Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Taika Waititi directs and is an imaginary Hitler in his coming-of-age/Nazi Germany satire Jojo Rabbit

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis (Johannes “Jojo Rabbit” Betzler), Thomasin McKenzie (Elsa Korr), Scarlett Johansson (Rosie Betzler), Taika Waititi (Adolf Hitler), Sam Rockwell (Captain Klenzendorf), Rebel Wilson (Fraulain Rahm), Alfie Allen (Lt Finkel), Stephen Merchant (Deertz), Archie Yates (Yorki)

A comedy set in Nazi Germany? Well if there is one thing you need to get right, it’s the tone. Taika Waititi’s comedy about a boy with an imaginary friend who just happens to be a version of Adolf Hitler more or less does so – although I’d argue it’s less a comedy and more of a terrifying condemnation of the horrific powers of indoctrination. But that sells a lot less well in trailers doesn’t it?

Set in late 1944, the boy in question is Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis – a revelatory performance) a ten-year old who wants to be a passionate Nazi but is undone by his own underlying sweetness. Not that it stops him believing everything he’s told by the regime and its theories around Jews, re-enforced by his imaginary best friend, a childishly stroppy version of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). Nicknamed Jojo Rabbit after his failure to kill a rabbit on a Hitler Youth indoctrination camp, then later blowing himself with a grenade meaning he can no longer qualify for military service, Jojo sees his dreams of becoming the ultimate Aryan fading away. Things become even more conflicted when he discovers his secretly anti-Nazi mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of his late sister’s bedroom.

Waititi’s film returns to his affectionate roots of coming-of-age stories but in an entirely different setting – here the child must grow up by learning to reject the vile ideologies that have been hammered into him by the system. Waititi shoots the entire film from the perspective of the child’s view of the world, meaning the horrors of the war are kept largely at a distance from us (until a sudden and terrible event brings them overwhelmingly into frame). The Nazi world around Jojo looks like some glorious Enid Blyton summer, the colour of which only gradually disappears from the film as event proceed. It’s a neat visual way of capturing the child’s innocence.

This also means many of the characters are seen from Jojo’s perspective. Most obviously Adolf Hitler (the imaginary one), played with gleeful comic gusto by Waititi, is far from the actual dictator but is a sort of ten-year-old’s idea of what he might be like, childish, oddly innocent in places, prone to strops – but also has enough darkness in him (which emerges more and more as the film goes on) to show that he is still part of the hateful ideology the real Hitler promoted. Similarly, Jojo’s first impression of Elsa is shot and framed like some sort of creepy horror film – matching the ideas that have been indoctrinated into him by the regime that the Jews are a near-Satanic threat.

That indoctrination is a big part of the film’s primary themes. An early sequence at a Hitler Youth camp is less funny – even if it does have moments of brash comedy and some good jokes – more horrifying for the mantra of violence, race hate and slaughter that the regime is preaching almost every second that its representatives appear on screen. It’s actually chilling seeing this group of impressionable kids succumbing so completely to the excitement of this relentless onslaught of propaganda. The passion that the Nazis inspire is wonderfully caught by Waititi in the credits, with Leni Reifenstahl footage beautifully recut to the Beatles singing in German – it’s hard to miss the parallels. (The film makes some neat use of modern music, with David Bowie also popping up).

Jojo however is still a sweet, kind, generous boy under the surface – however much he has swallowed the constant message from his government that he should aspire to being a cold eyed killer. Waititi’s message is that there is still hope in the roots of next generation, however much the current generation does it’s best to mess that up. It’s something that his mother – exquisitely played by an Oscar-nominated Scarlett Johansson with a wonderful sense of playfulness hiding an intense sadness – clings to desperately, knowing the sweet boy she loves is still largely there, however twisted he is by a cruel ideology.

It’s the relationship with Elsa that helps bring that out, with Thomasin McKenzie wonderful as an initially hostile young girl, determined to never be a victim, who softens and thaws as she senses the kindness in this boy. Her hiding is all part of Rosie’s own defiance of the regime and its oppression, the horrors of which – from random searches to executions – slowly begin to creep into the film. 

