Thursday, August 16, 2018

A boy and a wolf develop a strong bond

Alpha does a decent job as a prehistoric adventure with an emotional core.

Alpha tells the story of a boy and his dog . . . er ...I mean a boy and his wolf . . . er ... make that a wolf that’s morphing into a dog.

Set in Europe 20,000 years ago, Alpha introduces us to a small tribe of hunters struggling to survive at the end of the Ice Age. The tribe has a leg up on other movie residents of pre-history: These tribesmen already know how to start fires. They wear clothing made from animal hides. They speak a language that seems reasonably well developed. (Promotional material for the movie says the language was created for Alpha.)

Food remains a problem. Each year, the men of the tribe set out on a hunt for steppe bison, beasts that will help them make it through the brutally cold winters.

The hunt also provides a testing ground for the tribe's young men. Do they measure up? Will they prove themselves able to close the deal when it came to killing for food?

Directed by Albert Hughes, who with his brother made the great 1990s film, Menace II Society, Alpha focuses on young Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man who must make the transition from boyhood to manhood. Keda’s mother (Natassia Malthe) worries that the Keda has more heart than killer instinct, but his father (Johannes Haukur Johanneson) pushes the boy, offering him some Darwinian advice: Life is for the strong. Dad wants Keda to emerge as a leader.

Full of raw imagery and gripping action, Alpha includes a heart-pounding scene in which the men of the tribe close in on a herd of bison. In the ensuing stampede, Keda is thrown off a cliff and left for dead on a ledge from which there appears to be no escape.

I won't say more, but Keda manages to revive himself and then tries to return home. The adventurer’s journey gives Alpha a tried-and-true storyline. The hero must battle long odds to return to the place where the story began.

Along the way, Keda develops a relationship with a wolf, a wounded animal that slowly makes the transition from foe to friend. Keda names the wolf “Alpha.” Alpha learns to help Keda hunt and also provides the boy with companionship. The young man and wolf develop mutually beneficial dependencies.

Ample use of CGI helps Hughes deliver the adventure goods in a movie that doesn’t skimp on sights that might put you off your popcorn, eating maggots, for example.

Quibbles? Many. The men look a bit too clean for their historical moment and their use of language seems overly advanced. Early on, Keda’s mom talks about how much she loves her son. I couldn't help but wonder what the word "love" might mean in the Ice Age anyway?

Young Keda also complains about the odor of some of the characters, something you'd think he'd have gotten used to in this pre-deodorized age.

For all that, Hughes works to create a convincing natural environment, creating a feeling for a time when darkness really was dark and the sky brimmed with twinkling stars. He captures some of the mystery of an encounter with nature that has been lost to progress.

I wouldn’t call Alpha a classic and I can’t keep myself from sometimes chuckling at prehistoric dramas featuring men who have been groomed to look as if they’ve never seen a mirror without totally persuading us that these same men haven’t just arrived fresh from a make-up trailer.

Still, Alpha succeeds in blending a simple and affecting story with lots of action. It's a reasonable exercise of imagination -- if not an entirely convincing one -- about the time when our enduring bonds with dogs began.

Jigsaw puzzles and skateboards

Kelly Macdonald gives Puzzle its center.
Kelly Macdonald, who made a major impression on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, scores in Puzzle as a housewife living a drab life with her garage-owning husband (David Denman) and her two teen-age sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams). As the only person in the house who's happy, Dad can't seem to understand why everyone else doesn't share his contentment. A movie such as Puzzle isn't exactly shrouded in mystery: We know that Macdonald's Agnes is due for some break-out moves. She begins to find her voice when she discovers that she's a whiz at assembling jigsaw puzzles. She sees patterns where others see chaos. When Agnes travels to New York City to buy puzzles, she notices a note on the bulletin board of a game store. Turns out a wealthy investor (Irrfan Khan) is searching for a partner to enter a doubles jigsaw contest. Not everything Agnes does to break a mold defined by her Catholicism and convention feels credible, but Macdonald's tentative, slowly emerging performance gives the film a strong center. Based on a 2010 Argentinian film Rompecabezas, Puzzle employs a fine cast that's a bit let down by a story that never quite peaks. Still, director Marc Turtletaub respects the performances, which are all first rate and Puzzle tallies a distinct — if minor — victory.

An authentic look at world of skateboarding. Is that enough?

