TIFF 2019 Part 2: Jojo Rabbit Is a Masterpiece Edition

Day 5

Jojo Rabbit is an indelible miracle of a movie. Taika Waititi’s carefully crafted dramedy about an unathletic, bullied, ten-year-old Nazi true believer (Roman Griffin Davis, the precocious young discovery of 2019) being raised by a single mother (a touching and tense Scarlett Johansson) in 1945 Germany, whose imaginary friend is Hitler himself (played as a volatile slapstick nutcase by Waititi), is easily the best film I have seen so far at TIFF. There is obviously an easy-to-cross line here, and Waititi toes it ever-so carefully. Yes, the Nazi officers are hapless buffoons, but as played by the likes of Stephen Merchant, Rebel Wilson, and the perhaps-missing-a-pink-triangle pairing of Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen, they are made all the more buffoonish for their willful expression of unqualified, undignified, unambiguous hate. Yes, Waititi makes them human, but he does so only in the service of making it all the more apparent the insane hold Hitler had over the German people and how brittle that hold actually was.

I’d be remiss not to mention the masterful performance of Thomason McKenzie, who makes the most out of a meaty role that glides with ease between heartbreaking drama and side-splitting comedy, between antagonist to Davis’s Jojo and co-protagonist. If you’ve seen the second trailer for the film, you already know the major twist that McKenzie’s character represents; if you have not seen it, I highly recommend avoiding it.

Jojo Rabbit is a brash but sensitive film full of pathos that never, ever, not for one moment loses sight of who the real villains are. It’s all the more a pity, then, that on the heels of a neofascist wet dream nabbing the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Jojo Rabbit is getting pilloried by film critics that think it leans too hard into the comedy and not hard enough into hammering us over the heads with the obvious “Nazis are bad, you idiots” message that surely would have made the same critics call the film preachy. My screening at TIFF, the morning after the world premiere here, ended with the longest standing ovation I have witnessed in two years at the festival, ending only when Waititi asked everyone to sit down so we still had time for the Q+A. I am loathe to be that guy claiming that the critics got it wrong, but the juxtaposition between Jojo Rabbit’s current scores of 47/100 on Metacritic and 3.8/5 on Letterboxd speaks volumes. Do yourselves a favor: see Jojo Rabbit.

Mama Mordor says: Geez, is there anything that won’t make you cry?

Well, Mom, interestingly enough, the answer to that question is evidently Drake Doremus’s Endings, Beginnings. I had such high hopes for this film, as Doremus’s Like Crazy was easily my favorite film of 2011, and none of his films since have left much of an impact. Endings, Beginnings isn’t bad, by any means, it’s just exactly the sort of mumblecore navel-gazing from which Doremus’s contemporaries have finally mostly moved on.

Shailene Woodley (or as autocorrect keeps trying to call her, Sharpened Woolley) stars as Messy Chainsmoking Nightmare Girl, and damn if Woodley doesn’t do great work with an utterly thankless part. Daphne attempts to reform her entire life, leaving her boyfriend, job, and apartment after a night out with her coworkers gone horribly wrong, but seems incapable of being single and sober, no matter how many times a game Kyra Sedgwick reminds her it’s a good idea. Caught between two nearly indistinguishable best friends that both want her (sensitive brooding writer Jack, played by Jamie Dornan, and utterly stereotypical brooding bad boy Frank, played by Sebastian Stan), Daphne does what is surely the best thing for herself and…dates both? Honestly, you can fill in the plot yourself. Endings, Beginnings is…fine. Great performances are brought down by a mediocre plot and excessive shaky cam.

Mama Mordor says: Wow, that was a lot of cigarettes. Do you have any clue which guy was which?

Movies that made me cry: 1/2, and not the one that was trying super hard to do so.


Day 6

Mama Mordor’s last day in Toronto started with a screening of Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Panama Papers anthology The Laundromat. It’s a weird, confusing movie, dominated by frankly quite grating performances by Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, and Gary Oldman. That’s not to say that they’re bad performances – in Streep’s case that seems quite intentional and true to the character (a retiree befallen by tragedy who can’t get any answers because shells within shells within shells won’t take responsibility), but for Banderas and Oldman (our narrators and the perpetrators of some terrible financial crimes) it’s a choice that I can’t say makes much sense.

It doesn’t have anything to say that you haven’t already heard, at least if you’ve been paying any attention for the past few years, and in the end it’s unclear if the target of Soderbergh’s satire is the perpetrators of these financial crimes against humanity, the politicians and systems that let them keep doing it, the hacker that leaked the Panama Papers, or all of the above. The Laundromat is an entertaining enough way to spend a couple hours, particularly in the side stories that have nothing to do with our central trio; I just wish it formed anything resembling a coherent whole.

Mama Mordor says: Do you think that was kind of mediocre? I wasn’t that gung ho about it.

