Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

(PG) 4.5 out of 5

Director: Taika Waititi.

Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Rhys Darby.

"Is it a velociraptor, Mr Neill?"

FOR a country of 4.4 million people, New Zealand has long punched above its weight when it comes to producing great movies.

In recent years Whale Rider, The World’s Fastest Indian, Boy, and What We Do In The Shadows have all attracted large audiences and critical acclaim in and out of their home country.

Those latter two films are the work of Taika Waititi, who is following the likes of directors Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, Roger Donaldson and Lee Tamahori out of NZ and into Hollywood (he’s presently helming Thor: Ragnarok).

Waititi’s latest, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, is his most accessible and enjoyable film yet – the best of a great bunch – but it’s also his most iconically “New Zealand” movie, demonstrating a deep love of the country’s “majestical” landscapes and the rough-and-tumble people that live in its hidden places.

Neill stars as Hec, who is none-too-pleased when his wife Bella (Te Wiata) brings a foster child named Ricky Baker (Dennison) into their rural home on the edge of the NZ wilderness.

Ricky is a troubled 13-year-old city kid who has bounced around foster homes all his life and is one step away from juvenile prison, but after his initial attempts to flee Hec and Bella’s house fail, he finds a new existence and sense of purpose in the country.

But a tragedy shakes Ricky’s newfound happiness, and an unfortunate set of circumstances force Ricky and the belligerent Hec on the run from child services and the police in the NZ bush.


The relationship between Ricky and Hec is the film’s strength. It’s as charming as it is inevitable – both are wonderfully flawed and dynamic characters, and while we know where their relationship will end up, it’s an absolute joy to watch it get there. Dennison and Neill give good performances without being perfect, but their dud moments are not enough to detract from the finished product or the affection and empathy they draw.

The other big star of the movie (aside from the Terminator Pig that appears toward the end of the second act) is the scenery itself. Finding the few locations left around NZ that Peter Jackson hasn't already stuck an elf and a hobbit in, Waititi and his crew take us to some gorgeous places as Ricky and Hec wind their way through the beautiful bushland and lakes of the North Island.

The film’s humour, typically dry and Kiwi, is another highlight, with writer-director Waititi playing Ricky’s wannabe gangster attitude neatly against Neill’s stoic country type. The whole thing occasionally tips too far into the absurd, most notably in any scenes featuring Paula the social worker and her cop offsider (House and Kightley), yet strangely the arrival of Rhys Darby’s hermit “bushman” Sam seems to work despite being even more off-the-wall. It’s all based loosely on Wild Pork & Watercress by NZ author Barry Crump (largely unheard of outside New Zealand) but takes the country-esque, Fred Dagg-like laughs and adds a modern twist.

Kooky, charming, and full of heart and humour, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is great fun, occasionally sweet, and destined to be an iconic NZ film.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond

(M) ★★★

Director: Justin Lin.

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella.


BACK in 2009, JJ Abrams boldly took Star Trek where it hadn’t been in 30 years – the mainstream.

With one eye on the past and the other firmly on the franchise's future, he and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman crafted a Star Trek film that not only appeased the legions of Trekkies but also won new fans previously disinterested by the adventures of the USS Enterprise and its crew.

An equally lucrative sequel followed before Abrams jumped spaceship to reignite the hyperdrive of the Star Wars franchise, so for Star Trek reboot film #3 (which bears the rather drab subtitle Beyond), the captain’s chair is filled by Justin Lin, best known for directing four Fast & Furious films (including most of the good ones).

Beyond finds the Enterprise crew three years into their five-year mission exploring the furthest reaches of space. During a stopover at a massive space station, they agree to head into an uncharted nebula to find a missing spaceship and its crew –  a mission that will bring them into the path of the villainous Krall (Elba).


After the excellence of the first two reboot movies, Beyond is a step down. It feels more generically “Trekkie” than its predecessors and less remarkable – Beyond has an “adventure of the week” quality to it that it never manages to shake. While there were some intriguing ideas at play in its 2009 and 2013 predecessors, this one’s plot about answering a distress call and hunting for a MacGuffin weapon is nothing special.

The advantages of a big budget certainly help compensate for any plotting inadequacies. A crash-landing of the Enterprise (something that seems to happen in quite a few of these movies) gets the spectacular mega-bucks treatment, while a couple of space battles and a visit to a space station are CG spectacles Gene Roddenberry could only have dreamed about.

The by-numbers plotting aside, this is still reasonably enjoyable. The humour helps (the opening scene gives the movie an hilariously off-the-wall start), as does the fact the crew members are at home in their roles. Pine’s Kirk is no match for William Shatner’s, and ditto for Quinto’s Spock vs the late Leonard Nimoy (who gets a touching tribute in the film) but they do their jobs well, as do Cho, Saldana, the sadly departed Yelchin, and Pegg (who co-wrote the script). The real stars here are Urban, who continues to be a scene stealer as Bones McCoy, and newcomer Boutella as alien warrior Jaylah.

Elba’s Krall is a less-defined villain than the previous films’ Nero and Khan, but he is still a scary presence. The way he fits into proceedings, however, is one of the plot’s weaker points, so it’s to Elba’s credit that Krall is a memorable and threatening figure.

When it works, Beyond is great. The Beastie Boys’ classic track Sabotage, used so effectively in the 2009 reboot, gets another airing here, and it’s an endearingly dorky (and awesome) sequence that feels like a throwback to the original films (maybe Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) and which momentarily lifts everything up a notch.

But predominantly this is so-so Star Trek that feels like a small episode of one of the series, enlarged for the big screen.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Paul Feig.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Neil Casey, Chris Hemsworth.


"Up there! A Twitter troll!"

FOR the sake of humanity, many pundits have been hoping this movie is awesome and goes big at the box office.

Positive reviews and a large gross would help quell the din surrounding its release, which comes partly from grown men (well, mostly men who are mostly grown) complaining about one of cinema’s sacred cows being slaughtered (ie. remade) as if the original will cease to exist, and partly from sexist morons who claim that women can’t be a) ghostbusters, b) funny, and/or c) anywhere outside of the kitchen.

As a result of all this manly online tantrum-throwing, the trailers for this reboot have been the most “disliked” in YouTube history and the build-up to the return of ghostbusting has been tainted by the type of underlying misogyny you expect from blokey footy commentators having a joke about drowning women. (Seriously, if you ever want to lose faith in humanity, read the comments. You've been warned.)

So praise be to Zuul that this re-imagining of the 1984 classic is really good. It’s funny, carries a similar yet updated tone to the original, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and even manages a few swipes at the haters. And, hallelujah blessed Gozer, the original 1984 classic hasn't been sucked into a vagina-shaped vortex, disappearing forever.

While it would have been nice to see what the world was like 30 years on from the original round of busting, this film takes a clean slate, positing its quartet of spectre-hunters as the first of their kind.

Bookish professor Erin Gilbert (Wiig), the enthusiastic driving force Abby Yates (McCarthy), the loose cannon/techno whiz Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), and the underwritten fourth member Patty (Jones) find themselves at the centre of a burst of phantasmic activity and realise that people may need someone to call in such a situation.


The plot is a same-but-different approach to what we saw in ‘84 – it visits the same stops of team up, find ghosts, bust ghosts, battle Big Bad, and save day, but thankfully it finds its own path to get its final destination. It’s actually impressive how it manages to balance a fresh feel with a fidelity to its predecessor, throwing in plenty of references to the original and some cameos that range from gratuitous to clever.

But most importantly, this Ghostbusters is funny. Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon and Jones (all Saturday Night Live alum except for McCarthy) are on fire, especially McKinnon, who is a zany best-on-ground in a strong field. The tone and style of humour is similar to the original, just updated. It’s occasionally off-the-wall, hilariously straight in the face of absurdity, and energetic, with some obvious dashes of improvisation. Some of the improv gets in the way – there are edits that clash because the film stretches a little too far in one direction to fit a gag in – but the vast majority of the jokes find their target.

The same can’t be said for the presence of Chris Hemsworth, which misses as much as it hits. The idea of his presence is funnier than his actual presence, and he is increasingly at odds with everything around him as the movie goes on. He will have his defenders, but for mine he is the film’s weakest link.

The final act is a bit of struggle against sanity (how the hell do the Ghostbusters’ weapons work?) as the film devolves into a CGI-heavy onslaught of ghosts, but the laughs keep coming so it doesn’t matter. Even Hemsworth’s increased presence and the attempt to find a “don’t cross the streams” equivalent can’t detract from the joyous vibe. Where it lacks plot-wise, it at least throws in some laughs.

The big shame about this is a lot of people have written this movie off before seeing it and probably won’t bother opening their minds to the possibility that a female-driven Ghostbusters reboot could actually be really good. Here’s hoping some positive reviews sway some people to give it a try, although it’s unlikely the misogynistic undercurrent will be washed away by a fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating.

Still, director/co-writer Paul Feig and his comedic cast have created the best possible remake one could have hoped for, and one of the funniest films of the year so far. Take that, haters.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Legend Of Tarzan (2016)

(M) ★★

Director: David Yates.

Cast:  Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou.

"First man to mention that Phil Collins' song gets a punch in the face."


IS there a definitive take on Tarzan?

It doesn’t seem like it. Modern audiences wouldn’t have a clue about the Weismuller films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and almost everyone has forgotten the low-budget Tarzan movies of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The Christopher Lambert film Greystoke from 1984 is rarely mentioned and hasn’t aged well, while the less said of Casper Van Dien’s 1998 effort the better.

That leaves the 1999 Disney cartoon as the title-holder, so you can forgive Yates and co for having a crack at a big-budget, live-action Tarzan for the current movie-going climate. Unfortunately for them, this will not take the crown from Disney.

The film finds Tarzan aka John Clayton aka Lord Greystoke (a super-beefed-up Skarsgård) living in England with his wife Jane (Robbie), his jungle days well behind him.

That is until Tarzan/Clayton receives an invitation from Belgium’s King Leopold II to visit the Congo and help lend legitimacy to the Belgian occupation while simultaneously advancing British prospects in Africa. But the invite is a ruse concocted by Leopold’s envoy Léon Rom (Waltz), who is using Tarzan as a pawn in his quest to get his hands on the legendary diamonds of Opar.


Along for the ride is George Washington Williams (Jackson) – a fascinating real-life character who deserves far better cinematic treatment (or his own film) than to serve largely as Tarzan’s comic relief. Jackson as Williams is the first of many problems for the film. He feels like he’s wandered in from another set – a less swearier Tarantino movie most likely. Amid the drab seriousness of the script and the permanent scowl of Skarsgård’s jungle man, Williams stands out like a kangaroo in the Congo.

There are other odd flourishes that add to the general tone-deaf nature of the movie. Waltz’s Rom – based on a real-life Belgian bastard who ruled part of the Congo in the late 1800s with an incredibly racist iron fist – is a weirdly vanilla villain whose weapon of choice is (and I’m not making this up) a set of rosary beads, which is as ridiculous and ludicrous as it sounds. Neither enigmatic, interesting, dangerous nor threatening, Rom is another disappointment from Waltz, following on from his similarly boring Blomfeld in Spectre.

Robbie’s Jane is less troublesome, but delivers some lines that attempt to lighten the mood yet hit the ground harder than a dead sloth. Her character is fine – Jane is tenacious, headstrong and refuses to be a damsel in distress – but the script doesn’t do her many favours.

That leaves Skarsgård to elevate proceedings. He’s a competent Tarzan who certainly looks the part and handles the mannerisms well, but it’s not the electrifying A-list-making performance he would have hoped for.

There are other problems. The editing is distractingly messy at times and the film sprays its flashbacks all over the place, some of the green-screen and CG work leaves a lot to be desired, and there are some damned silly moments, such as a physics-defying scene in which Tarzan and Williams swing on vines to catch a train.

It’s not a total disaster. Skarsgård and Robbie have decent chemistry, some of the scenery looks amazing (especially when you consider most of the film was shot in England), the wildebeest stampede seen in the trailer is pretty cool, the plot itself is strong, it’s often visually impressive, and the general take on Tarzan as a character is solid. Doing away with the yodel, the loincloth and the “me Tarzan, you Jane” approach is definitely a plus, although the dozens of flashbacks leave out the vital detail of how he evolved from Lord of the Apes to Lord of the Manor.

