Triumph of the Kiwi

Jojo Rabbit

by Brandon Thomas

Fargo and No Country for Old Men director Joel Coen has described directing movies as “tone management.” New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi obviously feels the same way as his new film Jojo Rabbit walks a tonal tightrope between irreverent, melancholy and playful.

Few other filmmakers would be able to deliver a Nazi dramedy that opens with a German cover of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” over the opening credits. 

Young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a bright and excitable boy. More than anything in the world, Jojo wants to be a good little Nazi. His dream is to eventually become best friends with the Fuhrer himself. Due to his inability to wring the neck of a cute little bunny, Jojo finds himself on the outs with the rest of the young Nazi trainees. Thankfully, Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler himself (played by director Waititi), is there to reassure him, indulge his worst musings, and generally crack wise. 

Jojo’s carefree reality, where the war lacks any kind of seriousness, is suddenly changed when he finds that his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Leave No Trace‘s Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. As the indoctrination of the Third Reich begins to wear off, Jojo comes to realize that the world around him is larger and more complex than he ever knew.

Waititi’s ease at telling stories about the difficulties of growing up isn’t new. His previous works, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, dealt with young men coming to terms with life’s hard lessons, and Waititi’s inherent playfulness again allows him to recall the wonder the world holds when you’re young. Anything and everything is possible. Waititi’s same understanding of our humanity grounds the characters inside of these silly worlds he concocts.

Jojo Rabbit asks a lot of its audience. Nazis aren’t supposed to be funny. Anything that even touches how the Jewish people were treated during World War II must be handled with the utmost care. This is the fine line Waititi walks through the entire film, as he manages to acknowledge the horrors of the past while making fun of the perpetrators in the same breath. It’s an amazing feat.

The stacked cast helps carry so much of the film’s burdon. Young Roman Griffin Davis is tasked with making us care about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nazi. His fervor is icky, to be sure, but his compassion overwhelms everything else. Likewise, Johannson amazes as Jojo’s mother. She hasn’t played a character this spirited in a long time, and her connection with Jojo serves as the film’s moral center. She abhors what her son wants to be, but also sees through the facade he’s constructed.

Jojo Rabbit, like all good satire, doesn’t pull punches. The film firmly places its finger right in the eye of Europe’s troubling past, but it also manages to show that even amongst the death, bombardment and xenophobia, not everyone gave up their soul to hate. 

What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.





The Wild Life

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

by Hope Madden

Sandwiched between his adorable vampire flick What We Do in the Shadows and his upcoming journey into the Marvel universe, Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi gets lost in the New Zealand bush.

The Kiwi filmmaker, whose career up to now has been marked with silly wit and gentle humor, offers a buddy comedy along the lines of Pixar’s Up.

Rotund Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) finds himself deep in New Zealand nowhere with his newly appointed foster parents Bella (Ti Waita, wonderful) and Hec (Sam Neill). Bella offers and endless amount of genuine care, while Hec is quick with a grunt or a grimace. But one mishap after another projects the wrong image, and soon the lonesome boy and grumpy old man are off on an exotic adventure.

The manhunt that follows Ricky and Hec into the woods offers plenty of opportunity for sight gags, and Waititi (who adapted Barry Crump’s novel) gives the comedy an equal dose of absurdity and sweetness.

A mash note to outsiders, family and masculinity, Wilderpeople also showcases Neill’s gravelly talent in a way no film has done in years. Truth be told, were it not for the strong performances from the two leads, the film could easily have become stiflingly quirky. But Neill’s work offers more layers and authenticity than your usual grizzled coot routine, and Dennison’s confidence and timing ensure his is not the same old adorable kid looking for a dad.

No, both characters are equal parts frustrating and charming, which is why the adventure works as well as it does. There’s no wink and nod “let’s learn a lesson” backbone to their quest, just an admirably naive sense of freedom.

The supporting cast in its entirety delivers wry laughs, but the real showstoppers are Waita (who was equally enjoyable in Housebound), and Rachel House as Paula, the alarmingly tenacious social worker.

The script veers toward sentimentality once or twice too often. Like Waititi’s previous features, Wilderpeople, in the end, lacks bite. But the filmmaker possesses such an extraordinary talent for good natured, quirky comedy that it will be really something to see what he can do with a super hero, and whether his sincerely individual vision can remain intact.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Dead and Loving It

What We Do in the Shadows

by Hope Madden

Which sounds more stale, a fake documentary or a vampire movie? Maybe it’s a tie, but don’t let that dissuade you. What We Do in the Shadows – a fake documentary about vampires – is a droll gem of a film, and it feels like a gift during this dreary cinematic season.

That’s right! Believe it or not, filmmakers are still doing something interesting with vampires. It’s as if the collective artistic mind decided to retrieve the once-worthy villain from the shame of Twilight. The great Jim Jarmusch made them cool again last year with Only Lovers Left Alive. That same year, newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour made them mysterious again with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And now What We Do in the Shadows makes them ridiculous – but in a good way.

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates.

Viago (co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi) – derided by the local werewolf pack as Count Fagula – acts as our guide. He’s joined by Vladislav (co-writer/co-director Jemaine Clement), who describes his look as “dead but delicious.” There’s also Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – the newbie at only 187 years old – and Petyr. Styled meticulously and delightfully on the old Nosferatu Count Orlock, Petyr is 8000 years old and does whatever he wants.

Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. It’s hard to get into the good clubs (they have to be invited in) or find a virgin. Forget about tolerating the local pack of werewolves (led by the utterly hilarious alpha Rhys Darby).

The reliably hysterical Clement is best known for his outstanding comic work in the series Flight of the Conchords, and the film benefits from the same silly, clever humor. Together he and Waititi spawned the underappreciated 2007 comedy Eagle vs Shark. Their work here is more charming and good natured, so likely more crowd pleasing.

The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.

Verdict-4-0-Stars