130 posts categorized "Drama"

November 14, 2018

GREEN BOOK

Green_book“There are some words they don’t allow to be spoken, sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.” Elvis Costello had his finger on the pulse of verbal behavior modification when he wrote and sang those words on his blistering social attack song “Lipstick Vogue” back in 1978.

There is no small irony in the fact that actor Viggo Mortensen got his ass handed to him for using the N-Word (outside an alt-right rally or perhaps the Oval Office, the only socially acceptable treatment of a word unless spoken by a black person) during a post-screening Q&A for his film “Green Book.” Never mind that Mortensen used the word in the context of an intellectual public discussion about a historically relevant film set in the ’60s. Art be damned. Mortensen was immediately chastised. He apologized profusely and repeatedly for his offense. 

Still, the damage was done. Will Mortensen’s career suffer? Only time will tell. What seems evident is that he didn’t mean any harm, much less a racial slur, while talking about the thematic underpinnings of a period film for which he spent many hours preparing for and performing in. Still, no one’s BS detector went into the red.

By prohibiting anyone but black people from using the N-Word, identity-politics-infused white knight liberals have effectively ducked their responsibility and dodged accountability for America’s systemic racism, a grim vestige of slavery that continues the incremental genocide of blacks for well over a century following the Civil War.

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What the word meant was always toxic. Now it’s the post-linguistics: its spelling, its two syllables. It wasn’t always so. Jim Farber’s 1970 book “The Student as Nigger” asked questions about oppression and education, not race. Does the trigger-happy cop who shoots an unarmed black person fit the N-Word designation regardless of his or her race? You can’t ask that question anymore. Bette Midler got in trouble for merely referencing John Lennon’s iconic song “Woman is the Nigger of the World” in a tweet. It ain’t 1972 anymore. It should be acceptable to describe the Republican party as the most niggardly political entity on the planet, but you can’t say that even though the N-ly word has no relationship whatsoever. It derives from an entirely different language group than the N-word.

Ignoring the intentionality behind a speaker’s use of the N-Word ignores the contextual reality on the ground. It distorts debate in a way that emphasizes by contrast the persecuted class that the privileged liberal pretends to defend or protect.

Which brings us to “Green Book,” a softball period drama about racism in America as witnessed via a road trip shared by a black man and a marginally racist white man.

Directed by Peter Farrelly (“There’s Something About Mary”), this feel-good film is based on the real-life interactions between renowned black pianist Donald Shirley and Tony Lip, a foul-mouthed New York-born Italian bouncer whom Shirley hires to chauffeur him on a musical tour through the Deep South during the early ’60s.

The film’s title refers to “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for African-American road trippers (published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green between 1936 and 1966) during the era of Jim Crow laws. Throughout North America blacks were refused access to food, lodging, restrooms and all sort of other conveniences whites took for granted. Driving while black, of course, is still a de facto crime in many American counties.  

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Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) delivers an immaculate portrayal of a gifted black musician who has been buffered from the underclass experience of blacks in America. Donald Shirley spent much of his life in Europe, where he spent most of his waking hours being tutored in classical piano. Shirley lives in an opulent apartment inside Carnegie Hall — in the very building of the legendary auditorium. Shirley sits upon an elevated throne when taking visitors. Shirley’s bisexuality is a secret.

Donald and Tony develop a Pygmalion relationship. Heaven knows Tony needs it. However Tony has a few cultural lessons for his mentor as well. Little Richard and the joys of Kentucky Fried Chicken come as pleasant surprises for Donald, who speaks in an affected manner that might have earned a punch from a musician such as Miles Davis who, in spite of having been raised in a wealthy family, had no time for putting on airs. It’s doubtful that Davis and Shirley ever crossed paths.

“Green Book” excels as a white/black bromance crafted to fit release at the start of the holiday season. Not every white cop in the ’60s was a racist pig. Still, it’s doubtful that Shirley would have survived a roadside incident that occurs in this movie if it had occurred in 2018. To say that “Green Book” is out of step with 21st century America is a vast understatement.  

“Green Book” isn’t all that interesting but for its inadvertent role as a potential conversation starter about Mortensen’s N-word-related chastisement — assuming anyone is willing to talking about it openly. Polite society can censor non-black people from using the N-Word but it won’t struggle against the ravaging effects of politicized and corporatized racism that intimidates, marginalizes and murders blacks every minute of every day.

Viggo Mortensen

“Green Book” is an entertaining and respectable movie about racism but it barely scratches the surface of the problem. Viggo Mortensen’s experience shows why. America is afraid of facing and addressing its demons. Ruining the lives of people on the humanitarian side of the issue, like Viggo Mortensen, comes all too easily.   

Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (B) 

Three Stars

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August 19, 2018

BLINDSPOTTING

Blindspotting“Blindspotting” carries the burden of associating itself with Danny Boyle’s 1996 mind-blower “Trainspotting.” The slang term blindspotting refers to “a situation or image” that is interpreted in two different ways. If you’ve seen the picture that resembles either a vase or two faces, then you’ll know it when you see it referenced in the film. It’s a fair enough title to pin your movie on even if it comes off as derivative, overwrought, and a little precious. Accordingly, these are all terms that apply to “Blindspotting,” an amateurish effort at addressing the plight of young blacks, and their similarly hip-hop culture-informed white compatriots, in and around socially troubled, and trigger-happily policed Oakland, California.

