Happy days: Kiwi director Taika Waititi offers a punchy anti-Fascist satire in ‘Jojo Rabbit’.
OPENING BOXING DAY
JOJO RABBIT **** (108 minutes) M
When it comes to good taste in comedy, having fun with Nazis might not seem to be among the most refined ways to get a laugh, yet when done with skill, wit and very sharp satirical intent it can pay off in a big way.
And it does in JoJo Rabbit, one of the cleverest and funniest movie satires we’ve seen in ages. Refreshingly daring, it tears into the nature of prejudice and how the young can be socially conditioned to become rule-loving racists.
Taking several leaves out of the Mel Brooks Guide to Spoofing Nazis – and based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens – New Zealand actor/writer/director Taika Waititi (Thor; Hunt for the Wilderpeople) wastes no time plunging us into the heart of darkness with light-footed gaiety.
He introduces us to Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a cherubic German kid who is part of the infamous Hitler Youth, portrayed here as being akin to the Boy Scouts, only with guns and grenades.
With only his mother (Scarlett Johansson) to look after him, Betzler is keen to prove himself as an upstanding and capable part of Hitler’s crusade.
Alas, he’s an awkward kid and an easy target for the Aryan bullies who make fun of his unwillingness to kill. Thankfully he has a supportive imaginary friend who offers him sage advice about how best to make it in life.
This figure comes in the well-dressed form of the Fuhrer himself (played by Waititi), an amalgam of Hitler as mediated through propaganda. He’s not so much a genocidal monster intent on ridding the world of Jews but an avuncular pal eager to help his naive charge fit into the New World Order.
Conflicted as he is between his duty to the Third Reich and his nagging reluctance to want to hurt people, Betzler then has to contend with a major mind-bending complication when he discovers a Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his home. Worst still, he thinks he might like her.
The eye-opening he then undergoes as he faces his real feelings and discovers his mother’s true feelings for the Nazi regime is handled with great dexterity by Waititi.
Careful not to push the satire into the more perilous realm of black comedy – and this film is not a black comedy – Waititi keeps focus on the emotional growth of Betzler while pulling off some very funny moments, thanks largely to his a supporting cast that includes Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant and Sam Rothwell, very funny as a gung-ho soldier no longer allowed to fight on the front.
At a time when the term “Nazi” appears with disturbing regularity in media commentary, Waititi’s film arrives on point and with a point, showing how socialised hatred depends largely on misinformation, taking advantage of the naive and restricting dissent.
As for the supposedly touchy subject matter, Waititi shows here, as many before him have shown, that messing with Nazis in comedy sounds much more dubious and treacherous than it actually is.
We’ve seen that repeatedly with the work of Mel Brooks, who gave us the classic Springtime for Hitler ditty from The Producers (1967; 2005) as well as the memorable Hitler Rap, which he put out with the release of To Be Or Not To Be, a 1983 remake of the Nazi-spoofing 1942 Ernst Lubitsch film that still stands as one of Brooks’ best.
Jerry Lewis derided Nazis and turned Hitler into a comic figure in Which Way to the Front? (1970; admittedly, not one of his better films).
And, of course, there’s the indelible legacy of Hogan’s Heroes, the 1960s network buddy comedy that featured Jewish actors portraying Nazi caricatures.
It simply proves, as Jojo Rabbit does with such potency, that there are no taboo topics in comedy provided the intent is morally sound, the execution is rife with irony and the result is funny.
CATS ** (110 minutes) PG
To appropriate and paraphrase an old showbiz saying, Cats is the kind of modern movie musical that will have you humming the visual effects as you leave the cinema.
Based on the mega-hit Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical that began life in the early 1980s, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech; Les Miserables) presides over a cast costumed as felines who dance and sing and leap through oversized sets depicting the gutters, back alleys and cozy homes of nighttime London.
The decor and detail in this handsome, expensive production are remarkable, to be sure, even though the film’s meandering cinematography – as the camera goes ping-ponging about the place – tends to highlight the theatrical origins of the piece. Only one memorable sequence on a railroad track gives you any real sense of the city Cats is set in.
Storywise, the film suffers from investing a kitty litter load of solemnity into what is, in essence, a rather silly story.
Each year these cats hold a ritual talent contest, the winner of which gets to float away to their next life in a realm called the “Heaviside Layer”.
Stumbling into this community of preening moggies is a discarded kitty called Victoria (Francesca Hayward). Innocent and wide-eyed, she sees wonder and enchantment in her new surroundings as she encounters its various underworld characters, both nice and nasty.
