‘Green Book’ can’t even get racism right

We’ve failed as a nation if we think Hollywood producers should approve dreck like Green Book. Patronizing, obvious, and animated by a contempt for the intelligence of its audience, Green Book will do well at the Academy Awards, and, indeed, was made for peer approval. Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) looks determined to purge any trace of the raucous comedy of which he’s capable. At least Crash was ambitious. Green Book is that most gruesome of Hollywood hybrids: the comedy with a heart.

That Green Book, named after the twentieth century travel guide for black Americans wanting safe and comfortable passage, insists on the most conventional notions about race relations is one of its grosser ironies. After the nightclub at which he works closes for renovations, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) lands a job as a driver for pianist/composer Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). An offer to also assume the duties of tour manager Frank swiftly rejects. An amiable dunce quick with his fists, Frank is the sort of casual racist who throws away the water glasses used by the black handymen who visit his home and barely flinches when relatives suggest there’s something fishy about his wife interacting with those same men. So the pair hit the road, with the polished and scrupulously erudite Doc finessing Frank and the lowbrow Frank reminding Doc of the glories of fried chicken. Along the way, to quote Crimes and Misdemeanors‘ cynical TV producer played by Alan Alda, they learn deep values.

With the extra weight, the pursing of the lips with which actors like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor have suggested palookahood, and the infinite variations of his shrug, Mortensen gives another of his renditions of comfortable masculinity. He’s lucky, for Frank on the page is little more than greasy pasta fazool. Called upon to deliver Farrelly’s horrible dialogue with rounded vowels and a worn imitation of what an actor thinks an educated person sounds like, Ali is less comfortable, and who wouldn’t be with the procession of conventions that Farrelly presents as if they were kittens. Racist Southern sheriff? Check. Uptight musicians who learn to accept the lummox? Check. Doc’s wowing the locals with his technique? Check. He even learns to love Little Richard.

Whether critics judge, say, a book or film create in the sixties using the mores of 2018 is a legitimate debate; what isn’t is Green Book‘s pretending that the mores of the early pre-LBJ sixties need no examination. As Frank’s wife Linda Cardellini sits around the kitchen, charmed by Frank’s ghost written letters. Worse, Farrelly refuses to touch Doc’s homosexuality as anything but a plot point (Frank is dispatched to get him out of jail for soliciting in a public toilet). Black, gay, and a musician? In the 1960s? This is a heavy load for a film to carry, let alone an actor of even Ali’s resourcefulness, but it doesn’t matter. All it takes is a scenic road trip through the South for our differences to erode. If they erode fast enough, we might get lucky and be invited to Christmas dinner.

GRADE: D

Between pedantry and precociousness: ‘Mirai’ and ‘Beautiful Boy’

Beautiful Boy, dir. Felix Van Groeningen

Like many comedic actors in Serious Roles, Steve Carrell is a fire blanket, smothering the energy that makes him a whiz. This adaptation of a pair of memoirs dealing with David Sheff’s anguish over the crystal meth addiction of son Nicholas (father and son each wrote one) errs fatally when concentrating on the father’s anguish. Shuffling from therapist to his computer, Carrell can’t generate pathos; he’s a lump. Worse is a flashback structure that purports to explain the drug and its consequences as if the audience comprised a few thousand morons in Hialeah. Many ABC Afterschool Special episodes I watched in the eighties depicted this behavior with less pedantry (however, we should have been so fortunate as to have Timothy Hutton, life’s ambition satisfied, playing the Judd Hirsch role in Ordinary People). As Nicholas, Timothée Chalamet shudders and shivers, going through the well-traveled motions of dozens of actors angling for award recognition playing people in the throes of addiction.

Yet even at his nadir, Nic’s hair has a rich buttery sheen; those crack houses must have superb hair salons.

GRADE: D

Mirai, dir. Mamoru Hosoda

Few things frustrate children more than the birth of a sibling. Four-year-old Kun takes the arrival of Mirai particularly bad. Once the center of attention from distracted, modern parents, Kun is forced to throw tantrums to get their attention; he even swats baby Mirai across the head with a toy. Kun’s dad stays home with the kids as if to compensate, a gesture that still leaves Kun unsatisfied. Then one morning he spots a mysterious younger man with a tail in the front yard; when he yanks it and slaps it on his rump he transforms into a dog. The truth is revealed: the stranger is Yukko, their family dog anthropomorphized.

Theses scene are among many quiet delights in Mamoru Hosoda’s wonderful animated film, last seen on these shores with The Boy and the Beast, a dazzling but overstuffed fantasy set in Tokyo. In short order Kun’s dashing World War II-era great grandfather and a grown Mirai, among other visitations, help him find order. Without exposition nor — I’m looking at you, Beautiful Boy — pedantry a host of relatives visits Kun in what turns into a poetic rewriting of A Christmas Carol. Moving with a fluency of gesture that would shame live action films, Hosoda positions her characters in living spaces that call Naruse to mind (the Ozu comparisons I’ve read don’t work, unless it’s the less ritualistic sense of play of later films like Good Morning they have in mind). One to watch in the theater.

GRADE: A-

Mirai is playing this week at Living Room Theatres FAU.

The enigmas of ‘Burning’

“So many Gatsbys in Korea,” Jong-su remarks, partly in awe of the space and gadgetry of a modern condo owned by Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su’s beloved Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend he used to pick on, has been dating Ben since a trip to Kenya and shows no sign of letting him go; to Jong-su, clinging to the memory of awkward sex one night, this is frustrating as hell. Lee Chang-dong’s first film since 2011’s marvelous Poetryamalgamates Haruki Murakami’s title story and elements from William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” into an unsettling, uneven creation. Its leisurely, almost serene pace is Lee’s acknowledgment that good and bad things both require a steady gaze.

In its second half Burning abandons social comedy for a whodunit with metaphysical undertones when Haemi vanishes without a trace, but not before beguiing Jong-su (and boring Ben) with a dance routine set to Miles Davis’ score from Elevator to the Gallows. Lee has already established that she’s a dancer who delights in making her own reality; a lovely meet-cute shows her peeling and eating an imaginary orange, and there’s business involving a house cat named Boil who may or may not exist. As played by the charming Yeun, Ben relishes playing a post-yuppie serious about being superficial, which makes him a natural suspect in Jong-su’s eyes (“I’ve never shed a tear in my life,” he confesses, rather proudly, after Haemi has shared a moment of loneliness on her travels). He’s also an admitted pyromaniac, specializing in setting fire to rural greenhouses. Complicating matters, though, is Ben’s bemused, condescending, but genuine curiosity about Jong-su, who wants to be a writer but struggles with the burden of a father who’s in and out of jail over assault charges.

A writer-director fascinated by the rhythms of banality, Lee stumbles when sustaining the enigmas of the last hour, especially when an act of violence ruptures what we’ve learned about these characters without being edifying. What’s clear, though, is that Burning plays as a reflexive commentary on the nature of fictions: Haemi’s disappearance, a nod to a similar plot point in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, is likely more compelling than whatever Jongsu has written to date or may write. Murakami’s story, written in tough guy Chandler prose, draws no connection between barn burning and Haemi’s vanishing except by forcing the reader to, whereas Lee’s film studies Ben’s milieu of nattering Korean socialites; Yeun’s smirk and shrunken hollow features emphasize his isolation. You don’t have to buy the ending — go along for the ride.

GRADE: A-

Uptight ‘Boy Erased’ can’t loosen its own collar

In his adaptation of a memoir about a male college student who survives gay conversion therapy, Joel Edgerton directs like he acts: solidly, stolidly, without imagination. Boy Erased is not a waste; its vaunted care makes heaving noises at every step. But as the minutes accumulate its cloddishness becomes wearing. A movie depicting social conservative horror of sex, it turns out, is also deathly afraid of gay sex. Continue reading

Born in a small town: ‘Monrovia, Indiana’

Late into Monrovia, Indiana, the local chapter of the Freemasons recognizes a man named Bauer for fifty years of service, the reward for which is the Grand Lodge Award of Gold. The pride on the man’s face strips at least twenty years of age off his face. As the qualifications get read, every man present seems to swell. Minute after minute in this meeting room the impact of this award settles over the audience. Continue reading

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ celebrates, refreshingly, literary charlatans

I’ll say this for Can You Ever Forgive Me?: it gets a crucial part about writing correct, a part missed by so many pious films about writers. The lengths to which writers will go to avoid idleness. In director Marielle Heller’s telling, Lee Israel, a biographer of famous women who has lived long enough to see her Estée Lauder book get remaindered, is the most admirable fraud: committed to the scrupulous forgeries of letters written by Fannie Brice, Dorothy Parker, and Noel Coward. There is an art to this larceny, and I suspect Coward and probably Parker would have bought her another whiskey and soda, or at best not called the cops. Continue reading

Contempt for women a cross-cultural phenomenon: ‘I Am Not a Witch’

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed a meticulous judicial process for the identifying, prosecution, and burning of witches. Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, one of the twentieth century’s more terrifying films, depicted this grisly duty. Rungano Nyoni’s feature film debut I Am Not a Witch shows the devolution of this phenomenon from tragedy into farce. The first scene, indeed, shows tourists in the Zambian wild snapping photos of women of all ages held in a pen — a witch camp — as if they were wildebeests, giraffes, or other exotic fish or fowl. Treated with worn condescension by their minders, the women eke out a living. Being a witch in Zambia benefits an economy dependent on white tourism. Continue reading