Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Sorry To Bother You

Usually I approach watching films with as little background knowledge as possible. Sorry To Bother You (2018, Dir. Boots Riley) is not one of those films. I have been a passenger on its hype train since my friend showed me the trailer last year, and I have been waiting with bated breath for it to make its long-awaited, just-about-made-it landing in the UK (distribution is complicated). I still did my best to keep myself in the dark about it, but I have been amped for a long time.

What I  couldn’t expect however,  was how amped Boots Riley would be. Because Sorry To Bother You is a molotov cocktail into your cinematic consciousness.


Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), is a newly employed telemarketer. Poverty, and all its trappings, hang over his world like a gloomy cloud in the sunny sky. But after some tutelage, Cassius uses his “white voice” (overdubbed by David Cross) to climb the corporate ladder, while the socio-economic tensions in his life become amplified by him “selling out”. Cassius’s enemy, the villain which parades through the film is the invisible relationships of capitalism and the pressures it creates and enforces. Friendship, financial stability, self-worth and self-“progress” all become complicated by Cassius’s elevation. And then the rest of the film spirals out, into a whacked-out and cerebral movement through some of current society’s most brutal and bizarre corners. In case I didn’t convey it properly, the film is a lot.

In short, the film has ambitions, and is very clear about you knowing them. Boots Riley wants you to be aware, of the subtext and sub-conscious forces operating in the world around you. The news is not just the news. Blackness is not just blackness. The corporate environment of the highest echelons of our society does not exist in a vacuum, and it does not exist in stasis. Everybody wants things done, from the poorest to the richest. Often their aims conflict, and Riley drops that image in the form of a brutal strike action combatted by anti-riot police, with added extras. The mechanisms of our lives have layers of meaning, and layers of action. Cassius’s “white voice” is a tool which elevates him, not just a fun party trick.  What people present, and how they present it, is an idea which keeps recurring during my watching of the film.

And there are moments where the film goes beyond my understanding. There’s elements of misé-en-scene, of character interactions and scenes which left me a little unsure of what was happening. And I think that’s good, because Riley has purposely presented a world which is dense, complicated, full of ideas bursting and spiralling off from the main plot. Comments on late-stage capitalism, the role of the media, the role of art and performed whiteness and blackness. Riley’s script comes through like an avalanche, ideas and critiques shifting and falling onto even the most politically aware viewers, saturating you with the complicated images of the world. Which is fantastic, because a complicated and unresolved world is the one we live in. To make a satire really function, it has to reflect the world it’s satirising. And for Boots Riley not to capitulate to a sense of order, to keep things purposefully complex, I think is really cool.

More importantly, while Sorry To Bother You may not possess any sense of “classical unity”, it is still a unified film, and it doesn’t forget to be entertaining. Devilishly funny cinematic moments occur, and Cassius’s internal struggle is one which resonates, even if the landscape he navigates is highly surreal and exaggerated. The score by The Tune-Yards and The Coup (Boots Riley’s band), is one which singes the edges of the film with a cool fire, one which feels just as alive and playful as the films ideas. It’s cinematography aswell, shot mostly under the hot Californian sun in Oakland, prevents the film from any sense of gloominess, only fiery anger and fiery hope. I’ve talked more about what telling dark stories in sunlight can do, in Brick (2005, Dir. Rian Johnson), and Riley’s situating of most of the action in the bright sunlight makes everything feel more exposed, the darkness uglier because there’s no shadows to hide it.

The film’s chaos and order is channelled through the performances aswell. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius seems to surf through the world and it’s inhabitants, waves overlapping and washing over him. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is fierce, and her radicalised agenda grates against Cassius’s apathy, but that soon becomes complicated too. Squeeze (Steven Yeun), is less cool but more politically organised, a potential path for Cassius to walk. Langston (Danny Glover) is an elder, a compromised father/elder figure who’s help is double-edged. And Mr Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), does his best to convince you that you’ve got it all wrong. After all, power is rarely won virtuously.

Sorry To Bother You is a lot, I said that earlier. Because it is so conscious, so hyper aware of the interconnectedness and links between an individual and the society they live in, it can be thrown about for hours, for Riley has a lot to say, and even more for you to think about. But in a film where everything is compromised, by insecurity which ranges from personal to moral to worldwide, an aware acknowledgement and genuine wrestling with those insecurities is incredible to watch in a film, especially one that’s got a kerosene kick of style to boot. It’s a radically political film, it’s unashamed of its political leanings in a world which is not politically neutral, it’s a film which will leave you with mixed feelings, a film which pushes you as a viewer. It will not sit easily with everyone, and that’s good.

