Movie Review ~ Jojo Rabbit


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, Alfie Allen, Taika Waititi, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: As I was watching Jojo Rabbit a few weeks back one thought kept running through my mind and it was this: “Gosh, I hope people get this is satire when they see this.”  Now, I’m not saying our society has become overly sensitive and far be it from me to use a gross phrase like ‘cancel culture’ with any literal purpose in my review but let’s face it, in the past few years there’s been a strange urge to jump on seemingly innocuous thoughts, words, and deeds and make them into what they aren’t.  Plenty of ideas and texts are out there that were obviously meant to harm, so it takes a little restraint to step back and look at the big picture to separate the serious from the satire.

Jojo Rabbit is a clear satire of anti-hate rhetoric and it couldn’t be clearer of its intentions.  Yet I sat through the screening so worried that no one was going to get the joke and take the film literally.  There are some horrific jokes concerning Nazis, concentration camps, genocide, and misogyny (to name but a few) yet they are presented in such a way that if you aren’t in on the joke you might be squirming in your seat during the opening credits when young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) skips with carefree glee around his tiny German village “heil-ing” all his friends and neighbors.  I admit it took me a few introductory scenes to thoroughly settle into writer/director Taika Waititi’s sardonic structure before I gave over fully.  Once I did, I found a lot of heart in addition to the laughs.

A 10-year old member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo is off to his first training camp with his best friend Yorki (an adorably scene-stealing Archie Yates) and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok).  With Hitler as his imaginary friend, you can imagine the kind of pep talks Jojo gets as he begins his service and in Waititi’s hands Hitler is presented as an easily excitable, petulant, man-child that provides Jojo some moral support but not always the best guidance.  Teased at camp for his sensitive nature in an arena of hate, he gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit from his fellow Nazi buds and makes a bold gesture as a way to show them he’s stronger than he looks.  When an injury sidelines Jojo, he’s put to work in the office of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Vice) distributing propaganda while his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) works to make ends meet.

Often left at home alone, Jojo is surprised to discover his mother has hidden a young girl (Thomasin McKenzie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in the walls…and she’s Jewish.  Having lost her parents and everyone else she cares about to the war, Elsa has no one to depend on but Rosie’s kindness and has developed a steely exterior that matches well with Jojo’s extreme indifference to a girl he feels he’s supposed to hate on sight.  With imaginary Hitler encouraging Jojo to study this girl so he can file a detailed report later on (in a manifesto with a title that becomes a running joke), Jojo gets closer to her and both find out they have more in common than they think…or what they’ve been taught to think.

For all the comedic elements to Jojo Rabbit, there’s an even deeper emotional core running through the center of the movie and I was surprised as how moving the film becomes as it goes on.  With several unexpected twists (and one downright jaw-dropping one), Waititi keeps audiences involved with Jojo and Elsa’s story but never lets them get ahead of the action.  We all know how the war ended but I had no idea where their stories would wind up.  The outcome surprised me and was par for the course with the rest of the film which never followed the path I thought it would.

Walking the fine line of comedy are a strong roster of actors, some appearing only in brief cameos.  Stephan Merchant (Logan) and Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic) may pop in for a moment but they each get at least one hefty laugh; Wilson in particular gets one of the best jokes in the entire movie.  While I like Rockwell and feel he’s been on a nice roll the past few years, his role here skewed a bit too farcical compared to the other players.  On the other hand, I often struggle with Johansson but found her work as Jojo’s strong-willed but vulnerable mother to be incredibly moving.  The real stars are McKenzie and Griffin who carry the film with conviction – two young talents handling difficult subject matter but doing so with a mature sophistication.  Really stellar work.

Expected to be a major player at the Oscars, Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. In the last 11 years, 10 of the winners have received a Best Picture Oscar Nomination.  It will certainly divide people and that’s a good thing because even with the satire carefully identified it might not be the movie for you, but I’d hate to see the movie discounted solely for the fact that people didn’t get it’s sardonic tones.  Waititi adapted, produced, directed, and stars in this and deserves some credit for magically making something so audacious work so well.

Movie Review ~ Harriet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Zackary Momoh, Deborah Ayorinde, Vondie Curtis-Hall

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Rated: PG-13 minutes

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s been over 40 years since the last time there was a movie about the life of Harriet Tubman.  I had to check to make sure because I couldn’t quite believe her story hadn’t been told at length on film since the 1978 television movie A Woman Called Moses starring Cicely Tyson.  Yet, it’s true.   Though Tubman has had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years having been featured on the now-cancelled series Underground and was chosen to replace notorious slave-owner Andrew Jackson on the $20 in 202 (though those plans have now been put on hold because the current administration happens to like Jackson where he is), she’s been out of the verified mainstream for too long.

