So I saw and reviewed Jojo Rabbit ... a bold effort that I mostly enjoyed, though it doesn't quite come together.
The Second World War looms large as a key component of contemporary history, and it has of course provided inspiration for seminal works of visual art, cinema chief among them. Less often discussed is the propensity of lazy studio executives to predictably greenlight the odd subgenre of mostly mediocre faux-prestige films with a WWII theme that coincidentally happen to always be released around Oscar time. Critics dutifully predict they will see awards buzz, the notices are all very polite and respectful, a handful of nominations result with perhaps a win here and there, and the films are then gently shelved to never be viewed or referenced again outside of a high school history course.
It is to the immense credit of Taika Waititi, the writer, director and supporting star of Jojo Rabbit, that he strives to do something different with this type of material, though he does not fully avoid the fog of war that is its inherent risk. Jojo Rabbit is told from a child’s perspective, in this instance the ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis), an eager war’s end recruit to the Hitler Youth, which is portrayed here as demented bizarro-world Boy Scouts. Jojo has a room plastered with Nazi propaganda, and he certainly talks the talk of a committed ideologue, spewing comments about the virtue of glory and the evil of Jews. In his heart however, Jojo is a lonely kid with a big imagination who simply likes the sense of belonging that the uniform and the regimentation give him. We see early on that he has a soft heart. His refusal to kill a rabbit, a sick exercise engineered by some sadistic older boys, earns him the jeering nickname of the film’s title. A drunk (yet subversively sympathetic) Sam Rockwell oversees the contingent as a one-eyed officer working well below his paygrade, while minor parts for Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson round out this motley crew. My fear was that the whole film would take on the too-obvious tone of these opening scenes, which paired the cheekily subversive with the obvious and overdone (a bit of business that paired the Beatles singing in German with actual footage of Nazi rallies was a low-point for me). Those characters and that tone linger throughout, but the narrative shifts to a more specific theme.
Before we touch on the film’s main struggle however, we need to deal with the Adolf in the room. Part of Jojo’s loneliness and vast imagination manifests itself in a most unusual imaginary friend: his own personal Hitler, played by Waititi himself. Most of the advertising and promotion of the film has leaned into the “Hitler buddy comedy” bit, and there is an undeniable oddness to scenes of Jojo running around and laughing with the Fuhrer, uniforms, medals and all. I was at first very ambivalent about this aspect of the film. No less a cinematic artist than Charles Chaplin, who portrayed a satirized Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator (among the finest of his works in the opinion of this reviewer) stated after the fact that had he known the full extent of the Nazi regime’s crimes, he would never have made the film and never would have portrayed the character. I actually think what Waititi is going for here mostly works, thanks to a committed performance and the fact that we wisely only see Hitler sparingly, and then only channeled through Jojo’s own mind. As Jojo matures and grows, his relationship with Hitler changes and sours. I know for some viewers the mere image of Hitler, particularly portrayed lightly, can be off-putting and nauseating. It will remain this film’s visual hallmark.
I earlier mentioned a tonal shift. We meet Jojo’s formidable and imaginative mother Rosie (a pitch-perfect Scarlet Johansson, nailing a German accent). From spreading anti-regime leaflets to slapping officers, Rosie models for her son a different path from his dreams of martial glory, telling him to stuff the politics, and warmly responding to his need for a mother’s affection. Her maternal instincts extend beyond her immediate family: a curious Jojo finds a secret door concealing the spunky Elsa (an excellent Thomasin McKenzie, who we knew was an actress to watch since 2018’s Leave No Trace), a teenage Jewish girl that Rosie is hiding even from her son. Watching these two young performers with a natural chemistry move from mutual suspicion and fear, to grudging acceptance and ultimately to concern and self-sacrifice is the true crux of the film and is a true joy to watch. There is a wit and tenderness to their time together that transcends the surroundings.
Which leads me into a final summation of the film … I did like it. Quite a bit. But what could have been excellent languishes for me in the realm of the “pretty good”. There’s much to recommend. As stated, the acting is stellar throughout. The color palette is consistently bright and bold, giving the film an unabashed immediacy. Waititi’s direction is punchy and confident, with interesting and well-staged framing, several instances of which linger still in my mind. So, what went wrong? It’s hard to succinctly summarize … in some ways it is more of a general feeling. Yes, the film is told from the viewpoint of a child, and one who (as the film opens at least) is sympathetic to his own understanding of the Nazi regime. Perhaps that is the reason why events never feel like they have the requisite weight to attain the desired emotional beats. A scene where Jojo’s house is searched by a Gestapo officer (Stephen Merchant looking like a Raiders of the Lost Ark reject) feels listless and without true tension. The occasional usage of rock music on the soundtrack is effective in some sequences and distracting in others. The screenplay and direction have not quite found the right balance between silliness and satire and more truthful and deeper emotions, though there are attempts.
And this film represents in essence one large “attempt”: an attempt to do something novel and interesting within a staid and conservative subset of film. That it mostly succeeds is due to the ingenuity and daring of a talented director and a stellar cast. Though I was left hoping for more, what they were able to bring forth does indeed serve as a breath of fresh air. The right tonal balance is very hard to strike with this material. That Jojo Rabbit has more hits than misses is its crowning achievement.
~Fr. Michael Carter
I have a friend who spent some time living in Alaska. As could be expected, his experiences there have turned into near mythic lore, and the line between truth and tall tale is blurred. One anecdote that feels true regards my friend unexpectedly finding himself staring down a grizzly. Before either one of them could react, the sheer confusion of the moment took time to sink in, mental panic came before the body could be primed to motion. That psychological rawness came to me front and center during the most visually arresting sequence of Sam Mendes’ breathtaking 1917. A nocturnal image of a ruined, burning city looking for all the world like a backdrop to Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmares, just barely illumines two opposing soldiers emerging from the rubble. The uncertainty about identity as they draw nearer shifts into fear and adrenaline as reality dawns.
A detail like that is a subtlety that is not often found in most films of the “war” genre. In some ways 1917 stands outside of those tropes. At times the stark immediacy of the camera work as it plays with shadow and light, coupled with judicious sound design and a score that is at turns eerie and economical and orchestrally grand evokes nothing less than a horror film. What subject is more horrible than war?
1917 uses what sounds like a hackneyed concept as a mere rationale to showcase the visual and psychological details that coalesce into as true a depiction of industrial combat as someone who has never fired a weapon could conceive. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as two ordinary British soldiers tasked with the delivery of an important message, with the added stakes of knowing that one of the men’s brothers stands to live or die based on its successful receipt (having as I do some knowledge of the First World War, elements of this are certainly based on true events. The Germans did indeed withdraw to new positions at this phase of the war. Rest assured that the film’s degree of accuracy was enough for this pedant). This plot device is really no more than an excuse to keep the film’s narrative moving, and move it surely does, courtesy of the much-discussed “single take” shot that is this film’s stylistic calling card.
This camera innovation was one of the few things I was concretely aware of regarding this movie as I was walking in. I feared it would be a novelty that soon wore off, becoming more of a hindrance than an effective narrative tool, as was the fate of the critically overrated Birdman from some years back. In 1917, it never feels like a gimmick, and indeed adds immeasurably to the mood and tone of the film. Traveling as we are with the soldiers through trenches, tunnels, fields and fire, the camera movement allows us to feel a true sense of unease and discovery as we travel along, never knowing what the next crater or farmhouse will bring. This technique also helps to raise the stakes, allowing us to feel genuine surprise when (for example) a character is stabbed off-camera. There is a whole world existing outside of the limited frame, and, as with our own senses, what is most important is not always directly in front of us.
