Thursday, March 26, 2015

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, What We Do in the Shadows

                           Things We Said … Yesterday
                                                         Reviews by Ken Burke
 Except for a certain quotient of nostalgia, there’s really nothing of any substance connecting the 2 cinematic subjects under exploration in this posting so I’ll address them as separate reviews.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed (David Trueba, 2013)
Based on a real event, this is the story of Antonio, a Spanish schoolteacher in 1966, who sets out, along with a couple of young runaways, to meet his idol, John Lennon, when the famous Beatle was acting in the film, How I Won the War.  The girl’s an unwed mother, the boy’s refusing to cut his hair, and Antonio’s so star-struck he can hardly keep his car on the road.
What Happens: In 1966 Spain, still under the repressive rule of Gen. Franco (unfortunately, in a reversal of a constant mid-1970s Saturday Night Live “news” joke, here someone would have to be shouting “Generalisimo Francisco Franco is still alive!”), which leads to youth unemployment and a “general” surliness in the country, Antonio (Javier Cámara)—based on actual Juan Carrón Gañàn—an Albacete grammar/middle-school (I never was clear on that because at my age everyone under 30 looks like they’re about 12, a trait I picked up from my equally-well-traveled-wife, the lovely and talented Nina Kindblad) teacher of English (where he uses Beatles’ lyrics to help not only with vocabulary and grammar but also life lessons, especially involving “Help!”—his students call him the “fifth Beatle”; I guess they’re not aware of Stu Sutcliffe or Pete Best) and Latin, learns that John Lennon is further south in Almería filming How I Won the War (Richard Lester, 1967) so the teacher plays hooky in an attempt to meet his idol (he also wants to get a better transcription and understanding of what’s going on in the increasingly-non-Fab-Four material on Revolver [1966]).  Along the way he encounters 2 young runaways, 20-year-old Belén (Natalia de Molina), who’s slipped out of a church-run-home-for-unwed-mothers (she’s 3 ½ months pregnant) then meets up with Antonio at a highway gas station, and, later a hitchhiker, 16-year-old Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), who’s left home in response to his forceful-policeman-father’s (Jorge Sanz) abusive insistence that he cut his 1966-Beatle-length-hair (I’m sure the kid would have been long gone before if he’d even attempted to grow the flowing locks that Lennon evolved to about the time the band broke up in 1970).  The youngsters (compared to middle-aged-Antonio), having nothing better to do at the time, go along for the ride, although they’re not Beatle fanatics (Juanjo—short for Juan José—even notes that he prefers the Rolling Stones or the Kinks, at which point Antonio angrily throws him out of the car until admitting it’s just a joke) yet they have to endure Antonio’s ceaseless chattering about Lennon and his mates.  When they finally arrive at the small town close to where the film’s being shot (after having to push their dilapidated car up some of the winding hilly roads that hug the Mediterranean Sea in this area), Antonio gets separate rooms for himself and Belén at the rundown local Sol Y Mar motel, convinces Ramón (Ramon Fontserè), the owner of the local bar, to hire Juanjo for menial jobs, and sets out on his quest to be admitted to the film shoot.

 However, Antonio’s dreams are initially shot down by firm Civil Guards working as security, so no unauthorized entrance to the set is allowed.  Luckily, Antonio gets word that the film crew uses the local cinema for evening screenings of their daily rushes so he and his 2 companions sit through an afternoon matinee, then hide in the theater until the filmmakers arrive (no Lennon, though; Antonio’s had no luck with direct contact, even after locating where John and his family are staying only to flee when first-wife Cynthia [another casualty of Yoko] starts screaming and throwing pots of flowers at him) so that the star-struck-teacher can leave a note for John with one of the production team.  This actually leads to Antonio being allowed to visit the set for a private meeting with the most controversial Beatle (even prior to his union with Yoko, given the infamous “We’re more popular than Jesus now” remark, but we never see John in this film), at which he writes some of the lyrics to “Strawberry Fields Forever” in Antonio’s notebook and records an acoustic version of it on the portable reel-to-reel-tape-player that Antonio carries everywhere (Beatle songs at that time took awhile to get to Spain so he had to record them from Radio Luxembourg broadcasts, sometimes struggling with clarity of the lyrics).  As this sweet, coming-of-age (no matter how old the characters are) story concludes, Ramón calls Juanjo’s parents leading to a now-more-agreeable-father (possibly helped by the haircut his son willingly got from Belén) driving to retrieve Juanjo, with Belén going with them back to Madrid to find work there as a hair stylist (she’s quite good, even helped out a bit at the film shoot during Antonio’s meeting with Lennon) and possibly carry on a romance with the younger guy (they’ve definitely connected their heartbeats but whether her circumstances will fly with his family is left unexplored); we see the best side of our 2 hitchhikers in their interactions with Ramón’s severely-disabled-son, Bruno (Rogello Frenández); Antonio gives the tape recorder to Juanjo with the new song on it (intended as part of 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album but released as a hit single [in combo with McCartney’s also-Liverpool-memory-song, Penny Lane], instead, finally finding its way to the later 1967 Magical Mystery Tour album), then drives back home feeling fully fulfilled (John even promised to visit his classroom; whether that ever occurred with the real “Antonio”—Juan Carrón Gañàn—or even with this fictional one isn’t noted), cruising along those winding seaside roads with the beautiful Mediterranean in the background as we gracefully fade out (recalling the melancholy memory that Antonio asked Belén to marry him, mostly out of respect for her but also as an indication of his life’s sad solitude).

