Monthly Archives: August 2018

Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

What do you get when you cross magical realism (-ish) with sweeping commentary on the ills of modern society, including but not limited to: race, corporate America, slavery, art, entertainment, and social media? For the sake of argument, I’m going to tell you that you get Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s funny, smart, mind-boggling feature film debut. I watched this movie a week ago and I’ve been trying to let it percolate since in the hopes that I will magically happen upon divine insight that will amaze and convince my readers. That seems unlikely, but here we go.

We meet Cassius Green (say it out loud) at a job interview. On paper, he seems to be a stellar individual – he’s even brought along trophies and plaques to prove it. Turns out they’re fake, but Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself hired by Regalview Telemarketing anyway.  His dreams of making bank seem dashed until an old hand (Danny Glover) suggests to him that he use his “white voice” to make calls – he should sound like he’s “without a care in the world … [a] guy who doesn’t even need this job at all.” He should sound, according to Glover, like the person his potential customers want to sound like themselves.

This theme turns up a lot throughout the movie –  Cassius finds himself in a constant struggle with his identity. Early on a friend suggests that he’s only “sort of” black, and indeed, he finds great success in pretending to be white – his “white voice” (which sounds like David Cross) quickly promotes him to the upper echelons of telemarking. While his friends are attempting to unionize, Cassius becomes a “power caller” and is suddenly rolling in style with a new car, new clothes, and an entree to fancy parties. This identity doesn’t fit quite right either, though. His new-found success alienates him from his friends, including artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and he finds his product (WorryFree: a human workforce that looks suspiciously like slavery) a bit off-putting even as he’s making million-dollar deals.

All of this comes to a head when Cassius meets the CEO and Founder of WorryFree, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). It becomes clear that WorryFree’s agenda is not altruistic and might, in fact, be downright evil. This final of act of Cassius’ struggle to find his identity finds him attempting to make a u-turn and do what is right, even if it might cost him wealth and independence. It’s also where the movie goes from “entertainingly odd” to “entertainingly batshit crazy,” but I’m not going to give anything away here.

Sorry to Bother You is really hard to pigeonhole. The performances are all great, with Lakeith Stanfield leading the way. Cassius is very much a sympathetic, Everyman character. He just wants to get by and basically be a good human being. He wants to be valued and respected and we see how that directs his decisions and causes him confusion when things don’t quite work out the way he expected. The movie is also visually fascinating – there’s a lot of play with lightness and darkness that I don’t even want to try and interpret. The fantastical aspects are used sparingly but to great effect: in addition to  Cassius’ “white voice,” he also finds himself physically dropped into close contact with the people he’s speaking to on the phone, regardless of whether or not they’re on the toilet or in the middle of having sex. At some points it leads the viewer to question whether or not Cassius is an entirely reliable narrator – the “white voice” is real, but the crashing into someone’s living room is imagined? What else, then, is real or imagined? The lines are quite effectively blurred.

There are a lot of ideas to focus on. Initially I wished that Mr. Riley had chosen just one of two to focus on: all of the statements he’s making are good ones that are worthy of more thought, but I found it difficult to keep track of. There’s Cassius’ identity, with what it means to be black (or white, for that matter) front and center. The few white people in the movie are varying levels of awful, and it’s very clear that their understanding of the black experience is based on what entertainment and “the media” would have us believe. A scene in which Lift and a crowd of white party-goers are disappointed when Cassius doesn’t have tales of gang violence and can’t rap is by turns hilarious and cringe-worthy. There’s corporate America, with its new spin on slavery, vs. art and independence. Cassius and his friends want to be self-reliant and to care about their fellow humans, but they’re also on the hook for rent. The issue of unionization figures prominently into that as well – can one’s own self-promotion function alongside a fight for the common good? The role of media and entertainment in the film is particularly interesting. The most popular show on television is apparently something called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me,” which is literally watching people get beaten up (in addition to other, apparently non-life-threatening? pleasantries). Cassius’ experience crossing a picket line (resulting in physical injury) immediately goes viral, resulting in memes and Halloween costumes, both of which he uses to his advantage later in the film. Its a somewhat damning but not really unfair look at today’s culture.

Ultimately, what I realize is that all of these themes can be tied to the bigger idea of what it means to be a person in today’s world. We are told different things by corporate culture, by entertainment and the media, by social media, by our own hearts. Which lead do we follow? We need to work to live, but we also need validation: we want to be special, to be good at something. Entertainment culture these days would have us all believe we’re just one viral video away from fame and fortune. But of course, what price fame? If we sell our souls for that fancy car, can we also concern ourselves with the good of others? Can we be famous without making other sacrifices? And where does it end? Is there one breaking point or do we all draw our own lines in the sand? While it may not be for everyone, Sorry to Bother You will definitely leave you with more questions than you walked in with, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for the answers.

