Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit, now showing.
‘Jojo Rabbit’ and the lighter side of nazi Germany
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2020 - 12:00am

Humor is tragedy plus time,” Mark Twain once observed. That theory gets tested all the time by comedians, and for New Zealand director Taika Waititi, the ultimate test has to be Nazi Germany. His dramedy Jojo Rabbit takes off from a NZ novel called Caging Skies to lampoon the final days of WWII, where a young boy in Hitler Youth Camp, Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), has an imaginary friend who looks and sounds a lot like the Führer. But this Hitler is played for laughs — he runs, jumps, frolics, teases and jokes with young Jojo, who looks up to him as a father figure. (His own father is dead, and his mom, played by Scarlett Johansson, is preternaturally wise and progressive.)

Waititi (director of smash hit Thor: Ragnarok) jokes that he ended up playing Hitler himself after “I scoured the earth for the perfect actor,” and applies the sort of Austrian accent you’d find in What We Do in the Shadows. It mostly works.

Waititi’s script takes a turn when Jojo discovers his mom is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic (Thomasin McKenzie, from Leave No Trace). Sam Rockwell emerges as a disaffected Hitler Youth Camp counselor, Rebel Wilson is funny/scary as a true Nazi believer, and Stephen Merchant is chilling as an SS officer. The jokes, as you’d imagine, lean towards the “plus time” end of the spectrum: it’s funny now, because the Nazis failed so badly.

Waititi, who has considerable comic gifts, goes for a Wes Anderson feel, and he’s genuinely great at directing kids, especially Archie Yates, playing Jojo’s pudgy friend Yorgi who gets promoted to Nazi soldier. There’s a deadpan delivery to the lines that recalls The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonlight Kingdom.

Yet Jojo Rabbit also walks a dangerous tightrope between humor and tragedy and sometimes misses a step. The tone is so lighthearted in the first half that the dark turns of the second can feel a little abrupt and unearned. There’s a glibness to this Nazi Germany, where we rarely see actual victims (except in one notable public setting). Instead, we get a journey into Nazi propaganda through Jojo’s scrapbook, full of outrageous cartoons demonizing Jews. Again, very Wes Anderson. Fortunately, young actor Davis is up to the challenge of this coming-of-age comedy, audacious and risky as it is. And it’s hard to completely dismiss a Nazi comedy that’s bracketed by the Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Bowie’s Heroes, both sung in German.

Ben Mendelsohn as Detective Ralph Anderson and Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney in HBO’s 10-part Stephen King adaptation of The Outsider.

Double Trouble

You could be forgiven for missing Stephen King’s 2018 novel The Outsider when it came out — the guy’s too damn prolific to keep up with — but catch up by following HBO’s 10-episode series starring Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One, Ready Player One, Captain Marvel) as a Georgia cop pegging local school baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) as a child killer on the loose. What emerges from the first two episodes is that Terry — who’s carted off in handcuffs in the middle of a little league game — has as much evidence clearing him as there is placing him at the scene of the crime.

With his hangdog expression, Mendelsohn is effective as your typical King local good guy who’s been pushed too far by personal tragedy to always make the right decisions. Bateman is curiously blasé for a guy being railroaded for crimes he’s 100 percent sure he didn’t commit — but that just keeps you guessing.

Enter Cynthia Erivo (2020 Oscar nominee for Harriet) as a private eye with cornrows, Asperger’s-like tendencies and a belief in the unexplainable, and it becomes even more watchable. 

What sets The Outsider apart from many Stephen King adaptations is the somber, serious, procedural tone — that same tone you see in HBO dramas like The Night Of, Sharp Objects and True Detective. But this is Stephen King, not Law and Order, so of course there’s gonna be some supernatural explanation afoot. How can Terry be on a surveillance camera in one state while shown on camera attending a book conference in another state? Early episodes suck us in; we hope The Outsider stays on course for its duration. (Showing on HBO Mondays, 10 a.m.)          

Claes Bang fangs out in Netflix’s three-part Dracula, by the creators of Sherlock.

Down for the count

Put Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steve Moffat in charge of yet another Victorian-era series, tell them to reinvent it like they did the perennial meta-detective from Baker Street, and you get the Netflix series Dracula. Lurid, gothic and campy as hell, the three-episode first season, now on Netflix, follows the Sherlock template a bit — each episode runs about 90 minutes, basically a mini movie, but also serving as a cliffhanger for the next episode — and as usual, Moffat and Gatiss take great liberties with the original text.

Dracula stars Claes Bang as the Count, but opens on Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), weak and drained, under the care of two nuns in a mental institute in Switzerland. Besides his mental collapse, Harker has an unnerving habit of looking quite dead — a fly quietly enters his eye socket and pads around in there before escaping from his mouth.

Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) hears out the story we know: Harker voyaging to Transylvania to write up a property contract for the Count to buy an abbey in London. So far, so Stoker. Yet Gatiss and Moffat swing for the fences here, working in crazy plot twists and embellishments on the Dracula myth that are cool, self-referential and up to date. (Making Van Helsing a woman, for one.)

With Bang doing a Benjamin Button as he begins draining fresh victims, and Harker’s fiancée Mina (Morfydd Clark) along for the bloody ride, Dracula does go full bonkers before winding up its first meta-driven season. But it’s a good kind of crazy. (Now on Netflix.)                        

             

JOHANNES “JOJO” BETZLER JOJO RABBIT
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