Friday, January 31, 2020


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johaansson, Taika Waititi
DIRECTOR: Taika Waititi
GENRE: Dark Comedy/Drama

Imagine that your imaginary playmate is Adolf Hitler.  Not that difficult if you're a white supremacist these days, I'd guess, though more plausible if you're a young Nazi wannabe in Germany during the last stages of the big war--on his way to a Hitler youth camp, where the fun activities are not swimming and volleyball, but killing and blowing stuff up. 

Such is life for ten year-old JoJo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he tries to cope with conflicting existential emotions. Because things are not exactly as they seem. His mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johannson), is harboring a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie). JoJo reels back in shock when he discovers her in their home. What is this--a Jew? Some kind of monster? After all that's what he's been brainwashed to believe. Fear leads to falling under the older girl's spell, and JoJo will soon realize that he's not cut out to be a Nazi. Because he's still in touch with his own sense of humanity.

From the get-go, all subtlety is lacking in JoJo Rabbit, switching from its elements of Monty Python-esque black humor to serious drama, like a fighter setting you up with the left jab and then delivering the knockout punch. 1-2...boom!  (The bodies of men and women hang in the public square throughout the film, and people just go on about their business.)

As I watched, I wondered why it would be necessary to make this film late in the year 2019, as cinematically inventive as it is--flailing away like Captain Obvious on colossal evils now fading into the whirlpool of the distant past--as if to say: And remember kids, we must never forget that evil is bad! (There is shock value for anyone who doesn't remember Mel Brooks' "Nazi humor" from his 1967 film The Producers.)

And then I thought maybe it's intended to be a response to what is perceived as a growing culture of hate emanating from the far right, as evidenced by white supremacists who now feel more emboldened to come out of the woodwork. Perhaps director Taika Waititi felt that some of us needed to be jolted out of our sense of complacency that fascism could never rear its ugly head again on a such a grand scale.

JoJo Rabbit is nominated in four Oscar categories: Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Film Editing, and Costume Design. 

Grade:  B +

Rated:  R

STARS: Song Kang Ho, Park So dam, Choi Woo-sik, Yeo Jeong Jo
GENRE: Dark Comedy/Drama

Our second feature is also a dark comedy (it seems to be the year for them at the Oscars). Wafting in on a refreshing breeze from Korea is Parasite--a film about class divisions and what happens when some folk living in a bug infested basement apartment in Seoul worm their way into the lives of an upper class family, gaining their trust through deception and misrepresentation. Just when the con artists--the Kim family--think they've boarded the gravy train by fast talking their way into lucrative jobs with the Park family (tutor, art instructor, cook, driver), the apple cart is upended when the presence of an intruder who has been there all along is suddenly revealed. (Have you taken a good look around your basement lately to see who might be living down there?)

The Kim family members are so brashly clever in their deception that the Park family matriarch, Yeon-kyo (Jo yeo Jeong), who is totally gullible and naive, doesn't know they're all part of the same clan. It makes for some implausibly comic moments as the ruse plays out day by day. All the while we sense that the crap is about to hit the fan somewhere along the way, and when it does the film kicks into a shocking and disturbing new gear.  

Director Bong Joon Ho seems to be using basements metaphorically--how you can ascend from the darkness of that subterranean world into the light for a time, but if you're a cockroach at heart, there's a reason why that may not be the best place for you long term.

When what we get out of Hollywood these days is a lot of the same old shoot-em-up formulaic crap, a film as clever and inventive as Parasite shows that we can still go to the movies and be surprised.

Nominated for six Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Film Editing, and Production Design. 

Grade: B +


I saw these two movies weeks ago so my memory of them has blurred a bit. I do remember suggesting to Tim that we double-review them because, for my money, they both deserve an Academy Award for ORIGINALITY.

I saw Parasite first. Several friends had raved about it . I wasn't particularly eager to see it, assuming from its quirky title that I'd be in for a lot of slimy creatures, slithering around eating people. What a relief to be so wrong!

Two points I'd like to make about Parasite. First of all, it made me think a lot. How grateful I am to have a roof over my oblivious the rich are to the ills of the poor in every certainty is just an illusion. And my second point? The ending of this movie was beyond original. I defy even the most seasoned movie-goer to figure it out ahead of time.

