From “Sorry to Bother You”. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Sundance Film Festival took place in Park City, UT, January 18-28. International Examiner writer Misa Shikuma attended to provide coverage of select films featuring API stories, artists, actors and/or originating from API countries. Here she reviews: Sorry to Bother You, director Boots Riley; Puzzle, director Marc Turtletaub; Piercing, director Nicolas Pesce, Search, director Aneesh Chaganty, Crime & Punishment, director Stephen Maing and The Rider, director Chloé Zhao

Sorry to Bother You
2018, USA
Dir. Boots Riley

From musician turned first-time filmmaker Boots Riley comes the manic fever dream of a ride that is Sorry to Bother You. Set in Oakland, the film follows black telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) in his quest to rise through the company’s ranks and become a Power Caller, while keeping his artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) happy, not selling out his other entry level colleagues, and obeying the corporate mantra, “Stick to the script.”

Of the handful of films at Sundance this year that tackled race and black identity, Sorry to Bother You is undoubtedly the only one that features Armie Hammer as a sadistic hippie CEO secretly breeding horse-human hybrids (equisapiens!). Steve Yeun co-stars as Squeeze, the moral compass of the story, who attempts to unionize the telemarketers in order to get better pay and benefits.

For all its kookiness, which only amps up as time passes, Riley, who also wrote the script, touches on some uncomfortable truths. Cassius struggles early on to make any sales through cold calling, and it’s only after he has adopted a “white voice” (performed by David Cross) at the advice of colleague Langston (Danny Glover) that he becomes successful. Later on, Hammer’s character forces Cassius to perform a freestyle rap at a swanky work event; unable to come up with any real verses he simply starts repeating “n**** s***” into the mike, much to the (white) audience’s delight.

Such is the nature of the world that Riley creates that by the time the first equisapien shows up on camera, it’s not entirely a shock. All logic went out the window long ago. It’s a testament to the strength of the ensemble cast, however, that the film still manages to achieve, if not plausibility, then something approximating it. Aside from the horse people, the story is rooted in today’s conflicts with class and diversity.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

2018, USA
Dir. Marc Turtletaub

Longtime indie film producer Marc Turtletaub takes a stab at the director’s chair with screenwriter Oren Moverman’s re-working of the 2010 Argentinian film about a suburban housewife who discovers a latent knack for solving jigsaw puzzles.

Kelly Macdonald stars as Agnes, a woman trapped in a bland upstate New York existence whose life revolves around doting on her mechanic husband and teenaged sons, and the local church. Hooked after receiving a puzzle as a gift, Agnes heads into the city and by chance encounter becomes the puzzle partner of enigmatic inventor Robert (Irrfan Khan). Whereas Agnes’ husband Louie (David Denman) is slightly boorish and has grown so complacent that he hardly notices his wife, Robert is intellectually curious and sees Agnes as more than just a wallflower.

Though Macdonald inhabits Agnes as a woman with depths that most of the people around her don’t bother to fathom, it is frustrating to watch her being continually stunted by her family’s expectations and the traditional gender roles that they enforce. Perhaps that is the point. Robert, who Khan plays with affable charm and candor, is the perfect foil. The pair’s chemistry makes their scenes together the real highlight of the film, though the uneven writing and pacing tend to detract from it.

Overall Puzzle feels like a modest effort for Turtletaub, whose producing credits include Loving, Safety Not Guaranteed and Little Miss Sunshine, to the point that the talents of Macdonald and Khan are somewhat wasted. The film has a handful of moments when the acting, writing and direction really come together in poignant ways but, alas, they are few and far between.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

2018, USA
Dir. Nicolas Pesce

As gory and stylishly over-the-top as Nicolas Pesce’s adaptation of the Ryu Murakami novel is, taking its lead actors to territory previously uncharted in their careers, one would be remiss in failing to acknowledge that Piercing is also the ultimate act of whitewashing.

Originally published over twenty years ago, the Tokyo-set psychological thriller follows a man whose urges to stab his infant child with an ice pick lead him to try to redirect his psychopathic tendencies onto a prostitute. However, she has an agenda of her own that threatens to derail his meticulously crafted plan. Many critics at the time that it was published found that setting and story complimented each other, establishing a unique commentary and perspective on Japan in the mid-90s.

Pesce’s approach obfuscates the exact location where events take place; practically the entire story unfolds inside hotel rooms and apartments, in what is understood to be an anonymous metropolis. It’s a clever move, making the dance between would-be killer and victim, played by Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska, even more intimate, and rendering the tension in each scene nearly palpable. Neither character is particularly sympathetic, and yet it’s with mounting foreboding that the audience desires to see who will ultimately come out on top.

Abbott and Wasikowska give magnetic performances in the lead roles but, again, as the credits roll, we’re reminded that the film is based on a Japanese story by a Japanese novelist. It’s 2018, and the most difficult aspect of Piercing to stomach is not the Tarantino-esque violence, but the whitewashing.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

2018, USA
Dir. Aneesh Chaganty

“Someday, someone will write a thesis on this film,” said the Q&A moderator following the world premiere of Aneesh Chaganty’s groundbreaking debut Searching, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize. Taking place entirely on computer screens with the characters interacting through voice calls, texting, and FaceTime, the film is the first of its kind, succeeding where others have failed at trying to convey modern use of technology by its all-out yet realistic approach.

The opening montage introduces us to the Kim family: David (John Cho), Pam (Sara Sohn), and their daughter Margot (Michelle La). Throughout the evolution of the family computer from Windows XP to Mac OS X, the audience is privy to home videos and snapshots of Margot’s first days of school. Interspersed throughout are emails revealing Pam’s cancer diagnosis, remission, and relapse. The mouse moves the calendar entry “Mom comes home” to a later date, then deletes it altogether. Cut to selecting a photo for the memorial service. The entire sequence is as eloquent and as moving as the beginning of Pixar’s Up.

Still reeling from Pam’s passing, David isn’t doing single fatherhood quite as well as he’d like to. When teenaged Margot doesn’t come home from study group one night, David’s concern quickly escalates to panic. Together with Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the search becomes a race against time if they are to find Margot alive. Meanwhile, with the information contained in his daughter’s laptop offering the only possible clues to what might have happened to her, David is forced to accept that he knew even less about her life than he imagined.

The screenplay, co-written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, is rife with delectable twists and turns, but it’s the execution and clever use of technology that keep the story grounded and seem, well, relatable. We laugh at middle-aged David’s first attempt to find his daughter’s Tumblr by Googling ‘tumbler,’ and feel the same sense of unease as the character when he realizes that one of her online friends is something more sinister behind the online persona. It’s realistic too, unfortunately, that there’s an outpouring of support on Facebook from peers who by their own admission didn’t know Margot very well.

In the post-screening Q&A, Debra Messing recalled how intrigued she was when she read the screenplay for the first time, noting that it didn’t matter to her whether the film was successful or not because it was so innovative. During his turn on the mike, John Cho momentarily got choked up talking about how emotional it was for him, as an audience member, to see a family that looked “like mine” onscreen.

A triumph for both representation and original storytelling and filmmaking, Searching was arguably one of the strongest features in what many critics are writing off as a weak year for Sundance.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Crime & Punishment
2018, USA
Dir. Stephen Maing

The latest documentary from filmmaker and journalist Stephen Maing opens with an establishing shot of Manhattan, looking tranquil for once, overlaid with audio of a phone conversation between the director and a Latino officer. The officer, frustrated by his manager’s constant pressure to increase his monthly summonses despite a state-wide ban on quotas, is ready to take action. Over the course of the next several years, he will become one of the infamous NYPD 12, a whistleblowing group of black and Latino cops, who believed that taking their employer to court was the only way to change a broken system.

Almost one million dollars of New York City’s budget comes from the revenue generated by arrests and summonses. Hence even though, by law, an official quota system is not allowed to exist, it is very much present in practice. Members of the NYPD 12 who refused to comply (i.e. not arresting civilians just to make arrests) were passed over for promotion, given arbitrarily negative performance reviews, and assigned to cover street corners where nothing was happening.

In order to highlight the effects that the NYPD’s actions have on the community, Maing also follows an ex-cop turned private investigator who specializes in assisting the population affected the most by cops needed to hit their monthly numbers: young men of color in their teens and early twenties. The PI pounds the pavement in the city’s grittier neighborhoods, asking their residents how many times they’ve been stopped by police for no apparent reason; how many times they’ve been arrested; how many times the charges were ultimately dropped.

As men and women of color, the NYPD 12 is hyper aware of how the force’s actions create a negative feedback loop within the black and other ethnic communities. Why should civilians trust the police when their sons are routinely stopped and frisked simply because of their age and the color of their skin?

In a telling recorded conversation with his manager, one of the NYPD 12 is told, “By the time you get in your car and drive away, somebody has already done something wrong in front of you.” There are cops who believe that their job is to help people, and then there are cops who believe that their job is to put people behind bars.

Through Maing’s lens, the NYPD, the nation’s largest police force, becomes a microcosm. Its systemic corruption, abuses of power and racial targeting are but threads of a greater national dialogue that has been unfolding over the past several years. With unprecedented access thanks to the courageous members of the NYPD 12, Crime & Punishment is a powerful reminder of why we need checks, balances, and independent oversight.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Rider
2018, USA
Dir. Chloé Zhao

Premiering at Cannes last year, where it won top prize in the Directors’ Fortnight, Chloé Zhao’s lyrical docudrama The Rider is a meditation on craft and how we derive meaning and purpose from it. Set against the backdrop of the South Dakota plains, near where Zhao shot her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), The Rider follows the Jandreau family playing fictionalized versions of themselves. At its center is Brady, a talented young cowboy whose livelihood is threatened by a near fatal head injury.

Zhao had wanted to include Brady, who taught her how to ride horses, in her first film, but it wasn’t until his real-life accident that she found a story in which to feature him onscreen. When the film opens, Brady has already been thrown and trampled by a bronco at a rodeo; the right side of his head is shaved, revealing a big gash stapled shut over a steel plate. Well-wishers from the community ask when he can expect to ride again; it’s unclear whether Brady’s answer is more for his or their benefit.

The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is poetic, revealing a dream-like vision of an America that seems to only exist in history and Westerns. Both Zhao and the camera are adept at capturing the relationship between man and beast. Brady clearly has a talent, which makes his injury even more devastating. In one poignant scene, Brady’s father sells off his beloved horse, reasoning that the family is in debt and Brady can’t ride anymore.

Masculinity is the unspoken theme of the film. Zhao has recalled in interviews how difficult it was to get Brady to cry on camera; it went against the macho rodeo culture. As the titular character of the film, Brady obviously feels that he’s lost something when the doctor issues his ultimatum. His inability to ride is like a form of impotence when he’s around his other cowboy friends, some of whom are even younger than Brady – boys who can’t even properly grow facial hair, yet choose to participate in this dangerous sport, but to what end?

Some of the most powerful scenes feature Brady visiting his friend Lane Scott (playing himself), a former rodeo star left partially paralyzed after a car accident who lives in a rehabilitation facility. Together they watch YouTube videos of themselves from their glory days, and one has to wonder whether it hurts more than it helps to be confronted by memories that way.

Though The Rider drags at times, Brady’s journey is breathtaking to watch, and it’s a true testament to Zhao that the Jandreau family and their community trusted her enough to capture their story in such an intimate, vulnerable way.

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