The Breaker Upperers (2019)

Over the last decade, its gradually become clear that Taika Waititi is one of the greatest comedic directors of all time, full stop. From the farcical bloodbath of What We Do in the Shadows to the action-comedy grandeur of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to the deep emotional incisions of Boy, Waititi has established a wide range of hilarious, finely-crafted comedic works in just a few features. He even overcame the Hollywood filmmaking odds to disrupt the MCU with some much-needed personality in series-standout Thor: Ragnarök. What’s much more interesting to me personally than what Waititi can achieve in the Kevin Feige Marvel Machine, however, is what smaller projects he chooses to fund with that massive paycheck. The Breaker Upperers, recently added to US Netflix, is an encouraging implication that Waititi’s still passionate about bringing smaller, personable comedies to the screen in the wake of his newfound success – cashing in his evil Disney Dollars to enact a real-world good.

The most exciting aspect of The Breaker Upperers is that it finds Waititi funding new creative voices with his newfound industry power rather than merely amplifying his own. The film is written, directed by, and starring two comedians from within his New Zealand community: Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek, who are obviously less widely known to the outside world. Although they share a certain local sensibility with Waititi’s own creative voice, Sami & van Beek bring a meaner, raunchier, more femme point of view to this debut feature — something I’d be eager to see more of in future follow-ups. They appear onscreen here as best friends & business partners — mercenaries who own a breakup-delivery service. The two women fake affairs, deaths, and pregnancies to help expedite the breakup process for cowards who can’t muster the courage to admit the truth to their partners that it’s time to move on. Eventually, the moral toll of lying for a living catches up with them, but the movie has as much fun with its initial premise as possible before the business of telling an emotionally satisfying story gets in the way.

There’s something distinctly 90’s-specific about The Breaker Upperers’s premise, as if it were a Kiwi-flavored soft-remake of the Norm MacDonald classic Dirty Work. As vintage as its plot may appear, however, the film nimbly avoids feeling stale or uninspired in its presentation. This is partly because it wastes no time establishing a first-act reason or backstory for its breakup-for-hire business the way the Happy Madison equivalent of this premise would. We join the women at work mid-stream, as if this were a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that has already been running for years. The character nuances & the mercenary cruelty of the breakup-for-hire business are immediately well-defined enough for the rapid-fire editing to squeeze in as many goofs, gags, and friendship-dynamic crises as it can in its wonderfully slim 90min runtime. In their most inspired storytelling maneuver, Sami & van Beek establish their characters’ entire backstory as friends & business partners over the course of a single Céline Dion karaoke performance. It’s an efficiency that’s not only refreshing in the post-Apatow era of improv looseness, but also leaves more time for the character quirks & moment-by-moment gags that matter more than the plot anyway.

If you’re at all familiar with the Waititi comedy catalog, you’ll recognize plenty of faces among the film’s cast – including van Beek herself, who was a significant player in Shadows. More importantly, the film expands the New Zealand comedy scene’s presence in the word at large by offering Sami & van Beek their own platform where than can make us laugh on their own terms. This is a raunchy, queer, femme, goofy-as-fuck comedy with a big, earnest heart. It’s nice to know that something that distinct could be made on the back of the Mickey Mouse machine. Once again, Waititi has found a way to stand out as one of our most vital comedic voices, this time by signal-boosting the voices of others with his newfound industry clout.

-Brandon Ledet

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mad Moana: Fury Cove

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Disney’s Moana (2016) was a jarringly alienating experience for me in a way I haven’t felt since venturing to the theater to watch John Waters’s brief cameo in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (although the raucous laughter at my screening of the brutally unfunny Deadpool ranks as a close second). I just had no business being there, to the point where I have no business rating or reviewing the film in any traditional way. I’ve had positive experiences going out of my comfort zone to watch highly-praised Disney productions this year, namely Zootopia and The Jungle Book, but with Moana I was way out of my league. The buffoonish sidekicks, the uncanny valley CGI, the constant indulgences in  *cringe* musical theater: Moana was mostly just a reminder that Disney’s princess mode, no matter how highly praised, is just not for me. Brave, Mulan, Frozen, and so on have all alienated me in the same way (with The Little Mermaid being a rare exception to the rule) and not even song & dance numbers from the likes of a pro wrestler (The Rock), a Flight of the Conchords vet (Jemaine Clement), and a Godzilla cameo could turn me around on an experience that was so uncomfortably foreign to every fiber of my being. Moana did feature one isolated gag that spoke directly to me, though, an extended homage to Immortan Joe & the War Boys, just about the last influence I expected to find in a Polynesian Disney Princess action adventure.

The filmmakers behind Moana (an extensive team that has included names as significant as Hamilton‘s king nerd Lin Manuel Miranda & comedic genius Taika Waititi at some point in its production) have acknowledged in interviews that the film’s homage to Mad Max: Fury Road was indeed intentional, so I’m not just grasping at straws for something to enjoy here. The homage is brief, however, and although the film was not nearly as much of an obnoxiously undignified experience as Road Chip, it did remind me of mining the entirety of that work for a pitifully minuscule glimpse at the Pope of Trash. While on their quest to restore order in the world via a pebble-sized MacGuffin, Moana & [The Rock] are at one point pursued by a tribal army of Kakamora, a fiendish crew of mythical spirits who take the physical form of coconut War Boys, complete with their own coconut Immortan Joe. The Kakamora approach Moana’s puny-by-comparison boat in massive warships, attempting to board her ship & rob her of her all-important MacGuffin Pebble. Moana doesn’t directly reference Fury Road with any specific visual cues; it instead tries to mimic the feel & the scale of George Miller’s massive accomplishment in a more general way. The Kakamora appear in ocean mist the way the War Boys appear in the kicked-up dust of desert sands. They tether their ships to their target vessel as a means to both board it and slow it’d progress. Most tellingly, they play themselves into battle with a live music soundtrack of tribal drums. All that’s missing from the scene is a blind little Kakamora threateningly riffing on a coconut guitar.

