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“Sorry to Bother You” Smashes Corporate America and the Rules of Movie Storytelling

Much of the past ten years or so of indie cinema has played like a lot of low-budget auditions for filmmakers yearning to go mainstream. That’s not a knock against the few who have made it or their accoladed films — it is near impossible to make something good enough to gain that foothold. And then you get the occasional entrenched director like David O. Russell winning the most prestigious indie awards for a mainstream-but-quirky film populated by A-list actors, as happened in 2013 when Silver Linings Playbook with its $21 million production budget swept the Spirit Awards. So what the hell is indie cinema, anyway? What is its actual purpose? A launching pad for Hollywood, or an anti-Hollywood space for cinematic experimentation? Can it be both?

Those are the questions I was asking myself before I first saw the Coup frontman Boots Riley’s profoundly hilarious and disturbing and shocking and stirring directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. I will be very clear with you, dear readers, that this surrealist comic moral tale, about a poor man selling his soul to ascend in a golden elevator to the heights of a dubious corporation, is a balls-to-the-wall, tits-to-the-glass, spectacular orgy of fist-pumping, anti-capitalist, pro-labor ideas rolled into 105 minutes of gloriously unpredictable plot. And just when you thought the film couldn’t get any more bizarre, it verges suddenly into science fiction. This, my friends, is indie cinema.

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) bunks in his uncle’s garage in Oakland, California. He’s so poor that he measures his gas tank fill-ups in jingle change. “Forty on two,” he tells the cashier, tossing three coins on the counter. Still, his provocative artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), sticks by his side, ride or die — Cash may be broke, but he’s still got his heart and his values. That all changes when Cash gets a job at a call center and becomes the best telemarketer in the building, thanks to his cubiclemate Langston (Danny Glover) giving him the secret to success: Use your “white voice.” From then on, whenever Cash makes a call, the nasally tones of comedian David Cross emit from his mouth. Speaking whitely, he wheedles people on the other end of the line into buying whatever the hell it is that he’s selling; he doesn’t care what the product is, just as long as someone’s paying.

Meanwhile, Detroit takes a job at the call center, too, where there’s talk of a union brewing, led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Cash’s rise to wealth within the company separates him from his friends, and Riley’s depiction of the clan of elite assholes at the top is sheer brilliance. If you thought Silicon Valley’s skewering of tech bros was cutting, Riley’s version of a Bay Area capitalist asshole is diced up with a block of QVC-sold Ginsu knives: messy and satisfyingly shredded.

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There really is a golden elevator only the biggest sellers of the company can take, and inside that elevator, Kate Berlant’s Diana DeBauchery pumps up these “power callers” with vigorous platitudes that assure them of their masculine power. And at the top of the top of the top of this pyramid-scheming empire is one man, Steve Lift, a coke-sniffing imbecile rich boy played by a transcendently evil Armie Hammer, who here comes close to the spirit of the old gleefully erratic performances of Bill Paxton. Steve is a petulant child in the body of a man bedecked with many fashion scarves. Though the guy is total trash, the media dotes on him, allowing him to sincerely apologize again and again for the travesties this billionaire disruptor has inflicted upon the world, like his company Worry Free, which offers the broke room and board for life in exchange for indentured servitude. Oh God, we are so fucked.

He, of course, brings to mind titans like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, which is why, when I saw this film at Sundance, I declared that I would punch myself in the face if Amazon bought and distributed the film. (Annapurna stepped in instead.)

Amid all the chaos of the corporate sphere, Riley is also satirizing the outside world and Americans’ appetite for our own destruction. We see snippets of a wildly popular TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, wherein contestants are beat to a pulp for a chunk of change and a fleeting bit of fame. These asides might be taken as tangents, and the plot’s developments at times could seem tenuous, but I found them totally daring and confident, as though Riley knew the rules of every screenwriting guide and the demand for “realism,” and he said, “Nah, I’m good,” because he had bigger points to make with a scene or character. So I reveled in what some viewers might consider “mistakes.”

Stanfield, though his contribution is ginormous, exudes the easy charm and sensitivity of Bill Murray and the nuanced comic delivery of early Eddie Murphy, and I hope his succession of great roles after this film, Get Out, and Atlanta does not end, but he’ll need creators as daring as Riley for that.

There’s an adage among filmmakers that your first feature better be your calling card, your id laid bare on the page and screen, because you’ll never be more daring, more yourself, than you were then. Whether or not Riley goes mainstream, he has shot his shot with Sorry to Bother You, a film bleeding with the passion and energy of a director who desires to make, above all else, a revolution, not just a movie.

Sorry to Bother You
Written and directed by Boots Riley
Annapurna Pictures
Opens July 6, Angelika Film Center, Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, and BAM

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The Best NYC Shows This Week: Pantha Du Prince, Anthony Naples, John Darnielle

The diversity of New York nightlife is sometimes staggering, and this week is no exception. There’s really something for everyone: an installation by subversive power electronics genius Moor Mother; a show from a punk legend’s new and exciting venture; Eighties pop–inspired Australian groups; and innovative house music. Go out and take advantage of the variety.

3/6
Moor Mother
The Kitchen
8 p.m., $20–$25

The artist Camae Ayewa will take over Manhattan experimental arts institution the Kitchen for two nights this week to showcase an installation around her upcoming second album as Moor Mother, Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes. Ayewa is one of today’s most exciting and promising artists. With noise, spoken word, power electronics, gospel, and goth aesthetics, she tells stories about the past, present, and future of Black America unlike anyone else. Her performances are always art, but at this show she’ll expand her medium to include soundscape installation, film, collage, and poetry. Everything Ayewa does is fascinating and affecting — don’t miss out. Also 3/7.

3/7
Secret Circle
Market Hotel
8 p.m., $25+

Secret Circle is a hip-hop supergroup made up of an unlikely cadre of collaborators: Antwon, a vibed-out rapper from the Bay Area; Wiki, the underground New York hip-hop artist who heads the project Ratking; and Lil Ugly Mane, a noise-turned-trap artist from Richmond, Virginia. These creators bring their diverse influences to Secret Circle, where they merge in fascinating ways, often over lo-fi beats. The group’s strongest feature is their distinct rapping styles, which are at times even more interesting playing off each other than they are on their own. See how these ingredients mix live at Market Hotel.

3/8
Parlor Walls, Fruit & Flowers, Sodium Beast, Toyzanne
Rose Gold
7 p.m., $10

Brooklyn’s Parlor Walls straddles a hazy line between indie rock, jazz, and no wave, and the results surpass most other straight indie rock acts working today. Like their Brooklynite peers Pill, Parlor Walls mixes noise with repetitive phrases, saxophone riffs, and alternatingly sung and spoken vocals. But in place of Pill’s ragged rage and minimalist tendencies, Parlor Walls pads out their songs with full arrangements that bloom and wither into real jazz. One of the best things you can say about a band is that they’re unpredictable — Parlor Walls fit that bill.

Pantha Du Prince, Logan Takahashi, Aria Rostami
The Hall at Elsewhere
8 p.m., $20–$30

Pantha Du Prince is one of the few techno producers who has been able, with his creative, melodic, and intricate songs, to make the leap from the dance-music realm into indie-music consciousness. Translation: Whether you’re a techno nerd or someone who can’t tell the difference between a 303 and an 808, you’ll find something to enjoy in his detailed and moody compositions. Logan Takahashi, of the electro-pop group Teengirl Fantasy, will back him up with a DJ set in Elsewhere’s main room.

3/9
Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders
Eszter Balint, David Cross, John Darnielle, James Gleick, Nellie McKay, David Nagler, S.J. Roza
City Winery
6 p.m., $25–$35

Wesley Stace is a British folk singer who, under the name John Wesley Harding, has recorded an absurd amount of laid-back-Americana material over his thirty-year career. But Stace won’t be center stage for his showcase at City Winery. Instead, he brings his many gifted friends together for a fascinating combination of performances. Most excitingly, John Darnielle, the lead singer of the profound and literary indie band the Mountain Goats, is slated to play. For his fans, Darnielle’s presence on a bill is enough of a reason to come out. But if you aren’t a convert, there’s plenty of other talent here. The hilarious comedian and actor David Cross, known for Mr. Show and Arrested Development, will make an appearance, alongside a menagerie of assorted folk and pop artists.

3/10
Alex Cameron, Molly Burch
Music Hall of Williamsburg
8 p.m., $15–$18

On his records, the Australian singer-songwriter Alex Cameron takes on the persona of a sleazy, washed-up lounge singer. His dedication to this role is deep — he’s even been known to put on fake wrinkles to perform. But the music on his second album, Forced Witness, doesn’t need that context to work. It’s wonderfully schmaltzy Eighties pop that stands on its own, and works as a satire of the alpha-male caricature associated with leading men in pop music, as well as in Australian culture. Also 3/12.

ESCAPE-ISM, Chorizo
Berlin
8 p.m., $12

With such bands as Chain and the Gang and Nation of Ulysses, Ian Svenonius has contributed a great deal to the evolution of punk music. With his new project, Escape-ism, Svenonius takes a different approach, playing minimalist, sexy post-punk on vintage-sounding drum machines. His elastic, growling, breathy voice shines over these simple and sometimes industrial productions. Svenonius will be joined by Brooklyn band Chorizo, who play exuberant, brash, and political punk.

Anthony Naples, HUERCO S.
Nowadays
10 p.m., $15–$20

If you like dancing to satisfying and innovative house music, not much can beat a night of sets by Anthony Naples and Huerco S. Naples is a longtime house producer and DJ who regularly plays Brooklyn parties like Mister Saturday Night. Huerco S. is a producer who creates beguiling ambient techno soundscapes, but is no stranger to dance-floor grooves, either. Together they’ll keep the good vibes and great beats going all night long.

The New Colossus Inaugural Day Party
Casper Skulls, Motherhood, Wooing, Big White, Blush, PONY, Ricky Lewis, Sur Back, RALPH, Twiga, Gingerlys, Doe
Pianos
1 p.m., free

Somehow, it’s March, and that means South by Southwest is almost upon us. For New Yorkers, the annual Texan music frenzy is a chance to see bands that pass through the city on their way to Austin. That’s the entire purpose of this free daytime show, which features many international bands alongside a few local favorites. Of note are Canadian group Casper Skulls, who make friendly, catchy indie pop; the dreamy NYC grunge act Blush; and Australian surf pop band Big White.

Wild Yaks
El Cortez
7 p.m., $10

Brooklyn’s Wild Yaks play the kind of messy yet anthemic rock music that sounds like a sweaty room and a lukewarm cheap beer — in the best possible way. Something about their driving, pop-infused songs, with their sing-along choruses and horn flourishes, reminds us of a simpler time in Brooklyn music culture, before we lost great venues like Shea Stadium and Palisades. East Williamsburg tiki bar El Cortez is nothing like those magical, communal spaces, but they do have some damn good frozen mojitos.

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BORDER PATROL

Do we even need to explain why the brave physicians and nurses of Doctors Without Borders are in need of our support, now more than ever? Instead of getting spooked by media fear-mongering, actually do something about the ebola outbreak in West Africa: laugh. Tonight, comedians Fred Armisen, Janeane Garofalo, David Cross, and others come together with Ira Glass and Regina Spektor for an epic gathering of cool people. New Yorkers, especially, have a lot at stake when it comes to world health, so this is one benefit we can all, well, benefit from.

