Film Review – Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (2019; Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo)

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, and some of the other twenty films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as well. Although, honestly, if you’re interested enough in this movie to be reading this, you’ll have seen it by now, perhaps more than once. If you haven’t and you’re still reading anyway, you should be prepared to be “spoiled”, whatever that’s supposed to mean at this particular point in our current chaotic cultural discourse. And really, really honestly? Every day we subsist on this beautiful, disgusting carbon ball we call our home planet is one big spoiler, 24 hours cycles of draining disappointment in perpetual limbo between a glowing past we can never recapture and a shining future we may never reach. Life doesn’t provide spoiler alerts, so you should be glad that this obscure little blog has deigned to bother with one.

In reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first big, ambitious Avengers Assemble tentpole blockbuster in 2012, I referred to Joss Whedon’s inevitably successful film as being so huge and unwieldy and grounded in multiple precursor films, corporate cross-promotional synergy, and latent authoritarian undercurrent as to be effectively post-criticism. But what comes after a post-criticism blockbuster, and at least three more of them, for that matter (Avengers: Age of Ultron, defacto team-up flick Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War)? Avengers: Endgame is the answer, at least until Marvel Studios and Disney come up with another one (which they assuredly will).

The MCU has lumbered on relentlessly for just over a decade now in a loose, frequently-branching narrative and thematic continuity, but what’s held it together and focused audiences’ interest and investment more than anything along the way has been its characters. Their arcs of triumphs and errors, quirks and flaws, tragedies and growth, consistency and inconsistency, and above all their connection to each other and to some amorphous but hard-won planet-safeguarding sense of duty have made the cinematic Avengers endearing and even indelible to millions worldwide, who do not merely follow these heroes’ adventures and dramas because multi-billion-dollar media-producing conglomerates that are marching towards industry monopoly status insist that they do but because they want to (to whatever extent we can untangle those intertwined impulses and tell them apart in any way).

Are the Marvel movies massively overblown affairs, inconsistent in quality from one to the next and even in and of themselves, sometimes barely managing to function as recognizable movies in their own right and not half-sequels, half-trailers for future installments? Are they silly, tonally wild, often superficial, full of questionable political implications and gender and racial representations, movies crafted not for children exactly but for adults with a children’s perspective (and not in that good flower-chain glory-of-innocence way that hippies reified in the 1960s)? Sure they are. They’re friggin’ superhero comic books. Superhero comic books brought to the big screen in vivid modern CG magnificence with budgets and grosses and cultural penetration that the late Marvel Comics Stan Lee must have had to pinch himself 14 times a day to spur himself into believing were true, yes. But superhero comic books they are nonetheless, transposing to cinema screens the longer-term audience commitment, communal interpretive efforts, and economically canny delayed gratification of the serial narrative form, and doing so simultaneously with steely-eyed profit-driven cynicism and overflowing, fan-servicing passion.

But again, the characters, flaws and all, are what has sustained the MCU through numerous side-trips and genre tangents and the sometimes contradictory ideas of artistically diverse (although mostly white male, until rather recently) filmmakers. The core Phase One Avengers have been the human (though not always strictly human) face of this ambitious serialized movie-making experiment since the early days of this Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is rooted in the popular engagement with their journeys while also providing something like an end to their multi-movies arcs (in some cases, at least; others are left surprisingly open-ended).

There’s Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the square-jawed, duty-bound all-American supersoldier whose moral rectitude has often set him at odds with the fellow members of the super-team that he ostensibly leads, to say nothing of the country he pledged long ago to serve (and only rarely lives up to his high moral standards) or the planet he risks everything to protect (same). There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the golden-maned space Viking thunder god whose self-regard in his considerable powers is often comically arrogant (although he is a god, after all) but who has been tested and humbled by tragic losses and failures (a pretty important one of which closed Inifinity War) and humanized by his contact with earthlings. There’s Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist with an angry all-smashing green monster lurking inside him that he intermittently learns to control and even less frequently learns to live with morally and psychologically. There are trained warrior-assassins Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), mere mortals compared to the others despite their formidable skills of targeted violence; Natasha is haunted and driven by guilt at the bad things she’s done, and Clint puts them behind him by immersing himself in the love of his family, something which very few of his fellow Avengers have (outside, of course, of each other). And there’s the elder statesman, the character whose 2008 origin film kicked off this whole strange and lucrative trip: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), ludicrously rich playboy tech genius gone from amoral arms dealer to world-policing powersuit designer and user, smugly superior and freewheeling and pompous but wounded and insecure and seeking out a role as a father figure to compensate for the father that he lost (Howard Stark, played again here by John Slattery) and that he maybe only barely had in his life in the first place.