So What? If you’re a Beatle fan (as I’ve been since I first heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on KILE-AM radio in Galveston, TX in 1964 [no longer active as a Top 40 or even an Oldies format, according to my Internet search], even before the famous Ed Sullivan Show broadcast that February), then you can’t "help" but be charmed by Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, but even if you prefer the Stones (or, dare I suggest, One Direction), I still think you’ll be as enchanted with this simple-but-heartfelt-film as were all those little-dreamy-eyed-girls that I saw at a recent screening of Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh; review in our March 19, 2015 posting).  Antonio is a sincere, passionate man who’s not ashamed of his love for the music and messages of the Beatles (especially as they get more adult and complex) nor does he take lightly the life-challenging-situations of the 2 passengers he encounters on his personal “hero-quest”; he also knows how difficult it is to find justice in his dictator-run-country back in those days (Belén’s quite serious when she tells him to not hassle the Civil Guards at the film shoot gate, knowing quite well that they’re the ones who could easily be shot if they come across as too obnoxious to these “peacekeepers”), so it disturbs him greatly when a local, beefy Almería farmer and his thuggy chums make “girly” jokes about Juanjo’s hair (I endured a bit of that myself in central Texas back in the late ‘60s, probably a long-suppressed-reason why I finally grew it out to Lennon-length of that long-ago-time a few years ago as part of my retirement celebration, as well as giving my mother something to fret about as she rolls over in her urn), then come back again to trash the bar and beat up Juanjo, so as Antonio’s driving away he makes a detour through the guy’s fields, smashing them up with his car before making a quick escape (fortunately for him, such an act isn’t followed by a flat tire and homicidal revenge as was the case in the short story The Strongest from Argentina’s Wild Tales [Damián Szifrón, 2014; review in our March 19, 2015 posting—that film actually made the 5 finalists for the recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, while Living Is Easy … was Spain’s entry for that competition (after winning Spain’s Goya—their Oscar—awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor [Cámara], Best New Actress [de Molina], Best Screenplay, Best Original Score [Pat Metheny]) but wasn’t one of the chosen [a tough group to crack, with winner Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) and 2 other finalists Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev) and Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako) reviewed, respectively, in our June 3, 2014 and February 26, 2015 postings]).  Speaking of awards, Living Is Easy … may earn another one if it can maintain its current 100% positive rating with Rotten Tomatoes critics, but that’s based on just 12 reviews so you might want to check back with the link far below at some later time (Metacritic gives it an unofficial 83% but based on a mere 3 reviews so that’s fully in flux as well).

