Jojo Rabbit(10/16/2019)

For about as long as there has been Nazis there have been people making fun of Nazis.  Carlie Chaplin made and released The Great Dictator before the United States even entered the war, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be at the war’s height, and even Disney was known to put out cartoons of Donald Duck wreaking havoc behind German lines.  Granted, those movies were made before the details of the Holocaust were public and some of those jokes about “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and the like do take on a new meaning in hindsight, but these movies remain prime examples of the power of laughing in the face of evil.  The game of making fun of the Nazis didn’t exactly end there though and through the rest of the 20th Century you can find any number of movies like The Producers or the show “Hogan’s Heroes” that would use the goose stepping and thoughtless hate of Nazi totalitarianism as a source of dark humor and a similar streak of satire tends to run through a lot of other movies that take a more irreverent look at the past like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones franchise or in Inglourious Basterds or even in the Wolfenstein series of video games.  So it wasn’t really a huge shock to me when I learned that the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who is apparently Jewish) was making a satire about life in Germany during the end of the Second World War which would feature some rather irreverent Hitler imagery, but I was curious to see what he’d do with the concept.

The film concerns a ten year old boy named Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is living in a town somewhere in western Germany during the last year of the Second World War.  Jojo’s father is said to be away fighting in the war and his sister apparently died earlier so he is living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).  Jojo has been caught up in the madness of Nazi Germany and views Hitler as something of a rock star and Hitler (Taika Waititi) actually talks to him from time to time as a sort of hallucinatory imaginary friend and as the film begins he’s excitedly running off to a Hitler Youth jamboree.  This gathering is being overseen by a wounded German officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who at one point demands that Jojo kill a rabbit in front of him to demonstrate his willingness to kill for the Fatherland and despite Jojo’s enthusiasm for the cause can’t bring himself to do this, at which point he is mocked and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”  Compounding his problems he ends up having an unlikely grenade accident, which he survives but is left with some scarring on his face and leg.  Because of that he’s stuck home most days and starts to hear noises from the second floor and discovers a hidden door and when he looks behind it he learns that his mother has been hiding a seventeen year old Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic, a discovery that will make him question his commitment the Nazi ethos.

Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Prize at the Toronto Film Festival this year and I suspect that it will be a pretty big hit with audiences generally; the one I saw it with certainly seemed to like it and gave it a big applause at the end.  I will say, I can sort of see why certain audiences would react that way.  Taika Waititi is a skilled director and does have a certain knack for juxtaposing slightly difficult coming of age stories with wacky humor as evidenced by his previous film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I can also see why people would find the film to be pretty funny as there are certainly moments in it that are recognizably witty and Waititi’s performance in it as hallucination Hitler is certainly broadly memorable entry in the ranks of Hitler parodies (of which there are many) and the performances in general are pretty strong.  The audience I saw it with was laughing uproariously through much of the movie but while I could recognize some decent comic beats this movie did not really make me laugh all that much, which could mostly be a matter of taste or could be a function of me just not finding all of this as shocking or outlandish as some people may.  As I discussed in the opening paragraph there’s kind of a long history of movies making fun of the Nazis and on some level I’m kind of over it, or at least harder to impress with it.

That having been said, I am glad that Waititi did add that level of overt comedy to the film because without that this movie would really be a pretty insufferable.  I mentioned earlier that this was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and that is an award that has something of a history of not aligning with my tastes as the last film to win it was last year’s inexplicable Oscar winning film Green Book.  I bring that up because this movie and Green Book have more in common than you might think from the advertising campaigns.  At its core this, like Green Book, is basically the story of a white (or in this case gentile) person slowly coming to decide the minority he’s forced to have dealings with isn’t so bad after all and how the power of friendship triumphs over hate or some shit.  This isn’t to say the two movies are identical.  For one thing this is about a child coming to this realization and not a grown-ass man and it’s a child who grew up in a somewhat extreme environment to boot.  But still, I must say I find something kind of trite about this whole message of intolerance being overcome through personal interactions and especially find it to be rather out of place here given that Nazi Germany certainly wasn’t a place that improved their race relations through gradual self-improvement and civility.  On the contrary, it took an overwhelming military defeat at the cost of millions of lives, a series of trials that ended in many of its leaders being executed, and a five year occupation in which all former Nazi organizations and symbols were illegalized, and decades of shame and a conspicuous demand for atonement from the rest of the world thereafter.

