Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) movie poster

director Taika Waititi
viewed: 07/23/2016 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Taika Waititi’s star is rising, shooting off sparks like crazy.  A couple earlier films may have laid some groundwork, but after co-directing the instant cult classic What We Do in the Shadows (2014) with Jemaine Clement, Waititi parlayed the directorial role in the upcoming Thor movie.  And in between those things, he made this odd and charming little feature.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople brings backwoods curmudgeon Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) together with chubby young Maori teen Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) together in a strange bedfellows friendship movie.  Waititi adapted the film from a 1986 novel, Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump.  These buddies are thrown together when Hec’s wife Aunt Bella (Rime Te Wiata), the giant-hearted backwoods auntie, drops dead.  A couple of twists find the duo on the run in the dramatic and stunning New Zealand wilderness with more benign than malevolent police forces after them.

Julian Dennison is by and far the heart of the picture.  Neill is good, looking a lot like Ernest Hemingway, as the wily grump.  It’s a sweet and amusing film.  My 14 year old son loved it, certain sure my daughter and ex-wife would enjoy it too.

I liked it overall, niggled a bit by some of the music, some of the flourishes and editing, which infect the tone a bit.  It’s inherently likable.  But I didn’t love it.  As many have noted, Waititi’s upcoming Thor film should prove interesting.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) movie poster

directors Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
viewed: 10/30/2015

For the past several years, I’ve made October an all horror film month for the kids and myself, probably as a fair amount of people do.  Oddly enough, my daughter loves it, but my son flits in and out with it, sometimes into it, sometimes gets a little too freaked out.

Also, recently, they’ve gotten into watching Flight of the Conchords, which I failed to see in its day.  Actually, it was after watching What We Do in the Shadows a few months back that finally got me around to checking out Conchords.  So, for him, for our Halloween night movie fest, we went with a horror/comedy double feature, starting with this mockumentary about vampire flatmates in New Zealand.

I liked it again.  Maybe a little more, now familiar with Jermaine Clement and Rhys Darby (Murray from Conchords, showing up here as the alpha werewolf).  The kids both liked it too.  Taika Waititi, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-stars in the film with Clement, is also very funny and sweet as Viago.

Fun stuff.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) movie poster

directors Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement
viewed: 07/22/2015

Pretty funny “mockumentary” style comedy about vampires living in New Zealand.  In part, from Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords. Four vampire housemates ranging in age from 8,000 to 183 try to make a go of it as flatmates in Wellington.

Sweet and silly, I think it would be a great pairing with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) for your vampires in the modern world double feature.

I’m not writing much here but I did think this was a pretty funny movie.

The Frighteners (1996)

The Frighteners (1996) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 07/18/2014 

When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners came out in 1996, I remembered thinking it was pretty good stuff.  Starring Michael J. Fox as a man who can see ghosts and who uses that ability to employ ghosts to haunt and be exorcised by him fraudulently, it’s a paranormal thriller/comedy cut from a cloth laid out in part by Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988).  It seemed an apt project for Jackson (before he started making hobbit movies) and was produced by Robert Zemeckis a la his own Death Becomes Her (1992).

I’d had it in my Netflix streaming queue in part just because it was available, not something that I was in particular looking for to watch with the kids.  But as we kept skimming over the image, I kept thinking it might be something that they would like, though I did recall it had its scary elements too.

Because along with Fox’s friendly ghosts, there is also the murderous baddie of Jake Busey (what the heck happened to that guy?), a serial killer turned ghost serial killer, inspired by Charlie Starkweather to build a body count to top all body counts.

The effects are early digital effects.  1996 seems to be a typical point in the line for the growth and efficacy of digital effects.  The primary effect is the ghost of Busey, either as a grim reaper figure, or more typically, sliding under the wallpaper at a house.  I recalled this effect seeming cool back in the day, but now it looks, if you pardon the expression, hella cheap.

When Wes Craven used an analog effect to have Freddy Kreuger push through a rubber wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), you’ve got a cool effect that transcends time.  When re-created digitally for its re-make in 2010, the even more advanced digital effect still was less powerful and interesting.  Back in 1996, with a much more elaborate and heavily leaned-on digital effect, who can say?  I tell you that today, it looks crappy.  And yes, hella cheap.

The best effect in the film is John Astin as “the judge”, a rotting corpse with digital and analog effects, but more well-designed than the others.

