Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

This movie was an absolute delight. I had heard some good things but missed its initial release, so when I made the effort to see a one-night screening at the Rio, in spite of wanting to stay home and watch the new Black Mirror, I was very surprised and elated to discover one of the most original movies of the year. Sorry to Bother You made me laugh, made me think and made me go “WTF?” with its truly unpredictable plot twists. I loved it and I think it is one of the best movies of 2018.

The movie opens with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing for a telemarketing job at Regalview, part of a huge multifaceted corporation run almost as a personality cult by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in hilarious form). The job sucks and there is discontent between workers and management with a move to unionize led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), but when Cassius starts using his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) to connect to clients he rises through the ranks leaving his friends behind when he becomes a star “powercaller”. But Reglaview has a dark side which is only revealed as Cassius climbs higher and it only gets darker and funnier and flat-out weirder as the film approaches its conclusion.

The first thing I loved about this movie was its tone. It is very relatable with a fine supporting cast of rich and diverse characters, and it definitely plays to a mature audience with grown-up sensibilities. It’s not an overt crowd-pleaser (although the large audience I saw it with did sound very amused throughout). I also really loved how it’s one of those kinds of science-fiction movies that creeps up on you. There is already a heightened sense of silliness in a lot of what we see, but the real world is also very silly when looked at in certain ways and it’s only the gradual accumulation of details that clues you into the fact that this is not the real world. That is, until a crazy plot twist late in the movie that is pure sci-fi but works because of all the subtle groundwork laid in.

There are some rough edges to the movie (the film’s lack of budget is very apparent in one sequence involving a riot) but that is part of its charm. It’s a scrappy underdog of a movie, about working class heroes and featuring a fairly socially progressive point of view (the union subplot being a perfect example). That’s the kind of real community justice you don’t see in most movies, probably because most movies tend to reinforce the status quo instead of challenging it. The film has many little touches that tip you off to its subversive nature which had me grinning when I wasn’t outright laughing, and that is the most important thing of all – the film avoids being preachy by making you laugh.

Boots Riley deserves special mention for his writing and directing, the movie is full of wildly inventive visual ideas that match the story perfectly, and the cast is terrific. Lakeith Stanfield is immensely sympathetic, keeping you on his side even when he’s selling out, and Tessa Thompson is wonderful as Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend Detroit. Terry Crews has only a couple of scenes as Cassius’ uncle Sergio but he’s always a gem. I really enjoyed the mostly non-white casting because I love seeing other faces and voices on screen. The movie is incisive in its comments about race and one sequence in particular had many in the audience at the screening I attended squirming with discomfort, myself included. I love it when a movie can make me squirm and laugh and think.

Sorry to Bother You is very high up on my list of best films of 2018. I thought it was highly creative and original with many genuine surprises, but also that it was smart and funny – very, very funny. I was smiling almost from start to finish and for a long time after it was over. I really can’t say enough good things about it, I thought it was truly unique and special. I loved it.

Film Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse

Best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2

Sony Animation has produced this slick piece of eye-popping animation that is a lot of fun to watch. I found it to be tremendously entertaining, fun and funny but with emotional weight where it needed it. I think it is the best Spider-Man movie since 2004’s Spider-Man 2.

One of the many things I loved about this film was how progressive and positive it was. The whole film really captures the essence of Spider-Man in ways that pretty much every other film in the past 14 years has failed to do, and Spidey is a relentlessly positive, optimistic character despite his tragic origins and his outsider status. This movie captures the correct tone to convey that spirit while also being a lot of colourful fun, just like the title character.

The story here centers on young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a New York teenager who somehow gets bitten by the same (or similar) spider as the one that bit Peter Parker. The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is the main villain of the piece whose experimental particle collider creates a crossover of parallel universes that delivers different versions of Spider-Man from those worlds into ours before it is damaged in a fight that kills our resident Spider-Man (Chris Pine). The multiple versions of Spider-Man have to work together to find a way to get back to their own universes and then destroy the collider before it destroys everything. Along the way, Miles faces challenges and comes to terms with the responsibility of being Spider-Man.

First and foremost, I loved the animation. That was the principle thing that got me interested, because I am very unimpressed by most animation for its lack of novelty. Rarely does an animated film present a style that I haven’t seen before, but I really think this movie did show me something new. I loved the characterizations of everyone, particularly Miles, but I also really liked Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as his peer support. I thought Nic Cage was an unexpected pleasure as Spider-Man Noir from a hard-boiled 1930s universe and I have always loved Spider-Ham, who I was afraid would be just a sight gag but turned out to be a fun side-character.

In a lot of ways the movie reminded me of the Lego Batman Movie. It has a very similar sensibility of reverence as well as humour about the legacy of the character. I think Spider-Man’s appeal is in his misfit status and the total anonymity of the suit – anybody could be under the red and blue spandex, and that is what a lot of the movie’s underlying substance is about. It’s part of the reason why the film has so many different versions of the character and gives us the lesser-known Miles Morales as our central protagonist instead of the familiar Peter Parker. I found the story quite soulful in its presentation of what it means to be a hero – it’s not the suit, its the person wearing it and the choices he or she makes. I found the movie unexpectedly moving in parts, much like Spider-Man 2, and its closing coda by Stan Lee about heroism was very touching in light of the man’s passing earlier this year.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it has to do with the presentation in 2D. I haven’t seen Into the Spiderverse in 3D but I would like to despite my overall misgivings about the medium. I think the cityscapes and web-swinging could be enhanced by the 3D, but what bugged me about 2D was that a lot of backgrounds had a blurry look like I was watching a 3D movie without glasses (except the foreground characters were clear), almost as if the studio did a half-assed job of making a 2D version.

I really loved Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse a lot more than I tought I would. I laughed out loud many times and I appreciated its sense of Spider-Man lore, not just in the easter eggs sprinkled throughout for hardcore fans to giggle over, but for its authentic understanding of what the character means and stands for across multiple interpretations. An amazing movie.

Film Review: Widows

The new movie from British director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, a new twist on the familiar heist movie with political overtones. Although it is to some extent a very familiar beast as a heist film, the plot has plenty of delightful twists, and I thought the characterizations and the cast were very compelling and the best part of the movie.

Viola Davis plays the wife of Liam Neeson, living very comfortably off his life of crime, of which she chooses to know nothing until a job goes wrong and wipes out him and his gang of thieves. Then, the gangster-turned-politician Neeson ripped off comes looking for the money, threatening Davis to come up with two million dollars or else. At about the same time, she finds her dead husband’s notebook detailing a job he was planning worth five million, and she enlists the help of the widows of Neeson’s crime-mates to carry it out to cover the debt and split the rest. Of course, a huge amount of tension comes from the question: can the completely amateur widows of professional thieves pull it off?

First of all, I have to say the cast is superb. Viola Davis is amazing as always, propelling the story with her determination, but I was equally impressed by her team-mates played by Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell as father-and-son political legacies are very good, particularly Farrell whose character had more dimension than I expected. Daniel Kaluuya is especially chilling as the gangster’s enforcer.

I really appreciated the socio-political flavour of the film, and how everyone came from these different class backgrounds that wold lead one to assume certain aspects of their personality, but often there would be more than would perhaps be convenient. The political race between the crooked establishment and the community led by a former criminal has some interesting facets and the whole thing is actually pretty challenging and complex the more you think about it.

The camera work and editing in the film is also very compelling. There is one camera move in particular where we follow Colin Farrell from making a speech in a run-down part of the city, into his car and across a few blocks to his political headquarters in a well-to-do neighbourhood, all in the span of a few minutes which really highlights the income inequality and social problems that give way to all kinds of crime.

Widows is definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s complex, it’s subtle, it’s challenging, it’s interesting, it’s fun and exciting when it needs to be but also makes you stop and think and care about what’s happening. I love it a lot.

And, as usual, Mark Kermode’s review nails it better than I ever could.

Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix)

I wouldn’t normally think of watching something so apparently aimed at the YA market as this Netflix Original series, except that it is filmed in Vancouver and, as a Production Assistant, it’s possible I might work on it someday, so I might as well be familiar with it. I was quite surprised by how dark and mature it was, given the audience it is aimed at, and I find something delightfully subversive in that.

This is absolutely nothing like the 90s tv show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, despite their common origins in the world of Archie Comics. The whole approach is rather more horror-inflected than its sitcom predecessor, and it is very dark and very gory, yet the show does have its laughs and never feels heavy. There is a lot of Satanism, witchcraft and demonology in the show, far more than I expected, and it is really quite thrilling to see series protagonists casually say things like “Hail, Satan” in a big-budget, mainstream series aimed at a younger audience.

The writing I think is very good, balancing light and dark pretty well, and I think the cast is excellent. Kiernan Shipka is a decent lead as Sabrina Spellman, half-breed daughter of a warlock and a mortal, playing things competently straight while everyone around her is dancing on the edge of camp, at least as far as Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis as her aunts Zelda and Hilda are concerned, to say nothing of Richard Coyle as Father Faustus Blackwood (that name alone is awesome), the leader of the Church of Shadows, to which the Spellman family is intertwined. Michelle Gomez is also mesmerizing as Mary Wardwell (she has the most incredible eyes and cheekbones). The rest of the supporting cast are all quite interesting and I admire the show for its diversity and progressive attitudes.

I’m only halfway through the first series, so I can’t say how it all pans out, but so far I find it immensely entertaining. I think just about everyone on the cast is compelling in one way or another and I am excited by the unapologetic handling of black magic themes and ideas as well as the feminist thrust to the whole show. Most of all, I love watching the actors maintain that tension between serious and silly that the best kind of fantasy thrives on, in my opinion. I really like this show and I would recommend it.

D&D Grows

This weekend saw the second session of my new D&D campaign and two new players have joined: Natasha (as tiefling warlock Zabrina) and Dusty (as human ranger Seal). That brings the number of players to six, which is close to the maximum I’ve ever had. And more people want to join.

What’s funny is that, for most of my life growing up, D&D was kind of a closeted activity. It certainly wasn’t cool. I struggled to find and have just three players a lot of the time. In high school, things opened up and that was when, for a few sessions, I found myself with seven players. Ever since then I’ve usually had four or five, which is the number I’m most comfortable with simply because it’s a lot faster to go around the table during combat with less players involved. I love having lots of players, the more the merrier, but at a certain point it gets cumbersome.

Now, I have six players, with interest from three more. I’m nervous to add more because everyone is pretty green and it takes a long time getting things done as it is. That will improve, of course, as everyone gets more familiar with the rules, and the fifth edition is the most streamlined version of the game to date. Still, I remember very well how slow-moving my game was with seven players, even though that was 25 years ago.

The other issue with more players is scheduling. Getting everyone together is very hard, no matter the size of the group, but the bigger the crew the more difficult it can be to align everyone. A possible solution would be to run two groups, but even just one is a lot of work. I am seriously considering it, though. I mean, I have plenty of setting developed and ready to go. My obstacle is a self-imposed one: I always want novelty and rarely care to revisit a campaign. Novelty demands a lot more work, though.

When did D&D become such a popular thing?

The Sleep Scale Theory of Film Review

If movies are like dreams, then going to see one is a bit like going to sleep. A good sleep is a refreshing thing that resets your perspectives and makes you feel like you can take on the day. A bad sleep leaves you frustrated and, in my case, very cranky. I think there is a corollary between sleep satisfaction and movie satisfaction that can be expressed on a scale of 1 to 9, given that 9 hours is the ideal amount of sleep and therefore a very good movie is like getting a whopping nine hours of sleep.

Years ago I read a book, The Sleep Thieves, by Stanley Coren where he described an experiment to find out the ideal amount of sleep for a human being in a 24 hour cycle. As I recall, they took a group of subjects to the north pole where the sun never sets and removed all clocks in an attempt to allow for the most natural rhythm to emerge. What they found was that nine hours, not eight, was the actual norm, although it wasn’t always in one big sleep session. Nevertheless, nine hours of sleep sounds magnificently restful, if rare. Not unlike a great movie.

From here on my reviews of movies will be on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being the worst and 9 being the best.

Film Review: A Star Is Born (2018)

Bradley Cooper co-writes and directs the latest in a long line of remakes of the classic tale A Star Is Born, about a big star taking on a fledgling artist who becomes an even bigger star. There’s nothing deeply revealing or original about this movie, but it is exceptionally well cast and I found it very effective.

Bradley Cooper stars (in addition to directing) as Jackson Maine, a boozy, drug-fuelled rock star who stumbles into a drag bar one night in search of a drink only to discover Ally, played by Lady Gaga, who has the most amazing voice he’s ever heard. She lacks self-belief but with his help finds a way to embrace herself and go on to find success as a musician, but at the cost of their relationship. I found the movie to be pretty predictable and superficial but it really worked because of its cast, particularly Lady Gaga who turns out to be a very good actress. The supporting cast is all great too, with Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Elliott among others.

Everyone on screen is very appealing, which helps make the movie work. The songs are good, but I don’t have the best ear for music so that’s as much as I can say about it. One thing I admired about the movie was its way of avoiding cliche, despite the familiarity of the subject matter. As much as I could see the end coming from before the movie even began, I still shed a tear because I was so invested in the characters. This movie is all about casting.

I really like  A Star Is Born and would recommend it. It’s a familiar story given a compelling spin by two very well-cast leads, a perfect example of how important casting is to making a movie work. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it is a very pleasant two-hour entertainment. I liked it a lot.

Harley Quinn #50

Harley Quinn #50

I was delighted with the 50th issue of Harley Quinn, a double-sized issue with a boatload of guest artists working from a script by Sam Humphries. It’s fun, it’s wild and it has an unexpectedly sweet center that made me catch my breath at the end.

The story is a hoot, with Harley being chased by Jonni DC – Continuity Cop for constantly breaking continuity, resulting in chaos everywhere. Meanwhile, Harley is on a quest to find a way to bring her mom back after she turned vanished in a cloud of flower petals.

I loved the irreverent tone of the story, which is a mainstay of the comic in general. I just think it’s funny that Jonni DC – Continuity Cop is even a character but she’s used to great comic effect here. The central event of Harley’s mom disappearing and the subsequent effort to bring her back has a really heart-warming ring to it that ends beautifully, a sweetness that plays well off the comedy all around it.

I also loved the art. I read comics primarily for the art and you get a great variety of visual styles when you have over a dozen artists on the book at the same time. John Timms is the series regular and does the introductory pages, but as Jonni DC pursues our heroine through shifting universes each one gets a distinct spin from the guest artist assigned to those pages. It’s a wild ride and a lot of fun to see the device of multiple artists used so effectively.

Great issue. I loved it so much I bought an extra copy and sent it to my sister.