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JoJo Rabbit ~ A Capsule Movie Review

JoJo Rabbit ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Johannes “JoJo” Betzler is a winsome, ten-year-old boy living with his unconventional mother in Nazi Germany during World War II. His father is fighting in Italy, unseen for two years and presumed dead. JoJo has an “imaginary” companion, who turns out to be none other than the Fuehrer himself, Adolf Hitler. Caught up in the fervor of his time and place, JoJo believes he is a loyal Nazi, until he starts seeing things in a different way.

The Hitler of JoJo’s imagination is funny and endearing, or at least that’s the way JoJo sees him. He has a funny accent and a comical mustache and he’s fun to be with and to talk to, a really nice fellow. Sometimes when he’s talking he lapses into his “fiery speech” mode. JoJo has some growing up to do before he sees Hitler for what he really is and becomes disenchanted with him.

Jews are the enemy, according to Germans of the era, the cause of all the world’s woes. JoJo is more than willing to go along with the hatred of Jews until he discovers that his own mother is hiding one of them in her house, a teen girl named Elsa. JoJo and Elsa becomes friends. After JoJo becomes friends with a Jew, he comes to see the race in an entirely different light. (“What will you do when the war is over and you no longer have to hide?” JoJo asks Elsa. “Dance,” she says.) JoJo wants Elsa to tell him all about the Jews because all he knows about them is the stereotypes. He plans on writing a book that will be the definitive book on how Jews are different from Aryans. JoJo is intelligent beyond his years.

The war isn’t going well for Germany. Allied forces are closing in. The Russians are on Germany’s doorstep. Realistic Germans see the war is lost. The time for believing in miracles is past. When JoJo’s mother pays the ultimate sacrifice for hiding a Jew in her house, JoJo finds himself all alone in the world. Suddenly the war has ended. What do JoJo and Elsa do now? Isn’t it time to dance?

New Zealand actor Taika Waititi plays Hitler in JoJo Rabbit. (I saw Taika Waititi in a little-seen, crazy, funny and dark movie from New Zealand about vampires called What We Do in the Dark.) Taika Waititi also wrote the screenplay for JoJo Rabbit from a novel by Christine Leunens. Taika Waititi also directed JoJo Rabbit. (Give the multi-talented Taika Waititi an Oscar.) A child actor named Roman Griffin Davis is perfect as JoJo Rabbit (so-named because he refuses to strangle a rabbit early in the movie). He’s cute without being cloyingly cutesie-pie. Archie Yates is another child actor who plays JoJo Rabbit’s pudgy, well-meaning friend, Yorki. There’s something reassuring and endearing about Yorki. He’s the perfect friend to be with if you’re stuck in a war.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

The Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Lighthouse ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The Lighthouse has to be the most unusual new movie of the year. It’s set in 1890 and shot in black and white, with an aspect ratio of approximately 1.19:1, which means the picture is practically square (instead of elongated, which is what we’re used to) to emulate early motion picture photography. The music score (with a nod to the classic film scores of Bernard Hermann) is made up of a foghorn, horns and pipes, glass harmonica and an ocean harp (a stainless steel bowl with bronze rods around the rim that gives off an ethereal sound when used struck a friction mallet). The dialogue spoken by the two characters is based on the “local color” poems and writings of Sarah Orne Jewett. All these filmmaking elements come together to spell “A-R-T” instead of a commercial project designed to generate box office revenue. (You know, like about 98% of the movies released during the year.)

The only two characters in The Lighthouse are two very different men, one younger (Robert Pattison) and the other older (Willem Dafoe). Both men are named Thomas (although the younger man lies and says his name is Winslow). The older Thomas used to be an old seafaring man and is now a lighthouse keeper who knows all about tending the light. The younger Thomas has a murder on his conscience from when he worked in logging (he let a fellow worker die when he could have saved him). He is hired for a period of four weeks to be lighthouse assistant.

The film is set entirely in and around a lighthouse on the Atlantic seacoast of the United States. It’s not an inviting, scenic or hospitable place. The work the younger Thomas does is backbreaking labor and very often involves nasty chores, such as emptying chamber pots and cleaning out the cistern. “I did not take this post be a housewife or slave,” he says defiantly. The older Thomas is something of an uncouth swine and, understandably, gets on the younger Thomas’s nerves. They sleep in very cramped quarters and are always together. The older Thomas talks incessantly, sometimes in soaring soliloquies that don’t make much sense.

