Sundance Film Coverage: ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ ‘Studio 54’ and ‘Ophelia’
There’s verve, and then there’s nerve. Directors can spend years trying to sift a unique idea into a unique film, only to have it bastardized or otherwise enfolded into generic studio dribble. That’s the gift of a place like Sundance, seemingly the antithesis of the stuffy studio system: Here, you’re able to find voices with wild visions who, admittedly by some miracle, have found the money to construct a truly new story.
From the opening moments of “Sorry to Bother You,” you know you’re in the hands of a visionary. Director Boots Riley, making his debut amid a music career with The Coup, has crafted a somewhat psychedelic, Charlie Kaufman-esque balls-to-the-wall social satire that feels so unique, so new, so gripping and unpredictable. In Oakland, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, “Get Out”) finagles his way into a job at a telemarketing firm, finding a hierarchy that privileges white culture and abuses lower-rung workers. What ensues is a deft (and daft) racial satire that attacks its targets with violence and precision like an axe. The score by Merrill Garbus, who records as tUnE-yArDs is deliriously perfect, amplifying the bizarre world creation and logic that spools out from Riley’s delicious vision.
It would be too easy to dismiss, or even to categorize, “Sorry to Bother You” as “Get Out”-esque (though I will admit to using the descriptor in trying to hastily describe this film). While “Get Out” targets well-meaning white liberals, “Sorry to Bother You” takes on a larger topic: the corporate America that abuses history to serve its own purposes. Armie Hammer (“Call Me By Your Name”), who plays a sort of Silicon Valley magnate who graces magazine covers referring to him as the next genius, delivers in every scene as a snake-like villain, tantalizing in his mannerisms yet wickedly evil underneath.
If you were anybody in New York in 1977, you knew about Studio 54. The famous — or perhaps infamous — disco club lasted for less than three years in Times Square, but its influence on American culture has lasted far longer. Two movies in 1998 were made about the club, “54” and, to an extent, “The Last Days of Disco,” as well as the recent Netflix show “The Get Down,” which partially takes place in a Studio 54-like club. It’s safe to say that Studio 54 was the epicenter of disco, a music trend focused on sex, drugs and dancing.
“Studio 54,” a new documentary from director Matt Tyrnauer (“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”), is an unfortunately conventional documentary that nevertheless captures the highs and (much deeper) lows of the club’s tragically short run. Cultivated from archival footage and interviews with various denizens, worker antagonists and semi co-founder Ian Schrager, “Studio 54” offers a perfectly satisfying, but far from mind-blowing, account of the club.
Schrager, it’s clear from the beginning, was never the talkative one. Those duties he left to co-founder and best friend Steve Rubell, a flamboyantly popular persona who appeared on talk shows and mingled with guests while Schrager stayed in the background. Rubell passed away during the AIDS epidemic (he was closeted to his family), so Schrager is left with the responsibility of sharing their story. The club experienced a meteoric rise in 1977 — scored to a pumping disco soundtrack in the film — only to experience trouble with the IRS after they discover a major skimming scheme and drug possession. Schrager and Rubell, defended by McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn, enter prison.
It’s not hard to find something to love in the documentary, from its cameos both in the past (Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol, perhaps the two most famous regulars of the club, appear regularly) and present (an interview with Nile Rodgers of the band Chic is illuminating) to its true crime story, one of conflicting narratives between the case prosecutor and Schrager and associates. But one could only wish that for a club that was so innovative, from its Broadway lighting designs to its inclusivity as a gay haven in an otherwise unfriendly New York, a documentary on the subject would live up to that standard as well.
A quick note to producers: If someone comes to you and says they have a great idea for a film, and it begins with, “Here’s where Shakespeare got it wrong,” chances are you’re in for a bad idea. A perfect example: “Ophelia,” a retelling of “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s point of view. For those like me who are generally unfamiliar with the Bard’s tale of Danish revenge, “Hamlet” follows a Danish prince who tries to murder his uncle who he suspects killed his father. Ophelia, Hamlet’s romantic interest and the daughter of the king’s advisor, has historically been reviled but feminist literature critics have sought to revise her reputation. Unfortunately, “Ophelia” might be a step back.
It should be said that the film, directed by Claire McCarthy (“Little Hands”), is deceptively gorgeous, so much so that it can distract from the film’s larger (much larger) flaws. Nearly every shot, rich in color and draped in period dress and sets, feels both real and imagined, like the weaved tapestries that hang throughout Elsinore. The score, though far less intoxicating, is still somewhat lush but can be overwhelming at times, often adding an artificial layer of capital-I Importance to the movie that is almost always erased by the film’s utter ludicrousness.
“Ophelia,” which could have been a well-deserved acting showcase for Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), who plays the titular role, collapses under its own premise and is otherwise tarnished by rather mediocre performances by Naomi Watts (“The Glass Castle”) and Clive Owen (“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”). Ridley can do more with her eyes than most people can do with their entire bodies, but even she is restrained by a wildly abhorrent script that verges on camp. A third act, a complete invention that seems both conspiratorial and overly melodramatic is a complete disaster, and the rest of the film is not much better. This is a film that starts with a voiceover narration by Ridley that is something along the lines of, “This is my story … ,” a signal of subpar quality. Reworking classic texts into feminist works is a noble, even vital, goal, but “Ophelia” should serve as a cautionary tale, not an inspiration.