Glass

Posted April 14, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, sequel, thriller

glass When last we saw the almost-invulnerable hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis), he was sitting in a diner at the end of 2006’s Split, in a surprise appearance that linked the movie with David’s own movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. Both those films were written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who returns to wrap up the trilogy with Glass. Shyamalan doesn’t really stick the landing, but I’m not sure he was supposed to, or was trying to. Taken in sum, the three movies are a morose meditation on comic-book tropes, and somewhat a critique of them; after all, the villains are both disabled in some way, and that’s part of the critique, that those whose minds or bodies are not “normal” are destined to turn to evil. (It’s a very Victorian notion, and the history of comics is lousy with it.)

David’s power of insight (he can tell what you’re guilty of by bumping into you) leads him to track down the serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the mercurial antagonist of Split, who contends with dissociative identity disorder and currently has four cheerleaders stashed away in his rusty abandoned-factory hideout. When we meet Kevin here, he’s letting nine-year-old Hedwig take the wheel, but when David arrives, Hedwig tags in the Beast, who roars and bellows and has unearthly strength. Regardless, David almost defeats him, until some cops led by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) capture them both and lock them away in a featureless asylum — along with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka “Mr. Glass,” who resides in a wheelchair because his osteogenesis imperfecta renders his bones brittle. Dr. Staple’s goal is to get the three men to admit their views of themselves as exceptional — superhuman — are delusions.

Currently Elijah the mastermind is zoning out in his chair, seemingly doped up to his eyeballs, but you don’t hire Samuel L. Jackson and then not let him hold forth (although the cheeky Shyamalan denies Elijah speech for over an hour of screen time). There are times when Glass appears to fall victim to the same superhero clichés it’s tweaking — there are plans, master plans, counter-plans. Everyone in the movie seems to be plotting, except for sweet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a survivor of an earlier Kevin/Beast incident in Split, who feels a connection to Kevin, the only reachable and reasonable personality of “the Horde.” There’s also David’s now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s loving mother (Charlayne Woodard), who must be, what, ninety years old by now? We see that Kevin was abused as a child by his mother, whereas Elijah wasn’t, but they both turned out bad; Shyamalan seems to be saying that in some cases, it’s pain that makes the difference between a villain and a hero.

We’re told in the movie that this is real life, and Shyamalan as usual grounds everything in the gray, glum streets and hallways of Philadelphia. But he also all but promises us a climactic face-off between David and the Beast atop a new skyscraper in the city, while Elijah plans to … but why spoil it? The twist addict in Shyamalan’s own screenwriting Horde breaks free and indulges himself, tying things together with a geeky abandon that’s part sneer at and part appreciation of comic-book plotting. In brief, what we get just raises more questions, especially as regards Dr. Staple, whose name may refer to the things that hold together comic books. Shyamalan finishes on a note of half-hearted optimism that, again, is either critical or symptomatic of comic-book endings, which never really end.

Shyamalan as writer has been erratic almost from the beginning; even the now-lauded Unbreakable struck me at the time as anticlimactic, though now, like Glass, it reads more as metacommentary. It’s as a director, a filmmaker with a natural command of mood and dread, that Shyamalan excels. Glass, which cost a pittance by today’s Hollywood metric ($20 million), spends a lot more time in quiet talking-heads passages than in superhuman beatdowns. Shyamalan still, two decades later, trusts the audience to sit still and be told a story. But they wouldn’t sit still if his control over tone and pace weren’t so appealingly rock-solid — there’s something about a self-assured director that makes an audience feel secure that they’re in competent hands. That’s what happens here. Glass is the conclusion of a lumpy and weird trilogy, the cumulative effect of which inspires respect. This series is unconventional and therefore not satisfying in a conventional sense. Its strengths, and goals, lie elsewhere.

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Diane

Posted April 8, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

diane Some independent movies wear their miserablism as a badge of perverse pride. “We will make you look at despair, poverty, sickness, the fragility of existence,” they promise us, “for your own good. Eat your spinach and recognize our noble intentions.” These movies think being a depression delivery system is enough to qualify as art. Then there are films like First Reformed and now Diane that forge life’s intractable aspects into something greater, but quieter, than the sum of its parts. Diane devotes itself to the inner life, guilt and disappointments of Diane (Mary Kay Place), a 70-year-old woman drifting through bleak, snowy rural Massachusetts, trudging through altruistic activities in order to make up for … something. A bit of selfishness in her past, which may or may not be relevant to the pains and problems she faces now.

