Hunt for the Wilderpeople

After watching this movie, one question is uppermost in my mind: WHY DON’T I LIVE IN NEW ZEALAND??

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director and Writer: Taika Waititi
Adapted from: the book “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump
Starring: Sam Neill and Julian Dennison
Released: 2016
Rated PG-13 (in the U.S.)

The movie begins when Ricky Baker, a rotund foster kid who fancies himself a gangsta, is placed with a kindly old couple in the New Zealand countryside. Well, the wife is kindly. Her husband, Hector, is kind of standoffish and grumpy, seeing the new kid as a nuisance. So naturally, circumstances conspire to leave Ricky alone with Hec. Afraid of being dumped back into the foster care system (since Hec can’t be expected to raise him on his own), Ricky runs away and gets lost in the bush (New Zealand code for pristine, gorgeous wilderness). Hec rescues him, but a series of misunderstandings conspire to make it look like he’s kidnapped the boy. Pretty soon, the two find themselves outlaws in the wilderness, with the police, the army, and one dangerously obsessed Child Welfare agent hot on their trail.

First, let me talk about the scenery in this movie. I’ve never been there, but between The Lord of the Rings and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I’m now convinced that New Zealand is the most beautiful place on earth. And here we see tons of panning shots of mountains, forests, lakes and flats that seem utterly deserving of Hec’s made-up word, “majestical.” The soundtrack, made up of delightfully quirky techno-pop by the band Moniker, only adds to the beauty of the atmosphere. I’d say it’s worth watching for the scenery alone.

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“It’s majestic.” “That doesn’t sound very special. Majestical’s way better.”

But that’s not all the movie has going for it. It’s also hilarious. Hec and Ricky play off one another wonderfully, and I got a lot of laughs out of their often prickly relationship and their different ideas of what it takes to be a tough guy. Then there’s Paula, the Child Welfare agent, who does such an over-the-top Inspector Javert impression throughout the movie that it’s impossible not to chuckle at her. The pair of outlaws run into several other quirky characters on their adventure, from a spacey priest who keeps mixing his metaphors to…”Psycho Sam,” who dresses like a bush to hide from the government. They are all amazing. Especially Psycho Sam.

But even though I laughed out loud several times during it, I’d hesitate to call this movie a straight-up comedy. In between the laughs, there are several extremely sad moments, and some that tug at the heartstrings for different reasons. Underneath the exaggerated action and adventure, this is a movie about two outcasts who decide to run from a society they feel has rejected them. It’s not just about Ricky teaching Hec what it means to be “skux” (sort of like being a “playa” here in the States) or Hec teaching Ricky how to survive in the wilderness. It’s about both of them helping each other to deal with the different sorrows they’re carrying from equally tragic pasts. Eventually, by becoming “wilderpeople,” they learn that they’re not alone and that the world doesn’t have to be as bad a place as they thought it was before the movie started. Their unlikely friendship is as heartwarming as it gets.

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All the best father-son type relationships start with hunting wild boar.

I was reminded of several other movies while watching this one. The relationship between Hec and Ricky is a lot like the one between Carl and Russell in one of my favourite Pixar movies, Up. The humor and some of the more surreal elements of the story remind me of the Coen brothers’ work, especially O Brother, Where Art Thou? But at the same time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is very much its own story. I’ve seen quirky comedies before, but never one whose quirks were quite like these. I’ve seen epic, scenery-driven movies before, but not many whose stories seemed so perfectly fitted to the landscape. And I’ve seen plenty of father-son bonding type movies, but this one is so unconventional that it affected me a lot more than most.

Also, I loved Sam Neill in Jurassic Park, obviously, but I didn’t realise what serious acting chops he had until this movie. And I keep forgetting he’s from New Zealand.

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And if you even recognised him under that beard without being told, kudos.

Another note: This movie contains a beautiful Lord of the Rings reference, and I saw it coming a mile away. And it still made me geek out.

The only complaint I can think of is that the movie starts off a bit slow. We’re a good 20-30 minutes in before the plot really gets going. But even then, I’m not sure if I can complain, because so much of that beginning was used to develop an important character without whom the movie wouldn’t be the same. The tone is all over the place, with deeply tragic scenes constantly being followed up by something goofy and over the top–but that just makes both the humour and the emotion even more effective. It’s a masterfully told story with a great script. And the director’s next project is going to be Thor: Ragnarok, which gives me an enormous amount of hope for that film.

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If he can do action like this on a $77,000 budget, imagine what he’ll do with Marvel’s bajillions!

So in the end, I think it’s only proper to sum up my feelings about this movie the way Ricky would. In haiku.

Ricky and Hector
Outlaws living the skux life–
Grade A adventure.

 

 

The Babadook

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Well, NOW I can’t. Thanks, movie.

