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Film Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)

January 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Kon-Tiki (2012; Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg)

Thor Heyerdahl’s famous, semi-mad Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947 is of a piece with the intrepid history of the seabound trailblazing of Norwegians going back to Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, to say nothing of Leif Erikson and the Vikings. The brave voyage saw the self-promoting adventurer/ethnographer and five crew members build and sail a traditional Peruvian balsa-wood raft from the South American coast halfway across the Pacific Ocean to French Polynesia to prove that those remote islands could have been settled from the east rather than the west and Asia, as goes the (still-prevailing) anthropological consensus.

The subject of an Oscar-winning feature documentary in 1950 and several best-selling books, the Kon-Tiki expedition receives a semi-fictionalized big-screen glorification from Norwegian directorial duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Starring the lanky, piercingly blue-eyed Pål Sverre Vanheim Hagen as an impacably determined but notably quixotic version of Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki aggrandizes a remarkable feat of daring, ingenuity and endurance into a quest of mythic heroism. As impressive, exciting, and beautiful as the film can be, it doesn’t engage honestly with the inconclusiveness of what the expedition truly proved about the history of Polynesian migration, not to mention the European imperialism that underscored the romanticized scientific quest narrative favoured by Heyerdahl and thus by the filmmakers.

Kon-Tiki earned a Best Foreign-Language Film nomination from the Academy following its release, although the English-language version I viewed stumbles with painful inelegance and linguistic awkwardness through its establishing act. Heyerdahl, first seen courting danger as a child to impress his friends and requiring their rescue after falling into a frozen lake in his native Norway, begins formulating his still-controversial theory that the remote islands of Polynesia were settled by ancient sailors from South America rather than from Asia while living with and studying the native peoples of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas along with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen; Heyerdahl’s adventurism away from home sabotaged their marriage and led to divorce, which the film hints at). Noting similarities in the traditional statues of pre-Columbian South American and Polynesian cultures, Heyerdahl becomes convinced that a migratory voyage from the east over thousands of kilometres of open ocean was not only possible but likely, brushing aside the island-hopping travel patterns of the westward hypothesis, along with the volumes of solid evidence for an Asian origin for Polynesian settlement.

With a book detailing his theories rejected by academic publishers in New York City, Heyerdahl desperately pivots from one of their dismissals to his seemingly-suicidal but publicity-friendly plan to build a balsa-wood raft without any modern materials and drift it himself across the inhospitable Pacific to prove his point. Reputable scientific-exploration societies shut him down as well, but a chance meeting in a Manhattan bar with an expat Norwegian engineer and refrigerator salesman named Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who believes in the wild scheme gives Heyerdahl the impetus to travel to Peru and assemble a crew and a raft to attempt the voyage.

One jaunty team-introducing scene and an assemblage montage later, Heyerdahl and crew push off from a Peruvian harbour on their raft, dubbed the Kon-Tiki, and are alone on the wide Pacific at the mercy of the ocean currents that they hope will convey them to their Polynesian target destination. Kon-Tiki the film launches at this point as well, becoming more taut, more involving, better-written, and even intermittently visionary. Heyerdahl & Co. encounter a drenching storm, an enormous, docile whale shark (the revelation shot of which is worthy of Jaws), and wondrous bioluminescent jellyfish; they contend with the waterlogged degradation of their raft, boredom and isolation, (largely fabricated) interpersonal conflict, and stalking, ominous sharks.

A riveting shark attack sequence indeed constitutes the central fulcrum of the crew’s perilous voyage. It begins with an imprudent pet parrot, shifts to a gravitas-laden long holding shot of one crew member’s apprehension of their dangerous encirclement by the ocean predators that is like something out of the work of fellow Scandinavian director Ingmar Bergman, explodes in a burst of gore worthy of Peckinpah or Tarantino, and maintains a frayed-nerve disquiet through its (not unpredictable) concluding predicament. The entirety of the raft-borne scenes (which take up most of the running time) greatly elevate Kon-Tiki after its patchy, near-alienating opening, and this engrossing, masterful scene in particular seems torn from a much grander, finer Herzog-meets-Spielberg ocean epic of man’s emotional and existential precariousness and isolation in the face of nature’s indifferent lethality. A tremendous astral god’s-eye-view pull-back effects shot, the camera retreating skyward from the raft through the clouds and into atmospheric orbit before plunging back to our ocean-going heroes, emphasizes the solitude of their plight and the smallness of their accomplishment in universal terms.

