Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about a kid who goes into the bush of New Zealand with his Foster Uncle to avoid being taken back into custody by an out-of-touch child services agent. On a larger scale it’s about freedom, true freedom. Freedom that comes with responsibility, danger, darkness, and also joy. That sounds a little over the top, but it’s true. It’s also about the people who fall through the cracks and how they can help each other better than the system in place.

Ricky is a street kid, who according the state has a long list of behavioral problems. He has a taste for hip hop fashion and wears high tops and hoodies that zip all the way up over his face. After all the available foster homes in the city don’t work out, the state decides to relocate him to the country with Bella and Hec, who is a dark, quiet man with a drifter past. An unlikely fit into the middle of nowhere, he manages to make himself a home with the help of the cheerful and caring Bella. Bella dies suddenly, and the state threatens to take Ricky back. Ricky decides, rather than go back and face juvenile detention, to run away to the Bush. He goes out and gets lost. Hec finds him, but by the time that happens it’s already assumed that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a manhunt begins. Many wrong turns and decisions later they end up on the run for four months.

The thing I really loved about this movie is that it makes you want to cry just as often as it makes you want to laugh and that’s quite often. It’s rare to see a comedy this goofy that’s also this sad and depressing. Within the first 15 minutes there’s a tragedy and it seems to keep being punctuated by moments like that. Despite the deeply genuine sadness, the humor is still able to pick you up, with its cracks at dysfunctional bureaucratic systems and absurdity.

One of my immediate thoughts at the start of Hunt for the Wilderpeople was how it felt a lot like a Wes Anderson film. For instance, the movie is broken into chapters. There’s also a similar awkward, deadpan humor. It’s easy to make an immediate comparison to Moonrise Kingdom, with the idea of escaping into the wilderness from a society that doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to. Unlike in Moonrise Kingdom, where these kids are on their own where it doesn’t seem like their lives are in that much danger, the wilderness here is very dangerous and alive. They’re the subject of an actual manhunt. People are injured. No one in Moonrise Kingdom is seriously threatened with jail time. Wilderpeople finds a way of subverting the twee humor, taking the irony out and adding a bite of reality.

It’s also a very pretty movie. The farm house is comfortably rustic and the greenery of the bush is lush and saturated. There’s so many beautiful, helicopter shots of New Zealand scenery, much like Lord of the Rings-so much so that that there’s a joke worked into the movie about it.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is touching and funny. It has its absurd moments, but deep down it has a lot of really radical things to say. The humor manages not to cloud them but instead to add a childlike sense of coping and making sense of the world.

-Alli Hobbs

Eagle vs. Shark (2007)

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Falling in love with Taika Waititi’s last two feature films, Boy & What We Do in the Shadows, has recently prompted me to revisit his debut, Eagle vs. Shark. It turns out that Waititi’s quirky indie romcom beginnings seemingly have improved with time. Either that or it’s become easier for me as an audience to connect with Waititi’s particular aesthetic in his first film, which felt much more generic when I first gave it a try a few years ago. Not to confuse you with too many animal species here, but Eagle vs. Shark is a total wolf in sheep’s clothing situation. What I remembered as being a straight-forward romance between two hopelessly awkward nerds is actually something much darker & more amusing in retrospect. It doesn’t sport the vibrant, unmitigated success of Waititi’s two follow-ups, but it’s a perfectly wonderful debut for a comedic director in its own nuanced way.

Released almost simultaneously with Flight of the Conchords (another Waititi creation), Eagle vs. Shark is most notable as being an early glimpse of the series’ breakout star Jemaine Clement. Clement appears here with the most horrific haircut in known existence and the poisonously boisterous personality of any Danny McBride character you could think of to match, yet still serves as an oddball sex symbol for the painfully awkward fast food worker Lily, played by Loren Taylor. There’s a twee cuteness in Lily’s attraction to Clement’s ultra-nerd caricature that could possibly be a turn-off to folks who shy away from the muted, manicured comedy of names like Wes Anderson, Jody Hill, and Jared & Jerusha Hess. What a lot of people miss when they dismiss these kinds of works is the dark soul lurking within. Clement’s self-centered man-child learns no easy lessons here. He ruthlessly breaks Lily’s heart, stranding her among strangers in a fruitless attempt to impress the world  by mirroring the footsteps of his deceased, suicidal brother (played by Waititi himself in old photographs & home videos). Instead of chumly thinking to yourself “What does she see in this guy?”, you’re instead horrified by the depths  of depravity she’ll allow him to go while still maintaining her affection. Eagle vs Shark may be dressed up like a sugary romance, but its core is thoroughly rotted & decayed.

