(On TV, February 2019) I’m certainly not the only (North-) American cinephile for whom writer/director Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows was a revelation, and who started looking for his earlier work. While I’m still looking for Boy, I was lucky enough to catch Waititi’s first feature-length film Eagle vs. Shark on TV. The good news is that despite its low budget and limited production means, Eagle vs. Shark manages to be a striking, film-literate take on romantic comedy tropes. There’s quite a bit of kinship between this film and Waititi’s own later Hunt for the Wilderpeople in that it defies expectations, plays with the medium and features strong character work in an atmosphere that’s not afraid to reach for absurdity at times. Eagle vs. Shark may take place in small-town New Zealand, but it’s exceptionally accessible to international audiences. Well, if they can stand it, because the not-so-good news is that cringing and proxy humiliation are the film’s favourite emotions as it goes out of its way to make viewers feel embarrassed for its lead characters. The closest analogue I can find is Napoleon Dynamite, and that’s not necessarily a recommendation. The male lead is screwed up, the female lead is screwed up (albeit not as unpleasantly so), the lead’s entire family is spectacularly screwed-up and this is a film all about them. There’s no way out until the end. Waititi cameos as the film’s lone admirable character—and he’s long dead in the narrative. Jemaine Clement is a comic treasure (his voice alone is worth preserving for future generations), but he seemingly delights in making his character as unpleasant as humanly possible. There are clear limits to how a non-stop cringe fest can be enjoyable, especially when the audience spends most of the film screaming at the heroine to GET OUT OF THERE and forget about the protagonist. That’s not exactly the best set of ingredients for a heartwarming comedy (indeed, by the final reconciliation we’re not left entirely happy), so consider yourself fairly warned about the film’s effectiveness if that’s not your cup of tea. Still, I’m rather glad that I caught Eagle vs. Shark even if I have no intention of seeing it again. I think that Waititi is undeniably brilliant, and having a look at this early effort was worth the trouble … and the second-hand embarrassment.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) On paper, the premise of Hunt for the Wilderpeople sounds like it leads directly to the dullest film imaginable—some kind of heartwarming bonding thing between a disaffected teenager and his foster father set in the woods of New Zealand. But it’s all in the execution, and considering that it’s from writer/director Taika Waititi (who has achieved considerable name recognition lately thanks to This is What we Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok), it deserves a good look. The first few minutes aren’t that impressive, with a disaffected teenager being welcomed on a farm by a couple of older foster parents. But the film does get crazier and funnier at it goes on, as the teenager’s attempt to run away gets more complicated when his foster father tracks him down, gets injured and the whole thing becomes a national manhunt. The climax is straight out of action blockbusters (albeit tempered by a limited budget), which is not necessarily something that we could have predicted from the quiet onset. There’s a unique comic sensibility to the result, not necessarily based on slapstick or one-liners (although “Skuxx life!” does have its charm), but on off-beat gradual character development and a strong emotional arc. Sam Neill is up to his usual high standards as the foster father, while Julian Dennison is a revelation as the teen protagonist, and Rachel House is hilarious as an overzealous child services officer. It’s another strong comedy from the New Zealand scene—and I was gobsmacked, having spent all of four days in the country, to actually recognize the Auckland train station. It’s a surprisingly engaging film, and a quiet little success in its own right. [March 2019: … and now I see the similarities with Waititi’s earlier Eagle vs. Shark]
(Video On-Demand, April 2018) I really wasn’t expecting Thor: Ragnarok to be anything more than a self-imposed completionist task on the way to Avengers: Infinity War. I found the first two Thor movies to be among the weakest of the MCU so far, both dull and imbued of their own nonsensical self-importance. Thor-the-character I liked largely because of Chris Hemsworth’s charm, and Loki is fine as one of the MCU’s most compelling antagonists, but the rest of the series was a chore—a small-town battle in the first film made for a poor high point, whereas the second film’s gleeful waddling in its own uninteresting mythology had me despairing about its self-referentiality. But a change of pace can do wonders, and it doesn’t take a long time for Ragnarok to highlight its difference. Under screenwriter/director Taika Waititi’s particular sensibilities, Thor become much funnier, much looser, and far more interesting. The ponderous visual atmosphere becomes influenced by rock music iconography, and a pitch-perfect use of The Immigrant Song makes for a showcase opening sequence that tells out that it’s fine to forget about the two previous movies. As a matter of fact, the opening of Ragnarok is so jolly, fast paced and self-deprecating that it made me worry that the film would be an insubstantial series of jokes without weight. But as it turns out, the film actually becomes more efficient once its charming hooks are deeply embedded: As the film builds its dramatic tension, the humour is balanced by action and drama and the result is quite effective despite almost completely destroying one of the MCU’s major settings along the way. It helps that Hemsworth meets a worthwhile match in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie in terms of charisma—once you factor in Jeff Goldblum as an antagonist, Cate Blanchet proving that she can do darkly sexy and surprise appearances by a few MCU regulars, the film remains great good fun throughout. Waititi knows how to make a film that moves (his Valkyrie sequences are visually spectacular and innovative, which isn’t something we often say within the MCU), and the trip to another planet isn’t a distraction from the overall series. Ragnarok leaps over its limp prequels to become one of my favourite MCU films, which really wasn’t something I was expecting when I started to watch it.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Hype is a wonderful, dangerous, terrible thing. It gets people through the door, but it sets up expectations that may not be matched. I started hearing about What We Do in the Shadows when the film made its way through film festivals, picking up good word-of-mouth as a vampire comedy that played with the conventions of the genre. I was over-primed to see it, which may explain that my reaction at the end of the film was definitely more muted than I expected. While I liked the result, I found it far less compelling than I’d hoped for. It’s certainly interesting as a concept: Four vampires living together in Wellington, pooling resources to survive in a world that has changed considerably since they first turned. Add to that the complication of trying to find sustenance in an increasingly watchful society and there are a few good ideas here and there, especially when the characters are meant to reflect various sub-archetypes of the vampire myth. Coming from the New Zealand film industry, What We Do in the Shadows often feels fresh, making choices that an American film wouldn’t have attempted. Writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi certainly know what they’re doing: The film isn’t without its choice moments or quotes (“We’re werewolves, not swearwolves” is terrific) and the humor makes most of its mileage by confronting the sublime nature of vampirism with the ridiculousness of everyday existence. This being said, I’m not a big fan of the found-footage aesthetics (or credibility) of the mockumentary style adopted by the film, and the type of humor favoured by the film often seemed to target a slightly different audience. Never a big fan of improvisation-driven comedies, I found this one to be slacker than I’d liked, with long lulls between laughs that never went beyond chuckles. On the other hand, well, What We Do in the Shadows is something different, and it tackles a geek-favourite subject. That makes it worth a look… and long as your expectations are in check.