Tag Archives: 2018

LIST CANDIDATE: SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Boots Riley

FEATURING: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, David Cross (voice), Patton Oswalt (voice), Danny Glover

PLOT: When telemarketer Cassius Green learns to use his “white voice,” he shoots up the corporate ranks, becomes a “power caller,” and is asked to compromise his principles in a shocking way.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Boots Riley’s out-of-nowhere satire plays like something Putney Swope‘s long-lost grandson might have dreamed up after an all-night pot-smoking session. I’m not going to get swept up by the mainstream hyperbole and tell you that it dials the absurdity up to “11”—but it pushes a solid 9. And it gets bonus points for using the word “weird” as a selling point in its marketing campaign.

COMMENTS: Struggling to find a job that will pay the rent on his meager garage apartment and provide gas money for the rustbucket hand-me-down car his uncle gave him, Cassius Green stumbles into the sleazy entry-level sales world of telemarketing. An idealistic co-worker (Steven Yeun) wants to unionize, but when Cash learns to use his “white voice” to make sales, he’s promoted to a “Power Caller” instead, and sent (in a golden elevator) to the top floor to hawk Faustian inventory to multinational corporations for top dollar. His success causes friction with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (sexy and sassy Tessa Thompson), who embraces the new luxurious lifestyle briefly before deciding she misses the soul Cash sold, and letting her eye wander towards a more romantic target with more integrity.

That synopsis sounds like a pretty standard setup for a romantic comedy, and Sorry to Bother You successfully orients its audience in that familiar genre before springing surprise after surprise as the plot gets deeper and weirder. We’re eased into the strangeness with magical realist comedy sketches: still wearing his headset, Cash appears in the flesh at his cold calls’ dinner tables, among more intimate settings. Then there’s the uncanny “white voice” (explained in a revealing cameo monologue by Danny Glover). By the time Cash is high on cocaine watching a claymation corporate propaganda film hosted by a topless ape woman, you’re totally immersed and invested in an anything-can-happen world very different from where we started. A company pimping out contractual slavery, Detroit’s confrontational earrings, a character whose name has been redacted, a performance of a monologue from The Last Dragon, and a badly improvised rap are just a few of the cleverly absurd gags that help distract us the nightmare scenario at the center of the film. It works on two levels; genuinely funny, at times even hilarious, the laughs keep the audience hypnotized in their seats while the message seeps into the brains. Just like any good ad campaign.

Sorry to Bother You‘s world is similar enough to our own to be recognizable, but askew enough off that the satire never seems like a facile paint by numbers allegory. There are no obvious characters from the current administration, but there is a reality TV show called “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and it’s possible to become a 15-minute celebrity by having a video of you being brained with a coke can make the rounds on YouTube. The movie addresses issues of racial identity, carnivalesque cultural depravity, and the working class’ financial treadmill with a touch that’s light but firm. It’s a sneaky sucker punch square in the zeitgeist’s gut. Thank you, Sorry to Bother You, for bothering me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Sorry to Bother You,’ Boots Riley’s see-it-to-believe-it feature debut as a director, goes from agreeably strange to weird to surreal, but its brilliance lies in how it never stops feeling real, genuine, lived-in.”–Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RELAXER (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Arin Bechdel,

PLOT: Abbie is a perennial failure at life, but he makes one final attempt to turn things around by accepting his brother’s challenge to beat the unbeatable Pac-Man score, all while never moving from his seat on the couch.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Starting with a “gallon challenge” and ending not-quite-apocalyptically, the ordeals of a seated young man unspool without him ever leaving the couch, nor us ever leaving the room. All the thirst, sweat, and odors pile on as our entrapment goes on. And on. And on. Until something cosmically mystical occurs.

COMMENTS: It seems almost a rule that the most mild-mannered directors are the ones that come up with the most eccentric movies. has his very British affability; has been a Midwestern swell-guy since childhood; and now there’s rising star Joel Potrykus with his laid-back hipster self, who is somehow responsible for the giddily grinding post-slacker comedy, Relaxer. “Gross-out comedy,” now that’s a genre I’m familiar with. But a “charming gross-out transcendental comedy”? I can only presume that Relaxer is the first of that ground-breaking genre.

