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By midlandsmovies, Jan 4 2020 08:56AM



Jojo Rabbit (2020) Dir. Taika Waititi


Based on Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Taika Waititi follows up family-friendly Thor: Ragnarok with the decidedly un-family friendly Jojo Rabbit. Set during World War II, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a small boy who is part of the Hitler youth and is given the nickname ‘Jojo Rabbit’ after failing to kill a bunny as part of the group’s activities.


Later, his discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. Alongside them are the well-established funny folk Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson as Nazi officers buffooning their way through their authoritarian roles.


Yet director Taika Waititi saves the worst for himself though. He plays a “comically” inept take on Hitler himself, as a projection by young Jojo. But it’s an infantile performance plucked from a pantomime – no doubt intentional as the boy's conscious – but resulting in zero laughs. I seriously mean, not one.


And the script sadly doesn't quite nail the balance between the satire, pratfalls and serious scenes. Shocking scenes of Jews hanging from the gallows in a town square should sit cleverly and uncomfortably with the lighthearted moments but seem wildly out of place given the failing humour here.


It’s not that its offensive either. Hell, from my favourite Four Lions (suicide bombers) to Team America (US imperialism) via Life of Brian (religion) and the most relevant of all, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, incredibly serious subject matter can be made funny and thoughtful given the appropriate angle.


And Jewish comedians Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, The Dictator) and Mel Brooks – whose 1967 satire The Producers is this film’s most obvious parallel with this film – have taken so much more successful stabs at similar social criticism and the historical abuses of our shared past.


In addition, the excellent Scarlett Johansson delivers a rather fantastic dramatic performance that has been sadly dropped in from another movie altogether. And Stephen Merchant's Gestapo cameo is pure Herr Otto Flick from British TV sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!


Style wise, there’s elements of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom with a parallel between the young scouts and the Hitler youth as well as that director’s dry editing and primary colour palette.


The black comedy opening mixing The Beatles’ German-language and upbeat hit “Komm gib mir deine Hand” with actual archive footage of screaming young Nazis at rallies, is a small diamond in the rough. The Seig Heil hand gesture not going amiss here either but it’s all downhill from this beginning. So rather than continuing clever sideswipes like this, the clown-ish, and again, juvenile take on the Nazis and specifically the Führer himself is truly a joke vacuum.


The film does attempt to build a relationship between the young Jojo and Elsa as he questions the Jewish stereotypes he’s been told on the way to an enlightenment. These young actors do very well with the more tactful ideas here but once more, the tone of individual scenes don’t coalesce into a more successful whole. And I don't buy the argument that every poorly-drawn character is "seen through the eyes of a child". It's a sad excuse for fair criticism.


It’s a shame then that this possibly deep and meaningful film loses its nuance because the black comedy laughs were simply not there for me. Polarising film critics already, I throw my lot in with the commendable but flawed bunch. Ultimately comedy is one of the most subjective genres there is, but for me Jojo Rabbit is an unsuccessful satire absent of enough laughs to make it anything more than an admirable misfire.


★★


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Oct 10 2019 09:50AM



The Day Shall Come (2019) Dir. Chris Morris


As a huge fan of Chris Morris’ previous work, it’s great to see the director back after his successes of The Day Today, Brass Eye and the controversial suicide bomber film Four Lions.


Here Marchánt Davis plays Moses Al Shabaz who is an unstable preacher in a Miami commune who is investigated by a corrupt FBI. They are shown to undertake morally dubious undercover work in their attempts to convict potential terrorists.


Anna Kendrick is Kendra Glack, an operative whose conscience is tested by the bureaucratic game-playing of the FBI and police procedures she is forced to adhere to. And before long, the FBI is actively “encouraging” the group to take risks that they would not do otherwise.


Although this film is certainly a new project, the obvious surface parallels with Four Lions – a bungling religious group, the incompetent authorities – mean The Day Shall Come feels very familiar and it’s sad to say but Four Lions works better in almost every respect.


With its razor-sharp focus and balance of politics, drama and farce, Four Lions’ satirical targets are so precise that it’s a shame this film’s criticism of American security spirally wildly within the narrative. Also, Four Lions’ Riz Ahmed was essentially the “straight” guy to the foolish antics of his friends and this film was aching for a similar central character (either from Moses’ group or the FEDs) to ground the whole thing.


