Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Taika Waititi, left, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit. Picture: Kimberley French/ 20th Century Fox

Look, I just want to put it out there; Taika Waititi is brilliant. Seriously. His recent film, Jojo Rabbit, is a heckin’ masterpiece of modern cinema, and I’m here to tell you why.

The New Zealand actor/director/comedian (the man wears many hats) may be familiar to you from 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows or, more recently as the character Korg in Thor: Ragnarok. His most recent film, which he also directed and produced, has him playing a fanciful – and entirely imaginary – version of Adolf Hitler, in the mind of ten year old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, who is beautifully portrayed by newcomer Roman Griffin Davis. The film is based on Christine Leunens’ book, Caging Skies, but I confess I had neither heard of the book prior to watching this film, and nor have I read it.

The film is set in the later stages of WWII, in Nazi Germany. Living with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), Jojo is a member of Hitler Youth, and a firm believer that not only is Hitler a faultless hero, but that Germany is superior in every way to the rest of the world. At the tender age of ten, he is something of a fanatic; a trait made possible by Nazi propaganda and the overall fear that pervades every aspect of a war torn country. He is given the nickname Jojo Rabbit when, during his attendance at the Hitler Youth training camp, he fails to kill a rabbit. He is taunted by the other Hitler Young members afterwards, and cruelly given the nickname intended to mock him.

As the film progresses, Jojo discovers that his mother is hiding Elsa, a young Jewish girl, (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic; a revelation that both angers and intrigues him. It speaks to the widespread misinformation rampant during WWII that such a young boy would feel so passionately about such a subject, and that very fact is utilised to great effect in the film. It is easy to believe Jojo as the unwavering believer even at such a young age, because we know that Anti-semitism, like all forms of racism, is a learned behaviour. Yet unlike the older members of Hitler Youth who seem to delight in cruelty, Jojo is guilty only of having faith in the wrong person. Beneath his outward bravado and attempts to be tough, lies the heart of a sensitive and thoughtful ten year old.

I have to tip my hat to the supporting cast here too; Thomasin McKenzie was a delight, and her character was both well developed and well acted. The character’s bravado offset against her quiet fragility, and her relationship with Jojo was one of the best parts of the movie for me, not least because it formed a large part of the plot. But in terms of supporting characters, my uncontested favourite was one-eyed German soldier, Captain Klenzendorf, who was played by the fantastic (and in my opinion, highly underrated) Sam Rockwell. His character was a kind of mentor/leader for the youth army, and was of a seemingly more friendly disposition. In honesty, I probably could have done without Rebel Wilson’s minor contribution to the film, as I felt it added nothing, but aside from that, I can find no fault in the supporting cast.

Jojo Rabbit was an interesting take on some tough subject matter, and it is a rare person who can create a film about the war that elicits both laughter and tears from the audience, but therein lies the genius of Taika Waititi. His own portrayal of Adolf Hitler is unlike anything we would have seen on screen before, but the role he plays is a small (in terms of screen time), yet effective one. Supported by an excellent cast, he has made a film that has heart, and an underlying sweetness that takes the edge off the less shiny aspects of the plot. Whether that was his intention, I am unsure. All I can say is that I personally found that the movie managed a good balance between humour and poignancy, and I highly recommend it.

Little Women (2019)

Image result for little women

Published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was one of my favourite books when I was a little girl. When I discovered it was being adapted to screen (again) – and starring a whole bunch of my favourite actors, no less – there was no way I was gonna miss seeing it on the big screen. Full disclosure; I never saw the 1994 version (or indeed, any of the many other on-screen adaptations that have been made since 1917), and after watching this new version, don’t think I need to, because the 2019 adaptation was so. Flipping. Good.

This most recent adaptation was directed by Greta Gerwig, and reunites her with Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, both of who starred in her 2017 film Lady Bird – and who incidentally will be on screen together again, in the upcoming film The French Dispatch. I really loved Lady Bird, and so I was eager to see Gerwig’s take on this classic story. I wasn’t disappointed, and her feminine voice and vision really brought these beloved characters to life.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March, our feisty, independent protagonist (and one of my personal literary heroes). Jo was always my favourite character, and that is largely because she is so much like me. Hot tempered, wilful, stubborn and intelligent, she is a writer with no aspirations to marry, or fit in with elegant society. I loved her dearly as a child, and Ronan’s portrayal of her is everything I could have imagined. Timothée Chalamet plays the role of the charming next door neighbour, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, and even I fell in love with him a little. The on screen chemistry between these two young actors is always a treat, and probably has a lot to do with the fact that they are off screen friends as well. I love seeing them together, and the fast friendship of their characters is one of the things I enjoyed most about this film.

They are supported by an equally stellar cast, including Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen. One of the things I loved so much about this story, both in literature and on screen, is how multidimensional the central characters are. The plot concerns four sisters, each with their own individual interests and talents, and their unique voices. It was a true joy seeing those literary characters made flesh on screen. Emma Watson embodies Meg’s maternal instinct and quiet longing for elegance. Florence Pugh brings to life the Amy’s occasional petulance, but also her dedication to working towards her ultimate goals. Eliza Scanlen plays the gentle and shy Beth, and she was played so sweetly that I wanted to jump through the screen and embrace her. It was beautifully acted on all accounts, and I really felt that the casting choices could not have been better.

As fabulous as they were, it wasn’t simply just the actors that made this film to spectacular for me. Speaking from a dressmaker’s point of view, I have to say that the costume department needs to be commended. It was a great thrill for me, seeing so many gorgeously made costumes, each tailored (pun intended) for each character. The darker hues and more practical clothing for Jo’s tomboyish attitudes, contrasted against the lighter and more arguably feminine gowns Amy wears in Paris. I swoon.

I loved this film. Unabashedly. At it’s heart, Little Women is a story of sisterhood, of overcoming individual hardship, of carving out a place in a society determined to pigeonhole women. It is the kind of story that I think every woman can find something in; a character to relate to, or perhaps a situation to sympathise with. With all of this in mind, it is my personal feeling that Greta Gerwig’s take on this classic story is absolutely worth watching. It is heartfelt, honest, emotional, and beautifully directed. I truly felt invested in the story, and the characters. It is one of the rare films that I would return to the cinema to see again, and similarly, one of the few times where the film measures up to the book. Perhaps I feel so strongly about it, because I am familiar with the source material, but from a purely cinematic standpoint, it was just a really lovely film. Go and watch it.

Joker (2019)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, Joker, which was released in cinemas last week, takes a look at how the popular DC comic character becomes the villain; an origin story of sorts that takes place in Gotham long before the rise of Batman. This isn’t the glorified (and poorly portrayed) madness of Jared Leto’s Joker, nor the insane and yet somehow charming Joker portrayed by Heath Ledger. This is Phoenix like we have never seen him, in a grim look at the true darkness of mental illness, and the effects of poverty and ignorance on the city’s most underprivileged residents .

I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about the film. I think part of this comes down to the direction. Joker was directed by Todd Phillips, who is responsible for movies such as Road Trip, The Hangover trilogy and Due Date. As such, I felt he was put of his depth here, with a film that is not only considerably darker than his previous films, but also a completely different genre. Despite the title, this is no comedy. Whilst there were admittedly some funny moments, it was a kind of bleak humour, and far removed from any of the director’s previous works. The film as a whole is more of a psychological thriller, and I feel like this film would have benefitted from someone more used to this dark, gritty style of direction. Perhaps Fincher, or even Christopher Nolan (who, as we all know, directed the Dark Knight franchise, with much success.)

Director aside, Joaquin Phoenix does the best he can with what he’s got to work with, and to his credit, gives quite a brilliant and impressive performance. His portrayal of Arthur Fleck is truly something to see, and makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing. He is a clown for hire with aspirations to become a comedian, who looks after his ailing mother (Played brilliantly by Frances Conroy), and he does the best he can despite the hand he’s been dealt. But this film is not your typical underdog story. It is a visceral and compelling look at the effects of ignorance and insensitivity, and paints a picture of a society that could quite conceivably drive a person over the edge. The main character is mentally unstable and in some ways quite childlike, and as the film progresses, the scales of feeling are evenly weighted between sympathy and revulsion. His slow descent further into madness, as he evolves into the villain he will inevitably become, is actually quite confronting to watch. In addition to this, Arthur’s penchant for bursting into uncontrollable, unsettling laughter – which happens consistently throughout the film – made me vaguely uneasy. His unkempt hair and sickly physique were in keeping with the overall grimy feel of the film, but it’s not until his emergence as the Joker, that he finally looks like he belongs. The costume and facepaint he wears as his Joker persona suddenly reflect the madness he’s had within him the whole time, and once he makes his new identity known, there’s no coming back from it.

There are no rose coloured gasses here. The world Arthur lives in is one of systemic oppression, and the significant gap between the rich and the poor. These are desperate people; underprivileged and angry at the system that is determined to keep them down. Whatever the spark that ignites the fire, revolution is inevitable. In some ways, Joker was a difficult movie to watch, because there was a heavy focus on how mental illness is perceived by society, and the tendency of people to make it into a joke, either out of cruelty, or simple lack of understanding. In the journal he carries with him – a physical manifestation of his innermost thoughts – Arthur writes “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t“. It is a painfully accurate statement, and one that brings with it a floodgate of emotions. And yet, despite revelations that come to light regarding the origins of his psychological issues, it is hard to feel full sympathy for Arthur. He is a character ruled by delusions and guided by his absolute certainty that he is somehow special. It is a difficult protagonist to empathise with.

It did have some really great moments, and was thought provoking in a lot of ways. Amongst others, the movie touches on things like mob mentality, influence of the media, and how easily things can turn from love to hate or vice versa. There was some unexpected violence, which was utilised to great effect and surprisingly not overdone. That being said, there was a lot about the movie that didn’t quite work. There is one relationship in particular that just feels wrong and even though it is later explained, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Whilst Joker managed to tackle some pretty big themes and really captured the darkness of a city on the brink of chaos, for me, this movie felt like a long lead up to a not especially satisfactory conclusion.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

Chances are, you know of Quentin Tarantino. Bit of an oddball, painful to listen to, but he’s made some of the most iconic films…probably ever. Notable for his unique direction style, haphazard narratives and gratuitous violence, his films have made waves in the industry every time. His most recent film is no different. With a stellar cast, nearly three hours of screen time and a nostalgic look at Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pays homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most profitable industries in the world.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, the former lead actor of a popular TV western, now resigned to taking supporting roles in TV pilots. He is the embodiment of a fading star, clinging desperately to some semblance of his former fame and trying to carve out a career in film before it’s “too late”. At his side through it all is Brad Pitt as Dalton’s stunt double and friend, Cliff Booth. Casually, contentedly in the background of the film industry – with a somewhat unsavoury reputation – Cliff is cool as a cucumber from start to finish, and the antidote to Rick’s somewhat tumultuous, and often alcohol fuelled moods. The chemistry between the two is palpable, and there is a true sense of brotherhood that flows through the film as we follow the lives of these two showbusiness veterans, tetering on the edge of irrelevance.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, young and idealistic, and just breaking into the film industry as Rick Dalton (who, in this version of events, happens to be her next door neighbour) seems to be on his inevitable way out of it. This raised a few eyebrows in the lead up to the film’s release, as people were quick to jump to conclusions about how Tarantino may have handled that particularly sensitive issue. Anyone familiar with the Manson Family will understand the controversy, but the truth is that Robbie’s Sharon Tate is almost like a background character, more or less there for the purpose of juxtaposition between the old and the new.

Tarantino tackles a lot of really excellent themes in this film, particularly the bonds of friendship, and the effects of change. But with a run time of 161 minutes, the film itself is a bit meandering. Whilst the main story is that of Dalton and Booth, the film gets caught up in the Manson Family subplot which, for the most part, feels a little…lacklustre and at times, even pointless. The scenes involving the infamous cult have a tendency to drag, and not even the increasing undercurrent of tension, as the film builds to it’s inevitable conclusion, is quite enough to propel the scenes forward. Certainly, the movie would have benefited from losing at least a half hour of screen time. It feels like we’re being taken on a slow amble through the film, until the third act kind of explodes onto the screen with a pace and energy that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite manage to achieve.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed being taken on the nostalgic, and occasionally self indulgent ride back to the late 60’s. The era has been recreated with minute detail, and the movie is both stylistically and visually pleasing. With some familiar cameos (heyyyy Zoe Bell) and a supporting cast including Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant and Emile Hirsch, it is the characters more so than the actual plot, who truly drive this film. Despite a few flaws with the film’s pace, it is worth watching for the explosive final act alone (if nothing else). In typical Tarantino style, is has some great dialogue, some funny moments interjected with the sincere, and truly unforgettable characters. The quirky director can be a little hit and miss for me, but in this case he scored a hit.

Hellboy (2019)

I’ve been looking forward to the new Hellboy film for weeks. After watching several impressive trailers, I went to see it last night with high expectations. What I got was somewhat less than I was hoping for, but still an enjoyable cinema experience.

Neil Marshall’s take on everyone’s favourite big red demon has been met with mostly scathing reviews. Many people are holding it up against the Guillermo Del Toro versions, and saying that it falls short. Whilst I did thoroughly enjoy the 2004 adaptation and the sequel in 2008 (I mean, how cool was the Angel of Death, y’all?), I tend to find these kind of comparisons less than helpful. I feel that two different directors with two completely different visions, need to be critiqued on their own individual merit.

So I want to begin by saying that, despite its shortcomings – and there are quite a few, if we’re being honest – I actually quite liked this most recent take on Mike Mignola’s acclaimed comic. A general consensus amongst reviewers seems to be that David Harbour does an excellent job in the title role, and I agree. Plus, he looks absolutely fantastic. However, he can only do so much with the script he is given, and here I feel is one of the areas where this adaptation falls a little flat. Oftentimes throughout the film, the dialogue comes across somewhat clunky, where it should be free flowing. There are quite a few scenes that lack chemistry between the characters, and a lot of this has to do with what they’re saying – or not saying – to each other. And don’t even get me started on the less than stellar British accents! Despite this, there is a smattering of humour throughout, which helps to offset the moments where conversations sound stilted.

The film opens with a gravelly Ian McShane voice over for black and white scenes, interjected with startling red. The opening scenes tell of the Blood Queen Nimue (played by Milla Jovovich), and her defeat by none other than King Arthur, with the aid of Excalibur. But the rest of the movie proceeds to jump back and forth between what seems like too many subplots and flashbacks, and the effect is somewhat jarring. We’ve got vampires, giants, secret societies, Nazis, changelings, cat like beasts, and Baba Yaga herself. It’s the last character in particular that struck me as being unecessary. Whilst the scenes involving the grotesque, scuttling hag and her walking house are amongst the most effective visually, I found it to be a pointless addition to an already overloaded plot. The film suffers from an abundance of minor characters, with little to no real explanation for their presence.

The plot for Hellboy is drawn from the comics Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury, but it feels rushed, with too much involved to be properly explored with any real depth. And it’s a shame, because with a little less unecessary subject matter and a little more substance, the plot could have worked a whole lot better, and flowed a whole lot smoother.

Effects wise, there was some absolutely fantastic gore throughout. I know a lot of people are complaining about it, but the video game playing, horror movie fan in me loved it. And in particular, the hell beasts in some of the final few scenes are the stuff of nightmares. Set against moody, apocalyptic skies and a gritty London backdrop, the gloomy colour palette works extraordinarily well against the splashes of blood and sheer unapologetic violence. Nimue’s vengeance presents in creative ways, and the CGI deaths of a few in particular were highly effective. Admittedly, there are moments during the film where the smaller budget (compared to other comic adaptations) shows, but overall it was a successful use of the R rating.

A couple of mid credits scenes hint at the possibility of expanding the universe with a sequel, but it all depends on how well or poorly this film does. Despite most of the reviews I’ve read, and though there are definitely things I would have liked to have seen done better, I really enjoyed the film for what it was. And I’d quite like to see it further explored, should the possibility of a sequel be a reality.

A Simple Favor (2018)

Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, A Simple Favor is a difficult film to categorise. I’ve heard it called a thriller, a domestic comedy, and even ‘Cute Noir’ (yeah, I don’t know what that is either). I suppose it has elements of each, but to be honest I’m still not really sure where to put it.

Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, an eager to please young widow who spends her time raising a son, filming vlogs from her kitchen, and being well intentioned, if generally a little too over the top. Mocked by a trio of other parents, in something akin to an adult version of Mean Girls, Stephanie is a little bit of a loner – albeit a very chirpy one. Blake Lively is Emily, and the antithesis of Stephanie; elegant, aloof, enigmatic and completely unperturbed about the opinions of others. She swears carelessly, has a nude portrait of herself hanging in her home, and drinks martinis in the afternoon. Despite their obvious differences, the two women come together as a result of their sons’ friendship, and strike up a friendship of their own. Mere weeks after their first encounter, Emily suddenly, unexpectedly disappears. And here begins a series of twists and turns that drive the rest of the film.