Skate Kitchen immerses us in the world of teenage girls who live in and help define skateboard culture. Director Crystal Moselle, who directed the fine documetary Wolfpack, gives her movie lots of authenticity, building her story around Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a skateboarder who's frequently at odds with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Mom thinks her daughter should find something better to do with her time than use Manhattan as a skateboard playground by latching on to the back of trucks or sliding down banisters, for example. Maybe Mom is right: Early on, Camille is "credit-carded," a phrase referring to what happens when an errant skateboard lands in a boarder's crotch. Moselle spends more time developing the skateboard scene than she does with a plot that ultimately finds Camille establishing a relationship with a boy (Jaden Smith) who once dated one of her skating buddies (Dede Lovelace). Frankly, I'm a little tired of movies steeped in teen culture, even when it's presented with a degree of realism that makes the movie feel as if it might have been derived from a documentary. I've read that the cast includes many non-actors, young women from something known as the Skate Kitchen Collective. A documentary about them might have been just as revealing as this meandering feature.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Obligation vs. love in 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel arrives on screen boasting a staggering level of glamor.
At one point in Crazy Rich Asians, the unashamedly lavish adaptation of author Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel, an affluent resident of Singapore encourages his son to eat his dinner by telling him that children are starving in America.

With a single joke -- casually delivered by Ken Jeong -- the movie signals a global reversal of fortune. Forget American prosperity. Asia is not only on the rise, it already has risen. Take that white people.

That's the closest we get to satire in Crazy Rich Asians, a movie so preposterously glamorous, it manages to go beyond fantasy into a material nirvana in which consumption is abundant, conspicuous and treated as an irrevocable birthright of the movie's rich second-generation Asians.

Rather than lampooning the capitalist devotions of the impossibly wealthy residents of Singapore -- a city that couldn't be any more invitingly displayed than it is by director Jon Chu -- Crazy Rich Asian turns into the year's most beautifully appointed rom-com: Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of an American economic professor (Constance Wu) who falls in love with the favored son (Henry Golding) of a wealthy Singapore-based family before she knows that Golding's Nick Young is rich enough to buy half of New York.

The story embarks on its journey when Nick invites Wu's Rachel Chu to travel with him from New York to Singapore for his best friend's wedding. She doesn't know that Nick not only has model-quality looks but belongs to one of Singapore's wealthiest families. He's not just another guy; he's a walking conglomerate.

Of course, Nick's best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) also is fashion-plate handsome, evidently a requirement for the movie's casting director who has populated Crazy Rich Asians with some of the best-looking people in the world.

After arriving in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians gets down to business: A down-to-earth young woman finds herself at sea amid Singapore's snobby, closed-minded rich. Her main adversary: Nick's mother, played with steely determination by Michelle Yeoh.

Yeoh's Eleanor Young disdains the American notion of personal fulfillment, preferring to hoist a banner of family sacrifice. She believes only fierce loyalty can elevate a family into the modern equivalent of royalty. She favors alliances, not love. In Eleanor's view, Rachel just doesn't bring enough to the table to deserve a marriage to Nick.

All that sounds serious, but the movie's issues emerge amid an ornate comic brocade that features a scene-stealing performance by rapper Awkwafina, who plays a young woman who attended college with Rachel and now lives in Singapore. Her family is well off but has yet to reach the imperial level of the Youngs. She's the sassy best friend who loves penetrating Singapore's wealthy circles but who also understands the absurdity that defines snobbery. Her character has bubble-bursting appeal.

The characters are a well-represented bunch of skin-deep socialites -- some of whom seem more interested in spending wealth than in protecting it. Nico Santos portrays a gay man with a keenly developed fashion sense. Jimmy O. Yang plays one of Nick's hard-partying pals, a guy rich enough to throw Nick's bachelor party by renting a container ship and turning it into a nightclub.

One of Nick's cousins -- Gemma Chan's Astrid -- has become successful in her own right; Astrid registers as an ambitious woman whose marriage has hit a rough patch. She and Yeoh give the movie a welcome bit of dramatic weight.

Wu makes a fine female lead and Golding, who never has acted before, looks the part. Expecting to find hard-core realism in a movie such as Crazy Rich Asians qualifies as a lost cause. Still, the movie already has been hailed as something of a landmark, the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since 1993's Joy Luck Club brought author Amy Tan's novel to the screen. It's too early to say what impact the movie will have on future Hollywood production. Keep your eye on box office receipts for a clue.

At times, Crazy Rich Asians is so unashamedly shallow that you almost marvel at its chutzpah (not a Chinese word). Nowhere is this more evident than in a wedding scene in which the bride walks down a water-flooded aisle to reach the waiting bridegroom. I laughed; some of the audience at a preview screening sighed. Take your pick.

The screenplay -- credited to Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim -- includes the requisite number of bitchy lines delivered by the women who envy Rachel's success at snagging the story's prize male. Chu hasn't neglected the reliable tropes of the rom-com formula; he embraces them and uses them to give the movie a comfortable familiarity.

Crazy Rich Asians may not be a great movie (or even a particularly good one) but watching it feels like taking that luxury vacation that the starving people of America couldn't possibly afford. Think of it as a trip to a cinematic spa in the company of some of the world's best dressed and most attractive people.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

A black cop infiltrates the KKK

In BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee tells an incredible true story about American racism.
As is the case with every state in America's often wobbly union, Colorado has no shortage of shameful racist history. In the 1920s and 1930s, Denver’s mayor — Ben Stapleton — was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, as were other notable public figures in the state. The controversy over Stapleton's Klan affiliation continues: Some argue that Denver's Stapleton neighborhood, built on the site of the old Stapleton International Airport, should be renamed.

But Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman -- set in Colorado Springs -- doesn't derive its power exclusively from the state's shameful past. In telling the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado Springs detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, Lee turns a glaring spotlight on a moment that has relevance in the deeply troubled present. Post Charlottesville, it's no longer possible -- if it ever has been -- to give hate-group activities the security of historical shelter.

No stranger to controversy, Lee can be both a cinematic agitator and a gifted filmmaker. Often he’s both — and in the same movie. He's able to mix the stark strokes of agitprop with softer dramatic tones; he can allow for nuance and humor or he can ignore dramatic shading entirely. The approach makes sense when Lee works in areas in which clear racial lines are drawn, the most famous example being Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing, now 29 years old.

With BlacKkKlansman — co-written by Lee and three other writers -- Lee has hold of another story that allows him to address racial issues in a way that's volatile, telling and sharply attuned to the tragic absurdity of unleashed bigotry and ignorance.

As the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth (John David Washington) faced racism from some of his co-workers but found his niche as an undercover officer. His work in exposing the Klan began when he responded by phone to a newspaper ad seeking KKK recruits.

Eventually, Stallworth even spoke with white supremacist David Duke (Topher Grace), then Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Obviously, infiltrating the Klan required face-to-face contacts that Stallworth couldn’t make. Enter fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In meetings with Klan members, Zimmerman posed as Stallworth, another bit of deception because Zimmerman happened to be Jewish, not a favored group among Klansmen.

Early on, Lee connects Stallworth's story to period realities about race. Sent to a speech by Kwame Ture -- formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) -- Stallworth finds himself in the awkward position of being a "spy" who’s not necessarily at odds with Ture’s analysis of America's racial situation.

Stallworth's presence at Ture's speech in itself qualifies as racially suspect: The Colorado Springs police worried that Ture would inspire violent protests among the city’s black population.

Let me leap ahead: Perhaps because he's both a storyteller and commentator, Lee concludes his movie with footage of what happened in Charlottesville, Va., the white supremacist rally that Donald Trump tried to address evenhandedly with his good-people-on-both-sides comments.

Let's be honest, there aren’t two sides to a story of bluntly expressed racism that, in BlacKkKlansman, is directed at the African-American students of Colorado College. One of those students (Laura Harrier) also becomes a romantic interest for Stallworth, a man grappling with conflicting identities. He understands racism as well as anyone but is also reluctant to accept his comrades as “pigs," lest he is branded with the same label. Initially, he doesn't tell Harrier's character that he's a cop.

Washington, son of Denzel Washington, handles the movie’s double-identity requirements with simmering anger and wit. He and an excellent Driver don’t become immediate soul mates, which seems entirely realistic. They’re both doing their jobs. Driver plays a Jew without a strong Jewish identity. He hasn't given much previous thought to racism.

This being a Lee movie — Jordan Peele of Get Out fame produced — you won't find many subtly expressed ideas; the defense for the movie’s lack of nuance becomes obvious: When dealing with Klansmen, nuance would not only be superfluous but a notably stupid form of moral temporizing.

And, yes, Lee uses the absurdity of Stallworth’s situation to give the movie a variety of humorous scenes. When Duke visits Colorado Springs, Stallworth is assigned the task of guarding him. He even convinces Duke to pose for a picture with him, the city's only black policeman.

Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen plays the scariest of the racist Klansmen, who — at one point — confronts Driver’s Flip Zimmerman with suspicions that he might be Jewish, a tensely comic scene that hinges on whether Zimmerman has been circumcised. These Klansmen are in no danger of being confused with MENSA members.

Lee also adds references that link his movie to the American movie past, strategically inserting footage from Birth of a Nation, the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie that lionized the Klan, as well as from Gone with the Wind.

Lee has taken dramatic liberties to be sure -- Harrier's character is an invention and Driver's character wasn't Jewish. Overall, though, Lee does justice to a story that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true. Lee again puts the pedal to the metal in trying to acknowledge an ugly part of American life that shouldn’t be swept under any red, white and blue rug -- then or now.

Wild children and kids who are 'different'

A sensitive boy in a brutal world
You'll find moments of astonishing tenderness in director Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, an adaptation of a 2011 debut novel by Justin Torres. Employing a dream-like style, Zagar introduces us to a poor family in upstate New York. Alternately charming and brutal, Dad (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican. Emotionally unstable, Mom (Sheila Vand) is white. The couple has three sons -- Many, Joel and Jonah. The movie slowly brings its focus to Jonah, played with unselfconscious sensitivity by young Evan Rosado. The movie is at its best while observing the way three brothers behave in a world where adult supervision is sporadic. With the boys left to their own devices, Zagar penetrates the world of childhood in ways that capture its pain, joys, and cruelties. A key incident occurs when Dad tries to teach Jonah how to swim by gently leading him into the water and then abandoning him, an experience that Zagar takes as a touchstone for the rest of the movie. We the Animals has an appropriately aimless quality as it charts the ebb and flow of the boys' lives. The young actors (Isaiah Kristian and Josiah Gabriel play Jonah's brothers) are all convincing, as are Vand and Castillo. Eventually, though, Zagar's emphasis on style -- dreamy images, the occasional use of animation and fantasy elements — tends to distance us from the boys; the movie seems to unfold in a universe that is at once natural and otherworldly. Still, Zagar's movie marks a notable debut, a first work that proves memorable without quite scoring a bullseye.

Families cope with children who are 'different'

A documentary derived from psychologist Andrew Solomon's bestselling 2012 book, Far From the Tree looks at how families have adjusted to children who don't fit into standard molds: a boy with Down Syndrome, an autistic boy, several Little People and, perhaps unwisely, a 16-year-old who murdered an eight-year-old. If there's an overriding theme here, it's one of acceptance; i.e., disability doesn't necessarily equate with tragedy. This is not an easily arrived at conclusion for the film's parents who talk about the difficulties they faced in trying to adjust to children who are "different.” They also talk about the challenges of trying to give their offspring the greatest chance for meaningful lives. To its credit, the film ultimately approaches the larger question: Exactly what constitutes a meaningful life? Jack, the movie's autistic boy, provides one of the movie's more emotional moments. Unable to speak, he's coaxed into using a keyboard to reveal his heretofore undisclosed thoughts. He types, "I'm trying and I'm really smart," a statement that strikes his parents and us as nearly miraculous. Jack, we learn, is more than a collection of symptoms; he's conscious and alert inside a world that previously seemed walled off. Director Rachel Dretzin introduces each character and situation and finally loops back to update each story and give the film its emotional conclusion. She uses Solomon's story -- his adjustment to being gay -- as the point from which the other stories radiate. As a young man initially rejected by his parents, Solomon wanted to learn something about the nature of family. You can't help but empathize with the people you'll meet in Far From the Tree, but Dretzin, whose multi-subject approach sometimes feels sketchy, doesn't devote much time to the financial burdens these families face. Moreover, the inclusion of a murderer -- even one still loved by his tormented family -- seems a stretch. In sum, though, these stories create an emotional arc that moves from heartbreak to inspiration. Many will want to bring a handkerchief.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A doc about The King and his kingdom