If there is a problem with the film, it is that the darker elements of this film – and there are many – often play a little awkwardly against the more comedic and even farcical elements. Waititi as an actor gets the tone right – but others, particularly Rebel Wilson as an oppressive Nazi – head too far into unfunny, tonally flat farce. Sam Rockwell does a decent job as a German army officer, even if his obvious bitterness for the war effort and contempt for Nazism makes him an unlikely candidate to be running an indoctrination camp, but even he veers sometimes too far onto the side of flat farce. Other than Waititi, only Stephen Merchant as an officious Nazi official – including a running joke of continuous Heil Hitler greetings – gets the balance right between comedy and darkness.

It’s a balance the film doesn’t always make very successfully – but it’s balanced by the warmth that it feels for Jojo, the excellence of Griffin Davis and McKenzie’s performances, and the moments of genuine shock and trauma that surprise the viewers and head the film openly into very darker territory. Less a comedy and more a plea to allow children to be children, not victims of the views and desires of adults, it’s a thought provoking film.

Monday, 27 January 2020

1917 (2019)

George MacKay is lost in the horrors of war in Sam Mendes' one-shot 1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay (Lance Corporal Will Schofield), Dean-Charles Chapman (Lance Corporal Tom Blake), Benedict Cumberbatch (Colonel Mackenzie), Colin Firth (General Erinmore), Richard Madden (Captain Blake), Andrew Scott (Lt. Leslie), Mark Strong (Captain Smith), Claire Duburcq (Lauri), Daniel Mays (Sgt Saunders), Adrian Scarborough (Major Hepburn), Jamie Parker (Lt Richards), Michael Jibson (Lt Hutton), Richard McCabe (Colonel Collins)

No film can even begin to capture the unspeakable horror of war, and those of us who have never been in the middle of it can only imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Based on the experiences of his grandfather Alfred, Sam Mendes’ World War I story tries to immerse the viewers in the experience by staging a film designed to play out in real time, in two epic takes (actually a series of very long takes seamlessly spliced together). It’s a technical accomplishment, but also a film partly dominated by the precision of its construction rather than the emotion of its telling.

One day in April 1917, two young Lance-Corporals, brave and selfless Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and more war-weary Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with a desperate mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The next morning, a British regiment will walk into a trap set by German forces. Blake and Schofield must take a message through no-man’s land, cancelling the regiment’s planned attack, or 1,600 men will die – including Blake’s brother who is serving with the regiment. 

Mendes’ film is a triumph whenever it is in motion. The time-limited race to travel across miles of hostile land – through no-man’s land, booby-trapped abandoned trenches, hazardous open fields and ruined towns that have become battlegrounds – works a treat whenever our heroes are constantly moving forward. Drawing a strange inspiration from Lord of the Rings, with its quest structure and Schofield as a Samwise to Blake’s Bilbo, the film is compellingly completed with the over-the-shoulder, walking-alongside intimacy of the camera work that follows every step of this journey, that never pulls ahead or shows us something that the soldiers can’t see and keeps us nearly constantly (bar one stunning shot of a ruined town lit only by firelight and early dawn) at the level of the soldiers.

It’s an epic experience film, and Mendes’ camerawork and ingenuity in the shooting create the impression of a one-take film – some shots seem to travel at least a mile, through winding trenches, with our heroes. The effect is justified by the desire of the film to throw us into the experience of the soldiers and to create the impression that we are sharing a journey with them – and hammers home the time pressure these men are operating under as we experience everything first hand, including the only undisguised cut (and time jump) in the film. The horrors of the war are superbly shown – dead bodies, many bloated or deformed by exposure, litter the frame but tellingly bring little comment from the soldiers, demonstrating how accustomed they have become to such sights. Each frame seems covered with muddy surfaces, and sharp freezing chills. Technically it’s a marvel, and you have to admire Mendes’ ambition in even attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps, though, that is one problem with the film. You are so impressed with the showy intelligence and grace of the camera movements, the ingenuity needed to keep the camera rolling through takes lasting ten minutes or more and travelling miles at a time, that move in and around confined rooms and trenches, that you at time spend as much (if not more) time marvelling at the brilliance of the film making as you do feeling the emotion of the story. While the long takes add immeasurably to the many moments of peril, dread and terror that the characters go through (helped also by Thomas Newman’s eerily unsettling score), they also become as much about admiring the technical brilliance as they are investing in the story.

