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:


TABLE 19 (2017)

March 3, 2017

table-19 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) takes the approach that many wedding guests would prefer – he skips the wedding and heads straight to the reception. Another wise move by the filmmaker is assembling a very talented ensemble of funny folks. This cast proves they can wring a laugh from dialogue and moments that would probably otherwise not elicit much of an audience reaction. Instead, the full house on this evening had quite boisterous responses on numerous occasions.

The initial set-up drags a bit as we are introduced to the characters that will soon enough populate Table 19 at the reception. Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel bellhop) is Renzo, the longing for love (or anything similar) high schooler who might be a bit too close to his mother (voiced by the great Margo Martindale). Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson are the Kepp’s, a mostly unhappily married couple who own and run a diner together. June Squibb is Jo, the bride’s long-forgotten nanny who sees and knows more than most. Stephen Merchant plays the outcast nephew/cousin who has been recently released from his prison sentence for white collar crime. Lastly we have Anna Kendrick as Eloise, the fired maid of honor and former girlfriend of the bride’s brother (Wyatt Russell), who also happens to be the best man and now dating the new maid of honor.

This is the island of misfit wedding guests known as Table 19, and purposefully placed in the back corner as far as possible from the family and favored guests. Of course we know immediately that this Team Reject will unite for some uplifting purpose at some point, and the movie improves immediately once that goal has been revealed. Comedic timing in a group setting can often come across on screen as forced, and it’s a tribute to the cast that these characters come across as human and real.

Make no mistake though, this is Anna Kendrick’s movie. She plays Eloise as we would imagine Anna Kendrick in this real life situation. Sure, a wedding reception is low-hanging fruit for comedy, but it’s the third act where Ms. Kendrick’s talent really shines. Comedy drawn from emotional pain is the most fulfilling because we’ve all been there. The melodrama that creeps in is pretty predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good time. The scenes with Ms. Kendrick and Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some!, and Kurt and Goldie’s son) are the best, and it leaves us wishing for more attention to both.

Don’t worry, the film features the required wedding cake mishap, a flirtatious wedding crasher (Thomas Cocquerel) and a drunken mother of the bride singing karaoke to Etta James’ “At Last”. It’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and mostly succeeds with a nice blend of silly, cute, and emotional tugs.

watch the trailer: