Misconceived romcom may appeal to Wham! fans

Last Christmas
Things start looking up for Kate (Emilia Clarke) after she meets Tom (Henry Golding) in Last Christmas. (Universal Studios)

By Richard Ades

Take the trappings of a romcom, add a dash of A Christmas Carol, set the tale in a festively lit-up London and fill the soundtrack with a whole bunch of George Michael songs. What you end up with is a holiday movie that’s guaranteed to appeal to—well, George Michael fans.

It’s hard to see who else would be attracted to the gauzy, glittery confection known as Last Christmas. Especially after the flick throws in a last-minute twist that is likely to please no one.

Co-written and produced by Emma Thompson, the story centers on Kate (the lovable Emilia Clarke), a young woman who is spiraling downward for no reason that is immediately apparent.

Maybe it’s because she works as an “elf” in a Christmas-themed store but really wants to be an actor. Or maybe it’s because she can’t stand being around her mother (Thompson), who insists on singing downbeat songs from their native Yugoslavia.

Then again, the store is run by a Chinese immigrant named Santa (Michelle Yeoh) who is supportive and patient even when Kate screws up. And her mother is a kind woman whose main fault is doting on her wayward daughter. So what is Kate’s problem?

Eventually, it comes out that her doldrums began after a health crisis that would have killed her if she hadn’t received a heart transplant. But again, it’s not quite clear why the ordeal has left her feeling depressed rather than lucky to be alive.

No matter. Things start looking up after Kate meets Tom (Henry Golding), a buoyant stranger who encourages her, literally, to start looking up—the better to discover overhead surprises she otherwise would have missed. She quickly grows to love this mysterious stranger who seems too good to be true.

Uh-oh. If you’re a romcom fan, you’ll know that can only mean their relationship is about to hit a snag, though it’s probably not the kind you envisioned.

Last Christmas is directed by Paul Feig, who helmed 2011’s entertaining Bridesmaids and 2016’s disappointing Ghostbusters. Here, he compounds the script’s problems by turning London into a sparkling wonderland where even homelessness is a joyful experience. He also stops the action frequently for perky music video-style montages. None of this helps us to understand miserable Kate or her need for a savior like Tom.

London, of course, was the setting for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the classic tale of a miser who finally learns that the purpose of life is to help others. Last Christmas tries to teach a similar lesson, but it mostly gets buried under the glut of glitz, jollity and George Michael tunes.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Last Christmas (PG-13) opens Nov. 8 at theaters nationwide.

Quirky tale of a boy and his führer

Jojo Rabbit
Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis, right) shares a run with his friend Adolf (Taika Waititi) in Jojo Rabbit. (20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

By Richard Ades

Those who hate war, prejudice and mass murder rightly view Adolf Hitler as one of history’s foremost villains. So it comes as a shock when a seemingly kind-hearted version of the dictator serves as a German boy’s imaginary friend in Jojo Rabbit.

Set in the chaotic final months of World War II, the dark comedy centers on the struggles of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) following the disappearance of his soldier/father under mysterious circumstances.

Jojo is a true believer in the Nazi cause and is looking forward to attending a government-run training camp for youths as the story opens. Once there, however, the 10-year-old balks at a demand that he prove his combat readiness by killing a defenseless rabbit. His refusal turns him into an object of ridicule by the instructors and everyone else.

Everyone that is, except the supportive friend that only he can see. Hitler (Taika Waititi) assures Jojo that he did the right thing and says he will be a better soldier than all the others if he learns to emulate rabbits’ survival instincts. “Be the rabbit,” he counsels the boy.

Directed by Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), who adapted the story from Christine Leunens’s novel, Jojo Rabbit often functions as a satirical reflection on authoritarianism and prejudice. When the imagined Hitler isn’t soothing Jojo’s spirits, he’s parroting the party line on the supposedly horned and subhuman creatures known as Jews. It’s something Jojo and his real-life friend Yorki (Archie Yates) have long heard and mostly accept, even though it doesn’t always jibe with what they’ve witnessed for themselves.

Then Jojo happens to venture into an upstairs room while his mother is out and is horrified to learn she’s been hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As a loyal Nazi, he feels obligated to turn her in, but Elsa warns him that doing so will land his mother in trouble with the authorities. Elsa also thwarts his attempt to overpower her by deftly snatching away his party-issued knife. She’s like a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens,” Hitler later comments, sharing the boy’s indecision over how to handle the situation.

The resulting stalemate between Jojo and Elsa gradually becomes the central core of the story, taking it in new and emotionally charged directions thanks to sincere portrayals by actors Davis and McKenzie. Most of the other cast members also give carefully gauged performances, including Sam Rockwell as an eccentric German officer and Rebel Wilson as the gung-ho Fraulein Rahm. The one exception is Johansson, who never quite comes to life as Jojo’s secretive mother.

As for Waititi, he does fine in the on-screen portion of his triple contribution, making the imaginary Hitler humorously boyish without ignoring the danger he represents. As the screenwriter and director, he allows occasional sections of the film to fall flat, but he’s on target more often than not.

Given that its subject is the prime evil of the 20th century, it’s likely that not everyone will be comfortable with this quirky tale. But for those who can get into the spirit, it’s a subversive experience with an unexpectedly effective payoff.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Jojo Rabbit (PG-13) opens Oct. 31 in Columbus at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Crosswoods Cinema.

Affection for a musical trailblazer

Ronstadt
Photos courtesy of Zachary Martin (Greenwich)

By Richard Ades

Linda Ronstadt was the first female singer to attain the kind of arena-filling star power previously achieved only by males. As a result, the now-73-year-old legend still has plenty of fans, even though Parkinson’s disease has in recent years deprived us of her beautiful voice.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seem to have counted on those fans’ interest when they put together Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Rather than trying to pique viewers’ curiosity with a preview of what Ronstadt achieved, the film biography assumes they already know all that. Instead, it starts at the beginning—or even before the beginning—of her career, allowing the singer to conjecture on how her future was shaped by a father who invented the electric stove and a grandfather who sang Mexican folk songs.

Epstein and Friedman then recount Ronstadt’s career in more or less chronological order. This approach, combined with an account that is long on admiration and short on drama, requires viewers to have a good bit of patience. But Ronstadt’s fans probably won’t mind, especially since they’re given the chance to relive many high points of her musical history courtesy of old concert footage.

The main point the doc puts across is the groundbreaking nature of Ronstadt’s award-winning career. Thanks to a string of hit singles such as 1973’s “Desperado” and hit albums such as 1974’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” she was able to crash the former boys’ club of rock stardom. Astoundingly, not being a songwriter herself, she did it solely on the strength of her vocal instincts and ability.

Ronstadt singing

The second point that comes across is Ronstadt’s fearlessness in the face of new challenges. She periodically insisted on breaking out of her well-paid comfort zone by, for instance, taking a stage role in a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera. Later, in perhaps her boldest move, she honored her family’s heritage by recording traditional Mexican songs in Spanish, though she didn’t actually speak the language.

If anyone ever makes a scripted biopic out of Ronstadt’s life, they’ll probably try to dramatize her inevitable clashes with music executives who wanted her to skip such adventures and stick to what had earned money in the past. Or maybe the flick will seek drama in her brief experiences with diet pills and other drugs, or her romances with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and celebs such as California Gov. Jerry Brown, filmmaker George Lucas and comedian Jim Carrey.

For its part, the doc treats such subjects in an underplayed, matter-of-fact fashion. The executives wanted Ronstadt to stick to what she knew; she said no. She did drugs; then she stopped. She and Souther were together; then they weren’t. (Souther himself says he can’t remember why they broke up but suggests they were too independent and career-oriented to be tied down.)

