Saturday, April 16, 2016

A bit rough and ready, but who cares?

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 15.)
You get spoiled living in a small (well, smallish) town like mine. For instance, you expect to find a parking place right outside the place you’re going to.
I have also come to assume that I can turn up at the local movie theatre only minutes before the film starts and not worry about finding a good seat. On one occasion there was just me and the projectionist.

Two Sundays back, though, an unimaginable thing happened. I turned up five minutes before screening time and the theatre foyer was jammed with people.
There was a queue ahead of me, and when I got to the counter I heard words I never thought I’d hear in the Regent 3: “We’re sold out. Do you want to come back another time?”

I reeled out on to the street, numb with shock. My vision was blurred and my breath came in convulsive gasps. I self-diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
But we’re a resilient lot out here in the provinces, so I tried again the following Thursday night. Same film.

There were only four people ahead of me at the box office. Things were looking good. But when I walked into the actual cinema – phwoah! The place was packed.
I had to go right down the front. Then more people arrived, and we all had to move over and squeeze up to make room.

You’ve probably guessed by now that the film was Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Taika Waititi’s latest film has created a real buzz. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the tradition of Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie, and like Murphy’s film it’s unmistakeably and unapologetically a New Zealand movie.

It’s also, like Goodbye Pork Pie and Sam Neill’s first film, Sleeping Dogs, a bit rough and ready, which kind of adds to its charm.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it looks as if Waititi made the film up as he went along, but he certainly didn’t bother to smooth off the rough edges.

The opening scene, for example, shows a police car speeding along a remote gravel road and splashing through puddles. But when it pulls up at its destination, it’s sparkling clean.
Film crews are supposed to include a continuity person to ensure consistency between scenes, but the pristine police car was either missed or ignored.

Audiences might also have observed that the two dogs that accompany the Sam Neill character, Hec, and his young companion Ricky appear in some scenes but are inexplicably absent from others.
Then there are the sudden striking changes of scenery. I don’t know of anywhere in New Zealand where you can step straight from dense, sub-tropical rain forest onto a barren, Desert Road-type alpine landscape, but they do it in Wilderpeople 

It took me back to the embarrassingly bad 1964 New Zealand film Runaway, in which the action abruptly shifted from the coastal sand dunes of Northland to the Southern Alps, as if only a short drive separated them. Even as a 14-year-old, I cringed.
But Runaway purported to be a serious film. Wilderpeople can be excused because it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a lot of fun.

Part of the humour comes from the affectionate nods to other New Zealand movies – among them Goodbye Pork Pie, but also Smash Palace.
Waititi (who plays a wicked cameo as a deranged church minister) even managed to include a tribute to the famous Crumpy and Scotty Toyota Hilux TV ads. Lloyd Scott himself appears briefly as a startled tourist whose photo-taking is rudely interrupted by a rampaging 4WD.

There’s no doubt Waititi is a freakish talent, but we already knew that from Boy and What We Do in the Shadows.
Boy was misleadingly labelled as a comedy but was really a sad film with comic moments. Wilderpeople is the reverse – a comedy with some laugh-out-loud scenes and one or two sombre interludes.

Thank God we seem to have finally grown out of those bleak, dark New Zealand films that Neill labelled the cinema of unease.
As Ricky, the funny but troubled Maori kid whom Neill’s character is reluctantly saddled with, Julian Dennison is the star. But Neill anchors the film, even if his portrayal of the cantankerous Hec lapses slightly at times.

Neill is our one true international A-list actor. It says a lot about him that he still spends much of his time in New Zealand and gets obvious pleasure from old-style, seat-of-the-pants Kiwi filmmaking.
Good on him. He seems a genuinely nice man - the sort of A-lister we're happy to claim as one of us.

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