If you are unable to see Elvis Presley as a symbol of everything that's both right and wrong with America, you may not get much out of The King, director Eugene Jarecki's far-reaching and often incisive documentary. Although Jarecki includes biographical information about Presley's rocket-ride of a life, he also uses Elvis as a launch point for larger observations about cultural appropriation, American bloat and other matters that, in sum, paint a portrait of American life on the downswing. Some of the interviews in The King take place in the back seat of Elvis's 1963 Rolls-Royce, a car that breaks down during Jarecki's travels, resulting in a bit of unplanned irony. Among the people Jarecki interviews, Ethan Hawke stands out as both knowledgeable and insightful. We also get music, including a show-stopping performance from EmiSunshine and the Rain. Jarecki bites off so much that he almost tears the film apart as we try — not always successfully — to digest its broad array of thematic elements. And, of course, it's all supported by the familiar arc of Elvis's story, a tale that follows him from dirt-poor beginnings in Tupelo, Miss. to the glitz and indulgence of Las Vegas. Rapper and producer Chuck D sounds one of the movie's strongest notes, noting that he’s not about to jump on the Elvis train. Elvis found his style by listening to black music, and many feel he never acknowledged the debt. These days, I'm up for some serious pessimism, so The King hooked me with its sweeping observations and culturual criticisms. Watching The King is a bit like sitting at the end of the bar while a slightly tipsy man rails about everything under the sun. The difference: Much of The King proves interesting and some it, even salient. That's because The King is as much about the kingdom as it is about Elvis’s pop-cultural royalty.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A highly absurd helping of action

In Skyscraper, Dwayne Johnson races to save his wife and children. At times, the movie proves preposterously amusing.
Say this, Dwayne Johnson doesn't need a special costume to be a superhero. It seems as if the guy's saving someone every other week at the movies. That's an exaggeration, of course, but Johnson has become one of Hollywood's heavy lifters, a prolific action star who has yet to wear out his welcome.

Credit Skyscraper with carrying Johnson to new heights of preposterousness with lots of digitally created action. The movie's cornucopia of set pieces includes a much-written-about scene in which Johnson's character leaps a reported 40 feet from a giant construction crane to The Pearl, the Hong Kong skyscraper in which much of the movie takes place. He’s supposed to be 100 stories in the air — or some such.

But, hey, who's looking for realism? With movies such as Skyscraper, we're not expected to believe that such a feat could be accomplished. We're supposed to enjoy it precisely because we know it's impossible.

Johnson's Will Sawyer makes many such daring leaps because he has taken a job evaluating security at the world's tallest skyscraper, a marvel of a building that's three times taller than the Empire State Building.

The Pearl makes for an inviting setting, the pride of its billionaire creator (Chin Han). The building features a design that includes lots of curved surfaces and an indoor garden with a waterfall that plunges from lofty heights. The building is topped by what looks like a giant tennis ball, but really houses a series of electronic projectors that, of course, figure in the movie's hall-of-mirrors finale.

The screenplay contrives to put Sawyer's family in harm's way. His wife (Neve Campbell) and twins (a boy and a girl) are trapped in the building after it has been set on fire by villains who are trying to bully Han's character into turning over a computer chip.

Why do they want it? Does it matter?

Hardly.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber's main job has less to do with creating complex motivations for his characters than with churning out vertiginous set pieces and, then, moving the characters from one to the next.

Johnson doesn't have much dialogue, but he sweats and grunts impressively as his character engages in activities that might challenge Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible character.

To complicate matters, Will has a prosthetic leg as a result of injuries sustained in the movie's prologue, which takes place when he was still an FBI agent. And, yes, the leg will be put to use before the action concludes.

Thurber, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't create a consistent enough atmosphere to support the movie's ridiculously conceived action. He shifts tones, adds unnecessary gunplay and becomes repetitious as he races through a harebrained screenplay: Its signature distinction: an emphasis on the many uses of duct tape.

The fun of the movie hinges on watching Johnson carry out all this over-the-top action as if he really believed in its importance. At one point, Will uses his amazing strength to hold two severed parts of the building in place while his wife walks across a plank to save their asthmatic son.

Despite such super-human displays, Johnson isn't quite strong enough to hold the movie together, but if you're willing to check all of your critical faculties at the door, Skyscraper might qualify as one of the summer's guiltier pleasures.

A satirical comedy with lots of bite

Sorry to Bother You takes on the world of telemarketing -- and much more.
In the age of excess and toppling norms, it seems impossible for anyone to make a satire that could match reality, particularly as precedent crumbles with thundering regularity.

But in presenting an overstuffed but vibrant satire, Boots Riley — a Hip Hopper moved behind the camera — comes awfully close and if Riley tries to say too much, perhaps he should be forgiven. Better too much than nothing at all.

On its surface, Riley’s Sorry to Bother You seems like a comedy directed at one of the great contemporary nuisances, telemarketing. Anyone who has answered one of those pesky calls during dinner obviously should relate. But Riley has more in mind -- much more.

The story centers on Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an unemployed young man who lands a job at a telemarketing company, having impressed his prospective employer by falsifying his resume. The point quickly becomes clear: In the telemarketing business, a commitment to honesty might be the least valuable asset an employee can possess.

Initially, Cassius -- a.k.a. Cash -- doesn’t meet with much success. Riley illustrates this by dropping the fumbling Cash into the lives of the people he calls, sight gags that enlarge an already colossal annoyance. Wham! There's Cash giving his spiel while a couple makes love.

It doesn’t take long for Cash to learn the secret of successful telemarketing. A sage old-timer (Danny Glover) advises him to use his “white voice” as a means of draining the swamp of desperation callers might hear if Cash talks normally. Cash begins talking "white" courtesy of a voice supplied by David Cross.

Lo, Cash works his way up the corporate ladder. He’s so good at his job that he’s promoted to the ranks of Power Caller, a coveted position that moves him to an upper floor accessed by a golden-doored elevator with the world’s most elaborate security code.

Cash soon learns that, as a Power Caller, he has one job: to sell the services of Worry Free, a company that supplies workers to other companies, a euphemistic way of saying that Worry Free employees become lifetime servants of their employer. Those who work for Worry Free are housed and fed (badly) by the company. In every way imaginable, they become subservient to a corporate juggernaut, which is led by a character named Steve Lift (a bearded Armie Hammer).

With help from a Power Caller supervisor (Omari Hardwick), Cash catches Lift's eye. Turns out that Lift, played by Hammer as a hotshot who hides his cruelty and greed beneath a banner of innovation, has a special proposition for Cash.

All this plunges Cash into an ethical crisis. While he’s advancing, his buddies from the lower floor — led by a firebrand played by Steven Yeun) —- are trying to unionize. They have the audacity to demand salaries and benefits rather than wages based solely on commission.

Stanfield, familiar to those who watch TV's Atlanta, has the ability to portray Cash as a half-formed man; he's clearly smart but we wonder if he could truly realize himself only by refusing to participate in the rigged economy out of which Riley's satire bubbles.

Cash's morally compromised success also puts him at odds with his girlfriend (Tessa Thompson), an artist who eventually draws a line: Either Cash shapes up morally or she'll ship out.

When a director employs cartoonish visual jests that lead us toward a bizarre sci-fi fantasy, he’s bound to include a few misses among the hits. A piece of performance art by Thompson’s character may leave you scratching your head.

But Riley drops a persistent question about black male characters into a new context. Can Cash maintain any semblance of an authentic self while navigating a corporate world where his voice (literally and metaphorically) proves a crippling liability?

But Riley doesn’t stop there: He also takes on game shows, reality TV, corporate greed, race, and, perhaps most important, public indifference, the way we’ve all become too numb to feel any more outrage. In a climate that breeds indifference, it may be impossible for individual action to become socially transformative.

Sorry to Bother You stands as a comedy that strikes enough targets to make it a welcome attempt to say something about where we actually are — instead of trying to transport us, as many movies do, to places we’d rather be.

An amazing story about triplets

If the story told by the documentary Three Identical Strangers appeared in a newspaper or a magazine you'd most likely find yourself reading it compulsively. But, then, the story has been in many newspapers and magazines. Even so, director Tim Wardle has made one of the year's most intriguing movies, a journey that begins with an effervescent sense of joy before moving to much darker places. The early part of the movie focuses on the incredible tale of how three brothers separated at birth and adopted by different parents found each other as young men in 1980. As the brothers' association continued, they emphasized their similarities. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, loved the same foods, finished each other's sentences and had similar tastes in women. Eventually, they opened a restaurant -- Triplets -- that for a time was an attraction in New York. Much of the audience won't know the rest of the story, so I'll not say much beyond the fact that all three brothers were adopted from Louise Wise Services, an agency that specializes in Jewish adoptions. Based on interviews with the brothers and their parents, as well as with journalist Lawrence Wright, who investigated matters concerning the triplets’ adoptions, the movie begins to grow in complexity. By the time we reach the movie's conclusion, the dark side has taken over, so much so that what initially seemed like a novelty item has turned into something far more unsettling. Wardle makes use of dramatizations, a technique I'm reflexively against in documentaries, but he knows how to keep an audience involved and he has hold of a story that ultimately leaves us with questions about the intentions of an adoption agency, as well as about a team of psychological researchers. Three Identical Strangers begins as a curiosity but evolves into a movie about brothers whose glee at finding one another is undermined by the escalating revelation of difficult truths.