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Taika Waititi’s children’s fable is a wondrous achievement, a beautiful story of the primacy of love in an era of hate, and a rare edifying film that can be enjoyed and appreciated equally by parents and children.  The year is 1944, and JoJo is a zealous member of the Hitler Youth at a time when for Nazi Germany, the end is nigh.  So complete is JoJo’s fealty to National Socialism that he has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who guides him through the insults and indignities of adolescence while keeping JoJo’s eyes on the greater menace.  For Jo Jo, the former includes being a weakling in his Hitler Youth contingent, a deceased sister, and a missing father.  The latter is the omni-presence of true vampires in his daily life, said vampires being Jews.  Until JoJo realizes that not only does he have his own Anne Frank in residence, but his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is not the committed Nazi he once revered.

There are traces of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in Waititi’s parable, and even a little bit of Roberto Begnigni’s Life is Beautiful, but the kitsch and pathos of those films are muted.  The Nazis are broadly comic, from the disaffected leaders of Jo Jo’s Hitler Youth squad (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen) to the local Gestapo (Stephen Merchant), to Hitler himself, a gossipy, anachronistic cartoon of a cohort who engages a brain-washed JoJo in the manner of a Valley Girl on Snapchat.

Waititi has a deft touch with child actors, a skill shown here as well as in his hilarious and moving The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  He depicts them not as precious or wise beyond their years, but rather, as they are, low on guile and high on instinct and snap judgment.  Even in his film What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi treats his characters (New Zealand vampires who are the subject of an MTV-esque “The Real World”) as silly teens (though they are, of course, thousands of years old), negotiating house tensions, competition with werewolves, and the internet with easy hurt and immediate wonder.  The results are always piercingly funny and clever.

Critics either explicitly or implicitly evince discomfort at the use of Hitler for such silly purposes (“a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places…But in the process, it buries the awful truth” or “Waititi’s silly, irreverent performance takes the pomp and vigor out of the blustering Fuhrer, declawing the towering 20th century figure of hate. However, in doing so, he declaws his own satire, too”).  These takes are both unsurprising and depressingly easy, but if you think Hitler is simply too monstrous to lampoon, you are forewarned.

Even if it is a bridge too far, I strongly recommend you traverse it.  This is a beautiful, satisfyingly quirky coming of age film, natural and notable for its sweetness.  I’m not sure if it was the best film of last year, but it is the one I enjoyed best.

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When I saw the original Midway in 1976, it was notable for four reasons. First, the movie was good, smartly re-creating a confusing and often complicated naval battle while inserting a family drama (a young aviator is in love – with a Japanese internee – and needs his father and high ranking Navy officer to get her out of custody). Second, the film seemed out of fashion even for its time, loaded with classic movie stars like Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, and Robert Wagner, and, of course, Charlton Heston.  Third, the film, like two contemporaries, Rollercoaster and Earthquake, was presented in Sensurround (I wonder if Heston, the lead in Earthquake, was the only actor to ever have parts in two Sensurround movies).  For the uninitiated, Sensurround was a gimmick (like Smell-o-Vision) where theaters installed  large, low frequency, horn-loaded speakers, so every time a bomb dropped on screen, the entire theater shook. That was pretty cool.  Lastly, when I saw the picture, some kids were throwing popcorn and goofing around in the front row, and an older man came down and picked up one of the boys by his shirt, shook him violently, and then told him to “shut the hell up.“  That was really cool.

The remake is an absolute abomination. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with more clumsy exposition.  Just one example. Paraphrasing, Admiral Halsey (Dennis Quaid) sits on an aircraft carrier and says to his aide, “See that man down there. That’s Doolittle. He’s one of the greatest pilots ever. He’s going to bomb Tokyo and because he won’t have enough fuel to get back, he will have to ditch his plane in China.”

And regrettably, the aide does not answer, “ I know dipshit. I was in the meeting. Do you think I’m deaf?”

If the dialogue is not overt, it is so corny as to make you wince. A taste:

Dick Best: I don’t know how to lead these men.
Ann Best: They’ll follow you anywhere.

***

Wade McCluskey: Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war.

***

Wade McClusky: Every time we go up in one of those planes, there’s a chance we won’t come back. Now, it’s hard to follow a man who doesn’t know that. Or even worse, doesn’t care.

***

Dick Best: [to his men] I’m not going to sugarcoat it, boys. Nobody thinks we can go toe-to-toe with the Japanese. Not in a fair fight. Today, we’re going to be big underdogs. Me? I think the men in this room can fly with anyone. Maybe that’s because I’m a cocky son of a b**ch. But it’s also because I’ve seen what you can do. You’re ready for this.

Clarence Dickinson: We’re going to give them a shellacking.

***

William ‘Bull’ Halsey: God bless those boys. Turns out all they needed was a fair fight.

Worse, as delivered by the actors in this Roland Emmerich crap-pile, the lines come of as perfunctory and insincere.  Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz seemed to give a big line his absolute all.  Woody Harrelson as Nimitz sounds somewhere between talking to Sam and Dianne at Cheers and late for a dinner reservation.  Apropos for a film that reduces a historical and tide-turning naval engagement to a commercial for what I expect will be a first-person shooter/flier video game.

Also, the Naval personnel are so spot clean and well coiffed they look like cast members in Jersey Boys. Or 1/5 of the Village People. Or the kid on a Cracker Jack box.

Finally, not only is the picture anachronistic, with characters saying things straight out of 2020, but it even has a modern message at the end.

BD8E29F0-CCA9-450B-BF3C-9FB9383F7E0AImagine Patton or Saving Private Ryan ending with such a dedication to the Wehrmacht.

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Elizabeth Moss plays a Courtney Love/Patti Smith-type frontwoman for Something She, a band she creates and then destroys through narcissistic, destructive, drug-fueled misbehavior. We are treated to her downfall in five separate scenes at varying intervals in her career. There’s not one scene that is not uncomfortable, Moss’ overacting is over indulged (my wife says she doesn’t really have facial expressions so much as different sneers), her character’s musical talent is not evident (Something She’s music sucks) so the entire endeavor feels like punishment, and it ends with some kind of cringe-worthy, unpersuasive, girl power mumbo-jumbo.  Just awful.

On HBO.

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I’ve heard this film is essentially Taxi Driver meets a Christopher Nolan Batman, but its roots also lie in Martin Scorsese ‘s King of Comedy and even in Death Wish.  Not bad company and it shows. Todd Phillips’ vision is fully realized, there is a consistent and compelling narrative, and you can’t take your eyes off of Joaquin Phoenix.  The movie also alternates between Joker’s madness and his reality, which keeps you off balance without being gimmicky while expertly recalibrating the Joker-Batman origin story.

But the movie is also dull in stretches, thoroughly depressing, a little more politically elemental than it perhaps knows, and ultimately, chooses shock over sustenance.  Perhaps most problematic, it’s really hard to give a shit about a protagonist who, when all is said and done, is just a loon with a crazy giggle off his meds. How much fun is that?

Implicit in that last criticism is the presumption of an old fogie that even super hero villain stories should have some level of joy or whimsy. But if the future is Lex Luthor kicking a meth habit, Thanos having been molded by the cruelties of urban foster care, or Venom’s molestation at the hands of her uncle, so be it. The film has made over $1 billion globally and it leads all pictures in Oscar nominations.  Who am I to thwart progress?

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Impares Si obvium habueris senum severiorum CULO

My daughter sussed this one out early:  “This strikes me as the kind of movie your grandma would like.”

And what is there not to like for a grandma?  Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) comes from Argentina to Rome to hand in his retirement papers to Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins).  Bergoglio is modern and hip, as evidenced by his love of fútbol and ABBA, his amiability with common folk, his insistence on sitting up front next to his driver, and his constant painful wincing whenever he sees the trappings of the Catholic Church’s vast wealth (he apparently figured he’d be picked up at the Rome airport by donkey cart and taken to a Tetto Rossa Locanda to meet the pontiff).

The two spar in a dull and obvious manner, Benedict emitting conservative values like an automaton, Bergoglio interjecting with impassioned progressive rejoinders.  They watch some futbol, share a pizza, Bergoglio gives Benedict confession and then himself confesses to having been a bit of a stooge for the right wing Argentinian military junta in the 70s, and whammo – Benedict tells Bergoglio that while his prior plan was to accept the resignation and retire himself, he now sees the light of Bergoglio’s goodness and as such, rejects the resignation and insists that Bergoglio succeed him.

Unlike some, I have no objections to the fanciful nature of the picture.  The two never had such a meeting and never colluded on succession.  But hey, it’s the movies, and as long as you aren’t completely changing the arc or import of history, that’s cool by me.  Who would argue with portrayal of a fictional meeting between Nixon and Johnson?

But if you are going to make it up, you damn well better make it interesting.

“Do you know the Beatles?”

 “Yes, I know who they are,” Bergoglio responds. “Eleanor Rigby?”

“Who?” Pope Benedict asks, “I don’t know her.”

Oh my Lord.

As to the “import” of history, one story line is really quite egregious, as the film portrays Benedict as central to the cover up of molestation in the Church.  Bergoglio is, of course, horrified.  Apparently, digging ABBA and futbol and pizza can expiate any sin.

Pryce and Hopkins do deliver fine performances (they are both nominated for Oscars) but there are maybe one or two genuine moments in the picture, which could have just as easily starred a German Shepherd and a plucky mutt.

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Brad Pitt is an astronaut at an undetermined time in the future (we have commercial flights to the Moon and manned installations in Mars).  He’s cool as a cucumber and as revealed in voice over and daily psych evaluations, disconnected in a manner that barely registers physically but gnaws at him emotionally.  Oh, and he has the mother of all Daddy issues, as he is sent out to space on a mission to stop his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a Colonel Kurtz-like figure whose own journey to Neptune 25 years earlier went bad.   Jones abandoned Pitt and Pitt’s dying mother to command the endeavor.  The assumption was that Jones and crew had perished, but in fact, he’s alive and he’s causing quite a bit of trouble.

The film has one flaw, but it isn’t insignificant.  The Pitt voice overs – personal observations as to his own emotional state – are often distracting and unnecessary.  Pitt is a fine enough actor that a lot of stuff he says just becomes superfluous, and a lot of other stuff he says borders on the clumsy.  An example: “I always wanted to become an astronaut, for the future of mankind and all. At least, that’s what I always told myself. I see myself from the outside. Smile, present a side. It’s a performance, with my eye on the exit. Always on the exit. Just don’t touch me.”  When you see Pitt, you know this or you will glean it.  When it’s explicated, it loses force.  Pitt is fantastic but hobbled by the overt inner dialogue.

That said, the film is transfixing and true to its world, offering a not fully-explained but logical future for space travel, sterility meshed with utility.  It’s also visually stunning. James Gray’s (We Own the Night) world is beautiful, haunting and as evidenced in a few action sequences, lethal.

So, put the IPhone down and enjoy while you can, because they won’t be making these sorts of personal epics for much longer.