Category Archives: ★★★

Sorry to Bother You (2018, Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You has four endings. Well, more like three and a half. They’re all good enough endings, except the last one, which is truncated and just reminds how iffy the entire third act has been. Until the third act, the film is going strong. Underdeveloped but affable lead Lakeith Stanfield–the character is underdeveloped and affable, not the performance; Stanfield’s performance is fantastic–gets a job as a telemarketer and finds out he’s a natural salesman. At least over the phone.

The film takes place in an alternate reality (of sorts). Mostly Sorry just seems like its set in 2028 but with technology from 2008. Smartphones aren’t ubiquitous. Actually, they’re not even present until writer and director Riley needs to use one for a plot point. But society is futuristic, in all the bad–and very realistic–ways, with rich White guy Armie Hammer and his company, which signs people into lifetime work contracts. People live in the warehouse, they work in the warehouse, they (presumably) die in the warehouse. And having a limitless supply of indentured laborers isn’t even enough for Hammer it turns out. Riley does really well conceptualizing the possibilities and inhumanity of capitalist greed, though he doesn’t really execute them particularly well. At least not once the third act hits.

Stanfield’s not thinking of signing up for the work-for-life thing. It seems to be more for people trying to get out of debt. They even take your kids. It’s a background subplot, which ends up figuring in a little, but only because Riley forces it. Riley’s not subtle about Chekov’s gun. Guns, actually. There’s also the most popular TV show in the world, where people get beat up on camera for… notoriety? It’s never clear. There’s a fame culture but without the new media infrastructure (even though YouTube gets a big mention).

So while Stanfield’s trying to make the telemarketer thing work (selling crappy encyclopedias–again, there’s no wikipedia?), his girlfriend Tessa Thompson is working on an art show while making ends meet as a sign twirler. She’s got a really undeveloped subplot about becoming an activist protesting Hammer’s work-for-life company. Her art show is also really undeveloped, though sensational when Riley finally gets to it. Thompson is, in general, really undeveloped.

Simultaneous to Stanfield’s rise to telemarketer success is the other employees (including Thompson) trying to unionize. Steven Yeun is the outside agitator who gets things started–by leveraging Stanfield’s success, which comes off as exploitative but goes unexplored–and Jermaine Fowler is Stanfield’s friend who stays true to his fellow workers. One of the big problems, which doesn’t matter because the movie’s so funny, is how unbelievable the telemarketing company comes off. It’s not believable anyone could sell the crappy encyclopedias, so how do they have enough employees to fill a call center. The always good, sometimes exceptional laughs fill in the spaces too wide for suspensions of disbelief.

Once Stanfield gets super successful he’s unknowingly put on a collision course with Hammer, who needs a good salesman like Stanfield. Just like Stanfield, who’s an affable Black man who can talk to White people the way White people want to be talked to. Riley’s commentary on capitalism and its disgustingly obvious roadmap takes precedence over any exploration of race. Race is always present–sometimes it’s on the fore–but it’s always secondary, even when it shouldn’t be.

Just like the comedy in the first two acts covers for the narrative leaps or avoidances, Riley uses sensationalism–absurdist sensationalism–to cover in the third. Because Stanfield doesn’t really get a character arc. He’s on a story arc, but he was so thinly established (Riley leveraging Stanfield’s performance) it doesn’t add up to much. And then three and a half endings muss things up more. Each in different ways.

All of the acting is strong. Stanfield’s a spectacular leading man. Thompson’s good, even if her part is only deep in exposition. Yeun’s good. Fowler’s somewhat inconsequential–Sorry feels like things got cut either from the final cut or from the script; Fowler’s just around. Omari Hardwick’s fine as one of Stanfield’s bosses, though he’s a sight gag versus the other bosses–Michael X. Sommers, Michael X. Sommers, and Kate Berlant–who are all absurdly funny. Hammer’s perfect for the part but almost brings too much self-awareness and humanity to it. Danny Glover and Terry Crews are great in extended cameos.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Riley’s direction, Doug Emmett’s photography, Terel Gibson’s editing. Especially Gibson’s editing, which does a lot but without any fanfare whatsoever.

