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)

Mother!

Mother!

Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) is a film which as that exclamation mark in its name suggests, is not for the fainthearted. It has quickly become one of the most controversial pictures of the year, with many critics and audience members being torn over what to think about it. When I had first came out of the screening I was in the same boat, baffled at what I had just seen. One thing I knew for certain was  that it’s an experience that will need a strong constitution to take. This of course shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Aronofsky’s past work, he is not exactly a comedic romp kind of guy. As he has shown in his past work, he really does not have any fear in delving into darkly twisted moments of depravity and horror. He sits in the same box as Lars Von Trier in my mind as an individual enfant terrible kind of figure, railing against sense and decency with an admirable verve. Unfortunately for many of Mother!’s paying audience they did not quite get the memo on Aronofsky’s style and it feels like he really has pushed this boat to its limits for many people.

The storyline of the film really comes as secondary to the experience of watching the film, the second half especially almost defies any kind of pithy explanation. Ostensibly the film is about an evening that goes awry for a poet and his wife when a doctor turns up out of nowhere, forcing himself on the couple. He is then followed by his wife and as time goes on more and more people turn up, much to the husband’s amusement and his wife’s alarm. The husband here is played with an eerie level of glee by an electrifying Javier Bardem who is a both charismatic and crazed character the role of ‘Him’ (as he is credited). ‘Him’ is a poet, a title that as the world starts to crumble around Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘Mother’ comes to mean a lot more than first thought. Bardem is surely one of the best psycho actors working today, the way he can portray a crazed and unpredictable temperament at times come startlingly close to a Kinski level of crazy. In many other films his performance here would seem ridiculously overblown and scenery chewing… However this being one of the most ridiculous films in so many years he fits right in.

Bardem however only remains so effective due to the at times subdued but at all times masterful performance by Jennifer Lawrence in one of the most unique roles that she has surely ever attempted. The film is from her viewpoint for almost its entire runtime and Aronofsky has used her in such a way that he really has no choice as an actor but to push herself to her limits. ‘Mother’ is not an easy role for her to undertake, she is so often a reactive figure in the plot, not really contributing to the overall path of the story and instead having to play off of, whereas the other characters force the plot. However the focusing on Lawrence for so much of the film means that Lawrence has to do a lot of the legwork in keeping the audience grounded to a sense of place and viewpoint. She is often not saying or influencing much but Lawrence always hold the attention of the camera in her grip and never lets your attention stray from the screen. In such a melodramatic and attention grabbing film as this Lawrence is the lynchpin that without her, the film would fall apart.

The film is centred around these two main roles and does give these characters a lot to do, however Aronofsky’s figure looms large in this film and it is clear that he is the real star of the film. Mother! is so dense with little details and clues as to what is actually going on, every moment is significant to him, it’s clear to see. He wants to baffle and astound you and leave you naked to the possibilities of the film. I am trying here to be as vague as possible to the actual events of the film because I feel that if you are interested in seeing the film it is probably best to know as little as possible about it beforehand.

As I noted earlier though, there are probably some caveats to this you should take into account before seeing it. I would say that to actually enjoy the film you do have to surrender to its surrealist, allegorical viewpoint, just let yourself go along for the ride and make sure you have a stomach for some darkness before going in. For me the coiled spring at the heart of the narrative just tightened and tightened to an almost unbearable level, this is not to say I regretted seeing it . It was an experience akin to being on a truly terrifying rollercoaster where you may want to get off, but you can’t because you are strapped in for the ride whether you like it or not.

Mother! is at times beautiful, at times horrific and at times willingly ludicrous. I never found myself bored or found my attention straying from the events on-screen and as I get further and further away from my initial viewing I have certain images from it that will stay in my mind long after this review is published. It’s an impressively daring piece of work by a divisive filmmaker, which is worth seeing if you know you can take it. If  however you just like Jennifer Lawrence and home invasion films I would say, this is not the film for you.

-Ed

Mother!