The literal-minded may look askance at Diane — why punish this basically good woman for a lapse decades ago? But Diane doesn’t punish Diane; Diane herself does. Mary Kay Place, a reliable and often inspired character actor for some 40 years, fills out a role written for her by director Kent Jones (in his fictional debut, after some documentaries). Place makes Diane gentle and thoughtful but with a strong prickly streak — Diane is no angel. Neither is she a devil, nor is her troublesome addict son Brian (Jake Lacy), who morphs from foul-mouthed and resentful to annoyingly pious once he gets Jesus. There are no villains here, just humans ground down a bit by the world. Even Brian’s journey isn’t as simple as it sounds. Nobody’s is.

Diane is not strictly a work of entertainment, but its level of craft and insight makes it enjoyable; the way it lingers on the subtle, the quiet, the unspoken human moment, and trusts us to be patient and adult, is refreshing. Diane sits at the hospital bedside of her dying cousin (Deirdre O’Connell), or sits across from an old friend (Andrea Martin) at a buffet. She has a support system of sorts, even if she may not feel she deserves one. As far as she’s concerned, her job is to serve and to submerge her own emotions (which bubble up unbidden anyway). Diane was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, and in a way it’s as much about faith and its discontents as any of his own serious works about religion (Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence). Diane nails herself to a cross every day for that one time she decided to feed her hungry ghost in a big way at the expense of those who trusted her. Kent Jones feeds this to us bit by bit, in naturalistic exchanges and undramatic (or undramatically presented) incidents. Here and there we find beauty, such as the warm smile of an older fellow Diane regularly feeds at the local food pantry. Played by Charles Weldon, a journeyman actor who died last December at age 78, this fellow drops in to offer Diane some perspective on her sorrow.

One other valuable thing Diane does is to center on a woman entering her eighth decade, and to fill the frame with friends and family mostly around her age or older (such as 91-year-old Estelle Parsons, who seemingly hasn’t lost a step). These women may be closer to death than to birth but they still have some arrows left in their quivers. These characters were young and stupid once, and they regret it (or they don’t). As loneliness starts closing in on Diane, she vents about it in her journal, in short lines that structurally resemble some teenager’s emo poetry, and that’s when the full concept snapped into focus for me. David Cronenberg is worth quoting at length here: “There’s no such thing as an old person. There’s a person who has been broken on the rack of pain and infirmity, but there’s really no old person. When someone dies at eighty, it’s the death of a young person. I see that.” Diane sees it, too.

Aquaman

Posted March 31, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comic-book

aquamanWhy did Aquaman — whose hero was once a laughing stock among nerds and mundanes alike — become an ATM to the tune of $1.15 billion last Christmas? I have a theory. The movie looked spectacular enough, yet dumb enough, to be the biggest college-stoner event in years. Kids were home on holiday break, chortled to one another “Let’s get baked and go see Aquaman,” and so it was done. Those watching it sober alone at home may find the movie’s peculiar blend of macho-man musk and self-aware camp a bit harder to swallow. Towards the end, when heroes and villains faced off underwater astride various sea creatures and everything was going kaboom, I felt myself starting to turn into an eyelid. There’s only so much unreal stuff happening in an unreal environment I can watch before I figure I might as well be watching Tom and Jerry, which was funnier and shorter.

To be fair, every so often director James Wan’s thirst for hyperbolic images pays off big. There’s a terrific shot of two heroes diving off a boat swarming with toothsome sea monsters while a lightning bolt cleaves the night sky behind them. The visual shows a talent for unearthly, savage beauty. There’s more like it, but not much more, and most of the two-hours-plus (about 130 minutes plus credits) is clotted with repetitive too-muchness like the endless battles of that climax. How many hapless, anonymous fighters can we watch tumbling ass over teakettle and slamming heavily into things before it all becomes meaningless? Many of the bad guys thusly slammed by our hero, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), should be dead on concussive impact but aren’t. The action has no stakes.

Arthur is a “half-breed,” son of a surface-dweller (Temuera Morrison, easily the film’s rumpled-human highlight) and an Atlantean (Nicole Kidman). His half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, having fun going very large) is a resentful wretch who wants to unite the kingdoms of the deep against the humans of the surface. Arthur, the hero with a foot in both worlds, is the Chosen, the One — if you’ve read/watched enough fantasy fiction you’ve seen every narrative beat here. The images are supposed to make the difference, but other than the aforementioned bits of inspiration, Wan’s visual imagination doesn’t go much beyond “cool.” Atlantis and its many denizens, some humanoid and some not, are just the usual craggy castles and trashy, mean-looking monsters we’ve been looking at for twenty years. Let’s not talk about the characters’ computer-generated hair, forever floating prettily underwater but never wafting into anyone’s face.

