Tag Archives: Taika Waititi

TIFF19: Jojo Rabbit

I love director Taika Waititi more than makes sense, more than is reasonable by any standard. His absurd sense of humour speaks to me. His arch commentary on the perfectly banal is what I live for. So it was with a heavy heart that I stepped out of the packed theatre and admitted to Sean, who’d rushed the film unsuccessfully (festival vernacular: “rushing” means standing in line for hours when you don’t have a ticket, in case some ticket holder doesn’t show), that Jojo Rabbit was just okay. And I kept up that ambivalence for all of 30 seconds before confessing that I’d loved loved LOVED it, despite having solemnly promised not to rub it in if he didn’t make it in. Sorry, Sean. Jojo Rabbit was fucking awesome.

It’s about a little boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in 1940s Germany. He’s a good little Nazi boy, an unthinking fanatic; his bedroom walls plastered with propaganda posters that reflect his somewhat innocent claim “I’m massively into swastikas.” So he’s utterly broken-hearted when he flunks out of Nazi sleepaway camp. He’ll never know the honour of serving in Hitler’s Guard. His father went away to war and hasn’t been heard from since so it’s just him and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). What’s a devastated little fellow to do with no father figure around? Invent an imaginary friend, of course, and why not aim high and adopt everyone’s favourite Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself?

Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy about learned hate. It’s sympathetic to this child who blindly loves and trusts in Hitler, but doesn’t yet have a taste for blood or violence. Hitler is his Batman, his hero, but he’s about to learn that all heroes are flawed. And some turn out to be villains. But first, there’s a complication. Of course there’s a complication, as if growing up the outcast in Hitler’s Germany wasn’t hard enough. There’s a monster in the attic – or, in fact, a Jew (bless you), named Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie). Jojo’s mom is hiding her so the secret must be kept. Hangings in the town square remind us of the stakes. But this pull between duty to his family and to his country creates an awful lot of pressure for one small boy, especially when his imaginary friend is quite critical of the situation, and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a soldier who’s befriended him, is a little too close for comfort. It’s obviously a disorienting time for him, to find out inch by inch that the real monster is his imagined friend, and the girl in the attic is in fact a lot like him. Imagine the dissonance, the panic, the confusion, the revulsion.

Scarlett Johansson gets the chance to clown around as a mother trying her best to get her young son through a terrifying, grueling war. I can’t remember seeing her this loose and free on the screen before, which is ironic considering the character is rife with burden. In many ways, the mother is the most grounded character; you feel the weight of her responsibility, but also her vitality. She’s not merely trying to survive a war – she’s living. This is her now. Even when the world has gone to shit, there is no pause button. Sons must be raised. Homes must be kept. Jews must be hidden. But still, there is dancing.

Jojo is a complex character, embodying both hatred and innocence in one 10 year old body. It would have been critical to find the perfect and, I imagine, rare talent to fill the role, but believe me, this kid is up for it. He plays against McKenzie particularly well, who is in fact not a monster but a moody and sometimes bratty teenage girl. Neither is strictly the sinner nor the saint history imagines them to be. The two form the most tenuous, the most fraught of bonds, but it’s enough. Familiarity is often enough. It is a cultivator of hope, a vanquisher of fear.

My favourite scenes, however, are when Jojo’s imaginary pal Hitler drops by. Taika Waititi plays him without hindsight; his Hitler doesn’t yet understand how history will judge him. He still thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Waititi plays him fey, embracing the absurd conflict and duality of the character who is of course the architect of evil but also just a very small and not very brave man. He has fun with it but never forgets who this man is or why we hate him.

And it probably goes without saying that Sam Rockwell is having a ball. He’s done wild satirical stuff before so he approaches this with guts and gusto. Which is not to say that anyone in the cast fails to bring the necessary sensitivity to a movie like this. They do. But they also remember that no matter where they fall on the scale of good to evil, they were all just human beings.

