Friday, October 25, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of JOJO RABBIT. (copyright 2019)

The Twitterverse should stow its faux outrage over the new black comedy JOJO RABBIT. Making fun of the Nazis is hardly outrageous or even unprecedented by show biz standards. STALAG 17 did it all the way back in 1953, as did HOGAN’S  HEROES in 1965, THE PRODUCERS in 1967, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL in 1997, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in 2009. Director/writer Taika Waititi may indeed push the envelope even further in his adaptation of Christine Leunens’ equally dark comic prose, going so far as to play Adolf Hitler himself as a prancing buffoon, but the hilarity of his Fuhrer-driven farce is not the surprising part. What is remarkable is how moving the story is in Waititi’s capable hands. The gifted filmmaker earns ginormous laughs throughout for sure, but his tugs at our heartstrings are the truly bold and audacious achievements that resonate the most. 

From the very get-go, Waititi plays big with the laughs and the poignancy. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy and a moving drama, buttressed up against each other for maximum tension. Johanne “JoJo” Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) is a German 10-year-old trying to be a good fascist during the waning days of WWII. He idolizes Hitler so much and desires nothing more than to excel as a brown-shirted youth, that he imagines the Nazi head as his private coach, muse, and father figure. 

Waititi is hilarious, playing Hitler as a big, gangly kid coaxing JoJo along, even though he’s cloddish and insecure. Despite his ambitions, JoJo fails to show his Nazi youth camp counselors his killer instinct when he chickens out when asked to kill a rabbit in cold blood. It's the first truly serious moment of the film and it's quite devastating. Waititi juxtaposes the farcical and the serious together like that, keeping us on the edge of our seats, never quite knowing if a scene will stay humorous, or veer into something more heartbreaking. For every laugh, there’s pathos, for every moment of silliness, there’s tragedy. And yet, it all holds together in tone as Waititi is showing the insanity of war, both the laughable and the horrible. 

The serious underpinnings are readily apparent in all the scenes played in JoJo's home. His mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) tries to raise her son as a single parent, and it's a struggle. Her husband’s away at war, and JoJo is at that age where he starts to question everything and tend towards snideness. It doesn't help matters that everyone is still reeling from losing teen daughter Inga to influenza. 

Rosie is the man of the house for the time being and she keeps trying to shore up JoJo with positive advice, Cleverly, her clothing choices tend towards pants and men’s fedoras. She takes charge in every scene she's in, without becoming tyrannical, yet JoJo doesn't appreciate her nearly enough. 

After JoJo gets injured at the Nazi youth camp, he’s forced to return home to convalesce. One day, while his mom is out on some sort of mysterious meeting that JoJo doesn't understand, he investigates the strange creaking noises coming from upstairs in the house. Behind a wall, JoJo finds a secret room hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenage Jewish girl who was a classmate of Inga's.  Rosie has hidden her, and it makes JoJo angry to be deceived as such, but he agrees to shield Elsa if she performs a quid pro quo, revealing all of her “Jewish secrets” that JoJo wants to capture in his journal.

Of course, the two start to bond, and the ups and downs of their interactions are the core of the film. McKenzie wisely plays up Elsa’s bitterness, not letting JoJo get away with his ridiculous preconceptions about Jews. Even though JoJo still imagines Hitler filling his head with all sorts of lies about the Jewish people, JoJo starts to become educated in a way he didn’t expect. Rather than be trained as a good soldier, he starts to become a fair, open-minded, and compassionate German citizen.

Throughout the film, Waititi balances character comedy, like the banter between JoJo and Elsa, with the hard, ugly truths of the war. JoJo’s boss from the training camp, a closeted Nazi named Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) who can’t even be bothered to button up his uniform, may be a comically awful authority figure, but there's sadness around his quippy edges. He keeps JoJo busy distributing flyers, but his bitterness over the regime and their slaughter is as obvious as his perennially unshaven face. 

The director also cheekily casts Stephen Merchant as a Nazi official who drops in on JoJo and Elsa at home one day with a handful of other menacing party members. They interrogate the two, driving Elsa to masquerade as the deceased daughter of the house, and while Merchant gets a lot of laughs playing his overtly mannered fiend, the real threat of exposure makes the scene a stunning nail-biter. 