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Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday, Gene Kelly

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Some of my most popular posts come from August 2012, when I celebrated Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday. So, since today happens to be the day, I thought I would compile those posts here and share them out again for everyone’s enjoyment! Basically I spent several weeks reading a biography and watching a TON of his movies and just generally immersing myself. It was a fun project and I love that people are still searching for fun information about Mr. Kelly and are led to my blog, of all things. So, whether you’re a fan or not, I hope you’ll enjoy!

On Thirst

One of the best things about the internet is that whatever you might have an interest in or a passion for, you can probably find other people who feel the same. It brings me endless joy to realize that the folks over at Pajiba take the objectification of movie stars as seriously as I do, and their annual Pajiba Ten list is one of my favorite things that happens during the year (even though I never agree with half of it). Recently, the podcast Thirst Aid Kit has further validated my enjoyment of keeping lists of famous people I will never meet, much less get to make out with. I am not alone in my thirst, you guys.

So, for those of you who’ve always rolled your eyes at my posts about ye olde Top Five list, you might wanna move along. I won’t judge. But for everyone else: The last time I talked about The List on this blog was in 2012. What?! I posted that I’d added Michael Fassbender. I can’t even remember who else would’ve been ON that list. (That’s a lie: it was Crowe, RDJ, Gerard Butler, and Javier Bardem.) But that is a long time ago, and the list has changed a whole bunch since then.

To be honest, I’ve been saying for the last year or so that my list is in shambles. I finally let go of Russell Crowe and Robert Downey, Jr (even though I still love them both) just because it seemed the list should be a more current and fluid thing. While I have a few people who definitely bring the swoon, I feel that I haven’t done my research as carefully as in the past, and I really currently have two or three TRUE thirst objects with a whole handful of other people who just haven’t quite broken through yet. So who’s on the list? I’m so glad you asked!

The Definites:

 

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Dan Stevens

I never watched Downton Abbey, and frankly any time I saw pictures of “Cousin Matthew” I couldn’t see the appeal. But that was before Dan Stevens lost some weight,  gained a beard (some of the time), stopped dying his hair, and started playing the magnificently effed up David Haller on FX’s Legion. I love that guy. His performance(s? If you watch the show you get it) are phenomenal and his accent is great. I seriously loved him in Beauty and the Beast, too. He’s very intelligent and funny (and amazingly sane, compared to David) in interviews. Yep. He’s here to stay for a while.

 

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Oscar Isaac

I truly love any time I am afforded the opportunity to explain to people who Oscar Isaac is. Have you seen the new Star Wars movies? Inside Llewyn DavisEx Machina? I am always delighted to point out when someone can be unrecognizable and wholly different from film to film. Oscar Isaac is super-duper talented and has the best hair in the biz. And have you heard him sing? (PS He wrote that song.) Swoon.

 

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Chadwick Boseman

My love for Tony Stark is true, but King T’Challa of Wakanda is now a close second in the MCU. I really, really need to jump on seeing some of Boseman’s other work but his portrayal of Black Panther had me hooked from the beginning. The man himself seems very intelligent, humble, and sensitive as well and his fashion onslaught throughout the press run for Black Panther was the stuff of legend.

The Maybes:

So many, you guys. Lee Pace was on the list for a good long while, got dropped for Oscar Isaac, and is maybe back on again. I need to jump on Halt and Catch Fire one of these days. Paul Bettany has been “#6” for a zillion years and that really hasn’t changed. Love him as Vision, love his razor-sharp, self-deprecating wit in interviews, just love him. I have a fun spiel about how we were all introduced to James McAvoy in that embarrassing moment where we thought to ourselves “Oh f**k, Mr. Tumnus is … hot?!” I love that he’s making a career out of brawn and menace (loved him in Atomic Blonde) and am 100% here for his casting as Lord Asriel in the upcoming BBC “His Dark Materials” series. Not even sure what needs to be said about Idris Elba: did you SEE Thor: Ragnarok? Post-Infinity War I have given in to the realization that I totally adore Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; not sure that love extends to the man himself, but I probably ought to watch The Night Manager, you know, for research purposes. JOHN CHO, people. Armie Hammer (that voice!  Man from UNCLE!)? Sebastian Stan is so pretty, you guys. I fell madly in love with Bertie Carvel in BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but he sticks primarily to theater across the pond so I don’t know about him. Dominic Cooper is a button. Mahershala Ali burst onto the scene in 2016 but has been kind of quiet since. There is much to love about Chris Hemsworth.  And I’ve probably forgotten somebody else.

