Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The 2019 Oscars May Resemble the 2019 Super Bowl (And this is not a complimentary comparison)

A few weeks ago, I sat out the Super Bowl because I found the game to be tainted. One team got into the big game because of a blown call. The other contestant made it because they won a coin flip, their opponents never got the ball, and they always find a way to get in anyway. The result was a boring and unsatisfying game.

Similarly, as I face Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday to honor the films of 2018, I am tempted for the first time in my life to ignore that, too.  This is a weak year with mediocre nominees. Many films have flawed screenplays that don’t contain an evident storyline. One script is parading as a “based-on-a-true-story” piece of fiction.  Where are the Big Ideas and innovative cinematic techniques from previous years, such as Birdman, Whiplash, Inception or Get Out?

Well, in this year’s blog, I will play the hand we movie fans have been dealt. As in years past, I rank the nominated films in ascending order. This is not my prediction of who will win, but how I rank the films against each other according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality.   

8.                   Green Book — The high-octane opening with its energy and crosscutting grabbed me: A faux Bobby Rydell in 1962 rocks in a New York night club while Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga exacts a violent revenge in the background. ). We soon meet Dr. Don Shirley, an African American musician (Mahershala Ali), who hires Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American from the Bronx, to chauffeur him during a tour through the American Midwest and the Deep South. Tony could also provide protective muscle should danger arise. Despite this ostensibly heart-warming tale, Green Book devolves into predictable ethnic clichés and, worse, many factual errors and distortions (detailed inthis recent blog). The movie is not without its charms, the chemistry between the wonderful lead actors chief among them.  However, I find the misrepresentation of Shirley unforgivable, and that drops Green Book to the bottom of this year’s lists.

7.                   Vice — I was a fan of Adam McKay’s cheeky approach to filmmaking in The Big Short, which was about the real estate collapse of 2008. This time, he tackles the career of  former Vice President Dick Cheney, and  employs many of the same techniques (e.g., cutting to instructional segments, having characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, inserting a snarky roll of the credits before the film has ended, satirizing the source of Cheney’s heart transplant). But this time around the techniques feel ham-handed and even unfair. (You have to trust that I am no fan of Cheney, so that doesn’t color my disappointment with Vice.) A friend called it “look at me” filmmaking that draws attention to itself, and I must agree this time.  By the way, despite all this, Christian Bale’s transformation into Cheney is utterly brilliant, one of the two best impersonations on film this year.

6.                   A Star is Born — Bradley Cooper should be proud of his freshman directing effort. He is nominated for actor and adapted screenplay, he guided two other performers to nominations, and the whole shebang is up for best picture. An optimistic start for this side of the camera to be sure. Still the reality is that this is the fourth version of an 82-year-old story, and it has been a pretty creaky vehicle for a few decades now. While A Star is Born is undeniably entertaining, it hardly advances the art of cinema. I look forward to seeing what Cooper does next. In the meantime, it stands out in an otherwise tepid year.
5.                   The Favourite — In this costumed comedy of manners with a feminist twist, a sick and mad Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England in 18th century England. Her friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), assists her and becomes the power behind the throne. A power play begins with the arrival of a new servant girl, Abigail (Emma Stone). Yorgos Lanthimos is a far-from-conventional director (re: The Lobster, which is either the most inventive or the most bizarre film you have ever seen). For my money, The Favourite has a few clever ideas sandwiched between longer stretches of somnambulant cinema, along with the most random uses of a fisheye lens I have ever seen.  The abrupt ending is also unsatisfying. Still, you can savor the performances of Colman (a revelation to me), Weisz (pitch perfect as she disappears into her role) and Stone (who acquits herself very well in a role that goes beyond her usual contours).

