Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): ‘Up’ Meets ‘The Fugitive’ (Review)

Adapted from Barry Crump’s 1997 book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Taika Waititi (Boy, Green Lantern), who not only wrote the screenplay but directed the feature as well, The Hunt of the Wilderpeople is a funny and touching “buddy film” between two generations and races. The film is, in essence, Disney’s  Up meets The Fugitive, meets Thelma and Louise and is quite easily the best film of 2016.

Ricki (Julian Dennison) is a 12 year old Maori boy who has been shuffled from foster home to foster home. Finally, he is sent to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill). His new home is right near the Bush and it seems, at long last, that Ricki has found his place in life.

Unfortunately fate has other plans as Bella dies right after Ricki’s 13th birthday. Ricki wants to stay with the curmudgeonly, and illiterate, Hec but Child Services agent Paula (Rachel House) is determined to find the young juvenile delinquent a new home.

Hec and Ricki go on the run. The unlikely duo lead the police on a merry chase through the New Zealand bush and the film follows their adventures and their bonding process.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, quite simply, the best film to come out of 2016. Sadly, as it is a “foreign film” it cannot compete for the category of Best Movie when the Oscars roll around. Regardless of this fact, the film should pull in best film in the World Cinema category.

At first glance, Waititi, who has a cameo role as the minister, has given us a splendid buddy film where two similar but different characters learn from one another as they flee the authorities. Delving deeper, however, reveals a coming of age film as well.

In the film, Ricki is not the only person who grows,  his “uncle” Hec also changes from a monosyllabic grumpy loner to a caring parent to a boy who has, until now, identified more with the “gangster” life than that of a “normal” child.

Not having read the book that the film is based upon, it is not clear whether the elements from the Disney film are there or not.  There are direct correlations between the two movies though.

Hec, taking the part of Carl Fredericksen, is lumbered with Ricki, who is the Russell in this scenario. Hec loses his wife, like Carl, and he too is reluctant, initially, to travel with Ricki (Russell.)

There is a rare bird in both films, although in Waititi’s film the creature is not a form of comic relief, and the two males bond through their experiences out in the bush (jungle).

While there are many parallels between the two films, Waititi, or Crump, have also interwoven the Child Services Agency official Paula;  a comic Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), into this tale. 

Despite her cry of “No child left behind,” Paula really seems to have it in for Ricki, who she describes as a delinquent. Every time the official talks about the Maori boy she references his crimes and not his many foster home moves.

The chase scenes in the film almost seem to be a nod to the climatic end of Thelma and Louise but the last minute dodge by Ricki, who drives the get away vehicle could be lifted from Kim Jee-Woon’s 2009  The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

Waititi makes the most of his material and gives us, as well as the nods and winks to other films, a nigh on perfect film.  It is comedy with a touch of pathos and at least two scenes where tissues are required to stem the unexpected flow of tears. Ricki’s constant quest for toilet paper is very funny.

The director also manages to produce more laughs per square inch of film than any other movie on offer in 2016.

Neill and Dennison have a brilliant onscreen chemistry and together they are beyond brilliant. House is spot on as the OTT officer who chases the two men across the country. Te Wiata is excellent as the loving and slightly eccentric Bella and the whole cast bring something to the table in this New Zealand offering.

The scenery is breathtaking, as it would be, this is, after all, where The Lord of the Rings was filmed. (One comic moment has Ricki alluding to the film.) Cinematographer Lachlan Milne makes every frame count.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople has a message that equates to love being the answer to helping kids on the wrong path to get straight. Whether this is true or not, it should be, and by the end of the film, we believe it.

This is a full 5 star film.  It may sound somewhat trite and be a bit of a cliche, but  Hunt for the Wilderpeople hits every single mark. It will make you laugh, think and cry.

Taika Waititi has given us an example of New Zealand cinema at its finest, do not miss this one.

The Dead Room (2015): Based on a True Suburban Legend (Review)

Laura Petersen as Holly in The Dead Room

Every so often a film is released that ticks all the boxes and rings all the bells.  The Dead Room is one of these gems, a film that dares to leave the “found footage” trend alone and delver an old fashioned haunted house movie along the lines of  The Legend of Hell House.  Although this film is based on a “true” suburban legend.

Despite this New Zealand film delivering a brilliant suspenseful and slow build to a satisfying conclusion there are some who just did not “get it.”  A critic for the LA Times was very dismissive of the film. Perhaps he did not understand that jump scares, buckets of blood and nubile young ladies being sliced and diced does not apply to all horror films.

Maybe, God forbid, the reviewer thought it should have been a found footage film.

