Oscar Review – Green Book: Race Relations Are (Still) Complicated

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen take us through this true (or mostly true) story about an extremely unlikely friendship.

SUMMARY

Classical Pianist “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is set to go on an 8-week concert tour of the Mid-Western and the Southern United States. He hires Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver and bodyguard. Don’s management gives Tony a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book so that he will be able to find motels, restaurants, and gas stations that will allow Don inside.

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Tony Lip always dressed like a mobster.

As the tour starts, the two do not get along very well. Tony dislikes anything refined, or acting like a subordinate to Don, while Don thinks Tony is an uncouth lout. However, as they go on, Don’s talent starts to impress Tony and Tony becomes increasingly disturbed by how everyone treats Don in the South, from managers and venue owners to random white people. Don helps Tony write letters to his wife (Linda Cardellini), with Don’s sophisticated language and talent for creative composition punching up Tony’s less than amazing style. Tony tries to get Don to connect with his family, but Don feels isolated by his lifestyle, both because he’s a classical pianist and also because he’s a homosexual. When Don is caught in a YMCA pool with another (white) man, Tony bribes the officers to release Don. When the two are arrested for Don being black in a town that bars black people after curfew, Don calls his lawyer, revealed to be Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who has them released. These experiences further humiliate Don, but Tony uses them to point out that, by being rich and connected, Tony feels like he’s “blacker” than Don. Don points out how false that statement is, by saying being rich and connected has made him feel disconnected to his black community, being black keeps him disconnected from the white community, and being gay means that pretty much everyone in 1963 hates him. He’s essentially alone in the world.

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So talented, he could get into clubs that he literally couldn’t get into.

On one of the last stops of the tour, Don refuses to play at the club because the owner refuses to allow Don to be served inside the very venue that he’s been booked to play. Instead, Don plays at a black club and wows the audience. Heading back North, Tony invites Don to join his family for Christmas Eve Dinner, which Don eventually accepts. Tony’s wife thanks Don for the letters, revealing that she figured out Tony wasn’t writing them alone.

END SUMMARY

One of the most interesting things about this movie was the response by Don Shirley’s family and the counter-response by Mahershala Ali and the film’s main author Nick Vallelonga. Shirley’s family insisted that Vallelonga and Shirley were never friends and that the point of their relationship was that Shirley had to employ subordinates of a different race in order to deal with racism. Mahershala Ali apologized profusely for not consulting with the family to add nuance. However, Nick Vallelonga, Tony Lip’s real-life son, revealed that the movie was based on a series of interviews he conducted with Shirley and his father, and that Shirley had specifically asked Vallelonga not to consult other people. So, ultimately, the accuracy of this movie now seems somewhat in dispute.

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 Probably wasn’t this informal, though.

The best part of this film are the two leads, although, I’m not going to lie, I think Mahershala Ali did most of the heavy lifting. I do admit that I might not think as highly of Viggo’s performance because I conflate Tony Lip with all of the characters that Tony Lip portrayed throughout the years (mostly mobsters), but I also just don’t think he made Tony nearly as complex as Ali made Shirley. I acknowledge that might be partially because Shirley was just a more interesting character within the film, although I think Tony actually had the more complete character arc. This isn’t to say that I thought Viggo Mortensen’s performance was bad, in fact it was very good, I just thought Ali delivered a little more.

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… I might be biased based on the “real life” comparison photos I’ve seen.

My biggest problem with this movie is probably that it falls into some of the same traps that most films run into when dealing with race. First, it just has to copy some of the traditional scenes, like a white man being shocked at how a black man is treated, or a black man having to remind a white man that he has an advantage that’s completely unearned. It’s just not new, and it takes a lot to make it interesting. Second, when you’re making a movie and you have a conflict, at the end of the film you like to feel like that conflict is resolved. What do you do, then, when your conflict isn’t really between your two leads, but between your lead and a societal injustice? If you’re The Hunger Games or The Matrix or even Fight Club, you can end your film on a note that hey, these problems are actually going to be solved. But when your injustice is racism, something that is still pervasive to this day, how can you even try to pretend that it’s solved? Well, you have your main characters learn to get past their natural biases and bond and that’s just as good, right? Not really, but it lets us feel like something has been accomplished, so we can walk out feeling like everything’s not hopeless. I’m not saying you should end every movie with a nihilistic point of view saying that nothing ever gets better, but I also think that most films about racism make you feel “oh hey, this is over now” at the end, and we don’t need to do that, either. The movie does make us feel better about the fact that we’ve come a long way, and it should, but it shouldn’t allow us to forget that we still have a ways to go.

