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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Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture (2018)

I had honestly given up on Janelle Monáe’s potential as a popstar a few years back when I first heard her single “Yoga” on the radio. She’s proven to be a talented screen actor since, via roles in Moonlight & Hidden Figures, but there was something dispiriting about “Yoga” that made me lose interest in her music career. It’s not an especially horrendous pop song or anything. I even mildly enjoy it. It was just disappointing to hear a persona once tied up in the weirdo A.I. sci-fi themes of early releases like 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) deliver an anonymous pop song about letting your booty “do that yoga,” an adequate tune that could’ve been sung by anyone. I imagine it was the equivalent of longtime David Bowie fans feeling alienated by the relatively personality-free stylings of the objectively-enjoyable “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Like those disenchanted Bowie devotees before me, I was wrong to lose faith in Monáe so easily. Not only did the sci-fi themes of her early career eventually reemerge in her work, they came back louder, brighter, and more undeniably fun than ever. And as a wonderful bit of lagniappe, they also came back queer as fuck.

Janelle Monáe publicly came out as pansexual in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. This announcement coincided with the release of her latest record, Dirty Computer, and its accompanying visual album, Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. We already litigated the value of the long-form music video as cinema here when we covered Girl Walk//All Day as a Movie of the Month selection in the wake of Lemonade’s release in 2016. Dirty Computer easily earns its place among the best examples of that visual album medium by both adapting it to a clearly discernible narrative that unifies its anthology template and by feeling exceptionally personal to the artist behind it. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. It’s even billed as “an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe” on the poster. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of Monáe’s newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position.

Monáe stars as Jane 57821 (not to be confused with THX 1138), a bisexual rebel whose group of friends & lovers have been abducted by a tyrannical future-government for conformity-encouraging brainwashing. In a cruel twist of pure malice, it’s her own previously-brainwashed girlfriend (played by longtime Monáe collaborator and all-around talent Tessa Thompson) who’s tasked with walking her through the mysterious, scientific process that drains her of her vitality & sexuality, essentially leaving her a living robot. This scenario reads like a sci-fi expression of conversion therapy anxiety, to a point where the tyrannical government facility, The House of the New Dawn, is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze. The music video tangents featured in the film are presented as memories that the facility is deleting one at a time. Through these stylized flashbacks we see a harsh contrast between the lifeless, oppressed world the government offers and the gorgeous, nonstop party Jane was living with a community of outsiders before they were broken up & captured by police drones. The world’s rebel Others appear to be a Warriors-style collection of varied factions: Bowies, punks, Holy Mountain freaks, Beetlegeese, etc. They party in a swirl of heavy leather, drag makeup, and glittered-up naked flesh that calls into question what’s memory and what’s fantasy. The drone-equipped future-police intrude in each vignette, along with Tessa Thompson’s character (and the couple’s masculine third), to establish a clearly discernible narrative through-line with a Blade Runner/Logan’s Run sci-fi throwback bent.

Like many examples of classic sci-fi, Dirty Computer gets a lot of mileage out of establishing its own futuristic terminology. In the evil future-government’s parlance, social Others are “dirty,” while all people are “computers,” devices that can be “cleaned” and made more useful. Monáe is clearly invested in challenging this kind of constrictive labeling through the film’s conversion therapy metaphor. The music videos read as aggressive challenges to the societal & governmental oppression that she faces as a queer black woman (from the South no less). She sings of being “highly melanated’ and of how “Everything is sex except sex, which is power.” Some tracks include studio collaborations with the since-deceased Prince, which can be heard just as clearly in the synths & guitars as it can be seen in Monáe’s weaponized, politicized expressions of race & sexuality. (At one point she appears in floral vagina pants that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush; this film is anything but subtle.) I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard such a clear Prince descendant in a major pop star since Beyoncé’s fabulously filthy music video for “Blow.” I was a fool for giving up on Monáe so easily after a brief experience with hearing “Yoga” on the radio. With the recent losses of both Bowie and Prince, her mainstream exposure as a neon-lit queer icon feels like a beacon of hope in the grimmest times Western culture’s seen in decades. The fact that she chose to broadcast that beacon through a long-form, sci-fi themed music video about queer rebels who like to party might just be my favorite thing she’s done in her career to date, even with the awkward “emotion picture” branding.

