Multi-talented New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi established himself on the local comedy circuit and scored an Academy Award nomination for his 2004 short, Two Cars, One Night, though chances are you’ll be most familiar with his behind-the-scenes work on TV’s Flight of the Conchords, where he collaborated with friends Jemaine Clement, James Bobin and recently-minted Oscar winner Bret McKenzie. Waititi’s first feature, Eagle vs Shark, earned cult notices, but it’s with his follow-up, Boy, that the director really comes into his own.

Set in suburban New Zealand in 1984, it’s a keenly-observed story about an 11-year-old boy called, well, Boy, whose heroes are pop star Michael Jackson, and his mostly absent, tall-tale spinning dad (played with mythic weirdness by Waititi himself). Capturing that all-too elusive tone in such films — where genuine comedy and drama mingle with the just the right hint of nostalgia — Boy is arguably among the best films about growing up to emerge in recent years. Local audiences seemed to agree, too: the movie became the highest-grossing New Zealand production ever when it was released there in 2010.

With the movie opening in the US this week, we sat down for a conversation with Waititi about making Boy, his experiences with Hollywood (he appeared in last year’s Green Lantern), and his plans with Jemaine Clement to make a vampire comedy. But first, here are his five favorite films.

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964; 100% Tomatometer)


Dr. Strangelove. I think purely because of Peter Sellers. I love his characters; he’s just having so much fun. And that kind of subversion of very serious things going on is right up my alley; I really like that. I love Kubrick’s films, but that for me is also a very different Kubrick film. People either get it or they don’t. I love that film.

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967; 87% Tomatometer)



The Graduate is always a good one to have on my list. It’s hilarious, but also has that element of treading between comedy and drama and doing it so well, and actually being about something. It’s probably the best version of those films about rich people and their boring problems, you know, that anyone’s ever made. People have tried to do that since — that film has totally inspired generations of filmmakers. For me it’s just fresh. There’s also the energy of the actors: Hoffman, just young and going for it; he hasn’t become jaded. That film could come out today in a fresh print and still be incredible; everyone would think “Oh, Wes Anderson made a new film,” or “Sofia Coppola made a new film.” I’ve always loved that film.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979; 100% Tomatometer)



Stalker. I went through a big phase, a Tarkovsky phase, when I was in my mid-20s, and that film always stuck with me. For me, I think visually there’s something about that film that manages to get inside your head and touch you on your emotional synapses or something; it somehow just gets in there. And visually: for instance just the shot of this dog, this black dog that’s always wandering around by itself, that… I mean Tarvovsky was a master of symbolism and just knowing, for example, that a candle in a certain place would trigger in most audiences’ minds something to do with memory. And working on an amazing sensory level, with the composition of shots; these big, long shots that just go on forever. And it doesn’t always matter what people are saying — because the film’s full of dialogue, full of poetry and stuff, but that’s what I love about that film, and also The Mirror. It just washes over you, and you can watch it again and again and take more and more in each time. Mirror is also one of my favorites but it’s a baffling, baffling film.

It’s the same as in painting, you know: people have to go back and study the old masters to see how they did shit. They’re called masters because they’re still the best that ever were. It’s the same with Kurosawa and Ozu and Tarkovsky: if you look at their films and what they were doing, you kind of feel safe watching those films. With Tarkovsky’s stuff I have to keep going back to it to remind myself that there’s an alternative to the 90-minute American film, you know where it’s all fucking three acts and information, boom-boom-boom, and just to go, “Hey, you know what — there’s a way of communicating that’s different and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t be scared to appreciate that stuff.”

Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978; 81% Tomatometer)



Another one’s Coming Home, by Hal Ashby. I mean, I love all of his films — if there’s any filmmaker I would love to be, it would be him. It’s just an amazing film. You think about something like Harold and Maude, which is to me one of the most flawless films there is. There’s always the great films, like Harold and Maude, sure; but then there’s ones that people kind of forget about, you know, or they sort of get swept to the side a little — and I think Coming Home is one of those films. Even The Last Detail is one of those films. But Coming Home: amazing performances, it’s about something, amazing emotional stuff, and it’s just about people — people trying to connect. There’s a simplicity to it, but it’s really engaging the entire time. Waldo Salt wrote the script. I saw a documentary on him. I think just knowing how a film’s made makes me love it as well. He wrote a 200-, 300-page script for this thing, and went and talked to vets and recorded them for like a year. Jon Voight went and lived with paraplegics and war vets who had been injured and stayed in his wheelchair the entire time. It was just a good commitment to making a film, you know, whereas these days it’s like, “I’ll get my double to do it.” I feel like that was made at a time when people still had passion.

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973; 98% Tomatometer)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974; 95% Tomatometer)

 

 

I’m sort of torn on my last film between Badlands and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I’m on the fence — I love both of those films. Badlands, for me, is a very important film because I feel like a lot of the time it’s the kind of film I would love to make, if I could just make one. It’s so small, but really perfect. I think another great example of a film, which is like a second film, that people don’t think about, is Days of Heaven, which is again another flawless film. His use of voice over is the best out of any filmmaker. Linda Manz, her voiceover, nothing can beat it, you know. I always think that if there’s a voiceover in a film, it’s gotta be like that, where it?s not telling you what’s happening, it’s talking about completely different things. It’s incredible.

Did you see The Tree of Life? There are passages in there that are uncannily of a piece with Badlands.