There are a couple of notably bright and energized performances here as Rebel Wilson and James Corden chime in with some scene-stealing work and a few choice comic touches.
Apart from that, though, it’s hard to get a sense of performance from much of the cast, thanks largely to restless camera moves and choppy edits every three seconds or so.
For such a feather-weight musical the direction throughout is just too dour and the going gets pretty sluggish. It’s like trying to have a skip in your step while wearing moon boots.
Fans of the musical will no doubt rejoice in the renditions of hits from the soundtrack such as Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats (a singularly irritating ditty), Old Deuteronomy, Magical Gus and, of course, Memory, the show’s signature tune that has taken its place alongside My Heart Will Go On and I Will Always Love You as one of karaoke’s greatest victims.
The music also features a very nice new song Beautiful Ghosts written by Webber and Taylor Swift.
Still, the joys of Cats are spotty, and the film is unlikely to make non-fans understand what has so enchanted the millions who consider Cats the best modern musical of the past 60 years. Whatever magic was spun on the stage seems to have been lost in the translation to the screen.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL *** (123 minutes) PG
The gang are back for more of the same as a gaggle of teenagers drop back into the Jumanji video game where they take on adventurous avatars in the form of Dwayne Johnson, Chris Rock, Jack Black and Karen Gillan.
Made promptly to ride the huge success of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (which took a neat $962 million), there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad with the sequel, apart from the fact that it doesn’t really have a story. The only characters of any real dramatic interest are two old friends seeking to reconnect after a long estrangement (nicely played by Danny DeVito and Danny Glover).
Everything else is a proficient retread of what we saw before, with newcomer Awkwafina adding a little spice and director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) again doing a fine job channelling his inner Indiana Jones (his father, Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as The Empire Strikes Back).
There’s plenty of snappy, cartoonish action, the best being a battle with apes as our heroes attempt to cross a tangle of rickety footbridges. It’s a wild sequence and incorporates a wily reference to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Amidst all the movement, screaming and joking – the Rock and Chris Rock are especially funny this time around – students of modern cinema will find Jumanji II a near-perfect expression of post-content cinema.
Set inside an old video game, the film often has the logic of a video game: characters die and come back to life; computer displays suddenly appear explaining each character’s strengths and weaknesses; plot hurdles appear then magically disappear.
Again, nothing wrong with that, especially in this era where so much leave is granted to franchise fantasy films that push colour, movement and comic over-acting over narrative.
On that score, This Jumanji is bound to please the legions who just saw the last Jumanji. How well it will serve fans of the original Jumanji is a more perilous bet.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU **** (101 minutes) MA
How is it that veteran British director Ken Loach can repeatedly make films about the struggles of the working class, yet make each film feel so fresh, vibrant and immediate?
It likely has much to do with his love of documentary style filming and his unparalleled skill at drawing authentic, semi-improvised performances from his cast.
On top of that, Loach’s films often point towards the hope of a happy ending for his beleaguered characters, only to deliver the hard life lesson that the good and the right do not always triumph.
His latest film, Sorry We Missed You, is easily one of his best.
Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty and set present-day, the story follows the increasingly tortured travails of Ricky and Abbie Turner (Kris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood), a financially strapped working-class couple with a bright young daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) and a delinquent teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) to raise.
Up to their bottom lips in debt, Ricky’s plan is to become a commission-based courier driver, wherein he delivers parcels in his own van. He has a strict schedule to keep and a long list of responsibilities he must honour, lest he be hit with covering the expenses.
His work life is brutal, thanks chiefly to his unforgiving supervisor Maloney (Ross Brewster), an efficiency Nazi who defends his ultra-hardline approach by claiming that he is helping hard workers earn a good living.
Racing around the city with deadlines to meet and fines to pay for performance failures, the long hours and short rewards Ricky endures is intended to reflect the reality of this line of work. The end credits make brief mention of the many drivers who spoke with the filmmakers, their experiences highlighting the irony of supposedly being self-employed, yet having to work for an unyielding master.
Running parallel to Ricky’s turmoil are the ever-increasing pressures on his wife Abbie, a nurse who has had to make huge sacrifices to accommodate Ricky’s van purchase. Her devotion to her work comes under painful strain as their domestic situation deteriorates with Seb’s truancy and petty crime threatening his future.
Shining like a tiny LED light of hope through all this is their pre-teen daughter Liza Jane, a smart girl who watches the home-made mayhem with the silent intuition that they all deserve better.
The emotional push and pull of the story sees Loach (now 83) in his element as the couple try fending off misery and strive to build some sort of future for their children. Like so many of his contemporary films, it’s touching, heart-breaking and all too real.
