Film Critic Calum Cooper is in London for the 62nd London Film Festival, where he will be bringing in a series of reviews. This time, a surrealist dark comedy from Boots Reilly, a documentary on Orson Welles, Jia Zhang-ke’s latest feature, and the directorial debut for Paul Dano.
Sorry to Bother You – ★★★★☆
I’d heard good things about Boots Reilly’s directorial debut, so I queued up and eagerly took my seat for Sorry to Bother You, my eyes locked and my notepad at the ready. The very first thing I wrote were the words “what the fuck?”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected anything less. It is an absurdist satire after all. Yet, I was ill prepared for just how bonkers the movie ended up being. It’s a rollercoaster of absolute madness, its quick fire dialogue and snarky presentation melding into its stark attitude towards its themes. Gratefully, its surrealism is matched and surpassed only by its intelligent style and concept.
According to Reilly himself, the film is meant to be an affront to capitalism. It’s hard to argue with that since the main character is named Cassius Green, nicknamed Cash. Set in an alternative present where companies hold governmental style powers, Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job as a telemarketer from one of these companies, RegalView. With his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), he joins a radical group that protests the practices of these companies. Meanwhile, Cash begins to move up the ranks by making sales using his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross). The further up the ladder of success he climbs, the more he unearths a larger conspiracy that puts the workforce in jeopardy.
At the heart of its story is a question that many would struggle to answer: Would you sacrifice your morals for more money and thus an easier life? It’s a question Cash must deal with, as his all too good white voice eventually lands him in a position of power that grants him a financial surplus. But to achieve it, he must leave behind his friends who protest the actions of his company, who utilise slave labour in all but name.
It’s a rollercoaster of absolute madness, its quick fire dialogue and snarky presentation melding into its stark attitude towards its themes.
Reilly uses this to brutally criticise capitalism, as well as its hierarchal structure, presented through the clever double meaning behind the title. However, he takes his ideas to the utmost extreme, which is where the film’s underlying insanity starts to take form through bizarre visuals and inventive set pieces. I do not dare ruin what the company conspiracy is. It’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.
In fact, that description could be applied to the entire film. It thrives most when it’s clearly giving a middle finger to capitalism. But, like all the best satires, even if you don’t know what’s being referenced it still works as its own contained piece of imagination. The concept is brilliant and the characters, both benign and despicable, are a lot of fun to be around. The colour palette is lustrous, the dialogue is enthusiastically snappy, and the comedy is consistently effective.
Simply put, Sorry to Bother You is a terrific addition to this year’s line-up of cinema. You may agree with its satirical criticisms, or you may think it’s a bunch of tosh. However, I hope audiences across the spectrum come together to appreciate it for its creative strangeness.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – ★★★☆☆
Before the dawn of the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars, there was Orson Welles, a man still considered to be among history’s greatest filmmakers. However, he was also a stubborn perfectionist, which meant that many of his films were never finished or released. Morgan Neville looks into the production of Welles’ final, unfinished, movie, The Other Side of the Wind, which is to be released on Netflix next month after forty years.
Filmed and structured in a way not too dissimilar to Welles’ own Citizen Kane, several cast members and family of deceased crew members that worked on the film are interviewed. Each detail their experiences on the infamous film, and with Welles himself. Much like Charles Foster Kane, we start to create a mental picture of what Welles was like as a person via various different perspectives.
The film’s editing is its greatest asset. It was clearly woven together with a lot of wit and good humour. Welles’ aim with his last film was to tell the story of an ageing director and his previous success being overshadowed by the younger generation (which he claims several times is not about him despite the obvious parallels). It was meant to be told in a dual narrative, the film flip flopping between the director’s life and his last project. Neville adopts this style for himself, often going back and forth between interviewees talking about what Welles was like, and scenes from the film. To fill in the gaps, clips from other movies are utilised in a creatively fun way. Most come from Welles’ other films, but it would also use unrelated films too, such as a clip of the Death Star blowing up to highlight irreversible damage.
Combine this with insightful interviews and joyful narration from Alan Cumming, and we get quite the look into Welles’ psyche, turning the documentary from light-hearted to somewhat tragic. Once again similar to Citizen Kane, we see Welles’ career go through peaks and valleys, and how his emotional state always fluctuated. The title itself references a quote Welles once said about Hollywood executives when they wouldn’t fund his latest projects, and it’s easy to see why he thought such a way. The film’s best shot involves Welles sitting on a bench, with us viewing from a distance, as life goes on around him but he remains the same. It’s a great visual representation of the film’s ultimate goals, to capture how lonely the life of a great artist can be.
A downside is that hard-core Welles fans will likely already know a lot of the information shared concerning his inspirations and personal life. Plus, its attempts to juggle so many different viewpoints means that some examined relationships feel left behind or underdeveloped. Nevertheless, it’s a stylish addition to the festival. It’s funny, it’s well-paced, and it’s smartly conceived.