The loneliness and isolation begin to play on the younger Thomas’s mind. The four weeks he was supposed to be at the lighthouse are up, but a terrible storm sets in and the person who was supposed to relieve him doesn’t show up. So, now there’s a psychological element in play. Is any of this really happening or is it all just in the younger Thomas’s head? He’s already killed one man. Will he be driven to kill again?

The Lighthouse is not for everybody, of course. If you see it, you might think it’s not your cup of tea, but you can honestly say it isn’t like anything you ever saw before. Remember The Artist in 2011, a silent, black-and-white movie set in the 1920s? The Lighthouse is as uniquely memorable as The Artist, but in its own special way.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

They Shall Not Grow Old ~ A Capsule Movie Review

They Shall Not Grow Old ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

We already know that war is hell. If you still doubt it, you need to see the 2018 movie documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, made for theatrical release and currently being shown on HBO.

It’s now one hundred years since World War I, called the “Great War” at the time, or better yet, “the war to end all wars” (it wasn’t). It was the world’s first (and sadly not the last) experience with global warfare. Millions of people lost their lives, were displaced from their homes, and generally made miserable by food shortages, worthless currencies and dithering leaders who probably should have been locked up at the start.

The premise of They Shall Not Grow Old is a simple one. English men who served in the front lines, in the infantry, are talking about their experiences. We don’t see them but only hear their voices. What they are saying is accompanied by moving pictures of life on the front lines, on the “Western Front” in France. Many of these men were very young at the time, no more than eighteen or nineteen years old; they had limited experience of the world, let alone of war. While fighting the enemy at the frontlines, they lived through the worst and most terrifying experiences imaginable, knowing that at any moment a shell bearing their name might come out of the sky and slam into their heads. “You never see the shell that kills you,” they say, “because it’s traveling faster than the speed of sound.”

What makes They Shall Not Grow Old so impressive is that the hundred-year-old film clips have been reprocessed (digitized, colorized, enlarged, restored), giving them a sense of immediacy and a “you are there” feeling. Sound has been added, making it appear that the long-dead people in the film clips are talking, when you know they couldn’t be talking because synchronized sound in film hadn’t been invented yet. I don’t know how this technique is accomplished, but I guess it can be explained by a cliched phrase such as “state-of-the-art technology.” Whatever you call it, They Shall Not Grow Old is worth seeing as a testament to human suffering and the lunacy of war.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Downton Abbey ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Downton Abbey ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

The television series Downton Abbey ran for six seasons and fifty-two episodes from 2010 to 2015. Now there is a Downton Abbey movie. It’s not a sequel or a rehash of the television series but a continuation, set two years after the series left off. If you never saw the series and are not familiar with the characters, you probably won’t find the movie meaningful or interesting. Familiarity with the characters is what will provide the spark.

It’s now 1927. The world has been changing since the Great War (“the war to end all wars”). The uppercrust Crawleys (he’s a peer, don’t you know) have witnessed the slow demise of their “class,” their privilege, and all that goes with it. People on the huge estates, such as Downton, have been selling out and moving into more modest homes. The Crawleys hang on, but sometimes they get discouraged and talk about giving up the ghost, which would mean, of course, letting their servants go out into the cold world and fending for themselves.

King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, are going to be touring Yorkshire, so they will spend one night at Downton Abbey. A royal visit, of course, always provides lots of opportunity for drama and intrigue. After the snooty royal retinue arrives, the Downton Abbey servants are incensed to find that they will be displaced for the duration of the royal visit by the king’s own. Mrs. Patmore will not be required to cook the dinner after all, after laying in mountains of supplies from the local grocer; the cooking will be handled by the king’s French chef. Mr. Barrow, now head butler at Downton, will not need to lift a finger because the king’s butler (although he will not allow himself to be called by that title) will see to everything. Mrs. Hughes’s housekeeping skills will not be needed; the king has brought his own hatchetfaced housekeeper with him; she can scare anybody away just by looking at them.

The royal visit goes off smoothly enough, but, of course, with complications. There is a plot to assassinate the king during a parade (politics, don’t you know) that is thwarted by the ever-brave and resourceful Mr. Tom Branson. (It has now been seven years since the death of his wife, Lady Sybil, so he has an eye again for the ladies.) The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) must confront (and make peace with) a detested relative who is part of the king’s retinue. Lady Mary’s husband, Henry Talbot, can’t be present for the royal visit because he is off in Chicago at an auto show, but he appears at the last moment. Lady Edith’s husband, Bertie Pelham, is planning on being on an extended trip in South Africa with the king at the time that their first child is due to be born, so what will Lady Edith do with an absentee husband at such an important time? Our Mr. Barrow (more handsome than ever now that he’s “older”) gets into a jam by being in a “men’s” club—men dancing with each other!—when it is raided by the police. “I’ve never been here before!” he says as he is pushed into the paddy wagon. “You’re here now!” a helpful policeman states.

If you liked Downton Abbey on TV, you should like the movie, which is grander, bigger, broader and more lavish than the TV series. It’s old-fashioned entertainment for those, like me, who need to escape into another time and place. And if the Downton Abbey movie makes enough money, there will undoubtedly be more to come.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

If you are an adult with a brain and you’re fed up with all the youth-oriented fluff at the multiplex this summer, you might want to see director Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a time in Hollywood. It’s not comic book superheroes, cute talking animals, a sequel to a previous movie, or a female-oriented melodrama. It’s a completely fictional story, set in Hollywood in 1969, although some of the characters are (or were) real people, principally Sharon Tate. And, no, the story is not a bloody recreation of her murder exactly fifty years ago and the murder of five other people (including Sharon’s unborn baby) at the hands of a group of Charles Manson-inspired hippies. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino presents an “alternative history” version of the crime in which the only people who die are the ones who deserve it. If you saw his movie Inglourious Basterds (misspelling intentional), you know this is not the first time he has fabricated an alternate ending, for the very simple reason, I suppose, that he’s in charge and he’s making a lot of stuff up because that’s what an “artist” does. It’s called “poetic license.”

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a TV cowboy star, with a successful series called Bounty Law. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick Dalton’s stunt man, friend and factotum. They are likeable fellows, trying to navigate the nearly unnavigable waters of 1969 Hollywood. (Cliff isn’t popular among movie people because he has, presumably, killed his wife and gotten away with it.) Rick rents a house in the Hollywood Hills next door to budding actress Sharon Tate and her movie director husband Roman Polanski. She has been in a few movies by this time in 1969, including Valley of the Dolls. Roman Polanski is very “hot” in 1969 because he directed the hit movie Rosemary’s Baby the previous year.

There’s not a lot of story in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Cliff Booth commiserates with his pal Rick Dalton and rides around Hollywood a lot in Rick’s yellow Cadillac. He meets and is obviously (inexplicably) attracted to an underage female hippie named Pussy. When he gives her a ride back to her hippie commune (or whatever it’s called), he has a tense encounter with a band of repellent hippies, who, we find out later (or maybe we just deduce it) are in the thrall of creepy Charles Manson. I think this is the best sequence in the entire movie.

Rick Dalton, in the meantime, drinks a lot and stands by helplessly while his acting career fizzles out. He gives up his successful TV series in pursuit of a movie career, which never really takes off the way he wishes it would. He ends up going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns.” When he returns to Hollywood, he has more money than he had before and an Italian wife who doesn’t speak English, but his career is still in the doldrums and will probably never get any better.

In the absence of good summer movies, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is worth seeing and will probably be a big hit with its “star power” and its “name” director. It’s colorful and nostalgic, if you happen to feel nostalgic for 1969 miniskirts, blasting period music, powerful cars, hippies, 75-cent movies, smoking anywhere, no Internet, no cell phones, and no political correctness. The ending is violent, with a special kind of bizarre, grotesque violence that is the trademark of any Quentin Tarantino movie. The punishment that Cliff Booth metes out to the invading hippies is gratifying and almost worth the price of admission alone. Will somebody please shut her up?

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Tolkien ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Tolkien ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Thirty-year-old, blue-eyed actor Nicholas Hoult plays English fantasy writer John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien in the film biography of Tolkien’s life, called, appropriately, Tolkien. J. R. R. Tolkien’s work is probably more popular now than it was during his lifetime due, in large part, to the two popular film trilogies (six movies in all), based on his works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

J. R. R. Tolkien lived from 1892 to 1973. Both of his parents check out early, so he and his younger brother are left under the guardianship of a priest. He attends a traditional boys’ boarding school, where he, as usually the case with creative people, occupies his own world, in this case the world consisting of sketching fantastic creatures, creating his own language, and dreaming of a fantasy world of his own making. (His early preoccupation with fantasy is fueled mostly by his soon-to-be-dead mother.) While still in school, he develops an infatuation for a young girl named Edith, who is the “paid companion” of a wealthy woman named Mrs. Faulkner. His love affair with Edith doesn’t work out right away and she announces she’s marrying somebody else, but eventually they end up together and marry.

While still at school, Tolkien develops a close relationship with several other boys, who are all unique in their own way. This friendship is very intense and lasts presumably for a lifetime or until death. The theme of friendship (“fellowship”) becomes an important theme in Tolkien’s yet-to-be written fantasy works. Other important themes would be questing for something that is lost and the titanic, never-ending battle between good and evil.

Tolkien experiences The Great War (“The War to End All Wars”) firsthand, on the front line of battle. He survives the war, while so many others do not, marries, has four children, and goes on to become a college professor and a prolific writer. We have to presume he would be surprised by the continuing fascination with his life and work 46 years after his death.

Tolkien covers roughly the first half of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life. The movie ends before he came to write the books that would make him famous. It’s a fairly standard movie biography, well-made, but not as compelling as films based on the lives of other famous Britishers, Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything.) The British accents in Tolkien are sometimes difficult to comprehend, but that’s usually the case with British movies (some English subtitles for American audiences might not be amiss).

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

Vice ~ Capsule Movie Review

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Vice ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

He’s laconic, soft-spoken (“beware the quiet man…”), smart, cautious, chooses his words carefully, and is as reckless, ruthless and unapologetic as he needs to be in performing what he perceives as his duty to his country. He’s not the traditional politician with the 1000-megawatt smile and the standard line of bullcrap. (“If you want it, we’ll be sure and get it for you.”) He’s overweight, has a serious heart condition, is uncharismatic, unexciting, faithful to his wife and family, with no hint of scandal attached to his name (except for a lesbian daughter, which doesn’t seem to bother him in in the least). He’s Dick Cheney, Vice-President for eight years under President George W. Bush, probably the most powerful and consequential vice-president in U.S. history.

According to the new movie about Dick Cheney’s life, Vice, Dick Cheney was unambitious and unmotivated as a young man. He drank to excess and worked as a telephone lineman in his home state of Wyoming. His girlfriend (and soon to be wife), Lynne, forced him to snap-to and, as the saying goes, “make something of himself.” She was the motivating force in his life and was responsible for his being a “something” rather than a “nothing.” If it hadn’t been for Lynne, none of us would have ever heard of Dick Cheney.

Soon Mr. Cheney found himself in Washington as a young congressional intern. He “caught on” in Washington and found himself taking to Republican politics. He ran for Congress from his home state of Wyoming, won, and later served in a number of high-level government positions, spurred on, as always, by his wife, Lynne Cheney. He was just about finished with politics, was raking in the dough as CEO of Haliburton, when he was tapped to be George W. Bush’s unlikely presidential running mate in 2000. “I think we can make this work,” he says to GWB over fried chicken in the back yard.

Regardless of your political affiliation, Vice is an entertaining, wry, ironic behind-the-scenes political story and a panorama of recent American history. It’s the story of a man without political connections or family connections who came from nowhere and became the ultimate Washington insider and power player. Christian Bale and Amy Adams are sensational as Dick Cheney and his wife. Sam Rockwell, who won an Oscar last year as the amazingly dumb small-town deputy in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, plays the swaggering George W. Bush, “black sheep” of the Bush family,  governor of the state of Texas and two-term Republican president.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp