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Jojo Rabbit (2019)

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

Vice (2018)

If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?

We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.

If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.

The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.

The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.

I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?

It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.

Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced single mother working in the small town gift shop of the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. It’s also been seven months since her teenage daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire. She rents out three billboards on a rarely used side road to advertise her frustrations with the slow pace of law enforcement. The billboards say, “Raped while dying,” “Seven months and no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” The chief (Woody Harrelson) tries to pacify the grieving mother while keeping his loyal officers in check from retaliation. Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is trying to apply pressure to get the billboards removed by any means. The small town loves their sheriff and turns on Mildred, which suits her just fine. The more people that disagree with her the more it helps fuel her sense of righteous indignation. Mildred engages in an escalating series of battles with the police and town that might just make justice impossible.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri feels like a Coen brothers’ movie played straight, and it’s borderline brilliant in its depiction of homespun characters allowed tremendous emotional latitude. These are people with complex depth who are allowed the power to be contradictory. They can be vicious one moment and kind the next, wise one moment and impulsive and self-destructive the next, capable of great acts of mercy and cruelty. This achieves two things: 1) making the characters feel far more convincingly drawn, and 2) making the characters consistently surprising. This is a messy movie but I don’t mean that as any intended insult. It’s messy in scope, messy in tone, and yet it thrums with the messy feelings and messy complications of human tragedy. What happened to Mildred’s daughter is utterly horrifying and her rage is righteous; however, that doesn’t sanctify her. She makes mistakes, pushes people away, and can be cruel even to her own family. I was expecting Harrelson’s police chief to be a sort of villain, either incompetent or conniving, willfully ignoring the murder investigation. This is not the case at all and he is full of integrity and rightfully beloved in his community. As happens in many criminal cases, the trail of evidence just ran cold, but Mildred would prefer every male in the city, state, and even the country be blood tested to find a culprit. Her demands are fundamentally unreasonable and Willoughby points out the many civil rights protections in possible violation. Just because Mildred has been wronged does not make her the hero, and just because Willoughby is the face of local law enforcement does not make him the enemy. They are people with much more in common than they would ever admit. The awful circumstances of the plot have pit them against one another in an escalating tit-for-tat that serves as projection for Mildred’s blinding fury against a world that would rob her of her daughter.

The dichotomy of sweetness and terror is best exemplified in the transformation of Mildred and Dixon, one of the most satisfying and engrossing film experiences of the year. Thanks to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s deft handling, these two characters start at opposite ends and grow before our eyes. Mildred tests the limits of her resolve and anger and makes costly mistakes. Dixon begins as the screw-up with a badge (hat he literally misplaces) rumored to have tortured a black prisoner in jail. He seems like the dim-witted poster boy for unchecked masculine privilege. He feels like an enforcer of the corruption we (wrongfully) assume is at work in this small town. As Mildred descends into darker decisions, Dixon ascends and chases a redemptive arc, which is amazing considering the damning behavior he engages in at the halfway mark. These two characters start as adversaries and develop into begrudging allies in a completely organic way that doesn’t blunt either character. That transformation is thrilling to watch and terrifically satisfying on its own terms. By the very end of the movie, I was ready and willing to watch its hypothetical sequel setup, especially if it meant I got to spend more time with these carefully crafted people.

McDonagh’s film juggles many tones, effortlessly switching from laugh-out-loud comedy to crushing drama and back again. I was genuinely surprised how many times I laughed and how hard I was laughing. During my second theatrical viewing, there was an old woman in the back who was quite vocal in her bafflement about how anyone could be laughing. And if you were told the specifics of the plot and its heavy subject matter, I would tend to agree. McDonagh has a preternatural feel for how to find humor in the most unlikely of places. The humor dissipates as the film marches into its second half, a natural byproduct of having to raise the dramatic stakes and make things feel serious. This is the first grounded drama in McDonagh’s filmography (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). He doesn’t shortchange the impact of his drama by weaving in more heightened comedic moments. The characters feel realistically developed and portrayed and are allowed to exist in moral grey areas. There’s a minor character played by Peter Dinklage who is positioned as a romantic option and a bit of a fool, but by the end you feel degrees of sympathy even for him. Even this most minor of supporting characters (not a comment on Dinklage’s stature) has earned your emotions. That’s great storytelling but it’s also tremendous execution from the director. Another sure sign of McDonagh’s command for tone is that he undercuts his story’s moment of triumph. I’ll dance around spoilers but Three Billboards looks to end in a way where several characters would claim a hard-won victory, and McDonagh casually strips that away. Even though this is a movie, and even though there are moments of broad, irony-laced comedy, the complexities and disappointments of real life emerge. Even to the very end, Three Billboards doesn’t follow the expected rules of How These Things Go.

