Tag Archives: Satire

Jojo Rabbit

26 Oct

‘Jojo Rabbit’: Hitler Youth’s imaginary friend, true enemy battle for territory in his affections

 

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“Jojo Rabbit” is something you’re not likely prepared to see – and that’s a good thing. The best way I can lay it down: It’s as if Wes Anderson did Hitler. That’s accurate but not entirely fair, because it’s written and directed by by Taika Waititi, a creative stylist in his own right with the vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) and the grand uber-hero crackup, “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) – probably the only Marvel film Scorsese and Coppola might tolerate – to his credits. “Jojo Rabbit” takes place in Germany on the eve of major turns at the end of the war, and Hitler, played with grand, goofy gaiety and menace by Waititi himself, factors large into the dark satire about a 10-year-old boy coming of age during complicated times (to put it mildly).

We catch up with Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he heads off to a Hitler Youth boot camp for a weekend. He’s a proud loyalist and, because dad’s gone missing, his male surrogate is the führer himself. Talk about an unholy and unhealthy imaginary friend, but Waititi, who is half Maori and half Jewish, plays the part with a deft, humorous touch, giving Hitler a warm, avuncular sheen while not letting him off the hook for, well, everything.

The leporine tag of the title comes from that boot camp, where the undersized Jojo botches a test of manhood and is tagged a “scared little rabbit.” The best part about the camp is that we get Sam Rockwell as a snarky, demoted officer running things and Rebel Wilson as his chortling assistant – “Get your things together, kids, it’s time to burn some books!” Back at home, Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t quite share her son’s all-things-Aryan zeal. Then there’s that someone hiding in the walls: Turns out mom and dad are anti-Nazi propagandists, and the older girl living in a secret compartment upstairs is Jewish, and being sheltered by mom. Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and begins to study her (keeping a science journal detailing “the Jewish beast,” which, while shocking and telling, also becomes a major turning point in the film). As the interviews progress, a friendship begins to take seed. They never let Rosie know that Jojo knows, but in passing Jojo tells his pal Yorki (Archie Yates, whose round-faced exuberance makes him an infectious scene stealer) he’s “captured one,” and even Rockwell’s officer. But no one really believes him or cares, as the Third Reich has begun to crumble.

Beyond the wide-eyed  transformation of its young protagonist, the heart and humanity of “Jojo Rabbit” radiates through its women. Since she’s donned Lycra in the Marvel Universe and teamed up for freaky times with Luc Besson (“Lucy”), filmgoers might have forgotten ScarJo’s emotive resonate from past immersions into nuanced roles of cold alien bait (“Under the Skin”) or a dislocated American in Japan (“Lost in Translation”). She carries the part of a conflicted mother fully. You know her Rosie detests sending her son off to boot camp, but does so not only because of the bigger forces at play, but because she’s an adoring mother trying to support her progeny as best she can. McKenzie, who gave such a mature and central performance in the off-the-grid drama “Leave No Trace” (2017), ups her stock here. Her character’s somber reflectiveness and innate compassion go a long way in disarming Jojo’s regime-first reactiveness. The scenes of the two communicating indirectly while connecting on a personal level build subtly and effectively, offsetting the mad world outside.

I’m not sure if there’s such adroit, slapstick skewering in “Caging Skies,” the book by Christin Leunens on which the film is based, but in Waititi’s World War II universe, shouts of “Heil Hitler” – initially shocking – ultimately become something of a comic refrain, like, say, in a Mel Brooks movie, and Rockwell, Wilson and Waititi play their deplorables with over-the-top, nod-and-wink perfection. The material is equal parts grim and hysterical (especially the debate over which of the Allied forces are worse to humans and dogs – Americans, Russians or the British), and folk will likely seize on comparisons with “The Death of Stalin” (2017) due to the era, comedic style and subject. It’s only natural, but “Jojo Rabbit” delivers a palpable human story that touches as we laugh and the world around explodes. And somehow David Bowie and the Beatles find their way in.

The Laundromat

10 Oct

‘The Laundromat’: We go through a spin cycle while Soderbergh cleans house on bad finance

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Steven Soderbergh’s films have always been stacked with panache and verve. Take the mod hipness of “Out of Sight” (1998) or the “Ocean’s” films, let alone bigger, more serious affairs such as “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” – both made in 2000 and both striking Oscar gold – in which the filmmaker’s wry, slick sarcasm still manages to work its way up and out. That’s why taking in “The Laundromat” is somewhat disconcerting: It’s got style and sass for sure, but it’s someone else’s pen that Soderbergh’s wielding, most conspicuously that of Adam McKay, who inked quick irreverent, knee-jerk changeups into “The Big Short” (2015), the artfully outrageous dissection of the subprime housing collapse.

