Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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*** (out of five)

Taika Waititi is a talented individual and can tune into the New Zealand audience better than anyone – two of his films, Boy and now Hunt For The Wilderpeople, broke records as the highest grossing local films during their respective releases (and Hunt continues to make bank, in NZ and now as it releases worldwide). He’s written and directed a few episodes of the Funniest Television Series Ever Made, Flight of the Conchords, and there are many, many critics and civilians around the world who think his previous film, What We Do In The Shadows, was the funniest film of 2014/15.

His new film has charm aplenty, excellent performances, and a few huge belly-laughs – but how I’d have loved a lot more. Like What We Do In The Shadows, it’s got the perfect ingredients for an ecstatically funny movie, and then, unfortunately, delivers on that promise only in fits and starts. I laughed my ass off in the first ten minutes, and then began to wonder where the funny had gone.

Young teenager Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, who will now become a huge unlikely movie star in the style and shape of Rebel Wilson) is a smart and compassionate but mischievous scamp who has been bounced around the foster system before ending up on the doorstep of kindly, childless farming couple Bella and Hector. Bella adores him instantly and  showers him with love; unfortunately, she dies pretty soon after his arrival, and, with the threat of child services taking him back and sticking him in “juvie”, he and Hector go bush. Fearing that Ricky’s been abducted by Hector, a manhunt – the Hunt for the Wilderpeople – ensues.

Waititi, who wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Barry Crump, is pretty fearless in his tonal palette, showing us, early on, a suitably bloody rural event that would definitely freak out little kids (the film is rated PG-13 in the US, PG in Australia). Our heroes are on the run partially because the authorities think Hector may be using Ricky as a sex slave, leading to a long (and deeply unfunny) gag about pedophilia. And there are guns, which get fired. It’s not your conventional, conservative kid’s flick, to its definite credit.

And yet, and yet… It’s such a shame it still suffers from the sentimentality and essential tropes of so much of this type of entertainment. Once you get past its risqué elements, you find a film practically begging to be adored. It’s got everything: sweeping, gorgeous aerials of the New Zealand landscape, action sequences, Lord of the Rings references (too many and always lame) and Rhys Darby, who is badly used by being forced to play an outsized kook rather than what he’s brilliant at: a deadpan one. It’s as though Taika is auditioning for the big time.

He’s got the part. He’s now directing Thor: Ragnarok. Finally, I can look forward to a superhero movie, because even though Waititi, for me, has yet to make a masterpiece, you just know he’s got it in him, and if it was a Thor movie – well, that would be hysterical.

The Daughter

The_Daughter_(2015_film)_POSTER***1/2 out of five)

Simon Stone’s adaptation of his stage adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck tosses out the metaphorical title and tells us straight who this story is about. She’s played by Odessa Young, brilliantly, and a huge part of the enjoyment of this film is watching a star being born in front of your eyes.

Young has previously appeared in Looking for Grace, and based on that and her performance here, I can safely predict her dance card will be full for many years, and will include waltzes with Hollywood. She’s astonishingly present as Hedwig (Ibsen eh!), the daughter of logger Oliver (Ewen Leslie), who re-unites with his old mate Christian (Paul Schneider) to nobody’s benefit.

The many lives thrown off-kilter by Christian’s return to Oz from the US include characters played by Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto and Anna Torv. They’re all solid, but it’s Young, Leslie and Schneider’s show, and they’re all excellent. Leslie, playing against his urbane type, is stunning, making a bunch of really tricky character maneuvers seem effortless. And Schneider, having experience with a couple of Antipodean films and filmmakers (he was in Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jess James by the Coward Robert Ford) is believable as an Americanised Aussie – not a natural role for anyone.

It’s really inspiring that in a film with so many brilliant old-timers, it’s the young ones who impress, and the youngest the most. Stone is a young man making his feature debut, and he certainly breathes youthful energy into an old story, while also giving the whole thing a very Euro feel. It’s beautifully shot, too. Perhaps the least interesting thing about it is the actual story, which makes sense: I’d see this film over a stage production of Ibsen any day.