Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B
Imagine if Home Alone was more intense and populated with neo Nazis, and you’ll get a feel for Becky, a jubilantly gory, highly stylized indie thriller that might be as off-putting as it is entertaining. Kevin James, yes Paul Blart himself, gives an about-face turn as the leader of a group of Nazis that recently broke out of prison. With his bushy beard. swastika tattoos, and intensely quiet monologues, the stunt casting works out well, and James can be truly menacing. His band of goons are terrorizing a blended family in search for a macguffin of which just happens to be in possession of Becky (Lulu Wilson), an adolescent hellion they will soon reckon with. She knows the terrain of the family cabin and the woods and goes about picking off the bad guys one-by-one in fiendishly bloody, wildly over-the-top panache. That’s the real appeal of the movie, the various ways our pint-sized heroine takes down the Nazis. Directors Cary Munion and Jonathan Milott (Cooties, Bushwick) infuse plenty of visual style into their thrills, amplifying the intensity further, like a pounding camera edits and a walkie talkie confrontation between hero and villain where a series of pans makes it feel like they’re face-to-face. The film can be unsparingly brutal and hard to watch at times, walking a line between being darkly comic to simply being gross. Becky herself comes across like a brat and, as the killings continue, gleefully sociopathic. She’s still hurting from her mother’s death, she doesn’t want to have to save her soon-to-be stepmom and brother, but she’ll do it if it means killing more Nazis. One big tough Nazi has a crisis of conscience and demonstrates, at least onscreen, more depth than Becky. It’s all a bit too nihilistic by the end for my tastes. Becky ultimately is a movie about killing Nazis gory good and looking good doing so. If that’s enough for you, give it a watch.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Writer/director Taika Waititi has played a vampire, an intergalactic rock monster, and now perhaps the most challenging role of his career, Adolf Hitler. Coming off his meteoric success with the MCU, Waititi is using the time in between mega-budget Thor sequels to write/direct/produce/co-star in a smaller daring indie comedy. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Dais), during the last year of World War Two. He fantasizes about having an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as the voice over his shoulder, reinforcing the teachings of adults and authority figures. His worldview is challenged when he discovers a teenager hiding in the family’s walls who just happens to be Jewish. Jojo doesn’t know what to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), nor does she know what to make of him, and Jojo decides to keep her presence a secret to spare his doting and put-upon mother (Scarlet Johansson). Jojo tries interrogating this wily girl but ends up learning more than he ever imagined.
Given the subject matter, setting, and overall tone, it’s a wonder how well Jojo Rabbit works. I was worried about what kind of tone the movie would be striving for given the delicacy of its subject matter, not that other filmmakers have shied away from incorporating comedy into Holocaust settings. I don’t mean this to be overly flippant but for portions of the movie I felt like I was watching “Wes Anderson’s Nazi Germany.” The entire Act One camp sequence feels like a warped deleted scene from Moonrise Kingdom. I was genuinely surprised how often I was laughing with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi can be hysterical as a bratty, temperamental version of the Fuhrer, but there are moments where he gets caught up in the oratory of his hateful rhetoric that serve as a reminder that even for Jojo, he realizes this man isn’t exactly best friend material. The Hitler imaginary friend goes away for long stretches in the second half as the film emphasizes more drama, which is the right choice as Jojo is coming to doubt what he has been taught from that imaginary friend. The portrayal of Hitler might be offensive to some viewers but I feel like Waititi walks a fine line to root it from the perspective of childhood fantasy. It’s taking the figure on TV and adapting it to suit the needs of a lonely kid wanting to belong. Of course he’d want Hitler to select him as the best little young Aryan that Germany has going. It’s not dismissing the evil of the man but instead serving him up through a specific prism that allows laughter not necessarily even at Hitler himself but at a youthful and immature understanding of something far more complex.
I was also worried that the comedy might dampen some of the more dramatic turns coming, and this was so not the case. There are dramatic moments hiding under the surface thanks to seeing them from Jojo’s naïve perspective, but then there also big obvious dramatic moments of suffering that hit. As much as the whimsy prevails early, the dramatic moments are delivered in tasteful ways that do not detract from the feelings being felt by the characters as well as the willing viewers. There are a few gut punches that remind you that even with the whimsy of childhood naivete, real people are dying in awful ways because of those complicit in racist genocidal policies. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is the second most significant one, after he and Elsa, but it’s this central focus where we see the starting point of his character arc. His mother tries to shield her child from the larger terrors of their society but that’s increasingly difficult when people are being hanged in the street for helping Jews. She’s hoping to simply play her part in public, get through this terrible time, and finally have the son back that she knows, hoping he will eventually shake free from the propaganda. It’s a role that requires Johansson to play like another cartoonish adult, all bubbling energy and quirky nonchalance, while burying her increasing concern. Part of me almost wishes that she was a co-equal protagonist so we could get an even richer perspective to contrast more fully.
There’s a sprightly whimsy to the proceedings that comes from being locked into the perspective of an imaginative child. It’s not that the world is 100 percent his vision, it’s more that we know that the representation of what we’re seeing might not be a completely objective reflection of the reality Jojo is encountering. This especially includes the portrayal of many adults involved in various levels of the Nazi party. They play out like cartoons and buffoons but are still dangerous cartoons and buffoons. When Jojo’s childhood friend Yorki is talking about fighting on the front and we see him handling a rocket launcher, this is clearly an exaggeration of the desperation of the moment and a young boy’s eagerness to be involved. This creative approach allows Waititi to dabble in the fantastic and keep his audience alert, allowing them to second-guess what we’re seeing on screen and look for the reality in hiding. I laughed pretty consistently at the intended humor and incredulous nature of the adults trying to pass off wrongheaded insights and suggestions as scientific fact or common sense. It’s a movie where you laugh at the ridiculous idiots while hoping that the idiots won’t get the people we care about killed.