Waititi does wonders with all of the production values, particularly the art direction and costumes, and all of his actors too. He reigns in Rebel Wilson as a Nazi secretary so she doesn’t step outside of her character and the story as she often does in her onscreen work. He gets a coy and smart performance from Johansson too, giving one of the year’s slyest supporting actress performances. But the true wonder here is how terrific Waititi excels with his younger cast. McKenzie continues to show that she’s one of the best talents of her generation with her nuanced performance, one of the year’s very best. Archie Yates plays JoJo’s best friend Yorkie, an even klutzier brown shirt than JoJo, and earns laughs every time he’s onscreen.  

And in the title role of JoJo, one that requires him to be onscreen virtually the entire film, Davis is nothing short of a revelation. Few child performances have been as textured and expansive as his, and if the Academy Awards can get past his youth, he should be in the running for Best Actor this year. He never overacts, yet is droll, kind, somber, terrified – whatever the story needs. And he aces every second of it. This film is his and Waititi's accomplishment. 

When the tragedies start to build, it gets harder and harder to laugh, and that is what Waititi wants us to realize. Not for nothing does JoJo's imaginary friend Hitler disappear from the movie for most of the third act. As the film moves towards its inevitable and moving conclusion, you may be shocked to realize how much you enjoyed and roared at such a tragic telling. Likely though, you'll be even more amazed at how many lumps Waititi managed to place in your throat along the way. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


My latest review that you can read at Creative Screenwriting magazine is of DOLEMITE IS MY NAME. It's a wonderful new comedy starring Eddie Murphy that's dropping on Netflix this Thursday at midnight after a run of a couple of weeks in select theaters around the country. Follow this link to read my review:

And here's my latest movie caricature - Eddie Murphy in the film!

Original caricature by Jeff York of Eddie Murphy in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME

Thursday, October 17, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in THE LIGHTHOUSE.
(copyright 2019)
Filmmaker Robert Eggers reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe. His movies are filled with gloom and doom and madness. Like Poe, Eggers too fancies dramatizing the horror of confined spaces, bullheaded protagonists, and compulsive behavior. In THE WITCH, a stubbornly religious family’s pride kept them from seeing all the tempestuous goings-on around their 1630s farmhouse until it was too late, and the devil took ahold of each of them. In THE LIGHTHOUSE, a prideful man lets the tempestuous goings-on at a remote lighthouse on the eastern seaboard slowly but surely drive him to madness. Poe would be very proud.

THE LIGHTHOUSE, co-written by Eggers and his brother Max, is set in the 1890s and starts with two new lighthouse attendants shipping into a remote island to man the lighthouse there. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the gruff and bushy-bearded veteran, while Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a walrus-mustached newbie. They’re there to replace another male duo who just finished a month-long stint. The four men cross each other, two coming up the hill, two going down it, saying nothing to each other, like ships passing in the night. The symbolism is exceedingly clever.

Immediately upon getting there, Wake takes charge, instructing Winslow on what his tasks are and most of it is the most awful kind of menial labor. Winslow must haul all their supplies, clean the small cottage where they're staying, and even carry the buckets filled with their feces and urine down the hill each morning. At one point he even has to paint the lighthouse, precariously hanging from a few ropes being held by Wake. It doesn't end well.

Wake, on the other hand, hogs all the important jobs. Only he is allowed in the top of the lighthouse, and he takes charge at mealtime too, cooking whatever he sees fit to feed them. At first, Winslow struggles just to get used to the schedule, the chilly weather, and all the different odd jobs he must manage each day. He’s not fond of Wake’s bossiness or bluster, nor his tendency towards flatulence, but the young man nonetheless tries to connect with him as friends. They share some tales, sing some sea chanteys together, and compare their pasts.

It turns out Winslow has had all kinds of vocations, none lasting more than a few months, and a history of never staying in one place very long. Wake chalks it up to Winslow's youthful immaturity, but there's something more to it. Winslow's demeanor would suggest a strong anti-authoritarian streak, and very likely, a history of violence to go along with it.

