The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

2018 #162
Vincent Ward | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Australia & New Zealand / English | 12* / PG

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

1348: the Black Death is sweeping across Europe. A remote mining village in Cumbria is yet to be afflicted, but they fear the disease is close at hand. When young Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) reveals he’s been having visions of a quest to a great cathedral, they decide this is their best hope for salvation: a band of brave men will follow Griffin’s vision and make an offering to God so he will protect the village. The journey begins by travelling down a pit so deep it’s rumoured to lead to the other side of the world. As they emerge, they’ve unwittingly travelled not only across the world, but also forward in time some 640 years, to New Zealand, 1988.

If that sounds like an adventure movie but also a bit, well, weird, then you’ve probably got a handle on The Navigator already. It’s a men-on-a-mission time travel adventure quest filtered through an arthouse sensibility — writer-director Vincent Ward trained at a school of fine art, intending to become a sculptor and painter, before getting sidetracked into moviemaking; and he’d previously helmed the first New Zealand film to screen in competition at Cannes, Vigil. (I didn’t realise until after viewing that he’d gone on to direct What Dreams May Come and also did a lot of development on Alien³ (the “wooden planet populated by monks” version), but once you know that, the aesthetic similarities seem obvious.) The Navigator has thus been likened to the work of Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, but also Terry Gilliam.

So, on the one hand, it can play as a straightforward heroic quest, but the sometimes slow pace and occasional presence of symbolism suggest, on the other, a film with greater depths. Primarily, I think, this is the way the villagers’ fear of the plague is reflected by our modern-day fears — or, as the film’s press book rather nicely puts it, in the present day the adventurers are “surrounded by echoes of the fear which haunted medieval England”. So, for example, their journey is disrupted by the rise of a monolithic submarine, presumably a nuclear one; the issue of nuclear deterrence is also brought up on a TV broadcast; and that’s followed by a famous Australian AIDS commercial, perhaps the most obvious mirror of the plague there could be for an ’80s movie.

Plagued by the, er, plague

It’s also a somewhat spiritual film, though not in a heavy-handed, pro-religion kind of way. After all, the men are on a quest to seek protection from God, and the climax revolves around placing a spire atop a church. Naturally, the reliance of medieval folk on their belief in God is counterposed with the modern world’s disregard for such values — though, again, the comparison isn’t made in too forceful a manner. For example, when they first arrive in the present they look out over the city to find the cathedral, because a church is always the tallest building, but, to their confusion, they can’t see it because of all the skyscrapers. The point is subtly put: we worship different gods today.

But aside from all these nods to philosophising, the film does work as an adventure movie, with certain sequences relying on the gang overcoming obstacles rather than musing on the state of the world. Standout set pieces include crossing a four-lane motorway (it was Ward trying to do exactly that in Germany that first gave him the idea for the film!), and the climax atop the church, which — between John Scott’s superb editing and Griffin’s premonition that one of them will die there — is as suspenseful a finale as you could ask for. Scott’s editing also shines in the sequences depicting Griffin’s visions, which become cleverly sprinkled in so that at times you’re wrong-footed about whether what you’re seeing is happening or another premonition. Although the film never chooses to play this for a big twist, it keeps things dynamic.

The real star from the crew, however, is probably cinematographer Geoff Simpson. The entire movie is gorgeously shot in a couple of styles: the medieval stuff is presented in high-contrast black & white, which combines with the snowbound setting to create a stark, gritty beauty; then the present day stuff is in colour, mostly lit in rich oranges and blues so that it feels almost opulent, with the choice of colours drawing inspiration from medieval art. Ward’s reasoning for this delineation was to emphasise how striking the modern world would feel to someone coming from the grimness of the plague years, and it works. A word too for composer Davood A. Tabrizi, an Iranian émigré here charged with writing Celtic-esque music. Inspiration was taken from genuine ethnic music that was specially researched in Britain, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia, and the score was performed entirely with traditional instruments. The resulting folksy sound is wholly fitting and very atmospheric.

