In my apparently endless need to publicly prove I have no life, I caught eight films at four different venues between Thursday and Saturday. Some titles are worth more words than I've given them; a couple are undoubtedly worth less. Regardless, the following are listed in order of preference. If you're among those readers who enjoy my pans more than my praise, by all means work your way backward.
Nothing, literally nothing, about Taika Waititi's “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit should work. Not the idea that the final months and days of World War II in Nazi-controlled Germany could be played for hearty slapstick cackles. Not the myriad anachronisms, with an opening montage scored to the Beatles' “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (in German) and a character admitting that he's “massively into swastikas.” Not the precariously close proximity of comedy and tragedy, with verbal and visual jokes landing mere minutes after the reveal of dead bodies hanging in a town square. Not the performances, which range from obviously untrained to dangerously broad. Not the sentimental detours that suggest, God help us, the second coming of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Certainly not Adolf Hitler – a role played by the writer/director himself – routinely popping up as our 10-year-old lead's imaginary friend and behaving much like a 10-year-old himself. Astoundingly, though, Waititi (adapting the Christine Leunens novel Caging Skies) makes it all work, and with such firm yet easy command that the film emerges as the weirdest kind of triumph – the ballsiest, funniest, and most moving movie of the year.
As the timid yet ferociously devoted Hitler Youth appalled to discover a Jewish girl hidden in the crawlspace of his home, Roman Griffin Davis delivers one of the finest debuts in recent memory and is key to Jojo Rabbit's considerable success. At 10, Jojo is young enough to buy into Nazi propaganda hook, line, and sinker, but also too young to realize, as most everyone else in the film does, that Germany's defeat is inevitable and imminent. Davis' winning comic naïveté consequently plays out against beautifully, sometimes uproariously written scenes of his elders either schooling Jojo or taking advantage of his trust: the Jewish teen Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), who astonishes Jojo with the information that Jews are just like Nazis, “only human”; Jojo's mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a member of the Nazi resistance gently trying to steer her son away from fascism; Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a Nazi-youth-camp leader whose recognition of the folly in 1945 indoctrination isn't shared with his tunnel-visioned minions (Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen). Jojo may be a monster-in-training, but he's also just a cherubic, typically goofy kid, and Waititi's work mirrors Davis' marvelous blend of foolish bravado, heartbreaking sweetness, and deeply earned poignancy.
There are moments here as hysterical as any I've witnessed in years, from faux-Adolf's frequent temper tantrums to the sight gag involving a gaggle of clones to the repeated “Heil, Hitler!” greeting that's like an extended version of The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob stepping on all those rakes. (Also hilarious is nearly every second spent with Archie Yates as Jojo's chubby, endearing pal Yorki.) Yet these wildly comedic interludes – which are funnier, even, than anything in Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or the wicked-smart vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows – somehow also mesh perfectly with the movie's not-insignificant dramatic leanings. While Nazis, and hate groups in general, are definitely satirized here, their actions most assuredly aren't, and there's as much legitimate pathos in Elsa's and Rosie's conflicted panic and Jojo's coming of age as there are belly laughs in the clueless officiousness of Stephen Merchant's black-clad official who geeks out at all the pictures of Der Fuhrer on Jojo's bedroom wall. It may not be quite as artistically satisfying as Parasite (see below) or Pain & Glory (see slightly below-er), but Jojo Rabbit is a glorious experience; I cried when one character died, laughed when another did, and cried and laughed when yet another survived. Waititi's movie won the People's Choice Award at this fall's Toronto Film Festival, and in a wonderful surprise, the People weren't wrong.