Yeah. Especially in the street, when they’re out in the street in those opening scenes [in Badlands] when he first meets Sissy Spacek, all that stuff with the trees and the old ’50s feel. I fucking love Sissy Spacek. She’s incredible in that film, as is Martin Sheen. Just those two together, and the way that those shots just drift along, and the casual nature of their conversation. It’s so perfect. That character, actually — that character of Kit — in a very sort of subtle way I based a little of the father character in Boy on him. Just the way he was sort of distracted by the world and daydreaming and off somewhere else. I think I rip off a lot of films, but that specifically…

Ripping off the best, as the saying goes.

Yeah. Well, the beginning of Boy, with the cutting and stuff, was based a lot on the opening of Jules and Jim, which a lot of people have done now, but I just love that film so much. And Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — one of the greatest performances of a woman, and that kid as well, that little boy; those two together. And again, it’s just something about a film about normal people just trying to follow their dreams. It’s those films that haven’t got a really complex narrative or complex structure that are literally just, “We’re gonna leave town and drive.” That’s again a great mixture of drama and comedy, like when Harvey Keitel threatens to kill her and breaks up the motel room, and then a hard cut to one of the most hilarious scenes in the film where they’re trying to pack up and get out of the room, and the kid’s trying to tell that joke to the mother and she’s fucking going out of her mind. So Ellen Burstyn’s like a goddess in that film. I really love strong female characters, and for my next film I’ve actually written a mother character who borrows a lot from Alice in that film. I feel like a mother character should be that interesting.

Next, Waititi talks about his latest film, Boy, the experience of working in Hollywood, and what he and Conchords Jemaine Clement have planned next.

 

A lot of those films mix drama and comedy perfectly, which seems like a rarer thing to find in contemporary stuff.

Taika Waititi: Yeah. I feel so surprised when I see billboards for films and I’m like, “Really! That’s what you came up with?” — where it’s a really obvious broad comedy or farce or a really obvious drama, like a “This is gonna depress you” film; a real lack of a sense of adventure about trying to mix some shit up, you know.

It’s not easy to successfully mix genres. Which is the thing you notice about Boy — it does moves between comedy and drama so well, without feeling contrived in doing so. How do you make a “coming of age” film, so to speak, without falling into the trap of cheap nostalgia? Is it hard to balance the tones?

I think a lot of it is coming from somewhere like New Zealand or Australia, where we’re so far removed from the rules on how to make films. I think even if we tried it’d be like a weird New Zealand version of those films, and I think that’s what most of our New Zealand cinema is — weird versions of popular genres. And I’ve always — just because of my comedy background — I’ve always wanted to do mixtures of things because I’m also into things that feel more real, or more human, and things that emotionally aren’t just saying “Just laugh.” Audiences are so savvy now. They know the structures of these genres. If you tell an audience they’re going to a romantic comedy, they’re gonna know exactly what’s gonna happen. Audiences know what they’re getting when they go to those movies, so why not trick them? Why not mix it up? Try to keep audiences on their toes and keep them engaged. It’s just telling the same stories, delivering the same messages, life messages or whatever, but trying to package it differently. I think you have a duty as a storyteller to make that story interesting. We come from an oral background. Maori is traditionally an oral culture: we never wrote anything down and all information and history was spoken, told by story. You had to be good at telling stories, and if you weren’t, someone else would get the job. If you told the same story again and again, it gets boring. And that’s where myth comes from — you’re adding little bits all the time. It’s like, “Oh, I forgot to tell you — also, he could speak to the trees.” [Laughs] You’re making shit up, you know. That’s the evolution of story, I guess. Truth will eventually become myth.

Did that notion of myth feed into the character of Boy’s father, and how his stories are always slightly different and increasingly outlandish?

Yeah, yeah. His stories are changing all the time.

It’s great when he’s bragging to the kids about how many times he’s seen E.T.. It’s such a child-like thing to do.

[Laughs] It’s such a thing for a kid to say, but for an adult to be competitive with a kid, you know: “I’ve seen it 10 times. I was one of the first.” When we were kids, when Return of the Jedi came out, we were always like, you had to be the first person to see it so you could hold that over every one else — “I saw it before you,” you know. [Laughs]

Going back to the beginnings of Boy, is it based, or partially based, on your own childhood?

Not really. It’s a mixture of memories, and things were changed to protect the innocent. [Laughs]

So you weren’t actually playing your own father, just to make that clear.

I was actually playing a character made up of parts of myself, my father, a lot of uncles, people I’ve met. Basically he’s just a version of a lot of different men I’ve known, either as a child or as an adult; a mixture of people who either hadn’t grown up or were living outside of what was going on — they were living in their head and wanting to be somewhere else. The real autobiographical part of it is just where it was shot. For instance, we shot in the house I grew up in, my grandmother’s house. I grew up in a house like that, with the grandmother and all these kids. Parents and adults would come in and out of our world, but essentially our stable world was kids and the grandmother. All of that was authentic to the ’80s. I needed to make it feel authentic somehow, so I thought that I may as well do it authentic to my memories. It was like recreating a real place but then telling a made-up story within that place.

You were already work-shopping this movie before you went amd made your first film, Eagle vs Shark?

Yeah. I took it to the Sundance lab in January 2005.

Was it always the same story?

It was. It was a lot more dramatic when I first did it. There was still humor in it but the dad didn’t arrive ’til half way through the movie; it was more about the kids trying to survive in that world. So I took it the lab and they said “Why don’t you come back to the June filmmaker’s lab where you get to shoot scenes and stuff?” I didn’t want to come back to Utah with kids from New Zealand and have to look after them, so I said, “Okay how ’bout I not submit that and I’ll submit another script, which is this comedy about this girl who loves this idiot?” I hadn’t actually written it at that point but I was trying to stall for time.