I have heard some complaints about the pacing of this movie. Again, I feel that we are too inured to the rhythms of the war genre. This is a film with action, but it is not an “action film”. Its combat and tension is offset with quieter and more somber moments of rest, for the characters and audience alike. The dialogue has an autumnal, reflective quality, like how you know on a Sunday afternoon that the weekend is slipping through your fingers, impacting your enjoyment of the moment. I particularly think of a sequence when one of our main soldiers hitches a truck ride with another unit and we hear the chatter and banter of unintroduced characters. As I was viewing, I was tempted also to see some of these scenes as dragging the momentum, but upon knowing the whole, they are indispensable to the film’s rhythm, where every shot (from a camera or a gun) has more economy of purpose than one might come to expect from a film of this type. I would also briefly respond to the fact that the film is too nationalistic in tone. I emphatically disagree. Though told from the British perspective the impact of the film would shift not one iota if the characters and dialogue were portrayed as being from the German side. The hero of the film is simple humanity, the villain war itself. All are equally caught in the maelstrom.
As someone interested by the film making process, I am always dazzled at the mere existence of a film like this with so many moving parts. Being able to bring it all together in a way that allows the visual highlights as well as the quieter moments to coexist in a way where both are equally memorable is a tonal and directorial triumph. As a portrayal of the sturm and drang of industrialized war from the macro to the micro level, it is remarkable that the smaller, more pensive moments hold equal weight. A hushed conversation in a ruined basement is as tumultuous in its own way as a bombardment in an open field, and allows us to see the connections that allowed these people their individuality and dignity in the midst of forces beyond their control. If it is said that war is hell and that hell is other people, 1917 proves that the mere presence of others can also be heavenly. Would that we did not need wars to understand that.
Fr. Michael Carter
I'm trying to restore my habit of seeing a movie a week. To get me in the zone, I wanna try writing reviews of each movie I see. This one is coming right from the fire, I hope they get more polished the more I do them:
As Underwater began its final third, I found my attention go daydreaming back to the opening 30 minutes which represented the most engrossing, engaging and sustained burst of action that I have experienced in a film for a good long while. What a shame that the genre clichés that this film subverted and playfully transcended in its opening salvos caught up with it in the end.
For at its core, Underwater is inescapably a genre picture, and ultimately one we’ve seen too many times. In the (seemingly) near future, there is some sort of project underway involving a seven mile drill and the Marianas Trench, for what we can assume are the vague reasons of cinematic science and/or corporate greed. The film wisely dispenses with even a cursory explanation of the wheres and whys of the whole scenario, opting to instead showcase any exposition within the opening and closing credits, the former of which seem ripped out of an early 90’s Trent Reznor project. We glean enough to know that a cadre of researchers and workers are living on-board this giant drill, and are scarcely able to orient ourselves via a moody Kristen Stewart voice over before the unexpectedly unexpected happens courtesy of a series of explosions and mechanical failures which send Stewart’s Norah on a mad rush to a more stable part of the station.
Thus begins what is almost an uninterrupted sequence of tension and escalation that is far and away the movie’s highlight. Claustrophobia, leaking and rising water, live wires and mechanical failures all contribute to what truly felt like a race against time as Norah and the various survivors she encounters along the way think on their feet (and knees and backs) to develop a plan of escape. There is nothing extraneous or wasted in these early moments, no need for a rumination on what is causing the disaster or any wider meta-commentary that might stem from a closer examination on what these people were doing on this station, why, and for whom. I admired the simplicity and focused approach that was enhanced by some deft directorial choices and set design that added authenticity and true tension to the proceedings. My hope was that the tension built in these early sequences could be sustained for the duration, resulting in an uppercut of a film that made full use of its lean 90-minute running time. Unfortunately, the more characters that were collected and the more we learned about why any of this was happening, the spell was broken and the momentum dragged.
