Sorry to Bother You (2018)

The first book I read in 2018 was Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last. The protagonist and her husband, who lost their home and their professional jobs and now live in their car while trying to avoid sexually- and economically-motivated violence, agree to participate in a project called “Consilience.” Consilience is a kind of planned, gated community in which participants spend alternating months in a nice home and working professional jobs and in a “prison,” doing more menial tasks. Over the course of the book, the main characters become aware that the promises of Consilience are hollow, and that the corporate overseers of the community have many nefarious goals, as the work narratively explores themes of identity, oppression, corporate irresponsibility, and sexual predation in multiple forms. Despite being a huge Atwood fan going back over a decade since the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 2005 (it’s a book that retains its relevance regardless of the particular authoritarian ugliness one is currently living under, be it the War on Terror or the current War on Decency), this is, other than the awful Surfacing, my least favorite of her books. The Heart Goes Last is simply too tonally inconsistent, rapidly flipping back and forth from the kind of insightful commentary that makes up her other works to a kind of absurdist humor that the astute reader can see is intended to make the darkness darker, but doesn’t work.

Sorry to Bother You has a similar plot point, and a similar problem. From the first few minutes, the audience is made aware of the existence of WorryFree, a corporate entity to which citizens can essentially sign over their freedom in exchange for the relative security of guaranteed employment and wages. This has become a more common feature of dystopian fiction of late, especially as broad trends point toward a governmental and social system that is more pro-corporatism and anti-consumer, as various writers and artists highlight the way that economically disadvantaged people can be pressured and herded into debt slavery and company towns from which there is no escape. (Aside: there’s a lengthy description of one such company town in Octavia Butler’s phenomenal 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which should be considered required reading for every American citizen, in my opinion.) The issue in Sorry is the same of that in The Heart Goes Last: the abject horror of the concept of WorryFree and Consilience alike is undercut by the comedy of the absurd that permeates both works. Imagine that The Handmaid’s Tale and Idiocracy were involved in a teleporter accident and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why this shouldn’t work, and you’re picturing both THGL and STBY, although through different lenses (notably, the comparison to Idiocracy is almost too obvious, given the presence of Idiocracy alum Terry Crews in STBY as the protagonists’s uncle, who is considering signing himself up for the WorryFree program). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sorry to Bother You presents the story of Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a resident of an alternate contemporary Oakland. Cash lives in the garage of his uncle Sergio (Crews) and, as the film opens, finds a job as a telemarketer for RegalView that will hopefully pave a way for himself and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) to have a more stable lifestyle. On his first day, he is encouraged by more seasoned co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) to use his “white voice” (David Cross) when making his sales calls as a way of making (predominantly white) customers feel more at ease and trusting. Although this tack leads him to success in his career, Cash also feels drawn to the ideals of Squeeze (Steven Yeun), a fellow RegalView employee who is actively working with his peers to form a union.  Cash finds himself torn between two worlds and various factions as his star continues to rise; promotion at work leads him to learn that upper tiers of RegalView’s services includes selling the human labor of WorryFree. He finds himself the subject of special interest of WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who invites him to a bourgeois party where Cash’s “otherness” is put on full display as he is forced to, in the cultural theory lexicon of our times, “perform his blackness” for an audience of rapt white people. In a private meeting, Lift reveals his ultimate goals for WorryFree, much to Cash’s horror.

A very dear friend saw STBY about a week before I did and warned me off of it: “I hated it,” he said. A fellow writer and friend with whom I went to see the movie the following weekend walked out and immediately declared: “Well, that was a piece of shit” (she missed about 15 minutes of the film for personal reasons and re-evaluated that stance once we filled her in on what she missed, but her overall impression was still largely negative). I feel that my concerns with the negative elements of the film may give the impression that I feel the same way, but that’s not really true. This is a movie that is undoubtedly flawed and certainly has all the hallmarks of a first feature from a director who has too many ideas, even if all those ideas are interesting (or even brilliant) in isolation. Another friend advised that her co-worker broke down STBY thusly: Scott Pilgrim + Black Panther + Black Mirror + Office Space. At the time, a mere day or two after my screening, I responded that my breakdown was more 15% Get Out, 30% Naked Lunch, 10% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 5% Rent (mostly that Detroit’s stunningly bad performance art piece is a lot like the horrible Maureen’s horrible “Moo With Me!” bullshit, presumably [hopefully] as a parody of the same), 10% Idiocracy, and 30% Being John Malkovich. After a couple of weeks to marinate on it, I’d probably change those percentages up a little bit and add that there’s also a few healthy pinches of that one episode of Degrassi TNG in which Liberty realizes that the only reason the Smithdale sorority wants her is to serve as their token black friend.