If Waititi really wanted to explore Nazism he probably would have been better served exploring what made Jojo (and by extension the rest of Germany) find that party appealing in the first place rather than how he came to dislike it all of a week before the allies were about to force the issue anyway.  The opening credits, set to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” compares the rise of Hitler to Beatlemania, which is the kind of provocation and insight I would have liked from the rest of the film but it doesn’t fully explain why this kid (who would have only just been born around the time Triumph of the Will came out) would be such a fan.  He clearly didn’t get this from his parents, who clearly weren’t true believers in Aryan Ideology and presumably would have tried to instill in him some of those values even if they needed to be careful about preventing him from spilling the beans.  The imaginary Hitler friend also doesn’t provide much insight.  The character is presumably supposed to be a sort of devil on this kid’s shoulder and from time to time he sort of acts in this capacity but more often than not he’s just there to be a goofy onscreen presence rather than some hateful part of his psyche.  In many ways making the film about a child just seems like a bit of a copout, it doesn’t explain why a struggling country would have found comfort in authoritarianism and it makes anti-Semitism into an exaggerated joke about childish misconceptions of people with horns rather than the result of a paranoid conspiracy theory mixed with a strong desire to feel superior to others.

Despite the Audience Award win at Toronto the film’s response at that festival by critics was kind of polarized.  This didn’t get a whole lot of press, in part because the critics were even more polarized by Joker and the endless arguments about that movie have kind of overshadowed any other cinematic divisions.  But Joker is perhaps another interesting point of comparison because I think my view of Jojo Rabbit is not dissimilar from how a lot of that film’s detractors felt: namely that I think it has a premise that promises a strong insight into society that it never really delivers on and ends up feeling especially shallow as a result.  That might not be entirely fair: much as I basically view Joker as elevated genre fare rather than a work attempting true social insight, there will probably be a lot of people who view this as simply a smarter than average comedy which provides a better than average theatrical experience and that’s probably fair enough.  Additionally I could see myself having gone along with this a lot more if it had hit my funny bone more than it did, instead I found some of its quirks kind of annoying especially given the setting and how little insight I think it really has into it.

**1/2 out of Five

Yesterday(6/27/2019)

When the trailer for the new Danny Boyle film Yesterday was first released I had questions.  This trailer was a pretty straightforward bit of advertising that largely existed to explain the film’s high concept: that the film was about a British street musician named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) who bumps his head and when he wakes up he finds that through some sort of magic The Beatles have been wiped from this history books, appear to have never existed, and are not remembered by anyone except Jack, prompting him to recreate their songs and start a major music career as the ostensible author of all these incredibly catchy pop tunes that no one has heard before.  Not a terrible idea for a movie in theory, but the more I thought about that high concept the more it started to bug me.  As I mulled it over some questions occurred to me, questions like:

  • If The Beatles never existed how can you envision a pop culture landscape where likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Pulp still be around?
  • How would someone, even a trained musician, be able to fully recreate an artist’s catalog from scratch? Even a superfan isn’t necessarily going to know every word of “The Long and Winding Road” after all.
  • Would these song still be marketable and impressive if they’re divorced from their historical context and what made them innovative and new when they were released?

In short the movie had a lot to cover but that’s okay, it’s being made by smart people and I looked forward to seeing how they were going to wrestle with these things.  Unfortunately I must say that I found a lot of their answers kind of inadequate, that is when they bothered to give answers at all.  On the issue of how he was able to recreate the songs from memory for example, they do give lip service to the idea, but ultimately don’t wrestle with it.  He’s basically able to come up with the lyrics off screen for the most part and is able to come up with the rest of them after a quick trip to Liverpool in order to reconnect with Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.  But whatever, that’s mostly just a nitpick.  The much bigger question is how the movie expects us to believe that, given how important and revolutionary it seems to think The Beatles were, that a pop culture landscape where they never existed would basically be unchanged from what we’re experiencing now.  There’s a throwaway joke about Oasis also not existing given how derivative they were, but you’d think the most popular rock band of all time would have more of a butterfly effect than that, and outside of that one little joke the movie basically never questions how popular music managed to just keep on chugging without the influence of the fab four.  The movie also basically just takes it as a given that because the songs are so good they would automatically be just as popular today as they were in the 60s, that the kids who’ve already experienced The Backstreet Boys would still lose their shit for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” that someone whose listened to Radiohead’s “OK Computer” would still pop their monocle when they heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  That’s not to say the possibility of these songs to resonate would not exist in the modern day but you’d think “Back in the USSR” would maybe mean something a little different in 2019 than it did in 1968.

