Friday, September 25, 2015

It's Such a Beautiful Day (2012) ****1/2

Y'all really need to give this one a chance. Animated with primitive, yet subtly expressive stick figures, “It's Such a Beautiful Day” is a profound, tragicomic commentary on the absurdity of life. The film tells the story of Bill, who is sick and lonely. Slowly, the story reveals aspects of Bill's illness, which appears to be some kind of brain tumor. We also see his childhood and some stories from his family history, which appears to be full of mental illness and train accidents. As Bill increasingly endures memory loss and bouts of delirium, we wonder if this is his family history catching up to him or just symptoms of his tumor. Either way, it is clear that Bill's days are numbered.

It sounds like it could be a downer, but “It's Such a Beautiful Day” is so chock-full of absurd humor that you will laugh more than cry. The movie starts with a hilarious scene where Bill recognizes someone walking down the street, but as they approach on the sidewalk, neither is certain whether they will just nod, give a verbal greeting, or actually stop to talk. The awkward scene is a spot-on satire of how mixed-up humans are in even our simplest interactions. In a Seinfeldian scene, Bill only picks produce from the back side of the bin, because the produce at the front is right at the crotch level of all the other shoppers.

This film started out life as a collection of three shorts, which creator Don Hertzfeldt has cobbled into an hour-long feature. The chapter titles that still separate the three components feel a bit arbitrary, and the feature perhaps struggles a bit to maintain its narrative arc while fitting these three pieces together, but it mostly works. I absolutely loved this film, but it's not for everyone. The primitive animation style is going to feel weird for many viewers. It sometimes looks like one of those short-film art installations you see in museums. The humor is also very dry and intellectual. Nonetheless, this little movie stands as a powerful piece of existentialist contemplation full of hilarious social satire.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) ***1/2

I quit watching Mtv a long time ago, but not before seeing a little bit of “The Real World.” One of the early reality-TV shows, “The Real World” placed a bunch of twenty-somethings in a house together in some big city, then let cameras record their interactions. It spawned a million copy-cats and parodies, including “Big Brother” and the Dave Chappelle “Mad Real World” skit.
“What We Do in the Shadows” carries on this tradition with a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in New Zealand. Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav the Poker, who was once known for “poking people with implements.” Jonathon Brugh is Deacon, the bad-boy of the group, who refuses to wash dishes. Taika Waititi plays Viago, an “eighteenth-century dandy” who tries to keep peace in the group. Down in the basement lives Petyr, the most ancient of the group, who no longer goes out or even speaks.

These vampires spend their nights looking for victims and trying to get into cool dance clubs, which is difficult because, as vampires, they can't go in unless they are specifically invited. Occasionally they will run into the local werewolf pack, which always leads to tension. Then Petyr turns one of their victims into a new vampire, totally disrupting the group's dynamics.

I was attracted to this film by the involvement of Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords.” Bret McKenzie isn't in it, so this is no Conchords reunion, but Rhys Darby (who played Murray on Conchords) does have a small role, and the tone of the humor is similar, if slightly more broad. The film has fun with various pieces of vampire lore and with the posturing inherent in group dynamics. If you are a “Flight of the Conchords” fan, or if you enjoy “This is Spinal Tap,” then this movie is for you.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Last Night (1998) ****

Filmmakers, creators that they are, love to destroy things. Blowing up a car, or even better, a building, must be a huge thrill. And if those are fun, then how much more fun to destroy the entire earth? Thus, end-of-the-world movies are a recurring theme. Unfortunately, most of these movies focus on the asteroid or whatever, when the really interesting thing is the people. How does humanity react when the end is nigh? More than any Armageddon-themed film I've seen, “Last Night” dispenses with the science-fiction stuff and focuses on how several people face the last few hours of existence. (I'm talking here about the independent Canadian film from 1998, not the 2010 relationship drama by the same name starring Keira Knightley.)

While we aren't told exactly what is going to destroy the world, we soon understand that the end has been anticipated for months, and that society has already worked itself through quite a few throes of unrest. Nonetheless, civilization remains largely intact in the Canadian city where the film is set, with people still enjoying electricity and telephone service as they face their last night. In fact, one of the characters, who manages the gas company, spends much of his final day calling every one of his customers, wishing them well and assuring them that the company will try to keep gas flowing right up until the end. Patrick (writer, director Don McKellar) is a depressed widower planning to meet the End alone. Sandra (Sandra Oh) braves the downtown, crawling with violent mobs, to plunder supplies for a last meal with her husband. When her car is destroyed by the mobs, she enlists Patrick's help to get across town to her man. They get some help from Patrick's friend, Craig, who is putting the finishing touches on a massive project of sexual conquest. Each of the characters, whose stories cross and re-cross, is facing the end in his own way.

End-of-the-world movies resonate because they so readily serve as a metaphor for our actual human condition. The End is coming for us all. The difference in a movie like “Last Night” is that everyone is meeting their End at the same time. I'm not sure which option is scarier, but in any case, “Last Night” approaches the end of the world with the right balance of pathos and humor. The film is actually quite well-done. My only complaint is that the digital cinematography is rather ugly.

The down-side to a movie like this is that it gets you thinking. Any night could be your last night, and if tonight were my last night, how would I want to spend it? Probably not watching this movie, or any movie for that matter. But there's a limit to this kind of thinking. You can't go moonlight BASE-jumping every night. Sometimes you just want to unwind and watch a flick. A funny, cool flick like “Last Night.”

4 stars out of 5