Make no mistake: this is a good film and a great work of art, even when the meaning of certain symbology is hard to parse. It’s worth noting that the negative reviews I got from friends were from white friends, which isn’t meant to impugn them, but demonstrates how a story about blackness, perceived whiteness, the navigation of predominately white economic spaces, code switching, and the magical realism of taking concepts like “talking white” and “workhorse” to a literal extreme can discomfit white audiences without them understanding why (bear in mind, I am a white person, so I’m trying to use my privilege to highlight this while staying in my lane, so please forgive me if there’s something I’ve overlooked).

This is good: making your audience aware of inequities and how they affect the psychology of every participant, those who are empowered and those who seek empowerment but can be corrupted by it, is important. And faulting a work of art for not providing a clear explanation of how to navigate this minefield is as foolish as expecting every disadvantaged or disenfranchised person to assume personal responsibility for your education about social issues and race relations. This film raises awareness without trying to make the audience feel better at the end by saying “oh, there is a path to a better world, just follow this light.” It just says “this is a bad time, guys” and means it, and leaves each member of the audience to sort out what that means individually. If there’s any truly glaring fault, it’s that the film occasionally makes the mistake that Crash (shudder) did, which was painting racism as solely an independent, personal flaw of character rather than as both an individual fault and as uncritical or insufficiently critical participation in hegemonic social constructs and systems of power that are the legacy of colonialism.

There’s a line in Sorry to Bother You that I really love, even if I can’t remember the exact wording and can only paraphrase: “When people don’t know how to fix a problem, they get used to it.” In a recent interview, writer/director Boots Riley noted that the undesirable—and yes, deplorable—elements of American society have made themselves more visible in the past few years, to the point that his original satirical screenplay, written in 2014, had to be rewritten to avoid being “too on the nose.” Notably, this meant the excision of the line “WorryFree is making America great again,” which was composed at least two years before that same rhetorical phraseology took on the connotation that it has now. (Another aside: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 publication The Wild Shore is another dystopian novel concerning a post-disaster U.S., like Parable. In Wild Shore, we see that “Make America Great Again” was the rallying cry of another dangerous leader who draws people to his banner in the name of nationalistic pride. It’s quite good, although it also shares some of the first time novelist/director issues that STBY has, as it was originally written as Robinson’s MFA thesis.) These continue to be dark days, and though we may not know how to fix them, we must not get used to them. And if you like your social commentary candy-colored but lacking in neat, pat answers, go see Sorry to Bother You. Hell, go see it even if that’s not your bag; your comfort zone could become your noose if you don’t push your boundaries.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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Monster Trucks (2017)

fourstar

campstamp

Wanted: Creature Seeking Male Companion – Me: Loves dogs & horses, comforts friends when sad, never says “no” to a spontaneous adventure, always says “yes” to night swimming in moonlight, has tentacles & drinks gasoline. You: A late-20s high school student with a shitty attitude, crippling daddy issues, and a receding hairline. Only selfish, low-energy badboy bores need apply. Serious offers only, please.

God, I love January so much. In what’s often referred to as the cinematic “dumping season,” it’s these first few weeks of the year when studios roll out their wounded animals, a parade of misfit misfires they have no idea how to market. It’s also in these first few weeks when high profile prestige films from the last year’s awards season slowly roll out from their New York & Los Angeles hidey-holes to finally reach The South, which is how I wound up watching both Silence & Monster Trucks at the theater on the same day. It was a glorious day. Not only was I treated to one of the most haunting technical achievements of Marin Scorsese’s career, I also got to see one of Hollywood’s most visually bizarre blunders since the likes of Howard the Duck, Jack Frost, Garbage Pail Kids, and Mac & Me. Monster Trucks is the rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context (recalling last year’s similarly out of place, but more reasonably priced talking cat comedy Nine Lives). It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; Monster Trucks is a gift to be cherished, a precious early January diamond for those digging for treasure in the trash. There’s no scenario where this film would catch on enough to earn back its ludicrous budget, but we’re not the ones losing money on it, so I say kick back and enjoy the show.

The lore behind Monster Trucks‘s creation & eventual financial blunder is just as fascinating as the movie itself. In 2013, then-president of Paramount Pictures, the since-fired Adam Goodman, conceived the pun-centric elevator pitch for this children’s film (“What if monster trucks were literal monster-operated trucks?”) while watching his toddler play with toy vehicles by smashing them together. The story goes that, after two years of development, a 2015 test screening of the film sent children screaming in fear due to the creature design of its main monster, known simply as Creech. I would kill to see that original “director’s cut” with the initial Creech design. Unfortunately, it’s lost to history, as the studio completely overhauled the monster’s CG-animated form and recut the film to soften the terror of its visage. That’s largely how we arrived at our obnoxious $125 million price tag, but that doesn’t explain exactly why Monster Trucks is such an entertaining mess of a final product. I’m sure somewhere among the film’s legitimately talented actors (Rob Lowe, Thomas Lennon, Danny Glover, Amy Ryan) there’s someone who’s super embarrassed to be involved with this dud of an intended franchise-starter/merchandise-generator. Surely, all of Paramount would love to have the whole fiasco wiped from the record completely. I think the embarrassment is entirely unwarranted, though. Monster Trucks might be an epic financial disaster on the production end, but as an audience member I find its delirious stupidity & grotesque creature design an endless delight. I just can’t honestly say it was worth every penny.