So, with the movie more or less refusing to engage with these ideas I actually found myself asking even more questions while watching it, questions like:

  • Would these songs sound different if made using modern production techniques and without the input of George Martin? Could Ringo be replaced by an 808?
  • Would a 28 year old singing “she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” get you canceled in a song written in 2019?
  • Would “Happiness is a Warm Gun” fly in an era where there are regular mass shootings?
  • What does it mean for a guy with roots in the Indian subcontinent to take song from a band that rather famously appropriated a whole lot of ideas and music from that region? Is turnabout fair play?
  • Would the psychedelic imagery throughout The Beatles music connect with to a generation of kids who are going up with Molly and Adderall instead of LSD?
  • Shouldn’t he be releasing all this material gradually over time instead of dumping every damn Beatles song ever all at one time.
  • Further if you’re releasing The Beatles catalog from scratch, would it make more sense to introduce audiences to the simpler earlier stuff first or would it make more sense to jump into the more striking and experimental late sixties stuff even if that stuff perhaps has more signposts of its era?
  • Is Mark David Chapman loose in this world? Would our hero have to worry about him showing up almost karmicly?
  • For that matter did the Manson killings happen in this world given that there was no Helter Skelter to misinterpret? If not, would the fact that that wasn’t weighing on the national psyche when it did allow for flower power to go on for longer… or would flower power have even existed in the first place without The Beatles?

Those all seem like fairly interesting directions that the film could have gone down, and the film manages to address basically none of them.  Of all the major musical quandaries that the movie’s premise brings up, the only one it seems to be even a little interested in tackling with any kind of depth is the ethics of essentially plagiarizing other people’s works and becoming famous off of them.  To me that’s probably the most inconsequential of all the questions they could have gotten into, firstly because it’s basically irrelevant to the fact that he needs to reintroduce an old band to the modern era.  Malick have faced basically the same dilemma if he had woken up to find that it was Drake or Imagine Dragons that had been stricken from the record by this magic.  Secondly, it’s kind of the wrong question to be asking simply because, well, stealing from people who seem to no longer exist is kind of a victimless crime.

Ultimately, I think the issue at the center of all of this is that I seem to have put a lot more thought into this concept than the people making the actual movie are.  On some level I maybe should have expected that.  The film was written by a guy named Richard Curtis, who’s famous for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually .  He’s a writer of romantic comedies, not alternate history fanfics, and Yesterday actually is more of a romcom than the trailers make it out to be.  Jack Malick as it turns out has a manager named Ellie (Lily James) with whom he goes back years and their relationship is totally platonic… can’t imagine if that’s going to change over the course of the movie.  The two leads actually have quite a bit of chemistry even though their arc is very predictable and Curtis still seems to have a penchant for slightly creepy grand gestures.  I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will be happy that this is more of a light rom-com than it is a detailed alternate history fanfic with astute observations about pop culture history.  Obviously I’m not one of those people and while this movie passes the time and isn’t unpleasant to watch it still seems like quite the missed opportunity to me.

**1/2 out of Five

Bohemian Rhapsody(1/12/2019)

Sometimes I think it’s important to lay one’s biases right out when they start to talk about movies, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have some biases about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  I certainly wasn’t opposed to the very idea of a Queen biopic, I like that band as much as the next guy and I’m not completely allergic to musical biopics like some people are but when the movie came out in late October it was completely panned by the critics and I had much more important things to see and I felt pretty comfortable skipping it.  Then it just kind of never went away.  The thing became a ginormous hit at the box office despite everyone in the film world having nothing nice to say about it and it somehow managed to become a big awards contender and despite having not seen it I sort of went along with my critical brethren in trashing each and every organization that thought it appropriate to treat this thing like one of the year’s best.  That instinct probably reached its pinnacle on the night of the Golden Globes when the movie shockingly won the Best Motion Picture Drama award and I responded with some rather rude tweets including “they must have straight up been smoking crack” and “The #HFPA is basic as fuck.” I don’t exactly regret the tone of those tweets so much as the fact that I was talking about a movie without having seen it (for the record, both sentiments also apply to the night’s other big winner Green Book, which I had seen).  So, with the not at all loaded mission of wanting to be able to trash something with more credibility I used my newly acquired AMC Stubs A-List membership to go see the damn movie, and while I certainly had my biases against it I also kind of had a sinking suspicion that with expectations so low I might have ended up pleasantly surprised.