It’s an interesting choice to go to Nazi Germany to deliver such a powerful message of anti-hate but where else would it have so much impact? And who else would endeavour to take it on except the fearless Taika Waititi, for whom rules seem not to apply. We worry about which subjects can be spoken of, and which can be made fun of, but the answer is pretty much anything if it’s funny enough. And Jojo Rabbit is funny enough – funny enough to counter hate with laughter, and isn’t that a beautiful thing? At another movie I saw at TIFF this year, Mr. Rogers reminded us that “anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Jojo Rabbit helps us talk about difficult things. It’s an important act of remembrance, and Waititi shows us that even if we’re burning out on all those war stories, there can (and must) still be new and inventive ways of remembering. It’s not just a comedy. It made me laugh and it made me cry, but most of all it moved me to think of these people as human, like me. And how things got away on them little by little until it was too late. History repeats itself, but it’s not too late for us. Not yet.

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SXSW: The Breaker Upperers

For such a little country, New Zealand not only has a lot of talent oozing out of its confines, it’s also got a pretty distinct voice. Which is not to compare this movie to New Zealand’s most famous export, Taika Waititi (although it is produced by him), but there is a sense of humour there that is unique to its people, but travels well.

Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek write, direct, and star in The Breaker Upperers about a couple of best friends who, sharing a history of bad breakups, now run a business together breaking couples up. Mel and Jen think it’s pretty genius work. breakerSomeone wanting out of their relationship will contact them, and they’ll do what it takes to make a clean break – anything from singing telegrams, to pretend cheating scenarios, to even faking someone’s disappearance (which on paper sounds cruel, but this is all played for wide-brimmed comedy, and largely succeeds). It’s good money for them and quite entertaining for us, but we start to get an inkling that perhaps this line of work has stunted them – neither woman has a love life of her own to speak of. But when Mel starts to have a little too much sympathy for the wrong (ie, non-paying) end of the couples, what starts breaking up is their friendship, which is inconvenient when it’s the only relationship you’ve got.

The Breaker Upperers will definitely appeal to those of us who appreciate comedies that happen outside the Hollywood mainstream. Sami and van Beek have free reign to mine and prod whichever corners they choose, and they always find some sort of comedic dustbunny. If that means a 5 minute tribute to Celine Dion, then so be it. And it is funny, funny in the way it reminds of you of a movie you might have made with your own friends when you were twelve. It’s comedy that doesn’t have to hit specific buttons. It doesn’t have a predetermined arc; its route is more meandering, and retains the ability to surprise you without forgetting to entertain you.

I’m not sure how much reach this film will ultimately have, but I think it’s one worth seeking out, particularly if you’re a fan of Waititi’s, in which case, both their faces should already be familiar to you. And if they aren’t yet, they will be.

Thor: Ragnarok

post_master-thor-960x540The Marvel Cinematic Universe is so bloated by this point that it’s a full-time job to keep up with what’s going on.  Thankfully, Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t get bogged down in what’s come before.  Instead, the third installment in the Thor franchise tells a self-contained story and shifts Thor’s segment of the universe from dreary fantasy mode to action-comedy mode.  From a cameo by Matt Damon that I totally missed, to a Taika-Waititi-voiced blue rock monster, to Hulk and Thor arguing over everything and anything, Ragnarok is the funniest apocalypse movie you will likely ever see (sorry, Zombieland!).

My only complaint, really, is that the plot got in the way of the fun.  Every time the scene shifted to the problems Cate Blanchett’s Hela was creating in Asgard, all I wanted was to get back to the wacky trash world where Thor and Hulk had crash-landed.  I guess this movie had to justify its existence by advancing the plot and having big stakes but I would have gladly spent the whole run time hanging out with my new favourite Avengers (who I am happy to report have now started their own spin-off team).

Anyone who has enjoyed Taika Waititi’s past work will not be disappointed by Thor: Ragnarok.  If you haven’t enjoyed Waititi’s work, you’re probably on the wrong site, and if you haven’t seen his other stuff, then do!!!  Start with Thor: Ragnarok and go from there.

As he always does, Waititi will introduce you to madcap supporting characters whose main purpose is to make you laugh, and even better, he will show us that Thor and Hulk have actual personalities.  Purists may take issue as those two characters are notoriously dull, but I thought it was a fantastic improvement that should be carried forward into the next 40 or 50 Marvel movies that apparently are still to come.  Comic book movies should be bright, colourful and fun, and Thor: Ragnarok is all of those things from start to finish.  Go see it!