In true 90s relic fashion, Monster Trucks begins with evil oil drilling business men disrupting the order of things with their horrific money-grubbing ways. While fracking for more! more! more! oil in nowhere North Dakota, the Evil Corporation (helmed by a diabolical Rob Lowe) accidentally unearths an ancient population of subterranean, tentacled sea monsters who drink oil for sustenance in their own underground Ferngully utopia. Two of the creatures are detained, but one escapes by hiding in the frame of an out-of-commission truck, eventually winding up in the safe haven of a junkyard, just like in Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Without the structural support of a metal truck frame, this poor beast, known simply as Creech, is a useless slob, a pile of soft, melty flesh. Truck frames work as a sort of wheelchair for the unadapted sea creature and it at first operates them like a Flintstones car before getting the hang of properly working the gears. Also like in The Iron Giant, this monster is adopted as a pet by a curious, emotionally stunted little boy struggling with the absence of a father figure. In Monster Trucks, however, the little boy in question is a high school student played by a hilariously miscast Lucas Till, who is well into his 20s and looks it. In an interesting reversal of the lonely outcast trope, everyone who knows our protagonist desperately wants to hang out with him, but he’s too much of a selfish, self-absorbed jerk to give them the time of day. It’s not that he’s too cool for them either, unless you think a near-30 high school student who lives at home, rides the bus, plays racecar when no one’s looking, and whose mom is boinking the sheriff sounds cool. Creech doesn’t teach this bozo a life lesson or improve his shitty attitude in any way. When they have to part ways at the film’s teary-eyed conclusion, all he can muster is, “I’m going to miss you, Creech. You were a good truck.” Selfish prick. He’s almost awful enough to make me root for the oil company’s hired killer goon to succeed in snapping his overgrown-kid neck, but the loss would make Creech too unbearably sad and that’s the last thing I’d want.

Luckily, Monster Trucks isn’t about ugly high school students stuck in an eternal rut learning valuable life lessons or about how greedy oil companies were the true monster (truck) all along. It’s about two much simpler, more universally lovable concepts: monsters & trucks. In the film’s purest, most deliriously idiotic moments Creech drives his truck-shaped mech suit up walls, over lesser vehicles, down mountainsides, and (in my personal favorite bit) through open fields in unison with galloping horses to a country pop soundtrack. This is truck porn about goin’ muddin’ lazily disguised as a kid-friendly creature feature. None of that gear head idiocy would mean a thing without Creech, though, who is paradoxically the cutest & most grotesque CG creation since last year’s realization of Krang in TMNT: Out of the Shadows. Creech is initially played to be scary and is nearly crushed in a hydraulic press before its not made-for-this-world adorability saves its tentacled ass. Your affection for Creech’s design (along with similarly ugly/cute creations in titles like Howard the Duck, Gooby, and Mac & Me) will largely determine how much fun you have with Monster Trucks. It’ll make or break the cuteness of scenes where Creech gargles oil or poses for selfies. It’ll dictate whether you empathize with the Black Fish levels of cruelty in early scenes where its separated from its scrotum-esque parents as well as their inevitable reunion, a endearing Kodak moment that recalls the shunting scene from Society. No matter how much you love trucks on their own (you sick freak), you really have to love Creech’s ugly-cute visage to appreciate Monster Trucks in all of its ill-considered glory.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to capture Creech’s very specific brand of aquatic monstrosity in words. It’s a horror you have to see to believe. Monster Trucks makes several efforts to construct a memorable plot around its visually striking (to put it kindly) truck-creature, but not much sticks. A genuinely creepy villain who legitimately attempts to murder “children”, a few possible goons’ lives lost in the two bigger action set pieces, a Disney Channel love interest (Don’t Breathe‘s Jane Levy, oddly enough) who calls out the selfish prick protagonist for assuming Creech’s gender as male by default, my beloved horse-galloping/truck-muddin’ scene: there are plenty of amusing details that help pad out the film’s unwieldy 105 minute runtime. None of this can surpass the basic joys of gazing at Creech, though. Every minute of Creech content is a blessing, a gift from the trash cinema gods. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can. And I guess the life lesson learned for the next Monster Trucks-type misfire to come down the line would be to try to pull off its low-key chams for $100 million less on the production end. Who knows? They might even accidentally make a profit.

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-Brandon Ledet