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Granted, the fact that it’s not a benchmark for a black actor to be nominated anymore IS a sign of advancement.

I do think that the film does a good job of adding in the elements that were unique to Don Shirley’s story, particularly his disconnect with traditional black culture in the 60s arising from his wealth and connections and his disconnect with almost everyone arising from being a gay man in the 1960s. It’s interesting to be reminded that even a perceived advantage, and wealth is generally always an advantages, can actually serve to limit the number of people you can relate to. The film even reminds us that while Don Shirley worked to combine classical and jazz music, those two styles still remain fairly distinct, even within most of his performances.

Overall, it’s a solid film, even one that is probably worthy of the nomination it’s received (and definitely worthy of the two acting nominations), but I still feel like it just wasted a little bit of its potential by retreading what other films have already done in the past. Definitely worth seeing, though.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Making a Weakness into a Strength (Spoiler-Free)

A brand new Spider-Man debuts along with a host of other Spider-Beings in this amazing work of comic art.

SUMMARY

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a teenage fan of Spider-Man (Chris Pine) who is dealing with his new life at a boarding school located in an elite area of Brooklyn. His father (Brian Tyree Henry) and his mother (Luna Lauren Velez) are both supportive, but also have high expectations of Miles due to his academic and athletic potential. After crushing hard on his classmate Wanda (Hailee Steinfeld), Miles goes to his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) for advice and ends up being bitten by a radioactive spider while painting a tunnel with his uncle. It turns out that Miles is now a new Spider-Man at a time when the world needs him most, because the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is trying to open a portal to the multiverse which summons a number of parallel Spider-beings, including an older Spider-Man (Jake Johnson), Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker the amazing Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), SP//dr the Japanese mecha spider-woman (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage). Together, they have to save the multiverse from a cabal of supervillains.

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I wish this were a spoiler, but it was in the ads. Also, holy crap, I love this. 

END SUMMARY

Origin stories are hard. Even if we’re being introduced an original character or a character that isn’t well-known, like Darkman or Ant-Man, going through all of the steps of a character’s transformation from zero to hero is usually formulaic. Some movies mostly eschew the traditional origin story in favor of only showing a few flashbacks of the origin, like Tim Burton’s Batman, but if you’re doing an origin story, they’re usually going to contain the same beats. This movie is no exception, except in how exceptionally it does it. In fact, it doesn’t just do an origin story, it heavily leans into all of the good things that can come from watching an origin story, then ratchets that needle up to eleven by introducing, not one, not two, not three, but seven Spider-beings in the movie, with even more by cameo.

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Whereas, some movies can feature an already beloved character and a future superstar and still be garbage baked in hell’s own outhouse.

Part of it is that the film knows it can rely on the audience’s familiarity with the Spider-Man franchise. The first Spider-Man we meet is introduced using flashes from past Spider-Man movies, but with some twists to say “this is that Spider-Man, but not exactly, so don’t get worked up over continuity.” This movie doesn’t just rely on flashback origin stories, but it plays with the idea heavily by doing it multiple times, each time presenting it as an origin-story comic book in a different style resembling that character’s universe, including one humorous scene where they attempt to introduce three at the same time, overlapping their origins. Part of the reason why this works is that the characters are all variants on the same Spider-Man story, even though they don’t necessarily share gender, powers, or even species. It’s basically a movie dedicated to proving that even if there are only a handful of core stories in the world, the variations on those stories and the variations on the variations can provide us with an infinite amount of entertainment.

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Zombie Joseph Campbell attended the premiere. 