Sadly there isn’t and there’s nothing stopping it from sometimes twisting off into nonsense – especially in the third act. With this scattershot approach, the themes are not as insightfully critiqued as they need to be.


And from nuclear weapons to bank loans, The Day Shall Come wants to target every hot topic in the current climate and therefore loses further focus. The cast are ok but praise should be singled out for Marchánt Davis’ likeable and funny portrayal of the naïve Moses, but even his best efforts couldn’t keep the narrative on course.


With a concluding coda that is inevitable (and again, similarily ‘borrowed’ from his own Four Lions), it has to be said the movie is a rather large disappointment from someone I expected so much more from.


★★★


Michael Sales



By midlandsmovies, Oct 3 2019 01:42PM

Review - Movie catch up blog 2019 - Part 4


Now deep into the second half of the year, there's more films being released in cinemas, on video-on-demand and home format than we can keep up with but we have three new reviews of some of the latest releases out there. In this review catch-up post we take a look at SKIN, MA & CHILD'S PLAY.




Skin (2019) Dir. Guy Nattiv


Jamie Bell plays real-life ex-white supremacist Bryon "Pitbull" Widner in this new dark drama asking whether a racist can be reformed. At various white-power gatherings, Bell acts as father figure to new recruits but begins to doubt his own convictions when he meets Danielle Macdonald as Julie Price and becomes an actual surrogate dad to her two children. Based on an amazing true story, Bell’s Neo-Nazi is covered in tattoos, including significant ones to his face and so the drama is punctuated with gruesome flash-forwards of tattoo removal scenes as his past is literally burnt away. The film has dashes of Imperium and American History X as it tries to get under the surface of the ugly face of American fascism.


Starting with eerily prescient scenes from 2009, the film mellows slightly in the middle before Bell makes a desperate call to a man who is trying to help people leave behind their Neo-Nazi past. As Bell denounces his previous life, he erases his tribal ink along with it. Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’) delivers a warm turn as the empathetic wife, whilst Bell is great as the former skinhead. With a multifaceted performance, he looks for something (or someone) to blame but then takes control of his own life to make it better. With a timely subject matter, Skin delves into themes we’ve seen before but this almost unbelievably true life story gives hope to a better world by erasing, and learning from, one’s past mistakes. ★★★★



Ma (2019) Dir. Tate Taylor


Director Tate Taylor made 2011’s The Help which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture before his adaptation of The Girl on the Train earnt more than $122 million worldwide but what he is doing with Ma is anyone’s guess. Billed as a psychological horror, the film neither provides any depth to the psychological part and little in the way of horror either. In fact, 45 minutes in and all we have is a group of terribly broad and clichéd teenagers partying at a house owned by “Ma” (Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann "Ma" Ellington) who has lured the group to her basement as a place to consume alcohol under the relative ‘safety’ of her adult supervision. However, a humiliating incident from Ma’s past has built up a psychopathic resentment and her initial concern and protectiveness for the teens’ well-being slowly descends into ludicrous revenge sub-plots. Octavia Spencer, who was so excellent in Hidden Figures, does her best to hold the film’s under-developed aspects together but she cannot overcome the film’s rather large flaws. Unlike suggested in the trailer, the horror is sparse and the first terrible thing Ma does is at 1 hour 10 minutes into the film. Given the credits rolled at 1 hour 32 minutes, it really is a missed opportunity for what looks, on paper, to be an interesting set-up. The sewing of a teen’s mouth shut hints upon the gore and nastiness a film like this really should have had more of, but Ma ends up being a pretty terrible and boring film with a solid idea spoiled by its sub-par execution. ★★



