Sorry to Bother You (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
One can tell that “Sorry to Bother You” is made by a first-time writer-director because it is willing to utilize a variety of techniques, from claymation and voiceovers to hallucinatory imagery and coming into contact with an entirely different genre, to get a range of laughs—big laughs—from the audience. Even though these tools do not always work, sometimes the courage to employ them is what counts because they shake the boredom out of some of the more familiar avenues of the plot, particularly in portraying the rift between our protagonist and his friends as he begins to climb the corporate ladder of telemarketing.
The picture is written and directed by Boots Riley who possess an exciting eye for detail. Shot on location in Oakland, California, he is willing to show the more unsightly areas of the city, how colors and life dominate even the poorest of neighborhoods. Graffitis on walls often have a political message, signs on the streets are clever, and even jewelries worn offer their own personalities. Notice how the extras who must utter a line or two of taunts while off-camera sound exactly like residents of Oakland. So, you see, although certain images are initially unattractive, like unmowed laws and unpicked garbage on sidewalks, there is beauty in its honesty and simplicity. The film is a comedy in which the setting is vibrant and real.
This is important because the material is a satire, often embracing extremes in order to deliver a punchline. The setting, more than the story or the performances, anchor the film in something that is true and relatable. And so when the plot and tone undergo wild fluctuations, viewers are less likely to feel lost, confused, or frustrated. Unlike Hollywood mainstream comedies without flavor or ambition, those designed solely to pass the time, perhaps a chuckle here and there, Riley’s work is able to take big risks while retaining the viewers’ interest.
It is a challenge to describe the plot without revealing its wonderful, bizarre surprises. It is best to dive into it blind. Just know that it starts off with a black man named Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) who lands a job as a telemarketer. He discovers that by employing a “white voice,” callers are more likely to stay on the line and make a purchase. His recent successes capture the interests of upper-management. From there, the screenplay commands intoxicating energy as it satirizes corporate culture, the media, and politics.
What I admired most about it, however, is its willingness to show how it is like for a person of color in a country that values whiteness. The “white voice,” for example, is played as a joke, but it is sharp commentary, too. After all, when there is implication that “white voice” is valued over brown or black voices, what does that say about how brown or black skins are actually seen? Still, despite what it has to say about a range of topics, the film is entertaining first and foremost.
Cars 3 (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite being as pavonine and pristine as ever, “Cars 3” is yet another disappointment in the painfully mediocre series because it is a product of a confused screenplay. This time, the story is about obsolescence and how one chooses to react in the face of such inevitability. Keep in mind that the target audience is between four to nine-year-olds, but I am not convinced that a typical child within this age bracket would care about the heart of the picture. What it is, then, arguably, is a pessimistic film, certainly not anywhere within the vicinity of Pixar greats, since it goes by the assumption that children would eat up what’s projected onto the screen just because the images are colorful and full of energy.
While the story of becoming obsolete and the thoughts and emotions that come with it may appeal to adults, writers Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich fail to walk the tightrope between fun and mature content with elegance and grace. Putting harmless and silly jokes right next to a rather serious subject worthy of contemplation simply does not work here. As a result, the drama is convincing, rushed in parts, and lacking focus in areas meant to get to us emotionally. Notice the number of quick flashbacks, a common strategy in pedestrian films, designed to plug in the holes of its emotional core. Aside from confusion when thinking about the filmmakers’ goals, I felt next to nothing toward the material other than occasional amusement.
Voice acting behind each character are well done across the board. Owen Wilson, as usual, is convincing as racing legend Lightning McQueen with enthusiasm to spare on and off the tracks. A standout is Cristela Alonzo as Cruz Ramirez, a trainer who had dreams of getting on a racetrack when she was younger. The character is interesting for two reasons: it touches upon a woman’s place in a male-dominated arena and she is meant to function as a conduit for audiences who put their dreams on hold due to self-doubt.
Had the structure of film been more elliptical, unexpected, and dared to resolve McQueen’s boring issues in order to focus solely on Ramirez, it would have been a highly relatable film because just about everybody can relate to being put in an environment and feeling uncomfortable to the changes one must undergo to adapt to one’s role. Children would relate, whether it be starting in a new school entirely or even a new school year. Adults would relate also, whether it be beginning a new job or receiving a promotion with new responsibilities. The latter half of the film is stronger than the former because the screenplay has turned its attention on the more interesting race car.
Another element that’s lacking is a thoroughly effective villain. This time, it is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), one of the many new generation of cars with parts that are much better. Plus, they race on simulations rather than a dirty, old track. The antagonist is wasted completely, reduced to saying one dig after another against “old timers,” specifically McQueen because he refuses to retire and allow new bloods to take over fully, who cannot compete with his superior breed. The character does not have an ounce of complexity and so the task of defeating him is more like an afterthought than a goal.
With so many brilliant films under the Pixar cannon worthy of receiving sequels, one must wonder why the unexceptional “Cars” series keeps producing follow-ups that no one asked for. Directed by Brian Fee, “Cars 3” shows that retiring the franchise is a long time coming. Let go; let’s put it in the junkyard where it belongs and call it a day.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
To tell a love story without the expected words, phrases, and gestures meant to communicate specific thoughts, feelings, and private longings is particularly challenging to pull off, awkward and off-putting when executed even with the slightest hint of self-consciousness, but Luca Guadagnino’s surprisingly disarming “Call Me by Your Name,” based on the novel by André Aciman, makes it look like most graceful dance, so natural, delicate, and free of chains that prevent so many coming-of-age pictures from reaching their maximum potential. Here is a film that gets it right every step of the way, a rarity under any standard, clearly a modern classic.
Its postcard-like countryside images of Northern Italy makes us wish to jump into the screen and inhale the scents of verdant fruit trees, swim in the blue-green ocean, and allow the hot summer winds to caress every centimeter of our skin. Since the screenplay by James Ivory does not concern itself with delivering the usual beats and rhythms of the sub-genre, the picture takes its time to explore places, like a secluded area where water from the mountains accumulate, a plaza with a statue paying tribute to a lesser-known World War I battle, a welcoming neighborhood where one can stop by and ask for water after a long bicycle ride. It gives a feeling that, like the characters, we, too, are on vacation and so the feelings they have toward the place and one another are all the more resonant to us.
Notice how the material is not plagued with drama typical of LGBTQ romance films or romance films in general. The protagonist is never put in a situation where he must choose between two potential mates with opposite interests and personalities, no motormouth friend with her own subplot designed solely for comic relief, not even a typical event when one is forced out of the closet, often a bully’s doing, or by accident, likely to have done by a friend, ally, or possible romantic interest. No one dies from a disease, a freak accident, or suicide. Nearly every choice is fresh so it feels like anything is possible.
Because there is no distraction, the audience gets a chance to understand seventeen-year-old Jewish-American Elio (Timothée Chalamet) as an individual and as well as a person who just so happens to be attracted to another man, Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Ph.D. student from America who was invited by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archeologist professor, to assist with academic work. But because Elio, clearly gifted musically and a voracious reader, is a quiet and secretive person, we learn about him mostly through his actions and the objects he surrounds himself.
Notice how nearly every room is filled with books, many of which are worn with pages nearly falling out, how he is often writing or daydreaming, observing other people from a distance. Introspective viewers will almost immediately relate to this character and Chalamet ensures that Elio is on a constant state of change. We must catch up to the protagonist rather than simply waiting for him to change eventually.
The chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is peerless. There is never a disingenuous or forced moment. Coupled with Guadagnino’s string of smart decisions to abstain from showing every intimate scene that Elio and Oliver share, a highly sensual, rather than crudely sexual, examination of young love is created. So many romantic pictures attempt to capture sensuality but often ending up false or, worse, sleazy. Here, the relaxed environment matches the effortless budding intimacy.
“Call Me by Your Name” resonates with me because it is filled with people, scenery, and experiences that I had or currently have in my own life. Particularly realistic and moving is the way Elio’s parents (Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) are written and portrayed. They love and know their son through and through. They may not say it but they never fail to show it. They remind me of my own parents in how certain things may go unsaid not out of fear or worry but because it is not necessary, simply superfluous. Here is a film that leaves a great lasting impression.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Tom Ford’s second feature commands the necessary control and excellent timing to create a dramatic crime-thriller that is enigmatic but engaging, entertaining yet can also function as a metaphor for what it means to experience a loss. For a good stretch of “Nocturnal Animals,” based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, it is like standing on a precipice and in front us are portals to different realities. For about three to five minutes, we get a chance to peer into these portals and most impressive is that every one of them is compelling despite each one commanding a different feel or tone.
It is a most exciting work that might have benefited from having a running time of three hours—or perhaps longer. Notice that the third act feels somewhat rushed, despite a perfect-pitch final scene, and the characters we have come to know—whether he or she be a person from the past, a protagonist from a book, or the character with whom we define the story with—reach resolutions that feel forced rather than the material taking its time to present to us a more fluid next step or fate. Some movies deserve to be told in a slow, particular way. This film belongs in that category.
