Movie reviews: 'Jojo Rabbit' is a pro-love movie set in a dark time
JOJO RABBIT: 3 ½ STARS
Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” based on the book “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens, is an anti-hate satire pitched somewhere between “The Death of Stalin” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” The director of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “What We Do in the Shadows” takes some liberties with the book, even conjuring images of Adolph Hitler, but holds true to the book’s exploration of the dark heart of obsession.
Set in Germany during the Second World War, the movie stars newcomer Roman Griffin Davis as 10-year-old Jojo "Rabbit" Betzler, who is a member of his local Hitler youth group. The youngster is discovering the world and making decisions about his place in it. That includes embracing Nazism and all its ugly ideology. “He’s a fanatic,” says his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). “It took them three weeks to get over that his grandfather was not blond.”
Jojo has even created an imaginary friend in the form of Adolph Hitler (Waititi) who provides the kind of encouragement his absent father isn’t able to. “You’re the bestest, nicest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever seen.”
What Jojo doesn’t know is that his mother is working with the Resistance and is hiding Elsa, a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. The discovery of Elsa makes Jojo confront his belief system and a set of feelings as he comes of age.
“Jojo Rabbit” is going to polarize people. Some will see a film that simply treats Nazis as goofy caricatures and not the malevolent force of evil they were/are. Others may be offended by the use of extreme racial stereotypes for satirical effect. Waititi takes no prisoners on either account although he ends the movie with a clear and uncut message from poet Rainer Maria Rilke that, for some, will bring everything into focus. “Let everything happen to you / Beauty and terror / Just keep going / No feeling is final.”
“Jojo Rabbit’s” exploration of the power of love’s ability to defeat fascism, no matter how farcical, is a powerful message, particularly in our increasingly cynical age. It’s an uneven film, indulgent at times, but between the laughs are some very effective moments.
As usual Waititi’s ear for music adds much to the experience. “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” the German-language version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" fills the soundtrack as images of Hitler youth group members pump their fists in the air, providing a brilliant and subversive comparison of two kinds of fanaticism, Beatlemania and national socialism. Later, David Bowie’s “Helden” (“Heroes”) provides a sentimental blast as the final credits roll.
“Jojo Rabbit” isn’t simply an anti-hate movie as the ads say. More importantly, it’s a pro-love movie. The darkness inherent in the story is filtered through the experience of a 10 year old grappling with concepts he simply doesn’t understand. Lonely and shy about a scar on his face –“He looks like a Picasso painting,” says Rebel Wilson as an instructor in the Hitler youth camp – he looks to the Hitler youth and their perverted ideas because they will accept him.
As Elsa says, “You're not a Nazi, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Viewed through that lens, the story becomes one of a misguided, ignored child simply looking for a home. In the end he discovers change is possible; that there is much more to life than hate.
THE LIGHTHOUSE: 4 STARS
“The Lighthouse,” an expressionist nightmare captured in shadows and light by director Robert Eggers, is a period piece that pits Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson against the primal forces of paranoia and pathological behavior.
Set in New England in the 1890s on a remote rock that is home to a lighthouse and nothing else, the film sees “wickies” Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Efraim Winslow (Pattinson) thrown together to keep the giant oil lamp lit, warning seafaring boats of dangerous waters. Wake is a seadog, a craggy old character who has spent his life on the ocean or at the watchtower. “I’m damn well wedded to this light and she’s a better wife than any woman.” Winslow is a drifter who signed on for the job of apprentice when he heard you could make as much as $1,000 a year. He’s replacing a man who was driven mad by the isolation. “He believed the lamp was enchanted,” says Wake. “That in the light was salvation for sins.”
The two men are oil and sea water. Winslow resents Wake’s stern ways. Wake feels the newbie is soft, unable to get the job done. On top of that, Winslow won’t swill whiskey with the older man at dinner and doesn’t understand the superstitions and customs that seafarers hold dear.
The strained atmosphere grows as Winslow begins to have visions. He sees a mermaid on the island’s rugged shoreline and wonders why Wake locks the door behind him whenever he tends the lamp. What is he hiding up there?
As the end of their four-week hitch looms, the two men vie for control of the claustrophobic lighthouse, run out of booze and switch to kerosene, slowly driving one another mad. “The boredom,” says Wake, “makes seamen evil.” Well, that and booze, loneliness and toxic masculinity.
“The Lighthouse” has the feel of a silent movie. Eggers shoots grainy black and white in boxy old school 1.19:1 aspect ratio, drawing on the paintings of gothic painter Jean Delville and others to expertly create the look and feel of 19th century New England mariner life. Madness seems to lurk in the shadows, in the inky corners of the frame, just out of sight. With a mermaid’s (Valeriia Karaman) siren song ringing in his ears, Winslow inches toward insanity, bringing Wake along for the ride.
The actors are in virtually every frame and both fully embrace the odd story. DaFoe embodies Wake, looking like a Royal Doulton old salt mug come to life, speaking like a character right out of Melville. You can almost smell the rum breath as he berates Winslow, spitting out orders like the captain of a pirate ship.
Pattinson builds Winslow brick by brick. He starts the movie quietly, an inward character who doesn’t say much or do much except for the grunt work he’s ordered to do. Soon, however, his physical performance turns inward, exploring the manifestations of his madness and it is very powerful. His character has an arc that is both bizarre and powerful in its exploration of toxicity and loneliness. Winslow has several explosive scenes and the last image of him is one that, once seen, will not be soon forgotten.
Despite the presence of two very popular actors, “The Lighthouse” is not exactly a mainstream movie. Instead it is more of an expertly rendered gothic slow burn that brings with it an atmosphere of dread which shrouds the film like fog rolling onto shore.
WESTERN STARS: 4 STARS
Early on in “Western Stars,” a concert-concept film based on Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name, the rock icon says, “It’s my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars.” It’s a funny comment but loaded with meaning. Metaphorically the cars in Springsteen’s songs are always moving forward and at just shy of 70, Springsteen does the same, showcasing music here unlike anything he’s ever made. Looking in the rearview mirror to influences like the country-pop music of Jimmy Webb while keeping the pedal to the metal, he charts new territory.
Shot in the hayloft of a 140-year-old barn on Springsteen’s Colts Neck, N.J. property – "a place filled with the best kind of ghosts and spirits,” he says – in front of a small, private audience, the concert features a 30-piece orchestra and band, including wife Patti Scialfa. Taking center stage under the cathedral ceiling, he unfurls the album’s 13 songs of melancholy (plus a bonus track at the end). Told from the point of view of a faded cowboy b-movie star, the tunes evocatively tell stories of blue-collar Hollywood stuntmen, loss and bravado (“Once I was shot by John Wayne,” he sings in the title track. “Yeah, it was towards the end. That one scene brought me a thousand drinks. Set me up and I'll tell it for you, friend.”) The performances are energetic but solemn; this isn’t the fist-pumping “Dancing in the Dark” Boss but an introspective artist sharing soulful, personal moments through the narrative of his music.
Instead of the usual concert film interviews—"It was an honour to work with Bruce… etc.”—Springsteen and longtime collaborator Thom Zimny link the songs with arty short films that illuminate Springsteen’s headspace as he wrote the songs. Shot in the Joshua Tree desert, these moody visual pastiches of Bruce in American legend mode, in cowboy hats and boots, are personal reflections that deepen the understanding of the music. “We’re always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces,” he says, “and something whole emerges.” His words reflect on the art but his comfortable on-stage interaction with Scialfa, his wife and musical partner of 30 years also intimates he found that with her. It’s a cinematic riff on his “Springsteen on Broadway” show, but instead of anecdotes here he gives a look at his inner life, laying bare some profound personal introspection.
“Western Stars” is an intimate performance with great music, lyrical soul-searching (“The older you get,” he says, “the heavier that baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through.”) and a restless spirit that suggests Springsteen is mining his baggage to create vital, beautiful new art.