Despite the number of superpeople/superanimal in the movie, the film’s central story is that of Miles Morales coming to terms with not only being Spider-Man, but with the legacy that wearing a spider upon your chest brings with it. With every other Spider-character, they’re already at varying stages of being a superhero (i.e. brand-new, experienced, golden age, over-the-hill), which basically gives Miles an idea about all of the different ways that being Spider-Man can go. However, he also gets the benefit of all of them telling him the one thing that absolutely defines a Spider-Man: Always getting up when you’re knocked down. This isn’t a new theme, in fact it’s so overused it’s almost cliche, but the film actually gets to the implications of this statement, rather than just making it an empty platitude. A large part of this is that the art style in the film is very big on accentuating impacts. When a character gets knocked down, YOU FEEL IT. You know just how hurt they are right now and how hard it’s going to be to get up, which makes it actually feel like a heroic act when a hero, broken, bleeding, and beaten, still manages to continue.

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This is concept art that didn’t make it in, but see those impact lines? Yeah, that’s what you feel.

Another thing is that this movie knows one thing that so many movies forget: Even in superhero movies, we want heart. Most of this movie isn’t focused on just watching Miles be Spider-Man, but on how he feels. Yes, he’s dealing with new superpowers and interdimensional travelers, but he also is dealing with guilt over not being able to help people due to his inconsistent powers, feeling like he’s disappointing his parents and his mentor Spider-Man, and just dealing with the difficulties of being a teenager. Much like in Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 2, Miles’ emotional instability makes his powers unstable, which culminates in a scene in the movie in which he finally finds emotional clarity and his powers at the same time. In most films, the “suddenly able to use your powers” moment is cliche and feels unearned (exception: “I’m always angry” due to Rule of Awesome). But, since the film tied his powers to his emotions, his emotional growth in that moment actually DOES justify the sudden use of his abilities, giving the audience a massive burst of catharsis right before leading us to the third-act ramp-up.

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And they exaggerate the eyes just a little to make him more expressive. Love it.

The art style in the film is possibly the best I’ve ever seen in an animated film, including Disney and Pixar, mostly because it varies from character to character (based on universes) and looks like living comic book panels, complete with animated sound effects. SP//DR is drawn as an anime character, Spider-Man Noir has no color whatsoever, Spider-Gwen has power ballads (she’s a musician in her universe) and bright colors, and Spider-Ham is a Looney Tunes style pig. When they all work in concert, it somehow produces an unbelievable surge of beautiful images rather than being an overload of visuals.

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The script is comedic genius, as you’d expect from Phil Lord, but it contains a shocking amount of really dark moments. Death isn’t reserved for just Uncle Ben, because part of being Spider-Man is losing someone in the past, and we have a lot of Spider-Beings. This makes even the goofy parts of the movies feel like there are actual stakes to the fights.  Also, your villain gets a backstory that lasts maybe 45 seconds, but is so complete that it almost justifies all of his actions throughout the movie, something that continues the ambiguous Marvel villains series (Thanos was right-ish).

It also contains possibly the best Stan Lee cameo (R.I.P. you wonderful man).

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Not that one.

This isn’t just the best Spider-Man movie; this might be the best superhero film. If you can, see it in the theaters, because the visuals merit the big screen. If you can’t, see it anyway, because the script merits a small screen.

Ten Stars. Four thumbs up. 100% Fresh. Whatever you want to say, this movie is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while, maybe since How to Train Your Dragon. Even though it contains a heavy dose of every cliche in the origin story handbook, it manages to play all of them with just the right amount of variance and sincere love for the characters that it reminds us why all of those tropes get used in the first place. I love this film.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Luke Cage Season 2: The Modern Ring of Gyges and the Power of Violence (Spoiler-Free)

SpoilerFree

So, I’m gonna be the guy who says that he didn’t like the first season of Luke Cage that much. It wasn’t anything wrong with the characters, per se. I loved most of the villains and the supporting characters and Cage himself, but I thought the pacing was awful and the dialogue was not great either. The music was amazing on every level, the themes were well-conveyed, and the acting was excellent, but I just felt like they wrote 8 episodes worth of plot and tried to stretch it into 13. I felt the same way about Jessica Jones, though, so maybe it was just a problem with how Netflix ordered the shows.

