Tag Archives: Sam Rockwell

TIFF19: Jojo Rabbit

I love director Taika Waititi more than makes sense, more than is reasonable by any standard. His absurd sense of humour speaks to me. His arch commentary on the perfectly banal is what I live for. So it was with a heavy heart that I stepped out of the packed theatre and admitted to Sean, who’d rushed the film unsuccessfully (festival vernacular: “rushing” means standing in line for hours when you don’t have a ticket, in case some ticket holder doesn’t show), that Jojo Rabbit was just okay. And I kept up that ambivalence for all of 30 seconds before confessing that I’d loved loved LOVED it, despite having solemnly promised not to rub it in if he didn’t make it in. Sorry, Sean. Jojo Rabbit was fucking awesome.

It’s about a little boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in 1940s Germany. He’s a good little Nazi boy, an unthinking fanatic; his bedroom walls plastered with propaganda posters that reflect his somewhat innocent claim “I’m massively into swastikas.” So he’s utterly broken-hearted when he flunks out of Nazi sleepaway camp. He’ll never know the honour of serving in Hitler’s Guard. His father went away to war and hasn’t been heard from since so it’s just him and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). What’s a devastated little fellow to do with no father figure around? Invent an imaginary friend, of course, and why not aim high and adopt everyone’s favourite Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself?

Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy about learned hate. It’s sympathetic to this child who blindly loves and trusts in Hitler, but doesn’t yet have a taste for blood or violence. Hitler is his Batman, his hero, but he’s about to learn that all heroes are flawed. And some turn out to be villains. But first, there’s a complication. Of course there’s a complication, as if growing up the outcast in Hitler’s Germany wasn’t hard enough. There’s a monster in the attic – or, in fact, a Jew (bless you), named Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie). Jojo’s mom is hiding her so the secret must be kept. Hangings in the town square remind us of the stakes. But this pull between duty to his family and to his country creates an awful lot of pressure for one small boy, especially when his imaginary friend is quite critical of the situation, and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a soldier who’s befriended him, is a little too close for comfort. It’s obviously a disorienting time for him, to find out inch by inch that the real monster is his imagined friend, and the girl in the attic is in fact a lot like him. Imagine the dissonance, the panic, the confusion, the revulsion.

Scarlett Johansson gets the chance to clown around as a mother trying her best to get her young son through a terrifying, grueling war. I can’t remember seeing her this loose and free on the screen before, which is ironic considering the character is rife with burden. In many ways, the mother is the most grounded character; you feel the weight of her responsibility, but also her vitality. She’s not merely trying to survive a war – she’s living. This is her now. Even when the world has gone to shit, there is no pause button. Sons must be raised. Homes must be kept. Jews must be hidden. But still, there is dancing.

Jojo is a complex character, embodying both hatred and innocence in one 10 year old body. It would have been critical to find the perfect and, I imagine, rare talent to fill the role, but believe me, this kid is up for it. He plays against McKenzie particularly well, who is in fact not a monster but a moody and sometimes bratty teenage girl. Neither is strictly the sinner nor the saint history imagines them to be. The two form the most tenuous, the most fraught of bonds, but it’s enough. Familiarity is often enough. It is a cultivator of hope, a vanquisher of fear.

My favourite scenes, however, are when Jojo’s imaginary pal Hitler drops by. Taika Waititi plays him without hindsight; his Hitler doesn’t yet understand how history will judge him. He still thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Waititi plays him fey, embracing the absurd conflict and duality of the character who is of course the architect of evil but also just a very small and not very brave man. He has fun with it but never forgets who this man is or why we hate him.

And it probably goes without saying that Sam Rockwell is having a ball. He’s done wild satirical stuff before so he approaches this with guts and gusto. Which is not to say that anyone in the cast fails to bring the necessary sensitivity to a movie like this. They do. But they also remember that no matter where they fall on the scale of good to evil, they were all just human beings.

