Review: Sorry to Bother You

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★★★★

 

I have seen a couple of movies that needed time to digest this summer, and I consider that a good thing.  If what I just saw defied my expectations so much to the point that I need to process it, then I know I just watched something that lacked predictability and familiarity.  The first film that required such reflection was Hereditary.  Now comes director Boots Riley’s social commentary comedy Sorry to Bother You.

Lakeith Stanfield (best known for yelling “get out!” in the film Get Out) stars as Cassius Green, a man living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage while trying to pull together bare minimum rent money at his new telemarketer job.  Sitting in his drab, windowless cubicle with a headset, he experiences sales rejection every time until a colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he uses his “white voice”.  Glover emphasizes that Cassius can’t just settle for a nasally voice or Will Smith voice.  He has to create the voice of a man who feels perfectly comfortable and secure with his wealth and lifestyle.  Suddenly, like magic, he begins to speak in the voice of that worry free white guy (voiced by David Cross).

Once the voice takes hold, Cassius begins to experience success.  He is moved up to the upstairs floor full of “power callers”, who sell indentured servitude rather than encyclopedias.  He now works on behalf of corporation Worry Free, headed by CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).  This is a company that entices average Americans with room and board in the form of tightly confined bunk beds and cafeteria food in exchange for a lifelong contract so that they can remain “worry free”.  Once Cassius begins to penetrate Lift’s high-power circle, this is when Sorry to Bother You takes that unexpected turn in both plotline and genre.

Sorry to Bother You is a bit of a mess.  Most of the time I say that to point out a movie’s faults.  However, writer/director Boots Riley quickly establishes that the world itself is in disarray.  Therefore, the use of abrupt transitions and plot shifts without warning begins to feel like the norm.  In fact, Riley does a nice job of establishing this divided universe of haves and have nots without needing to be overly preachy.  Take for example when Cassius and his friends pull up in front of a bar behind a sedan with a clothes line and a camper attached to it.  Blink and you will miss moments like this, but there are many of these details painted into the background that make up this landscape of unbalanced chaos.

The film covers many bases of social satire including race, socioeconomic status, the 1 percenters, etc.  However, director Riley presents a relaxed style in his storytelling, and anything truly goes.  He takes the fantastical aspect of the “white guy voice” and he runs with it.  But he certainly doesn’t stop there.  Without presenting spoilers, Sorry to Bother You takes a major detour somewhere in the middle that changes the course of its storytelling.  It is a change that the audience will love or hate depending on how open the viewer is to defying expectations.

Sorry to Bother You presents a terrific ensemble that gives everyone a chance to shine.  Stanfield, in his first non-supporting role, makes a great anchor for the film.  Whether his character is making right or wrong choices, it is difficult not to sympathize with his predicaments.  Tessa Thompson, as his love interest, is also terrific as a starving artist who twirls signs to fund her absurd, performance art.  Rounding out the ensemble are Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer (in full blown, evil CEO mode), and Omari Hardwick.

I appreciate familiarity in good summer blockbusters, but I also appreciate mind-blowing unpredictability.  I expected wild satire from Sorry to Bother You, but I did not expect it to reach the level of hilarious chaos that it does.  For anyone who appreciates smart commentary and genre-bending madness, I can’t recommend Sorry to Bother You enough.

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Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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★★★★★

I have different memories of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood than I do from watching other shows as a child.  When I was young, I remember Fred Rogers as a welcoming and trusting figure that was impossible not to like.  Then I became a judgy teenager and dismissed Rogers as someone that gave off a creepy vibe.  Since reaching a sort of equilibrium in my adult years, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never really reentered my mind’s nostalgic gallery.  With the exception of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, I never felt like Fred Rogers was rebranded and resold to audiences.  My failure to remember Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood emphasizes the importance of the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.  What people like me failed to remember is that Fred Rogers was out to do more than just make a “look at me” kid show.

Being that the film is a documentary, it relies on interviews of currently-living people, and archive footage of Fred Rogers and his programs.  The figures interviewed include his still-living widow and two sons.  Also included are figures involved in the production of his program including David Newell (Mr. McFeely) and Francois Clemmons (playing himself in different capacities on the show, including a police officer).  The presentation of footage and interviews runs in chronological order from the birth of the program until the emotional final episode.

I think there is a reason why I didn’t have a deep nostalgia for Mr. Rogers until now.  Rogers was truly focused on crafting a program for his adolescent audience, and it mattered to him what message was sent.  As television programs became louder, faster, and more determined to sell to children, Rogers became frustrated with the corruption of young minds.  What set his show apart from Saturday morning cartoons is that his world existed as an inviting bubble with no strings attached in exchange for his warmth and kindness.  What mattered to Rogers is that each child learned something, and understood their special qualities while living in a world that was becoming more hectic.

What is most fascinating is having a look behind the curtain to see how this man ticked.  The film really seems to cover all the burning questions about his eccentricities.  It acknowledges that Rogers was indeed different, and as the world grew more leary and mistrusting (see the initial reference to me as a judgy teen), some questioned whether it was possible for a man to truly be so compassionate without harboring demons.  It turns out, he wasn’t.  Sadly his positive attributes just made him an outlier in a place where people such as Fred Rogers were scarce.

Documentaries are a film genre that should not be forgotten.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? had a relatively wider release for being documentary, and audiences need to seek it out.  It was heart-wrenching for me to imagine how Fred Rogers would react to a country so divided today.  But I really hope that this film finds an audience that appreciates how soft-spoken man with a low-budget television show was preaching diversity, acceptance and kindness.  This is one of the best films this year.

Review: Hearts Beat Loud

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★★★★★

 

Something I’ve failed to do for years is go to concerts.  I have a million excuses, and it is unfortunate.  The main reason we go is for the favorite band or singer.  But, whether we realize it or not, the audience is also part of that draw.  Not even in a movie theater do you sit among strangers and connect with them over shared love for what you are seeing.  Discovering a new band on Spotify by myself is good, but it doesn’t compare to the bond one shares with a friend or loved one over music.  The highly overlooked Hearts Beat Loud is about those connections that are created because of music.

Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson) plays record store owner Frank Fisher.  Once a passionate musician, he sits behind the counter of his empty store smoking cigarettes, and carelessly ignoring the few customers in his store that have not gone over to Amazon for their vinyl.  The only thing that seems to make him grin is when his college-bound daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) agrees to make music with him.  Realizing that his jam session partner and love of his life is about to go to California for college, he shruggingly uploads a collaborative track onto Spotify.

No, they do not become musical superstars, but Frank does brag that their song is on the same playlist as Spoon and Iron and Wine.  Along with discovering a newfound bond together as a band (called “We Are Not a Band”), both Sam and Frank grapple with whether or not music is their new calling, or merely that unattainable passion that they have to leave behind.

In addition to the leads, Hearts Beat Loud includes a terrific supporting cast including Ted Danson as a pothead bar owner, Toni Collette (taking a chill pill from Herditary) as Frank’s compassionate landlord, and Blythe Danner as Frank’s mentally ill mother.

There is no getting around how much I loved this movie.  In the usual rotation of blockbusters and thought-provoking indies that I see regularly, not many of them are quaint, moderately budgeted stories like Hearts Beat Loud that have me leaving the theater with a smile on my face (while adding songs to my Spotify).  This is a really nice story, and Offerman and Clemons are really committed to their performances.  Offerman is skilled at moving beyond the gruff demeanor that typically accompanies his characters (see Ron Swanson).  Offerman’s talents are strongest in his facial expressions.  When he plays music with Clemons, he exudes joy and abandons all hopelessness to enjoy just a few minutes of creating something with someone he loves.  Clemons provides much depth as a wallflower experiencing love and music at a point when she is about to leave it all behind.

Many times I suggest a movie for only those who like “this thing” or “that thing”.  However, I am making a broad recommendation.   Hearts Beat Loud is clearly not on the radar right now, and I hope that more people discover it.  I am sure it will secure a place for me as one of the best films this year.

Review: Sicario- Day of the Soldado

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★★1/2

 

I remember the intensity and dread felt when watching Sicario from 2015.  I felt this way because the main character, played by Emily Blunt, was the audience surrogate.  As an FBI agent going against the cartel, she goes on a mission with a sense of optimism that she can take down this force only to find out it is a never ending, unstoppable force of corruption and death.  Like Blunt’s character, I had no idea what I was in for, which is part of why I thought Sicario was one of the best films of 2015.

Oddly enough, there is now a sequel titled Sicario: Day of the Soldado.  This time around, we do not get Emily Blunt’s grounded perspective.  Instead, we are taken through most of this story with the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) as the lead.  Summoned by crooked federal agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) from the first film, hitman and government liaison Alejandro is asked to help start a war between two cartels.  Alejandro helps his own cause by waging war against the cartels responsible for the death of his family, while the US government gets to see the crumbling of two major cartels.  Things do not go as planned when a drug lord’s daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) is kidnapped by Matt’s crew as part of the setup.  This leaves Alejandro with the teenager fending for their lives in Mexico while Matt is stuck with difficult decisions on how to conclude the mission gone awry.

Day of the Soldado switches its audience surrogates, which is primarily what does not work here.  In the original film, Brolin’s Matt Graver existed in the peripheries as a needed character to introduce Blunt’s Kate Macer to this dangerous world.  Alejandro served as somewhat of a mystery with questions that were better left unanswered.  Taking away the character of Kate Macer, the film relies on Brolin and Del Toro to anchor the film, and Day of the Soldado is just not nearly as captivating when relying on these two characters as the leads.  This sequel does not enter its setting with intrigue or apprehension.  The characters played by Del Toro and Brolin are confident and relentless, which is why this movie kicks off with guns blazing, and no questions asked.

This is not to say that Day of the Soldado does not accomplish what it is here to do.  It is clear to me that the sequel intends on switching genres into more of a popcorn action movie.  However, Soldado’s quick pace barely allowed time for it to sink in like the first film.  The narrative is a lot more self-explanatory than its predecessor, which was disappointing to me.  The original Sicario left so much to chew on while Soldado just didn’t resonate much.

The Sicario films are intended to form a trilogy, and the rumor is that Blunt will return for closure in the final installment.  It is possible that Day of the Soldado will one day work as an essential piece in the trilogy, and I am open to seeing it again.  However, it is currently a weaker sequel that doesn’t deliver the emotional punch that its predecessor did in 2015.

Review: Blockers

Film Title: Blockers

★★★1/2

 

It seemed like every time I turned on Comedy Central as a teenager, it was playing a movie from the 80s about teenage boys trying to get laid.  Just to name a couple of examples, The Sure Thing (1985) was the story of young John Cusack traveling across the country to..wait for it…have sex.  In fact, there was a whole trilogy of films called Porky’s that was simply about teenage males obsessed with sex.  The females in these films?  They were objectified conquests for the males.  Will the guy score, or won’t he?  That seemed to be the only burning question.  American Pie (1999) added some female perspective, but was still centered around bros.

We see some considerable progress with Blockers.  The main characters are not teenagers, but rather the parents of teenagers played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz.  However, it is their teenage daughters that are on a conquest to lose their virginity on prom night.  When the trio of parents accidentally eavesdrop a group text where their daughters use emojis to discuss their virginity pact, they make it their mission to cock-block their own kids on prom night.

Blockers is hit and miss when it comes to laughs.  Since every movie and TV show, funny or not, contains vomiting now, I was personally desensitized to a scene that goes out of its way to be gratuitous with puke.  Where the humor hits is the chemistry between the three leads.  Barinholtz adds the right dose of immaturity and is counterbalanced by the other leads when he is just about to get too irritating.  Mann, who can sometimes take shrill to extremes, plays it cool in her role as a single mom not ready to face an empty nest.  Then there is Cena, another former WWF star molded into a comedic actor, as an uptight and strict father who gets laughs just by trying to contain his massive build within his suburban dad getup.

I think the most refreshing thing about Blockers isn’t as much the laughs, but rather its effort to include females as part of the sex comedy genre.  While sex comedies have historically portrayed boys as being on an awesome conquest, girls are always portrayed as Faberge eggs that need to be protected from bad influence.  Blockers goes so far to comment on this by allowing these characters to overreact like most responsible parents do to daughters having sex, but then come to the realization that you someday have to trust your children’s’ independent decisions.  Blockers is not a comedy classic, but I did laugh a bit while respecting its angle.

Review: Hereditary

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★★★★1/2

 

I had the pleasure of seeing Hereditary the eve before departing on my vacation last week.  For most self-explanatory films, I would attempt to throw my thoughts into a blog post before hitting the road.  But Hereditary is not just any other film.  It is a movie I went into knowing as little as possible.  At the same time, I did have certain assumptions about what I was going to see.  It is very tricky within 24 hours to write one’s complete thoughts on a film after said film completely defies expectations, and runs your emotions and brain through the ringer.  I’ve had a few days off to let Hereditary sink in, and I am ready to let it rip.

As previously mentioned, the less that is said, the better.  My tactful synopsis- Annie (Toni Collette) loses her mother, and her family has different ways of dealing with the loss.  Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) seems to have a chilly reception toward his late grandmother while her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seemed to have had an inexplicable connection to the late matriarch.  Annie eulogizes her mother describing her as a woman that kept to herself and held onto to secrets.  It is after the death of Annie’s mother that things don’t actually die.  Things begin to manifest themselves proving that a person’s death does not necessarily prevent their influence from taking hold.

What needs to be understood about Hereditary is that, despite the positive reputation preceding it from the film festival circuit, it is not a fun, spooky little movie.  It is not the type of horror movie where everyone can giggle together afterwards about how many times they jumped.   Hereditary is a domestic drama from the get-go, and it establishes that genre for at least the first 90 minutes.  Afterwards, a horrific element slowly oozes its way, and is there in full force by the time Hereditary reaches its head-scratching, yet terrifying conclusion.

For me, Hereditary was not the type of film that left me with a fully-formed opinion.  I went into it trying to know as little as possible, and that really paid off.  What happens in this film is so unexpected that it takes time to process.  Many audience members clearly left the theater upset.  But I have let it sink in, and come to realize that I really did like Hereditary.  In fact, the film leaves clues throughout its run, and I look forward to watching it again so I can pick up on those details.  With or without the supernatural elements, Hereditary is a film about the negative precedents that family members can establish and pass along to their kin.  Toni Collette’s Annie fully comprehends the negative effects that her mother had on her family, and this is demonstrated in a terrific monologue from Collette during a scene set in a grief support group.  Hereditary puts emphasis on those negative effects after death.  Even if a disruptive or abusive family member finally dies, there is no relief.  The damage has been done and continues to linger in the living family members that absorbed the evil behavior.

The Academy typically loves to turn its pretentious nose up at horror films.  However, with more diverse votes and the dissipation of Harvey Weinstein’s corrupt influence (I sound like a conspiracy theorist, but that influence was clearly there), I am hoping that Toni Collette earns a place this year in the Best Actress category.  Annie is a protagonist that has to bear the weight of a troubled family history that just won’t die, and her suffering is felt.  An honorable mention is given to Alex Wolf as Annie’s son.  There are details about his character that can’t be revealed in this review.  However, once his inner demons are revealed, the nuances of his performance are appreciated.

I highly recommend Hereditary to anyone wanting a thought-provoking horror-viewing experience.  This movie earned a D+ Cinemascore rating, and I think it is because Hereditary is misunderstood.  Its distributor A24 did a wonderful job marketing the film without revealing spoilers.  However, its advertising also emphasizes frequent scares, which is inaccurate.  I do think more audience members would have liked this movie if they went in ready to expect a slower-paced family drama that slowly begins to fracture from sinister forces.  I think those who appreciated other horror staples such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining will appreciate Hereditary‘s slow burn storytelling.  This may be one of my favorite movies this year, and I look forward to watching it again with more knowledge about the fate of these characters.

Review Round-Up: Deadpool 2 and Solo

Unlike what the Rolling Stones once said, time is not on my side.  How about I play a little catch-up express-style?  Here are my late reviews of Deadpool 2 and Solo.

 

DEADPOOL 2

 

★★★★

 

As expected based on the success of Deadpool, the world is given another serving of Ryan Reynolds as America’s favorite foul-mouthed superhero.  I am one of those dorks invested in the Marvel Universe that is using each film as a stepping stone and delving deeper into origin stories and character connections.  Sometimes, we need a break from the superhero universes that take themselves seriously.  That is exactly what Deadpool 2 is with its smug self-awareness.  Simply put- this movie is here to party.

Reynolds returns as Wade Wilson, the mutant lab experiment with super healing powers.  When time-traveling vengeance-seeker Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future to kill adolescent mutant Firefist (Julian Dennison), Wade must assemble the best superhero talent around to stop Cable from obsessively altering the future.

Deadpool 2 doesn’t need an in-depth analysis.  It is a film designed to be snarky, profane, and violent.  This sequel performs just the right balancing act so that it does not saturate its R-rated content to the point of exhaustion.  It goes out of its way to defy audience expectations of superhero cliches, and it is gleefully unapologetic for doing so.  The way this film handles the assembly of a new X-Force team is priceless and should not be spoiled.

This film is a hilarious and enjoyable escape from films that take themselves way too seriously.

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★★★1/2

 

While on the topic of franchises, the long-awaited Solo has been released after a troubled production history.  The verdict?  Pretty damn good considering its original directors were fired, and Ron Howard was asked to come in and gut the film as if it were a dilapidated fixer-upper home.

With Harrison Ford clearly out of the Star Wars game, Alden Ehrenreich fills his shoes as young drifter and con artist Han Solo.  The film spends time presenting the origin story that fans came for, but it spend the other half of the time crafting an effective heist plotline.  Then you add Woody Harrelson to the heist crew as a crusty thief, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of a rebellious droid.  Did I mention Donald Glover as a young Lando Calrissian?  Even with the production troubles, you can’t go completely wrong with these elements.

Solo is not the disaster many expected it to be.  Ron Howard may not have an edgy signature, but he a master at crafting a straightforward, somewhat above-average movie.  Maybe I am giving this movie more credit than it deserves because I was expecting a disaster.  However, Solo overcomes the bare minimum goal of not sucking.  In fact, it is quite enjoyable and charming.