These Phase One-vintage superheroes, along with Stark’s sidekick James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), make up most of the surviving cohort of Avengers and connected characters following the apocalyptic events of Endgame‘s direct precursor, Infinity War. As it surely must be safe to discuss now, given the passage of a year and the moment’s dissemination and meme-ification across popular culture, that movie ended with mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapping the fingers of a golden gauntlet studded with the six universe-equilibrium-depending Infinity Stones (powerful objects strewn like foreshadowed breadcrumb MacGuffins through numerous MCU films over the years) and wiping out half of the life in the universe, a perverse non-judgemental genocide in the (psychotically deluded) name of totalizing habitat balance.

It would take another lengthy paragraph to name all of the Marvel characters erased in what is known as the Decimation (half of life gone, get it?) or the Dusting (for the eerie but bloodless turn-to-dust effect used to depict these deaths). But the important ones for the purpose of this movie at least are: Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whom Tony Stark was mentoring and whose loss he felt like that of a son; Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), magic-wielding sorceror and former protector of the Time Stone, who looked into the future and foresaw a single outcome in which the Avengers triumph over Thanos (though he reveals it to no one before being dusted); King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whom I mention only because he is ill-served by both halves of this Thanos saga, doing little but provide an army of Wakandans to counter the Titan’s hordes for the climactic CG battle both times.

Endgame delves into (very few of) the consequences of these vanishings and others, as well as revealing additional key ones. Rocket (a talking, gun-toting raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the only remaining Guardian of the Galaxy, along with Thanos’ abused adopted daughter and honorary semi-Guardian Nebula (Karen Gillan); both fall in with the post-Snap Avengers, with nothing else to usefully occupy them. Barton’s whole family is disintegrated in the film’s opening scene, setting him on a path of murderous “revenge” against immoral criminals and thugs who did not disappear like his blameless wife and children. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), as revealed in the post-credits scene of Ant-Man and the Wasp, lost his “family” too, the Pyms/van Dynes (Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, and Michelle Pfeiffer), which vitally stranded him in the microscopic Quantum Realm for five years, though it seemed only a few hours to him.

Time travel chicanery, as basically everyone who was paying attention to these movies at all in recent years had guessed, figures centrally in the remaining Avengers’ plan to undo the cataclysmic effects of Thanos’ Snap Heard ‘Round the Universe. Going back in time becomes the only path to defeating Thanos when – with the help of Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) who was summoned to Earth by Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) pager in the post-credits scene of Infinity War and arrived at Avengers HQ in the post-credits scene of her own film – the team tracks down the Titan on his idyllic galactic retirement farm and discovers him weakened from a recent decision to destroy the Infinity Stones to remove the temptation of using them again. Although Thor makes good on his promise to dispatch Thanos, it’s a pyrrhic victory, and the team grinds away five years in their various outlets of survivor’s guilt: Cap goes to therapy groups, Natasha obsessively keeps the Avengers going, Hawkeye goes ninja-esque Ronin and slays gangsters, Banner toils in the lab to bring a certain equilibrium to him and the green guy, Thor becomes an overweight alcoholic (a sort of Big Thorbowski, complete with Taika Waititi’s hilariously polite CG rock-man Korg as his video-game-playing slacker buddy) in the last bastion of Asgardian refugees, and Stark has a daughter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

But then, by pure chance, Scott Lang is zapped back from the Quantum Realm, and he seeks out the dwindling Avengers (whom he aided in Civil War) with an idea to use the Realm’s flexible sense of time to pull off what he calls a “Time Heist” of the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get to them, which they can then use to bring back the lost. The deflating encounter with a weakened Thanos and a half-hearted Marvel crib-notes version of The Leftovers occupies the film’s first act; veteran MCU screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have a lot to do and mostly do it well in Endgame, but they put much less thought into the widespread consequences of Thanos’ Snap than does this 18-minute YouTube video on the subject from Alternate History Hub (which makes Thanos’ reasoning for the Snap seem even more flawed, especially if half of the livestock and plant life in the universe is catastrophically gone, too, as MCU producer Kevin Feige confirmed but which neither this movie nor the last one suggests).

But in Endgame‘s middle section, the film ramps up its entertainment quotient with delightful dual genre exercises. First, the scattered band must be gotten back together, then they must pull off Infinity Stone heists in four (actually five, before they’re done) points in the past. The Time Heist scenes operate as alternately clever, perfunctory, and agonizingly self-referential callbacks to moments in MCU history (complete with copious cameos): the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy, the elevator scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the aftermath of the Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers, one of Infinity War‘s most emotional scenes, and Thor: The Dark World (between being comically saddled with an obesity suit and being forced to not only return to but also recap to the plot of The Dark World in dialogue, it might seem that Hemsworth is being punished for dismissing that movie as “meh” in an interview). Rogers and Stark even make an unplanned stop in 1970, where they each encounter an important figure from their pasts that inform their late-film decisions.