Kon-Tiki‘s gradually-won quality as a visual stunning and purely entertaining nautical adventure, its sheer, irresistible sweep, elides any number of artistic-license alterations, inventions, and intellectually dishonest omissions in the structuring of the narrative of Heyerdahl’s expedition (the screenplay is by Petter Skavlan). As if the truth of such a daring voyage, captained by a blond Norwegian academic with little sailing experience who couldn’t even swim, wasn’t incredible enough, Skavlan must embellish innumerable small details and plot conflicts. An ominous, threatening, and almost completely imaginary “Galapagos vortex” heightens the Kon-Tiki‘s peril as it drifts helplessly, in desperate hope of catching the equatorial currents that will take it to Polynesia; the “vortex” is a fantastical invention, and the illustration shown to Heyerdahl by a crew member comes from an Edgar Allen Poe story (and is even captioned as such in the book shown). Heyerdahl was in fact more concerned that the highly-maneuverable raft’s failure to catch the requisite currents would lead it to the Central American coast and thus fail to support his theory.

Watzinger suffers particularly from the scriptual inventions: in real life a formidable physical specimen, former athlete, and WWII Norwegian resistance veteran like three other crew members, Christiansen plays him as a pudgy, worrisome burden on the others, a laughably poor match for the adventurous life whose engineer’s concern for the structural integrity of the raft nearly undermines Heyerdahl’s fanaticism for maintaining a historically-accurate recreation of the ancient Peruvians’ raft technology. Conflicts on board the raft were evidently rare, the relative harmony of the operations usually attributed to Heyerdahl’s planning and steady leadership.

A more subtle but perhaps greater transgression lies hidden in Kon-Tiki‘s inspirational surge of score-swelling triumph at the success of Heyerdahl’s quest. Despite Heyerdahl’s assertions that the Kon-Tiki expedition proved that at least some of Polynesia was settled by South American travellers, what it proved was only that the voyage could have been made by indigenous peoples circa 500 A.D. A wealth of cultural, anthropological, linguistic, geographic, botanical, biological, and genetic evidence supports the Asian settlement hypothesis, which remains the scientific consensus. Kon-Tiki does not acknowledge this as it would feel like admitting that the Kon-Tiki‘s remarkable feat was a quasi-empirical folly, impressive as derring-do but inconclusive as science. There is also no mention of Heyerdahl’s massively dubious, ethnocentric (indeed, nearly Aryanist) belief that the South American voyages to Polynesia were undertaken by tall, white-skinned, red-haired people of European ancestry, which flies as flagrantly in the face of everything known about Pre-Columbian Andean civilization as, say, the Book of Mormon does.

Perhaps one might hope that Kon-Tiki was more upfront about some of this, or that it recognized the imperial arrogance at the heart of Thor Heyerdahl’s paternalistic regard for ancient Peruvians and indigenous Polynesians and his quest to demonstrate their kinship through a practical demonstration of seamanship. Like the Kon-Tiki expedition itself, this film embraces the romance of adventure over the cold, rational aggregation of scientific truth. Heyerdahl was canny enough to understand that the sweeping appeal of such romance would gloss over the weaknesses of his studies, and Rønning and Sandberg are canny and skilled enough to grasp and to demonstrate that principle as well.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: The Wolverine

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

The Wolverine (2013; Directed by James Mangold)

The Wolverine is now a largely forgotten entry in the X-Men film franchise/extended universe octopus, and technically a retroactively erased one, if the timeline-altering machinations of Days of Future Past are considered strictly canonical. It’s a bit unfortunate, as James Mangold’s Japan-centric story of the reluctant return of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to active moral action-heroism after self-imposed exile is better than some of what came before and after it in this uneven but often rewarding superhero film series.

Jackman’s Logan begins the movie’s contemporary narrative living alone in the vast, chilly Canadian wilderness. He’s retreated into the lonesome wild to simmer in his grief and guilt over the death of fellow X-Person and subject of unrequited love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, appearing to him in gauzy bedroom visions). Her end came at his hand (or, rather, at his adamantium claws) in X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner’s best-forgotten, out-with-a-whimper conclusion to the original trilogy of X-films, and although it was a tragically necessary act to save the world from her uncontrolled Dark Phoenix telekinetic powers, he’s understandably not close to getting over it.