On the whole, the film is affable enough.  The kids were a bit confused by the story, which shifted in time between the teenage rampage of the killer and the present-day ghost rampage.  And then the film also relies on a stairway to heaven, with a one year limit in opportunity that leaves some ghosts on earth.  This is basically a not very well thought out aspect of the film’s universe.

Neither of the kids loved it nor hated it.  Though as the film wore on, they realized that it was more comic than scary.  It’s funny how the things I think will freak them out are the things that don’t bother them a lick.

Dead Alive

Dead Alive (1992) movie poster

(1992) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 06/02/10

From New Zealand, with blood.  And gore.  By the truckfull.

I recall when Dead Alive hit San Francisco in the early 1990’s.   It was a popular cult gore-fest comedy, cut as I felt at the time from the cloth of Evil Dead II (1987), Sam Raimi’s comic horror masterpiece.  And though writer/director Peter Jackson already had a couple of other comic horror films to his name, Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989), it was pretty much his breakout success.  Still, it was several steps away from his eventual Lord of the Rings film series that capped with his winning an Academy Award for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and snagging a surprise best picture.

I’d been long thinking of revisiting Dead Alive, having it in my Netflix queue for some years now.  I remembered liking it, though not thinking it up to Raimi’s measure, and also remembering all the quirky New Zealandness about it.  But it’s been this recent venture into digital cable and the On Demand model of movie watching that has given room for me to open a new window in the possibilities of catching films on television.  In this case, the film was presented by the site/channel Fear.net, so it was “free” and featured only one advertisement and an annoying “watermark” logo of the brand in the lower right-hand corner.  These things might not turn off  your average viewer, but I like to watch films as unencumbered as possible.

Actually, I found the Wellington, New Zealand setting quite interesting this time around and found myself wondering specifically why the film was set not in the film’s contemporary setting of the early 1990’s but rather in the late 1950’s.  And I’m still a little unsure what the reasoning was, but no matter.

The film is full of broad comedy, filled with many looming goofy close-up shots that resemble fisheye lens views, but really reek a bit more of 1980’s music video style.   And the comedy aspect, at least in the film’s first part before it becomes the gore-fest extroirdinaire, is cute and clumsy and not always so well executed.  It’s a low budget affair, of course, with likeable actors if not utterly comically deft ones.  And the broadness of the comedy is high slapstick, which clunks along quite as often as it succeeds.

Where the film hits its stride is in its over-the-top of over-the-topness in the gore factor toward the end.  The moments of gruesome gross-out effects and gags leap far beyond itself or almost anything else I can think of, and the last 1/2 hour or so is just non-stop inventive geysers of blood and ooze, decapitations, disembowelments, shreddings and pureeing of zombies.  It makes its mark.

The story is that a “rat monkey” captured from a Sumatran island is brought to the Wellington Zoo where it bites a lady and infects her with a zombie disease, which starts with gruesome putrefecation and comic grotesqueries ad nauseum as she goes on to infect more and more people.  The woman’s doting son tries to keep a lid on all this, sedating his gruesome zombie mother with a huge syringe to her nostrils, as well as her other infectees, keeping, or trying to keep a naturalized familial setting with the rotting, pustule exploding, much-degraded creatures.

He has a Spanish girlfriend, who has become attracted to him through a Tarot reading.  Her Spanish background is another oddity of the story’s setting in time and place and specificity.  And he’s got an uncle who is not unlike a kiwi John Goodman, who gets a lot of comic action and gore thrown his way as well.

Dead Alive is a showcase of hilarious and imaginitive analog effects, with dumpsters-full of blood and gore, and comedy that gets funnier the more over-the-top and incessant that it becomes as the film works its way toward its climax.  While it lacks the pure genius of Evil Dead II, it earns its place among the cult films of its era and its ilk.

Bad Taste

Bad Taste (1987) movie poster

(1987) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 01/13/08

For some time, I’d intended on watching Peter Jackson’s first feature film, Bad Taste.  More noted for his Lord of the Rings films, Jackson first came to my attention when his film Dead-Alive (1992) became the cult video rental of its day.  I’d always considered it a bit of Aussie Evil Dead II (1987), possibly the originator of the combination of horror gore films and slap-stick comedy.  Whereas I found and still find Evil Dead II a pretty amazing film, I’ve been meaning to revisit Dead-Alive to see what I’d think of it now.  Clearly, Jackson has moved on, no more goofy horror films for him.

