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Children’s

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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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Very, very long (6 hours in total for the two films), but not altogether terrible and without giving anything away, at least they put some bodies on the block, thus limiting later franchise movies solely to origin stories.  Quippy, and visually much more satisfying than a lot of these movies.  Also, Thor in a fat suit is pretty funny, and melding The Hulk and Bruce Banner (now, he can wear the right size pants all the time)?  Inspired.

Still, when all is said and done, the whole things turns on Superman reverse circling the earth to go back in time.  They just couldn’t use him because he’s not a Marvel character.  Also, the concept for the second film is the same as HBO’s The Leftovers.

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The crossover movie that speaks to kids and adults is a tough trick.  Guardians of the Galaxy is the model.  The characters have to be winning, It has to be smart but not obtuse, and what can be mutually enjoyed (action, wise-crackery) must be primo.

Solo fails all of these prerequisites.  At the outset, we get “Long ago, in a galaxy far far away . . . “  Followed by several more paragraphs setting the scene and presenting the quest, which in this case, is the obtainment of everlasting life and power enough to challenge evil in the galaxy.

I’m fucking with you.  The quest is for fuel.  Yup.  Fuel.  I mean, not as bad as one of the Lucas pictures (1, or 4, who knows?), where, if memory serves, the primary issue was taxes.  But still, pretty bad.

The dull goal is matched by duller characters.  Young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) apes the original via the sole utilization of a smirk.  He’s a better choice for a young Paul Rudd, not Harrison Ford.  He’s not as bad as Hayden Christenson as Darth Vader the teen, but he’s close.  After him, bad guy Paul Bettany, well, his thing is that he gets angry.  And then there is Woody Harrelson, the grizzled smuggler and thief, who keeps telling Han, “Don’t trust anybody.”  Then he pulls him close, points to his own head, snaps a Polaroid, waves it, blows on it, shoves it in Han’s pocket, and says “Anybody!”

After these dolts, it’s just a bunch of facsimiles of all the weird variations one can find in the galaxy.  “Hey look, it’s clarinet head!”  “And there’s suckhole face!”  “And does he have 5 arms?”  “Ah, I get it!  That’s why they called him ‘handy’ a minute ago.”

And then there are the droids.  In the first picture, we had the gold guy who spoke with a British accent and was amusing, like having a character from Downton Abbey in the future.  He said things like “Goodness!  Oh my!” and “My heavens!” whenever someone shot a laser near him.  I could see a droid maker coming up with such a program, a little pizzazz in the automaton that normally performs light-dusting and household repairs.

Now, however, all droids have been imbued with feelings and opinions and agency.  Who the hell wants a droid that may start a wage strike?  The writers, that’s who.  It’s too ridiculous, even for this pretty ridiculous vehicle.

The script itself is similarly idiotic.  The characters just bounce from place to place for small and uninteresting reasons.   “Who is that?” Is generally followed by a long definitional response.  “That was close!” elicits “Not as close as the parseck gleep glop on Miki Roo Roo!”  Characters say banal things to Solo throughout, followed by or including “kid”, as in “You got moxie, kid!” Or “I’ll give you this.  The kid’s got guts.”

That leaves the action sequences, which are required to dazzle.  They don’t.  They’re rote and uninspired, delivered in a look dark as dishwater.  Worse, the soundtrack is phoned in, as if the John Williams score was presented as Muzak on an AM radio in Harrelson’s pocket.

This entire picture feels like a 4-D Disney ride that would be fun for 7 minutes.

But trapped in it for over 2 hours? Excruciating.

And you know Han and Chewy make it. They have to. So, there’s no drama. Nothing hangs in the balance.

Donald Glover does a decent young Billy Dee Williams and Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) lends some gravitas to the endeavor.

On Netflix.

 

 

 

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After Paddington 2, it made sense to watch Jumanji 2 (next up – Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II).   We loved it.  It moves like a freight train, and the gimmick of having the modern teens stuck in detention (ala’ The Breakfast Club) stumble on an old 90s video game, which literally sucks them in, is handled expertly.  Better, when they come out on the other side, they are in the adult form of their video game characters (one poor, vain teen queen is encased in the plump body of Jack Black, while the football star is relegated to the diminutive Kevin Hart).   The juxtapositions are hilarious; in particular, the cranky and unnerved Hart, who can make you laugh in spite of yourself in the lamest of vehicles.  One minor complaint – the video game world was dazzling, but the villain (Bobby Cannavale) was wasted.  A more robust baddie was in order.

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This is a technological wonder and a beautiful rendition of its much cheerier animated predecessor. The insertion of a human in director Jon Favreau’s lush and crisp CGI jungle is a riveting juxtaposition, and the technology is presented as a window, not a club. The young actor playing Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the man cub of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, communicates emotional involvement in what must have been a difficult job talking at a green screen. He is not precocious nor is he showy.  He’s pitch perfect.

Moreover, the voice work of Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray and Lupita Nyongo is nuanced and rich; they convey a children’s story with a seriousness and gravitas that doesn’t demean their audience. The film is also thematically mature. The jungle is a brutal place and the humanization of its denizens does not white out its dangers or its essence. Mowgli is a threat, and his presence is a danger to the animals, but there is also connection and love.

For every technological Oscar, you can fill out your ballot now. It’s should also be a shoo-in for a best picture nod.


There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

My wife and daughter had been badgering me to see this Disney pic for some time, and I finally got a chance over the holiday weekend. I suspect it was as much of a pleasant surprise to Disney as to me. With a relatively modest budget of $150 million (Disney’s much less successful Tangled sported a budget of $250 million) and a voice cast sporting the lesser known Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Josh Gadd, the film was the highest grossing of 2013 and has gone on to make $1.2 billion worldwide. It’s clear why. The story, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, is solid; you get two princesses for the price of one; and the songs (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the former of whom was a co-creator of The Book of Mormon) are captivating, in particular, the Oscar winning “Let it Go”, which has a Wicked-esque quality and has become this ubiquitous:

The film is also economical (hello, parents of the two leads, this is a Disney film, so your presence will not be required for long) and visually stunning, blending CGI and hand-drawn animation to create a Fjordic, Nordic wonderland.  Gadd’s clueless but loyal snowman is a tribute not only to Frosty but to my favorite Disney sidekick ever:

My only nit is that the villain is sprung on the audience, when it would have been better to have him seduced into the role.

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.