“This girl who loves this idiot” — I don’t think I’ve heard such a succinct log line for that movie.

[Laughs] Yeah. So I wrote it, and made that film and Boy just took a backseat. I came back to it in mid-2008 and wrote more drafts and we shot at the beginning of 2009.

 

Given that Boy is obsessed with Michael Jackson, how did Michael’s death affect the production? What stage were you at when the news broke?

We were at the end of editing. It was really sad. When we started the film I thought, “Well, this is going to be a sort of ironic thing where everyone loves Michael Jackson and we’re gonna show this at a time where everyone hates Michael Jackson — he’s been on trial, he’s going through all this shit, he’s bankrupt, and he’s a loser, you know.” I mean, I never considered him a loser but the world kind of considered him this old hack at the time. So I thought this is kind of interesting in a “What becomes of our heroes?” way, and it sort of ties in with the father, who’s Boy’s hero — and Michael Jackson was such a hero to the world in the ’80s and now it’s like, “What’s become of your hero?” So when he died it was just a real bummer. It sucked. It didn’t take anything away from the film; the film was fine with him being alive, or whatever — I just thought it was a bummer for the world to lose this dude. And also a weird bummer that everyone started loving him again once he was dead. It was great that he became more popular, but it sucks that he had to die.

Did you find that it changed audiences’ reaction to the film?

Not really. Now and then some people think that film was made after he died, which again is a bummer ’cause I wouldn’t want people to think it was made as a reaction to him dying, like “Oh I’m gonna make a film about somebody that likes Michael Jackson,” you know, to try and cash in on his death or something. When he died we had actually budgeted to put some of his music in the film; a lot of it was quite affordable. And before he died, we were watching it and we had some of his songs in it, and it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right having a small, intimate film suddenly kick in with “Beat It” or something. I felt like people would be wondering “How’d you guys afford this?” or it would take you out of the moment.

You always had “Poi E” in the film, though?

Yeah, oh yeah.

At least you still got to mix that in with “Thriller.”

Well we used to do that when we were young. We used to mix Maori Haka with other sorts of songs. “Poi E” was such a huge hit in New Zealand. It was this mixture of traditional Maori dance with synthesizers and drum machines, so I was trying to kind of capture that as well.

 

How was your experience with Boy in the US? Did the distributors leave it alone?

They have, because we already had a lot of the prints. Which is great. They can’t change it or cut stuff out of the film.

They can’t dub over the accents…

Yeah. That was always a question, you know: Do we cut the accents? Do we put subtitles on them? But then I thought, “Fuck it,” you know? It’s like, open your ears. [Laughs] It’s English. Isn’t it a nice experience to hear how other people speak?

And how has the the response been to the film?

It’s been mostly positive. It’s good to be affirmed and have people say, “Yeah we get it, and this is good.” A big thing for me, as well, is the kind of stuff I make I want to be able to show it to my friends and get their approval, you know — I don’t wanna be at a party with my friends and for them to say, “Uggghhh! You made What Happens in Vegas.” I’d be too embarrassed. I feel like it’s quite good coming from a place like New Zealand where you have all those friends to tell you that shit, you know. I’d rather do small films that a small audience loves, which could grow, in a style that I’m proud of, rather than a couple of shitty big films that everyone will go and see.

Have you been approached to do bigger films by the studios?

I’ve read some scripts that I’ve turned down.

Did they offer you a certain kind of film?

Definitely after Eagle vs Shark, for sure. They’d send me all the “quirky” ones and the romantic comedies. It’s not even a romantic comedy. It’s a depressing romantic movie, with uncomfortable comedy. They started sending me broad shit and I was like, “That’s not me.” [Laughs]

 

What was it like going from a small movie to doing something like Green Lantern?

Oh, incomparable.

How did you end up in that?

Well, Boy played at Sundance, and the casting director from Warners happened to see it and at the time I guess was looking to fill that role. So I came back to LA and did an audition, then a follow-up audition, and a “chemistry read” with Ryan [Reynolds], and then it just sort of worked out. I was pretty happy with doing it, with getting that chance to do it, but then I don’t know, I feel like that time down in New Orleans kind of disappeared; it was like, “What happened to that three months?”

What are you doing for your next film?

I’ve got two. One of them is one I’m doing by myself, which I’ve written, which is gonna shoot in Europe — and that’s a World War II comedy. And then Jemaine [Clement] and I are writing a vampire movie that we’re both in with a bunch of our friends, and that will be shot in New Zealand. So that’s the New Zealand film and that’s a hard one to get up and running because there’s a lot of effects.

Is it a comedy?

It’s a comedy, yeah. We actually came up with the idea in, like, 2005, when no-one was making vampire films and the only films that were coming out was something like Blade, or Underworld. We were like, “Man, vampires are fucking lame, no-one’s into vampire movies — let’s make a vampire movie.” And it took us five years to write a script and get our shit together… and now vampires are lame again. So it’s kind of cool to come in at the end of the reign of the vampire stuff.

Are you directing?

We’re both gonna direct and be in it together. It’s just hard to make, really. We just wanna do stuff outside of studio control. Not that we’re big studio-involved people, but just me having been in a movie like [Green Lantern] and having worked with studios on a lot of things, and Jemaine’s done a lot of work in the studio system now… we just would like a lot of freedom with this film, and we wanna make it cheap. Ultimately our attitude is just that we wanna do it like how we would make something in New Zealand in the ’90s — by ourselves, with our friends, and just being left alone to do our own stuff and then showing people at the end without contracts and things going on and lots of people giving comments and stuff like that.


