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Review: Jojo Rabbit

*Warning! There will be some light spoilers in this review! If you want to remain completely in the dark then I caution you not to read further- though I do recommend the film on it’s merits.*

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, “Jojo Rabbit” is a dark comedy satire about an overzealous ten year old boy growing up in 1940’s Germany. This wartime comedy performs a balancing act so perfectly poised to elicit boisterous good cheer alongside a dark and grim real world sadness that you’d think Taika Waititi was a genius or a madman for taking on such a ridiculous, yet potent, concept. Waititi has, once again, proven he has a knack for finding excellent child actors and helping to coax memorable and competent performances out of them. Both Roman Griffin Davis as the titular Jojo, and Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, showcase excellent skill as young actors and it’ll be very interesting to see what they do after this. Jojo is a normal ten year old boy, easily excitable and incredibly impressionable, he even has his own imaginary friend- but his is Adolf Hitler as a young boy might imagine him, played with cartoonish sensibilities by Taika Waititi himself. Though, occasionally, the depicted authority figure can get eerily close to the hatred fueled real life version. He lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) and he goes to a Hitler youth camp alongside a friend in Yorki (Archie Yates) as they get groomed for war by playing with knives and grenades. After an incident at the camp Jojo returns home to discover a new reality that he must face. His mother has hidden a Jew (Thomasin McKenzie) in the crawlspace of their walls.

The crux of the film’s story rests on this conflict for Jojo, what will he do when confronted by a real person that he’s been taught to hate his entire life? As we’ve seen Jojo interact with those around him and the world at large for several scenes by this point, we’ve been with him and seen that he’s just a normal boy as Elsa puts it, “Who wants to wear a costume and be part of a club“. In fact, the movie’s title refers to his limited time at the Hitler youth camp in which he’s tasked to kill a small rabbit. Jojo can’t commit to the deed and is mocked for his inability to kill, “Jojo, the rabbit“. After Elsa and Jojo come to the agreement that they both need each other to keep their awareness of each other secret, Jojo begins to question Elsa about the Jews. Initially this is to make an account of “How to spot a Jew” and Elsa indulges him with heaps of sarcasm and jabs at Nazis in general, “We’re just like you, but human“. However the two slowly begin to come to an understanding as Jojo begins to question the nature of his authority figures. This relationship between one of blind fanaticism, Jojo, and of persecuted minority, Elsa, is at the core of the movie’s message. Namely, that personal relationships can prove the humanity between opposing factions, cutting through the power of propaganda and adult manipulation to see the truth. Oh, and to endlessly mock those who would hate others on the basis of ethnicity.

The surrounding cast may be small, but they’re no less critical to the film and it’s message. Both Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf and Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s Mother Rosie are excellent examples of those who would perform acts of rebellion in whatever ways they could from within the power structures they reside in respectively. They supplement the heart and common sense of the film, trying to fight the further indoctrination of family and friends within their communities without attracting the wrong kind of attention. Both of these characters are clever and have heart despite living in the heart of Nazi Germany, doing what they can, for who they can. Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also have smaller roles as devoted Nazi underlings and both provide some decent comedic relief sprinkled throughout the film. If you can find a showing of this film, I definitely recommend giving it a shot. It may not surpass his earlier comedic work in “The Hunt for The Wilderpeople” for me personally, but it’s a pretty decent film that’s worth a watch.

Final Score: 7 German Shepherds

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Movie Pitch: The He-Man and The Masters of the Universe Live-action Reboot

Sony Pictures is currently in pre-production (hell) for the live action reboot of the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe property. There have likely already been major choices made and machinations in place by now, but for the fun of it all here’s some of the major ideas I would pursue if given the reigns to a project such as this.

1. Cast Terry Crews as He-Man

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First and foremost, I would immediately seek out Terry Crews for the lead role in this film. From The Expendables to Brooklyn Nine-Nine Crews has the acting experience behind him to advance onto a leading role, and this property is one where I think he would excel in, not only for the look of the character, but also in the nature of the content. This is a fantasy/sci-fi adaption that can hardly be taken seriously, so why do so? I would expect a certain amount of serious threat to raise the stakes and conflict in the story, but there has to be levity here. Much like the recent Thor Ragnarok film from Marvel Studios, this should be a property that embraces the weird and hilarious nature of what’s happening onscreen, and I believe Terry Crews has what it takes to provide us with a compelling hero, but also, can you imagine him screaming “I HAVE THE POOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWEEEEERRRRRR!” in a big budget Hollywood movie? I want that more than I should.

2. Cast Bryan Cranston as Skelator

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Bryan Cranston has the perfect blend of gut-busting comedy chops paired with deadly serious threats. Just look at Malcom in the Middle and Breaking Bad if you have any illusions as to his ability to perform in either category. Cranston has experience in major Hollywood blockbusters and television alike that hearken all the way back to his days voicing costumed villains in Saban’s Power Rangers. I strongly believe that Bryan Cranston would be the perfect Skeletor in this adaption, he’s funny, he can be immeasurably menacing when he needs to, and he can pull off the specific kind of goofy interplay that could work in a film such as this.

