Tuesday, July 19, 2016

NWTE – "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and "The Invitation"

In which the Author briefly and half-heartedly recommends two “I Heart Indie” movies that have nothing in common and that almost nobody saw.

Not Worth The Effort was conceived in early Fall of 2015 with the aim of succinctly documenting and summarizing movies (and possibly other media) that simply aren’t worth the effort of a full review. This month’s issue is dedicated to Ghostbusters (2016), which is so far by far the most astonishing movie of the year and which proves to misogynist haters beyond a shadow of a doubt that women can be as witty and hilarious as Azis Ansari, Louis C.K., Adam Sandler, and Anderson Cooper.

Wishing For Wilder People

About ten minutes into Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I realized that I had stumbled into what could accurately be described as a grandma movie – that being a completely toothless, affable, and frivolous comedy with emphases on filial-paternal dynamics, enjoying the outdoors, and learning to live life to the fullest. The only people who could stand to be mildly offended by a movie like this are governmental child care workers, and chances are that anyone who works in the government is already busy being offended by a litany of other travesties, like the heartbreaking new video of Alton Stirling dancing with Derek Hough. The internet seems to tell me that the movie takes a lot of pot shots at Australian or New Zealand groups, but if it did, then these shots must have flown straight over my American head, and I’m not about to go read up on Australian demographics so I can understand the freaking Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Regardless, such desperate allegations, most likely formed by people scrounging for some way to rationalize the $10 they’d just spent, are simply obfuscating the reality that this is one of the least offensive films released since Deadpool. It’s a fun and family-oriented film which almost nobody could dislike but which any seasoned movie viewer would struggle to truly love.

"A film which almost nobody could dislike..." ~ The Author before he saw the Tomatometer

It’s a film in which the main character is introduced wearing a 2Pac jacket and names his dog after the rapper but which features nary a reference or montage to any of his songs, maybe because they couldn’t get the money for one, maybe because the director correctly assumed the vast majority of 2Pac fans would have no interest in such a White People Movie, or maybe because he figured that playing a profanity-ridden 2Pac song would scare away the grandparents who thought they’d gone to see a cute, endearing movie about a nice boy and his uncle going camping in the woods. Maybe there’s a deleted scene out there somewhere that’ll make its way, without the musical backing, onto the DVD, or maybe the fact that Ricky Baker looks up to 2Pac as a role model is kind of superfluous and adds nothing to the movie aside from reinforcing that he’s a petulant and destructive problem child, something we were already meant to gather from the montage of him breaking things, kicking things, and loitering.

And if you thought that Swiss Army Man had a lot of montages, then rest assured that Wilderpeople will not disappoint on that front. Survival and newsreel montages are just one of many clichés that Taika Waititi, who once made a decidedly non-cliched vampire documentary, whips out throughout this smaller-scale Lord of the Rings. Others include:
* Like meter on a social media photo zipping up really fast to indicate significance to modern, tech-dependent viewer 
* A character talking nonchalantly about one thing in a vague enough manner that strangers think he’s talking about something completely inappropriate and sexual 
* Well-meaning but misguided government trying to take the kid away 
* Character at the beginning of the movie: “Don’t call me Uncle.” Character at the end of the movie: “I guess you can call me Uncle.” 
* “What did you just call me? Call me that one more time!” 
* Terminator references 
* Hungry person imagining an animal is a giant hamburger  
* Character who thinks he’s taking a long and arduous journey is rudely awakened by someone to learn he hasn’t traveled more than 200 yards
* Practical trick exercised at beginning of movie (haiku) brought back at end for emotional impact and symmetry
* Beautiful, luminously backlit girl shakes hair in slow-motion as main character realizes he’s falling hopelessly in love (OK, I admit I laughed at this part, and they did it twice in case you missed it the first time)

Much though I would love to exhort these Files’ readers to go support indie cinema and “movies that are different”, to do so in regards to Wilderpeople would be completely disingenuous, as this is nothing more than another slant on the now formulated tale of a talkative kid warming the heart of a grumpy older guy and showing him he doesn’t have to be alone. What’s more disappointing is that this variation on the tale adds the loss of an amiable wife and mother figure, but after Auntie passes away, we never really see the boy or Sam Neill grieving her absence. Would dedicating more time to her and what she meant to both main characters have made this a more sentimental, manipulative movie? Probably. Would it have made the film more engaging and consequential? Yes.

If not for its gleeful satirization of the broken foster care system, Hunt For The Wilderpeople would merely be a halfway amusing, not that funny, and always predictable walking movie with too many crossfades, a soundtrack that’s all over place, and some pretty New Zealand landscape shots that looked much better in The Fellowship of the Ring, which this film parodies in one of its finer moments. Through the heightened dialogue and actions of the overly excitable social worker, Waititi seems to be insinuating that people in government suffer from a kind of small penis syndrome, by which they frequently need to justify their profession. Usually that justification is based on stirring up problems in ordinary people’s lives where none exist so that “public servants” can “fix” those problems and pretend they’ve done a valuable favor for the citizens who pay them. Ricky and Hec desire nothing but to be left alone and to roam as free and independent wilderpeople, but just as in the real world, the state’s self-conscious compulsion to be seen as action heroes supersedes the will of common folk and the bonds of family.  In fact, the movie slips in so many send-ups of action movie tropes that I can hardly doubt lampooning the government’s warped self-image was accidental on the creators’ part. Paula the social worker braggingly compares herself to the Terminator, shrieks corny movie lines like, “I’ve secured the package!” and generally bears herself like she’s a much more masculine character defusing much more volatile situations.

But would I recommend you pay to see this movie? Well, it isn’t animated, it doesn’t star Melissa McCarthy or Matt Damon, it doesn’t have a homosexual Sulu in it, and there’s not a colon in the title. Is that sufficient grounds to recommend a movie this year?

If you drive 10 miles or more out from your house, you might find a smaller, less profitable theater that’s inexplicably still playing The Lobster to audiences of two or three people per screening. You should watch The Lobster.

Inviting Violence

Little-seen and -screened in its limited April theatrical run, The Invitation swiftly passed into obscurity as people, including some Beatissima students, unfathomably went to watch Zootopia and Batman Vs. Superman for the second or third time in theaters. Now that it’s on Netflix and the makers have absolutely nothing to gain from people watching it other than personal satisfaction at a job well done, maybe it’ll finally find the audience it deserves. I hesitate to reveal too much about the plot, but at its core The Invitation is about the difference between dealing with and dispelling pain, between respecting and forgetting those whose lives were tragically cut short. Dreamy flashbacks are intercut with the present timeline to great effect, and director Karyn Kusama wisely gives the audience just enough visual cues to infer the background of the characters without outright expositing. Again, without spoiling anything beyond the 30-minute mark, the film directly concerns a religious cult originating in Mexico but deliberately leaves its structure and belief set nebulous and open to scrutiny, as cults tend to be in real life. The movie definitely appears to have been inspired by real-life events, but I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover exactly how.

In brief, the first hour and 20 minutes were unadulterated, heart-clenching thriller greatness, the 15-minute climax was thoroughly deflating, and the final scene literally sent chills down my back. If I had to form my year-end favorites list right now, it would be lagging behind The Lobster, Hardcore Henry, The Witch, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, but just outpacing Warcraft and The Neon Demon.

If it wasn’t already patently obvious, 2016 hasn’t been that great a year for films.

Post-script: There’s far too much attention being given on The Invitiation's IMDb forums and the internet in general to the “diverse” casting of the dinner guests.  This was an element that neither bothered nor pleased me, as the race and sexual orientation of the characters was wholly incidental to the story. There’s one remark about an absent friend being one of the most careless Koreans in Hollywood Hills, and a couple throwaway shots where two gay guys are acting gay towards each other, but the fact that Kira was black or Miguel was Hispanic or Gina was Asian had no bearing on the events of the story, and the script never drew much attention to their ethnicity. This is something I’d like to see more of in mainstream cinema, where minority characters are pervasively cast as victims having to surmount their crippling minority status. The multi-nationality of the Starship Enterprise crew wasn’t a dominant interest of the original Star Trek TV series or movies; it was just an attribute of the Federation in Gene Roddenberry’s fictitious, optimistic future. The Invitation follows much the same philosophy, but that’s the least notable of all its virtues.

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