It’s been some time since I was in an American History class and I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know as much as I should about the key players in the Underground Railroad movement that helped so many slaves move toward freedom.  Tubman is one of the most well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad, that much I did know, but how she came to become a part of that network was an educational lesson I sorely needed a refresher course on.  While I know it plays a little fast and loose with the timeline, the new biographical drama Harriet, is a straight-forward depiction of Tubman’s life as she escaped from slavery in Maryland and made her way to safety in Philadelphia.

Beginning shortly before she flees the plantation she’s lived on with her parents and siblings since she was a child, we meet Harriet (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale) as she’s having one of her “spells”. Suffering a head injury when she was young, she often will fall into a trance like state where she’ll receive visions she interprets as guidance by a higher power of things to come.  Married to a free man, Harriet wishes to be free herself and have children born outside the burden of slavery but when she’s denied that right and is put up for sale by Gideeon (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) the smarmy son of her late master, she knows she has to take freedom into her own hands even if that means leaving everything she loves behind.  A well-staged escape is designed for audiences to lean forward in their seats, even though we know the outcome.  Her eventual first step to freedom is the first of many moving moments in the film.

Director Kasi Lemmons (who had supporting roles in Candyman and The Silence of the Lambs before turning to directing) wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and the two manage to pack a lot of events into a trim 125 minutes.  Obviously, this can’t possibly cover everything of importance in Tubman’s life so audiences are given a surface skim of the next years as Tubman arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) the abolitionist that came to be known as the Father of the Underground Railroad.  She also takes a room in the boarding house of Marie (Janelle Monáe, Welcome to Marwen) a free-born black woman that hasn’t had the same struggles as Harriet but through her friendship comes to understand her pain.

While this film may get dinged a bit for it’s workmanlike way it moves through Tubman’s life events, I found the way Lemmons and Howard chose to focus on her accomplishments instead of her setbacks really refreshing.  So often with movies about the horror of slavery directors feel a need to wallow in the cruelty and ugliness of that abhorrent period in our American history.  Instead of having the obligatory vicious scene of a whipping or lynching, Lemmons and cinematographer John Toll (Cloud Atlas) catch us off guard when a character takes off their shirt and reveals their scars from a previous lashing.  Seeing these reminders that will never fully heal or when Harriet recounts a beating when she was young have more of an impact the way they are presented than if we were to bear witness to them play out in real time.  Same goes for the way Lemmons reserves the use of the “n” word to punctuate a character’s hate, not make it their defining manner of speech.

Lemmons and Howard also capitalize on Erivo’s talents as an award-winning singer and feature her gorgeous voice throughout the movie.  In addition to Erivo writing and performing a song over the closing credits there are carefully selected spirituals or call outs during the film that are moving in their sound but haunting in their purpose.  While I’m not sure how historically correct it is, I’d even say Lemmons and Howard seize some opportunities to turn Tubman into a bit of an action star, with Erivo slinging a gun and hauling off a few shots from the back of a horse.  I say more power to them because it only added to the audience’s appreciation to the film.  For each nuance they give Tubman (Erivo’s headstrong portrayal is a brilliant head-to-toe transformation you won’t be able to take your eyes off of) they seem to take two or three away from other actors like Alywn or country star Jennifer Nettles playing his deeply indoctrinated mother.  Though under no obligation to give depth to characters that offered little hope or free-thought to others, Lemmons and Howard have etched out little pieces of informed info about nearly everyone else that to have these two figures so blank is curious…or maybe it’s precisely the intent.

Since her feature directing debut in 1997 with the unforgettable Eve’s Bayou (rent it, trust me, just rent it), Lemmons has been a little hit or miss in her efforts but she’s scored another win with this engaging look into the life of one of the most important women, or person, in American history.  I’d likely have sat for another twenty minutes or so had Lemmons and Howard wanted to take a little more time in the middle or even at the end for a bit more of a measured wrap up of events.  It ended a little abruptly…or perhaps I just wasn’t quite ready to leave off in Tubman’s story.  Even if Harriet doesn’t quite dig as deep as it could have, it’s a captivating film made even more enthralling by a lead performance that truly soars.

