SORRY TO BOTHER YOU**** Featuring a new and brilliant voice


TRENCHANT. FUNNY. BIZARRE

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, in what must be a break-out role for him), which is pronounced cash is green is a Black, easy-going down-on-his-heels slacker. He needs to get a job, partly to pay off his accumulated rents to his uncle (in whose garage he lives) and to justify the love of his partner (Tessa Thompson). His desperation is the catalyst for him to try to out for a job at a call-centre. This he does with a counterfeit trophy and a fabricated story as his resumés. The manager easily sees thru his BS. But, to the manager, this shows chutzpah.

And that’s all that’s needed: BS and fabrication.

But Cassius is lousy at the job…until he’s offered some timely advice from a grizzled ‘old timer’, (Danny Glover): “Speak in your White voice” he is told. And he discovers he’s superb at this mimicry of White speak. After all, it’s just another kind of counterfeiting. And so, to his cold-called listeners on the phone, the voice they hear is no longer that of an unsure Black (i.e “not to be trusted”) man, but that of a confident, preppy, believable White confidant. He may be selling merchandise, but his real success lies in offering his customers an ideal they can buy into…an ideal of stereotypical aspiration.

By changing identity, he changes his life: from impoverished loser to rich winner; from hesitancy to confidence. So it goes as you shape-shift from Black to White. This is broad, hammer-on-the-head satire (and so far, somewhat reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman). It’s wonderfully well done. Stanfield’s dead-pan, WTF demeanor is as pitch-perfect as his (cleverly dubbed-in) White voice.

The point is black and white clear: if a Black person is to get on in the White world (in this case, a future dystopian world), he’s got to remove as many traces of his Black identity as possible. (The writer has a field day here with pointed barbs at cross-overs, Will Smith and Denzel Washington). In a world that’s all about the money, White is the only way forward.

Maybe.

At what point however does the fake identity (which delivers the riches) begin to threaten the real identity? Is it possible to bridge the two worlds, not merely of White and Black, but of rich and poor; of managers and mere employees; and more acutely of the dishonest and the authentic?

There’s more to it than that. And almost as if the (newcomer) writer/director Boots Riley is imitating his apologetic cold caller, “Sorry to bother you…” there are deeper issues he must speak of. It’s really all about the money.

For even as Cassius is climbing the corporate ladder with his voice recognition con and an increasing self-centredness (The Whiter he identifies, the more estranged he becomes from his friends and his ecosystem), his partner and call-centre colleagues are fighting for the basics of a living wage, for greater income equality, for an end to the approaching apocalypse of slavery. The story suggests that there is a threat to identity even deeper than that of race. In this future world, an Amazon type fulfilment-centre seeks to institute the ultimate capitalist dream: unpaid labour exchanged for free board and lodge (i.e slavery).

This is no mere loss of identity, it’s a loss of humanity.

It is at his supreme moment of triumph, when in a glittering Wolf of Wall Street type party, complete with sex drugs, and rock ‘n roll, that Cassius realises just how little he matters, despite all the money he’s made. To the ruling class of gorgeous White women ‘cheering’ his success, he has no real identity. He’s nothing more than their stereotypical idea of the Black man: the performer with a penis like a horse and an intuitive knowledge of how to “bust a cap” and sing hip hop. “Nigga, nigga, nigga” he shouts (much to their delight).

And here, at the centre of the movie, with the realisation that to the White world, he is no more than Eldridge Cleaver’s “super-masculine menial”, the movie’s tone does an about turn. The story shifts from satire to surrealism.

I won’t give away what happens next, but the story becomes a dramatisation of the shift from the (cosy) belief that you have some control over your identity (and can simply create a fake one to get on in life) to the realisation that you’ve been suckered; that the only real empowerment comes perhaps from the overthrow of the whole damn status quo.

Arnie Hammer is the attractive master of all things, the dark status quo, the Jeff Besos of a post-racial, post-human future that is siren calling us all to a new slavery.

What starts with laughter ends with tears
It’s Christmas time. You’d better watch out

 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. Dir: Boots Riley. With: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson (Creed II, Westworld), Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover, Steven Yuan, Armie Hammer. Cinematographer: Doug Emmett

 

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DISOBEDIENCE**** The Price for freedom


DISOBEDIENCE IS SET in the small orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London (wonderfully realized by director/script-writer Sebastián Lelio who also directed A Fantastic Woman and production designer, Sarah Finlay). It is a tight-knit community, bound together by strict laws and protocols (sex is for Fridays). Ritual is all. The bewigged women all look pretty much the same, as do the black-hatted, bearded men. They look alike; they think alike. It is the only sanctioned way of life.

