Monday, August 13, 2018

Indie Movie Round-up #1 – Sorry To Bother You, Eighth Grade

Discouraged by an endless wave of sequels, the Author seeks refuge in the Sundance Sacred Cow Class of 2018, and explains why they are actually not so good.

Kids are out of school, it’s too hot to go outside, and Hollywood still can’t find new ways to drive people to the AC-pumping multiplex. The well of original ideas is running increasingly dry in Western studio film production, as evidenced by a seemingly unprecedented deluge of summer sequels: Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man 2, Avengers 3, Jurassic World 2, Mamma Mia 2, Equalizer 2, Unfriended 2, Ocean’s Eleven 4, The Purge 4, Hotel Transylvania 3, and more. As a critic, I have begrudgingly kept up with many of these, though most of them save for Jurassic World weren’t worth thinking, talking, or writing about after I’d vacated the parking lot.

Keeping this stagnancy in mind, which will only fester now that Disney-Fox is projected to control 40% of all ticket sales, I’m looking to the festival circuit for more stimulating entertainment. Some of the movies featured in this series will be good, and others very not-good, but I hope that even the not-good ones will provide ample fodder for discussion.

... Apology not accepted.

In the weeks leading up to it, Sorry to Bother You was being pegged as this year’s successor to Get Out. If, by those comparisons, critics meant to call it out as an overrated, trendy genre film by a first-time director who isn’t as smart as he thinks, then they may have pinned the tail on the ass, so to speak. Whereas Get Out was functional as a horror thriller, though, Sorry to Bother You is only a nuisance, completely inept at conveying its communist message in a manner persuasive to blue-collar Trump supporters.

Cassius Green is an unemployed guy squatting in his uncle’s garage and perpetually deferring his rent. I refer to Cassius so vaguely because he doesn’t have much of a background or character, which is a pretty impressive feat for a nearly two-hour film crammed with archetypes. Before we even get a firm sense of his status quo—usually the first step in a story diagram—Cassius lands a sales job at a telemarketing firm called Regalview, where a profane and world-wise Danny Glover counsels him to use his “white voice” for better results.

The premise that speaking in a certain dialect and tenor (dubbed here by useful white leftists David Cross and Patton Oswalt) can make consumers more amenable to unsolicited marketing is ridiculous on its face, but the satirical dressings of the film can theoretically excuse its cartoonish racial depictions. Less excusable is the lack of any unifying focus in the script. Despite having Get Out’s Jordan Peele in the producer’s chair, Sorry to Bother You is not fundamentally about racial inequity, and the white voice gag seems designed as both red herring and time-filler.

Director Boots Riley, of the hip-hop trio The Coup, has his sights set firmly on capitalism, and in this jab at criticism we see the full extent of his ideological stupor. After exercising his “white voice”, Cassius gets promoted to the position of power caller, thereby alienating the malcontented workers at Regalview who have been conspiring to unionize for higher pay. The film’s dramatic arc is based on the premise that Cassius is betraying his roots and proverbially selling his soul in the act of pursuing a more profitable career. His friends and colleagues affectionately call him “Cash” for short, lest the downward spiral of “Cashius Green” be lost on us. This premise rings false for the simple reason that Cassius has no discernible roots, nor any reason to flagellate himself out of fealty to those who have no motivation to move up the corporate ladder. The script essentially stoops to chastising its protagonist for attempting to better his lot responsibly, to pay his rent through means both legal and ethical. Social justice trumps self-advancement, and lobbying for an inflated minimum wage is nobler than seeking a job that requires more than some high-school education.

Cassius is dating a modernist artist by the name of Detroit, who is fully committed to the union movement, wears edgy feminist clothing, and obviously serves as a foil to her boyfriend. She’s also played by Tessa Thompson of Thor: Ragnarok and Dear White People, which means that try as it might, Sorry to Bother You cannot claim the infamy of being the worst film I’ve seen all year. Somewhere within the last 40 minutes, it’s revealed that another corporation, WorryFree, which mirrors Google in its paternalistic ownership of employees, has been turning people into human-horse hybrids for cheap manual labor. Anticipating a backlash by his mutant slave army, the CEO of WorryFree proposes a 7-digit sum to Cassius in exchange for him temporarily masquerading as a puppet advocate for the equesapiens.

The blatant takeaway of this plot twist is that capitalism figuratively strips workers of their humanity, reducing them to beasts of burden and raping them. In case the audience is too daft to pick up on his hilarious pun, Riley includes a scene of two people interpreting a lewd sculpture of a WorryFree executive and a horse-person. “I think the artist meant that WorryFree is literally dehumanizing people,” says Detroit. “And literally f___ing them?” rejoins the other bystander. America, I hope you’re taking notes on this important and timely statement.

