September 12, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Jojo Rabbit” & “Seberg”


JOJO RABBIT (Fox Searchlight – October 4):  The discourse about Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has quickly become a debate between those who think its Nazi-era black comedy is authentically daring, and those who feel its purported audacity is a pretense covering a merely middlebrow sensibility.  (Note:  every person in the history of language who invokes the term “middlebrow” considers their own brow to be significantly higher.)  Some of the latter have even compared Jojo to the insipid, odious Life Is Beautiful, which are very close to fighting words.  For this viewer, a work of comedy centered around a member of Hitler Youth, whose imaginary playmate is an Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself) spouting contemporary idioms can safely claim a measure of daring, even if the journey of Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is ultimately toward redemption.  That journey is by way of his discovery that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has hidden a Jewish teen, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, the bright young star of Leave No Trace), in a hidden room of their house.  Although Jojo’s eventual willingness to be won over by the side of good may be reassuring in a way some find too optimistic, his path is gradual and convincing, beginning with hostile fascination before it develops onward.  It helps as well that Davis and McKenzie are performers gifted with the ability to convey complicated warmth.  Waititi guides the film expertly, drawing big laughs from the most unexpected places, like an visit from an SS officer played by Stephen Merchant, or a needle-drop of the German-language version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to a montage of Hitler’s fanatical acolytes.  Jojo Rabbit isn’t perfect:  scenes at the Hitler Youth headquarters with Sam Rockwell and especially Rebel Wilson go over the top comically and disrupt the tone, for example.  But Waititi has taken enormously difficult subject matter and balanced its light and dark aspects with remarkable skill.  Wherever its brow may belong, Jojo Rabbit makes a mark.

SEBERG (Amazon – release date TBD):  Casting Kristen Stewart as the movie actress Jean Seberg was a gamble that paid off well for Seberg, but sadly it’s one of the few decisions by director Benedict Andrews and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse that did.  Stewart wasn’t an obvious choice for Seberg, who had a unique career.  Discovered as a midwest teenager by Otto Preminger, she was cast as an all-American Saint Joan, which flopped after a tidal wave of hype.  By the time she was 22, she had relocated to France and starred in Godard’s iconic Breathless, and for the rest of her career she tried to alternate between foreign films and Hollywood productions.  Her on-screen style was fairly placid (a quality used brilliantly by Godard), and very different from Kristen Stewart’s virtual throb of bursting thoughts and emotions.  In the Seberg scenes that replicate the actress’s performances, Stewart does a convincing job of inhabiting the on-camera Seberg, and Stewart’s own style in the behind-the-scenes portions of the film give Seberg a much-needed complexity.  Seberg itself is more concerned with the actress’s increasing involvement with politics and its consequences, focusing on a period in the late 1960s when she came back to the US to star in Paint Your Wagon (which ended up flopping horribly), and became linked with the Black Panthers, and especially activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), which captured the FBI’s attention.  The film spends a lot of its time on the fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) who becomes fascinated with Seberg, and his supervisor Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) and Frank Ellroy (Colm Meaney), scenes that are badly written and not particularly well acted.  The politics as set forth in the script are simplistic, and Seberg’s relationships with Jamal and her French husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) get short shrift.  Visually, Andrews and production designer Jahmin Assa can’t fully disguise the restricted budget.  Seberg may have been made with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t do justice to its subject.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."