Review of "Jojo Rabbit"

Johannes Betzler, better known as Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), is a 10-year old boy in Berlin, Germany near the end of World War II. His father is off in Italy, either fighting for or against the Nazis, and his older sister died of influenza, so Jojo lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) in their home. Jojo and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) are going off to Hitler Youth camp to learn fighting and survival techniques to protect the Fatherland. Jojo is nervous but gets words of encouragement from his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). At the camp, Jojo is ordered by some older boys to wring a rabbit’s neck to prove he’s willing to kill to protect Germany. Jojo refuses and is tagged with the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Adolf tells Jojo the rabbit is cunning, fast, can outthink his enemies and isn’t a coward at all. With renewed confidence, Jojo runs back to the group where they are being taught how to throw grenades by the leader of the camp Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). Jojo grabs a grenade and throws it, but it bounces off a tree and lands at his feet. Frozen in fear, the grenade explodes, injuring Jojo’s leg and scarring his face. Because of his perceived incompetence, Captain Klenzendorf is assigned a low-level job posting propaganda posters and collecting metal, and once he has recovered from his injuries, Rosie takes Jojo to the office so he can feel included and help. Arriving at home before his mother one day, Jojo hears noises coming from his sister’s room. He investigates and discovers a panel in the wall granting access to a hidden compartment. Inside he discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish teenager Rosie is hiding from the Nazis. Jojo threatens to turn her in but Elsa warns he and Rosie might get in trouble also. Jojo and Elsa declare an uneasy truce, but he demands she share all her “Jew secrets” so he can write a book and one day present it to Hitler.

“Jojo Rabbit” is a sweet and funny coming of age film set against the horrors of World War II. Writer and director Taika Waititi, who also plays Jojo’s imaginary friend in the form of Hitler, downplays most of the atrocities in his film as it’s not really based on historical facts, but loosely on a book called “Caging Skies” by author Christine Leunens. Combining childhood imaginary friends, the priming of a generation to hate Jews and others seen as inferior, and a worldwide conflict that cost millions of lives is difficult to turn into a comedy, but Waititi succeeds…mostly.

Viewed with over 70 years of hindsight, films of Hitler giving speeches, wildly gesticulating and puffing out his chest as thunderous applause washes over him from adoring followers, seems almost comical. None of us can understand the circumstances that led to the rise of Nazism since we didn’t experience the German economic collapse due to reparations demanded by the Allies as punishment for World War I. We can’t understand a country’s fanaticism and willingness to follow the orders of madman, demanding the expulsion, then extermination, of a race of people. Despite America’s current political climate that draws dire comparisons, the conditions that led to nationalism, fascism and genocide are unknown to modern people (except for those unfortunate ones that live under totalitarian regimes like in North Korea). Portraying Hitler as a child’s imaginary friend takes the sting out of the dictator’s crimes against humanity. While there are some atrocities shown, like the public hanging of people considered traitors or enemies of the State, the last weeks of European campaign look pretty calm, peaceful, almost idyllic.

And that’s my biggest complaint about “Jojo Rabbit.” Director Waititi puts a glossy finish on a dark and horrific period in world history. Yes, he’s showing the end of the war through the eyes of a child, but there were many things children of the time saw that could have been incorporated. We do see young people given guns and told to kill invading troops. Rebel Wilson, playing a trainer of Hitler youth named Fraulein Rahm, sticks a grenade with the pin pulled down the belt of a young boy and tells him to go hug an American. These scenes are played for the sake of dark humor and we never see any children die as a result. The approach is more like Monty Python-lite. There’s no dismemberment, no obvious dummy bodies blown up, as the death always happens off screen. I think this approach cheapens the story. We all know the Nazis were murderous brutes, but we aren’t shown that except is snippets that fail to connect. Perhaps I’ve watched too many World War II documentaries with footage shot of bodies lying in the street, but I think Waititi owes it to the victims of this bloody war to show the suffering caused by a group of people suffering the delusion of being a superior race.

