Looking back at director Taika Waititi’s wonderful New Zealand film catalog

On Aug. 7, Art House Film Wire looked back at four fantastic four-star Australian thrillers on Netflix and/or Amazon, and the land Down Under has certainly raised the cinematic bar.   Well, Australia’s nearby neighbor, New Zealand, is not new to the movie-making business either.  Like the Aussies, the Kiwis have churned out terrific movies too, and no, New Zealand cinema is not limited to the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” series.   Specifically, let’s look at one director, Taika Waititi.   We’ll, he’s not just a director, because he writes and stars in his films too.  Waititi’s next movie is the much anticipated “Thor: Ragnarok”, which arrives in theatres in November 2017, but here are his four films which led him from New Zealand to Asgard in the Marvel Universe.

“Eagle vs Shark” (2007) – A conflict between an eagle and a shark does seem a bit weird and sure, even implausible, but that is the premise in Taika Waititi’s feature film debut.  Actually, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) hosts a party in which everyone dresses as their favorite animal, and Lily (Loren Taylor) comes as a shark, and Jarrod wears an eagle costume.  Soon after, these quirky individuals become a couple, while Jarrod insists on traveling back home to beat up his high school nemesis.  Waititi’s film feels like a bit like “Rushmore” (1998) meets “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) with oddball visuals as well as a collection of similarly descriptive characters, but Jarrod takes a couple of mean-spirited turns that sting Lily.  She is very likable, so the darker tones in the picture’s second half do feel off.  Still, Waititi, Taylor and Clement show off their cinematic gifts.  (Netflix DVD, Amazon Streaming)

⭐ ⭐ 1/2   out of   ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


“Boy” (2010) – Set in the tribal lands of Te Whanua A Apanu in 1984, Alamein (James Rolleston), a preteen who is nicknamed Boy, performs figurative cartwheels when his father (Taika Waititi) returns home, after years of being away.  Alamein’s dad, who is also named Alamein, is no role model, as this mostly-harmless troublemaker searches for a bag of stolen money that he hid on his mother’s property.  Boy has daydreamed about his dad’s wondrous, pious adventures for ages, but faces reality when his father does not exactly measure up to his idealistic recollections.  Plenty of 1980s Michael Jackson and “E.T.” references find their way on screen, as Boy and his 7-year-old brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) attempt to grasp the scope of their own struggles and cope with this new parental wildcard. (Netflix DVD, Amazon Streaming)

⭐ ⭐ ⭐  out of   ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


“What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) – Jermaine Clement co-wrote, co-directed this outstanding mockumentary with Waititi that stands just as tall as Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show” (2000) and Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap” (1984).  A documentary crew travels to Wellington, New Zealand to film four vampires – Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonny Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) – who live together in a flat.  The flatmates argue about unwashed dishes and keeping a tidy house, but also routinely hunt victims which can cause a bloody mess.  Waititi and Clement perfectly mix a blend of 2014-living issues and daily vampire complications for the four characters to hilarious effect, and their life becomes more problematic when a new, very naive bloodsucker, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Maucer), enters the picture.  An absolute must-see. (Netflix DVD, Amazon Streaming)

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  out of   ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) –  Ricky Bobby (Julian Dennison) is a foster child who owns a history of disobedience, including acts of stealing, spitting, running away, throwing rocks, kicking stuff, defacing stuff, burning stuff, loitering, and spraying graffiti.  His last chance is with a couple – Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill) – who live in New Zealand’s bush.  Ricky may have a mischievous past, and sure, he’s a curious and somewhat rascally preteen but is very affable as well.  In this comedy/adventure, a child welfare professional (Rachel House) misreads circumstances at Bella and Hector’s place, and the police and military madly search for Hector and Ricky, as the two trudge through the wilderness.  Ricky and Hector’s relationship sorts through ups and downs, not unlike their winding journey, but their travels are regularly laced with smile-inducing moments and eccentric, entertaining visuals.  This wild picture and Dennison certainly leave a big impression, and Neill is terrific. (Netflix DVD, Amazon Streaming)

⭐ ⭐ ⭐  1/2   out of   ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Image credits: IMDB, Getty Images

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