Monthly Archives: July 2019

Review: Green Book

Green BookGreen Book is almost refreshingly tone-deaf in its mid-century liberalism. Which, apparently, is still late 2010s liberalism, if writers Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the protagonist) have anything to say about it. And, if for no other reason than to remind us that this variant of faux-egalitarian genteel liberal cinema undetained by questions of power and politics still exists this deep into the 21st century, I suppose I have to thank Green Book for taking my breath away. With Moonlight, Sorry to Bother You, and Us, I’d hoped we’d moved on. But here I am about to claim anything especially positive about late ‘10s American cinema on the subject of race, and Green Book has kindly arrived to keep me on my guard. Would that the film had any interest in exploring what its African-American deuteragonist has to do to keep himself on guard.

Instead of what it does do, which is – to the surprise of no one – subsume Shirley’s personal and physical crises to the role of a reflective mirror for a white protagonist. The two characters I write of are classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), about to depart for a two-month concert trip through the Jim Crow South in roughly November and December of 1962, and Italian-American (the film is very interested in us knowing that he is Italian-American) working-stiff Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), hired to serve as Dr. Shirley’s chauffer and all-purpose bodyguard. The conceit of the narrative, then, rests on our awareness that a black man in the South in the ‘60s will, as Tony informs us, cause “trouble”. But that trouble is more important for us, meaning white America, than for Shirley, at least in the film’s mind. The film’s perspective is almost exclusively hewn to Tony’s, the script exhibiting a clear favoritism for his moral awakening compared with Shirley’s plight, let alone the collective suffering of African-Americans in the South (or North), all of whom are meaningful in the film only as background.

As – to be honest – is Tony. While I’ve already made the obvious point – that Shirley only exists in this film to validate Tony’s crisis of conscience – the truth is that Green Book has an almost exclusively functionalist relationship to all of its characters (but especially Shirley).  It treats them each as a collection of qualities and features that never come into play except in moments where the plot finds them instrumental or where they can be expressly thematized. Thus, Dr. Shirley’s homosexuality is “useful” for the film in one scene, and briefly in a second, and evaporated from the film’s conscious at all other times. And to any dubious claims that this serves some sort of “humanist” purpose – to ask us not to over-emphasize any identitarian features in order to treat Donald as a “person” first and foremost (rather than a black person, a gay person, etc) – the film submits not one ounce of stray human energy to suggest that it actually ever cares about these characters as people in the first place. No internal desires or personal uncertainties seep out of the tight confines of film narrative. There’s no room for any personal excess – for the characters to exhibit traits or features which the film doesn’t know what to do with, which it can’t immediately schematize and instrumentalize toward a kind of dialectic synthesis designed to harmonize the two main characters into a friendship. (The film does, admittedly, make the somewhat bold decision to give Tony a character trait that I don’t know what to do with, namely that he is the type of person who enjoys folding an entire pizza in half and eating it at once). Continue reading

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Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALAfter the sturdy filmmaking economy of Hotel Artemis, it’s rather depressing to witness the belabored post-modernism and needlessly hip temporal machinations of Bad Times at the El Royale, not the worst kind of cinematic “cunning,” but close to it. Finally returning after directing Cabin in the Woods – and his mostly indifferent, mildly pleasurable screenplay for The Martian – Drew Goddard’s Bad Times is a vital compendium of many of the worst tendencies of mainstream “intellectual” storytelling. Goddard’s screenplay traverses an astonishingly circuitous route toward a largely banal resolution, superficially name-checking a variety of late ‘60s thematic signifiers – racism, classism, post-hippie fallout, cultish masculinity, the miasma of the oncoming ‘70s, a zeitgeist-y inability to trust in leaders – tepidly and arbitrarily. It expends all of its energy quite overtly ticking boxes on the path toward a moral parable that, at best, has little to do with any of the above, and at worst, actively avoids them to get from point A to point B, pulling themes out of a hat and getting bitten by the rabbit when the carrot at the end of the stick turns out to be a phony. Continue reading

Review: Hotel Artemis

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The directorial debut of Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis displays all of the style of that earlier film’s director Shane Black, and none of his sometimes cloying cleverness. Hotel Artemis is a blessedly simple, brutally elegant creature, a cinematic bottle-episode in the life of The Nurse (Jodie Foster), an elderly woman who’s clearly seen far too much in her life to exhibit anything more than pragmatic indifference about anything that comes her way. A temperature which is true of the film’s titular location, and, by way of approximation, the film itself. Written and directed by Pearce with a sense of suggestion and screenwriting economy unheard of for a summer genre film in the era of 2 ½ blockbusters, this is an abnormally – dare I say heroically? – straightforward production.

And a defiantly un-visionary one, exclusively dedicated to workaday problems and everyday struggles in the lives of criminals in Los Angeles, only ever-so-slightly refracted by a “15 minutes into the future” aesthetic that is much more thoughtfully quotidian and less obnoxiously conceptual than Black Mirror.  Hotel Artemis introduces us to two career criminals, brothers played by Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, the latter of whom is shot, prompting both to go to the titular Hotel, a kind of no-questions-asked medical bay for criminals who have memberships. Run by Foster’s Nurse and her towering assistant Everest, played by Dave Bautista as a tragic-comic fanatic who worships the hotel’s rules with a devotional fervor, the Hotel admits the brothers, but they are far from the only visitors that night Continue reading