It’s an interesting choice to go to Nazi Germany to deliver such a powerful message of anti-hate but where else would it have so much impact? And who else would endeavour to take it on except the fearless Taika Waititi, for whom rules seem not to apply. We worry about which subjects can be spoken of, and which can be made fun of, but the answer is pretty much anything if it’s funny enough. And Jojo Rabbit is funny enough – funny enough to counter hate with laughter, and isn’t that a beautiful thing? At another movie I saw at TIFF this year, Mr. Rogers reminded us that “anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Jojo Rabbit helps us talk about difficult things. It’s an important act of remembrance, and Waititi shows us that even if we’re burning out on all those war stories, there can (and must) still be new and inventive ways of remembering. It’s not just a comedy. It made me laugh and it made me cry, but most of all it moved me to think of these people as human, like me. And how things got away on them little by little until it was too late. History repeats itself, but it’s not too late for us. Not yet.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In Canada we have only two seasons: winter, and construction. We are right in the middle of steaming, stinking construction season here in Ottawa, and we’re facing a weekend where the 417, a major highway and our main east-west artery, will shut down entirely. This after a flood season has left our infrastructure crippled and our commutes doubled. Which sort of makes the opening scene of Hitchhiker’s seem a little more likely. In order to make way for an intergalactic superhighway, a little lowly planet called Earth has to be demolished. We meet our hero Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) just minutes before the Earth’s destruction. He learns that his good pal and towel enthusiast Ford Prefect (Yasiin Bey, then billed as Mos Def) is in fact an alien who can call in a favour to save his friend, but erm, nothing else of human history (don’t worry, the dolphins have already defected – so long, and thanks for all the fish).

They meet up with a clinically depressed robot, Marvin (Alan Rickman), an egomaniacal president, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), and most improbably, Arthur’s Earthling crush, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Together they’re going to zing around the universe, searching for the Ultimate Question, the meaning of life, a single solitary spot of tea, new chapters for an ambitious encyclopedia, and any remaining shreds of life as they knew it.

Director Garth Jennings bit off more than he could chew trying to adapt Douglas Adams’ influential and beloved work, but you can hardly blame him for trying. Is the movie always coherent? Of course not. If you aren’t familiar with the book, you might find it hard to keep up. If you are familiar with it, there are no doubt bits and bobs that you’ll miss. It is not so much a faithful adaptation as an ode to it, with Adams’ blessing, and mostly by his own invention (such as the sneeze religion helmed by John Malkovich – achoo!). But if it’s a little sloppy, well, what else can you expect from a movie with an improbability drive?

Ivan Reitman and friends actually optioned the film as far back as 1982, thinking it might make an interesting vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (this is no doubt true). But then Ghostbusters came calling and they were off on a tagent, and Hitchhiker’s languished in development hell, at one point with Hugh Laurie and Jim Carrey slated to appear (I’m less thrilled with that pairing, personally). Douglas Adams wanted Hugh Grant for Dent but I’m so, so glad it went to Freeman instead, who plays the everyman so perfectly he is often overlooked.

In 2005’s finished product, Sam Rockwell steals the show as Zaphod Beeblebrox, basing the character on likely unequal dashes of Bill Clinton, Elvis, and Vince Vaughn. Personally, watching it in 2019, I saw all kinds of his George W. Bush in the role and it gave me a whole new appreciation for a performance I already loved.

Anyway, it’s inevitable that a film adapted from such a great book would fail to live up to it, but I actually give it a lot of credit and find it highly watchable and highly entertaining. So many of the little jokes really do work on the screen, and everyone involved is clearly relishing the opportunity to be involved. It’s hard not to find joy where so much exists.

 

The Best of Enemies

Picture it: Durham, North Carolina. 1971. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a civil rights activist. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the Exalted Cyclops of the KKK (the KKK should clearly not be allowed to make up their own titles). The two are about to clash over school integration.