Winslow resists Wake's attempts to get him to drink more and more, as it's clear he has trouble holding his liquor.  But he caves, and the more Winslow drinks, the more his mind starts to run away with all kinds of paranoia and suspicion. What goes on up at the top of the lighthouse becomes an obsession with the young man as he imagines all sorts of crazy things. He even imagines Wake having sex with some sort of tailed sea monster up there while manning the light. 

Soon enough, the job, the resentment, and the enclosed spaces all start to get to Winslow. Making matters worse each day is how Wake barks his orders and constantly reminds Winslow of his lower station. The younger man doesn’t like being treated like a lackey and his rage boils. His drinking accelerates, his imagination runs wild, and soon enough, he’s completely losing his grip. Is that an actual mermaid he sees splayed out on the rocks, beckoning him for sex? Are the seagulls purposely tormenting him? And is the inclement weather pinning them down inside just happenstance, or is it the work of a vengeful God or even the devil who wants to drive them mad in their inescapable claustrophobia?

In many ways, the story reminds one of Poe’s THE TELL-TALE HEART, and indeed Eggers did make a short film of that legendary story in 2008. Here, the old man with the eye is replaced by Wake, whose crotchety style, grunting, and farting start to grate on Winslow’s nerves. Their surroundings become a prison to Winslow and soon enough he even imagines Wake wanting to kill him. For a job that supplies light for passing ships, Winslow's world gets darker and darker.

This is a two-hander essentially, as the mermaid (a bewitching and comely Valeriia Karaman) is only seen fleetingly during some of Winslow’s fever dreams, and the two men are exceptional. Dafoe can do macho bluster in his sleep, but here he pushes his performance to the edge of being irritating, showing a man who isn’t aware of just how selfish he’s become over the years. His performance is funny, sometimes monstrous, and always fascinating. 

Pattinson, employing a heavy east coast accent, knows how to brood and glower like he has a master’s degree in it, but here, he’s more vulnerable than he’s ever been. His unraveling is very gradual, and it's a superbly calculated performance from the first second to last. And yet, through it all, he keeps us hoping for the best for him. In fact, your heart will break a little as he goes madder and madder. 

One does wish that Eggers had expanded his comfort zone as much as his two leads. As he did in THE WITCH, he proves he’s an excellent filmmaker who knows how to light, write, and pull great performances out of his cast. Eggers knows how to build dread and create bizarre tableaus to terrify an audience. Still, he is a touch too restrained, showing an artist’s elegance even when he’s showing a pile of dead fish. At times, you wish he’d go a little mad too, lose some of the restraint, the “just-so” of his framing. 

It’s great that Eggers fancies darker material and he’s expert at creating psychological horror that showcases man as monsters that far eclipse any in the sea or on land. Eggers is very much a modern-day Poe, but one who could stand to show a little more of that writer's madness. Eggers' movies are exquisite; he just needs to let ‘em rip more. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodovar of PAIN AND GLORY.
(copyright 2019)
Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers so it's no surprise that I really enjoyed his latest film PAIN AND GLORY. Starring Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, it's a semi-autobiographical look at a Spanish film director looking at his past, as well as trying to forge his way into the future. 

It's not only my favorite films so far this year, but it's easily one of 2019's very best!

I wrote a review of it for Creative Screenwriting here: and I drew the caricature of Banderas and Almodovar that accompanies this post, of course. Enjoy!

Friday, October 11, 2019


Most animated movies aimed at kids must also appeal to their parents. After all, if the chaperones aren’t amused, they’ll likely not return for another Cineplex viewing when their children plead to see it again. The great thing about the new computer-animated film based on cartoonist Charles Addams’ THE ADDAMS FAMILY is that it will appeal equally to adult audiences due to its avid homage to the classic 1960s TV series. This adaptation borrows heavily from the show, not to mention parts of the 1991 cult classic ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES as well, yet this take has its own energy and originality as well. With all that going for it, this reboot should easily appeal to a wide audience. 