It’s at once a warning cry, a rallying cry, and a bitter and despondent cry. But most of all its courageous. To make a film like this, takes courage. And to watch a film like this, you get some of the fruits of that courage. So be brave. Track it down.

-Alex

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Sorry To Bother You (2018)

Free Fire: On All Cylinders

free_fire

Ben Wheatley keeps making films that I would like to make. His last outing, High Rise (2015) was an adaptation of JG Ballard’s infamous novella, one which I was morbidly enamored with after reading it and have since harbored a secret wish to adapt it to the screen, if I ever was in a position to do that. Well I can cross that one off, and now Mr. Wheatley has grabbed the crime film by the lapels and thrown it back into the limelight, in this tale of a gun deal gone wrong, taking away another cinematic desire of mine.

To be honest I’d probably be upset if he wasn’t doing it so goddamn well.

Free Fire is a film about scoundrels.  All the insects hiding on the underbelly of society, some prettier than others, some who prefer beard oil, but all of them hiding in the dark surfaces underneath the rocks. It’s characters spill all over each other, violently clashing and warring for their egos, and then for their lives. The whole film becomes something of a Chinese spinning plate act, as characters drag themselves around the floor of this abandoned warehouse, all of them slowly bleeding out from various wounds inflicted by the others (when most of them can’t hit anything anyway because shooting people is much harder than most Hollywood films portray). We bear witness as their chances and efforts to actually get out alive grow slimmer and dimmer, and we instead settle into a kind of cathartic rhythm of watching how they perish, and taking solace, joy, sadness and all the rest in between.

And what a cast of characters who pull themselves through it. Ben Wheatley’s ability to draw out the absurd in all of these performers, in Sharlto Copley’s lovable and irritating weapons dealer, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley staple) deadpan old “Grandpa”, Armie Hammer’s smarmy oil slick demeanour, Sam Riley’s laughable smackhead and the list goes on with each actor involved leaving their mark in a way which makes you remember them. Special attention must be given to Brie Larson (the reasons are obvious once you’ve seen the film) and to Noah Taylor because well I just love Noah Taylor.

Honestly though this whole essay could be devoted to just a discussion on the richness and balletic complexity of the characters and their interplay throughout the film, but that would be doing a great disservice to the other elements at play here. The cinematography of Laurie Rose for example, Wheatley’s long time collaborator, helps to bring such a visceral intensity to the proceedings, as the camera keeps itself in the position of the players, low to the ground and confused. Constantly bouncing back and forth around the factory setting, it helps to set up a constant thread of anticipation and tension as you can never quite work out exactly where everyone is or how close they are to each other.

Not just that, but the colour scheme of the film, both in terms of its lighting and in terms of its costume design is gorgeous, this rich gold permeating throughout (even referenced in terms of “the golden hour and a half”, the time period in which medical treatment will likely prevent your death, which is also conveniently this films running time) while the costumes themselves are drenched in 70s style, open shirts and pastel colours abound. It’s just such a gorgeously designed world,  it’s vibrancy there to be looked at rather than just glazed over.

Obviously with a film so skeletal in comparison with some of its action film counterparts of today, there’s not much room for hiding, and if the film’s pace had slacked in any way, the whole ballet would have crashed to the ground. Thankfully this never occurs, mainly due to a clear script and some great manipulations in the editing and the sound design. In terms of its script (which I’d love to read mainly because the amount of “x shoots at y, y shoots at z, ad infinitum”) it’s a lot of pure cinema, just pure action, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump did a job which he explains in this clip as to how it feels so tight:

As with the editing and sound design, the pace is incredibly well executed, ebbing and flowing not necessarily where you would expect it, but allowing the time for the film to breathe in between its gasping for air shootouts. Really, the editing is the linchpin in a film like this and what a magnificent linchpin it is. Finally the sound design also must be extolled, the gunfire becoming this great cacophony of explosive echoes which are at points near deafening, only punctuated by elements of freeform jazz and a great use of John Denver.

Free Fire is not the most important film ever made, and that’s good because it’s not trying to be. All its trying to be is a good, well crafted film. It’s a film which you can really get lost in, because there’s nothing really outside of its own internal world. And it’s a film which owes its inspirations to other films, from silent cinema to the gangster flicks it evokes. I just think its great cinema, and beyond that, that’s not for me to say.

-Alex

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Free Fire: On All Cylinders