Unfortunately, these stone-snatching incursions in time draw the attention of powerful, pre-Snap Thanos (I won’t, and likely couldn’t, explain how but it involves the digital entanglement of the past and present-day incarnations of Nebula), who manages to draw his considerable forces against the Avengers for an epic battle in the ruins of their bombed-out HQ that also involves (biggest spoiler here, which isn’t really a spoiler at all because half of them have sequels in the pipe!) all of the once-Dusted superheroes returning in force. Even so, only with heroic sacrifice will they be able to carry the day, in that one in 400 million chance alluded to by Dr. Strange.

This is a lot of plot synopsis and critique (and you may note I’ve sidestepped some of the bigger spoilers), but then Avengers: Endgame is a lot of movie, likely the most prominent and highest-grossing 3-plus-hour movie since The Lord of the Rings (its multiple-endings denouement will remind many of LOTR‘s capper The Return of the King as well, albeit more streamlined). It’s a bit of a mess because what else could it possibly be, with so many loose ends to tie up along with the pesky necessity of crafting an entertaining and involving movie as well. But it’s probably less of a mess than Infinity War, and as a narrative it’s less constrained and undercut by factors internal and external in nature than its predecessor.

Narratively and emotionally, it is, I suppose, satisfying, and baffled reports are already filtering in of manly sobbing being heard in opening weekend screenings. One could wish that the final battle was a touch more geographically and visually clear (the Russo Brothers, directing their fourth MCU joint, have unleashed some of the best and most spatially coherent fight sequences in the franchise but generally in more confined quarters), but it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed at the sheer scale of it, its cathartic hoot-and-holler moments (one of which was teased in Age of Ultron but was purloined from The Force Awakens and only barely makes sense), not to mention the impressive number of characters who play a meaningful role or at least get a notable beat somewhere in it (and whose entrances, as they were in Infinity War, are cheer-worthy, although an all-female charge at one point lays the studio’s late-coming pop-feminist marketing pose on a little thick).

As Endgame is a movie whose plot relies heavily on time travel, it’s already easy to predict the Online Champions of Rationality rubbing their hands, placing their conically-shaped Quantum Physics Expert hats on their heads, and switching on their webcams to record comprehensive rants about every picayune LOGICAL INCONSISTENCY on display here (“Everything WRONG with Avengers: Endgame in 582 Minutes!”). Endgame crafts its own time travel rules that are deliberately and explicitly stated to work differently than they do in any time-travel movie that you’ve seen. Rhodey (who wisecracks with unrelenting and uncharacteristic frequency here; you can tell that the writers miss being able to give these lines to the Guardians and Peter Parker, as they did last time) provides a list of movies depicting time travel (he even namedrops Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time, which is very, very silly and thus memorable), and Banner flatly tells him (and the audience) that the version of time travel they are attempting doesn’t work like that.

Endgame establishes time travel ground rules in a chat between Banner and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who wields the Time Stone before Strange does: basically, changes made by a time traveller in the past create alternate realities, but do not change their own present or future once they return to it, and the alternate streams of time can be closed off if what is done in the past (say, an Infinity Stone is taken) is later undone (the Stone is put back where it was found, which would seem to be a lot harder than taking it but not to this movie). Some loose strands are left tantalizingly dangling during the Time Heist (we’ve got a potential start point for the Tom Hiddleston-fronted Loki series on Disney’s forthcoming streaming site, for one), but the rules are mostly followed, at least until time travel is used sentimentally to give one exiting Phase One vet a happy ending, at which point they’re all out the window.

Bending entirely hypothetical time travel rules to suit your movie’s moment-to-moment needs is one thing, and one whose cleverly cynical cheekiness I can appreciate. But the bending of several character arcs is quite another. While I say that Endgame is emotionally satisfying, not all of the characters’ arcs sit quite right. Hemsworth’s Thor has been swung wildly and cartoonishly to and fro in Infinity War and Endgame, and if he continues in the MCU with the franchise strand that the ending suggests (word was that the actor was done with the character altogether, but perhaps not, considering the more comic angle that’s been taken to Thor since Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok), that may continue. As good as Ruffalo has been as Banner/Hulk (most of the best jokes in this film are his, including a bit about how the Big Green Guy hates taking the stairs), his arc since the end of Age of Ultron is erratic at best, confused at worse; if he isn’t finished with the role, Ruffalo could really use a solo movie to sort it out, but Universal has the Hulk title movie rights and won’t play ball with Marvel Studios. The Guardians, so integrated and important in Infinity War, are afterthoughts in Endgame, and Rocket’s grief at the loss of his surrogate family, especially after his Yondu-inspired emotional growth (see good video essays on this element of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 here and here), is badly underplayed. Sideline characters Hawkeye and Nebula are given more complete arcs than many of the more primary players here, which might not have been expected. There is at least a neat symmetry to the conclusions of the arcs of Captain America and Iron Man, the dual hearts of the MCU: selfish Tony Stark learns quite finally to be selfless, and selfless Steve Rogers learns quite finally to be selfish.

