New Zealand cinema has a long and interesting history. Well, it's got a long history. OK, it has a history.
Seriously, though, Kiwis fell in love with the big screen quite early. There were films being made here in the early 1920s and some bloke even devised an early way to make talkies (though his method never caught on).
Anyway, a guy I follow on Twitter is a big fan of foreign films. Him being overseas officially makes Kiwi films foreign. I offered to give him a list of cool NZ films he might be able to track down.
These are in no particular order, except that I quite like them.
Goodbye Pork Pie – this 1981 comedy is a Kiwi institution. A length of the country road trip with two unlikely fugitives in a yellow Mini. The yellow Mini remains an icon in this country. Not only did the film show Kiwis being Kiwis, it showed some things we either do (or want to do) that aren't exactly legal: smoke dope, car surf, steal petrol, stick a big middle finger at Mr Plod etc. Director Geoff Murphy was later lured to Hollywood to make sequels to bad movies (ie, Young Guns 2, Fortress 2 and Under Seige 2). Before he left, though, he made a string of top Kiwi films such as The Quiet Earth, Utu and the lesser Pork Pie clone Never Say Die .
Second Hand Wedding – is mentioned this early because it was directed by Geoff's son, Paul Murphy. This 2008 film is a light comedy about a goodhearted woman who loves hitting the garage sales to pick up some bargains. Almost qualifies as NZ's answer to Australia's classic The Castle but doesn't quite have the same deep-cultural-cringe-laugh thing going on.
Sleeping Dogs – NZ's first 35mm feature film appeared in 1977 and was directed by future Hollywood director dude Roger Donaldson (Species, Dante's Peak, The Recruit and The Bank Job). The story is of a man known as Smith (a young Sam Neil – Jurassic Parks 1 & 3, Hunt for Red October, Dead Calm, The Piano and Dirty Deeds to name but a few of nearly 100 appearances to his credit) who is on the run in a dystopian society. Donaldson – who is technically Australian, but we won't hold that against him – also more recently revisited his Kiwi roots with The World's Fastest Indian in 2005.
Once Were Warriors – put the dark side of NZ culture on the world stage. It was helmed by top director and bad transvestite Lee Tamahori, who later went on to make Mulholland Falls, The Edge, Along Came a Spider, the Bond flick Die Another Day and Nic Cage's 2007 flick Next. Tamahori jumped to mind because The World's Fastest Indian starred Anthony Hopkins, who also starred in The Edge.
Came a Hot Friday – a 1985 slightly askew comedy about two conmen trying to fix a horse race in 1949 NZ. Features a stand-out performance by late legendary Kiwi comedian Billy T James. James also appeared (vocally at least) on the next recommendation – Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale. This 1987 animated flick brought to life a beloved cartoon strip about everyday events on a disfunctional NZ farm. While in every theatre people walked out saying: "That's not how I thought The Dog was meant to sound..." it was always a hiding for nothing for writer/director/cartoonist Murray Ball. Everyone had a different idea of what The Dog was meant to sound like. The farmer was obvious, who else could play a Kiwi farmer but John Clarke? But Kiwis were too close to The Dog to realise Ball had actually made a good choice in Peter Rowley. The film was well reviewed and received elsewhere in the world. It also gave NZ its new unofficial national anthem, courtesy of Dave Dobbyn.
So far it's been largely entertainment over art, so let's head down Jane Campion lane with An Angel At My Table. The 1990 film stars Kerry Fox and is a sensitive and powerful story about the life of esteemed Kiwi novelist Janet Frame. Frame, a brilliant recluse who only died a couple of years ago, was so misunderstood as a child that she ended up in a mental institution and was scheduled for a lobotomy before her writing suddenly started winning awards.
Illustrious Energy – is a largely forgotten NZ film, but one I've always held in high esteem. It's a drama that follows the fortunes of two Chinese goldminers during the Otago gold rush. It is almost like a nugget of Kiwi cinema that you'll need to dig hard to find.
Snakeskin – when newbie director Gillian Ashurst decided she had to get a road movie out of her system she wrote Snakeskin. It's an east to west tale that goes from sunshine to darkness, comedy to dramatic tragedy, clean fun to dark perversion. This is done subtly, deliberately and paying homage to the genre all the way. Kiwi audiences expecting another Goodbye Pork Pie just weren't up for that. So when Snakeskin won a slew of awards at the NZ Film and TV Awards in 2001 people began mourning the decline of NZ cinema. In fact it remains a solid, entertaining film starring Melanie Lynskey (whom Americans will recognise as psycho girl from Two And A Half Men) and American Boyd Kestner (GI Jane, Black Hawk Down, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood). Sadly, Ashurst hasn't directed features since, though I understand she's still behind the camera, making documentaries.
The Devil Dared Me To – falls distinctly in the "watch it only once and pick a rainy day when you're already half drunk" category. I mention it here because, well, it had potential. And I try to stick with talent from Timaru (haha). After their off-the-wall series Back of the Y Masterpiece Television (see earlier blog) Matt Heath and Chris Stapp were somehow funded to make a big screen film. Sadly, they ran out of money at some point well before they expected to, which is why the film seems to ramble about and finish suddenly.
A couple of late additions: If you're looking for Kiwi comedy you pretty much can't go past Sione's Wedding. It's known elsewhere as Samoan Wedding and was largely the production of comedy troupe The Naked Samoans. It was a big hit here, but was unkindly reviewed internationally by screen nazis who simply didn't "get it". Maybe the jokes were too "in" for their liking. The general gist of it is a group of lads who never out-grew their teenage antics have been banned from the upcoming Sione's Wedding. Sione used to be part of the group. However, some fast-talking allows the boys the chance to attend; provided they can each find a date. A proper date. The plot unwinds in fairly obvious fashion, but the jokes – visual and verbal – truly make the film memorable.
No. 2 – was the first feature film by writer/director Toa Fraser. It starred esteemed American actor Ruby Dee as the matriarch of an extended Fijian family living in Auckland. In a superb mix of comedy and drama we watch her seek out the life of her family over the course of a day as she beligerantly browbeats her family into preparing a feast. Dee does very well, but I simply could not buy her as Fijian. That was my only criticism of the film, which throws its story out on many threads and then draws them together at the end. Also features a fantastic Kiwi jazz-blues song written by Don McGlashan and sung by Hollie Smith.
Well, I think I've wasted enough time on this. You might be wondering why I haven't even touched on the works of Peter Jackson. It's because his light shines so bright I don't want to dazzle you all. Seriously, PJ's stuff is second-to-none right the way through. Just watch everything for fun, laughs and lots of blood on the early stuff. From brain-eating aliens to lovesick hippos with machine guns to real-life murder to dwarfs with big feet to giant apes; he's done it all.