A life-long union man, Loach has never hidden his allegiance to the Left. Most of his films are politically charged, implicitly or explicitly railing against the oppressors of the working class, the elites and opportunists who exploit without conscience.
Yet, film after film, it is the humanism of Loach’s work that hits home. Though driven by politics, what he delivers is pure, heartfelt drama that stings with authenticity.
This latest film is yet another example, showing that Loach is at the peak of his powers.
THE GOOD LIAR ***(109 minutes) MA
That old joke about some actors being so good they could put on a compelling performance reading the phone book might be a tad over-used, yet in the case of British veterans Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen it certainly applies. They could probably make a grocery list sound like Godfather II.
So the prospect of seeing them share the frame in The Good Liar is a rather big drawcard and one that pays off handsomely in this handsome, prestige, low-key thriller.
Deftly directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters; Twilight; Beauty and the Beast), who builds a strong mystery from a very basic premise, the story plays very effectively with the perils of online dating, tapping into that universal suspicion we all share about the honesty of those we deal with over the internet.
The adventure is sparked by two elderly lonely hearts who meet through a dating service.
Keen for companionship is Betty (Mirren), a lonesome widow living a hollow life in a designer estate. Eager for more than friendship is Roy (McKellen), an experienced, high-end confidence trickster who’s not above deploying a bit of violence to get his way and to keep people in line.
He marks Betty as a prime target for fleecing and, with a few doses of sophisticated charm, inveigles his way into her affections, her home and, eventually, her bank account.
Those familiar with this brand of twist-laden mystery will likely twig early as to what is going on as these two engage in a dance of deception and naivety, although the big reveal in the final reel is something nobody could see coming.
McKellen and Mirren are effortlessly good, with Mirren especially adept at portraying somebody whose warm heart and need for companionship overwhelms the cool head she needs to protect herself from being taken advantage of.
As for McKellen, he oozes with the seductive charm and slick manner of somebody who could sell timeshare apartments in the Antarctic. He certainly knows the fine line between slimy and slick, always ready to put a classy sheen over his rough edges.
Among the solid supports are Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) who plays Roy’s trusted partner in ripping people off, and Russell Tovey as Betty’s super-suspicious son, who views Roy’s sudden presence in his mother’s life with a growing anger and need to investigate.
BLACK CHRISTMAS * (92 minutes) M
Bleah. Horror films should have at least one or two good scares in them, so by that measure alone this dismal, dull killfest about sorority girls being targeted by a maniac falls ever so flat.
The film reprises the basic premise of the original 1974 Black Christmas (directed by Bob Clark of Porky’s/A Christmas Story fame) but mixes in a big splash of #metoo material, presumably to make it topical and score some woke cache.
No carps there, only the direction by Sophia Takal (who co-wrote this with April Wolfe) is so loose and devoid of suspense that the film simply becomes boring and predictable, especially when we start getting glimpses into the secret society on campus.
Though the quartet of characters at the core of the mayhem are played with admirable zest – kudos to Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue and Brittany O’Grady – Takal fails to generate much tension from the “gender war” vibe she tries to infuse into the splatter.
Sure, it was admittedly brave to try something novel in a formulaic horror film, but what’s missing from Black Christmas is the driving force of a powerful motive, something that makes the 1978 anti-rape classic I Spit on Your Grave so memorable, and to which films such as Black Christmas owe a huge debt.
PLAYING WITH FIRE **1/2 (96 minutes) PG
Former wrestler-turned-comic actor John Cena is the over-buffed lead in a fun, light-headed family friendly film where sentimentality and sight gags rule.
In a pretty funny, straight-faced performance, Cena plays Jake, a promotion-hungry fire fighter who, along with his crew – actor/comedians Keegan-Michael Key & John Leguizamo, with Tyler Mane, also an ex-wrestler – has to care for a group of unruly kids in a secluded deep-forest HQ during a fire emergency.
While the firemen are brave and community minded, the guys, naturally, aren’t very good at taking care of kids.
And there you have the excuse for a long string of pratfalls and visual humour, all tied together with some action scenes and Jake’s gradual realisation that children have been missing from his job-oriented life.
There’s no real villain in the film, which deprives it of tension somewhat, and the pace does slacken with the sub-plot involving a scientist (Judy Greer) and a pond of endangered frogs, but it is a harmless, reasonably enjoyable time killer, produced by Nickelodeon.
Side note: At the film’s premiere, respectful acknowledgement was made before the screening of the courage and fortitude of those battling our present fire crisis. It was a good call, warmly received.