It is suffocating.

And yet, at the very beginning of the story, we meet the frail rabbinical elder, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), who preaches a sermon that seems almost radical. “Man,” he says, “hang(s) suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts…a being with free will…with the power to disobey”.

And then he dies. Struck down?

As the story unfolds, the theme of freedom (and the free will to disobey) is played out with all the nuances of its implications. Free will, the power to choose to obey or not, the story suggests, is a fundamental part of who we are. But freedom does not equate with happiness. To seek it requires daring and courage. Freedom is a burden. It is easier simply give in to the communal will, to be one of the angels or one of the beasts.

It is this death, the rabbi’s “departure”, that is the catalyst for the visit of his estranged, rebel daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a chain smoking photographer living in a Manhattan (another kind of “departure”), given, it seems, to occasional sex with anonymous persons. And not even on a Friday.

Her return is cause for some consternation in this strict, judgmental community. It is also cause for some excitement for recently married Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman who is not free to love her, but whose love for her cannot be contained. This Sapphic passion is an unorthodox love in an orthodox world. Indeed, perhaps all love contains its own unorthodoxy.

The story follows the events leading up to the funeral, as the rekindled passions shape the destinies of the three protagonists, Esti, her enamorrata, Ronit and Esti’s despairing, angry, empathetic husband, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) the heir apparent to the temple’s leadership. For all three, the choice is the same: accept the cosy comfort zone of community obeisance (The role of the woman as helpmeet and bearer of children is mapped out clearly) or take the leap into the uncertain future of individual choice.

All three actors are outstanding in this very literary, wordy, beautifully written script (adapted from the book by Naomi Alderman). The relationship between Ronit and Esti – their love and longing and lust – feels palpably real (though it beats me why directors and actors could work so hard to deliver believable worlds, only to crack the honed surface of verisimilitude with the coy artifice of people making love with all their clothes on). Rachel Weisz in particular shines as the wronged woman punished by the community; the image of the glamorous Bohemian living in exotic New York is really a lost soul, stoically living in exile.

It’s one thing for Bob Marley to urge us to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. But the reality is that the price you have to pay – of loneliness, ostracism, exile, perhaps death – comes very dear indeed.

 

DISOBEDIENCE. Dir: Sebastián Leilo. Writers: Sebastián Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida). With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Alessandro Nivola (Selma, You Were Never Really Here). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (Florence Foster Jenkins). Production Designer: Sarah Finlay (Juliet, Naked)

 

SHOPLIFTERS**** Slow but Rewarding


(JAPANESE) DIRECTOR HIROKAZU Koreeda’s keen, leisurely observing eye is not one to be rushed. This is a slow, gentle tale that has its own rhythm; one that’s very far away from the kineticism of most Western drama. Either you enter into Koreeda’s flow or the subtle undulations of the tale will escape you.

The story centres on a family that exemplifies what family life is all about. They live comfortably together, pull together, share meals (noisily slurped down), are easily forgiving of each other’s minor peccadilloes and revel in their frolicsome seaside holidays. Dad is the hardworking centre of this group, keen on passing on his specialist knowledge.

Shoplifting.

And here’s the rub: this family lives in a dirt hovel. They’re a diverse group of mainly unrelated individuals who have fallen together. When we meet them, they’ve just rescued Yuri, a hungry, cold child, recently escaped from a relatively richer, but abusive family and hiding behind a dumpster. The contrast is obvious: one group is poor and unrelated by blood; father and ‘son’ are thieves, ‘daughter’ is a comfort girl in a peep show emporium, ‘mother’ is a factory hand and granny is a (mysterious) income generator. What binds them together is their shared humanity and a massive sense of mutual caring. One particularly strong theme (for which the director is well recognized) is the vital sense of the father/son relationship.

Legally, they’re outlaws, unlike Yuri’s dysfunctional, abusive family who really aren’t that concerned that she’s disappeared. But they’re a socially sanctioned legal entity

So, just what is “family”?

The movie brings us into the everyday seaminess of a hidden side of Japan, one of the world’s richest countries. But Koreeda eschews any trace of ideological anger (indeed, the authorities when we do meet them are unfailingly polite and decent). It’s as though he (and by extension, we) has entered into the kind of Zen acceptance of his protagonists. There’s no room for angst. This is simply how life is. Now, let’s make the most of it. Like dad, they’ve all sought and found the ethical escape clauses for their ‘deviant’ behaviour. As dad sees it, theft from a store isn’t really theft, as the stuff doesn’t as yet really have an owner. Since no one’s harmed, no crime has been committed.

And in that spirit of acceptance, we accept that it’s weird but OK to secretly bury a loved one; and to bring no judgement to someone whose income stream comes from (quasi) masturbating in front of strangers.

It’s as though, harmony and love really is all you need.

Now there’s a radical thought

The problem with the movie I found is that the evocation of the story’s core idea: here’s an “ordinary” family group living a life they deem ordinary, can just be a bit boring. It may be Koreeda’s idiosyncratic, and thematically necessary rhythm. But it’s a very slow rhythm, and I kept wishing they’d get on with it.

That said, this is an engrossing, convincing and heartfelt drama…one well worth its many plaudits

 

SHOPLIIFTERS. Dir and Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda (After The Storm, Like Father, Like Son). With: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi. Production Designer: Keiko Mitsumatsu

 

 

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB*** SPIDER V DRAGON


Even if you passed over the fact that this Lisbeth Salander (who has morphed from clever hacker into Modesty Blaise) isn’t the same character as the three Stieg Larsson books, the real problem with The Girl in the Spider’s Web is that it’s badly directed (by Uruguayan, Fede Alvarez who co-wrote the script).

The story’s fine. David Lagercrantz’s replacement of Stieg Larsson maintained the latter’s on-going theme of deep state complicity in high crimes. His is an intricate plot that ostensibly pits the Swedish secret service (Vicky Krieps from The Phantom Thread) against the US secret service (Lakeith Stanfield), both vying to recover a stolen code that can hack into the world’s nuclear missile fleet. But at a deeper level, the enemy combatants are Salander v her ‘long dead’ sister (Sylvia Hoeks from Blade Runner 2049).

Not unlike 007 v his ‘long dead’ brother, Blofeld! It’s one of many thefts from the Bond franchise (even including a version of the introductory titles). The theft however stops short of Sam Mendes’ terrific action sequence imagination. In The Girl…, the action sequences and fights (when you can make out what’s going on in this horribly badly lit movie) are brief and perfunctory. In movies of this genre, these are the moments when the adrenaline factor needs to be turned up to the max. No such luck.
Nor does Tatiana Riegel’s muddy editing help. There are several set-piece suspense incidents (a blinded assassin wandering through a wintry forest; Lisbeth lost in a fog of knock-out gas etc.) which end even before we get invested in the tension of the moment.

Director Alvarez also couldn’t be bothered to explain the story’s multiple happy coincidences (like the ex-hacker turned US Secret Agent who, thankfully is also an awesome marksman with the ability to shoot through walls)

Whatever.

Claire Foy is OK as Salander. She wears a sour scowl for all of the story, and certainly commits herself to the brute physicality of the role. But she’s never really convincing. Both Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace (earlier iterations of Lisbeth) had an earthy (bi) sexuality that invested their characters with a compelling edginess. Foy remains coyly prissy…more concerned with covering up her body than she is with uncovering crime.

But, hey, on a cold, dark afternoon, with the winds of Brexit and Trump beating down our doors, this is an adequate enough diversion

 

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB. Dir: Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe). With: Claire Foy (The Crown, First Man) Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049), Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread). Editor: Tatiana Riegel (I, Tonya); Cinematographer: Pedro Luque (Look Away): Production Designer: Eve Stewart (The Danish Girl)

 

 

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY*** The Official Biography


THIS MOVIE IS as delightful and entertaining as it is disingenuous. Its title, Bohemian Rhapsody would suggest that it’s more than a movie about a band, more an exploration of a musical phenomenon. It’s really a bio-pic of Freddy Mercury as a troubled genius.

The joy of the movie is its immersion of the audience in the heart-throbbing excitement of that seemingly endless canon of Queen’s hits (And director Bill Pohlad’s recreation of the adrenaline and thrill of live performance is as good as Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born). Mercury’s multi-octave voice (due to an excess of teeth he claimed) and Brian May’s stunning guitar riffs have probably provided the soundtrack of everyone between 45 and 70. Probably in the same way that ABBA did for everyone a generation earlier…and Bohemian Rhapsody will no doubt pump up record sales (OK…downloads) for the group as that other Dancing Queen has done for ABBA.

This is of course not to imply that Brian May had that in mind when he produced this airbrushed version of the band…right down to the last group hug of an HIV infected Freddy (at a time when the public thought it was contagious through mere touch).

That said, the choice of Rami Malek (Mr.Robot) to portray Freddy was a brilliant one. Malek holds the movie together, as Mercury did with Queen, with extraordinary charisma. Here’s a moving tale of an endearing buck toothed, gay, self-centered, Asian man, looking for love in all the wrong places and finding salvation in performance.

