Notes on ‘Green Book’

Green Book

1. The People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival has, in the last couple years, become the “Privilege Myopia” Award. Four out of the last five years, it has gone to movies that in this day and age one would call “problematic.” Movies that try to tackle “important issues” in a digestible way, and thus end up adopting a simplistic, pre-packaged, sometimes offensive position on the issues. Last year, it was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, where British director Martin McDonagh tried to explain America’s violent heart and failed miserably. In 2014, The Imitation Game took the story of queer scientist Alan Turing and ignored the man’s sexual history, turning a fascinating man into a tragic version of Sheldon Cooper. La La Land had no interest in social issues, which is perhaps why it got criticized for positioning a white dude as the savior of jazz. This year, the winner was Green Book, which follows perfectly in that tradition.

2. Green Book is a movie co-written and directed by Peter Farrelly (half of the Farrelly Brothers who famously made There’s Something About Mary) in which an Italian American guy from The Bronx (Viggo Mortensen) works as driver and bodyguard for a famous concert pianist (Mahershala Ali) on tour through the Deep South. In 1962. Based on the premise alone, one would immediately call this a “reverse” version of Driving Miss DaisyWhat you wouldn’t expect, however, is for the movie’s political discourse to not be much more nuanced than that of a movie that came out almost thirty years ago. It’s depressing that the fact that Green Book has gotten a lot of awards attention (most recently five Golden Globe nominations) isn’t really all that surprising.

3. Film critic Richard Lawson has described Viggo Mortensen’s performance as “very gabbagool” performance, which is a totally fair assessment. Playing Tony Lipp, Mortensen is sticking out his belly, moving his hands, and putting on an accent, but I saw something else in the performance: I think Mortensen is not just playing a generic Italian-American cartoon but doing a James Gandolfini impression. His facial gestures, shrugs, the cadence in his words… they are weirdly similar of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. My guess is Mortensen watched a lot of The Sopranos in preparation for this role, but while he replicated Gandolfini’s moves, what made the late actor so great was that he made it seem effortless.

4. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a musician so fancy he lives on top of Carnegie Hall. You know Dr. Shirley is supposed to be fancy because he speaks like no other person has ever talked before. There is a reason for the character to speak this way, since he is choosing to present himself as as elevated as possible in order to escape racism, but his dialogue is so incredibly laborious and formal that you couldn’t expect a single person -no matter how dumb- to not think this guy is completely ridiculous, and I’m not sure that’s the movie’s intent. Shirley’s dialogue reminded me most of when high schoolers try to write a character who speaks very eloquently, and end up using archaic words and awkward phrasing that reveal much more about the writer’s lack of experience than the character.

5. There is a false equivalency at the root of this type of movie, which presents an exchange in which white and black characters learn from each other in equal manner. You could argue that it’s a better situation than that other trope in which the white protagonist is the only one who learns from the black characters around them, but is it really, when you think about it? In order to make Dr. Shirley learn from Tony, the Doctor is presented as so self-exiled from black culture that he doesn’t know who Little Richard is, and has never eaten fried chicken until Tony dangles a piece in front of his face. It is of note that Dr. Shirley’s family claims these details are inaccurate.

6. As I mentioned before, the movie has gotten five Golden Globe nominations including one for Best Comedy. The positioning of a movie about racism in the Jim Crow south as a comedy speaks to the filmmaker’s intent of making a light and digestible story, which leaves me wondering about the purpose of this whole enterprise. Who will benefit from laughing about an odd couple trying to maneuver around racism? Doesn’t Green Book‘s feel-good message ring hollow in the year of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansmanwhich uses comedy to intentionally deflate myths of harmonious collaboration and unanimous progress in race relations?

7. Speaking of comedy, there is a scene in which Viggo Mortensen eats a whole pizza that is clearly the funniest (and best) part of this movie.

8. About my theatre experience: Tony Lipp starts out as a racist character (otherwise there’d be no arc to this movie), so he says and does a  bunch of racist things in the first twenty or so minutes. A lot of these racist hijinks were met with audience laughter, which made me wonder… what were they laughing about? Are they laughing because they know that Tony will have a change of heart by the end of the movie? Pointedly, I wouldn’t describe the moments that were met with laughter as jokes. It seemed to me that something about the movie’s set-up made the audience feel it was ok to laugh at racism (again, not unlike my experience in certain moments of BlacKkKlansman, except in that case, I believe discomfort was the point).

