Full Review: JOJO RABBIT (USA 2019) ***1/2

Jojo Rabbit Poster

A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.


Taika Waititi


Christine Leunens (novel), Taika Waititi (screenplay)

As wild as its title, JOJO RABBIT follows the protagonist, a German boy, a Nazi fanatic given the nickname of JoJo Rabbit (Roman Griffin Davis) during a Nazi training camp for failure to kill a rabbit in order to prove his loyalty to the Führer.

It is not an easy task to make a tasteful film with Nazi Germany in the setting and a fanatic Führer young boy as the lead.  But it has been done successfully – ie. Germany Nazi comedy in TV series like HOGAN’S HEROES and ALLO ALLO.

The boy also has an imaginary friend giving him advice throughout the story, as Humphrey Bogart advised the meek Wood Allen character in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM.  It is Adolf Hitler himself (played with gust by director Waititi) who gives the boy advice right to the very last frame of the film.

JOJO RABBIT, while being a satire of the german machinery during WWII is a coming-of-age story of JoJo, a boy who aims at serving the Führer the best he can while discovering love  in the form of a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in the family house from the Germans.

Jojo Betzler is a precocious kid in World War II Germany with an egregious blind spot. Socially awkward, but a proud member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo passes much of his time with his imaginary friend Adolf, a cuddly, energetic, pep-talking version of the Führer.  Having completely bought into Nazi hate, Jojo is incensed when he discovers that his mother has been working for the resistance, helping to keep safe the Jewish people he’s been taught to hate. With Germany on the brink of collapse, he is faced with the choice of clinging to his hateful beliefs or embracing his humanity.

  The film contains many laugh-out loud moments demonstrating director Waititi’s keen sense of humour.  His comedy timing is immaculate.

Roman Griffin Davis is a real find as the 10-year old boy.  Oscar Winner Sam Rockwell relishes his role as the sympathetic Nazi with a fondness for same-sex flirtations while Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson keeps popping up multiple points in the film as different characters ranging from Nazi trainer to Nazi secretary to Nazi masseuse providing additional laughs.  All the actors appear to speak english with the perfect German accent.

JOJO RABBIT turns out to be a harmless really funny comedy with a message to boot.

Spoiler alert:  I have to include this priceless moment in the review as it made the movie, but it concludes a spoiler of a key plot point.  Skip this paragraph (in italics) if it needs be.  In a key moment near the film’s end after the Germans have lost the war, Jojo’s nemesis , his imaginary Hitler appears to still give him nasty advice.  Jojo screams; “Fuck off!” and kicks him out the window of his room.  The scene elicited loud laughs and the guy next to me the screening happened to turn to me, where he, clearly a Jew, who had suffered anti-Semitism shared the laughs with me.

The film went on to win the Toronto International Film Festival Audience (Popular) Film Award.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL4McUzXfFI


2019 TIFF Movie Review: MARRIAGE STORY (USA 2019) ****

Marriage Story Poster

Noah Baumbach’s incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.


Noah Baumbach


Noah Baumbach

The master of dysfunctional dramas, Noah Baumbach’s (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES) latest outing is a break-up story of two people still very much in love.  This premise has made wonderful films in the past such as Paul Mazursky’s 1973 BLUME IN LOVE where George Segal spends the whole film wooing his ex-wife.  MARRIAGE STORY tells both points of view of the love an break up of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver).  The story takes most often Charlie’s side. 

They wish to separate on friendly times but things get ugly when they hire lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern) to what they think might easy the breakup process.  A subplot involving child custody brings to mind Robert Benton’s 1979 KRAMER V.S. KRAMER.  Director Baumbach reveals both the heartbreak and glory of love in a very dramatic and sensitive portrait aided by excellent performances by Johansson and Deriver.  

But it is Driver who steals the show especially in the confrontation seen that might just win him the Best Actor Oscar.  An additional bonus is the excellent written and executed court scene where their two lawyers battle it out.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y1HhAlAOTs

Film Review: ROUGH NIGHT (USA 2017) ***

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rough_nightThings go terribly wrong for a group of girlfriends who hire a male stripper for a bachelorette party in Miami.

Director: Lucia Aniello
Writers: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Zoë Kravitz

 ROUGH NIGHT is that rare chick flick that has sufficient material to satisfy both female and male audiences. Besides the bride-to-be and friends, the film also devotes a fair amount of time to the groom-to-be and his friends. The ending has everyone celebrating the wedding. This is expected in a Hollywood happy ending, so no spoiler is intended.

There are a few things that promises a satisfying comedy. One is the script that was one of the 2015 blacklisted scripts, which usually means a script that matters. The other is that the film is a first effort from female director Aniello, which means she will try her very best to prove herself, never mind a few mistakes mentioned below in this review. It is also about time a film emerged that looked at a female point of view of the HANGOVER films.