Speaking of confusing movies from great directors, Olivier Assayas’s latest, Wasp Network, is a talky, exposition-laden spy thriller that insists on unnecessarily double-crossing its own audience. It’s the story of the Cuban spies that spied on anti-Cuban spies but also sometimes on Cuba and on the U.S. and maybe some other countries a little? in Miami in the 1990s. “Wasp Network” may indeed have been the name of Castro’s spy ring, but calling this a spiderweb would be generous.

It’s pretty clear that Wasp Network suffers from the barely one year turnaround from Assayas’s sublime Non-Fiction; for heaven’s sake, the introductory and concluding titles have grammatical errors! All that said, though, the cast is jam-packed with fantastic actors doing great work in generous roles, the action sequences are thrilling, and the cultural touches are genuine and welcome.

Mama Mordor says: I liked that a lot! There was so much action. I really don’t know what was happening.

Movies that made me cry: 0/2.


Day 7

Mama Mordor is back home, and with her departure I’m cramming my schedule with as many films as I can for the last few days. It’s hard at a festival to not start finding common threads between films, real or imagined. Sometimes entire days take on accidental themes. I joked about the fact that all four films I was seeing today were female-led and titled after their lead characters, but it’s an unavoidable common thread that all four films are mediocre outings from generally admired directors that are lifted by towering performances from their lead actresses.

The best of the bunch, a bit to my surprise, is Rupert Goold’s Renee Zellweger-starring Judy Garland biopic, Judy. Telling the story of a series of concert Garland gave in London six months before her death, Judy paints a sensitive and loving portrait of an artist struggling to overcome decades of conditioning, looking for any rope to grab onto that might pull her out from the depths of her own taught self-loathing and feeling then all slip away.

Zellweger’s performance is transformative. On more than a few occasions, she looks into the camera and there is a glimmer where you’re not sure what actress you’re looking at. Considering the media’s continuing obsession with Zellweger’s looks, revived by the release of this film, only makes it feel that much more real. Zellweger is brought down by the cast and story surrounding her, with none of the characters given any internal life and an overuse of flashbacks to Garland’s childhood that frankly aren’t needed.

While Judy Garland biopics crop up every year or two, it’s hard to believe that Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet is the very first attempt at a film about its subject. That fact makes it all the more confusing that Lemmons chooses to take an almost hagiographic approach, portraying Harriet Tubman as a woman blessed by visions from God, whose major accomplishments are the result not of her skill and good fortune but of ESP. The Joan of Arc comparison is obvious. At least one character in the film makes it directly, and one can almost see a better version of this film that leans hard into that aspect, with Tubman as the Antebellum and Civil War era’s Maid of Baltimore.

The entire movie is built around a stellar performance from Cynthia Erivo, and she certainly deserves all of the accolades coming her way. She gamely goes along with Lemmons’ vision quest, and with the frequently comic tone the film takes (to be honest, a quite welcome break from an otherwise stately drama). It’s a story worth telling and telling again, and if this is the only Harriet Tubman biopic we see for a while now that the door has been opened, it will be a worthy attempt.

Shifting to fictional characters, Ira Sachs’ Frankie is a beautifully crafted nothingburger of a film. It tells the story of one day in the life of a family on vacation in Portugal after their matriarch, famous actress Frankie (played by Isabelle Huppert at her Isabelle Huppert-iest) reveals her terminal diagnosis. The perspective shifts back and forth between different pairings of characters, attempting to give us a rich and textured vision of the lives they’ve lived together, but never quite knowing what it wants to say about this dysfunctional family.

Huppert’s performance is typically phenomenal. The cinematography is exquisite. The supporting cast is wonderful. All of this is simply brought down by an anemic story that doesn’t seem to have much of a point.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Pablo Larrain’s Ema very much has a point that it wants to make, and it does so as smugly as possible. Larrain regular Gael Garcia Bernal and newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo star as a choreographer and dancer in a volatile marriage made even more combative when Child Protective Services takes their violent adopted son from them.

Larrain takes all too much pleasure in building the film out of little splinters of story, unveiling tiny little truths about these characters and telling you to be thankful for what you’ve been given, which isn’t all that much. It culminates in what is intended to be a major, shocking reveal (this viewer saw it coming around the 45-minute mark, which may have impacted my enjoyment of the ensuing hour plus) that, even if effective, doesn’t tell us much about these characters other than that they’re a bunch of twisted sociopaths, which we already know.

Di Girolamo does great work without being given much, and her arguments with Bernal are vicious and at times scary. There are some great, show-stopping visuals, and Nicolas Jaar’s score is fantastically atmospheric. It’s just all contained within a thankless, dour, self-satisfied puzzle box that is empty on the inside.

Movies that made me cry: 3/4, though none as much as they seemed to want.

Still to come: Natalie Portman plays an astronaut that may or may not drive cross-country in a diaper; Wang Xiaoshuai crafts an intimate family drama that won both acting awards at this year’s Berlinale; Nina Hoss covers ground well-tread by Isabelle Huppert; and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson presumably make me cry a ton.