9. About the cathartic element of the movie: Tony comes to appreciate Dr. Shirley, thus becoming less racist. One of the things that make Tony change his mind is the fact that Dr. Shirley is so damn good at playing the piano. I don’t need to tell you there is a long history of white people appreciating black musical talent. There is also a history of making racist exceptions for certain people within a minority group. “He’s not like other black people”, is something that you would realistically expect to come out of a person who has gone through Tony’s journey. Now, an exploration of that kind of racism would have been much more interesting and relevant to our current moment, but Hollywood does not allow for complicated character arcs when it comes to racism, so Green Book ends where that conversation begins.

10. The most frustrating moment in the movie is a scene near the end in which the travelers are stopped by a police officer. The scene is meant to echo an earlier police stop, while featuring a different (unexpected but not really) result. The scene is completely myopic about the racial injustice that still exists in America, and this is in a movie that takes a moment for Dr. Shirley to pointedly ask Tony if he would be welcomed by his white friends and neighbors in the Bronx. The movie’s answer is to ask Dr. Shirley to relax, to remember that we’re all decent humans up here in the North. As usual with this type of movie, the institutional elements of racism and its more insidious and covert expressions are forgotten in favor of uplift.

11. On the Film Experience podcast, Murtada Elfadi pointed out that, despite being called Green Book, the movie had little to do with the historical green books, which were designed to help black travelers navigate segregation by suggesting safe restaurants and hotels. It’s a shame the title is now taken, since there is probably a good movie to be made about this subject and Green Book’s main interest is certainly not in the relationship between black people and the book of its title.


Disney Has a Villain Problem (for Alternate Ending)


This month over at Alternate Ending, I tackle something that’s been bothering me for a while: Disney’s inability to produce any memorable villains in the past ten or so years, which led me to talking about bigger frustrations I have with the way things are going over at Disney/Pixar. Excerpt below, or you can go ahead and read the whole thing Here.

What’s your favorite Disney villain? When answering this question, most people will be able to rattle off a number of possibilities within seconds. MaleficentJafarCaptain HookScarUrsulaCruella De Vil. There are so many options you’ll have a hard time narrowing your list to just one. The responses are totally different, however, when we tweak the question just a bit: What’s you favorite Disney villain of the past ten years? Suddenly the pool dries up and you’re left with Tangled‘s Mother Gothel (a superb villain in her own right) as the only reasonable option. These days, most Disney movies are saddled with utterly forgettable adversaries, and that’s if they feature a villain at all. Can you even remember the name of the main villain in Zootopia, Big Hero 6, or The Princess and the Frog? Villains have disappeared from Disney movies, and that’s a problem. Not because villains are essential to good cinema (although who doesn’t love a great villain?), but because the studio’s new approach to villainous characters points toward bigger problems in the way they make movies.


Report from the New York Film Festival (for Alternate Ending)


As part of my work over at Alternate Ending, I’ve written some short reviews to some of the movies I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival. So if you’re interested in that kind of thing, hop over there and you’ll find reviews of…

The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) and starring Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman.

ROMA, the latest movie by Alfonso Cuarón (Oscar-winning director of Gravity).

If Beale Street Could TalkBarry Jenkins’s follow-up to his beloved Moonlight.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggswhich started as a Netflix series but became a movie in which the Coen Brothers explore the western.

Below is an excerpt from my review of ROMA, which was my favorite of the four, and one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

The festival’s prestigious centerpiece spot was given to Roma, which sees director Alfonso Cuarón follow up his Oscar-winning work in Gravity with a much more personal story. To say that the movie is based on Cuarón’s upbringing in 1970s Mexico City would be technically correct, but a little misleading. Unlike most directors who make movies based on their childhood, Cuarón doesn’t center the story around a little boy who stand-ins for him, but chooses instead to focus on one of the maids who worked for his middle-class family. We first see Cleo, played beautifully by Yalitza Aparicio, washing a tile floor and performing other domestic duties as family life occurs around her. The children of the house adore her, partially because her job is to take care of them, while the mother -who is going through an emotional struggle of her own- oscillates between sympathetic and cruel. At first Cleo seems to be an entry point for the movie to dig deeper into the family, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that this is her story, and that that’s the point of the movie.


What Will Be This Year’s Failed Oscarbait? (for Alternate Ending)

welcome_to_marwenI’m very happy to continue my stint as collaborator over at Alternate Ending, a very fine website with great film reviews and a delightful podcast. This time, I look at the upcoming awards season. Not to predict who will win the Oscar, but to predict which movies will end up as the big disappointments of the year. Below is an excerpt, with a link to the full article.

“Fall is the best season for movies” is a common notion informed by the belief that movie studios are saving their best movies for what we have come to know as “awards season.” Having a movie out in the weeks leading up to the Oscar nominations can help boost box office; with the condition, of course, that the movie in question gets nominated in the first place. We all know the truth about the Fall. Some of the best movies get released in the last few months of the year, but not every movie that gets released during these months is good. For every cinematic masterpiece, there is a bland piece of middle-brow entertainment that was created with the intention of winning some Oscars, but will most likely be forgotten before the season is over.

The fact that this kind of movie so nakedly search for validation in the form of awards makes the inevitable outcome all the more appealing. Movies that were once considered sure things but fail to get any nomination (like those classics Reservation RoadJ. Edgar, and Charlie Wilson’s War) feed the schadenfreude bug like no other kind of cinematic failure. That is why I’ve always found reading the tea leaves for what will fail to be as entertaining as predicting what will succeed. With all this in mind, I have some predictions for the movies that are most likely to end up the big failures of this upcoming awards season.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Keanu (for Alternate Ending)

keanu reeves

I’m very happy to continue my stint as collaborator over at Alternate Ending, a very fine website with great film reviews and a delightful podcast. This month, I tackle one of the great questions of our time: how did Keanu Reeves go from being considered a bad actor, to one of our most beloved movie stars? Below is an excerpt, and a link to the full article.

Point Break Live, the successful stage parody of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action classic Point Break, starts out with the audience deciding who will play the main character (undercover agent Johnny Utah, a role originated by Keanu Reeves). Audience members volunteer to play the role, while the other patrons clap for who they like best. The conceit of having an “average joe” play Utah is both fun and cruel. The implication here is that Keanu Reeves’s performance is so stiff and awkward that it would be best replicated by a non-professional pulled from the audience. Point Break Live opened in 2003, around the time I first learned who Keanu Reeves was, and when the popular opinion was that he was a bad actor.

That’s not the popular opinion any longer. My sense is that we are living in extremely pro-Keanu times. My Twitter feed loves Keanu: I see him in pictures, memes, and GIFs almost every day. Now, we all know Film Twitter is rarely representative of the world at large, but people have been shelling out good money to see Keanu Reeves lately, especially in the John Wick movies. The enthusiasm is there. So much so that the release of John Wick: Chapter 2 came with articles such as “Keanu Reeves is a perfect
action star” (from Vox) and “Why Keanu Reeves is Low-Key the Coolest Actor in Hollywood.” (from GQ) I think it’s safe to say the tide has turned in Keanu’s favor, but how did it happen?


Support the Girls is an American Masterpiece


Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, Support the Girls, is an American masterpiece. If you think this notion sounds ridiculous considering this is a low-budget comedy about the waitresses of a Hooters knock-off, you are forgiven. However, I can’t promise you’ll be able to forgive yourself if you pass up the opportunity to watch this excellent movie. Most of Support the Girls takes place over 24 hours and in one location. It’s a tiny movie, but it feels gigantic. It has enormous things to say about women, labor, race, class, and humanity. It moved me in a profound way, the way only one or two movies do every year. It is also hilarious.