In general, the film comes off more as a love letter rather than a documentary. Presumably, Ronstadt’s fans won’t mind, especially since that love letter is accompanied by wonderful music.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (PG-13) opens Sept. 13 at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley and the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Mystical Mexican tale pits kids against drug gang

Tigers Are Not Afraid Estrella Shine
Estrella (Paola Lara) comforts Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) in a scene from Tigers Are Not Afraid.

By Richard Ades

In most horror films, ghosts or other supernatural entities endanger the lives of ordinary people. In Tigers Are Not Afraid, there are supernatural entities galore, but the real danger comes from human beings.

The tale takes place in a Mexican city where the ongoing drug war has left many children to fend for themselves after their parents have been killed or have simply disappeared. Imaginatively written and directed by Issa Lopez, it’s scary and sad, but also mystical and inspirational.

We meet our adolescent heroine, Estrella (Paola Lara), in a classroom where her teacher assigns the students to write stories incorporating magical figures such as princes and, at one child’s suggestion, tigers. We then are engulfed in Estrella’s story, in which a boy steals a gang thug’s phone and pistol and contemplates shooting him but can’t—because, the narrator decides, he’s forgotten how to be a prince.

Suddenly, we’re dragged back into the classroom, where the sound of gunfire has forced the students to hit the floor. In the aftermath, the school is closed, and Estrella returns home to learn her mother has joined the ranks of missing parents. Hungry and destitute, she throws herself on the mercy of a ragtag group of orphaned boys led by the gruffly macho Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez).

Tigers Are Not Afraid Boys
Shine’s gang of homeless orphans

Shine, it turns out, has recently stolen a gang thug’s phone and pistol. From this point on, Estrella’s life seems to merge with her unfinished tale. She also has entered a state of reality in which ghostly figures and portentous streams of blood intrude on the already-terrifying everyday world.

One of film’s most compelling storylines is the evolving relationship between Estrella and Shine’s followers. She quickly takes a maternal interest in the youngest boy, Morrito (Nery Arredondo), who clings for comfort to his little stuffed tiger. But others see girls as bad luck, and Estrella is ordered to prove her worth by killing the owner of the stolen phone, a gang member named Caco (Ianis Guerrero). When she uses a magical wish in an attempt to avoid the task, it backfires, putting all of them in the crosshairs of ruthless drug kingpin Chino (Tenoch Huerta Mejia).

As the plucky heroine, Lara sometimes underplays Estrella, perhaps suggesting that the girl is in shock or sleepwalking through the nightmarish predicament in which she’s been thrust. Leading the wonderful supporting cast, Lopez makes Shine a boyishly insecure leader who’s tormented by his fears, failures and losses.

Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography unobtrusively melds the supernatural with the natural, turning the film into a prime example of Latin American “magical realism.” Vince Pope’s musical score provides the final complement to Lopez’s drama of children forced to live in a dangerous world not of their own making.

Seeing this fantasy-laden take on the real-life suffering of children is a devastating experience. But, as a morality tale and an innovative work of cinema, it’s also uplifting and unforgettable.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Tigers Are Not Afraid (originally titled Vuelven) opens Sept. 13 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus. The film is unrated but contains rough language and violence.

Thrown-together fugitives become huckleberry friends

Peanut Butter Falcon
Tyler, Eleanor and Zak (Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Zack Gottsagen, from left) wander through the waves in The Peanut Butter Falcon.

By Richard Ades

The name “Mark Twain” comes up in an early scene of The Peanut Butter Falcon. It happens when a nursing-home attendant runs into an unemployed fisherman named Tyler and asks if he’s seen the runaway she’s seeking. Rather than give her a straight answer, Tyler coyly suggests the escapee may be off on the kind of adventure Twain might have thought up.

That pretty much describes this warmhearted tale, which in many ways resembles an updated version of Huckleberry Finn.