It wouldn’t be surprising if a lot of folks brush this movie off as empty twee preciousness. Indeed, I remembered it being cute, but kinda vapid when I first watched it. I mean, the film features a stop motion music video about two apple cores falling in love to Devendra Banhart’s “The Body Breaks“. I’m getting twee overload readings on my B.S. scale just writing that down. Once you get past the handmade animal costumes, dinosaur-themed cinemas (Cinesaurus Rex, for the curious), and the very cheap Mortal Kombat knockoffs, (things I actually like, but feel very Etsy) the film is funny & sweet and great at making you feel like total shit. I think it might help to get used to Clement & Waititi’s world-class deadpan before approaching Eagle vs. Shark to fully appreciate its off-center sense of humor. Boy & What We Do in the Shadows are two unimpeachable comedies in my mind, but Waititi’s debut works well enough on its own terms as a dark, muted character study with a well-established visual eye & an unexpected mean streak. It’s a minor work compared to what he’s accomplished since, but I find it has gotten a lot better over time, despite what you might expect based on its mid-2000s twee tropes.

-Brandon Ledet

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

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I had previously written on this site that the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was looking to crowdfund an American theatrical release, a campaign that was ultimately a success. I wrote that the movie “promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Having now actually seen What We Do in the Shadows, I am happy to report that the film not only met those expectations, but even greatly exceeded them. The most essential success of the film, however, was not what it had to add to the vampire genre, but just that it was simply riotously funny from start to finish.

Most of my favorite mockumentaries, titles like Best in Show & Drop Dead Gorgeous, aren’t necessarily well-told stories about personal growth and lessons learned. Instead, they’re more or less glimpses into the lives of already well-established characters as they prepare for a major life event, for instance a dog show or a beauty pageant. Staying true to that format, What We Do in the Shadows follows the lives of a small group of vampire roommates in the months leading up to their biggest annual celebration: The Unholy Masquerade, a grand party for the local undead. The Unholy Masquerade mostly serves as a climactic device that brings the film’s slowly boiling conflicts to a head, but what’s much more important is the characters that the “documentary” crew (who wear crucifixes for protection) follow in the months leading up to the event.

The film’s central vampire coven is a small crew consisting of an 18th century dandy, a torture-obsessed pervert, a 183 year old “young bad boy”, and an 8000 year old Nosferatu type named “Petyr”, who terrifies even his own undead flatmates. The group is mostly a collection of goofs, very much delusional in their outsized egos (a common trope in these Guest-style comedies), but also a true, formidable treat who fly, hypnotize, transform into bats & other creatures, and frequently murder unsuspecting victims with their incredibly sharp fangs. It’s a brilliant subject for an awkward comedy mostly concerned with trivial conflicts like a flatmate who doesn’t pull his weight on the chore wheel, the struggles of an active nightlife when you have to be formally invited into bars, meekly asking Petyr to sweep up the skeletons in his room, and struggling to adapt to the addition of a boisterous 5th roommate who shouts “I’m a vampire!” in public even more liberally than Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. There’s some strange, ambitious concepts allowed by the film’s subject, like the existence of Hitler’s secret vampire army or depressed vampires wistfully watching footage of the sunrise on YouTube. It’s the clash of these ideas with the mundanity of modern life that make the film something special, like when one flatmate angrily shouts, “Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”

Co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords fame) have crafted a thoroughly funny film here that I expect to revisit often. They have added a few updates to the mockumentary format, like the inclusion of some reality show beats, but for the most part the film is a very straightforward genre execution. It just also happens to be a very funny one. What We Do in the Shadows is as great as a vampire mockumentary could possibly be. An exceptionally funny comedy overstuffed with loveable, but deeply flawed characters (they are bloodthirsty murderers after all) and endlessly quotable zingers, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more rewatchable execution of its basic concept. In other words, it’s an instant classic.

-Brandon Ledet

UPDATE: The What We Do in the Shadows Kickstarter was a Success!

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Last week I wrote that the upcoming Jemaine Clement/Taika Watiti vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was looking to fund an American theatrical release through a Kickstarter campaign. The film had already secured digital & home media distribution, but was struggling to reach American cinemas outside a couple screenings in New York & Los Angeles. At the time I wrote about the campaign to fund a wider theatrical release, it was barely more than halfway funded with only a week left to go. I am happy to report that the project has since reached its goal and will be able to hit a lot more local cinemas as a result (hopefully with New Orleans on its itinerary).

Last week, I described What We Do in the Shadows thusly: “It promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Judging by early reports it indeed is a very funny film and I hope that we will get to see & review it ourselves soon enough. Maybe even in the theater, thanks to the Kickstarter!

-Brandon Ledet