By John H. Foote
Great day at the movies! Three Oscar bound movies with one black comedy among the most remarkably original films I have ever seen.
One of those days where you float out of the theatre.
JO JO RABBIT (****)
Finding a genre where this wildly original, bold and daring film fits is an impossibility. While it is without question a black comedy, pulling elements of Mel Brooks, the Marx Brothers and Monty Python into its narrative, it is also a powerful document on the horrors of Hitler’s reign of terror in Nazi Germany.
Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a bright eyed, precocious 10-year old boy thrilled to be a Nazi in the closing days of WWII, his belief in Hitler near fanatical, so much that Adolf Hitler is his imaginary friend. Yes, I wrote that.
This wide-eyed young Nazi has Hitler, Der Fuhrer, as his imaginary friend. Hitler (Taika Waititi) is bouncy, breezy, gleeful, filled with an infectious energy that is both surprising and hilarious, nothing like the monster we know him to be. He is of course what Jo Jo wants him, needs him to be, and the evolution of Hitler matches the boy’s growing social conscience.
Little Jo Jo might love Hitler and Nazism but he sure lacks the stuff to be a soldier. He nearly blows himself up with a grenade, cannot kill a rabbit, and is relegated to being a glorified postman. His world is shattered when he discovers his mother, portrayed with infectious giddy joy by Scarlett Johansson, is hiding a Jewish teenager in her home, placing she and Jo Jo in grave danger. He slowly realizes she is part of the resistance and against the beliefs of Hitler.
Slowly he befriends the girl in the closet, interviewing her about what it is to be a Jew and this bright eyed little zealot realizes she is not so different than he or his mother. He likes her, eventually growing to love her when they each share an unspeakable loss.
The film grows very dark in the last third when the horrors of Nazism strike very close to home for Jo Jo. The wide-eyed little Nazi struggles with his beliefs when a terrible tragedy befalls him and Germany falls. His beloved Hitler cowardly shoots himself in the head, but returns, head wound and all to reveal to the boy the monster he truly is.
Alternatively hilarious, and deeply tragic, the film beautifully captures the blind faith of childhood suddenly jarred to painful reality. For Jo Jo, it is a staggeringly heartbreaking what must happen to snap him to reality, and we feel every tear shed.
Young Davis is magnificent as Jo Jo, carrying this bold film on his small shoulders but never once faltering. We see the attraction of Nazism to a 10-year old boy – you get to wear a really cool knife, but the gradual dawning on the boy as to the monster Hitler was is superbly captured by this fine young actor.
Sam Rockwell is as always a comedic delight as the Commandant of the Hitler youth camp, a devoted (?) Nazi who has more good in him than meets the eye.
Scarlett Johansson gives a dazzling comedic performance that is both zany, moving and aware. Elements of the great Lucille Ball, combined with daffy Madeleine Kahn can be felt in her character and superb performance. She steals every scene she is in and has not felt as liberated before the camera since Ghost World (2001). A supporting actress nomination should be waiting for her Oscar morning.
Director-writer Waititi is simply brilliant as Hitler. Whether bouncing through the air, rolling in the boy’s bed or ranting anti-Jewish propaganda to Jo Jo, he is an absolute comic delight. Yes, the comedy is as black as the soul of Hitler, taboo, but never falters. His work as director is flawless, giving the film the perfect tone, allowing mayhem to rule.
This might be the film of the festival.
Best line of the year?
“Fuck you Hitler!”
MARRIAGE STORY (****)
Divorce is ugly and brings out the very worst in people. You wake up one day and realize you can no longer live with this person you once thought you could not live without, and the toxic rage begins to work its dark magic on you.
How could they have ever meant so much to you?