I wonder, too, at the unseen planning/brainstorming decision about who is sent where and when on the Time Heist; most of the combos make sense because the film needs them to, but the team after the Soul Stone on Vormir would be able to accomplish their goal only in very certain combinations, any of which would involve tragedy and none of which would have played out in the specific way this one needed to. Which begs the question: does anyone know what cost the acquisition of that Stone extracts? Nebula at least is aware of what Thanos gave up to get it, but she doesn’t inform her allies of that, so does she otherwise subtly manipulate the assignments to ensure a proper combination before they set off, signing a death warrant in the process? Moral quandaries do abound, if so.

The larger quandary: is Avengers: Endgame a good movie, after all of this? One feels it is, even if one’s higher faculties take to the barricades in defiance of that conclusion as often as not. Points of resistance are numerous: that vaunted “fan service” which runs through so many contemporary nostalgic geek-culture franchises that have grown into mass culture events; growing ennui with superhero movie climaxes involving epic but increasingly empty CGI battle scenes and powerful but dull villains (Thanos here is more of a megalomaniacal stock villain than in Infinity War – he is a different Thanos, it should be noted – but also more seemingly poweful than the gauntleted version in that film, somehow); and the constant inability to settle on a tone, which makes Endgame surprisingly funny but also serves to dilute its sadder moments, which are driven forcibly to tearjerker territory by a shameless button-pushing score from Alan Silvestri.

But Endgame, like basically the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before it, engages, absorbs, and compels investment from its audience; I loved at least as much of it as gave me pause, and probably more. Few are strong enough to resist its powers completely (unless they kept themselves out of its clutches from the get-go, and I will say that I envy them as the living envy the dead), and most are happy to submit, feeling (not without reason) that they are receiving something in return. Call it what you will: emotional satisfaction, fulfillment, closure; call it brainwashing or mass manipulation or insidious marketing persuasion, if that is your wont. There was a #ThankYouAvengers hashtag trending on Twitter throughout the movie’s opening weekend, a mass expression of gratitude for a decade of entertainment, escapism, and occasional emotional and intellectual transcendence from a series of hegemonic corporate products.

But let’s pause before we shake our heads and bemoan our culture’s decadent decline (Thanks, Kevin Feige!). These movies operate on reproduceable narrative and thematic formulas, have come late and not nearly strongly enough to progressive politics and minority representation, and their huge box office success has been the spearpoint of Disney’s imperialist conquest of contemporary Hollywood, the effects of which are not yet fully apparent but portend great ill. But people who go to movies care about this serialized story, these characters, and the journey they have been on with them, and Avengers: Endgame works diligently, intelligently, and with real emotion to do right by those people (while, of course, gladly taking as much of their money as they are willing to part with in the process). We of a critical bent may seek to deny or diminish this investment to signal our independence of mind and our resistance to imperatives of monopolistic corporate domination, but we do so at our peril.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

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

Film Review: Us

March 26, 2019 Leave a comment

Us (2019; Directed by Jordan Peele)

Before almost anything else happens in Us, Jordan Peele’s anticipated follow-up to his widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning, high-grossing, conversation-starting debut smash “social horror” film Get Out, we in the captive audience are having Bible verses thrown at us. When little girl Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) wanders away from her half-soused, whack-a-mole-playing father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk amusement park in 1986, she passes a ragged transient holding a handmade cardboard sign with “Jeremiah 11:11” scrawled on it. Adelaide will wander into a house of mirrors and have an encounter that changes her life and the fate of the world, but as in so many other moments in Us, Peele is gesturing at deeper meanings via the conduit of the intertext.

Jeremiah, Chapter 11, Verse 11 in the King James Version of the Bible reads:

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

Esquire‘s Matt Miller rounds up the lion’s share of the implications of this verse in terms of the premise and conclusions of Us, so I shan’t repeat the work (though be warned that he and I both delve into spoilers; of the movie, that is, not the Bible). But Jeremiah 11:11 is central to Peele’s dominant racial, social, and political metaphor in Us, and it simultaneously acts as a reflective hint (the duality of 11:11 is repeated in television sports scores and alarm clock digital readouts) at the doppelgänger premise of a story that operates much more as a straight (although intelligent and self-aware) horror-thriller than Get Out did.

In the present day, adult mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is spending summer vacation near Santa Cruz with her family: her husband Gabe Wilson (a very funny Winston Duke, Nyong’o’s Black Panther co-star), her smartphone-absorbed teen track star Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her son Jason (Evan Alex), who is a bit awkward and is never without the double horror-movie-history nod of a Jaws shirt and a wolfman mask. Adelaide becomes alarmed and nervous when Gabe tells her that they are to meet their friends – strained but well-off married couple Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their teen daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), who, given the themes of duality at play, are of course twins – at the Santa Cruz beach, setting of her childhood trauma. Adelaide panics when she loses track of her son there, while Jason has a premonitory glimpse of horrors to come. But things get truly frightening that night, when the Wilsons’ summer home is visited by a family very like them. Almost exactly like them, in fact.