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Director and writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Released in: 2014 (in the U.S., anyway)
Not Rated

The Babadook is about Amelia, a single mother whose 6-year-old son, Samuel, is a bit of a problem child. He brings homemade weapons to school, freaks out other kids, and constantly has tantrums where he screams about monsters coming to get him. This does a number on his mother’s emotional state, which was already pretty bad because she’s still grieving for her husband, who was killed in a tragic accident several years ago. One night, Sam finds a new story on his shelf, called “Mister Babadook,” that his mum doesn’t remember buying for him. It turns out to be a creepy little pop-up book about a monster in a top hat that will do all sorts of vague and terrible things to you if you “let him in.” Naturally, it scares the crap out of Sam, and it eventually starts getting under Amelia’s skin, too, as she begins to imagine (or think she imagines) seeing and hearing the Babadook everywhere she goes.  And things get worse from there.

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Moral of the story: Don’t read mysteriously appearing books to your kids.

 

There’s a line in A Grief Observed, which is C.S. Lewis’s story of how he lost his wife, that says, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” And indeed, speaking as someone who’s felt relatively little of either, it seems that the two emotions do cause people to do very similar things. We avoid talking about things we’ve lost just as we avoid talking about things that scare us. Both grief and fear can lead to sleeplessness and poor decision making. And both can drive ordinarily decent people to do very indecent things.

That’s basically the premise behind this movie. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I think I can say that the monster is strongly tied to our main characters’ feelings of grief and resentment. So it seems oddly fitting that it’s also bed-wettingly terrifying. Hagrid was clearly involved in naming this thing, because only the guy who named a giant three-headed dog “Fluffy” could possibly have come up with a cutesy name like “Mister Babadook” for the face of all my nightmares. And keep in mind that this thing is rarely shown outside of the drawings in the book that introduced it. It doesn’t jump out at you from the shadows. It doesn’t rip people’s heads off or burst out of anyone’s chest. In fact, there’s very little blood or violence at all in the movie. All the scares come from places that are easy to relate to–weird noises in the house, a family member acting strange, lack of sleep, and, of course, the prospect of losing someone you love. And because of that, this is easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

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Nope. I’m out. Bye.

Not that I watch many scary movies. Most of the time, based on the trailers and posters I’ve seen, horror films just seem to be about uninteresting characters getting killed in interesting ways, and that has no appeal for me. Besides, even if the story’s good, there’s a limit to the amount of blood and tentacles I can take. But I heard this movie described as more of an allegorical character study than a monster movie, and that got me intrigued. Besides, I’ve been trying to watch more foreign films and more films directed by women, and this one checks both boxes. So I checked it out, and, even though it shaved an hour or two off my beauty sleep, I’m glad I did.

For one thing, it’s just a really, really well-made movie. The acting is top-notch. Amelia goes through quite a few emotional transformations throughout the story, and some of them could have come off pretty cheesy and terrible if Essie Davis hadn’t absolutely nailed them. But she did. The kid is also pretty great for a pint-sized actor, and although he can be annoying at times, it always feels intentional. The writing helps a lot, too. This is one movie where it pays to listen to the dialogue, because several seemingly innocent things are said early on that end up being tremendously important later. A lot is also said symbolically, or through subtext. This is not a movie that’s interested in spelling everything out for its audience. There were several times when I really had to use my brain to figure out what was going on–and there are a couple details I still don’t completely get. Then there’s the atmosphere. Even when nothing strange is happening onscreen, the way things are shot, the sounds we hear, and the music combine to give the movie a very surreal quality. It results in an incredibly suspenseful story that never stops building tension, from the first shot to the climax.

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No monsters under the bed…yet.

But none of that means anything if you don’t have a good story, and I think The Babadook does. It’s a very relatable and, dare I say, realistic take on something that many people have experienced, which is grief over the loss of a loved one. And although for the most part it’s as sad as it is scary, in the end it has something rather positive to say about that experience. It shows how destructive it can be to let one’s negative emotions take control, but it also shows that a little love and kindness can go a long way in healing the damage.

Things I had to look up:
This is an Australian movie, so I will admit that I did some googling to see if the Babadook was based on an actual Australian legend. Nope, the writer made it up. It is an anagram for “a bad book,” though, which…is fitting. Yeesh. Also, apparently shooting a fully functional crossbow on a playground doesn’t get you suspended from Australian school. It just gets the teachers to watch you more closely.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook. It’s extremely scary, but it also made me think. I like movies that make me think. I also like movies that make me feel empathy for other people–in this case, particularly for those who have to deal with loss every day. A movie that can bring out those kinds of emotions is worth a few scares in my book.

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“I love you. And I always will.”

Grade: A-

Amelie

Augh! I’ve been tricked into watching a romantic comedy!!

When I decided I was going to start watching foreign films, I naturally asked my more knowledgeable friends (some of whom actually live in other countries) for suggestions. One of the most common suggestions was Amelie, a French film that I had always heard of but never watched, partly because the cover makes it look like it’s about a particularly disturbed serial killer.

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Come on, take a look at those crazy eyes and tell me I’m wrong.