The story of Queen begins when a young baggage handler named Farrokh Bulsara, who would soon come to be known as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), caught up with a bar band called Smile right as their bassist/lead singer had given up and quit the band.  Seeing the potential in the group he convinces the remaining guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Tayler (Ben Hardy) to let him join them as the new lead singer.  After hiring a new bassist named John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) and touring extensively the group decides to make an album.  Meanwhile Mercury has been starting a relationship with a woman named Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) who he seems to have a deep and abiding love for but there always seems to be something between them keeping the relationship from completely working, what could that possibly be?

The element at the center of this film is of course Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, which has gotten a lot of acclaim even from people who dislike the film.  He does indeed to a pretty good job of looking like Mercury for most of the movie and he can certainly lip-sych like a pro (the singing is provided by archival recordings), but I wasn’t overly impressed by the speaking voice he mustered for most of the movie.  If you look up some old Freddie Mercury interviews you find he didn’t really sound that much like what Malek is trying to sell here and even if he did Malek just generally seems to be struggling with trying to perform while using the voice and there are some questionable line readings in the movie.  The rest of the cast is serviceable.  This is clearly a movie that’s primarily about Mercury for obvious reasons, though you do get the impression that the surviving band members are calling some of the shots as there is a suspiciously large focus on making the audience very aware of the fact that some of the other band members are responsible for writing a lot of the band’s hits.

The central sin of Bohemian Rhapsody is that it is absolutely slavish to the rock biopic formula as lampooned by the movie Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story.  You’ve got the “I’m going to think back on my life before a performance” trope, the pop psychology about the artist’s childhood, the record exec who doesn’t get what they’re doing because they’re so ahead of their time, the record studio montages, and of course the “it used to be about the music, man!” segment.  To some extent a lot of this stuff is unavoidable in a biopic which isn’t doing some sort of avant garde I’m Not There experiment and I don’t expect every movie like this to subvert all of them but this movie really shamelessly leans into the formula without doing anything to bring any originality to the proceedings.  The film also really distorts a lot of facts about the band in order to fit this formula.  Much of the film’s second (and weakest) half revolves around Freddie Mercury’s supposed abandonment of the band in the early 80s to pursue a solo career and to pursue hedonism.  This version of the narrative rather conveniently ignores the fact that this supposed hiatus only lasted two years, that Brian May and Roger Taylor both released solo projects before Mercury did, and that the band had already reunited, released an album, and gone on a tour before they performed at Live Aid.

Of course all movies based on true events take some creative license but there are ways to use creative license for good and ways to use it for bad.  Here the liberties they take generally just served the purpose of making the movie more clichéd and predictable.  There is of course also the matter of how the film depicts Mercury’s sexuality.  Now, the film doesn’t necessarily hesitate in depicting Mercury as a gay man, something it might have done if it had been made some twenty years earlier, but in some ways what it does do is more insidious.  As I mentioned this movie follows the rock biopic formula to a T and these rock biopics almost always reach a point where the lead singer becomes full of himself and starts destroying the band, usually by falling into drugs and alcohol.  That happens here too, but instead of drug addiction the thing that starts happening to Mercury at this point in the story is that he starts fully embracing his sexuality and engaging with the gay community.  Yes, he’s also said to be taking drugs during this section but that is deemphasized here and it almost feels like the movie is equating homosexuality itself with self-destruction to the point where all the references to gayness in the script could have been replaced with references to drugs and the story would have basically been unaltered.  The presence of Jim Hutton, Mercury’s boyfriend in his later years mitigates this a little, but if they’d been more honest about this relatively healthy relationship which began long before Live-Aid and before Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis the structure and framing would have been a lot less problematic.

So did I hate Bohemian Rhapsody?  Nah, it plays things a little too safe to really become something worth hating.  It also has one major and rather obvious asset: it has a lot of Queen music in it.  It will be a surprise to no one that Queen was a pretty damn good rock band and even knowing that it’s just a lip-synch show there is obvious entertainment value in seeing the scenes of the band performing these songs, especially if you’re watching them on a very large screen and with a really aggressive sound system.  Aside from a stretch leading up to the Live Aid performance at the end the movie is mostly pretty well paced ad often has a sense of humor about itself.  What I’m trying to say is that as corny as the film is at times there are worse ways to spend two hours in a theater, and while I don’t respect the movie at all I don’t have much ill-will for it either… at least I wouldn’t if not for the fact that some people have apparently blown the film’s positive qualities way out of proportion and are trying to give it a bunch of awards it plainly doesn’t deserve, but when you have low expectations like I did and you keep things in perspective there is guilty pleasure to be derived from this thing.

**1/2 out of Five

At Eternity’s Gate(11/25/2018)

It’s pretty widely agreed that 2007 was an amazing year for film.  It was a year that gave us such modern classics as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and on a more personal level it was the year I began writing full movie reviews habitually.  One movie that gets lost in discussions of about Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a smaller movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  That film, about the internal life of a man suck unable to move any part of his body aside form one eyelid following a massive stroke was nonetheless one of the year’s best.  Though that movie was in the French language it was actually directed by an American.  Specifically it was directed by a guy named Julian Schnabel, who had directed two films previously but never to this much acclaim and it felt like with this movie a master had finally emerged.   And then nothing.  Schnabel made another movie three years later called Miral which was critically derided and then nothing for the next eight years.  This delay may have had more than a little to do with Schnabel’s other and perhaps primary career as a fine art painter who has by all accounts produced several museum quality paintings and works of physical art.  But now Schnabel has returned and he’s now made a film about the life of a painter from a different time and place with At Eternity’s Gate.

The film looks at the adult life of Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) beginning when he had already assembled a fairly decent oeuvre of paintings but hasn’t gotten any real money or success for his trouble.  His mental problems are already apparent but he does have the undying devotion of his brother Theo Van Gogh (Rupert Friend) whose moral and financial support has allowed him to remain a professional artist.  Much of the movie concerns an extended trip he made to Arles, France in order to paint under a different kind of light than what he was seeing in Paris.  There he becomes something of a town pariah because of his occasionally anti-social behavior but does have a few friends like his landlord Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner) and he’s also visited by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).  From there we see him continue to struggle with his mental problems while also continually making iconic paintings right up until the end.

Confession: I do not know that much about art history, at all.  Truthfully I can barely tell a Monet from a Renoir, but Van Gogh is a little bit of an exception, when I see one of his paintings I can tell, in part because of his technique of making the paint sort of stand out from the canvas.  I also knew some of the broad strokes of his life story from here and there, in part because there have actually been a number of movies made about him including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas in the central role and there was Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and just last year there was the animated film Loving Vincent which used his signature art style to look at his life story.  It’s probably not too hard to guess why so many filmmakers want to tell this story; presumably they see something of themselves in the struggling misunderstood artist even though all of these filmmakers are more mentally stable and successful in their time than Van Gogh ever was during his lifetime.  It’s also a meaty role for actors who get to both imitate a famous face and explore the depths of undiagnosed mental illness.

This time around Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, which is a casting choice that makes sense given that he’s a red haired guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh’s self-portraits but also kind of doesn’t make sense given that Van Gogh died at 37 and Dafoe is almost twice that age at this point.  That age issue isn’t overly apparent while watching the movie and Dafoe is quite strong in the role.  Some of the best parts are the movie are the scenes where Van Gogh is relatively calm and starts talking about his various philosophies of art and life.  During these scenes Dafoe reminded me a bit of his scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ where he was struggling to explain his spiritual angst.  But maybe the fact that he sounds like Jesus is part of the problem.  Van Gogh was not a kind and cuddly man, in fact he was so off-putting to the people of Arles that they passed a petition to have him barred from the city.  His mental problems were severe and noticeable and the movie in many ways seems to be a little too in love with the guy to really look at the depths of them.

Really though whatever complaints I have about the movie have less to do with its take on Van Gogh and more to do with its pacing and general inconsistency.  In format the movie is basically a traditional biopic: it looks at the events of the artist’s last years more or less in chronological order and without any sort of gimmick or anything, on paper at least.  However the movie does play in some odd ways at times.  Occasionally it just sort of diverges from its plot to sort of watch Van Gogh sort of walk through nature and observe things.  It’s an arty touch, but I’m not sure it really works here and just sort of hurts the pacing. Other parts just kind of feel like boring and kind of stilted biopic fare.  But every time the movie was losing me it would do something to win me back.  It will include an interesting conversation or depict some key moment in Van Gogh’s life in an interesting way and I’ll be back on board.  Something like a third of the movie didn’t really work for me, a third of it worked quite well, and another third was neutral and that probably ultimately speaks to how episodic it is.  When I left the movie after seeing it I was pretty comfortable giving it a pass but it’s been a week since then and a lot of it has already kind of slipped from my mind.  It’s not a terrible or even particularly bad movie but it does seem to be a rather inessential one given how many other Van Gogh movies are out there and how little this really seems to be adding.  If you’re only going to see one recent Van Gogh I might even go so far as to say you’re better off going with that Loving Vincent thing, which at least had a cool visual style.

