Christian Petzold’s recent work has dramatized difficult periods of 20th century German history. Barbara followed a woman under close surveillance by East Germany’s Stasi secret police, while the masterful Phoenix placed the psychological trauma of a Holocaust survivor amidst a ruined Berlin in the war’s immediate aftermath. In Petzold’s latest work, Transit, he returns to the fertile ground of 20th century upheaval and panic by adapting a novel set in a France that’s on the brink of total domination by the Nazi war machine, but, perhaps tired of period detail, the German director places the film’s events in a contemporary setting. Characters aren’t checking the Nazi’s progress on their smart phones, but there are plenty of modern signposts and presumptions that push the viewer out of the comfort zone that usually exists in historical dramas. The past becomes the present in Transit, a chilling morality tale that further cements Petzold as the prime cinematic chronicler of the moral dilemmas that arise when the safeguards of society are not what they once were, a talent that makes Transit a vital film for this moment.
Despite coming out at the beginning of the 2010’s, How to Train Your Dragon remains one of the best films of the decade, not only in animation but across all genres. Dean DeBlois’ and Dreamworks Animation’s adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s fantasy series put aside the crass and tired pop culture references that made the studio successful in favor of powerful and cinematic storytelling that stresses a message of experimentation and resistance to hidebound tradition, potentially sparking a generation of scientists who upend established knowledge while humming the film’s rousing theme. Nine years later, DeBlois closes out his franchise with the trilogy-ending How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, a film that seems designed to surgically remove tears from the eyes of viewers who love the original. The new film contains mirrored shots that augment and deepen images etched in a fan’s memory. It makes for an experience more subjective than the already-subjective process of reviewing a film, as this is a can’t-miss stunner that feels like it was made specifically for me.
Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is best described as a casting bonanza. Show a viewer whose never seen John C. Reilly onscreen this movie, and they’ll have a thorough understanding who the actor is. This low-stakes comedy about insurance salesman at an annual conference features actors inhabiting roles that only they could’ve played, led by Ed Helms as Tim Lippe, a sheltered man-child who invests his career with the seriousness of a heart surgeon. Still the best part that Helms has ever played, Lippe serves as an audience surrogate into the inert and corrupt world of Midwestern insurance, a racket not unlike the region it exists in, such that innate decency is buried underneath ostentatious religiosity and the appearance of things proceeding as normal. Cedar Rapids knows this world as much as the cast knows their characters, and the result is a film that retains its warmth even as its protagonist’s rosy worldview falls away in exchange for another.
Five years after its release, it remains impressive that The LEGO Movie managed to rise above its explicitly mercenary origins and distract viewers from an attempt to sell more toys. Some of this goodwill was surely generated by universal warm feelings towards the plastic Danish bricks, reminiscent of the wistfulness that greeted 2018’s Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. In the intervening years, those warm feelings have been tested with two other LEGO movies and now a direct sequel. The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part has the challenge of a stretched nostalgia, losing the meta surprise of its predecessor, and needing to build upon the madcap animation and comedy. With masterminds Phil Lord and Chris Miller out of the director’s chair in place of Mike Mitchell, the magic in this film isn’t fully replicated, as if several pages have been ripped out of the manual by an errant foot or a reckless younger sibling. The finished kit can still be achieved, but the builder is less confident it’s going to hold up.
Everyone’s favorite intergalactic trophy hunter, the Predator, shouldn’t be a difficult creature to build a movie around, but there’s somehow only been a single strong film about one of them and a string of mediocre follow-ups. Shane Black continues this tradition with The Predator, yet another entry that can’t measure up to the original. Having previously spent time in the jungle, the inner city, and a planetary game reserve, Black considers where the series hasn’t been yet and settles on suburbia, an environment that allows him and his impressive cast to hunt and be hunted on unimpressive grounds. The Predator doesn’t need to be bursting with ideas as the root premise is so simple, but this film lacks anything novel and the ideas it does have are terrible.