Boy opens in select theaters in the US this week.

Tasty treats are in store for us this week at the video counter, where you’ll find an action-packed Western (3:10 to Yuma), a 2007 space odyssey (Sunshine), new stoner laughs (Smiley Face), a creature feature (Dragon Wars), and a quirky rom-com (Eagle vs. Shark). Dig in!


3:10 to Yuma

Tomatometer: 88%

The last time we saw Christian Bale playing cowboy, he was singing and dancing his way through turn-of-the-century New York selling newspapers. (Raise your hand if you’re obsessed with Newsies!) Not so in James Mangold‘s heady remake of the 1957 classic Western, which pits the intense Welsh actor against Aussie thesp Russell Crowe — a foreign-born pair who scratch out grimy, pitch-perfect performances in the most American of genres. The action-packed tale of a poor farmer (Bale) who volunteers to escort a deadly criminal (Crowe) to the titular prison-bound locomotive, 3:10 to Yuma comes to DVD with a passel of deleted scenes, director commentary, and featurettes that discuss the well-traveled ground of the film Western.
 


Sunshine

Tomatometer: 76%

As he demonstrated with 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle can craft tense atmospherics, and for some audiences, movies don’t get any tenser than those set in deep space. At long last, his science fiction thriller Sunshine is out on DVD, rife with genuinely stunning visuals and surprisingly believable “movie science” (save a contestable last-act turn of events). At once action thriller and psychological exploration, Boyle’s tale of a crew of scientists trying to reignite the sun to save Earth is a good bet for viewers who love spaceship drama, eye-popping images, and Cillian Murphy. Loads of bonus materials comprise the release, but for those lucky PS3 owners, watch the Blu-Ray version. As IGN DVD editor Christopher Monfette tells us, “It’ll destroy your retinas.”

 

Smiley Face

Tomatometer: 67%

If, like us, you long for the days of stoner comedies like Half Baked and the entire Cheech & Chong oeuvre, you might enjoy this day-in-the-life adventure starring a bunch of young Hollywood actors. As Jane, an out-of-work actress who accidentally on purpose eats an entire tray full of pot cupcakes, Anna Faris hazily stumbles her way across Los Angeles in an effort to make some money, buy more weed, replace the cupcakes, save an original manuscript of the Communist Manifesto, and other stuff we can’t exactly recall, all while riding the biggest high in film history. Bravo, Gregg Araki. You’ve done it this time!

 

Dragon Wars (D-WAR)


Tomatometer: 25%

The Host this ain’t; Korea’s second greatest monster movie in recent history is a bit of a far cry from…well, a good movie, according to most critics, but is perhaps a must-see for those to whom the terms “guilty pleasure” and “so bad it’s good” carry weight. And that includes us!

Eagle vs. Shark


Tomatometer: 25%

Independent cinema has thrived lately, thanks largely to the popularity of the sweet quirky comedy; now see the trend as filtered through the mind of New Zealand director Taika Waititi. Oddball characters in love? Check! Deadpan line delivery? Check!

White Noise 2: The Light


Tomatometer: N/A

Now, you may think that the original White Noise, starring Michael Keaton as a widower communing with the dead via everyday household appliances (yes, yes, we know it’s a “real” occurrence called Electronic Voice Phenomenon), truly needed no sequel. But you’d be wrong. Check out White Noise 2: The Light, starring Nathan Fillion and Katee Sackhoff, then spend a few hours listening really closely to your toaster.

Death Sentence


Tomatometer: 16%

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, who stars in Death Sentence as a vengeful father alongside Kelly Preston, who is married to John Travolta, who was in Look Who’s Talking Too with Roseanne Barr, who was in Backfield in Motion which was a funny women-playing-football movie. Wait, how do you play this game?

Until next week, fruitful renting to us all!

This week, we’re taking it to the screen with Alien vs.
Predator: Requiem
, the latest mash up of modern sci-fi’s two coolest franchises
in a winner-take-all battle royale. Why are they duking it out on Earth? Why not?
Just check out some of our eternal feuds. Boys versus girls. Cats versus dogs.
The left versus the right. Fresh versus rotten. Seeing how the world loves to
crash opposites against each other and watch the sparks fly, here’s a sample of
10 more memorable title fights, all taking place in the silver screen coliseum.
Get your tickets (and DVDs) now!

Wife Versus Secretary (1936)

The set-up: Clark Gable stars as Van Stanhope,
magazine industrialist with a godsend of a secretary named Whitey (Jean Harlow).
Talk slowly bubbles that a secretary that gorgeous can’t be without some special
talents not listed on her resume, which begins to influence Stanhope’s wife,
Linda (Myrna Loy). Stanhope digs himself deeper into trouble with wife through a
series of delightful misunderstandings in this prime example of old Hollywood
upscale comedy and sharp ratatat dialogue.

Winner: Secretary. Everybody gets their happy ending, but I
honestly never trusted Clark Gable, what with his pomade-doused hair and creepy
thin mustache. The secretary gets the better deal — she drives off into the
evening with her beau, played by a little known actor named James Stewart.

Gamera vs. Monster X (1970)

The set-up: Never mind the mindless lumbering and
random fire belching of Godzilla, give me Gamera the turtle any day. Gamera has
motivations. Feelings. Now if only the helpless citizens of Japan
could figure out what those were. In Gamera vs. Monster X, excavations on a
small island accidentally resurrect Gamera’s nemesis, a scaled lizard that can
microwave buildings with a heat ray and shoot pointy things from its horns. In
comes Gamera to save the day, never mind that Japanese army is constantly trying
to murderlize his hide. The movie hits its high point when Gamera gets injected with
Monster X larvae and two children (children always sympathize with the
misunderstood gentle giant) take a mini-sub into his lungs for some emergency
surgery.