The Legend Of Tarzan is certainly rarely boring and parts are actually quite enjoyable, but it has the feel of a film that’s had a few too many rewrites, leaving its tone unbalanced and distractingly annoying.

A missed opportunity, this will close the lid on Tarzan films until someone has another swing at it in about 10 years time.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The BFG

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader.


"Terrorist!"

THIS film is a reminder of many wonderful things.

It reminds us of how great it is when Steven Spielberg makes one of his all-too-infrequent family films, how clever the late Roald Dahl was with words, and how much fun it was to discover the works of both Spielberg and Dahl for the first time as a child.

All of those remembrances are mixed together to make something that is largely magical for two-thirds of its running time before reaching a sadly unsatisfying conclusion. Still, it’s those wondrous first sections that will resonate long after the disappointing final act has finished.

Newcomer Barnhill plays Sophie, an English orphan who is snatched from her bed one night by a mysterious giant (motion-captured Oscar-winner Rylance).

The giant – AKA Big Friendly Giant AKA The BFG – is actually not so big for a giant and in his homeland he is considered a runt by his enormous, colourfully named, human-eating brethren (led by a CGIed Clement and Hader).

The BFG doesn’t want Sophie to blab about his existence to the people back in England, but it’s a real risk keeping her in Giant Country when you’ve got the likes of Fleshlumpeater, The Butcher Boy, The Gizzardgulper, and The Meatdripper prowling around.


Off the back of Bridge Of Spies and Lincoln (and even War Horse), The BFG seems like an odd fit for Spielberg until you remember that he directed not only E.T., but also the hugely under-rated Hook and Tintin.

This Dahl adaptation is something of an amalgam of those three family favourites – it has a similar misfit friendship at its heart like E.T., there is some excellent production design and a childlike exuberance as in Hook, and the techno-wizardry of Tintin is front and centre again. All the while it captures the same sense of wonder of all three films.

For the first two-thirds, The BFG is beautiful and immersive. The titular character is another modern miracle of CGI combined with first-rate acting a la Andy Serkis’ Gollum and Caesar the Ape, which helps draw you in to the world of the giants but also the budding relationship between the plucky young orphan and the kindhearted colossus.

Here’s hoping Spielberg has found another muse to add to his collection in Rylance, who was an understated stand-out in Bridge Of Spies but is given free rein to be nothing short of wonderful as the bumble-mouthed BFG. Equally impressive is Barnhill, who gives a mannered but stirring performance as Sophie, matching precociousness with the right amount of childlike wonder.

Sadly, and it may seem odd to say this, but the blame for the less than impressive ending lies with the source material. Aside from adding a nice subplot relating to the lead giant’s lonely existence (which is a masterstroke), many will be happy to know the adaptation follows Dahl’s beloved book very closely.

Unfortunately this means (spoiler alert?) the ending remains in tact and the film has to do a weird tone jump in its latter stages to get to Dahl’s prescribed ending. After sustaining a wonderful whimsical level of magical realism that makes the most of Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s skills, the film suddenly flips into an absurdist childish fantasy that seems to have dropped in from another film. It’s an odd criticism to make, but the biggest flaw here may be that the film adheres too closely to Dahl’s words.

Another letdown is that the stakes don’t feel high enough. As Walt Disney realised, you needed the dark touches in a kids film to truly appreciate the good moments. Spielberg knows this too – E.T. has resonated for three decades because of the peril in the Extra-Terrestrial and Elliot’s plight, the strength of their friendship in the face of that peril, and the joy experienced from the pair making it out the other side.

The BFG, like E.T., is a sweet and gentle family film, but the requisite sense of danger is missing throughout, and particularly towards the end. The bigger, less friendly giants are supposedly stealing and eating children, and while we don’t necessarily want to see that in an all-ages adventure, it would have been nice to have a bit more jeopardy in Sophie’s situation.

Having said all that, there are some good laughs in the third act, and it’s hard to be too disappointed by a film that is so good for so much of its running time, and that has such a nice, well realised friendship at its centre.

If nothing else, Roald Dahl would probably have been very happy with how this turned out.