“The Laundromat” too is about a financial fissure in America, though it’s a more intimate and less grand affair than “The Big Short” and employs loosely bound segments (Secret 1, 2, 3 and so on) to bring you the not-so-great news. The first segment, “The Meek Are Screwed,” obviously caught my eye. The meek are mentioned relentlessly throughout the film, lemmings we should care deeply about no matter how many go over a cliff at the promise of financial security and greener pastures (the American Dream; nay, scheme). The first meek we meet are a retired couple, Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe (James Cromwell), who take a pleasure cruise across the placid waters of Lake George. There’s an accident, Joe doesn’t make it and Ellen, who thinks she’s going to buy a condo in the sky, drink mai tais and watch the sun rise, is in for a rude awakening. The insurer of Joe’s policy is a mailbox somewhere in Nevis with funnel after funnel to shell corporations elsewhere. It’s a maddening, endless web of paper that if put into boxing terms might be Ali’s infamous rope-a-dope – you can slug away all you want, but in the end you’re exhausted and primed for a knockout.

Ellen’s a slugger. And over the course of what amounts to a long, drawn-out bout, you begin to really admire her moxie. She starts with that mailbox, which belongs to a somber, cagey gent named Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), whose personal life proves nearly as dubious as his dealings. Ellen may be grasping at straws, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns follow the trail with the same diligence they tracked the source of a lethal pathogen in the pandemic thriller “Contagion” (2011). Along the path we get myriad digressions, be it a corrupt and extremely rich African ex-pat named Charles (Nonso Anozie) philandering poolside with his daughter’s college roommate, two naive Americans slugging tequila in the wrong Mexican cantina or the British businessman (Matthias Schoenaerts) who tries to shake down a Chinese matriarch on her home turf – not a good strategy.  

It turns out all roads lead to Panama (yes, this is the saga of the infamous Panama Papers, that if not for Wikileaks and the subprime debacle might have been more boldly underscored in history books) and there we get the cherry duo of Ramón (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen (Gary Oldman), law partners at a firm that manages nearly 25,000 shell companies who provide the kind of aside insights that Margot Robbie did from a hot tub in “The Big Short.” The pair are dashing, charming, and you’re thrown into a trance every time they rationalize the state of the universe with a shrug and wry smile. Their smugness is intoxicating, but it’s hard to root for the shell gamers as they inflict pain and suffering upon the meek with their “just bending the rules” machinations. The charismatic actors forge devilish chemistry too, twirling around each other like Fred and Ginger; Oldman, who won an Oscar last year for playing Churchill, gets to take a German accent out for a spin. For the most, he handles the curves nicely, but in the pit he lays it on a bit thick.

As things come full cycle, Soderbergh and Burns suddenly seem to be at a loss. Perhaps they should have done more with Sharon Stone’s persnickety real estate agent in a clingy sequin dress, or David Schwimmer’s boat operator, royally screwed by big insurance. But no, as this “Laundromat” closes we get put through the ideological wringer as the fourth wall is kicked down for a dour dose of pedagogy that’s meant to incite. Unfortunately, all the lazy symbolism does is agitate and bleach out what had been a luridly piquant sojourn to Central America and other unsavory ports of global corruption.

Long Shot

3 May

‘Long Shot’: She’s testing a run for president, he’s that strange bedfellow you hear about

 

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Without Charlize Theron, “Long Shot” would likely have no shot. The capable and statuesque actress has time and time again demonstrated her versatility, bouncing seamlessly from action (“Atomic Blonde”and “Mad Max: Fury Road”) to comedy (“Young Adult”) and of course, dark drama, namely playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003), for which she won Oscar gold. Here she’s in rom-com mode as Secretary of State Charlotte Field looking to push a green initiative worldwide and launch a run for the Oval Office.

Before you say Hillary Clinton, “Long Shot” is set against a different political climate than the one we find ourselves in today – not that it doesn’t parody and poke at it. In this parallel political universe, the sitting president (Bob Odenkirk) is a former actor who has let it quietly be known he isn’t going to seek reelection because he’s got a series (Netflix, Amazon?), which triggers Field’s ambition. Along her test-the-waters tour there’s an early stop at a swanky Manhattan cocktail party where Boyz II Men happen to be the centerpiece of the all-white event. It’s there in the haughty suffocating stuffiness that she recognizes Seth Rogen’s Fred Flarsky, not because he’s in an electric blue windbreaker at a black tie event – one of many long running gags that goes on perhaps a bit too long – but because she babysat him when he was in his pre-teens, ending in an awkward moment when the young Flarsky winds up sporting a very visible erection.

Yes, that’s how “Long Shot” rolls. The script by Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling has the uproarious irreverence of “Something About Mary” (1998) and some sharp political spoofs too, especially Andy Serkis as the Rupert Murdoch-styled tycoon who just fired Flarsky’s ultra critical journalist (penning pieces such as “Why the Two-Party System Can Suck a Dick”) or Alexander Skarsgård as the Justin Trudeau-esque Canadian prime minister being pushed by handlers, the diplomatically community at large and the press on Charlotte as a romantic possibility.The saucy send-ups of Fox News and CNN are bitingly hysterical, and sadly spot-on.