The screenplay is efficient with its characters. Most surprising to me is in how Ford handles the introduction of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a gallery owner who, at first glance, seems to have everything one could possibly want: excessive wealth, expensive clothes, a palatial home, a career in which she is in power, a good-looking partner (Armie Hammer). But notice how the director underlines the emptiness of luxury. Susan does not interact with her clothes nor does she seem to enjoy wearing them. She looks good in them, but a closer inspection reveals she is more like a mannequin than someone who appreciates or loves what she has on. When she walks around her living space, silence is deafening. There is no laughter or silly conversations heard from a few feet away. Shadows dominate every corner. It is like being in a museum. No one speaks above more than a few decibels. Even her husband seems annoyed with her, certainly neglectful of her needs.
There is a sadness to Susan that is fascinating and we wonder if she will be able to claw her way out of her silent desperation. I already know Adams is a supremely skillful performer, capable to communicating paragraphs with silence. Here, I was impressed with how she relishes every scene she is in. We can feel her character always thinking, evaluating—even when Susan is lost in her thoughts. It is an intelligent, calculated performance and without such a strong core, the picture might have fallen over its own ambitions. The story after all, takes place in the present, the past, and a fictional (or is it?) universes. Susan receives the manuscript for a novel her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) had written. She finds it to be such a page-turner, she doesn’t get any sleep. I was right there with her; I craved to know what would happen next. Will justice be served cold in West Texas?
“Nocturnal Animals,” I think, is about grieving people. Notice that each fleshed out character is unhappy about his or her life, that the life she now has is the life he never wanted to have. The common theme is that life has a cruel sense of humor sometimes. And that bitter ending may not work for a lot of people but it is loyal to the film’s central ideas. Clearly, the film is made by an artist who values making a point over making the audience feel good. But I feel good when an artist delivers what is necessary to leave a lasting impression.
Man from U.N.C.L.E., The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
A CIA agent, Solo (Henry Cavill), and a KGB operative, Illya (Armie Hammer), are forced to work together in order to infiltrate an organization that kidnapped a scientist who has found a way to enrich uranium through an easier process, making it possible for almost anyone to create a nuclear bomb. Accompanying them on their mission is a mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a woman that Solo had just extracted from East Berlin—and Illya tried to prevent from escaping. They must learn to put their differences aside somehow and work toward a common goal.
Based on a 1964 television series, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” directed by Guy Ritchie, has an eye for fashion, good-looking people, and lighting the actors just so in order to make their bodies look modelesque, but it is a limited action-comedy because the screenplay lacks the necessary edge to get the audience to invest in its story. It is superficial for the most part, but one cannot deny that it is partially fun and the performers, especially Cavill and Hammer, share chemistry.
The most enjoyable action sequence in the film is presented during the opening minutes. Right away the differences between the American and the Russian spies are highlighted which creates great tension. The former is more suave and debonair while the latter is more brutish, commanding tank-like qualities. Quite amusing is the part where Illya tries to stop a moving car using only his hands and Solo is so amused at the whole spectacle, he chooses not to kill his enemy to prolong his enjoyment. Their differences make the sequences worth watching because of the way these vastly different characters attempt to solve problems that appear in front of them.
Less interesting is when they are forced to forge a partnership. Although amusing lines are still present, especially when they relish each other’s limitations, the threat and thus suspense is no longer there. This is because there is a lack of a defined and memorable villain who is at least equally charming as Hammer and Cavill. The screenplay creates a plethora and varying degrees of distractions, such as a possible romantic connection between Gaby and one of the agents, but none of them are especially complex, worthy of our time to explore or navigate through.
One grows tired of the plot and story eventually. I found myself admiring the sorts of wine the characters drink, the hotel rooms and how they are organized, the quality and color of the suits and dresses worn, how the performers’ hair is styled and how it would look even more magazine-ready when it gets ruffled or wet. It is a beautiful-looking movie, certainly, promoting a luxurious, rather fantastic lifestyles of international spies—which is perfectly all right because it aims to entertain—but there is a deficiency when it comes to the requisite dramatic gravity in order to make the story interesting beyond what is on the surface.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” based on the screenplay by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, is a tolerable and passable comedic action-thriller with enough charm that helps to keep it barely afloat. Yet despite its glaring shortcomings, I smiled about half of the time because I had a feeling the people on screen are having a blast especially during the verbal sparrings between Cavill and Hammer’s characters.