Winner: The global community. May we always have
enormous rubber
monsters and bugs to admire!

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

The set-up: A box office success, now somewhat
unfairly marginalized as one of those Best Picture winners that
stole the award from clearly superior movies (in this case, Apocalypse Now).
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep star as Ted and Joanna Kramer, a New York couple
whose marriage is shaken when Joanna suddenly leaves Ted and their son, Billy.
Indeed, this is no Apocalypse Now. But it is a clean-cut melodrama with tense
domestic scenes as Ted and Billy slowly assemble a relationship. The title fight
refers to the third-act custody battle that ensues when Joanna returns as a more
whole woman and demands her child back.

Winner: Kramer.

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

The set-up: Tom Hanks made a lot of weird comedies
during his early "funny" period (The ‘burbs, Bonfire of the Vanities,
Splash), but none were weirder than Joe Versus the Volcano. After a
fantastically stylized intro depicting the daily grind of factory life, Tom
Hanks’ Joe goes to a Pacific island on a business trip where he meets Meg Ryan
(their first pairing), makes a raft out of steamer trunks (twice!), gets
married, and sacrifices himself to the volcano to appease island natives.

Winner: Tie. In a cute plot twist at the end, both
Joe and the volcano get their final comeuppance.

Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)

The set-up: Since only the most devoted geek can
keep track of all the Godzilla flicks since the 1954 debut, the franchise
reboots every several decades to renew interest and attract new fans. In the
final installment of this mini-series (which ran approximately from the mid-80s
to 90s), Godzilla faces one of his toughest (and most popular) enemies:
Destroyah, a crustacean mutated by the Oxygen Destroyer that defeated the
original Godzilla. Intriguing fact: 1995’s production values for monster movies
seem to be even less than in 1954.

Winner: In a rare TKO, Destroyah survives long enough to
witness Godzilla succumb to total nuclear meltdown. But then enters Godzilla
Junior…

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

The set-up: After shedding his lovable buffoon image
with Natural Born Killers, Woody Harrelson continued his hot streak playing
sleazy weirdos in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Garnering his only Oscar
nomination in the process, Harrelson portrays Hustler magnate Flynt beginning
with his origins running strip joints to his rise to infamy, his marriage to
Althea Flynt (Courtney Love), the assassination attempt that has left him
wheelchair-bound, and his various run-ins with the law, culminating in a
mega-publicized court battle with Jerry Falwell. Harrelson plays Flynt that
elicits from the audience a canny mix of disgust and curious empathy.

Winner: Larry Flynt, on appeal to the Fourth Circuit. But
with immature smut still available on newsstands at low, low prices, couldn’t
you say everybody wins?

Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)

The set-up: Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu star as Ecks and
Sever, two agents manipulated into killing each other. After some slo-mo action
shots and an overused techno soundtrack, Ecks and Sever realize they’re better
off working together. And then cue a lot more slo-mo action shots and more
grating techno music. All this without a single coherent moment. Rotten Tomatoes
normally isn’t in the business of recommending crappy movies (even in the name
of irony), but an exception will be made for the Worst-Reviewed
Movie of All Time
.

Winner: Drinking game participants who need something new
to endure, having already done Commando, Street Fighter, and Master of the
Flying Guillotine
.

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

The set-up: After years of setbacks and writer’s blocks
looking for a plot that could host both Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, New
Line settled on a story about parents medicating their kids so they can’t dream
and fall prey to Krueger. The entire city? Without anybody knowing?
That’s the best they could come up with? Insane set-up aside, Freddy vs. Jason
gives exactly what horror fans want (decent kills, a bit of T & A) along with a
few surprises: the movie has some of the strongest characters in a Jason movie
since Crispin Glover‘s awkward loser in Friday the 13th: The Final
Chapter
.

Winner: Since the winking, ambiguous final shot puts into
question who wins, it boils down to a matter of opinion. People who like Freddy
think he won, while people who prefer (the far awesomer) Jason argue in his
favor.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006)

The set-up: John Lennon‘s transformation from mischievous
musician/political activist to perceived national threat by the Nixon
administration is captured in this 96 minute cheer-a-thon for the former Beatle.
Though there’s little educational value in the documentary since few dissidents
are featured among the interviewees, this is an undeniably fun ride through pop
politics with rich archival footage and the image of a flustered Tricky Dick
frightened by a guy who stages bed-ins.

Winner: John. Books, albums, apparel and whatever else
Lennon merch Ono can farm out continue to sell. The best Nixon can hope for
nowadays is ripe Futurama caricatures.

Eagle vs Shark (2007)

The set-up: At an animal dress-up party, Jarrod, gussied up
as an eagle, and shark-sporting Lily hook up. What ensues is a back-and-forth
battle of twits as the two try to navigate a relationship amidst commitment
phobias and Jarrod’s half-baked plan to take revenge on a childhood bully. Popsters The Phoenix Foundation provides a well-used soundtrack and animated
interludes of a walking apple core flesh out the film. Eagle vs. Shark is often
cited as the virulent New Zealand strain of the Napoleon Dynamite epidemic,
which is a simplistic and rather lazy criticism. Sure, it’s quirky and full of
misfit characters, but framing the movie through the girl’s perspective gives
the movie unexpected poignancy that elevates it above indie genre fare.

Winner: A tie match. Even the apple gets its
sunset.