Logan is pulled back into the messy human world when his only furtive companion, an old bear whose proud, grizzled seclusion is a metaphorical mirror of his own, is killed by callow, dishonourable hunters. In the midst of a bar-fight confrontation over this, he’s aided by Japanese martial-artist and future-glimpsing fellow mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Her appearance in the remote Canadian north is far from random: she’s been sent to solicit Logan’s presence in the Land of the Rising Sun by her boss, wealthy industrialist Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi).

Yashida was seen in the film’s WWII flashback opening sequence (played as a young man by Ken Yamamura) being saved from the atomic blast of the Nagasaki bomb by POW Logan and his fantastic healing ability (I’ve said so before, but the X-Men films have never shaken their addiction to invoking the horrors of 20th Century history to make thematic points since Bryan Singer kicked off the franchise at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp). Now a dying old man at the end of a long, fruitful life that Logan’s choice gifted him, Yashida claims to want to thank the Wolverine personally before passing away. But the potential of the mutant’s healing capacity might be of more interest to the old man, and he offers Logan, with his increasing angst at his inability to age and eventually pass on himself, a chance to end his pain as well.

Yashida’s apparent death soon after launches an involved succession battle over his lucrative and influential business empire, drawing in his preferred heir and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), his power-hungry samurai-wannabe son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), her Justice Minister fiancée (Brian Tee), an athletic archer bodyguard in Yashida’s employ (Will Yun Lee), treacherous poison-breathed mutant femme fatale Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a horde of Yakuza thugs, and a towering robotic samurai. Logan, intermittently haunted by the past, hesitantly principled about the present, and gruffly ambivalent about the future, is of course stuck square in the middle.

Mangold’s film, written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has an orientalist tinge to its setting and themes, relying on a postcard Japan of bustling cities, rolling rural hills, bullet trains (an amazing fight and pursuit sequence takes place in and on top of one of those), high technology, pagodas and zen gardens, shōji houses, and samurai fixations aplenty. Like many Hollywood blockbuster depictions of the country, Japan presents in The Wolverine as a contemporaneous floating world, infused with the exquisite romantic and/or sensationalist idealizations common to Edo-period Japanese painting. If you want quotidian Japanese reality on a cinema screen, I suppose you’d go to Ozu rather than a Marvel Comics actionfest, but such persistent stereotyping certainly grates nonetheless.

Still, The Wolverine is reasonably exciting when it needs to be and delves thoughtfully, if not too deeply, into its central character’s superheroic internal conflicts. Logan’s mind, heart, and soul is forever at irreconcilable odds with his body; the latter is indestructible and alienatingly foreign to his understanding, but the former are very much not. Placing this man at literal war with the implications of his own corporeal reality in a foreign setting, especially a land of mythic alterity and closed-system cultural inscrutability like Japan, is a canny way to throw Logan’s internal dilemmas into the sharpest possible relief. Mangold and Jackman are getting another swan-song shot this year at exploring this character’s unique agonies in the buzzed-about Logan, and it’s worth keeping the solid psychological and thematic consistency of The Wolverine in mind when thinking about what that new film hopes to accomplish with the character.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #32

January 15, 2017 1 comment

Hannibal (NBC; 2013-2015)

Bryan Fuller’s ornately gory and boldly intriguing take on the world of Thomas Harris’ serial-killer novels is magnificently stylish and written with simultaneous obscuring sophistication and bloody-minded brutality, much like its titular genius psychologist and murderer-cannibal, played with coldly-controlled unpredictability by Mads Mikkelsen. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s viscera-splattered psycho-dramatic pas à deux with FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, an average-to-good actor who appears woefully inadequate next to Mikkelsen’s magisterial work) unfolded over three seasons on NBC, and the impressive feat of sliding quite so much artful gore (not to mention so much gory art) onto American network hannibaltvtelevision was tempered by the critically-favoured but insufficiently-watched show’s cancellation, which unfortunately truncates its narrative.