DC takes a big swing at Marvel with Aquaman by throwing everything possible at them in one tsunami of spectacle. The grandiosity of a shark vs giant crab clash of thousands, interrupted by no less than a leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews, exists alongside a fight for a fantastical throne, a revenge quest, a brief sojourn into an undersea horror flick, and a surprisingly earnest romance between a lighthouse keeper and an ocean queen played by Nicole Kidman. Director James Wan goes for the gusto in Aquaman, providing the movie equivalent of a joke dense half-hour sitcom: if you don’t like one massive setpiece, wait a few minutes for the next one.
Adam McKay’s semi-comedic plumbing of the depths of the 2000’s continues with Vice, a biopic about Dick Cheney that, while it spans his entire adult life, wouldn’t exist without the pinnacle of Cheney’s career at the beginning of the 21st century. Like McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, the writer/director employs diversionary sketches and meta fourth-wall breakages to tell his story, but the primary difference between Vice and The Big Short is a lack of interest in explanation. Scenes of The Big Short were given over to the inner workings of the arcane financial instruments that nearly destroyed the global economy. There weren’t villains as much as there were systems erected by large groups of humans who were less malevolent and more short-sighted and irrationally optimistic. Vice, on the other hand, has villains, none moreso than the man at its center, and it has little interest in finding a way into his actions beyond a lust for power and control. McKay also makes the mistake of not watching any of the most successful biopics from the last decade or so, films that took a single episode from a prominent person’s life and adapted that as opposed to clumsily cramming decades of experiences into a couple hours. In both The Big Short and his interviews surrounding the film, McKay was able to communicate that he understood a root cause of the financial crisis. Vice doesn’t have that feeling about Cheney or about political corruption in general, subbing out genuine curiosity for that hilarious time the vice president shot a hunting buddy in the face.
Skateboarding experienced a cinematic moment in 2018, as three movies that heavily featured the sport and the ‘wayward’ teens who engage in it were released within months of each other. The nonfiction one, Minding the Gap, was universally recognized as the best of the three, the other two being Mid90’s and Skate Kitchen. Bing Liu’s debut documentary, sprung from his compulsion to shoot skate videos of himself and his friends from his teenage years, starts as a carefree exploration of several young men as they tear around Rockford, IL, but as Liu identifies the unspoken similarities in his and fellow principals Keire’s and Zack’s lives, the film escapes the gravity of their degraded post-industrial town and turns into something profound.
The second half of the cinematic 2010’s has been marked by backlash against more diverse storytelling, especially when women star in franchise reboots. Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and the Ocean’s movies all experienced resentment against a shift away from white male protagonists. On the one hand, the trifling man-babies who complain about something so insignificant should be ignored at all costs. On the other hand, they can be wholly marginalized by telling new stories, a practice that allows studios to find unique voices from underrepresented backgrounds and create new properties that future generations of braindead executives can strip-mine for content. Disney now contains such vast holdings that they can recycle comic book content indefinitely and shunt riskier (i.e. not based on preexisting properties) projects into other storied divisions like Disney Animation, home of the exceptional Moana. Looking for innovation from a studio that’s been adapting fairy tales for almost a century would seem a fool’s errand, but Disney’s reach means it can attract great minds like the film’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and funnel his work through veteran directors like Disney mainstays Ron Clements and John Musker. Moana’s considerable pedigree, its novelty as a tale set amongst Polynesian villagers, and its absence of princess-related baggage makes it into one of the best animated features in Disney’s long history.
As far as physical human accomplishments go, the climbing of El Capitan, Yosemite Park’s 3000-foot monolith, without the aid of ropes or hooks or anything beyond calloused fingers is considerable. The act signifies a kind of schoolyard one-upmanship when the peak of Everest is clogged with tourists who risk death, not so much from climbing the mountain but from freezing in long lines as they wait to take their picture at the top. Climber Alex Honnold literally takes his life into his own hands as he thumbs his nose at these poseur-adventurers, and, in an incredible feat of filmmaking, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are right there with him as claws his way to the top. Free Solo chronicles the how of this outlandish feat in spectacular, vertigo-inducing fashion, but it also captures the why. The camera is not only in Honnold’s face during his climb, but it also interrogates the specific kind of person who would do something like this, refusing to be satisfied with stock ‘because it’s there’ shorthand.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.