But as it turns out, Amelie is not a slasher film. (By the way, excuse my lack of proper accents–I have a bad keyboard.) It belongs to the one genre I despise more than slashers: romantic comedy. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, it being French and all. It tells the story of an imaginative girl named…you guessed it…who grows up in Paris with her socially awkward dad and her overly nervous mum, until a suicidal tourist falls on the mum’s head, killing her in the most hilariously cruel way possible. Fast forward a few years, and Amelie has turned into a lovely young woman who’s still imaginative, but also painfully introverted. Her only relationships are with her dad, who’s become a total recluse, and her quirky co-workers at the cafe where she waitresses. But one day she finds an old box of toys hidden in her apartment and decides to reunite it with its former owner. Thus begins her new career of trying to make life better for everyone around her–while talking to them as little as possible. When she meets a young man whose quirks seem compatible with hers, she tries to win him over in a similar fashion: through the magic of stalking.

To be perfectly honest, as romantic comedies go, this is definitely one of the cleverest and most artfully made ones I’ve seen. It avoids many of the usual cliches, and it really is funny at times. While Amelie’s brand of shyness may be a bit extreme–to the point where it seems she must have a mental disorder of some kind–every introvert can probably relate just a little bit to her fear of speaking to strangers, especially ones she fancies. Also, she’s homeschooled! I think this might be the first movie I’ve seen where the protagonist went to the same school I did. Yay home school!

Of course, my experience didn’t include blackboards…or French, sadly enough.

Amelie‘s cinematography is also lovely. Besides some random, cartoony special effects thrown in to emphasize the magical realism side of the movie, the Parisian scenery is constantly shown off in the most gorgeous ways possible. The soundtrack is great too, in a quiet way. And the movie has one of the least annoying narrators I’ve ever seen. I love the way he introduces each character, not with a bunch of backstory, but just a few of their likes and dislikes. His delivery also adds a lot of humour to the story.

The only problem I have with this movie’s “trappings”–effects, cinematography, etc.–is that it all seems a bit…stereotypical. The music makes great use of that accordion-sounding instrument that is synonymous with France in every American movie. People spend a lot of time drinking wine and talking about sex and art in picturesque cafes. Stripes figure prominently in several characters’ wardrobes. Paris is portrayed as a sparkly clean city full of beautiful stone buildings, bronze statues, and white people. Women (and the men around them) seem very comfortable with letting it all hang out, so to speak. It’s all so similar to the depiction of France I’ve seen in every TV show, movie, cartoon and poster here in the States that I can’t help feeling a bit suspicious. Then again, this movie was made by actual French people, and I’ve never even been to France, so what do I know? Maybe all the stereotypes are true. Also, this is the most famous French movie in America, and it’s been around for a while, so it’s possible some of the stereotypes I grew up with started with Amelie.

“Postcard Paris! Wheeeee!”

A bigger problem I have with this movie is that, even though it’s more artfully made than most romantic comedies, at bottom it’s about the same old thing: two pretty, quirky people decide to hook up because they’re both pretty and quirky. Even if Amelie’s portrayed as a pathologically shy person who gets braver by the end (sort of), she still falls back on the stalking method to woo her love interest, instead of actually trying to get to know him, and that is a method I can never condone. I mean…their relationship is primarily based on photo booth pictures! Honestly, even after seeing the movie, I still think Amelie would make a pretty good serial killer. She’s got the complicated schemes down, including disguises and ways of covering her tracks, and she does have a bit of a mean streak, as shown by the cruel pranks she plays on the neighbors she sees as “bad.” She’s even got the right kind of backstory–parental issues, a socially awkward personality, and at least one traumatic childhood experience. But in this movie she’s the heroine, because she only hurts people who are shown as total jerks, her stalking victim happens to think she’s hot, and…well, so does the audience. Nice.

In the end, this movie’s message seems to be: “Life is short. Take action to pursue your dreams, even if it’s scary, instead of just letting things happen to you.” Which is not a bad message, all things considered. Of course, it still doesn’t quite make up for the fact that our two romantic leads are never shown speaking to each other.

Statistically speaking, relationships that begin this way have a low probability of turning out well. And I’m still getting serial killer vibes…

I can definitely understand why so many of my friends like this movie. It’s pretty, it’s cute, and it’s funny. The acting is good, the cinematography is great, and the writing is witty. It’s got a happy, feel-good plot. But it simply isn’t my cup of tea. I’m not a huge fan of romance in general, as I’ve explained before, and I tend to like movies with a little more conflict. I’m also not a huge fan of nudity, and although I wasn’t surprised to see a few casually topless women in a French film, I still could have done without them.

Things I had to look up: 

Really just the names of cocktails. Because Amelie works in a cafe that serves alcohol, people mention various drink orders a lot, which occasionally confused me. I didn’t know what a kir was, or a mauresque, for example. But I think that says more about my ignorance of wine and fancy wine drinks than my ignorance of France. I also had to look up the word “scurf.” But again, that’s an English word that I probably should have known already. Overall, this movie is very easy to follow for an American audience, which probably explains its success over here.

This is one movie that I don’t personally love, but I wouldn’t think any less of another person for loving it. It succeeds in everything it tries to do–I just don’t really love any of those things. Still, I found it mildly entertaining, and it even made me laugh out loud a couple times, which is more than I can say for most romantic movies.

You got that right, narrator.

By the way, apparently there’s a stage musical version of Amelie out now, starring Phillippa Soo. Now THAT I might pay money to see.

Grade: B