‘JOJO RABBIT’ and ‘FIRST LOVE’ open Fantastic Fest to much applause

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

AUSTIN – Festival-goers may have been soaked by the weather on Thursday night at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin, but that wasn’t about to rain on anyone’s Fantastic Fest parade. Plenty was happening at the film festival’s opening night. In fact, enough for any film fan to repeat the day three times. 

If you didn’t see the marquee films, there was the sci-fi mystery Vivarium, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots (who previously starred together in The Art of Self-Defense), the Daniel Radcliffe-led action gonzo Guns Akimbo and Jay Baruchel’s star-studded Random Acts of Violence

Oh, and let’s not forget AGFA and Vinegar Syndrome’s restored “gore cut” of 1994’s Tammy and the T-Rex. To jog your memory if the title rings a bell, Tammy and the T-Rex centers on a teen boy (Paul Walker) whose brain is implanted in a Tyrannosaurus Rex by an evil scientist. It stars Denise Richards and is goofy to boot. 

To attend Fantastic Fest, you have to crave eccentricity with your movies. Just wait until I report back about day two of the festival. It only gets more out-there. 

However, for those who saw the more digestible features like Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and Takashi Miike’s First Love, you were likely thrilled from what was served. Both films are undoubtedly an acquired taste, but the heart and humor on display made them more appealing for viewers with stricter film diets. 

JOJO RABBIT

Jojo Rabbit kicked off the night. Ahead of the film’s screening, Fantastic Fest programmers did their usual intros of welcoming audiences back to the week-long event, which is celebrating its 15th year. 

This year’s Fantastic Fest celebrates the rich and varied history of the Mexican film genre. A band serenaded audiences with cultural tunes, before breaking the cycle by putting their own twist on Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and having costumed characters dance around like a Harlem Shake video. 

Shortly after, Waititi greeted audiences and thanked them for attending his anti-hate satire. But what you should know about Waititi (director of Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows) is never to expect a traditional Q&A. It’s almost always goes off the trails. He will riff for several minutes. 

On Thursday, Waititi (drunkenly?) mumbled about his inspiration for the film while disassembling his mic and shouting “Day-O” like he and actor Stephen Merchant were Freddie Mercury. Waititi is all about deconstructing the process of talking about film. Why bore audiences with the details when you can give them a night they’ll never forget? That’s precisely what Waititi did, and that continued with his film and post-screening Q&A. 

The film – about a young German boy (a very good Roman Griffin Davis) in Hitler’s army who finds out his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home – was the perfect crowd pleaser for devotees to get their feet wet. Jojo Rabbit has the absurdist humor that generally accompanies Waititi’s film, but it also has an incredible amount of heart. The film’s trailer has a Wes Anderson vibe, with its tan color palette, symmetrical framing and dry wit. While the final product certainly plucks from Anderson’s aesthetics, it quickly becomes Waititi’s own stroke of genius. 

To attempt to box it up, Jojo Rabbit is like watching The Boy in the Striped Pajamas but with a comedian’s commentary. That may sound completely wrong when the film involves a Nazi child with Hitler (portrayed by Waititi) as an imaginary friend. Trust me; it’s all in good taste. It has a childlike innocence on its side. It uses humor to soften the blow. How Waititi juggles between comedy and drama is extraordinary. You may gasp at one sequence, but Waititi will promptly insert joy back into the equation. 

Jojo Rabbit is a bittersweet entry that should be mandatory viewing for schools to educate about the Holocaust. It’s not emotionally draining like watching Schindler’s List, which spares no expense to give you the reality of the tragedy. It has so much positivity in its narrative that it could warm the iciest of hearts. It’s absolutely lovely, and one of the year’s very best films.

Grade: A-

Fox Searchlight will release JOJO RABBIT on October 18. Read James Cole Clay’s review from the Toronto International Film Festival here.

FIRST LOVE

Opening night lost no momentum with entertaining First Love. The Japanese-language romantic-thriller begins as one film and winds up becoming an After Hours-like blood fest. Go figure. It’s a Takashi Miike film, who gave us one of the most unsettling and fun movies of all time with 1999’s Audition.

First Love opens up as a story about a young boxer named Leo (13 Assassins’ Masataka Kubota) who is well on his way to becoming the next great fighter. That’s until the world punches him in the gut with a fatal tumor diagnosis. With all hopes dashed, he plans to coast until his ultimate demise.

That’s when he meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young woman whose life is a never-ending tragedy. She’s a drugged-out, hallucinogenic prisoner of prostitution. She’s forced to turn tricks by a couple caught up in a drug-smuggling scheme. Things get out of whack when Monica flees. Luckily, Leo intervenes and saves her.

The rest of the film is a Departed-esque crime film filled with characters double-crossing one another, insane complexity and laughter. First Love is a toned down Miike film, but the fun of his story will cause your heart to beat for it. Miike skillfully balances a tone that could have easily toppled over. He’s one of the most gifted filmmakers working today. He consistently keeps you on your toes and finds amusing ways to reconfigure familiar plotlines. And this is one you simply can’t pass up.

Read our interview with director Takashi Miike here.

Grade: B+

Well Go USA’s release for FIRST LOVE is TBA. An encore screening at Fantastic Fest will be held on September 26.

For all information on Fantastic Fest and its screenings, visit fantasticfest.com.

Feature Photo: Filmmaker Taika Waititi, left, with actor Stephen Merchant at the opening night premiere of ‘JOJO RABBIT.’ Courtesy of Fantastic Fest.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.