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Sorry to Bother You

Review, sci-fi, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

How do you categorise a film that mixes low-brow comedy, social commentary, anarchism and sci-fi? That is the strange universe of Sorry to Bother You from writer-director/Oakland rapper Boots Riley; who also performs and writes the film’s score with his hip-hop group The Coup.

In an alternate present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Short Term 12) is struggling through his 20s, living in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews). Whilst he doesn’t live on much, and can’t get a job, he is loved by his artistic and political girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson, Portlandia, Dear White People), who also doesn’t have a job, and makes provocative sculptures and exhibits.

Detroit is part of a radical group called “The Left Eye”, whose primary adversary is a controlling corporation called Worry-Free, a company who offer an existence free of rent and bills – in exchange for a lifetime work contract.

Worry-Free, worth billions and gaining ever more popularity, is headed by maniacal millennial CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer playing any Silicon Valley head).

Feeling worthless and wanting to avoid working for the nefarious Worry-Free, Cash gets a job at the only place he can – as a telemarketer at firm, Regalview. Initially struggling with his job’s ethics, he soon rises to the top of the chain – impressing bosses by selling out consumers, friends and co-workers alike.

Cash is assisted by a youthful Danny Glover, taught to use his “White Voice” – and sound reassured, calm, privileged. (Actually, the voice of Arrested Development’s David Cross).

Trying the trick, Cash is suddenly rolling in money, out of his uncle’s house and promoted ‘upstairs’ as a “power caller” – advanced to an exclusive, gold suite where a select few make thousands a day.

But finding its groove as a pointed, if not exactly subtle satire of aspirational and corporate America (as Cash also finds his groove), Sorry to Bother You suddenly and abruptly abandons this tack.

Having more money than ever, Cash’s co-workers, including his friends and girlfriend – protesting their poor conditions – are all fired. Finding success for the first time, Cash stays and deserts all of them – including Detroit.

Enjoying the trappings of success, Cash is taken to a party where he meets eccentric Worry-Free CEO Lift, who offers him the opportunity of his life. And then he finds that the billionaire is turning employees into half-horse half-humans…

Yes. It goes there. And it only gets zanier from there.

While all of this is unfolding, and the aptly named Cash tastes success, the film tackles racism, slavery, class, consumerism, political interference, the American Dream, among myriad topics. Riley himself is an activist whose lyrics have been called revolutionary.

It is hard to describe the nature of the musician’s work, which mixes many elements, themes and concerns.

Is Sorry to Bother You an absurdist fable? An exercise in animal jokes? A parable for slavery? A trivial takedown of consumerist culture as silly as what it satirises? At times it is many of these, other times it seems it has less to say. Meshing and jam-packing multiple genres, the $3.2M budgeted film which premiered at Sundance is hard to classify.

What begins as a comedy degenerates into a bizarre, sci-fi dystopia – a doomsday scenario with apocalyptic humour. At times, it almost hits a John Carpenter tone.

Riots are everywhere, Oakland becomes a scene of mass-protests, violence; a warzone – and a vehicle for everything from the current US political state, police brutality, to the greed of the 1%.

Blood is shed. Horse-people beat police. America goes up in flames.

The humour in Riley’s work isn’t always subtle, or fresh. Some gags are overused and run long. Cash in real-time enters a 50-number password to get into his new suite, multiple times. Inevitable horse jokes are made.

While aiming for sheer lunacy and achieving it, the film may not offer much of substance, but will provide laughs along the way.

Mixing many concerns into a potent mix but offering more laughs than thought starters, Sorry to Bother You is a hodgepodge capitalist critique filled with hijinks, which asks: who are ultimately the slaves, and who are the masters?

 
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The Children Act

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The Children Act is a class act. As you might expect, given the range of Brit talent behind it. The actor who will steal the limelight is the ever-excellent Emma Thompson in the lead as High Court judge Fiona Maye, but the film as a whole depends on all the support cast turning in finely honed performances.

