Tag Archives: Tessa Thompson

Dirty Computer (2018, Alan Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Andrew Donoho, Lacey Duke, and Chuck Lightning)

Dirty Computer is hard to explain. It’s fairly easy to describe—it’s a fifty-six minute short film (or “emotion picture” as creator Janelle Monáe describes it) compilation of Monáe’s music videos for her Dirty Computer album. There’s bridging footage to contextualize the videos. It’s a dystopian future where Monáe has finally gotten busted for being “dirty.” Dirty mostly seems to mean Black and queer, but only based on the people targeted. Anything Other is “dirty,” which is one of those things Dirty ought to just go ahead and make clear and get past instead of implying until a breaking point.

The contextualizing, bridging stuff is Dirty’s biggest problem. Directors Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning do fine setting it up with Monáe being brought through the sterile, future deprogramming center to the big room where they’re going to zap her memories, but then the music videos start and, by the second or third one, it’s real clear the music videos are directed much better. Worse, Donoho and Lightning stumble through the dialogue scenes. They leverage Tessa Thompson, who’s Monáe’s already brainwashed ex and the only actor who can make the direction and Lightning’s script actually work, but at Monáe’s expense. It’s all going to be okay, fine, but doesn’t get to okay because their handling gets better. In fact, the framing stuff only works because of the story and how effective the music videos (and Monáe in the music videos) become.

Dirty Computer’s first staggering success is in how it contextualizes music videos (and an album both as a single release and collection of songs) in a narrative. Then comes to second ending and it seems like it’s going to chuck all that success only for Dirty to surpass itself and contextualize itself—the music video collection, the emotional picture—both in terms of its narrative and its cultural reflectiveness. With a song. An accompanying song playing over the second finish, hash-tagging the movie itself before informing the first song, informing that song’s video, informing that video’s adjoining bridges, all over it. Had Dirty not been uneven, had Donoho and Lightning just been upfront, that second peak might seem like a plateaued victory lap but since it was uneven, it did meander away from Monáe, the second peak just keeps rising. It’s awesome.

The music videos have these familiar motifs. They’ve got Thompson, they’ve got Jayson Aaron, they’ve got this retro-cyber-punk early nineties thing going on with the production design. The future still has all the same iconography, it’s just a little fetishized, which makes sense given the mainstream sterility. So there’s clearly something going on with the videos and how they relate not just to their bridges but each other. And it’s not… obvious. It has a lot to do with how Monáe’s “character” develops through the songs. Because the about-to-be-brainwashed Monáe doesn’t have control over the songs, which are her memories. Instead it’s doofus white guys Dyson Posey and Jonah Lees; only Lees isn’t as much of a doofus and even he’s able to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, Lightning takes too long for him to catch on, which ends up wasting Lees, who’s the only other actor in the scripted bridges to succeed. Though Monáe does get better after her first big dialogue scene. And, by the end, you know that scene was the directors’ fault, not hers.

Dirty Computer talks about so much. Looks at so much. It’ll go from muted to loud with a snap. The songs are excellent, the music video editing by Deji LaRay is masterful, Monáe’s performance is magnificent. Peerless, actually. Without any victory lap ego. The Dirty Computer music videos are an object lesson in superior music videos; they’re exquisitely shot, edited, photographed, but Monáe’s performance is essential. It changes with every cut in the videos, without ever losing focus, always intensifying. She’s awesome.

Dirty goes from being a collection of great music videos to a great collection of great music videos to something even more layered. Emotion picture? Maybe; but it’s the only one for now, right? Is it a great emotion picture or are emotion pictures great by definition. Only Monáe knows.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning; screenplay by Lightning, based on a story by Janelle Monáe, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, and Alan Ferguson; director of photography, Todd Banhazl; edited by Donoho and Taylor Brusky; music by Wonder and Wynne Bennett; production designer, Fernanda Guerrero; produced by Nicole Acacio and Ian Blair for Wondaland.

Music videos written and directed by Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Donoho, and Lacey Duke; edited by Deji LaRay; produced by Justin Benoliel, Judy Craig, Melissa Ekholm, Maya Table, and Blair.

Starring Janelle Monáe (Jane 57821), Tessa Thompson (Zen), Jayson Aaron (Ché), Dyson Posey (Cleaner #1), Jonah Lees (Cleaner #2), and Michele Hart (Virgin Victoria).


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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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Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr.)

At no point in Creed II does anyone remark on the odds of Michael B. Jordan boxing the son of the man who killed his father. It’s all matter-of-fact. The sportscasters all seem to think it’s perfectly normal Dolph Lundgren spent the thirty-ish years since Rocky IV training his son to someday defeat the son of his adversary in that film. Well, his first adversary. Because Sylvester Stallone is actually the one who beat Lundgren back in Rocky IV, something this film barely acknowledges. Because Creed II isn’t a father and son movie. There’s a nod to it for Lundgren and son Florian Munteanu, which is weird and cheap as Lundgren’s been mentally abusing musclebound giant Munteanu for decades and probably physically as well. But Stallone and Jordan? They don’t have some de facto father and son thing going here. Neither of them are really in it enough.

Of course, they’re in the movie. Lots. Most of the time. The film splits between Lundgren and Munteanu, Jordan, and Stallone. Stallone visits Jordan from time to time and maybe once vice versa, but they’re separate. Except for training montages and the setup to training montages. Juel Taylor and Stallone’s screenplay is absolutely terrified of developing the relationship between Jordan and Stallone here. The script also isn’t big on… well… good character development. Jordan, Stallone, and Lundgren all have character development arcs. Jordan, for example, has to understand why he wants to fight Munteanu. As well as have a baby with probably wife but they seem to have cut the wedding scene, which is weird, Tessa Thompson. At its best, Creed II is about Jordan and Thompson and then everything else, Stallone and Lundgren filling out the background. They’re looming threats.

But Stallone’s arc? It’s hackneyed and rushed. Creed II moves through its two hour and ten minute run time but it skips over everything to stick to its big boxing match finale schedule. No matter how much time gets spent giving Jordan and Thompson their salad days time, it’s still not enough. Thompson’s initial pseudo-character arc fizzles fast. The subsequent hints at more for her are occasionally deft, but really just keep Thompson in a holding pattern until it’s time’s up and it’s fight night. Jordan’s arc is written with an utter lack of depth or ambition. It’s all on Jordan’s charm to get through some of that arc. It’s like he’s hinting at the better performance in cut scenes. Because Creed II feels light. Even if it isn’t actually light, the character development is way too thin. The script’s mercenary in a way the rest of the film is not.

Director Caple takes Creed II serious. He’s able to get away with the scene where Lundgren tries to intimidate Stallone in Stallone’s picturesque little Italian restaurant. And it’s a lot to get away with because the script doesn’t even pretend they can work an arc for Stallone and Lundgren. Creed II also ignores how Lundgren remorselessly killed Jordan’s dad thirty years ago. It acknowledges it, but ignores it. Lundgren tries in an impossible role. It isn’t a significant success, but it’s far from a failure and–like everyone else–Lundgren’s taking it seriously. It helps.

It also hurts because there are all the missed opportunities. If only the script took itself more seriously, there’d be so many possibilities. But Taylor and Stallone don’t have a good enough story to play it straight. Instead Caple and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau have to make it play. At one point Lundgren and Munteanu wordlessly survey the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their minds set on destroying Jordan. Because it’s a father and son thing against Stallone and Jordan. Only it’s not. Because Taylor and Stallone haven’t got the story for it. It’s kind of depressing.

Well, the more you think about it, the more depressing it gets. Stallone, as a writer, went cheap on the character for Stallone, the actor, to play. Creed II’s got its constraints and Caple gets the film by with them, but doesn’t play off them. It’s not like the film succeeds through ingenuity. It’s just Caple and the cast, the editors–who never make a bad move until the postscripts–composer Ludwig Göransson (basically remixing old Rocky music selections but to strong effect)–they all take it seriously enough and present it straight-faced enough, the film gets away with it.

