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.
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.
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.
Difficult actor Dustin Hoffman takes on his truest role in Tootsie, wherein he plays a difficult actor. The same guy who slapped Meryl Streep on the set of Kramer v. Kramer and famously was told by Laurence Olivier to take it down a notch during filming for Marathon Man connects with the part of himself that abuses and alienates his costars, except Sydney Pollack’s landmark comedy treats it as a joke instead of a serious character flaw that finally bit Hoffman in the ass during the MeToo era. That Tootsie itself is a sharply edited, clever, and relevant comedy washes some of the bad taste from the viewer’s mouth at what looks like an attempt launder Hoffman’s own reputation. If I can laugh at my bad behavior, the film implies, why can’t you? That’s a lot of meta-text to bring into Tootsie, but satire like this wants the viewer to think about the broader world.
In his 2006 iconic phenomenon, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat came from the backwards land of Kazakhstan to experience the joys of America, a place with hospitable people who often say horrible things. Americans, boorish and racist and consumed with empty courtesy though they may be, at least didn’t stage offensive parades and give wide swaths of their population over to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. Thirteen years later, Borat returns to the US to attend anti-COVID-lockdown gatherings and hangs out with Qanon adherents who believe the world’s most powerful liberals distill the blood of children for precious hormones. In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, America has turned into something like Cohen’s imagined Kazakhstan, except no one from the South Carolina tourism department is going to sue him for defamation. Cohen justifies his sequel by simply observing how strange and poisonous America has become, and then justifies it again by gaining a worthy sidekick. It takes more than one Kazakh to satirize America in 2020.
A new level of Jewish cringe comedy is reached in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. Seligman’s feature debut contains enough toe-curling awkwardness to make Larry David sit up and take notice, all contained within a party that’s not as extreme as the events of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! but reminiscent nonetheless. Adapted from a short, Shiva Baby piles tension and complication on its protagonist, a young woman of little accomplishment who’s confronted with judgmental relatives and the thorny untangling of her sexual escapades. Seligman meticulously lays out scenario after scenario to bedevil her lead, and the result is a tremendously watchable film even if it must occasionally be seen through hands over eyes.
A charming Israeli comedy that teaches the viewer more about Judaism than nine seasons of Seinfeld, The Women’s Balcony illustrates the dramatic differences between a five on the religious conservatism scale and a nine. Emil Ben-Shimon’s superb debut is well-versed in the seductive power of charismatic leaders and the creeping language of repression while also being warm and funny. Assemble a minyan and be taken in by one of the best films to ever come out of Israel.
Wes Anderson meets Downfall in Jojo Rabbit, a film that, to its credit, I’m still turning over long after I’ve seen it. Something rankles in Taika Waititi’s self-described anti-hate satire about a young German boy who can’t make himself into the perfect Nazi soldier he aspires to be. The balls required to make a film about a member of the Hitler Youth who has Hitler himself as an imaginary friend are considerable, but they shrivel up when confronted with a tone that can’t decide on stakes or jokes and in turn undercuts both. Armando Ianucci provided Waititi the way forward with his miraculous comedy The Death of Stalin, but Soviet war crimes have a harder time translating to the Third Reich.
Yorgos Lanthimos meets Fight Club in The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns’ deadpan satire of masculinity amidst a storefront dojo. Stearns constructs a world that could exist anywhere within the last several decades, drains it of any emotion besides repressed rage and dull bravado, and within this odd box, communicates a great deal about the lonely and despairing society so many real people live in. The Art of Self-Defense kicks with its comedic punches and punches with its incisive kicks.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.