Sorry To Bother You (Sundance 2018)

13 Jul

After spending years in development hell, rapper-turned-director Boots Riley‘s dark satire Sorry To Bother You finally hit the big screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of the buzziest titles of the festival.

Set in a not-too-distant-future of Oakland, the film follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they try to save up cash with plans to finally move out of Cassius’ uncle’s garage. Cassius takes up a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles to make sales until he discovers the magic secret: putting on his “white voice” when talking with potential customers.  Cue the post-Obama racial satire as Cassius quickly climbs the ranks of telemarketing and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets brought on by corporate figurehead Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer).

Shot on a minimal budget and produced with the self-described “stone-soup” method (every new crew member brings something big to the table to collaborate on) Sorry To Bother You has a renegade punk vibe embedded within its DNA. Thompson and Stanfield both give incredibly bold performances and help the more outlandish lines of dialogue seem grounded within the film’s unique reality.  A supporting cast with Danny Glover, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and voicework by Patton Oswalt and David Cross help create the vividly colorful world the film lives in.

It becomes apparent during the first 15 minutes that writer/director Boots Riley has stacked his script full of details that lift the film above a cultural pedestal and into a world of its own. The story goes from being socially provocative to radically ambitious to levels of Charlie Kauffman-esc meta-satire referencing everything from social activist culture to gentrification to celebrity status in the digital age to the meme-ification of fake news to the ever-present display of corporate America. Seriously, there are more ideas floated around in the first act of Sorry To Bother You than you will find in the most viral of Ted Talks.  Not all of the cultural commentary sticks however, and some ideas feel senselessly shoehorned into the plot for little or no reason. Still, Riley clearly has a passion for his chaotic mess, and even in its most confusing or cartoonish moments Sorry To Bother You thrives off its ever-emanating creative energy and ambition. Coincidentally, this unique gem ends up being a lot of fun in the process.

Bottom Line: While Sorry To Bother You makes more sense as a haphazard cultural collage than a narrative film, the ideological soup the film creates is impressively ambitious and wildly entertaining. 

Rating: 8.2/10 

Film Recipe: Get Out + Being John Malkovich + Office Space + Dear White People

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Hereditary (2018)

9 Jun

Judging from the title alone, you wouldn’t think a movie called Hereditary would be the kind of thing to keep you wide awake at night thinking demons have run amok in your house. Though it was appropriately placed in the Midnight section for its premier at this year’s Sundance, the description in the film guide made it seem like a dysfunctional family indie drama in the same vein as something like The Squid and the Whale. That is not the case. Make no mistake, this film fits squarely in the horror realm – and just might be the most eerily effective one to come along in decades.

Hereditary‘s premise is simple enough: after the untimely death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to mend the emotional gaps with her strained and distant family. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) though loving, is unsupportive and detached while her adolescent son Peter (Alex Wolff) tries to spend every waking moment partying with his friends and away from the family. Strangely, Annie gets closest with her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) after the funeral, though she soon learns that Charlie may have inherited a few ghastly traits from her late grandmother. Annie’s journey in discovering her family history leads her to cross paths with a spiritualist (Ann Dowd) and a few other-worldly beings.

With a runtime of over 2 hours, Hereditary feels a bit weighty from the get go and takes its time getting to the spooks. Patience is rewarded big time during a shocking mid-point twist and things really get cranked up a notch during an emotionally brutal third act. There are moments of almost-unbearable tension in Hereditary; director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski should get all the credit for their amazing work at commanding attention to various parts of the frame in the heat of the moment – even when it’s deeply troubling. Aster is particularly great at creating atmosphere and subverting audience expectations, even those who are well versed in the genre. It’s clear that the first-time director is familiar with great psychological storytellers like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Polanski; comparisons to The Shining are not that far off.

Unfortunately, the highs of the film are diluted by it’s lengthy runtime that fails to justify itself. There are too many stretched out periods of little substance in the film that drain the terrifying power from it’s better moments (of which there are more than one) so that the real terror fails to be sustained from scene-to-scene. Trim off 10 or 15 minutes and you would have a bona fide horror masterpiece – instead we have some incredibly great scenes sandwiched by lots of filler.