Movie Review ~ Terminator: Dark Fate


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Sarah Connor and a hybrid cyborg human must protect a young girl from a newly modified liquid Terminator from the future.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Mackenzie Davis, Diego Boneta, Gabriel Luna, Natalia Reyes

Director: Tim Miller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  In 1984’s The Terminator, a man sent from the future to protect a woman targeted by an unstoppable killing machine has memorized the the phrase “No fate but what we make” and that’s quite apropos to the subsequent films in the franchise.  The 1991 sequel set a gold standard for how to jump back in years down the line and continue on not only with brilliant advances in technology but by adding deeper mythology to the narrative.  After that blockbuster, without creator James Cameron to provide guidance the producers of the next three films let the quality and storytelling slide and it seemed the fate of the series was sealed by the lackluster reception for 2015’s misguided Terminator Genisys.

Unwilling to let the machines win, Cameron (The Abyss) was lured back with the promise of more creative control, eventually signing back on as a producer and providing a story idea he’s been toying with as well.  Though it was briefly discussed to have star Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand) sit this one out, wiser heads prevailed, and the bulky former Governor of California joined Cameron for what would become Terminator: Dark Fate.  Then there was the big get…Linda Hamilton.  Absent from the series since Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1991, Hamilton had been married to Cameron and their 1999 divorce (with Hamilton walking away $50 million richer) was said to have contributed to her moving into more television/video work and less feature films.  Somehow, someway…they got her and that became the lynchpin for kickstarting this production into high gear.

Taking a page from 2018’s Halloween, Terminator: Dark Fate ignores the events from every sequel after T2 and the studio logo plays over a familiar scene with Hamilton’s character from that film.  To its great credit, T:DF opens with an unexpected twist of events that will have an impact on everything we’ve come to know about Sarah Connor (Hamilton, King Kong Lives) and her son John Connor (Edward Furlong, A Home of Our Own) who would grow up to lead the resistance against weaponized machines hell bent on exterminating the human race.  Twenty-two years later, in Mexico City we witness the familiar electrical surges that signal the arrival of two time travelers from the future.  One is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049), an enhanced military soldier, sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) from the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna, Bernie) a new breed of liquid metal Terminator that can separate from his endoskeleton if he needs an extra hand.

Director Tim Miller (Deadpool) wastes no time in getting straight to the action with our bearings barely established before the first major action sequence is initiated.  That leaves little time for any kind of character introductions or development, a key piece that was such a benefit in previous films.  Before we even know who we’re supposed to be caring about, we’re already watching them being kept out of harms way by a skilled soldier gamely standing her ground against a seemingly indestructible robot.  Thankfully, right about the time the movie threatens to move at such breakneck speed everything begins to become a blur, Miller hits the skids and gives Hamilton a hell of a great entrance that had our audience (and likely yours) cheering. I was worried that Hamilton’s return would be a lot of build up but no pay off and it’s definitely not that, she’s top-billed in the credits for a reason.

That’s not to say it’s smooth sailing for T:DF.  While it’s arguably the best sequel since T2, it struggles with some hackneyed dialogue and uneven performances that don’t provide a consistently level ride.  When Hamilton as Sarah meets up with yet another version of Schwarzenegger’s make and model Terminator, their rapport is such that you get a feel of how easy-going the film should feel.  While Davis has been dynamic in other films there’s something curiously lacking in her delivery as a leading action star and it doesn’t get better as the film chugs along.  Same goes for Luna who is a complete blank slate as the mission focused death-bot…I understand he’s not programmed for much emotion but even Robert Patrick’s unforgettable villain in T2 presented a few levels to his reaction shots.  Saddled with the worst dialogue and overacting the most is Reyes, never quite finding any equilibrium.  She plays such an integral part to the plot (notice how I’m not bothering to provide details, just to say the gender-swapping doesn’t stop at a female protector being sent from the future) that it’s disappointing Reyes isn’t a stronger presence.

For fans of the franchise, I think they’ll be happy (if not satisfied) that the production has learned from the last few films and got back at least in some small part to what made the first two movies such landmarks.  That pulsing score and central theme is ever-present and having Hamilton’s Sarah Connor as we’d imagine her to be all these years later front-and-center was a wise way to evoke good-willed nostalgia, even if what we’re watching still can’t quite measure up.  No fate but what we make…and I think Cameron and company have taken that to heart while putting Terminator: Dark Fate together.  It’s not the fully assembled machine we’ve been waiting for but this model will do…for now.