Child's Play (2019) Dir. Lars Klevberg


80s video-nasty Child’s Play gets a technological upgrade in this reboot about a killer doll on a murderous rampage. Unlike earlier films in the franchise, the conceit here is rather than a killer’s soul being magically transferred to a toy doll, the recently released “Buddi” is a misfiring high-tech toy that interacts with other products from the Kaslan Corporation who make it. After a suicidal employee at a Vietnamese toy factory decides to disable the safety protocols of one of the dolls on the assembly line, the corrupt product ends up in 13-year old Andy’s hands. Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a shy youngster who lives with his single mum Karen (Aubrey Plaza) and names his doll “Chucky" (oh-oh). Before long, the doll has murdered the family’s cat and decapitated his mum’s boyfriend after hearing Andy bad-mouth both of them. The film wisely takes broad aim at consumerist culture but the comedy-horror works well in the style of 80s fare like Gremlins as the characters never nod-and-wink to the audience. This makes the dark comedy all the more funny. From table saws, blood spurts and a horrifying scalping, the required gore is present and the film’s young child actors are pleasantly relatable. Some 80s clichés work themselves in too – the investigator, the adults who don’t believe their kids, a finale in a department store – and these help solidify the tone in which the film aims for. Mark Hamill does great with his Joker-infused tones as the voice of Chucky also. Much better than it has any right to be, Child’s Play digital modernisation respects the origins of that first film and whilst it won’t win any high-brow awards, for this sort of thing it’s surprisingly entertaining. ★★★



Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Feb 24 2018 03:11PM



The Death of Stalin (2017) Dir. Armando Iannucci


Banned in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan (jagshemash!) British comedian, director and satirist Armando Iannucci jumps into dangerous territory with this new dark comedy about a dictator’s passing and the chaos that subsequently ensues.


The film’s story highlights the brutal regime and power struggles in USSR during Stalin’s death in 1953. Armando Iannucci has pulled together an eclectic cast including comedy heavyweights like Michael Palin (as Vyacheslav Molotov) but has also wisely placed them alongside dramatic actors such as Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs to provide the gravitas to make the comedy spikes even funnier.


Stalin himself is hilariously voiced by Adrian McLoughlin with a Guy Ritchie-style cockney gangster vibe not seen so broad since Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges. Whilst strong English accents failed spectacularly in Valkyrie (I couldn’t get past the posh tones of Branagh, Nighy and Stamp for WW2 Nazis) it works well here as a comedy choice.


It begins with Stalin requesting a copy of a live orchestral performance which needs re-staging as no recording was made, ensuring we are introduced to the despot’s brutal rules from the start. We see the unforgiving nature of the regime as citizens do their best to avoid being on Government “enemy” lists which means a certain death.


After becoming incapacitated via a brain haemorrhage, two factions within the Central Committee appear as they attempt to gain control in the absence of power. Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria shuts down Moscow and replaces “enemy” lists with his own, whilst Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov undertakes his own ambitions.


Stalin’s daughter Svetlana is played brilliantly by Andrea Riseborough ensuring the “boy’s club” cast has a large dose of understated drollness. The film also screams Britishness in its tone and jokes. Lines like “where’s the big fella?” and “better watch your steps, son” (both delivered hilariously by The Fast Show’s Paul Whitehouse who gets a huge share of the best lines) are in clear contrast to the Soviet era costumes and soundtrack.


One critic of the film is Samuel Goff who states that “Beria was an odious sadist, but, as a friend put it to me, you wouldn’t make a film of the George W. Bush years that had Donald Rumsfeld personally waterboarding Guantanamo detainees”. To me that imaginary parallel is actually the perfect undermining of the awful oppressive structures in politics. It shows how those in positions of power actually do have blood on their hands through the decisions they’ve made even if not directly responsible for the act personally.


Ignore Goff’s sad “this isn’t historically accurate” and “I don’t find it funny” arguments, as the drama and comedy come together – as unrealistic as it needs to – in order to exaggerate and highlight the absurdities inherent in the horrific reality. Although it’s no way in the same league, it’s thematic siblings include the take-downs of suicide bombers in Chris Morris’ “Four Lions” and the religious conflicts in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”.


As the situation spirals out of control, the committee point fingers of treason and attempt to pin blame on each other as their paranoia spirals. The film's light-heartedness breaks into more overt drama as each member’s true intentions and murderous ambitions are revealed but the director still throws in humorous lines even during the darkest scenes.


Whilst approaching a difficult subject matter, the film’s censorship from public view in certain countries ironically reinforce the claims the film is making about authoritarian and tyrannical governments. And like the best satire, the film approaches the appalling events from a position of farce, from lifting Stalin’s body to the verbal bickering via the ludicrous actions during his funeral. And with an excellent ensemble cast of elderly gents, they deliver a thoughtful dark comedy that works more as Dad’s Army than Red Army.


7/10


Midlands Movies Mike


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