With a Hitler youth and his imaginary friend Adolph as central protagonists, it’s stunning that Taika Waititi’s WWII-set black comedy Jojo Rabbit (B-) gets its satiric tone right even some of the time. Blending what could only be described as a Wes Anderson aesthetic with a coming of age story (oh, that was already done in Moonrise Kingdom?), Waititi writes, directs and even plays a sassy version of the make-believe Nazi mastermind with acerbic aplomb. While marquee stars Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson lend deft performances, it’s really the kids on center stage: the staunch ten-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds his mother (Johansson) is harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic during the waning weeks of the war. A grab bag of gags and droll set-ups give way to somewhat unearned sentiment. By far, McKenzie is the VIP here as the teen who’s largely the only grown-up in the room. Waititi disarms viewers with his unusual point of view and waltzes just a bit toward schmaltz. Still, it’s daring, occasionally funny and sometimes insightful. I expected more hop and less garden variety, more revisionism and less requiem. This will likely be the only movie remotely like this getting a rather wide release.
This hypnotic, hallucinatory horror-type tall tale is a keeper for sure! Director Robert Eggers casts an absolutely enchanting and unsettling spell in the gothic black and white square aspect ratio wonder The Lighthouse (A-). Set on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, a career-redefining Robert Pattinson joins a startlingly gifted Willem Dafoe in a cunning and claustrophobic battle for supremacy. These dynamic co-leads are on high alert in the acting department, with some King Lear-level soliloquies and super-trippy visuals. Each of the two “wicks” harbors secrets, and it’s a game of oneupmanship to see who will rule the rock. It’s not always clear where this narrative will take you, but the film pulses with the verve and variety of a pulpy novel. And oh, that gorgeous camera work! Like There Will Be Blood, this is a film sure to shake and spark discussion.
Director Kasi Lemmons crafts an exquisite glimpse at American hero Harriet Tubman in the historical epic Harriet (B+) about the successful “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who escapes slavery in Maryland and helps others on an exodus to Philadelphia freedom. Cynthia Ervio is perfect in the title role and displays her character’s faith and fearlessness with a mastery rarely seen when propelled to leading actress status. Ervio gets to display her beloved character’s physical and emotional strength as well as use her vocal chops in singing which punctuates the movie and appears in rousing form over the closing credits anthem. Lemmons keeps the story propulsive and the characters intriguing, which is always a challenge with filling in the contours around real-life historical events. Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe shine in small but exuberant roles in Tubman’s newfound freedomland, while Joe Alwyn’s one-note slaveholder character feels a shade underdeveloped, although it’s easy to dislike him. The use of “visions” when Tubman experiences spells or premonitions isn’t one hundred percent effective, but the art direction is continually surprising and authentic. The film is adventurous and illuminating and does justice to an important and urgent chapter in U.S. history.
This is the ultimate story of “the other.” Todd Phillips’s Joker (A-) flips the script in what is ostensibly an original origin story about one of Batman’s most notorious villains. Masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, the titular antihero fashions a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a desperate and marginalized loner. The bleak period atmosphere of a dystopian 1981 in Gotham City (essentially a struggling New York) evokes the crime, corruption, gang and peep show filled mean streets of vintage Scorsese, but the real action is interior as Phoenix’s sad clown and wannabe stand-up comic falls deeper into delusion and paranoia. The film’s graphic and nihilistic spirit will be tough for some audiences, but it’s an indelible and engrossing experience built on a complex character. Frances Conroy is effective as his ghastly mother, and Robert DeNiro is smartly cast as a late night talk show king of comedy who mocks the lead character via the airwaves. Zazie Beetz is a warm presence as a kindly neighbor and object of either affection or obsession. The swoop of stardust music with sweet tunes such as “Smile” and “That’s Life!” are juxtaposed against a loony, lost landscape. Phoenix gives a signature performance, high praise after the powerful legacy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s takes on the character before him. He’s got the ticks of A Clockwork Orange and the tolls of Taxi Driver mixed with his own blend of American Psycho. He’s also got some of the creepiest dance moves since Buffalo Bill put the motion in the basket. This is gripping, immediate and eminently watchable material, with descents and detours into madness beyond expectations.
There’s no place like home on a stage as a fantasy respite from a troubled life. Rupert Goold’s Judy (B) is the anticipated biopic with Renée Zellweger playing actress/ songstress Judy Garland in the fading fog of a salvage effort for money and maternal rights while in residency at a London concert hall. The story is slight, and the supporting characters make very little impression, but “Judy via Z” is a brass band of a performance. Ms. Zellweger finds the soaring voice (literally) and stirring humanity in a tragic real-life legend gone too soon. Through the haze of booze and pills, under puckered makeup and vice-grip hair and in poignant backlot flashbacks of being a controlled child performer in the Hollywood Studio System, there’s a stunning character portrait here. Goold conjures warm nostalgia amidst the melancholy and even captures some witty moments of acerbic humor. The music numbers don’t quite achieve the pulse of the moments in the margins, but you won’t want to miss a trip over the bittersweet rainbow with this talented woman of incomparable smarts, heart and courage.
The true wolves of Wall Street have arrived, and they’re adorned with bling and chinchilla. The latest addition into the hall of fame of superb real-life crime dramas is Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers (B+), buoyed by outstanding performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as exotic dancers who devise a scam to drain the credit cards of Wall Street clientele in the aftermath of last decade’s financial crisis. Scafaria’s visceral storytelling and exciting camerawork puts viewers directly in the action and elicits sympathy from characters who exhibit mixed motivations. Lopez delivers a performance of a lifetime as the queen bee of an unlikely hive of gangsters. She assumes the demanding role with brute force physically and emotionally. The film’s unapologetic glimpse at a transactional culture and its effect on friends and family gives it a pedigree to be remembered as awards season gets underway.
A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of Mark Twain, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
All the clamor over the hush of forbidden, guilty secrets really puts the SH… in this IT. Andy Muschietti’s bloated follow-up to his adaptation of the childhood passages of Stephen King’s nostalgic ode to overcoming what scares you is overlong, not remotely frightening, full of half-baked creature effects, sloppily paced and only occasionally charming due to the assets of select cast members. It Chapter Two (C-) flash forwards a quarter century to showcase the “Losers Club” kids all grown up facing off again with evil, especially embodied in Pennywise the Clown. In the body count of who vanquishes themselves as actors in the FX-covered ensemble, Bill Hader and Jay Ryan are a delight, Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy are underwhelming, James Ransone is a mixed bag and Isaiah Mustafa does his role no favors. Most of the characters have been haunted in some way since they became Derry free, but reuniting in the small town brings back all the feels. The film too often flashes back to events in or adjacent to the prior film, and it just feels like a retread. The present danger isn’t particularly menacing, and the adults seem rather casual for a good bit in following the tedious rules of stopping evil in its tracks. The showdown is evocative of the ’80s mainly due to feeling like a neverending story. The much-heralded clown is a bit incidental this time around. The last five minutes are quite nice.
Some things that don’t seem to naturally go together can create nice harmony, like the frustrated Muslim teen in rural Thatcherite England and his newfound muse, working-class American rocker Bruce Springsteen. Having played in a similar milieu with a girl who wants to bend it like her soccer hero, Gurinder Chadha crafts her latest coming of age dramedy Blinded by the Light (B) with a gentle and loving touch that transcends her story’s sometimes color by number conceits. Casting her protagonist with the talented Viveik Kalra is the first win, and although some of the exposition is clunky and techniques labored, you can’t help but root for this spry hero. The handful of songs by “The Boss” provide a fantasy foil to both the teen’s mundane struggles with his parents, finding love and testing his mettle as a writer as well as a larger commentary on the xenophobia and class warfare of 1987 British politics as it plays out in a provincial community. The musical sequences feel as awkward and amateur as the tentative young man being inspired by them (this is in fact a compliment), and the sentiment generally pays off with an authentic supporting cast. It all works better than it should, given some head-scratching plot points which don’t all get resolved. The film is ultimately a marvelous family film and a giddy glimpse at how you should go about borrowing the best traits from your idols when endeavoring to find your own voice.
For a movie about looming death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (A) is a surprisingly joyous work. Her understated film is a near note-perfect glimpse at family dynamics as ordinary individuals endeavor to unravel the responsibilities of adulthood while confronting cultural dynamics in flux. Aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi, deftly played by Awkwafina, visits her Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother), beautifully embodied by Zhao Shuzhen, in Changchun, China for a poignant occasion. Although Nai Nai has a terminal illness, her family chooses to abide by a longstanding tradition to “carry the burden” for the matriarch and engages in a conspiracy to conceal the diagnosis from her. While the spry protagonist initially rejects the notion of deceiving her beloved relative, a series of heartfelt events bring insight and balance to a woman caught between worlds. Wang strikes a magnificent consistency of tone in telling this familial tale of the immigrant family’s return to the homeland, and she draws sincere and sentimental performances from her talented female leads. Although she also displays melancholy dramatic chops to great avail, Awkwafina’s humor is the tender translator at the film’s center. This cinematic family is one to remember and its story one of the delightful sleeper hits of the year.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (B-) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. The discarded duo of cowboy and fighter with a backdrop of a classic industry in upheaval almost seems like the makers have Toy Story 2 on the mind. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.
Disney’s Mouse House has found a way to corral more currency out of Casa Mufasa and despite critical carping blowing across the savanna will likely have hakuna mutata (no worries!) about doing so. Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King (C-) is a largely joyless and superfluous affair, replacing traditional line drawing with a photo-realistic nature documentary CGI animation style. Not one element improves on the original, even though most of the content about a lion’s exile and return to assume control of his kingdom is still there. Voice actors Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make the most of their Timon and Pumba characters amidst the dirge-like proceedings, riffing with abandon amidst an otherwise overly reverential storytelling format. Some of the best sequences in the original still work once transmitted through the Favreau facsimile, while many other emotional moments are rendered toothless. Donald Glover and Beyoncé deliver more lemon than lemonade in the voice talent department with indifferent line readings. The cuddly animated Simba cub will sell a lot of plush toys. Nostalgia factor and escape from the summer heatwave will lure folks in to the multiplex, but those expecting to have their pride rocked may be better served with a viewing of the delightful original.