“What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) starring Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement

[1] The more you “know” about vampires, the more you’ll enjoy this!

[2] It pokes fun at every part of the vampire mythology without resorting to simply being a parody of other movies.

[3] …the wide range of comedy used, from slapstick to satire and everything in between, is probably the biggest reason why this movie does not feel forced.

[4] Some comedies try too hard to make you laugh and end up the character are being ridiculously stupid and unlikeable, but this isn’t the case, their character’s goofiness is so believable that you find their stupidity quite adorable.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The story follow the lives of Viago (Taika Waititi- before he hit it big in Hollywood), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and Vladislav (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) – three flatmates who are just trying to get by and overcome life’s obstacles, like being immortal vampires who must feast on human blood. Hundreds of years old, the vampires are finding that beyond sunlight catastrophes, hitting a victim’s main artery, and not being able to get a sense of their wardrobe w/o a reflection-modern society has them struggling w/ the rent, chores, getting into clubs, and overcoming personal conflicts.

About 125 hrs. of footage was shot for this comedy/horror/mockumentary (which I saw on Amazon), most of which was improvised by the cast. Editing that down to a 90-minute movie took almost a year. Waititi and Clement (who are also the writers/directors) held screenings in the US after a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is the kind of fun/quirky movie that we need in these difficult (quarantine) times! There are a few scenes which include blood. The humor can get dark, which I’ve read is common in New Zealand. The actors- professional and amateur- have easy chemistry w/ each other. I was surprised by the quality of the special effects, which seemed quite good for a low-budget movie.

Each vampire is modeled on one from a famous vampire movie. Petyr (the oldest one) is silent/scary, resembling Count Orlok from Nosferatu. Deacon is like Bela Lugosi’s flamboyant Dracula. Vlad is like Gary Oldman’s Dracula. Nick compares himself to Edward from Twilight. Viago is sensitive/stylish like Louis- Brad Pitt’s character in Interview with the Vampire. Vlad refers to himself as “Vlad the poker,” a joke on “Vlad the impaler,” the 15th-century Transylvanian who was the main inspiration for Dracula. There is also a housewife/wannabe vampire (Jackie), a low-key IT guy (Stu) who befriends the vampires, and a pack of werewolves (headed by Rhys Darby- one of New Zealand’s top comics). Watch the trailer below.

“Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela” (2013) starring Ranveer Singh & Deepika Padukone

This Bollywood movie (directed by the prolific, yet shallow, Sanjay Leela Bhansali) uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a frame; it is also influenced by works of American director Quentin Tarantino and (in my opinion) Aussie director Baz Luhrmann. In a village in Gujarat, Ram (Ranveer Singh) is more of a flirt (Romeo) than a fighter. Though his hardened father’s gang deals in guns, Ram manages a small theater showing porn films. In another part of town, Leela (Juliet) is the spirited daughter of a petite boss lady dealing in spices. Of course, their families hate each other; these communities (the Saneda and Rajadi) have been enemies for 500 years. Ram sneaks into Leela’s part of town for Holi w/ his pals; they fall in love at first sight. This movie brought these two actors together (in real life); they were recently married.

The landscape of this movie (shot primarily in Udaipur) reminded me of Westerns (of the American Southwest), This movie has (for the most part) good/catchy songs, most notably the mega-hit Nagada Sang Dhol (sung by one of Bollywood’s best voices- Shreya Ghoshal- and Osman Mir). In order to perform the fast-paced/energetic choreography for this dance, Padukone had to learn to do garba (dance). The costumes are unique, intricate, and colorful, as seen in other recent Bhansali films (Bajirao Mastani; Padmaavat). There is a mix of modern (incl. ripped jeans) and historical fashions. The chemistry between the leads is obvious; the director had them spend time together alone and at various events.

If there weren’t cell phones, movies, bullets, or guns shown, it could easily be a historical film. Guns are fetishized throughout; this may put off some viewers. The title translates to A Play of Bullets: Ram-Leela. Rifles are being sold openly in the village market, a visitor is shocked to see. At the slightest insult, men and boys from opposing gangs start shooting (like the Wild West). There is very little blood shown, as that’s the norm in Bollywood. Even the chilled out Ram wears an embroidered pistol holder at his waist. The lovers flirt using pistols; it was unexpected and ironic. There are Gujarati slang terms and curses which Ram uses, some viewers/critics pointed out.