It’s a not craven sequel, except when it’s got to be craven. Then it’s craven. But it’s passively craven. Creed II, despite narrative contrivances, is never actively craven. It’s a successful approach. The film’s engaging and entertaining throughout. Great star turn from Jordan, great but not enough of a star turn because she’s not in the movie though Thompson, good support from Stallone and Phylicia Rashad. And, of course, Wood Harris. Who gets a thankless part but goes all in. Lundgren and Munteanu are fine.

Shady fight promoter Russell Hornsby feels like a leftover plot thread from a previous draft. Snipping him for more on Thompson or Stallone would’ve only improved things.

There are some surprises along the way and sometimes the actors handle them well. Even if nothing slows the film from getting to the fight night finale. Not even obvious character development possibilities related to the fight night.

Creed II is a strong fine. With the script–and maybe budget–holding back on the film’s obvious, greater possibilities.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.; screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn and characters created by Ryan Coogler and Stallone; director of photography, Kramer Morgenthau; edited by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, Kevin King Templeton, and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Russell Hornsby (Buddy Marcelle), and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


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Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed is something special. It’s an entirely sincere, entirely reverential sequel to the Rocky movies, but one trying to do something different with the “franchise.” Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, while extremely important in the film, isn’t the protagonist. He’s not even lead Michael B. Jordan’s sidekick. He’s a cute old man who doesn’t understand cloud computing. Director Coogler, along with co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, occasionally stumble fitting Stallone into the movie. For a while, it seems like his presence is a condition of the franchise license, as Coogler carefully transitions the viewer away from the idea of Stallone as the hero. Jordan doesn’t start the film–the film starts in flashback–so when the handover is complete isn’t just when Creed stops playing at being a Rocky movie, but also when Jordan fully takes on the picture.

Coogler and Covington’s script is deliberate and careful in how it brings the viewer into the world of film (the approach owes a lot to how Stallone’s own Rocky Balboa handled viewer familiarity with the characters). Even though it’s a boxing movie, with some fantastic fight sequences thanks to Coogler and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti–though without much input from the editors, as Coogler likes to show off how close he and Alberti can get to the bout without cutting, Creed more often relies on Jordan as an intentionally tragic character, juxtaposing him against Stallone’s own intentional tragedies. That concept, the personal, conscious responsibility for misery, isn’t Creed’s point. It’s just an observation from Coogler and his actors. (One has to imagine both Stallone and Jordan loved getting to essay these roles).

Because Creed is, deep down, a rootin‘, tootin’ crowd pleaser. It’s just an exceptionally well-made one and an exceptionally thoughtful one. Coogler’s ambitions for the film are to tell its entirely absurd story well. And Coogler’s not afraid to take shortcuts. He casts Phylicia Rashad as Jordan’s foster mother (he’s her husband’s illegitimate son) and there’s no one possibly better for the role. Rashad brings a gravitas to her (too few) scenes and is always present in the film, even when she’s off-screen (too much of the time). Because Coogler knows how his audience is going to respond to her general presence, not just her performance.

Also very important is Tessa Thompson as Jordan’s love interest. She doesn’t get enough to do, though Coogler and Covington give her a lot of ground situation, but the romance gives she and Jordan some great scenes. Thompson does really well.

And Jordan’s great. He’s got a great role, even if the film isn’t about chronicling the character’s internal struggles. Or even representing them on an epical external scale.

Because Creed isn’t meant to be high art. It’s meant to be high entertainment, just from someone better suited for high art. Coogler, Jordan and Stallone do something really cool. They figure out how to make soullessly commercial nostalgia entertainment entirely, undeniably sincere.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Coogler; screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler and characters created by Sylvester Stallone; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Hannah Beachler; produced by Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Kevin King Templeton and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Tony Bellew (‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan), Ritchie Coster (Pete Sporino), Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday) and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


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