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Film Review: Green Book

April 24, 2019 Leave a comment

Green Book (2018; Directed by Peter Farrelly)

There stands Green Book, the Best Picture of 2018, at least according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Embraced by audiences since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and generally approved by critics, Green Book was not without its controversies, particular as regards its treatment of race. Still, the film was considered a safe consensus pick for Best Picture in a cinematic year featuring more challenging films on the African-American experience like fellow Best Picture nominees Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman (to say nothing of less-seen but more confrontational indies like The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting).

Green Book is a gentle, good-natured, old-fashioned race relations parable about a mismatched odd couple learning to look beyond not only skin colour but also divergences in class, education, and personal comportment to glimpse a common humanity and mutual appreciation and friendship. It’s 1962, and Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a working-class Italian-American from the Bronx, a bouncer at the exclusive Copacabana nightclub in New York City. In need of income to support his family (including his wife Dolores, played by Linda Cardellini) due to a closure of the Copa for renovations, the brusque, bullshit-talking, big-appetited Tony Lip takes a job as a chauffeur and personal assistant to the prim, meticulous, and brilliant acclaimed pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on a record-company-arranged concert tour of the Midwest and Deep South.

In driving Dr. Shirley from gig to gig and protecting him from the segregationist laws and practices of the South, Tony Lip learns to overcome culturally-ingrained prejudices (an early scene sees him throw away glasses that African-American workmen has drunk from after fixing the floor in his home) and respect his employer as a man of genius and decency. Shirley also helps Tony open up emotionally, helping him to write florid and poetic letters of adoration to his wife during his two-month absence from home. In return, Tony earns the respect of the refined but detached Shirley by connecting him with the earthy culture of America and especially of his “own people” (meaning African-Americans lower down the socioeconomic ladder), introducing the world-renowned classically-trained pianist to the simple joys of fried chicken, Little Richard, and sweaty backwoods juke joints.

This is very much the sort of screen story about the problems of race in America that square, white, wealthy, liberal Hollywood has long preferred to tell and to celebrate itself for telling. These sorts of films tend to involve prejudices and bigotry overcome by gradually accruing respect built through sustained personal interaction, where social and political norms of racial segregation and discrimination are not challenged but worked around, not so much overcome as wisely ignored in a process of personal moral and emotional betterment. They are also very often period pieces (though not always; witness Paul Haggis’ contemporary drama Crash, a Best Picture winner whose very title is a curse word in cinephile circles) which quite explicitly locate the most virulent and shockingly open displays of racism in a past that is also, incongruously, given a patina of nostalgic romanticism. If the worst of that racism can also be geographically confined to the South while sparing the guilty consciences of the richer cosmopolitan cities of the North, so much the better.

Following the beknighted model for this sort of political message film, Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Oscar-nominated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the type of race-relations film that Green Book represents always operates on the same core assumptions: racism, while unfortunate and really just rude, is immutable (and even, problematically, natural) as well as being foundational to America’s society, economy, and institutions; lamentable though it is, racism ought not be toppled with direct order-disrupting action (which would probably work but might prove messy and costly, as it did during the Civil Rights Movement), it can be worn down if only white Americans and black Americans can break bread together and truly see each other as people; the difficult effort of this journey to anti-racism is to be borne by whites and blacks alike and equally, with neither “side” of the racial divide requiring serious material sacrifice to reach a more enlightened relationship with the other. Racial inequality, in this formulation, resides first and foremost in our hearts and minds, and those can always be changed and redeemed.

This model of addressing racial inequity has a generational vector, and as displayed in a tense confrontation between incremental Klansman-converting musician Daryl Davis and a millenial Black Lives Matter activist strongly prioritizing collective action in the 2016 documentary Accidental Courtesy, younger generations of African-Americans (and their non-black political allies) often reject its efficacy and even characterize it as racist in itself, no matter the good intentions of their elders in disseminating it. Likewise, Green Book‘s embrace by the Academy members, who of course skew older and whiter, makes sense in these terms; ironically, older generations who either lived through or grew up closer to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, one of the 20th Century’s classic examples of radical social and political change being effected through direct protest action and civil disobedience, are less amenable to similar contemporary movements than are younger generations born well after their 1960s model happened. Shirley tells Tony at one point that violence solves nothing, and that maintaining dignity is the better path, a nice-sounding Boomerist misreading of the historical lessons of the Civil Rights Movement if there ever was one. Green Book‘s is even an understandable narrative and thematic approach in terms of filmmaking to render stories about the racial divide on the personal level, to appeal to audience sentiment, to emotionalize and particularize the experience of racial discrimination and thus make it more intelligible to people (namely the better-off white audiences who tend to consume smaller prestige dramas) who will never be subject to it firsthand.