Oh my dear Abbie (Joshua Burge). We only ever see him covered with sweat (and more) cowering on a couch. From the start, he’s enduring a sickening challenge, one of many put to him by his brother, that soon becomes literally sickening. The boy fails to keep the gallon of milk he’s consumed inside after a… well, best not say what he added to the mix in a bit of bathroom desperation. His brother Cam (a wonderfully nasty David Dastmalchian) leaves in disgust, but not before giving Abbie one last ultimate challenge: the Pac-Man thing. The impossible Pac-Man thing. Abbie cannot—and does not—leave his greasy spot on the leather couch during a six month ordeal in which things grow as strange as they grow unhygienic.

Among the venerable sources Potrykus hijacks ideas from are Buñuel, Kubrick, and, I swear, even the New Testament. The first is obvious, and the director even admitted to ripping off a lot of The Exterminating Angel in his remarks to the audience after the screening. Unlike our heroes therein, however, Abbie makes the wrong choice of what pipe to burst open for water—wonderfully fusing gross-out with the surrealism. 2001: A Space Odyssey necessarily comes to mind toward the end, as Abbie breaks the sequence and rises to a higher plane as the masses outside seemingly cheer him on. As for the third reference, I’m possibly stretching things, but over his ordeal Abbie grows to look like a shaggy Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene makes a cameo in the form of Arin (Adina Howard), a friend who helps Abbie on his path toward the divine. What locked it for me was the final scene when Abbie-Jesus seemingly rises from the dead to be greeted by his long-sought Father.

Potrykus stated without shame that he made Relaxer for himself, but its elements suggest that this bizarre slice of late ’90s throw-back might reach more than expected. There’s comedy, there’s cinematic dexterity (the camera stretches to most every available piece of the room without looking like it’s trying too hard), and even an epic feel to Abbie’s journey from Novice couch potato to Master couch potato. Skipping surreptitiously from Clerks-style comedy to an outer-zone of awareness, Relaxer reaches for the impossible—typically with the aid of a grabber-arm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film takes on an element of magical realism as the days and months pass, framing Abbie as a martyr with superhuman endurance … That Relaxer is structured as a countdown to Y2K suggests that Potrykus is offering a period-specific diagnosis of technologically dependent delusion, of the hallucinations of omnipotence that spring in the minds of marathon gamers. Fuzzy as this hodgepodge of signifiers may seem, there’s a pronounced critique at the heart of Relaxer clearly aimed at young people who are perilously glued to their screens, though it’s one that feels somewhat passé alongside the meaty class commentary of Buzzard.–Carson Lund, Slant Magazine (festival screening)

“THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight (2005), Reagan (2011) and The House I Live In (2012). His latest, The King, focuses on as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:

“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–

Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.

Chuck D in The King (2017)Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), (a Continue reading “THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Ari Aster

FEATURING: , Milly Shapiro,

PLOT: Disturbing events unfold after the death of a family matriarch, culminating in a bizarrely violent pagan ritual infused with supernatural occurrences.

Still from Hereditary (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hereditary equals or surpasses already Certified Weird films The Wicker Man, Repulsion, and Don’t Look Now with creepy cult imagery, tightly wound drama, and an effective and disturbing finale. The heavily-researched occult details makes the material surrounding guilt and loss linger. The exceptional effectiveness of Hereditary‘s unique brand of personal tragedy transformed into cult devilry means it should be considered for the list.

COMMENTS: Like a coffin descending into a fresh grave, Hereditary sinks into a subconscious nightmare that feels extremely real. The supernatural mystery at the core of the story (derived from a host of influences) is amplified by raw emotions surrounding bereavement and guilt. Hereditary doesn’t hold back when the catharsis comes. While Colin Stetson’s score highlights the creepy occult details to an oppressive effect, the characters mechanize into functional roles of which they are unaware. Represented in miniature models built by lead character Annie (Toni Collette), they ultimately fall prey to a bizarre set of spiritual encounters which, given the slow drip of small clues along the way, makes for an affecting, unforgettable experience.

Cluck

The anxious and paranoid plot structure is highlighted by a web of sensory mechanics, like clicks and shimmers. It’s not surprising that theatergoers already engage in “clucking” during viewings, embracing the sensory details of the plot in real time. Much like ‘s Repulsion, which is also laden with sensory triggers and sharp invasions, Hereditary is often dour and unpleasant; but this allows more fun to be had with its exciting plot development focusing on the invocation of an ancient pagan lord. Hereditary doesn’t merely bludgeon the audience with pop-psychology myths; it amplifies its plot revelations with painstakingly researched detail and pitch-perfect acting. The haunting images, abrupt sounds, and Toni Collette’s riveting acting combine with the sensory flourishes to create a seamless whole with an unusually oppressive mood.

Feels/Mechanics

The audience shares Annie’s emotions. Her retreat and avoidance of pain explodes into violent death and disorientation, kick-started in an early scenes when Annie asks her husband, “Should I be sadder?” after her mother’s funeral. Her focus on crafting miniature replicas grounds and distracts her, but perhaps only furthers her destructive tendencies.

The mechanics of the wider plot make the atmosphere even more compelling. Words in a bizarre language—“Satony,” “Zazam,” “Liftoach Pandemonium”—scribbled onto a bedroom wall neatly divide the narrative. Meant as invocations, the words (Aster did some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HEREDITARY (2018)

BATMAN NINJA (2018)

Batman Ninja (2018, directed by Junpei Mizusaki) is an utterly bizarre hoot; the most refreshing take on the Batman character since 2014’s The Lego Movie. It’s about time that the Dark Knight got a face lift. Reportedly, fanboys are heading to drugstores by the busload, buying out all the Preparation H. From the reactions I scanned on IMDB, the general consensus is “Batman can’t be in Feudal Japan!” Uh, boys, do you remember the day mummy told you that the Jolly Green Giant wasn’t real? Ditto.

However, it’s more than concept alone that makes Batman Ninja a thoroughly enjoyable, off-kilter adventure. It’s also one of the most visually dazzling animation efforts I’ve seen (famed anime designer Takashi Okazaki practically has a kaleidoscopic, calligraphic watercolor orgasm onscreen, and its gorgeous). Additionally, Batman Ninja takes a nothing-is-sacred approach, which undoubtedly is the inspiration for the sound of exploding, angst-ridden batfundie heads heard all over social media.

Batman and Catwoman are having a  bit of a tiff with Gorilla Grodd (the old Flash nemesis) who has a time-teleporting thingamajig . Lo and behold; Batman is in feudal Japan. The film is hyper-kinetically paced. Within seconds, he is dueling with a small gang of Joker-faced samurai, which of course leads him to Lord Joker himself as well as Harley Quinn.

Catwoman arrives, too. She is a geisha with a kitty puppet, and she makes Dolly Parton look like an A cup. Oh, and she bought Alfred (not me, Bruce Wayne’s butler), too, and the Batmobile. Smartly, Misuski and company resist the boring temptations of Batman traditions. They get a new use out of the Batcycle, turning it into a suit of armor. When the battle begins, Batman has an arsenal of batninjas backing him up. Grodd, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Deathstroke, and sumo wrestler Bane (!) all exist in feudal Japan; each has his or her own territory, and they are fighting for control—a bit like the mafia in Godfather.

Batman needs all the help he can get, so several Robins come to save the day, including a red Robin, and one with a green mohawk who has a chimpanzee for a sidekick! Robin himself is no longer Robin: he’s lost his primary colors and become a gray clad-ninja called Nightwing.

The battles come fast and furious, including one in Joker’s castle, one at sea with a Joker clipper ship, metallic simians, magic bats, and Bane mantling George “Watch Out for That Tree” of the Jungle.

In addition to the anime style (which suits Batman well), Batman Ninja has its tongue-firmly-in cheek with purple dialogue: “I am no longer the Batman. I will be what the bat clan calls me. I will be their prophecy. I will be Sengoku Batman.” Batman as a samurai isn’t even half of it. He disguises himself as a monk and gets a tonsure hairdo—in the shape of the bat signal. Harley Quinn and Catwoman engine in pseudo-lesbian combat (busty lesbians, with groan-inducing dialogue, of course). In-jokes are aplenty, with wacky nods to Transformers, Planet of the Apes, War of the Gargantuas, For a Few Dollars More, Legend of the Seven Golden VampiresPower Rangers, and The Empire Strikes Back, to name a few.

