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film review: what we do in the shadows

What We Do In The Shadows Promotional Poster

The wonderful team behind Flight of the Conchords are offering up their latest tribute to the Gods of comedy. I suspect no goats will need to be sacrificed and that the Gods will be sated for many years to come. In What We Do In The Shadows, Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) play a trio of foolish vampires trying to go about their tedious everyday business with sexy vampire aplomb and failing hilariously. Unfortunately there is a familiar criticism I feel compelled to make.

When writing film reviews for a feminist online magazine I often get a little despondent with the offerings out there in the world of cinema. I see at least 50 movies in a year, some of them excellent. But for the vast majority of them, including the good ones, I have the same complaint: ‘where are the women?’ No, not the token tough chick, zany pixie girl, sexy love interest or any other stereotype you care to mention (there are several, most of them rendered banal by how predictably offensive they are). When I say women, I mean why is there so often only one main female character? Why do plots revolve solely around men?

It’s a tedious complaint and I’m sick of making it. It’s just not that hard to create believable and compelling female characters (Joss Whedon anyone?). I remember reading an article that perfectly summed up how I felt playing make believe games as a child: all the good parts go to the boys. Pirates, ninjas, kings, it was easy to have fun and kick arse as a boy. I never wanted to play those games when I was little because it was boring being the damsel in distress, but there were not many other options.

Which brings me to the centre of the shrubbery maze that is pervasive sexism in cinema. I don’t like making this criticism of movies I thoroughly enjoy. It’s a bit like cooking a juicy rump steak to medium-rare perfection and then smothering it in cheap tomato sauce. Stop! You’re ruining it! And it could’ve been so good!

What We Do In The Shadows is fantastic. It’s quotable quote heaven that fans of Tarantino and Whedon alike will coo over. More than that, it expertly explores the wonderful trope of putting unreal creatures in realistic situations and just watching what happens. A bit like when you see your normally über-professional boss after they’ve sunk half a dozen pints: the voyeuristic appeal of such things cannot be underestimated. Who doesn’t want to watch centuries-old vampires fight over who does the dishes? The ability to make the everyday seem hysterically funny is a rare gift that the writers and director are totally blessed with.

And there were two female characters hanging around on the margins. One of them was a slave whose scanty character development and resolution was directly influenced and depended entirely on the men around her.

Obviously not all films can have female characters. In fact, putting a female character in just for the sake of having one is offensive and problematic in itself. And movies with all-male casts are often exceptional (Reservoir Dogs – groundbreaking). But when that excuse is made for the vast majority of films out there it gets a little wearing. I’m not saying stop making films with mostly men, but let’s even up the ratio a bit. I’m bored with seeing everything from the male point of view.

Having said all that I’m feeling a little bad. What We Do In the Shadows is remarkable. It’s a rare film that can successfully tread the line between heartfelt and hysterically funny. The scenes involving an older, yet still completely gormless, vampire clumsily attempting to comfort a new vampire coming to grips with the fact that all the mortals he loves will die and he will live on is very touching.

Go and see this film, it’s an absolute riot. It’s not pushing any boundaries for feminism but then so few films do. And that’s not a good reason to stop going to the movies.

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