 

Tribeca: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi.

1449603737890If you don’t know that name yet, stay right here while I get a nice wooden baseball bat to beat you over the head with. Don’t move, I’ll be right back.

Seriously, I talk obsessively about Waititi and his movies because I just adore them. He’s remained mostly under the radar with offbeat, cult hits like Boy and Eagle Vs Shark, which have made him famous in his native New Zealand but all but undiscovered over here in North America. WHICH IS A FRICKIN CRIME.ai_28310_aimedium

Last year his vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows was a modest breakthrough that earned him some well-deserved and super duper overdue attention. It will also help that he’s had a hand in writing Disney’s upcoming animated film Moana and will direct Thor: Ragnarok, which will be his first budget exceeding $12.

But back to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, perhaps the best thing I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival and maybe the best thing Waititi’s done to date. He adapted it for the screen himself and as the film opens up, you immediately get the sense that it is a labour of love. The beautiful, lush New Zealaai_28434_aimediumnd bush is on proud display in soaring shots that will give you serious travel envy. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a boy who’s had a run of bad luck with foster homes, and his child welfare worker is quick to give a laundry list of his transgressions. This doesn’t deter his determined newest foster mum Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) but Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) is a lot more reticent and gruff. Their primitive way of life is a bit of a shock to gangster-wannabe Ricky, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg because soon events will have him and Uncle Hec running from the law and hiding out in the bush as an intensive manhunt for them is underway.

The movie becomes an odd-couple adventure with Waititi’s niche sensibility and loads of mass appeal. Seriously – who on this green earth could fail to be charmed by this movie? 506332228For such an endearingly quirky comedy, it has no right being even half as beautifully shot as it is. There’s a gloss to the film thanks to some real cinematography that’s been missing from his previous work. A lot of care has gone into this film and the casting is just one easy example of how diligently the thing is put together. Sam Neill is an interesting choice and brings the right mix of gravelly loner bluntness and a secret longing for connection. But it’s Julian Dennison who will leave the largest impression. A kid actor can make or break your movie when he’s in a central role, but Dennison is a professional, easy and natural in front 1453595660563of the camera. There’s pain behind his farcical behaviour, and in allowing us to see both, there’s real depth and emotional investment in the characters. Waititi, Rachel House, and Rhys Darby provide excellent supporting roles that’ll leave you cramped from laughter. Positively bruised from chuckling. It’s a new personal best for Waititi and a new sentimental favourite for me, but one that deserves its place among the very best movies of the year, period.

 

Eagle vs. Shark

Apparently this was one of my tests for marriage material and I didn’t even know it.  Jay introduced me to it without any real warning or lead-in, and I remember enjoying it but none of the specifics.  We’ve been on a bit of a Taika Waititi binge with What We Do in the Shadows and Boy, so this seemed like a very good time to rewatch Eagle vs. Shark.

This movie confirms that Jemaine Clement, who I knew from Flight of the Conchords before seeing this the first time, is either a terrific actor or a terrible human being.  Jarrod, his character, is just an awful person who brings nothing to the table at all.  So while this is supposed to be a love story, the love is entirely one-sided.  Lily, the loving half of this on-again, off-again couple, is probably as much of an outcast as Jarrod (both are extremely awkward), but Lily is sweet to all those around her while Jarrod is bitter and unlikable from start to finish.  As Jay pointed out last night, is it really a happy ending if these two end up together?  Lily could do so much better!

If you can get over that, and I can get over pretty much any plot hole if I am being entertained, there is a lot to like here.  This movie is memorably quirky and has quite a few hilarious moments, including the death of a seagull and some fantastic animal costumes (including an eagle and a shark)!

Overall, this is an enjoyable movie about a pair of social misfits, and there are some great moments here, but since Napoleon Dynamite did this material first it takes away the originality and uniqueness that might otherwise have been this movie’s calling card.  Still, it’s worth checking out.  I’d say watch them both and let me know which one you prefer!