City council is far from unbiased. Some will physically turn their backs on a person of colour, others will call on their friends in the klan to bolster their numbers. It’s not exactly the kind of town ripe for integration, and it likely wouldn’t have occurred to them had the black school not burned down, forcing some drastic decisions. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is given the unenviable, perhaps insurmountable task of mediating the two sides to negotiate a compromise, one city council will abide. A charrette, he calls it, though no one’s ever heard of the thing. or a collaborative, intensive community planning session. Riddick is a black man who has the magical ability to earn concessions from either side, but the “sides” aren’t exactly fairly drawn. If black vs white is enough to make your skin crawl, imagine black vs racists, men in hoods who won’t even concede that people of colour are people, who would wish the people sitting beside them dead, and in fact have taken shots at them.

1971 isn’t that long ago. It’s during Henson’s lifetime, and Rockwell’s.

The costume and makeup department have had a whole job of de-sexualizing Taraji P. Henson for this role. Her face is unadorned, her boobs are down to her belt. But her strength and presence are as keenly felt as ever.

The charrette ends up being a fascinating glimpse into a community – in 1971, as an attempt at a solution, and in 2019 as a reflection of the time. It’s a great reminder that it’s much harder to hate people you know. Humanizing the other side is always an eye-opener. These select community representatives spent a week together, discussing the issue, but also eating lunch side by side and taking field trips, sitting knee to knee on a yellow bus.

As interesting as I find the topic, the film itself is a little uneven, and thus, a little difficult to like without reservation. Writer-director Robin Bissell sympathizes with KKK president Ellis enough to give him a full backstory: a disabled son, a struggling business, an ambivalent wife. Meanwhile, Atwater, a real-life grassroots activist who fought the war on poverty, is given much, much less. Still, the two become…friends? Perhaps too strong a word. But familiarity reduces contempt. They are no longer just stereotypes to each other. And the fact is: perhaps this de-segregation thing is better for poor white folks than city council wants them to know.

This is how barriers are broken: regular people just listening to each other as best they can. That’s a lesson that still needs learning. That we have the power to influence each other, not by arguing, but by trying to understand. Sure it takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes far more to stand up to your friends when you see that they are wrong.

A Case of You

What had happened was:

  • Sean and I agreed it was finally time to watch Hereditary. Which we’ve been saying for a month. Which we’ve been avoiding since it screened last March at SXSW, and having already reached my terror quota with opening night’s A Quiet Place, I just couldn’t bear, even though my beloved Toni Collette would be in attendance. But as soon as we had the mouse hovering over Hereditary to select it, I lost my nerve and ran away to heat up soup, challenging Sean to find a suitable replacement. Or any replacement
  • Sean and I flipped through the entirety of Netflix, knew intuitively that we’d already watched anything worth watching, so chose Counterfeiting in Suburbia. “Based on a true story” about teenage girls literally just printing and then passing off dollar bills to fund their wildest shopping dreams. It felt like a movie your friend put together for some hokey class in high school, and will maybe receive a C- for, if the teacher is feeling generous. The script is basically just the worst thing ever, but since it’s delivered by wooden puppets, it doesn’t even get the benefit of human warmth. Just kidding. I think those were actual girls. We turned it off after a brutal 12 minutes.
  • So we went over to Amazon Prime, where we found the remnants of Justin Long’s career. Someone still believes in this guy? Weird. Anyway, he plays a fledgling writer named Sam who goes to his local coffee haunt to not write the next great novel. And he obsesses over the barista, Birdie (Evan Rachel Wood). When she gets fired, he decides that he can’t just ask her out like a normal person, he has to turn mv5bztmyzdbjmjktmtk5nc00nmexlwe5mdetnjezzde0ngixmwu4l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzg3mja0njm@._v1_into her perfect man first, and he does this by stalking her on Facebook and getting into, or claiming to get into, every single thing she ever mentioned. It’s gross. And not just because it’s Justin Long, though that doesn’t help. Anyway, the most random cast of characters enables this travesty: an emo Peter Dinklage, an inexcusably Sam Rockwell, a puzzling Sienna Miller, and Vince Vaughn very much as you’d expect. Anyway, it’s hard to buy into the rom-com aspect when to romance is actually criminal harassment and the comedy makes itself scarce.
  • In conclusion, do not believe that our watching A Case Of You to completion is an endorsement of it over Counterfeiting in Suburbia. It’s not. It’s just that Sean was giving me a back rub and we couldn’t find the remote.

Vice

So Dick Cheney is an evil piece of shit. You may remember him from such roles as acting like a cardboard cutout of the American Vice President while he secretly usurped the president’s powers to rewrite the U.S. Constitution, orchestrate wars, and author ISIS.

Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is a power-hungry beast who doesn’t let anything stop him from acting as the Leader of the Free World – not ethics, not the well-defined roles of President and Vice President, not democracy, not NUTHIN. Adam McKay’s film, Vice, MV5BMDY1MTdkODgtZjYyYy00ZTQ4LTliN2YtOWZhZGFiMzNmNjdjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzg2ODI2OTU@._V1_shows Cheney’s reluctance to be George W.’s running mate. Even though Cheney views VP as a “zero job,” he is always thinking dozens of steps ahead; he’s not going to sit around waiting for the president to die so he can wear the crown. In W., Cheney found a moron so empty, so distracted, so willing to give away all the actual power, and Cheney’s astute enough to surreptitiously pull the oval office throne right out from under Bush Junior. McKay brings Cheney’s machinations to the silver screen – every scheme, every lie and every gory detail.

This movie takes some big risks and its story-telling bravely exists outside the normal narrative bounds (though fans of The Big Short won’t find it nearly so fresh). With such big swings, there are inevitably some big misses.  This movie didn’t always work for me, but I still admired it for having such a distinct voice.

Christian Bale undergoes quite a transformation to play Cheney, though I never forgot I was watching Bale like I did when I was watching Sam Rockwell play Dubyah. Credit to the actors of course, but I believe the incredible hair and makeup effects team will be recognized for astonishing work – Tyler Perry as Colin Powell is a prime example. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney round out an enviable cast doing some very fine work.

Unfortunately, the script isn’t consistent. This isn’t really a Dick Cheney biopic, it’s the incredible true story of how a rogue Vice President hijacked George W. Bush’s entire administration. It would be a monumentally impressive heist if it wasn’t so mind-meltingly devastating to the world at large. But to tell the story in sufficient detail, McKay has to take some moon-gravity-sized leaps. Decades of Cheney’s life are not just gone, but forgotten, which results in some swiss-cheese-plot-holes that were hard to forgive – though a liberal sprinkling of heart attacks like sea salt on fries went a long way.

The truth is, though, that Sean and I dissected this movie backwards and forwards and then we poked at it from the side too, over Doritos-dusted mac and cheese bites, and while that doesn’t mean Vice is a flawless movie, it must mean that it’s a good one, a worthy one. In fact, part of its brilliance is how it draws you in at the end, turning audience members into characters partially responsible for these atrocities. Vice depicts events of recent history, and like it or not, we’re complicit, and McKay inspires us to take a hard look in the mirror and a cold drink at the well of social responsibility.

Woman Walks Ahead

In the 1880s, widow Catherine Weldon travels alone to North Dakota to paint the portrait of Chief Sitting Bull. The Lakota aren’t thrilled by her arrival (at least not until she brings the rain) but it’s the US Army that’s the real problem. Officer Groves and his men are stationed at Standing Rock in order to undermine the Native American’s land claim. Any friend of the Lakota is an enemy of theirs, which basically means that the soldiers will literally spit in her eye.

Catherine (Jessica Chastain) is “just here to paint a painting” but as she befriends the Lakota, and Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) in particular, the government provides a tighter and tighter squeeze. Catherine and Sitting Bull share a common goal in freedom, and independence, but Groves’ (Sam Rockwell) continued menace is a threat to them both.