A word about Kristen Stewart, who truly carries the film, and who I personally have been wanting to turn into an action-hero for some time (we’ll just ignore her unfortunate role in last year’s abortive attempt to reboot the Charlie’s Angels franchise). The way that she has played with various notions of gender and androgyny in her own personal style and career makes her ideal for these types of roles, which too often have been caricatured as bizarrely attenuated machismo on the one hand or male-gazey misogyny on the other. With a close buzz and (at the beginning at least) glasses, she upsets the archetype while being able to summon the grit and power that makes her more extreme exploits believable. Her closest cinematic counterpart would be Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and, indeed, Underwater’s single biggest influence is Ridley Scott’s Aliens (1979), from the perspective of characters, set-design, attitude and creatures that you wish had stayed in the dark, though not necessarily for the reason the director intended.
Stewart’s Norah encounters the typical rogues’ gallery: a stoic older captain, a character who’s sole purpose is an attempt at comic relief, a sweetly loving couple, a person of color who is the first to die (can we let that trope die in 2020?). No one aside from the captain gets more than a cursory characterization, and the dialogue, which was never razor sharp to begin with, trends more and more towards the dopey as things move along, but so long as they keep moving we are scarcely bothered by it, and excited to see the crew navigate dark corridors, faulty pressure suits, malfunctioning elevators. There almost seems something novel in a film which wastes no time, doesn’t try to dazzle or justify its existence and simply just goes. Alas, the filmmakers could not resist introducing an explanatory element to the proceedings which saps the film of its character and provides a (disappointing and poorly designed) raison d’etre for questions we were too busy enjoying the action to ask or care about. As the film tries to introduce more depth to the characters and more reason to the proceedings other than “we need to move” my attention steadily waned. What kept this film singular and exciting was its initial lack of any external trappings. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.
Two and a half stars.
By the force of inertia if nothing else, it is time for my 2019 movie list. In my very humble opinion, 2019 was not at all a good year for film. It also was not a good year for me, meaning that I wasn't able to make time for movies as much as I would have liked. That being said, whereas 2018 saw the release of several films that I continue to think about and that continue to capture my immediate attention and imagination, providing me all the visceral wonder that film at its best can provide, only the top two of my list this year really had a similar effect. As a matter of fact, I'm not even submitting a top ten list. There just wasn't enough for me. We'll call it a top five, and then I even feel compelled to list some disappointments ... movies that had potential or that I thought I should enjoy that just ... did not connect.
1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
2. Climax (Gaspar Noe)
3. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)
4. Midsommar (Ari Aster)
5. Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
3. Joker (Todd Phillips). Joaquin Phoenix is probably the best actor working, and his performance in this movie is justly admired, but the film itself is overlong and self-serious with severe pacing problems. I'm not as critical of whatever the "message" may or not be (a point of contention for many) as I am of the fact that I walked out of the theater feeling empty, and not in the way I like.
2. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers). Despite much to admire in the mise-en-scene and sound design of this film, which powerfully captures internal and external claustrophobia, I never bought the acting and felt it devolved into bloated self-parody at the end (in front of and behind the camera). A shame, because the director's previous film The Witch is among the best of the past decade. Were I to rewatch it now, I think I would like it less as I've seen all the director's tricks laid bare. Ghosts are always scarier away from the light.
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino). The nadir of my film-going experience this year is summed up by the conversation I had with a friend in a Boston theater as the lights went up. Nudging her awake I sheepishly said "I'm so sorry, I wanted to ask you if we could leave after like 30 minutes, I was so bored". Her eyes widened as she exclaimed "Oh my God I wanted to do the same thing!" I love Old Hollywood, and I love the cinema, attitude and music of the late 1960's, but nothing connected for me in this interminable slog that felt really and truly as if it would never, ever end.
The heart of the Society of Saint Edmund’s mission is serving where the need is greatest, a credo that has led us to four core ministries: Social Justice, Education, Spiritual Renewal and Pastoral Ministry. It is through these core ministries that we live out a faith-based life of service and make a real difference in people’s lives by bringing them closer to God.