For those who haven’t a clue about the eccentric clan, the film does a sly and swift job of setting up the premise. Gomez Addams (voiced by Oscar Isaac) and his new bride Morticia (voiced by Charlize Theron), have barely finished their nuptials when the local townsfolk chase them out of town for being, well, creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky. Gomez could pass for merely a sinister businessman in pinstripes, but Morticia? Hell, she evokes Dracula’s bride with her deathly pallor and raven-haired looks. 

As the two oddball newlyweds drive over hill and dale to escape the mob, Thing, their right-hand man, er hand, tries to direct them to find shelter. Their car ends up hitting a body lying in the middle of the road. Gomez and Morticia delight in hitting something, a joke that may get lost on the kiddies, but it’s an excellent example of this film’s willingness to employ very adult gallows humor. 

Their ‘victim’ is Lurch, a hulking 7 ft. tall Frankenstein’s monster-lookalike who they find wrapped in a straight-jacket. He’s escaped from the recently closed asylum up the hill, and before you know it, the Addams’ roll into the massive mansion and make it their home. Lurch quickly becomes their manservant and displays talent on the organ as well. Together with Thing, the two plunk out various tunes, including Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” before plunking out Vic Mizzy’s iconic TV theme song. (Da-da-da-dun SNAP SNAP!) 

This wonderfully energetic exposition, that surges through the birth and childhood of the Addams’ two children Wednesday (voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (voiced by Finn Wolfhard) as well, takes up only about 10 minutes of screen time. From there, the rest of the film bops along at an equally furious pace, tossing off tons of visual gags and throwaway one-liners with such abandon, audiences may need a second viewing just to catch them all. (More rewards for those returning chaperones, you see.) 

Grandmama (voiced by Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (voiced by Nick Krall) move in, and the film starts to tick a lot of boxes from the original Addams’ panel cartoons from the '40s and '50s, and even more from the TV take. Some of the homages that become major parts of the story include Gomez's love of fencing; Morticia’s French utterances engorging her husband’s libido; Uncle Fester playing human target for the kids' lethal hijinks, and the family house cat - a hungry lion - roaming from room to room. 

The voice characterizations are all splendid, with Isaac earning special kudos for playing up his Latino heritage for Gomez. Moretz does a sly riff on Christina Ricci as she gives every line reading an ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES flavor. Allison Janney also does clever work as the voice of Margaux Needler, the antagonist in the story. Needler’s a TV host of a fixer-upper show wanting to renovate the Addams’ haunted house to flip it. Any movie with a plot driver as home equity is a movie truly after an adult audience.

Where the film caters more to kids is in its dual stories centering on Wednesday and Pugsley. Wednesday befriends Needler’s daughter and promptly converts her into an Emo girl. Meanwhile, Pugsley is about to turn 13, driving Gomez to prepare festivities for his son's passage into manhood. It’s all sweet and affecting, without ever getting too maudlin or preachy. Nor does it get too macabre either, though Pugsley’s penchant for miniature bombs and dynamite may strike some as a bit insensitive for today's times. 

The trajectory of the story is fairly predictable with its message of inclusion, but it's nice to see the Addams convert the regular folks to their more open way of thinking, rather than condemn them. Screenwriters Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler, and Erica Rivinoja never dumb-down a gag or line, and they shrewdly utilize a lot of what’s worked for the franchise in the past. They’re also smart enough to write a lot of big visual set-pieces that simply could not have been done as live-action. 

The entire film feels a lot more intellectual than it had to be, but it's a pleasure to see such adult sophistication ladled throughout. That’s especially evident in the spectacular production design showcasing every nook and cranny of the Addams environment. Co-directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (veterans of SAUSAGE PARTY and SHREK 2) have done a terrific job of making what should be a crowd-pleaser, especially for the nostalgia set. The film's end credit sequence is even a shot-for-shot spoof of the TV show's original black and white opening credit and theme song. That was enough to make me want to see this film again in a snap-snap. AND I don’t even have kids.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of Jamie Bernadette in THE FURNACE. (copyright 2019)
There is a surprising sunniness evident throughout THE FURNACE, the new movie about a handicapped long-distance runner facing the toughest race of her life. It permeates writer/director Darrell Roodt’s film in everything from the golden glow of its cinematography to the narrator’s warm, reassuring voice-over. It's a shrewd maneuver, cloaking a story about death and physical suffering in earnest optimism. And yet, it works, spectacularly, making for one of the most inspiring motion pictures this year.