Without quite giving away the whole of Us‘s game (though much of it, so watch for falling spoilers), the Wilsons come face-to-face with their red-jumpsuited, single-gloved, golden-scissors-wielding doubles, who hail from a disturbing subterranean mirror-world located in underground tunnel networks stretching across the country (at least a little like those in Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad), whose rooms and halls also noticeably and provocatively resemble a public school. Known as the Tethered, they are mute, lobotomized slaves (not at all an off-base comparison) to the whims of their doubles on the surface, doomed to robotically replicate their movements like so many dumb puppets, or like human shadows (an association hinted at visually by a fine overhead shot from Peele’s cinematographer Mike Gioulakis of the family walking along the beach, their long shadows stretched on the sand). Adelaide’s shadow Red has had enough of the Tethered’s subjugation, and, believing herself marked by God for a special purpose after meeting Adelaide years before, has launched a joint bloody revolution and symbolic demonstration to put an end to it.

Peele’s premise for Us is a hybrid of a 1960 The Twilight Zone episode about a woman and her evil doppelgänger and the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ proto-science-fiction allegory for Victorian England’s socioeconomic disparity. White rabbits abound in the underground as well, referencing the animal guide into Lewis Carroll’s fantasyland of unreality Alice in Wonderland. The Tethered and their role in relation to their surface doubles is Peele’s charged metaphor for the history of African-Americans as an exploited underclass, whose hidden toil makes the comfort and privilege of middle- and upper-class white Americans possible. The film’s title, after all, might be read as US (United States), and when Adelaide asked Red who she and her family are, the eerie but revealing answer in Nyong’o strangled vocalization is, “We are Americans” (Nyong’o, both as Adelaide and especially as the graceful but twisted Red, is incredible; post-modern horror queen Toni Collette had better watch her back).

It could be argued that the Tethered represent poor minorities in general, but the symbolism of African-American enslavement is paramount: Adelaide spends much of the movie handcuffed, ie. in chains, and Red’s “fucked-up performance art” revolutionary stunt is an eerie re-creation by her shadow-people of the Hands Across America charity event of 1986, in which human beings literally embody the chain. One might likewise quibble that the precise nature of the Tethered underclass is of hazily-defined provenance and utility, but one shouldn’t discount the possibility that this entirely is Peele’s point: the maintenance of a permanent racial underclass by the ruling elites in America is often understood as having a macroeconomic impetus, but maybe it really is just a symbolically and surreally cruel charade with no overarching teleological function worth quantifying. Often, the cruelty is the point.

As in Get Out, these grander allegorical meanings of Us are accompanied and enticingly flavoured by social observations and cathartic humour. The black Wilsons are clearly comfortable socioeconomically (they can afford a summer home, after all), but Gabe in particular is stung that the white Tylers, despite being stupid and vain people, are a cut above them wealth-wise. Director Peele, his production designer Ruth de Jong, and his costume designer Kym Barrett show us this in ways both blatant and subtle. The Tylers’ summer home is noticeably more luxurious and modernly-decorated than the Wilsons’ homey, dated one, and similar gaps are evident (and are noted by Gabe) in the quality of their respective cars and boats. At the beach, Josh wears a black t-shirt with the Fragile label and broken wine-glass symbol on it, perhaps hinting at the fragility of white identity (maybe a bit of a stretch) as well as the careless alcoholism that he and his wife, who despise each other, rely upon to make interaction tolerable; as the Tethered terrorize the Wilsons through the night, Gabe is wearing a Howard University sweatshirt, marking him as an educated member of the African-American bourgeoisie.

Social politics abound in Us. When the Wilsons call the police when confronted by the Tethered, the 5-0’s promised response time is unfortunately slow, and in the end they don’t show up at all; one might nitpickingly accuse Peele of simply forgetting that the cops were supposed to be on the way, but again it’s just as likely that a point is being made about the police’s fraught relationship to African-Americans and crime, as it was in that gut-turning appearance of flashing lights at the climax of Get Out. In a later dark comic inversion, when Kitty tries to call the police during the attack of her family’s Tethered doppelgängers (Moss has one astounding horror reaction as Kitty’s shadow-person in this sequence, an agonized cry melting into maniacal laughter, that should also make Toni Collette nervous), her Alexa/Google Home digital assistant pod (called Ophelia after the tragic suicide case in Hamlet, because Jordan Peele has read books and thinks you ought to know it) misunderstands, and the last thing she hears is NWA’s ‘Fuck tha Police”. There’s even a moment that constitutes an added chapter in Peele’s career-spanning dissertation on code switching: when Gabe’s polite, respectability-coded request to the creepy lurking Tethered to leave his family alone fails to elicit a response, he tries again, this time wielding a baseball bat and talking a tougher, more aggressive street-talk-coded game.