In an attempt to succinctly express my feelings on South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's genre-breaking comedy/thriller/something-else-entirely Parasite, I texted a friend, “It's like Bong does Kubrick does Haneke.” For the auteur-versant among you, that might be all you need to know to want to immediately secure a ticket. (Or, you know, not.) For the rest of you, my cinephilic code should be expanded to say that this unclassifiable, hugely entertaining parable – winner of the Palm d'Or grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival – is like one of Stanley Kubrick's or Michael Haneke's bleak, astringent, tightly controlled provocations, but with the rousing humor, violence, and experimentation we've come to expect from the creator of The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja. It's a movie to make you laugh, and then gasp, and then laugh for having gasped. As it's probably best to enter Bong's latest with as little advance information as possible (though those averse to reading at the movies should know that the entire film is subtitled), I'll simply say that Parasite finds an impoverished family of four systematically, and deviously, getting themselves hired as servants to a well-to-do family of four, leading to a topsy-turvy conflagration involving the haves, the have-nots, and the have-even-lesses. For the first half of Bong's masterwork, you pretty much giggle throughout, delighting in the subterfuge as the Kims (the excellent quartet of Song Kang-ho, Jang Hye-jin, Choi Woo-sik, and Park So-dam) gradually, almost imperceptibly trade places with their perceived betters the Parks (the equally fine Lee Sun-kyun, Jo Yeo-jeong, Jung Ji-so, and Jung Hyun-jun). But after the Parks, at the film's halfway point, take off for a camping trip and the Kims are free to fully usurp the household, Bong and his co-screenwriter Han Jim Won pull off a doozy of a plot twist that sends this 99-percenter-uprising saga into another realm entirely – one in which comedy becomes inseparable from horror, and horror burns with the weight of tragedy. And you still laugh. I'll no doubt be revisiting the miraculously well-designed, thunderously well-composed Parasite many times in the future. But for now, my head is still swimming, with an almost tangible excitement, from the black hole of the basement door, and the backyard teepee, and the peach-fuzz poison, and the Chekhov's-gun of the good-luck charm, and the return of the housekeeper, and the exploding toilet, and the forehead-induced Morse code … . It's enough to make your brain explode. But what a way to go.
PAIN & GLORY
For we fans of Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar, it's been a long wait – 13 years now – since the unmitigated greatness of Volver, with underwhelming releases such as 2011's The Skin I Live In and 2013's I'm So Excited! suggesting that their creator may have entered a long period of creative fatigue. I'm consequently ecstatic to report that Almodóvar appears back to his beautiful, brilliant self with his autobiographical drama Pain & Glory, a movie that's all about … creative fatigue. Playing a barely disguised version of Almodóvar himself, Antonio Banderas, in career-best form, is noted filmmaker Salvador Mallo, a man in his late-50s whose many physical ailments and psychological hangups have forced him to the brink of retirement. What follows is a screen memoir in the vein of Fellini's 8½ or Bob Fosse's All That Jazz as Mallo looks to his past to comprehend his present, and it's such a truthful, revealing, magnificently openhearted work that it feels like the film adaptation of Almodóvar's private diary. Its flashback sequences, with the touching Asier Flores as a young Salvador and the maternally ravishing Penélope Cruz as his mother, are inexpressively tender – idyllic visions that, it turns out, are both more and less real than we initially think. Yet their warmth is matched by the gorgeous, complicated humanity of adult Salvador's present-day encounters with those he's either ignored or outright abandoned: the long-suffering agent and friend (Nora Navas) who worries for Mallo's health and dutifully turns down all invitations for his company; the handsome heroin user (Asier Etxeandia) who starred in Mallo's early screen triumph and hasn't spoken to the director in 32 years; the former lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia) whose own addictions become fodder for Mallo's anonymously written one-man play. Like the flashbacks, the scenes of Mallo's waking life are all tinged with regret, but Pain & Glory, somber though it is, isn't a downbeat experience. Quite the opposite, really: It's such a richly cinematic embrace of all aspects of a person's life – the joys as well as the sorrows – that it leaves you with an exhilarating high. And while Banderas' watchful, soulful, sneakily witty performance would be more than enough reason to view the film, we're also treated to stunning portrayals across the board, wonderful moments of high comedy (particularly when Mallo refuses to attend a scheduled film-screening Q&A), a superb Gabriel Iglesias score, and luscious José Luis Alcaine cinematography that you'll want to freaking bathe in. Be forewarned, though: As with Parasite, the Spanish-language Pain & Glory – currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene on the Ped Mall – is wholly subtitled. If you've been waffling on the purchase of reading glasses, now would be an excellent time to invest in them.
Considering The Shining is my favorite horror movie and favorite horror book, I can't fathom why – until I saw the preview for Doctor Sleep this summer – I had no idea that a sequel even existed. But once I learned that Stephen King did indeed release a 2013 follow-up novel and that writer/director Mike Flanagan had made a film version, I was, no doubt like most super-fans, both immediately psyched and immediately nervous. (Psyched because “A Shining sequel! Whee!!!” Nervous because “A Shining sequel. Why?!?”) Happily, though, this continuation is a solid one – too long and barely close to scary, but engaging and well-acted and boasting enough nods to Kubrick to make my anticipation feel justified. As we catch up with the previously traumatized Danny Torrance (now a “Dan” and played by Ewan McGregor), the film finds the recovering addict and alcoholic forced to confront his ghost-filled past by attempting to save a teenage girl (Kyliegh Curran) with psychic abilities of her own and outrun a series of vampiristic soul-suckers (led by Rebecca Ferguson) who want all shiners annihilated. There's definitely too much plot needing to be compressed into the movie's two-and-a-half hours – a TV mini-series might have been the smarter way to go – and some of the effects, especially the glowing eyeballs of our villains, are admittedly on the tacky side. Yet the narrative diversions are almost all interesting ones, there's some tip-top dream imagery in the vein of Christopher Nolan's Inception, and while McGregor is in fine form, Curran and Ferguson are utterly spectacular, the former with her blunt refusal to act the victim, and the latter with her elegant, insinuating viciousness that hints at perversions we're blessedly not allowed to witness. (A scene of Jacob Tremblay suffering through his character's unimaginable ordeal is harrowing enough.) Best of all is the climax set, inevitably and giddily, in the now-dilapidated Overlook Hotel, with Flanagan's echoes of Kubrickian flourishes – plus the genius casting of Henry Thomas and Alex Essoe as Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall doppelgängers – leaving me with a continued, completely inappropriate grin that practically lasted until the closing credits. Doctor Sleep may be unnecessary, even if it does earn bonus points for the employment of Twin Peaks giant Carel Struycken as the most elder of the demonic life-force-suckers. But I'm glad the movie exists and I had a mostly terrific time, and I wouldn't have missed its 150 minutes just for the chance to hear the year's most evocative horror-flick line not found in Midsommar or Us: “Is she food, or do we turn her?”
BACK FROM THE BRINK: SAVED FROM EXTINCTION
It's so easy, so often, to feel hopeless in 2019 that the Putnam Museum & Science Center's new edu-doc Back from the Brink: Saved from Extinction would be recommended solely for the chance, for 40 minutes, to actually feel momentarily great about the state of the human race. Detailing how three sets of endangered species – foxes from California's Channel Islands, Golden Monkeys from China's Yunnan Province, and red crabs from neighboring Australia's Christmas Island – found their numbers multiplying through the aid of diligent environmentalists, director Sean C. Casey's beautifully photographed short film is nothing if not inspiring. As a 40-minute running length can be as much of a curse as a blessing, it's also a little coy about providing answers to its many raised questions. (How, for instance, were the monkeys' former poachers convinced to instead become monkey protectors? After millions of micro-wasps were brought in to decimate the billions of ants that were killing the crab population, wasn't Christmas Island consequently, hopelessly overrun with wasps?) But Claire Danes' narration is soothing and the 3D images are frequently breathtaking – never more so than when hordes of ants are so multitudinous they can be seen crawling on the camera lens. And while the crabs are fascinating and the foxes are cute, the snub-nosed moneys are capital-A Adorable, making you want to send thank-you cards to everyone responsible for the continuation of their species. Back from the Brink: Saved from Extinction is executive-produced by Anthony and Joe Russo, but Endgame this isn't. It's more like a really beautiful beginning.
Whether it's Downton Abbey or Judy or anything by Clint Eastwood (okay, not The Mule), it's always a pleasure to see Audiences of a Certain Age show up in droves for a new release given how little Hollywood seems to care about catering to patrons who weren't alive in 1990. So the happiest part of my Midway screening was seeing this drab, unimaginative, reasonably effective World War II procedural-slash-action-pic really work for its intended viewers who didn't seem to mind the expository bluntness of it all, nor the deadening gray-on-beige color palette that made me spend its 135 minutes fighting the urge to nap. The second-happiest part of my experience was realizing that, after a 20-plus-year run of directing some of the dopiest movies of the modern era, Roland Emmerich was actually capable of something not inherently laughable. Despite its epic-y length and a sprawling cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Patrick Wilson, Dennis Quaid, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, and Darren Criss, there's actually very little to the movie itself: Pearl Harbor is under assault in the first 10 minutes, and the next two hours are devoted to (a) military officials figuring out that there will be a subsequent attack on the Midway Island, (b) prep for the attack, and (c) combat. But even though the actors have little to work with and the repetition of the action is draining and the effects are oftentimes distractingly cheap-looking, Emmerich gets the job done with minimal fuss and some legitimately impressive aerial shots, and it's the rare WWII drama to show a smidgeon of sympathy for the enemy. (Japanese actors, though, must hate Hollywood's frequent return to this particular well, knowing that, among Audiences of a Certain Age, every new release is inevitably going to stir up hatred and resentment toward their country all over again.) Blah though I found the film, Midway is decent enough, and might have been even better had its lead not been Ed Skrein, a generally magnetic performer – recently quite good in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil – whose overripe New Jersey accent, incessant gum-chomping, and obnoxious pride when calling himself “a real son of a bitch” make him a constant blight on the movie, like Top Gun-era Tom Cruise without the killer smile and volleyball skills. Skrein plays the real-life bomber pilot Dick Best here. Portraying this deservedly lauded hero, Skrein is certainly a Dick, but he's hardly the Best.
I tend to hate holiday-themed rom-coms as much as the next guy, but jeez is Last Christmas really in a class by itself. For starters, you have to accept Emilia Clarke as one of those determinedly manic pixies who are meant to be endearing despite every stupid, noxious thing they say and do because they're, you know, “hurting” inside. (Clarke really is insufferable here, and her Groucho Marx eyebrows get such a workout that they should be instantly eligible for SAG cards.) Then you have to accept the human vanilla ice-cream cone Henry Golding as this gal's bicycle-riding Prince Charming, a good-looking guy so void of personality that he may as well have been replaced by a title card reading “Insert more charismatic actor here.” Then you have to accept the inelegant insertion of real-world problems into this achingly fraudulent world purportedly set in present-day England, with way too much unconvincing time devoted to the plights of the homeless, closeted gays, organ recipients, and the naturalized victims of the Brexit era. Then you have to accept a ginormous plot twist that, to my eyes, was obvious within the movie's first half hour, and wait endlessly for Clarke to identify that shoe as it so painstakingly drops. And then you have to suck it up and reconcile yourself to the fact that this squishy bowl of holiday pudding was directed by no less than the great comedy helmer Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) and co-written by the arguably greater Emma Thompson (who, with a thick Yugoslavian accent, also plays Clarke's acerbic mom). Michelle Yeoh, who portrayed Golding's disapproving mother in Crazy Rich Asians, provides some biting fun as Clarke's employer despite a romantic subplot that forces her to act like a nitwit, and every once in a while a punchline lands with the appropriate fizz. But taken overall, Last Christmas is a lump of coal in romantic comedies' collective, much-frayed stocking, and one not even helped by the omnipresent tunes of George Michael – whose title track was the apparent "inspiration" for Thompson's and husband Greg Wise's plot outline – on the soundtrack. Though it was reassuring to know I wasn't the only one shouting for “Freedom!”
PLAYING WITH FIRE
I suppose I had the family comedy Playing with Fire coming to me, because not two weeks ago I was perusing my list of 2019 titles I'd reviewed and thinking, “Wow, this year has been surprisingly light on truly terrible movies!” But unless Cats is even worse than it looks, I think we now have our standard-bearer – a sentimental slapstick of such off-the-charts odiousness that, by the time it mercifully concluded, my mouth was totally dry from 95 minutes of a dropped jaw. John Cena plays a gung-ho firefighter with no time for human feelings. Keegan-Michael Key, John Leguizamo, and wrestling champ Tyler Mane play his grimly unfunny associates. Judy Greer plays the woman carrying a torch for the clueless Cena. Three young actors who no doubt will go on to better things play the abandoned kids who serve as Cena's unintended wards. And between the fire-hose antics, the projectile-poop antics, the humiliating waste of Dennis Haysbert, and the saccharine narrative whose outcome will be apparent to even the five-year-olds in attendance, director Andy Fickman's Playing with Fire easily stands as the most hateful feel-good entertainment of 2019. (Honest to God, Fickman's Paul Bart: Mall Cop 2 was preferebale to this.) Consider yourself lucky if you skipped it. You've lost fewer brain cells than the rest of us.