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By midlandsmovies, Jan 4 2020 08:56AM



Jojo Rabbit (2020) Dir. Taika Waititi


Based on Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Taika Waititi follows up family-friendly Thor: Ragnarok with the decidedly un-family friendly Jojo Rabbit. Set during World War II, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a small boy who is part of the Hitler youth and is given the nickname ‘Jojo Rabbit’ after failing to kill a bunny as part of the group’s activities.


Later, his discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. Alongside them are the well-established funny folk Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson as Nazi officers buffooning their way through their authoritarian roles.


Yet director Taika Waititi saves the worst for himself though. He plays a “comically” inept take on Hitler himself, as a projection by young Jojo. But it’s an infantile performance plucked from a pantomime – no doubt intentional as the boy's conscious – but resulting in zero laughs. I seriously mean, not one.


And the script sadly doesn't quite nail the balance between the satire, pratfalls and serious scenes. Shocking scenes of Jews hanging from the gallows in a town square should sit cleverly and uncomfortably with the lighthearted moments but seem wildly out of place given the failing humour here.


It’s not that its offensive either. Hell, from my favourite Four Lions (suicide bombers) to Team America (US imperialism) via Life of Brian (religion) and the most relevant of all, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, incredibly serious subject matter can be made funny and thoughtful given the appropriate angle.


And Jewish comedians Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, The Dictator) and Mel Brooks – whose 1967 satire The Producers is this film’s most obvious parallel with this film – have taken so much more successful stabs at similar social criticism and the historical abuses of our shared past.


In addition, the excellent Scarlett Johansson delivers a rather fantastic dramatic performance that has been sadly dropped in from another movie altogether. And Stephen Merchant's Gestapo cameo is pure Herr Otto Flick from British TV sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!


Style wise, there’s elements of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom with a parallel between the young scouts and the Hitler youth as well as that director’s dry editing and primary colour palette.


The black comedy opening mixing The Beatles’ German-language and upbeat hit “Komm gib mir deine Hand” with actual archive footage of screaming young Nazis at rallies, is a small diamond in the rough. The Seig Heil hand gesture not going amiss here either but it’s all downhill from this beginning. So rather than continuing clever sideswipes like this, the clown-ish, and again, juvenile take on the Nazis and specifically the Führer himself is truly a joke vacuum.


The film does attempt to build a relationship between the young Jojo and Elsa as he questions the Jewish stereotypes he’s been told on the way to an enlightenment. These young actors do very well with the more tactful ideas here but once more, the tone of individual scenes don’t coalesce into a more successful whole. And I don't buy the argument that every poorly-drawn character is "seen through the eyes of a child". It's a sad excuse for fair criticism.


It’s a shame then that this possibly deep and meaningful film loses its nuance because the black comedy laughs were simply not there for me. Polarising film critics already, I throw my lot in with the commendable but flawed bunch. Ultimately comedy is one of the most subjective genres there is, but for me Jojo Rabbit is an unsuccessful satire absent of enough laughs to make it anything more than an admirable misfire.


★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jun 30 2019 09:17PM



Fighting with My Family (2019) Dir. Stephen Merchant


I am very much aware of WWE – who isn’t I guess – but let’s open this review with an acknowledgement of my lack of engagement with what I remember as a kid being called the WWF - before the wildlife fund got all litigious. But you know what? This brilliantly written and directed sports-comedy drama from The Office creator Stephen Merchant is so well-done, even a wrestling ignoramus like myself enjoyed so much of it.


In short, the film dramatizes the life of WWE professional wrestler Saraya "Paige" Knight and begins with her family’s wrestling passion which sees her and her brother compete in the local ring in their hometown of Norwich, England.


A fantastic Lena Headey and hilarious Nick Frost are the ex-wrestler parents who promote and train up-and-coming new prospects in their small gym. But soon Paige has the opportunity to try out for the big league in the USA. With her and her brother (Jack Lowden as Zak) fighting for a spot alongside a host of hopefuls, only Paige is chosen by professional coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) to head to America and pursue her dream.


It’s here the film nicely balances its signature move of the emotional turmoil of Paige’s feuding relationship with her brother whilst also hitting entertaining comedy beats as her outsider is tested ‘Rocky-style’ in a series of endurance events and training montages.


Paige is played by a dazzling Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Outlaw King & soon-to-be-released horror Midsommar) and she brings warmth, charm and feistiness to a well-rounded character in charge of her own destiny. With her alternative/goth-y looks, she battles all-American ex-models for the limelight and her go-getting attitude faces-off against an alliance of personal and professional struggles.


British family-issues and a theme of helping the local community sit comfortably with the glitz and glamour (and sweat) of the wrestling world stage. And Merchant gives each narrative point enough time to shine in his cinematic ring before pushing the fun story forward. A welcome, and very comical, cameo from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also brings some Hollywood gravitas to a slightly quaint overcoming-the-odds narrative but the film is always charming and appealing throughout.


Whilst doing nothing spectacularly new, it gets by on so much heart and has funny (and when needed, dramatic) scenes that mean audiences will empathise with the characters from the outset.


With crowd-pleasing humour, a tender heart and some affected drama, the film is brought to life with a simple and engaging directorial style from Merchant but the excellently delivered performance from the whole cast is the real contest winner here.


And with all that going for it, Fighting with My Family ends up winning the title belt for best comedy of 2019 so far.


★★★★


Michael Sales



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