Directors: Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek
Starring: Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Ana Scotney, Rima Te Wiata
There must be something in the water in New Zealand. Over the last decade, this small nation has provided the world with some of the big and small screen’s most inventive and interesting comedic voices. There is a sincerity and a self-effacing quality that belies a true sharpness which has been distinctive in the work comedians like Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords, Rhys Darby (Short Poppies) and, of course, writer director Taika Waititi (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok), which has seen all of them leave their mark. You can now add to that group Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, the writers, directors and stars of The Breaker Upperers. Continue reading
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley
For most casual film fans the New Zealand cinema of the last decade-and-a-half has been defined by Peter Jackson and his adventures in Middle Earth. But this period has also seen the rise of one of the world’s more fun and interesting cinematic voices, writer-director Taika Waititi. Nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for his short film Two Cars, One Night, his 2010 feature Boy was up until recently New Zealand’s highest grossing domestic film, his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows won acclaim all over the world, and he has been tapped to enter the blockbuster big time as director of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. His current film, and the new highest grossing New Zealand film at the domestic box office, is his most complete, fully realised film to date, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has spent his life bouncing from foster home to foster home. As child services officer Paula Hall (Rachel House) observes, he’s a “very bag egg,” with a track record of stealing, spitting, kicking things, breaking things and loitering. Continue reading
Director: James Napier Robertson
Starring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Wayne Hapi, Kirk Torrance
Even if you put the Hobbit films to one side, the New Zealand film industry has really punched above its weight in 2014. Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows has proved to be one of the year’s best comedies, and now we get James Napier Robertson’s affecting and uplifting biopic of the late Genesis Potini, The Dark Horse.
Genesis Potini was once a chess prodigy, but has spent the majority of his adult life in of psychiatric institutions as a result of his bipolar disorder. It is decided that Gen can check out of the facility provided he remains under the care of his brother, Ariki. He is told to avoid stressful situations, something easier said than done given Ariki is the leader of a gang, the Vagrants, and his house serves as their headquarters. Gen moves in with his brother and starts to bond with his nephew, Mana. One day Gen’s eye is caught be a flyer for a local chess club, the Eastern Knights. When it turns out the club is for kids, specifically kids with absent parents in need of some stability in their lives, Gen is not deterred. He decides this club could be a positive thing for him to put his energy into so ambitiously announces at his first meeting that he will lead these kids to the National Junior Chess Championships in Auckland in just six weeks.
On the surface, The Dark Horse sounds like it could be an incredibly formulaic and familiar story. It has the potential to be both a ‘brilliant individual defying the limitations of his mental illness’ story and a ‘disadvantaged kids pulling themselves out of adversity through sport/dancing/chess’ story. Both have been done plenty of times before. But Robertson’s film manages to be neither of them. The Dark Horse is no fairy tale, for Genesis or the kids. There are some harsh realities on display in this at times quite dark story. Gen’s struggles with his bipolar disorder are real, they do not conveniently disappear when he finds a sense of purpose. Likewise for the kids, when they leave the Chess Championships in Auckland, they still go home to the same family situations. Robertson succeeds in showing his audience the incredible significance of this group without sugar-coating or hyperbolising its effect.
The film is able to cleverly connect chess, its rules and strategies with elements of Maori mythology and spirituality. The result is that The Dark Horse becomes an unmistakably New Zealand story. Since his childhood Gen has always known chess as “the warrior game.” In teaching the Eastern Knights the principles of the game he draws on Maori creation stories. For the at-risk youths of the Eastern Knights, Gen’s chess lessons serve not only as instruction in the game but as important lessons in cultural identity as well as more general life lessons about living in community.
The Dark Horse is built around a powerfully emotive performance from veteran Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis. Best known for roles in Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider and bit pieces in Hollywood films taking advantage of his multipurpose ethnicity, Curtis gives a career best performance here. Through the rhythms of his speech, the shuffling awkwardness of his movement and the glazed over eyes that denote a lifetime of heavy medication, he gives authenticity to his character. He swings between moments of heartbreaking fragility and aggressively earnest energy in displaying Gen’s condition as something with which he constantly wrestles.
Mana is played by James Rolleston, who may be familiar to some having played the title character in the comedy Boy in 2010. Rolleston is growing up and shows some real dramatic subtlety here. But the most striking supporting performance comes from first time actor Wayne Hapi as Mana’s father Ariki. Hapi is a physically imposing presence with his large frame, dreadlocks, tattoos and weathered features, but behind his stony face he reveals genuine emotion. Ariki is a father doing what he thinks is best to get his son through a hard life, a life that has done him no favours and gives him no reason to assume it will be different for Mana. He wants to get his son inducted into the Vagrants, a process which involves some horrific hazing initiations, because it is the only way he knows to ensure the boy’s security after he is gone.
Robertson’s script is tight and well balanced, with the exception of a subplot about a troubled teenager, Michael, who has a gift for chess and is ordered by the juvenile court to join the Eastern Knights which appears set to be a major narrative thread only to take a back seat for most of the film before returning to prominence at the end. That said, The Dark Horse is a deeply affecting film with strong performances and a New Zealand setting and cultural context that gives it a unique point of difference.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen The Dark Horse? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Directors: Taika Waititi & Jermaine Clement
Starring: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Kiwi duo Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement do something quite surprising with their film What We Do in the Shadows. They take a subject, vampires, with which popular culture is teetering on the edge of overload, and combine it with a form, the mockumentary, which seems just as tired, and through the combination create a vibrant, original and downright funny movie.
A documentary crew observes a group of vampires flatting together in Wellington, New Zealand, in the months leading up to the undead community’s annual night of nights, the Unholy Masquerade. Viago is 379 years old. He’s an 18th century Dandy and the unofficial organiser of the house. The 862-year-old Vladislav the Poker is a legendary lothario and hypnotist, though his powers have dulled in recent years. Deacon is the young bad boy of the house, being that he is only 183. Down in the basement lives Petyr, an ancient vampire, 8000 years old, clearly modelled on Max Schreck from F.W. Murau’s legendary 1922 silent Nosferatu. In between catching and devouring virgin victims, the group deals with the usual politics of share house living. Their dynamic is challenged though when Petyr turns young kiwi Nick into a vampire. While they have much to teach Nick about being a vampire, he teaches them a thing or two about living in the modern world.
What We Do in the Shadows transcends the seeming limitations of its subject matter and form because of the slightly different sensibility the New Zealand sense of humour brings to the fold. An American version of this movie would in all likelihood have been horrible. The strength of Waititi and Clement’s screenplay (or perhaps their scenarios is a better term given the mockumentary form is so dependent on improvisation) is in the way that the film combines the extraordinary with the mundane. It is hilariously absurd watching vampires having flat meetings to discuss household chores – if someone is going to kill a victim in the living room, they should be considerate and lay down some towels first. The film also plays on the incongruity of a group of people who are so determined to keep their existence a secret allowing themselves to be the subject of a documentary.
All the best genre comedies take convention and turn it on its head. In the case of What We Do in the Shadows, there are centuries’ worth of vampire lore and mythologies to be played with. Waititi and Clement then plant these well-known conventions in a very ordinary context to explore the difficulties of being a vampire in the present day. How do you look after your appearance if you can’t check your reflection in the mirror? How do you enjoy a night out on the town when you can’t enter a venue without being explicitly invited in?
While Clement and Waititi are the headliners of this cast – Clement known as half of Flight of the Conchords and Waititi as the writer-director-actor behind the wonderful film Boy, the highest grossing New Zealand film at the domestic box office – Jonathan Brugh more than holds his own and even steals a few scenes as Deacon. There is also a great cameo from Rhys Darby as the alpha male of a group of werewolves who our vampires occasionally cross paths with.
Horror comedy isn’t the easiest genre balance to get right but What We Do in the Shadows is start-to-finish funny while still having enough schlock, gore and surprisingly impressive effects to keep genre fans happy. At just 85 minutes, the movie is short and sweet. It doesn’t stretch the premise beyond what it can support, and what you end up with is one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen What We Do in the Shadows? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.