Jojo Rabbit Movie Review

Taika Waititi is a tightrope walker when it comes to the execution of Jojo Rabbit, the kind of picture that few directors might be permitted to make. It helps when you’re coming off Thor: Ragnarok, the best received of that sub franchise in the MCU. This is a tale of atrocities and those involved in it. And it’s handled with a primarily light tone that eventually doesn’t shy away from the horrors of Nazi Germany.

The premise, based on a novel from Christine Leunens, sounds high concept in description. A boy with an imaginary friend that happens to be Adolf Hitler. That sentence could provide a visceral reaction for many and it’s up to Waititi to justify it. He does so in large measure.

The boy is Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old Hitler youth living with his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) in the waning days of World War II. All he really knows is the propaganda of his nation’s leaders and he’s part of the Nazi youth camps. They’re taught by an alcoholic Captain (Sam Rockwell) and a no nonsense Fräulein (Rebel Wilson). Jojo reveres Hitler so much that he acts as his imaginary companion. Waititi pulls double duty as the monstrous Chancellor and plays him as a total nincompoop. Yet like most fictitious companions (even if they’re based on evil real life figures), Jojo’s Hitler serves to reinforce his misguided feelings toward the Jewish people. Also because he’s lonely.

When he discovers that his mom is sheltering young Jewish Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) upstairs, his adolescent worldview is shattered. The witless Hitler doesn’t know what to make of it. Therefore Jojo struggles with how to handle this until his humanity starts to shine through.

To call this movie is a delicate balance is an understatement. There are satirical tones, but there’s a lot more heart. Anyone expecting a Mel Brooks style Producers exercise should look elsewhere. The humor is abundant for the first two acts especially, but always imbued with a level of pathos that comes into sharper focus as it goes on.

Jojo Rabbit is mostly an inventive case study in showing one child learning not to hate. It could fall apart without the casting of Davis. He’s rarely off screen and his performance is fantastic. Not fantastic for a child actor. Fantastic. Not many youngsters could pull off the range of emotions he has to go through and he nails it. McKenzie, in many ways, has an equally challenging role as Elsa navigates teaching Jojo not to fear her. The humanity of her character and the actress playing her convinces us and him. As you might imagine, Waititi has a tricky part as well. He’s got some of the best lines and reactions of all in his campy take. The more recognizable actors are all first-rate. In one of the most powerful scenes not involving Jojo, Johansson has a heart to heart about adulthood with Elsa (on the cusp of entering that status). And speaking of highlights, Jojo’s actual best friend Yorki, played by Archie Yates, is a scene stealer.

So… does this all work? Mostly yes. I also can’t deny that Rabbit never quite reaches the emotional impact that it’s trying to land. The concept doesn’t block that possibility. It’s more that the tonal shifts can be somewhat jarring in a couple of cases. It’s practically unavoidable. I never doubted that Waititi’s heart is in the right place and he’s assembled a superb cast to provide numerous laughs and a lot of warmth. Most importantly, it’s told through a child’s eyes who doesn’t recognize his idols are as false as can be until those eyes are opened.

*** (out of four )

The Predator Movie Review

There are moments in The Predator where it feels like the franchise went the route of 80s slasher series when Freddy, Jason, and Michael ruled the day. With the alien creatures roaming the suburbs for a brief stretch and with some deliriously gory bits and extreme profanity, I could imagine this is as the fifth installment when the well is running dry. This could maybe be Predator V following Predator In Harlem or something. It’s a time in the series when ridiculous and probably offensive characters like an autistic kid who’s actually deemed an enhancement in human evolution is introduced. The main protagonist would be dull and boring, not close to matching Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 original or even Danny Glover’s overburdened LAPD officer in the 1990 sequel. And the one-liners would harken back to the rock solid first one but generally be lamer.

Strangely enough, it’s some of that which makes the 2018 edition mindless fun in the first half. This isn’t anything of quality, but it serves as an occasional guilty pleasure VHS throwback that would have filled the shelves of those defunct rental institutions. I think director Shane Black and co-writer Fred Dekker know that. Black has turned into a fine filmmaker with action comedies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys. He’s known mostly for his behind the scenes work, but he memorably played the role of Hawkins in Predator’s big screen debut 31 years ago.

The screenplay makes some downright bizarre choices. Jacob Tremblay’s aforementioned autistic kid is one of them. His Special Forces dad Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) is that forgettable head alien battler. Holbrook discovers a title character on a mission and ships some evidence of its existence to his boy. That leads the extraterrestrial to the ‘burbs to retrieve his property. Quinn finds himself detained by the government led by shady Sterling K. Brown and in the company of a motley crew of PTSD soldiers. They include Trevante Rhodes (whose primary character trait is that he smokes), Thomas Jane (he has Tourette’s), and Keegan-Michael Key (yo mama jokes). They’re the guys, along with Olivia Munn’s biologist, who fight not only two Predators, but the space dogs that accompany them. That’s another odd visual choice.

I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Black and Dekker’s outright nuttiness with their take on The Predator. However, it doesn’t last. By the third act, the pic moves to a jungle looking setting with some dodgy effects. We’re hammered with familiarity. That’s what made famous predators like Freddy and Jason and Michael grow stale, but their countless sequels were punctuated with an inspired sequence here and there. We see that early in this reboot and then not really again.

** (out of four)

John Wick Movie Review

The title character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves) strikes petrification in the minds of those who hear his name. He’s like Keyser Soze, but everyone knows he’s real. And he’s really pissed off in a picture that comes by way of stunt coordinators David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, making their directorial debuts after working with Neo himself during the Matrix trilogy.

Wick is a former hitman whose achieved legendary status. In our opening, he’s gone straight with a lovely spouse (Bridget Moynahan) who dies within the first couple of minutes. She, unlike every other character here and there’s many, does not die violently. And it is not the circumstances of her passing that zap Wick back into killing mode. Rather it’s the slaying of his late wife’s final gift to him: an adorable dog. This is our first signal that this film is not going to follow all the typical cliches of most revenge fantasies.

The pooch tragedy occurs at the hands of the spoiled son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian gang lord (an effective Michael Nyqvist) who’s worked with Wick in his glory days. The clueless son is just trying to steal Wick’s sweet ride and has no other idea who he’s up against. He shall soon discover.

What follows is a visually impactful symphony of bloody action set pieces that gives Reeves his first quality B movie material in some time. John Wick is a mix of martial arts, anime, and plain old ultra violence that is a loopy treat for most of its length.

The most memorable sequences occur at The Continental, a seriously cool underground hotel that serves as a hangout for criminals where anything goes. This picture has no more interest in realism than The Matrix and the scenes in this hotel allow the directors and screenwriter Derek Kolstad their best opportunities to let their creative juices fly. At this point in the proceedings, the atmosphere and creativity in the blood soaked battles feels fresh and alive.

By the third act, John Wick gets a bit more routine with its violent moments. Yet there’s enough here for genre fans to soak in. We have a comeback role of sorts here for Reeves. No longer looking younger than he is, he brings a rugged and menacing persona as Wick that we haven’t witnessed from him before. It suits him well. Other familiar faces popping up include Willem Dafoe as a fellow hitman and Ian McShane as The Continental’s owner.

There is one animal harmed in John Wick and a whole bunch of humans end up paying for it. The fact that it’s a really cute puppy makes it a tad more understandable. It’s mostly worth it because this film announces two new directors that hold promise. One wonders what they’re capable of when given the chance to really let their imaginations run wild.

*** (out of four)