To be sure, there are key differences. Rather than being a motherless boy and a runaway slave, the heroes are Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who’s lost both his job and his brother, and Zak (Zach Gottsagen), a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome. Like their literary counterparts, though, they’re on a trek in search of freedom and happiness. At one point, they even commandeer a raft.

We first meet Zak when he’s living in a North Carolina facility for senior citizens—the only place the state could find for him after he was abandoned by his family. Sharing a room with the sympathetic Carl (Bruce Dern), he spends his evenings watching old wrestling videotapes and dreaming of becoming a wrestler himself. If only he can escape, he plans to learn grappling moves by enrolling in the school run by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Despite the efforts of friendly attendant Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak does escape and soon runs into Tyler, who is on the lam himself. Frustrated at his inability to obtain a crab-fishing license following his brother’s untimely death, Tyler has resorted to stealing from other fishermen’s traps. Beaten up for his efforts, he then retaliates by starting a fire that turns out to be more destructive than planned. He takes off in his boat, with two revenge-seeking fishermen in fierce pursuit.

It’s at this point that Tyler realizes Zak—a short, chubby man clad only in underwear—has been hiding on his boat. Thus begins a reluctant collaboration that eventually grows into a close friendship.

Co-writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz tell the tale with warmth and wit. With help from a down-home musical score, they also do a good job of capturing the time (roughly the 1990s, judging from one character’s flip phone) and place (the coastal Carolinas and Georgia). The perfectly cast actors do the rest.

Despite playing a shotgun-toting character who’s down and out, LaBeouf projects grit and an undercurrent of decency. Whether he’s gruffly laying down the rules to his traveling companion or flirting with a woman who seems out of his league, you know he’s essentially a good guy.

As Eleanor, whose job requires her to track down Zak and bring him back to the nursing home whether he wants to go or not, Johnson combines a sense of duty with genuine caring.

But it’s Gottsagen’s portrayal of Zak that gives the film its soul. In fact, according to a producer who spoke at a preview screening, the whole film was built around the actor’s talents. As a mentally challenged man who’s determined to live the life he wants, not the one others have proscribed for him, Gottsagen paints an indelible portrait of naïve faith and brave determination.

Surprisingly, he’s also funny, with help from a script that knows how to laugh at someone’s foibles without ridiculing their challenges. In its respectful but non-pandering treatment of a person with disabilities, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a model of sensitivity.

Most of all, though, it’s a delightful and entertaining adventure—one that I’m already looking forward to seeing again.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

The Peanut Butter Falcon (PG-13) opens Aug. 23 at theaters nationwide.

Looking back on China’s ‘one child’ rule

One_Child_Nation
Amazon Studios

By Richard Ades

From 1979 to 2015, China enforced a rigid policy that forbade most couples from having more than one child. The rule was intended to reverse the country’s exploding population growth, which was seen as a threat to plans for economic development.

One Child Nation, a documentary directed by the Chinese-born Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, shows that the policy’s effects were long-lasting and horrifying.

With the help of archival footage, the film depicts the propaganda campaign China used to urge its people to abandon their tradition of large families. Billboards, theatrical performances and even playing cards helped to spread the message that population control was the key to prosperity.

As a result, many supported the policy, though some did so only out of fear or a sense of duty. Others tried to evade it and suffered disastrous consequences. Wang, who moved to the U.S. six years before giving birth to her own son, returns to her native village with camera in hand in an attempt to learn just what those consequences were.

Perhaps because she is seen as a local rather than an outsider, Wang is able to uncover some startlingly raw emotions.

A former village chief says he enforced the policy only because he had to, adding that he refused to take part in forced sterilizations of women after their first child. A former midwife feels guilt for performing such sterilizations—and for performing mandatory abortions so late in the pregnancy that, in her mind, they amounted to murder.

But not everyone feels such guilt. A woman who was lauded by the government for her role in “family planning” says the policy was justified despite its cost in misery and lives. “It was like fighting a war,” she says, according to the translated subtitles. “Death was inevitable.”