Steeple chase

The film doesn’t devote much time to fleshing out the characters of its band of heroes, but they’re succinctly delineated nonetheless. Standouts include Bruce Lyons as Connor, Griffin’s admired older brother, an experienced adventurer, but that also leaves him prone to thinking he knows best; and Marshall Napier as Searle, a likeable but pragmatic and sceptical man, with a tragic backstory. Young Hamish McFarlane also acquits himself well as Griffin, a young lad whose unexplained gift leaves him with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but a determination to live up to what’s needed of him. (Incidentally, although he did act a couple more times, during filming of The Navigator McFarlane apparently became fascinated by the process of filmmaking, and he’s gone on to have a career behind the scenes — his most recent credits as first AD include episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead, Supergirl, and forthcoming giant shark movie The Meg).

All of the above mixes together to create a film that both has familiar elements, but also feels strangely unique. It’s at once a straightforward heroic quest, with sequences of adventure, tension, and humour, and also a thoughtful, spiritual, philosophical musing on communal fears, how we deal with them, and how they resurface. Or, you know, something. It’s a marvellously idiosyncratic film in that regard, and while I wouldn’t say I loved it, it’s an experience I’d definitely take again.

4 out of 5

The Navigator is released on Blu-ray this week by Arrow Video in both the UK and US.

* It used to be rated PG in the UK too, until Arrow had it reclassified for the Blu-ray. The higher certificate is due to a man stuck on a speeding train, a boy climbing a church spire, and the “unsettling” psychic visions. Frankly, it strikes me as needlessly excessive — the PG was fine. ^

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

2017 #138
Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | New Zealand & USA / English & German | 15 / R

What We Do in the Shadows

There’s no two ways about it: I’m late to the party with What We Do in the Shadows. After rave reviews at film festivals and when it was released in some countries (including the UK) in 2014, its acclaim as a cult comedy seemed to reach a focal point in early 2015 when a Kickstarter campaign to give it a wider US release attracted over 7,000 backers and the best part of half-a-million dollars. I recall preordering the Blu-ray in the wake of the slow-burning fuss I kept hearing about it. That came out in April 2015, and swiftly ended up on one of my many unwatched piles… until now!

For the sake of those who are even later to it than me, it’s a mockumentary about a group of housemates in Wellington, New Zealand, who are vampires. With each of them being hundreds of years old, they’re thoroughly out of touch with the modern world — until they make some new, younger friends…

This juxtaposition allows the film two rich strands of humour. Firstly, it riffs off vampire movie clichés and references — there are bits about sleeping in coffins, turning into a bat, and so on. In a similar vein, each of the housemates is a version of a classic movie vampire: there’s a silent Nosferatu-ish one; a violent womanising Dracula-ish one; an effeminate dandyish one; and so on. There are also various scenes that play on vampires’ familiar abilities by featuring a neat and often surprising use of special effects — the film’s so low-budget and so naturalistically staged, you’re not expecting any outright fantastical stuff. That element of unexpectedness makes such moments all the more effective.

Night life

In the second strand, it embraces mundanity — putting these supernatural creatures in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know, like struggling to get into the good nightclubs, or a supposedly grand ball taking place in a rundown community centre. Perhaps best of all are bits which straddle the two stools — the practicalities of being a vampire; like how do you get dressed up to go out if you can’t see your reflection, or having to clean up the mess after drinking someone’s blood. The film plays these various comic facets with a great deal of wit and cleverness, but it’s also suitably silly, which allows the humour to function at various levels. What’s even more surprising is that, as it goes on and we build up a connection to these characters, it becomes actually quite touching at times.

Apparently writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi wrote more than 150 pages of screenplay for the film, then didn’t actually show it to any of the cast so they would improvise scenes and be surprised by plot developments. That resulted in over 125 hours of footage, which took almost a year to edit down to just an hour and a half. (No wonder the Blu-ray includes piles of deleted, extended, and additional footage.) On the one hand, perhaps that helps explain why the film is so funny — they were able to really cherrypick the best bits. On the other other, it makes the final result all the more impressive — that they were able to hone storylines and character arcs from that immense supply of material. And it still clocks in at just 86 minutes! Hollywood moviemakers who let their part-improvised comedies sprawl to baggy two-hours-plus running times might learn a thing or two here.

Drinking blood

Perhaps the more familiar you are with vampire fiction the more you’ll get out of What We Do in the Shadows’ humour, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to enjoying it — I should think knowing the basics of vampire mythology is enough to get laughs from the majority of the movie without feeling like you’re missing anything. And in the end, the most important thing is that it’s incredibly funny. Or, as the poster accurately puts it, “hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious.”

5 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows is available on iPlayer until 28th November.

