Tag Archives: Jemaine Clement

Not Bird nor Plane nor Even Frog

DC League of Super-Pets

by Hope Madden

Y’all should have a pet. That’s the message of the feel-good, sometimes surprisingly dark, wildly well-cast animated feature DC League of Super-Pets.

It’s not a tough lesson, really. That’s why one pet has to learn something different. Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), Superman’s dog, doesn’t really know how to be a dog. He figures out something about pack animalhood when he’s robbed of his superpowers, Superman goes missing, and the shelter animals up the road develop their own special skills.

Who’s to blame? Is it evil Lex Luthor (Marc Maron)?

Oh, no. No, this villain is a far, far more dangerous creature. Look out for Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a hairless Guinea pig once saved from experimentation in Luthor’s lab!

Guinea pigs have not done this much animated damage since that South Park episode.

There are lessons aplenty in this film, but just one I want Hollywood to take away from it: McKinnon should voice all animated bad guys forevermore. She couldn’t be more perfect, couldn’t be more fun.

She’s not alone. The supporting voicework in this film delights. Other scene stealers include Keanu Reeves as a brooding (what else?) Batman and Natasha Lyonne as a cantankerous yet horny turtle.

Sure, the actual stars are Johnson and Kevin Hart, and they’re about as fun an odd couple when they’re cartoon dogs as they are when they’re CIA agents or board game buddies. But the real story here is the supporting cast, which also includes John Krasinski, Diego Luna, Jemaine Clement, Daveed Diggs, Vanessa Bayer, Dascha Polanco, Jameela Jamil and Olivia Wilde.

Wow, that’s a lot of people, which indicates that DC League of Super-Pets suffers from the same bloat as almost all DC films. There are too many characters, too many tidy endings, too little for everyone to do.

Co-directors Jared Stern and Sam Levine, along with co-writer John Whittington (writing with Stern) have collectively created a solidly unremarkable set of animated films and episodes. This is no different.

There’s a lot going on with not much really happening. It looks good, not exceptional. It’s fun and almost immediately forgettable. It does expose the diabolical side of the Guinea pig, though. Fear them!

Chillier than Casual Friday

Nude Tuesday

by Hope Madden

“It’s rude not to be nude on Nude Tuesday.”

It’s with this kind of casually dropped line and its sincere acceptance that co-writer/director Armagan Ballantyne laughingly challenges status quo and self-help in equal measure.

It’s nothing if not an odd film.

Ballantyne writes with star Jackie van Beek (What We Do in the Shadows) and Ronny Chieng. Ballantyne and van Beek composed the script, which is written entirely in a very Nordic-sounding gibberish language. Chieng wrote the subtitles.

This makes you wonder, was the English language version available to the actors, or did Chieng figure out what they were saying later? And why?

Either way, the actors convince. You’ll immediately forget that this is not a real language (which means you’ll cease to marvel at its delivery, and that’s a crime).

Van Beek is Laura, whose marriage to Bruno (Damon Herriman) has been unsatisfying for a while. His mum has noticed, so she bought them a trip to a retreat run by the charismatic Bjorg (Jemaine Clement).

The duo will try new things, learn about themselves, slowly unveil the buried troubles in their relationship, and work toward that day of days: Nude Tuesday.

Before we get there, though, Ballantyne runs through an absurd comedy of manners. Van Beek’s awkward, do-what’s-expected delivery is perfect, and Herriman’s over-eager approach creates a funny balance.

Clement’s simpleton narcissism delivers the most consistent laughter in a film that’s cleverly delightful if not bust-a-gut funny.

The cast wields the language impressively. Still, the creative decision is a head-scratcher. The fictional language doesn’t impede enjoyment of the film, but it doesn’t heighten it, either. Because of the subtitles, it doesn’t do anything at all. Would we be able to follow along without captions? And if not, why put the cast through learning the false dialog and the audience through reading the real deal?

It’s a conundrum, but not one worth a lot of energy. Nude Tuesday delivers a charming coming-of-middle-age comedy (and a lot more nudity than you probably need).

Class Dismissed

I Used To Go Here

by George Wolf

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever wandered past their old college apartment and thought about knocking, right? And then you realize how little the kids inside will care about your nostalgia (or worse, how adorable they’ll think your old ass is), and you just keep on wandering.

But what if you were invited in? And what if you stayed awhile? With I Used To Go Here, writer/director Kris Rey has a full semester of fun exploring that very idea.

30-something Kate (Community‘s Gillian Jacobs, fantastic) is bumming over a breakup and the cancellation of the promo tour for her very first book. A phone call from her old professor David (Jemaine Clement) perks Kate right up.

Would she come back to Illinois U. as a “Distinguished Alumni” and do a reading from her novel? She would.

Once on campus, Kate pauses to take a selfie outside her old place, and one of the students inside takes notice. Oh, you’re a writer? We’re writers, too. Hey, we’re having a party tonight, you should come.

Yes, some sit-com worthy situations ensue, but the point quickly becomes how well Rey wields them all to unleash a series of hilarious punctures into the illusion of aging while hip.

And while the big picture is endlessly charming, the little details aren’t forgotten. From the obligatory Che Guevara poster to Kate donning an orientation t-shirt, from the painful college prose to the serious battle brewing between Kate and her b-n-b host, Rey displays a keen sense for weaving humanity into hijinks.

She has a wonderful vessel in Jacobs, who channels many of Rey’s usual sensibilities with an endearing and warmly funny performance. Kate’s life may be an intermittent mess, but she’s always easy to root for, and Jacobs – with help from a stellar ensemble – confidently navigates the uneven ground between Kate’s ambition, her reality, and her attempt to find out if one of her new young college friend’s girlfriend is cheating on him!

Even at its nuttiest, I Used To Go Here is a deceptively smart look at the complexities of accepting adulthood. It’s Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young with a lighter touch, a film that might make the “your future starts now” message on the back on Kate’s t-shirt ring true for both filmmaker and star.

Polynesian Princess


by Hope Madden

Disney’s no Pixar, but in 2016 that doesn’t seem to matter. In an ocean of excellent animation this year, Disney’s Zootopia stands out as quite possibly the best – certainly the most relevant. While their holiday release, Moana, returns to some tried-and-true-and-tired tropes, it frees itself often enough from Disneyisms to become yet another strong ‘toon from the studio.

The animation behemoth never strays for too long from its merch-encrusted path. Yes, Moana (Auli’i Cravahlo) is a Disney princess. She’s the daughter of a Polynesian chief, but as demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out, “You’re wearing a dress, you have an animal sidekick – you’re a princess.”

Yes, she’s a princess who yearns for more than the responsibilities life affords her. (Mercifully, that dream never does involve a beau.) There are songs of self-actualization and the thrill of adventure. There’s a lot that’s familiar.

Set generations ago in the Polynesian islands, the film tells of the ancient demigod Maui – a shapeshifter who used his magical fishhook to steal the heart of the earth goddess, dooming the islands to eventual peril. Moana is called by the sea to find Maui, retrieve his hook and return the heart to save her people.

Moana draws comparisons to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pixar’s Brave – hell, there’s even a bit of Mad Max on the high seas (nice!). But the film ultimately carves out its own presence, partly due to a refreshing cultural change.

From music to art to tattooing, the film offers more than a patronizing nod to Polynesian historical context. Also refreshing: sturdier looking characters, a lack of (creepy, pre-adolescent) love story, quiet mockery of standard Disney motifs, one fantastically jewel-encrusted crab.

Jemaine! The always welcome Jemaine Clement voices one of the many dastardly creatures Moana and Maui encounter on their trek, and he’s almost Tim Curry glorious. (He also has the best song in the film.)

He’s just one baddie in a film littered with fascinating menaces – from the coconut pirates (no, they don’t steal coconuts – they are coconuts) to various undersea dangers to the lava demon the heroic duo must defeat to save the world.

Johnson steals most of the film. With broad humor to match Maui’s enormous, ornately tattooed body, his chemistry with the teen voyager is nearly as entertaining as his struggles to shape shift.

The film has its troubles, including a slog of a first act, but Moana contains more than enough freshness to offset its weaknesses and guarantee holiday family fun.


Not Quite Dynamite

Don Verdean

by Hope Madden

A self-proclaimed biblical archeologist somehow finds holy artifacts that have eluded the scientific and theological community for centuries – millennia, even – and brings them home to the US of A to help one Utah pastor reinvigorate his flock.

A ripe premise, that. The fact that the archeologist is played by Sam Rockwell, and the pastor by Danny McBride, only heightens the possibilities. On top of that, Don Verdean was directed by Jared Hess, co-written with his wife Jerusha, the team responsible for Napoleon Dynamite.

This should definitely work better than it does.

On paper, Don Verdean is a hoot. Add to the capable leads and a satire-rich premise the outstanding supporting cast. Amy Ryan offers an understated tenderness and humor as Don’s faithful assistant Carol, and Leslie Bibb is a stitch in her too-small role as Joylinda Lazarus, former prostitute, current pastor’s wife.

But Jemaine Clement could face criminal charges for the way he steals scenes as Verdean’s man on the ground in the Holy Land, Boaz.

The pieces are there, but the execution is way off. Hess’s film is too sweetly, compassionately cynical for its own good. What humor the film offers is frustratingly laid back, and far too often a tart comedic set up suffers from weak follow through.

The Hesses don’t seem to have the teeth for religious satire. Is Verdean a huckster or a soft but decent man led astray by Satan’s earthly influence, greed? Or is everyone in the film just suffering from idiocy and whimsy in equal measure?

Most disheartening of all is the misuse of Rockwell, who also executive produces. His performance is so low key as to be sleep inducing.

Rockwell and Clement co-starred in the Hesses’ previous effort, Gentlemen Broncos, which was far weirder than it was funny. For their next film they dialed down the weird a bit, but the comedy itself is even more subdued.

That’s unfortunate, because they may have really had something if they’d known what to do with it.


What Are Nouns?

People Places Things

by Hope Madden

I dare you to dislike Jemaine Clement. Just try to – it’s not even possible.

Whether he’s the aspiring pop star of Flight of the Conchords, the sexy vampire of What We Do In the Shadows, or just the voice of the damn horse in those Direct TV ads, he is always memorable, likeable, and hilarious.

In People Places Things, Clement steps out of the shadows and takes on romantic lead responsibilities as newly single graphic novelist Will. Will finds himself lonely and directionless after longtime partner/baby mama Charlie (Stephanie Allynne) leaves him for a monologist named Gary (a very funny Michael Chernus).

Nothing really works out well as Will floats through many failed attempts at living – teaching the graphic novel, mentoring a talented student, dating her mother, spending more time with his (ridiculously adorable) twin daughters, finishing his book, accepting Charlie’s new life and impending marriage.

Filmmaker James Strouse has been writing movies about lost men for a long time, beginning with the under-appreciated Lonesome Jim back in ‘05. People Places Things is his most surefooted script, populated with appealing characters that are nicely realized by Strouse’s strong cast.

Clement can generate chemistry with anyone who walks on screen, which is no doubt part of his charm. This is particularly true with Regina Hall, who shines in a very different kind of comedic role than those she usually takes. The humor is sly and a bit quiet, but wonderful nonetheless.

Allynne succeeds with the most difficult role, delivering a believably neurotic counterpoint to Will, a woman pretending to be sure of herself and her future who is actually exactly as lost as he is.

In a lot of ways, the film serves up a traditionally structured if attractively indie rom-com, but the way the cast – Clement, in particular – underplays the drama and lets the comedy breathe a bit, you don’t feel manipulated. The film is somewhat daringly low-key, relying on a talented cast to unveil the longing and loneliness behind the laughs.

It’s a messy, sweet, funny look at self-discovery and relationships, masquerading as a romantic comedy.



Dead and Loving It

What We Do in the Shadows

by Hope Madden

Which sounds more stale, a fake documentary or a vampire movie? Maybe it’s a tie, but don’t let that dissuade you. What We Do in the Shadows – a fake documentary about vampires – is a droll gem of a film, and it feels like a gift during this dreary cinematic season.

That’s right! Believe it or not, filmmakers are still doing something interesting with vampires. It’s as if the collective artistic mind decided to retrieve the once-worthy villain from the shame of Twilight. The great Jim Jarmusch made them cool again last year with Only Lovers Left Alive. That same year, newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour made them mysterious again with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And now What We Do in the Shadows makes them ridiculous – but in a good way.

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates.

Viago (co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi) – derided by the local werewolf pack as Count Fagula – acts as our guide. He’s joined by Vladislav (co-writer/co-director Jemaine Clement), who describes his look as “dead but delicious.” There’s also Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – the newbie at only 187 years old – and Petyr. Styled meticulously and delightfully on the old Nosferatu Count Orlock, Petyr is 8000 years old and does whatever he wants.

Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. It’s hard to get into the good clubs (they have to be invited in) or find a virgin. Forget about tolerating the local pack of werewolves (led by the utterly hilarious alpha Rhys Darby).

The reliably hysterical Clement is best known for his outstanding comic work in the series Flight of the Conchords, and the film benefits from the same silly, clever humor. Together he and Waititi spawned the underappreciated 2007 comedy Eagle vs Shark. Their work here is more charming and good natured, so likely more crowd pleasing.

The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.