With “Eagle vs Shark“‘s frequent comparisons to “Napoleon Dynamite,” it’d be easy to think of director Taika Waititi as New Zealand’s answer to Jared Hess. But look closer and its apparent Waititi’s more like (this is a compliment, of course) the Kiwi Miranda July. Both are easily distracted by non-film pursuits, both have a seemingly endless reservoir of friends to call upon for their talents, and both now have made offbeat comedies exploring the precious, ugly, and plain weird sides of coupling.

Waititi’s film is a monument to clumsy, messy geek love, and, in a subgenre that happily turns male misfits into motley heroes, is a rare instance of a story taken from the viewpoint of the girl. Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Waititi in San Francisco to talk about “Eagle vs Shark” (which expands into more theaters this Friday), Sundance, and New Zealand in the grip of 1980s pop culture.

Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve worked in lot of mediums throughout your career, including photography, stand up performance, and acting. Do you foresee losing interest in movies?

Taika Waititi: I do foresee it. (laughs) I will find something and hit this complete passion for it and then something else will come along. I’ll be like, “Whoa. Sewing machine! This is the best thing ever.”

When you’re actually making a film, it’s just people on your back all the time wanting stuff and you’re constantly having to it deal with them. It’s probably the most time consuming of all the arts, but I do love it because it is a great mix of visual art and music and writing. I probably eventually will lose interest for a little while. But because it’s a mixture of all the things I really love, I’ll probably stick with it longer than most other things.

RT: Did the Oscar nomination [for his short film, “Two Cars, One Night”] at the very beginning encourage you to stay with film?

TW: I think so, because it was pretty much my first film.

But [the nomination] was weird; it was like someone playing a joke on me. Like, “No, it’s not that easy. How did this happen?” After an experience like that you’ve all these people saying, “Wow, you’re so amazing. Yeah, you’re so great.” And a big part of you recognizes that talk. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt and put things into perspective.

RT: How much did making short films prepare you for feature length filmmaking?

TW: A feature film is an expansion of budget, stress, story, hours, time, workload, everything. What I wasn’t really prepared for was [how time consuming it’d be]. There are so many other elements to consider and the way to tell the story is so different. Short film: you can be poetic and you don’t have to answer anything. You can make whatever you want. You have creative freedom with short film. No one cares because it probably didn’t cost that much and it’s a very low pressure workload.

With a feature film you’re dealing with so much more money and you’ve got to be very aware of the fact that you’re really working with an audience. You’ve got to have a relationship with the audience. Play with them and show them things you want them to see.

RT: How has the reaction been to “Eagle Vs. Shark” compared to New Zealand and the US?

TW: This is the West so it comes out here first. It gets released in New Zealand in mid-July. From the two screenings we had in New Zealand, people really love it. I think it’s got a distinct New Zealand flavor. A big part of the humor is in identifying with the tragic elements of the film. The New Zealand sense of humor is very dark. Our films are usually very dark and it’s always someone being killed. Usually a child.

RT: From the trailer, you expect “Napoleon Dynamite,” but “Eagle Vs. Shark” has a much sharper mean streak, like something from Todd Solondz.

TW: I’m a huge fan of [Solondz’s]. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is probably one of my favorite films.

But that’s one of the things with distribution and the movie business. Everything changes once you start trying to market the film. Part of you feels like everything is slipping away from you. For me, I don’t want people going to the theater thinking it’s going to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, like a Will Ferrell film or something. Because it’s not. It’s just simply not going to be that.

RT: “Eagle Vs. Shark”‘s script was workshopped at the Sundance Lab. What was that like?

TW: You submit the script and you get accepted. They have these two different labs: the writers’ lab and the filmmakers’ lab. In the writers’ lab, they have different advisers who read your script and talk to you one-on-one. You discuss the script and you get all these different ideas, different opinions. Some would say, “I think it’s this kind of film and it’s great that this and that happens.” Then someone will completely conflict with that idea. So you have this different, bouncing, weird mix of ideas and opinions. And it really stays with you. It’s just so helpful, having that process. Then the filmmakers’ part is even more incredible.

RT: So you have to do both Sundance labs.

TW: Yeah. [“Shark” actress] Loren [Horsley] came to do the lab as well [because Lily] is a character that she made up. We workshopped about four scenes and, in the end, two made it in the film and two didn’t. It’s a great opportunity to test drive a lot of your material. I found the tone of the film through the labs.

RT: Did Loren conceive Lily for the movie?

TW: Sort of. I asked her if she wanted to make a film with me and she came up with the character after that. But it was based on other roles she’s done in the past. I think a lot of it was based on her as a teenager.

RT: How did you two start collaborating?

TW: Her, I, [“Eagle” actor] Jemaine [Clement], Bret [McKenzie, co-starring with Clement in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”] and a lot of these other guys, we’ve known each other since about ’95. It’s been a long relationship working together in different variations. For ages, I’ve wanted to work with Loren in a film. Since I started making films I’ve told her about the possibility of her being the protagonist because I think she’s a really great actor and no one was using her for lead roles. I was so amazed by that. I was like “Are these people crazy?” (laughs)

RT: In the movie, a separate little story unfolds through stop motion. Was this always the plan?

TW: The plan originally, in the first draft of the script, was to have different kinds of animations throughout the film. But [doing] that lost what I was trying to achieve with a very kind of human feel.

So I chose one simple little storyline and stop motion because it’s such, in a way, a clumsy animation style. Going in to move stuff, getting a feeling; it’s a little bit stilted, and a little bit wrong. And it’s the same as a lot the characters and even the film itself. It’s clumsy and sort of stumbled. And you really feel that it’s a person who has come and stuffed their hand in and shape it into something. I really love watching films like that as opposed to things that are clinical and precise.

