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.
Joel and Ethan Coen are comfortable in any genre, but one can divide their monumental careers into tonally-similar baskets. While those baskets bleed into each other and overlap, a Coen film is going to be either a tense tragedy of errors, a philosophical puzzle, or some kind of goofy screwball comedy. My favorite version of their work is a combination of the second and third category, where classics like A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and O Brother, Where Art Thou can be found. The Coens have a specific and elegant way of handling characters whose great efforts are buffeted around by the impartial forces of civilization, hapless strivers desperate for meaning in a universe resistant to it. When they add some slapstick and some humor, so much the better. Hail, Caesar falls into this camp, an homage to the classical Hollywood of the 50’s whose inhabitants want to believe they’re doing something important when they’re actually lining the pockets of unseen studio heads and narcotizing restless audiences. True to form, the Coens make a film where every scene begs to be interpreted, even the ones that rank amongst the funniest in their long careers.
In Margot Robbie’s brief career, she’s played the wife of a camera-addressing unreliable narrator and she’s had a memorable camera-addressing cameo. In I, Tonya, she gets to be the camera-addressing unreliable narrator, bringing as much desperate passion to the role of Tonya Harding as her former screen-husband Leonardo DiCaprio brought to Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Besides sharing Robbie’s presence, those two films have much in common, from the incriminating finger it points at the audience to Craig Gillespie’s aping of Martin Scorsese’s propulsive style. Scorsese is constantly in the margins of I, Tonya, but this is no kneecapping insult to a master’s patented form. I, Tonya has a big heart towards its real-life inspiration and its cinematic one as well, a combination that sits comfortably next to the derision and disgust the film holds for this peculiar tale’s less sympathetic characters. Of course, whether or not Tonya Harding herself is a sympathetic character remains an open question.
Swedish director Ruben Ostlund makes big, heady films, and The Square is certainly one of those. Ostlund’s Force Majeure began with a split-second decision and played out its ramifications over the proceeding runtime, interrogating the bargains that families make with each other and nothing less weighty than what it means to be a man. For The Square, he turns his eye towards himself and creators like him, asking what is and isn’t art while also poking fun at the lifestyle of exactly the kind of person who would ask such a question. Each scene is about many things, both for the characters and for broader society, making The Square the kind of film that encourages the viewer to try and divine what it is the director is trying to say. That kind of intellectual work lands side by side with a film that constantly entertains in absurd conversations or broad set pieces, making The Square a delight across all cinematic avenues.
Current television shows have plenty of options for depictions of female friendship. From Insecure to Orange is the New Black, women writers have put what they know best onto the small screen, demonstrating that hang-out TV is entertaining regardless of gender. One of these shows is Comedy Central’s Broad City, a wacky two-fer on the streets of New York. Girls-behaving-badly film Rough Night is driven by much of Broad City’s creative cast. Director Lucia Aniello has helmed and written several episodes, and writer/stars Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs play major roles. As it shares all this personnel with Broad City, the expectation is that Rough Night will also share Broad City’s drug-fueled hijinks and lived-in camaraderie. Instead, the tone in this film is out-of-control and unfunny for long stretches. Television might’ve figured out how to tell these kind of stories, but, using Rough Night as an example, cinema’s got a ways to go.
Americans have long looked west for rejuvenation and reinvention, trampling others that were already there in search of their own interests. Despite all the trappings of modernity in Matt Spicer’s exceptional debut, Ingrid Goes West is a tale that could be easily adapted to any US period of the last few hundred years. This is the story of the coward Robert Ford, of Oklahoma homesteaders, of the ancestors of those homesteaders on their way to California during the Great Depression. Aubrey Plaza’s titular protagonist is no one’s idea of a frontierswoman, as she chooses to use her dwindling funds for beer instead of toilet paper and is never shown eating something that wasn’t hastily prepared for her and pushed out a drive-thru, but she still traverses the country and into an unknown and tenuous future, equipped with her stake and her online profile. Both a Western without the spurs and a satire without much exaggeration, Spicer joins the group of 2017 debut directors, already populated with the likes Jordan Peele and Julia Ducournau, who have wildly succeeded in their first outings.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.