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Posts Tagged ‘Taika Waititi’

It wasn’t very often that Sagacious Dave, ursine chief of Advanced Self-Erudition at my last-but-two place of work, would venture to recommend a movie or TV show to me. Perhaps, given my part in taking him along to not one but two Jason Statham movies, he just felt it was difficult to make a suggestion of equivalent magnitude or quality. I don’t know. Pretty much the only things I remember him giving the thumbs up were a Ken Burns documentary series – possibly the one on the Vietnam War, I can’t be sure – and What We Do in the Shadows, which he said was very funny.

I made polite noises and never bothered to watch it. Looking back I am trying to remember why this was. Partly because it would probably have involved iPlayering the whole thing, which I only do in exceptional circumstances, but also, I suspect, because it was about vampires, which – despite my many-decades love of Hammer Films, the fact that the only fan letter I’ve ever written was to Kim Newman for Anno Dracula, and the huge pile of Vampire: The Masquerade RPG supplements in my storage unit – I am actually a little bit sick of vampires, post-Twilight. Vampires have got a bit dull and anaemic; I would quote Mr Newman’s line about vampires being to horror what Star Trek is to SF, but for the fact that I obviously do still rather like Star Trek.

However, everything has stopped, we are seemingly becalmed in this half-locked-down netherworld, and sooner or later I expect I will end up watching everything I can lay my hands on, if the electricity or my money doesn’t run out first. Thus I found myself giving my attention to What We Do in the Shadows, although it suddenly occurs to me that Sagacious Dave was probably recommending the TV sitcom, not the movie it was originally based on. Oh well!

The movie was made in 2014 and written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Both of these guys have had pretty respectable careers, one way or another, but Waititi’s has suddenly gone thermonuclear since he began his association with Marvel Studios (younger readers, ask your parents: back in the Old World they made many popular films), effortlessly transitioning from this to the acclaimed Jojo Rabbit from… good heavens, was it only the start of this year?

The premise and conceit of the movie is quickly made clear: this is a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in present-day Wellington, New Zealand. It seems they are there because the former lover of one of them, Viago (Waititi) emigrated to NZ and he decided to follow her there, taking the others with him. Viago is nearly 400 years old and a bit of a prissy fop; living with him are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who was turned in the 19th century and is a bit of a rebel; Vlad (Clement), who was known in mediaeval times as ‘Vladislav the Poker’ and is an insane pervert; and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is 8,000 years old, somewhat atavistic, and tends to keep to himself.

The film follows the vampires through the months leading up to the main event on the social calendar of Wellington’s unexpectedly extensive undead population: the Unholy Masquerade! The status quo is thrown rather out of whack when one of their intended victims, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), ends up being transformed into a new vampire by accident, leading to a fierce rivalry between him and Deacon and tragedy for the household (sort of). Meanwhile Viago pines over his former love (now a nonagenarian in a nursing home) and Vlad broods over his long-standing feud with his nemesis, a vampire known as ‘the Beast’…

It’s kind of implicit in the premise of the film that this is a spoof, not just of vampire movies but of the fly-on-the-wall documentary too, for there is something immensely silly about the whole notion of the film. The opening moments of the movie do nothing to dispel this: an alarm clock goes off, a hand emerges from a coffin to switch it off, and then Waititi very cautiously makes his way to the curtains to ensure the sun has indeed gone down. A mostly ridiculous ‘house meeting’ ensues in which it turns out that the vampire entrusted with doing the washing-up has been a bit remiss in carrying out his chores… for the last five years. It’s a very funny scene, and the performances by the ensemble are uniformly excellent and well-pitched, but I did find myself wondering just how they were going to sustain the film even for a relatively brief 85 minutes or so.

Well, the film continues to send up documentaries and reality TV shows (a scene where two very laid-back and matter-of-fact local cops have a look round the house is one of the highlights), but what makes the film really succeed is the fact that it isn’t just being played for laughs – there is still a real (if slightly odd) sense in which this is a bona fide horror movie. Partly this is due to the fact that it doesn’t skimp on the fake blood, but there are characters who really do get killed, and the pathos of some of the characters’ situations is handled relatively seriously. It has to be said, though, that these are really just grace notes in what is still essentially a send-up, but one of notable scope and intelligence.

Essentially, the good gags keep on coming: the visit from the cops, various encounters with an unusually well-mannered pack of lycanthropes (‘We’re werewolves, not swearwolves’), cheery spoofs of various aspects of vampire lore and other movies in this genre (Clement is basically doing an extended parody of Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula in the 1993 adaptation), and so on. It is all well-played and well put-together, and is another demonstration of how even a low-budget movie can include very polished special effects these days.

I enjoyed it all rather lot: I wasn’t exactly rolling off the bed laughing throughout, but it’s clever and engaging and does have that unexpected edge of darkness that makes it just a little bit more interesting than would otherwise have been the case. Possibly this may go down in history as an early stepping stone in the irresistible rise of Taika Waititi, but it’s a fun and enjoyable film in its own right.