RT: The soundtrack by The Phoenix Foundation is memorable. What was the nature of your relationship with them?

TW: We’re all from Wellington. Their sound is so cinematic I think it really lends itself to the medium. While I was writing I was listening to a lot of their music and just thinking “Wow, it would be really great to use it in this and this scene.” So a lot of the music is existing music that I’d imagine would be in the film and so it just stayed there.

RT: Did they write any songs specifically for the movie?

TW: Half and half. The song for the fight scene towards the end that was written for the film. The great thing is that their music that they wrote could stand along just on a CD. You don’t have to watch the film to get it.

RT: What can you tell us about your next project?
TW: The next one is based on “Two Cars, One Night.” It’s basically about these kids growing up in the country in the 80’s. I guess the 80’s are the theme of my cinematic sensibility. I guess I like how everything that was made in the 80’s is now quaint and antique-y.

So the film is set around the time that “Thriller” came out. When we were kids they used to advertise when they’d be playing “Thriller” on TV. The television guy wouldn’t stop. We didn’t have MTV or anything; we only had two channels in the 80’s: Channel 1 or Channel 2. And they’d be advertising, “At 7:00, we’re playing ‘Thriller!'”

RT: Were you swept away by “Thriller?”

TW: Yeah, totally. Everybody was. It was incredible.

RT: Have you started filming the “Two Cars, One Night” feature?

TW: No. Still fresh into my script. Just two years later.

With "Eagle vs Shark"’s frequent comparisons to "Napoleon Dynamite," it’d be easy to think of director Taika Waititi as New Zealand’s answer to Jared Hess. But look closer and its apparent Waititi’s more like (this is a compliment, of course) the Kiwi Miranda July.

Both are easily distracted by non-film pursuits, both have a seemingly endless reservoir of friends to call upon for their talents, and both now have made offbeat comedies exploring the precious, ugly, and plain weird sides of coupling.

Waititi’s film is a monument to clumsy, messy geek love, and, in a subgenre that happily turns male misfits into motley heroes, is a rare instance of a story taken from the viewpoint of the girl. Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Waititi in San Francisco to talk about "Eagle vs Shark" (which expands into more theaters this Friday), Sundance, and New Zealand in the grip of 1980s pop culture.

Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve worked in lot of mediums throughout your career, including photography, stand up performance, and acting. Do you foresee losing interest in movies?

Taika Waititi: I do foresee it. (laughs) I will find something and hit this complete passion for it and then something else will come along. I’ll be like, "Whoa. Sewing machine! This is the best thing ever."

When you’re actually making a film, it’s just people on your back all the time wanting stuff and you’re constantly having to it deal with them. It’s probably the most time consuming of all the arts, but I do love it because it is a great mix of visual art and music and writing. I probably eventually will lose interest for a little while. But because it’s a mixture of all the things I really love, I’ll probably stick with it longer than most other things.


Waititi with "Eagle" actors Loren Horsley and Jemaine Clement.

RT: How has the reaction been to "Eagle Vs. Shark" compared to New Zealand and the US?

TW: This is the West so it comes out here first. It gets released in New Zealand in mid-July. From the two screenings we had in New Zealand, people really love it. I think it’s got a distinct New Zealand flavor. A big part of the humor is in identifying with the tragic elements of the film. The New Zealand sense of humor is very dark. Our films are usually very dark and it’s always someone being killed. Usually a child.

RT: From the trailer, you expect "Napoleon Dynamite," but "Eagle Vs. Shark" has a much sharper mean streak, like something from Todd Solondz.

TW: I’m a huge fan of [Solondz’s]. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is probably one of my favorite films.

But that’s one of the things with distribution and the movie business. Everything changes once you start trying to market the film. Part of you feels like everything is slipping away from you. For me, I don’t want people going to the theater thinking it’s going to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, like a Will Ferrell film or something. Because it’s not. It’s just simply not going to be that.

Check out the rest of the interview here!

Pop quiz, hotshot: which of the lesser Roberts do you prefer? Because this Friday, it’s a match between Eric Roberts (playing the bad guy in "DOA: Dead or Alive") and Emma Roberts (title star of "Nancy Drew"). Also, there’s some arty movie about people in spandex ("Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," starring Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba). What do the critics have to say about them?

"Spider-Man" fought the symbiote, the X-Men went through the Phoenix saga, and Batman will soon fight The Joker for the first time (again). Now it’s The Fantastic Four’s turn to go through their most famous story: the Galactus crisis. In "Rise of the Silver Surfer," the molecularly enhanced quartet returns to ward off the planet-gobbling Galactus and his sporty assistant, the Silver Surfer. Critics argue that the exciting bits come only during the beginning and the climatic finale, with everything in-between featuring the same wooden acting and juvenile hijinks that pervaded the first. At 31 percent Tomatometer, "Silver Surfer" does not rise to the occasion.


"’The Shield’ kicks ‘Nip/Tuck”s ass in every way!"

After a long hiatus from the public consciousness, "Nancy Drew" is resurrected in the form of a chipper, sanguine gumshoe in Talbots. Emma Roberts stars as said Nancy, who, with some help from her friends and none from her bewildered classmates, is determined to solve a mystery that’s pickled professional dicks for decades. Though some critics are tickled by "Nancy Drew"’s jokey, laidback attitude, others take offense that the film bears little resemblance to the books, in addition to the thin characters and even-thinner central mystery. At 50 percent Tomatometer, critics are closing the case on "Nancy Drew."


