I’m back with another round of 2019 movies! This is my favorite part of the year, where a lot of really good stuff starts coming out, so hopefully these batches will start to be posted at least twice a month through January. There are some really good movies in this group, but I’d have to say Jojo Rabbit is my favorite and most definitely my highest recommendation. See it.
CRAWL * * 1/2 (Dir. Alexandre Aja)
As far as B-movies go, you definitely get your money’s worth with Crawl, a two-hander about a father and daughter who team up during a hurricane to battle their way out of a drowning house filled to the brim with alligators. Yes, that’s the plot, and yes, the movie does take it seriously (for the most part), which is the key to the success of any B-movie (just ask Snakes on a Plane). Directed by Alexandre Aja from a script by brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (and produced by B-movie king Sam Raimi), Kaya Scoledario is a college swimmer who drives down to Florida during a Category 5 storm ravaging the coast when her dad (Barry Pepper) stops answering his phone. From there she finds him passed out in the underground crawl space of their old house, and he’s not alone. And the storm’s getting worse. This movie is a tight, action-packed 80 minutes, jammed with plenty of gator attacks, blood, and gruesome deaths, and Scoledario is a believable action heroine, which in itself is kind of a feat in this sort of silly movie, but you do buy her determination. The father-daughter relationship healing itself in the midst of impending doom is predictable and corny, yes, but so are her swimming skills being used to their fullest to outrace a bunch of swarming alligators. These are killer animals in the Jaws style of movie monsters, rather than realistic predators, and they definitely look CG (even in close-ups where a puppet could have been used to better effect). But you do have to admire all that Aja mines from the barebones nature of the setup. There are some decent scare moments in this and with a solid female lead who holds the screen very well, you could do worse.
THE NIGHTINGALE * * * 1/2 (Dir. Jennifer Kent)
Jennifer Kent’s second film after 2014’s The Babadook packs a brutal gut punch fueled by absolute rage that makes for a very tough sit, but an overwhelmingly powerful experience. The Nightingale is a tale of true life horrors, set on the island of Tasmania off the coast of Australia in the 1820’s, where Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict under the thumb of Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who routinely rapes her and refuses to release her freedom papers even after she’s served her sentence. Then, when he and his fellow soldiers rape her again and murder her husband and baby, Clare is powered by an unearthly need for revenge and blood lust, and she teams up with an Aborigine tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her find these men and deliver her own brand of justice. Even the plot description lets you know what you’re in for here, and though the rape/murder scene is truly horrific, there’s no hint of exploitation through any frame of this film. The violence, though harsh, is realistic and all the more harrowing because we know that men like these military officers colonized the British empire through systematic campaigns of terror, using rape and murder as their tools of power and dominance. Everything they do in this film happened- it happened then as it happens now. Franciosi and Ganambarr turn in fiercely honest performances as the aggrieved victims of evil men. Billy himself and his people suffer the British reign of terror, his whole life subjugated to colonizers who’ve inflicted cruelty, indignity and violence at every turn. As a newcomer to acting, professional dancer Ganambarr is incredibly appealing and charismatic as Billy, and the bond he and Clare form as they seek out the British is the essential core of this brutal film, recalling 1971’s Walkabout, another Australian film about a relationship formed between a white woman and an Aborigine man, and no doubt an influence on Kent’s stylistic decisions. For all the historical reality, there is something about this movie that recalls the rage of today, as we continue to see powerful white men constantly go unpunished for their horrifically evil deeds, including rape and assault, still enabled by feeble toadies, blind followers and complicit, passive onlookers. All of them are equally guilty, none of them deserve to be spared, a fact this movie implicitly understands. This is an uncompromising, unforgiving story- there is no apology for Clare and Billy’s anger, their defiance, their desire for vengeance. The direction at times can meander, and there’s a choppiness to Clare’s recurring nightmares, but it all adds to the rawness of her emotions, the authenticity of her pain. This is a movie about justified anger, and justified payback. This is a primal scream directed at all the Trumps and Kavanaughs who wield their undeserved, unearned power over the rest of us, for all women and minorities who suffer and have suffered the injustices of men who perform cruelty with coolness, who look like gentlemen and behave like animals. This endorsement of anger is not for everyone, but it is for those who were told and treated like they didn’t matter, who faced down their torment, for those who survived and those who didn’t. They are seen by this film. They are here.