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Nailing the imagery still doesn’t make up for stretching the plot.

Now, I grew up reading the comics and I loved Luke Cage. Especially the older, campier adaptations of the character. After all, he’s the guy who once kicked Doctor Doom’s ass over his basic principle: A Deal’s A Deal. I always loved that aspect of Luke Cage, that he’s a man of his word and holds other people to theirs. Even among superheroes, Cage’s belief in personal responsibility and integrity was especially pronounced. Now, I’m not saying the show didn’t uphold that aspect of the character, but it tended to convert it into the swear jar more than the audacious Cage of old. Still, I believed Mike Colter as Luke Cage, just as a more modern, serious, version of the character.

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It would have been hard to sell this in a modern show.

SUMMARY OF JESSICA JONES, SEASON 1, AND THE DEFENDERS (*SPOILERS FOR THOSE*)

Luke Cage is a black superhero in Harlem who has unbreakable skin and superhuman strength. However, he is also an ex-convict, having escaped from prison after being framed for a crime while a police officer and forcibly experimented on by a secret lab. When we first see him in the show Jessica Jones, he’s a bartender who is hiding his superpowers and ends up becoming romantically involved with Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) until he finds out that she killed his wife while hypnotized by that show’s villain Kilgrave (David F*cking Tennant). Eventually Cage gets controlled by Kilgrave and turned against Jones, but Jones wins the fight by shooting him point-blank in the head with a shotgun, knocking him out. They don’t really talk for a while after that.

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In the first season of Luke Cage, Cage is hiding in Harlem, working low-profile jobs at barbershops and nightclubs. He ends up getting involved in a series of gang problems after one of his mentors gets killed (this is a comic-book show, after all). Cage singlehandedly starts to devastate the local drug dealers and the gang leaders through destroying their buildings and hospitalizing their minions. Initially opposed by kingpin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), Stokes is eventually killed by his cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who starts to oppose Cage. However, Dillard is then supplanted by Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), who is revealed to be Cage’s illegitimate brother who tries to kill him using special bullets and an exo-skeleton. Cage ends up surviving and taking down Diamondback in public as a hero before being re-arrested for his prison break, though a local police officer, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), finds the evidence to clear him.

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Tip: If your final villain looks like this, you’ve made a mistake.

In The Defenders, Luke Cage joins the other Netflix Marvel heroes to fight off the forces of the Hand, a group led by Sigourney Weaver that plans on opening an interdimensional portal for some reason that I honestly just don’t remember but think was tied into living forever. Either way, Cage reunites with Jones and meets Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones), who he becomes friends with after first fighting over their different lifestyles (Rand is a billionaire by inheritance whereas Cage is… not, while Rand had to work his whole life and beat a dragon in a fight to earn his superpowers but Cage spent a night in a chemical bath and got better ones). The team ends up victorious, but Cage is the only one that the public really hears about, since Jessica Jones is notoriously anti-social and both Rand and Murdock have secret identities.

LukeCageS2Defenders.jpg

 

OUTLINE OF SEASON 2 (SPOILER-FREE)

So, the beginning of season 2 finds Luke Cage as being a celebrity and the Hero of Harlem. He’s still dealing with “Black” Mariah Dillard, who is now the biggest crime boss in Harlem, but also has to deal with the arrival of John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir), who is a Jamaican gang leader who has similar powers to Cage, except from a supernatural source. The season covers a gang war between the two over the fate of Harlem, with Cage caught in the middle and trying to fight for the soul of the neighborhood along with Misty Knight’s help.

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Probably the biggest change in this season is that the “Judas Bullets” which were what actually hurt Cage in the last season, no longer work. Because of the last season’s events, Cage not only has bulletproof skin and super-strength, but any time you beat him up, his body heals stronger than it was before. This means that, throughout most of the season, nothing can hurt Cage and whatever does will be shortly overcome. It required the writers to find other ways to challenge him, something that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

END SUMMARY

First off, they fixed most of the pacing issues in this show, even if the episodes sometimes feel a little slow. However, part of that is that they try to work musical performances in frequently as part of Harlem’s culture and it usually feels organic. The villains are a little more compelling and fleshed out this season than the previous one and the side characters are also a little more developed. Overall, the production of this season is a step up from the previous. But it’s the changing themes of the show that really were a little more hit-and-miss.