Momoa is a bluff, passionate presence, whose Aquaman is more or less the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Thor. They enjoy melees, enjoy being heroes — they are not, as I like to say, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Once in a while, Momoa lets out a gut laugh or barbaric yawp that cements him as that rare thing, a king you want to have a beer with. A king and a fool — a Falstaff with a six-pack. Without someone as thick and grounded as Momoa at its center, Aquaman probably wouldn’t work — it would drift off into droning video-game cut scenes. His love interest, Amber Heard as the smart, tough Mera, has a couple of good fleeting battle-lust moments but is otherwise … Amber Heard, a dead spot on the screen, saddled with the movie’s least likely wig. Willem Dafoe is here, looking lonely and demoralized, knowing that if he gets to do At Eternity’s Gate he also has to do this shit to keep the lights on.

For a movie about the wonders of the deep, Aquaman is at times almost a globe-trotting epic; a segment takes place in Sicily, possibly because the filmmakers wanted to sun themselves there (who wouldn’t?). As has become common, the movie’s aspect ratio changes depending on whether a sequence opened up for a big IMAX screen or was composed for standard widescreen; cleverly, all the expansive IMAX scenes are underwater, all the surface scenes vertically cramped. The effect is to train our eyes and our subconscious to reject the dry world in favor of the wet world. Unfortunately nothing goes on down there aside from the usual bang-bang, although it was amusing to learn that in the deep — where people can talk to each other — seahorses whinny and sharks growl. Aquaman needed more of the kind of imagination that gives us whinnying seahorses and growling sharks. Instead it just gives us more whinnying seahorses and growling sharks.

Dragged Across Concrete

Posted March 23, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, one of the year's best

DAC_D02_00415.dng Can a noir film be two-thirds noir? If so, welcome to Dragged Across Concrete, the third movie and second noir by writer-director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). This film is a bit more realistic — which is to say less baroquely pulpy and gory — than Zahler’s earlier efforts, but it’s similarly concerned with holding toxic masculinity up to the cold morning light. Why should Zahler explicitly condemn the retro notions some of its characters express? He trusts us to know those ideas are racist, sexist, homophobic. Zahler’s project, in movies anyway (he also writes novels), is to take blinkered, limited (white) men and allow them enough time to show us their humanity as well as their limits. We may not “like” them (as if drama were a popularity contest) but we understand them.

Before I get into the mainstream of the plot, I’d like to detour, much as Zahler does about an hour-twenty into the film, and consider a minor character whose presence in the narrative is not immediately clear. She is a new mother, torn apart inside at the thought of ending her maternal leave and returning to work. She is played by Jennifer Carpenter, who always seems on the verge of an epic ugly-cry, and she eventually tears herself away from her baby and goes back to work — at a bank that houses gold bullion that has attracted the attention of some armed robbers. Aside from giving some backstory to this woman, and therefore audience sympathy, before she is placed in danger, Zahler uses her to explain why things happen as they do during the robbery. What she says at the end of her scene prefigures what others will say later. A sock, a ring, a new apartment: it’s all for the family, or for the hope of one. Your morality depends on what you ask for when you think your time is up.

Mel Gibson is top-billed as Detective Ridgeman, a dyspeptic and brutal cop, and he’s very fine here, as he often has been. He gives Ridgeman an exhausted awareness of his own barbaric stink; he’s “scuffed the pavement too long,” as his boss (Don Johnson) says. Ridgeman’s partner is the younger, snarkier Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who denies his racism — his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones) is black — but being decent to one person of color doesn’t mean you’re going to behave likewise towards the many other such people you run across in the line of duty, and those in the enforcement and correctional fields often see people at their worst. These two are suspended following Ridgeman’s too-rough handling of a drug dealer — it’s been recorded and will hit the evening news. They need money, and when Ridgeman starts tailing a non-local crime bigwig (Thomas Kretschmann) to see if there’ll be any ill-gotten gains in it for him, Lurasetti joins him. In a separate thread, ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) signs up as a driver for the same bank robbers associated with the bigwig. Eventually Henry, Ridgeman and Lurasetti face each other across the concrete of a junkyard.