The excellent acting gives further life to these tremendous characters. McDormand (Fargo) is radiating with ferocious resentment and indignation. Her character is a walking missile that just needs to be pointed in the right direction. Her stares alone could cause you to shrivel. McDormand hasn’t been given a character this good in years. She opens up the full reserve of her deep acting reservoir, able to flit from great vulnerability to intense repulsion. She has plenty of big moments where she gets to tell off the disapproving townspeople and media members. It’s ready made for easy laughs, but McDormand is so good that she shades those moments with subtler emotional nuance. You get the laugh and you also get further character insight. It’s a performance of such assured strength that I imagine you’ll be hearing her name often during the awards season. Rockwell (The Way, Way Back) has also never been better. He has to play a similarly deep array of emotions, from idiot comedy to heroic dramatics, and at every point Rockwell is stunning. He makes every joke twice as funny. When Dixon becomes a larger focus of the story is when he undergoes more intensive introspection. He goes from buffoon to three-dimensional character. Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) also delivers a worthy performance as a proud yet wounded man who is trying to do right against a world of pressures and self-doubt.

Three Billboards is an impressive, absorbing, searing film gifted with some of the best-developed characters in 2017. The portrayal of the characters is so complex and given startling life from such amazingly talented actors. You’ll watch three of the best performances of the year right here. You get a really strong sense of just how life has been irrevocably altered from this heinous crime, not just with Mildred but also for the town as a whole. Things cannot go back to being the way they were. The characters you like can make you wince. The characters you don’t like you might find yourself pulling for. Thanks to the complexity and nuance, the film delivers a raft of surprises, both pleasant and painful. These people feel closer to real human beings. McDonagh’s brilliant handling of tone and theme is a remarkable work of vision, cohesion, and execution. This is a darkly comic movie that can make you bust out laughing and an affecting human drama that can make you cry. It takes you on a journey that feels authentic and wildly entertaining. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which should have simply been called Three Billboards) subverts typical Hollywood clichés by making sure, even during its wilder flights of comic fancy, that everything is grounded with the characters first and foremost.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Way, Way Back (2013)

the-way-way-back-posterA throwback to the youthful summer movies of the 80s, The Way, Way Back is a delightful coming-of-age film that manages to excel at both comedy and drama. Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (co-writers of 2011’s The Descendants) graduate to directors, guiding the famous cast with ease yet squeezing enough satisfying emotional truth into the formula of a screwy, Meatballs-style comedy. We follow 13-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he spends the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her bully of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). My one gripe is that the film spends far more time than it needs to establish just how unequivocally awkward Duncan is. You will likely cringe. When Sam Rockwell enters the picture as a charming goofball water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing is when the movie ascends to a new level of comedy. The Way, Way Back hums along with its own sense of charm, presenting familiar characters/scenes but giving them added texture and relatability. You will be surprised at how much you feel for these characters, you may get a bit misty at points, especially when they behave like people and not zany cartoons. Carell as a bad guy is a real eye-opener; he’s a passive aggressive bully rarely seen in movies. James is an authentically awkward teen but you also buy every step of his journey. It’s just such a sweet, enjoyable, and cute movie, exuding charm and sincerity. Here is a movie that just makes you smile. You’ll leave The Way, Way Back feeling warm and fuzzy, and Rash and Faxon have another winner on their hands.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh only has one movie to his name but the man has already accrued legendary status in some circles. The 2008 dark comedy In Bruges didn’t create much of a blip at the box-office, but its blend of absurdist comedy, dark drama, shocking violence, and languid contemplation found a rabid cult following. I have several friends who regard In Bruges as the best film of 2008 (WALL-E still reigns supreme for me but I quite enjoyed In Bruges).McDonuagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, reminds me of Barton Fink: both are about struggling writers, both are satires of the film industry, and both have sudden splashes of violence and a serial killer who pushes the protagonist to artistic completion. In other words, Seven Psychopaths is a fun film and a great time at the movies.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is experiencing some killer writer’s block. He’s stuck on his new screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” His buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help out. The guys run afoul of another psychopath, mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), due to Billy’s side business. He kidnaps rich people’s dogs and then his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), returns them and collects a reward. Billy and Hans have kidnapped the wrong shih tzu, and now Charlie and his muscle is going to make them pay.

The refreshing thing about the bloody, wickedly entertaining Seven Psychopaths is that it constantly surprises you. This is such a rarity with modern movies, particularly Hollywood movies that attract as notable a cast as this one. McDonagh is wonderfully adept at throwing narrative curveballs. There were a few surprises where I literally jumped in my seat. You constantly think you have the movie figured out, and then it goes down a different alley and becomes more interesting. One of the pleasures of having psychopathic lead characters is that they are impulsive and do not have to follow the normal purview of logical decision making. They might just call the bad guys and divulge where they are hiding. They can do anything at any moment, and part of that unpredictability is what makes the movie feel so electric, so creatively alive. I must stress that McDonagh surprises in ways that feel satisfying and yet believable given the world he’s concocted. Part of the fun in the first half is just figuring out who the seven psychopaths will be. It’s not like it’s some laconic chamber piece mystery but the psychopaths are an eclectic mix from the real to the fictional to real characters doubling as inspiration for fictional ones. I think in the end there may only be six psychopaths, unless McDonagh is counting himself amongst the numbers.

McDonagh also has a blast deconstructing the very kind of movie that he’s providing. Marty bemoans writing another rote psychopathic killer movie where the violence is fetishized and the bad guys are mythologized into idols. You think the film is headed in one direction, in the Guy Ritchie-style standoffs and shootouts, and then it takes a less traveled path, one where it criticizes these sorts of movies and ponders existential questions about the nature of self-expression and death. It began as a care-free movie about thugs and writers and transformed into a movie that manages to have something to say about life, philosophy, and the cyclical nature of vengeance. Two of our three main protagonists are pacifists and remain so to their imperilment. At one point, a character narrates how this story as a proper movie would end, and it covers all the nihilistic clichés of vengeance and epic body counts. But then Marty, and McDonagh as well, wants to turn away from the expected, from violence for the sake of violence, from the exploitation of stylized suffering. McDonagh doesn’t forget to entertain while he’s making you think in between those handfuls of popcorn. The female characters in the movie (Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko) are generally wasted, in different senses, but McDonagh uses this as another charge against this type of film (a boy’s night out of carnage). This is an accessible movie that can be enjoyed on a whole other meta level. I loved the various gear changes. For me it took the pulpy action material and elevated it to another level of genius.

McDonagh still maintains his darkly sardonic streak of humor that made In Bruges such a riot. I was laughing throughout Seven Psychopaths; chortles, snorts, giggles, big belly laughs. With its heedless violence, obviously this will not be a film that runs on every person’s wavelength of funny. The very opening involves two mafia hitman debating whether shooting somebody in the eye takes actual precision or just dumb luck. It’s the sort of mundane conversation you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and also the precursor to something nasty and ironic. McDonagh’s sense of humor is similar to Ritchie or the Coen brothers, but the man establishes his own sense of wicked whimsy. The absurdist dialogue is always a hoot and can generate serious malice, especially when delivered by stern psychopaths. Rockwell (Moon) in particular is outstanding and delivers a virtuoso performance of the unhinged. The man just radiates energy. You’ll feel jacked up just watching him. I keep waiting for this underrated actor to break out with each star-making turn, and his comedic zing is played to perfection in Seven Psychopaths. In contrast, Walken (Hairspray) is rather reserved as he underplays his character, one of the saner men he’s played. It feels like the passing of the torch from the older generation of psychopath to the newer generation.

Being a colorful movie about colorful bad guys, and girls, you’d expect there to be some grade-A oddballs, and McDonagh does not disappoint. Some of the psychopaths in question have little bearing on the story plot-wise. There’s Zachariah played by the impeccable Tom Waits (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He answers an ad that Billy set up for psychopaths to share their stories to Marty. His tale involves cross-country spree killing of serial killers, rabbit petting, and the love of his life, and partner in crime, leaving him. As far as plot, this little aside has little significance to the plot other than setting up a superb joke to end the movie with. But the character is so interesting, multidimensional, and played with equal parts aloofness and sincerity by Waits, that you can’t imagine the movie without him. Several of these psychopaths could have been the stars of their own movie, from the vigilante killing mob thugs to the tale of one father’s long path to vengeance. Even the fictional psychopath, the Vietnamese man (Long Nguyen) seeking vengeance against G.I.’s, could have enough weight to carry a feature film. The amazing part of the movie is that you don’t feel like any of these characters are shortchanged. McDonagh finds ways to emotionally ground his characters, allowing the audience to empathize amidst the bloodshed and loony characters. We care about Hans and his ailing wife; we care about the friendship between Marty and Billy. It’s real for these characters and so it feels real to us, despite the hyper-real flourishes of the movie.

If you’re a fan of In Bruges, or just dark comedies mixed with sudden violence, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy with Seven Psychopaths. You don’t have to be nuts but it helps. McDonagh has crafted another winner with sharp dialogue, a twisty plot full of surprises, incisive commentary on movies and movie expectations, as well as some sincere soul-searching and poignancy. This baby has it all, folks. Above all else, it’s just a blast of fun. the actors all seem to be having the times of their lives, notably Rockwell, and the morbid laughs and off-kilter thrills should cement another McDonaugh film for cult status. Seven Psychopaths is a palyful movie along the lines of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even Adaptation. It’s bursting with ideas and comments and jokes. when you leave the theater you almost want to get back in line and start the ride all over again.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man was a fresh surprise in the summer of 2008, offering a superhero movie dominated by a middle-aged man’s personality and not the special effects. The story was not overwhelmed by all the demands of what we expect in a glorious summer popcorn experience. Marvel was smart to sign on the same team behind the first film, including director Jon Favreau, but setting a deadline exactly two years after the first film made me worry. There wasn’t much time to get everything together, and it should be no shock that Iron Man 2 feels rushes and absent the finesse of the first film. As much as it pains me to say it, Iron Man 2, while fun in spots, doesn’t come close to the original. You can trace much of it back to the sequel ethos that you take what worked in Part 1, make it much, much bigger and louder, and now you have Part Two. But what worked so exceptionally well in the first Iron Man movie was not the action sequences but the characters, so guess what happens when you pollute the narrative with more characters and disposable action sequences?

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a self-made superhero and now the world knows that he is indeed the metallic warrior, Iron Man. Stark refuses to hand over his technology to the government, saying he has “successfully privatized world peace.” He appoints his girlfriend/loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO so he can devote his time to ridding the world of evil and lapping up the fame that goes with being Iron Man. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) is concerned for his buddy but also eager to help play around with that super suit. But not everybody loves Tony Stark, notably Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons dealer aiming for a Pentagon contract, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian scientist who blames his father’s exile from America and Siberian internment on the Stark family. When Hammer sees Vanko’s attack at a Monaco speedway, he knows he has found an ally against Stark. Hammer whisks his newest Russian friend to New York and enlists his expertise in creating an army of super mechanical fighting suits.

The screenplay by actor-turned-writer Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) is overstuffed with people and events all fighting for screen time and narrative dominance that it starts to become unintentionally comical after a while. There are too many storylines jostling for control when any one of them could have comprised a whole movie: military demands to have the suit, Tony deals with blowback from being the most famous man in the universe, and escalation (others trying to top Stark). Don’t even get me started on how Iron Man 2 bends over backwards to advertise that future Marvel Avengers movie lead by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). I mistakenly believed that the trailers ended before my movie started. There’s a storyline where Tony’s blood is becoming infected with a dangerous chemical every time he uses the Iron Man suit, so being a superhero is literally killing him. You can work with that for some pathos, debating the needs of one man vs. the needs of society and the greater good, personal sacrifice, mortality, legacy, but it all gets way too easily resolved in an absurd way (all I’ll say is, thanks Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling!). It tries to up the ante when less would have been considerably more.

Most of the new characters feel poorly integrated, further causing distraction to any attempts at narrative cohesion. Iron Man 2 also pushes Johansson into the mix so that she can shake up the Tony/Pepper relationship and, plus, she looks good in a skintight cat suit. But her third wheel/love triangle status is barely touched upon and Johansson gets one solid action sequence where she takes out a litany of goons in a hallway with the amazing power of her spinning thighs. Johansson is mostly just another assistant to take notes in the background, although she does it beautifully. The Rourke scenes are few and far between. They establish him as an intimidating force and then he pretty much sits in a room tinkering with stuff, garbling Russian, and feeding his cockatiel for the rest of the movie. He never feels like a real threat or a true match for Tony. Rockwell is the more appealing, slimy villain of the duo, aided by Rockwell’s exasperated bellowing and desperation for the spotlight. Hammer is more interesting to me than a Russian ex-con that rarely speaks, let alone speaks in English. He’s given so little opportunity to develop Vanko as a character. And yet Gary Shandling, as a smug senator trying to make Stark accountable to the U.S. military, might be the film’s best villain of the bunch (curious side note: Shandling and Rourke look oddly similar).

The personal relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts was the heart of Iron Man. They had that snappy, droll, screwball comedy-esque give-and-take, with hints of something more underneath. This time, the movie doesn’t even speak about their relationship at all, like it never happened in the first film. That scene where she kisses his Iron Man helmet, tosses it out the belly of a plane, and he dives off uttering, “You complete me”? Not in the film. You start to wonder why the movie is being purposely vague and it gets maddening. Their relationship lacks the frustration tinged with flirtation and replaces it with agitation. Both Tony and Pepper are harried and on each other’s last nerve, which doesn’t make for much romantic traction. Their chemistry seems to have dampened. I’m kind of with Pepper on this one because Tony Stark might be even too obnoxious in this movie. Following the sequel-it is code, Tony’s egotistical behavior is expanded and he becomes prone to self-destructive behavior, getting riskier and riskier, pushing others away including, perhaps, decent portions of the audience. He’s stopped being the cocky, likeable arrogant playboy and transformed into a bit of a rich douchebag. Part of this is related to the storyline about the suit literally killing Tony, and his character’s alcoholism featured heavily in the comic books, but it’s just another plot element that feels like it was put in for momentary conflict and then easily resolved or dropped. I understand Tony will be his biggest antagonist but that didn’t stop the first Iron Man film from flying high in entertainment.

The first Iron Man had an unexpected low level of action for a summer movie, but because of the characters you didn’t care. It was that rare comic book movie where you wanted more dialogue and fewer sound effects. To be fair, Favreau and crew saved a pretty nice Iron Mano y Iron Mano fight sequence at the end. Following that narrative lead, Iron Man 2 is structured pretty much like the first when it comes to action. There’s the attack at the Monaco raceway, which features an unrealistic, cartoonish tone that conflicts with the rest of the flick. But the film’s biggest moment of sustained action is the climax involves Tony Stark versus a bunch of silly killer robots. Soulless robot drones don’t get very compelling, plus haven’t we seen a thousand movies where people combat killer robots? What’s more disappointing is that Favreau incoherently stages the action. It’s not due to any sort of hyperactive editing, no, the culprit is that the onscreen action is just moving way too quickly. As a result, much of the action feels like whooshes of color. It’s hard to adjust your eyes to the rapid movement and process what exactly is going on. Because we can’t follow the action the whole thing lacks tension, danger, and drama. I wanted to be blown away by the action, which has several trailer-ready moments of awesome, but mostly I just wanted to be able to understand what I was watching.

Despite all my complaints, Iron Man 2 still manages to be a fun time out at the movies. Downey is always immensely talented and brings great amounts of energy to the role, centering the movie on his witty charms. While his character is less engaging this go-round, Downey is still on top of his game. Rourke, Rockwell, Paltrow, and Johansson all contribute fine performances when they’re on screen. The low output of Iron Man in suit is compensated by having TWO Iron Men, thanks to Rhodes donning the metal gear and fighting alongside his pal. The opening of this movie captures your interest fairly well, though it loses it again thanks to slack pacing and an influx of new faces. The tone of the movie takes a cue from Downey and the movie as an agreeable, comedic feel without seeming overly glib. And hey, the special effects are pretty nice, too. Iron Man 2 is an adequate popcorn movie but the tragedy of the movie is that the first film was much more than adequate. I think the Iron Man film franchise is in need of a slight upgrade.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Moon (2009)

David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, directs two Sam Rockwells in this steely mood piece. Rockwell plays a lunar astronaut about to complete his three-year tour of duty when he finds another him. Is he hallucinating? Is this other Rockwell a clone? Who is the clone? The mystery unravels at a nice pace and Rockwell a pair of great performances, fully giving each character a different personality. Jones uses his small space to great use, multiplying the feeling of cabin fever more so than claustrophobia. Some will chafe that Moon doesn’t spell everything out, but the movie is smart enough to leave other things to the imagination. Moon tells a very specific, very select story and it does so with great economy that serves the story. This is Rockwell’s showcase and he carries the movie and nails the nervous breakdowns. For people let down by Hollywood’s slate of sci-fi duds, here is a satisfying small-scale sci-fi story told with intelligence and subtlety.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Snow Angels (2008)

Director David Gordon Green is likely the most observant auteur today when it comes to exploring the realities of life in small towns. Snow Angels is a somber drama that follows an estranged couple (Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale) going through the hard times of life in a snowy rural town. The couple is also beset by some tragic accidents that come in at the appropriate time, an hour into the film, which means that we’ve gotten to know the characters enough to build a relationship with them and also that there will be plenty of time left to watch these characters react. The movie has a handful of interrelated characters that don’t all sustain the same level of interest. Watching a band geek lose his virginity to a smart girl (Oliva Thirlby, deflowering her second 2008 virgin) is just not comparable to other storylines. Snow Angels has an astute sense of resignation throughout, like the characters know they will forever be stuck in dead-end jobs and live the rest of their lonely lives as fated. The movie takes some very dark turns but they feel authentic to the drama. Green creates such a rich portrait of despair and the inequities of small town life.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

This is a harrowing, haunting, beautiful, mesmerizing movie that is easily one of the best films of 2007. Casey Affleck is an acting revelation as Robert Ford, the man who worshipped Jesse James and obsessed over him before eventually turning sour and killing his hero. This languid Western, paced at 2 hours and 40 minutes, establishes a mood of gnawing paranoia as the law closes in and Jesse suspects his gang members will betray him. The day-to-day worry and dread of a life of crime really translates, and Jesse James proves an intelligent, unstable leader to mix the pot. The movie builds slowly but the tension grows unbearable and puts knots in your stomach. The acting is outstanding all around, and Brad Pitt proves a great choice for a 19th century American icon weary of his legendary status. The movie presents a fascinating peek into Jesse James’s gang and presents a wealth of historical information, none more intriguing than when the public turned on Robert Ford for terminating one of American’s folk legends. The narration provides sharp, illuminating details in brief expository scenes, and thanks to Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, Jesse James is an authentic period picture that is a marvel to view. I was awed by this artistic achievement that still resonates with me long after I finished watching. This film simply envelops you.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

I’m a big fan of the late Douglas Adams’ series, so going in I had a slate of expectations but also a working knowledge of this kooky universe. I really don’t think this film will work for anyone but the fans. The movie isn’t even structured like a screenplay, it has more of the novel’s loose loopy feel. Some things work wonderful, like the Vogons, giant marvelous looking puppets made by Jim Henson’s studio. The cast is mostly excellent (Alan Rickman steals the show as the voice of Marvin, a very depressed robot). The animated guide entries in the Hitchhiker’s book are colorful, stylistic, and witty. Somethings, however, don’t work at all. The additions to the story, an increased romantic angle between our lead Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Trillian (Zooey Descehanel) as well as a flat happy ending that rewrites all the opening danger. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy occasionally serves up some juicy bits of wacky humor or visual fantasy (John Malkovich’s bit part is weird) but unless you were a fan of the book series, you’re really not going to be able to follow along or have any interest in keeping up.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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