As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.
Boy (2010) [certificate 15]
At the same time as hitting very familiar beats — in terms of a story about growing up poor in the countryside, with unavailable older role models and absent parents — this film also makes it deeply likeable by having sympathetic characters and taking the perspective of the 11-year-old at the heart of the story (James Rolleston). The director Taika Waititi plays the father, returning (possibly from a stretch in jail) to look for his buried treasure, reconnecting with his two sons in the process. The emotional arcs are, as I say, familiar, but it never ladles on the sentimentality or Life Lessons, preferring to show the title character growing up by really seeing his father for what he is, moving away from his fantasies about his dad set out in the film’s opening. It also manages to maintain a fetching yet low-key sense of 80s nostalgia, most notably in the repeated references to a younger, more naive version of Michael Jackson, and ending with an energetic Thriller-type dance to “Poi E” (there’s plenty of little references like that which New Zealanders can enjoy).
Director/Writer Taika Waititi; Cinematographer Adam Clark; Starring James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 February 2018.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) [certificate 12]
A really sweet movie with an archetypal setup: mismatched misfits grow to care for one another; New Zealand blokedom carving survival from the bush; the country as corrective to soft city living. It’s based on a Barry Crump novel, a man who crafted a lot of those myths NZers like to think about themselves, but what I like here is that the film effortlessly widens the range of references beyond Sam Neill’s gruff white washed-up survivalist type. There’s a particularly strong role for a child services officer learning the limits of her own power in a pathos-laden way (Rachel House). At times the film lays on that pathos a little much, and there’s the usual requirement (no doubt in NZ funding contracts) to focus on sweeping scenery. Still, there’s lots of nice character work and laugh-out-loud jokes.
Director/Writer Taika Waititi (based on the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump); Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Rhys Darby; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 21 September 2016 (and again on Netflix streaming at home, London, Saturday 21 January 2017).
Jojo Rabbit (2019) [USA/New Zealand/Czech Republic, certificate 12]
I am incredibly unsure how to take this film, largely because of its tonal shifts, and the setting. I think there’s a lot that’s likeable about it, even as it feels like it’s prettifying a horrendous period in history and making light of things that probably deserve it, but it still feels uncomfortable somehow. The bits that worked least well for me were the moves into mawkish sentimentality, because I wanted something somehow sharper and more mocking. That said, it was not short of mockery, not least of Taika Waititi’s Hitler, an imaginary friend who has a tendency to do full-on Hitler speeches, and then soften and become a good buddy. One of the most problematic characters for me was Thomasin McKenzie (an excellent actor, all the same, best seen in Leave No Trace) as the young Jewish girl living in the attic, but mostly because her character was more of a cipher for a lot of ideas about denaturalising the Jewish people, and the film seemed rather too intent on mocking that idea than on her being a living, breathing and rounded character. But I don’t know, there was a lot that was likeable, and obviously Nazis are bad and that’s clear here. It feels like it’s addressing the idea of trying to be good in polarising times, and that’s probably a worthwhile message, but at times I found it hard to laugh at, no matter how hard the film was trying to engage me to do just that.
Director/Writer Taika Waititi (based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens); Cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr.; Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 11 January 2020.