This is the opposite of ‘s white trash take on super people, and of all the Freudian Batmans we’ve been inundated with since Frank Miller. Thankfully,  unnecessary character development  and formulaic writing go the way of the dinosaur, and with all that out of the way, Batman Ninja is a creative and surreal romp. After seeing a 70-year-old plus character go from camp to dystopian, and to just plain godawful, Mizusaki actually does something new with it. Sure, Hamburger Helper-variety batfans will probably keel over from seeing their pedestaled funny paper deity put through the wringer and their formula diet challenged, but the rest of us can invite our weirdest friends over for one helluva extra anchovy pizza party and Batman Ninja.

P.S.  Stay put for the credits.

CAPSULE: HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Alex Sharp, , Tom Brooke,

PLOT: An aspiring teenage punk in 1970s London meets a cute girl; only catch is, she’s an alien.

Still from How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This light-hearted artistic fling between the offbeat talents of director John Cameron Mitchell and writer meets its quota of whimsical sweetness, but falls short in terms of weirdness.

COMMENTS: I was completely alone in the theater on a Monday night screening of How to Talk to Girls at Parties. When I bought my ticket the high school cashier on a summer job assumed I was asking to see Life of the Party (ouch!). Hopefully, the empty seats were just a sign of distributor A24’s compromising to commercial realities—better to suck it up and slot this curio’s release in the heat of summer up against Han Solo and the Avengers than to let it slink off to video unscreened—and not a sign of total lack of public interest in the project. While Girls is not a must-see cult hit, it’s not a waste of time, either; at the very least, it’s an oft-unconventional offering that could find a future Netflix audience of adventurous youngsters.

Girls is a period teen romantic comedy with the slightest tinge of punk and sci-fi flavor, more Earth Girls Are Easy (or even Splash) than Liquid Sky. Around the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), a trio of socially inept teenage punks stumble into the wrong party in Croydon while on the prowl for girls. While the fat kid and the self-appointed pick-up artist wander around scoping out the shapely bodies in tight latex unitards doing Cirque du Soleil acrobatic routines to whalesong electronica, the sweetest and most talented, Enn, stumbles upon a newly “manifested” alien Zan (Elle Fanning, who, God love her, is still seeking out the weirdest roles she can find rather than settling for a part as a minor X-Man character). After Enn explains the basics of his punk philosophy to the girl, Zan seeks, and is reluctantly granted, a dispensation to experience human life for 48 hours (“do more punk to me,” she croons to Enn). The remainder of the plot arc is easy to guess: the mismatched pair court, with the normal teenage social awkwardness amplified by an alien culture clash, while Zan’s “colony” (whom Enn and friends believe to be a cannibalistic California cult) pressure her to get her back into the fold. There’s some mild weirdness along the way: an out-of-place (and not-too-effective) psychedelic music video when Zan improvises a punk number onstage (“we must have been dosed,” Enn reasons); perverse alien sex practices better left undescribed; a conception scene with eggs like yellow party balloon and sperm that looks like a 3D model of a rhinovirus; Nicole Kidman as bitchy aging punk godmother Boadicea; and an underwhelming punks vs. aliens showdown that might have been huge if given a proper B-movie treatment. Overall, the movie has a good-natured, unthreatening-yet-rebellious spirit, and some eye candy in the costuming (each of the alien colonies sports its own sartorial theme). Still, the reveal of the ultimate nature of the alien cult(s) suggests many potentially more interesting stories than the John Hughes-y tale that actually unfolds here.

Multiple reviewers have complained that Girls is trying “too hard” to be a cult movie. This criticism comes from a perspective I’m not quite able to grasp; it’s probably a variation on the old “weird for weirdness’ sake” saw. I suppose the complaint is based on the premise that cult movies can only arise by happy accident when the director was actually trying to do something “more authentic”; this can be easily disproven by dozens of examples (including, I’d argue, one from this very same director). Whether you think it succeeds or not, Girls isn’t trying too hard; it’s just trying to be what it is, which just happens to be something a bit different from what critics and audiences expect.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s fully invested in exploring the weird, but not always the funny.”–Chris Hewitt, Empire (contemporaneous)