Still, the peaks of Hereditary are just so damn high – usually without resorting to the cheap jump scares audiences have become accustomed to. The performances are all on-point and bring a sense of realism which grounds the superstitious subject matter of spirits and demons. Newcomer Milly Shapiro, in particular, is absolutely fantastic as Charlie and steals every scene she is in. This is a bold piece of cinema, one that boils with intensity and lingers in the subconscious long after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Although the lengthy runtime tragically dampens the impact of its spookier scenes, Hereditary displays a chilling cinematic intensity and contains some of the boldest and (most importantly) scariest moments in contemporary horror.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film recipe: The Shining + Bug + Paranormal Activity 

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

22 Apr

“I want you to hurt them.”

This final verbalized directive is given to a contract killer named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) by New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) halfway through Lynne Ramsay‘s brilliant You Were Never Really Here. It might as well also be Ramsey’s personal motto towards her audience.  In her follow-up to the 2012 psychological drama We Need To Talk About KevinRamsey again delivers a dark, emotional, powerhouse of a movie, lead by a foreboding performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

The acclaimed actor is seen here bearded and brooding as a jaded hitman-for-hire living with his elderly mother in a NYC suburb. His presence is fearsome and physical; it’s obvious from closeups of numerous scars and Joe’s sunken eyes that this is a man who has endured numerous physical and emotional traumas. Ramsey keeps the plotting incredibly tight – very little is said to us upfront but the narrative table is set through a series of visual details. The ripping sound of duct-tape.. a bloody hammer.. Joe’s fingers tracing a small photograph before lighting the thing on fire. Most of the action in You Were Never Really Here takes place just outside of the cinematic frame, but we feel the entire ominous weight of its lingering brutality. Through it all, Phoenix stays poised but frantic, speaking mostly in mumbles and wandering through city streets like a shell of the person he once was.  Joe is a someone who is becomes exponentially both delicate and brawny as the film progresses and he gets wrapped up in a seedy network of conspiracy and violence.

Though there is very little dialogue in the film, You Were Never Really Here is anything but quiet, thanks in part to the anxious and bubbling score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The film’s sound design is also noteworthy; small textual details like the grinding of a car engine or the brush of a towel against flesh are magnified. It’s a highly viceral film – one that’s deeply cynical and moody but always feeling alive and fresh thanks to Ramsay’s unique vision and directorial talent.  The juxtaposition of various sounds, visuals, and textures leads to an immersive fever dream at points, and the the film’s knack for shifting between the world’s and Joe’s points of view is used with jarring results.

Bottom Line: Lynne Ramsay’s heavy display of a traumatized psyche in You Were Never Really Here is an artistically vibrant, immersive, and anxiety-ridden experience. 

Rating: 8.6/10 

Film recipe: Taxi Driver + The Rover + Leon The Professional 

A Quiet Place (2018)

6 Apr

Hot off the heels of its SXSW debut comes John Krasinski‘s A Quiet Place. A title that might as well be taken literally, as Krasinski’s film is indeed a muffled one, set in a post-apocalyptic future where creatures with super-listening abilities have taken over humanity by detecting the slightest of noises and hunting humans as their prey. This forces all survivors to live in near silence, communicating only by sign language and taking a variety of precautions to minimize any form of sound.  Krasinski stars alongside his wife (Emily Blunt) as an unnamed couple with three small children, one of which is deaf (Millicent Simmonds). Together they must adjust to their new way of living or become the latest victims to be devoured by CGI monsters.

A Quiet Place starts out well enough by introducing us to the family through a series of visual cues. It doesn’t take long before we realize what happens when things aren’t so quiet in Krasinski’s quiet place, and part of the fun lies in seeing the intricate, almost ritualistic precautions our protagonist has established in order to keep his family safe. After a dramatic midpoint however, the film slowly becomes distilled to a paint-by-numbers horror that’s littered with genre trappings.  As with all horror films, one should check his or her disbelief in at the door, but there comes a time in A Quiet Place where a series of increasingly questionable scenarios stops being scary and starts becoming laughably absurd.

Krasinski, mostly known as Jim from The Office, is pulling double duty as actor and director, though he isn’t really given a lot to work with in the dramatic department other than play your typical Overprotective Dad. Blunt also falls victim to a cookiecutter character, though she amps up the horror well enough to hold tension through some of the film’s creepiest moments. A minimalist story like this would greatly benefit from being rooted in more complex character work but Krasinski is so devoted to his Shut-Up-Or-Be-Killed mantra that we hardly see any dialogue take place other than variations of  “Shhh! the monster is nearby…”

There is a lot to work with here and Krasinski shows promise behind the camera; a few indoor scenes are very well-composed resulting in effective claustrophobic tension and both performances from the child actors are solid. But the film keeps visiting familiar territory too often, so it comes as no surprise that when A Quiet Place tries to go off with a bang (both literally and figuratively) it ends up feeling more like a quiet sizzle.

