Taika Waititi/NZ/2007; R4
Icon/Warner Bros, $39.95 | Reviewed by Tim Wong

HAVE Kiwis embraced Eagle vs Shark? At the Aro St Video Shop in February – the now-legendary venue of one ‘secret’ Flight of the Conchords DVD signing and gig – Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement catered for several hundred rabid autograph hunters and one trembling, desperately committed fan: a motley teenager sporting bright red suspenders and a mouthful of braces, who, upon hearing of the quietly publicised event, ejaculated from his classroom mid-lesson, ran home to retrieve his Conchords paraphernalia, talked his way into the closed session, convinced staff members to trade a $50 record store voucher for a Conchords DVD, before working his way from the back of the queue to accost Bret and Jemaine in person (postscript: detention awaited him upon return). Throughout this circus, Clement’s Eagle vs Shark co-star, the positively radiant Loren Horsley, observed from the sidelines, occasionally stepping forward to offer a signature or pose for a photograph, but otherwise played second fiddle to the Conchords’ justifiable, rather alarming New Zealand cult.

The undercard in a frenzied cross-promotional blitz by Warner Bros. (who distribute both HBO’s Flight of the Conchords: The Complete First Season and Eagle vs Shark locally), Horsley’s appearance in support of the DVD release had the extra misfortune of coinciding with the Conchords’ Grammy win two days earlier – a double blow, given her star turn ought to have garnered the recognition of its own award. Eagle vs Shark, too, went without the kind of approval Americans have afforded the Conchords since, and for all the clammy hospitality it’s received offshore, Taika Waititi’s lionhearted comedy deserved a warmer second homecoming when it debuted on DVD the same day. Even if Eagle vs Shark was destined to be misunderstood abroad – its characterisations were considered condescending, its awkward romance derivative of fashionable whimsy, and its thunder stolen by Napolean Dynamite – surely local audiences would appreciate the extolling of Kiwi foibles over the redundancy of sheep, bogans, and masturbatory scenery?

While the inherent New Zealandness of Eagle vs Shark is never in doubt, it draws on a greater geographical force: Wellington. Another testament to the city’s incestuous creative community, its sights – from Titahi Bay to Manners Mall – are lived-in, personalised and not at all obnoxiously touristy, while its sounds – The Phoenix Foundation, chiefly, so ubiquitous yet enlivening on film here – are nothing if not tailor-made for the incandesce of cinema. To be sure, Waititi’s weakness for all things quirky and capital reveals an occupied territory: just as Shane Meadows fashioned a competitive love story full of cockney stereotypes and working class kitsch out of his beloved Nottingham in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Waititi finds his own twangy wop-wops 15 minutes drive north of the city, where cultural caricatures, tracksuit-couture, and a high noon showdown combine to amusing, if overfamiliar effect.

Yet rather than settle for a procession of peculiar people and places, Waititi not only transcends the cringe factor of provincial Kiwi vernacular, but cushions the oft-told idiosyncrasy with a higher appreciation of the lowbrow – where humour isn’t merely absorbed by the film’s overriding tone, but is allowed to break out and standalone. There are no insipid John Heder Gosh! moments – just Clement as Jarrod, quite obviously at home playing a candlestick-making geek, and Horsley as Lily, who surprises and surpasses with an improbably infectious performance; at once gentle and exaggerated, hers is the stuff of an unfathomable crush. And although the film is undermined far more as a likeness to Michel Gondry than Napolean Dynamite, it at once underlines itself culturally with a soft-spoken modesty, and belies its own shyness as a confident, assured piece of moviemaking (a Sundance Institute benefactor through and through). As for anyone seeking an antidote to the buffoonery (and indeed, Auckland-ness) of Sione’s Wedding, its appeal will be immense.

EXCLUSIVE to this Region 4 release is the recording of a fresh audio commentary by Waititi, Horsley, and Clement; an improvement on the Region 1 version (which featured Horsley in discussion with Waititi via phone, joined later in person by David Fane), it exhibits palpable chemistry between the trio, and a quintessentially laid-back attitude familiar to all New Zealanders. Clement also makes for a comical third wheel, still seemingly in character with his monotone delivery and defiant deadpan musings, interrupted on occasion by the sound of knife and fork as he makes inroads on a mince pie. More earnest, noteworthy assessment of the film can be found in the cast and crew interviews; deleted scenes, too, are substantial enough be included here (an alternate opening credit sequence just some of the fat trimmed).