THE FURNACE is the nickname for a grueling, week-long foot race across the wilds of the African bush in this fictional story, inspired by true events, and it becomes the main focus of central character Mary Harris (Jamie Bernadette). She's not only an avid runner, itching for such a challenge, but the race might be the only way for her to rise out of her deep depression. She's been demoralized since her new husband Matt perished in a freak car accident at Christmas, one that gravely injured her as well, leaving her with just one lung. Mary now struggles to breathe, using a respirator and oxygen tank to aid her intake. She also has eschewed God, blaming him for taking her husband from her.  

The race is a way to honor Matt too, as the young couple planned to run it together. Mary even clings to the special running shoe he bought for her as the last vestige of her connection to her husband. Ultimately, the race is more than just a symbol of her marriage like that shoe; it's a journey back to her better, healthier self. 

THE FURNACE, written by Roodt and co-screenwriter P.G. de Jonge, is a salvation story, as well as an underdog tale, but there's artistry here seldom seen in such material. For starters, the film's script is very clever, mixing up timelines, reveals, flashbacks, and fantasies, to keep the viewers on their toes. This is not a typical A to B narrative and the sophistication of the writing is apparent in every scene.

Next, the cinematography is gorgeous and looks like the movie costs ten times what it likely did. The sumptuousness of it all is particularly evident in the multitude of outdoor location scenes. Cinematographer Justus de Jager has created some of the most stunning tableaus in any film of 2019. The editing, score, and sound design are superior attributes here as well.  

Still, as good as all those production values are, this type of film sinks or swims depending on how well the underdog role is pulled off. In Jamie Bernadette, Roodt has hit pay dirt. She makes Mary a winner long before she participates in that challenging race. Bernadette creates a complex protagonist, one that's developed much deeper than most such characters. Her Mary is wry, honest, sexy, soulful, and scarily steely when she has to be. Those dark, glaring eyes come in particularly handy when she needs to face down some wild animals along the race path, and stare them down she does. 

Bernadette has gained a stellar reputation in Hollywood as the go-to-girl in the horror genre. She’s done excellent work in many a frightener, including I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE: DEJA VU this past spring. Bernadette always gives 100% to such material, making audiences believe every second of sheer hell she’s going through. Here, her Mary goes through hell and more, and Bernadette does a masterful job conveying all the physical demands her character faces. Yet, just as compelling is how the actress conveys her character's growing confidence, as well as the pluck and wit she employs to confront adversity. She's a fascinating woman; no wonder the cemetery gravedigger (Luthuli Dlamini) can’t help but be drawn to her when he happens upon her visiting her husband's grave. 

Coffin, as he cleverly asks Mary to call him, has his own tragic story as well. The African transplant lost his entire family to a civil war back in his country, but the wise sage remains an optimist nonetheless. Coffin even accepts that his MD license doesn't translate in America, leaving him stuck in the menial labor job at the cemetery. His upbeat attitude inspires Mary all the more to run the Furnace, and soon, she's employing him as her coach and muse.  

The film could’ve spent a lot of time showing Coffin guide Mary in building up her strength and stamina, but filmmaker Roodt wisely truncates such scenes. Even after Mary lands in the hospital, exhausted from a small race in her hometown, Roodt doesn’t spend much time milking the pathos. Instead, he moves the narrative along briskly, getting Mary and Coffin together in Africa and ready to run by the 30-minute mark.

Here is where Roodt spends the rest of the film and pulls out all the stops with his creative team. Everything is shot on location, there are no recognizable green-screen effects, and that's really Bernadette running over hill and dale, doing a ton of stunt work. Indeed, she interacts with the wildlife along the way in one scene after another that will leave audiences, dare I say, breathless.   