4.                   Roma — Okay, let me throw this out there: I do not understand the fuss over Roma. First, I’m a huge fan of director Alfonso Cuarón, with work as varied as Gravity, his space adventure, to his dystopian masterpiece, Children of Men. I also admire Roma’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. But given that Roma is based on Cuarón’s childhood, I was notably unaffected and uninvolved with it, especially when compared to other memoirs, such as Boyhood, Lady Bird, or The Last Picture Show. I contend that Roma has several fatal flaws. First, the film is shot so wide that we never get too close to its subjects. Yes, there is a revolution in the streets outside the shop while Cleo is looking for a baby crib. But the wide panning shot, like the many others that dot Roma, eliminates the intimacy required to make one feel involved. Also many scenes go on much too long, as though Cuarón doesn’t trust us to get their points. Yes, we see that that the patrons’ marriage is falling apart, as symbolized by the father’s distraction over his auto is too big for the carport. But did we need such a long, laborious sequence to understand that? In the end, it is only a park job.

Finally, the biggest blemish is the depiction of Roma’s central character the family’s maid, Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, and despite her glowing reviews, I think it is quite obvious from her poker-faced performance that she never acted before).  Again, the camera literally and figuratively never gets close enough to provide insight into her character. Other than her unplanned pregnancy, what do we know about her? Where is she from? What are her motivations in life? Why does she meander from one quotidian episode to another in her life? (This article from the NewYorker expresses my concern quite well.)

And then Roma abruptly ends, not because it has reached the end of a story arc, but because it has run out of anything to say. These are not what I consider to be elements of a “Best Film.” I have no doubt that Roma will clean up this Sunday at the Oscars. I also predict we will look back on it in a few years and wonder what the big deal was.

3.                   Bohemian Rhapsody — Oh, damn, this film was just too much fun to be ignored. It is the story of Queen (no, it’s NOT the story of Freddy Mercury alone) and their rise to the upper levels of the pop/rock world with their hummable, feel-good records and anthems. Yes, there are the usual perfunctory tropes, as the band members meet and congeal as a unit, the record executive who didn’t believe in them (a snarling, clichéd and amusing Mike Myers), and their burgeoning success as told through posters and stage shots. But the artistic creation of their biggest hits make for interesting and entertaining segments, and the band’s triumphant final performance at Live Aid in Wembley Stadium is a sight to behold. I expect Rami Malek to sneak past Christian Bale to win Best Actor for his re-creation of Mercury.

2.                   Black Panther — I have been a fan of Ryan Coogler in successive stages. He first won me over when he directed the moving Fruitvale Station, the story behind Oscar Grant’s senseless killing on a San Francisco transit platform. Coogler got me again when he reinvented the moribund Rocky franchise by creating Creed. But those smaller-scale works never prepared me for his awesome control over the many technical challenges of Black Panther. It is the most “epic” film of the year, with its wide array of special effects, the ambitious production design, and its big stable of highly talented actors (who were honored as the best ensemble by the Screen Actors Guild). I hope Coogler gets other opportunities to direct similar high-end, high-budget projects. I would have this film at the top of my list if it weren’t for the screenplay, which I found to be an unwieldy and confusing mess. Still, like Bradley Cooper, Coogler has nowhere to go but up.

1.                   BlacKkKlansman — You have to hand it to Spike Lee; he wants his films to be about something. Whether it is a documentary about African American children killed in a church bombing (4 Little Girls), the decline of a musical artist (Mo Better Blues) or the biography of a misunderstood civil rights leader (Malcolm X), he is not killing time tossing off rom-coms or other cinematic fast food. He wants to produce work of substance.

That is why BlacKkKlansman is such a revelatory film. Lee takes a true but absurd premise — an African American policeman actually became a member of the Ku Klux Klan? — and produces a film that is both funny and thought-provoking on the issue of race relations in our country today. That is why I chose it as the best of this year’s Oscar-nominated films.

BlacKkKlansman opens with Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, trying to find a meaningful assignment within the department. Over time, he manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch, and get a membership card. Due to complications caused by a crucial mistake by Stallworth, he must employ the help of a Jewish back-up (ably played by Adam Driver) to play him in person.

The conceit that works most effectively is how the film’s style models the TV crime shows of the 1970s, which is when the film takes place. Everything from the production design, the costuming, even the score by Terence Blanchard, evoke that era. Deeper still is the portrayal of the burgeoning civil rights turmoil of that time in all its underlying rage. Stallworth (played serviceably by Jon David Washington) finds his own identity in the course of the film.

Lee’s work at the helm is exceptional here, and I think it’s his best film since Do the Right Thing. The screenplay (for which Lee is one of four contributors) moves briskly through a tangled set of events, keeping the various loose ends in play, but never becoming confusing. As a director, he gets uniformly good performances from his players, a difficult task with a cast as large as this. One standout is Topher Grace, who is unexpectedly effective in the role of David Duke. Most significant is Lee’s sense of pacing. There is a complication with mistaken identity that sets in motion a threat to the safety of several major characters. Without giving it away, I was on the edge of my seat wondering how it would turn out. (Kudos to editor Barry Alexander Brown for his Oscar-nominated contribution to the taut and suspenseful rhythms of BlacKkKlansman.)

For the ability to take a long-ago incident and turn it into a film that is entertaining while remaining relevant to today’s zeitgeist, I pick BlacKkKlansman as the best of the nominated films of 2018.

Okay, I’m all talk. I will clear a space in my living room for this personal tradition. Even as I am likely to be chagrined to see Roma take everything in sight, I also hope to see justice prevail for Glenn Close. I hope she finds that the seventh time is a charm and she wins a well-deserved Oscar for The Wife. And Queen will be part of the ceremony, too. (The Academy ain’t saying what their role will be, but wouldn’t it be great to have them open the show?) Finally, let’s see how well the show goes without a host. I hope they BEG Kevin Hart to host next year. (I’m still rooting for Tiffany Haddish to host. I think she'd be great.)

As I said once before, the Oscar broadcast is kind of like sex: even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good. Enjoy the show on Sunday. Maybe we’ll talk Monday morning.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Green Book and Ham

 Race Relations Made Easy and False

NOTE: This dissection of the film Green Book refers to a few plot points. If you have not seen the film, you may want to hold off on reading this until later.

There was a bet between publisher Bennett Cerf and writer Dr. Seuss (neé Theodore Geisel) in 1960. Cerf, the founder of Random House, bet Seuss that he could not write a decent children’s book with a limited vocabulary that comprised only 50 words in total. Dr. Seuss took the bet, and he won it by creating the children's classic, Green Eggs and Ham

That book turned out to be the most popular of Seuss’s works, selling a couple hundred million copies. It also provides an important lesson: You can make a point more easily and memorably if you limit your vocabulary. Apparently, the makers of the Oscar-nominated Green Book took this principle to heart.

Set in 1962, Green Book tells a tale of racial understanding between Dr. Don Shirley, an African American musician played by Mahershala Ali, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American from the Bronx. As Don embarks on a performance tour through the American Midwest and the Deep South, he hires Tony to be his chauffeur.  The titular “green book” was a series of publications African Americans used in that period to find restaurants and lodging that were safe and accommodating.  So Tony is required not only to transport Don from point A to point B safely, but he would also provide protective muscle should any danger arise.

Their first meeting during a job interview is inauspicious. Don (holder of a doctorate in several disciplines) lives in an artists’ colony of sorts above Carnegie Hall. He enters the scene like a spirit, dressed in a gauzelike fabric and practically floating. We learn immediately through their conversation that he is much more refined than Tony. Even after Tony gets the job, there is distrust between them. For example, when Tony gets out of the car at the start of the trip to take a leak in the woods, he comes back to grab his wallet from the dashboard. Just to be sure; after all, a guy can’t be too careful, even with an employer who has way more money.

As the movie progresses, we find that they can both be quite insufferable. Don is often imperious; Tony is quick-tempered and impulsive. But true to form in such bromides, the two bond and teach each other “important lessons.”  For example, Don edits Tony’s letters to his wife back in the Bronx to make them more eloquent (and, of course, he does it condescendingly). Tony teaches Don how to be more black because the good doctor is clearly out of touch with his “own people” (Tony’s term). We learn this when Don steps out of his car on a back road. A group of sharecroppers stare at this well-dressed man as though he has arrived from another planet. (This interminable sequence is just one example of Green Book’s lack of subtlety.) Tony teaches Don about his own culture by introducing him to Little Richard, Chubby Checker, and Aretha Franklin (the last a remarkable feat in itself, as Tony is playing Respect on the radio five years before the record was even released). Don reveals that he is estranged from his brother, and Tony, being Italian, gets to school him on "the importance of family." Finally, in what the filmmakers seem to consider an intercultural triumph, Tony introduces Don to fried chicken and helps the good doctor overcome his disdain for its greasiness.
There is no denying the chemistry between Ali and Mortensen. The two leads work hard to bring more substance to their portrayals than the script deserves.  Ali conveys a genuine dignity in his reading of Don Shirley. With little more than a narrowing of Ali's eyes, one can feel the weight of the ignominies Don must endure in spite of his education and talent. One incident in a Deep South police station illustrates sharply how he copes with his rank in 1960s America. Don gets along by going along, often choking back his anger, swallowing his pride. And then again, sometimes he does not, which causes a different set of problems. 

What is worst about Green Book is its “white savior” trope  — the idea that black characters need to be rescued by white people. 

Similarly, the remarkable Mortensen once again expands his resume with his depiction of an Italian American. His blond, Nordic hair is darkened, and his normally trim and saturnine build is overweight, bulging and menacing in a way we have not seen from him before. His spoken Italian is very good. This is especially evident when he shares the screen with other actors; his pronunciation is so much better.  Yet I still found the stereotype insulting. Mortensen apparently went to the Sylvester Stallone School of Acting to learn how to play an Italian American, inarticulately mumbling his way through words. Tony can’t even spell. When he drafts a letter to his steadfast wife back home, his salutation is spelled d-e-e-r, not d-e-a-r. 

In the end, one may say “so what?” to these shortcomings. After all, the movie is “nice.” The two principals come to care for each other, there is peace in the valley by the end, and they respond affirmatively to the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” 

There are two problems with this conclusion. One is that the underlying story is just not true, going well beyond the slack that we assign to that nebulous concept, “artistic license.” Dr. Don Shirley’s remaining family has made quite clear that they were never consulted for the film, so the perspective is strictly from the Vallelongas’ side. For one thing, the Shirleys have stated that Tony was nothing more or less than an employee. And apparently, he was an annoying one. He would not wear his chauffeur’s uniform nor did he want to lift Don’s bags. The two men  also did not remain friends after this adventure was over as the film states, according the Shirley family.

Shirley’s 2013 obituary in The New York Times never mentions Vallelonga or the tour through the Deep South. The implication that Don Shirley was not involved with the African American community or his own family is also not true. He attended many of the civil rights events of the era, and he was friends with many black artists, notably Duke Ellington. Shirley’s surviving brother, Maurice, said he and his other brothers were never estranged from Don. (It is reported that Ali contacted the Shirley family to apologize for misrepresenting Don.)

What is worst about Green Book is its continuation of the “white savior” trope in American film — the idea that black characters need to be rescued from their plights by a white man (or a white girl, as seen in The Help). As you review Shirley’s obituary, he was poised to make a mark on his own terms. He was a musical prodigy who, by necessity, created a singular style that crossed genres. He composed orchestral works that were admired by Igor Stravinsky. He played at La Scala in Milan, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Despite these accomplishments, he would not be addressed as “doctor,” and he could not pursue the career he truly wanted because the world was “not ready” for someone like him — a black classical artist.

If you are ready to take a serious look at the racial divisions in our society, don’t turn to Green Book. Even with the film’s virtues, such as the two sturdy lead performances, handsome cinematography, and graceful editing, its content is more representative of the attitudes of the Kennedy era in which it is set than those of today. It is also hampered by the limited lexicon of a white onlooker who was a bystander in the civil rights era. In the end, Green Book is not even a meal on a par with Green Eggs and Ham. It is pabulum.