See the problem? Help me, readers! Anyone you want to advocate for? Is there anything I should watch that will help me make up my mind? Suggestions welcome! (Not for more pretty people; I’ve got plenty of those.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

 

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Kate McKinnon & Mila Kunis in The Spy Who Dumped Me

For the second installment of my “Ladies’ Night at the Movies” outing, I got together a group of friends to go see The Spy Who Dumped Me. This was an excellent choice for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s hard to get adults together! We’re busy. Second of all, it’s a little bit of a feminist agenda: Women spending money to watch movies made by women. Beyond that, it was great to see friends and a fun movie at the same time, and The Spy Who Dumped Me is a very fun – and entertaining – movie.

Co-written and directed by Susanna Fogel, The Spy Who Dumped Me opens in true spy-thriller fashion, with a fight and chase sequence through an Eastern European marketplace. We watch a handsome man fight his way through a crowd of enemies, run through bustling streets, leap out of windows, and ultimately blow up a building before coolly walking away. Standard stuff that cuts to a very Bond-ian opening credits sequence. But then we’re introduced to Audrey (Mila Kunis), who is having a lousy birthday. Turns out her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), just dumped her via text. What do these two things have in common? The ex-boyfriend, is, of course, the handsome spy, and when he learns that Audrey is burning his left-behind belongings, he is forced to return in order to retrieve an item which is, naturally, something every intelligence force in the world is after. In short order, Audrey and Morgan find themselves on the run through Europe with a horde of operatives on their tails. These operatives include another handsome individual named Sebastian (Sam Heughan) who may or may not be on their side. Will they blunder their way to safety and save the world in the process? The movie is a comedy, so I’ll just let you figure that one out.

This is a funny movie. I laughed a lot. I’m unable to remember any specific jokes, but I tend to think that’s a good thing; they were neither so clever as to alienate the audience, nor did they resort to easy, gross-out humor for the most part. In structure, Spy… is a true representative of the spy genre, which made it even funnier. There were aborted drop-offs, vehicle commandeerings, disguises, escapes, and double-crosses all right where you’d expect them. There was even torture and, as many reviewers have pointed out, a surprisingly high body count. I found myself wondering a bit about that: What, exactly, made the body count surprising? Was it that the movie was a comedy? Was it that the main characters were women? Having literally just watched Atomic Blonde, I didn’t find the violence surprising or egregious. It may have been a bit more bloody than your average Bond vehicle,  but not shockingly so.

That the main characters were occupying the role of victims rather than people who make a living from killing may have added to the shock value, but that is also what made the movie interesting. We’ve all wondered what we might do if we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of international intrigue, and these two women let us imagine it. They’re just average people, but by virtue of their life experiences, they find a way. Audrey plays a lot of shooter video games, and Morgan is a struggling actress; both traits that come to their aid at crucial moments. Some of their ideas don’t work so well, but ultimately the fact that they are viewed as “stupid Americans” works in their favor, and they are consistently underestimated by their enemies. It’s a clever way to advance the story and again, put the viewer into the adventure in an engaging way.

It helps that both Kunis and McKinnon (maybe less so, in her case) have an air of “everywoman” about them to begin with. A Charlize Theron or an Angelina Jolie could not pull off Audrey, but Mila’s down-to-earth delivery makes her seem like someone we might be friends with. And let me tell you: you want to be friends with these women. Their friendship,  particularly as evidenced by Kate McKinnon’s Morgan, is the best thing about The Spy Who Dumped Me. There’s nothing specifically marking the film’s point in time, but the characterizations of the women definitely suggest the present, post-2016 election, #MeToo movement day. Morgan is all about affirming the women around her, most particularly Audrey. She frequently pauses in the middle of running for their lives to tell Audrey how proud she is of her. Early on, she hilariously attempts to “indoctrinate” a Ukrainian boor in the ways of feminism. She even has praise for the creepy gymnast/assassin Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) in the midst of being tortured for information. While McKinnon can frequently be over-the-top, here that persona is written into her character and the result is a charmingly zany but real woman who is tough but open to life’s experiences. That openness makes the movie’s few heartfelt moments between Audrey and Morgan something special that we don’t often get to see in cinematic female friendships.