It quickly becomes apparent that the policy was complicated by many couples’ patriarchal wish for a son who could carry on the family name. Parents of girls often tried to evade the law, sometimes going so far as to abandon their daughters. The documentary traces the cost in terms of dead babies and a lucrative market for the adoption of Chinese “orphans”—a market in which government representatives were likely complicit.

One Child Nation is full of such shocking revelations. If it doesn’t attain the emotional arc of an effective work of fiction, it’s partly because some of the most painful details arrive early or midway through.

By the end, the film’s focus has shifted to a Utah couple’s attempt to connect Chinese children with previously unknown siblings who were basically sold on the foreign adoption market. It’s a worthy effort, but it’s one giant step removed from the nightmarish ordeal their parents went through in the name of progress.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

One Child Nation (rated R) opens Aug. 23 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

The key to happiness: Listen to Springsteen

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
Javed (Viveik Kalra) becomes a devotee of Bruce Springsteen in Blinded by the Light. (Photo by Nick Wall/Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Richard Ades

Blinded by the Light introduces us to Javed, a Pakistani-British teen who feels imprisoned by forces beyond his control. Those forces include immigrant-hating bullies and the weak economy of Margaret Thatcher’s UK in the late 1980s.

Worst of all, though, is Javed’s rigid father, who insists on dictating what his son does with his life. Dad’s pragmatic plans leave little room for Javed’s real love, writing, which he surreptitiously practices by writing poems that he shows to no one.

Then a fellow student turns Javed on to the music of Bruce Springsteen, and suddenly his outlook improves. After listening to the American rocker’s lyrical explosions of pain, anger and indomitability, he realizes he’s found a kindred spirit. With the Boss as his inspiration, he begins fighting for the kind of future he wants.

Admittedly, all this would come off as Pollyannaish and unbelievable if it were fiction. However, the fact that the film is inspired by the life of an actual person helps to transform it into an uplifting, if flawed, tale of the power of art and music.

Directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), the flick relies heavily on Viveik Kalra’s engaging portrayal of its struggling protagonist. Other young actors also are convincing, including Dean-Charles Chapman as Matt, Javed’s best friend; and Aaron Phagura as Roops, the Sikh who introduces him to Springsteen.

On the home front, Kulvinder Ghir adds a humorous edge that prevents Malik, the father, from turning into a total villain. Especially funny is Malik’s insistence that the key to Javed’s success is to copy the behavior of his Jewish classmates—advice that Javed quickly labels “racist.”

Blinded by the Light running
Joyously reacting to the music of the Boss are (from left) Eliza (Nell Williams), Roops (Aaron Phagura) and Javed (Viveik Kalra). (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Also strong are the female members of the cast, though they mostly play one-note supporting roles (in more ways than one). Meera Ganatra is Javed’s hard-working mother, Nikita Mehta is his sympathetic sister, and Hayley Atwell is the teacher who pushes him to develop his writing talent. As the activism-minded student Eliza, Nell Williams has a similarly limited role, chiefly serving as Javed’s love interest.

Blinded by the Light’s best moments occur early on—when it introduces us to Javed’s soul-draining environment—and late, when it wraps up its crises in a satisfying way. In between, things are a little more problematic.

When Javed first hears Springsteen songs via a Walkman cassette deck, the film superimposes the words on walls and other parts of his environment. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it gets across the impact the words have on the teen.

Quite a bit sillier are various music video-like scenes in which people run or dance around joyfully in reaction to Springsteen songs. There are also moments that are too predictable or contrived to elicit the emotional response they seek.

Fortunately, the cast turns things around at the end by sticking the landing. The result is that we’re sent out of the theater with renewed faith in life, love, the future and the genius of a certain troubadour from New Jersey.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Blinded by the Light (PG-13) opens Aug. 16 at theaters nationwide.