Nancy Drew, borrowing the Duke Lacrosse prosecutor’s trusted handbook.

Video games and summer blockbusters have a lot in common, and the "Dead or Alive" series represents these qualities in spades: it’s repetitive, violent, and features men and women of rather fantastic proportions. I still don’t know what the games are about (I recall fighting a big ugly bird at the end of the second one), but the plot of the "Dead or Alive" movie adaptation involves hardened fighters attending a mysterious tournament run by Julia Roberts‘s brother. While some pundits were more than ready to turn off their brains for the feature, everybody else wasn’t game for the wacky plot, bad acting, or Eric Roberts’s constantly exposed paunch. "DOA" is more dead than alive at 47 percent Tomatometer.


Hot chicks + swords = boxoffice gold!

"The Trials of Darryl Hunt," a harrowing doc chronicling a rape in the American South, is at 100 percent; "Czech Dream," a doc about a grand prank in the Czech Republic, is at 88 percent; "Beyond Hatred," a reflection in documentary form from parents of a murdered 29-year old, is at 83 percent; "Gypsy Caravan," a visually appealing doc about gypsy music, is at 80 percent; "Lights in the Dusk," the latest deadpan-o-rama from Aki Kaurismäki, is at 74 percent; "Fido," a zombie spoof set in the Atomic Age, is at 70 percent (catch our interview with the "Fido" director here); "Golden Door," a lyrical drama recalling the classic Italian directors, is at 64 percent; and "Eagle vs Shark," a darkly twee romantic comedy from New Zealand, is at 47 percent.


"Lights in the Dusk," accurately recreating my last romantic date.

We’re currently overseas covering Cannes, but the international temptations of free booze and numerous parties doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten our home turf. San Francisco recently completed its 50th iteration of its International Film Festival, with an accomplished plate of art flicks, comedies, and once-in-a-lifetime screenings. Here’s our final batch of reviews.

[Written by: Tim Ryan and Alex Vo]

Despite the cute visuals and familiar premise of awkward losers and their romantic misadventures, "Eagle Vs. Shark" is not the "Napoleon Dynamite" clone the trailer suggested it was. It is so, so much better. "Eagle Vs. Shark’s" a precious movie, but it’s rarely coy, and dares to ask what previous Gen-Y dramedies have avoided: "If these selfish, neurotic misfits we laugh at were real, what would it really take to make a relationship work?" The answer involves showing them for what they are: complex, indignant, and frequently unpleasant. But despite the misanthropic edge, you can’t turn away. The laughs are genuine because you see a bit of yourself on the screen. Definitely going to watch "Eagle Vs. Shark" again when it opens June 15 in limited release.


"Eagle Vs. Shark:" Can’t we all just get along?

From the "You Kinda Had to Be There" department: A screening of "Brand Upon the Brain!," Guy Maddin’s latest exercise in surreal silent film homage/parody. The film tells the tale of a young boy and his teenage sister who live in a lighthouse orphanage with their cruel, possessive mother and their father, a scientist who conducts sinister experiments on the orphans. A young harpist visits the island, disguises herself as a boy, and investigates the parents’ evil doings while falling into a strange love triangle with their children. The Castro Theater screening featured a number of live elements, including a live orchestra and hilariously (and intentionally) over-serious narration from Joan Chen. Wait, there was more! A team of Foley artists worked their sound-effects magic onstage, slamming mini-doors, dropping pebbles in a pool of water, and munching on celery during a flesh-eating scene. And there was a castrato vocalist that performed two numbers (I had no idea there were any still around). The overall experience exerted a hypnotic pull, one that I can’t imagine translating to DVD – or a traditional theatrical screening, for that matter. "Brand Upon the Brain!" is currently at 87 percent on the Tomatometer; it opened in limited release last Friday.

You know a movie has issues when the best lines go to the narrator. Essentially "Rushmore" meets "Thumbsucker," "Rocket Science" stars Reece Thompson as Hal, a teen with a dreadful stutter. Hal’s also, like everyone else in the movie, a bit underwritten: despite the restrictive speech impediment, he doesn’t appear to have any interests or hobbies to give some semblance of joy in life. Instead, he gets this contrived plot about being corralled into the debate team by his dream girl. Thompson makes Hal such an emphatic creature (you never doubt the significance of whatever’s trying to break through his graceless tongue) that it’s heartbreaking to see him in a movie content to just dissipate into the end credits. "Rocket Science" lands in theaters on August 1.


Reece Thompson as Hal in "Rocket Science."

The visceral, haunting doc "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" is remarkable for a number of reasons: it provides a ground level perspective on a geo-political crisis; it displays how deeply American popular tastes, particularly hip-hop, have become embedded within the psyches of young people around the globe; and it’s framed within a classic narrative, that of the love/hate relationship of two headstrong brothers, in a way that’s as poignant and ironic as the best works of fiction. "Ghosts" chronicles the world of the chimeres, gangs loyal to Haiti’s soon-to-be-overthrown President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in Cite Soleil, a slum on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince that the UN has declared the most dangerous place in the world. Director Asger Leth’s access to these proceedings is remarkable. Chemire leaders 2Pac and Bily are candid and thoughtful about the increasing hopelessness of their situation, and there is a sense of danger around every corner in the slums. As Variety’s Todd McCarthy noted, "If only due to the access achieved, there has never been anything quite like Asger Leth’s film; it’s amazing it even exists and that the director is still alive." "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" will hit theaters on June 27 in limited release.

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