The acting is very strong overall. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is exuberant and relatable without coming across as overly cloying or mannered, which can be a rarity for child actors. He has a very difficult role to play from a tone and perspective standpoint, and he succeeds. Another great child actor is Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, a young girl in an extremely vulnerable position who looks upon this new boy with equal amounts fear, disdain, and pity. She cannot be herself and must choose her words and responses carefully, so it’s a guarded performance of restraint but McKenzie is fabulous in quieter, subtler shifts. The adults are all enjoyable as broadly comical cartoons, with Stephen Merchant (Logan) earning considerable unease as an S.S. officer leading a team sweeping for Jews in hiding. Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) seems a little too eager, a little too antic, but this may pertain to her character’s nerves and desperation, trying to overcompensate her anxiety. Rockwell (Vice) gets the biggest adult role as a disenchanted military vet who sees the writing on the wall. At first his detached nihilism is a source of dark comedy and later he becomes an unexpected father figure for Jojo. I don’t quite know if his hero moments have the desired impact but he’s still an amusing presence.
However, there are also some drawbacks to being a fable, namely a lack of larger specific substance beyond general lessons and general characterization. Jojo Rabbit is being billed as an “anti-hate satire” and I definitely think that summary fits the intent, but “anti-hate” sounds like such a nebulous buzzword that seems more meaningful at first glance and less upon reflection. I would assume every responsible story set during the era of the Holocaust would adopt an “anti-hate” sensibility, because the alternative would be championing the foundations of Nazism. It’s hard for me to imagine any movie desiring a public release being anything other than “anti-hate.” Essentially, we have a character coming to see through the propaganda of the era, judging people as people rather than scary caricatures, and start to reject the teachings of manipulative authority figures. This isn’t a new formula for coming-of-age stories or tales set during times of great strife. It’s a lesson in empathy and rejecting dogma on its face. When it comes to Nazism, that should be the easy part, facilitated by any prolonged exposure to anyone previously deemed an undesirable.
My nagging issue with Jojo Rabbit is that for all its impish whimsy with such a serious historical subject, it ultimately plays things pretty safe. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to a revolutionary film, but it does dull the message a bit when the ultimate lasting takeaway is “hate is bad, Jews are people too.” It’s a bit pat, a bit simple, and a bit too easy. The characterization can also be hampered by this same ethos. The characters are pretty much exactly what you see at first blush. The only character who changes or has room to explore is Jojo. Even Elsie feels more like a stagnant person despite her unique circumstances. This may be because she’s more change agent than character, a figure for Jojo to be horrified by, then entranced with, and finally see as a friend. I still felt moments of genuine emotion for characters onscreen and for Jojo’s journey of self. The movie still works well with its stated goals and direction, it’s just a bit limited because of the simplicity of its message and the lack of greater substance for its many characters.
The Jojo Rabbit novel was written before the rise of Donald Trump but Waititi has said that when they were filming that America’s current political climate was on his mind, and it’s not hard to make a few adaptations to apply this for the modern era. Perhaps a young boy sees Donald Trump as his imaginary friend and together they’re both all-in on trying to “make America great again” by first and foremost reporting any immigrant they see as illegal. Then later in the story he discovers his family is willfully hiding an undocumented child from being deported after they were stripped from their parents who were then deported. Now our naïve protagonist must reconcile the harsh rhetoric he has been taught with the growing empathy of connecting with another human being who doesn’t seem as dangerous or as sub-human as others claim. If you wanted to even make this parallel, it’s there, though I think that diminishes the setting. We shouldn’t need to tell movies during the Holocaust as metaphors for our modern struggles. I suppose this is another scenario where if you want to Inuit more of a relevant modern message, you can.
Jojo Rabbit (a nickname that seems forgotten after its christening) is a coming-of-age fable with equal parts charm and horror. Waititi takes a serious subject and doesn’t mitigate the evils of Nazism with his portrayal of a daffy imaginary Hitler. The production has an admirable swagger to it as it charts its own course, tackling serious subjects and young whimsy to portray a poignant story about childhood, loss, and growing up. It’s an amusing and heartfelt enterprise that I can’t help but feel could have done more than settling for some pretty safe messages and limited characterization. There wasn’t a moment with Jojo Rabbit where I wasn’t entertained, but I do wish the movie had more on its mind that reminding everyone that hate is bad.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’ve been waiting years to finally see Uwe Boll’s take on the Holocaust. It was originally filmed around 2010 but never got a home release, making me scan the Internet for a chance to see a German movie that nobody in the world seemed to want to see. I’m not surprised it took almost eight years to finally see this movie, which was widely available on YouTube in its entirety, uncut, for over a year. If you’re curious, dear reader, you can easily see it for yourself, though I might caution you against that. It is, after all, the harsh reality of the Holocaust, and it is, after all, Uwe Boll, a filmmaker not exactly known for subtlety and tact in his career. I was worried that Boll’s Auschwitz (even that phrasing seems unduly unkind) would be a disservice to the men, women, and children who perished in that horrible atrocity. I’m relieved that Boll seems to have his mind on higher ambitions than exploitation, though I don’t know how well the academic intent translates.
It’s less a movie and more of an educational special on the practices of a concentration camp and the mentality of the people sentencing others to their doom. The opening four minutes consist of Boll speaking directly to the camera, switching off talking in German and then English three times, setting up his rationale for why he would tackle a filmed recreation of an Auschwitz gas chamber. He says that young people today do not know about the Holocaust and the concentration camps and are in need of a powerful reminder (more on this later). What then follows is about six minutes of Boll interviewing various German teenagers over what they know about Hitler, WWII, the Holocaust, and the systematic eradication of European Jews. After that, Boll’s film goes into a 35-minute live-action recreation of life at a concentration camp, leading dozens of people to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. After that, Boll returns to his interviews with real German teens, interspersed with archival footage from WWII. That’s the whole movie, amounting to a little over 68 minutes long, not meeting the typical minimum.