Of course, the story has been boiled down to something very simple and elemental – and it avoids many clichés you half-expect from the start. But the film itself gets slightly less interesting when the relentless march forward stops, when the characters slow down or take moments of reflection. A section in the middle of the film where the action pauses around a young French woman hiding in a bombed out French town doesn’t quite work, and has a slight air of spinning plates – you could have allowed a longer break in the single take effect to take us from one event to another. In fact you wonder if a film that had more of a time jump or had been constructed around 3-4 clear long takes with time jumps might have worked better.

This is not to criticise the two actors who embody the leads. George MacKay is superb as a soldier who experiences immense suffering and torment on a journey he is less than willing to undertake from the first, and finds himself opening up his emotions and feelings more and more as the film progresses. Dean-Charles Chapman is a good match as a slightly more naïve youngster, desperate to do the right thing and selfless in his courage. These two move on a journey that essentially sees them handed over from one big-star cameo to another (something that is sometimes a little distracting, if necessary to allow these brief appearances to have character impact) with Firth, Strong, Cumberbatch, Madden et al all delivering terrific work in a few short minutes on screen.

Mendes’ direction technically is faultless, and the style chosen really adds huge and unrepeatable visual benefits, all superbly caught by Roger Deakins’ sublimely beautiful photography. At one moment a flare is fired – and we see it arch out of shot and then repair behind us in real time as the characters move forward. At another, an aerial dogfight goes from distant to alarmingly close. The countryside recedes hauntingly as a ride is hitched from a motorised regiment. 

The single-take effect does make it far easier to relate in these moments to the soldiers. It works less well at smaller moments – and arguably could have been replaced by a more conventional style here to give even more impact to the rest – but its execution is perfect. Maybe too perfect, as it doesn’t always make room for the heart. Hollywood’s directors seem more and more drawn to the long take for the immersive, big-screen quality they carry – four of the last five Oscars have gone to directors whose films are almost entirely made up with them. But they create – as is sometimes the case with 1917 – something that is a product for the largest screen, immersive experiences that perhaps lack rewarding depth on later revisits.

Friday, 24 January 2020

The Greatest Showman (2017)

Hugh Jackman excels in The Greatest Showman, like a Broadway show bought straight to film

Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman (PT Barnum), Michelle Williams (Charity Hallett-Barnum), Zac Efron (Philip Carlyle), Rebecca Ferguson (Jenny Lind), Zendaya (Anne Wheeler), Keala Settle (Lettie Lutz), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (WD Wheeler), Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Deng Yan), Paul Sparks (James Gordon Bennett), Sam Humphrey (Charles Stratton)

In early 2018, the whole world seemed to go crazy for The Greatest Showman. A big old-fashioned film musical that wouldn’t look out of place with Gene Kelly in the lead, people went to the cinema again and again to see this escapist song-and-dance epic. Based loosely on the life of PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), covering his marriage to childhood love Charity (Michelle Williams) and the creation of his Museum of Curiosities (funded through some chicanery with banks), he staffs the museum with “freaks” whom he encourages to embrace their nature and entertain the crowds. The “circus” is a huge success, but will Barnum be seduced by his desire for greater fame and acceptance in the cultural high circles that have no time for his mass entertainment? And how will his fascination with opera singer Jennie Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) affect his marriage?

If you get the idea from that plot summary that this is rather safe and unchallenging plot-wise, you would be right. Structurally this doesn’t offer anything more than hundreds of musicals before it – a hero aims for the stars, loses his roots on the way, only to triumphantly rediscover them and remember why he got into this business in the first place. Yup that’s your classic Hollywood plot here. And it doesn’t matter a damn.