Though perhaps three servings was enough of this particularly rich dish. The flavours were suitably changed after each season: Season One took the fundamentally generic form of a murder-of-the-week procedural, Season Two batted that form around before moving into more baroque thriller-horror territory, and Season Three went in whole other directions entirely. Despite its variation, its fearlessness, its visual invention, its evolving symbology and slippery metaphorical implications, Hannibal is a dinner guest that wears out its welcome to some extent by the end of its second season, in my estimation.

But until then – and even mostly after that point, if we’re being honest – Hannibal is engrossing and frequently gorgeous television that genuinely draws blood. It can take itself too seriously by half, and the morbid gallows humour of its early episodes (mostly the domain of the crime scene lab rats played by Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson) drains away as the psychological duel between Hannibal and Will gains in dimension and importance, pivoting ever more into the involved inner mythology of the show. It increasingly relies on recurring guest stars (most prominently Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson, and Raúl Esparza as various figures in the Lecter-verse) for new narrative direction and thematic impact, as well.

But the ingredients of the remarkable cinematography, acute writing, and Mikkelsen’s impeccable, dangerously unreadably Lecter are so consistently strong and uniformly constant that even a misguided episode or two can’t embitter the intoxicating brew. Hannibal may not be truly great, but it’s about as close as a show can get without grabbing that top rung, especially on network TV, with its peculiar artistic constraints.

Trapped (RÚV; 2015-2016)

Created and partially directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), Trapped is a moody, darkling murder mystery drama set in a remote Icelandic town full of dark and deadly secrets. Seyðisfjörður (not going to help you pronounce that, sorry) might seem like a sleepy, isolated settlement at the end of a fjord on Iceland’s east coast that only springs trapped_icelandtvbriefly to mild life when a regular international ferry from Denmark via the Faroe Islands docks at its small port and disgorges a pack of passengers. The town doesn’t need much of a police force, subsisting on a mere three members of the national police (Lögreglan) to keep the order: the hefty, bearded Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a former hotshot Reykjavík detective hiding out in the boonies after a failure on a past case and struggling through a divorce with Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), the mother of his two daughters, and his deputies Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and Ásgeir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Still, whispers of past traumas haunt Seyðisfjörður, namely a fire at the local fish factory seven years before the start of the series that claimed the life of Agnes’s younger sister and lead to the imprisonment and ostracizing of her boyfriend Hjörtur (Baltasar Breki Samper), who was blamed for the blaze.

Those ghosts of the town’s past and the demons of its present, which sees the town’s prominent citizens scheming with government figures to buy up fjord-fronting land in anticipation of a potential moonshot deal for a Chinese-funded shipping superport, surface uncomfortably along with a headless, limbless torso found floating in the water in conjunction with the arrival of the Smyril Line ferry. A simultaneous snowstorm closes the only mountain pass road into town, forcing Andri and his overburdened team to alone investigate the murder of the mutilated body and the increasingly sprawling web of crime around it.

Trapped controls its visuals and its keen sense of place with confidence, and fits snugly into the contemporary, internationally-recognized renaissance of Scandinavian television mysteries known as Nordic noir. It draws you in with its impressive scope and tantalizing unknowns, but the interest it earns withers disappointingly on the vine well before its final tenth episode. It’s at least two and maybe even three or four episodes too long, and fills the extra time with subplots (often pointless or perfunctorily resolved ones), misdirections, and half-related scenes of danger and peril: Andri gets stuck in a freezer, Andri gets stuck in an avalanche, Andri wrestles with the most dangerous man in the Faroe Islands (a character actually gives the guy that title, which sounds laughable but might actually be pretty impressive, if you consider what they do to pilot whales on that remote archipelago).

The dialogue, at least in English subtitled translation, also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to expressiveness and subtlety. Perhaps some nuances are lost from the Icelandic, I can’t rightly say, but the cast of domestically-based Icelandic actors don’t exactly plumb the depths of the script’s possibilities either. Few of them stand out and demonstrate distinctive personalities, let alone constitute memorable performances, and with a cast of characters as large as this one, this can lead to confusion and uncertainty about their relationships to one another and therefore can muddy the wider plot.

