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.
Part food porn travelogue, part Grumpy Middle-Aged Men, The Trip is wholly delightful. Michael Winterbottom’s mockumentary finds actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traipsing through northern England’s B&B’s and restaurants, playing slightly elevated versions of themselves as the former reckons with his lack of romantic stability and the latter butts up against the safe predictability of his married existence. Both share a lived-in rapport that expresses itself in one-upsmanship, particularly around the various impressions of actors that they use to thrust and parry at each other. Both are unqualified to be professionally mimicking someone like Anthony Bourdain (Coogan says the tomato soup tastes like tomatoes), but they are supremely qualified to entertain the viewer with their very funny back and forth.
Despite all kinds of useful research and technological advances, it seems like being a modern mother has never been more emotionally taxing. A never-ending stream of hysterical Mommy Blogs politicize every single decision a parent makes regarding her children. Hacky news reports raise the daily parenting stakes, elevating each purchase or choice or interaction as one that could doom a kid to mediocrity or worse. Toxins are everywhere and must be kept away from the sterile little angels fighting the urge to find out what dirt tastes like. Celebrity moms take great pains to make everything look easy, and if it's not, then buy this sponsored product that will make your life happier and healthier. All this nefarious marketing conspires to make women feel bad and doubt themselves while fathers seem to get copious praise for doing anything at all. This poison makes the culture ripe for a film like Bad Moms, and the cathartic premise itself likely contributed to its box office success. Moms behaving in their own self-interest to often funny results is a recipe for a timely statement on parenting, but writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore complicate the germ of the idea with inconsistent characterization and ridiculous plotting. There's enough here to recommend, but the total package is too sloppy to admire.
There's a scene in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising that briefly turns the film into a documentary before reverting back to the raunchy comedy it otherwise is. College freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) is learning during sorority recruitment that sororities are not actually allowed to throw parties from perfect chapter president Selena Gomez. Asserting that this is actually true and imploring prospective members to Google it, and by extension, viewers to do the same, director Nicholas Stoller tries to place his film in a feminist perspective. He returns to those frat bacchanals that were previously celebrated, but through Moretz and her friends' eyes, these are now wholly degrading horror shows where gross bros control all the social access. For a director and writer that delighted in stocking the fraternity-centered Neighbors with unspeaking eye candy in the background, Neighbors 2 is something like atonement.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.