It’s a fascinating true story that’s perhaps not quite fascinatingly told. It doesn’t tell us nearly enough about the time or the people, so it’s hard to justify its existence. But MV5BNjViOWYyOTctNzhhZS00YjgyLWI5MjctZmM2ZDE3MWM4MTQxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzQ2NzcxOTk@._V1_I really like Jessica Chastain, and she tends to make wise and informed career decisions, so I lean toward giving this the benefit of the doubt. This could easily veer into white saviour territory, and maybe it defaults too much toward politeness, but I think it strives to be a respectful and faithful rendering. I just wish it could be entertaining as well. And I really wish it didn’t take one insignificant white woman to tell the story of an entire people, but if that’s how we have to frame it, then (I guess) this more feminist bent is at least an improvement.

Now let us talk about Jessica Chastain for a moment. Jessica Chastain the actor, but more importantly, Jessica Chastain the principled woman. I don’t know her personally at all, but I see that she is walking the walk, using her privilege and position of power to raise up the talented women with whom she surrounds herself. Not unlike her character in this film, she is fighting battles for equality. Twice Oscar nominated, her talent is raw and smoldering. Undeniably a beautiful woman and a style icon, she’s not afraid to appear in this film without a stitch of makeup and with substantial armpit stains (I’ll credit this bit of realism to her female director, Susanna White, who doesn’t feel compelled to turn a “painter of a certain age” into a sexpot, which is 100% what would have happened under the direction of literally any man). Now what do we have to do to get this story told from the Lakota perspective, with a Native director in the chair?

Laggies

Megan panics when her boyfriend of 10 years proposes to her at a friend’s wedding, but really it’s what she’s been waiting for – not so much for the ring, but for someone to just decide for her. With her post-graduate studies complete, she’s still without a job, still waffling on her daddy’s couch when convenient. She’s lost. Which doesn’t excuse the following: when she flees her brand new fiance and her dear friend’s wedding reception to “get some air” she winds up at a grocery store, buying beer for some teenagers.

And then she ends up following one of them home. Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) is pretty interesting for a 16 year old, but the home she shares with her single father Craig (Sam Rockwell) is appealingly simple and cozy to Megan (Keira Knightley) and her quarter life crisis. Of course, the addition of Megan instantly complicates things for everyone and life is never simple. Megan should bloody well know that.

This film is apparently known as Say When in some countries, and I sort of think it MV5BNDhhM2FiMWUtYTBhNi00M2Q5LWI3ZTMtNWVmODcwMGU3ZTAwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_should be in mine as well. Laggies? An expression I was unfamiliar with, but could kind of understand with context. Urban Dictionary, bless its lack of soul, provides several helpful definitions, including 1. dragging along (which I believe Megan is doing) 2. someone who is stalkerish (which Megan borderline is) 3. a combination of both large + saggy, referring to boobs, as in “she’s got a nice rack, but she’s laggy” (which Megan most assuredly is NOT) 4. “the laggies” is a disease (well, a pretend one) caused by chronic masturbation (I’ll let you watch the movie to find out which characters may suffer from it).

Keira Knightly is not entirely convincing in her part or in her accent, but director Lynn Shelton is working really hard to throw a little sympathy her way, which is hard to do when an overeducated, overprivileged white girl is whining about her own indecision. Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell, though, are pretty fantastic additions to the cast. They bookend Megan’s 20-something ennui, and give it some perspective. I also appreciated pop-ups from Ellie Kemper and Jeff Garlin; Shelton has a knack for comedy that I can only wish was more present in the script by Andrea Seigel. This film puts a little too much faith in Knightley’s charm. She tries her best to be our plucky heroine but she’s not half as enchanting as she thinks she is, and she’s easily upstaged by her teenage counterpart. Possibly Megan should have locked that shit down while she still could. Instead she’s stuck in that crack between childhood and adulthood, and the only enticement of this film is the viewer’s desire to be the one to give her shove she needs to get the fuck out.