If history has proven anything it’s that I’ll continue to shell out money for any new theatrical version of Fury Road that achieves distribution: 2D, 3D, (most absurdly) black & white. I doubt I’ll ever stop returning to that well and, alongside its stellar reviews from those more in tune with the merits of the Disney Princess brand, just the mere mention of a Fury Road homage was enough to drag me to the theater for a CG cartoon musical I had no business watching in the first place. In some ways it’s tempting to read into how Moana & Fury Road communicate plot-wise. Both films center on a female badass trying to welcome back Nature to a crumbling society  by employing a storied male warrior sidekick & the restorative help of water to defeat an evil presence and convert a longtime patriarchy to a matriarchal structure. In both instances, success also hinges on a race to a narrow physical passage that seems impossible to reach in time. These shared sentiments are likely entirely coincidental, though. Borrowing a little of Immortan Joe’s War Boy mayhem for its coconut pirates was simply a means to an end. Besides being a delightful nod to a property you wouldn’t expect to be referenced in this context, it also affords a key action sequence the sense of scale & visual specificity that makes George Miller one of the greatest visual minds of the genre. So much of Moana was Not For Me (which is obviously my fault and not the movie’s), so it was kinda nice in those few fleeting minutes to mentally return to a property that is a continuous source of personal pleasure. Moana was smart to borrow some scale & adrenaline from Fury Road in a scene that desperately needed the excitement (despite the Kakamora never registering as at all significant to the overall plot). Honestly, though, I was just glad to have the film’s more alienating musical theater & CGI sidekick buffoonery broken up by something familiar & genuinely badass that offered me a moment of escape from what was a personally misguided ticket purchase.

-Brandon Ledet

Boy (2012)

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Taika Waititi very nearly made my favorite movie released in the US last year. The vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was just barely edged out of my Best of the Year spot by Peter Strickland’s immaculate art piece The Duke of Burgundy, but that might merely be due to a larger, cultural tendency to devalue comedies as high art. Waititi’s horror comedy is one of the more quotable,endlessly watchable films I’ve seen in a long while and suggests a glimpse of a comedic master at the top of his form. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that What We Do in the Shadows wasn’t even the best title in the director’s catalog to date, not by a long shot.

Before the release of Waititi’s cult hit television show Flight of the Conchords & his ultra-quirky romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark, he began working on his most personal work, his most obvious passion project: Boy. Boy wouldn’t reach theaters until Conchords & Eagle had already seen the light of day, however, as Waititi had the good sense to let the film fully incubate before hatching. A film centered on the Maori people (the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand & Waititi’s own heritage), Boy eventually stood as the highest-grossing film in New Zealand’s history, obviously striking a chord with a lot of the country’s citizenry. Still, it took two years for the film to earn US distribution despite this success and it barely made a splash once it crossed over. No matter. Waititi made a deeply personal, insular film that exquisitely captures the fantasy-prone imagination of young children’s minds in a way that feels wholly authentic and endearing. Boy is by every measurement a triumph. It’s at times hilarious, devastating, life-affirming, brutally cold, etc. Waititi risked taking his time to deliver a fully-realized, personal work on his own terms and the final product moves you in the way only the best cinema can.

Set in 1984 New Zealand, Boy follows an impoverished community of Maori people, particularly children, through a seasonal slice of life change/growth. The film’s protagonist, the titular Boy, dreams of escaping his community’s limited freedoms when his father returns home from prison/life on the road. Despite the divine reverence Boy holds his father in, the reality of the man is more akin to any petty thief/wannabe biker shithead who treats cheap thrills & even cheaper marijuana in higher regard than his own family. Boy thinks is father is so cool, but the truth is he’s a selfish man-baby just waiting for the next opportunity to break his son’s heart. Waititi himself does a great job performing as Boy’s deadbeat dad, mixing just enough Kenny Powers/Hope Anne Gregory selfishness into his personality to make it obvious why he’s an unfit parent, but leaving enough likeability floating to the surface so that it’s still believable that his son would want to follow in his buffoonish footsteps. The child actors in Boy are similarly phenomenal & nuanced, which is all the more impressive considering Waititi made some last minute casting changes before filming.

Boy pulls off the next trick of starting as a hilarious knee-slapper of a childhood-centered comedy, but then gradually laying on an emotional engine that could choke you up if you allow it to hit home by the third act. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much of the film is somewhat biographical to Waititi’s personal life, but the film does display an intimate, heartfelt familiarity with its plot & characters that wholly sells their potency & nuance. Temporal references like Michael Jackson & E.T. mix with crayon sketches & magazine collage fantasies that perfectly capture a very specific mind in a very specific space & time. With his last two films, Boy & Shadows, Waititi seems to be on a bonafide roll, firing on all cylinders & fully realizing the worlds he set to illustrate. I can’t even begin to describe how excited I am to see this streak continue in his upcoming Thor & Hunt for the Wilderpeople movies. He’s one of the few directors working right now whose mere name makes me giddy.

-Brandon Ledet