All that said, “Jojo Rabbit” has a great to going for it. The performances of the cast are lovely. Roman Griffin Davis is a joy to watch as Jojo. He undergoes a great deal of growth as the film progresses. Jojo is a fanatic with a dream of serving on Hitler’s personal guard. He believes all the lies he’s fed about Jews having horns, sucking the blood of victims, eating babies and the like. Davis can put a cute face on fascism as we follow him through his transition to decent human being.

Thomasin McKenzie is affecting as Elsa. The young woman forced to hide in a wall is broken when we meet her. She plays with Jojo’s opinions about Jews, confirming what he believes to educate him about how silly the lies he’s been told are. A scene where Jojo is trying to hurt her by reading a fake letter from her boyfriend will break your heart as the hateful words heap more damage on an already fragile soul. McKenzie’s is possibly the best performance in the film.

Director Waititi steals every scene he’s in as Hitler. Portraying the dictator as a childish oaf works well. Waititi is gifted in both his script and performance, shaming Nazis for their ridiculous beliefs of supremacy. Jojo’s Hitler is a stand-in for his absent father, providing support and guidance as Jojo navigates his way through a world that’s falling apart. Waititi doesn’t shy away from making Hitler an aggressive jerk towards Jojo. He puts on a Beer Hall Putsch flourish to some of his pep talks, likely based on speeches Jojo heard on the radio. While I have an issue with how in general the subject matter was presented, I have no problem with Waititi’s take down of Hitler.

“Jojo Rabbit” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language. There are a couple of scenes showing bodies hanging in the town square. The end of the film has some battle scenes showing a few people getting shot and laying amongst the rubble. Jojo is shown being injured by a grenade. Anti-Semitism is featured throughout the film. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild.

I enjoyed “Jojo Rabbit” a great deal, however the softening of the horrors of war was something constantly nibbling at my mind. I understand the film’s main characters are a 10-year old boy and a teenage girl, but I also know young people were witness to awful things at the end of World War II in Europe. They had suffered through food and medicine shortages and then the brutality of Soviet troops looking to exact revenge for all their people lost on the Eastern front. Taika Waititi sweeps most of this under the rug with a few offhand comments. I think dealing with it more directly would have made the humor of the movie more effective and a relief from the horrors of war. It’s a difficult balance to strike and Waititi partially failed.

“Jojo Rabbit” gets four stars out of five.

I am taking some time off so there probably won’t be a review this week (probably) but here’s what’s opening in a multiplex near you.

Black Christmas—

Bombshell—

Jumanji: The Next Level—

Richard Jewell—

Uncut Gems—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment. It’s available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman132@gmail.com.

Review of “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is struggling with grief and anger after her teenage daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and burned to death less than a mile from her home. Dissatisfied with the lack of progress in her daughter’s case after nearly a year, Mildred approaches the owner of the local outside advertising company Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) about buying three billboards on the road where her daughter’s body was found with the following message: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Naturally, the billboards create quite a stink around Ebbing, Missouri. Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) visits Mildred and explains there are no witnesses and the DNA found at the scene doesn’t match anyone in the national database. Unsatisfied with that answer, Mildred intends on keeping the billboards up for a year despite Willoughby’s revealing he has terminal cancer. Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is also upset by the billboards but he plans on taking a more direct approach: Harassing anyone associated with Mildred including Red and Mildred’s employer. Undaunted, Mildred intends on continuing her advertising campaign despite the public pressure as well as the complaints of her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes).

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a deceptively complex film. There are various layers of story that must be peeled back to reveal the core of the narrative. It is a movie that requires patience as it reveals itself to be something other than the status quo. It isn’t strictly a black comedy, a whodunit, a domestic drama or a thriller. It is a combination of all those genres with a little something extra thrown in that’s difficult to identify until you realize the obvious: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is life.

Director and writer Martin McDonagh has crafted a rare and beautiful thing: A script that plays with convention and turns the obvious into the enemy. There is nothing in the movie that makes you think, “Seen that before.” It takes no easy way out; the characters make painful and challenging decisions and still manage to seem real.

McDonagh has a history of making unique movies as he’s the writer and director of “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges.” He is also a very successful playwright, referred to in a New York Times article as the most important living Irish playwright with some of his plays running on Broadway and receiving Tony nominations. It isn’t a surprise that someone so successful at bringing characters to life in live theatre would also be able to create stunningly unique and vibrant characters for the screen. The fact McDonagh also has a handle on the visual aspects of cinema is the real surprise; crafting shots that are simple yet cinematic and tell a story all on their own.

McDonagh also gets spectacular performances from a stellar cast. Frances McDormand is a force of nature as Mildred. Always ready to defend herself and her beliefs with a quick curse or a long story, Mildred is not to be trifled with. She doesn’t take well to physical attacks either as a dentist finds out. Mildred is pushed into carrying out these actions by feelings of grief and guilt that are always just under the surface. If her daughter hadn’t been so brutally murdered she might only be an angry ex-wife with two mouthy kids and a humdrum life; but with Angela’s death Mildred has an all-consuming cause to occupy her mind and as she proves that can be a dangerous thing. McDormand gives a fiery performance and never shows one moment of weakness. It is a riveting portrayal of a woman that feels as if there is nothing she can’t do and with nothing left to lose despite having a teenage son left at home. Mildred is a flawed and broken woman and McDormand gives a flawless performance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated for an Oscar.

Sam Rockwell also burns up the screen as racist drunk cop Jason Dixon. Rockwell is a chameleon, able to disappear into a role so completely you assume he is the character in life. Rockwell portrays a sad man that is realizing his dreams may be out of reach and that make him angry. He takes that anger out on the suspects brought in, especially those that are people of color. He makes no apologies for his beliefs that we later on learn are not as tightly held as we might think. Rockwell creates a despicable character that you still have some sympathy for. He’s broken but redeemable. This is also a performance that could get some award season attention.

Also on the list is Woody Harrelson as Police Chief Bill Willoughby. While not in the film as much as McDormand and Rockwell, Harrelson’s Willoughby is in a way the heart of the film. Both Mildred and Jason are on the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as their beliefs and action while Bill is firmly in the middle. As can be seen in his interactions with both of them, Willoughby is attempting to be a calming force on both of them. It takes an extreme action by the chief to get both their attentions. Harrelson is fantastic and in a way steals the movie every time he’s on screen. It is a measured and calm performance that belies the depth of the character’s impact. I don’t want to give too much away but there are moments in Harrelson’s performance that will break your heart. He too may need to rent a tuxedo for the Academy Awards.

The secondary characters are also expertly performed and written. Peter Dinklage has a small (no pun intended) role as a local car dealer with a crush on Mildred. Their one and only date proves to be disastrous. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie like a coiled snake always ready to pounce. Robbie Hayes is the depressed son of Mildred and Charlie and shows the perfect amount of teen disdain for his parents while also backing off when he realizes he has crossed a line. Samara Weaving has only two scenes in the film as Charlie’s 19-year old girlfriend but makes the most of it with a couple of perfectly timed comedic performances. The entire cast is perfect and makes for a wonderful movie-going experience.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references. We see a couple of characters violently beaten in two different scenes. One is thrown out a second-story window onto the street below. There is also a suicide shown where a character is shot in the head. The sexual references are mostly mild but the context of one reference is extremely disturbing. Foul language is common throughout the film.

It isn’t often that a film can take what could have been a simple and boring story and throw in enough twists and unusual choices to turn it into a fascinating movie that demands your attention. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is just that film. With a multi-layered story, three fascinating primary characters and a cast that combines to deliver several amazing performances, “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” gets five guitars.

Two new movies are opening this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Just Getting Started—

The Disaster Artist—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available at WIMZ.com and wherever you download podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.