As someone who has worked in education for ten years now, I can reaffirm that a distressing number of young people have a general ignorance about the Holocaust. I suppose part of this is inevitable with the passage of time; the more years pass the less people can get to know survivors and veterans of the war. As it recedes into the past it becomes less pertinent and in some ways less real for many people. This is the reason why I personally include Holocaust texts in my school curriculum to check the knowledge level of students and build upon it, to make sure something this dastardly would not be forgotten. The early interviews Boll conducts (in what appears to be a bathroom?) appear to have a slippery sense of what the Holocaust was about as well as the cruel realities that befell those Hitler found as sub-human. But the latter interviews involve different students who have an amazing command of the Holocaust, even citing centuries-old incidents of anti-Semitism. If Boll’s intent is to show that his movie is needed why include interviews with students who are clearly not ignorant of the subject? That seems self-defeating, even if I’m pleased that there are articulate, intelligent students out there.
The biggest discussion piece will be on Boll’s extended live-action recreations of the atrocities of Auschwitz. Recreating the crushing reality of the Holocaust is a delicate subject, trying to find a line to maintain respectful voracity to what the people suffered through and steer away from exploitation thrills that highlight the perverse depravity for titillation. Stanley Kubrick famously said to make a Holocaust film that would do justice to the events would make it unbearable. Boll said in a 2010 Vice interview that he didn’t want a narrative to dull the impact of his intents, citing Schindler’s List and The Pianist as fine films but flawed because they attempted stories. Ignoring that both as personal accounts, I think Boll misses the importance of narrative, a device that makes the horrors of history more palatable for viewing because of an accessible entry point. We focus on a character and their experiences, their character’s journey, and how the events impact and change this person, which provides a rooting interest to maintain watching. The other unfortunate reality of purposely removing a narrative is that it makes the recreations seem constructed merely for their shock value. They exist not in the larger realm of a story but as events meant to convey the horrific reality and nothing more. I think this was a misstep.
Boll has handled real-world violence and genocide before, from school shootings (2003’s Heart of America) to mass shooters with god complexes (the woe begotten Rampage series), to the genocide in Darfur (2009’s Attack on Darfur), and the results have been decidedly mixed. His heart may be in the right place but rarely do his message movies succeed at their ambitions. The messages often get lost amidst the exploitation elements or Boll goes overboard to wake up his audience, leaning into the suffering in a manner that can come across as indulgent. This too happens with Auschwitz, as it seems Boll is unable to restrain himself with a subject as well known as the factory of death. One could argue restraint dilutes the memory of those who died, but again it becomes a delicate balancing act to veer away from being pornographic.
Boll’s recreations are solemn and affecting. You can certainly feel his reverence for the topic and his desire to do right. The onscreen depiction follows a group arriving at the death camp, being separated, lead to a gas chamber, where the collection of women, the elderly, children, and the disabled choke to death on the fumes of poison gas. We then watch a handful of prisoners gather the dead, shave their heads, pull out their teeth, transport their clothes and shoes, and then dispose of the bodies in the ovens. It’s impossible to watch the recreations of these panicked deaths and not feel something, especially when Boll includes innocent young children in the mix. It’s horrifying and Boll films the reality of these scenes in an admirable docu-drama style. The nudity is not played for titillation but as a means of showcasing the vulnerability and humanity of the victims. It’s not shied away from but Boll’s camera doesn’t make a point of finding it either. Granted, the close-ups, especially once the gas hits, seem to predominantly feature the pained grimaces of women, but I’ll chalk that up to Boll viewing distressed women as more emotionally powerful. The people featured during these sequences are also admirably ordinary. These people look like who you would see walking down your street. They don’t look like models who were hired because their nude bodies would be something the audience would desire. There are children and they too are seen with the same vulnerability in the nude, though I’m sure the inclusion of naked children will sabotage any noble intent for some viewers.
However, Boll’s inclinations can get the better of him, like the majority of his more high-minded “message movies” that can transform into pulpy genre fare. There are moments where Boll just goes too far, chief among them the baby murdering sequence. Of course this was a reality of Auschwitz and other extermination camps because the Nazis had no need for babies. One of the most startling details in Elie Wiesel’s famous novel is his recount of watching babies hurled into a pit of fire, as it would naturally traumatize anyone for life. But just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be given inordinate attention. There’s a difference between unflinching and simply gratuitous. A child is held in the air and we see another SS officer point a pistol at the baby’s head. Rather than cut away and imply the ensuing violent death, Boll purposely stays within the scene, watching the muzzle flash and the CGI blood spray lightly (thankfully that’s the extent of whatever gore is applied to this scene). This happens three times and each time Boll makes sure we know this gun is firing at this baby’s head. Once gets the point across but three times is just excess. The same can be said for the gas chamber sequences. There are two, one presented at the very start of the arrival at Auschwitz, intercut with the people disembarking from the train and lining up. It’s unclear whether this is a flash forward but the faces seem different. Also, I have no interest in re-watching it for further study. That means in the course of 35 minutes we endure two groups of people asphyxiating to death. Here’s another instance where a lack of narrative is harmful. Without a story, without characters, this presentation is just nameless innocents suffering. What does the second sequence provide that the first lacks? It’s indulgent, and indulgence built upon human suffering is just bad.
Boll’s limited budget also constrains his ambitions. He filmed Auschwitz simultaneously as he filmed two other movies, a third Bloodrayne film and a bizarrely conceived satire of this same movie, Blubberella. Even for a workaholic like Boll, making three movies at once is insane. This might be why the live-action segment only amounts to 35 minutes and involves minimal dialogue. There are only three credited actors including Boll himself as an SS guard (the symbolism of director as participant seems ripe for dissecting). There is one extended sequence where two SS officers discuss mundane small talk, hammering home the banality of evil. But it’s right back to another gas chamber sequence from there, the director’s true preoccupation. The Auschwitz camp was half the size of Manhattan. What we see onscreen is a pittance. It feels so incredibly small. It makes me wonder why Boll felt the need to draft off the name recognition of Auschwitz. This setting could have been any concentration camp as the gas chamber outcome was not unique to Auschwitz, and that is really the only thing visualized with these recreations. It’s not life at the camp, the struggles of survival, it’s only a quick march to a painful death. There’s no reason this had to be Auschwitz.
Even with misgivings, I do think there can be an academic value to what Boll has put together. Written accounts and stories are a valuable tool, but sometimes a visceral and visual demonstration can bring to life history for people in powerful and valuable ways. This movie could rattle people and stay with them years after viewing, translating the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that is blunt, direct, and reverent. However, Boll’s yearning for profundity comes into direct conflict with his schlocky, exploitation-loving impulses, which pushes him to prolong the onscreen misery in the name of “staying true to how it was.” Without a narrative to provide a foundation, the movie becomes an uneven documentary with bouts of strained intensity. I wouldn’t judge this movie as harshly as Boll’s Rampage films. I sense his noble intents. There’s even a maturity with the filmmaking that I don’t think a younger Boll would have found. Ultimately, Auschwitz is more supplemental teaching tool than movie, and to that end it might do some needed good, proving that even Uwe Boll can make the world a little better.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The new Hellboy reboot is utterly fascinating but in a way I doubt the filmmakers intended. The confluence of bizarre, arbitrary plotting, budget limitations, artistic self-indulgences, and tonal imbalances makes for a truly entertaining watch but for all the wrong reasons. A recent apt comparison would be the Wachowskis’ 2015 shining artifact-of-hubris Jupiter Ascending, an expensive and ambitious mess that left me dumbfounded how something like that could slip through the studio system. Right from the 500 A.D. opening prologue of Hellboy I was laughing under my breath, trying valiantly to make sense of what I was watching. It played like camp, ridiculous high-end camp, but I don’t think that was the intent of director Neil Marshall (The Descent) and company. I think they were going for a cocky, carefree sense of apathetic cool and wanted to have fun unleashing an adolescent fantasy of monsters, violence, and droll one-liners. Hellboy is an experience, all right.
Hellboy (David Harbour), child of hell and intended tool for evil Nazi world domination, has been raised by his surrogate father, Professor Bloom (Ian Mcshane), as a valuable asset in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), the fighters against the things that go bump in the night. An ancient evil witch, The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), is being resurrected one dismembered piece at a time. Hellboy and his associates, psychic smartass Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and agent/were-jaguar Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), must track the whereabouts of the Blood Queen before she can fulfill her goal of unleashing hell on Earth.
The storytelling for the 2019 Hellboy is its biggest hurdle that it cannot get over. I think ninety percent of this movie’s dialogue, and storytelling in general, is expositional, and the remaining ten percent are groan-worthy quips (after kissing a gross witch, Hellboy says, “Somebody get me a mint” — har har). Every moment is explaining the person in the scene, the stakes of the scene, the purpose of the scene, the setting of the scene, the other people in the scene, and then re-explaining one of these elements. Every single freaking scene. Every ten minutes a new character is thrown into the mix and the cycle starts anew; it feels like the screenplay is cramming for a test by the end credits. In addition to these expository present-day scenes, there are five separate flashback sequences to explain superfluous back-stories. Do we need a flashback to explain the motivation behind the pig man, who is pretty much a standard henchman? Would the audience not believe he has a grudge against Hellboy if we lacked a key flashback to set up the history between our protagonist and this unimportant side villain? Does Daimio need a flashback to showcase his military team being attacked by something vaguely mysterious? Or can he just say he was attacked and we reveal later the full extent of his… were-jaguar powers? Did we need an entire segment where Hellboy travels to another dimension to tussle with the imprisoned witch Baba Yaga to find out a location? Did we need an entire Arthurian legend to set up a super special weapon that will kill our villain, or could it have been anything else? Then there are prophecies and counter-prophecies and I was exhausted by the end of these relentless two hours. It feels less like a coherent two-hour movie and more like an aborted television pilot intending to set up weekly wacky adventures and preview a larger realm of potential storytelling avenues. We even get the extended set-up for a hopeful sequel that will all most certainly never materialize.
The bonkers narrative inconsistency and runaway pacing make it feel like anything can happen at any moment, but not in a good way. It makes it feel like very little onscreen legitimately matters because the next second a character could just say, “Hey, here’s that thing,” or, “Here’s a new person that cancels out that previous thing.” It feels like the internal rules of the storytelling are completely ephemeral. I kept shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders, just like the breathless inconsistency of Jupiter Ascending. I was not a fan of the original 2004 Hellboy (if I recall I cited it as one of the worst films of that year) and one major reason was just the sheer number of goofy elements that felt overwhelming to any sense of a baseline of believability for me to gravitate toward. I feel like if I were to revisit the original Hellboy I might be more charitable (I enjoyed the second film), but this 2019 edition is an even bigger culprit because it feels like nothing in any previous ten minutes matters. The screenplay is structured like one disposable video game fetch-quest after another.
You can almost see the movie that Marshall and his team were aiming for, a weird hard-R action/sci-fi film with strange creatures and smarmy attitude. There are moments where you can tell a lot of fun was had designing certain ghouls and monsters, like the hell beasts unleashed that include a spike-legged monstrosity that ka-bobs people as it stomps. It’s moments like that where you see the zeal of crazy creativity that must have attracted Marshall and others to this project. It’s too bad there aren’t enough of them. There’s a sequence where Hellboy takes on a trio of giants that’s filmed in a style meant to evoke one long tracking shot. It doesn’t quite get there thanks to the limits of the budget’s special effects to conceal the seams. This is an issue throughout the movie. The special effects can get surprisingly shoddy, especially a spirit late in the film that shockingly resembled something akin to an early 2000s PS2 game. If the budget could not adequately handle these sequences then maybe there should have been less new characters and excursions and we could have concentrated on what we had and done it better.
I pity Harbour (Stranger Things) for stepping into the oversized shoes of fan favorite Ron Perlman. It’s quite a challenge to follow up the guy who seemed born to play this part, but Harbour does a good job with what he’s been given. The character is a bit more sulky and surly than we’ve seen in the previous incarnations. It makes Hellboy feel like a giant moody teenager chaffing under his dad’s house rules and saying nobody understands him. The practical makeup is great and still allows Harbour the ability to emote comfortably though he always appears to be grimacing. MacShane (TV’s American Gods) is a more ornery father figure than John Hurt, and he seems in a hurry to get through his lines and get out of here. Jovovich (Resident Evil… everything) is an enjoyably hammy villain with her withering sneers and overly dramatic intonations, but she knows what she’s doing here. The same can be said for what might be the most pointless character in the whole movie, a Nazi hunter known as “Lobster Johnson,” played by Thomas Haden Church (Easy A), who plays it like he’s in one of those heightened propaganda inserts from 1997’s Starship Troopers. The actual side characters for Hellboy are the weakest because the film doesn’t know what to do with them. Lane (American Honey) and Kim (TV’s Lost) are both good actors but the movie doesn’t understand that a character foil is more than a bickering, doubtful sidekick.
I would almost recommend watching the new Hellboy reboot for the same reasons I would Jupiter Ascending. It’s rare to see a big screen stumble where it feels like the movie is just being made up as it transpires before your eyes, where the mishmash of tones, intent, and mishandled execution is confusing, disconcerting, and even a little bit thrilling. This might not be a good film for various reasons but it can be a good watch. If that sounds like your own version of heaven, give the newest Hellboy a passing chance.
Nate’s Grade: C
This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).
Nate’s Grade: B+
When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.
I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.
The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.
The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.
I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.
A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Germany invades and occupies Poland. Their animals are slaughtered or moved to the Berlin Zoo, under the care of Nazi party member and amateur geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Feeling impotent to the horrors around them, Antonina and Jan risk everything to hide Jews in their zoo and eventually smuggle them out to safe houses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking much to save lives during the Holocaust that come from obscurity to remind you that there are still fresh, invigorating stories from a topic that can feel tapped out after 70 years. However, it’s also an indication that you need the right handling to do it justice. The Holocaust is by nature such a horrific subject matter that it’s hard to do it justice with a PG-13 or below rating, but it can be done with the right amount of artistic restraint as long as the overall story doesn’t feel hobbled with limitations. Reluctantly, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too sanitized for the story it’s telling. When it comes to cruelty and human atrocity, you don’t need to shove the audience’s face in the mess to fully comprehend its distaste, but overly avoiding the reality can also be a detriment. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a PG-13 movie, does not feel like the ideal way to tell this real-life story. It feels too restrained and some of those artistic compromises make for a movie that feels lacking and distracting at points. Fair warning: there are plenty of animal deaths in this movie, though they are all dealt with off-screen with implied violence. The edits to work around this can be jarring and would take me out of the picture. This is only one example of an element that, in order to maintain its dignified PG-13 rating, unfortunately undercuts the realism and power of its story.
For a Holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes feel abnormally low. The zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. The danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment. There are a handful of scenes where we worry whether they will be caught but they’re defused so quickly and easily. After Antonina is caught talking to a very Jewish-looking “doctor” in her bedroom by the housekeeper, they just fire the housekeeper who leaves quietly and never comes back again. It’s a moment of tension that can be felt and it all goes away in a rush. This scene also stands out because the narrow escapes and close calls are surprisingly few and far between. Even when Antonina’s son commits stupid mistake after stupid mistake, including impulsively insulting a Nazi officer to his back, there’s little fear of some sort of retribution. The movie can also lack subtlety, like watching Heck say three times he’s a man of his word and will be trustworthy. We all know he’s going to fall short. There’s also a moment where Jan is literally loading children, who each raise their arms in anticipation, onto a train car. It’s like getting punched in the stomach with every child. Much of the time spent on the zoo is with the quiet moments trying to make the Jewish survivors feel like human beings again (the animals-in-cages metaphor is there). The details of the smuggling and hiding are interesting but cannot carry a movie without more.
The biggest reason to see this movie is the promise of another leading Chastain (Miss Sloane) performance. Ever since rocketing to prominence in 2011, Chastain has proven to be one of the most reliably excellent actors in the industry regardless of the quality of the film. She’s been dubbed a Streep in the making and Zookeeper’s Wife allows her to level up to her “Sophie’s Choice acting challenge stage” and try on that famous Slavic accent that turns all “ing” endings into “ink.” Chastain is terrific as a person trying to navigate their way through the unimaginable, calling upon reserves of courage when needed, and she’s at her best during the moments with Herr Heck. She has to play the dishonorable part of the possible lover, and Heck definitely has his heart set on Antonina. The scenes with the two of them draw out the most tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play as she cycles through her masks. In some ways I wish the more of the movie was focused on this personal conflict and developed it even further.
There was a small practically incidental moment that got me thinking. As stated above, the film has a PG-13 rating and one of the reasons is for brief nudity from Chastain. Now the actress has gone nude before in other movies so that’s not much of a shocker, but it’s the context and execution that got me thinking. Antonina and Jan are lying together in bed after sex and Chastain does the usually Hollywood habit of the bed sheet being at her shoulders while it resides at the man’s waist (those typical L-shaped bed sheets). No big deal. Then, during their discussion over what to do, Antonina rolls over and exposes her breast for a second before she covers herself up again. The reason this stood out to me, beyond the prurient, is because it felt like a mistake. It seems obvious that Chastain was not intended to be seen naked in this intimate post-coital conversation but it was used in the final cut anyway, which made me wonder. Was the take so good, or so much better than the others, that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) and Chastain said “the hell with it” and kept the briefly exposed breast? Did they enjoy the happily accidental casual nature to the nudity, creating a stronger sense of realism between the married couple? Or in the end was it just another selling point to help put butts in seats? I’m thinking best take is the answer. You decide.
I am convinced one of the main reasons that Chastain wanted to do this movie, and I can’t really blame her, is because she would get to hold a bunch of adorable animals. Given the subject matter, I was prepared for a menagerie of cute little creatures, but I started noticing just how many of them Chastain is seen holding. She holds a rabbit for a monologue. She holds a lion cub. She holds a baby pig. She holds a monkey. She even kind of holds a rubbery baby elephant doll (talk about Save the Cat moment, this movie takes it even more literally). There may very well be animals I simply have forgotten she held. I would not be surprised if in her contract there was a rider that insisted that Ms. Chastain hold at least one small, adorable animal every third day of filming on set.
Stately and sincere, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inherently interesting true story that should have more than enough elements to bring to life a compelling film experience. It’s an acceptable movie that’s well made but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of this story out there. It feels a tad too safe, a tad too sanitized, a tad too absent a sense of stakes, like it’s on awards-caliber autopilot. Chastain is good but her Polish accent becomes a near metaphor for the larger film: it’s polished and proper but you can’t help but feel like something is lacking and going through the motions of what is expected. This is a worthy story and I’m sure there are great moments of drama, but The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too clipped and misshapen to do its story real justice.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Kevin Smith has been a filmmaker who has flouted expectations. When people didn’t think the Clerks guy could make a religious thriller, he did it. When people said a movie about a man being transformed into a walrus creature was undoable, he did it. I was a moderate fan of Tusk, that man-as-walrus-as-Frankenstein movie that started as a joke premise from Smith’s popular podcast and then given strange cinematic life. Yoga Hosers is the second part in Smith’s “True North” trilogy of Canadian-set horror films. I wasn’t expecting much with Yoga Hosers and I felt like I got even less than that.
Colleen Collete (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are bored clerks at a Winnipeg convenience store. Their world is turned upside down when an attractive senior boy invites them to a “grade 12” party. Too bad they have to work, though even when on the clock the girls hardly work, instead preferring to jam in the back storage room as a fledging rock band. The girls have bigger threats than unruly customers. They’ll have to battle bad Satanists, forgotten Canadian Nazis, and tiny bratwurst men who leak sauerkraut when smashed. What’s a Canuck to do?
The two areas that have always been the hallmarks of a Kevin Smith movie, his idiosyncratic characterization and ribald humor, are both strangely absent and desperately needed. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I turned to my friend and confided, “I think I hate these girls already.” It’s somewhat ironic that Smith has gone back again to the bored convenience store clerks as the platform for his heroes. Where Dante and Randall were railing against pop-culture, adult responsibility, and a society that constantly made them feel inferior for their menial occupations, these girls aren’t railing against anything. If anything they’re retreating from the world, their noses constantly glued to their smart phones and social media. The excursions with youth culture feel rather inauthentic. The teen dialogue lacks comic snap and repeats phrases too often that it feels like set-up for T-shirt slogans (“Basic!”). Smith is far from his territory of dick and fart jokes and esoteric pop-culture detours. We’re introduced to many new characters with a slam edit of an Instagram-like cover page accompanied by an irritatingly chirpy 8-bit score. The intro graphics appear so quickly as to have little impact other than annoyance. The lead characters have no engaging personalities. They have an infatuation with older, cute boys, a love of yoga, a general attitude against authority, and a common level of self-involvement, but they’re not characters. They’re goofy but rarely are they grounded or better developed. One girl is daft and the other girl is… less daft. I’m not expecting these characters to have depth considering this is a movie with one-foot tall killer bratwurst Nazis, but some degree of personality is demanded. It’s the bare minimum.
Smith’s millennial satire is fairly toothless, which sadly is much like the comedy of Yoga Hosers. I hope you like puns and jokes about how funny Canadian accents are. The Colleens say “soory aboot that” and isn’t that hilarious? How about a convenience store called “Eh-2-Zed”? How about a yogi whose name is Yogi Bayer? How about an off-brand version of Lucky Charms called Pucky Charms? Why are there so many freaking puns? Then there’s the re-emergence of Johnny Depp’s wacky Quebec investigator, Guy Lapointe, allowing Depp to indulge his tendency for prosthetics and heavy accents. The shticky Lapointe character absolutely derailed Tusk and whatever unsettling momentum had been built, but he feels far more at home in the goofy world of Yoga Hosers. I might even say his presence is one of the highlights, as once more Depp gets to sink his teeth into all the Peter Sellers physical comedy tics he’s been holding back.
There’s just not enough comedy to go around here. There are goofy elements that crash into one another, like the Brat-Zis and a gigantic Goalie Golem, but it feels very much like Smith is just throwing a lot of dispirit elements together and expecting cohesion. He might even be expecting the audience to be satiated just in seeing something “different.” While Red State and Tusk were films that had sharp tonal shifts, Yoga Hosers never really settles into the silly supernatural teen comedy it desires to be. I laughed here and there but it was mostly attributed to Smith letting his more capable comic actors go off on tangents, like Justin Long’s yogi with his unorthodox poses. Ralph Garman, Smith podcast regular, shows up late as a Nazi who prefers to discuss his plans via celebrity impressions, a talent of Garman’s. It’s the kind of “hell, why not?” plotting that dominates the movie and makes you wonder if there ever was a finished script.
I doubt any version of this story would have materialized if it wasn’t starring the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Nepotism has been a core function of Hollywood for over a hundred years, and if Smith wants to create a vehicle for his daughter, by all means. The two young ladies have a pleasant chemistry and are believable BFFs. Their back-and-forth will occasionally elevate the jokes, like their insistent yet limited Batman impressions. Harley Quinn Smith has an enjoyable mugging quality that shows she’s studied her expressions from the school of Silent Bob. Her companion, Lily-Rose Depp, may be the real breakout. She’s the more consistent actor and the stronger anchor for the film. Even when the dialogue lets her down she still infuses a notable energy into her performance. There’s an emerging talent under the surface that looks ready for discovery, and perhaps the French film Planetarium with Natalie Portman will make others take notice. I get the impression that Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp are proud papas and just wanted to have fun together as a family. Consider the movie the equivalent of a quirky sweet 16 birthday party.
Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again. From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It took five years and three movies, but notorious film director Uwe Boll has finally gotten to the original time period of the Bloodrayne video game. The popular game concerns a lithe, redheaded half-vampiric lass killing nefarious Nazis in World War II. You would have thought that would make for a decent starting point. But Boll instead took his time, possibly always envisioning a trilogy to do the character and his storytelling ambition proper service. Or it was just a way to make more money. So after stops in 18th-century Romania and the Wild West, Rayne comes home, so to speak in Bloodrayne: The Third Reich. What if somebody was adapting the Grand Theft Auto franchise into a film and took Boll’s dawdling approach? The first film would probably start with horses and buggies.
Rayne (Natassia Malthe), our favorite dhampir, is back at slaying them dead. She teams up with Nathaniel (Brendan Fletcher) and his band of resistance fighters on the Eastern front. They rescue one train filled with prisoners and get into a shootout with Commandant Ekhart Brand (Michael Paré). But Rayne makes the unfortunate mistake of biting the Commandant before impaling the guy. She has unknowingly turned the Nazi officer into a vampire like her, one that can walk in daylight. You would think after 200 years of existence she would have a handle on this. The Commandant is educated in the ways of the vampire by a mad scientist, Dr. Mangler (Clint Howard), who enjoys torturing human and vampire alike for science. At one point the doc says, while slicing up a living body,” Vampires no longer have any bonds to the moral laws of man.” That seems like a pot/kettle situation to me. The Commandant assembles his own undead army of vampire soldiers. Rayne feels responsible for this ugly mess and vows to kill the Commandant again and to a satisfying degree of dead this time.
For a while, Bloodrayne III looks like it might be the best in the trilogy, admittedly a dubious honor. Despite all my misgivings, Bloodrayne III almost works on its own lowered-expectation exploitation genre level. Almost. The campy combination of Nazis and vampires is a wild premise, though hardly original, and should reap some ripe and schlocky exploitation entertainment. The locations in Croatia are terrific and add just enough authenticity for a story about a vampire lady killing Nazis. In fact one sequence plays like Boll’s take on Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, involving a tavern showdown where people play a tense game of secret identities. There are moments that work, little bursts of promise, but they get reaped all too quickly. Boll’s action choreography is sadly limited in scope and editing. He sticks too close to his characters, never allowing for complicated tussles or expanding the scope of the action. There are a few serviceable explosions, some minor gore effects, but Boll does nobody any favor when the action is too brief and brittle. Everything feels pared down so most of the fights involve minimal players and the sequences themselves mostly give way to redundant posturing.
The failings of Bloodrayne III are roughly the same failings that dogged Bloodrayne II: Boll does not embrace his film’s inherent cheesiness. I wrote about 2007’s Bloodrayne: Deliverance: “Boll seems uneasy about embracing its supernaturally campy potential. Bloodrayne II has little blood, zero gore, no nudity, no sex, and a pitifully scant amount of action. In other words, it’s missing all of the exploitation elements that make a movie like Bloodrayne II worth watching.” While Boll has seen fit to correct the absence of certain genre elements, notably blood and boobs, he still cannot seize the pulpy premise into Grand Guignol. Nazi vampires, an immortal Hitler, a 200-year-old ass-kicking woman with signature arm-blades AND Clint Howard as a mad Nazi scientist and this is the best you can do? That’s unacceptable. The supernatural potential is wasted here. Rayne’s vampire side is barely utilized. She bites people, she jumps high once, but there’s nothing really vampiric about her beside one scene where she complains about having to drink pig’s blood. She might as well be anything else if you’re not going to take advantage of what makes a vampire a vampire. At one point, the Commandant turns his best tracker into a vampire for the purposes of finding Rayne (her secret hideout turns out to be a not very discreet large castle). That idea had great promise, all things considered, but like most of the other fights, it’s one-and-done. Rayne takes out the guy and we move along. Rayne is betrayed by one of the brothel girls who has her eyes set on running the business (“You’re a cocksucking entrepreneur,” someone declares, though I wouldn’t put that exact terminology on a resume). She gets turned into a vampire too. All right, she could work as a character that could get close to Rayne. But then she too is dispatched with mercurial swiftness. Why the hurry? Bloodrayne III runs a total 72 minutes before end credits. The film could have used a lot more fleshing out, and it could have benefited from being less serious with something so flatly ridiculous.
It wouldn’t be a Boll movie without the whiplash-inducing shifts in tone. One second we’re dwelling on the campy idea of Herr Hitler becoming a powerful vampire (there’s even a goofy dream sequence where Rayne is terrorized by Adolf with fangs) and the next minute the film descends into soft-core porn territory. Rayne visits a brothel to get an oiled massage, because apparently being a centuries-old undead slayer of evil can really cause some killer knots that only hookers are properly trained to knead away. Anyway, Rayne saves one of the brothel girls from an abusive Nazi john, and the women of the brothel wish to show their gratitude via some sex “on the house.” We’re then treated to a solid four minutes of heavy breathing and gauzy soft-focus shots of hands, nipples, and crevices. To Boll’s credit, it’s on par with most soft-core porn productions. When Rayne is beating the Nazi john she becomes a feminist mouthpiece: “I can’t punish you for the legions of women who have been brutalized by men, but I’ll give it my best shot.” If Sucker Punch proved anything, it’s hard to stand on a feminist soapbox when your characters are pure male fantasy figures. The onscreen lesbian tryst would fit the context of the film better if Boll kept a continuity of tawdry sensuality. I don’t recall any other lesbian leanings in previous entries but I suppose spontaneous lesbians/opportune bisexuality just goes with direct-to-DVD territory. The only other element of sexuality occurs late in Bloodrayne III, like ten minutes to credits. Rayne and Nathaniel decide it’s time to get it on. Oh, did I mention that they come to this decision while in the back of a German transport truck on the way to Berlin. Nonetheless, an awkward and deeply unerotic sex scene follows before their rescue. They appear to be making the most of their time, though curiously both participants leave their fingerless gloves on while they copulate. I call it “hobo lovemaking.
Boll doesn’t seem to understand what a truly juicy concept vampire Nazis are so we are treated to a lot of talking. But it’s not talking that really establishes character, setting, or plot; it’s mostly a jumble of self-aggrandizing, hyperbolic asides as heroes and villains are constantly reconfirming the stakes. Vampire Nazis. Trust us, we get it. But alas, the Commandant keeps gripping his fists and speaking about being “power incarnate” and how everyone shall bow to his power and how he’s “the prodigal son of the Third Reich,” which I don’t think is the proper analogy to apply. Dr. Mangler (too on-the-nose or an attempt to reference Dr. Mengele? You be the judge) will not let any situation to bray about the obvious go to waste, sometimes with peculiar anachronisms. Over the course of the film, this talkative evil scientist will reference Shakespeare, say “the world is your oyster,” and even, “The times they are a changin’, gyspy.” He even slams the father of penicillin, saying, “Alexander Fleming had his fungi. I have [Rayne].” But the worst offenders have to be Rayne and Nathaniel. At one point they bellow, “He’s not just a vampire! He’s a vampire with an entire German army behind him!” You know, in case you couldn’t grasp the subtleties of the narrative. Rayne is given to long passages of voice over where we get to listen to her wax poetic about man’s inhumanity to man, the cycle of violence, and other hilarious grasps at being mistaken as having, you know, depth or thoughts. This is the same character who ends the film saying, “Guten tach, mother fuckers!” Yeah, this one’s a regular Rodin.
The film is populated entirely with Boll’s stock players, so you know the acting returns will be fairly diminished. Malthe (Elektra) returns for her second go-round as the titular half-vampire half-human heroine. For what reason, I could not say. Perhaps the former Maxim model had a large gas bill one winter. Malthe hasn’t advanced much as an actress in the layover between sequels. Malthe looks deathly pale in the film with alabaster skin. Apparently in the 60 years since the events of Bloodrayne II, she decided to keep the cleavage-accentuated fighting outfits but lose her skin tone and her heretofore signature red hair. But fear not video game aficionados because this Rayne has streaks of bright red amongst her otherwise jet black tresses. I suppose she found the one Hot Topic open on the Eastern front. Malthel looks the part, no matter what improbable form-fitting outfit she chooses to slay evil in, until she opens her mouth and destroys the illusion. To be fair, the Rayne character is mostly defined by costuming and weaponry. Don’t believe me? Read the user reviews by fanboys and see what they quibble over most.
It wouldn’t be a Boll film without his lucky charm, Paré (11 Boll film appearances!). The plainspoken actor was actually a fine fit in Bloodrayne II as a cowpoke. He’s not so well a good fit as an evil Nazi officer. Paré is never truly threatening in any capacity as a Nazi or a vampire. That’s pretty sad. He’s given tough guy things to say, and he bites people, but he never comes across as menacing. He’s letting the uniform do the acting for him. Likewise, Howard (first Boll appearance since 2003’s House of the Dead) gets lost in the broad generalization of his character. Howard always seems like he’s on the verge of breaking into third person. He seems lost in a daze too often. Howard comes across as more Igor than mad scientist. He’s definitely not going to be one the scientists other countries offer asylum for at war’s end.
Bloodrayne: The Third Reich could have been a ridiculously yet enjoyably campy B-movie that knew how to play to its strengths – vampire Nazis, attractive woman killing vampire Nazis. You would think that salaciously junky concept would write itself. The problem is that Boll seems to have made a movie that seemed like it would write itself. It’s not enough to just have a handful of genre elements (vampires, Hitler, lesbians!), you have to present those elements in an appealing manner. The premise is workable but the plot, characters, action, and tone are not given necessary attention. I never thought I would say this, but there’s just not enough holding together a movie about vampire Nazis. The dialogue is mostly characters talking in circles, rehashing what should be obvious, explaining why the bad guys should be threats when they fail to be credible onscreen. The film might be the best of the ongoing trilogy, but what exactly is that saying? Barely covering 75 minutes, with negligible action and an overall rushed pace, Bloodrayne III is a sterling example of disposable entertainment that hasn’t even been given the necessary components to be “entertainment.” Instead it’s just eminently disposable. The saddest part is knowing it’s only so long before this character gets resurrected for a fourth movie. Perhaps by then Boll will have figured out what to do with his vampire-killing lead. Fourth time’s the charm, right?
Nate’s Grade: C-