Despite the marquee value of the two white guys, a good case could be made that the true protagonist of Dragged Across Concrete is Henry. His motives in attaching himself to the bank robbery are more poignant and urgent than those of Ridgeman or Lurasetti, whose tragic flaws are their unquestioned prejudices. That this film is being called racist, or even right-wing, is laughable; like Zahler’s other movies, it exists beyond politics in a gray area where art and reality reside. Zahler gets top-shelf performances from Gibson, Vaughn (again), and Kittles, with another fun drop-in from Udo Kier. The scenes are protracted and talky without being in the slightest boring. Quirks and revelations crop up in the long dialogue passages. We spend a full minute looking at Vince Vaughn devouring an appalling sandwich while Mel Gibson stoically endures the smacking sounds and the stench. The timing is dead-bang; a second longer or shorter and the joke would be lost.

Maybe one of the ruder, subtler jokes in the movie is that the rules of noir only apply to the white men, perhaps because the black character’s life thus far has been quite noir enough (in the classical sense meaning a world-weary fatalism). Henry’s final moments in the movie evoke a dream of literal whiteness — the walls, the decor. Henry’s character arc suggests not a corrective to racism but an acknowledgment that racism can be a tool a smart black guy can use against its wielders. As Henry says, “It’s good to be underestimated.” In Zahler’s cinematic world so far, men are trapped by the white-knight-like obligation they think they have to women, and women are trapped by the same, in the name of protection and provision.¹ Zahler lobs in racial/cultural tensions for good measure. One movie can’t resolve the issues Zahler pokes around in; a thousand movies couldn’t. But I look forward to continuing to watch Zahler try.

¹ Of course, Jennifer Carpenter’s character, the breadwinner in her family, refutes that idea. But if she had stayed home with the baby…

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted March 17, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, comic-book, kids

spiderman There are times when the mostly rightly-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a bit much — mainly towards the end, because the movie is also a bit long. I can’t get mad at it, though. Its too-muchness is almost all creative; it has an abundance of ideas, invention, color, visual and verbal wit. It’s an overflowing package — I would say “generous,” except that at a certain level of corporate involvement, the word has a whiff of panem et circenses. Due to cross-marketing synergy, the soundtrack is spangled with recording artists from the 2010s; future generations of movie-lovers, if any, may smirk at the film and tweet “OMG #so2010s,” the way ‘90s movies are now pegged immediately by the presence of the Wallflowers or No Doubt.

Until its shoulder touch becomes a little grating, Spider-Verse is good raucous fun — fluid and fast, though swollen with incident. If nothing else, it’s a wet finger held up to the winds of where animation is now, technically. The movie keeps up a constant visual whiz-bang that would have been unimaginable, and maybe neurologically unreadable, twenty years ago. (And 1999, you’ll remember, gave us the visual game-changer The Matrix.) The animation here is used for its nearly endless potential to deliver images, sequences, transitions impossible in live action. Some of it continues techniques the Fleischer brothers were using a hundred years ago; some of it pushes the lateral editing of Natural Born Killers forward a few steps. Spider-Verse is the present and future of its medium, and it was rightly awarded at the Oscars accordingly.

The technical flourishes help to sell the story, which really couldn’t be told as easily in live action. We’re in Manhattan, or Sony/Marvel’s Manhattan, where Spider-Man exists but Iron Man and the X-Men don’t. (Don’t ask.) Peter Parker (voice by Chris Pine) wears the spider-suit, swinging around and fighting crime. He’s been at it for about ten years — he’s 26 now. Fortunately, teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) gets bitten by a radioactive spider himself, and gains many of Peter’s same powers plus a couple all his own — he can turn invisible and zap his enemies with electricity, though he can’t yet control those things. Spider-Man’s adversary the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to open a portal to other dimensions, and his experiments, led by Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), pull a bunch of alternate-universe Spideys into Miles and Peter’s realm — Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker, an older Peter Parker, and, last but not least, Spider-Ham.

