When director Joseph Kahn shows up on a podcast, he’s going to be a provocative presence. Filterless and blunt, Kahn doesn’t hold anything back about the movie industry or whatever else is on his mind. He finds a topic to match his personality in Bodied, a confrontational film about battle rap and a dozen other things. Produced by Eminem and co-written with Kahn by rapper Kid Twist, Bodied brings a feel of authenticity to its world while Kahn gives the rhythmic and visceral battle rap arenas all the cinematic power the director of Torque can provide.
Restraint isn’t a word I would use to describe the films of Pedro Almodovar. Sometimes, that’s an asset in his Spanish melodramas. When the amount of plot points are in the right combination and proportion, he can cram in all the soapy details that he wants. However, it doesn’t take much overseasoning to spoil the batch. Parallel Mothers, yet another collaboration between Almodovar and Penelope Cruz in the lead, soars as one of Almodovar’s best, at least until the point where he gambles on a late development that turns the film from a thing that was working tremendously well into something less successful. Parallel Mothers contains one of the best performances of 2021, though, overstuffed as it is, it misses out on being one of the best films of the year.
The story of the last ten years, and the next hundred, has been and will be migration. Political instability, economic privation, civil war, environmental collapse, it all conspires to push people into stable places that often contributed to or directly caused the instability that made migrants and refugees flee in the first place. Flee is the story of one of these families torn between great powers and cast into an underground morass whose effects linger long after safety has been achieved. Jonas Poher Rasmussen blends documentary and animation in a film that dissects all aspects of the refugee experience, from the uncertainty to the powerlessness. People need to get more acquainted with these kinds of stories because they’re not going to stop happening.
It’s 2010 and David Sirota is working for a progressive advocacy organization and, after a long day stewing over the kid-glove handling of the financial crisis’s bad actors, takes some time to watch a movie that he thinks will be a nice distraction. Adam McKay’s The Other Guys is showing, and what appeared to be an odd couple cop comedy from the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers gradually reveals itself to be about the financial crisis itself, culminating in didactic PowerPoint charts and graphs about Wall Street malfeasance over the credits. Sirota imagines those in the theater with him are lapping up the medicine alongside Will Ferrell’s sugary slapstick, and makes a mental note that he could incorporate that same combination into his work. I’ve heard Sirota on lots of podcasts, and while he is a clear-eyed diagnoser of political problems and a reliable leftist voice, he’s not a funny guy, a description that increasingly can be laid on McKay. In the years since The Other Guys, McKay’s been stuck on agitprop. Far away from the improvisational genius of his early film career, his films have taken direct aim at campaign finance, the financial crisis again, and Dick Cheney, to varying success. With Don’t Look Up, McKay throws aside all pretense and works with Sirota on a naked climate change allegory, throwing himself wholly over to activist filmmaking in a way that makes PureFlix look subtle. Political messaging in film can be done well, but not when the point is made with all the finesse of a giant rock slamming into the earth’s surface.
For the first time in his career, preferer of amateur/non-actors Sean Baker dabbled in big-name casting with his film The Florida Project, netting Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination in Baker’s most commercially successful film to date. The lesson he might’ve taken was to make bigger movies with bigger stars, cast alongside whatever area natives and interesting faces he comes across along the way. With Red Rocket, Baker does cast a lead with dozens of credits, but not exactly ones of Dafoe’s caliber. For Simon Rex, that might change in the immediate future, because he and Baker combine to produce the best thing either has ever put their name on. Red Rocket defiantly chases an unrepentant and charismatic narcissist down his Gulf Coast rabbit hole, bringing a porn industry slur and an exciting new talent into the mainstream.
Marvel and Sony’s uneasy alliance over Spider-Man comes to a head in Spider-Man: No Way Home. The third solo entry in Tom Holland’s run as the character can no longer rely on Tony Stark for toys and linkage to the broader MCU world, so Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange tags in for the purposes of corporate synergy mixed with nostalgia, as the sorcerer conjures a way for the last two decades of Sony franchise service to show up onscreen and prod Gen Z fans to goose the online rental sales of old Spider-Man movies. No Way Home keeps up the inoffensive and ill-considered, albeit entertaining, tone that has marked Holland’s run as the character. This has been a weightless series of movies helmed by Jon Watts, but massive box office receipts means more of the same will keep coming.
Two of the greatest female tennis players, if not outright tennis players, make a biographical appearance on the big screen but the movie that contains them is about their father. King Richard provides a baffling starring vehicle for Will Smith, whose salary eats up 80% of the film’s production budget, and though the premise is fatally flawed, the resulting film provides competence while depicting the pursuit of all-around excellence. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s third film is aware of the tropes of sports films and biopics, and while he doesn’t subvert them in this straightforward work, he does polish them. King Richard doesn’t reinvent anything in the way its child subjects will, but with a compelling story and the cast to inhabit the roles, it does a recognizable thing well.
Paul Thomas Anderson can’t stay away from the San Fernando Valley. After a brief stint in a London fashion house, he returns to his default cinematic playground with his ninth feature, Licorice Pizza, a gauzy blend of PTA’s own childhood memories and those of his Hollywood friend, Gary Goetzman. Pre-release impressions of Licorice Pizza looked like this was going to be the iconic director’s most autobiographical film, and while the personal touches are surely there, PTA instead shifts the primary focus to a young woman in her 20’s whose experiences of disconnectedness and aimlessness are set against those of a teenager who seems like he knows exactly what he’s doing. Their adventures through the Valley of the 1970’s make Licorice Pizza the most shapeless of PTA’s filmography, a director already known for eschewing a linear plot. However, who needs an A-to-B plot, or really any plot at all, when the world that’s been imagined and reconstructed is populated with so many memorable characters, all led by two of the best performances of 2021? Licorice Pizza is safely in PTA’s mid-to-low tier, but that just means it’s merely great as opposed to an all-timer.
Shaul Schwarz’s documentary Narco Cultura tracked the mid-2010’s connection between ruthless drug violence and the celebratory musical culture that arose around the cartels. It didn’t lack for revolting people who made their living off of exploitation, and with Schwarz’s follow-up Trophy, he finds more of the deeply hate-able. Schwarz and co-director and cinematographer Christina Clusiau gets honest and chilling access to players in the big-game hunting industry, criss-crossing the world from Texas to South Africa and Zimbabwe and meeting game wardens, conservationists, and the hunters who either support or bedevil both. Trophy complicates an issue that most people have a knee-jerk reaction to, both supporting and contradicting those who are revolted by big-game hunting or who see it as a necessary expression of nature and culture.
Of the 70’s era film school brats, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas have made their best films long in the past and have largely moved on from directing. Martin Scorsese, meanwhile, has landed a masterpiece in each of his five decades of productivity, and is likely to stretch that record into his sixth. Final member Steven Spielberg has shared Scorsese’s indefatigable streak, and while he’s annihilated Scorsese at the box office, the critical accolades have been drying up thanks to middling efforts like The Post, The BFG, and the loathsome Ready Player One. However, this film school brat proves he has more to offer with West Side Story, a bravura remake of the 1961 musical and Spielberg’s best film in 15 to 20 years. The old master can still show audiences how it’s done.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.