Parasite (which I'll bet my bloomers will win at least 2 Oscars on February 9th if not more) is the first film from South Korea to earn such world-wide recognition. Omedetō, Bong Joon Ho!

Grade: B +

Onward to Jojo Rabbit! Again, I was not keen on seeing this one from the previews. It just looked too campy. (Monty Python Meets The Marx Brothers?) And being a big fan of Schindler's List, I was a bit put off by another Hitler spoof. But when I saw that it had been nominated in this year's Best Picture category, I decided to take a chance.... 

Despite the freezing temperature in the local movie theater (built in 1929) where it was playing, and the antiquated sound system (where I missed 20% of the dialog), I really enjoyed Jojo Rabbit. It was—pardon my redundancy—a very original film. You had to pay attention to this one!

I'm not sure a graduate of Dachau would find it all that amusing. But it's geared for a younger audience, none of whom would probably know what Dachau was. And I must say that Scarlett Johansson's Best Supporting Actress nod seems undeserved in my book. But it's a fun way to spend an hour and 48 minutes. (If you've read all four of these reviews, you deserve an Oscar!)

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson
DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton
GENRE: Drama

A young black man is railroaded by the criminal justice system and locked away for a crime he didn't commit. Doesn't sound that unusual anymore, does it?  Because as we all should know by now, it's not.

Just Mercy is based on the true story of Walter McMillan, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a young woman in Alabama in 1988. The only alleged evidence against him was the testimony of a convicted felon who claimed to have witnessed the crime. McMillan spent six years on death row. 

Director Destin Daniel Cretton spins an inspirational yet appalling tale of how young Harvard law school graduate Bryan Stevenson worked tirelessly to prove his client innocent--based upon Stevenson's 2014 memoir. Four appeals were denied by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals from 1990 to !993. But attorney Stevenson never gave up.

The movie spills over into melodrama in one of the courtroom scenes, and Just Mercy suffers from some mediocre acting performances, with the notable exceptions of Jamie Foxx as McMillan, and Tim Blake Nelson as the criminal whose testimony (which he later recanted) put McMillan behind bars. And at two and a half hours, this tale could have been told in  more economical fashion. 

But in my view, the quality of the film is almost irrelevant. It's the story it tells and what it reveals about racial prejudice, collusion among law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges that indicts the whole lot of them--not only in this case in Alabama, but assuredly in many other instances as well. As the film reveals at the end, for every nine people executed in the United States, one innocent person has been exonerated. We'll never know how many innocent individuals went to their deaths at the hands of the state due to inadequate or incompetent legal representation. (Did you know that the barbaric electric chair was employed in the U.S. until 2008, when the last state where it was still in use dropped it?) 

For the sobering reality it reveals, Just Mercy should be required viewing for everyone. 

It's not a particularly great film, but it's an important film. It's a stinging indictment of capital punishment, as well as our flawed and too often corrupt criminal justice system.

Grade:  B -


Just Mercy is an uncomfortable film to watch. It is unrelenting when it comes to showing just how unjust the world can be. Especially if you're black. Forget the Harvard education, the JD after his name, our idealistic hero still must suffer through a strip search before he can interview his client. Yes, the film was a bit too long but so was the agonizing process of obtaining Walter McMillan's freedom.

I was unfamiliar with the actor who played the lawyer. But thanks to IMDb, I now know his name is Michael B. Jordan (the B stands for Bakari which means "noble promise" in Swahili) and he's no relation to the basketball legend. I felt he did a credible job and when they showed the real Bryan Stevenson during the end credits, I could see a definite physical resemblance. Whenever a movie is based on a true story, I love how they show the "real" people at the end.

The story is so horrifyingly gripping that the musical score is hardly noticeable. But I noticed it. And I agree wholehearted-ly with the description I read of the music "showing great emotional nuance."

The only thing that didn't ring true for me—although in real life it happened that way—was the sudden change of heart by the prosecuting attorney. Maybe it's the fault of Rafe Spall for playing the part of a smarmy southern bigot so convincingly. (Ironic that Spall is English.)