Mirror Mirror (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Although Snow White (Lily Collins), whose mother passed on while giving birth to her, was trained by her father (Sean Bean) in preparation to rule their kingdom, the King felt compelled to remarry a new Queen (Julia Roberts) because he felt he was unable to teach her everything she needed to know. When the kingdom was bewitched by dark magic, the King headed to the forest to search for answers but never returned. Years passed and the Queen had taken control of the kingdom and driven it to bankruptcy. Realizing that her stepmother was unfit to rule, Snow White decided to usurp the Queen and restore her father’s legacy. “Mirror Mirror,” based on the screenplay by Jason Keller and Marc Klein, had hiccups of genuinely amusing moments but in its desperation to convince us that its protagonist wasn’t bland, the little comedic momentum it managed to gather dissipated just as quickly. Without a doubt, the most interesting characters to watch were the evil Queen and Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), the former deliciously vain while the latter valiant and adventurous. Whenever Roberts and Hammer shared a scene, there was electricity on screen because the two seemed unabashed when it came to making fun of themselves as well as their characters. While there were infantile jokes, like bird excrement being brushed onto the Queen’s face as part of a beauty regimen and the prince licking everyone’s faces as if he were a dog, I laughed because they were so unexpected and delivered with such glee. Not always a fan of gross-out humor, I was entertained when the material asked its actors to go for the extremes. Unfortunately, Snow White was as boring as staring at a plank of wood. To its credit, however, much effort was taken to make her appear edgy. For instance, she was allowed to hold a dagger, engage in a sword fight against the prince, and utter feminist lines–dizzying at best because it was so eager to hammer us over the head about how modern it all was. Perhaps casting was responsible because Collins was almost too classically beautiful. The contrast between the actor’s look and the intentions for her character, in this case, failed to create synergy. In the end, she was just nice, but nice proved dangerously tedious when placed between vitriolic malevolence and hunky earnestness. Furthermore, the look of the film did not offer anything special. When characters ran in the woods or strutted about the palace, it felt like I was watching actors performing on set. Since I wasn’t immersed into their world, I was more keen on noticing images that did not quite fit. For instance, when the thieving dwarves, played by actual dwarfs, got on stilts to appear as giants, the ones on stilts still looked like stuntmen despite the fact that the camera kept its distance. Also, there were some shots that made me question how a character got from one place to another in a matter of seconds when the distance between the two places was at least a tens of meters. The errors proved very distracting especially during the action scenes when it was supposed to be exciting. If anything, there should have been a flow to the images gracing the screen so that the logic specific to its fantasy world would come off as believable. Directed by Tarsem Singh, although “Mirror Mirror” had its moments, the rewards were not fruitful nor plentiful enough. I couldn’t stop thinking how big a statement it would have made if the Queen and the prince actually ended up together.
J. Edgar (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), working as the head of General Intelligence Division at the time, observed how the Bureau of Investigation handled crime scenes and noted that a lot of changes had to made in order for the group to maximize their efficiency as both a protector of the people and, in theory, preventer of execrable crimes. When he was appointed by the Attorney General to be the Bureau’s acting director, it was his chance to make the necessary radical changes from within. “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, had a fascinating history in terms of its subject, his personal and professional life, but the picture only reached moments of lucidity regarding what it wanted to say about a man’s legacy. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the screenplay was structured. It wanted to cover a plethora of subjects which ranged from Hoover’s determination for the government to give the Bureau the power to make arrests and bear arms, the hunt for the communist radicals, the controversial and painstaking attempt to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping, to, and most importantly, his evolution from being a patriot to an obsessed man who couldn’t let go of being in charge, his tragic inability to separate his professional from personal life. Focus and insight came few and far between. I wish we had known more about Hoover’s relationship with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his eventual personal secretary and confidante. One of the most exciting and amusing scenes was when the two went out on a date. Hoover’s idea of romance was to show her the impressive catalogue he created for the Bureau. In order to prove to her the efficiency of his system, he asked her to time how long it took him to find a book given a specific subject and time frame. The scene had spice and humor because we don’t see many, arguably, lame dates in biopics. It made Hoover seem human for a change instead of just being a robot who strived for constant perfection, a man who wiped his hands every time he shook hands with another. Later, when Hoover and Gandy were old, their scenes lacked impact when they exchanged looks that were designed to be meaningful. It felt forceful. This was because their relationship didn’t have a proper arc. The same critique could be applied to Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench). While Gandy was painted only as a career-striving woman, the mother was drawn as a control freak who preferred to have, in her own words, a dead son than a daffodil for a son. In real life, I imagined Annie Hoover to be a loving woman who just didn’t know how to deal with homosexuality. Otherwise, Hoover, a smart and persistent man, wouldn’t have stayed with and loved her for long. Conversely, what the picture managed to do well was the execution of Hoover’s romance with his protégé and eventual Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film captured the love between them even if they had to remain in the closet given the times and natures of their occupation. Despite their intense feelings for one another, they couldn’t express them without dancing around the issue then having to retreat. It got so bad to the point where punching each other in the face and wrestling on the ground was the only time they had an intense physical contact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” needed to be more selective in terms of which aspect of its subject’s life was worth covering. Considering Hoover’s legacy was epic, to say the least, putting all the apples in one basket, even if only one of them was rotten, in this case a few, corrupted the rest.