The nice thing about Spider-Verse is that a viewer young or old can come to it pretty clean of prior experience with Spider-Man. All the alternate Spideys are from the comic books, but you don’t need to have read any of them — I haven’t — to enjoy the characters here. Each Spider-Variant’s origin story is recounted in quick, nimble shorthand, and you get a sense of each one’s personality and demons — they’ve all suffered bereavement of some sort. Even the Kingpin, rendered as a white monolith inspired by artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s expressionist take, has a motive grounded in grief: his blameless wife Vanessa and son witnessed him beating up Spider-Man, fled, and died in a car accident. The Kingpin therefore wants to access universes in which his wife and son are still alive. Another villain, Prowler, turns out to be more sympathetic than we first assume. Marvel’s super-foe roster is generally full of bad guys/girls who aren’t evil for the hell of it — they have tragic flaws.

All the Spider-People join forces to defeat Kingpin and his minions, and in the resulting whirligig of action some of their individuality gets lost. It’s ultimately Miles’ story — I suppose we need to thank the superhero genre for creating a context for a young hero of African-American and Puerto Rican extraction. (Without the superpowers Miles would probably be the protagonist of an indie flick you’d have to drive into the big city to see.) Spider-Verse is inclusive and welcoming of diversity; its wildly divergent heroes get along, united by their similarities of origin and skill set. It is everything a specific, noxious breed of sexist, racist, humorless alt-right fanboy despises, and its success should be celebrated on that level. As for me, I’m glad I saw it, I might revisit it in the proper mood, and I admire it as a glistening piece of pop art. But its corporate pizzazz chills me a little. A good way to milk a franchise for even more sequels and crossovers and merchandise than would normally be possible is to introduce alternate universes into it. Suddenly you have much more licensable content, and if an actor wants more money for a sequel, you just bring in an alternate version of the character for a less pricey actor. With great power must come great responsibility to the shareholders.

Tell It to the Bees

Posted March 10, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, romance

tell-it-to-the-bees1 Tell It to the Bees is a modest, satisfyingly morose drama that tries a little too hard to be poetic and literary. (It’s based on a 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw.) In 1952 Scotland, two women from opposite paths — working-poor mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) and doctor Jean (Anna Paquin) — fall in love, and, with Lydia’s little boy Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), keep house for a while. What sets this particular tale of repressed/suppressed passion apart are its expansively bleak milieu of Scotland and its general tone of British fatalism. Things don’t go well for the lovers or for anyone (supportive or otherwise, mostly otherwise) around them. Tell It to the Bees is a collective portrait of misery, and its refusal to crowbar in a happy ending is admirable though not especially entertaining.

Yet I was held by it, by its seriousness and its honesty about poverty and intolerance. Adapted by two sisters (Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth) and directed by rock-video vet Annabel Jankel, Tell It to the Bees is suffused with a refreshing femaleness, conveying a trust and a relaxed contentedness that can really only happen between women. Lydia and Jean don’t have a great love for the ages, with wildly ripe passages of erotic gyrating. They keep each other company for a while, and feel easier around each other. Their affair — Lydia is actually married, to a saturnine bloke (Emun Elliott) who came back from the war darker and angrier from what he saw there — is not emphatic or even very dramatic. They don’t fight about anything — they don’t have time to. Outside forces drive a wedge between them soon enough.

Some of the film takes the point of view of Charlie (and is narrated at the end by Billy Boyd as an adult Charlie), who only objects to Lydia’s relationship with Jean insofar as she isn’t truthful with him about it. For the most part he’s happy enough looking after Jean’s beehives in the back yard. Ah, yes, the bees. They listen to Charlie; he tells them secrets. They also buzz, like the gossips in town who make life so fraught for women who don’t fit in. (For good measure, there’s an abortion performed by force on a young woman pregnant by a black man, as well as rape attempted and, by several boys years earlier, fulfilled.) The bees, not always physically convincing, are probably the only special effects in this first feature in 25 years by Annabel Jankel, who in another pocket of her career co-created Max Headroom and co-directed the Super Mario Bros. movie. No evolved dinosaurs or stuttering talking heads here; Jankel finds lyricism in nature and in hushed, intimate moments between adults. But the bees are also a bit much, especially when they come to the rescue during the climax.

Even there, though, I had to ask myself, Did you really want to see the alternative? At least one horror is averted. Tell It to the Bees doesn’t strike me as a film that will become avidly beloved among its target audience, but then I thought the same about Lost and Delirious and have been regularly surprised over the years by its scattered cult following. This film might follow suit, although there’s little terribly daring about it, nothing much to compel that sort of giddy “Rage more” loyalty. It is one of many, many narratives about same-sex lovers in a time and place that rejected them. A large part of why it might work for viewers can be credited to Grainger and Paquin, who play small and subtle notes. While the bees and the buzzing get louder outside (in working-class Scotland there’s mud and disapproval everywhere you look) the women address each other in breathless whispers. The very quietude of their love is convincing; they share an oasis of calm in a town that seems to care about nothing so much as crushing the joy of its women under its masculine muddy boots.

