‘Jojo Rabbit’ Never Met Any Tonal Disparity It Wouldn’t Embrace

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight

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

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Children Getting in the Line of Fire and Witnessing Victims of Public Hanging

Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited)

If a ten-year-old boy declared that his best friend is Adolf Hitler, would his story be embraced by the masses? Apparently so, apparently especially if he hangs out with an imaginary version of the Fuhrer played by Taika Waititi, seeing as Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I first heard the premise of Jojo, I thought, “Wow, really? Okay.” Now, that initial bit of shock is by no means a dismissal. I encourage all filmmakers (and indeed, all people in any profession) to embrace a challenge, and this is certainly A CHALLENGE. The potential pitfalls go beyond the difficulty of trying to make a mockery out of the Nazis. That really isn’t a problem, as there have been numerous memorable spoofs of Hitler over the decades, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks, and comedy can be one of our most potent weapons against hate. Ultimately, the possibility for trouble comes in the form of the whimsical tone, which does not promise to mix so easily with the deadliness of the wartime setting.

My verdict is that Jojo Rabbit does not fully overcome its inherent tonal disparity, though I appreciate its audacity. There is something to be said for the value of presenting a violent world through a child’s perspective. However, it’s a little harder to justify constantly placing preteen characters in the path of gunfire and explosions (while insisting on drawing out consistent guffaws), which Jojo Rabbit does a distressing number of times. And on top of that, the adult actors are so uniformly goofy. Their performances indicate that this is a straight-up parody, while the effects work counter that no, this is actually supposed to be harrowing and realistic.

I’m almost willing to forgive, or at least overlook, that tonal whiplash, because the inner conflicts at the heart of this film are actually rather affecting despite the tightrope they must walk. Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) fully embraces Nazism, though he does not really grasp what that means. He buys into the nastiest stereotypes of Jews, believing that they are horned, scaly creatures who hang upside-down like bats. But it turns out that while his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has enthusiastically been sending him to a Hitler Youth camp, that’s all a ruse, as she’s secretly been working against the Nazis, even hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her house. Jojo discovers her and naturally develops a crush, as he gradually realizes that his anti-Semitism is not sincere but rather based on some fanciful lies that were attractive to a kid with an active imagination. If Jojo Rabbit is trying to teach us that hate can be cured if the disease is detected early enough, and especially if the antidote is love, well, that’s true, but no great revelation. But if it’s trying to remind us that a childlike perspective of the world is chaotic, but also somehow fun, and weirdly revelatory, well, that’s a useful reminder. Although, maybe sometimes movies should be less messy than real life.

Jojo Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: Life is Beautiful, Monty Python crossed with Schindler’s List

Grade: 3 out of 5 Grenade Explosions

Movie Review: ‘Good Boys’ Presents a Panic-Riddled, But Also Fundamentally Romantic View of Life for Today’s Youth

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CREDIT: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Brady Noon, Keith L. Williams, Will Forte, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Josh Caras, Lil Rel Howery, Retta, Millie Davis

Director: Gene Stupnitsky

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for All the Typical R-Rated “We’ve Got to Get the Party!” Shenanigans, But This Time Involving 6th Graders

Release Date: August 16, 2019

Are kids growing up faster than they used to? It’s a question that every generation ass once they become adults, and I am usually inclined to believe that that worry (or at least the generalized version of it) is a bunch of hooey. It all depends on everyone’s unique circumstances, which vary around the planet and within the same neighborhood. Some kids are forced to grow up fast while others have eternal childhoods. But if the example of Good Boys is a representative sample of where we are in 2019, then the youth do indeed have a lot more than ever to contend with. Drugs and raging hormones are as much a factor as they’ve ever been – throw drones into the mix, and look out!

I can confidently say that when I was in sixth grade, I never had a day that got as absurdly out of hand as the one that “Beanbag Boys” Max (Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon), and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) endure. (Heck, I never had a day like that in my teens or twenties either.) They’ve been invited to a co-ed party that promises to include kissing, and in a desperate effort to do it right, they end up spying on their supposedly nymphomaniac (“someone who has sex on land AND sea,” according to Max’s understanding) neighbor and then lose the drone that belongs to Max’s dad (Will Forte, the sort of achingly sweet father who should really adopt everyone). This then leads to broken bones in a bicycle chase, selling a sex doll to Stephen Merchant, running across six lanes of highway traffic, trapping a cop played by Sam Richardson in a convenience store with a dildo stuck on the door, and shooting their way out of a fraternity with paint guns. These are the sorts of shenanigans we’ve seen young cinematic partygoers get up to for decades, but those troublemakers are usually at least a few years older. In this case, the situations are as uproarious as any, but it’s tempered by how out of control everything feels. These are sweet kids who let panic get the best of them, and I can’t help but feel vicarious parental pangs for them.