JUDY * * 1/2 (Dir. Rupert Goold)
It’s easy to go broad when playing an icon like Judy Garland, who is sort of like Elvis in that universally known and caricatured sense of ubiquitousness. When you’re playing Judy in decline, in the last years or months of her life, you can really go for broke and Renee Zellweger does that here, as she portrays the legend during her final shows in London in the late 60’s. Based on a stage play, this is a contained, small scale story, but the entire reason for its existence appears to be as a vehicle for Zellweger to turn in a physically grueling, feat of acting performance that’s screaming to be paid attention to and admired. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these kinds of films, as watching someone achieve perfect physical impersonation can indeed be admirable, in the same way one man/one woman shows might be (I can envision this quite easily on the stage). Director Rupert Goold does his best to open it up a little more, with talented actors like Jessie Buckley and Finn Wittrock in supporting roles, but the show belongs to Zellweger, and she delivers the best she can, especially in the concert scenes, where she comes alive and pulls off the singing much better than she did in Chicago, 17 years ago. But she never quite disappears into the role, simply because Renee Zellweger’s own quirks, mannerisms, voice and facial tics can’t be suppressed entirely to form into Judy Garland’s very specific ones. It’s a blend of two very particular people that doesn’t quite mesh 100%, even if Zellweger’s performance is technically impressive. And aside from that, though the movie is never boring, it doesn’t illuminate anything new about Garland herself. We all know that her last days were tragic ones, made worse by her lifelong addictions and child abuse suffered at the hands of an unkind studio system (sketched out in vague flashbacks here), but if we’re going down the Hollywood biography route, why not tell us something new? Explore her childhood, her family, her career? The intense focus on Garland’s final days seems intended solely as an acting challenge for its star rather an exploration of its subject. And since Renee can only get about 80% of the way there, it’s not as effective as it could have been.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME * * * 1/2 (Dir. Craig Brewer)
Rudy Ray Moore was not your typical Hollywood leading man. He also wasn’t your typical blaxploitation leading man, or for that matter, your typical comedian or singer or any number of showbiz roles he aspired to in Hollywood. He was told no over and over again, but he refused to accept it and kept at it until he finally hit on something that took hold in the 1970’s, when he was well into his late forties, working at a record store in a black Los Angeles neighborhood. That was the character of Dolemite, the stage persona he adopted from hearing the stories of the various residents in the neighborhood, which he then fashioned into a kind of stand-up routine that most resembled early rap lyrics in his rhyming, musical style of performance. After becoming a hit on the Billboard charts with his outrageous and filthy comedy records, Moore was determined to make a movie with Dolemite as the lead and set about doing it the only way he could- with his own money and a loan from the record executives, using his friends and some film school students as the cast and crew. This delightful film takes elements from movies like Ed Wood and the Murphy starring Bowfinger (to me, always one of Murphy’s greatest performances) to tell the story of Rudy Ray Moore’s career that he essentially willed into existence. There was something that Roger Ebert called the “joy of performance,” and that is what evokes every element of this movie, from Eddie Murphy’s electric performance in the lead, to the ensemble of great comedic actors like Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Titus Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (a standout), and an almost unrecognizable Wesley Snipes as the credited actor they got to direct Dolemite, D’Urville Martin, who plays the role as a pretentious upstart embarrassed to be messing around with these amateurs and practically steals the movie. You can’t help but root for Rudy, always an underdog even when he experiences success, and to watch he and his friends having the time of their lives filming what ends up being critiqued as a terrible film, but one that finds success with black audiences who get the spoof angle he’s going for, is the ultimate feel good triumph and one of the most fun times at the movies all year. The one unfortunate thing is that this movie, which really should be seen in theaters, will reach most people on Netflix only, and for a movie as made for a mass audience as this one, that’s a shame indeed.