-Brandon Ledet

Annihilation (2018)

More than once in the past week, my roommate has asked me what I was going to be doing this past weekend, and I said I was going to see Annihilation, and each time he asked “What’s that?”, to which I replied “The adaptation of the book that your sister gave me for Christmas in 2016.” Which she did! And I loved it! So much so that I couldn’t stop talking about it, and another friend got me the follow up novel Authority for my birthday a few months later, and I bought my own copy of Acceptance almost immediately after and finished that too. I was so excited when I heard that Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame would be directing the film of the book, and that the person I cast in my head as the biologist, Natalie Portman, would be playing the lead. Of course, there are valid concerns about the whitewashing of her character given that she’s part Asian (no specific nation of origin is given), but it’s also a piece of information that the reader doesn’t get until the second book, which had not been published at the time that Garland read Annihilation and started working on his script. If you’re curious, I imagined Angela Bassett as the psychologist, Michelle Rodriguez as the surveyor (a character who’s aggression and distrust was put on the paramedic character in the film but had a role on the team that was more like Novotny’s character’s) and Battlestar Galactica‘s Grace Park as the anthropologist (a character that is, for all intents and purposes, absent from the film). Those absences, changes, and additions should give you some indication of how far this film strays from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, but does that matter?

What makes a good adaptation? Is it a strict, lockstep adherence to the source material, ignoring the differences between the languages of film and prose? Can an adaptation’s value be measured as a quantifiable variable of pragmatism in the choices of what to include and exclude when translating to the screen? Is it the ability of the film to evoke the same emotional resonance or invoke the same themes as the original text, even if it has to take a different route to bring the viewer to the same place as the reader? Films that try to maintain a one-to-one textual match often don’t work; for all its other faults, David Lynch’s Dune adaptation, for instance, attempted to translate the internal monologues of multiple characters to film, which creates a muddled mess in the movie despite this being a common element of prose fiction. With regards to pragmatism, something like Watchmen (at least the director’s cut, although I know not everyone agrees) makes good choices with what it chooses to include while excising some subplots from the text that would interfere with the pacing of the film (like the extended pirate comic storyline) and updating other plot elements to remove the need for plot lines that can be easily removed without changing the overall tone (such as changing the psychic squid monster in the finale to something more grounded and closely related to the characters). And with regards to adaptations that are more loose but occupy the same rhetorical space, something like Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story would be a strong example, at least for me personally. I read the book no fewer than 30 times in my childhood and a dozen more since then, and I’ve seen the film innumerable times. Author Michael Ende hated the film version; it essentially adapts only the first half of the book, removes one of the challenges that Atreyu must face in order to get to the Southern Oracle, reuses the first “gate” as the Southern Oracle itself, and makes other changes. But they are both ultimately perfect fantasy stories for little bullied bookworms, creating a place for them to expand the horizons of their imaginations, regardless of the differences between the two texts.

Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for a close adaptation of the novel, you’re not going to find that here. This is A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel. Garland has admitted that he thumbed through the novel and took only the most noteworthy elements and concepts—a government-backed all-woman expedition makes its way beyond an incomprehensible barrier into Area X, a place of strange mutations of both flora and fauna stemming back to an unknown catastrophic event—and made a standalone film without the intention of revisitation in future films. In a way, this is noteworthy in that it acts as the antithesis of current studio mandates, which prioritize franchise building over creating complete and whole narratives within a single film, even going so far as to split individual books (like The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay) into multiple films. It’s for the viewer to decide if this is to the detriment of the film and its source material or not, but those of you hoping for an adaptation of the entire Southern Reach trilogy should manage your expectations now. And hey—that’s okay. The narrative conceit in the novel that all of the characters are nameless and identified only by their occupations, which works so well on the page both as a method for giving the reader the space to imagine each character in the way they see fit and as part of a larger theme about the absence not only of knowledge but perhaps even the possibility of comprehension, simply wouldn’t work on film. That’s not a fault of the film so much as a fact that must be accepted about the difference between different forms of media, and as such I can’t detract from the film because of it.