The landscapes are lush, lit naturally, and Roodt smartly highlights Mary’s appreciation of her surroundings as she runs too. (The giddy expression on Bernadette’s face as Mary gawks in awe at a cluster of zebras is adorable.) Meanwhile, Coffin follows her journey, tagging along with track officials, to meet her at the markers during the lengthy race. 

Dlamini is the warm narrator that starts off the film, and he continues to provide a sort of play-by-play for us of the highlights of Mary's journey. His baritone has a Morgan Freeman type of gravitas to it, and he works wonders with a line, even when they tend towards being on-the-nose. (‘Sorrow looks back. Worry looks around. And faith looks up.”) But more often than not, Roodt relies on the actions of his actors, not their words, to tell the story. 

One of Bernadette’s best physical bits is when Mary is stung by a scorpion and starts to hallucinate. Mary frets and stumbles around, discombobulated, yet trying to gain back control over her mind and body. She even ends up carrying on a conversation with herself, just this side of delusional, as if she's confiding with a girlfriend at a bar. It could've played as silly. Instead, the accomplished actress makes her character's plight incredibly touching.

Because this is a salvation story, there’s a lot of discussion of God and faith throughout, particularly with a true believer Mary meets at the race, played by an insinuating Laura Linn. This fellow runner will help Mary realize, along with the spiritually-driven Coffin, that such a journey requires faith in God as well as herself. Sometimes the moralizing can get a little heavy-handed, but by and large, it lands. Still, an over-the-top visual towards the end probably goes a smidge too far, but damn if it didn't give me goosebumps anyway.   

THE FURNACE inspires, not only with its message about faith but in how impressively this modest feature delivers the goods. This film, opening October 15th in select theaters and on VOD, is shot with verve and performed with passion, its heart unabashedly on its sleeve. I can think of no better place for it to be worn.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


Original caricature by Jeff York of Joaquin Phoenix as JOKER. (copyright 2019)
The controversial take on the clown prince of crime proved that polarization doesn't necessarily hinder box office receipts. Indeed, Todd Phillips' JOKER may have been too intriguing for even those fearing the worst with what he'd done with the Batman villain's origins story. Though the film at present is resting at a 69% (certified fresh) rating at, it brokes all kinds of box office records for autumn, including a $234 million worldwide take and a heartily endorsing Cinemascore of B+.

I, myself, gave it a very positive review at Creative Screenwriting, and I urge you to read it there as it evaluates why this take is so dark and what such themes of psychopathy and society play in making men into monsters. In many respects, its origin story is closer to that of Charles Manson or Richard Ramirez, more than previous takes on the mobster whose permanent grin was forged by an unfortunate drop into a vat of chemicals. 

JOKER won Best Film at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks back, and Empire magazine, the UK's top film magazine, named it the best film of the year too. We'll see how the critics and Oscar feel about it in the next few months, but suffice it to say, the film is causing a stir. Additionally, Joaquin Phoenix's intensely riveting performance is sure to be an awards contender. His portrayal of the lost soul in JOKER, driven to depression, despair, and violence, could almost be part of a loneliness triptych shared with his work in THE MASTER (2012) and HER (2013).

As I often do with films I admire, I caricatured Phoenix in this now seminal role as you can see in the illustration that accompanies this article. If you see JOKER, don't hesitate to share your comments here, good or bad. It may be a polarizing film but it's certainly got cinema fans talking and tweeting! 

Thursday, October 3, 2019


Hello friends and followers! 

As you are probably aware, I have been an original charter member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle since its inception in 2016. Since that time, our group of critics has grown exponentially, and we've given out our annual years three times now. When we awarded Spike Lee three awards last year for BLACKKKLANSMAN, he used our accolade in the "For Your Consideration" ads the film ran in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety during Oscar season.  

You may have also noticed that our URL is That's a much shorter and catchier moniker, and thus, our group has officially changed our name to that. So, from now on, we are the Chicago Indie Critics. You can follow all 20 of our critics here at our redesigned website:

Oh, and here's our spiffy new logo!