It placed 12th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The UK TV premiere of Taika Waititi’s previous film, Boy, is on Film4 tonight at 10:50pm.
His new film,
Thor: Ragnarok, is out everywhere now and is reviewed here.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

2017 #4
Taika Waititi | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The most recent feature from the director of the very-different-to-each-other What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, this very-different-again* adventure-comedy-drama was a surprise hit in its native New Zealand, then around the rest of the world, before it wound up as Empire magazine’s pick for the best film of 2016.

Young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a delinquent who’s been rejected by every foster family in the city, so in a last-ditch attempt to avoid juvie he’s homed at the remote farm of kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her terse, irritable husband, Hec (Sam Neill). Despite initial misgivings, Ricky warms to his new home, so when child services threaten to take him away again he runs away into the bush. He’s soon found by Hec, but as child services launch a nationwide manhunt for the missing pair, they decide to go on the run as fugitives.

So yes, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Ricky and Hec end up bonding and working together and all that jazz. But this isn’t the kind of movie where it’s all about developing mutual respect and having heartfelt hugs and making declarations of everlasting father-son love. Well, maybe it is a little, in its own way — but it’s also the kind of movie where they (spoilers!) write awesome birthday songs, end up in a punch-up with some hunters, steal all-important loo roll, meet a girl worthy of the old Flake adverts, eat relaxing sausages, stumble into a vicious fight with a giant boar, and engage in the wildest third-act police car chase since… I dunno, Blues Brothers or something.

Skuxx 4 life

Writer-director Waititi (adapting the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump) keeps a fairly tight hand on the film’s tone, a slightly leftfield view of the world that isn’t as extremely stylised as, say, Wes Anderson, but nonetheless is heightened beyond the normal boundaries of real-life. I only say a “fairly tight” grip because a couple of comic cameos arguably stretch things a little too far, but that’s a minor complaint. Mostly he’s skilful in balancing the comedy with genuine emotion, so that the former never neuters the latter, but equally the latter never dares become too sickly. The events of the plot may not be plausible, but the emotional underpinnings are.

Nonetheless, it’s regularly hilarious, especially when centred on Dennison and Neill’s interactions. It’s the kind of role and deadpan performance that will no doubt have some hailing Dennison as a real find, and maybe he will be, or maybe he’ll go the way of most child stars with “breakthrough” roles like this and never be heard from again. Pardon my cynicism, but it seems to be such a perfect marrying of actor and role that I’m not sure it marks the start of a glittering career so much as one superb turn. Maybe I’m wrong; time will tell. Neill, on the other hand, juggles grumpiness, likeability, and pathos in a manner that suggests his near-relegation to “the guy from Jurassic Park” for the last quarter-century is a real shame. I’m not intending to dismiss everything he’s done between then and now (some of which I’m a definite fan of), but this is likely the best showcase of his abilities for a long time.

Unhappy campers

The rest of the cast don’t shirk, with particular note to the kind of double act performed by Rachel House and Oscar Kightley as (respectively) the ‘dedicated’ child services agent and her escorting policeman who lead the manhunt. Whoever was in charge of the soundtrack did an excellent job with several amusing song picks, while the highlight of the score (credited to three composers) is an unusual use of the increasingly ubiquitous Christmas tune Carol of the Bells (the scene in question has nothing to do with Christmas, for starters). Cinematographically, DP Lachlan Milne makes marvellous use of New Zealand’s truly majestical scenery — well, why wouldn’t you?

Whether or not Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the best film of last year is immaterial — I mean, it’s a little film from a small country on the other side of the world: it’s not like it’s going to be in competition this awards season, is it? But maybe it should be. Few films get to be this funny without being overworked, this sweet without being cloying, and this quirky without being keraaazy, all at the same time.

5 out of 5

In the UK, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is available on Netflix now, and is released on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

It placed 4th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

* Well, from what I know they all seem very different to each other — I’ve not seen the other two. ^

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53—55
Peter Jackson | 685 mins | New Zealand & USA / English & Sindarin | 12 / PG-13

For obvious reasons, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is usually listed as the three separate films it was released as. But in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien considered it one long novel that had to be split up for the sake of publication, so too the movies work well — best, one could even argue — as a single 11½-hour experience.

Having inducted the trilogy’s individual instalments into my 100 Favourites series over the past week (and a bit), I’ve covered most aspects of this epic moviemaking endeavour pretty thoroughly already, so here are links to each of my previous entries:



Slow West (2015)

2015 #199
John Maclean | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.66:1 | UK & New Zealand / English & French | 15 / R

The Coens and Wes Anderson are common reference points in reviews of this slightly quirky Western, which sees Michael Fassbender’s experienced outlaw-type help wet-behind-the-ears Scotsman Kodi Smit-McPhee track the girl he loves, who emigrated for mysterious reasons, also known by the bounty hunters on their trail.

The aforementioned comparisons aren’t wildly inaccurate, but are perhaps reductive. Writer-director Maclean has his own variation on that voice, bringing an occasional comically askew perspective to underscore tense confrontations and well-crafted shootouts. Vibrant photography by DP Robbie Ryan and a pleasantly brisk running time further the enjoyment.

A promising calling card and distinctive treat.

4 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Extended Edition (2013/2014)

2015 #35a
Peter Jackson | 187 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Extended EditionAt the start of their audio commentary on The Desolation of Smaug, co-screenwriters Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens note that, when the decision was made to extend the already-shot Hobbit duology to a trilogy, it wasn’t a third movie that need to be created but a second. That is to say, it was the middle instalment that required the most extra material, including a new prologue and climax. The theatrical version rather felt like that had happened, too, and now we have a cut with 16% more again.

Fortunately for new-stuff spotters, most of these additions come in the form of whole scenes, rather than tiny extensions here and there. In total, there’s almost 27 minutes of new material, plus a little over 90 seconds removed (all of it moments that seem to have been added to the theatrical edition to cover for now-reinserted scenes). That’s a pretty significant amount, and it does impact on some facets of the story, but not enough to change the overall feel. That said, I did like the film a little better, but I’d attribute that as much to simply watching it again: things that bugged me last time felt less irksome, like how long was spent on Legolas fighting orcs at the end, for instance.

One thing I never had a problem with, unlike some others, is the film’s proportion of Bilbo: some say the titular hero is sidelined, with too much focus on Thorin and Gandalf as a result. Two things: one, despite the title, this is clearly structured as an ensemble movie — of course other characters are going to get some of the focus. Second, there’s actually loads of Bilbo! He saves everyone from spiders in Mirkwood, he saves everyone from imprisonment by the wood elves, he’s the one who finds the keyhole at Erebor, he goes into the mountain and has a long confrontation with Smaug, he’s the first face we see after the prologue and the last we see before the credits. And those are just the highlights. Better BilboThe extended cut amps him up even more, with an extra part in Mirkwood and a moment where he stands up for Thorin in Laketown. In fairness, he doesn’t have as much character development in this film as the first, while Thorin is on a definite arc and Gandalf is off on his own side-plot, but he’s undoubtedly a key character. I really don’t understand that complaint.

Of the new stuff, however, the best addition is more Beorn, authoritatively played by Mikael Persbrandt. He felt underused and half-arsed in the theatrical version, like they’d cut out a book character to make way for more film-added stuff later on. I have no idea how big his role is in the novel, but Tauriel and her dwarven love triangle aren’t in there at all, so I can well imagine some would rather have more of the skin-changer (whether from the novel or not) than the interspecies romance. Here, we get more of a sense of him as a character, with two whole worthwhile scenes supplementing his sole one from the other cut.

Other notable additions include an extended bit in Mirkwood, where the party have to cross a river; some more of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown; and a whole additional character encountered by Gandalf at Dol Guldur, played by renowned actor Sir Antony Sher, under so much make-up you’d never even know. There are more bits and bobs, including additional lines that set up some of the aforementioned new scenes, but nothing as significant as these. Some build on storylines first included in the extended cut of An Unexpected Journey, others are just on the level of “we shot this so here it is”.

Beorn againEven if some of the additions are worthless, on balance this is a better version of the film: more Beorn, more of the atmospheric Mirkwood, an additional character whose appearance will hopefully pay off in the extended Battle of the Five Armies (presuming it can’t have done in the theatrical version); plus simply watching the film for a second time helps iron out some of the pacing and emphasis problems I had on my first viewing. It’s still the weakest of Jackson’s Middle-earth films, and there are many issues with splitting one film in two (which I expect to rear their head again in the third film, with how some of the decisions pan out), but it isn’t all bad.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The concluding part of the trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, is 2015’s #36. It’s released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow and in the UK on 20th April. I’ll have a review nearer that time.