Not since that unforgettable scene in "The Green Mile" (where they forgot to dampen the sponge) has the sight of an electric chair been (God, we can be such inhuman humans!)

The lady I saw this movie with said the book by the same name was "absolutely brilliant." Well I say the movie is, too!

B +

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


Rated:  R

STARS: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian
DIRECTOR: Josh and Benny Safdie
GENRE: Drama

The new Adam Sandler vehicle, Uncut Gems, is so...New York! Meaning it's loud. Meaning it's crass. And in the first five minutes we find ourselves gazing up the main character's ass (a live colonoscopy!).Some things you just have to look away. So I'm thinking oh boy--what's next?  

What's next is a first half of a film that can only be truly appreciated by east coast denizens who are used to hearing New Jersey pronounced as "Joizy." It's a constant barrage of the F word...and the N word. The reason certain individuals communicate in this manner is because they don't have the education, the intelligence, or sufficient command of the English language to communicate in a more creatively appropriate style. And frankly it gets tiresome to observe, amidst the spiritually bankrupt rap culture (money, bling, and twerking hoes) that's taken over and become standard fare in even mainstream entertainment programming now. (Rant finished.)

Howard Ratner  (Adam Sandler) is a shady Manhattan jewelry dealer--a compulsive gambler who can't keep up with his debts, so he robs Peter to pay Paul and ends up being chased and getting the shit beat out of him by thugs who feel that a responsible person should pay back what he owes in a timely manner. 

Howard has obtained an uncut stone with black opals from Ethiopia that he thinks might be worth at least a million at auction. Enter retired NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself) who gets a look at the stone and becomes enamored of it. He wants it for himself. Here is where Howard does the kind of stupid thing that is the hallmark of horror films (and this is a horror film of sorts) that is required to provide the plot complication that will move the action forward. He loans the stone to Garnett overnight so the athlete can sleep with it, or whatever he's going to do. But getting it back won't be that easy. 

The movie careens along like a jolting New York cab ride with a wild-eyed Iranian at the wheel. And I'm starting to wonder if this isn't going to be another Little Nicky--one of Sandler's early films that was the most insanely out of control and messed up movie I've ever seen. Fortunately, Uncut Gems settles down midpoint, and Howard becomes humanized to a degree. He has a wife (Idina Menzel) who's ready to leave him because she doesn't like his antics with his mistress (Julia Fox). There is a poignant scene where he tries to cajole her into giving him another chance, and we see some of the affable Adam Sandler to which we've grown accustomed.

The film is set in 2012 when Kevin Garnett was still playing in the NBA--and as the tense, skillfully building drama leading to the film's explosive climax plays out, Howard Ratner has wagered his life on Garnett's performance in a big game. It's an uncut gem of a movie that doesn't reach its full potential, as the ending feels like a morality play.

Sandler is superb. And the film itself is just brilliant enough--despite its drawbacks--to avoid a Little Nicky type report card. 

Grade:  B


I want to take back the "F" I gave Last Christmas and give it to Uncut Gems instead. I have never walked out of a movie in my entire life. But this one had me seriously tempted. I lived in New York for years and this film is an insult to that city. Yes, The Big Apple is loud. Brassy. And yes, it houses some pretty nasty people. (What city doesn't?) But this twisted, hard to follow, screamfest was not only hard on the ears, it seemed almost criminally slapstick at times. (Tony Soprano meets The Marx Brothers.)

I'm an Adam Sandler fan, especially a recent comedy on Netflix he did with JenniferAniston. ("Murder Mystery") But the brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, who wrote and directed this travesty, are light on shading. I'm sure their goal was to outdo The Coen Brothers. They failed with flying bullets.

What did I like? Oy. If I have to say something positive about Uncut Gems, it would be the face of Eric Bogosian who played Arno, one of the three thugs (AKA Three Stooges) and also attended the superfluous and tasteless Seder.

Billed as a 'Crime-Drama-Mystery,' it was a kitchen sink of a movie. It touched on myriad subjects and didn't deliver on any of them. The ending—which I won't reveal—was, in my humble opinion, the only good thing about it.

Grade: D- (only because I can't be too flagrant with my Fs)