Sorry to Bother You is really good. It’s almost great. But the third act is a mess.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Boots Riley; director of photography, Doug Emmett; edited by Terel Gibson; music by The Coup, Merrill Garbus, Riley, and Tune-Yards; production designer, Jason Kisvarday; produced by Nina Yang Bongiovi, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush, Forest Whitaker, and Kelly Williams; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Lakeith Stanfield (Cassius), Tessa Thompson (Detroit), Armie Hammer (Steve Lift), Steven Yeun (Squeeze), Jermaine Fowler (Salvador), Omari Hardwick (Mr. _______), Terry Crews (Sergio), Kate Berlant (Diana), Michael X. Sommers (Johnny), Danny Glover (Langston), Robert Longstreet (Anderson), and Forest Whitaker (Demarius).


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Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998, Gregory Nava)

The most impressive thing about Why Do Fools Fall in Love isn’t how well Tina Andrews’s script does with exposition. Not just exposition as it plays out, but how Andrews foreshadows later revelation. The film is and isn’t a biopic of singer Frankie Lymon, focusing instead on his three widows–and is and isn’t a biopic of said widows–and the timeline is confused, but the audience needs to know how to make sense of that timeline before events occur. So Andrews’s initial exposition sets up the film for later development.

And it’s really impressive, but it’s still not the most impressive thing about the film, which is Vivica A. Fox’s performance as one of the widows. Also Larenz Tate is great as Frankie Lymon, but he’s something of an enigma. None of the wives knew they were married to a trigamist while they were married–or even while Lymon was alive (the film takes place about fifteen years after his death… with lots of flashbacks).

But while Fox is wife number one, she didn’t come into the picture until after Tate romanced fellow singer Halle Berry. So Fools introduces Tate as Lymon in the fifties, hops ahead to introduce Fox in the eighties (then Berry and Lela Rochon as the other widows), then jumps back to the fifties so Tate can meet Berry, then forward to the early sixties so he can meet Fox, then forward a bit for him to finally “settle down” with Berry, then forward again for him to woo Rochon. Rochon is a prim and proper Southern school teacher, Berry is the glamorous singer, Fox is an ex-con and habitual criminal whose troubles got worst thanks to Tate.

The film deals with Tate’s success first. Everything with the widows–except the prologue with Berry in the fifties–is after he’s fallen and gotten addicted to heroin. Andrews and director Nava lay the whole narrative out beautifully. They’ve got some dramatic hiccups in the finale, partially because it’s all tied to the court proceedings (with a solid Pamela Reed as the somewhat bemused judge), partially because Tate’s a bastard. Sorry, Lymon’s a bastard. Though Tate’s really good at playing him.

But there aren’t any answers as to his real emotions. The film has at least one big mystery (though, really, it also raises the possibility of more widows–there are a few years unaccounted) because it’s not Tate’s film, it’s the widows’ film. And when it’s Fox’s film, it’s exceptional. It’s really good when it’s Berry’s film and Rochon’s film, but not like when it’s Fox’s. Fox transfixes with her performance. Berry is glamorous and sympathetic, Rochon is sweet and sympathetic, but they’re not transfixing. In fact, they’re both better in their present day old age makeup scenes than in the flashbacks. Because they’re there to support Tate, who’s fantastic, but he’s not so fantastic he can overshadow Fox.

And not just because Fox is taller than him.

Fox’s flashbacks are about her regular person’s encounter with the famous. Berry’s are about the famous. Rochon’s are about the ex-famous. It’s all very different. Fox just has the best part.

All the supporting acting is good, except Paul Mazursky. He gets a pass for most of it, because he’s not essential. When he’s essential, however, he totally flops it. It’s too bad; another of the third act problems.

Most of the direction is fantastic. Nava can do the big scale of the rock and roll flashback and fame culture, he can do the small dramatic scale. The character moments in the film are just as effective as the musical numbers and the musical numbers are outstanding. Tate’s phenomenal in them. The lip-synching and sound editing of the performances are all wonderful.

Great photography from Edward Lachman, editing from Nancy Richardson, production design from Cary White. Nice score from Stephen James Taylor. Great soundtrack.

Fools has an outstanding script, good performances, a couple great ones, and strong direction. It paints itself into a corner with the narrative structure and takes some hits in the third act. But it mostly works out, which is no small feat given how unsympathetic Tate has to become and how sympathetic he has to remain.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Nava; written by Tina Andrews; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Nancy Richardson; music by Stephen James Taylor; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Hall and Stephen Nemeth; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Larenz Tate (Frankie Lymon), Vivica A. Fox (Elizabeth Waters), Halle Berry (Zola Taylor), Lela Rochon (Emira Eagle), Pamela Reed (Judge Lambrey), David Barry Gray (Peter Markowitz), Clifton Powell (Lawrence Roberts), Lane Smith (Ezra Grahme), Paul Mazursky (Morris Levy), Ben Vereen (Richard Barrett), Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (Young Little Richard), and Little Richard (Little Richard).


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Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)

Widows is very real. You know it’s very real and not Hollywood because it takes place in Chicago and it’s real Chicago and not Hollywood Chicago. Though Robert Duvall, who gives a fine performance, does make it feel a little like Hollywood Chicago. But it’s also real because Liam Neeson has nose hairs. And because even as horrific events, plot turns, plot twists, horrific revelations bombard lead (and ostensible protagonist) Viola Davis, she’s able to harness all of them and make it all seem reasonable and not contrived. Because she’s Viola Davis and she’s what makes Widows possible. Without her gravitas, director McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn couldn’t get away with half of it.

McQueen and Flynn are adapting a six hour British series. Might explain the episodic plotting, might not. Widows has an expansive plot. Until it doesn’t. There’s a switch thrown somewhere in the middle when McQueen and Flynn stop with the expanding. Once Cynthia Erivo is on the team, everything changes. Including who gets character development. The film’s well-paced enough you don’t even realize a couple characters go on pause and Davis is in the picture less and less after her inital story arc ends. But it also means when the finale comes up short and awkwardly so… well, all of a sudden it’s time to cash in Widows’s chips and McQueen’s been bluffing.

Not to mix metaphors.

The film is about Widows Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon. Erivo is actually a babysitter; unfortunately the original British series is not called Four Widows and a Babysitter. The film opens with the women and their men. Then their men, career robbers, all die. Horribly. So now the widows have to figure out what to do, because none of their men left them in good shape financially.

Coon, for instance, has a newborn. She was married to Coburn Goss, who has no personality in his few scenes. Unlike some of the other dead husbands. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a deadbeat who steals all wife Rodriguez’s money. She has a thrift store. Debicki’s husband, Jon Bernthal, is mentally and physically abusive. But mostly physically. And then there’s crew leader Liam Neeson. Charming career robber, known and hated by cops, beloved by crooks, on and on. He’s married to Davis. Her scenes imagining Neeson still with her–nose hairs and all–should be some of Widows’s best moments for McQueen. Instead, he just showcases Davis’s acting and doesn’t do anything else with it. Because Widows is too real.

As such, all mastermind thief Neeson leaves beloved widow Davis is his Moleskine. It’s got the plans to his next job. He also leaves her Garret Dillahunt, driver and boy Friday. Dillahunt’s good. In hindsight, his part should’ve forecasted McQueen and Flynn’s later problems.

Well, turns out Neeson stole from crime brothers Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. They have an ill-defined criminal empire. Henry is trying to take the family straight, Kaluuya isn’t so sure. Henry’s plan is to get elected alderman. He just needs to beat corrupt public official and Chicago political family guy Colin Farrell. Duvall is Farell’s dad, the outgoing alderman. He had a heart attack or something. Doesn’t matter.

Henry then goes to Davis and tells her he wants the money–for his campaign, which he doesn’t mention–and she’s got a month to get it. She recruits the other widows to pull Neeson’s last job.

