Don't expect to see a lot of New Zealand's natural beauties in Eagle vs Shark. This is an endearingly odd romantic comedy -– a debut feature by Taika Waititi -– and it takes a good while to move outdoors from the fast-food restaurants, video arcades, shopping malls and multiplexes that constitute the unnatural habitat of its preternaturally shy lovers. Still, other beauties emerge, even though one of the lovers suffers from deeper-than-comical alienation and the other from life-threatening naiveté.
The title comes from costumes that the unmatched pair of misfits wear to a horribly tacky dress-as-your-favorite-animal party. Jemaine Clement's depressed video clerk, Jarrod, shows up as a forlorn bird of prey. Lily, a lonely fast-food waitress played by Loren Horsely, is the winsome incarnation of a slack-jawed Jaws. The movie is sometimes arch but consistently affecting, and shares the deadpan esthetic of Napoleon Dynamite and Ghost World. Yet Eagle vs Hawk has its own distinctive style, partly thanks to whimsical little interludes of animation, but mainly because it ties blithe absurdity to a rock bed of emotional truth.
The truth about Jarrod has to do with the notion of depression as anger turned inward, with nowhere to go. Napoleon Dynamite was an angry kid, but his anger was diffused by his dorkiness. Jarrod is a rageful young man who swings between scary and hilarious. If this weren't a comedy, we could be watching the evolution of a random shooter. The truth about Lily is bottomless need. We see a radiant beauty with wide eyes and a cockeyed smile that could melt the hardest heart. Lily sees herself as undesirable, yet she keeps hoping for the better, if not the best.
Lily is the movie's heart, open and heedlessly giving. "Life," she says, "is full of hard bits, but in between them is some lovely bits." The movie is full of lovely bits, and in between them is a story about people paralyzed by anger and stored-up hurts. Eagle vs Shark was developed at Sundance, but the filmmaker is well known in his native New Zealand as an actor and stand-up comic. He'll be known better and more widely very soon.
Fantastic Four: Rise Of the Silver Surfer manages to make human actors look computer-generated. It's quite intentional, and part of a cheerful, self-parodying strategy that works fine until, just like that, the whole movie goes kerplop.
When last we saw The Fantastic Four in the 2005 film of the same name, they were silly people with extravagant superpowers. Now they have to contend with new powers, including family values. Jessica Alba's Sue Storm, aka Invisible Woman, is about to be married –- visibly -- to Ioann Gruffudd's super smart Reed Richards, aka the elastic Mr. Fantastic. And just as wedding bells are threatening to break up that old gang from Marvel Comics, the Silver Surfer of this title -– a reluctant villain who sometimes verges on the pewter –- shows up as an energy-sucking herald of Earth's destruction.
What follows is pretty good fun – more fun than in the original -- punctuated by some lines of admirable awfulness. Among my favorites are Reed's joyous declaration, "I'm one of the greatest minds of the 21st Century, and I'm engaged to the hottest girl on the planet"; Sue's lament that "We can't even have a wedding without it turning into World War III," and the Silver Surfer's laconic warning that "All you know is at an end." Still, the film can't sustain its modest running time of 87 minutes. Somewhere around the 70-minute mark, all the filmmakers know is at an end.