The Scarlett Johansson Project — #4

We’re more than halfway through 2020 (and thank goodness for that), and yet not quite halfway through The SJP (thanks to a delay up front in Jan/Feb). In case anyone has noticed there hasn’t been a whole lot of organization to this feature, which I have actually enjoyed. There was a version of this where I went through her career in chronological order, but I like the freedom of skipping around and picking and choosing roles more at random.

So that’s how we are kind of circling back this month to where this whole thing began, addressing the second of two performances she submitted last year that brought her deserved widespread acclaim. 2019 turned out to be an exceptional year for Johansson, for there was this other bit of business she had to take care of with the whole Avengers: Endgame thing.

This month’s selection is the first adaptation I’ve featured in the SJP, though I may be using the word ‘adaptation’ loosely here considering how dramatically (and tonally) different the book and movie version of this story apparently are — to the point where by the time you get to the end of the movie you’re really only halfway through the book. This insightful article over at SlashFilm catalogs the many differences between Christine Leunens’ book and Taika Waititi’s movie. The movie version is more of a crowd-pleaser than the source material seems to be, but even with that knowledge I still found the movie uniquely charming and impactful. It didn’t crack my Top 10 favorite movies last year but it was really close.

Scarlett Johansson as Rosie Betzler in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit

Role Type: Supporting

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

Character Background: Rosie is a widowed mother who, like many Germans, faces a profound challenge. She is trying to raise a good child during Nazi occupation, to foster an environment of love, compassion and positivity — the key ingredients she believes one needs to overcome hate and oppression. That proves to be especially daunting given the power of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Her husband has been KIA. Her son, Johannes, played by a very impressive Roman Griffin Davis, is coming of age and feeling the urge to join the ranks of his fellow countrymen. He imagines the Führer as his friend who gives him some guidance. To fulfill his “patriotic duty” he signs up for a Hitler Youth camp where a series of events leads to his ostracism and further compounds his mother’s despair.

But Rosie is more than just a single parent, albeit one with an unbelievably upbeat attitude considering the climate. She’s an active member of a secret anti-Nazi movement, her bravery on full display at various times throughout the movie as we see her disseminating leaflets across town, encouraging the townspeople to resist Nazi control. However her moral obligation brings the danger of the outside world into her own home when Jojo, after discovering the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) Rosie has hidden in the walls of their house, begins questioning everything around him — including his own mother’s patriotism.

What she brings to the movie: energy; compassion; strong maternal instinct. Johansson gave birth to daughter Rose in 2014, making the character she’s parenting in the film only a couple of years older than her actual daughter. Her tender portrayal of motherhood and her use of humor to cope with unfathomably dark times is a real boon to Taika Waititi’s vision — after all, his movie was sold to us as an anti-hate satire, not a straight drama or even historical drama. While the writer/director himself got most of the attention playing a dolt version of Hitler, she’s the movie’s best asset. Despite her sketchy German accent, she turns in the movie’s best performance and her chemistry with Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely wonderful.

In her own words: “Being a parent myself was just invaluably helpful to me. I had empathy for Rosie’s plate that I may not have had insight on otherwise. She was just a joy to play. She’s a warm, lovable character that felt really comfy to me. And I wanted that to come across, that she’s just comfortable and kind of sugary and warm.”

Key Scene: I really like this scene as it both encapsulates the sweet relationship between mother and son and the personality of the movie itself. It’s a small moment in a movie full with much showier ones but it’s also one of the few innocent moments we see between Jojo and Rosie, where they’re talking about something that is, for a lack fo a better word, ordinary. Relationships. It’s a nice moment because for much of the movie these two are painfully at odds with one another.

Bonus Clip (because I just love outtakes!): 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: LA Times; IMP Awards

Month in Review: December ’19

Happy New Year from Thomas J! New year, new decade and a new slate of movies to take in and start complaining about immediately! 😀 Let’s do it!

I’ve come out of 2019 tripping over my own damn shoelaces. Not only did I botch the landing when it comes to finishing off the Marvelous Brie Larson actor feature within the year (that final installment is still coming by the way, it’ll just be posted in a new decade instead), I reviewed exactly none of the movies I watched in December: The Irishman; The Report; Waves; The Two Popes; Uncut Gems; Ford v Ferrari; Tennessee Walking Man.

But that’s why these monthly re-caps are handy, right? Below you’ll find a few blurbs about a select few of those titles, and while these movies absolutely deserve more expanded reviews — two of them were really best-of-year material for me — I feel like getting something out now is better than likely nothing later.

How long can you keep a movie in your head before the details start to blur? If you write reviews, are you a note-taker or a no-note-taker? 

For those who missed it, here’s what little actually did happen on Thomas J during December.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Jojo Rabbit

Alternative Content: When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String


Bite Sized Reviews: Three from, uhh, November 

Waves · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Trey Edward Shults · Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults is in the family business — all three of his films thus far have been about families in crisis. Waves is his follow-up feature to his 2017 horror/thriller It Comes at Night and in it he provides one of the most extraordinary, if not also painful film experiences of the year. Replacing the cold and lifeless backwoods of the Appalachians with the sunny and vibrant coastlines of South Florida his new film may not take place in as much literal darkness but as an exploration of guilt and grief, a testament to familial love and perseverance, it certainly goes to some deep and dark emotional places. A powerfully affecting journey that follows an African-American family through a tragedy and how they come together again in the aftermath, it’s really the authenticity of the performances you notice first. Not a single actor here registers a false note, yet it’s perhaps Kelvin Harrison Jr. (returning from It Comes at Night) who crests the highest, encapsulating both the Jekyll and the Hyde sides of his gregarious, fun-loving and athletically gifted Tyler. When he receives some medical news that’s not necessarily favorable for his plans to go to college for wrestling, he goes into a tailspin that ends up having devastating consequences for his entire family. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted. (5/5)

The Report · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Scott Z. Burns · This dour-faced legal thriller (available via Amazon Prime) details the efforts of a young and ambitious White House staffer named Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he leads an investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The five-year process would result in a 6,700-page document called The Torture Report and, ultimately, in the McCain-Feinstein Amendment being passed in November 2015. What begins as an inquiry into the destruction of  videotapes by a high-ranking CIA official — this at the behest of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — builds into the largest investigative review in Senate history, with Jones both making a name for and a nuisance of himself even after the Bush administration has left the building. Director Scott Z. Burns confidently guides us through an information-dense narrative, and Driver’s stoicism is well-matched by the gravitas provided by a very good supporting cast, which include but is not limited to the likes of Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Morrison, Corey Stoll and Ted Levine. Ultimately a quiet celebration of a whistleblower who’s name has already been forgotten, The Report is perfectly watchable though not exactly what I would call gripping drama. (3.5/5) 

Ford v Ferrari · November 15, 2019 · Directed by James Mangold · A pure joy ride from start to finish, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari does for Le Mans what Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) did for Formula 1. It alleviates the air of elitism that tends to hang over these kinds of races with a crowd-pleasing tale of triumphing over the odds. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to feel the thrills of these movies. Ford v Ferrari is a superior racing movie because not only does it describe multiple levels of competition, the most fascinating scenes are those that take place behind closed doors at the Ford Motor Company as a clash between blue and white collars threatens to derail the company’s grand plans of besting Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. That’s not to say the sequences along the Circuit de La Sarthe aren’t positively thrilling themselves. But Ford v Ferrari really puts its characters first, and you have to admire Mangold because there are a lot of human components and even more technical ones to juggle. Like a finely tuned engine all those parts work in harmony with one another — and Christian Bale and Matt Damon as British racer Ken Miles and acclaimed American car builder Carrol Shelby once again prove why they’re so highly paid actors. The result is a racing movie that may just be one of the year’s best movies, period. (4.5/5)


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Photo credits: IMDb; IMP Awards 

 

 

Jojo Rabbit

Release: Friday, November 8, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taika Waititi

Directed by: Taika Waititi

New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has always been the magic elixir to make things better.

Viago the vampire was one of my favorite characters in the frightfully funny comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2015). In 2017 he gave the MCU a whack of feisty, vibrant energy with Thor: Ragnarok. His goofy humor had the kind of impact that gets directors invited to do another one. He’ll release Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021. It’s also the mainstream breakthrough he needed to make his “anti-hate satire” possible, with Jojo Rabbit collecting dust on a shelf since 2011. If Ragnarok had not received the response that it did, all bets are off the ones cutting the checks would have confidence in the director pulling off a Nazi-bashing black comedy.

Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is an undeniably heartfelt movie about how love, compassion and optimism can be the tools in fighting against hatred and prejudice. Similarly, Waititi’s infectious spirit and cutting wit are his most powerful weapons in combatting the cliches of his story. The fact and manner in which he plays Adolf Hitler — as the childish, imaginary friend of our embattled pretend-Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) — is the defining characteristic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s certainly what gives the movie an edginess. He’s portrayed as a doofus with the maturity level to match the kid who thinks of the Führer as more mate than maniacal monster.

The native New Zealander is neither the first filmmaker to pair comedy with Nazism nor the first to receive flak for doing so. He is, however, the first filmmaker who identifies as a Polynesian Jew to not only don the ugly garb and horrendous hairstyle of the German dictator but to attempt to undermine his authority by playing him as a complete bozo. There are nuances to his performance that have been overlooked amidst the scathing criticism he’s faced by appearing to downplay the threat of Hitler. Au contraire, Waititi isn’t afraid of unleashing his character’s vitriol. As the story progresses his performance intensifies, becomes more bullying and scary.

Whether in front of the camera or behind it Waititi is conscious to balance the silly with the somber. There is persecution in Jojo Rabbit; however, this is not a movie about the Holocaust. Its scope is limited to what’s happening inside the head and the heart — the fundamentally warped psychology that enabled Hitler’s lapdogs to create systemic oppression that eventually culminated in one of the worst events in human history. If that’s not dark enough of a backdrop Waititi reminds us that children were not immune to Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. Yet he also gives us hope by suggesting that a child, unlike a world-weary adult whose beliefs are more ingrained, is not entirely beyond saving.

When the impressionable Jojo is confronted with a unique circumstance he’s forced to reconcile what he has been indoctrinated to believe with objective, observable reality. His mother Rosie — wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansson — is part of a quiet anti-Nazi uprising and has hidden a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. When he realizes he can’t spill the beans out of fear of being turned over to the SS — represented primarily by Stephen Merchant in a surprisingly scary capacity — he decides instead to use the intel he’s being fed by Elsa to create a pamphlet on how to identify “The Enemy.” After being dismissed from the Hitler Youth camp after a mishap with a grenade that left him slightly deformed, he will use this to impress his old pal Captain Klenzendorf — a weird role inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who plays the one-eyed Nazi as more bloke than baddie — as well as make himself feel as if he’s still involved in “the German cause.”

Naivety plays a big role in the movie. It’s the wrinkle that gives Jojo Rabbit‘s good-vs-evil trajectory more sophistication. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, because you also look at Yorkie (Archie Yates), and wonder if his becoming a child soldier (albeit one who really has no business handling a rocket launcher) was really his fate. There are a lot of great performances in this time-worn tale of love ultimately triumphing over disproportionate evil. The real battleground in Waititi’s screenplay is not the inevitable blitz on the small town courtesy of the Allied Forces but rather the conversation between two youngsters on starkly opposite sides of a literal and metaphorical divide. The young actors are impressive with the way they trade barbs. It’s just unfortunate those heart-to-hearts come at the expense of McKenzie, who isn’t afforded anything approaching character growth and instead operates as a narrative device to make the could-be killer see the error of his ways.

Truth be told, Waititi loses a few battles along the way but ultimately wins the war. There are so many ways Jojo Rabbit could have gone wrong and probably would have gone wrong in the hands of a less capable and bold filmmaker. The big question surrounding his passion project (is this a passion project?) was whether he would be able to balance the disparate tones of drama and comedy in a story about Nazi Germany. I think he does that admirably.

“I think it’s best we Nazi each other right now . . .”

Recommendation: If you ask the chuckleheads sitting next to me in the theater who, on top of entering the movie ten minutes late, laughed at everything Taika Waititi said so loudly no one else in the room needed to, he’s absolutely the reason the movie is kind of a must-see, even if the story it tells is less interesting than the performances. Waititi = lovable. Hitler = not so much. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Now this is my kind of little boy’s bedroom . . .”

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Photo credits: Twitter; IMDb