**1/2 out of Five

Green Book(11/18/2018)

If there’s one movie that was done no favor by winning an Academy Award it was Crash, and if there was another movie that was done no favor by winning that award it was probably Driving Miss Daisy.  Where Crash was criticized for what it was Driving Miss Daisy was criticized for what it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t was Do the Right Thing.  In a vacuum Driving Miss Daisy is fairly inoffensive; it’s the story of a decades long friendship between two older people from very different backgrounds who overcome their prejudices and come to respect each other over time.  A generous reading is that it’s telling white people that we’re not so different, a less generous reading is that it’s telling black people to stop making so much trouble and maybe white people will treat them better.  Any other year the Academy might not have gotten any shit for rewarding a movie like that but they decided to give it Best Picture in 1989, the same year that Spike Lee released his widely beloved masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a film with a much more challenging and provocative take on race.  That movie failed to even garner a Best Picture nomination and the symbolism of ignoring Lee’s film in favor of a movie about a “nice” black guy was not lost on observers and a controversy was born that culminated in Kim Basinger calling the Academy out on their own show.  We’ve spent the last thirty years scoffing at that choice and yet these “friendly” movies about race relations remain an easy sell around the world whether it’s in the form of something like The Intouchables or Victoria & Abdul and now there seems to be massive Oscar buzz around another movie about a black person and a white person coming to learn that they’re not that bad while on the road, could history be repeating itself?

Set in 1962, Green Book follows a guy named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson), a streetwise New York Italian who works as a bouncer the legendarily mobbed up nightclub The Copacabana.  After an incident Lip finds himself out of work for two months while the Copacabana is closed for renovations.  Fortunately for him he receives a tip that there may be a job opening as a driver for a pianist named Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali).  Shirley is a classically trained pianist, but also an African American living a profoundly racist society and out of a sort of need to face the wider world he’s booked a tour of the Deep South, where he plans to play a variety of concert halls and private shows at the estates of wealthy socialites.  Of course a black man touring the south at this time faced a great deal of danger, so he was in part looking for a driver and in part looking for someone who could defuse situations and if need be act as a straight-up bodyguard.  Tony Lip seems to be what he’s looking for and hires him, but as the road trip begins it was clear that the two would have personality clashes.  Shirley is a wealthy and sophisticated man of refinement while Lip is a crude and uneducated guy from the block, and the two frequently bicker over these differences, but as the film moves on the two start to realize they can trust each other.

Green Book was directed by, of all people, Peter Farrelly.  Farrelly has until now been part of a duo with his brother Bobby Farrelly and the two have become synonymous with broad lowbrow mainstream comedy.  This was the duo behind Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Me Myself & Irene and they generally didn’t stray too far from the tone that made them famous even though they had not seen much real success at all since the turn of the millennium.  Now he seems to have separated from his sibling and is trying to “go legit” so to speak and show he can make something a bit more serious.  And to his credit I don’t think his direction here is much of a problem at all.  He’s clearly a seasoned professional and shoots the film with traditional Hollywood efficiency.  His sense of humor also isn’t completely put to waste here either.  I would never call the movie a comedy exactly but given that it is essentially a buddy road movie there is some of that usual dynamic where the two sort of drive each other crazy before coming to like each other and this definitely leads to some comic relief that serves the movie they’re making well enough.  He also gets some pretty good performances out of his leads: Tony Lip is a bit of a walking goomba stereotype but Mortenson makes it work and keeps him believable while Mahershala Ali manages to make his character seem endearingly snobby rather than the one dimensional guy he could have been.

So before I get mean about this, let it be known that I think this is a perfectly competent movie, one that people will enjoy watching if they catch it on HBO on some random evening and which has a message that in and of itself is largely inoffensive.  Here’s the thing though, this is late 2018 and pretty much every movie that comes out around this time inevitably gets looked at in terms of Award season and by extension in terms of legacy and in terms of the constant tug of war over the soul of cinema, and in those terms I have some major problems with this movie being celebrated.  For one thing, the movie is kind of predictable.  If you’ve seen enough movies you have a pretty good idea of what these characters’ arcs are going to be and it also hits certain moments in a rather false way.  When the film introduces subplots like Shirley helping Lip write letters home you can pretty easily guess how it’s going to pay off and the film’s sense of irony about Lip being the less refined of the pair are handled in increasingly obvious ways.  Kris Bowers’ score is also part of the problem as it’s a very standard issue work that constantly intrudes and tries to really turn the emotion up to eleven in some really phony ways.

So the movie is kind of corny in and of itself, but then we have to deal with the way the movie addresses race, which in many ways seems rather basic.  It’s the kind of movie that seems to have been made for people who went to really conservative schools that never bothered to give even the most cursory of black history lessons.  Hell, even the characters at the center of the film seem oddly naïve about the world they live in.  The Shirley character was intentionally going on this tour in an attempt to face down Southern racism and Lip is a guy who may well have known the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas and yet the movie constantly has both of them suddenly turning into Pollyannas whenever they encounter a tailor that won’t let Shirley try on a suit or a sheriff that tries to enforce a sundown law.  These scenes don’t strike me as an honest portrayal of how these guys probably acted so much as they’re trying to shock modern audiences who somehow never watched many of the hundreds of other movies about the Jim Crow South that have been made in the past.  And that’s the problem with movies like these, they primarily only seek to show the wrongs of the silliest forms of discrimination of the past and frankly those are the easiest possible targets.

So what is the ultimate message of this supposed to be?  That people overcome their differences by getting to know each other better?  That is indeed the same damn message that Driving Miss Daisy was peddling back in 1989 and if it seemed kind of weak back then it’s certainly weak now.  These movies always operate under this simplistic assumption that racism was a problem in the South caused by dumb deplorables and that Lyndon Johnson fixed the problem and we know better now because individuals learned better and stopped being mean to each other.  Here and there this movie does at least suggest it knows better than that in little asides like when Shirley suggests to Lip after escaping a redneck bar that he probably wouldn’t have been treated much better at a bar back in Lip’s own neighborhood, but by the end when they’re actually being helped by a sheriff rather than hurt by one simply because they’ve gone far enough North really plays back into that old framework.  What’s more the movie ignores the larger systemic causes of oppression, the kinds of thing that no amount of Tony Lip learning to be nice to highly talented black men he finds himself befriending is going to fix.

Compare it to something like If Beale Street Could Talk, which is set a decade later and in the same city that is supposedly such a safe space for Shirley and you immediately realize how bullshit this framing is.  That is a movie about black families more or less being fed to the grinder by an uncaring criminal justice system, and while it’s certainly set in the past it’s still significantly more relevant to civil rights struggles that we’re still fighting today.  And there’s been no shortage of other movies about race relations made this year by black filmmakers like Blindspotting, The Hate U Give, Sorry to Bother You, Monsters and Men, Black Panther, and of course a brand new movie by Spike Lee called Blackkklansman.  Those movies all have their pros and cons and none of them are on the level of Do The Right Thing but they all feel far more in touch with the politics of 2018 and most of them tell their stories in more creative and exciting ways as well.  And that’s why this movie kind of pisses me off.  I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying it and I could see it having some value for elementary school kids or, like, grannies who are never going to understand something a little more confrontational than The Blind Side.  However, if you’re an adult (or an Academy member) the time has come to reach for something more than this kind comfort food.  Like Shirley says to Lip at one point: you can do better.

**1/2 out of Five

Halloween(10/31/2018)

