David’s Watch Diary: November 2019, Part 1

Thoughts on Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, Ford v. Ferrari, The King, the Disney+ launch, and more.

Jojo Rabbit

Winning the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival might have been the worst thing that could have happened to Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. And though it’s a better film than recent awardees Green Book and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s not hard to draw comparisons, as all three are topical/controversial dramadies that drew swift backlash once TIFF propelled them into the Oscar conversation. Of course that all worked out for Green Book (to the Academy’s shame), but the question must be asked: Is Jojo Rabbit, you know, worthy?

Not exactly. It’s a good film, I think; and I do have to qualify that because I’m still wrestling with it as of this writing. If you saw my 2019 preview you know that I’ve been anticipating Waititi’s follow-up to Thor: Ragnarok for a long time now, and was especially curious to see what the famously irreverent Kiwi would do with such a radioactive premise. There’s a reason “Nazi Comedy” isn’t fertile filmmaking ground, and Waititi (who is half-Jewish) casting himself as an oddball Invisible Friend Hitler could either be a masterstroke or tread dangerously into Life is Beautiful territory. The film’s plot, based on the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, doesn’t suggest “satire,” no matter what the marketing says — truth be told, Jojo Rabbit’s not cutting enough, nor risky enough, to earn the label.

Crucially, however, the film’s heart is in the right place. There is a compelling message here about impressionable young people who will sign up for fascism and get “pretty into swastikas” just to be part of a group. In the case of Jojo (a terrific Roman Griffin Davis), he doubly needs to prove his worth to his country and Führer in the absence of his father, who we suspect (though Jojo does not) was a member of a local resistance group. His mother (a mugging Scarlett Johansson) showers him with love and affection, but doesn’t trust him enough to tell him about the Jewish girl she’s hiding upstairs. And that’s not a misplaced fear, because when Jojo does stumble across Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), it’s only out of his own fear that he doesn’t give her up immediately.

But Jojo’s anti-Semitism proves to be more reflexive than genuine, and his sweet-natured best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates, the best thing in the movie), wonders what all the fuss is about. Even for the adults, who take great pains to out-Heil one another and harbor a few secrets of their own, their hate smacks of performance; they’ve signed up for the cause, but many don’t seem to care about the details. That includes Sam Rockwell’s washed-up Captain Klezendorf, who knows the war is already lost and sees Jojo more as an amusement than a future militant.

That’s a serious trap that Waititi has to avoid here — not just by presenting Nazis as cartoonish stumblebums, but not shielding them from culpability by suggesting some of them don’t really mean it. He saves the highest wire for himself, of course, as Jojo’s fantasy Hitler; the director earns some of the film’s biggest laughs, but his Calvin & Hobbes routine with Jojo becomes more menacing the closer the boy moves towards the light. I think this limited, childlike perspective, though, is ultimately why the film works. The kids can’t understand the full horror of what they’re participating in; they just want to be wanted. You can imagine that with time, Jojo will grapple with the full weight of what he once believed in, but the film is ultimately about the difference between loyalty and love, and the large impact of small choices…by small people.

Parasite

Winner of the Palm d’or at Cannes, Bong Joon-ho’s thriller isn’t just the best film of the year, but one of the best films of the decade. Chase Branch has already reviewed it here, so I won’t belabor the point — nor do I want you to know any more about the film than you absolutely have to — but it’s an astonishing, layered masterpiece, as good as or better than you’ve already heard.

Parasite’s first half is a deeply funny heist film depicting how the downtrodden Kims infiltrate the household of the wealthy Parks one by one; son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) poses as an English tutor, daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as an art therapist, and so on. But from there, Bong and Han Jin-won’s twisty, tone-shifting screenplay leaves the rails completely behind, and all you can do is hold on for your life.

Bong has described this as his “staircase film” (compared to 2013’s Snowpiercer, his “hallway film”), and Parasite is a masterwork of composition and editing. It really is about eyelines, both literally and metaphorically — how the characters look up, or down, on each other informs the film’s dark vision of income inequality, and no one gets out clean. It also demands repeat viewings to pick up on all the clues dropped throughout the film’s first half. By the time the shockingly violent third act rolls into its poetic denouement, You’ll realize you’re watching something truly special. I wish I could say more, but trust me — you don’t want me to.

Ford v. Ferrari

I don’t care about cars. I can appreciate them, but I don’t understand them, can barely change a tire, and auto racing has never held any fascination for me. However, as director James Mangold as well as stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale have predicted in interviews, that didn’t stop me from immensely enjoying Ford v. Ferrari. On one level, it’s a straightforward Dad Movie about a couple of buddies who persevere to achieve greatness on the track. But on a much more interesting, even subversive level, it’s a paean to hardworking craftsmen and creatives sticking it to the meddling suits, which I think we can all appreciate.

It’s based on the true story of how the Ford Motor Company, desperate for something big to grab the world’s attention, endeavored to build a car that could take down the Ferrari juggernaut at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, the twisty marathon still considered the toughest auto race in the world. To do that, they bring on Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon, attempting an at-times eerie Tommy Lee Jones impression) and his mercurial limey driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), and the pair hit the shop and the test track while navigating around treacherous pitfalls created by marketing executives who have no idea what they’re doing.

Bale, fully uncorked and — crucially — in something close to his natural accent, is tremendous as the “difficult” Miles, who Carroll must convince Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts, amusingly gruff) to let drive the climactic race. Bale’s posture is almost birdlike as he demolishes anyone who questions his expertise or suitability, and he spends much of the film bellowing in rage (or glee) from behind the wheel; it’s one of my favorite performances out of his idiosyncratic career. Damon, as the far more personable Shelby who has to smooth over the feathers Miles constantly ruffles, perhaps has the harder role, and succeeds simply by not being blown off the screen by Bale. Jon Bernthal is steady as the supportive Lee Iacocca; Caitriona Balfe brings shading to a stock “worried wife” role; Ray McKinnon, as Shelby’s #2, makes everything better just by being there.

But what of the racing scenes, of which there are legion? Mangold, who excelled at intimate action in Logan and 3:10 to Yuma, generally eschews stock overhead shots to focus on The Man and His Car, seemingly never running out of creative low angles and editing techniques, buttressed by a deafening (in a good way) sound mix, to make every drive feel unique and dangerous. Ford v. Ferrari is a crowdpleaser, expertly paced even at two and a half hours, and compelled many leaving the parking lot of our theater to squeal out recklessly. Not me, of course. But I could see the appeal.

The King

Say what you like (and I have) about the writing of Game of Thrones’s later seasons, but there’s no denying that the series completely rewrote the grammar of cinematic battles. And it’s one involving a certain pair of bastards that David Michôd’s The King rips off to the point of parody: the crane shot of a main character in a scrum of bodies; the obligatory long shot of the protagonist cutting down his enemies; the washed-out color palette.

Of course, the film’s Battle of Agincourt is just one climactic sequence, but its visual familiarity is only a serious problem because the writing hasn’t inspired to that point, either. As you may know, I’m generally a sucker for medieval stuff but especially for Shakespeare’s Henriad (Hollow Crown heads unite!). The King condenses and re-scrambles the plots of Henry IV and Henry V, keeping Hal’s main arc from rake to royalty; the dialogue (from Michôd and Joel Edgerton, who also plays Falstaff) isn’t quite a modern retelling, but lacks even basic musicality — Falstaff isn’t a delusional buffoon, but a salt-of the earth advisor? Forget the St. Crispin’s Day speech, here’s Timmy C. bellowing until he turns purple.

Speaking of Chalamet, he got a bowl cut for this? He’s not asked to show either the charisma or the authority of the Hal/Henry many would expect; that’s not a liability, though, as it’s already an ahistorical interpretation. On the other hand, his physicality equates to a thin porcelain doll that would blow over in a sea wind, let alone fight with a sword in heavy armor. This is a range-stretching role, and he is so singularly focused on showing the proper gravitas he makes what should be a genuinely inspiring figure into another sad Jon Snow type (one too many lessons taken from Thrones, apparently). Only Robert Pattinson, as the long-locked, sociopathic Dauphin, seems to be having a delightful time; I don’t know whether he’s making good acting choices, but he’s definitely doing something, and gives the film a shot in the arm when it desperately needs it. All hail Pattinson, at least.

Quick hits:

  • Disney+ finally launched, apparently 10 million subscribers strong (all of whom encountered numerous bugs and loading problems in the first few days), and our personal assimilation into the mouse hive mind is underway. At least in the meantime, we get The Mandalorian, the extremely high-profile first live-action Star Wars TV series, starring Pedro Pascal (sort of) and overseen by Jon Favreau. And what’s the verdict after the first couple episodes? Two words: Baby Yoda. I mean, sure, it’s weird to have a protagonist whose face is never shown, and the tone is a little all over the place, but come on: BABY. YODA. The second episode improved on the first by giving all that scattered worldbuilding an adorable purpose; it’s got a cool score from Black Panther’s Ludwig Göransson, Werner Herzog is here, of all people; episodes are only 35 minutes long(!!!), and now I’m fully on the hook. I have spoken.
  • Somewhat lost in the avalanche of Disney content old and new is Leslie Iwerks’ documentary series The Imagineering Story, of which I’ve also watched the first two episodes and found quite fascinating — even as someone who, it’s true, has never been to a Disney park. What can I say? I love behind-the-curtain stuff no matter the context.
  • The last two episodes of Watchmen continued to raise the bar. I love the bonkers specificity of what Damon Lindelof & co. are doing — from the lube’d up silver dude sliding down a storm drain, to Veidt casually catapulting dead clones into the sky (to say nothing of the baby swamp!). Regina Hall and Jean Smart are killing it. I have no idea where the show is going, or how it will get there, and that’s a rare thrill.
  • I said last time that despite The Good Place’s (very relatively) shaky start to its final season, I still trusted Mike Schur & co. to end it right, and the past two episodes have borne that out. “Help is Other People” and “The Funeral to End All Funerals” thrust the series directly into its endgame, which will hinge greatly on Chidi, as it should. We also got a whole room full of Janets!
  • Following in the footsteps of Season 2’s Alf episode and Season 3’s brilliant one-shot raid, Sam Esmail’s annual Mr. Robot flex was another doozy: an episode-long heist nearly without a single word of dialogue. “405 Method Not Allowed” featured Darlene in a bob, a white-knuckle hack, and an extended footchase that made my own legs feel rubbery just watching. This past week re-centered the complex plotting and emotional warfare, but the best version of Robot is still when it’s in heart-stopping free fall.
  • We rented Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which takes a culturally-specific premise — a Chinese family throws together a wedding so they can see their grandmother one more time without her finding out she has cancer — and makes it universal. Awkwafina is also terrific in the lead role as the sardonic Billie, who struggles the most with keeping the secret from her “Nai nai.” It’s snuck into the Best Picture conversation, but even if it doesn’t get a nom, it’s warm and wonderful and well worth seeking out.
  • Should I mention the utter sh*tshow on Survivor? Jeff Probst loves to talk about how the game is a “microcosm of society,” and there have been surprisingly nuanced conversations in recent weeks about race and gender…until the merge, which reflected the “real world” in the worst way. Though Probst kept the defensive, serially-handsy Dan’s feet to the fire in Tribal Council, I have never been more depressed watching the show than when the woman who felt the most uncomfortable (Kellee), and then the only man who stood up for her (Jamal), were voted off back-to-back. I’m not sure how much blame the producers deserve for not intervening more than Kellee wanted by just giving Dan an “official warning,” but the way it went down — with Missy and Elizabeth exaggerating his behavior to get the target off their own backs, essentially letting him off the hook when their ruse was revealed — was absolutely shameful (they’ve since profusely apologized on social media). Yikes, yikes, yikes.
  • Also crushing: Steph’s collapse in the British Baking Show finale. Congrats to David, but that was so hard to watch.
  • In happier news: It took a lot longer with everything else going on, but we finally finished Season 4 of Star Trek TNG. Personal highlights: “Remember Me,” “Final Mission,” “Data’s Day,” “Clues,” “Qpid.” Dr. Crusher is way underrated.

Looking ahead to: This Sunday the new season of The Crown drops on Netflix; plan your Thanksgiving break around Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (11/22), Frozen 2 (11/22), Scorsese’s The Irishman (11/27 on Netflix), and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (11/29).

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