 

Boy

Last week I blogged about watching What We Do in the Shadows, the latest endeavour from Taika Waititi, whose work in my opinion cannot be missed. This week I went back in time to watch 2010’s Boy.

“Boy” is 11 years old in 1984. He loves Michael Jackson and girls, employing the former’s dance BOY_1moves to lure and impress the latter. He lives on a small farm with his grandmother, his younger brother Rocky, and several young cousins. When grandma has to go away for a funeral, Boy is in charge of the household. At home he’s a grown up, cooking and cleaning and caring for the little ones. At school he’s still just a kid, making up stories about his jail-bird dad and getting into fights when those stories aren’t believed.

But then one day his dad shows up, along with two friends. They’re only intended to stay long enough to find the stolen money they buried before being pinched by the cops, but Boy sees it as potential bonding time.

It’s clear that the father is even less mature than his sons. He doesn’t know how to join them in grieving their dead mother, doesn’t know how to make up for lost time, doesn’t know how to boyput others first, and certainly doesn’t know how to give a decent haircut (though this doesn’t stop him from trying).

Watching this movie, I was struck by how Waititi feels a bit like a low-budget, New Zealand version of Wes Anderson. I don’t mean this in a copycat way, but rather that his movies share a certain randomness paired with an attention to detail that makes for a delightfully off-kilter movie going experience.

Waititi is bursting with talent, but he doesn’t spread himself too thin. He’ll workshop a script for years just to get it right, which means that there’s far too little of this innovative filmmaker to be boy-taika2had. I first came across him with what has become one of my favourite laugh-out-loud, painfully awkward comedies, Eagle vs. Shark. Turns out, he was already an Oscar nominee by then, having received a nom for his live-action short, Two Cars, One Night (he lost but famously pretended to doze off as the list of nominees was read). He’s written and directed stuff for Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement is a longtime friend and collaborator; the pair toured together as award-winning comedy duo The Humourbeasts). He’s also had a taste of big Hollywood, having starred opposite Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern. But it’s these three movies (Eagle VS Shark, Boy, and What We Do in the Shadows) that are GOLD. You can’t ask for better than that. But I am asking for more.

What We Do In The Shadows

In 2008 I came across this brilliant movie, Eagle vs Shark. It’s a special brand of dry and awkward humour that’s only really appreciated by about 0.3% of the population and so of course I started using it as a social barometer. It’s how Sean went from ‘guy I’m sleeping with’ to ‘husband’ (we clementshadowshad no in-between). That’s not to say he didn’t shoot me weird looks during the movie, but he laughed in the right places and so I knew it was safe to fall in love.

Taika Waititi wrote and directed Eagle vs Shark, bringing along pal and fellow countryman Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) to star, and they’re back again with What We Do in the Shadows, sharing duties and screen time. It’s not easy to get such an offbeat comedy from New Zealand shown in North American theatres (I believe crowd funding was involved) so I consider myself lucky that one lonely theatre is showing it here in Ottawa.

The movie is a mockumentary involving the daily lives of a small group of vampires who decided for better or worse to eschew the typical haunted castle in Europe route and room together in taikashadowsNew Zealand instead. The documentary crew follows them as they encounter the normal highs and lows of flatting together, sorting out who does the dishes, who picks up the dry cleaning. A chore wheel goes unused. A couch that wasn’t red now is – one vampire suggests putting down newspapers before they eat someone, or towels, perhaps, but “We’re vampires, we don’t put down towels” responds another. Like The Real World, only they just happen to also be vampires, sometimes many hundreds of years old.

The vampire genre might be overworked and overtired these days, but this one feels fresh and what-we-do-in-the-shadows-image-1inspired, living up to the high bar set by Christopher Guest and the likes of Best in Show.  My sides ached from constant laughter, the nicest ache I know. Waititi, Clement, and co-stars work really well together. It’s clear that tonnes of improvisation must have gone into this, the dead-pan delivery spot-on, the timing the best you’ll see. It never feels like a straight parody. It’s much too clever for that. Instead it finds humour in the mundane, staying for away from the obvious and easy but finding gold everywhere else.