Stephanie, a self proclaimed problem solver, decides to delve into the mystery of Emily’s disappearance, whilst smoothly integrating herself into the life of the family Emily leaves behind. Her husband Sean (Henry Golding) can shed little light on the enigma that is his wife, admitting that she is an intensely private person, even with him. Cliches abound as the movie drives towards the middle, and with them comes a cringeworthy predictability that you could put money on. Though to it’s credit, there are a few key scenes and revelations that help to alleviate an otherwise unsurprising tale. As the movie progresses and the aforementioned twists begin to come into play, it becomes clear that despite their shiny Stepford exteriors, neither woman is entirely who she appears to be.

There is enough intrigue in the beginning to propel the film forward, but at a certain point it begins to drag out to a contrived, almost laughable conclusion. The humour is at odds with the somewhat darker subject matter, which works in some places (watch for the scene where Emily makes a candid, off the cuff remark about her labia) yet falls flat in others.

A Simple Favor, much like it’s central characters, can’t be taken at face value. There is more to it than the trailer suggests, and it’s doesn’t cleanly fit into any genre. It had the potential to be a really great film. The premise was good, the two talented female leads have obvious chemistry and play their respective characters incredibly well, and some of the costumes were to die for. Let’s be real, if I looked as good as Blake Lively in a suit, I’d wear them all the time. Yet Feig’s attempt to combine his typical direction and stylistic humour, and play it off against the ‘femme fatale’ character that dominates more elegant thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, doesn’t blend especially well. Whilst the film itself wasn’t bad, there were definitely aspects that could have been more finely tuned to create a more satisfying cinema experience. Nevertheless, if ever there was such a thing as a light hearted thriller, A Simple Favor is it.

Lady Bird (2017)

Last week I took myself out on a date, and I went to see Lady Bird. I read a review a while ago by the guys over at MovieBabble and it piqued my interest, so I’ve been meaning to go see it for a while. I scored some free tickets for the cinema through work last year (the one good thing about my job) so I thought I’d take advantage of the midweek lull at the movie theatre, and the fact that it’s at the end of the showing cycle (both of these things contribute to less people to have to share a theatre with, y’all). 

The titular character is played by Saoirse Ronan, and I’ll be honest here guys; if you don’t love her then we can’t be friends. The 23 year old Irish-American (swoon) actress is incredibly talented, and Lady Bird is just one more film to be added to her ever growing list of fantastic performances. Set in 2002 in Sacramento, California; it tells the story of Christine McPherson (self-dubbed Lady Bird) as she completes her final year of high school, and prepares to go off to college. As a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood, Lady Bird is certain of what she wants, and determined to go onto better things; to break free from the monotony of her home town and go to live in a place that has ‘culture’. Of course, her desire to leave is at odds with her mother’s equally strong desire to keep her close to home, and just one of the many things the two butt heads over.

Under Greta Gerwig’s direction, this film has a sense of frank honesty, and she tackles the coming of age genre with a touch of humour, and attention to detail. If the goal here was to be as raw and real as possible, then Lady Bird comes through. I feel as though all the characters reminded me people I know, or have met. Everyone from Lady Bird’s upbeat and positive best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), to aloof, superior and somewhat condescending love interest, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) was vaguely familiar to me. And each of the relationships in this film are essential to the driving forward of the plot. Though of course, the loving but turbulent relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), is at the centre of it all, as both women try to assert themselves in the face of conflicting interests and ideals.

This film was beautifully shot, with some really strong performances and a story at the heart of it all that I think most, if not all of us can relate to. Which of us hasn’t wanted desperately to move from our home town and experience something new? Which of us hasn’t dealt with those pressures from teachers, and indeed adults as a whole, in our teenage years? And which of us hasn’t gone through those mini existential crises, whilst we try to figure out who we are? Though the plot is not the most original (we all know that “girl ditches her true friends for new friends who turn out to only like the version of herself she’s created to impress them” trope oh so well), the performances make up for it. There’s something sweetly poignant about it, and it can’t be said that the film has no heart. With her directorial debut hitting home so accurately, I’d definitely be interested to see more of Gerwig’s creations in the future.