The movie stars Regina Hall, who’s been excellent for many years and is finally getting a stab at lead roles, such as her radiant turn in last year’s Girls Trip. This time around, she plays Lisa, the general manager of “Double Whammies,” the kind of sports bar where the waitresses wear short shorts and reveal a lot of cleavage. This type of restaurant proves to be a setting ripe for exploration, and positioning Lisa as the central character gets rid of the sleazy male gaze that usually comes with movies about scantily clad women. As manager Lisa is the bridge between business owner and workers, and as a woman she is the safety net between working girls and the charged, potentially dangerous, gaze of the clients.

Lisa is good at her job. She is resourceful. We mostly follow her during one eventful day, in which she is faced with one problem after another, and never fails to find quick and viable solutions. One of the girls says Lisa is “married to this job.”She’d be the perfect manager, except that she cares. She cares about the girls that work for her, and that’s not great for business. She knows what it’s like to be one of these young women and wants to protect and guide them as much as possible. Despite a million things going wrong on this fateful day, trying to help one of her girls is what gets her in trouble with her manager. Being a human and running a business are simply not compatible.

This divide between professionalism and empathy is what makes Lisa such a unique and fascinating character. Manager characters are usually portrayed as ass-kissing weasels who want nothing more than to climb the professional ladder. Their desire to move up in the workplace is usually a sign that they have betrayed the ground-level workers, especially if they started out as one. But Lisa cares. She is a multi-dimensional human with real world problems and the movie is right there with her. There are no p.o.v. shots or surreal touches that get us inside Lisa’s head or anything like that, but Bujalski very explicitly chooses to share the camera with his protagonist. A telling moment comes early in the film: It’s already been a stressful morning when Lisa steps out of the restaurant and enjoys a moment of calm. She takes a deep breath, and the hand-held camera moves up and down very slightly, as if it was breathing with her.It’s a significant touch. One that signals not only toward Bujalski’s commitment to his main character, but to the movie’s overall commitment to empathy and being willing to share in the lives of other humans.

This is a very clear strength when it comes to the girls. You have Danyelle (Shayna McHale), who’s good at her job despite pretty much hating it. There’s new hire Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), a marketing major with a lot of ideas. And above all, there’s eternally peppy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), the only girl who seems to actually enjoy working at “Double Whammies.” Thanks to this commitment to empathy, the girls are both hilarious and poignant, and the actors who play them are able to make up the best ensemble of the year.

What’s so effective about Support the Girls is that its characters are not helpless, or dumb, or caricatures. They have agency, dimension, initiative. They make choices, they collaborate, they try to get ahead. Some of their decisions are questionable, but we see where they’re coming from. The movie argues that these women have a right to have principles other than those dictated by society, and allowed to make mistakes while trying to live up to them. Lisa says as much during an emotional argument with her husband: “I can take fucking up all day long, but I can’t take not trying.”

Support the Girls positions daily life in the context of an America that keeps on moving despite its deep problems. It casts a light on the people who refuse to lose their humanity just because they have to go along and make it work. Anyone who’s worked a shitty job will immediately relate. Bujalski has pulled a magnificent move, in which he’s couched something profound inside a seemingly unassuming movie. His final trick is closing his movie by echoing the last scene of indie black sheep Garden State, only this time the loud screams into the void ring with the power of America’s working women.

Who’s the Next Meryl? (for Alternate Ending)


I am very happy to announce that the folks over at Alternate Ending, who run a fine website and an equally fine podcast, have asked me to become a contributor. So if you’re  weirdo who wishes I wrote more often on this blog, you will be glad to know I’ll be publishing monthly articles for them. Below is a little taste of my first piece: Who is the Next Meryl? 

It’s a hard truth but I gotta tell it: one day, there’ll be no Meryl Streep. This day will hopefully not come until many, many years from now, but I can’t help but worry. My cinephilia is strongly linked to my predilection for actresses, and there is no one who represents contemporary Great Acting like her.

If you’re reading this, you already know who she is. Widely considered the best actress of her generation, she is also one of the few performers who can still open a medium-budget drama based solely on the fact that people will be interested in seeing her act. She is, basically, the acting queen. I worry because at some point in the future Meryl’s star will set for good, and we will have to turn to another lady to take her crown. I’m sure Meryl has many years of great performances ahead of her, but we have to start looking at some point, don’t we?