The tortuous world lurking under the glossy surface of Toy Story gets taken out once again for more puzzling philosophical questions. Already appearing to be immortal and indestructible, the toys in Pixar’s flagship franchise now seem to be borne out of the slightest humanization, such that a box of googly eyes are the equivalent of god breathing life into Adam dozens of times over. Toy Story 4, like the previous entries, implies endless and interminable torture in the lightest possible package. The animation has never looked more realistic as the animate inanimate objects of the film struggle with a new kid to entertain and the redefinition of their existences. Just don’t think about it too hard.
Liz Lemon from 30 Rock spent an episode traveling back home for a high school reunion that didn’t go as she thought it would. She imagined herself as bullied and overlooked, but her misremembered talent for the perfectly cutting remark meant that she was the bully, pushing her peers into plastic surgery clinics and therapy couches with her emotional brutality. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut finds her own teenage Liz Lemon in Beanie Feldstein’s Molly, a valedictorian who passed on partying to focus on her accomplishments and developed an antipathy towards her less disciplined classmates. With best friend and cohort in teetotaling Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) by her side, who needed all these drunks and skanks who were surely going to peak in their teenage years? Booksmart hilariously follows Molly and Amy as their worldview is turned upside-down in their final days of high school. In this gender and ambition-flipped Superbad for a new generation, the bittersweet emotionality is replicated and the jokes are updated for current sensibilities, losing nothing in their potency.
Lulu Wang’s first film, the underseen and barely released Posthumous, reads like a standard indie romance about two beautiful white people in Berlin. It’s probably fine, but whether or not it could only have been made by Wang is an open question. The Farewell, on the other hand, adapts a story from her own life that’s specific to her and her family, and fills it with a familiarity and an honesty in spite of the central incident revolving around a lie. With a healthy release schedule for a heavily subtitled film and a family-friendly PG rating, The Farewell is something of a throwback, a critically acclaimed tearjerker with a healthy amount of laughs that can be recommended to everyone from 10 to 100. By putting a realized version of her life onscreen, Wang emerges as one 2019’s most accomplished filmmakers and one of cinema’s most anticipated voices.
I remember watching Pamela Anderson’s Comedy Central roast and marveling that anyone could spend a second with Courtney Love, Anderson’s ally on the dais. Love was obnoxious and erratic and disruptive, a drug-addled mess who could have projectile vomited or stripped naked at any moment and made it seem like the natural conclusion to her evening. Elisabeth Moss embodies that kind of energy in Her Smell, a five-chapter story of a destructive rocker and the people she drives away with her instability. Director Alex Ross Perry builds atop his quieter psychodramas for a film that puts the viewer square in the chaos created in his lead character’s wake, and he and Moss pull off the miracle of letting the character hang onto some hope of a turnaround. It’s Perry best work yet, and more evidence that Moss is one of the best actors of her generation. If she can make a Courtney Love facsimile redeemable, she can do anything.
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.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.