3. Get Taika Waititi to direct

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Now that he’s proven himself as a capable big budget filmmaker with Thor Ragnarok, after his smaller but seriously grand films What we do in the shadows, Hunt for the wilderpeople, and Boy– Waititi should get more opportunities to handle larger productions if he so chooses. I think this property presents a great opportunity for the kiwi director as it’s similarly a blend of fantasy and sci-fi genres like his recent success, but also because he might have even greater control with He-Man. I doubt there would be riots over departures from the source material here and he could take the ideas in play to greater rewards thematically and financially, he’s got the Marvel (magic) touch right now and a great sense for what works in good storytelling.

4. Be self aware of the inherent silliness of such a property

My last suggestion for this adaption is one that can be applied to the film as a whole. If you’re going to craft a film about a character that’s the most powerful man in the universe and have him battle a skeleton sorcerer with his giant green-striped battle tiger at his side, well, you should have fun with it. Embrace the oddities that made the cartoon ridiculous but fun in the first place. Also, as always, I would hope for practical effects, real costumes, shooting on location etc you’re making a movie not a video game- embrace it!

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Review: Thor Ragnarok

*There are some mild spoilers in this review, but nothing too revealing*

Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost and directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor Ragnarok” is the third installment in the “Thor” franchise and easily one of the finest additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Coming hot off the heels of Waititi’s last film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Ragnarok retains several actors from the kiwi adventure-comedy. Sam Neill shows up in a play on Asgard portraying Odin in a fun cameo while Waititi’s longtime collaborator Rima Te Wiata plays the role of the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) security guard on the trash planet of Sakaar. This is a Thor film that sheds the weight of past films while embracing the greater cosmic scale that earlier films like “Doctor Strange” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” had already accelerated. But how did we get to this place? Let’s rewind a second and take a look at the franchise as a whole.

The first two “Thor” films, while having their fair share of fans and being generally well received, aren’t always near the top of the average moviegoers personal favorites of the MCU thus far. I believe one of the main reasons that’s led to this film being such a drastic departure from Thor’s past films was that Marvel Studios now has the confidence to embrace the more obscure aspects of their material after the successes of “The Guardians of the Galaxy” and it’s sequel. Marvel seems to know the conversation surrounding their brand of movies and taken some criticisms to heart. The studio now seems to embrace the expectations that their logo inspires as they’ve turned the tables on the audience by playing against these expectations. Which only reinforces my opinion that if you’re going to go make a sci-fi fantasy film, just go for it. Be unique, go for the weird and the unknown and see what works and what doesn’t. As it turns out, throwing the incredible Hulk into the far reaches of outer-space to fight aliens in a gladiator arena, while also having Thor attempting to stop the mythical end of Asgard called ‘Ragnarok’, is a pretty damn good idea.

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Since we’re playing in the sandbox of gods and kings, mythology and science fiction, it makes sense to acknowledge just how silly all of this really is. Taika Waititi never discredits the past or tosses around cruel or barbed comedy though- it’s all in good fun and is a refreshing change of pace for the franchise. In fact this year’s three releases from Marvel have been increasingly better at pairing comedy with their films. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, “Spider-man Homecoming”, and this film all deftly weave comedy into their storylines without sacrificing quality or softening the threat of the villains of each story. I think it’s immensely important that neither James Gunn nor Taiki Waititi lost their comedic voices while engaging in the Marvel movie machine, Jon Watts might have also kept his comedic touches intact with the newest iteration of “Spider-Man” but I’m less familiar with his work. Though I’d be remiss not to mention the comedy gold in this film that is Korg, an alien gladiator made of rocks who also happens to be trapped on Sakaar-and portrayed by the director himself. If you’ve seen “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” imagine Ricky Baker as an alien rock gladiator- but with manners, and there you have it.

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So, there are essentially two things that made this film work as well as it did for me, the performances and the visuals. In various films throughout history there have been scene stealing actors or characters that charm us, fill our lungs with laughter, or terrify our very hearts-but this film is loaded those moments. There wasn’t a single character that overshadowed the rest of the cast. Each seemed to have something to contribute to the story or to keep the pace swiftly bouncing along with a joke or an escalation of violence that underlined the characters’ need to keep moving in the right direction. Taika Waititi has said that one of his chief intentions with the property was to make Thor the most interesting character in his own movie. This is something he succeeds in doing by stripping the character down, removing his hammer, forcing a new look upon the character, and dropping him in new environments with an earned confidence. The additions of Doctor Strange and Bruce Banner’s Hulk also have merit as they remain consistent while moving the various characters forward in development. Strange immediately whisks Loki away after the brothers arrive on Earth looking for Odin-a sign that he’s been studying and honing his craft of Sorcerer Supreme since his film’s end. Just as the Hulk has become a fully formed character after staying in his green form for two years while fighting, and winning, battles on Sakaar. New additions to the franchise weren’t ignored or phoned in either as Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie has a fully formed story arc that builds on Asgard’s past and towards it’s future. Cate Blanchett’s Hela was a fun creation of dangerous and menacing, though while there was some chewing some of the scenery at times, she remained a threat and clearly had fun on the production. Even Karl Urban’s Skurge, mostly a comedic relief character, has a complete arc across the film. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a joy to watch though, perfectly becoming an amalgamation of the audience’s perception of Goldblum, a playful nod to his own film past, while also becoming the character as opposed to the character becoming a riff on Goldblum’s own tendencies. Idris Elba also returned as Heimdall, everyone’s favorite all seeing Asgardian. This time around he’s been an outcast of Loki’s rule on Asgard and leads a secret resistance against Hela’s invasion while sporting a costume fit for Aragorn’s Strider from “Fellowship of the Ring”.

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Which brings me to the visuals. Personally, I loved the blending of the science fiction and fantasy locales and vistas of the film. I never thought there would be a day when I would see the Incredible Hulk suplex-ing an undying giant wolf on the rainbow bridge of Asgard. That is something that’s outright amazing to me, and maybe that won’t do it for everyone, but I loved it nontheless. Everything from the barrage of colors on Sakaar to the fiery lava fields of Muspelheim from the opening scene to the vibrant earthy tones of Asgard were a dazzling visual feast. I also really loved the way Valkyrie’s backstory was shot with the Pegasus riding female warriors launching an attack against Hela years prior. It reminded me of the painting scene in Wonder Woman, but with more slow paced action taking place onscreen. Skurge also received this perspective while leaping from a spaceship into a crowd of undead Asgardians and wielding two AK-47s. The film as a whole was a joy to watch from beginning to end. This is the third film of Taika Waititi’s that I’ve seen and I will most assuredly be seeking out all that remains as soon as possible. This film was quite and enjoyable time and I highly recommend it. Though, if you’re not on the Marvel Studios bandwagon by now this one probably won’t sway you.

Final Score: Four Asgardian Gods and a Hulk

 

 

 

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Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople or “New Zealand’s best Manhunt/Odd-couple Comedy set in Middle Earth yet”

 

Taika Waititi is quickly becoming one of my favorite people in cinema. With last year’s gut busting and hilarious vampire comedy entry ‘What we do in the shadows’ showing a unique style of humor and wit I am pleased to say that his following film only expands that ability and originality. ‘Hunt for The Wilderpeople’ is a larger film than the mostly self contained Vampire slapstick, but that’s in the very nature of the story at hand, a young boy and his new foster parent bonding together through a footchase in “the bush” from New Zealand’s brass.

The story begins with the introduction of Ricky Baker, portrayed here with comedic skill and heart by Julian Dennison, a young city boy raised on rap and foster care as he arrives to his latest home in the countryside of New Zealand. Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill (“Alan!”) portray Ricky’s new foster parents as Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec respectively. They’re met by Ricky’s handlers, the child care services officers Paula and Andy portrayed by Rachel House & Oscar Kightley. Between the five of them this is the core of the cast with others popping in and out of the story to compliment it as it careens along, like ‘Psycho Sam’ for example, but more about him later. Ricky quickly decides the country life is not for him and attempts to run away, resulting in several poor attempts at the arduous journey back to civilization. However as soon he begins to get acquainted with his new surroundings and family an event takes place that forces Ricky and Uncle Hec to head into “the bush”on the run from Paula, Andy, and other police forces as a manunt through the wilderness ensues.

What stood out to me the most in this film was its unwavering ability to mix violence, death, saddness and grief into a story that is mostly giggle inducing and silly in its own awkward, yet assuredly confident, way. This is most certainly one of the most original films I have seen in awhile, ‘Swiss Army Man’ notwithstanding. Everything from the pace to the score is an oddly beautiful creative decision. The story is chunked into ten chapters and an epilouge which helps to keep everything light and quick when dealing with the heavy material in small moments, this keeps the mood upbeat and from getting too downtrodden. The humor here is impeccable and the cinematography is leaps and bounds above what was on display in ‘What we do in the shadows’, but the real prize here is the character work that is done. All the actors did a fine job but the bulk of the accolades go to Sam Neill’s Uncle Hec and Julian Dennison’s Ricky Baker. I dare you to not adore Ricky’s childlike horror when he witnesses Aunt Bella kill a wild pig with her bare hands as he’s constantly trying to maintain his ganster bravado. Or to get the “Ricky Baker” birthday jingle out of your head while Uncle Hec deadpans apathy as Aunt Bella cheerily taps out the tune on a tiny plastic piano.

This film has a whimsical sense of humor and enough charm to melt any adventure loving cinephile’s heart. If you can find a showing of the film anywhere I strongly suggest giving it a watch, although I saw it at a film festival so showings may be hard to come by, but it is more than worth your time and money. Pyscho Sam, “a bushman.. man, or a bush?” alone is worth the price of admission just for his small yet memorable role of a crazy woodsman hiding from the government.

Final Score: 5/5