I was initially very skeptical about seeing The Spy Who Dumped Me. While the idea of a female-led action spoof is great on paper, the execution can often be trickier. I’m pleased to say that in this case, the film succeeds. The performances are all excellent, the script is tight, the laughs are genuine, and the story can be forgiven for being a little predictable, simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do when sending up a genre. As with most of Hollywood, there could have been more diversity (a small handful of speaking roles for people of color) but given the film focuses on a loving and supportive friendship between two women, let’s take it one step at a time. If you’ve been on the fence, definitely go see The Spy Who Dumped Me, and bring some women with you.

 

Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

Happy birthday, Charlize Theron! I got you this review!

I am, generally speaking, a fan of female-led action movies. Admittedly I should probably watch more of them, but I’m a fan in theory, if nothing else. My love for Angelina Jolie has been well-documented, and I’ve enjoyed seeing more and more women show up in the MCU. While we’ve finally gotten our Wonder Woman, we’re still waiting on that Black Widow stand-alone, and there still haven’t been any particularly good action franchises starring a woman. There were high hopes for various Jolie vehicles, but beyond that, women still aren’t kicking ass at the same level as the guys. But, as a surprise to no-one, I’m sure, Charlize Theron is a great addition to the world of women who kick ass.

Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 operative in the midst of the Cold War 80s. She’s sent to Berlin (on the verge of bringing down the Wall) to retrieve the body of another agent and to finish his mission, which was to retrieve a list of all known operatives on all sides. In addition, she is tasked with discovering the identity of Satchel, a double-agent who is also working for the Russians. Her primary contact in Berlin is David Percival (James Mcavoy), an agent who has perhaps gone a bit too far in embedding himself into the culture of the Berlin underground. Naturally, everyone is after this list as well as a Stasi agent named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who claims to have fully memorized its contents. Broughton must contend not only with numerous KGB operatives, but also with a French agent (Sofia Boutella) who may or may not be trustworthy. It’s a maze of loyalties and agendas that she must navigate in order to complete her mission and stay alive.

Atomic Blonde is fast and fun. It’s a little sloppy on the details, but those aren’t terribly important when you compare them to a killer 80s soundtrack and intensely stylish set design and cinematography. The movie is based on a graphic novel entitled The Coldest City, and the look and feel truly calls that to mind. While not totally shot in black and white, much of the scenes seem devoid of color except for a pop here and there. Lorraine herself wears an almost entirely black and white wardrobe, and most of the other characters appear in muted colors. The result is something beautiful, sleek, cold. The chill of the Cold War is almost an extra character, enhanced by the lack of warmth from the characters themselves, not to mention Lorraine’s predilection for ice baths and vodka on the rocks.

In addition to the visuals, the film features great performances from Theron and McAvoy. I feel a little ashamed to admit that, despite it being Theron’s movie, McAvoy is actually the standout. He is having a GRAND time as the feral and ambiguous Percival. In contrast, Theron is a little too one-note. While trying to be the standard poker-faced spy, she comes across as being unengaged, and her slipshod accent (which may be purposeful) doesn’t help matters any. Fortunately, she’s fantastic to watch, and the action alone make it all worthwhile. One of the things I particularly appreciated about her fight scenes is that they are not the typical, street/martial arts-style sequences we’re used to. They are brutal. Anything close to hand is used as a deadly weapon (stiletto heel, skateboard, keys, garden hose?). People get their faces beaten into a bloody pulp. Lorraine herself seldom escapes without a scratch – in fact there are more scenes in which opponents are visibly exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone fight, than I think I’ve ever seen before. It’s a welcome (if violent) dose of realism in a genre that often seeks to give its heroes superhuman status.

It’s hard to say too much about the movie without giving away all the twists and turns. I’ve come to realize that I often prefer movies or shows where it is more difficult for me to guess what is going to happen next. In the case of Atomic Blonde, I definitely had a bit of trouble following who was on which side and what was being accomplished as opposed to what had gone wrong. Still, I would say that the audience is ultimately satisfied (if slightly confused) and while we may not root for Lorraine, strictly speaking, we at least have a healthy respect for her methods and abilities. It would be interesting to see how the character of Lorraine Broughton might return to the screen (and actually, according to IMDb a sequel is in development!) and hey: If Tom Cruise is still doing his own stunts well into his fifties, I say we give Theron a shot.

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Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.

Book Review: Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don’t Learn Them From Movies Anymore), Hadley Freeman

 

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The Breakfast Club

It pains me to admit it, but “classic 80s movies”, as a genre, are a bit of a knowledge gap for me. Quite recently a friend was telling me that her husband and his family hadn’t ever seen Footloose, and I shamefacedly admitted that I hadn’t, either. I was a kid in the 80s, making me too young to see many of the great teen films when they were released, and I haven’t done the greatest job of playing catch-up.

Regardless, when I learned about Life Moves Pretty Fast … I immediately added it to my “to-read” list. What I have seen of 80s movies I love, and any discussion of lessons learned from such movies as Dirty Dancing, The Princess Bride, Pretty in Pink, Ghostbusters, and of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is going to be a good time, right?

One-word review: YES. I made the comment on social media that I was two chapters in but already wanted to marry this book. Hadley Freeman is a fun and engaging writer, and she LOVES 80s movies. So much so that one of my main criticisms of the book is that she seems to love them to the exclusion of most movies made before or since. I can appreciate that you want to sell your argument that a particular period in film history was highly influential and will likely never be replicated, but she spends a little too much time trying to convince her reader that all other movies are simply no good. Or maybe I’m just sensitive because she blames Clueless for ruining the teen movie genre, and states that “all superhero movies take themselves too seriously.” And she seems to hate Robert Downey, Jr (who might deserve it). But I digress.

Each chapter of the book features a movie made in the 80s (there are several more in addition to those I’ve listed) and ascribes to each a valuable life lesson.  For instance the chapter on Steel Magnolias is subtitled “Women Are Interesting.” She then dissects the movie (or sometimes movies) specified with regard to their subject matter, their relevance both at the time and today, and delves a bit into the workings of the film industry. She was also able to interview a lot of the actors and directors from the time period, which adds a great layer of authenticity to her ideas. A common theme throughout the book is that a lot of the movies made in the 80s would simply not get made in today’s blockbuster market. Many of our favorite classics are, when you think about it, pretty weird movies that even indie filmmakers might consider a stretch in this day and age. A lot of that, according to Freeman’s research, has to do with the fact that the American market for movies has been constantly shrinking, and studios are more interested in making movies that can translate to the international market in order to recoup their costs. As much as I didn’t enjoy the suggestion that superhero movies are bad and are destroying cinema, it’s a difficult point to argue with. It is pretty hard to imagine a movie like When Harry Met Sally being made the same way today (her indictment on rom-coms is damning and, in my opinion, spot-on).

Negativity aside, her commentary on the themes of these movies is impressive and well-presented. Two chapters in particular stood out to me: Dirty Dancing (Abortions Happen and That’s Just Fine) and “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies” (Race Can Be Transcended). In the former, her thesis is essentially that Dirty Dancing is a feminist movie, and she sells it completely. The main character, Baby, is fully embracing her agency and her sexuality, and the film reflects that across the board. Think about male gaze versus female gaze here. Who is objectified by the camera? Hint: it’s not Baby. At no time does the abortion subplot pass judgment on the woman having the procedure – rather it blames the guy who refuses to take responsibility. It’s easy enough to think of Dirty Dancing as a fun and fluffy piece of entertainment but the way Freeman sees it (and the way its writer intended), it was astonishingly ahead of its time and is still an example to films being made today.

Similarly, her chapter on Eddie Murphy looks at the ways in which some movies in the 80s were actually more open-minded and progressive than now. She examines Murphy’s meteoric rise to stardom at a time when there were very few people of color in the industry. Eddie Murphy “succeeded” Richard Pryor as Hollywood’s black comedic talent, and he paved the way for many of the stars who came afterward. A number of the films that became megahits for Murphy were originally intended to feature white men (most notably Beverly Hills Cop), but by casting Murphy instead, the films were fundamentally changed and were perhaps huge hits because they starred him. The flip side of this transcendance, Freeman argues, is that Eddie Murphy became so emblematic of blackness that he lost his artistic freedom, and in opening the door to other talented people of color, he ultimately canceled out his own success (hence the “terrible” but lucrative films made later in his career).

Other readers may not value the ideological arguments made in this book as much as I did, but for me, a frank discussion of the ways in which Hollywood has progressed (or regressed, more to the point) was welcome in today’s climate. Life Moves Pretty Fast was written in 2015, and so I spent a lot of time wondering what Freeman would think of movies made more recently that seemingly represent steps forward in terms of women’s place in film (she liked but didn’t love 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, and I really want to know if she watches GLOW) or the more-recent surge in films made by and for people of color. Beyond those serious topics, the book is a fun memoir of someone who grew up with these movies and found much to love in them. Mixed in among the chapters are lists like “Top Ten Fashion Moments” and “Top Five Eighties Steve Guttenberg Moments” which are hilarious. If nothing else, I feel I’ve been handed a great list of movies to catch up on.  For fans of movies, the eighties, and/or eighties movies, Life Moves Pretty Fast is a must-read.