Firstly, it is directed by Richard Eyre. People think of Eyre as primarily a stage director, but he has in fact helmed and written for the screen about 20 times (see, for example, the biopic Iris, and his elegant and tense Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett). The source material here is the backbone. It is a close adaptation of the recent novel from seasoned British novelist Ian McEwan (On Chesil beach, Atonement).

As noted, Thompson’s character is a senior judge. Most of her day to day work life – from running her diary to laying out her ermine robes – is carefully curated for her by her super-loyal sidekick Nigel (a selfless performance from Jason Watkins). Her head space needs to be freed up so she can concentrate upon the weighty matters of laying down legal precedent in some of the very hard cases that make their way up to her agenda-setting level.

One such case forms the heart of the film’s moral dilemma. Two parents who are devoted Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t let their 17-year-old son Adam (Fionn Whitehead) be given the blood transfusion that will help relieve his leukaemia. Thus, the judge must weigh up the sacrosanct rights of the parent against the hospital’s duty to actually cure its patients.

There are many engaging and thought-provoking trial scenes, but the film doesn’t want to be merely a courtroom drama.

There are other dimensions woven through this core theme. Firstly, there is Fiona’s deteriorating home life. Constant exclusive concentration upon her cases has hollowed out her marriage, and her lecturer husband Jack (the redoubtable Stanley Tucci) informs of this with a strained but dignified insistence. The irony of someone who fixes up family relations in one way, having such an un-repaired home life is not lost on either partner.

Then there is the judge’s relationship with young Adam (a fine performance from relative newcomer Whitehead (Dunkirk)). This is perhaps where the film gets closest to the subtle and haunting quality of McEwan’s writing. As usual he is interested in the important things that always hover unsaid but by which we actually set our course. There are scenes between the judge and the boy that stretch credulity, but the film makes up for that in other ways. There is one scene in particular, which compacts all the ambiguity of these lives in a way that only great drama can. This element alone is worth the price of the ticket, and it is a bonus that almost every other aspect of the film is done so well.

 
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I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Entertaining and insightful, this is a must-see for anyone with an interest in celebrity and the subtle (and not so subtle) workings of fandom.

Taking a clear-eyed look at obsessive tenancies and pop music, Jessica Leski’s illuminating feature documentary is a moving, poignant and often very funny detailing of what it means to be a die-hard fan. Tracking the stories of four women separated by age, background and location, the film examines the various ways being a fan has helped to shape and inform them.

At points these obsessions with Take That, Backstreet Boys, One Direction and The Beatles resemble full-blown addictions, and hearing the stories of former or ‘recovering’ fan girls highlights the all-consuming psychological processes at work.

Leski shows a deft touch in the presentation of such stories, and doesn’t let things get too dark or despondent. The tone is more optimistic and energised, even when the realities of life become sharply intense.

That is certainly the case with former One Direction mega-fan Elif, whose self-referencing lament and subsequent capture on viral video forms part of the film’s title. The doco sympathetically looks at how she has to come to terms with dealing with growing up and how life isn’t really like it is in the pop songs. This, plus the disapproval of her less than understanding parents brings in a strong dramatic edge to the film.

Take That – and specifically Gary Barlow – fan Daria offers an analytical examination of the whole fan-girl experience, bringing her skills as a brand strategist into play when designing a boy-band-101 lesson. This and other amusing anecdotal material ensures that the film maintains an optimistic and, ultimately joyful, path.

Sydney based Daria, also has the best line in the film. When recounting how she understood she was gay and also a devotee of the pop singer she comments, “I wasn’t in love with Gary Barlow, I wanted to be Gary Barlow.”

The film also hears from The Beatles fan Susan, who provides not only a story from the dawn of pop but also a look at the context of gender roles and how pop music can open up the world and provide a different way of looking at things.

Backstreet Boys fan Sadia is the fourth star of the film, offering her experience as a fan and how it impacted on her relationship with her conservative and religious family.

After hearing all of the stories we begin to realise that being a die-hard fan – particularly of the screaming and crying hysterically variety – acts as a catharsis for questions of identity usually asked before and during adolescence. Belonging to a tribe, singing along to ear-worms and rehearsing dance moves are all ways to recognise and reassert one’s value and self-image.