Noah Baumbach drew on the failure of his marriage and subsequent divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh for this tough, brutally honest look at a marriage unravelling. Great writers write about their life experiences and the greatest screenwriters are no different. Baumbach has fashioned a superb, however wounding drama. He has the courage to show, through flashbacks, how the couple fell in love and built a life, and then we watch as they tear it down.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) were happy once, could not keep their hands off each other, but now are struggling to tolerate being in the same room with one another. He is a playwright, successful and happy in New York, while she is an actress being offered a high paying job in TV that will make her famous. The trouble begins when Nicole’s offer requires her to live in Los Angeles, which Charlie has no interest in doing. The problems and powder keg in the marriage are set ablaze with the news about her L.A. move. If she takes it, if she goes.
Baumbach has driven this road before in the exquisite drama The Squid and the Whale (2005) which should have been a major player at the Academy Awards but was passed over. Like that film, this one is like watching a raw nerve being tapped, the agony apparent in the drawn faces of the adults. At times it feels like dramatic Woody Allen or Sidney Lumet, others like Ingmar Bergman, creating life on the screen that is undeniably authentic.
Is Driver not the finest actor in America under 40? If he is not please tell me who is. Like Brando, he has the ability to make every line sound like he is saying it for the first time, every moment natural, every nuance of his performance is perfection. While he has become famous as Kyle in the new Star Wars flms and is a formidable villain, he is best in human dramas like this because he is fearless as an actor and will go to any length to find the truth.
What has happened to Scarlett Johansson? What a break-out year she is having, breaking from The Avengers franchise, which killed her off in Endgame (2019). She is luminous here, magnificent, bringing to the role the despair and wounds that come with divorce, with falling out of love with someone. Displaying a range previously unseen, the actress stakes her claim for the Academy Award as Best Actress. She might just be nominated twice, as her supporting work in Jo Jo Rabbit is brilliant.
Laura Dern is impressive as a lawyer, when is she not terrific? It is the kind of ball busting, vicious character she latches onto easily.,
There have been great films about divorce before, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) the standard by which all are measured. If that is the case, Marriage Story might just bump that fine film from its perch.
Expect this to be a major Academy Awards contender.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD (***)
\Through the nineties, Tom Hanks won two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actor, and was nominated for another. In 2000, he was nominated again, and frankly should have won, again. In all he won Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), was nominated for Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Cast Away (2000) but incredibly, despite Oscar caliber work, he has not been nominated in nearly two decades. During that time he deserved nominations for Road to Perdition (2002), a Supporting Actor nomination for Catch Me If You Can (2002), Captain Phillips (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and Sully (2017), all worthy performances for which he was snubbed.
Why would the Academy choose to snub, or pass over one of the most beloved, brilliant and successful actors of his time? Who knows, but it has been wrong, not to mention cruel.
For his spot on performance as children’s TV host Fred Rogers, best known as Mr. Rogers, Hanks might find himself an Oscar nominee again. It is uncanny watching him enter through that door on what we know is a set, pull on that red cardigan with the zipper, all the while singing the title song. In those moments, Hanks very quietly, yet completely becomes Rogers. His eyes twinkly with decency, with hope, and though this guy may seem saintly, he was real, what you saw was what you got. Rogers, on TV and off, believed the world could be a better place if we all practiced kindness. In this day and age, under the leadership in the U.S., kindness is needed more than ever.
A cynical, seen it all writer is sent to profile Mr. Rogers, not believing anyone can be as good as he has heard he is. Yet the more time he spends with the man, the more he opens up to him and finds maybe Rogers is profiling him, getting to know and understand him.
There is something zen-like in his performance, something very comforting, like Rogers himself, something real. From the moment he slips on that red cardigan it is as though Mr. Rogers had taken possession of his soul.
Matthew Rhys is Lloyd, the very serious writer assigned to explore Rogers but instead finds the good man probing him for answers about his life, his demons.
Rogers asks the journalist to love himself, love thy neighbour, love the world around him, see the goodness in everyone, believing, truly, these are the answers to a good life.
Both actors are superb, with Hanks at his finest, delivering one of the best performances of his career. He goes far beyond the mannerisms and voice, he finds the gentle spirit of the man, he brings to us his soul, and what a fine gentle soul it is.
Nicely directed by Marielle Heller, the film is solid. I was hoping for a complete biopic, but this was fine, because Hanks shines so very bright.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”