The publicists didn't give me much to work with here so
this is just a group photo of the main characters (including
Juanjo's father, on the far left)
, not a scene from the film.
Bottom Line Final Comments:  Intentionally, here’s nothing dramatically-cinematic here, except for a nice use of primary-color-accents (Antonio’s green car, Belén’s red coat and red accents on a dress, red carpeting and wall trim in the movie house, a green door at the motel) against a muted-palette of the surrounding environment, underscoring the muted lives these people are living in repressive 1966 Spain.  What’s more impactful are the implications of the depicted innocence contrasted with the larger context of bitter realities.  As has been noted in some other reviews, one of the saddest aspects of Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed is seeing how well-guarded John Lennon was in Spain in 1966 but when he really needed a bodyguard to prevent crazed “fan” Mark David Chapman from firing a fatal shot on December 8, 1980 in NYC there was none there.  Anyone’s random death in circumstances like that (including a local young mother with several children in my area recently felled by a stray bullet from an all-too-common-gangland-shootout) is tragic but made all the more so to the survivors who knew the victim.  I’m sure that only a tiny fraction of those of us who still mourn the senseless loss of Lennon knew him personally (although one of my former students did grow up in Manhattan’s The Dakota as his neighbor, with her little brother as a playmate for son Sean), but we did know a lot about him through his soul-touching-music, which reverberated equally well here with Antonio, another “dreamer but not the only one.”  It’s sad to be reminded of John’s death and all that he might have shared with us had he lived longer (it’s hard to forget his one-time-throw-away-line that he didn’t want to be an “old, croaking Beatle at 40”; Chapman made sure there’d never be a reunion where that could happen, long before George Harrison died much later [2001] of lung cancer), but it’s uplifting to see how that meeting with this great artist was so grand for Antonio, a marvelously-positive-life-affirming-event, as I’m sure it must have been for the real guy this story’s based on.  As for an appropriate Musical Metaphor here, the only reasonable choice is “Strawberry Fields Forever” at com/watch?v=8RTwA3Wpo2s, the original 1967 music video for this song.  However, given that I’m offering 2 musical options in the review below I think it only appropriate to give you another one here as well, so in Antonio’s honor here’s “Help!” (from the 1965 Help! soundtrack album) at, a collage of live performances set to that record, further made fitting with Spanish subtitles to the lyrics (which might have been more helpful for Antonio, back in the day, depending on the nuances of translation from one language to another).
                      What We Do in the Shadows 
                      (Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement)
This is a mockumentary about 4 vampires of greatly-varying-ages living together in New Zealand where they squabble over mundane matters, then set out to find fun and blood in the night life of Wellington while dealing with the complexity of their interactions with a female servant and another human friend who enjoys their company, plus their ongoing struggles with a pack of werewolves.
This New Year's shot is from the year before I was born,
but as ancient as these guys are I don't feel so old now.
What Happens: In marvelously-funny-faux-documentary-style, we’re supposedly following a small film crew around Wellington, New Zealand to observe the daily (or should I say nightly, as these creatures follow the constraints of traditional movie lore) lives of 4 vampires—Viago (Taika Waititi), age 379; Deacon (Jonathan Braugh), age 183; Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), age 862; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), age 8,000—who share a flat and at times a meal when guests are enticed to their home.  We also meet their friend Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who was supposed to be one of those meals but instead was bitten by Petyr (just as was Deacon years ago), his pal, Stu (Stu Rutherford), an ordinary human who learns of their secret existence (Nick just blurts it out at one point) but enjoys their company anyway (they all agree to leave Stu alone, just as they have with the filmmakers, although those folks tell us that they still wear crucifixes just in case), and Jackie (Jackie Van Beek), Deacon’s “familiar” (a voluntary servant because of his promise that he’ll turn her into a vampire, although he keeps delaying it [angering her because she doesn’t want to get any older], probably because he enjoys having her do all of their errands—except cleaning up the blood-stained-dishes in their kitchen, which Viago and Vladislav complain about given that it’s Deacon's housekeeping job).  As our minimal-story progresses we follow our main 3 guys as they explore Wellington night life (but because they have to be invited into any home or establishment they can’t convince the doormen at most night clubs to do such an odd thing so they usually just end up at the vampire bar), bring home dinner guests (who don’t realize that they’re the main course, which leads to hilarity when Viago’s with a woman who assumes it’s a first date but takes no notice of him spreading newspapers around to sop up the upcoming mess, which is much worse than intended because he bites into a main artery), and attend the grand party, the annual Unholy Masquerade (for vampires, ghosts, zombies, and other species of the ghastly, although werewolves aren’t welcome as they clash easily with the vampires) where Vladislav confronts his ex-girlfriend, Pauline (Elena Stejko), a witch he calls “The Beast” (we’ve been previously led to believe that this was some abominable demon) while the partiers in general are unable to contain their appetites for Stu and the filmmakers.  The humans and our 3 less-malicious “beasts” escape the party, only to be attacked by werewolves, leaving us with the assumption of Stu’s demise (Petyr’s definitely dead by now, though, because Nick’s blabbering about his new status led a vampire hunter to the flat; the intruder was killed but the basement window he broke into let in sunlight the next day, burning our exponential-octogenarian to a crisp).  Later, however, Stu shows up as a werewolf with his pack, who agree to finally make friends with the vampires.

