CLASSIC: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)

Ask your average person what they know about New Zealand and they will invariably mention the use of its landscapes for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy; the opening shot of Hunt for the Wilderpeople makes it clear that Peter Jackson and co. barely scratched the surface of the country’s natural beauty. Set deep within the untamed bushlands, Taika Waititi writes and directs the story of teen delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) as he is taken in by new foster parents. Unimpressed by the isolation of his new home and the coldness of ‘uncle’ Hector (Sam Neil), Ricky is slowly won over by the warmth of his foster mother, Bella (Rima Te Wiata). However, when circumstances force Hector and Ricky together, they are driven to flee from police, hunters and Child Welfare Services.

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Apart from a brief cameo, Waititi remains behind the camera for Hunt for the Wilderpeople unlike in his cult vampire-comedy What We Do in the Shadows. The film he produces feels like an unlikely marriage between Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz; the gently whimsical tone of the former is met with comically overblown action and chase sequences which can at times feel out of place. Dennison is natural as the wannabe gangster, and he shares good chemistry with Neil, although the beats of their awkward ‘father-son’ relationship will feel very familiar to anyone who has seen Pixar’s Up. The starring turn of the film belongs to Rachel House, as the fantastically villainous Child Welfare officer Paula, who shares a funny partnership with slow-witted policeman Andy (Oscar Kightly).

Hunt for the Wilderpeople has lots of genuinely funny moments, and a few stand-out performances. A very enjoyable film which needs to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate the breath-taking setting.

CLASSIC: Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Arrival is the film of intelligence and emotional depth which Independence Day decided to forgo in favour of patriotic flag-waving and Will Smith punching some aliens. Both films begin with a mysterious collection of alien spacecraft appearing in various locations across the globe, however, instead of calling up Mr Smith and his punching prowess, the military of Arrival enlist linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to help with attempted communications with the aliens. What follows is a race to understand the purpose of their presence on earth before the hysteria and tension gripping the planet boils over into warfare.

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Beginning with the saddest first five minutes of a film since Pixar’s Up, Arrival immediately signals to the viewer that it is no typical alien invasion film. The mood of the film is melancholic rather than thrilling, with the coming of the aliens shown in no great detail. Arrival would prefer to portray this event through the loneliness of Adams’ Louise, who falls asleep in front of news coverage of the landings in her large, empty house. Once Louise and Ian (Renner) are brought into contact with the aliens and progress is made in understanding their strange, smoke-like language, her mental health appears to suffer. Louise becomes plagued by unwanted memories of the loss she suffers at the film’s beginning, the sadness of which is always bubbling under the surface of Arrival. Even when the purpose of the aliens’ presence on earth is revealed, and Louise’s visions explained, it is still heart-breaking even in its hopefulness.

Arrival is a thoughtful sci-fi film brimming with intelligence and invention. While it may pale in comparison with Interstellar’s space-travel spectacle, Arrival is able to show a depth of emotion through Louise which Christopher Nolan and his film could not. A unique, melancholy must-see.

CLASSIC: Witness (Peter Weir, 1985)

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As Harrison Ford vehicles go, Witness is up there with the best. The film skilfully treads a tricky line which unites police corruption drama and a fish-out-of-water story, with a forbidden romance thrown in. Detective John Book (Harrison Ford) is forced to hide from his corrupt colleagues after he discovers their criminal activities. This discovery is made by a young Amish boy, Samuel, while he visits the big city of Baltimore for the first time with his mother – he witnesses (geddit?) one of the corrupt police officers commit a murder, and is able to point out the culprit to John while at the police station.

From there, the narrative goes from 0-60. John shares his discovery with trusted Chief Paul Shaffer who, naturally, turns out to be the mastermind of the whole operation. John takes Samuel and his mother, Rachel, back to their community and is forced to stay there while he recovers from a gunshot wound. What follows is a classic fish-out-of-water set up, similar to the contemporary Local Hero (1983), as we see John slowly warm to the tranquillity of Amish life but remain awkwardly aware that this is not his world. This hampers any potential romance between himself and Rachel (Kelly McGillis), although the film does allow a lovely scene where the two dance to Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’. When the corrupt police finally do find John, the showdown is tense enough for the film to be labelled a thriller.

It is these two elements which make the film work for me. John and Rachel’s impossible romance allows Harrison Ford to do his best Rick Blaine as he nobly leaves her and Samuel (Lukas Haas) and returns to the city. The defeat of corrupt Shaffer (Josef Sommer) is also well judged as it doesn’t descend into unbelievable violence – instead, Shaffer finally realises he’s gone too far and breaks down in defeat.

Witness is a multi-dimensional film which manages to do each element justice. But if none of that grabs you, the film is worth watching solely for John Book’s cathartic beating of a disrespectful tourist who no doubt grew up to be a Trump supporter.

CLASSIC: Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The DVD of Se7en in our film box at home always filled me with fear in my younger days – its dark, minimalist cover and its bright red 18 certificate made me wonder at the possible horrors within. I finally built up the courage to watch it when I was 15, and as I slipped the disc into the DVD tray I steeled myself by thinking that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I had imagined. Surely…

The film immediately locates us in a dreary, nameless city, where crime is as constant and persistent as the driving rain. Experienced detective and city native, Somerset (Freeman) must take under his wing the new and enthusiastic Detective Mills (Pitt). Mills has recently moved to the city with his young wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who is perhaps the only likeable (and female) character in the film. The motives for the first murders the two detectives catch together both seem inspired by the seven deadly sins, and Somerset, who is in his final week on the job, is reluctant to delve into what he believes will be a long and fruitless chase for the serial killer. However, he is persuaded to help Mills with the investigation until his imminent retirement – the hunt begins.

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt have a great onscreen chemistry, and despite both playing somewhat to type (wise old-timer/energetic, combustible upstart) their performances are career standouts. However, not for the first time, the show is well and truly stolen by Kevin Spacey. Although his character, the serial killer Joe Doe, only appears for the final thirty minutes, his face is the image that will haunt viewers long after the film is over.

Yet, even with all these eminently watch-able performances, Se7en is a hard watch. The film is grim. But it is grim in such an operatic way, its conclusion so bleak, that it becomes a fascinatingly gruelling watch. The film experience it reminds me of most insistently is Platoon, which made me wonder whether Oliver Stone had a soul. Se7en, similarly, leaves me each time questioning humanity and asking myself why I would ever choose to watch it.

The answer to the latter is that Se7en is beautiful. Directed by the famously obsessive David Fincher, the film feels pored over, with every frame examined and every camera-angle loaded with significance. If it weren’t tantamount to slander, I would say comparing Fincher’s rigorously orchestrated film to John Doe’s carefully planned murders had some merit; both structured to perfection, both sadistic in the extreme, both unforgettable.

Already seen as a modern classic, Se7en has shocked and enthralled all those who have dared to watch. My younger self was right to steer clear.