None of this is to say that Green Book, which stars one of Hollywood’s most prominent African-American actors (Ali won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Shirley) and is exec-produced by another (Octavia Spencer, also an Oscar winner), is racist, nor that not saying that it is racist means that it is unproblematically and laudably anti-racist either. Green Book desires in its heart to embody the non-judgemental shrug Tony gives to Shirley after eeking the latter out of a compromising same-sex interracial rendezvous in a Georgia YMCA: “I know it’s a complicated world,” he tells his employer. But it’s a broad film that presupposes a whole host of stereotypes, especially about its deeply-characterized leads. This follows, as its director, Peter Farrelly, comes from comedy, and Green Book is fundamentally a bromantic comedy of the sort he made with his brother Bobby for a couple of decades, with some notable successes (and the most famous semen joke in American film history) behind him.

In bromance archetype terms, Mortensen’s Tony Lip is the crude proletarian slob prone to violent outbursts and tacky habits, with Ali’s Shirley as the buttoned-up high-culture snob who needs to loosen up and live a little. If Green Book offers any transgression of its dominant race-relations drama tropes, it’s that these men help each other along to improvement on the lines of inverted racial stereotypes: Shirley teaches Tony to be more “white” (polite and mannered, properly dressed and well-spoken, expressive of his romantic emotions) and Tony teaches Shirley to be more “black” (fried chicken, Little Richard, and juke joints).

Unfortunately, to whatever extent this might be the case, it’s an obnoxiously offensive formulation, and Shirley’s family in particular took issue with the way the man was portrayed in the film. The rosy patina surrounding Tony Lip’s encroaching wokeness (he goes from trading racial slurs with unctuous Italian-American relations at the film’s beginning to shutting such slurs down in the final scene) and the extent to which Shirley’s character shifts almost from scene to scene depending on what feeling the movie requires him to compel at any given time might be traced down to the screenplay, originally the work of Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Lip, along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. So many of Green Book‘s problems stem from the paternal hagiographic tone of a cherished family yarn combined with latent reactionary leanings suggested by the younger Vallelonga’s 2015 tweeted agreement with Donald Trump’s vile fabricated slur about witnessing thousands of Muslims celebrating the destruction of 9/11 from nearby rooftops.

Both actors are wonderful in these roles, with a chemistry that is easy and heartfelt once it is gradually earned. It certainly doesn’t hurt their likability and therefore that of the film that they have two of the great smiles in current cinema: Mortensen’s impish happy-goblin leer, and Ali’s a panoply of nuance in its slighter iterations before breaking into a grand glowing grin like a full-glory sunrise. We want to see these men smile as they do in the satisfying, if saccharine, emotional finale, and only a complete churlish troll would be able to resist smiling with them. Does Green Book believe in its bones that centuries of racism and its social, economic, and political consequences can be chased away by a sunny smile like so many dark clouds? If it doesn’t believe that, it chooses to conclude on a note that suggests it does, or else that mere men can do no more.

Green Book‘s title comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook for African-American travellers published from 1936 to 1966 that was known as “the bible of black travel during Jim Crow”. Originally published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green, it listed hotels, motels, filling stations, restaurants, and other establishments across the United States (and especially in the segregationist South) that were friendly to black travellers, as well as pointing out “sundown towns” and other places where a black person might be subject to summary arrest or otherwise might not be safe due to discriminatory local laws and practices. Tony is given a Green Book for reference upon leaving Shirley’s apartment above Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, and intermittently consults it during their tour of the South.

Green Book is an entirely fitting title for this film in a manner that its creators almost certainly did not intend or foresee. The Green Book was a pragmatic consumerist response to a monolithically unjust system. Faced with injustice that could not be challenged without risking legal or mortal peril, the Green Book offered those living under the yoke of oppression a practical coping tool, a travel guide for circumventing the worst threats of that unjust system. As a film about race in America, Green Book is also impotent in the face of racial injustice and therefore offers only a tool for coping with it, a roadmap to safe harbours of comforting emotions and microcosmic happy endings. A motorists’ guidebook can’t change the world, but can movies do so? Hollywood’s sense of artistic and political self-worth is greatly tied up in the shared belief that they can. But the roadmap for changing the world, especially when it comes to America’s still-active racial inequality, has been updated and re-routed (Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a direct subversion of seminal race-relations classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is perhaps the defining example of this course correction). Green Book is a movie making the usual safe stops but always skirting around the core problem.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Iron Man 2 & Iron Man 3

April 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Iron Man 2 (2010; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Iron Man 3 (2013; Directed by Shane Black)

As the multi-film, multi-phase character arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s founding and primary figure, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, draws to a (probable) close with the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, it’s worth taking a few moments to return (for the first time, on my part) to the latter two parts of his own movie trilogy. From the halcyon days when the character featured in movies with his own superhero name in the titles and the culture-dominating MCU still counted releases in the single digits, Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 are actually fairly disparate films in terms of tone, theme, and quality. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to consider them together, which is why it makes perfect sense to consider them together.

Iron Man 2 was the direct sequel to the origin story of 2008’s Iron Man, and represented distinct growing pains for both the titular character and the embryonic rhizomatic megafranchise that it sought to kickstart. Much of the film, directed like its predecessor by the stalwart elevated hack Jon Favreau (who also appears as Stark toadie Happy Hogan), sees Tony Stark not so much wrestling with his increased fame after revealing himself as the powersuited Iron Man (in a twist ending of the first film apparently adlibbed by Downey) as basking hedonistically in its saturating glow. Tony amps up his zillionaire playboy genius act to stadium-level proportions, posing for adoring crowds at the opening of the World’s Fair-like relaunched Stark Expo with costumed dancing girls, impulsively hopping into a racecar at the Monaco Grand Prix, and donning his Iron Man suit to blast champagne bottles with beautiful party people for his birthday.

But Tony Stark’s jet-setting lifestyle is characterized by Justin Theroux’s screenplay as being fueled by a death drive. He’s partying himself into an expected early grave, a consequence of the blood-poisoning palladium that powers the arc reactor keeping fatal shrapnel away from his heart and running his flying, blasting power suit. Just as the arc reactor is a technological metaphorical substitute for the often-callous Tony Stark’s gradual moral education (a constructed heart that catalyzes the character to develop real heart), the palladium poisoning is a metaphor for the corruption of his poor choices, of his egotistical employment of his gifts and the resurrectionary second chance represented by his emergence from the cave (how Platonic, in hindsight) in Iron Man.

Confronting his imminent mortality has, however, also made Tony Stark thoughtful about his legacy, and how that legacy compares to that of his father, Howard Stark (John Slattery). To the extent that Iron Man is about anything, it’s about the bright and darker sides of legacy, and about reconciling with both those sides. On the bright side of the ledger, Tony revives the Stark Expo, dormant since his father halted its yearly exhibition of the wonders of technology, out of a desire to leave something positive behind as his father did (and his father, as it happens, leaves him a very specific blueprint for the resolution of his palladium poisoning problem). He also names his soon-to-be-girlfriend and hyper-competent business fixer Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as his successor as Stark Industries CEO, with an eye to leave the company in better hands than his own. After a physical, powersuitted fight with friend and ally Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) over Stark’s self-destructive behaviour, he allows Rhodey to fly off with one of Iron Man prototypes to share with the U.S. military-industrial complex, whom he self-aggrandizingly refuses to cooperate with at a Congressional hearing at the start of the film.

On the darker side, Tony contends with the antagonistic Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist whose father worked with, and saw his career destroyed by, Howard Stark. Avenging the slights against his now-dead father by targetting the Stark son, Vanko employs an arc reactor and crackling energy whips (the character is called Whiplash in Marvel Comics) to assault Tony in Monaco, and with the funding and facilities of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) masterminds a plan to sabotage the Stark Expo with battle drones and an upgraded whip-apparatus.

Iron Man 2 functions nicely enough on these lines, even if Stark’s defeat of Vanko and his drones with the aid of Rhodes’ War Machine concludes a little anticlimactically. The film gets unfortunately lost, as many a later MCU installment would, laying down the breadcrumb trail of world-building. Jokey moments lay the groundwork for then-forthcoming MCU films Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor (and, retroactively at least, even the MCU’s version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man), but mid-film and denouement appearances by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury foreshadowing the Avengers are more awkwardly shoehorned in. A supporting character in those Avengers movies is introduced as well, but is singularly poorly-served: Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, mostly posing as a Stark employee before emerging as a badass S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, is horribly, inexcusably objectified by the dual male gaze of Favreau’s camera and Downey’s character perspective. She would be poorly treated in other ways in future (particularly by Joss Whedon in Avengers: Age of Ultron), but her presentation does get better in later MCU films. It can’t help but do so, given what is done here.

Freed from such franchise-building asides and entrusted to the skilled hands of director/co-writer Shane Black, one of the most particular film artists who survived the corporate meat-grinder of the MCU, Iron Man 3 has fewer such issues (and one less icky Elon Musk cameo, to boot). Indeed, it might be the strongest of the three Iron Man films: stakes-raising as sequels are expected to be, but surprising and misdirecting, with a smooth set-piece-to-set-piece flow and rhythm that strikes one as quite nearly miraculous. Black’s peculiarized treatment of violence – as random, painful, pregnant with consequence but also darkly comic – works obscenely well when applied to an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr., who dwells comfortably in-world while forever teetering on the edge of fourth-wall-breaking meta-deconstruction.

The Tony Stark of Iron Man 3 has just come off an epic, draining, worldview-questioning Avengers movie, and in particular the cataclysmic alien assault on Manhattan at its climax has shaken his usually unimpeachable confidence in his ability to solve any problem and defeat any threat with his genius and his technology. Tony is sleepless and prone to anxiety attacks, a sufferer of PTSD who immerses himself in building Iron Man suits and often neglects his now-girlfriend, Pepper Potts. When the mysterious bombings of an enigmatic terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) lead to a serious injury for Happy Hogan, Tony challenges the Mandarin to come after him, which his cronies do, devastating the coastal Stark mansion in Malibu and leaving Tony apparently dead and his many Iron Man suits destroyed.

As Pepper becomes enmeshed in a complex, switchback-heavy plot involving the Mandarin (who is both more and less than he seems, with Kingsley masterful in both iterations) as well as a discarded former lover (Rebecca Hall) and admirer (Guy Pearce) of Tony’s, Stark himself is ripped from the wealthy coastal enclaves that he knows too well and follows a lead on the bombings into the humbler red-state flyover country of Rose Hill, Tennessee. Out of his comfort zone among the heartland salt of the earth and left with only a scrambled J.A.R.V.I.S. (the artificial intelligence sidekick voiced by Paul Bettany, who will later become phasing superhero Vision) and half-functional remnants of his latest prototype suit, Tony reorients and learns to deal with his psychological trauma with the not-at-all-cloying aid of a precocious, pragmatic local boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). A spectacular airborne rescue following a plane crash which pivots breathlessly into an equally fantastic vertically-integrated battle with Pearce’s Aldrich Killian and his Extremis Project heat-projecting minions at Miami’s container port is one of the MCU’s best sustained action arcs.

Iron Man 3 also has the most on its mind in terms of political resonance of the three Iron Man films. Lest it is misplaced in Black’s breakneck twists and reversals, the dangerous, Osama bin Laden/ISIS hybrid version of the Mandarin is revealed to be a ruse, a fearmongering front by vengeful, power-hungry think-tank capitalist-industrialist Killian that is part of a larger coup to seize control of the White House. A tackily jingo-ized version of Rhodey’s War Machine, re-dubbed the Iron Patriot and painted red, white, and blue, is hijacked in this effort, which is not merely a matter of force but is meticulously stage-managed for media propaganda effect by Killian. It’s hardly the first movie villain who takes the form of a corrupt and evil capitalist, nor one who takes advantage of knee-jerk patriotism to steal power in America, but it’s easily the most effective one in the Iron Man saga.

That saga represents an arc of change and painful maturation for Tony Stark. MCU movies featuring the character are always reluctant to relinquish the quipping, arrogant Stark, which Downey does so magnificently; even the truly axis-shifting Infinity War had him mostly trading barbs with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill until the heavy stuff lands in the last act. As much as the Avengers installments have carried the weight of weathering Tony Stark and pressing him down with the heft of the responsibility that his power carries, Iron Man 2 and especially Iron Man 3 each do strong work (if of variant quality) in this regard as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Breaker Upperers

The Breaker Upperers (2019; Directed by Madeleine Sami & Jackie van Beek)

Jen (Jackie van Beek) and Mel (Madeleine Sami) are friends and business partners in Auckland, New Zealand. Befriending each other after the same philandering young man (Cohen Holloway) cheated on each of them back in their twenties, Jen and Mel parlayed their common romantic wounds into a service they call “The Breaker Upperers”. In their professional capacity, Jen and Mel are paid by clients to render aid in breaking up with their significant others. This aid is often manifested in an unorthodox and absurdist manner, through door-to-door singing telegrams delivering the breaking-off message, by posing as trysting adulterers staged in flagrante delicto with breakup-desiring customers to be discovered by their partners, even by impersonating police officers notifying distraught husbands and wives that their other halves are missing, or even dead.

Although Jen in particular justifies the obvious moral and ethical dilemmas of such a line of work by telling herself and others that the Breaker Upperers are doing good by extricating people from unhappy relationships, those dilemmas begin to bother Mel. The service, and indeed the entire friendship between Jen and Mel, is at least to some extent a disavowed transference of a whole host of emotional issues arising from the women’s mutual pain and resentment at their treatment at the hands of the heartbreaker Joe (and of their treatment of each other) years before. For Jen especially, who has shut out meaningful attachments and taken refuge in misanthropy after her much deeper hurt at Joe’s betrayal, running the Breaker Upperers is a way of very actively not dealing with lingering emotional baggage, or of repeatedly pummeling it into submission by inflicting similar baggage on others (for a modest fee, of course).

Mel remains more open and active in dating and sex, however. She was one of Joe’s flings, not the more established and permanent cheated-upon party like Jen was, after all. Therefore, she experiences some doubts about what they are doing as well as a growing tension with Jen, particularly when she befriends a lonely female victim of their efforts named Anna (Celia Pacquola) and becomes infatuated with a handsome dimbulb of a Maori rugby player named Jordan (James Rolleston), who seeks the Breaker Upperers’ help in breaking up with his intimidating cornrowed girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney).

The Breaker Upperers is executive-produced by the prolific current maven of Kiwi comedy, Taika Waititi, and it displays his trademarked tone of awkward/absurdist hilarity underlied by a persistent grey lining of sadness and pathos. It’s likewise chock-a-block with his prior collaborators from the small but surprisingly talent-deep New Zealand entertainment scene: the flinty and wonderful van Beek had a supporting role in the cult vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Rolleston was the young lead in Waititi’s dramedy Boy, and supporting players from Shadows, Hunt for the WilderpeopleThor: RagnarokEagle vs. Shark and NZ TV comedy Wellington Paranormal pop up as well (Waititi fave Holloway, Rima Te Wiata as Jen’s wealthy mother, Oscar Kightley in a cameo as a client, Karen O’Leary as a lesbian cop, even Jemaine Clement as a lover of Jen’s). It does, however, redress the generally male-centric perspective that dominates Waititi’s movies, with van Beek and Sami’s female gaze forging a feminine trajectory to similar places of humour and pathos.

There are numerous highlights in this very funny movie. Rolleston’s Jordan is uproarious whenever he opens his mouth, especially when haplessly hijacking Mel’s attempt to engineer the split from Sepa with an elaborate story (“She’s pregnant. It’s twins. We did IVF because her eggs are old.”) and simultaneously accepting an award from his rugby league club while announcing that Mel is actually pregnant by him (“As my mother told me, ‘You fucked up this time, and I’m not paying for any of it'”). Scotney is absolute dynamite as Sepa, who has her cartoonish crew behind her at all times, including at her teller job and when choreographing a dance routine to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” in order to win Jordan back (“This is our song,” he says as it begins, enraptured and terrified in equal measure).

The Breaker Upperers mines 1990s pop romantic ballads to great effect, also utilizing Celine Dion’s overwrought and histrionic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (van Beek and Sami are Celine superfans and started a grassroots viral campaign online to convince Dion to see the film on a recent Australian tour, with happy results) in a nostalgic flashback montage of Jen and Mel’s past liaisons with Joe that transitions to and from a karaoke-bus rendition of the song by Mel (Sami, a musician who is in a band with her two sisters, displays her impressive vocal talents in this sequence, as well as more comedically in the country-music porch telegram featured in the below trailer). As hugely funny as it is, The Breaker Upperers is also surprisingly thoughtful and layered in its consideration of the emotional attachments of relationships and the psychological and personal after-effects that result when those attachments are broken.

Categories: Film, Reviews