To say Ricky Baker is incorrigible would be a massive understatement. Barely into his teens, the parentless New Zealand boy for most of his life has been shunted from one foster family to the next. And even a short list of his transgressions – which includes thievery, vandalism, arson and more – would be enough to earn him a trip to juvenile hall.
But Ricky – one of two central characters in New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi’s feature film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” – is being given one last chance. Either he makes a go of it with the backwoods couple Bella and Hec, or juvey looms large in his future.
That’s where Waititi’s film begins, with Ricky being shepherded to his new home by a by-the-book child-care worker and her ever-compliant police-officer partner. But instead of treading the plotline of so many previous stories of mismatched partners, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” transforms into a wild, at times fantastic, trek that – for a number of reasons – never ignores the emotional strains that, gradually, link and then bind these partners securely.
The first twist comes early on when, after just beginning to accept his new home, Ricky is jerked suddenly back into insecurity. And his response is classic: He heads into the bush, convinced that he is better off on his own. That he gets immediately lost and runs through his rations in about the first half hour, is as humorous as the near-catastrophe he inadvertently caused before leaving. And that sense of humor is what filmmaker Waititi uses to keep his movie from sliding into melodrama.
The second twist involves Hec – played by veteran actor Sam Neill – whose pursuit of Ricky comes first out of a sense of obligation but evolves into eventual affection for the boy. And why not? As played by Julian Dennison, as winning an adolescent actor as you’re apt to find, Ricky is a total charmer.
That the two bond even as they become the focus of a national manhunt fits naturally into Waititi’s narrative, with Hec being cast not only as a kidnapper but also a pervert. We know the truth, of course, which sets the tone as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” dashes toward its climax, which involves an eccentric bushman, dozens of police vehicles and Ricky’s acting like off-road NASCAR driver.
Waititi gets a lot out of his cast. Even at age 13, Dennison is a natural-born performer. Though she’s not onscreen that long, Rima Te Wiata as the earthy, loving Bella makes a sincere impact. And Neill, some of whose best performances over a long career have pitted him with children, is the same as ever: low-key but carrying emotions that simmer just below the surface.
Not everything that Waititi comes up with works. The characters of the child-care worker and her lackey are played too broadly, and at times the film’s pacing feels just a tad too frenetic.
But those are quibbles. “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” tackles some fairly serious issues, but it handles those issues with just the right sense of the sweet.
For those who love their graphic novels brought to the big screen, Fathom Events is offering a special treat on both Monday and Tuesday, July 25-26: A special screening of DC Comics' animated feature "Batman: The Killing Joke."
Coproduced by DC Comics, Warner Bros. and Fathom Events, the film reunites filmmakers involved with the popular "Batman: The Animated Series," and includes both cast members: Kevin Conroy as The Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker.
The basic plot, which focuses on The Joker's rise as a villain, is as follows: "Now escaped from Arkham Asylum, The Joker devises a plan to prove that one bad day can make anyone as insane as he is — setting his sights on Commissioner Gordon. It's up to the Dark Knight to put a stop to The Joker's latest scheme and save one of Gotham City's finest."
One of the special features involves actor Hamill (better known as Luke Skywalker) explaining how he was cast in the project. The other is a behind-the-scenes look at how The Joker's dance scene was choreographed.
And, of course, Hollywood is jumping all over the project. Some reports even list the potential cast.
But long before that fictional re-enactment of the book is released, Inland Northwest audiences will have a chance to see a documentary about the story. In fact, thanks to a recommendation by the Spokane International Film Festival, word is out that a public screening of the Public Television series "American Experience" will be held free of charge.
Not only will movie fans get to enjoy the movie, but they'll have the opportunity to meet members of the SRRA and be in line to pick up a number of door prizes (t-shirts, copies of Brown's book, a gift basket and more).
Get ready to go where no human (man, woman or other) has gone before on Friday when the new "Star Trek" offering opens. The week's scheduled national releases are as follows:
"Star Trek Beyond": The crew of the Enterprise finds itself stranded on a distant world and has to band together to defeat a force that threatens to destroy them all. In other words, pretty much the same plot of every "Star Trek" episode ever made. Expect loads of CGI.
"Ice Age: Collision Course": Engaged in their respective middle-age crises, the familiar characters in this fifth entry in the "Ice Age" series face an even bigger challenge — how to avoid extinction coming in the form of a giant asteroid. Fiction, meet reality.
"Lights Out": Turns out something is lurking in the dark, and a young mother must struggle to discover the source of its power. One question: Where are the Warrens?
One of the best long-form, true-crime documentaries I've ever seen was produced by ESPN. My review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:
I don’t remember everything about June 17, 1994. What I do remember is this: I was just leaving a gym on the North Side of Spokane, looking forward to enjoying a cold beer, when I noticed people in the lobby crowded around a TV.
Naturally curious, I joined them. And I began to watch one of the most bizarre would-be getaways in American crime history. A white Ford Bronco was creeping along a Los Angeles freeway, pursued by a convoy of police black-and-white cruisers. It became immediately clear – the news announcers were just as intrigued as the rest of us – that this Bronco carried the former football player and movie star O.J. Simpson.
These 22 years later, long after his subsequent murder trial, its controversial verdict and the turbulent aftermath, Simpson is again in the news. His story is simply something that we as a nation can’t let go of. The FX Network covered it in the dramatic production “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and now the sports channel ESPN – as part of its critically acclaimed “30 on 30” documentary series – has produced “O.J.: Made in America.”
Available by streaming on ESPN.go.com, “O.J.: Made in America” is far more than a mere sports documentary. It is nothing less than a sociological, historical and cultural-anthropological look at race relations as they have developed over the past several decades in the United States.
Told in five parts, each in excess of 90 minutes, it comprehensively covers all things Simpson: his football years – both for USC and later for the NFL Buffalo Bills; his post-football jobs as a pitchman for Hertz Rent a Car and star of the “Naked Gun” movies; his love affair with future wife Nicole Brown; the murder of Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman; Simpson’s flight in the Bronco, and his subsequent arrest, trial and all the attendant drama; and, finally, Simpson’s post-acquittal life, which slowly unraveled in Miami and then Las Vegas, where he committed the crime that would, this time, earn him a long prison sentence.
Directed by Ezra Edelman, whose works include co-producing the documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” “O.J.: Made in America” uses hours of impressive archival news footage to provide the backdrop for how and why Simpson’s not-guilty verdict came down, despite the LAPD having amassed a virtual mountain of evidence. As lead prosecutor Marcia Clark said, “I’ve never seen so much evidence, even on the first day, as I did in that case.”
Clark is just one of dozens of interviewees, all of whom had much to say about Simpson and more. The cast includes some of Simpson’s lifelong friends, some of the detectives who investigated the case – including Mark Fuhrman – members of Simpson’s defense team, the so-called Dream Team; journalists, civil-rights activists, and even a couple of jurors, at least one of whom makes it clear that she voted to acquit Simpson because of the LAPD’s history of brutalizing the city’s African-American community.
The overall result is a fascinating look at today’s America – and how we got this way.
No official word yet from the local theaters, but the week's major mainstream releases are as follows:
"Ghostbusters": Newly revised, with the likes of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig taking over for Bill Murray and co., this adaptation of the original story about scientists using technology to oust troublesome spirits looks to be another in a long line of CGI-enhanced comedies. Turns out Saturday Night Live alumni still do have post-SNL careers.
"The Infiltrator" (Wednesday): The ubiquitous Bryan Cranston stars as one of the U.S. government agents whose undercover work helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Que pena.
I'll update as more information becomes available.
So, for movie openings this week we'll begin with the Magic Lantern — Spokane's alternative theater that, in one variation or another, has been serving area movie fans for the last four-plus decades.
Opening Friday will be:
"Hunt for the Wilderpeople": Sam Neil and New Zealand newcomer Julian Dennison star in this comedy drama about a problem boy and his adopted family and what happens when, following a sudden plot turn, the boy takes off into the New Zealand wilds and Neil's character takes off in pursuit. Then, in short order, the whole of the nation goes in search of both of them.
Some critical comments:
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: "New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi blends sharply cynical humour with huge heart in arguably his best film to date."
Soren Andrson, Seattle Times: "Laugh-out-loud funny one minute, achingly sad the next, 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' takes the audience on a rollicking yet poignant journey through the New Zealand backcountry in the company of a pair of engagingly eccentric characters."
Manohla Dargis, New York Times: " 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' takes a troika of familiar story types - the plucky kid, the crusty geezer, the nurturing bosom - and strips them of cliché."
You may not have seen the recent release "The Neon Demon." And after you read my review, you might not want to. Or you just might. Whatever, my review (which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio) follows:
Movie fans owe a lot to the French. The very language we use in film is peppered with French words. The term “cinema,” for example, was coined by the Lumière brothers. “Oeuvre” describes the whole of a filmmaker’s work. “Auteur” refers to an artist – in this case a filmmaker – whose style and practice are distinctive.
Think of Alfred Hitchcock. Or Stanley Kubrick. Think of Jean-Luc Godard or, even, of Steven Spielberg. These are auteurs, filmmakers whose respective work stands out from the cookie-cutter creations put forth by your typical Hollywood director.
In recent years, a number of Danish filmmakers – especially Dogma practitioner Lars Von Trier – have emerged as would-be auteurs. Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish filmmaker.
Refn also is the guy responsible for “The Neon Demon,” a study in lurid affectation steeped in style that passes for profundity. That style, though, is distinctively Refn – recognizable in the director’s previous films “Bronson,” “Valhalla Rising,” “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” And as the funk musician George Clinton once said, “Style is whatever you want to do, if you can do it with confidence.”
Refn, as “The Neon Demon” clearly shows, is hardly lacking in confidence. The question here concerns coherence.
Based on Refn’s original idea, and on a screenplay co-written by Refn and two women screenwriters – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – “The Neon Demon” tells the story of Jesse, a 16-year-old newcomer (played by Elle Fanning) who’s attempting to break into the Los Angeles modeling scene.
Briefly, she does exactly that, charming most everyone she comes in contact with. From agents to fashion designers, all are captivated by Jesse’s nubile freshness and virginal perfection. The only exceptions are a creepy motel manager (played, bafflingly enough, by Keanu Reeves) and the two models who quickly spot the newcomer as a threat.
The way Jesse’s story plays out could fit nicely into a Lifetime network movie, one of innocence corrupted and all that entails. But Refn, remember, is a stylist. And so “The Neon Demon” is far less about actual story than a series of staged images, all accompanied by a musical score that at times is haunting, at other times merely irritating.
We see Jesse in her first photo session, bathed in blood (spoiler alert: a foreshadowing?), being shot by a nice-guy amateur photographer wearing a killer gaze. We see her being interviewed at a modeling agency (featuring Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” fame), beguiling a designer during an audition, entrancing a menacing photographer during her first professional shoot and bewitching a makeup artist (played by Jena Malone).
We also see scenes that are included purely for shock value. A mountain lion invading Jesse’s motel room. Jesse listening as Reeves’ character apparently rapes her 13-year-old neighbor. A nightclub that seems straight out of Kubrick’s sexual escapade “Eyes Wide Shut.” One character vomiting up an eyeball, another bathing – literally – in blood.
The result of all this could work as metaphor, if it weren’t so obvious and so glaringly pretentious. Which, in whatever language, is just another way of saying Nicolas Winding Refn.
OK, we're trusting that word from the Magic Lantern this week will be correct. Which refers to the news that "Raiders: The Greatest Fan Film Even Made," which was supposed to open last week, is scheduled to open on Friday.
And the other Lantern Friday opening:
"Gurukulam": A documentary exploring the way life was lived, and how the lessons were taught, at the Indian ashram overseen by the late Swami Dayananda Saraswati (who died in 2015). Bring a worldview — and a sense of humor.
A number of movies could open this week, though only a few actually will. The most likely candidates are:
"The Secret Life of Pets": What happens when a terrier named Max is left alone during the day? He has fun with his pals — that is, until his owner brings home another dog and spoils his happy life. Animated animals. Expect the obligatory breaking-wind jokes.
"Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates": Brothers Mike and Dave post an online ad for dates to a Hawaiian wedding, and … well, you can imagine the rest. Expect one long pub crawl. (Also, watch the embedded video below.)
Two additions to the week's mainstream (more or less) movie offerings:
"Swiss Army Man": Paul Dano plays a guy marooned on a desert island, and Daniel Radcliffe plays the corpse that becomes his fantasy helper. My favorite headline explainer: "Cast Away" meets "Weekend at Bernie's." Bring an imagination. And maybe a strong stomach.
"Our Kind Of Traitor": This spy flick tells the story of an ordinary man (Ewan McGregor) who becomes involved in a Russian man's attempt to defect with his family. What you need to know: It's based on the John Le Carré novel.
Two movie traditions offer up new looks on Friday when the week's movie offerings open. Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:
"BFG": Teaming with Disney, Steven Spielberg adapts Roald Dahl's novel about a little girl who makes friend with a Big Friendly Giant. Oh, that's what those letters refer to. I always thought … never mind.
"The Legend of Tarzan": For some reason, the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs refuse to die. This latest effort is directed by "Harry Potter" veteran David Yates. Maybe he can instill some, er, magic into this long-lame concept.
"The Purge: Election Year": The purge is returning, and this time it's targeting a U.S. senator who wants to end it. Don't forget your barf bags.
If you still haven't seen "The Conjuring 2," you might want to check out the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
In 1973, when William Friedkin’s film “The Exorcist” opened, audiences were thrilled. They were frightened. They were grossed out. And they were shocked. But in the end, they were thrilled.
Based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, “The Exorcist” used a real-life case as its basis. But Blatty changed several aspects of the incident, and as Friedkin’s screenwriter of record, he included those changes in his screenplay.
One thing that neither Blatty nor Friedkin resorted to, however, was claiming that their work was “based on actual events.” They took a riveting story – one that, Friedkin later claimed, was a study of “faith” – and made a movie that many consider one of the scariest of all time.
That was then, though. And, changing with the tenor of the times, James Wan has adjusted accordingly. Known mostly for having co-created the “Saw” series – the films that helped spawn the sub-genre of torture-porn – Wan has become a virtual publicist for the QUOTE-UNQUOTE paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Based mostly on their association with the case popularly known as “The Amityville Horror,” the Warrens established a reputation. And based on that reputation, they are the stars both of Wan’s “The Conjuring” – which was released in 2013 – and now “The Conjuring 2.”
This new film is a retelling of a 1977 English case the Warrens apparently checked out. And by saying “checked out,” I’m being generous. According to the website History vs. Hollywood, the Warrens were just two of many investigators who visited a house in the North London suburb of Enfield allegedly haunted by a poltergeist. In fact, the site says, “most articles about the Enfield Poltergeist don’t even mention the Warrens.”
Never one to let facts get in the way of a movie plot, director Wan and his team of screenwriters put the Warrens – again played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – at the center of the story. Called by the Catholic Church to investigate – the Warrens and Church officials seem to be on first-name bases – Ed and Lorraine travel to London, camp out in the Enfield home of Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. They’re particularly interested in Hodgson’s 11-year-old daughter Janet (played alluringly by Madison Wolfe).
What they find would creep out Bram Stoker. Mysterious noises. Slamming doors. Strange entities. Crosses that turn upside down on their own volition. A levitating Janet. And so on.
And while the movie, through the Warrens, seems to address the understandable skepticism that the real-life Enfield case aroused, it does so in a way designed to act as the straw-man argument the movie then rebuts with spectacular computer-generated bombast.
But as has been proven time and again with computer-generated imagery, camera tricks aren’t a good substitute for actual dramatic flair. After the first half hour, “The Conjuring 2” devolves into a paint-by-number CGI exercise.
In 1973, some frightened audience members actually walked out of “The Exorcist.” James Wan’s lame effort, these four decades later, is more likely to make you walk out yawning – unless, of course, you’re in the market for poppycock.