Jason Stutter and Kevin Stevens wrote the screenplay after hearing about the legend in a pub. Sutter directs the film and manages to put everything together nicely.  The Dead Room is an intimate picture with only three characters, not counting the ghostly house and its violence prone otherworldly visitor. 

Laura Petersen is Holly; a psychic who is afraid of ghosts and hauntings,  makes up one third of the ream of researchers. Jeffrey Thomas is the team leader Scott who does not believe in ghosts but desperately wants to see one. Jed Brophy is Liam the team’s science nerd. 

As the trio investigate the recently deserted house, the family left with the clothes on their backs,  it takes a long while for the spirit to cooperate. Once it does the activity increases steadily and finally the team  experience the ghost’s presence.

The pacing of the film is slow but steady. Sutter chooses to build on the unease generated by the spirits activities. At a time when there are more than a few paranormal investigative teams on television (Ghost Hunters  aka *TAPS* and Most Haunted to name but two) the film covers familiar ground.

Using the formula,  established by not just the paranormal shows mentioned above, but by real procedures used by non-televised “ghostbusters” as  well, the film looks fairly convincing. Anyone familiar with these ghost hunts will recognize the procedure of sit and wait.

For all the complaints about the slowness of the film’s action, things do not really take that long to escalate. The conversations between the small team help to establish the characters of each player.

The opening door, part of the legend of the real haunted house, the footsteps and the escalation of the ghost’s interactions all move forward to reveal a surprising conclusion to the film.

It appears that the ending was possibly influenced to a degree by the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, albeit a lot less theatrical and overblown.  Regardless of this, the film delivers its eerie and atmospheric tone almost to perfection.

This is not a film about a boogeyman that indiscriminately hacks and slashes his victims. Nor is it a “blockbuster” chills and thrills horror movie along the the lines of The Conjuring franchise.

The Dead Room is a fine example of New Zealand horror that is underplayed to allow the audience to get caught up in the film.   It is far easier to suspend one’s disbelief when events are handled in a restrained and well paced manner.

Petersen is convincing as the psychic who really does not enjoy her job. Thomas and Brophy also bring a certain truth to their characters making this little trio of ghostbusters feel as authentic as any of Jason Hawes‘ team from TAPS.

This is a brilliant haunted house film that earns a full 5 stars for delivering  a creepy and slowly escalating sense of unease and fear.  It serves up an excellent twist that is truly surprising and it is very entertaining. Horror fans expecting more hoopla and less suspense should give this one a miss.

The Dead Lands (2014): Maori Mysticism and Bloodshed

Lawrence Makoare as The Warrior aka The Monster

As anyone who ever watched the New Zealand rugby team, All Blacks do their synchronized stomping routine will find the ritualistic “theatre” of the Maori warriors in The Dead Lands familiar. Directed by Toa Fraser (it is his fourth feature length film) and written by Glenn Standring this New Zealand film is full of action, mysticism and bloodshed. While not overly gory, the film features enough of the claret to satisfy most action film aficionados.

Starring James Rolleston as Hongi and Lawrence Makoare as The Warrior, the film is a tale heavily laden with thoughts of life, death, family tradition (in the form of one’s ancestors) and honor. Perhaps the biggest let down in this variation of a coming of age/revenge film is the long philosophical slant. 

There are so many dialogue heavy moments where the protagonists speak with their dead ancestors that the film becomes too wordy in all the wrong places. In some instances, like the overly chatty interchanges and monologues of the leads and their enemies, it seems that Fraser could have been influenced by the old Japanese samurai films. (Seven Samurai, which is the ultimate samurai film is so dialogue heavy that the fighting and action take second place to all the verbal rumination. While this does not take away from the film overall, the point is that all Japanese films of that era are “talky.”)

The film follows the story of Hongi, whose Chieftain father is murdered after an old ally’s son first tries to trick Hongi’s tribe into a war and then comes in the night with warriors and slaughters the tribe as they sleep. The only male survivor is Hongi and between the few women who accuse him of cowardice and his dead grandmother the Chief’s son goes to avenge his tribe’s death.

The murdering faction go through haunted lands and Hongi appeals to The Warrior who protects and guards the area. Known as a monster, the man is also the only survivor of his people. The two team up to chase down  the treacherous and egocentric Wirepa, played by Te Kohe Tuhaka, and his warriors. 

Along the way Hongi learns what is means to be a man and a warrior (he is but “16 seasons” in the film) and The Warrior earns a sort of redemption. The “monster” has a truly tragic backstory and it is revealed that his own actions, required by his father as a point of honor, drove the man mad.

The scenery is, of course, beautiful as the film is filmed in New Zealand. (Sidenote: In one scene, at what should be a splendidly mystic and touching moment, as the character straightens up one can clearly see what appears to be a car, or other motorized vehicle, zooming behind the actor on a road. This is just a split second but enough to spoil the intent of the scene.)

There are many battles between the protagonists and Wirepa’s men, which all have the participants gesturing wildly and includes much eye rolling and sticking out of tongues, which are meant to be either taunting or threatening or a combination of both. If one looks at pictures of the Maori God of War; eyes large, tongue sticking out, it seems this is the appropriate posturing to assume before attacking one’s enemy.

The fights themselves are impressively brutal, bloody and prolonged. Choreography has been done with particular attention to reality versus theatricality. The blows landed by the antiquated weapons look deadly, painful and debilitating. Were the fight scene’s longer and the monologues and philosophizing shorter the film would have flowed better and not felt so long.

Kudos to the stunt coordinators on the battle between Mehe (played by Raukura Turei) and The Warrior in the creek. This looks brilliant, further kudos to the cinematographer as the scene takes place in near dark. Great choreography and camera work make the scene feel right and real.

All in all, The Dead Lands  is solid entertainment. The cinematography by Leon Narbey is nigh on perfect with his framing of scenes working brilliantly. Narbey also lights the set pieces very well, the “at night” scenes or ones set at dusk or in the afterlife are clear enough to make out almost every detail, something that many other cinematographer seem to mess up badly.

The actors all do a brilliant job, despite the dialogue heaviness of the script. Makoare’s pathos and inner agony are shakespearean in scope and Rolleston’s teen sole survivor is touchingly tragic and determined. Te Kohe Tuhaka impresses as the hubris filled Chief’s son whose treachery and bloodthirsty quest for honor leads him astray.

This Kiwi treat is a 4 out of 5 stars for story and those impressively choreographed fights. It loses a full star for the verbosity of its main actors. Streaming on US Netflix at the moment, this one is well worth a look for those who do not fear sub-titled films.

Housebound (2014) Hysterical New Zealand Horror

Poster for Housebound
It is no secret that I adore both Australian and New Zealand cinema, specifically horror. An eternal favorite of straight horror is the 1978, and its 2008 remake, Long Weekend. While the Aussies are adept at making scary films that get right under your skin, the Kiwis have a knack for comedy horror that will make you jump, but more importantly, will make you laugh till the tears roll. Black Sheep, the 2006 film that made genetic experimentation with sheep scary and funny, has now been joined by Housebound.

This urban setting, versus the rural one of Black Sheep, deals with troublemaker Kylie Bucknell who is placed under house arrest, or more accurately confinement, after being caught stealing a cash box from an ATM with her boyfriend. The film promises to be funny from the first few frames when Bucknell’s accomplice knocks himself out with the recoil from a sledgehammer that he ineffectually smacks the money machine with.

Kylie must return to her mum’s house for eight months whilst tagged. The tag monitor, Amos comes to her house to fit the device to her ankle and explain how the whole thing will work. While she must come to terms with living at home again and coping with her annoying mother Miriam, Kylie learns the house is haunted and that the place she grew up in was the scene of a brutal murder.

Amos initially helps the two women try to solve their ghost problem and then tries to help Kylie solve the 14 year old murder.

Morgana O’Reilly, an alumnus of the long running Australian soap Neighbours turns in a brilliantly diverse performance as the teen tearaway with mum issues. Her Kylie can make the viewer crease up, as when she acts completely gormless when Amos explains how he will help the family solve their ghost problem, or keep the audience on the edge of their seat during the more tense moments.

The comedy in Housebound is outstanding. Taking a dental plate from a sleeping suspect’s mouth, a murderer being attacked with a cheese grater, and a tag monitor being caught by what looks like a bear trap are all just part of the comic events in this film.

Rim Te Wiata from another long running Aussie soap, Sons and Daughters, as well as Full Frontal and Shortland Street plays mum Miriam and also turns in an admirable comic performance. Glen-Paul Waru is spot on as Amos, the tag monitor, ghost hunter and all round helpful official who lends a hand to the family.

The film shifts easily from one event to the next. At one point in the film, Miriam and Kylie are explaining that the house is haunted. Amos has turned up because the ankle bracelet alarm indicated that the teen had left the premises. The second that the tag monitor learns of the haunting, he immediately switches to paranormal investigator.

A big shout out to Cameron Rhodes as Dennis. This experienced actor, who boasts credits in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as well as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, turns in a brilliant performance.

Housebound is the feature length debut of Gerard Johnstone who wrote and directed the film. He has managed to subtly shift comedy, mystery and horror almost efortlessly in what is one of the best comedy horror films I have seen in ages. It is streaming on US Netflix at the moment and I cannot recommend this movie enough. A real 5 out of 5 stars as all concerned hit every mark.

31 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith