Mister America (2019)

Over a year ago, Tim Heidecker posted a video on his Instragram account stating that he was running for District Attorney of San Bernardio County, California. Truthfully, I had no idea if this announcement was some sort of joke or if he was legitimately running for a political office.  For those who are familiar with Heidecker’s unique style of comedy (best conveyed on the series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), he walks a thin line between reality and satire, so my confusion was completely reasonable. Almost a year later, the movie Mister America was released, confirming that Tim was not really running for DA last year. He was working on a mockumentary and releasing social media clips that would eventually become part of this feature film. The whole situation is wild and extremely hard to explain to those who are unfamiliar with his comic genius. Last Wednesday, The Broad Theater had a one-night screening of the completed film, which I ab-so-lutely attended along with about twenty other fans of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show universe. It was by far the best comedy to come out this year.

Eric Notarnicola, the director of Mister America, is no stranger to Tim Heidecker’s hijinks. He also directed a few television and web series starring Heidecker: Decker, On Cinema at the Cinema, and The Trial, all of which reappear in Mister America at one point or another. While it is helpful to already be a fan of these Notarnicola-directed series with Heidecker (especially On Cinema) prior to watching the film, I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the On Cinema Universe to enjoy Mister America. There’s enough background information provided throughout the movie to bring those unfamiliar with the series’ backstories up to speed. In Mister America, Heidecker is followed by a documentary crew throughout his journey of running as an independent candidate for District Attorney of San Bernardino County. Without having enough signatures to be on the ballot, no volunteers, barely any campaign funds, and no legitimate political platform, Heidecker has a tough time getting his campaign off the ground. To make matters worse, he has the reputation of being a murderer. While at an EDM music festival, he “supposedly” sold contaminated vape juice to several festival goers, causing them to die. His prosecutor for the case, Vincent Rosetti, is the incumbent DA of San Bernardino County, and Heidecker self-represented his defense in court during the legal battle. So with his legal self-representation experience and his connection with everyday San Bernardino citizens (he is officially a San Bernardino resident because he receives his mail at his hotel room), he truly believes that he has what is takes to beat Rosetti.

The style of humor that Mister America sells is the kind that has you cackling at the most minor details. For instance, while Heidecker is having a breakfast meeting with his campaign manager Toni (Terri Parks), he gets lost deep into his business/politician persona and can barely get his hashbrowns and eggs onto his fork. The camera kept zooming in on his fork failure, and I completely lost it. Another major player that brings the funny to this movie is mister Gregg Turkington, a regular guest on On Cinema. Turkington pops up for short interviews with the documentary crew to shit-talk Heidecker, and he always seems to come up with a bizarre movie reference for every scenario. My favorite scene with Turkington was when he tried to explain the similarities between The Shaggy D.A. and Heidecker’s campaign. He even goes so far as to bring a bootleg VHS copy of The Shaggy D.A. to the documentary crew, which he makes clear that he needs returned ASAP.  He also has a great moment where the crew follows him trash-hunting for VHS tapes (destined to become Popcorn Classics for On Cinema), and it’s something that I personally related to way too much.

Mister America is up there with the mockumentary greats, and it’s just a lot of stupid fun. I believe the movie theater screenings are finished, but the film is now available on demand. Trust me, it is worth every penny.

-Britnee Lombas

Born in Flames (1983)

Part of the thrill of immersing yourself in a lot of low-fi genre films & amateurish schlock is in watching outsider artists break the rules of traditional filmmaking, whether or not they know those rules exist. There’s a D.I.Y. punk ethos to B-movies & micro-budget productions that allow for wilder & more varied creative choices than professional studio filmmaking permits. Even within that paradigm, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi cheapie Born in Flames is a total anomaly. Although it visually recalls the cheap, amateur ugliness of a grindhouse horror film or a Doris Wishman sex romp, Born in Flames is directly opposed to exploitation both as an artform and as a philosophy. It’s an angry, ramshackle work of radical politics that transcends its jumbled narrative & the typical limitations of its micro-budget sci-fi genre to deliver a clear, unmistakable message: “All oppressed people have a right to violence” and revolution can only be achieved through solidarity. I’ve seen more low-fi, rough-around-the-edges 80s genre films in my life than I’ll ever be able to remember, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one half as politically pointed and culturally essential as this feminist punk milestone.

Set ten years after an American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of radicalized feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

What’s even more exciting than the film’s visual & narrative punk energy is how prescient its politics are. On one level, Born in Flames actually functions as a genuine documentary of what NYC women’s lives looked like in the early 1980s, especially in detailing images of what was then considered “women’s work”: cleaning house, feeding babies, working on a factory line, applying condoms to romantic partners– all underpaid, undervalued labor. More astonishingly, the film distinctly predicts what political unrest looks & sounds like in the 2010s. Women on bikes band together to break up public harassment & sexual assault in radical acts of vigilante justice, only to be labeled as “gangs” & “terrorists” by the press (a narrative echoed in last year’s real life documentary Ovarian Psycos). Intersectionality-minded jabs at the shortcomings of “white feminism” mirror much of the political conversation that surrounded this year’s historic Women’s March, including footage that could easily have been captured at that event with just the right Instagram filter. White men buck against the rise of oppressed voices, claiming that they’re the true victims in all this, recalling “Not All Men” & “All Lives Matter” retorts that relentlessly derail recent, legitimate protests. Mysterious deaths in police custody, public shaming of unprosecuted rapists, arguments between peacefully working within the system for progress or violently toppling it: so much of Born in Flames‘s political DNA rings true to the exact, unsettled moment in time we’re struggling through right now. The only real difference is that the soundtrack features “New Town” by The Slits instead of a rallying cry from Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Flames excels as a document of its time in D.I.Y. filmmaking & radical politics and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to an long gone, idealized past. The way this refusal to accept the system as it is bleeds over to the conventions of cinematic storytelling is downright infectious. This is a rare film with form just as authentically punk as its content, a combination that miraculously amounts to a radical politics powder keg instead of incoherent, unfocused anger. Much like the women who populate its not-so-futuristic political dystopia, Born in Flames starts off disorganized in its intent & tactics, but eventually coalesces into a formidable political force that threatens to topple the long-standing systems that serve as its oppressors, whether that be by-the-rules filmmaking or centuries of patriarchy.

-Brandon Ledet

Mascots (2016)

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Christopher Guest’s brilliance as a comedy director has always relied on a kind of subtlety & understatement that lends his behind-the-camera work to being overlooked. Guest’s best films, titles like Waiting for Guffman & Best in Show, are densely populated with cartoonishly over-the-top, attention-hogging characters, so the director wisely takes a back seat in a lot of his own works. He fosters an improv-loose environment & sets a distinct narrative stage for his performers in each film, but otherwise isn’t especially flashy in his own directorial style and a lot of the humor in his films is derived from that dynamic. He’s like the improv comedy version of Robert Altman. As time goes on, Guest continues to return to that tried & true formula and his work starts to feel even more understated & undervalued. The mockumentary style Guest established in his early work has since infiltrated every corner of American television. The Office, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, Arrested Development, the most recent version of The Muppets: Guest’s humor has almost completely replaced the traditional laugh track sitcom, so it has become even more difficult to parse out exactly what makes him special as a hand-off director with a consistently even keel. There’s no better example of what I’m describing here than Guest’s latest work, the Netflix-distributed comedy Mascots.

Mascots has been generally received with an underwhelmed shrug, largely due to the perceived career-long sameness of Christopher Guest’s catalog as a whole. In all of his films a group of hubris-oblivious weirdos in a highly specific field meet for a climactic competition where their personalities clash in both public & private forums. Instead of a dog show or bluegrass concert or an Oscars race this time, Mascots instead stages its climactic showdown at a sports mascot competition. Other than the setting, the Christopher Guest formula remains more or less the same, with the director even reprising his role as Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman (along with Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux from the same film) to drive that established tradition home. It’d be reductive to assume that because Guest continually returns to his old grooves & rhythms, though, that Mascots is worthless as a comedy. If the director has proven anything by staging all of his films in a similar fashion, it’s that the formula works. Mascots may not feel as fresh or unique as Guffman did in the early 90s, but it’s still damn funny. Its setting-specific references to “mini tramps” & “Fluffies” combine with dark, perverted tangents about furries, yeast infections, and penis-in-ear sexual intercourse to make for a bizarrely understated comedy that only doesn’t feel strange because its creator’s voice has infiltrated so much American television in the past decade that it’s started to feel normal. By the time Mascots reaches its predetermined climax it can be just as funny as any of Guest’s most well-loved films. It only feels slight due to its modern context.

If anything has shifted in Guest’s insulated world, it’s been the gradual expansion of his usual cast of weirdos. Along with Posey, the director’s regular cast of Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, and whoever else fits in that specific set returns to the screen. What’s more important, though, is that Guest has picked up more weirdos along the way. Chris O’Dowd, who had worked with Guest on a short-lived HBO series, steals some spotlight from the director’s veterans as “the badboy of sports mascotery.” He’s joined by familiar character actors from shows like Parks & Recreation and The Office that have sprung up in the wake of Guest’s best-known works. He may not be an especially flashy or experimental filmmaker, but I have great respect for the consistency & the quality of laughs his films deliver, especially since he acknowledges his own influence by recruiting comedians who’ve made a name in the mockumentary television field launched in his shadow. As long as Guest wants to continue to film weirdos in highly specific fields discussing “passion” & “craft” in his tried & true mockumentary formula, I’ll continue to afford him my attention. Nothing made this so clear to me as moment during Mascots‘s climactic competition where the crowd was applauded a literal piece of shit, freshly plunged, and I felt the urge to join them. Christopher Guest has earned my laughter in any context he asks for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)

I might be the most forgiving audience in the world above the age of seven when it comes to WWE Studios’ animated children’s media, having given positive reviews for all four of the pro wrestling empire’s crossovers with Hanna-Barbera so far: WrestleMania Mystery, Stone Age SmackDown, Curse of the Speed Demon, and Robo-WrestleMania. Unfortunately, I could not extend my enthusiasm into the company’s latest animated crossover business venture, a sequel to the long-forgotten CG monstrosity Surf’s Up. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania picks up the pieces of that middling work, which barely made back its budget, by continuing its age-old story of penguins who love to surf. Whatever conflicts the CG penguin surfers overcome in that first film will forever remain a mystery to me, as I’ve already suffered through one too many Happy Feet films to have any desire to catch up with their knockoffs. Still, there was something oddly appealing about the absurdity of watching a years-late, direct to VOD sequel to that nonsense where recognizable voice actors like Shia Labeouf & Zooey Deschanel were replaced by WWE Superstars. I was willing to give WaveMania a chance solely based on the potential novelty of pro wrestling personalities voicing muscular penguins who get off on the adrenaline rush of X-Games style sports. Instead of the penguin-themed Point Break I was hoping for, however, I mostly got a feature length screensaver, one that couldn’t even satisfy my own notoriously undiscerning tastes.

Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time‘s Finn the Human) replaces Shia Labeouf as a surf-happy penguin & Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite‘s Napoleon Dynamite) returns as his stoner chicken friend. They seem to have beef with a bully penguin & funny feelings for a Hot Lady penguin who lives on the same beach. Whatever relationship issues or internal obstacles that were overcome in the first film mean absolutely nothing here. These few holdovers from the original Surf’s Up film mostly just serve to inflate the egos of the pro wrestling Superstars that invade their franchise space. Their never-ending beach party is crashed by The Hang Five: penguin celebrities who have a taste for X-Games style thrills and suspiciously familiar names like Hunter (HHH), Paige (Paige), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), and J.C. (which either stands for Jesus Christ or John Cena; I can’t decide). Besides these sexed up muscle penguins, the crew is also followed by ring announcer Michael Cole in seagull form and lead by a perverted otter voiced by Mr. Vince McMahon himself. How do we know that this silver haired otter-daddy is a pervert? He repeatedly​ fantasizes onscreen about milking a fish’s udder with his mouth. The Hang Five crash the beach scene both looking for a legendary surf spot and covertly sizing up the original Surf’s Up crew for new members to possibly join their ranks. Along the way Shada’s protagonist penguin learns to control his anger in the face of bullies, the crew indulges in some X-treme sports, and McMahon drools over the thought of those sweet, sweet fish udders.

Of course, the real draw here for anyone who’s not a a surfer who’s suffered one too many concussions or a child with early stirrings of a sexual fetish for anthropomorphic penguins is the novelty of seeing pro wrestlers’ in-ring personas adapted to the equally unreal environment of an animated kids’ picture. For the most part, their individual personalities are coded in a fairly rigid, one dimensional way: J.C. is the face, Hunter is the heel, Taker is spooky, Paige is all about Girl Power, McMahon is the boss/sexual deviant. Watching this dynamic play out is especially strange in this particular moment for a couple extratextual reasons (namely Undertaker’s recent retirement at WrestleMania & Paige’s recent sex tape scandal), but the novelty of that context will only fade with time. Besides McMahon’s fish udder sucking, the most notable contribution to the film is made by J.C./Jesus Christ/John Cena. Cena’s an interesting presence here. His penguin surrogate delivers a lot of the child- pleasing buffoonery that keeps unshaved Redditors awake at night: he sports dog tags & sweat bands, shows off his “You Can’t C Me” five moves of doom routine, and makes eyeroll worthy statements like, “Eat right, exercise, and never give up . . . on being awesome!” There’s something a little self-deprecating about doing all this through the mouthpiece of a CG penguin, though, and he occasionally pokes fun at himself with lines like, “Wanna hear about the time I fought off a shark with only my camo shorts?” I don’t know if I’m warming up to Cena because of the excellent in-ring work he’s put in over the last three or so years or his sudden string of top notch cameos in mainstream comedies, but I found him to be the only significantly memorable presence in WaveMania that doesn’t involve sucking off a fish.

Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania‘s main flaw is a structural one, oddly enough. Instead of chasing the over-the-top absurdity of its pro wrestlers as X-Games penguins premise, the sequel attempts to normalize the scenarios by framing it as a mockumentary. Over-familiarity with recent mockumentary-style television like The Office, Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, the latest version of The Muppets, and so on makes the casual interview structure of the film feel stale and oddly forgettable, which shouldn’t be possible in any property where John Cena is a muscular bird who surfs and Vince McMahon sucks down “fish milk” (I refuse to drop how jarring that is). I am typically very lenient with WWE Studios cartoons relying on the basic absurdity of their premises, but the results were just too flat & uninteresting here, primarily due to that increasingly ubiquitous mockumentary style of comedy. If the company’s going to continue down this path of teaming up with financially-shaky children’s properties to promote their wrestlers, however, I’d like to suggest that they hook up with Laika next. Not only could Laika use the money most, but I’d be very much down for the stop motion sequel Kubo and the Two Tickets to WrestleMania. That at the very least has the potential to be a memorable watch.

-Brandon Ledet

Forgotten Silver (1995): Peter Jackson’s Silent Film Precursor to The Independent (2000)

Five years before our December Movie of the Month, 2000’s Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, went straight to DVD a very similar mockumentary aired on New Zealand television: 1995’s Forgotten Silver. Although Forgotten Silver covers cinema’s early, silent era while The Independent covers its B-movie & drive-in time frame, the two mockumentaries are very similarly minded both in their reverence for the medium they’re spoofing and in their depictions of madmen auteur directors possessed by their passion for filmmaking & troubled by their failure to secure proper funding for their art. While The Independent is a brilliant, must-see comedy for schlock junkies & Roger Corman fanboys, Forgotten Silver covers the same territory for cinephiles & Criterion fetishists.

When it was first introduced to New Zealand audiences, Forgotten Silver was framed as a true-life documentary of “forgotten” (read: fictional) filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who supposedly operated during cinema’s birth at the turn of the century through the tail end of the silent era in the late 20s. Much like how The Independent‘s Morty Fineman accidentally pioneered cinema in his quest to make movies about “tits, ass, and bombs” Colin McKenzie was credited here for accidentally inventing the world’s first tracking shot, color film, feature length film, talkie, close-up, and candid camera comedy, among other firsts. Although this list of feats is beyond preposterous for an unknown filmmaker (and they all end in blunderous fates like smut charges & miscarriages) its deadpan delivery & adherence to a traditional documentary format make it somewhat understandable that some television audiences were initially duped by Forgotten Silver‘s validity as a document of a real-life auteur. It’s got a much more wry, Woody Allen’s Take the Money & Run style of mockumentary humor in contrast to The Independent‘s more over-the-top, Christopher Guest-esque approach to comedy.