It boasts a few well-crafted pieces of minimalist tension, but implausible story elements and an overreliance on horror tropes prevent A Quiet Place from being anything more than generic (but still kinda spooky) fare. 

Rating: 6.3/10 

Film Recipe: SignsIt Comes At Night + Don’t Breathe 

Flower (2018)

26 Mar

No subgenre of film is so elusive as the indie teenage romantic comedy.  Take some time to browse through any program guide of SXSW or Sundance from the last two decades and you’ll see that independent film history is rich with varied examples of offbeat and angsty teens falling in and out of love. Sometimes, it works (look no further than the aptly titled First Girl I Loved or the nuanced sleeper The Spectacular Now) but more often than not, you end up with a smorgasbord of character tropes, bad sex jokes, and dialogue from writers who’ve seemingly forgotten how teenagers actually behave.  It’s common knowledge that teens are complicated – why is it so hard for their films to be as well?

In Flower, the painful combo of teen-romance-movie-misfires intercedes with gags about sexual assault and pedophillia. Because nothing says funny like trying to figure out if a highschool teacher is into little boys or little girls.

The film starts of with a cop engaging in felatio with our underage hero Erica (Zoey Deutch) who then blackmails him in exchange for cash. We then learn that Erica has made a habit of engaging with older men and then blackmailing them in order to save up enough to bail out her absent father from jail. If you are questioning Erica’s motives here don’t worry, she literally tells a stranger she has daddy issues, just in case there was any confusion to the audience. Her distant mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been dating guy-after-guy ever since her Erica’s father was locked up, and she finally settles with generic Bob (Tim Heidecker) whose son Luke (Joey Morgan) has just graduated rehab and is about to live with the family, much to Erica’s disdain.

There is also a shoehorned subplot here about the aforementioned child-molester (Adam Scott doing his usual shtick) but the heart of the story rests with Erica and Luke’s relationship as new step-siblings from very different worlds trying to get along with each other.  Erica is popular, outgoing, and has a nifty group of friends; Luke is introverted, lonely, into comic books and prone to panic attacks.

Flower tries to be a subversive take on the paint-by-numbers teen sex comedy, but more often than not the jokes fall flat and the characters seem out of place and counterfeit. Erica is such a bad example of the white-rebel-naughty-girl trope that it would be satirical if the film was more self-aware; I was expecting the production design to feature a poster of Harley Quinn on her bedroom wall, but nope – just your typical PARENTAL ADVISORY sign.  Luke, thanks entirely to Joey Morgan’s performance (easily the best thing about this movie), is a bit more tolerable when he isn’t being fed nonsensical lines of dialogue. But even our subdued foil to our protagonist is subject to one of the most bizzare tonal shifts as the movie stumbles into it’s hasty third act. Watching the final segment of Flower is a bit like watching a youtube clip of a drag race where the car starts skidding out of control – you know it’s going to crash and burn eventually but you have to keep watching in order to see how it all goes down.

Bottom Line: Instead of the authentic examination of teenage sexuality it tries to be, Flower is a cringe-worthy and awkward take that tries to get a pass with an inexcusably-awful third act. 

Rating: 4.1 /10

Film Recipe: Juno + Hard Candy + Never Goin’ Back 

Annihilation (2018)

23 Feb

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation cements director Alex Garland as one of the most ambitious talents in contemporary sci-fi. Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Benedict Wong, the film tells the story of Lena and Kane (Portman and Isaac, respectively), a military couple who become caught up in investigating a government-restricted ecological disaster zone titled “Area X,” where a series of mysterious events have been puzzling authorities for the past several years.  Things go from bad to worse as Lena, a microbiologist by trade and academic by profession, gradually discovers the horrific details of failed missions designed to mine Area X for clues explaining its perplexing nature.

Alex Garland, who previously wrote and directed 2015’s superb techno-thriller Ex Machinadisplays much more confidence the second time around. As with his first feature, Garland plays heavy into big philosophical ideas about the nature of mankind, only now things feel bigger, less sterile and more experimental. In the film’s first half, you get a strong sense that individual scenes have a chimerical and visionary purpose to them, one that gradually builds up to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and dread. There is a slow, meditative transition from fantasy towards nightmare in Annihilation, as characters slowly realize – along with the audience – that things in the environment aren’t quite right. Though most of the film is subtle in its examination of psychological unease, parts of the film’s latter half go into full-bore survival horror with surprisingly effective results.

Performance-wise, almost everyone is solid with Garland’s script, and thankfully many of the scientist-type movie tropes are left aside. Isaac, who previously starred in Ex Machina, is fantastic and Portman might be even better. The weak character moment comes with Jennifer Jason Leigh – an actress I’d long associated with energy and flamboyance – playing Dr. Ventress, the subdued and jaded government psychologist who is supposed to be seen as some sort of character foil to our emotionally-driven protagonist. Even more out of place is the film’s bizzare score which mixes subtle synth-work with… folksy blues guitar? Whatever shortcomings the film has on the audio side are more than made up for with Annihilation‘s unique visuals which, at times, boast some of the best sci-fi production design and visual effects since Under the Skin. 

Garland has obviously shifted away from the science-based, tech-conscious realism of Ex Machina towards something more transcendental and abstract. While I think I would have appreciated it if the film were more grounded in its dialogue, the story is wildly imaginative and itches that sweet spot in a way that only great cinema can.  Annihilation is a terribly ambitious film that was designed to inspire – and it hits the right notes more often than not.

Bottom Line: Annihilation feels a bit too weighted in fantasy rather than the gritty realism it’s aching for, but the film’s atmosphere, visuals, and ambition prove director Alex Garland has raw talent for telling engaging, thought-provoking sci-fi. 

Rating: 9.2 /10 

Film Recipe: Stalker (1979) + Arrival + The Fountain + The Thing

I, Tonya (2017)

6 Jan

There are competitive athletes. There are olympic athletes. And then there is Tonya Harding. The infamous American figure skater (played brilliantly by Margot Robbie) gets her own story in Craig Gillespie‘s explosive new film. Based on true events, the film follows Tonya as she first learns to skate and quickly becomes a project of sorts for her neglectful mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson). Shown with a real talent for moving on the ice, Tonya quickly moves up the ranks of early figure skaters – despite her aversion to “play the part” of a skating champion and dress or act like someone she is not. Eventually, Tonya falls in love with her abusive neighbor Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and the two quickly form a toxic, codependent relationship with one another.  This is where the film really kicks into high gear, and we see the couple spiral out control with drugs, booze, money – and eventually – federal crime.

I Tonya is delivered to us in a pseudo-documentary format with characters looking into the 90’s era VHS camcorder reliving certain events, as if they are testifying to authorities exactly how the story of Tonya went down. It’s a refreshingly Brechtian approach to the true-sports-story model, but at times it feels too jarring and uncomfortable. As if the docu-VHS bits weren’t enough –  in the dramatic scenes we occasionally see characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, ala House of Cards style.

This film is so loud (it’s no stretch of the mind to imagine every word of dialogue in Steven Roger’s script being in all caps) and constantly trying to outdo itself. I, Tonya seems to take place in a universe where its characters can’t go 5 minutes without throwing expletives (or sometimes sharp objects) at each other; characters on screen seem so bombastic and dramatic that after a while they begin to feel less like real people and more like characictures. You can’t help but wonder what this story would be had it been written with a bit more character nuance.

One of the great strengths of the film comes with it’s clever use of absurdist comedy. I, Tonya is painfully funny and even the dullest bits of melodrama get sewn in with a clever joke or two.  Compellingly crafted, the film seems designed to appeal directly to the ADD, short-attention-span viewer, and the ferocious editing job keeps the entire thing from spinning off the wheels. Again, I would have appreciated a bit more restraint with the storytelling, but the narrative never becomes dull or disinteresting; somehow the 2 hour runtime feels like minutes. Perhaps I, Tonya deserves some kind of medal for that.

Bottom Line: With an overdose of teenage vitriol, I, Tonya is a firecracker examination of class division and a metaphorical middle-finger towards the cultural ideal of American celebrity.

Rating: 6.9/10 

Film Recipe: Bernie + The Big Short + The Bronze