JOJO RABBIT * * * 1/2 (Dir. Taika Waititi)
It takes something special to get a performance out of a child that can carry an entire movie. Much credit is often due to the director, if he or she has a feel for working with children, but the best child actors have a certain special gift- a natural ability to assert charisma in front of the camera that can’t be taught or coaxed. In other words, you have to get lucky. Taika Waititi was one of the lucky ones when he cast 10-year-old Roman Griffin Davis, who carries the irresistibly charming Jojo Rabbit on his shoulders throughout its entirety. Waititi wields a certain brand of humor that runs throughout the writer-director-actor’s films, from Hunt for the Wilderpeople to What We Do in the Shadows to Thor: Ragnarok. He now brings that zany humor to a fable set in WWII Germany, where the war is winding down and little Jojo Bletzer is an obsessive Nazi zealot, dedicated to the Hitler Youth and so committed he’s conjured up an imaginary friend in Hitler himself, played hilariously by Waititi. There are those who will always be uncomfortable with lampooning Nazis, preferring to take the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich deadly seriously if you’re confronting them at all. But we’ve had this conversation before, almost from beginning with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, films made during the war that mocked the propaganda and pomposity of Nazis with all their might, and suffered criticism for it. But fascism must be mocked and parodied, ridiculed at every turn, and to me there is nothing offensive about setting comedies in this era, taking the lead out of the Nazi balloon. Everyone in this film is funny, and everyone gets their moment, from Sam Rockwell as the disillusioned, incompetent Nazi commander in charge of the youth, to Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant in bit, but memorable parts as fellow fanatics. Scarlett Johansson fares best of all as Rosie, Jojo’s mother, and turns in a surprisingly moving and funny performance, showing comedic range, perhaps for the first time, in a role unlike anything else she’s ever done. Rosie is a secret resistance fighter and hides a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic, whom Jojo accidentally stumbles upon and must now confront the terrible “jewish monsters” face to face. Every scene in this movie is from Jojo’s perspective (Davis is in fact in every single scene), from the Nazis to the girl in the attic, to his mother’s lessons in celebrating life and love, not condemning it. The odd couple friendship between Jojo and Elsa is the beating heart of the movie, and much of it rests on Davis’s enchanting performance. We love this kid and we want him to come to his senses. This isn’t the real world, it’s Waititi’s own comedic universe, and as such, the movie works wonders as an original fairy tale and an ode to love in the face of a child’s eye view of terror.
THE LIGHTHOUSE * * (Dir. Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers’s second film after 2015’s The Witch is on par with that film’s unique visionary and experimental tone, but unfortunately there’s not much going on under the surface of some stunning black and white imagery, aside from two people descending into madness, but not in a particularly interesting way. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as two men set to work four weeks in a lighthouse somewhere in vague 19th century New England, and almost immediately Pattinson starts experiencing hallucinations the minute he sets foot on the coast. These visions include that of a mermaid who keeps swimming onto the surface to seduce him, but any sort of David Lynch, Eraserhead-style visual experience is undercut by consistent table side conversations between Dafoe and Pattinson that seem too steeped in reality to mark as surreal. None of the character’s backstories amount to anything and there’s no attempt to make you invest in them as real people once the madness keeps setting in. This movie wants to have it both ways- it’s not as surreal as it could have been, nor as realistic, so we as the audience are caught in the middle. The black and white cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is striking and moody, but we can’t get involved in what’s happening onscreen. Willem Dafoe is effortlessly convincing as an old Irish sea captain, but Robert Pattinson suffers from “wooden actor desperately trying to be taken seriously” syndrome and spreads it all over the screen with an inexplicable accent and forced mannerisms. There’s an emptiness to these kinds of guys who are simply out of their depth and know it, but try to hide behind multiple affectations and mumbling dialogue. I wasn’t fooled. The Lighthouse could have been a far more effective film if it had something, anything on its mind.