The movie follows Freddy’s career from the time when he’s still a baggage handler at Heathrow. His extraordinary voice is the asset that enables him to sell himself to a college band on the brink of collapse. He persuades them, and then a music Agent, that they’ll soon be the next big thing. Our difference, he says, is that “we’re a bunch of misfits -an astrophysicist, a dentist and a Pakistani- who will know how to reach all those other misfits out there”.

This ability -and need- to make a connection is one of the themes that drives the story. Freddy (and May) have the instinctive nous of how to connect with and move an audience no matter how large. Freddy feeds off their love (movingly shown at their final thrilling Band Aid Hyde Park concert) even as he mucks up his own personal connections, from his first heterosexual love to his later homosexual decadence.

The story also underlines the link between success and originality. Freddie’s push to force the development of the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody and the band’s self-belief, despite the misgivings of his agent and the opprobrium of the music press, is the turning point that marks the band out as a pioneer.

“Open your eyes,

Look up to the skies and see

I’m just a poor boy…

Mama, life had just begun”

Be true to yourself, make a connection!  These truisms…anchors to the genius of Queen, remain elusive to its principal singer.
For the personal self awareness, so brilliantly expressed in his music, and genuine human connectedness comes too late…if not for us, his army of fans, but for him, Farouk, the buck-toothed singer.

But the link between this death wish and the well of Freddy’s abundant creativity is one of the many under-explored areas of the story. (I also wish the writers had also taken the time, and courage, to tease out the role casual racism – hinted at but shied away from – played in his evolution as a performer)

The band itself is relegated to the co-star of the story. Freddy’s conniving friends and his own hubris are marked as the causes of its collapse (Dare we call his character “mercurial”?). The rest of the guys, in this telling, were good, happy family men (in contrast to Freddy’s gay promiscuousness). And May certainly ensures that we know who was the creative brain behind hits like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”. But the kinds of tensions and stresses that a better movie would have explored (as per the outstanding Beach Boys/ Brian Wilson story, “Love and Mercy”) remain off limits here.

Indeed, the real tension in the movie seems to lie between the DisneyWorld Queen and the real Freddy.

As the song asks, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
For Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie…just fantasy folks

 

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Dir: Bill Pohlad (Old Explorers). With: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander. Writers: Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) & Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon). Cinematograher: Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men, Acopalypse), Production designer: Aaron Haye ( Terminator Genisys)

 

 

WILDLIFE***** Don’t Miss


THE METICULOUSLY CRAFTED images from Paul Dano’s outstanding debut movie Wildlife (from the book of the same name by Richard Ford) are a combination of Edward Hopper and Life magazine. Like the protagonists of the story, they are images of emptiness, loneliness and desolation.

This is the beginning of the sixties. And once again, the Brinson family (Jerry -Jake Gyllenhaal-, Jeanette -Carrie Mulligan – and Joe – Ed Oxenbould – their fourteen year old son) have moved in search of work. The job Jerry’s managed to land, as an obsequious attendant at a golf club, won’t last long. And once again, he – too proud to ‘allow’ his wife to work, or even for the kind of job he’s prepared to accept – is in need of a job.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. He joins up as part of a crew of equally desperate men, willing to risk their lives for $1.00 and hour, fighting wildfires that are raging somewhere upstate.

She, left to manage on her own, must, like the wildlife threatened by the fires, learn how to adapt or die. Carrie Mulligan (Mudbound, Far From the Madding Crowd) is such an extraordinary actor that really she needs no script to convey her feelings. Her face tells all; every slight hint of emotion is writ large there. And it is a face that slowly changes from one of gaiety and sympathetic support to joylessness and despair. The actor seems to grow increasingly haggard as the story unfolds…as her character tries to find whatever means she can, to retain at least the veneer of middle class “respectability”.

Her innocent, uncomprehending son, Joe, through whose bewildered eyes we see much of the action tries to help out by getting a part time job. He’s a photographer’s assistant…taking the portraits of people eager to strike a pose, a pretence, of happiness. He’s uncomprehending when his mother, decked out in a flashy yellow dress, her “desperation dress”, takes him along to have dinner with the town’s elderly, rich car franchisee, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp: Red Sparrow, The Looming Tower, Molly’s Game)

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The bigger portrait we’re seeing is of the archetypal nuclear family crumbling before our eyes. Jerry, the father, feeling lessened by his inability to provide flees to face up to his own hell; Jeanette, the mother throws all caution to the wind, shucks off her maternal role and gives in to her circumstances. It is the son, Joe, shorn of parental guidance and responsibility that has to manage somehow.

Dano’s world is the part of America that, unlike Mr. Miller, has somehow been left out of the upwardly mobile post-war boom. They are the people Miller describes with typical capitalist indifference as too incompetent to grow rich. These are the ones fighting their own internal wildfires and learning how best to adapt or die; and perhaps not knowing the difference between the two.

This is a small movie (At times it feels like an adaptation of a play) with a huge emotional footprint. It’s a thoughtful, intellectually rich story, co written by Dano’s accomplished partner, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). Gyllenhaal, subtle and outstanding as always, was its co producer. They’re a formidable team. As the lost, nerdy, surprisingly strong son, Ed Oxenbould (The Butterfly Tree) is compelling…un-intimidated by the acting firepower around him.

Wildlife is probably not show-ey enough to get an Oscar nod. But this, along with The Wife and American Animals are among the best of this year.

So far

 

WILDLIFE Dir/writer: Paul Dano (as an actor: 12 Years a Slave. TV: War and Peace). Co-Writer: Zoe Kazan. With: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp. Production Designer: Akin McKenzie. Cinematographer: Diego Garcia

 

 

WIDOWS***Entertaining


IN THE SAME way that the movies have co-opted gangster stories and Westerns to offer deeper insights into themes of identity, loyalty, masculinity etc. there’s no reason to believe why the heist movie couldn’t also evolve away from the enjoyable nonsense of say, Ocean’s Eleven, into something more profound.

Steve McQueen’s new movie, Widows, sorta succeeds in doing this. But often it feels like two stories, each one restraining the other’s full potential.

The plot involves the collusion of three, newly impoverished, widows, along with a single mom hairdresser (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo). Their gangster husbands have all been killed (in a tremendously exciting shootout). Led by Veronica (Davis), the wife of the (deceased) ringleader (Liam Neeson), they plot the theft of some five million in cash, following the careful plans he’d left behind.

So far so good.

McQueen then builds his story – the lead up to the heist- on parallel tracks: one track follows their, initially stumbling, but growingly confident progress as they case the joint and map out their larcenous steps. The other track unfolds their relationships with their partners. Theirs have been lives shadowed by deceptions and the fragilities – physical, emotional and financial – of accepting their roles as the weaker, supporter sex.

Their need (McQueen’s anthem) is to shrug off their past vulnerabilities…to find strength where there was weakness, to empower themselves…newly dependent on no man; and to use their perceived weakness as a mask behind which to hide their plans.

Here are four women getting back against the serial misogynist abuses of their past…or on another level, here’s an archetype of every woman’s need to assert herself against generations of indifference and abuse.

McQueen offers us a world of stark contrasts; one rooted in corruption. The word of God is proffered by a power seeking preacher, praying for love; a murderous enforcer (terrifyingly played by Daniel Kaluuya) is working out of a church; the cathedrals of the rich butt up against the novels of the poor; the platitudes of stumping politicians (spearheaded by Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) hide millions in kickbacks and graft; the life of love and friendships are all buried under transactional arrangements.

And the women live in a self-imposed bubble. The money, the lifestyle, the potential of security is all that matters. It’s a gilded cage shielding them from the full reality of the sordidness.

Until they’re shielded no more. In a world of transactions, where money and people are bought and sold, stolen loot may be the only route to the uncompromised life. The past must pay for the future.

This more profound area is clearly where McQueen is keenest.

But as heist movies go, the wheels come off the bus (or the getaway car). This is a far cry from the dreadful, cynical Oceans Eight. But McQueen works so hard to convince us that it’s “true”, that ordinary women really could pull it off, that the improbable cleverness we’ve come to expect from heist movies from The Sting to Insider Man just isn’t there…even though there are some wild improbable coincidences. The entire build up is tension-free and feels flat-footed. There is one massive twist, which, along with various political sub plots, feels unnecessary to his themes of empowerment and deception. Even his four main characters feel underdeveloped.

This is a two hour movie in search of ten hours of Netflix.

It’s an enjoyable enough film. The ensemble cast are at the top of their game, especially Elizabeth Debicki as the proto prostitute trying to rise above her past. And Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn adds some snappy dialogue

But it’s a long way to go after the high of Twelve Years a Slave.

 

WIDOWS. Dir: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave; Shame). Writer: McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). With: Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodrigues, Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager), Liam Neeson, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Murder on the Orient Express; Sicario 2: Soldado), Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erviro (Bad Times at the El Royale). Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt (On Chesil Beach)