Ash is Purest White – ★★★☆☆
Ash is Purest White has an interesting setup and compelling ideas. It doesn’t always convey them in the most engaging of ways, but its astute belief in what it’s trying to say is what ultimately makes it worthy of recognition and viewership.
Qiao (Zhao Tao) is the accomplice to a rising gangster in a depressed Chinese mining town. This gangster, Bin (Liao Fan), is brutish but well-meaning, eventually achieving leadership status in their criminal brotherhood, the “Jianghu.” When Bin is attacked by rival mobsters, Qiao takes action, in a move that drastically alters their lives, one that sees Qiao roaming across China looking for Bin as well as answers to her own inner questions.
A gruelling sense of atmosphere permeates the entire film. From the hectic opening scenes of Qiao and Bin in their newfound gangster environment to the tranquil, sombre moments of Qiao exploring new Chinese lands, a forlorn feeling spreads across the screen in spite of Qiao’s unrelenting devotion to Bin and her journey. It sinks into the film’s beautiful cinematography and hides behind the characters’ most personal of conversations and revelations, the usage of a boxed in aspect ratio and long shots with few cuts making its presence all the more apparent.
Bearing the brunt of this atmosphere is Qiao, a fascinating character played masterfully by Zhao Tao. She steals every scene she’s in, charging forward and asserting dominance even in the most visceral of intense scenes. Her unwavering determination to seek out the root of her confusion and feeling of being lost is easy to get on board with. Watching her scam her way towards information and eliminate potential threats through various methods is endlessly watchable.
These elements combine effectively to create a film that showcases how people can feel left behind in changing times, as well as what scars they can leave. It relies on interesting characters and cosmic moments to visualise the character’s internal struggles, the title serving as a direct reference to an extinct volcano overlooking Qiao’s town. Ash is purest white due to astonishing temperatures, temperatures that Qiao feels the life around her is burning her at.
Where it faults however is in its narrative flow. Its two hour and twenty minute length isn’t inherently problematic, as the film takes place over almost two decades. However, outside of one use of makeup, it’s never made clear when we have just gone through a time jump. I could see these events happening within the space of a few weeks rather than several years as this film claims. Some of the plot threads seem loose, based on my one viewing of the film, and there were occasions where it seemed to be padding itself out unnecessarily.
But it’s the details between the lines that make Ash is Purest White the spectacle it is. It may be more impressive on a second or third viewing than on the initial one. But, if nothing else, it leaves much for its audience to contemplate upon the rolling of the credits.
Wildlife – ★★★★☆
Ever since being personally exhilarated by Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, I’ve been a sucker for anything starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The man could do a Tweenies movie and I’d probably still reach for my wallet. While he is a notable star in Wildlife however, the film exclusively belongs to actor turned director Paul Dano, who, alongside his partner Zoe Kazan, has managed to deliver a thought-provoking, bittersweet debut.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Richard Ford, the film concerns the disintegration of a family. Set in 1960, we watch this collapse from the eyes of teenage Joe (Ed Oxenbould), whose parents’ marriage is clearly on its last legs. After being fired, his father Jerry (Gyllenhaal) takes a job combating forest fires to mend his damaged pride, a decision which does not sit well with mother Jennette (Carey Mulligan). During his absence, Joe bears witness to his mother’s downward spiral, which includes depression and a potential affair.
The flaws of the American Dream are on full display here, personified by the family’s bottom of middle class home, and by Jerry himself. Gyllenhaal remains absent for much of the film, but his looks of utter defeat says more than any line of dialogue could. He works hard, or at least thinks he does, and is given little to no reward for it. Similarly, Jennette feels as though she is doing the most she can but is unappreciated. One conversation in particular, between her and a secretary, showcases her underlying stress and resentment slowly growing. This naturally builds animosity between the two, which Joe is unfortunately caught in the crossroads and fallout of, remaining as confused and apprehensive as the audience who must also bear witness. The acting from all three, especially Mulligan, is breath-taking and transformative.
READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE: Widows
Dano builds on the success of his actors by making masterful use of visual storytelling via gorgeous cinematography that serve as subtle metaphors to the central story. An early scene fades out on a beautiful sunset, signifying the end of something once beautiful. Wide vibrant shots of the town reveal the picturesque community, yet contrast with dark lighting and the bitterly mundane makeup of their home. Joe’s job as a photographer is to capture happy moments in life that he himself is lacking. Even the constant looming threat of the nearby forest fires could potentially be metaphorical for inevitability spreading uncontrollably.
It shows that the film has a set of brains behind its presentation, as well as its admirable trust in its audience. It could’ve perhaps benefitted from deeper insight into how Joe himself felt about the sins of his parents. We can sense his confusion, but his role is effectively limited to reactions without much consequence. It’s an unfortunate hindrance that’s hard to overlook.
Yet, when added up as a whole, Wildlife remains a stunningly watchable film, albeit a melancholic one. It’s pretty to look at, and harbours strong visual storytelling alongside its top-notch acting. An impressive start to Dano’s directorial career.
HELP US BUILD A COMMON FUTURE TOGETHER: Support our work at allofusfirst.org/donate