This movie clocks in at 2 hrs and 30 mins; this isn’t unusual for this genre. Padukone comes off as confident and natural; her large/expressive eyes are her finest asset. There are not many well-developed supporting characters. Leela’s mother, Baa (Supriya Pathak Kapur), makes a big impression as the villain She has very imposing looks and a rough/world-weary voice. We don’t learn much re: Ram’s father, his older brother, or Leela’s scheming male cousins (who want to succeed Baa). Instead of the old Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (or feisty Anita in West Side Story), we have Leela’s sister-in-law, Rasila (Richa Chadha). She tries to help the star-crossed lovers escape town. Bhansali chose Chadha for her more “typical Indian features and dusky skin” (which is in contrast to the leading lady). In one standout scene, Rasila (who has confidence and toughness) escapes being raped by Ram’s friends! I’m sure that scene will be upsetting to some viewers, though it is a common trope in Bollywood.

Priyanka Chopra dances during the song Ram Chaye Leela Chaye Ram; she was up for the role of Leela years earlier (after Kareena Kapoor turned it down). Chopra (now famous worldwide) is a rather limited actress. I though that this dance was unnecessary; it didn’t flow w/ the movie and mainly involved moving her (quite toned) stomach. Chopra got a more meaty role in Bajirao Mastani. Speaking of abs, Singh was put on a diet of mainly fish, broccoli, turkey, and green tea to help achieve his look. He also worked out at a gym built specifically for him. However, great (or defined) abs don’t equate to great acting. I don’t see the point of having actors (male and female) go to such lengths when their time would be better spent in acting classes. Also, with this type of (shallow) material, actors can’t do much!

A Perfect Man (2013) starring Liev Schreiber & Jeanne Tripplehorn

The summary of this small, indie film is wrong. The man- James (Liev Schreiber) doesn’t fall in love w/ his wife- Nina (Jeanne Tripplehorn)- all over again when she pretends to be someone else over the phone. He has always loved her; BUT there was something lacking w/in himself. At the start of the story, the attractive/middle-aged/American expat couple have a VERY comfortable life in Amsterdam, Holland. James is the lead architect on an unique high-rise building; Nina is an editor working on the autobiography of a glamorous/world-traveling fellow American woman. They live in a spacious apartment, have many friends, and a big/friendly dog- Larry. 

She’s his “context,” but their relationship is NOT enough for him (as he has cheated several times in their 9 yrs of marriage). James’ definition of what it is to be a man is based on how many women desire him. Nina let him “have his space” and he found other women (incl. the wife of his older business partner). Nina finally reaches her limit and leaves their home. This makes him reevaluate what matters most to him in life. 

As Nina’s friend/writer- Lynn (Joelle Carter)- says: “Men are dogs. But I like dogs.” Nina and Lynn (who took her in) drink, dance, and discuss their lives one night. Lynn explains that she’s been thinking re: the differences between men and women TOO long. Yet Nina still wonders what she did, or didn’t do, that caused their relationship to break down. This movie (in my mind) raises more questions that it answers! Are people TOO blase re: cheating? Is marriage (in the traditional sense) dead? Why can’t we communicate better w/ the opposite gender?

This film (made w/ only $5M) could’ve been SO much better! Scenes abruptly end sometimes, as if they ran out of editing dollars. The leads are quite good; they have that unspoken chemistry (which is needed to portray a long-term couple). I always like seeing Schreiber; he immerses himself into every role (though he still has that recognizable NYC accent). It’s TOO bad that Tripplehorn (who has a VERY expressive face and looks amazing) didn’t get more meaty roles in her 30s and 40s. I wanted to know more re: the supporting characters, incl. James’ outgoing mother- Abbie (theater vet Louise Fletcher)- who had several marriages. I did like how the movie ended- full of hope and possibility. When people share so much history, it’s hard for them to walk away from each other. 

Rock the Casbah (2013)

The acting is great- all were convincing as Moroccans with good accents and French language.  The highlight was Nadine Labaki’s performance, though a secondary role, she stole the scenes with her funny “bitchy” attitude and added many comic relief along with her Grandma.  Nadine is famous Lebanese director known for “Caramel” but she is also an acclaimed actress. The multi-talented Hiaam Abbas who appears in many foreign movies, she manages to reincarnate the role of a Moroccan mother with strict high values and morals.  -IMDB reviewer

Miriam (Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (Lubna Azabal) sit at each sside their mother Aicha (Hiam Abbas) during their father's wake.
Miriam (Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (Lubna Azabal) sit at each side their mother Aicha (Hiam Abbas) during their father’s wake.