Because The Greatest Showman, like the shows Barnum offered the crowds, knows exactly what it is: an old-fashioned Hollywood musical, shot like a classic piece of Broadway spectacle, crammed to the gills with hugely exciting and dynamic musicals performers ripping through a series of impressive songs and some stunningly choreographed numbers. Who gives a damn if you’ve seen the story before, when it’s so well done, the actors so engaging and the highlights on the way to brilliant to watch. Come to this with your mind set for the West End, and you’ll love it. Expect to see La La Land and you are in for a disappointment (or a pleasant surprise!)

Gracey’s film is unashamedly old-fashioned, and shot with a confident stillness that puts the actors, dancers and singers front-and-centre rather than the flourishes of a director. In contrast to some over-directed musical numbers, Gracey is happy to place the camera so we can see all the numbers perfectly. And why wouldn’t he when all the actors can dance as well as this? I want to see every step of the intricate choreography (that would have thrilled Kelly) from Jackman and Efron in The Other Side. I want to see every step of the thrilling group dance number From Now On. I want to marvel at Efron and Zendaya soaring through the skies on trapeze ropes in Rewrite the Stars.

It’s a musical that chose its cast carefully, requiring that they should all be capable of the sort of feats of physical and musical perfection that we all enjoy watching on Strictly every week. In all this, the snubs of the critics seems neither here nor there – hilariously the film always commentates on its own terrible reviews in advance (!) in the character of James Gordon Bennett, a humourless snobby theatre reviewer – it’s a film that is shot in the arm of pure entertainment. 

I mean you’d need to have a heart of pure cold not to feel some serious emotions during Jackman and Williams’ beautiful rooftop ballet during A Million Dreams. What I particularly liked about this was its unabashed, carefully designed artificiality – like a blast of 1950s Minnelli musicals, this uses painted backdrops and studio locations to beautiful effect to create a larger-than-life, theatrical world of hyper reality. It really helps you to get even more swept up by it all.

But then you also get swept up from having an actor as charismatic as Hugh Jackman in the lead. Oozing charm and grace from every pore, Jackman is riveting in the role, his grin a mile wide, his skills as a singer and (most especially) a dancer shown off to stunning effect. He turns moments that could have rogueish qualities into sweetness, he is impossible not to root for. Sure as an actor he’s not stretched with the conventional arc Barnum has, but does that matter when he is giving this all he has. It’s a hugely, overwhelmingly enjoyable performance of pure charisma that I can’t imagine any other actor in Hollywood having the chutzpah to pull off. It’s so skilled that he never overwhelms the film but you could move the whole performance into a 1,000-seater theatre and it would still work perfectly.

The rest of the cast all lift their considerable game to match the commitment and expertise of the lead. Williams showcases her own musical talents, while Efron and Zendaya have a truly affecting romance at the heart of the film (while also being considerably compelling musical performers). Rebecca Ferguson has the least rewarding role (and is also dubbed for the high soprano singing), but does a decent job as someone you could imagine turning Barnum’s head. The rest of the cast playing assorted circus performers create a truly family atmosphere, with Keala Settle and Sam Humphrey particularly fine.

You could argue that the film – with its message of acceptance and lack of judgement – flies a little bit in the face of the real Barnum (“there’s a sucker born every minute”) who probably was partly exploiting his acts for cash. The treatment of Jennie Lind as an increasingly scheming would-be-seductress is a sad slur on a woman who gave most of her earnings to charity. In fact you wish all the names had been changed to distance us from reality.

But the film gets away with it because it is basically a heartfelt and genuine piece of work that, most of all, like a huge Broadway musical just wants to entertain the audience. And on that score it works – you’ll get invested in the characters and their story and you’ll find yourself humming the songs afterwards and trying (failing) to dance those steps. Go into it in the right mindset, and you’ll find a delight.