Monsters and Men(10/8/2018)/The Hate U Give(10/14/2018)

When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.”  That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations.  However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently.  It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema.  In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014.  We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man.  Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.

The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds.  One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party.  On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush.  Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.

Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him.  That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter.  When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video.  Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs.  After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.

Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme.  This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this.  The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting.  Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.

Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic.  It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.

The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop.  John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops.  The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year.  You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure.  There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.

There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle.  He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.”  It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.

The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off.  Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking.  The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto.  For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots.  Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more.  For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position.  Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe.  In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.

The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that.  This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films.  The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately.  It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush.  It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc.  Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all.  Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public.  I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.

The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.”  Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so.  Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth.  That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three.  In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.

Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema.  The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny.  This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight.  It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something.  It’s corny.  But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie.  That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars.  I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals.    Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.

Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five

The Hate U Give: *** out of Five

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First Man(10/11/2018)

Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.

The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name.  It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then.  There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra.  Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission.  He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson.  As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos.  That seems like quite the exaggeration.  There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out.  Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema.  I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.

The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return.  It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission.  Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut.  The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.

First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing.  In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action.  This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication.  The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period.  That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.”  The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him.  In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working.  The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father.  From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most.  We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons.  He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory.  Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line  you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable.  If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.

I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife.  In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men.  She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing.  In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less.  If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary.  That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.

There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far.  Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax.  Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images.  He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line.  The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were.  That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.

**1/2 out of Five

The Little Stranger(9/3/2018)

One of the most oddly sad things that movie studios find themselves doing is the “dumping” of certain movies.  This happens when studios fund certain movies and let them get made, but then start to have cold feet about them after they’re done.  Sometimes the completed film is simply bad but sometimes they just prove to be less commercial than the studio expected and it’s determined that it will be a harder sell with the public than they thought it would be.  Sometimes they’ll respond to this by putting out some sort of misleading advertising campaign, sometimes they’ll scale back the release and hope the movie catches on, but all too often what they do is the minimum possible to fulfil their contracts and cut their losses.  They’ll put the movies out in months like January or August or September when there’s the least competition and they’ll do the absolute minimum required in marketing.  They won’t bother putting the films in festivals to generate early buzz they might screen the movie for critics but even if they get good reviews they probably won’t capitalize on it.  Basically they’ll do everything in their power to make sure the film just kind of comes and goes in cinema and hope that interest picks up on DVD or something.  One of the more interesting and perhaps disappointing victims of “dumping” as of late is probably the latest film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson entitled The Little Stranger.

Set sometime after the Second World War, The Little Stranger focuses in on a country doctor named Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) whose mother once worked for a rural estate of the “Downton Abbey” variety called Hundreds Hall as a maid.  One day he’s called to Hundreds Hall because the current maid there named Betty (Liv Hill) has taken sick.  While there he sees that the place is a shell of its former self and is in a state of complete disrepair.  The family’s matriarch Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is still around but has seemingly little influence and her son Roderick (Will Poulter) hasn’t been much of a “man of the house” since receiving extensive burn injuries during the war.  The brightest spot of the house appears to be his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), who seems a bit more sensible and capable of moving on than her family members.  It soon becomes apparent that the downfall of this house seems to have been precipitated by the death of the family’s eldest daughter Susan (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as a child.  Despite the state of the house Faraday still has an affection for the place and makes a point to keep visiting it to try an experimental treatment for Roderick’s burns and becomes more and more a friend of the family despite some very strange things happening in Hundreds Hall.

I think a big part of why this movie was “dumped” but the studio has less to do with its actual quality than with the simple fact that it kind of impossible to market.  The movie is about 75% “Masterpiece Theater” style British period piece and 25% a horror movie and will probably not give the audiences for either of those things exactly what they’re looking for.  The people looking for a Merchant Ivory movie out of something like this will probably not be thrilled with the ghost story elements and the typical horror audience will certainly not be happy with the dearth of scares to be found in the film (it makes The Witch look like The Conjuring by comparison).  Now, being an unconventional genre blend isn’t inherently a bad thing or commercial suicide.  That Nicole Kidman film The Others had a similar period piece to scares ratio as this does and it managed to be a hit, albeit almost twenty years ago.  But it you’re going to do something unexpected and unconventional you do sort of need to work extra hard in order to make people interested and I’m not so sure that The Little Stranger does.

The film was based on a novel by a woman named Sarah Waters, who is a contemporary British author who’s known to write novels in the same milieus that the likes of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte used to specialize in but to look at them with a modern eye and to tackle issues that would have been taboo when the acknowledged masters were writing.  Film buffs would probably know her best as the author of the book “Fingersmith,” which was the basis for Park Chan-Wook’s excellent 2016 film The Handmaiden.  I was expecting that The Little Stranger would do a bit more to subvert its own genre in a similar way but it instead feels more like a fairly faithful replication of the traditional haunted house story like “The House of the Seven Gables” or “The Turn of the Screw” but I’m not really sure it’s doing anything that Henry James couldn’t have done if he wanted to.  But even as a bare bones gothic horror story this seems to be missing some elements.  For one thing, Charlotte Rampling proves to be rather dull as a matriarch driven mad by guilt.  Granted they were probably trying to avoid the cliché of the batty old rich lady but the alternative they came up with was a little boring and Rampling feels a bit wasted as a result.  They also don’t do a great job of establishing the backstory for Caroline’s deceased sister and why her ghost is so hellbent on revenge.  You keep expecting there to be some revelation about that but it never really comes.  Beyond that the film just never really breaks out cinematically.  It’s consistently competent, the performances are pretty good, it’s shot well but given that this is Abrahamson’s the follow-up to something as winning as Room you certainly expect something a lot more impressive than what we’re given.  It’s ultimately kind of a hard movie to really judge because at the end of the day it certainly isn’t “bad” so much as it’s underwhelming.

**1/2 out of Five

The Miseducation of Cameron Post(8/18/2018)

Sometimes you see movies because the trailer looks promising, but that’s not the reason I went to see The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  In fact I don’t think I ever saw the trailer playing in front of anything at any point.  Sometimes you see a movie because you’re familiar with the director’s work and want to see more, but director Desiree Akhavan has only made one film before and I’d never even heard of it.  Sometimes you see a movie because there are a wave of critical acclaim, and there is some acclaim out there for this movie but it’s not rapturous to the point where critical acclaim alone is going to make me interested.  No, this is actually one of the few times I’ve felt the need to go out and see something because I’m eventually going to have to compare it to another movie.  That movie is called Boy Erased, it’s also a movie about a teenager who’s sent to a gay conversion therapy camp, it’s scheduled to come out later this year, and a lot of people are predicting that it will have a lot of Oscar buzz.   Since both movies have roughly the same subject matter and are coming out the same year they will inevitably be compared to one another and Miseducation of Cameron Post star Chloë Grace Moretz has already thrown some shade at that upcoming movie sight unseen.  So, in order to get ahead of the great debates that will surely ensue and given that there wasn’t anything else out this week I decided I’d give this a shot.

The film is set in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest and focuses on a girl of about seventeen named Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz).  Post’s parents died years earlier and her new guardians are apparently members of an Evangelical community as they’ve sent Post to a camp called God’s Promise after she’s caught having a tryst with another girl.  God’s Promise is a gay conversion therapy center, one of those places that seeks to “pray away the gay” of anyone who’s forced to go there.  Post doesn’t seems to be much of a true believer in this form of Christianity but doesn’t openly rebel against the camp either.  Instead she finds herself hanging out with some of the other offbeat teens in attendance like a biracial girl named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and a boy of Native American ancestry named Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck).

While we’ve come to learn in recent years that we maybe haven’t made as much progress as we’ve hoped on certain issues than we’ve thought, I do think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t take a whole lot of courage to be against gay conversion therapy in 2018.  These centers are the product of the kookiest of right wing fringes and even super mainstream products like Deadpool 2 can make them into stock villains without too much trouble.  Still one could say it’s just as easy to make fun of Nazis and Klansman and yet there’s still value to be found in looking at how people like that walk among us and to acknowledge the suffering they’ve caused.  That said, The Miseducation of Cameron Post does not necessarily look at these places in an overly heavy handed way and tries to be more of a character study than an “issue movie.”  Cameron Post is clearly someone who’s a bit out of place in a camp like this.  She wears her hair short, listens to The Breeders and 4 Non Blondes, hangs out with the minorities in the camp, and enjoys smoking weed and rebelling behind the counselors backs.  In other words she’s one of the cool kids and that makes her something of a good audience surrogate.

The thing is, Cameron Post’s coolness as a character is something of a double edged sword.  I think the film particularly errored in making Post basically a non-believer in the camp’s religion and a skeptic in their mission.  This makes our main protagonist more or less immune from the worst manipulations of the people at hand. As such, what should be a movie about spiritual and mental torture instead feels like it’s merely a movie where a cool kid is forced to endure time at a really lame summer camp run by nerds.  I’m sure there are some people who experience gay conversion therapy camps in this way but I’m not sure that was necessarily the most interesting way to get to the heart of the issue.  We do get some of the worse aspects of this experience through some of the other campers, albeit in a rather cliché way. For them it’s sort of a Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher is the square and students are better off not learning for him.  But for the Cameron Post character I think they’re trying to make something along the lines of a Cool Hand Luke or an Unbroken where the main character sees past the suppressive prison warden and manages to keep their spirit intact despite the hell they’re put through… except that that hell doesn’t seem very hellish because the bad guys are kind of incompetent at being bad guys, which is interesting in its own way but isn’t terribly conducive to the point they’re trying to make.  I don’t want to come down too hard on the movie as it’s a well-paced movie with some decent performances and has some details here and there that are of interest, but it feels like it actively avoids some of the real dramatic potential of this setting and probably should have been thinking more along the lines of First Reformed for teenagers rather than the movie about mild rebellion against authority that we get.

**1/2 out of Five

Sorry to Bother You(7/14/2018)

While I’ve long been a hip-hop fan I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the “conscious” hip-hop that has long been touted as the “smart” alternative to all the “commercialized sellout” hip-hop that most people actually want to listen to.  I certainly don’t need or want my rap music to be ignorant, and I’m not talking about artists like Tupac or Kendrick Lamar who mix politics into traditional hardcore rap, but I’ve always found it a bit suspect how certain “fans” seem to want this particular genre of music to act more as a billboard for various social or political causes and the further away from college the less use I have for a lot of these guys.  That’s not to say I eschew every group that falls under the “conscious” banner; The Roots are obviously awesome and Talib Kweli’s best stuff mostly works for me. But I have little use for the lecturing of Immortal Technique, Common’s music mostly seemed like a series of empty platitudes, and even the granddaddy of all these artists, KRS-One, could be rather tiresome.  And this brings me to The Coup.  I’ve never had terribly strong opinion about that group as they basically just seemed like one of many artists vying for attention in that space but they were distinct from some other “conscious rappers” in that they were even more left-wing than a lot of them.  They’re like the Rage Against the Machine of hip-hop and their members are committed socialists with distinctly anti-capitalist views and seem to be genuinely interested in burning everything to the ground and starting over.  I bring all this up because The Coup’s founding member is a guy named Boots Riley and he has now decided to move into filmmaking with his debut film Sorry to Bother You.

Sorry to Bother You follows a guy named Cashus “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in a makeshift apartment in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland.  In an attempt to get his life back on track Green takes a job at a telemarketing call center called Regalview where he’s told to “stick to the script” while selling encyclopedias (or something) over the phone to people who aren’t terribly receptive.  Cash struggles for a while before an older co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) advises him that he’d have more success if he used his “white voice” instead of his natural cadence.  From there Cash starts code switching while talking on the phone to customers (Stanfield is overdubbed in these moments by comedian David Cross) and almost immediately starts to become very successful and gets promoted up the corporate ladder.  That would seemingly be good news for Cash but it puts him at odds with some of his old friends who are tying to start a union in the lower levels of the company and with the world at large given that the film is set in a satirically heightened version of our world where a billionaire named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has been convincing people to sign lifelong contracts with a company called WorryFree that basically turns them into slaves.

If that summery didn’t make it clear, Sorry to Bother You is a really weird movie, though it’s not entirely without precedent.  The movie certainly seems to be in the same tradition as some of Spike Lee’s more “out there” movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and especially Bamboozled, which was also about a black guy who could be accused of being an “uncle tom” trying to decide how deep down the road of collaborating with racist corporations he wants to go.  However the film also seems to draw a bit from other culty movies like Repo Man and Putney Swope which choose to eschew subtlety and kind of shout their frustrations about the status quo in unusual and sort of surreal ways.  The film is being sold on the high concept of the salesman using his “white voice” to get ahead in telemarketing, and while the double consciousness of black Americans is a theme of the movie that concept is really more of a jumping off point than the dominant message of the movie.  Over the course of the film’s running time capitalism itself is just as much of a target as racism and increasingly takes the movie over by the end.

Much of Sorry to Bother You attacks American capitalism though a sort of satiric exaggeration.  For instance there’s the “WorryFree” organization that is essentially peddling slavery with congressional approval and there’s an even more outlandish allegory about worker exploitation that emerges later in the movie.  That would seem to be a powerful statement if you’re someone who’s so inclined to view the capitalist system as already essentially being legitimized slavery, but if you don’t already hold that view (I certainly don’t) the movie isn’t necessarily going to persuade you to see things that way and the allegory will just seem like some outlandish hyperbole.  In fact the movie delivers a lot of messages through outlandish hyperbole, it kind of feels like the sort of movie someone makes when they have a lot to say but don’t know if they’re ever going to have the chance to make another movie so they just throw everything into one project.  It wasn’t enough to make a movie about a guy who abandons his culture and sense of self for profit and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie about the ways capitalism pits poor people against each other and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie that takes digs at reality television, meme culture, and the modern art world, he needed to make a movie that comments on seemingly everything that’s came to mind about American culture and the result is a movie that is densely filled with slightly half-baked ideas.  I desperately want to give this thing an “at least it’s trying something different” pass, but at the end of the day it’s a little too messy and unfocused and also probably not as laugh out loud funny as it needed to be.

**1/2 out of Five

The Rider(5/18/2018)

You know that big award ceremony that happens in Hollywood every year in the last weekend of award season?  No not the Oscars.  I’m talking about the Independent Spirit Awards.  If you’re not familiar it’s an award show that’s given out every year the Saturday before the Oscars (when all the celebrities are in town) since the mid-80s which were meant to be something of an anti-Oscars where the makers of plucky independent films got together in a large circus tent while wearing casual clothing.  It’s been a bit redundant now given that their definition of “independent” is pretty broad and the real Academy is more receptive to “independent” films than ever and at this point the overlap between the two shows is pretty heavy.  In fact it’s been something like ten years since the winner of the Spirit award wasn’t also an Oscar nominee and even longer since it was won by something that wasn’t pretty heavily on the Oscar radar.  Still, there does seem to be at least some sort of voting bloc at Film Independent that is, for better or worse, interested in highlighting less prominent indie films to the point where they’ve occasionally nominated movies the year before they’ve even come out in general release.  That happened about ten years ago when they gave two nominations to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker months before anyone who hadn’t been to a film festival had ever heard of it.  A similar thing happened last year as well when they gave a “Best Feature” nomination to a movie that had been well off my radar called The Rider despite the film’s general release not occurring until almost half a year later.

The Rider is set in modern rural South Dakota and focuses on a guy named Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) who has just suffered a major injury while performing in a rodeo.  Blackburn appears to be in his twenties and lives in a trailer with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) who appears to be a heavy drinker and gambler and his fifteen year old sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) who seems to have some sort of mental disability.  As the film begins Blackburn has a large gash across the side of his head under which a metal plate has been attached and as a result of this brain injury he occasionally loses control of one of his hands.  He’s been told that another rodeo injury could kill him and that he needs to avoid riding and rest in order to heal.  Frustrated, Blackburn tries to find a way to make a living outside of his one true skill and to find a way to leave behind his passion for horse riding and the thrill of rodeo performance.

The obvious reference point for this is almost certainly Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, which also focused on the plight of a guy in a disreputable “sport” who’s told that he’s no longer physically fit participate in said sport and has trouble accepting that he needs to give it up.  Both films focus on their protagonist’s shame at their current state and have sub-plots where they are miserable while trying to get menial day jobs where people recognize them from their previous more glamourous life.  They even have similar titles.  Of course there are differences; Randy “The Ram” Robinson was depicted as someone who had been very famous in his past life and was brought down both by age and by years of wear and tear while Brady Blackburn is a guy who only appears to have had some slight regional success before having his career cut short by a sudden injury.  Now, being similar to another movie is not a deal breaker by any means and there are a number of stylistic differences that make this different in both tone and message than Aronofsky’s film.

Almost all of the characters in The Rider are played by non-actors and all the members of Blackburn’s family appear to be played by actual relatives of Brady Jandreau but the film is scripted and technically a work of fiction even if it does sort of mirror the lives of the people acting in it.  I’m not the biggest believer the use of non-actors in movies.  Every once in a while it works beautifully in something like The Florida Project but for every one of those there are a dozen indie movies made by Rossellini-wannabes that just sort of feel cheap.  I would say this one felt like a bit of a mix of the two.  Brady Jandreau was pretty impressive in the film, especially in the scenes where he’s not speaking and in the scenes where he’s doing his horse training work, which seemed pretty authentic.  I also thought Lilly Jandreau added an interesting presence to the film and felt very real for obvious reasons and it’s probably fair to say that the approach added a number of interesting faces to the movie.  However, the downside of this approach is that there are moments where the amateur nature of the performers comes through, especially in the dialogue scenes which occasionally results in some rather questionable line-readings.

Rather than harken back to the visual style of Hollywood westerns Chloé Zhao’s visual approach is minimalist and has a very straightforward digital look that emphasizes its realism.  A lot of people have been interpreting the film as a statement about “toxic masculinity” because it’s about the culture that demands that this guy keep doing something dangerous to prove his manhood, and there is a little of that in there but I’m not so sure that people would be seeing all of that had the movie not been directed by a woman.  For one thing, Brady Blackburn doesn’t strike me as a terribly agro individual so much as this thoughtful horse whisperer type and at times the character’s stubbornness clashes a bit with the more thoughtful take that Jandreau has on the character.  Instead, to me this feels like a sort of dark reversal on the kind of “chase your dreams and you can do anything” philosophy that gets espoused by movies like La La Land.  Society loves telling stories about people who overcome injuries and beat people’s expectations but it’s not so interested in telling the stories of people who try to do that and only end up digging themselves deeper into holes.  That’s worth exploring to be sure, but I’ve seen it explored more excitingly elsewhere (did I mention that this resembled The Wrestler?) and the tour through rural America is only going to do so much for me.  There is some skill here though and I can imagine Zhao’s approach working better as it evolves and finds other more original subjects.

**1/2 out of Five