Bad Taste, at least from the poster/DVD cover, featuring an ugly alien giving the finger, really…I don’t know, I guess I sort of assumed that the aliens would be all over the film.  But as it turns out, this low-low budget film, which apparently Jackson shot over a few years on 16mm, really started out a bit more like a zombie film, or at least a cannibal film.

In a small village in New Zealand, a goofy team of government researchers (who seem a lot more like the drinking buddies of Jackson’s who probably the actors were), uncover a group of ferocious semi-zombie people who seem to be cannibals.  The team crashes the house to find out that the zombies are actually aliens in human form there to reap a human harvest for feeding fast food in outer space.  Hey, it’s a funny enough concept.

There is a lot of goofy action, comical though gory violence, with lots of red Karo syrup-spewing wounds.  The characters are all pretty silly, in a variety of ways.  The whole thing is comic and goofy.

And it’s pretty good fun.  It’s not incredibly amazing, but for the type of low-budget, DIY horror feature film making, it’s a decent accomplishment.  It actually made me think of a film made locally in Gainesville, FL back in the late 1980’s, Charles Pinion’s Twisted Issues (1988) which I think I tended to take for granted at the time, but realize that it was, even on video, walking a line of DIY filmmaking that really had some merits.  Also, bloody and silly, it’s not incredibly far off of this in its way.  Though, I would say, Jackson was very ambitious with effects, pulling off stuff that while not brilliant, was clearly clever because of the budget constraints.

I don’t think that Jackson is one of the great directors of our time.  I do think he did a good job with the Lord of the Rings series and I’ve liked some of his other films.  This, his earliest work, has character, which is more than one can say about a lot of things.

Black Sheep

Black Sheep (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Jonathan King
viewed: 10/26/07

Kudos to Jonathan King and every human being in New Zealand for finally bringing us a horror movie about sheep.  I’ve found livestock frightening many times myself (especially cows), but now here we have it, a movie about blood-thisty mutant sheep running around the beautiful hills of New Zealand’s farmland.  And a were-sheep.  Who knew?  Who knew that we all needed a were-sheep to complete our lives?  Really?  Who?

So almost all that you knew in the trailer: brilliant comic horror concept, but what is the film really going to be like?  Well, nearing the witching eve of Halloween, it was time to pop a movie like this in the DVD player and find out.

Frankly, beyond the concept and the fairly gruesome gore, the film has a multitude of weaknesses.  The characters are all stock, so stock in the case of the tree-hugging anti-vivisectionist hippies, it’s so lame…and the actress is terrible too.  In fact, it’s a moderately high budget affair, perhaps, too slick in places for its own good, that the whole narrative and climax and everything just moves one to outright boredom.  It’s cruelly unimaginitive beyond its original concept.

That said, there is still something to be said about were-sheep.  I don’t know what there is to say, but I feel it is there.   I mean, I feel it.  I just can’t articulate it.  Were-sheep.  We are now a complete culture.

Strange Behavior

Strange Behavior (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. Michael Laughlin
viewed: 06/13/07

I’d read a brief article about this film in the San Francisco Chronicle some weeks back that it was playing, a lost 1980’s horror flick.  It sounded kind of interesting.  I’d queued it up on Netflix, and eventually it made it’s way into my DVD player.

It’s kind of interesting.  It is an interesting glimpse into the dawn of the 1980’s, really of its time.  It’s about teenagers possessed by mad scientists, eking out revenge on some townfolk who upbraided them years before.  Actually, none of it really makes that much sense if you really think about it.  It’s best probably not to.

In all, it’s decent, but vaguely boring.  There was a notable bit to the soundtrack, which was by Tangerine Dream.  It includes a Boys Next Door song on the soundtrack, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party’s earlier incarnation before they became The Birthday Party.  Kinda cool, really.

The film has its moments, so if you like dredging the 1980’s in genre films, it’s not a bad one to have on the list.

Whale Rider

Whale Rider (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Niki Caro
viewed: 02/23/04

This film wasn’t great, but sort of cute and entertaining enough. The narrative was so obvious and predictable that my 2 year old son could probably see many of the plot turns coming a half an hour before they showed up, too. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. It’s a nice little film. Keisha Castle-Hughes got an Oscar nod just because she is so cute…okay, she’s okay in this film. But still, it doesn’t have so much going for it. I liked it better than other films that it reminded me of that I had seen recently, namely Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). But obviously, I am a grouch and don’t like most things.