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Review: Sorry to Bother You

The film is unmistakably alive to the humiliations of the social systems that keep the lower classes in their place.

2.5

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Sorry to Bother You
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

Cult indie rapper Boots Riley’s feature-length debut, Sorry to Bother You, is a satire about the desperation of being down and out in America when you’re a person of color. Which is to say, the film knows what’s real—though “real” isn’t the right word to attribute to this sci-fi comedy whatsit that takes place in an alternate-reality version of Oakland where everywhere you turn is an advertisement touting Worry Free Living, a voluntary forced-labor system.

The film’s greatest gag occurs at a particularly wild and knotty intersection of class and race. Inside the mansion of Worry Free’s smarmy CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is asked to rap for a crowd of white people. Except Cassius can’t rap, and in a moment of desperation—fearing that he might lose his job—he yells out the n-word over and over again, to the almost rabid delight of every single person in the room.

This scene is, on its surface, about the social contracts that make for better societies but which people struggle to uphold or revel in subverting. But its true genius, at once sad and perverse, resides in the way the camera reads the room: not so nonplussed—at least not as much as Cassius is—by a bunch of white people using a dude-bro’s palatial house of horrors as their safe space to thrill over what civilized society tells them is unutterable.

Cassius’s activist-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), also knows what’s real, and as such she comes to resent him for not being sufficiently upset about the systems that exist in society to keep people like them down. After all, paying his overdue rent—he lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage—seems more important to Cassius than pledging allegiance to any cause.

After getting a job at a telemarketing firm, RegalView, Cassius is quickly thrust to the top of the pecking order by adhering to the company’s motto: “Stick to the script.” And part of that script includes using his “white voice” on the phone with customers as he tries to sell them encyclopedias, oblivious that what he’s really hawking is Worry Free’s slave labor. That’s another one of Sorry to Bother You’s great gags: the sight of Cassius and a fellow black telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), opening their mouths and their words coming out in nasally, distinctly white voices (provided by comedians David Cross and Patton Oswalt). (Cassius, though, is very much himself on the outside whenever he—in an inspired visual motif—literally drops into people’s homes whenever he’s on the phone with a potential client.)

This is a flip on the hostage scenario at the heart of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, where Stanfield’s character sees his black body literally held hostage by a community of white liberals. The difference here is that Cassius is his own captor. Riley wants us to recognize—then laugh at—the fundamental absurdity of how code switching has become an innate survival tactic for people of color, for whom not talking white enough, or not having a white enough name, possibly means not being able to compete for the same piece of the pie.

Riley’s belief in laughter paving the way for sanity is energizing, and his film’s wild digressions are poignantly in sync with the fundamental unpredictability—or, rather, insanity—of present-day America. For talking white and boosting RegalView’s commissions, Cassius is rewarded first with an office in the top floor of the building—which can only be reached by inputting what is safe to say is the longest elevator code in the history of the world—and then with a swanky apartment that would seem to put a permanent wedge between him and Detroit. She believes that he’s benefiting from a system of exploitation, while Cassius seems to feel that he’s gotten his due, which is why when his co-workers start picketing against RegalView, his only worry is making sure he gets to the other side of the picket line without spilling any more blood.

But by the time Cassius worms his way back to the top of his ivory tower, the world of Sorry to Bother You already feels as if it’s been transformed into a metaphysical disaster zone from which it’s difficult to imagine anyone on either side of the film’s class and race war emerging in one piece. And it’s around here, as it flings itself into the dominion of sci-fi, that this wild and often funny film—so unmistakably alive to the humiliations of the social systems that keep the lower classes in their place—loses something. Some of Riley’s best jokes are beaten into the ground, and those that aren’t particularly pointed in the first place are fired off with a desperation that only amplifies the sense that Riley is making things up as he goes along.

In one scene, Detroit is inexplicably seen working at RegalView. In another, set at one of her gallery performances, whatever point Riley is trying to make about the relationship between art and protest is lost in the bum’s rush to set the stage for a climax that’s simultaneously too literal and oblique for it to feel sufficiently uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that Cassius has no real arc—and you sense the preternaturally talented Stanfield’s struggle to telegraph something more than his character’s perpetually put-upon status. Cassius may embrace righteousness, but his awakening feels obligatory—certainly not something that seems as if it will become a torch-passing tradition.

For a spell, Riley’s cultural ire is so cool-headed that Sorry to Bother You easily distinguishes itself from Mike Judge’s similarly themed Idiocracy, but along the way it, too, settles for swinging for the fences—so much so that the target of its satire is no longer in its crosshairs. Sorry to Bother You tries to coast on weirdness for its own sake when refraining from it might have allowed the film to transform into something more than a lark—something a little more resolved and necessarily real and permanent at a time when the state of America feels as uncertain as the lives of its characters.

Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Kate Berlant, Michael X. Sommers, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer Director: Boots Riley Screenwriter: Boots Riley Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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Film

Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.

3.5

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1900
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.

The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.

Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.

The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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