What do Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, and Taika Waititi have in common? Answer: they’ve all written, starred, produced, and directed in films that made fun of Adolf Hitler. Adapted from Christine Leunen’s book, Caging Skies, Waititi has pulled quadruple-duty in his latest movie.
As odd as the premise starts out, we have 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (a remarkable Roman Griffin Davis) living in WW2 Germany and talking to his BFF… a goofy, wise-cracking, and 21st Century slang spouting Adolf Hitler (director Waitiki). Yup, only Jojo can see & hear this imaginary friend of his who gives him sage advice, as Jojo navigates his tumultuous first days at a Hitler youth camp, run by a slightly off-kilter Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his strange aide Finkel (Alfie Allen), and an over-zealous Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).
After a disastrous day at camp (Jojo earns the nickname “rabbit” when he won’t kill a bunny), he nearly gets blown-up by a grenade and sent home to his loving single-mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Slightly disfigured & limping, Jojo is forced to work for the local Nazi propaganda office, but he’s about to get a shock. Spending more time at home yields a secret his mom has been hiding: there’s a teenage girl living in their home behind a hidden wall! Elsa (Tomasin McKenzie) is Jewish, fierce, and quickly lets Jojo know who’s the boss.
But now Jojo faces a problem that he and his buddy Adolf don’t like: if he turns in the girl to the SS, they BOTH
will be killed! Keeping it a secret, Jojo decides to ‘research’ this girl and the Jews by writing a book about them, and Elsa is more than happy to indulge Jojo by giving him wild and crazy misinformation. Through the many weeks that follow, straight-laced and gung-ho Jojo starts to have feelings for his ‘enemy’, and his friend Adolf isn’t having it. However, the war is coming to his village and soon Jojo is going to have to make a final decision.
Just like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Waititi dances around the horrors of war and Nazism, lacing it with pure farce, while delivering one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Starting off as a full-blown comedy, Jojo and Adolf share some incredible LOL moments, making you realize that Waititi makes one helluva actor too! His script is sharp, satirical, poignant, hilarious, heart-breaking, and shows the Nazi’s as both monsters as well as buffoons. One minute a kid is rejoicing with a rocket-launcher, the next there are dead people in the streets, and drawing that fine line of comedy mixed with drama is a superb screenplay by Taika. I’m smelling Best Adapted Screenplay here, people!
At the center of all this lunacy is Davis, a rare find inasmuch as the kid is making his acting debut here. His expressive eyes, maturity, and unbelievable talent for emotion is amazing for someone who’s never acted before. Wow! This kid is going places! Then you got Rockwell and Johansson having fun with their roles… something you haven’t seen in a while as they’re usually doing dramatic roles. Even Rebel Wilson isn’t annoying this time around!
McKenzie is electric and powerful as an ersatz Anne Frank and is devastatingly good. Throw in Stephen Merchant in a brief cameo and chubby Archie Yates as Jojo’s little friend, and it’s a party. And ya gotta love Waititi’s type of direction, too. It’s a cross between Edgar Wright’s (Baby Driver) slam-bang, rapid-fire, multi-editing camera shooting and Wes Anderson’s (Hotel Budapest) static, in-your-face style. Mix that with some slo-mo and you got Waititi-Vision! Do yourself a favor and catch this movie!
Drop Dead Fred (1991)
Y’know those “true” stories from Creepypasta where parents talk about their kids having eerie conversations with imaginary friends? Well, this wanna-be black comedy completely wastes the talents of Phoebe Cates, Rik Mayall, Marsha Mason, Tim Matheson, and the late Carrie Fisher deals with that subject.
Told through a series of flashbacks, we are introduced to a world-class loser: Elizabeth Cronin (Cates). She’s unassertive, repressed, easily dominated, and her philandering husband, Charles (Matheson), has just announced that he’s leaving her for another women. Oh, did I mention that Liz has just gotten fired, had her purse AND car stolen too?! While this is all happening, she meets an old childhood friend named Mickey (Ron Eldard), who stirs something in her. With her nerves shattered, Liz goes home to her iron-willed mother (Mason) and stays in her old room where, upon opening an old jack-in-the-box toy, out pops Drop Dead Fred!
Clothed in a stunning green suit and sporting flaming red hair, Fred (Mayall) is a motor-mouthed, obnoxious, whirling dervish of destruction and mayhem that only Liz can see and hear. Whatever HE does (like breaking something), SHE is actually doing because Fred is only in her imagination. However, this new wrinkle in her life doesn’t really phase her as much as you’d think… until his hi-jinks (actually HER hi-jinks) make other people believe that Liz is going insane, especially when she blames all her woes on Fred.
Cataclysmic events ensue with Liz trying to get her douche-bag of a husband back, sinking her best friends magnificent houseboat, having dinner with Mickey who then gets thrown out of the restaurant, and finally Liz getting arrested for attacking a violinist (Fred). Fred even meets his other imaginary friends (Namby Pamby, Mr. Fuzz Rock, Go To Hell Herman) while Liz is waiting for therapy. In a very Twilight Zone-ish ending, Fred finally gets Liz to grow a spine and become empowered, getting the man o’her dreams, but not quite ridding herself of that raving lunatic in her mind.
I don’t know what newbie screenwriters Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton (both their first script!) were thinking when they wrote this disaster, but I felt even worse for Cates, Mason, Matheson, and Mayall who signed on for this trash. It’s lewd, crude, and so utterly void of any real humor that you have to wonder WHY this was ever billed as a comedy! The “jokes” consist of mainly Mayall going bat-spit crazy and riffing on anything he sees (fun fact: Robin Williams turned this role down!), but the problem is, Mayall isn’t that funny. Oh sure, he’s a gifted comedian in Britain with The Young Ones and his appearances on the Blackadder series have become legendary, but here he’s just struggling.
Cates looks like she wants to run away from the movie at any moment, while Fisher is just collecting a paycheck. Another sad fact is Netherlands director Ate De Jong. This guy had only done a few other forgettable U.S. movies and his filming was so elementary and uninspired, it’s a wonder why he was chosen to direct a comedy when he’s best known for horror and suspense films in his native country. Result? This dark ‘comedy’ is a total pile of garbage from start to finish and has only a smidgen of relief… and that’s Phoebe Cates. Let’s face it, she’s about as easy on the eyes as they come, but watching her flounder in this miserable film just breaks your heart.