Documentarian Eugene Jarecki, having previously tackled bite-sized topics like the military-industrial complex and the war on drugs, widens his scope to include decades of modern American history as mapped onto the life of one of the country’s most quintessential sons, Elvis Presley. The King flits between vignettes from Elvis’ life and commentators reflecting on broad social trends of the last 40 years, mostly from the backseat of Elvis’ Rolls Royce as it travels between the major locations of his life. The OJ: Made in America miniseries needed eight hours to produce a macro and micro picture of 1990’s Los Angeles, and Jarecki has made a similar, nationwide reckoning into an impossibility at 107 minutes.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe released entries in 2018 with the highest and lowest stakes over the course of their twenty films. Avengers: Infinity War placed half of all life in the universe at risk, while Ant-Man and the Wasp put some trade secrets on the line between parties that don’t seem particularly adversarial. That the former came out two months earlier than the latter was no favor, and the Ant-Man sequel had to alter its timeline so that it takes place before the cataclysmic events of Infinity War. Those events, while surely transient and at the mercy of comic-book backtracking, make the jaunty feel of many MCU films, including anything involving Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, seem like the end of a tone that’s differentiated itself from darker superhero outings and endeared this lengthy franchise to its fans. Ant-Man and the Wasp may be something of a last hurrah for the MCU, a place where snark and repartee now no longer feel acceptable.
Judging by the softening tones of his films over fifteen years, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson is losing his edge as he ages. Together contains an ecstatic ending but it’s achieved by enduring a couple hours of poisoned leftism, and his follow-up, Lilya-4-Ever, is a harrowing slice of misery porn borne out of the true story of a sex-trafficked teenager. We Are the Best! is far from that level of darkness, or any darkness at all, as exemplified by the title’s exclamation point. All the aforementioned films feature teenagers, and while Together and Lilya both portray a lost innocence and parents disappointing their children down, We Are the Best finds room for that kind of standard issue coming-of-age realization plus the un-self-conscious joy and vulnerability that two teen friends can have with each other. There is pure, infectious optimism to be had here, like the earned cathartic relief of Together’s ending was spread out over 102 minutes. Moodysson has made his bleak films, and We Are the Best is the polar opposite.
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.
The Paddington Bear character has been a part of British children’s literature for decades, and Paul King’s adaptation could have been released in the immediate aftermath of the character’s mid-century debut. With the exception of the seamless CGI creation that is the titular character, there’s little in Paddington that doesn’t feel like a throwback. By eschewing the glitz and noise of its contemporaries in the family film genre, Paddington achieves a timeless quality and avoids the corniness that can emerge alongside attempts to revitalize classic jokes and tones. King and co-writer Hamish McColl reject the snark of the age and embrace the same earnestness that animates Paddington himself.
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.
Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney has the misfortune of arriving in theaters years after Asif Kapadia’s Amy. Both documentaries track the rise and fall of generational musical talents, the former about Whitney Houston and the latter about Amy Winehouse. Their lives were elevated by what made them unique entertainers and artists and brought low by drug use, manipulative fathers, and bad relationships. Kapadia avoided nonfiction biopic clutter and sameness by piecing together much of his film from paparazzi footage of Winehouse, a formal statement that matched the path that his subject’s life was taking. Macdonald doesn’t use that kind of formal invention, and instead relies on the power of his talking heads and of Houston’s own dominating charisma. Whitney proves to be a capable documentary thanks to those aforementioned strengths, as well as some aggressive editing from Sam Rice-Edwards. Houston is revealed to be the kind of multi-faceted personality that no one could make a bad documentary about.
As the fourth Star Wars film in four years, the troubled production that was Han Solo’s origin story is the sore thumb of the bunch. While each previous film has its detractors, some louder than others, Solo is the film whose critical dismissal and lackluster commercial haul was striking enough to push the giant ship of Disney away from continued annual returns to George Lucas’ universe. The energy of Solo itself is like a self-fulfilling prophecy, such that the actors and filmmakers may have anticipated how their work was going to be received, put their heads down, and made it to the final frame. From Ron Howard on down, no one seems creatively inspired or happy to be here, resulting in a film that has little impact after the credits roll.
The best kind of horror movies are about some kind of unspeakable impulse or thought embodied by demons or monsters. So much of David Cronenberg’s work is about a body revolting against its owner. The slasher movies of the 80’s enact some form of retributive morality on sexual freedom. Familial bonds aren’t spared from interrogation, whether in a classic like The Shining or the more contemporary Babadook. Ari Aster’s disconcerting debut Hereditary is in this last vein, stuffed with corrupted relationships to the point of bursting. It gives explicit voice to taboo feelings, especially about motherhood, as it moves between subgenres of horror in its different acts. Some of these transitions are more successful than others, but the total package is masterful in its evocation of earlier horror staples while also making its own contribution to the genre.
The documentary An Honest Liar posits that its subject, James Randi, has failed. Not at being a legendary escape artist and magician who is favorably compared to Houdini by peers, but at translating the performative philosophy of his craft into the public square. He describes magicians as being the most honest people in the world, because they are telling the truth even when they’re trying to trick their audience. Their feats are elaborate hoaxes and misdirections, and they never claim otherwise. Conversely, the most dishonest people are those that use the exact same tools as the magician and present themselves as being actually magical. Despite his elaborate public humiliations of these charlatans, they keep popping back up with a new scheme or excuse, impervious to the public’s weak critical thinking skills. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s far-ranging film chronicles that Sisyphean fight, plus Randi’s professional and personal life as it goes through too-good-to-be-true twists and turns befitting a man who’s always kept people guessing.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.