The film opens with the college days where five best friends (Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Zoë Kravitz) connect at a fraternity drink party. It is 10 years later when they reunite for a wild bachelorette weekend in Miami. During their hard partying, they accidentally kill a male stripper. Amidst the craziness of trying to conceal their deed, they are ultimately brought closer together where it matters most.

The film has quite a few genuinely hilarious comedic set-ups, but there are quite a few misses as well. For comedy, director Aniello commits three mistakes, which could be considered forgivable considering that this is her debut feature and also that the funny parts make up for these mistakes. One big mistake in comedy is the explaining of a joke. During the airport scene where Alice cracks open a champagne bottle to the sound of a loud pop, everyone dives to the ground thinking it to be a gunshot. Alice remarks after, “Popping the bottle sounds like a shot and we are at the airport.”

The tampon joke is also one that is understood by both male and female. The rule is to never explain a joke. Another is the repeating of a joke. This happens when Alice toasts Jess at a dance club when Pippa pops up a piece of toast as she does not have a drink. This is done three times. The third mistake is trying too hard on a joke that is essentially a failure. This occurs in the scene where the group says solemn words and saying ok , “Dump the body”, before disposing the body of the dancer. The film also falls into the trap of stereotyping – example the activist is a lesbian.

To the film’s credit, the comedic set-ups are related and move smoothly towards the climax of the film, which is the wedding, For the few thrilling parts where the five friends have to tackle the diamond robbers, director Aniello proves her competence at thrills in keeping her audience at the edge of their seats.

Of the five actresses, SNL’s Kate McKinnon succeeds as the funniest of the lot, believable as an Australian with her accent. Jillian Bell comes a close second as the chief troublemaker Scarlett Johansson proves herself apt here in comedy as in other genres like action flicks (LUCY and GHOST IN THE SHELL), art horror (UNDER THE SKIN) and Woody Allen romantic drama comedies (VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and MATCH POINT).

Despite the film’s flaws, ROUGH NIGHT thankfully succeeds as a satisfying comedy for both sexes. There are enough off-coloured jokes, foul language, tasteful sexual innuendo (the vibrating dildo) and a few messages about the importance of friendships (cliched though they may be) that result in a satisfying hilarious night out.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jRNDOZnGKU

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Film Review: SING (USA 2016) ****

sing_movie_poster.jpgDirected by Garth Jennings

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly

Review by Gilbert Seah

Garth Jennings, director of the not-so-successful THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and the excellent SON OF RAMBO seems an unlikely choice for director of the 3D computer-animated musical comedy film produced by Illumination Entertainment (the DESPICABLE ME films). But Jennings who also voices the old secretary Matilda, the glass-eye popping iguana in the film, proves a worthy choice.

The age-old plot of SING involves the protagonist, here in the form of a cute koala (Matthew McConaughey) putting up a show in order to save his failing theatre. He comes up with a brilliant scheme to save his stage: put audience members on it. “Real talent from real life,” Buster declares. Buster is determined to host the world’s greatest singing competition, and, given the overwhelming response to his call for participants, the show might just lay claim to that title. After an exhaustive (and entertaining) audition process, his lead contestants left are an exhausted mother of 25 piglets, a timid adolescent elephant, a porcupine with punk, a rodent con artist with Sinatra-esque chops, and a gangster gorilla eager to change careers. Each is as desperate to change their life as Buster is to rescue his business. Who will win? It doesn’t really matter as all eventually do their part to save the theatre. Jennifer Saunders of ABS FAB does the voice of ex-diva a sort-of patron for Moon’s theatre as she is rich beyond means.

SING is undeniably a feel-good movie with an extra coating of sweetness that stretches credibility to the limit. If the film was not animated, it would never get away with the premise. But animated feature are supposed to be totally crazy and not matter how unbelievable, any crazy premise will always work to its favour.

Water has always been difficult if not impossible to animate. Disney’s THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE (from FANTASIA) with Mickey Mouse demonstrated that. But now with computer animation, all is possible. In SING, Buster Moon decides to create an elaborate lighting sequence for his show using squids in a huge water tank that ends up leaking and blowing up. All this is an excuse to showcase the studio’s impressive modern animation with computer aid using water. No complaints here, as the sequence is one of the film’s best animated, as in the time lapse rebuilding of Moon’s theatre near the end of the film. Disney and Pixar are faced with stiff competition here.

The impressive cast of actors and singers include Reese Witherspoon as Rosita, Seth MacFarlane as Mike, a small white crooning mouse with a big Frank Sinatra-esque voice and an arrogant attitude, Scarlett Johansson as Ashley, a crested porcupine punk rocker, John C. Reilly as Eddie Noodleman, a Suffolk sheep and Buster’s partner, Tori Kelly as Meena, a teenage Indian elephant with an exquisite voice, and severe stage fright,Taron Egerton as Johnny, a Cockney-accented mountain gorilla, who wants to sing and Nick Kroll as Gunter domestic pig and Rosita’s German-accented, very optimistic and bubbly dance partner.