As you might have gathered from these scattered observations, Us is a rich and ambitious but not always focused and coherent text in its political and social metaphors. Get Out likewise indulged a variety of ideas about race and social norms, but it snapped neatly and potently into place when the central body-snatching premise was made manifest in all of its terrible dimension. Perhaps, amidst Get Out‘s thunderous success, Jordan Peele was put off, if only a little, by how his film’s thesis was smoothly delineated in so many critiques and thinkpieces. Perhaps Us is the reaction to that, a film full of charged ideas and symbols and reference-points that is less confidently parsed and interpreted, an unruly work whose meanings don’t stand still and allow themselves to be deconstructed and apprehended.

But on the subject of unruly texts that defy firm interpretation, let’s return to that biblical quotation. Jeremiah 11:11 evokes a judgemental Old Testament deity unleashing punishment and misery on those he deems unworthy of his supposedly boundless mercy and love, chillingly unmoved by the pitiful appeals of his fragile creations for clemency. Jordan Peele’s Us conceives of this terrifying, inequitous tableaux as the model for the relation of the powerful to the powerless, which in America is always already a relation predicated on and inextricably tied up in race. It’s the painful flip side of the coin of the liberation theology of the African-American church that has held such a central role in the history of the African-American community’s organization and agitation for its civil rights, but which in its long-arc-of-justice incremental approach might well be seen by a more militant and less god-fearing activist generation as being insufficient to the challenges facing Black America. Us uses Jeremiah 11:11 as a pointed riposte to liberation theology: if an all-powerful God intends to set African-Americans free one day if only their collective faith is strong enough, why has he put them in chains in the first place, and been blithely deaf to centuries of his purported children’s cries for aid? If he intends to do good – indeed is the shining, remote, omnipotent epitome of good – why does he bring inescapable evil upon us?

The Tethered’s bloody uprising is the apocalyptic answer to this blithe unconcern for the plight of the vulnerable, on the part of God or White America or the government or elites in general or the common polity in general. Of course, even this imagined horror-movie revolution is hardly simple, straightforward, or uncompromised, and Peele prods insistently at his audience’s empathy for the shadow-people and their uncanny plight just as he deploys them as his stalking monsters. So much of the meaning of Us is tied up in the symbols and intertextual associations that Peele deploys liberally (there is an essay to be written on the visual nods to Michael Jackson, in child Adelaide’s Thriller t-shirt and the Tethered’s single-glove aesthetic), but quite probably its ultimate point is dropped into view with the film’s final twist, which for all of the spoilers I’ve delved into so far, I wouldn’t dream of revealing (I will only say to watch the clues around Adelaide, especially the foreshadowing of how Peele and Gioulakis shoot her in the scene in which she tells Gabe about her traumatic experience on the Santa Cruz beach as a child). Us is another expertly crafted elevated entertainment from Jordan Peele, and it shakes us just enough to make our question our place in a world that is never for a moment as safe or as fair as it may seem.

Film Review: The Polka King

March 25, 2019 Leave a comment

The Polka King (2017; Directed by Maya Forbes)

Jan Lewan deeply, passionately wanted his life story to fit the promised contours of the American Dream. In his boundless self-belief and positivity as well as in his massive, fundamentally fantastical fraudulence, the self-styled Polka King of Pennsylvania wound up embodying, in a kitschy, niche-y manner, the darker yet entirely inevitable flipside of that vaunted capitalist Dream. Immigrating from Poland and working menial jobs for years, Lewan pursued his passion for polka music (he was a classically-trained musician in Poland, attending Gdansk’s conservatory of music and playing in orchestras across Europe), touring with his band the Jan Lewan Orchestra for years around Pennsylvania, the U.S. and the world. He also opened a Polish gift shop in Hazleton, PA, ran European bus tours which included Papal audiences in the Vatican, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for one of his polka albums in 1995. Unfortunately, Lewan funded many of these enterprises with promisory note investments that he failed to pay back, and in 2004 he went to prison for fraud, having swindled upwards of 400 people out of millions of dollars in an illegal Ponzi scheme.

This is the tale of Jan Lewan told in the 2009 documentary feature The Man Who Would Be Polka King, whose directors Joshua Brown and John Mikulak emulated the shoddy local-level hucksterism of Lewan’s empire, either through their low budget, competence level, or by conscious artistic choice. That documentary is the basis for the narrative of Lewan’s career, personal life, and crimes in director Maya Forbes’ comedy The Polka King. Co-writted by Forbes and former Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky (co-writer of “Last Exit to Springfield”, one of the greatest episodes of the show’s classic era), The Polka King begins with great promise in the inspired, spot-on casting of Jack Black as Lewan. Black is a comedic actor with musical ability and experience, very capable in roles requiring broad, wide-eyed, loopy positivity (little wonder that he has worked mostly in children’s films in recent years), but likewise able to summon an almost-hidden edge of guilty darkness that lurks beneath. All of this makes him a fine match for Lewan, the man with the sweaty stage presence of a low-rent, perogi-skinned Wayne Newton, the insistent smile of a middling but hard-labouring salesman, and a consistent but ultimately insufficient strain of nagging Catholic guilt at his mounting lies and crimes.

Lewan, at least in Black’s amplified comic interpretation, displayed an unlimited, magnanimous positivity that borders frequently on the unhinged. This made him an ideal personality to rise high in the world of polka music, with its favoured tone of aggressive cheerfulness that can push liberally into demented and even weirdly desperate territory. But it also rendered him an insidious and attractive con man, selling rosy but ultimately empty financial prospects to mostly older investors who were also fans of him as a performer. Black’s Lewan has bought wholesale into the grand promise of American capitalism, but until he almost-innocently backs into swindling his fans out of their savings (he is very specifically warned by a SEC agent played by J.C. Smoove that what he is doing is illegal, so he cannot ultimately claim innocence), he finds the accruing of capital to be frustratingly difficult, no matter his hustle and his positive outlook. He is nagged constantly by his mother-in-law Barb (Jacki Weaver) to start living in the real world and settle for steadier work, a criticism likewise levelled at her daughter and his wife, former (and, with Lewan’s underhanded aid, future) beauty queen Marla (Jenny Slate).

But it is Jan Lewan and not the humble, native-born Barb who is more attuned to the amoral mantra of the American capitalist dream: fake it until you make it, and don’t let making it stop you from faking it. Forbes’ comedy film plays it all quite light (maybe too light, to be frank), but there is a undertone here of corrupt institutions failing in their purported oversight duties that allow Lewan to run amok. The beginning of the end of Lewan’s paper-tiger polka empire is here characterized as being the scandal that erupts around his bribery of the judges in the Mrs. Pennsylvania beauty pageant, which allows Marla to win an undeserved crown. But why shouldn’t Lewan think bribery will work in a two-bit beauty pageant, when a suitcase full of money can get him and his Euro tour a private audience with Pope John Paul II? Smoove’s SEC man Ron Edwards looks away from Lewan after a single interview, and is only later persuaded to crack down on this figure that he found harmlessly clownish. Even Barb, Lewan’s most implacable critic, cannot help but verbally smack down a couple of his defrauded investors who relish the slashed throat he suffers at the hand of his prison cellmate (yes, the Polka King of Pennsylvania got shivved; you can’t make this shit up). They got screwed because they got greedy.

Any sort of semi-serious critique contained in The Polka King is fairly rote, however, as is much of the humour here, to be honest. Black labours hard to make everything work, but most of the amusement is derived from the (admittedly very strange) nature of polka culture and from Lewan’s English misspeakings (“the invests”, he calls his promisory notes scam, for example). Lewan’s right-hand man in the orchestra and star clarinet player, Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman), is pinballed left, right, and centre by the script, which can never quite decide what his role should be in relation to Lewan: foil, sidekick, antagonist, or humanizing influence? This is a man whose most deeply-held ambition in life is to have “Pizzazz” in his polka-band stage name; he should be hilarious, but is just sort of shiftless. A scene in which Black and Schwartzman sneak the suitcase of money through to the streets of Rome to bribe the Vatican is only the most egregious of many that consider themselves far funnier than they are.

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that a straight-to-Netflix comedy about a Polish-American polka musician starring Jack Black isn’t terribly funny. It has its moments (a local host introduces the Jan Lewan Orchestra for their first televised appearance as having “blazed quite a trail through the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton area”; the closing, nearly-impossible-to-believe “Rappin’ Polka”), but it should be acknowledged that expectations ought to have been not so much tempered as placed on life support. But the details of the Jan Lewan story are just so outrageously, eccentrically weird and specific (he rigged a beauty pageant, bribed the Pope, and was shivved in prison!), and its wider applicability to American society, culture, economics, and even politics (Jan Lewan as a mega-low-rent Donald Trump without the Teflon patina of privilege?) so potentially compelling, that it has to be classed as a disappointment that the final film telling that story is not better. Although perhaps its middling form might be a better match for Jan Lewan’s shoddy house-of-cards take on the American Dream, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

March 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997; Directed by Werner Herzog)

A documentary film about war, survival, beauty, madness, dreams, nightmares, heroism, barbarism, triumph, absurdity, and above all memory, Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly evokes and summons more depth of meaning and indelible thought and fascinating ambiguity in a barely-feature-length 80 minutes than most films, fiction or non-fiction, can muster in twice that running time. It relates the incredible (and quite possibly embellished) story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s imprisonment in Laos and escape to Thailand after being shot down during the Vietnam War, mostly through Dengler’s own overflowing narrations of remembrance, but also through odd re-staged re-enactments of his time in the jungles of Southeast Asia featuring the aged Dengler himself alongside hired locals, and some archival wartime footage as well.

Like many of Herzog’s documentary subjects, Dengler is both a semi-autobiographical reflection of the inimitable (though often hilariously imitated online) German director and a profile of a figure entirely alien to his own (hardly proscribed) experience that deeply fascinates Herzog and his camera. Growing up in the abject poverty and starvation of post-war Germany as Herzog did, Dengler (who hailed from the Black Forest village of Wildberg in Baden-Württemberg, not too far from Herzog’s native Bavaria) became fascinated with flying during a wartime bombing raid on his village and moved to the U.S. to become a pilot, eventually working his way into the cockpit of a Navy fighter over Laos, where he was shot down in 1966. Captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and eventually handed over to the Viet Cong, Dengler endured imprisonment and torture and witnessed myriad bizarre and brutal episodes in the sweltering jungle before escaping improbably and returning to the U.S. as a decorated veteran (Herzog returned to Dengler’s story with a more conventional Hollywood action movie telling, directing Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale in 2007).

Herzog introduces Dengler as an older man (he died in 2001, four years after the release of the film, as a postscript of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery reveals), who is disarmingly voluble, bracingly forthright, and marked by his experiences in psychologically visibile ways. His house sits high on Mount Tamalpais in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, which gives him a sense of security; one episode Dengler relates from his Laotian experiences involved scaling a mountain’s heights to escape his captors and (unsuccessfully) signal rescuers. He is shown obsessive-compulsively opening and closing his car and house doors numerous times, which he effusively explains is a reminder to himself to cherish his freedom, in remembrance of his imprisonment; he also hangs multiple paintings of open doors in his entryway, probably for the same reason (although Herzog, always ready to stage-manage the “reality” of a documentary in search of deeper truths about his subjects, crafted the moment for that effect; Dengler claimed that he only bought the paintings because they were such a good deal). Little Dieter Needs to Fly gives off the distinct impression that Dieter Dengler would be a strange man even if he had not suffered through what he suffered through in the jungles of Laos, but his eccentricity was more extremely shaped by those experiences.

But how much does Dengler, who relishes the storytelling and being put through the re-enactment scenes like a born performer, shape those experiences himself? In many cases, he is the only witness (or the only identifiable, surviving, English-speaking witness) to what happened in the jungle. His reminscences are so vividly, minutely detailed that they carry the whiff of hyperbole at least, if not fabrication. They are often quite literally unbelievable. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is not an open door on this question, but then the documentary films of Werner Herzog are not documents of bare, useless fact but existential quests through the swamps of lived reality for deeper, more mystical truths. All of their narrators are unreliable, because to be human is to be unreliable, unknowable, a well and a mirror of memory and experience.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is also the rare Vietnam War film that does not stake out a stance about the conflict, let alone about conflict in general. Dengler’s prison camp sufferings are not understood by Herzog to be reflective of any particular injustice or larger political project, and they are not pivoted purposely against either the imperialist American war machine or the repressive communist state apparatus. They are points on an endlessly stretched-out continuum of barbarous fellowship, the infinite ribbon of violent and intimate proximity that constitutes human civilization, forever sustained and obliterated by armed conflict. Herzog even finds an incongruous and twisted beauty in modern warfare, interspersing hypnotic aerial footage of American bombing runs over Southeast Asian jungle villages. Scored by otherworldly traditional Tuvan throat singing and his trademarked narration characterizing the images as a “distant, barbaric dream”, Herzog edits devastating slow-motion napalm explosions to resemble precious unfolding flowers in an apocalyptic spring. He sees art in destruction, but not as fascistic romance like Marinetti did but as something alien, unfamiliar, and dangerous in its beauty, like the magnificence of a remote galactic supernova.

When Dengler’s Viet Cong guards try to make him sign a statement against America’s actions in Southeast Asia (many U.S. POWs did, especially after persistent torture), he flatly refuses. He harkens back to his grandfather, who suffered terrible reprisals when he would not cast his vote for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party during World War II, and tries to emulate his strength of will and conscience. The connection between German fascists and Vietnamese communists is not an ideological one for Dengler, nor is it based in wider historical sweep. It’s family history, personal principle, psychological bedrock. History, like memory, is fluid and subjective, and what it is most subject to is perspective. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a marvel of perspective, and, like all films by Werner Herzog, a unique, strange, and indelible experience.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews