Saturday, November 30, 2019

Body Politic: THE REPORT and QUEEN & SLIM

Two movies out this weekend take politics as an explicit subject and make it personal. Their ideas and ideals are embodied in flesh and blood characters who are sensitively drawn and inhabited. They also come out of dependable lineages: one a based-on-a-true-story procedural docudrama, the other an agitprop thriller-of-sorts. The former is The Report, a rare directorial effort for its screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who has written a number of Soderbergh films from this past decade. As with those works — like Contagion and The Laundromat — this one has a cool layer of clinical just-the-facts terseness that’s continually enlivened by an impassioned ensemble. It follows a determined Senate staffer (Adam Driver) assigned by his boss, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), to lead an investigation into the CIA’s use of torture — infamously euphemised as “enhanced interrogation” — in the War on Terror. Over the course of years, he doggedly reads through thousands of documents and takes testimony of whistleblowers, all the while given the run-around by two administrations who’d rather not dig up too much of a mess. In fact, the CIA itself refuses to make its employees available for official interviews, stonewalls every attempt to corroborate basic facts, disputes every finding of which they catch wind, and disappears critical documents from the servers to which they have granted access. The film is as single-minded in its drive toward justice as its main character, seeing it maddeningly delayed and denied even as the mounting evidence is ever more sickening and overwhelmingly convincing.

Burns cuts all character down to the bone, devoting no time to the personal lives of these figures. Instead, it’s all back rooms and black sites, plush offices and austere conference rooms in which the critical work of keeping citizens safe with high ideals of transparency and ethics is regularly plowed under or studiously ignored by people too cowardly to do anything about it lest they jeopardize their job, or the power of their office. A swirl of recognizable actors in suits — Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Scott Shepherd, Matthew Rhys, and more — speak the roles’ serious points with clipped professionalism and excellent shorthand personalities. Burns juggles an enormous amount of facts and faces, in ways reminiscent of All the President’s Men and Spotlight, with clarity and intelligence, navigating the competing goals and half-spoken power plays that consume this search for truth. A thriller about research, it makes its claims and proves them thoroughly and in dramatic fashion. It’s compelling every step of the way, and, by picking its moments sparingly and well, earns its righteous indignation in tense monologues and grim final title cards. I was reminded of an aphorism Soderbergh tweeted years ago: “When the person in charge won't get to the bottom of something, it's usually because they are at the bottom of that something.”

Queen & Slim is a woozier affair, dreamy and romantic even as it never loses a fatal undercurrent sparked by its provocative what-if? inciting incident. It starts with a first date, hesitant and awkward. He (Daniel Kaluuya) is a sad-eyed Costco clerk looking for a fun night; she (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer looking for a temporary reprieve to her loneliness. His car ever-so-slightly swerves, barely crossing a lane of traffic, but enough of a reason for a cop to pull them over. Driving while black appears to be the charge, and when the officer gets flustered and frustrated that they haven’t been drinking and have no contraband in the vehicle, he takes offense at an honest inquiry and pulls a gun. By the end of the confusion that follows, the cop is dead on the side of the road. The accidental cop-killing couple is left with no choice but to run, certain that no police force in the country would believe it was self-defense. What follows could be a white-knuckle chase picture, but is instead a languid road trip as they make their way south in hopes of avoiding capture, perhaps somewhere below the border eventually. There’s a sense of futility and doom to their endeavor even before a garrulous pimp (Bokeem Woodbine) calls them “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” Director Melina Matsoukas — the filmmaker behind striking music videos, including a portion of Beyonce’s brilliant Lemonade — gives it all a glowing style, contemplative and deliberative, with perfectly-composed stretches of moody lighting, expressive blocking and poised motion. She has a great eye. The film photographs skin so it glows, places so they shine, poses so they become easily iconographic. There’s a moment where Queen and Slim get their picture taken lounging on the hood of a car and, even before it shows up again, knows it was a memorable image — it’d make a great poster or t-shirt if and when the movie becomes a cult object.

There’s a carefully composed cool to the film, which could perhaps run counter to the underlying anger at the unfairness in this world, but is poignant as the characters themselves wrestle with knowing that what they’ve done and who they are will be reduced, their complicated emotions and lives whittled down until their legacy is mere legend. Lena Waithe’s script plays off the justified outrage from a decade marked by tragic viral cell phone videos of police executing unarmed black people, and the resulting swirl of attention ending in the officers, more often than not, getting away with it. That the film opens with a forceful reversal of the sadly typical conclusion is a tremendous jolt. Its energy powers the film through its dull patches and misjudged moments. The uneven episodes on their trip — encounters with a variety of black folks, a few white wild cards, and a handful of cops — are sometimes tense, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always poised in the same hazy mood of melancholy. It’s as uneven and prolonged as it is lit up with ideas. Even when the film goes totally off the mark — there’s a violent plot turn in a protest that’s both more than the film needs and cross-cut with a steamy sex scene; that throws the film off balance for next few sequences — it’s not for lack of trying.

Throughout the lead characters are specific and symbolic, their romance as real as the positions into which they are placed can be forced. It’s never entirely a character drama it often is. The people can be too composed under the style. And it's never fully the blaxploitation riff it skirts around -- resisting the potential for genre play most of the time, even as it leans on some of its signifiers. It's both and neither. The film is too serious-minded to be reduced to tropes, but too energized by its premise to avoid it entirely. Call it prestige exploitation. What’s ultimately moving about the picture, though, is how these characters are allowed to be with each other, in the ultimate bad first date that lingers and expands, trapped together with plenty of time to connect and contrast until the inevitable end. At one point, Slim asks why they can’t just be — a question that hangs over the film as the promise of extrajudicial violence hangs over the characters. Who would they be if they weren't now defined by the constant potential threat to their bodies?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Cutting Class: KNIVES OUT

One of writer-director Rian Johnson’s greatest qualities is his ability to surprise without sacrificing his trustworthiness as a storyteller. His films are idiosyncratic without being unduly erratic, thoughtfully engaged with their chosen genres without stepping outside of their tropes, capable of grand loop-de-loops surprising audience expectations while making the outcome beautifully air-tight inevitable. He’s a mainstream filmmaker — recently with appealing sci-fi spectacles like moody time-travel assassin thriller Looper and the soulful, satisfying Last Jedi — aware of both the necessary elephantine expressions of recognizable story mechanics and burrowing termite interest of carefully selected specific details. He can take us effortlessly into places we’d never expect, because at every step of the way, we know we’re in good hands. He’s as clever as he is knowledgeable. His new film, Knives Out, is a wickedly well-done murder mystery, indebted indisputably to hundreds of detectives stories of yore, and yet plays out its story so fluidly and delightfully that it feels fresh nonetheless. As the movie begins, an elderly millionaire mystery author (Christopher Plummer) has been found in his study with his throat slit and a knife in his hand. The local cops (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are prepared to call it a suicide when a well-known detective (Daniel Craig, with a melodious Southern accent) steps in to consult on the case. He’s prepared to look at every detail again, and scrutinize every member of the dead writer’s squabbling, privileged family. Sure, the case appears open-and-shut, but he just wants to see it with his fresh eyes, eliminating no possibilities and no suspects. Holmes and Poirot and Dupin would be proud. In Johnson’s hugely entertaining screenplay, bristling with witty asides, barbed feints, and prickly offhand political resonance, the family members are interviewed, with plenty of brisk, bantering back-and-forth editing into and out of interlocking flashbacks sketching in the moments leading up to the mysterious death. So many have motives, and so many witnesses weave in and out of other’s stories, that it’ll take a while to untangle the knotty web, to winnow the suspects' bratty rich-kid motives from those capable of murderous intent.

It’s a terrific ensemble, perfectly cast, every person on screen, down to the smallest one-scene roles, quickly, expertly characterized with energetic shorthand and snappy individualism. There’s the regal real estate mogul daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), her duplicitous husband (Don Johnson), and their entitled grown boy (Chris Evans); a business-manger son (Michael Shannon) and his glowering alt-right offspring (Jaden Martel); a shallow daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her differently-shallow daughter (Kathryn Langford); and, in the center of the madness, a home health aide (Ana de Armas) whose sweetness and good heart made her a kind companion to the late old man, but leaves her on the outside looking in as the vultures circle. Whodunnit is of course the primary question, but as Johnson unravels his tale, the why’d-they-dunnit becomes as interesting. As in all good detective stories, the personalities and the accumulation of clues are as deeply pleasurable as the eventual reveals where the puzzle snaps into place, and Johnson places each new piece on the table with stylish verve. The whip-smart cutting and pace stays just ahead of the characters and just behind the mystery’s solution, while never going out of its way to hide its cards or throw up false tangents to shake off the scent. It all falls into place with a logical snap, each payoff set up, even when you didn’t realize it at the time. The production design — a big house full of creaky staircases and teetering bookshelves and morbid knickknacks — is a handsomely cozy setting, fitting such a tale. As one investigator quips, the old man lived in a Clue board. The camera work is energetic and inspired — and, oh, so beautifully textured — without distracting from the cool logic of the proceedings, while the characters are broad yet warm, at once caricatures yet imbued with all-too-understandable humanity. It’s richly developed, never just a film of pawns in a master-mystery-mind’s game. That’s how well this game is played. This is the best film of its kind in quite some time.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


Marriage Story starts at an ending. The couple has decided to divorce. Aside from warm flashback montages that open the film as a stream-of-consciousness exercise held in a marriage counselor’s office, we don’t see the good times. Or rather, we only glimpse what must’ve been good times reflected in bad times as we hear the parties puzzling over the fault lines in the relationship. As the divorce grows more fraught and contentious, formal negotiations and lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as a trio of well-observed caricatures) drain the couple’s resources and their capacity for forgiveness. In order to convince themselves that the strife of splitting up is worth it in the end, they need to start telling themselves a marriage story that minimizes the good times. It’s a film of people drifting apart who, upon deciding to split, snowball down opposite sides of a hill, the distance between them rapidly widening as their differences start relatively small and grow irreconcilable. This is literalized when she moves to Los Angeles, leaving him in New York. The space between them becomes as insurmountable as their actual distance. When their lawyers talk to one another more than they do, any hopes of an easy, amicable split are gone for good.

There’s a pang of painful truth running through every scene of Noah Baumbach’s screenplay. (That some of the details align with his own divorce some years earlier lends it an added patina of extra-textual realism.) He brings the dilemma to life on screen with the relaxed ease of a graying master, an expert at dramatizing his clever, literary dialogue with a perfectly judged long-take or a sudden crushing tightness in a well-chosen cut into a close-up. The filmmaking here is warm and sharp, halfway between his elegant Meyerowitz Stories’ deeply-felt intergenerational dynamics and his bruising The Squid and the Whale’s emotionally penetrating divorce dysfunction. As the two halves of this film’s fractured marriage, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are compellingly complicated. They are painfully human, both capable of careless selfishness and achingly vulnerable empathy. The result is prickly scenes riding a razor’s edge, with clear care between the two of them even when twisting small slights into defining statements of purpose, or escalating a legitimate concern into an avoidable verbal collision. The film’s structure pulls the picture’s sympathies between the two of them — much like their young son is suddenly navigating two parental relationships instead of seeing them as a United whole. “He’s just telling you what he thinks you want to hear,” one says to the other, about their son’s desire to make his parents happy, even in this most stressful situation. But aren’t they all just telling themselves about the past in a way that’ll make their present choices go down easier? The real marriage story is the justification they need along the way.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Ice to See It: FROZEN II

Frozen was a clever musical fairy tale in the best Disney Animation tradition, with instantly classic showstopper numbers and a fine focus on sisterly connection over romantic love. Now here’s Frozen II, a rare full-fledged theatrical follow-up to one of the studio’s animated hits. It’s not the movie its predecessor was: darker, weirder, more of a wispy epic fantasy quest retrofitted on the original’s economical emotional purity. Returning writer-director Jennifer Lee, co-director Chris Buck, and the whole Disney team’s best idea is to take the first film’s happy ending as a mere pause—asserting from the opening number here that nothing is permanent. (Not even the first film’s fan base, as a character early on looks straight down the faux-camera and quips “you all look a little bit older,” a lyric that lands with fleetingly poignant impact.) The new picture takes as a given that the emotional complexity of its lead sister duo’s relationship to each other and to their royal positions is a complicated, evolving thing. This welcome note of complexity is furthered by the movie’s rather lovely approach to conflict, which manufactures no new villain. Instead the filmmakers are content to make new stakes out of mistakes of generations prior whose effects are still felt in their modern day, and the chance that the current generation may lack the capacity or the will to fix a slowly evolving, yet inevitably apocalyptic problem before it’s too late.

You see, long ago their kingdom isolated a nearby indigenous population, and in the present are confronted with a violent weather pattern — fire! wind! earthquakes! — that escalates. Only Ice Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), now blooming with frosty super-heroine potential, and her plucky sister Anna (Kristen Bell), now wiser than her earlier naive lovestruck state, can trek their way into the north, following a literal call to adventure to save their people. So, yes, it’s a Disney princess musical about the twin problems of a country’s unexamined tribalism and stubbornness in the face of a crisis, and about how what you need to move forward may not fit with the easy happy ever after you thought you’d gained. All this and Josh Gad’s singing comic relief snowman, too. It makes the movie a slightly woolier affair, and gives it a potent minor key counter melody that never quite resolves. The songs themselves are also heavier, a Broadway base undergirding a mix of heavy metal and emo inspiration with harsher toned guitars and mopier introspection, including an 80's-style power ballad for Jonathan Groff. I bet the whole thing's bound to be one of those prickly, bittersweet family movies that becomes a fondly remembered curio for today’s kids who’ll return to it a decade or two hence and think, wow, can you believe that’s what that was? It doesn’t quite hit it out of the park like its inspiration, but what a satisfying swing of a sequel to admit that growing into the person you’ll become is a never-ending process, a goal always just past the horizon, and still have you leave the theater humming.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


The song is familiar, but the mood is different. Here’s a tale told not in the first flush of a youthful thrill, but at an end where it can be quiet, contemplative, funereal. In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese returns to the subject of crime and its vast systemic corruption — the source of so many of his memorable, dazzling, energetic, probing films: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street. But here it is at its saddest, and most somber. Even the Glory Days, where the Tough Guys are flush with money and our lead character is drawn into the club with praise and success, are presented as just some guys doing what they felt needed to be done for their jobs. One day after the other. A job is a job is a job. It may give you what you think you need, but at what cost? Scorsese has always hit these notes of moral perspective, of interpersonal ambiguity. Here the characters are aware of their compromises and the inevitable emptiness from the jump. It is told to us from the nursing home by an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) whose lonely, ailing life places, with the sharply soft cinematography and cutting between three points in time, the futility that settles over the story. The bustling activity scripted by Steve Zaillian for the sprawling three-and-a-half hour film takes us from low-level mob enforcers in post-World War II Pennsylvania, to teamster hustling and negotiating in Chicago, to the halls of power in the Justice Department. Every step of the way — ascending a ladder of upward mobility from unionized truck driver, to mob enforcer, to a trusted helper for powerful men — Frank demonstrates a sense of duty and loyalty to his bosses and coworkers, whoever they may be. He wants to build his American dream, provide a secure life for his growing family. And yet the moral compromises of a corrupt system take his hard work and use it to consolidate the power of those above him, at the cost of his sense of self. His violence and his connections give him everything, and strip from him his certitude. He's digging his own grave.

The film, as elegiac as it is suspenseful, floats between the tangled, overlapping worlds of business, politics, and the mob in mid-20th-century America. Frank is able to navigate between them because they are, as the film portrays them, overwhelmingly similar worlds of backroom deals, underhanded tricks, and power plays. He’s drawn into the orbits of two men. In one he finds the soft, sinister, avuncular tones of a hometown mobster (Joe Pesci) who seeks to keep his friends and family close and comfortable, whatever the cost. In the other is the loud, brash, combative teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose bellicose pursuit of power for the working man is also flagrantly consolidating power for himself. The interactions between these men are cleverly staged and entertaining sequences with an undercurrent of sadness. All three leads, delivering forceful, nuanced, humane performances, are skillfully digitally de-aged in the early going, and yet retain the gravely stiffness of age; as the effects fade away, it’s as if their true selves — tired, desperate, sad — are being exposed as life wears them down. As incident and characterization accrues, the film gathers its power. The whole weight of its runtime comes down upon the final sequences, where a line or two, or a significant silence, takes on outsized power. By the end, Sheeran understands the ways in which the hard work he did was all for naught, for which his support of a system was a work of quiet cowardice. He saw his soul eroding slowly and surely as he saw what was happening around him. He participated in it to eke out a meager middle-class life for his family, and in the end is left alone, reaching impotently for human or spiritual connection that his time on earth has slowly bled away. What a powerful portrait of regret and quiet desperation. Yes, how exciting to feel important, to be part of something, to build a good reputation — to network and negotiate and stand up for yourself and play a role in history where the people you meet might be on the nightly news tomorrow or a decade from now. But how sad if, in the end, the consequences leave you nothing and no one. It’s a rise and a fall, but here, from this character’s deathbed perspective and in the hands of a mature master filmmaker, it feels like falling the whole way through.

Friday, November 8, 2019


One of the better belated sequels of recent vintage, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep has the unenviable task of continuing Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic Stephen King adaptation The Shining. To do so, he's using King’s own recent novel sequel, which already imagined a life for a now-grown Danny Torrance, the boy who once was terrorized in the events of the original story. But what a stylistic risk to dive back into the cinematic terrain so thoroughly colonized by Kubrick’s vision, the expertly creepy craftsmanship with the extra frisson of elevation, the prickly raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck patience and precision of its long takes and eerie echoes in the cursed Overlook Hotel. Flanagan’s film can’t match that, but it has a similar pervasive dread, and a low simmering unease that pervades every moment. It helps that the film is both totally indebted to its predecessor and off on its own track, telling a new story in slightly different modes than Kubrick’s. Flanagan is a fine horror craftsman, probably best known for polishing up the likes of Ouija: Origin of Evil, which would’ve been more dubious in lesser hands. His steady, sturdy work over the past decade or so has been growing prominence and promise, and here comes into its fullest and most satisfying expression. The film is hushed and restrained, methodically plotted and shot with a ghostly chill. We may have left the confines of the Overlook, but the memory of its menacing potential lingers over these new events. Flanagan doesn’t use the earlier film lightly or cheaply; instead he builds upon its unresolved tensions. It neither closes off nor riffs pointlessly on the iconography. He extends its implications, expands its world, and — though it can’t match the ineffable, startling, singular qualities of its inspiration — builds an absorbing related one of its own.

The Shining is an intimate story of madness eroding a family, alcoholism and isolation acting as evil bedfellows that imperil a mother and child as a father is drawn into darkness. It’s harrowing and contained. Doctor Sleep, however, is both the opposite and of a piece. It’s an echo of tone and style — long takes, austere compositions, carefully gathered portent — in a film that’s more sprawling and open-ended. It’s about a son trying to atone for the sins of the father, about recovery from trauma and addiction as a tenuous and fraught desire to go toward the light. Danny (Ewan McGregor) is now a middle-aged recovering alcoholic working in a small-town hospice. His use of his magic, his shining, is limited to making the patients feel peaceful in their last moments. He’s clearly trying to fix his own life post-addiction (one early sequence's ugly consequences recall a few memorably frightening moments in Trainspotting). And he's also, in some small way, trying to put some goodness back into the world. He’s been haunted by ghosts of his childhood, by memories of what the darkness in this world is capable of corrupting. He’s slowly drawn into a story that sprawls across psychic spaces and the vast plains of America, a story about potential squandered, the vulnerable violated, and weakness exploited. He feels their pain. There’s a 13-year-old (Kyliegh Curran) who is just starting to reach out into the telekinetic connections her shining offers her. She’ll get the attention of Danny—voices echoing across the distance bringing their like-minded powers together. She’ll also get the attention of evil shiners, a roving band of them (led by a beguiling, charismatic Rebecca Ferguson) who feed vampirically off the shine of others.

Thus the stage is set for conflict, much of which takes place through the eerie mental connections made between the characters, an invisible force lurking underneath normality on the surface. The actors have such open, sensitive faces, and are directed into states of completely earnest reactions to the story’s tender interpersonal moments and potential for broad horrors. They feel convincingly real, and the film patiently doles out their lives, not rushing to a scare, but allowing a picture of quotidian living punctured by the surreal. I found the leads intensely appealing, and cared for their plights. The inevitable gnarly gore effects, sparingly revealed, are all the more effective for it. The result is a movie where the characterizations are as compelling as the overall atmosphere and genre trappings, where a fragile connection between strangers who just want to help is delicately sweet, and where the evil plans of dark people feels as real and menacing as it is outlandish and stylized. Flanagan lets the movie go on typical King detours, the rising action building fleeting, memorable vignettes with characters we may or may not see again: townspeople with whole lives fleshed out in a single scene; sympathetic victims compassionately portrayed before their inevitable tragic ends; compelling amoral figures whose backstories were as fraught as our heroes' before they took a different path. But captured in a tightly controlled mood, patient cutting, and icy-warm cinematography, it’s always building to a crescendo equal parts nostalgia, catharsis, and room to grow. If it will have the classic status of its predecessor remains to be seen. But what a finely crafted, satisfying film in its own right.

Saturday, November 2, 2019


What would’ve made Jojo Rabbit provocative around, say, 1939 or 1949, is instead well-trod and simplistic territory. Its thinness threatens to cheapen its sweetness and short-circuit its obvious anti-hate aims with sentimental obviousness and misfiring satirical tone. Set in Germany during the last gasp of World War II, the action follows a fanatical, adorable 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who desires nothing more than to be a good Hitler Youth and catch a Jew for the Führer. He begins the film at a Nazi summer camp, pitched by writer-director Taika Waititi as a Fascist Moonrise Kingdom, with fastidious framing for boys in short pants and cockeyed grins learning to toss grenades and burn books in between their classes of anti-Semitic curriculum. There we meet the ensemble of mincing Nazis straight out of "Springtime for Hitler" — a dopey low-ranking officer (Sam Rockwell), his close (maybe very close) second-in-command (Alfie Allen), their overeager third-in-command Fräulein (Rebel Wilson), and a cavalcade of cruel Aryan teens and tweens — as they march about with sloppy accent work and inconsistent characterization. It’s always on the edge of overdoing it, tipping over from stale exaggeration into loosey-goosey cartoony lightness that verges precariously on endearing buffoonery. Of course, eventually, it sends the viewer smashing into the horror of it all with their ugly beliefs casually spouted and violence a constant underlying threat. We’re at once to fear and mock them. The movie furthers its insistence on their inherent ridiculousness with preposterous costumes and stumbling stupidity, while showing us judiciously — and maybe too sparingly — dead bodies strung up in the city square or rubble from bombed out buildings.

Meanwhile, Jojo himself is given an imaginary friend, a wildly exaggerated caricatured Hitler (Waititi himself) who whispers Nazi talking points between chummy buddy comedy shenanigans. The conceit is essential to the way Waititi makes his point about the way the ideology loomed over boys like Jojo, and yet I think it’d be a better movie in almost every way without it. It toes a tricky line, risking softening the cruelty into cutesy asides, while bolstering a potentially fine metaphor about the ways the brutal, simplistic talking points of a tyrant could worm their way into the internal monologue of impressionable young boys. At one point, a clownish Gestapo agent (Stephen Merchant) will turn up in Jojo’s room and, upon spying propaganda posters on the wall, praise the lad for showing such admirable “blind fanaticism.” (One wonders if the movie’s punches would land harder if it were set in present America, and the boy donned a red ball cap instead.) The movie’s vision of childhood innocence channeled blindly into an evil worldview comes to a head as he discovers his saintly mother (Scarlett Johansson) — presented as a subtle anti-war protestor nonetheless maintaining a bubble of carefree protection for her son — has been hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Why the mother would chalk up their differing ideologies to political disagreement, let alone allow her son to sign up for the Nazi camp given her political concerns and quiet resistance activism is beyond me. At least his eager indoctrination is sent into conflict as he grows to care about the hidden girl, spending hours getting to know her and brewing a crush in the process. Why, she’s just like them, he discovers, although the process of allowing this personal connection to detox his brainwashing proceeds in the fits and starts of a boyish brain.

Because the movie is wedded to Jojo’s perspective, it excuses some of the shorthand and naiveté in the way the characters and situations are developed. Waititi’s filmmaking — as you’d expect from the guy who brought us the melancholy silliness of What We Do in the Shadows and who is on the short list of auteurs who managed to put personality in a Marvel product with his Thor Ragnarok — is sprightly and energetic with smash cuts, goofy asides, and German-language covers of classic rock on the soundtrack. The child performances are ebulliently charming and effervescently precocious. Some of the humor — a scene of protracted “Heil”ing, or an enormously cute sidekick kid (Archie Yates) who gets the best lines and gives the best hugs — really works, a sweetness and a sadness sitting together quite well. But the movie also ramps up the sentimentality, and looks for easy equivocation and borrowed insight. It often avoids the real nastiness and violence undergirding the situation — allusions to the darkest horrors made briefly, if at all — while allowing notes of grace in the unlikeliest of persons. Moments of tragedy are held just off screen, giving Jojo reason to grow in his understanding of the world, while allowing the audience to remain comfortable, crafting cutesy Nazis in such a way that the satire occasionally loses its teeth. The movie does find a character at its center who is wonderfully realized and expressive, with a kind of self-reflective performance from young Davis that shows wisdom beyond his years in portraying a boy slowly gaining glimmers of awakening perspective. Yet he does this while the filmmaking around him is, ironically, a tad too juvenile to truly confront the horrors it is ostensibly using as the moral gymnasium on which its character is to stretch and grow. (A final battle scene is stunningly mismanaged, with its cartoony Nazis stumbling into very real conflict — too heightened to sting properly.) I couldn’t dismiss the movie’s craft, good intentions, or the fine debut at its center, but its inability to go any deeper than its surface of recycled weren’t-Nazis-silly? and can't-we-all-get-along? observations are another story. I appreciated its attempt, but the overly-simplistic rendering of the world leaves it feeling shallower and shallower the longer I think about it. I loved Jojo enough to wish the movie was up to the task of telling his story in the full complexity it deserves.