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.
Ever wonder what the Superbad sequel would be? If so, Booksmart is it, except it was unfunny. Directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart took the last day of high school through the perspective of two highly motivated, ambitious, intelligent, and involved senior girls – Amy and Molly – who believed in the mantra “hard work pays off.” When Molly (Beanie Feldstein) learned those whom she looked down up academically also had ambitious post – high school plans, she was stunned. A few scenes later, Molly convinced her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) to tag along with her on a carefree night out.
Released in the midst of stagflation and hostage crises, Hal Ashby’s Being There posits a country so desperate for answers that it will turn just about anywhere, even raising up a charlatan who looks the part but doesn’t actually have anything to say. As this empty vessel that people fill up with their own hopes and wants, Peter Sellers is a pleasant center, a simpleton who doesn’t understand what’s going on but is happy to live in the comfort that the heights of business and politics affords a person. Ashby’s social satiric chops and Sellers’ amiable deadpan flesh out a world of privilege and useless nostalgia that’s only slightly more absurd than our own.
Yorgos Lanthimos makes films that only he could make, partly due to the strange rules that he impresses on the worlds that he creates. Whether those worlds are the restricted compound of Dogtooth or the dystopian anti-romance police state of The Lobster, their inherent absurdity doesn’t break the films because the characters within strenuously abide by the rules. Throughout history, few environments had as restricting, nonsensical, and arbitrary rules as a European royal court, making one a perfect fit for Lanthimos. In The Favourite, the Greek director, born in the birthplace of democracy, goes to the eighteenth century English monarchy for an outrageous chamber drama to end all chamber dramas. How can a future wannabe Best Costume Oscar winner dare to pretend that royals and their courtesans had dignity and gravitas when Lanthimos frames them as coddled by legions of servants as they steer the ship of state based on which minister or hanger-on is making the best jokes?
The ‘useless men’ subgenre, best exemplified recently by Elle or Widows, gets more company with Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, a film whose punny title is perfect for its setting. Set in a ‘breastaurant’ that’s even more grimy and pathetic than the average Hooters, Support the Girls works as a line that the patrons of the central establishment would chuckle at and as a mantra for its harried but dedicated manager, beset on all sides by the tyrannies of the aforementioned useless men she comes into contact with. Bujalski, best known as an early adopter of mumblecore indie cinema, instills far more life into his latest film than one would expect from a mumblecore devotee, and while that genre has its moments, the success of Support the Girls suggests that he might be better off making films about energetic women instead of introspective men.
Spike Lee teaches film at NYU when he’s not making movies, and so many of the prolific director’s films can feel like he’s taking the audience to school. At his most natural, like in a biopic of known lecture-giver Malcolm X, Lee merges the personal and the political with minimal effort, but he’s not always so successful. BlacKkKlansman finds Lee at his most didactic, a deadly trait when the film also has the problem of being muddled in its characterization and its message. However, Lee is still Lee, capable of exuding joyous cool even as he’s pointing fingers in audience’s faces. The nuggets of greatness that the film contains are worth spending several minutes in Race and Culture 101.
Of all the sequels in all the world, it’s only a scarce few that top their respective originals. Even the best sequels, like Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, have plenty of honest detractors who prefer what came before. There’s always that feeling of discovery that is associated with a franchise’s first entry, as well as the dangling suspicion that the sequel is more of a commercial enterprise than a creative one, especially in recent cinematic history when a list of any given year’s top grossing films is dominated by remakes and next chapters in ongoing stories. Paddington 2 avoids that stink by replicating the warmth and charm of the original and incorporating indelible new characters. It also has the gift of timeliness, a pitch for friendliness and good faith towards one’s neighbors when the world seems to be taking the opposite stance. Paul King’s film qualifies as one of 2018’s biggest surprises, a joy delivery system that takes what works from the original Paddington and crushes it into a diamond of irresistible delight.
With Sorry to Bother You, lefty activist and musician-turned-director Boots Riley must have thought he would never be allowed to make another film. His debut is packed with side streets and dead ends, commenting on labor and marketing and race, sometimes all within the same scene. By inserting everything that may have been on his mind during the writing of the film, Riley creates a piece of agitprop that’s too busy to resort to lecturing, the kryptonite of any piece of satire. Sorry to Bother You identifies an economic milieu creeping closer to dystopia, turns the dial to gonzo, and forces the viewer to consider how we live now, lest the director never get the chance to do so again.
Armando Ianucci, having taken a satirical scalpel to the great democracies of England and the US, shifts his attention to communist despotism in The Death of Stalin. Veep’s Selina Meyer is a priceless comic creation because she helplessly dreams of the unquestionable power that the Soviet officials here dole out with the stroke of a pen. She also never ordered the deaths of thousands of people, putting the comedic baseline at a higher-stakes place than her and her staff’s feckless incompetence. The vast power of the American presidency is made hilarious by its constraints and checks: the Soviet premiership has none of those. The Death of Stalin has the difficult task of being a comedy during a period of time when perfunctory executions and rape dungeons are still actively happening during its events, and Ianucci miraculously is able to laugh at the farcical buffoons running Stalin’s meat grinder while evoking deep sympathy for those caught up in it.
Disney’s Zootopia doesn’t have to try as hard as it does on its story. In its telling of an enthusiastic outsider trying to break into her dream job, the film could easily have the lead do exactly that and keep its identical ending of gazelle-Shakira singing an aspirational pop song. Instead, drawing from a multitude of writers and directors with experience on the Simpsons and superb comedies like Cedar Rapids, Zootopia drums up its biggest cachet from its interest in prejudice and bias, especially amongst the police animals who make up much of the cast. It’s an animated comedy that wants to be taken seriously, an attempt to bridge the gap between Disney’s mass-appeal blockbusters and Pixar’s emotional maturity. The ploy worked, with Zootopia receiving every major film award in the animated world and a boatload of cash, but when the film’s taken on its own terms, it reveals a strain of happy-go-lucky liberalism that I find particularly loathsome. Zootopia hasn’t thought through its world, as it offers a picture of friendly animals skipping hand in hand towards an Orwellian dystopia, but hey, that fennec fox sure is cute.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.