This stereotype-defying film (a mix of comedy and drama) was part of the Arabian Sights Film Festival in DC.  It was written/directed by Laila Marrakchi, a young Moroccan woman.  I saw it this Fall (with 2 members of a movie Meetup) at the French Embassy; the main language in the film is French (with a good mix of Arabic and English). 

The ladies of the Hassan family find their thoughts drifting to the past.
The ladies of the Hassan family find their thoughts drifting to the past.

When patriarch Moulay Hassan (Omar Sharif) dies, his extended family, employees, and community gather at his palatial estate (in Marrakech by the coast) for his funeral.  We meet his strong widow, Aicha (internationally-renown Israeli Arab actress, Hiam Abbas, from The Visitor).  Moulay’s daughters are all quite unique women; there is NYC-based actress/black sheep Sofia (Morjana Alaoui) with her young son, glamorous/dramatic housewife Miriam (Nadine Labaki)- on the verge of an affair, and straight-laced/religious professor Kenza (Lubna Azabal) whose teen son wants to act on Broadway.  Sharif appears in a few scenes, adding a magical element of this fine film.       

Three sisters with very different lives come together.
Three sisters with very different lives come together.

We are put in the shoes of the outsider, Sofia, who has recently separated from her director husband (an Irish-American).  She hasn’t been home in many years; it was too painful to face the past (we learn why) and she has made a moderate success of herself in the U.S. (usually playing a terrorist).  Sofia’s adorable 6 year-old son, Noah, is excited about experiencing a new culture and playing with a large crew of cousins.  He’s hesitant to eat the new foods. 

rock-the-casbah-omar-sharif
Noah bonds with his grandfather, Moulay (Omar Sharif), in a few scenes.

When her reddish-haired grandmother comments that Sofia shouldn’t have married a “foreigner,” Sofia good-naturedly reminds the older lady that she was once a foreigner (being a French woman).  “But I married a Muslim and an Arab,” the grandmother says with a sly smile.  As the days go by, secrets are revealed about another sister, their beloved housekeeper Yacout (who raised all the girls, as well as her own son), and Moulay.  Sofia, who yearns for openness and honesty, is frustrated by (more conventional) sisters.  However, she doesn’t have to live in the strictly stratified, dualistic society (people pray in the morning, but don’t necessarily shy away from alcohol and dancing later in the day). 

The Lunchbox (2013) starring Irrfan Khan

Viewer comments:

…this gentle and thoughtful director shows human nature running a very natural course.

It had humor, seriousness, lessons, insight, beauty, love, family, decision-making, sadness, reflections, invisibleness, self-doubt, invention, perseverance, respect, aging, determination, coming to terms when enough is enough and genuine affection in how feelings grew by words alone…

lunchbox_kitchen

Here is the perfect film (from a first-time director) for smart/sensitive viewers who want an alternative to Bollywood.  Neglected middle-class housewife/mother, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), yearns to win back the attention and love of her husband Rajeev, one of the many strivers in the new India.  Rajeev barely looks at Ila, is glued to his cell, and often comes home late at night.  With the help of her (unseen) upstairs neighbor, she creates delicious (vegetarian, as she’s Hindu) recipes, and packs them in his tiffin (lunchbox). 

lunchbox_rdng

This lunchbox is supposed to be picked up each afternoon and delivered (via rickshaw, truck, and bus) to his office.  However, it goes to a Sajaan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan from The Namesake, Life of Pi, etc.), a lonely/Christian government accountant just a month away from retirement.  He likes the food, so an empty lunchbox is delivered back to Ila.  Feeling appreciated, she decided to write him a thank-you letter. 

lunchbox_train

The two lonely people begin a correspondence, bringing (much-needed) hope and optimism into each other’s lives.  They share thoughts in their letters that no one else knows, from the mundane to the deeply personal.  Are they just pen pals?  Or is there possibility for more?   

lunchbox_wedding

Saajan is dreading retirement, and postpones the training of his replacement, Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a younger Muslim man eager to learn/succeed. I enjoyed the slow reveal of Shaikh’s life- he’s got a fascinating story under that big grin.  His character’s struggles and yearnings embody that of many modern, urban men.  Siddiqui (still in his 30s), played a pivotal role in Midnight’s Children, and is an actor to watch.   Nimrat Kaur is very easy to relate to; I’d never seen her before.  She had a make-under for this role; she’s a very glamorous woman in real life.  Irrfan Khan continues to (quietly) create magic- he simply becomes the character!  He still has a long career ahead (only in his mid-40s).  This  is a must-see!