In the interest of full disclosure (and as a point of solidarity with my fellow book readers), I’ll attempt to describe the biggest changes. Spoilers for the film and the book series through the end of this paragraph. In addition to surface changes, like making the biologist (herein named Lena) ex-military and her husband (who is given the name Kaine) an active duty sergeant while removing this characteristic from the surveyor or increasing the number of explorers (there is a fifth member of the expedition in the novel, but she chickens out before they breach the barrier’s perimeter and never makes it into Area X), there are some pretty major changes. The nature of Area X is made much more explicit; throughout the trilogy, there is much discussion about whether or not Area X is mystical, extradimensional, or extraterrestrial in origin, and Acceptance strongly implies that the catalyst was at least somewhat supernatural in nature, given the role played by the two members of the Seance and Science Brigade and their experiments in the lighthouse. Again, the need for a more explicit explanation for the events is a consequence of the nature of film language, and isn’t a de facto negative. When a filmmaker sets out to make a single narrative out of the first book in a series with no intention to adapt the sequels, this is the more sensible tack, even if it runs the risk of alienating readers. But it is quite a shock to see the lighthouse consumed in flame at the end of the film if you’ve read Authority or Acceptance, in which the lighthouse and the revelations therein are pretty vital to understanding the overall mystery (insofar as it can be understood). By its very nature, this removes the significance of the fact that the psychologist grew up around the lighthouse and knew the keeper (who was mutated/duplicated into the Crawler, an important figure in the Annihilation novel) as a child, as well as her personal connection to Area X. The Crawler and its writing, which could rightly be called the most important part of the novel, is completely excised, removing the religiosity of the novel through the erasure of his sermon-like screeds. The fact that the biologist’s husband (‘s duplicate) lives through the end of the narrative, and that Area X is “defeated” instead of continuing to expand (so much so that the point of view characters in Acceptance end the novel attempting to find their way back out without knowing if there even is an “out” anymore, or if Area X has consumed the whole world) are also major changes. These omissions will likely be the most contentious issues with the film for readers of the books, but this still works for me as a “broad strokes” approach. Also gone are the hypnotic suggestion elements from the novel (in which all the expedition members submitted to psychological preparation for their journey, including post-hypnotic triggers to ensure that they make it through the barrier without being driven to madness, but which also makes the presence of the psychologist more sinister, as she exercises other psychic controls over the expedition, to which the biologist’s mutations make her immune). For me, the strangest change was making the biologist more likable and personable, but this is again a concession for the medium, as the original character and her motivations would be harder to communicate in a visual form.

But enough digital ink spent on those who are already familiar with the source material. Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Portman), an ex-military biologist now working for Johns Hopkins, whose active military husband Kaine (Oscar Isaac) disappeared one year prior on a classified mission. When he suddenly reappears one afternoon with no explanation of his whereabouts or even how he made his way home, their reunion is cut short when his organs fail. En route to the hospital, both Lena and her husband are taken by black ops military personnel; she wakes up in the headquarters of the Southern Reach, a clandestine government organization set up to investigate the nature of Area X, a location bounded by a shimmering barrier that is expanding and consuming more of the surrounding climes bit by bit, and within which bizarre mutations occur at an accelerated pace and from which no survivor other than Kaine has ever returned (at least according to the Reach itself; the post-expedition lives of survivors and “survivors” is an integral part of the later novels). The next expedition is set to breach the boundary soon, led by psychologist Gloria Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and staffed by physicist Josie Radik (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and geologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny). Lena joins the expedition in order to find out the truth about what happened to her husband. Inside Area X, all five women are confronted by threats that are existential to them as individuals and members of a species that will not survive if Area X continues to expand.

The book’s unnamed protagonist, identified only as “the biologist,” has different motivations in the novel. Herein we learn that she cheated on her husband and she sets out to make things right by investigating the nature of Area X, but in the novel she is a withdrawn scientist whose oddities make it impossible for her to maintain employment that requires frequent interaction with other people; her fascination with Area X is piqued by her husband’s bizarre return and the apparent changes to his personality (which unfold over several months before he dies, as do all the other members of his expedition, all of which occur before the events of the novel), but which grow because of her fixation on ecosystems in miniature. This change makes her more relatable (with allowance for your mileage to vary) but also less interesting; her motivations are, for lack of a better term, pretty basic.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve had discussions with a few friends who also read the books and saw the movie. One agrees with me, that the film is less interesting than the books on a couple of levels, but allowances made for the language of film mean that it would have to be different, and the differences work for him as they do for me; another friend is annoyed that what he considers to be more “weird fiction” has been reduced to a pretty standard sci-fi story. I think that this is where the difference lies for me: although I wouldn’t call this movie “brave” like many reviewers have, especially given the above-mentioned reduction-to-baseness of both themes and character motivations, I would also never call it “standard” anything, despite the simplifications and changes to the plot. I’m not put out that we’re given an explanation of what Area X is or how life is changed within it, despite the fact that I’m usually annoyed or upset when existential Lovecraftian horror is reduced to something so banal that it is essentially devoid of everything that made it distinct (ahem). I guess why Annihilation still works for me while other works were diminished by being brought closer to earth is that this allows for greater characterization and a different kind of emotional investment.

I mentioned before that the lack of identifying names or characteristics in the source material thematically mirrored Area X itself: Area X and its interior are described in detail, but we’re never told anything about what the women in the expedition look like. Above and beyond the lack of names being enforced by the agency coordinating the breaches into the “shimmer,” this also puts us more firmly in the mind of the biologist, as she is completely disinterested in her compatriots and is invested only in the science of the region. As a reader, the currency of your imagination is to be spent on giving life to Area X and its beautifully deadly terrain and inhabitants, and using any iota of that brainspace on the members of Expedition 12 is wasted; in this way, the reader becomes the biologist, with a professional detachment that grows more clinical and distant as the plot unfolds (or unravels). Again, that’s something that simply wouldn’t work on screen, and by giving the biologist and her fellow explorers more depth (this one’s a recovering alcoholic, that one lost her daughter to leukemia, this one’s a cutter, that one’s dying of cancer), Garland changes the theme from that of emotional distance and disconnection, and perhaps the innateness to humanity of that feeling, into a focus on the (perhaps innate) tendency toward self destruction. That compulsion may, and sometimes does, overtake us while in the guise of something more clinically defined, but rebirth requires the complete destruction, the annihilation, of the self that existed before, down to the cellular level. It’s a change, but one that works to create a great piece of media in spite of its distance from VanderMeer’s novel(s).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Creed (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Creed is more of a sequel than a proper reboot, but writer-director Ryan Coogler is more than forgiven for not wanting to title his film Rocky VII: Creed. Following the lead of 2006’s succinctly titled Balboa, Creed keeps it simple in more than ways than just its name. It’s very much a by-the-numbers boxing movie, hitting every familiar beat you’d expect from the genre. After Southpaw‘s helpful example earlier this year of just how poorly that formula can be put to use, though, it’s downright miraculous just how effective Creed manages to be while never coloring outside the lines. As far as Stallone franchises go, I’m typically a much bigger Rambo fan (can’t help myself), but who doesn’t love a good underdog story? The pugilist protagonist (played by an all-grown-up The Wire vet Michael B. Jordan) of Creed‘s narrative may go through the motions of successes & failures the audience sees coming from miles away, but the movie is visceral enough in its brutal in-the-ring action & tender enough in its out-the-ring romance & familial strife that only the most jaded of audiences are likely to get through its runtime without once pumping a fist or shedding a tear before the end credits.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, a father he never met & a boxing legend within the Rocky universe, Adonis Creed is more a child of the foster & juvenile correctional system than he is of the former Carl Weathers character. With that chip weighing heavily on his shoulder, Adonis attempts to walk the tightrope of earning a name for himself as a self-taught boxer while avoiding living his life in Apollo’s massive shadow. It’s hard to tell exactly how serious he is about ducking association with his father, though, since he adopts an elderly Rocky Balboa as his reluctant trainer & makeshift family. Balboa & Creed’s shared history is assimilated into the story expertly, made to feel real by adopting the format of high-end ESPN & HBO sports documentaries & talking heads forums. While Adonis is trying to balance his own career with his father’s legacy, he also struggles to stay connected with a mother figure who doesn’t want him to fight & falls hopelessly in love with a downstairs neighbor (played by an all-grown-up Veronica Mars vet Tessa Thompson) who records a less avant garde FKA twigs style of pop music in her bedroom in hopes of making a name for herself on her own terms.

There are Inspirational Training Montages galore in Creed, but only two proper bouts, a smart choice that not only allows the film’s familial & romantic bonds room to build, but also helps to establish Adonis as an in-over-his-head underdog. There are some fun, updating-the-franchise touches to the movie, such as a scene where a grandmotherly Sylvester Stallone perplexedly contemplates smart phones & “the cloud”, but the best thing Creed accomplishes is acknowledging the past while living firmly in the present. The two main bouts of the film are feats of pure cinematography & choreography, a brutally physical style of storytelling. There’s impressive imagery to be found elsewhere in the film’s smaller moments as well, such as a shot of Balboa & Adonis boxing duel punching bags in unison & a chilling scene where Adonis fights a projection of his dead father’s image. The sexual tension between Tessa Thompson & Michael B Jordon is also remarkably well played, both in the written dialogue & in the body language of the performances. The worst crime the film commits is occasionally functioning as a video form of Philadelphia tourism, an offense that’s more than excusable given that Balboa is now as much a part of the city’s DNA as cheesesteak & the Liberty Bell.

When Creed‘s production was first announced I’ll admit my initial reaction was a yawn & an eyeroll. Coogler’s film somehow completely turned me around on the idea of a non-Stallone-penned Rocky franchise living on in perpetuity, despite never truly deviating from the format. It’s a great example of how a strict genre film feel new & exciting when played with fully-committed earnestness. If Creed II ever makes it to a theater, I’m pretty much guaranteed to be there, which is  a sentiment I didn’t expect to leave the film with before the opening credits.

-Brandon Ledet

Dear White People (2014)

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threehalfstar

Even in its title the recent campus comedy Dear White People promises to be a sort of intellectual provocation, one that conjures up conversations about contemporary black culture, the ways systemic racism is masked in modern social exchanges, and the current state of identity politics in three simple words. By addressing white people as a social group in a playfully aggressive tone from a black perspective, the movie elicits an intentionally uncomfortable, satiric hyperbole. This is backed up as soon as the “Prologue” segment promises a full-on “race riot” at their film’s conclusion and continues through the disembodied, Warriors-style radio voice of actress Tessa Thompson making blanket statements like “Dear white people, dating a black person to piss off your parents is still an act of racism,” and “Dear white people, stop dancing.” The film even smartly, preemptively responds to the question “How would you feel if I made a Dear Black People?” directly, because it was more than apparent that someone was going to be dumb enough to ask it.

Still, Dear White People subverts what you’d expect from a satiric comedy about modern racial identity & culture clash. It never settles for knee-slapping, go-for-the-jugular jokes at characters’ expenses, but instead strives to achieve a surprising amount of empathy across a wide range of diverse featured personalities, each stretched so thin by social & academic pressure that they seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adopting the format of a university campus comedy (one that improbably splits the aesthetic difference between Spike Lee & Wes Anderson), the film allows itself a lot of breathing room for representing an extensive collection of young characters struggling with questions of self-identity. Personal crises of finding a social group where they “belong”, desperately searching for online celebrity, navigating expressions of sexuality, suffering the tightrope of insecurities in code-switching, and sometimes generally provoking chaos due to a youthful, anarchic spirit all weigh heavily on the minds of the film’s collection of stressed out college students. In a lot of ways it’s these acts of soul-searching are more memorable than any of the film’s provocative, laugh out loud humor.

Due to its nature as a provocation, Dear White People really does paint an uncomfortable picture of modern race relations, one that ranges from representations of more subtle transgressions as touching strangers’ hair without consent & comedy writers hiding racist/sexist sentiments under the guise of satire to the more outright horrifying example of blackface being used as a theme for campus parties. And just in case you’re skeptical that things really are as bad as that last example, the film includes several actual, real-life headlines about those parties in its end credits. Provocative or not, Dear White People is playful & nuanced in its humor in a way that I’m sure must’ve inspired some great post-screening lobby talk during its theater run. Still, I suspect what will stick with me most about the movie is the emotional stress of its overachieving college student protagonists straining to find their place in the world & peace within themselves.

Side Note: Snuck in there among other members of the excellent cast is a small-scale Veronica Mars reunion in Tessa Thompson (who played Jackie Cook) & Kyle Gallner (who played Cassidy “Beaver” Cassablancas). Probably far from the most important thing about this movie, but it caught my attention at least.

-Brandon Ledet