Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)


Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Release Date: January 24, 1940
Director: John Ford
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school and liked it so much that even though we hadn’t finished reading it for class by the end of the school year, I finished the book on my own during the summer. This is the opposite of the more typical situation where I was supposed to finish the book for class but never did (I’m looking at you Charles Dickens’ Hard Times). I also watched the movie around the same time and remember a) stunned by seeing Henry Fonda look so young and b) feeling a little disappointed that so much had changed from the book.

With years removed from reading the book and a greater acceptance of how adaptations work, I found myself totally enthralled by the movie on this viewing. Fonda plays Tom Joad, a volatile young man paroled from prison after serving for homicide, who returns to his family home in Oklahoma to find no one there.  Meeting up with the lapsed preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), he eventually catches up with his family as they plan to head to California to escape the Dust Bowl and foreclosure by the bank.  The film tracks their journey west and efforts to find work and hold the family together in California.

Director John Ford and Producer Darryl F. Zanuck were known for their conservatism, but nevertheless offer an honest depiction of the capitalist exploitation and abuse of migrant workers at agricultural camp, the use of police to repress labor organizing, and that the camp run by the Federal government is the one that respects the rights and dignity of the workers.  Interestingly enough, I learned that the Weedpatch camp depicted in the film was not only a real place but it is still serving migrant laborers to this day.  While the film depicts the suffering and discrimination endured by “Okies” trying to survive it also includes moments of compassion and ends on an inspiring note.

As I noted, there are major differences between the book in the film. The book intertwines the main narrative of the Joad family with short stories about other peoples’ experiences in the Dust Bowl and migration.  The “truck drivers” scene in the film actually happens to another family in one of the short stories in the book, for example.  The book also includes much more detail about all the Joad family members and their fellow travelers, where as the film focuses in on Tom, Casy, and Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) as the main characters.  Finally, the end of the book depicts a remarkable act of compassion by Rose of Sharon (played by Dorris Bowdon in the film) that nonetheless was something that couldn’t be portrayed on film in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath is an important book and an important film and they feel more relevant now than it did to me 30 years ago. The crises on the U.S.-Mexico border have lead to untold suffering for migrant workers coming into the country from abroad. Nomadland shows us that there are also American-born migrant workers struggling to make ends meet.  And while Nomadland is criticized for not being as political as The Grapes of Wrath, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the exploitation and abuse suffered by the laborers in the peach camp is similar to what order pickers endure today in an Amazon distribution center.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Palm Springs (2020)


TitlePalm Springs
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Director: Max Barbakow
Production Company: Limelight Productions | Lonely Island Classics | Sun Entertainment | FilmNation Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Let’s get the obvious out of the way:  Palm Springs follows the same basic premise of Groundhog Day where someone is living the same day over and over again on a seemingly infinite time loop. There are some key differences. When the film begins, Nyles (Andy Samberg) is already caught in a time loop attending a wedding in which his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) is the bridesmaid.  He accidentally pulls a second person into the the loop with him, sister of the bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti).  And the movie has more elements of gross-out and sex comedy than Groundhog Day.

It’s an interesting reworking of a formula, and leads to a perfectly enjoyable romantic comedy.  Nyles and Sarah are initially contentious but grow closer after who knows how many thousands of repeats.  It’s a fun lark, but it’s not likely something I’ll return to.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Mank (2020)


TitleMank
Release Date:November 13, 2020
Director: David Fincher
Production Company:
Netflix International Pictures | Flying Studio | Panic Pictures | Blue Light
Summary/Review:

This biographical drama tells the story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a talented screenwriter hired to write the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles sets up Mank in a remote desert rental house so he can write the screenplay while recovering from injuries from a car crash, with the ulterior motive of keeping the alcoholic Mank away from the drink. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) serves as Mank’s secretary and confidante while John Houseman (Sam Troughton) checks in and frets over Mank’s progress.

The main story alternates with flashbacks to Mank’s memories from the previous decade.  In one storyline he befriends the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and is drawn in the world of her powerful partner William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Another plot focuses on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign in which Hearst and the Hollywood moguls create propaganda films to smear the social democrat candidate Upton Sinclair.  Mank’s sympathies toward Sinclair puts him at odds with his wealth friends and his Hollywood bosses.

Since Citizen Kane is a satirical attack on Hearst, the conflict in this film is whether Mank should use his personal relationship to inform his writing of the screenplay.  Davies, as portrayed by Seyfried, is sweet, down to earth, and genuinely a friend to Mank, so his work could be seen as a betrayal.  But Mank also has good reasons to continue with the screenplay that will become his best work.

I don’t know how much of this film is “true to life,” although I expect that much of it is embellished. As much as I enjoyed the 62-year-old Oldman’s performance, I think it should be noted that Mank was in his 30s & early 40s when this film take place and actually a year younger than Davies.  I think those casting decisions in historical dramas can really affect our understanding of real life people.  Ultimately the historical accuracy takes a backseat to a personal story of Hollywood politics and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal beliefs.  It’s full of lots of Easter eggs if you know anything about Hollywood history, and is filmed in a style that is a homage to Citizen Kane.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Greed (1924)


Title: Greed
Release Date: December 4, 1924
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I came to this film reluctantly because in college I read the awful book it’s based on, McTeague, about a horrible dentist who abuses his wife. The novel’s author, Frank Norris, practiced scientific racism and the fictional work is supposed to be his expose of the inferiority of the working class, immigrants, Jewish people, et al. So, you know this is going to be a fun movie!

In a sense, the movie is better than the book, especially since director Erich von Stroheim removed the prejudicial undertones. Gibson Gowland plays the irascible John McTeague, a dentist in San Francisco. His friendship with Marcus Schoule (Jean Hersholt) deteriorates when he marries Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts, one of the great names in Hollywood history), whom they both courted. McTeagues marriage swiftly falls apart, partly dur to Trina clinging to $5000 she won in a lottery even as the couple fall into destitution.

Von Stroheim largely filmed on location which means you get a lot of cool glimpses of San Francisco from a century ago. The final scenes were filmed on location in Death Valley under brutal conditions for the actors and crew. Still, the final shot is about as iconic as they come in film history. Von Stroheim also used tinting to add a golden glow to the objects of desire that the characters lust after. The movie is melodramatic and the characters are more types than realized people. Overall, this is another film that I’m glad to have watched from a film history perspective, but not one that I would otherwise have enjoyed.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean


Author: Susan Orlean
Title: The Library Book
Narrator: Susan Orlean
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:
Susan Orlean’s excellent work of narrative nonfiction focuses on the Los Angeles Central Library, particularly on the April 29, 1986 fire that severely damaged the building. Orlean examines the history and aftermath of the fire and reconstruction through interviews of past and current library employees and an examination of the library’s history to its origins over a century ago. The book also tells the story of Harry Peak, a young aspiring actor and attention seeker who became a leading arson suspect. The cause of the fire remains unsolved to this day.

I actually visited the Los Angeles Central Library on my visit to Southern California in 2007, and I’ve included a couple of photos below.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)


Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360
Summary/Review:

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **

Movie Reviews: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Title: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Release Date: June 11, 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Universal Studios | Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

E.T. was a huge monster hit right at the time when I was the target demographic for this story of an alien botanist stranded on earth and his friendship with a young boy.  And I didn’t really like it.  Watching this movie again for the first time in decades, I found myself far more moved by it than I did when I was 8.

I do remember seeing this in the theater with my family and my sister and I were allowed to go up to the balcony on our own.  Except that I found the movie too scary and forced my sister to go back downstairs to sit with our parents.  Well, it turns out, the first 20 minutes or so of this movie are pretty creepy from John Williams’ music to the slasher film perspective of E.T. running through the woods.  Later in the movie, when a bleached-out E.T. is discovered in a ravine and then the government agents invade the house are also creepy and scary moments.

Of course, the whole movie isn’t creepy.  It’s actually very sweet and a remarkably well-written (by screen written Melissa Mathison) story that balances the humor, drama, and pathos of a realistic childhood friendship (in a Sci-Fi setting, of course). It helps that the movie stars some terrific child actors in Henry Thomas as Elliot and Drew Barrymore as his little sister Gertie. All in all, this movie is much better than I remembered although it does tend to get overly manipulative of the emotions towards the end.  While I wouldn’t put it on my favorite movies of all time list, it is definitely worth watching.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Title: The Age of Miracles
Narrator: Emily Janice Card
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012)
Summary/Review:

This novel offers a speculative account of the crisis that occurs when the rotation of the Earth slows, lengthening the periods of daylight and nighttime.  This incident is referred to by the characters in the book as The Slowing, and it has the effect of causing birds to die off, an increase of solar radiation, a complete inability to grow traditional crops, and even causing some people to contract an illness.

While the premise is fantastical, the way the fictional American society responds to the crisis is realistic.  The US government determines that the country will continue to follow the 24-hour clock regardless of what time the sun is shining or not.  Some people rebel against this, insisting on living on “real time,” even going so far as forming their own separatist communities.

The narrator/protagonist of the novel is a junior high school girl from suburban San Diego named Julia.  From her perspective we see the dissolution of the social order among her family, friends, and school.  Any attempts to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence are overshadowed by the crisis that prevents any sense of predictability in the world. Julia narrates from an uncertain future while the narrative focuses on the first few months of the slowing as Julia faces changing friendships and an emerging relationship with a long-time crush.

This novel is dark and emotional and all too real to be reading at this time.

Recommended books:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Rating: ***