Through their new, sometimes dangerous experiences, Rodriguez and Debicki get character development. Well, Debicki gets it. Rodriguez gets a hint of it, then gets shut down. She becomes more functional, bringing in Erivo later on. Erivo who’s actually part of a C plot about small businesses too. McQueen and Flynn is overloaded with texture. Widows has enough material to be twice as long, because either its supporting characters need to get developed or they need to go away. The first act has a bunch of throwaway characters around just to play with expectations.

The texture–very realistic and don’t you dare acknowledge the adorable puppy–works. When Widows is expansive, it’s because of all that texture. Well-written, well-acted, well-directed texture. Narratively pointless because not even Davis can bring enough gravitas to fix a somewhat craven epilogue. McQueen–intentionally–eschews so much of the heist genre for Widows. And when he finally does employ genre narrative tropes, they’re all the bad ones. He’s also trying not to direct the thriller sequences–Kaluuya takes it upon himself to stalk and terrorize Davis in another C plot–but McQueen does a bunch of thriller sequences. And rather well. His narrative instincts are strong and he can do a lot with his cast, but the script’s the script. The twists, the turns, the disappearing characters.

Davis is great, Debicki is great. Rodriguez is good. She doesn’t get enough to do. She doesn’t even get C plots, she just gets to bring in Erivo, who does get a C plot. But Rodriguez is probably in the movie more than Erivo. She’s at least more active in the first act.

Erivo’s good. Again, thin part. Erivo acts the hell out of it.

Farrell ought to be great but his election subplot gets more time in the middle than Davis and crew planning. The whole Farrell thing–which also gets into the Chicago corruption and related institutionalized racism–takes up too much time in the film, which loses track of Davis and skips over Rodriguez. Great acting, great direction of that acting, good part, not great part.

Duvall’s a cameo pretending to be bigger. Henry’s fine. Kaluuya’s good, but the part’s too functional. And has no character development. None of the men get character development. At best they get some revelations. And it’s fine. But it’s thin.

Technically, the film’s perfect. McQueen’s composition, Sean Bobbitt’s photography, Joe Walker’s editing, Adam Stockhausen’s production design. It’s all great. The Hans Zimmer score is good but very functional.

Widows is fine work, with some near exceptional elements. And some particular problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, based on the television series written by Lynda La Plante; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Iain Canning, McQueen, Arnon Milchan, and Emile Sherman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Viola Davis (Veronica), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Lukas Haas (David), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Carlos), Coburn Goss (Jimmy Nunn), Molly Kunz (Siobhan), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Kevin J. O’Connor (Bobby Welsh), Jon Michael Hill (Reverend Wheeler), and Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan).


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My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989, Jim Sheridan)

My Left Foot is told in flashback. There’s the present–kind of glorified bookends–when Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful adult and flirts with his nurse (Ruth McCabe)–and then the past, which recounts Brown growing up poor, with cerebral palsy, in 1940s Dublin. Hugh O’Conor plays Brown until he’s seventeen or eighteen, then Day-Lewis takes over. Since Day-Lewis has a beard and a distinct manner in the present-day stuff, when he’s a teenager and before he’d ever gotten any rehabilitation or treatment, it’s a very different role. O’Conor plays a very different role too in his maybe twenty minutes–he’s got to play younger Day-Lewis from the first scene when he’s not even a tween. And he’s got the big material to get through.

Dad Ray McAnally thinks Day-Lewis is catastrophically cognitively impaired. Mom Brenda Fricker doesn’t think so, but McAnally’s a loud (sometimes scary) drunk and there are the six other kids to think about. But it also means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Yes, there’s something about the expectation, both for the narrative and O’Conor’s performance–but also presents the characters from a particular angle, which tends to work a lot better for Fricker than McAnally. Because there’s also the unseen scary bits regarding McAnally. Fricker–rightly so–gets sainted. McAnally gets gray, only My Left Foot isn’t really set up for gray.

My Left Foot is very precise in its attention and its intention. The focus is on O’Conor and Fricker–then Day-Lewis and Fricker–in the family’s house. My Left Foot’s production values are never bad, but director Sheridan and production designer Austen Spriggs focus their efforts on the scenes at the family’s house. Sheridan’s not a flashy director, but when he’s out in public–basically these occasional pub scenes for McAnally–and photographer Jack Controy is no help–the precision is gone. To wildly varying degrees. The verisimilitude orbits Fricker. Because Day-Lewis (and O’Conor) are too busy doing these layered performances, not to mention the impossible physicality layer. They don’t need a grounding or anything, they just can’t be concerned with tempering the mood.