Entertaining and insightful, this is a must-see for anyone with an interest in celebrity and the subtle (and not so subtle) workings of fandom.

 
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Skinford: Chapter Two

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Even after the detailed visual catch-up sequence that runs alongside the credits to this imaginative comic-book style fantasy, it soon becomes apparent that this certainly isn’t a standalone movie.

The ‘Chapter Two’ in the title also makes it clear that this is definitely an ongoing story. While not without its confusing plot points and character appearances to anyone unfamiliar with Chapter One, it is nevertheless a striking low-budget feature, impressing with taut action scenes and high-octane performances.

The film is told around two different timelines. The first focuses on Jimmy ‘Skinny’ Skinford (Joshua Brennan), the son of a cockney gangster hard-man, and Zophia (Charlotte Best), the heroine cursed with eternal life. The two try and avoid detection from those keen on living forever, including a whole host of former friends and bad guys including Skinny’s tough old geezer dad, his kick-boxing body guard, and a murderous little girl with one eye.

The second timeline tells the story in flashback of how Zophia became immortal. It does so in the style of a costume-drama/romance with the added tension of knowing that this is an affair that does not end well.

Back in the 1920s Zophia is an au-pair hired at the palatial residence of wealthy artist Helen (Jess Bush). The two become lovers and we learn bit by bit how the relationship is tested by the jealousies and grievances of the outside world.

While the renditions of London accents vary a bit, the acting is on the whole perfect, with the three main performers making the most of their screen time. The visual effects are well produced too, and the action of the present day combines well with the gothic-horror undertones of the past segments.

The film is sure to engage fans of the first chapter, and may well pick up more devotees along the way. An entertaining romp through time and the criminal underworld, Skinford: Chapter Two makes a resounding impact.

 
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Instant Family

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Writer/director Sean Anders has been responsible for an awful lot of garbage over the last decade. From the tone-deaf nausea of the Daddy’s Home series to the outright abomination that is That’s My Boy, the man has been synonymous with misery masquerading as cinema. And then this film happened.

Even without the initial hint of this being based on actual events, it’s clear from the offset that parenthood and adoption are topics very close to the filmmaker’s heart, as he shows an unprecedented level of care and tenderness in telling this story of a suburban couple who decide to become foster parents to three children. The acting on its own is a gale storm worth of fresh air, with Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne hitting abrasive and caring with equal vigour. That said, they both end up being bowled over by Isabela Moner as the eldest child, who gives a performance so down-to-earth, funny and heart-breaking that her upcoming role in the Dora The Explorer movie is already starting to look like the lead role she outright deserves to have.

Beyond just the chops of the cast, the way Anders and co-writer John Morris dispel a lot of unfortunate stereotypes concerning the foster-care system is highly commendable, actively painting a target on those who see it as little more than the refuse bin for drug addicts and abusers. They still admit some of the inherent lost-in-the-system problems, but the act of foster care itself is made into something noble.

It even manages to avoid the frequent hiccup of the ending, with previous films involving custody disputes rarely handled well. No spoilers here, but the way it nimbly dodges most of the bigger potholes with that setup is frankly astounding, coming from the same filmmaker who once opened on paedophilia as a joke in That’s My Boy. Then again, given how this film also deals with that topic, it seems even Anders has realised his mistakes.

Now, with all that said, this still has some of the same tonal issues that have plagued his previous efforts. The jokes may be rationalised as a defence mechanism to prevent parents from going insane, but for a PG effort, the gags too often venture into the cringe-worthy and highly unpleasant. However, just when it seems like the grounded-into-paste running jokes threaten to overwhelm the entire production, in walk exceptionally heart-warming and even tear-jerking moments, showing that this film’s heart is undeniably in the right place.

This is not a perfect film. Do its jokes leave something to be desired? Yeah. Do they sometimes feel out-of-place, like the disjointed Joan Cusack cameo? Absolutely. But none of that can take away from how redemptive this film is, both for Sean Anders and for the many actors in it who have had a bit of a rough year. He finally made a good movie; that’s cause enough for celebration.

