. Der Samurai is Jakob's repressed homosexuality run rampant, trying to goad him into a killing spree to assert his hetero manliness. There's a lot of potential to be offensive here--some overseas poster art comes dangerously close to Uwe Boll territory, with the tag line "The deadliest thing from Germany since 1945," which erroneously sends the message that it's a shock value-type of film--but Kleinert directs with much self-confidence, never letting things get too jokey or over-the-top, and the performance by Bukowski in the title role--he looks like a deranged DNA experiment that fused Klaus Kinski, Jake Busey, and Carrot Top--should establish the character as a minor-league cult icon. (Unrated, 80 mins)

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