It’s difficult to say for sure if Forgotten Silver provided any direct inspiration for The Independent, but there are some undeniable similarities in their DNA. While Forgotten Silver is concerned with restoration of McKenzie’s entire catalog, The Independent follows the discovery & restoration of Fineman’s “lost” anti-herpes PSA The Simplex Complex. Also like The Independent, Forgotten Silver is mostly concerned with the completion of a single feature film, this time profiling the production of Salome, a multi-year production of a Biblical epic featuring 15,000 extras, a city-sized hand-built set, and endless funding issues that similarly plagued Fineman’s Ms. Kevorkian. The film also establishes its legitimacy as a documentary by enlisting several big names in art cinema – producer Harvey Weinstein, critic Leonard Maltin, and actor Sam Neill among them – to provide interview fodder. Peter Jackson, the film’s co-director/creator alongside documentarian Costa Botes, get the most screentime of all, framing the story of how McKenzie’s films were found & restored and what significance they have to the history of cinema at large in his talking head interviews.

The differences between Forgotten Silver & The Independent are just as apparent. Because Colin McKenzie was (fictionally-speaking) long dead before Peter Jackson brought his work to light, Jackson serves as the central voice in Forgotten Silver. Morty Fineman, on the other hand, is Jerry Stiller alive & at his loudest & most demanding, dominating The Independent‘s runtime. The films’ tones are also drastically different. The only time Forgotten Silver approaches The Independent‘s over-the-top ridiculousness is in its depictions of sub-Charlie Chaplin vaudeville routines involving cream pies that McKenzie filmed in order to financially support Salome. For the most part, though, the two films are remarkably simpatico. At heart, they both aim to resurrect long-dead cinema genres in loving spoof form. Forgotten Silver‘s approach is just more subdued & deadpan due to the nature of its turn-of-the-century subject matter. The Independent is a much flashier, more over-the-top comedy, which makes sense given its exploitation cinema homage. Both are great, must-see comedic gems for cinephiles in either camp.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography, and last week’s recommendation that you also watch the documentary Corman’s World to get the full picture..

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

Required Viewing for Fans of The Independent (2000): Corman’s World (2011)

In our Swampchat discussion of December’s Movie of the Month, the 2000 Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, we praised the film for feeling remarkably ahead of its time in terms of the modern comedy landscape. Long stretches of the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern HBO anti-hero comedy or post-The Office docucomedy, which is true even if both genres are pulling influence from the same souce as The Independent – Christopher Guest mockumentaries. That’s not the only way in which The Independent was ahead of its time, though. Most mockumentaries & spoof comedies wait until the material they’re mocking is actually released. The ever-prescient The Independent, on the other hand, was released more than a decade before the documentary it most resembles – 2011’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.

Roger Corman not only appears in brief “interviews” for The Independent, but Jerry Stiller’s schlockmeister protagonist Morty Fineman mostly serves as a Roger Corman archetype (with maybe a little David Friedman or Russ Meyer sleaze thrown in for good measure). Fineman’s 427 B-movies oeuvre may seem comically oversized & impossible for a filmmaker to achieve, but the timeless Roger Corman (who began making film in the 50s & continues to work to this day) has a whopping 409 production credits (and 56 directoral credits) according to IMDb. For every infamous Roger Corman trashterpiece (Rock & Roll High Schol, A Bucket of Blood, Death Race 2000, Piranha, etc.) there’s dozens of titles lurking in the archives that no one remembers at all, a sentiment reflected in the way that a dozen or so Fineman features are represented throughout The Independent, but hundreds are listed in his filmography that runs in tandem with the end credits.

There’s so much Corman in Fineman that the connection is undeniable, especially if you consider the way that unlikely former Corman collaborators pop up in both The Independent & Corman’s World – particularly Ron Howard & Peter Bogdanovich. There’s also  the two directors’ love for Ingmar Bergman – reflected in Fineman’s herpes-themed The Simplex Complex & in the odd, real-life detail that Corman used to provide distribution for the Swedish auteur’s films at American drive-ins because he thought people needed to see them. The truest connection of all, though, is in the clips of the two directors’ films – Fineman’s fake & Corman’s real. Corman talks at length about the value of text vs. subtext in sneaking in political messages in trashy B-movies features, but watching clips of his work in Corman’s World suggests that the director might be more in line with Fineman’s confession that he was mostly interested in the “tits, ass, and bombs” than he was putting on.

Corman’s World is an invaluable documentary, one that should be required viewing for all movie lovers whether or not they’ve indulged in The Independent‘s delights. Corman himself is just so full of insight from decades of hands-on experience. I particularly enjoyed his rigid, formulaic approach to genre films, like the way he describes that creature features need their monsters to kill someone fairly gruesome easily in the film, then kill at regular, less-shocking intervals until the blood-all-over-the-screen finale. It’s also a delight to see such twisted imagery & violent, sex-depraved themes originate from such a calm, professorial source, a dichotomy he describes as the outer image vs. the unconscious mind. This detail is missing in Fineman’s character, who is just as explosive in his art as he is in his personalty. There’s also a Russ Meyer-esque sleaziness in Fineman that’s entirely absent in the oddly-refined Corman.

What’s most interesting, though, is the ways in which Corman’s career phases serve as a blueprint for the history of cult cinema. Corman started by making creature features & teen rebellion dramas in the 1950s. He then moved on to the much classier “Poe cycle” of his career, a string of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that married art house aesthetic with B-movie camp (including February’s Movie of the Month, The Masque of the Red Death). This lead him to indulging in arty hippie movies & giving a shot to young Hollywood voices that positioned him as the paterfamilias of the golden era of New Hollywood. Once his collaborators outgrew him & left him behind (names like Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Fonda), Corman survived on a second wave of trashy exploitation cinema until big budget films he heavily influenced (like Star Wars & Jaws) effectively disassembled the drive-in movie market & drove him to home video cheapness & SyFy Channel mockbusters. The story of Roger Corman’s career is the story of modern cinema at large, something that could also be said about the fictional Morty Fineman.

A lot of Corman’s more artistic impulses are missing in the eternal businessman Fineman, but there really is something to say about Corman & his ilk’s ability to make interesting, profitable pictures on shoestring budgets. Fineman doesn’t have fictional credits that match up with Corman’s racial segregation protest film The Intruder or the soaring artistry of the Poe Cycle, but the two directors do hare an eye for finance. As (frequently Corman collaborator) Jack Nicholson puts it in Corman’s World, “A filmmaker who doesn’t understand money is like an artist who doesn’t understand paint.” The Independent is all about Morty Fineman securing funding for yet another B-picture & even though themselves don’t look especially promising, it really is awe-inspiring to see Corman still at work, stealing shots & cutting expenses for SyFy Channel originals (which are essentially Roger Corman knockoffs), Fineman & Corman are survivors, unlikely successes navigating inhospitable waters for decades on end.

Thankfully, Corman’s success story at the conclusion of Corman’s World is much more impressive than Fineman’s at the end of The Independent. Fineman secures funding for his next picture, surviving to see another day & attending a small-town film festival held in his honor. Corman, on the other hand, receives a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, a much-deserved distinction for a director who could film movies as memorable as Little Shop of Horrors in a weekend or provide an environment in which Peter Bogdanovich’s first directorial credit is something called The Gill Women of Venus (aka Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women). I’m glad to see Corman receive the recognition he deserves from The Academy, but it’s almost an even greater achievement that he earned a loosely-based mockumentary homage  in (the albeit little-loved, little remembered) The Independent. The Independent & Corman’s World are inescapably linked in my mind as celebrations of one of cinemas most criminally under-celebrated heroes. Even though one is fictional & the other is a documentary, they’re both indispensable in their reverence for a wonderful artist.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Independent (2000)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Erin watch The Independent (2000).

Brandon: I first was alerted to the low-stakes indie comedy The Independent this past summer when Britnee posted an article about how our former Movie of the Month Highway to Hell happened to feature every member of the Stiller family: Jerry, Ben, Anne (Mearea), and Amy. An observant Swampflix reader, Tom Morton, was kind enough to point us in the direction of yet another film that featured every member of the Stiller clan, The Independent. I fell in love. I gushed heavily in my review of the film & added it to the growing list of our so-called Swampflix Cannon after just one viewing, despite it being a fairly simple, straightforward comedy. Something about the subject matter just clicked perfectly with my own pet cinema obsessions, especially in the B-movie spectrum. In the film Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an infinite stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Fineman is on the same violently explosive vibe Stiller brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”.

The great thing about this set-up is that Morty is not only a stand-in for Corman (who appears as himself within the film), but also fills the role of countless other legendary B-movie directors & producers: Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, David Friedman, etc. In other words, he is schlock personified. Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package. A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-sexy-robot blaxploitation called Foxy Chocolate Robot, and so on. These schlock spoofs are consistently funny & evenly spaced from beginning to end, supported only by the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a real-life serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews of The Independent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current cultural climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improv-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the schlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy.

Boomer, do you think part of the reason audiences did not connect with The Independent when it was released 15 years ago was that there was too much focus on the one-off B-movie spoofs & not enough of a fully-fleshed narrative to support a full-length feature? Do you think that breaking up the spoofs into a weekly sketch comedy format would’ve benefited the story it was trying to tell or was the film satisfying enough as a self-contained, low-stakes tale of a struggling, past-his-prime director trying to keep his family & his business intact?

Boomer: When watching this movie, the thing that struck me most about it was, as you noted above, how ahead of its time it felt. Debuting a year before the original UK version of The Office, it was not the first mockumentary, but it was made during a time when the tropes and rhetorical shorthand methodologies of the genre were largely unknown by the general population. I’d wager that if The Independent were to have been made after the airings of Arrested Development and, to a much greater degree, the US version of The Office, then the film would have seen wider appeal. We live in a world full of sitcoms that use talking head confessionals as a quick and dirty way of telling jokes in a more succinct way, for better or worse, even when the show itself doesn’t lend itself to that (for instance, it works for The Office, and that show eventually incorporated the film crew as part of the action in its final season, but why exactly do the Dunphys and Pritchetts of Modern Family mug for–and talk directly to–the camera?). I think it’s safe to say that, should there be an interested producer looking for a project, a series adaptation of The Independent would not be out of place in today’s television landscape.

I’m hesitant to commit to watching this hypothetical series, however. So much of what makes The Independent work is that the film’s tone never becomes too sentimental or unfocused on Stiller’s objectively reprehensible but subjectively human protagonist, and I feel like a series, even a serialized, single season adaptation, would find itself going to the well of emotional pathos much more than the source material did. The quick shots we see of his films contribute to the sense of his character, and his films convey a great deal in their (relative) understatement, regardless of how outlandish the films themselves may be. I get the feeling that an adaptation would rapidly experience diminished returns as we saw more and more of his body of work, pushing beyond their initial humor into exponentially more outlandish film outings that would undermine the film’s taut use of this device. Der Ubergoober, Truckstop Nurses, and The Despot Removers are all film titles that are pure perfection in the abstract but wouldn’t work, or would disappoint, if we were presented with them on film (although I have to admit that I would love to see Hot Justice in Thirty Minutes or Less, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Golem sounds like a blast).

That the film is simply that, a film, works best for me personally. That we see Janeane Garofalo’s Paloma exact revenge on facsimiles of the cheerleaders who spurned her in less than thirty seconds of Cheerleader Camp Massacre, for instance, shows that the strength of The Independent lies in knowing what to expand and what to explore only briefly. Given contemporary television’s tendency to decompress storylines at the expense of consistency and viewer patience, as well as the general saturation of the mockumentary-as-comedy style, I feel like a series adaptation would be a letdown. As a concept, it was ahead of its time, and now that its time has come, it has no real place among its contemporary peers.

That having been said, there are quite a few of these films that I would love to see in full, especially with a little MST3k-esque riffing. What about you, Britnee? Are there any of Fineman’s movies that you would desperately like to see as real films? Any that you think are best left imagined rather than realized? And why?

Blombas: Without a doubt, I would love to see Whale of a Cop (1981) as a full-length film. From what the trailer implied, a cop, played by Ben Stiller, is the human form of a whale, and he has a close friendship with a 8-10 year old kid. Stiller makes all sorts of whale noises, and he even spits out water! In the trailer, the kid is having one of those shoo-the-dog goodbye moments. Stiller looks all dopey-eyed and confused while this kid is crying up a storm and yelling something along the lines of “go be with your own kind!” I was crying from laughing so hard during this scene. How did the spirit of a whale end up in the body of a cop? Why is this super young kid with a bowl cut his best friend? These are all questions that I am dying to have answered. Hopefully, they were both once whales, but the boy fully turned into a human while Stiller is only half human. The police department recruited him because his special whale senses were helpful with their criminal investigations.

Another film that sounds like a blast would be A Very Malcolm Xmas. It’s never discussed during the actual film, but the title is shown during the credits (along with the rest of Fineman’s filmography). As an admirer of Malcolm X, I would love to know how Fineman would blend his legacy with Christmas traditions. As a lover of bad films and just being a curious person in general, I can’t really think of any fake Fineman movies that I would not want to see as actual films.

Other than the many “fake” film trailers featured in the movie, something in the film that really stood out to me was the duo that is Jerry Stiller and Janeane Garofalo. The chemistry between the two was so unexpected but, by God, it was extraordinary. They both have such different styles of comedy, and I think that’s why they got so many laughs out of me.

Erin, did you feel the same about Garofalo and Stiller? Would you like to see the two act in similar roles again? Or was this more of a one time thing?

Erin: I have to say, seeing Janeane Garofalo as a fake-tanned daddy’s girl was a lot of fun, since I’m most familiar with her acidic side, a la Heather of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.  And Jerry Stiller is perfect as Morty Fineman.  After watching The Independent, it’s hard to imagine him as any other role (although, I suspect that Stiller’s acting talents often lie in adding quite a bit of himself to his roles).  I liked seeing Garofalo and Stiller playing off each other, and the were really, truly believable as adults navigating a parent-child relationship.  Oddly enough, though, I would have to say that while I would like to see more of Jerry Stiller in similar roles, I’m not sure that I’m sold on Garofalo in similar roles.  I think that it might be because Garofalo was acting against type that her performance in this movie comes off so well, and I think that this kind of magic might lose its luster if repeated too often.

To change the subject a bit, I think that one of the things that made this movie so watchable was the pacing, the way that little glimpses of the Fineman world were revealed in a way that eased us into the madness of it all.  I wouldn’t have accepted the immediate introduction of Fineman’s car-dwelling ex wife, even after the strangeness of the opening scene.  However, by the time we meet her, we’re fully prepared for the next wacky turn of events. The Independent takes us by the hand and leads us happily down the lane, and by the time we think to ask where we’re going we’ve left the real world behind.  It’s the skillful story telling that makes me think of The Independent as a filmmaker’s film, something made not necessarily to entertain the masses but turn the lens of film back on itself.

The Independent is like watching a home movie.  I think, perhaps, that this home movie is meant for filmmakers, to see themselves and their passions through the fiction of a movie.  It’s interesting to see how the filmmakers portray themselves here – confident, persistent, optimistic, and terrible to live with.

What do you think, Brandon?  Is The Independent a self portrait, meant for filmmakers?  Is is self-indulgent, or a surreal confessional asking for atonement?

Brandon: So far I’ve honestly only thought of this movie as a film for schlock junkies. Fans of the trash auteurs of yesteryear will find plenty to chew on in The Independent, especially in those short-form spoofs & Roger Corman interviews. I don’t think that descriptions excludes filmmakers from the intended audience, though. A lot of filmmakers, even the ones who make endless piles of garbage, are really at heart just big movie fans who can’t help but make the the things they love. For example, Morty Fineman didn’t make hundreds of movies on accident. He made it because them because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s in his blood. Also, because he liked “the tits, bombs, and ass,” as he confessed in the fabulous scene in his ex-wife’s house/car Erin just mentioned.

Something I always wonder about directors like Roger Corman & Morty Fineman is whether or not they ever have time to actually watch movies for fun. In the documentary Corman’s World (which is required viewing, by the way) Corman recalls an anecdote where he was running almost a dozen simultaneous film production. When his wife asked him if he could actually name them all from memory, he could only recite the titles of all but two & then said something to the effect of, “Well, whatever the rest are, I’m going to cancel them in the morning.” Folks like Fineman & Corman are constantly swamped with shooting schedules & issues of financial backing, but their work is obviously influenced by the cinematic world surrounding them, so they somehow have to be watching movies in their leisure time. For instance, Fineman’s lost herpes PSA film The Simplex Complex was a spoof of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Corman’s production of Joe Dante’s Pihranna was a thinly veiled response to Spiendberg’s Jaws (which, in turn, was heavily influenced by Corman’s own creature feature work). I have no idea how an over-productive schlock director could find the time to keep up with their contemporaries that way, given the near impossible weight of their workloads.

To bring it home to Erin’s question, if this film were made with any particular filmmaker in mind it’d be Roger Corman, but would he even have had time to watch it? Even his contributions as an extended cameo seemed to be brief & succinct, probably shot on a break between a dozen other projects. It’s interesting to think of a what a Fineman-esque schlockmeister would get out of The Independent, considering the film’s admiration of their work & acknowledgement of their sleaziness, but I’m not sure they’d ever have the time to engage with it in that way. Did Corman ever sit down to watch this movie even though he appears in it? I’m curious, but doubtful.

It seems that The Independent‘s best chance for a cult audience is in comedy nerds who enjoy a Christopher Guest-style mockumentaries & weirdo sketch comedy and in schlock junkies who genuinely love bad movies as an art form, even beyond the MST3k brand of sarcastic derision. My question is whether or not you’d have to exist in the overlap of that Venn diagram to enjoy the film for all it’s worth. It’s obviously difficult for me to discuss The Independent without droning on about folks like Roger Corman & Russ Meyer, so I’m wondering if someone without that sense of B-movie context would get the same kind of appreciation of the movie’s insular little world of shoddy filmmaking.

What do you think, Mark? Is familiarity with the world of folks like Roger Corman necessary for loving this film beyond a tossed off “That was pretty funny, I guess.”? Is being a fan of irreverent comedy enough to fully appreciate The Independent or do you also have to be a little bit of a B-movie nerd to get on its wavelength?

Boomer: It’s interesting to me that you mention Christopher Guest, especially since his movies were the first point of contact I thought of when viewing The Independent, not Roger Corman, despite Corman’s cameo in the film’s opening moments. There’s a fine line tread here between the kind of zealous schlock that characterizes Corman’s work and the nuanced character work that typifies Guest’s. To be honest, I think that an appreciation for the kind of work that Guest does may be more integral to the overall enjoyment of The Independent as a movie than an appreciation for Corman and his ilk. Guest’s films generally feature a mixture of understatedly human emotions acted out by larger-than-life characters in situations that are incredibly idiosyncratic, be it a high-stakes dog show or a folk music reunion concert. The characters that populate the faux-documentary, especially but not limited to Morty, his assistant, and Paloma, are very much Guest-type people.

Of course, the prevalence of Corman-esque style in Morty’s works themselves can’t be ignored, either. Morty is Corman as a Guest character, and it works very, very well. It’s not hard to imagine Corman creating a film like Bald Justice, and a line like “You’re gonna like Leavenworth; they’ve got a great barber,” could have flowed from his pen just as easily as it did from Stephen Kessler and Mike Wilkins’s. Overall, though, I think it would be easier to enjoy the movie if you knew Guest but not Corman, rather than Corman but not Guest, simply given the fact that the homages to Corman, while pitch perfect and hilarious, don’t carry the weight of the narrative in and of themselves.

I would love to see more films of this type. Maybe a satirical slasher film that centered around a Hitchcock type, or a desert island survival story wherein all the characters are the stars of a seventies sci-fi show reunited for a convention cruise that goes awry. Or, of course, more mockumentaries about eccentric artists who are secretly self-deluded hacks. What about you, Britnee? How would you adapt this format into a personal instant classic?

Britnee: I’ve always wished and hoped for someone to make a John Waters biopic that would depict his work with the Dreamlanders crew. Could you imagine such a treat? So when thinking about what sort of film I would like to see in the style of The Independent, I would love to see a film that follows the journey of a Waters-like director and his band of misfits. The crew would travel the country creating snuff films in small, all-American towns. They would have a cult following of all ages willing to “die for art.” If anyone with the connections and resources ever reads this, please, oh please, make this happen.

Come to think of it, there really aren’t enough films that focus on the careers of movie directors, and they have one of the most interesting jobs on the planet! When director roles are featured in films, they are usually portrayed in a negative way. Most of the time, they’re sleazy douchebags that promise cast members leading roles in exchange for sex. It was nice to see a director portrayed in a positive light in The Independent. Morty has so much passion for filmmaking, and he truly loved all 400+ of his terrible b-movies. What an inspiration!

Going back to the discussing the film’s unique style, I don’t think it would be as enjoyable if it were anything other than a mockumentary. Erin, if The Independent was not filmed as a mocumentary, but was still a comedy, do you think it would still be as likeable? Why or why not?

Erin: Interesting question, Britnee!  I agree with you.  The mocumentary style of The Independent is an important part of its charm.  It allows for Morty’s character to be portrayed as humanly as possible.

That’s where I connected most with The Independent, with its portrayal of humanity.  The hyperbole used in the storytelling lets the actors tell a deeply human story about the the struggle to balance the compulsion to create and live according to one’s own heart against the very real impact that every human has on those around him or her.
As fluffy and ridiculous as The Independent is, there are moments of genuine pathos and discomfort.  Those moments, in a way, make the movie. They use of comic relief and exaggeration to tell real truths about the human condition is one of our best introspective tools as a species.

Lagniappe

Erin:I really, really want to see Whale of Cop brought to fruition.  There’s no shame in that game.

Britnee: I’m so glad to know that there’s another film other than Highway to Hell that involves all members of the Stiller clan. I have to say, I really wish there was more Rita (Anne Meara)!  Rita (Morty’s ex-wife that lives in a luxury car) was probably my favorite character in the film, but she was definitely not given enough screen time.

Boomer: Rita was definitely a character that I would have loved to see more of, especially with regards to her relationship with her eternally devoted doorman/chauffeur/lover. I also really loved the moment of footage we saw of Rat Fuck; it was such a great, minimal joke. In my notes from watching the film, I noted that Christ for the Defense reminded me, at least visually, of Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, which never came up organically in this discussion but which I think bears mentioning, if anyone feels like watching a movie that Morty may as well have directed.

Brandon: When started doing Movie of the Month Swampchats this past February I joked that the cold weather was making us a depressed bunch. The first few movies we discussed (The Masque of the Red Death, The Seventh Seal, Blood & Black Lace, etc) were a morbid procession of death & pestilence. I’m glad to say we pulled out of the funk in the past few months & started having some fun with a few comedies & even a kids’ movie, but it’s also remarkable how the year came full circle, beginning & ending with Roger Corman, who directed Masque & had a large influence on The Independent. There are few filmmakers out there who I love more or who could better represent this site’s love of where trash meets art. Let’s hope next year’s just as tidy & well-rounded. It’s been fun.

-The Swampflix Crew

The Independent (2000)

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In our attempts to crack open the mysteries behind our current Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s basic cable oddity Highway to Hell, Britnee mentioned that it was the only film she could recall that featured all four members of the Stiller clan. Thanks to a helpful recommendation from a reader (thanks Tom!) we now have another entry to add to that list. Jerry Stiller, his wife Ann Meara, and their children Ben & Amy also all appear in the 2000 indie comedy (appropriately-titled) The Independent. To discuss The Independent solely in terms of its relationship to Highway to Hell, however, would be doing the film a huge disservice. It’s so much better than that. I went into the film expecting a few decent one-off gags from the always-dependable Jerry, but I left completely in love.

In The Independent, Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an endless stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Stiller is on the same violently explosive vibe he brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”. Although Corman himself appears in the film (along with former cronies Peter Bogdanovich & Ron Howard) to offer the film a touch of credibility, Stiller’s protagonist is less of an homage to that single filmmaker, but more of a ZAZ-type spoof of the entirety of schlock directors from Russ Meyer to The Golan-Globus folks to anyone who’s ever made a blacksploitation film (and even Fred Williamson appears in the film to afford credibility on that end). Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package.

A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-soul-sister-robot blacksploitation flick called Foxy Chocolate Robot, etc. I counted at least fifteen of these schlock spoofs represented in brief clips & there are endless dozens of more ideas listed in a “complete filmography” that rolls in tandem with the end credits. Each idea plays just as well as you’d expect from a film that boasts a cast with its roots both the cult sketch comedy legends The Ben Stiller Show & Mr. Show (Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Janeane Garafalo, Brian Posehn, etc.). I don’t think there was a two minute stretch of the film when I wasn’t at least chuckling & a large part of that success was due to how well disperser these schlock spoofs are. They’re evenly spaced from beginning to end with only the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews on The Indepenent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improve-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s likely that the other Stiller clan affair, Highway to Hell, will remain in obscurity for the foreseeable future, but I like to imagine that The Independent still has a chance to achieve a cult classic status. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the shlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy. Out of respect for the comedian & respect for schlock as a medium, I plan on making this film a frequent recommendation to help keep its name alive. So, if you also have respect for either or just love a well-executed comedy sketch (or a dozen), I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. It’s damn funny.

-Brandon Ledet

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

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I had previously written on this site that the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was looking to crowdfund an American theatrical release, a campaign that was ultimately a success. I wrote that the movie “promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Having now actually seen What We Do in the Shadows, I am happy to report that the film not only met those expectations, but even greatly exceeded them. The most essential success of the film, however, was not what it had to add to the vampire genre, but just that it was simply riotously funny from start to finish.

Most of my favorite mockumentaries, titles like Best in Show & Drop Dead Gorgeous, aren’t necessarily well-told stories about personal growth and lessons learned. Instead, they’re more or less glimpses into the lives of already well-established characters as they prepare for a major life event, for instance a dog show or a beauty pageant. Staying true to that format, What We Do in the Shadows follows the lives of a small group of vampire roommates in the months leading up to their biggest annual celebration: The Unholy Masquerade, a grand party for the local undead. The Unholy Masquerade mostly serves as a climactic device that brings the film’s slowly boiling conflicts to a head, but what’s much more important is the characters that the “documentary” crew (who wear crucifixes for protection) follow in the months leading up to the event.

The film’s central vampire coven is a small crew consisting of an 18th century dandy, a torture-obsessed pervert, a 183 year old “young bad boy”, and an 8000 year old Nosferatu type named “Petyr”, who terrifies even his own undead flatmates. The group is mostly a collection of goofs, very much delusional in their outsized egos (a common trope in these Guest-style comedies), but also a true, formidable treat who fly, hypnotize, transform into bats & other creatures, and frequently murder unsuspecting victims with their incredibly sharp fangs. It’s a brilliant subject for an awkward comedy mostly concerned with trivial conflicts like a flatmate who doesn’t pull his weight on the chore wheel, the struggles of an active nightlife when you have to be formally invited into bars, meekly asking Petyr to sweep up the skeletons in his room, and struggling to adapt to the addition of a boisterous 5th roommate who shouts “I’m a vampire!” in public even more liberally than Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. There’s some strange, ambitious concepts allowed by the film’s subject, like the existence of Hitler’s secret vampire army or depressed vampires wistfully watching footage of the sunrise on YouTube. It’s the clash of these ideas with the mundanity of modern life that make the film something special, like when one flatmate angrily shouts, “Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”

Co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords fame) have crafted a thoroughly funny film here that I expect to revisit often. They have added a few updates to the mockumentary format, like the inclusion of some reality show beats, but for the most part the film is a very straightforward genre execution. It just also happens to be a very funny one. What We Do in the Shadows is as great as a vampire mockumentary could possibly be. An exceptionally funny comedy overstuffed with loveable, but deeply flawed characters (they are bloodthirsty murderers after all) and endlessly quotable zingers, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more rewatchable execution of its basic concept. In other words, it’s an instant classic.

-Brandon Ledet