Trapped isn’t great, and is often no better than passable. What it does provide is a resonant (if not precisely attractive or tourism-encouraging) portrait of its setting, though it could do with some greater depth of social context in this vein: for example, the clutch of deaths and law-breaking acts that afflict the town would equal several years’ worth of total criminal output for the whole of Iceland, a country with an incredibly low violent crime rate. As with so many mystery shows from international television, Trapped is best as a prismatic view into life in a different, unique place well apart from our own location and experience.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Television Review: Westworld – Season One

January 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Westworld – Season One (HBO; 2016)

Based on a cult 1970s film written and directed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, Westworld imagines a theme park of the near-future that utilizes human-like androids to replicate America’s Wild West (at least in its Hollywood Western mythos iteration) for paying vacationers. While Crichton’s film was a pulp B-movie take on this intriguing premise, this HBO series version co-created and showrun by Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan (brother of and frequent screenwriter for acclaimed director Christopher Nolan) delves into its thematic and intellectual possibilities.

Featuring the large ensemble cast and sprawling world-creation imperatives of many other HBO dramas, Westworld focuses on many characters and storylines in and around this theme park, inculcating its guests, robotic “hosts”, corporate overseers, creative directors, and low-level technicians into its processes and meanings. At the westworld2top of Westworld’s pyramid is Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), co-founder of the park and, despite his advanced years and secretive practices, still an active if inscrutable presence in the crafting of the park’s immersive, interactive experiences and storylines, known as “narratives”.

Ford’s plans for a grand new narrative are treated with skepticism by operations manager Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and later by Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), a savvy and ruthless envoy from the board of Delos, the corporate overlords of Westworld, whose interest in the park goes beyond simple tourist business. Below Ford is Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), whose team, including the sharp-tongue Elsie (Shannon Woodward), monitors and tweaks the behavior of the hosts. Bernard is also involved sexually with Cullen and continues to the haunted by the death of his young son. There’s also an arrogant writer of narratives (Simon Quarterman), a square-jawed head of security (Luke Hemsworth), and a pair of bickering, host-repairing lab techs (Leonardo Nam and Ptolemy Slocum) onsite in the vast behind-the-scenes complex.

Inside the park is much more intriguing (and, outside of Hopkins and Wright, the location of most of the better performances). The hosts – the lifelike, Turing Test-passing robot denizens of Westworld – while away day after day in the park in endless repetitive loops, used by the guests however they see fit: killed, maimed, beaten, screwed, then reset, mended and returned to the start of their pre-set path without any memory of what was done to them. Although specific hosts may play a series of roles over the decades (or may indeed be retired to a spooky, light-flickering basement vault), those we meet at the opening of the series fill a series of Western archetypes. There’s Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the virtuous farmer’s daughter romantically yearning for a fresh horizon; Teddy (James Marsden), the gunslinging man of action tending an unrequited (and unrequitable) flame for Dolores as well as a dark, violent secret in his past; Maeve (Thandie Newton), a hard-bitten saloon/brothel madam with a history of painful loss; and in the background, the usual coterie of ruthless, colourful outlaws and killers, lawmen and laymen, Mexican peasants and Indian raiders, Confederate Army guerrilla dead-enders and Union soldiers.

There are also three guests of particular note: uninhibited park vet and corporate investor Logan (Ben Barnes) and his more timid and morally conscious future-brother-in-law William (Jimmi Simpson), a park neophyte through whose eyes the depths of the place are revealed; and the mysterious, cruel, implacable Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest of long standing who has wearied of even Westworld’s more involved entertainments and is searching doggedly for the secret meaning at the end of the park’s metaphorical “Maze”, supposedly planted there by Ford’s now-deceased co-founder, Arnold. Logan and William’s adventures coincide with what seems to be a scattershot awakening of sentient self-awareness for Dolores, while Maeve likewise begins to remember things and question her reality and the park’s patriarch Ford is increasingly threatened with removal by Delos’ reps.

Westworld‘s storytelling is of the puzzle-box variety, and like the most notable examples of that type (Lost comes particularly to mind), frequently employs subterfuge and delay and obscuring incident to kick the can containing its core mysteries down the road. This can be frustrating, but their revelation in later episodes (especially the finale) as the pieces come together cannot be said to be unsatisfying. There are some strong performances: Wood, Wright, and the ever-underrated Newton are all quite good, though the elite-level work of longtime veteran actor Hopkins – who can turn a simple dialogue scene into a thespianic masterclass – outshines the lot. The musical selections by Ramin Djawadi include contemporary pop-rock songs in re-orchestration (Maeve’s eye-opening tour of the backroom facilities is lovelily scored by Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”) and in arrangements on player-piano (which doubles as a recurring metaphor for the hosts’ invisible automation) which subtly comment on Westworld’s eeriely artificial nature. Indeed, the show’s entire premise presents an obvious opportunity to critique the American mythmaking project around westward expansion. But Joy and Nolan are less interesting in that artificial creation than the God-proxy intellectual implications of creating artificial intelligence and the invisible dance of freedom and control.

