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Movie Review: “Sorry to Bother You”

“Sorry to Bother You” is a very unusual movie.

The brainchild of first-time writer-director Boots Riley (a self-identified Communist activist), it plays like an extended episode of “Black Mirror” co-written by Tom Wolfe and the “Chapo Trap House” podcasters. It’s darkly funny, unsettling, self-aware, incendiary, and frustrating—sometimes all at the same time.

As the film opens, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is hired by Regalview, a telemarketing outfit based in Oakland. But Cash doesn’t stay there long: by using his “white voice” (voice of David Cross) on the phone, Cash soon becomes one of Regalview’s top encyclopedia sellers. A promotion—and undying glory as a Regalview “Power Caller”—await.

As it turns out, one of Regalview’s biggest clients is Worryfree, a thinly-veiled Amazon analogue. In the hands of CEO Steve Lift, author of the bestselling book “I’m On Top,” Worryfree invites workers to sign up for “lifelong labor contracts” in the style of indentured servitude. With that much labor at their command, Worryfree and its services are in high demand around the world. And they want Cash to help broker the best deals.

It’s certainly a disquieting, Dickensian vision of the near future, just realistic enough to turn the stomach. Coming in for particular critique here are Silicon Valley’s weird attempts at blending personal pseudo-amiability—“we’re a family here”—with profit-maximizing ruthlessness. This tension, Riley contends persuasively, can only lead to people living profoundly disordered lives.

He doesn’t stop there. In a cringe-inducing scene that recalls Wolfe’s essay “Radical Chic,” Riley skewers white liberals’ embrace of black culture as a self-indulgent attempt to absolve themselves of their own prejudices. Midway through the film, over Cash’s protestations, Lift orders him to “rap” to entertain a party full of white guests. Cash’s “rap” consists of repeating the n-word over and over—a chant which is delightedly taken up by the assembled guests, “Borat”-style. The sequence is both painfully long and wrenchingly unforgettable.

Riley also pulls few punches when it comes to the worst excesses of contemporary media culture. When Cash needs to disseminate a terrible message to the public, the only available venue is “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!,” a brutal game show in which contestants are physically beaten and humiliated for audience amusement. And as it so happens—in a montage that echoes the haunting “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of “Black Mirror”—the public is totally incapable of interpreting his message as anything other than another form of entertainment.

Misanthropic? Maybe. Disturbingly plausible? Unquestionably. Yet for all the pungent force of its social critique, the cohesiveness of the film’s diverse themes sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

For one thing, the movie doesn’t quite know what to say about race vis-à-vis class. The subplot involving Cash’s “white voice” is certainly a biting critique of persistent cultural stereotypes. (After all, who can forget the infamous Jamal-and-Lakisha resume experiment.) Yet it sits uneasily alongside the film’s apparent call for colorblind worker solidarity. The coalition of workers that eventually challenges Regalview for better wages and working conditions is impressively multiethnic—in fact, it’s led by a charismatic Asian man (Steven Yeun)—but it’s unclear how any concessions they might win could meaningfully combat the norms that lead Cash to act “white” in the first place. This is the very debate roiling the modern left, but unfortunately Riley largely shies away from tackling it.

Additionally—and perhaps more unavoidably—Riley offers viewers a tragically denuded vision of culture. Cash’s girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a radical activist and performance artist whose work is single-mindedly devoted to critique. Her gallery and performances are filled with the iconography of exploitation, urging immediate action against the injustices of the world. And few side characters do much of anything during this film except organize, talk about organizing, and bemoan the failure to organize more effectively.

There’s no concept here of art for its own sake—as a lens through which to contemplate the beauty of the world—or of life without constant social struggle. Instead, “Sorry to Bother You” leans into Carol Hanisch’s famous adage—the personal is political—to a highly unappealing degree. When Cash crosses a Regalview picket line, for instance, Detroit immediately breaks up with him. (Deviation from some orthodoxies, clearly, is unforgivable.) In casting his call to arms as purely a matter of economics, Riley unintentionally conjures up an existentially myopic world, one that few ordinary people would likely wish to inhabit. But, then again, they probably wouldn’t flock to work for Worryfree either.

At the end of the day, “Sorry to Bother You” is undoubtedly a niche movie. It’s sprawling, highly irreverent, nakedly political, and indulges very few of the impulses that lead most people to go to the movies. But one needn’t agree with Riley’s leftist politics (I certainly don’t) to appreciate how well his film works as a ferociously acerbic satire of modern life. Whether or not his solutions make pragmatic sense—or really speak to human beings’ deeper longings—he’s put his finger on some of the current order’s most dystopian tendencies and unmasked them with aplomb.

Maybe, just maybe, the #Resistance has finally produced some memorable protest art.

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Posted by on August 4, 2018 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Avengers: Infinity War”

With “Avengers: Infinity War” the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) supposedly reaches its climax.

As the film opens, Thanos, the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin) is searching for the six Infinity Stones that will grant him total control over reality. (For the uninitiated, these Infinity Stones—Loki’s staff, Thor’s Aether, etc.—served as the MacGuffins in many of the prior films.) When the Titan’s emissaries appear on Earth, it’s up to the whole Avenger gang—Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Black Widow, and many others—to rally in defense of the cosmos.

With nearly twenty films’ worth of baggage, obviously there’s a lot going on here, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do an admirable job juggling so many protagonists. Meaningful character development is in short supply, but that’s to be expected.

In many ways, “Infinity War” does succeed. It’s pretty great to see everyone together at last—the Guardians of the Galaxy are a particularly welcome addition to the team. (And for the record, I didn’t know how much I needed Spider-Man to be in these movies until I saw him in action).

The film is at its strongest when it suggests a bolder, darker vision for the MCU. For instance, the movie opens with not one, but two, significant character deaths. And these deaths hurt in a way we haven’t felt before, because it’s pretty clear these folks won’t be coming back. “No resurrections this time,” Thanos growls. It’s a bracing, stomach-churning opener that infuses the proceedings with real menace. Who else is going to bite the dust, we wonder.

And along those same lines, Thanos himself is a much better villain than most of those we’ve seen before. He’s a quasi-Malthusian figure, devoted to ending the problems of suffering and scarcity by cutting the universe’s population by 50%. There are also shades of Heidegger and antinatalist philosopher David Benatar here: for Thanos, there is no intrinsic beauty in being, only the potential for pain. To exist and suffer, for Thanos, is far worse than never to have existed at all. (Jordan Peterson would have a field day with this.) Perhaps it’s not the most novel of supervillain philosophies, but at least it’s something more substantive and idealistic than “world domination.”

But alas, in many other ways, “Infinity War” doesn’t live up to its promise.

As Doctor Strange puts it, “we’re in the endgame.” “Infinity War” was supposed to be Marvel’s big blowout moment, where everything’s at stake and no one is safe. And sure, a few secondary characters definitively bite the dust. That said, MCU films have always suffered from the problem of “comic book deaths”—the stakes in each character’s solo movies have always been pretty low, because we all know the main characters will appear in the next “Avengers” flick. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that: nobody expects Captain America to bite the dust in a stray sequel.

But at some point, it’s time to go all-in. And the MCU keeps shying away from doing just that.

I’d go so far as to say we haven’t seen a really satisfying Marvel blowout since the original 2012 “Avengers” movie. “Age of Ultron” felt like unnecessary, consequence-free filler, an extended commercial for the next wave of Marvel movies (remember Thor’s random disappearance midway through?). And with each successive wave of MCU releases, more and more screen time is invested in setup for subsequent installments. In short, we have a cycle in which the “big meaningful moment” is endlessly deferred: we keep watching in the hopes that the saga is building up to something big, something that will leave a lasting pop-cultural impact on par with Darth Vader’s “I am your father.”

I won’t spoil anything, but “Infinity War” does not leave me confident that such a moment will ever arrive: too much money is riding on this franchise. By contrast, the genius of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was its willingness to subvert expectations and lean hard into its shocking twists. (One possibly explanation: the source material for Nolan’s movies was primarily one-shot graphic novels—like Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” and Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth”—rather than longstanding comic arcs. Graphic novels generally don’t have to worry about prior or subsequent continuity.) As a result, Nolan’s films will be remembered as meaningful artistic achievements; MCU movies will run endlessly on basic cable. For better or for worse, in an age where superhero sequels rake in billions, Disney won’t let a good thing die.

Furthermore, I’m sorry to say that the grand all-hands-on-deck final battle of “Infinity War” is tragically uninspired. I’m generally of the opinion that the best Marvel climaxes have been the most personal: Captain America and Iron Man going toe-to-toe in an abandoned laboratory, Thor and Loki dueling on a rainbow bridge, and so on. But if those kinds of relationships aren’t in place, there are still a few principles that make for a good battle scene: a really satisfying final conflict (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Kingdom of Heaven”) occurs within a finite space where our heroes face a series of escalating challenges. The fight unfolds as a “story within a story”: as the struggle rages on, events occur that force characters to adapt their tactics. The bad guys bring out a battering ram? Better hurry over and reinforce the gates. Siege towers are inbound? Better make sure your archers have some flaming arrows.

Yet in the big throwdown of “Infinity War,” all we have are some Avengers knocking around a mob of faceless CGI aliens. There’s little real threat, except for some alien war machines that pop up out of nowhere and are swiftly dispatched. There’s no progression or sense of real jeopardy. And frankly, the Avengers-vs-Avengers airport battle in “Captain America: Civil War” was a lot more entertaining. For something that’s supposed to be the climax of “the movie we’ve all been waiting for,” it’s a pretty generic sequence.

With that, I’ve said my piece. And let’s not kid ourselves: all of us will go see “Infinity War,” because that’s what we do when big Marvel movies come out. But notwithstanding the real genius of many MCU solo films (“Black Panther” comes to mind), I’ll confess that my interest in this saga is waning. Maybe, just maybe, next year’s “Avengers 4” will be the big throwdown we’ve all been waiting for. Maybe everything I’ve said here will be proven premature and I’ll have to eat some crow.

Or maybe “Avengers 4” will merely set up the pieces for 2027’s “Avengers Reincarnated.” Who knows.

VERDICT: 6/10
A serviceable, if not particularly compelling, installment in the Saga That Will Still Be Running By The Time My Grandchildren Keel Over.

 

(p.s. you should really go see “A Quiet Place” instead)

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2018 in Fantasy

 
 
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