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From its awkward sense of humor to capturing parts of nondescript South Florida that no longer exist, there are pleasures to be found in writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s modest debut feature, River of Grass. Shot in 1993 in and around North Miami, the short feature film was recently restored and re-released by New York-based indie distributor Oscilloscope. Shot on color 16mm, the film also captures that Generation X zeitgeist of slackerdom that transcends the current nostalgia by fashion designers to bring back the era in clothing. For those who actually lived the ‘90s in South Florida, there’s also the bonus of the film’s time capsule quality.

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Writer-director Kelly Reichardt recently premiered Certain Women at Sundance, where it was picked up by IFC Films for U.S. distribution and Sony for worldwide release. It reunites her once again with actress Michelle Williams and also features Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, a stellar cast if there ever was one. Reichardt has done well for herself and grown much since her 1994 feature debut, River of Grass, so you will have to forgive a little cynicism with her hindsight view on her first film, which was recently restored by Oscilloscope Pictures with the help of actor/director Larry Fessendenher producers and a Kickstarter campaign. “There’s no mistaking it’s from the ‘90s,” she admits, speaking from her home in New York. “Maybe it’s the learning as you go kind of thing,” she says.

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final2.inddAmong our favorite film genres is the mockumentary, and one of the best is This is Spinal Tap. There is something so pure and funny about an actor earnestly adopting a seemingly real character to deconstruct their persona and re-imagine its possibilities. In What We Do in the Shadows, a camera crew presenting themselves as objective observers follow four vampires ranging in age from 183 to 8,000 years old in a style very similar to the portrayal of a rock band in This is Spinal Tap (Not long into the film we learn the crew is safe from vampiric impulses because they are wearing crucifixes). The foursome share a house in suburban New Zealand and have to cope with all the mundane problems of flatting together, such as sharing chores and dealing with different personalities. The squabbles between the vampires are reminiscent of the early days of “the Real World,” with humor drawn from vampire movie classics, from Nosferatu to Twilight. For instance, when a house meeting is called by one of the roommates, the topic of conversation is dish washing. “You have not done the dishes in five years,” complains one about the other. This acute awareness of the minutiae in daily life juxtaposed with the idea of eternal existence is one of the brilliant recurring themes of the film.

Taika Waititi Jonathan Brugh Jemaine Clement WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Photo Credit Unison Films

The script comes from two of the lead actors in the film, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords” fame, who also co-directed. With What We Do in the Shadows, they take on a familiar narrative and question its assumptions to make a smartly winking film to hilarious effect. The camera introduces us first to Viago (Waititi). His character is 379 years old and dresses in frilly shirts and waistcoats like Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with a Vampire. The 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement) derisively refers to him as a 17th century dandy. Viago is a neat freak and a romantic. His heartbreaking story-line involves following a love interest to New Zealand by cargo, many decades ago, but getting lost during shipment.

Vladislav, also known as “Vlad the Poker,” is labeled the “pervert” of the group. His characterization channels an oversexualized vampire that will remind many of Gary Oldman’s version of Dracula from the Vlad the Impaler myth in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon is the youngest of the group. At 183, he is the cool kid or “the bad boy,” as the others refer to him. Then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), aged 8,000. Petyr is the “classic” vampire with a look and feel that stems from that first vampire movie: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. He sleeps in a stone crypt in the basement riddled with human remains. He is exempt from household chores and meetings. You’ll also meet a newbie to the group, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who, while trying to pick up women at a bar, can’t keep from boasting, “You know the guy from Twilight? That’s me.” 

Jemaine Clement WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Photo Credit Unison Films

The mash-up of vampire influences in each character is not only a tribute to the vampire movies across the decades but also allows for each personality to standout. It’s similar to recognizing a favorite member of a boy band, wherein the characters fulfill their stereotypes and play with familiar tropes that we have become accustomed to from popular movies and reality shows.

Though What We Do in the Shadows sometimes takes a turn into black humor (there is going to be death in a vampire movie), much of the gags deliver great laughs, like the ongoing rivalry between the group of vampires and a pack of werewolves. For those vampire genre connoisseurs that may not easily be amused, the film also includes montages of storytelling that use vintage images of the character’s story lines. Since there were no video cameras when these characters were turned into the undead, besides old photos, we also get paintings and archaic woodcarvings to illustrate their early years, which achieve a different level of humor. There’s one great running gag of Vlad’s arch nemesis “The Beast,” seen in a primitive woodcut as a rotund creature with the head of a bird, small arms and possibly a penis protruding from its chest. When Vlad finally has an opportunity to confront “the beast,” the reveal of the monster will surely get hearty laughter in a most unexpected way.

Taika Waititi  WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS Photo Credit Unison Films

The characters take on modern life, with all the vicissitudes it poses to the undead. Another of the great jokes among the roommates is posing for each other before they go out at night. As one of the symptoms of being a vampire means they are prevented from using mirrors, the vampires look to each other for fashion advice. There is also a couple of humans in the mix, Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) plays a subservient role to Deacon, a modern type of Renfield who craves the promise of eternal life. Jackie helps lure other humans for the gang to feast on, and that’s how they meet Stu (Stuart Rutherford). In another running gag, the vampires are so taken by Stu, a computer analyst who teaches them about Googling and Facebook, they make a pact to spare his life.

What We Do in the Shadows was awarded the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and the Audience Award at the Hawaii International Film Festival; an indication of the crowd-pleasing qualities of this film. This is one of those movies that can easily become a repeater, as soon as we finished watching it we were ready for an encore. What We Do in the Shadows is one of those independent films that will have crossover appeal from art-house theater-goers to avid TV watchers. For us, this was a gem, and we were happy to have been invited to preview it.

Ana Morgenstern and Hans Morgenstern

What We Do in the shadows runs 86 minutes and is not rated (expect violence, language, sexuality, gore and some scares but most of it for humor’s sake). It opens in many U.S. theaters on March 6. In South Florida, it’s playing at the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach and the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale. For listings around the world click here. The film’s PR company provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. Clement, by the way, self-funded the movie’s U.S. distribution via Kickstarter.

Update: O Cinema Wynwood in Miami will now host the film. Sreening details here.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Little Haiti Rock City logo

It’s not often that I promote a project’s Kickstarter campaign, but there’s no denying my personal connection to the subject of Little Haiti Rock City (here’s a link to the campaign). Though I hardly know the filmmakers, director Franco Parente and producer Angel Eva Markoulis certainly share my sentiments for the bar in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami called Churchill’s Hideaway, which was once run by British ex-pat Dave Daniels.

Daniels, a former pal of the famed BBC DJ John Peel, could certainly be considered one of the original Miami hipsters. His anything-goes attitude to the musicians he allowed on stage even allowed me to get on stage to lash at guitars and sing with the preeminent local noise band the Laundry Room Squelchers, who have long had residence on Thursday nights at the bar. The group’s founder, the legendary Frank “Rat Bastard” Fallestra, was always happiest when the din produced made people leave the bar. That Daniels could not only allow that but continue to invite Rat back over, night after night for literally decades, speaks to the kind of man Daniels is.

Dave and Rat photo by Tony Landa

Daniels (left) with Rat.

Churchill’s has not only incubated the likes of artists like Rat but also musicians like Sam Beam of Iron and Wine (who I first discovered there). Interpol’s drummer, Sam Fogarino, reunited with his old mates in the Holy Terrors a few years ago after an Interpol show (it was the better show that night). Now, after 35 years of ownership, Daniels has sold the bar, and I could hardly avoid the howl of protest from many local musician friends (this show happened, and it was one for the ages). Of course, the local musicians and fans have been only understanding, but they also harbor a bit of dread that the place will just never be the same.

Parente also has that same feeling. He has already spent much time with Daniels since he started shooting footage for his documentary on a bar that he considers Miami’s equivalent to New York’s CBGB. “I’d like to think it’s about the legacy that Dave built or rather allowed to build itself. What most people don’t see is the community of artists, musicians and just regular people that have coexisted within that space in Little Haiti.”

“The story we’re telling of Churchill’s wouldn’t exist were it not for him since it just wouldn’t be the same,” adds Markoulis.

Local musician Steven Toth, a.k.a. Mr. Entertainment, who put together the tribute show “For the Good of Music/A Night for Dave Daniels,” epitomizes the many local artists who would have never found their voice were in not for Daniels’ openness. “Well, Dave has been like the coolest uncle ever, and we aren’t related,” he says. “He gave me and my band a chance when we may not have even been good enough. He encouraged us to play, always told me how much he loved my street performing, and pretty much never said no to any of my crazy ideas. What Dave gave to us was freedom and a home all in one.”

During his interviews with Daniels, Parente found some insight into what motivated Daniels to open his stage to pretty much anyone with an instrument of some kind. “I think it’s been his interest all along to watch people flourish and shed the armor,” he says of Daniels. “I know he’s a businessman and always has been, but he’s a businessman with a heart, and that’s a dying breed.”

The idea of the dying breed is also part of the urgency that motivated Parente to begin work on this documentary before he had all the funds necessary to complete the film. Now, he and Markoulis have taken to Kickstarter to finish their work. “It’s a monumental task to raise this much money with smaller donations, as opposed to large investors bankrolling it,” admits Markoulis. But she also offers a perspective that will make it easily feasible. “If everyone who stumbles upon our project page pledged the cost of going to the movies, we’d have our funding and be able to preserve a piece of music history.”

As of the publication of this post, they are halfway to the $79,000 required to continue their work, but they only have eight days to go. Markoulis says if everything goes as planned, they could have their film completed by next year. They also hope to get the new owners on the record, even though the filmmakers admit some of these owners have chosen not to reveal their identities, which goes to show just how intimidating it is to be seen as a replacement for Daniels. “We are in the process of setting up an interview,” notes Parente, “but it’s a transitional period and direct access to the new owners has not been easy to come by. They’re not sitting at the end of the bar sipping on cider like Dave did for so long.”

“We would really love to include them in the documentary and the future of Churchill’s Pub,” adds Markoulis. “Hopefully they will be willing to sit down for an interview with us.”

Despite the doubts that seem to haunt the new ownership by many, both filmmakers remain optimistic about them. “We stand by them and hope that they make positive changes to the place and that we as a community can have Churchill’s here forever,” Parente states. “The reason we are making this film is not to preserve the building, but what Dave and his way of doing things have allowed to go on and came from that building.”

You can read much more about the film, including more specifics about how the filmmakers plan to use the Kickstarter funds, by jumping though the image below to this article I wrote for Pure Honey, earlier this month:

pure honey

If you live in South Florida, one of the best ways to experience this venue while supporting this film is by checking out a show this Saturday, June 28 (here’s the Facebook event page to join). There’s a $10 cover and all proceeds go towards the Little Haiti Rock City Kickstarter campaign. Bands slated to appear include:

-The PawnsShop Drunks
-Charlie Pickett
-Shark Dust Sisters (featuring members of Load, The Holy Terrors & Quit. Plus special guests)
-The Tremends
-Fulltime, MotherFucker!
-Rat Bastard
-Mr. Entertainment (playing the sidewalk, like the old days)

Remember, even if you are not in Miami, you can donate. Once again, here’s the link:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

smilingfaces_smThe other day I reviewed Hide Your Smiling Faces, an incredible indie film that was picked up by Tribeca Film recently (Film Review: ‘Hide Your Smiling Faces’ presents resonant images of darkness and light of life and death). I’m happy to report a more abridged and slightly easier-to-digest version of the review appears in today’s Miami Herald’s Weekend section (read that version here).

Ahead of our discussion at the end of this month with film critic Amy Taubin, I corresponded with the film’s director, Daniel Patrick Carbone. We got to know each other well enough for an interview, which was published in the Miami New Times’ art and culture blog Cultist, earlier this morning. I was struck by how such a loose-feeling film can also tap into such specific, abstract feelings that I take note of in the review. It’s quite a miracle how some smartly directed improvisation and evocative scenes can come across so specifically. That’s why it makes such a great film for the first “Speaking In Cinema” event at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (see more about the event here).

You can read most of my interview with Carbone by jumping through the Cultist logo below, where he shares tips for those trying to fund a film via Kickstarter and how he felt about having his film picked up by Tribeca:

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We dove more into the film than what is in that article. Here are some of the outtakes, which are no less insightful:

Hans Morgenstern: We find out the names of the brothers at the center of the film far along in the movie. Why?

Daniel Patrick Carbone: This is simply due to the way people speak in real life. A conversation between two people, especially two young people, rarely includes first names. I wanted the kids to speak like real kids. They had a lot of freedom to improvise their lines and the result is a more authentic style of speaking. Since there are so few characters in the film, knowing their names wasn’t something I needed to worry about right at the beginning.

HYSF-Carbone-PhotoHM: Is it fair to call this a movie about death? What is your interest in this theme?

That’s absolutely fair, but I’d also add that it’s a film about nature and brotherhood, and using tragic experiences to learn more about yourself and the world around you. I also think it’s a hopeful film. I think the difficult parts about growing up— those unanswerable questions that haunt us as children— are just as formative as the positive moments. I wanted to explore that moment when we realize we aren’t invincible and our actions have consequences. I have very vivid memories of my first experiences with loss and grief, and I think I am better for having experienced what I did. This film is a distillation all of those emotions, good and bad.

* * *

Of course, much more to come, live and in person with Taubin’s inspired voice in the mix (read what she thought of the film in her Tribeca Film Festival recap for Film Comment).

I’ll leave you with one of the clips we plan to share at our discussion:

Hans Morgenstern

Hide Your Smiling Faces opens today at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The director will present the film on April 26 and 27, at 7 p.m. On Tuesday April 29, at 7 p.m.,he, New York film critic Amy Taubin and Miami-based film critic Hans Morgenstern will share the stage in the first installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film and others.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)