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Granger at the Movies: ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ ‘Skyscraper,’ ‘Puzzle’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Insofar as villains go in our modern world, persistent telemarketers rank alongside unscrupulous real estate developers. So hip-hop recording artist Boots Riley, frontman of the Coup, makes an ambitious debut as writer/director with “Sorry to Bother You,” his confrontational, absurdist, corporate satire.

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Set in Oakland, California, it’s about Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), who gets caught faking credentials for a telemarketing position at RegalView but lands the job anyway.

Eager to move out of Uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage and into an apartment with his artsy, activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cash struggles on the phone, respecting RegalView’s edict: “Stick to the script.”

But then, heeding the advice of his cubicle-mate Langston (Danny Glover), African-American Cash adopts a “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross), utilizing certain verbal tones, common phrases, and cultural references.

Suddenly, Cash closes so many deals that he’s promoted upstairs as one of the “Power Callers.” That’s an executive position with an upgrade in wardrobe, automobile, living conditions and a higher rung on the social ladder.

It also means escaping when Squeeze (Steven Yeun), another low-level telemarketer, tries to form a union to improve working conditions, pay and benefits.

The only other employment open to Cash is at the WorryFree factory, where workers sign lifetime, multigenerational contracts in return for guaranteed on-site housing/food — a ‘slavery’ concept, inciting the ire of Left Eye, a protest group with which Detroit is involved.

But when Cash is invited to a swanky party hosted by the company’s coked-out CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), he’s faced with sacrificing his morality/conscience, encountering an insidiously surreal choice, involving “beautiful perversions” — aka Equesapiens.

Boots Riley joins the ranks of innovative black filmmakers gaining recognition in Hollywood, like Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time,” “Selma,” “13th”), and Spike Lee, whose “Black KkKlansman” is set for August.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sorry to Bother You” is a chaotic, ambitious 8, a potent, politically-charged parable.

As for “Skyscraper,” it would seem as if all the elements were in place: the world’s tallest building is on fire with thousands of people trapped inside, including the family of a former FBI agent with a prosthetic leg, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Will Sawyer (Johnson) adores his ex-naval surgeon wife (Neve Campbell) and their young twins (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottell) who have temporarily moved to Hong Kong to join him in the skyscraper called the Pearl, a structure that’s three times as tall as the Empire State Building.

Sawyer’s up for the job as chief of security. According to billionaire owner Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the Pearl is not only the highest but safest, self-sustaining structure in the world — thanks to modern technology.  Sounds a bit ominous, doesn’t it?

Sure enough, a bunch of bad guys, led by international terrorist Kores Bortha (Rolland Moller), want something locked up in Zhao Long Ji’s penthouse safe. Much skulduggery follows, leaving Sawyer the outside as a raging fire traps his family on the inside.

Three cheers for a crane and duct tape!

Sketchily written and generically directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who helmed Johnson in the buddy comedy “Central Intelligence,” it’s yet another adrenaline-propelled showcase for the versatility of the steadfast action star.

On the Granger Gauge, “Skyscraper” collapses with a flimsy 5, a cliché-clogged calamity.

Somewhere in middle-class suburbia in “Puzzle,” mousy Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a shy, dutiful housewife, setting up for her own birthday party. She vacuums, hangs decorations, bakes a cake and cleans up when the guests finally leave the modest home she inherited from her Hungarian immigrant father.

Agnes’s domestic life revolves the Catholic Church and caring for her garage-mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) and teenage sons (Bubba Weiler, Austin Abrams). When they give her an iPhone, she eyes it skeptically, murmuring: “I guess I can use it for emergencies.”

She’s far more intrigued by another gift: an intricate, 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which she finishes in one afternoon. After dismantling and completing it several times, she takes a Metro North train to Grand Central, making her way to lower Manhattan to find a store specializing in complicated, challenging puzzles.

At the cash register, she spies a ‘Partner Wanted’ sign. Hesitant at first, Agnes texts the listed number, reaching Robert (Irrfan Khan), a reclusive inventor whose patent (something involving magnets) allows him to live comfortably and enter puzzle competitions.

When they get together, something within repressed Agnes clicks. She discovers that she’s far more talented at assembling puzzle pieces than she ever dreamed. That’s the beginning of her rising confidence and independence.

Guilty about deceiving her husband, Agnes, nevertheless, treks into the city two days a week to practice with Robert, preparing for a nationwide contest. Eventually, of course, clueless Louie finds out where she goes and what she’s doing — which precipitates a marital, midlife crisis.

Adapted from Natalia Smirnoff’s Argentine film “Rompecabezas,” it’s subtly scripted as a character study by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann and sensitively directed by 71 year-old Marc Turtletaub, best known for producing “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.”

Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (“Trainspotting,” TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) shines in her first starring role, immeasurably aided by Bollywood’s Irrfan Khan (“The Lunchbox,” “Life of Pi”).

On the Granger Movie Gauge, “Puzzle” is a compassionate 7, aimed at an adult audience.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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