Wed., Nov. 19, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Recycled Jokes

There’s nothing funny about climate change. Except this. Tonight, the lovable Eugene Mirman hosts A Beacon in the Smog: A Comedy Benefit for Grist.org, the website that blends environmental news with a touch of humor. Wyatt Cenac
(The Daily Show), who can be counted on to appear anywhere in Brooklyn where there’s excellent comedy, performs alongside David Cross. And with typhoons
ravaging the Philippines and venomous baby spiders infesting banana crops, we could certainly use some levity, environment-wise. Eleanor Friedberger provides the music and Kurt Braunholer, named one of Time Out‘s “50 Funniest New Yorkers,” gets things rolling like a cloud of noxious industrial fumes. At 8, The Bell House, 149 7th Street, Brooklyn, 718-643-6510,
thebellhouseny.com, $25

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RECYCLED JOKES

There’s nothing funny about climate change. Except this. Tonight, the lovable Eugene Mirman hosts A Beacon in the Smog: A Comedy Benefit for Grist.org, the website that blends environmental news with a touch of humor. Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show), who can be counted on to appear anywhere in Brooklyn where there’s excellent comedy, performs alongside David Cross. And with typhoons ravaging the Philippines and venomous baby spiders infesting banana crops, we could certainly use some levity, environment-wise. Eleanor Friedberger provides the music and Kurt Braunholer, named one of Time Out’s “50 Funniest New Yorkers,” gets things rolling like a cloud of noxious industrial fumes.

Thu., Nov. 21, 8 p.m., 2013

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While Relevant, The Muslims Are Coming! Feels More Like a PSA than a Comedy

One part stand-up comedy concert film (think Kings of Comedy) to two parts social outreach activism, documentary The Muslims Are Coming! works somewhat better as the latter than the former. Co-directed by comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, the film follows a diverse group of American Muslim comics as they trek across the South (Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee) performing stand-up largely centered on their experiences as Muslims, with their lives in post–9/11 America receiving special emphasis. Pre-show happenings (setting up “Ask a Muslim” booths in public squares, or standing in public areas holding “Hug a Muslim” signs) as well as post-show Q&As are part of the arts activism agenda, as an impressive array of talking heads (from Rachel Maddow and Soledad O’Brien to Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, and David Cross) address Islamophobia and the function of minority identity in comedy. It’s an inarguably noble undertaking, one that’s unfortunately timely, but the film often feels like a profane PSA. You might wish that the comedians had simply filmed their routines and let those performances do the heavy lifting. But that would require that the material be stronger than the largely middling fare glimpsed in the excerpted shows. At one point, David Cross says that any time he sees a comedy lineup billed as “a night of ‘fill-in-the-blank’ comedy—women’s, gay, Jewish, whatever” he runs in the opposite direction, and the The Muslims Are Coming! inadvertently illustrates why he—or anyone else—might have that response.

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FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Before they were Saul Goodman and Tobias Fünke, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were co-creators of the wonderfully bizarre ’90s sketch-comedy series Mr. Show. Now they’re back together for the first time since their national tour in 2002 with a brand-new book: Hollywood Said No!, a collection of never-before-seen scripts, storyboards, and unaired sketches, along with the “constructive” notes a studio executive gave them and reflections from the duo on what went wrong. Catch them tonight at Powerhouse Arena for a discussion with the great Brian Posehn, and again on September 12 at Town Hall.

Tue., Sept. 10, 7:30 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 12, 7 p.m., 2013

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It’s a Disaster Remains Effervescent, Apocalypse Be Damned

Perhaps the first great indie apocalypse potluck comedy, Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster aces many of the fundamentals bobbled by too many of the films with which it shares DNA. Like dopey ol’ Cloverfield, this opens with get-to-know-the-cast party scenes, in this case a sharply observed and performed couples’ brunch, with a smart script and a thirty-ish ensemble so adept at taxonomizing these longtime friends’ secret resentments, ritualized peculiarities, and variable degrees of adulthood that audiences will not find themselves impatient for the end times to hit. One guy (Jeff Grace) dashes about the house searching out the best wireless connection so that he can monitor an online comic-book auction; a woman (the funny Rachel Boston) shame-brags that she and her randy lover did coke all night, and then asks why she always makes the mistake of talking about such things to friends that include a doctor and a chemistry teacher.

Then, as in Husbands and Wives, one couple (Erinn Hayes and Blaise Miller) has bad news to tell the others, and we’re treated to bracing, intelligent comedy about the specific hardships of specific romances, both new and old. And then, like The Mist and its Book of Revelation-ilk, all the teensy oddities that we may or may not have picked up on—the power and Internet coming in and out, the occasional wailing siren—coalesce into a balls-out end-of-civilization scenario, one setting our four couples into a flurry of activity: sealing the doors, searching for a radio, breaking up, reconciling, dumping all the pills from the medicine cabinet into one bucket-sized cocktail of homemade ecstasy. They’re stranded together in the house together until God knows when—unless, of course, they’re already doomed just from breathing the air.

The story’s outline may be familiar, but its emphasis and quality are not. As the apocalypse wears on, the comic couples continue being comic couples, and—save a pair of flat scenes in the middle—the movie maintains its effervescence.

Julia Stiles, who has never been better, and David Cross lead the cast as the freshest couple: This brunch is only their third date, and he is being trotted out to her friends. Early on, the party splits between men and women—as these things do even among the hippest, most progressive crowds—and his attempts to fit in with these men and this “game” they want to watch make for warm, awkward comedy. Since he’s had Mr. Show, Arrested Development, and his daring stand-up career, it’s no revelation to see Cross at last given lines to speak in a movie that are the equal of his own skill and intelligence. (He plays normal, mostly, a smart but gently nervous guy that you’d be happy to see a friend wind up with.)

But Julia Stiles is something of a revelation, her performance a beginning-of-great things in a film about the end of them. Long the best things in bad movies, or just Jason Bourne’s plus-one, Stiles here is the best thing in a good movie. At first she plays excitable yet nervous, the woman introducing the man she likes to her friends; then, as the world crumbles, she crumbles, too, her gawky optimism giving way to an angry put-upon-ness: The end of the world is just the kind of annoying thing that happens in her life. She finds a surprise in almost every line she delivers, yet she always sounds like an actual, knowable person, even as she makes the hardest of survival choices.

Stiles and Cross make such a likable, believable couple, that, for the first time in many months, I actually found myself rooting for movie characters to find their way together. Whether they do or not, I’ll leave to you to discover, saying no more than this: It’s a Disaster is the rare film with a perfect—absolutely perfect!—ending. And we haven’t even gotten to America Ferrera (also never better) all hopped up on pills and itching to wrestle.

 

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THE MAN INSIDE HIM

Since that cold, dark day in 2006 when Arrested Development was cancelled by Fox, David Cross, one of the show’s most endearing stars, has kept busy with film roles (most memorably as Allen Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There), his own wonderfully absurd television series The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret on IFC, and the recording of his third nonsensically titled comedy album, Bigger and Blackerer. But this May he returns to his finest role as Tobias Fünke, the denim-cutoffs-loving “buy-curious” 
wannabe actor on Arrested Development, which is being revived on Netflix with the entire original cast. Tonight, his fellow cast member Michael Cera talks to Cross about his career in comedy, returning to the Bluth family fold, and rumors about the film adaptation.

Wed., March 20, 8 p.m., 2013

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BACK TO SCHOOL

Whether or not you’re a movie buff, the Modern School of Film is one everyone will want to enroll in this year. Coming to the IFC Center, MSF lets celebrities pick their favorite movie and, after the screening, lead a discussion on its cinematic merits. On January 11, Fred Armisen teaches Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), starring Robert De Niro as an aspiring stand-up comedian who goes to the extreme to get a spot on The Jerry Langford Show (with Langford played by Jerry Lewis). Coming up later this month, David Cross shares his insights on Luis Buñuel’s surrealist comedy The Phantom of Liberty (1974) on January 23 and Talib Kweli presents the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) on January 31. Plus, tuition is a bargain at $17.

Fri., Jan. 11, 7 p.m.; Thu., Jan. 31, 7 p.m., 2013