More than anything, Westworld is keenly aware of the milieu in which it is presented and signals that awareness in its thematic construction. As a showpiece prestige HBO drama, Westworld displays the hallmarks of that once-bulletproof, now-faded honorific: noted for its graphic violence, nudity and sex, and general adult content, but redeemed from mere cynical sensationalism by a self-serious core of anxiously questing meaning, a quasi-literary focus on the Big Questions about society, morality, and human nature. From Oz through The Sopranos and The Wire up to the network’s current juggernaut Game of Thrones, top-shelf Emmy-favoured drama series have shared this character and grappled with its baseline dichotomy.

Interestingly, Westworld enacts this fundamental framing of the HBO drama, which presupposes a critical view that inclines to the negative, within its very text. The elaborate Old West theme park is a romantic but detailed simulacrum of its historical setting, inhabited by intelligent robots painstakingly programmed to exhibit convincing – if simulated – human expression and emotion, its daily rhythms directed by constructed narratives rooted in base drives, governing passions, social conflicts, and moral choice. But despite all this focus on the skilled crafting of meaning, most of the guests at this intricate attraction are understood as only being crassly interested in fucking and killing, both of which they can (and do) engage in with the artificial hosts with impunity.

Of course, Westworld certainly is about the deeper questions. Its creators’ intent of representing not merely hedonistic excess but exploring philosophical quandaries about artificial intelligence, consciousness, memory, and the nature of sentient existence is carried out, just as the similar intent of Ford and Arnold endures through the visceral amusements favoured by the guests. Perhaps even the struggles and conflicts of the park’s creative element with their grasping corporate overlords are meant to reflect the not-dissimilar negotiation of artistic and capitalist interests that the show’s brain trust experienced at HBO, a network in dire need of the non-Westerosi drama division success that Westworld represented. For its steely meta-intelligence as well as its dogged watchability, Westworld is enough of a success to do the trick, for HBO and for discerning television audiences.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

January 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016; Directed by Taika Waititi)

It’s becoming evident, four titles into his directorial career, that much of the charm, appeal, and goofy brilliance of Taika Waititi’s films is difficult to encapsulate in brief, conventional descriptions of their subject matter and generic associations. It’s hugely unfair, though not entirely inaccurate, to describe Eagle vs. Shark as a sort of deadpan Kiwi Napoleon Dynamite; watch dubiousness creep into the features of interested parties when, in an attempt to sell them on What We Do in the Shadows, you summarize it as a mockumentary about vampires. Those films are those things but they are also much more (as, I imagine, Boy is more than a mere coming-of-age drama, though I confess that I haven’t seen it). They are, above all, inspired comedies, and Waititi’s disdain for categories and genres is part and parcel of his comic sensibility.

Waititi seeks out collaborators who vibrate on his comic wavelength, and his co-starring duo in the hugely enjoyable Hunt for the Wilderpeople buzz away nicely. The wildly mismatched pair of young Maori actor Julian Dennison (Waititi himself is half-Maori, half-Russian-Jewish) and New Zealand-rooted international thespian Sam Neill are at the centre of this quirky but entirely accessible and endearing unlikely-duo buddy comedy about a brash foster kid and his highly reluctant not-exactly-guardian who go evade the national authorities in the New Zealand bush for months. Both are brilliant. Dennison is a burst of verbose energy in hip-hop urban street gear who refers to Tupac Shakur as his “best friend” and names his dog after him, expresses his feelings through loopy haikus (“Kingi, you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain”), and utters ridiculous aspirational-gangsta adolescent truisms like “I didn’t choose the skux life, the skux life chose me!”. Neill sells his character’s solitary cantakerousness as a reasonable response to a life of disappointment and pain, but lets Dennison’s likable chatty confidence break down his prickly resistance as their quest-of-sorts goes on.

This quest-of-sorts begins with the end of an abortive stab at family-unit normalcy. Dennison’s Ricky Baker is introduced as having passed through many foster homes, with a litany of troublemaking and petty crime related through one of Waititi’s wonderfully-composed montages. The narration of Ricky’s past is provided by Paula (Rachel House), a child welfare worker with an awkwardly oversized sense of no-nonsense, tough-love grandeur of purpose and a bumbling cop sidekick, Andy (Oscar Kightley). Paula drops off Ricky for his last-ditch attempt at sticking with a family before being thrown into juvenile prison, at the remote farm owned by the kooky but affectionate Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cranky husband Hector (Neill), whom she calls “Hec” (and which sounds, in her broad Kiwi accent, like a mild curse whenever she utters it).

Bella’s rough-hewn, unconventional country warmth finds the chinks in Ricky’s sullen teenaged armour. Even as she shocks and traumatizes him by bloodily dispatching a wild boar, she can summon a touchingly quirky 13th birthday party, with cake and candles, a hilariously odd birthday song, and the gangbusters gift of Tupac, the loyal canine companion. But tragedy intrudes, and Ricky is left alone with Hec with child welfare due to descend to take him away again. Ricky desperately retreats into the bush, where he is comically unsuited for enduring survival. Hec has a bit more experience at and inclination for life in the woods (he calls it “the knack”), but does not encourage Ricky’s scheme, at least until after his ankle injury strands them in the bush long enough to make them the targets of a national manhunt.

What unfolds is, in many ways, a classic quest-in-the-wilderness narrative (Waititi includes an overt, and openly noted, homage to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, New Zealand cinema’s greatest success and grandest on- and off-screen odyssey). But Waititi keeps things fresh and unique, always. Ricky and Hec have run-ins with hostile but inept reward-focused hunters, wild beasts, a paranoid, anti-government, off-the-grid bushman called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby, along with House a previous Waititi-verse player), and a desultory encounter with a Maori daughter-father duo (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne and Troy Kingi) whose remote residence may offer a chance at some approximation of home.

Quirky humour (of which there is much) is keenly balanced with pathos and feeling, as Waititi expertly slows down the comic pace to allow Ricky and Hec’s interludes of loss and sadness to land and to breathe. The excellent musical soundtrack, including cuts from Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen but mostly provided by NZ electro-pop band Moniker (whose members previously scored Eagle vs. Shark and Boy as the Phoenix Foundation), underscores and drives the film’s finely-tuned energy. The music is sometimes even allowed its own comic showcases. A Cadbury Flake jingle and angelic lighting combine to amusingly express Ricky’s crush on the Maori girl, Kahu. Most memorable is the scorched-earth final car chase (a nod to another Down Under film classic, George Miller’s Mad Max), when the 1980s synth burst of “Milestone 2 (Skux Life)” provides the surge of that sequence with delightfully destabilizing comic spikes in the form of repetition of the film’s memorably odd dialogue highlights: “Majestical / we are the Wilderpeople / skux life”.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (pronounced with a short “I”, like “wildebeest”, a Ricky Baker-ism gleaned from a nature book they happen upon) is based on the 1980s national bestseller Wild Pork and Watercress by legendary NZ author Barry Crump, a hugely popular writer who, from what I can glean, bridged the gap between Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and P.G. Wodehouse in a peculiarly Kiwi idiom. Waititi brings his own peculiarities to the material, even embedding sociological suggestions of the struggles and deprivations of the colonized Maori minority in Ricky’s past in the foster system. While generally a massive delight, Wilderpeople isn’t flawless. House’s Paula, whose militaristic authoritarian tendencies get out of hand as she spearheads the search for Ricky and Hec, is given far more screen time than her relatively limited comic construction can sustain, which only emphasizes suspension-of-belief issues with the actions of child services in general here. I wonder, too, if the Psycho Sam interlude is placed in quite the right place in the film’s arc, so close to the conclusion.

But these are minor quibbles, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople remains a considerable delight. We will see how resilient Taika Waititi’s trademarked quirky humour and tweaking of convention proves to be when faced with a Hollywood megabudget and a lucrative franchise property: his next directorial gig is Thor: Ragnarok in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does, in that film and in his other, likely stranger, future outings. If the strength of Hunt for the Wilderpeople is any indication, it should be quite enjoyable.

Categories: Film, Reviews