It’s thus hard to fully embrace Good Boys, as it is quite stressful to watch twelve-year-olds contend with crises they’re nowhere near fully equipped to handle. But there is one element I greatly appreciate, and that is the matter of consent. It is underlined over and over in this movie that if you want to lock lips with your crush, you must ask first if they’re also into it. And when those moments happen, far from killing the mood, they instead increase the romance to an almost unbearably cute degree. Kids today might be dealing with a lot of pressure, but if they’re also being taught the importance of consent from a young age, then I’m not completely worried about the future.

Good Boys is Recommended If You Like: Superbad, Blockers, and weirdly enough Rock of Ages

Grade: 3 out of 5 Beanbag Boys

Movie Review: ‘Fighting with My Family’ Shows Us the Heart and Triumph Over Adversity in a Life Devoted to Wrestling

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CREDIT: Robert Viglasky/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Bodily Sacrifices of Wrestling, Crude Comments, and Drunken Misbehavior

Release Date: February 14, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide February 22, 2019

Most inspirational sports flicks follow the same rise-fall-rise structure, down to every little setback and triumph. But it makes sense that audiences have never fully tired of this genre, because while it may be repetitive, it is rarely unrealistic. Athletics is one field of human endeavor in which you can explicitly say whether or not you have emerged the winner. And just about every champion, or at least the ones worth watching, has at some point felt like an underdog. The professional wrestling biopic Fighting with My Family does nothing to mess with that formula. But while wrestling may be staged, there is still plenty uncertain along the way, and there is similarly enough uniquely compelling and surprising about Fighting with My Family to make its allegiance to formula plenty forgivable.

Florence Pugh stars as Saraya “Paige” Bevis, who at the age of 21 in 2014 became the youngest winner ever of WWE’s Divas Championship. (As far as I could tell from the movie and looking up footage of Paige’s actual fight, this is one WWE tournament in which the winner is not predetermined.) Paige comes from a wrestling-obsessed family in working-class England, and she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have dreamt their whole lives of rising to the ranks of WWE together, but alas, only Paige is given the opportunity.

You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to know that there will be a happy ending. You just have to watch the commercials and have enough common sense to know that if Paige didn’t become a champion, there probably wouldn’t be a movie about her. But considering that it ends on a note of such undisputed victory, there is a lot of bleakness along the way. Figuring herself a weirdo outcast, Paige struggles to get along with the more traditional hard bodies among her fellow recruits, and the isolation she experiences in sleekly empty, oppressively artificially lit hotel rooms is palpable. Even more intense are Zak’s demons. He put all his chips in the WWE basket, and as he feels that dream slipping away, he quickly transforms from a chipper young buck devotedly in love with his girlfriend and happy to be a new father into the most resentful person in the world. When Paige ultimately triumphs, it is as inspiring as it ought to be, but because of those descents into darkness, Fighting with My Family‘s most heartening moments are the times when the Bevis family make it clear that they have each other’s backs, and that is why this entry lifts itself atop the genre.

Fighting with My Family is Recommended If You Like: Professional wrestling and the stories behind it, Rocky, Warrior, Wacky working-class families

Grade: 4 out of 5 Title Belts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ is a Textbook Example of How Not to Reboot

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CREDIT: Reiner Bajo/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Sylvia Hoeks, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps, Claes Bang

Director: Fede Álvarez

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Violence and Sexual Content, But Relatively Mild by This Series’ Standards

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Where do you go if you’re an iconic character whose creator isn’t around anymore? For the supernaturally proficient hacker Lisbeth Salander, that worry applies twofold. Stieg Larsson, the original author of the Millennium book series, passed away in 2004, with all three of his Salander-starring novels published posthumously. With the books proving immensely popular, the series was eventually continued about a decade later by David Lagercrantz with The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. I haven’t read Lagercrantz’ entries, so I don’t know how they compare to Larsson’s work, but I do know that they haven’t been the sensations that the originals were.