Cassius exposes CEO Armie Hammer as a mad and cruel scientist on popular TV, which promptly leads to the businessman being praised by the president of the United States and exalted as the reincarnation of Jesus. Having lost any hope for recompense from the republican, legislative process, the equesapiens embrace violent revolution as their sole recourse and start wreaking havoc in the streets. The films ends with Cassius acknowledging the selfish error of his ways, saying something to the effect of, “Now that the Regalview callers have unionized, maybe we’ll start to see some positive change. I should have stuck with you guys all along.” Then he turns into a horse-man and barges through the door of Hammer’s house. I rest my case that this is a movie made for idiots.

Old (Brazil) vs. new. Who wore it better?

Riley’s debut has been marketed as an energetic “surrealist” social commentary, in the vein of Repo Man, Brazil, or maybe Joe Versus the Volcano. Unlike those Criterion-certified classics and certain others, Sorry to Bother You gives no incentive for repeat viewings, since every aspect of its world is sharply presented in the foreground. Much of the movie is shot in generic indie shallow focus, drawing one’s eyes to the actors and regrettably obscuring their surroundings. Whereas a Terry Gilliam film invites careful inspection because of his wide-angle lenses and immaculate set design, Riley takes viewers on a programmatic tour of a near-dystopian Oakland, stopping to point out every oh-so-clever detail he imagined. I couldn’t rattle off from memory all the earrings that Tessa Thompson sports, or all the variations of the photo in Cash’s bedroom, but I wouldn’t be surprised by any of them the second time around. Sorry to Bother You mistakenly evokes The Lego Movie through a vulgar reality TV show that bears an insipid similarity to “Where Are My Pants?” One of the best satires of the decade, The Lego Movie manages to delight and grow on me every time by virtue of its manifold background details, which are merely seasoning on its funny and thoughtful story. Having sat through its third act twice now for research, I’d be lying to say the same about Sorry to Bother You.

To his credit, Armie Hammer tries his hardest to save the affair, giving his only great performance since The Social Network. Most of the actors are working in a grounded and natural register, reacting too incredulously to their world’s chaos, but Hammer seems to grasp the absurdity of the movie and takes his zealous, materialist villain appropriately over-the-top. In a boldly emasculating role, David Cross also dredges up cheap laughs as Cassius’ white voice, although I reiterate that the white voice could be removed wholesale without compromising the narrative. The musical score is never boring, dabbling in many genres and calling to mind older sci-fi pictures. Movies and music are different media, however, and the latter is but a tool to straighten out the essential form of the former. If I wanted nothing more than to hear some great music, I would just go listen to Year of the Snitch again.

Where Sorry to Bother You completely, irreparably lost me was a noxiously quirky stop-motion sequence credited in the film to a certain Michel Dongry. Any kino fans worth their salt would recognize this as a cheeky nod to the French surrealist director Michel Gondry, most well-known for the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a bunch of Björk music videos. Some people would undoubtedly praise this scene as a clever admission of and homage to Boots Riley’s artistic influences. I took it as a confession that he was wasting my time, which would be far better spent watching Michel Gondry or girding the capitalist system that made his facile message movie possible. It’s never too late to learn Mandarin, Boots. I hear that China has a thriving film industry built on freedom of expression.

Eighth-Grade Reading Level

Perhaps the most aggressively-pushed and Sundance-y movie to come out of Sundance this year, Eighth Grade is being hailed right and left as a small miracle of vicarious expression. Young cinephiles everywhere are wrestling with a conundrum, which goes something like, “How does a 28-year-old white male comedian who started out on Youtube understand so lucidly the ordeals of an awkward, reserved middle-schooler who happens to be the opposite sex?” The movie poster seems to capitalize on this perplexing contradiction by citing the always reliable pull-quote dispenser Indiewire, whose critic praised the movie as “so rooted in the feminist adolescent experience that it often feels as if Bo Burnham cracked open a whole mess of girls’ diaries to pen it”.

To be fair, I also might have wrestled with this question, assuming I’d never picked up a book by Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Pearl Buck, or even J.K. Rowling. At the same time, it shouldn’t surprise us that identity politics go hand in hand with diminished expectations. When “You can’t say that, only we can say that,” becomes the mantra of a stultified society beholden to Cultural Appropriation, the universal praise heaped upon Eighth Grade is a wholly predictable byproduct. “The fact that so-and-so managed to tell such an authentic story about X minority besides himself honestly blew me away,” remarks some L.A. cineaste who is paid much more than I. “This film is an instant masterpiece.”

Is it embarrassing to the state of American culture that writing a protagonist of a marginally different background than the author is taken as a symbol of genius? Probably so, but I’m not buying the marketing narrative that Kayla was a giant leap outside of Burnham’s comfort zone. Centered on a shy and web-savvy teenager who makes simple, unedited vlogs in her bedroom, Eighth Grade is hard to interpret as anything other than a thoroughly autobiographical film, laced with many updated memes and cultural references to misdirect the unwary viewer. Watching this in a packed theater on opening night lent an aspect that I wouldn’t trade for the privacy of my home. Lurking close behind me, a group of guys would whoop and laugh uproariously at every youthful idiom or piece of iconography: when Kayla signed off with a chipper “Gucci,” when the sex ed teacher said, “It’s gonna be lit,” and especially when the other staff member did a dab. Sitting on my other side, another spectator would add to the Regal ambience by firing off urgent texts at five-minute intervals. As if the 4K digital projection wasn’t already crisp enough, the glare of her iPhone in the darkened theater added a semblance of augmented reality to Burnham’s pressing techno-nightmare.

Eighth Grade was bought by the indie darling distributor A24, which has made a philosophy of taking generic tropes and formulae and smugly doing the opposite of them. This creative strategy, which itself passes over into formula with time, has resulted in widespread, unquestioning accolades for the company’s works, but tends to divide commoners suckered in by high Rotten Tomatoes scores. Look no further than A24’s horror offerings for a microcosm of the company’s reactionary approach to storytelling. It Comes At Night and Hereditary were championed by critics and the casual arthouse crowd for going so against the grain of “cheap scares” or “gore-fests”, but being artistically contrarian wasn’t enough to thrill general audiences or hardcore horror fans, who loathed and maligned such films.

Going into Eighth Grade, I expected certain rules to be broken, surprises to be sprung. Why else would the elites of A24 take it under their wing? Imagine my surprise when the actual film played out exactly the way that I predicted, over and over again. Alack and alas, I would go so far as to call it the most clichéd young-adult movie of the last couple years, in a genre that’s already steeped in clichés and platitudes.

All of Kayla’s peers see her as a quiet and insecure teenager, but her opening webcam monologue assures us otherwise. In reality, she’s just saving her words for the right people… cue a lesson in how to recognize your real friends from fake ones! Despite her warped perception of herself, Kayla reluctantly receives the Most Quiet student award, setting her on a path of glum introspection (and extrospection) compounded by a pool party for the popular Kennedy, appropriately dubbed the recipient of the Best Eyes award. In older movies, Kennedy might have filled a Mean Girl mold, but in Eighth Grade she doesn’t get to exchange more than a word with the hero, despite being the closest person to an antagonist. Nay, she hardly gets to speak a word at all, since the entirety of her character can be reduced to the evil hot girl who is too absorbed in her phone. At least Regina George got a personality. To point to Mean Girls as a great film or even a good one would be a nostalgic misstep, but Burnham inadvertently reminds us just how far YA movies have fallen with the advent of universal cell phone ownership.

At the pool party we get snapshots of two other characters who will add to the omelet of clichés: the confidently detached, profane Aiden and the nerdy, bespectacled misfit Gabe. The former character’s first appearances are humorously paired with throbbing EDM and slow-motion, accentuating the disconnect between Kayla’s infatuation and the older audience’s awareness that Aiden is a 14-year-old dweeb. Most of the funniest scenes can be credited to either of these young actors, though that doesn’t excuse their thoroughly exhausted roles. From the moment the Nerd pops up from underwater wearing oversized goggles, any seasoned coming-of-age viewer will be hard-pressed to miss that he’s the True Friend, and that Kayla will ultimately discard her bad boyfriend for the less popular, less cute guy.

I couldn't fit this tidbit anywhere else in the review, but Eighth Grade would have the best use of an Enya song if not for L.A. Story and Fellowship of the Ring.

From recognizing bad influences to gaining respect for a downtrodden father figure, Eighth Grade follows convention to a T, only daring to break away in its relative lack of conflict. Kayla lives in extraordinary privilege and doesn’t have to grapple with much of anything, aside from standard boy problems and worries about sexual competence, which Burnham presents in a disturbingly forthright manner given Pedowood’s ongoing PR crisis—although let’s be honest, we all stopped paying attention to #MeToo about 10 months ago. While the movie could choose to explore the dynamics of a single-parent household, it never treats the absence of Kayla’s mother as a difficulty, relegating her to the perimeter of the film and passing most maternal qualities onto her father. Mark embodies a liberal’s idealized modern man: soft-tongued, sensitive, and supportive of his daughter no matter how impertinent and testy she can be. He never loses his temper, never raises his voice, never admonishes, and that makes for extremely cinematic drama! File this movie in the same critically-acclaimed cabinet as Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, which also featured the Progressive and Accepting Dad trope. If anything, the purity of Kayla’s father gives us license to loathe the main character, a bratty teenager who’s more attached to her screen than to the real people in her life. “You said on Saturdays I could do what I wanted,” she shouts at the dinner table, “And right now I want to look at my phone!” Charming.

Burnham constructs the film on such wooden stakes that the ending scenes undermine his itinerant, pseudo-realist Sundance foundation. When Kayla finally stands up to the evil hot girl Kennedy and scolds her for “trying to look cool all the time”, the impact of her courage is lost on us, not least because our protagonist spends about the same proportion of film time playing on her cell phone as our antagonist. Why does a film like this need to have villains, much less a triumphant arc in which a good guy lectures the bad guy about her moral superiority? If Burnham truly aspired to break new ground, then he would eschew such reductive character types altogether, but he’s too dedicated to plucking the essence of middle-school from his memory, withholding none of the angst or petty jealousy.

In fact, resolving for comprehensiveness in 90 minutes or less does more to handicap Eighth Grade than prop it up. Sparing even a minute of scrutiny to the sequence of events will cause the timeline to implode. Ostensibly the film takes place during Kayla’s final week of schooling, so one would expect the kids to be mired in final exams or panicking over them. On the contrary, though, most of the brief glimpses of class life suggest an academic year that is merely beginning. Hinting that the Parkland school shooting was a theatrical drill months before its two seconds of fame is certainly a bold artistic stroke by Burnham, but what does such a drill accomplish within the world of Eighth Grade, being staged two days before many of the kids transfer to a different institution that will necessitate a different drill? Kayla’s behavior is also irrational for someone on the cusp of high-school, as she desperately scrambles to expand her social circle two days before graduating.

This is the type of screenplay that will win over some for its “honesty” and “accuracy” and irritate others for those same reasons. In writing workshops, authors who are penning child characters will hear that they must forcefully strip away their pretenses and sophistication to sound more authentic. Bo Burnham appears to have taken this advice and executed it to the detriment of his final film. The dialogues in Eighth Grade form a knotty web of self-deprecating babble, sycophantic compliments, and monosyllabic words that don’t mean anything. Wouldn’t it behoove a girl interested in podcasting to find a more precise way of communicating her thoughts than “cool”, “awesome”, “weird”, “amazing”, or “dumb”? I’m not asking for these American teens to start spewing Aaron Sorkin speeches, or even to cut back on their ums, likes, and youknows, but I doubt it would lessen the film if the characters didn’t all express themselves the same way.

Aside from their obvious linguistic monotony, Burnham’s scenarios also tend to bore in their subject matter. Most of the conversations never amount to being about anything concrete, hence regressing into circular admiration and encouragement. With the exception of one late reference to Rick & Morty, the characters seem to inhabit a political, social, and cultural vacuum, to the effect that any dialogue must revolve around their perception of each other and themselves. This pattern is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, so I will just say that the scenes documented herein are #notmyeighthgrade. As a 13-year-old, homeschooled grammar Nazi, I not only imagined myself to be the most intelligent person alive but wanted to prove as much to everybody else, dropping the most flowery words I knew and seldom foregoing a chance to argue about politics, books, or film. Even my friends who peppered their speech with superfluous “likes” took a keen interest in weighty classics, e.g. the Divine Comedy, or at least in Christopher Nolan movies that fused action entertainment with entry-level philosophical themes. Perhaps I’m inclined to reject the vacuity of Burnham’s dialogue for exposing just how unrepresentative my upbringing was, but I don’t think he does justice to the pretentiousness of eighth-graders.

One of the most definitive motifs in Eighth Grade—that of endless, passive scrolling through selfies, gifs, and homogenized corporate entertainment—doubles as a perfect analogue for the experience of watching it. Like an adorable cat video, a reaction clip from The Office, or a stale Spongebob meme, the film offers nothing but a procession of things we’ve seen a hundred times before, and in a way that’s comforting. Eighth Grade doesn’t aim to challenge or upend anyone’s worldview, and so it is compulsively watchable and shareable. Whether you’ll want to hit that subscribe button and come back for more... well, that is a different question.

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