JOJO RABBIT (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won’t appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi’s wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens’ 2018 novel “Caging Skies” as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year … fully acknowledging that many won’t see it our way.

One wouldn’t be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014’s WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with ‘safer’ choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He’s also a bit goofy.

Playing over the opening credits is the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He’s such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself – enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in “Springtime for Hitler” in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi’s costume is an old timey dunce cap.

Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson’s performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.

Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she’s no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this “nice” Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.

Waititi’s film is ingenious satire, and it likely won’t sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It’s funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The “Heil Hitler” count approaches the ‘F-word’ frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo search of Jojo’s house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it’s some odd blend of SCHINDLER’S LIST, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and an extended Monty Python skit.

It’s rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can’t emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he’s stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino’s score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr’s terrific cinematography work well with Waititi’s vision … a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, ‘Kill ‘em with kindness’, when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.

watch the trailer:


AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

April 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what was originally titled “Avengers: Infinity War Part 2”, we get the much-anticipated conclusion to the most recent 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films … specifically Phase 3. Regardless if you are a deep-rooted fanboy or a casual viewer, you likely know the questions heading into this finale:

 

Can the Avengers defeat Thanos?

What role will Captain Marvel (and her pixie haircut) play?

Will those who died in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR be brought back to life?

Will Tony Stark/Iron Man make it back from drifting in space?

Who will survive this final battle?

 

We knew this one had to be big, and in fact, it’s colossal/humongous/monumental … whatever your preferred adjective might be. And you can rest easy knowing that all of the above questions are answered quite clearly in this 3 hour epic from co-director brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the same directors and writers behind AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and a few other MCU entries).

Marvel has excelled over the past decade plus by combining interesting characters, understandable story lines, visually stunning effects, and clever humor. This finale offers all of that and more. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect ending to this galactic odyssey … and I don’t offer that praise lightly. From the use of Traffic’s classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a gut-wrenching opening scene that yanks us right back into that feeling of dread provided by ‘Infinity War’, we know we are in for a ride that is quite a bit more somber and even more emotional than what we’ve come to expect.

The fallout from the Thanos snap is clear as we catch up with Black Widow, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Each is dealing on their own terms, and while the Banner-Hulk merger is quite something to behold, trust me when I say, you’ve never imagined seeing Thor in his current state. This marks Chris Evans’ 10th film as Captain America, and he is front and center through much of the film – as is, in a bit of a surprise, Karen Gillan as Nebula. It makes sense given her tie to Thanos, and Ms. Gillan holds up quite well in the spotlight.

Since the previous and speculation has been on time travel and the Quantum Realm, brace yourself for a bit of convoluted talk about how that works, but that’s the closest thing to a negative I have to offer – and even that is offset by numerous punchlines at the expense of BACK TO THE FUTURE and most every other time travel movie ever made.

The theatre was packed with Dallas area critics and industry folks, and there was a significant amount of cheering, applauding and more than a few sniffles. Yes, this one will take you on an emotional journey as well as a visual one. It has a tough/emotional beginning and a tough/emotional ending. These are characters we’ve gotten to know over multiple films … and you should know just about every major or mid-major character from every Marvel film makes an appearance, as do numerous minor ones. It’s quite a remarkable reunion. And yes, the brilliance of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One more than offsets the Pepper Potts scenes.

Creator Stan Lee does get his final posthumous cameo (good for more applause), and there is a ‘women’s movement’ moment that seems to be Marvel’s “we hear you” statement. Much of what we see is “inevitable”, but as the Avengers assemble this last time, we are there to laugh, cry and gasp. This is what happens when ‘over-the-top’ is ‘just right’.

watch the trailer:

 


AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

April 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two).  We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!

watch the trailer:

 


ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

watch the trailer:


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


LUCY (2014)

July 28, 2014
lucy Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Luc Besson has a track record of mixing stylistic visuals with more traditional action: La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element. This time he tries to mix those components with fantasy, sci-fi and neuroscience. His hope was that Scarlett Johannson in a snug t-shirt and Morgan Freeman as an on screen narrator (guiding us through the maze of info) would sufficiently distract viewers from the international drug-muling mess.  Scarlett’s new found expertise as action hero (thanks to The Avengers) has her cast here in a role that previously would have gone to Anjelina Jolie.
We have all fantasized about expanded brain power, and many films have touched on this: Transcendence (Johnny Depp), The Matrix franchise, and Limitless (Bradley Cooper) to name a few. Omnipotence may not be everyone’s goal, but it sure seems to be difficult to pull off in in movies. This time around, there is a Korean drug syndicate led by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) who has synthesized a drug that takes the human brain to a new level. To buy into this, you have to accept the premise that humans only use 10% of their brain … a claim long ago disproved.  Still, it’s a movie, so let’s roll with it.
There are some nice moments in the film, but the pieces just don’t fit smoothly together. Circumstances are such that Scarlett finds herself experiencing the effects of the drug – first by dancing on the ceiling ala Lionel Ritchie or Linda Blair (your choice), and then with the most awkward phone call to mom in film history. Soon enough her telekinetic powers are so advanced, she mows down the heavily armed bad guys with a flick of the finger. If that makes no sense to you, you’ll have to follow along with Professor Morgan Freeman’s charts and graphs. His lecture spells out each of the steps that Scarlett will go through and the interconnected scene cuts makes sure all movie goers can keep up … even those who don’t use 10% of their brain.
My biggest complaint is that if a movie about extraordinary intelligence is to be made, then the movie itself should at least be  smart … or witty. What the movie tells us is that expanded brain access allows us to medically diagnose our friends through a hug,  instantly change hair color while strolling through the airport, and create invisible force fields to trap our enemies. We also learn that really smart people drive the wrong way on one-way streets. In Dallas, we typically refer to those people as idiots … or at least horrible drivers. Evidently the joke is on us – those are the enlightened ones!
This movie should have been a lot more fun than it was. A tip of the cap to Mr. Besson for casting Choi Min-sik and Amr Waked (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), and for the global trek from Taipei to Berlin to Paris to NYC … and finally two things rarely seen in the same movie … a dinosaur and a flash drive. It was kinda nice to see the script attempt to make the point that smart people use their minds, while lesser beings resort to violence … though it could have been interesting to see good vs bad while ON this fancy new drug. Although Scarlett’s character remembers the taste of her mother’s milk, I expect the memory of this film will fade quickly.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a couple of impressive Scarlett action sequences and some Besson visuals are enough to carry you for 90 minutes
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have difficulty buying Scarlett’s vacuous facial expression as an indication of extraordinary brain power
watch the trailer:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVt32qoyhi0