Oakland Is on a Roll
by Gary Meyer
Social media has been hot for BLACK PANTHER and two weeks ago it set an all-time advance ticket sales record for a Marvel film.Wait until you read the advance tweets from critics and celebrities. Can’t wait to see it with an audience at the Grand Lake where Oakland director Ryan Coogler’s break out FRUITVALE STATION was a huge hit followed by his wonderful CREED.
Oakland is on a roll, With two hot buzz films at Sundance both getting theatrical distribution deals —
BLINDSPOTTING generally got enthusiastic reviews (with reservations) about the total package. Bottom line was this is a movie to see, and the filmmakers should go far. David Fear’s Rolling Stone review of this opening night selection starts:
Then on came Festival Director John Cooper, who promised an opening-night selection that was “fun to the point of sassy.” He was not lying. If you can say nothing else about Blindspotting, it wears a fabulous, hard-fought cheekiness on its big-up-Oakland t-shirt sleeve. The story of two lifelong friends – one black, one white; one an ex-felon trying to make it out of probation, the other a grill-wearing would-be hood tough guy – fighting against the Bay Area city’s tide of gentrification and racial tension, this opening-night feature had more classic Sundance-movie elements than you could shake a terminally late shuttle-bus at. A partial roll call would include: a decades-in-conception backstory, a first-time director in Carlos López Estrada, a passion-project feel courtesy of its tight writer/producer/star duo, an excess of D.I.Y. let’s-put-on-a-show chutzpah, some social-issue skimming and a few famous faces. (A tip of the knit cap to Tisha Campbell-Martin, who straight-up walks away with her one scene as a hair salon badass. We’re cosigning on a spin-off movie.)
The longer you trail along beside Collin (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) as they work their mover day jobs, talk shit, take care of families and try to stay out of trouble, the more you get a sense of the film’s third character, Oakland – that opening montage of BART fights and block parties and street dancers and upper-crust encroachment is a valentine on par with Manhattan’s best-of-Big-Apple swooning. You also start to realize as the narrative goes on that the movie has a good old-fashioned case of the first-film hiccups, where ambitions exceed grasps and everything feels held together by spit, tape and dreams. Plus star charisma and chemistry: The Hamilton award-winner and his Bay Area poet buddy have a double-act patter that keeps the constant derailment threats at bay. “Everybody likes it when you make it sound pretty,” Casal’s smooth-talker says. “They like the bounce of it.“These guys have some serious back-and-forth bounce. Somebody needs to find them a franchise ASAP.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is rapper Oakland Boots Riley’s bonkers near-future satire.
Brian Tallerico on RogerEbert.com:
There’s been an energy that’s been somewhat lacking at Sundance 2018 so far. The buzz among critics is that there’s no “The Big Sick” or “A Ghost Story” or “Call Me By Your Name” this year, and people feel like they’re anxiously waiting for that film to explode into the public consciousness like great ones have from this platform in the past. You could literally sense that anticipation in the room before Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” premiered on Saturday night. People were laughing and chatting and buzzing. The promise of something unexpectedly groundbreaking, starring two of the best young performers alive, hummed in the air. And then the film unfolded…and it’s not exactly like anything that anyone there had ever seen before. It is a hilarious, moving, crazy, ambitious piece of satire, a film that’s inspired by visual artists like Michel Gondry and the visual language of music videos with a mind-blowingly daring sense of satire that recalls the extreme nature of someone like Jonathan Swift. It’s definitely a cultural commentary on the working class, especially the minorities within it, but it’s also about a dozen or so other things at the same time. It is a loud, passionate pronouncement of a major talent in writer/director Boots Riley (from the great The Coup), and it’s something you need to see to believe exists.
The increasingly phenomenal Lakeith Stanfield gives his best performance to date as Cassius Green, a 30-something Oakland resident who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Cassius is like so many men in this world, just trying to make ends meet and getting tired of that numbing pursuit defining his life. He openly wonders to his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) if any of it really matters. Who will remember him when he’s gone? What impact could he make? And it certainly doesn’t seem like his societal relevance will be on the upswing when he gets a horrendous telemarketer job at a company called RegalView. But things change for Cassius when he learns how to master the use of his “white voice” when making calls, allowing him to move up the ranks in his company to the “power callers” who work upstairs, selling, well, things people really shouldn’t be selling.
Like any film this ambitious, there are undeniably a few jokes and scenes that just don’t quite work, but I praised the other Oakland social commentary at Sundance this year, “Blindspotting,” for being ambitious in a world of lazy indie filmmaking, and that’s even more true here. I’d rather see something that swings for the fences like “Sorry to Bother You” than something that plays it safe. There’s nothing safe about Boots Riley’s film—nothing predictable, nothing derivative or generic, nothing routine. It is what we want from Sundance in that it’s a confrontational, unforgettable announcement of a new talent. The buzz is back.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gary Meyer is a long-time Grand-Lake neighborhood resident who co-founded Landmark Theatres, saved the 1926 Balboa Theater in SF, and was Co-director of the Telluride Film Festival from 2007-2014. He currently consults with filmmakers, film festivals, and independent exhibitors; publishes EatDrinkFilms.com; and volunteers for Oakland community projects.