A big theme of the show at large is, naturally, racism, but this season didn’t actually try to address it as directly as the last. Instead, a lot of this season is about the nature of power. Not that power doesn’t intersect with racism, of course. It’s literally the backbone of all forms of discrimination: One group has power and uses it to keep another group from acquiring it. Sexism, racism, homophobia, you name it:  If you don’t have power, then your desire to discriminate is useless.

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A fairly direct example.

The show goes into what really creates power in several forms. There’s wealth and status, shown through Mariah and other “Lawful Evil” characters who manage to avoid consequence by buying their way out of it, as well as Danny Rand, who uses it to help people. There’s celebrity, the power to avoid consequence through the adoration of the masses, which Luke himself is just learning how to wield in this season. Then, there’s physical power, as embodied by Luke and Bushmaster. And all of them are shown to be able to be used for both good and evil pretty equally.

However, as the season goes on, we see how a lack of consequences can influence people. It reminded me of the story of the Ring of Gyges.

I put a video of it explained to the Legend of Zelda above, but quick refresher: The Ring of Gyges is a story from Plato’s Republic in which a shepherd finds a golden ring which allows him to become invisible (Yes, this was written before Lord of the Rings). He then used the power of invisibility to commit a series of acts for which, of course, he is never blamed, since he’s never at the crime scene. Eventually, he seduces the queen and murders his king, taking the throne for himself. The myth is the subject of a discussion of whether or not moral character is dependent upon whether or not you can be held accountable for your actions.

The show takes a bunch of positions but, for the most part, the show says that good people will WANT someone there to hold them accountable for their bad decisions because they know that using power inherently will lead them to make bad decisions. But they won’t choose not to use the power, because, as another comic once paraphrased from a number of past sources, “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.”

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And it’s not the alcoholic who wears a suit that can topple skyscrapers.

In this season, Luke, at several points, realizes the truth of his situation: He can’t be brought to bear for his actions. He is sued at one point and arrested at another, which are attempts for the system to reign him in, but that quickly falls apart, both because he’s now famous enough to buy people off and because, as he says “no bullet can harm me, nothing can kill me, nothing can stop me, and no jail can hold me.” And throughout the season he realizes that this is not necessarily making him a better person.

However, what’s also interesting, though perhaps a little bit disheartening, is how Luke using his power of celebrity to do good also inherently leads to other people using his celebrity for their own gain. One of his friends sells “authentic” Luke Cage merchandise for profit. Others use his name to threaten people. At another point, Luke finds that his celebrity status and well-known do-gooder tendencies can work against him when Luke attempts to confront a jackass at a party. Luke’s threats towards him do nothing but amuse the man, who thinks that it’s just a thing that Luke Cage does.

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Iron Fist literally buys a shirt with his catchphrase on it.

Really, what I both loved and hated about the season is how it reminded me that everything always stems from violence. In the end, we pretend that there are all these societal rules that keep us in line, but they all can only ultimately be enforced by violence or the threat of violence. Sure, some people will voluntarily do the right thing, but for all the people that do the wrong thing, they can avoid responsibility for it until some form of violence is brought upon them, whether it’s the police, the mob, or the superhero. Violence is what keeps a lot of people in line. The show even demonstrates that, without some application of violence by some people, the chaos that ensues from removing any consequences creates significantly more violence.

However, it’s also true that the threat of violence is what’s most effective at keeping people suppressed, as the show discusses through violence against women in this season, as opposed to racial violence. I’m not sure how I feel about that, though I think that they actually manage to address the pervasive nature of gender-based violence in a reasonable manner, though it seemed to be dropped a little too quickly after the next plot point.

Ultimately, I recommend watching the season, but I’m not going to tell you to move it to the top of your queue. Still, even if it doesn’t do it perfectly, it’s trying to address something big, and that’s worth supporting.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.