I’ve long been called something of a film snob, a title I somewhat resent given that I consider myself to be about as well versed in low brow genre cinema as highbrow art films.  Take the slasher movie for example, the disreputable horror sub-genre that Roger Ebert once dismissively called the “dead teenager movie.”  It’s not exactly my favorite type of cinema either but I’ve seen a whole lot of it, and of my own free will to boot.  Most notably I’ve seen every damn movie in the big three slasher franchises.  That’s all nine Nightmare on Elm Street movies, all twelve Friday the 13th movies, and most pertinently all ten Halloween movies.  Did I love all thirty of those movies?  Not at all, in fact I’d say well over half of them are outright bad movies but it was interesting watching the trajectory the three long standing series went in.  For example, the The Nightmare on Elm Street movies were pretty consistently decent but pretty much never great and the Friday the 13th movies were pretty consistently crappy though occasionally fun.  The Halloween franchise, by contrast, is all over the place in terms of quality.  The original Halloween is a stone cold classic, a way better movie than any of those other movies and almost entirely because of John Carpenter’s sheer skill behind the camera.  But the franchise also has some real oddities like Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, which ignores the series continuity entirely to tell a weird story about evil masks, as well as some real stinkers like Halloween: Resurrection in which Busta Rhymes repeatedly calls Michael Myers “Mikey.”  The franchise was last seen being rebooted in the late 2000s by Rob Zombie with generally poor results, but they are now taking another stab (no pun intended) at bringing “The Shape” back to the screen with another sequel/reboot simply titled Halloween.

This new Halloween film is not a remake is instead a new sequel, one that ignores every other film in the franchise except for that 1978 original.  It is set in the present day and alleges that shortly after the events of that first movie Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney/Nick Castle) was captured and placed into a mental asylum where he has been for the last forty years.  Myers’ surviving victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is now pushing sixty and her experiences escaping from Myers have driven her to become something of a reclusive survivalist, a fact that has estranged her from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) but she does have more of a working relationship with her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  As the film begins the story of Michael Myer’s rampage is getting brought back up again by a pair of true crime reporters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) who try rather unsuccessfully to interview Myers, who has remained mute and unresponsive after all these years.  Their visit does reveal one thing though; the state is planning to transport Myers to a different prison by bus on October 30th… that couldn’t possibly go wrong could it?

To longtime fans of the Halloween series this “ignore all the sequels besides the original and bring back Jamie Lee Curtis” approach will be a familiar one.  The same basic thing was done in 1998 for the series’ 20th anniversary sequel Halloween H20, which had Laurie as a college professor in hiding after faking her death forced to contend once again with Myers.  That movie was better than most of the Halloween sequels but it was made in the wake of Scream and while it wasn’t overly meta or snarky like that movie was it did follow the conventions of that late 90s slasher movie wave otherwise, and those conventions have not aged well.  Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake came around about ten years later and it two is something of a product of its era.  It was clearly greenlit after the success of 70s horror remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes and it had a certain “torture porn” edge to it.  I remember having a viscerally unpleasant reaction to that movie and wrote a really nasty review of it but I must say looking back on it I think I might have over-reacted a little.  That movie had problems but there were certainly elements of it that I liked and they stand out a bit more in my memory, but I digress.

The 2018 Halloween is interesting in that unlike the last two iterations of the series (and their respective lame-ass sequels) this is not really coming out amidst a wave of other slasher movies.  The horror movies that are most in vogue right now are bad haunted house movies where ghosts jump out at the screen and go “boo!” after a few minutes of buildup, and that’s pretty far removed from the slasher genre that Michael Myers would become associated with.  As such this movie seems to have doubled down on ties to the original movie.  John Carpenter actually has some credits on it (though I’m not exactly sure how hands on he was) and they even brought back original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle back to reprise his role in a couple of scenes despite him being a 70 year old who was never a real actor to begin with.  And yet, the film oddly doesn’t really play out like the original film when it comes to the actual horror scenes.  In that first movie Michael Myers was a rather spectral presence; he would slowly stalk his victims and Carpenter would try to build maximum suspense before each kill.  Here Michael Myers is more of a blunt instrument.  He basically just walks up to random people and kills them in brutal fashion.  The film is significantly more gory the first movie and actually reminded me a lot of Rob Zombie’s take on the series.

The movie certainly has elements that work.  Seeing Jamie Lee Curtis go full Sarah Connor is interesting and Curtis certainly seems to have taken the part on with gusto.  As a whole though I wasn’t very impressed by this reboot/sequel.  Maybe I was expecting too much from it.  Between its clear interest in righting the wrongs of past sequels and it’s immense popularity I guess I was expecting something really creative and special out of the movie and instead what I got just kind of felt like another slasher movie sequel in the series which made a lot of the same mistakes as the other ones.  There may in fact prove to be no way to successfully follow up the 1978 film, which achieved a certain perfection through its simplicity and that any attempt to revisit the Michael Myers character is just going to diminish his mystique.  Still if you’re going to try to do that I feel like you’re going to need to do a little more than this movie does to recreate that magic.

**1/2 out of Five