Collin (co-writer/actor Daveed Diggs) is finishing up his final days living in a probation house after serving a term in the pokey for an incident that occurred at a bar where Collin’s childhood best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) was the bouncer. The wardrobe department puts too fine a point on the film’s regional location with Collin wearing so many shirts that say, "Oakland" that you’ll never want to visit the East Bay wearing any other such attire.

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Collin is black, Miles is white. Collin doesn’t have enough common sense, or character judgement, to recognize Miles as the biggest threat to his reentering free society. Miles is this film’s antagonist, as much as local cops who treat Oakland like minority hunting ground, although most audiences won’t pick up on it. The pals drive trucks for a moving company. On his way home Collin witnesses a cop shoot and kill an innocent civilian. Needless to say, he can’t get the violent memory out of his head. Oh tourism. 

The movie hits cliché rut whenever female characters come into the picture. Dialogue gets downright cheesy when the boys talk to girls. Collin is still hung up on the girlfriend who never once visited him in the slammer. Miles lives with his baby mama and child even as he recklessly carries a gun around for safety. The longtime buddies speak in hip-hop lingo as they help rich white folk move into their gentrifying neighborhood.  Bromance is good, tech yuppies are evil.  

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Form is another of this film’s weaknesses. The movie jolts in fits and starts with scenes that don’t always move the story along, or provide character motivation. There is a better movie hiding somewhere inside of this one, but this is the one we’re stuck with.

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Inspiration is the main thing “Blindspotting” has going for it. The film is energized by two young (relatively unknown) actors putting skin in a film they believe in. Newcomer director Carlos López Estrada doesn’t possess the skills necessary to make every scene work, or to excise crumby dialogue, but “Blindspotting” is nonetheless fascinating from a social perspective. America’s ever-festering boil of racism continues to claim the lives of minorities and those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when guns are drawn. “Blindspotting” plays it safe; who can blame it for that?

Rated R. 95 min. (C)

  Two Stars
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May 27, 2018

FIRST REFORMED

First_reformedHow refreshing it is to be reminded of the mortal shocks that valid Cinema can deliver. When audiences first saw “Taxi Driver” (written by Paul Schrader) they couldn’t wait to talk about it. It was an experience they had to get off their chests. Audiences were confused but intuitively informed by “Taxi Driver’s” dire provocation. Here was a film that captured the fall out of the Viet Nam War in a stark portrayal of a [racist] veteran’s psychological, and existential, crisis in the midst of an American culture shock.

For all of its mis-readings by audiences who also misunderstood Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” or Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” (both ingenious filmic satires), “Taxi Driver” remains a cinematic touchstone that refuses to submit to the ravages of time. So too will “First Reformed” stand as a bellwether film for the ages.

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Culture shock plays a role here too. As Paul Schrader did with “Taxi Driver,” he transplants God’s lonely man of Thomas Wolf’s indispensable essay into the modern world. However, this time it is not Manhattan’s urban cesspool that ignites the mind and body of our searching protagonist, but rather a perfect storm of globalized political, corporate, and religious corruption that infects Ernst Toller, a war vet (military Chaplin) turned small-town minister. Missing are any visual trappings and sexy locations that would distract from Schrader’s formally composed character study. Small-town America is the hotbed environment where a toxic chemical dumping ground releases vapors of social unrest and rage. This film’s formal compositions seethe with restrained silence and nostalgic dignity.

Although Schrader retains the voice-over narration approach he effectively utilized in “Taxi Driver,” this time he puts a diary in our protagonist’s hand. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller (named after the Jewish German left-wing playwright exiled by the Nazis) is the not-so glorified caretaker of the First Reformed Church in a fictitious town in upstate New York. Sick with an internal disease for which he refuses to seek medical care, Toller sets out to keep a handwritten journal that he will “shred and burn” at the end of one year. Empty whiskey bottles pile up in his weekly trash. Ethan Hawke’s performance is exquisitely transparent.   

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Having lost his son to the Iraq War that he insisted his boy enlist, against his wife’s wishes, Toller squandered his marriage. His salvation came from Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), the leader of a large institutional church that guards its corporate funding with a vengeance. The church will soon celebrate its 250th anniversary at a “re-consecration” event to be held in the well-preserved “souvenir shop” church that Toller oversees.  

Reverend Toller embraces the challenge of faith brought to him by Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant newlywed who has recently moved to the area with her ecological activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael doesn’t believe Mary should give birth to their 20-week old fetus due to the impending dire effects of climate change that will ravage human life in the coming years and decades.

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What follows is a concise thesis on how Christian ideology is co-opted by corrupt forces, and how the religion’s “washed in the blood of the lamb” imagery feeds into radicalizing those who are most committed to its precepts. Far from the “thriller” genre that some are attempting to pigeonhole “First Reformed” into, the film is a transcendent drama built on a rigorous filmic foundation.

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There are two sequences of romantic affection in the film. Each one arrives as a dangerous if not outright radical act. How and why is it that we the audience can be so provoked by something as natural as a kiss when the violence that we see or expect to witness seems more inevitable, if not natural?

As Thomas Wolf pointed out in his essay, Christ’s primary teaching was that “loneliness could be destroyed forever by the life of love.” You don’t have to be religious to see the truth in that, but you should see “First Reformed” a couple of times to understand how Paul Schrader shows you what connects us in the kingdom of heaven that we all possess and share. Is "First Reformed" a perfect film? Yes, yes it is. 

Rated R. 113 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Dramatist and LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) regular Phil Holt returns to the podcast to discuss PAUL SCHRADER'S FIRST REFORMED over a glass of BUNKER'S BROWN ALE. Bon appétit!

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