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Indie Focus: Laughs, tears and satire in ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive is launching the second edition of its Taiwan Biennial Film Festival, running Oct. 18-28. The series will open with the North American premiere of writer-director Hsieh Pei-ju’s feature debut, “Heavy Craving,” and end with the local premiere of a new restoration of legendary filmmaker King Hu’s late-career “Raining in the Mountain” from 1979.

And the LAT’s Envelope Screening Series is in full swing with a number of events coming up, including a screening of the documentary “Maiden” with a Q&A with subject Tracy Edwards and a screening of “Pain and Glory” followed by a Q&A with actor Antonio Banderas and filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. For more information, go to events.latimes.com.
‘Jojo Rabbit’

Taika Waititi directed, wrote and appears in “Jojo Rabbit,” which won the prestigious People’s Choice Award when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Set during WWII, the film is about a German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler (played with comic zeal by the New Zealand-born, half-Maori, half-Jewish Waititi) and discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. The movie is a potent mix of sharp satire and heartfelt emotions as the boy and girl become unlikely allies.

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In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote that the film “shows both the pleasures and the limits of a seriously off-the-wall idea. … Erratic but engaging, going in and out of daring, the film’s mixture of black humor and unashamed sentimentality is not always as good as its best parts.”

For our podcast The Reel, I spoke to Waititi, who said of the film’s playful approach to a heavy subject, “Of course we have to keep telling these stories and keep doing them and find new ways of getting people’s attention and having the conversation. If that involves having jokes and imaginary Hitler, so be it. It’s better than not talking about it and then everyone forgetting because then next thing you know, it happens again. … I mean, the fact that I even have had to make this film, the fact this film even exists and that we have to keep talking about how people shouldn’t be Nazis, is just ridiculous.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott said, “The make-believe Hitler is somehow both the most outlandish and the most realistic thing about ‘Jojo Rabbit … The movie filters the banality and evil of the Third Reich through the consciousness of a smart, sensitive, basically ordinary German child. Veering from farce to sentimentality, infused throughout with the anarchic pop humanism Waititi has brought to projects as various as ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ it risks going wrong in a dozen different ways and manages to avoid at least half of them.”

At Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins called the movie “more of a roast than a reckoning” and added, “The movie never really tries to land a punch. Hitler as goofball is enough for an ‘SNL’ sketch, maybe — but ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is too polite to stuff real epithets into its characters’ mouths, or to brandish any real sense of violence. It’s too cute, too wedded to things eventually working out, to grapple with realities like mass extermination or the death camps — you know, buzzkills.”

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in the movie “The Lighthouse.”
Willem Dafoe, left, and Robert Pattinson in the movie “The Lighthouse.”
(A24)

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‘The Lighthouse’

Directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, “The Lighthouse” is a black-and-white tale set on a remote New England island sometime in the late 1800s. Two men, Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Wake (Willem Dafoe), are there alone to tend a lighthouse and they become locked in an intense relationship as the movie transforms into an allegorical essay on masculinity and its discontents.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang said, “‘The Lighthouse’ is a ferocious battle of wills, a tour de force of cold, clammy suspense and a protracted descent into cabin-fever madness. It is also a gorgeous piece of film craft, a chance to savor the visual glories of a bygone era of cinematic artisanship: a boxy aspect ratio, a black-and-white palette bathed in expressionist shadows, the rich textures of 35-millimeter celluloid.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The story in ‘The Lighthouse’ is thin enough to invite plentiful interpretations about masculinity, homosocial relations and desire, even if its more suggestive theme is Wake’s punishing exploitation of Winslow. … The film’s more sustained pleasures, though, are its form and style, its presumptive influences (von Stroheim’s ‘Greed,’ German Expressionism), the frowning curve of Winslow’s mustache, the whites of eyes rolled back in terror. Eggers meticulously sets the scene, adds texture and builds tension and mystery from men locked in battle and sometimes in embrace.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “‘The Lighthouse’ is a triumph of mood and vision, like the love child of Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch that knows that its actors are just a small piece of the overall composition. The sounds of the sea, the waves crashing violently against the rocks, the birds, that cursed foghorn and the looming eye of the lighthouse are all equal co-stars. “

‘The Cave’

la_ca_the_cave_movie_117.JPG
Al Ghouta, Syria - Dr. Amani (center) and Dr Alaa (right) in the operating room in a scene from “The Cave.”
(National Geographic)

Director Feras Feyyad’s previous documentary, “Last Men in Aleppo,” was nominated for an Academy Award. His latest, “The Cave,” again takes viewers inside war-torn Syria. This time he focuses on a pediatrician, Dr. Amani Ballor, who manages an underground hospital in the city of Ghouta.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “We see, as only an observational documentary can show us, what it’s like to function in a place of continual crisis, to have to deal with not only the noise, tension and terror of aerial bombardment but also the relentless stream of wounded, many of them children, brought to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. … We also see, and this is ‘The Cave’s’ raison d'être, the actions of a handful of beyond-dedicated doctors and other medical personnel — many of them women also contending with the norms of a patriarchal culture — individuals who refused to leave the area because the need was so great.”

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Reviewing the film for IndieWire, Eric Kohn said, “Fayyad captures a desperate struggle for survival at the behest of a young doctor and her team. It’s a frantic, unnerving window into Syria’s collapse, and a nerve-wracking thriller that alternates between acts of courage and utter despair; through that paradox, it captures the struggles on the ground in intimate detail.”

For rogerebert.com, Monica Castillo wrote, “It’s quite probable that ‘The Cave’ may leave you feeling helpless after watching it. It’s a feeling shared by many of those living it then and now. Beyond the human need to hear and see these stories, it’s a beautifully shot documentary that’s as stunning as the images are harrowing. In a sea of so much tragedy, it’s a marvel to stop and consider each individual’s experience fighting the tide.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.


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