SING is by no means a faultless feature. It falls into the trap of having too many characters for its own good and not knowing when to shorten its story. The film also hurdles at too fast a pace, as in the father gorilla escaping jail to see his son perform.

The film features more than 85 classic songs from famous artists all more than adequately performed by the animated characters as well as a few catchy original songs.

Like Moon going all out to save his theatre, one cannot help but root of writer/director Jennings in his worthwhile effort and awarding him an “A” for effort.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7uGHY-t80I

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Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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captain_america_civil_warCAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, Frank Grillo

Reveiw by Gilbert Seah

Judging from the box-office successful but critically panned BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, audiences love to see their super heroes battle one another – never mind the reason, never mind who wins, and never mind anything else. In this latest Marvel superhero movie, there are lots more of the same. It is a dream come true for current action fans as there is a full 15 minute action fight scene during which two factions of super heroes battle it out with each other.

The film begins with establishing the reason for the formation of the two factions. It is a world disaster in which innocent people are killed in Nigeria following a criminal being pursued by the Avengers. As a result of the collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps, one led by Steve Rogers aka Captain America (the handsome hunk Luke Evans) and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s Ironman (played by Robert Downey Jr.) surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

This is an AVENGERS film despite the Captain America title. Other Marvel heroes on display here include Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Winter Soldier of the film title (Sebastian Stan), Falcon from the IRONMAN films (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye with his arrows (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Spider-man (Tom Holland) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) the latter two providing most of the humour in the film. But the script by a multiple of writers includes many one-liners that only Marvel fans will find funny, or whoever is in the mood. But the one-liners are quite mediocre and no match compared to those found in other action films like the DIE HARD or TERMINATOR films.

So there is one faction led by Ironman with Spidey, Faclon and Spider and the other by Captain America, Winter soldier and Hawkeye. There is an extended fight scene between the two leaders as well but no one really comes out the outright victor. The heroes use their powers like Spidey his web, America his shield and Hawkeye his arrows.

The film running at almost two and a half hours is surprisingly short on both story and character development. The script contains lots of repetitions on the need to control the Avengers i.e. to substantiate the rivalry between the two groups. All this tends to be a tad boring after a while, not to mention that the matter is never resolved at the end and the film set up for a sequel.

Not much is demanded in the acting department for an action film of this nature except for the actors to look good. And they all look very bulked up or pretty as the case may be. This reviewer never liked Robert Downey Jr. as an actor (in Sherlock Holmes, IRONMAN and other films) or in person for his wise-cracking smart-ass attitude. So, the best line in the film delivered by Black Widow to him: “Are you incapable of letting go of your ego for one Goddamned second?” gave me a big smile.

CAPTAIN AMERICA is a film that would delight action Marvel fans, but those serious in their taste of cinema – might want to take all this with a pinch (or rather, heap) of salt.

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Movie Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK. Directed by Jon Favreau

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the_jungle_bookTHE JUNGLE BOOK (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling

Review by Gilbert Seah

Favreau has proven himself a talented director of films as diverse as the action flicks IRONMAN and IRONMAN 2, comedy dramas as MADE and the drama CHEF. Tackling Disney animation is a totally different ball game with Favreau succeeding within limits. But he follows formulaic conventions occasionally going back to what works in the original animated JUNGLE BOOK like the familiar songs re-used in this version.

The 1969 animated version is the most loved of all the Kipling adaptations. Who can forget the cute bear Baloo (Phil Harris) dancing and singing “The Bare Necessities” with Mowgli? Or Sebastian Cabot’s voice of the Panther? So Favreau has tough shoes to follow.

The film opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) running with a pack of wolves. It appears he is running from them, but the audience can likely guess that he is running with them. Mowgli, abandoned as a baby and found by a panther (Ben Kingsley) is raised by wolves. But Shere Khan, the tiger (Idris Elba) wants the boy killed as the tiger is afraid of the destruction of man. The panther takes Mowgli on a journey to find the man camp where Mowgli can live away from fear of the tiger. Mowgli meets an assortment of different characters like King Louie, a giant oranghutan (Christopher Walken), Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) and Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) a python before confronting Khan.

THE JUNGLE BOOK has quite the few violent scenes that will give the littler ones nightmares. These include buffalos toppling off a cliff from a mudslide and a fierce battle between a tiger and bear.

CGI has come a long way. One cannot tell the difference between real animals and computer generated animals. To Favreau’s credit, his film looks fantastic and his hard work of filming just one actor, Sethi against a giant green blank screen pays off. The film uses the Simulcam technology (also used in James Cameron’s AVATAR) that allows Favreau to look into a monitor and in real time, see Sethi interacting with the CGI animals.

The question finally arises as to whether this new 3D live-action animation of THE JUGLE BOOK is necessary. The film ends with the real life figures of Mowgli and Baloo morphing into caricatures in the Rudyard Kipling’s book. This only serves to enforce the fact that the animated version is the best type of adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling’s classic story.

Walt Disney passed away during the production of 1969’s JUNGLE BOOK. The original writer and songwriter were replaced as the film was thought initially too serious for the family. What resulted are songs by the famous Sherman Brothers (MARY POPPINS, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) and the the totally delightful animated version everyone is familiar with. Favreau’s version is, in comparison all over the place, at times cutesy, then too serious and violent and then adventurous. The Disneyworld documentaries have so far done so-so at the box-office. And Disney’s recent THE GOOD DINOSAUR with a similar theme involving animals and a journey was a disappointing flop. THE JUNGLE BOOK might just follow suit, doing either so-so business or flopping at the box-office.


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Movie Review: HAIL CAESAR! (2016)

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hail_caesar_poster.jpgHAIL, CAESAR! (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenrich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

Review by Gilbert Seah

The Coen Brothers remain in top form.  They etch out a film almost annually, with almost each one a critical hit.  Their films are an annual event many moviegoers now look forward to.  Their best films include TRUE GRIT, FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BURN AFTER READING, and all their films share the Brother’s keen sense of humour.  HAIL, CAESAR! like BURN AFTER READING is pure comedy and this one is a worthy tribute to the Hollywood dream-making machine.  It has the feel of a farce yet, it total respects the Hollywood studio system, for all its faults and errors.

The lead character is a Hollywood studio fixer by the name of Mannix, subtly portrayed by Josh Brolin, in the kind of role he has mastered.  He is a dead serious character you do not want to mess around with.  Or you will get slapped around like his main star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) did, before being told to then go out and act like a star.  The film begins with Mannix in a confessional box, pouring his heart out to the priest.  Mannix is shown to be a decent man, one that respects other human beings, despite their faults and one who loves his wife and kids.  He is the backbone of America and the one that make sense in the Coen film.  Which is required – or all else will go to nought and the film degenerates into nonsense.  Of all the sins confessed, the one that affects him the most is his cigarette smoking.  He has promised his wife (Alison Pill) to cut down and is unable to do so.  The plot generally follows Mannix around while things in the Studio fall apart, while being offered a smoke most of the time.  Mannix fixes things, hilariously yet credibly, and that is the basic premise of HAIL, CAESAR!  While all these are going on, he is wooed for a better paying, better hours job at Lockheed Incorporated.

The things that can go wrong provide most of the satire and entertainment.  A famous actress, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and her image is about to be ruined.  A famous cowboy actor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is unable to utter his lines to the satisfaction of his director Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  Tabloid columnist sisters (both played by Tilda Swinton wearing different hats) want a scoop trying to dig in dirt about star Whitlock.  The most jarring problem is Whitlock being kidnapped by a groups of disgruntled scriptwriters who want their far share of the dough.  Mannix has to sort them all out.

All these problems provide ample opportunity for hilarity – Coen Brothers style.  And they keep the laughs coming with twists in the story as they know best.  The brains behind kidnapping turns out to be communist Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).

The Brothers play plenty of homage to old classics.  There is a spectacular swimming Busby Berkley swimming number, Esther Williams style as in MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, a one-take musical gay-type musical number with no dames to the tune of “No Dames”with nods to ANCHORS AWEIGH and Rogers and Hammerstein’s song “There is Nothing like a Dame” from SOUTH PACIFIC and scenes that could be taken right out of William Wyler’s BEN-HUR, just to name a few.

The Brothers have also assembled quite the impressive all-star cast, though some on the list only appear for a few minutes in a scene or two.  The Jonah Hill character seems present just to utter the line  “It’s all part of the job, Miss.”  Fiennes and Johansson are only present for two scenes while Frances McDormand has only one as a chain-smoking editor who gets chokes by the film reel in the editing room.  For whatever they do, they leave the audience wanting for more.  Relative newcomer Ehrenreich steals the show as the cute cowboy who eventually helps Mannix instead of the other way around.

Great directors have made films about the passion in the making of movies.  Fellini had 81/2, Truffaut LA NUIT AMERICAINE, Almodovar BAD EDUCATION and the Coen Brothers HAIL, CASEAR!.  Everything comes clear as to what the Coens are up to by the end reel.  There are elements that don’t work that well or are overdone, but or the most part HAIL, CAESAR! is quite the movie, especially for the moviebuff.  HAIL, CAESAR is a minor classic but a major delight!  I would see it again.


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