 
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Shoplifters

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Having won this year’s Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters is looking to take a running jump at our collective feelings.

In its opening scene, we meet Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Jyo Kairi) setting out to do a morning’s grocery shopping. A fist bump and several sneaky manoeuvres later, and it’s quickly evident that Osamu and Shota are fans of the five fingered discount. They don’t rob the shop blind, however, merely getting enough noodles and accompaniments to feed their family back at home, each of whom have their own way of wheeling and dealing.

Mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) steals from work, eldest daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a peep show, and Grandma (Kirin Kiki) hits her dead ex-husband’s family up for cash on a regular basis. Into this morally dubious tribe comes the cute as a button infant, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). Having been found on a doorstep, apparently locked out by her abusive parents, Osamu offers the fragile child a place to stay and offer up some missing love along the way.

Shoplifters utterly disarms you with its charm from frame one. Whilst it’s fairly light in plot, particularly when stacked up against its two-hour running time, Kore-Eda lovingly runs off with the old adage of ‘you can’t choose your family’, repackaging it into a heart-warming exploration of this little tribe tucked away in Japan. They rarely fight and never seem to want anyone to get hurt out of their actions. Justifying their shoplifting tendencies, Nobuyo admits that they don’t want their victims to go bankrupt and she seems to mean it.

And then trouble hits and Kore-Eda unpacks everyone’s backstory, offering the pieces up for re-evaluation in light of new information. In hindsight, he does leave his audience crumbs to follow before then, but the final effect is never less than a gut punch.

Little Yuri isn’t the catalyst, but her arrival does coincide with Osamu’s family questioning their positions within the home. Aki sees a new life, Osamu and Nobuyo reignite their sexual attraction for each other, and Grandma contemplates the lives she’ll leave behind should she one day pass away.

There’s no point trying to single out one performance that mirrors the whole. Each actor brings their best to the table, whilst the film takes a breather from the overall ensemble to focus on the plot thread of one or two of its members. Kore-Eda’s direction is rarely flashy, choosing to sit us alongside the family, whilst they wolf down their regular evening meals of noodles and gluten cake, as if we were always meant to be there. His love for his characters is evident and a warmth runs throughout. It’s rather telling that he keeps any tragedy that’s thrown at his protagonists throughout the film firmly off screen.

Humorous, poignant and often bittersweet, Shoplifters is a family drama with a heavy emphasis on family.

 
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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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It must be a double-edged sword being author JK Rowling. On the one hand you’ve become fabulously rich and beloved the world over for creating the Harry Potter series of books. On the other hand, fans can’t seem to let that “Wizarding World” go, and demand more and more from you. Or perhaps it’s more that Rowling herself can’t move on from her most famous creation and keeps returning to the well long after it’s gone dry. Whatever the reasons behind it, films like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald are doing neither the property, nor the audience beyond absurdly hardcore fans, any favours.

The first movie in this (apparently) five-part series was 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an amiable enough story, which added a bunch of world-threatening nonsense right at the end, presumably to give audiences a reason to turn up to the next one. Crimes feels much closer in tone to the latter Harry Potter movies, with Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) playing a Voldemort analogue who wants to take over 1927 Paris (and then the world) by covering it with acres of black silk or some bloody nonsense.

The problem with Grindelwald (both the movie and the character) is that we don’t particularly care. See, the Harry Potter books and movies slowly ratcheted up the tension from ‘being the new kid at magic school’ to ‘evil has come to kill us all’ over seven books and eight movies. We got to know these goofy, lovable kids and eventually grew to care about their shenanigans, however absurd. Who the hell is there to care about in Fantastic Beasts? Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is an agreeable dork with no real personality beyond ‘awkward/likes animals’. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is all wide eyes and an awkward love interest for Newt, but isn’t exactly memorable; and much touted “new” addition, young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) is fine when he’s onscreen but is saddled, constantly, with being unable to reveal his secrets because magic.

Add to this the film’s bloated middle section – a long, joyless slog which contains one of the most ridiculous shaggy dog stories that goes absolutely bloody nowhere – and you’re left with a movie that’s sort of fun at the start, kinda agreeable at the end, but will suck your whimsy dry for most of its runtime.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is guilty of that most egregious of sins, feeling like a filler episode. Maybe JK Rowling has a cunning plan to make this series sing, but with lethargic entries like this it’s hard to imagine turning up three more times to find out what it is.

 
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They Shall Not Grow Old

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

Sir Peter Jackson is used to directing big battle scenes but this recent departure (as a producer) into documentary about real war, dwarfs his fictional efforts. Nearly a million people died in World War One, or the Great War as it was sometimes known.

This film will be released in cinemas on the hundredth anniversary of the armistice which took place on the 11th of the eleventh in 1918.

Of course, it is not without irony that just thirty years after this ‘war to end all wars’ another world war was fought. But somehow it is this one that sticks in the popular imagination (and which spawned the greatest war poetry), perhaps because it was such a watershed between the old world and the modern one. Never such innocence again, as the poet said.

Jackson’s film is long and sombre and it is entirely composed of war footage. Most of this is from the front, the hellish mud-bogged, shell-shrieking trenches that have been so endlessly represented (and still are, at almost exactly the same time a British drama called Journey’s End, just released).

Even so, there is footage here that you will probably have never seen. Jackson has produced this film with collaboration from the imperial War Museum, so there is an emphasis on both the accuracy and the respect (it mostly soft pedals on the critique of the generals’ military blunders, or the whole ill-conceived imperialistic/blindly patriotic elements of the enterprise).

What made this war so brutally different was that it was the first mechanised war on that scale. Initially, the horse-mounted regiments sallied forth, but this was not the Crimea, and in the event, the endlessly-sacrificed human flesh was no match for the machine guns and artillery shells.

This is one of the things the film captures so well; the sense of being sitting ducks stuck in an open-topped trench while bombs rained down. Or, if you were sent ‘over the top’, you had only a faint chance of dodging the hail of enemy fire.

The film is technically innovative and brilliantly synched. It uses only quotes from the soldiers who were there (their voices recorded over many decades). In this way it is able to trace the arc from the ‘let’s sign up, ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ optimism to the unsparing accounts of the realities of the gas, and the guns and the gangrene. In the first half hour we see the rickety young recruits (and so many lied about their age to get in), being drilled and knocked into shape by the feared sergeants. The rest of the film (by now jumping into colour by being skilfully colourised) all takes place in the European battlefields.

Although Canadian, New Zealand and Australian troops are mentioned in dispatches, the bulk of the film’s content relates to the British. As implied above, most of them seem determined to see it as a bit of a lark. There are the endless shots of the still-jolly recruits looking so chipper, gurning to camera with their terrible British teeth. It is seeing those individual faces, and knowing what actually happened that makes it all still unbearably poignant. Lest we forget indeed.

 
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Widows

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This is a relatively intelligent crime drama, though also a somewhat flawed, uneven and ultimately disappointing one. It hits the ground running with fast-paced footage of a getaway by a bunch of crooks. Given the film’s title, it would scarcely be a spoiler to say that this episode ends in tears. The head of the gang is long-time career robber Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), and his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is left with the problem of having one month to come up with a million dollars to pay back someone extremely dangerous. Davis’s performance is, incidentally, far and away the most powerful and memorable in the film, notwithstanding a plethora of impressive co-stars including Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall.

What follows is nothing if not convoluted, as the intrigue, menacing behaviour and general nastiness expand to incorporate political chicanery and gang violence. The setting is contemporary Chicago, though the visual style suggests the American cinema of the early Seventies. If anything, there are a few too many characters, but the twists hold our attention. Some of the characters talk too consistently in clever epithets to be believable – though of course that’s a lesser evil than the usual problem of wall-to-wall vacuous dialogue. What works best is the atmospheric cinematography, particularly in the nocturnal and dark interior scenes.

Where Widows really falls down is in its plot, which becomes altogether too far-fetched – not to mention sentimental – towards the end. What started off looking like a crackerjack thriller ends up being merely alright.