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Never let it be said that you can’t do a family-friendly, acclaimed, popular movie about Nazism: the bloomin’ Sound of Music was on again the other night, sending the usual dubious message that the best way of dealing with a fascist takeover of your government is to start singing at it. But the danger of doing funny stuff about the Nazis is that the joke will end up being on you. To paraphrase the late Clive James, if Nazism was a joke, then it was a cruel joke played by history on the world, and one that we should be careful of laughing at too freely.

Quite reasonably, this sentiment seems to be fairly widespread in civilised society, which may be why the publicity material for Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has been stressing the fact that this isn’t just a black comedy about life in Nazi Germany, but a film with important things to say about understanding, tolerance, etc, etc. That doesn’t change the fact that the trailer seems designed to provoke that old Kipling line about the sheer audacity of the thing. (I should mention that this is a rare example of one of those films enjoying a staggered international release: which is to say it has only just come out in the UK, a couple of months after many other countries.)

Roman Griffin Davis plays Johannes Betzler, a ten-year-old boy living somewhere in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. His father and sister are both gone, due to the war, and he is living alone with his mother – or so he thinks, anyway. (Johannes’ mother is played by Scarlett Johansson: it feels like there should be some sort of joke in there, but I just can’t find it.) Like many young lads, he has an imaginary friend, but what is slightly unusual in this case is that his pal is Adolf Hitler (Waititi), or at least his own slightly warped idea of what Hitler is like. As the film starts, Jojo (for so is he known) leads a fairly happy, carefree life, heedless of the advancing Allies: he and his friends go off on Hitler Youth activity weekends, have fun burning books, learn to recognise Jews, and so on.

However, things get a bit more complicated when Jojo discovers an interloper in the family home: a teenage girl who is living in the wainscotting. Her name is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and she is a Jewish refugee given refuge by Jojo’s mother. What is a dedicated young Nazi supposed to do in a situation like this one? Things are not made any easier when it turns out that Elsa is not the vile, horned cannibal he has been led to expect, but actually seems to be quite a pleasant young woman…

Now, of course, the idea of using Nazism as the source of jokes in a bad-taste comedy is hardly a new one: Mel Brooks won an Oscar for The Producers over fifty years ago, and there’s a lot of the same provocative spirit here too – ‘It’s time to burn some books!’ cries Rebel Wilson as one of the Hitler Youth instructors (her charges cheer with delight), while Sam Rockwell initially appears to be turning in one of his more uninhibited performances as the wounded army veteran put in charge of the group. But, on the other hand, there is that storyline about Elsa hiding in Jojo’s house and their developing friendship. So which is this to be? A wild comedy of excess, made acceptable by a more thoughtful, human-interest subplot? Or an attempt at a film with genuine heart and emotion, perked up now and then by some jokes about Swastikas and comedy Gestapo agents?

I think, in the end, that Jojo Rabbit is a bit less bold and outrageous than its publicity suggests it to be – or perhaps I should say that it is not consistently provocative. There are lengthy semi-serious segments, mostly concerning Jojo’s relationships with his mother and with Elsa, which do function on a more naturalistic level and are obviously attempting to engage with the audience’s emotions – not without success, I should add. Only occasionally do Rockwell, Wilson, and the others turn up for another sketch-like interlude.

In the end I suppose we should be grateful for this, but on the other hand there is the awkward problem that the comic scenes are much more successful than the more serious ones – by which I mean they mostly get the laughs they’re aiming for, mainly due to a decent script and full-blooded performances from a cast who know what they’re doing. The more measured scenes are not actually bad, with Johansson in particular clearly working hard, but the more serious the film tries to be, the more awkward it feels – as if it’s playing a role out of obligation, rather than any real conviction. At one point there’s a sequence where stirring music plays as Jojo watches the civilian population of his home town squandering their lives in a futile attempt to hold off the advancing Allies – but it’s hard to think of any message this is supposed to be putting across that isn’t trite or facile.

Perhaps it would work better if there was more of a sense of the film being grounded in an actual historical setting, but the film is vague at best about the actual period in which it takes place. You could argue that all films set in recent history look identical, and this is an attempt to avoid that cliche (the cinematography and art directon are much brighter and less textured than you might expect) – but something about that kind of look does give a sense of verisimilitude, which is lacking here. I’m not saying the costumes or sets are wrong, but it just doesn’t feel like the 1940s, and odd details like Jojo’s home town being invaded by both Americans and Russians on the same day just add to the sense of this essentially being a cartoon even when it’s attempting to be serious.

This is by no means a terrible film with which to start the year – there are some good performances, it is frequently very funny, and its heart is certainly in the right place. But it seems to me that the comedic elements of the film just work to make it feel superficial, detracting from the more serious story which is really at its heart. Not the worst film a bunch of comedians have made about the Nazis – that honour still probably goes to The Day the Clown Cried, or at least it would if anyone was allowed to watch it – but it is rather uneven, even in its better moments.

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Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually¬†has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

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