Plot-wise, Flarsky gets brought aboard as Charlotte’s speechwriter, and romantic seeds begin to take hold along a trip through Europe. That’s also when “Long Shot” becomes its least effective. Theron registers her best when Charlotte’s charming a room with her confidence and style or talking about the limitations of being a woman in politics: “If I am angry, I’m hysterical. If I raise my voice, I’m a bitch.” Not enough can be said about Theron’s presence and poise, and director Jonathan Levine seems to be well aware of the fact, as nearly every frame hangs from his star’s gravitational pull. Comedy star June Diane Raphael adds to the potpourri, playing it straight and sassy as Charlotte’s senior staffer, but the real big winner in this Theron tour de force (as well as carrying the film, she’s also devilishly funny) is O’Shea Jackson Jr., so good in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015, where he played his father, Ice Cube) and “Ingrid Goes West” (2017), and even more scene-grabbing here as Flasky’s bestie, a closeted GOP pragmatist. For O’Shea the future should be rife with opportunity, for Theron, there are no limits.

Vice

27 Dec

‘Vice’: Bale submerges self into role of Cheney for an overall shallow look into the Bush years

 

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For all the gonzo intelligent narrative devices laid down in “The Big Short” (2015) – a film rightfully regarded for its unconventional tact and devilish skewering of Wall Street greed – “Vice,” the latest from “Short” director Adam McKay, takes a stumble into the pool of smug self-indulgence.

First it must be said that Christian Bale, under tons of makeup and with a harsh, whispery intone – almost like his Batman voice – brings the incarnation of former “Vice” President Dick Cheney to life with astonishing credibility. What doesn’t work in this “W”-esque biopic is the singular throttle of Cheney as the Darth Vader of backroom politics. The film is a series of vignettes: The young Dick, an underachiever working on oil rigs, drunken and failing out of Yale, but then the rise in business, the union with wife Lynne (Amy Adams, underused in the thankless role of garnish) and Halliburton raking it in after Desert Storm. The Cheneys are rich and, at 45 minutes in, the credits roll. That’s one of the many McKay-infused shenanigans (like Margot Robbie in a hot tub with a glass of champagne to explain complex investment vehicles in “Short”) that don’t quite aid the satire, but more stoke the flame as things begin to wane.

After the “fake” credits roll, the call from W comes. During a man-to-man backyard barbecue Cheney casts a dark spell over Bush (Sam Rockwell, restrained and spot-on in the small part) growling about special power if he signs on as VP.  From there it’s a mad shell game, pulling strings from behind the curtain, undermining foes with glee and raking it in. That weapons-of-mass-destruction declaration goes ka-ching to Cheney’s ears.

The Scooter Libby scandal and that infamous shotgun blast all make it in via campy digs that feel more vindictive and skewed than they are of validating some truth. The whole film’s narrated too by some kind of Nick Carraway voice, and when you finally find out who it is, you might have a heart attack over the revelation. Kitsch is where the heart is.

The Cheneys’ biggest humanization comes in the defense of their gay daughter at multiple turns, but even there, McKay paints Cheney as an arduous manipulator worming and working for the win-win – giving the conservatives ins on the gay marriage issue while taking his daughter off the table.

If you’re looking for the real Dick Cheney, there’s probably plenty of nuggets here, but the portrait is so lopsided and skewed you’d almost think it was Michael Moore behind the lens. Bale, while totally convincing and immersed, is afforded only the opportunity to do SNL skit impersonations. Besides the bro barbecue with Bush, Cheney’s not much more than a hiss or a head cock from his Vader throne, using his force to manipulate the universe for evil gains.

The Big Short

25 Dec

The 2008 economic meltdown, that mega-shitstorm triggered by avarice, complacency and cronyism that left the taxpaying public with a mop and bucket even as many lost their homes and jobs, was no laughing matter, but it gets a sharp-witted rewind anyway in Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.”

122415i The Big ShortBack in 2010, Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” made a point of big money’s deep connections to the White House, regulatory agencies and academia. Who ran Capital Hill didn’t matter; red and blue allegiances were irrelevant as long as the talk on the table was about more green. McKay’s “Short” homes in on the gamblers who profited from that giant economic sucking sound, those who were alert to the rigging of the system and rampant neglect and, in the end, opted to hedge it. You could call them visionaries or vultures and both would be true; the film, however, paints them as more accidental heroes, opportunists and scientists who saw the sky falling and, when no one took them too seriously, put their money where their mouth was.

McKay’s best known for the “Anchorman” comedies, so tackling serious material from author Michael Lewis (the guy responsible for “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side”) about the inner workings of complex financial instruments might seem like a stretch. But McKay’s sense of satire and lightness in the face of darkness pays off nicely – not always mind you, but enough, and it helps tremendously that he’s blessed with an A-list ensemble who clearly went deep in preparation for their roles. Continue reading