It’s actually something brought up later on–as someone reads Brown’s actual writing aloud–regarding the constant feeling of isolation, even in a large family. Day-Lewis and O’Conor are always isolated. Much to Fricker’s frustration. Day-Lewis, Fricker, and O’Conor all have big character arcs in the film. No one else has them. Even if their characters do change a lot–like McAnally or Fiona Shaw, as Day-Lewis’s first doctor and champion–they don’t get to do it on screen. Once they’ve changed too much, they just disappear. Same thing happens to Fricker in the third act; worse, sometimes she’ll be in a scene and wasted. Shane Connaughton’s script sacrifices a lot of character for efficiency. Sheridan enables it, yes, but the script is ruthless.

But I’m getting a little ahead.

Once Day-Lewis takes over, the film nicely ambles about. There’s a subplot about McAnally and Fricker being able to buy him a wheelchair and one of the sisters getting in trouble, but they’re very mild subplots. They provide some narrative structure. Otherwise, it’s these micro-vingettes, all of them doing–often heartbreaking–character development for Day-Lewis. Fricker gets her character development in big moments. Day-Lewis’s builds. The film avoids getting too in-depth with anything. Just like McAnally’s faults are left unexplored, as are all of Brown’s medical problems over the years. Or physical realities. Or, actually, mental ones. Day-Lewis has a couple big rejection from women scenes and the film skips the hard stuff. My Left Foot isn’t rosy, but Sheridan and Connaughton make a real effort not to get too real with any of it.

And, given–while in the present and now apparently a writer (Brown’s work as an artist and writer are very murky in the background)–Day-Lewis tells McCabe (who’s reading his first book, My Left Foot) about how it’s too sentimental. The film is too sentimental. The acting is never too sentimental. The production never looks too sentimental–Jack Conroy’s photography is too flat for the emotion. But Sheridan and Connaughton are going for sentimental. Elmer Bernstein’s score is often so saccharine–while being technically competent if not better–it distracts from the acting.

Of course, with a better ending–the micro-vingettes have been becoming summarized micro-vingettes skipping forward in the narrative without any rhythm–the film maybe could’ve gotten anyway with the sentimentality. Day-Lewis is charming as hell by the present day stuff. He’s just not in it enough in the present day to get too sentimental about. Everyone’s material take a dive in the third act; the film has run out of time to tell its story so there’s a rush to the finish. The transition from flashback to present is really, really, really rough. It races and interrupts the actors.

The film’s exceptional moments come in the first and second acts, when all the elements sync up–the acting, the writing, the history–and Sheridan is able to get these fantastic scenes. Because the writing gets so loose with the history later on, there’s less opportunity for that sync.

And no real attempt at it in the present day stuff. Day-Lewis and McCabe are just cute together. Both actors do quite well with the material, but Sheridan is going for cute. And gets to pull it off thanks to Day-Lewis.

Sheridan and Connaughton are able to get away with a lot because of Day-Lewis and Fricker. Fricker not getting to finish any of her subplots is downright mean of the film, given how much of it she enables.

Fricker, Day-Lewis, and O’Conor give great performances. Exceptional. Singular. Performances deserving that sort of adjective. McAnally is excellent. His part isn’t good enough but he’s excellent. Fiona Shaw is fine. She’s sympathetic but not too sympathetic. McCabe’s cute. All the brothers and sisters are perfectly fine; they’re interchangeable in the narrative, so there’s not opportunity for much more.

My Left Foot has its problems. It also has exceptional pluses. The pluses win out.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the book by Christy Brown; director of photography, Jack Conroy; edited by J. Patrick Duffner; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Austen Spriggs; produced by Noel Pearson; released by Palace Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Hugh O’Conor (Young Christy Brown), Ruth McCabe (Mary), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Eanna MacLiam (Benny), and Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2ND DISABILITY IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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