What confuses me is that this is a film that traffics in romantic daydreams (there’s a fair amount of drifty dancing to turntable big-band records) and ascribes higher retributive intelligence to bees, but that can’t quite bring itself to give its lovers a fairy-tale ending. It’s as if the filmmakers (and perhaps the novelist before them) were saying “Bees will swarm to stop an assault more credibly than women can live together unopposed in 1952 Scotland.” Or in much too much of 2019 America, for that matter. The plotting seems punitive in a way that was common back when entertainment was required to show that crime did not pay — and homosexuality was a crime. As I say, I was held by the performances and the tone, but a narrative like this seems more at home in the era it’s about than the era we live in. We need more punk now, more stories of triumph and opposition, gobs of spit in the eyes of the buzzers, and to hell with the bees.

Green Book

Posted March 3, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama

greenbookRather than being the 2,000th writer to tell you why you shouldn’t like Green Book, I’d like to try to get at what works in it and why its appeal may not necessarily be racist. Divorced from everything outside of itself, the movie is a buddy comedy with serious undertones — a fable, if you will, about the rough and uncultured white man whose eyes are opened via contact and eventual friendship with the smooth, elegant black man. This has been a trope at least since Sidney Poitier entered movies, and has turned up in one form or another every so often ever since. It’s the bedtime story white America tells itself in order to get to sleep despite its original sin of slavery. The thing is, Green Book might be more instructive as an example of why this story keeps being told than as a film in and of itself.

The basic thing to say is that if you don’t have Viggo Mortensen as the white man, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, and Mahershala Ali as the black man, renowned pianist Dr. Don Shirley, you don’t have a movie, or at least not this movie. Mortensen and Ali obviously feel this story needs telling, or they wouldn’t have done it, and they use every ounce of their charisma and sincerity as actors to try to put the material over. Mortensen is essentially playing an Italian stereotype (in contrast to the non-stereotypical black man Ali is playing), but he sneaks in little shades of tenderness and sometimes makes Tony seem as though he puts on his persona a little bit, to get along with his cronies outside the Copa. Putting on a dumb white face is something Tony can do out of privilege, and Mortensen knows this. Dr. Shirley doesn’t have a more socially acceptable face to put on — he’s black, he’s artsy, he’s gay. He goes into the world as himself 100 percent. His persona is not put on. Ali conveys this by delivering some of Dr. Shirley’s more condescending lines free of any pretension.

I got sort of lost in that performance aspect of the film, so whenever Green Book swerved into racial-awareness territory I sighed a little, as though reality, or a lamely realized version of it, were intruding on a perfectly decent acting two-hander. Dr. Shirley is going on a concert tour through the Deep South, in 1962, and he hires Tony to drive him and to act as a white buffer against the inevitable racism he will encounter, violent or otherwise. The movie is rated PG-13, and uses the N-word sparingly (there are Italian-language variations on it in the dialogue, like mulignan), so there’s a limit to how viscerally unpleasant the racism Shirley faces can get. Instead, the film’s most painful scene has Dr. Shirley excluded from the whites-only Birmingham dining room where Tony and his own bandmates are eating, and where Dr. Shirley will be expected to entertain. Dr. Shirley’s rich white audiences don’t deserve him. They applaud him but won’t eat with him. Tony the goombah eats with him, sleeps in the same room, and treats him like just another guy — more white privilege, since Dr. Shirley is Tony’s boss.

Contrary to the Academy’s assessment, I don’t think Green Book is the best picture of the year (not in a year when First Reformed came out). It’s not the worst, either (not in a year when Bohemian Rhapsody came out). I’m sure Universal felt it had an Oscar contender on its hands, and pushed it accordingly, but if this were a more obscure film with the same two performances its modest charms might be more apparent. Instead it became part of a larger story about how this sort of comforting bedtime tale, this brotherhood-of-man fable, doesn’t get it any more. It doesn’t, that’s true. It means well, but meaning well counts for nothing in art. What does count is the ability of Mortensen and Ali to invest their characters with as much truth as they can. Their work should be seen, even if it’s in a movie of the sort we’d thought, hoped, was extinct.