Similarly, the film edition of Spider’s Web is arriving with much less fanfare than David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation (or even the Noomi Rapace-starring Swedish-language version). Dragon Tattoo got mostly strong reviews and cracked $100 million at the box office, but it proved to be too expensive and brutal to immediately continue on as a franchise. Still, it does director Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, 2013’s Evil Dead remake) no favors to be working with a version of Salander that is so far removed from Larsson and Fincher’s conceptions. To be fair, in order to truly succeed, it would have to succeed, so the problem is really that Spider’s Web is ultimately too generic. Dragon Tattoo featured brutal, hard-to-watch moments of abuse, but they made for striking, unforgettable characters. Spider’s Web, alas, reduces Salander to a standard-issue avenging angel caught up in inscrutable international intrigue.

Don’t blame Claire Foy, who is certainly willing to be as unapologetic and deeply committed as is necessary to embody Salander. And don’t blame Sylvia Hoeks as Lisbeth’s long-lost sister or LaKeith Stanfield as an enterprising agent. (Sverrir Gudnason, however, is not a particularly inspiring Mikael Blomkvist.) But do blame the not-particularly-deep story they are caught up in. Ghosts from the past and not-so-legitimate government authorities have caused problems for Salander in the past, but this time, they do not offer much unique to say about the human condition.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is Recommended If You Like: Cookie-cutter sprawling mystery thrillers

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Hacks

This Is a Movie Review: Mother of Mercy, Is This the End of ‘Logan’?

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This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant

Director: James Mangold

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Relentless, Vengeful Bodily Harm and a DGAF Attitude to Language

Release Date: March 3, 2017

Logan marks the ninth time that Hugh Jackamn is donning the muttonchops and adamantium claws to play indestructible X-Man Wolverine. At this point, for general audiences and fanboys alike to care, there simply MUST be something new to offer this go-round. Both of Wolverine’s previous solo films kind of fulfilled that dictum, but 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine otherwise totally missed the mark, while 2013’s The Wolverine felt too inconsequential. Logan ain’t having any of that. Set in a semi-apocalyptic near future, the film streamlines the muddled continuity down of the X-universe to its essence and gets right down to business.

Logan and an unstable, nonagenarian Professor X (Patrick Stewart, relevant as ever) are tasked with transferring the preteen Laura (Dafne Keen) to safety. In this future, mutants have mostly died out and no new ones have been born for two decades (the reason for this is revealed in a quick bit of exposition, so keep your ears peeled), but Laura displays abilities very reminiscent of our title character, suggesting that the mutant gene may not have died out completely. What we have here is a classic Western story structure about transporting human cargo. This makeshift family treks along dusty Oklahoma highways in search of a supposed Eden, avoiding the evil scientist forces that constantly plague this world’s heroes.

In a first for the franchise, Logan is rated R, and it does not shy away from earning that rating. With Wolverine’s penchant for slicing his enemies to smithereens, this potential was always there. And this is not just bloodlust for the sake of it. Logan does not have any new powers in this iteration, but he does deploy them in unprecedented fashion. Rendered sick by the same culprit that killed off the rest of mutantkind, there is greater vulnerability to his carnage. His earlier appearances have not lacked for thrillingly hardcore action, but with his healing power, the stakes have never been as high as they are in Logan. Every thrash of his claw becomes profoundly cathartic.

Logan works primarily as an acting showcase for Jackman, Stewart, and Keen. This entry just solidifies the Aussie’s performance as one of the most iconic bits of casting in cinema history. Stewart plays the telepathic leader in a key that I would have never anticipated. I am not entirely sure it all works, but it is undoubtedly riveting, and I admire Stewart for venturing into such dangerous territory. Keen is a spitfire and a revelation. It takes a special breed of 11-year-old to go toe-to-toe with a hairy beast, and she’s got what it takes. All signs point to Jackman hanging up the claws for good after this entry, and if this means that Keen can inherit the mantle, we are in good hands.

Logan is Recommended If You Like: The berserker scene from X2The Hateful EightThe Nice GuysLooper

Grade: 4 out of 5 Decapitations