Jojo Rabbit 2019 *****

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Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.

Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.

Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.

There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.

Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.

But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.

 

The Good Liar 2019 ****

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It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

Little Women 2019 *****

greta-gerwig-little-womenGreta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony have been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama is something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proves beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it’s a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it’s a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is an unexpected delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.

Moby Dick 1956 *****

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Is John Huston’s Moby Dick a neglected masterpiece? If it’s not, you can call me Ishmael; this adaptation of Herman Melville’s literary opus was much derided on release, and gained little more respect when re-released in the 1970’s in a vague attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Jaws. And there’s a specific reason why everyone hated Moby Dick; it looked awful.

Blu-ray may seem like a specialist format to some; most movies look pretty good in the 1080p definition of a streaming service. But Moby Dick has looked dreadful since before most of us were born, and that’s because the innovative cinematography of Ossie Morris required considerable restoration. If you think you’ve seen this movie, think again; lovingly restored and presented on blu-ray, Moby Dick is something of a revelation.

Gregory Peck takes the lead as Captain Ahab; he doesn’t appear for a good chuck of the film, but the first view of him, erect like a masthead, makes a big impression. He’s setting sail with a tough crew of sailors including Boomer (James Robertson Justice), Stubb (Harry Andrews) and the man whose name launched a thousand coffee-shops, Starbuck (Leo Genn). Even more impressive is the taciturn, tattooed face of Queequeg, played by Friedrich Anton Maria Hubertus Bonifacius Graf von Ledebur-Wicheln. They’re in search of a great white whale, one which has made of with Ahab’s leg and makes off with considerably more by the time the film is over.

Peck was largely perceived as being too young for Ahab, but he’s pretty good here, and the age difference doesn’t seem to be an issue. Ray Bradbury provides some choice dialogue, notably a wonderfully unexpected soliloquy for Orson Welles as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon from a nautical pulpit in one of the opening scenes. This is a literate film, made off the coast of Ireland, and for once, the production values are up to the task, with little back projection and a few jaw-dropping shots. There’s a few shots, notably the ropes catching on the whale’s back, which seem to have echoes in Jaws, but Huston’s film has a salt and grit all of its own.

Moby Dick’s reputation has collapsed due to poor presentation; it looked washed-out on tv and DVD releases, and this restoration is essential for film-lovers. It restores Huston’s vision, it showcases some great acting, and it’s the one and only show in town in terms of making great drama from one of the great American novels. If you’re looking for a gift for a film-fan who has seen everything, you can bet they’ve never seen anything like John Huston’s Moby Dick.

Doctor Sleep 2019 ****

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‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.

 

The Dead Zone 1983 ****

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Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be a game-changer in terms of horror, with a major director transforming a genre tale into something at once more mainstream and also more arty. Adaptations of Stephen King’s work that followed were a mixed bag, but the property seemed to drive the project, and major talents like John Carpenter mixed with accomplished journeymen like Mark L Lester and Lewis Teague. For David Cronenberg, fast becoming a major name in horror, taking on a King project was a promising idea, and The Dead Zone establishing a number of cinematic tropes that have stuck.

The setting, of course, is Castle Rock, and the central character Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a man out of time, left in a five year comatose state by an accident, and emerging from the fringes of life and death, a magnet for bad things happening like Henry Deevers in the Castle Rock tv show. On his hospital bed, Smith sees a nurse’s house burning down with a child inside, and a boy he tutors will fall through cracking ice at an ice-hockey match. Smith has a gift for precognition, and with the help of a doctor (Herbert Lom), he is able to use his gift to stop these deadly events from happening, as well as helping local police to track down the Castle Rock Killer. An encounter with a crooked politician provides the climax here, with Martin Sheen reversing on the JFK character that was his 1980’s signature role.

The Dead Zone has an effective, wintry feel, bolstered by Walken’s wonderfully off-beat characterisation of Johnny. Castle Rock is shown as a bad place in various ways, with crooked politicians and businessmen, sick, twisted individuals on the loose and a decaying set of morals. And the ending packs a punch; rather than the every-increasing circles of horror featured in the Castle Rock tv show, Cronenberg nails the story down to one brief, satisfying plot twist.

The Dead Zone has a few nasty details, but it’s generally a classy, accessible horror film that’s gained in richness over the years. Many of the ideas contained here have become clichés, but Cronenberg’s restrain and visual austerity are nicely matched here by King’s ability to conjure up the inner lives of the Castle Rock denizens.

Cujo 1983 ****

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What’s so good about Stephen King’s killer dog movie? In Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, the author writes persuasively about the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, and a scene in which a sum of money goes missing from the Lutz family. He writes about how, rather than the flies and the axe attacks, it’s the financial horror that the Lutz family experience that really grounds the film, and King’s own ability to ground a horror conceit in domestic purgatory is very much to the fore in the film of Cujo.

Cujo is, famously, the killer dog featured here, but there’s no much Cujo in the first half of Lewis Teague’s film, bar an intro which shows the mutt being bit on the nose by a rabid bat. Instead, Teague’s film gets into the minutiae of one particular cell of the Castle Rock organism; Donna (Dee Wallace) has decanted from New York, her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) who is struggling with an advertising account gone rogue. Meanwhile her lover Steve (Christopher Kemp) beats her husband at tennis, runs down the street shirtless and doesn’t take it well when Donna dumps him.

If that’s not enough, we then get into Donna and Vic’s car trouble, and their attempts to get their shonky Ford Pinto into shape, which involve mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and his family. All of these characters are extremely well described, and as a film, Cujo generates a heap of suspense before working out exactly how Donna’s life is going to fall apart. If there’s not much Cujo in the first half, the second half is all Cujo, and Donna and her son are trapped agonisingly in the confines of the Pinto while the rabid dog rampages outside.

If audiences were perhaps overwhelmed by the intensity of the latter stages of the story, the not-quite-terrifying dog make-up, or the less than satisfying ending, the majority of Teague’s film is way ahead of its time, respecting King’s characters and setting, while doubling down on intensity. Before he became a notable directorial talent, Jan De Bont does a great job with the look of the film, making something iconic of Donna’s Pinto in the abandoned yard and predating his excellent work on Die Hard amongst other films.

The name Cujo is still often bandied around when naughty dogs are mentioned, and Cujo the movie is probably ripe for a CGI-heavy remake; if anyone goes down that road, it would be ideal if they constructed the long, careful, patient build-up Teague manages here. Cujo the dog seems to feed off Castle Rock’s bad energy, and there’s far more to King’s story than just a woman in peril.