So What? Pure absurdity abounds in What We Do in the Shadows, from the opening scene of Viago rising from his coffin reminiscent of the classic Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) but with his perpetually-goofy grin; to Vladislav’s explanation that he became a vampire at 16 but back in those days 16 looked older than it does now; to Viago’s story that he came to New Zealand to follow Katherine (Ethel Robinson) but a shipping mistake led to such a delay that when he arrived she was married so he didn’t want to disturb her life (he hooks up with her delighted-96-year-old-self at the end, but presents himself as the “cradle-robber” despite his much-more-youthful-appearance); to the Star Wars-reminiscent-hypnotism-manipulation (“These aren't the droids you’re looking for.”) that our protagonists use on police who come to investigate neighbor complaints about strange noises and smells yet walk right through the demolished basement where the vampire-hunter’s body still lies without noting any concerns; to Deacon’s backstory that he was once a Nazi vampire until after WW II when that was no longer a trendy status; to Stu’s being a (tasty) virgin because he’s a computer programmer; to Vladislav’s frustrated look at the Masquerade when he learns that Jackie’s now a vampire (she got Nick to bite her); to the incongruous “invisibility” of the doc crew (even when following victims being chased around the flat) except when they happen to get noticed once in a while; to another hypnotist bit at the very end, telling us audience members that we’ll forget what we’ve just seen for the last 90 min., this is one marvelously-silly-ride that pokes fun at decades of movie vampire tropes, the romantic fascination of more-current-vampire tales (unlike in the Twilight series, these protagonists often come across as bumbling idiots—except for Petyr, who just looks like a grumpy corpse with long teeth and claws, again a reference to Max Schreck‘s characterization of Count Orlock in Nosferatu [with the marvelous conceit in the fictional Shadow of the Vampire (Elias Merhige, 2000) that Schreck was actually one of the “undead”]).  This is truly an it-evaporates-as-soon-as-you-hit-the-sunlight-outside-the-theater-experience (although it might have more impact at night, given all of the bloodthirsty creatures that you may now think could actually be lurking in those shadows), uproarious but so slight in concept and significance as to disappear from your memory just like a vampire’s non-appearance in a mirror (they have to tell each other how they look as they’re dressing for the nightly stroll), featuring a lot of well-structured-laughs but ultimately it's very predictable in terms of where the barely-there-plot is headed.

Bottom Line Final Comments: (Once again, not much help from the national publicists so here's another posed group shot of most of the main characters rather than a useful scene from the movie.) This is essentially funny stuff but drags a bit in places, although anytime it begins to feel like one of those interminable Saturday Night Live sketches that begins with a clever idea but just doesn’t know how to resolve itself after running on far too long, What We Do … finds a strategy to pump up the humorous aspect again so that you more easily understand why it’s gotten such strong responses from critics (a whopping 96% positive reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, although just 75% from the usually-more-reserved-Metacritics; more details in the links below if you like).  To finish up these comments, I’ll go with a silly-monsters-memory, “The Monster Mash,” at, a 1962 hit single by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and The Crypt-Kickers.  You might be aware that I’ve used this twice before as a Musical Metaphor, but given the ongoing-craziness of What We Do in the Shadows it was just too much of a perfect fit not to use again; at least I’ve chosen different visual accompaniment this time where someone took Boris Karloff’s face from Black Sabbath (Mario Bava, 1963) then used computer manipulations to make it look like he’s singing the song, with a little bit of the original Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) put in at the end; however, if that’s too visually static for you, here’s another video version of the song with clips from a good number of monster movies (including some really awful-looking-ones) at
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:

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Here’s some more information about Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed: (36:38 interview with director David Trueba)

Here’s some more information about What We Do In The Shadows: (first 6 minutes of the film; gives you a great sense of the presentational style and humor involved as we meet the 4 vampire flat meeting)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


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  2. Hi Shahana, thanks for your input. As usual, I'll assume that this site is legal and remind everyone that I have no connection to its use; however, if any problems arise someone please inform me so that I can remove this comment. Ken Burke