Tag Archives: 60s

Green Book

22 Nov

‘Green Book’: Tour through segregated South drives a buddy movie that follows a true tale

 

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Peter Farrelly, best known as half of the brother tandem who made “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) and the chaotically uproarious “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), pulls something of an unexpected about face with “Green Book,” real-life saga about a white man chauffeuring a black man through the Deep South during the early 1960s.

The boss is Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, a deserving Oscar winner for his work in “Moonlight”), a renowned jazz pianist tired of playing the Upper East Side who decides to take his talents south – in part to see the world, and also to make the world see him. His driver, a Bronx-bred Italian-American name Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). Tony is something akin to Robert De Niro’s fat Jake LaMotta – boy can he eat, he’s not one to take too much shit and he’s got a mouth. It’s “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) in reverse in so many ways, with its racist backdrop still far too similar to what pervades our country now. Once difference is that the current “green book” is an app with historical insights; from 1936 to 1966, it was a vital guide to safe spots in the segregated South.

For the most part, the film’s a buddy bonding road movie, as the aloof intellectual and motor-mouthed lout with a heart of gold break down cultural and personal barriers. At its best, Tony doesn’t judge Don Shirley after bailing him out of several compromising and potentially explosive situations where the jazz pianist dips into the bottle too much and wanders outside the lines. At its worst, Tony lectures Shirley about “his people,” Motown stars the classical musician hasn’t heard (Little Richard and Aretha) and the virtues of fried chicken – a cringeworthy scene, if just for the risky proximity of grease to a neatly pressed white shirt. 

Farrelly lays it on a bit at times where films such as “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Miss Daisy” and “The Butler” (2013) respectfully observe and allow character and history to make points on their own terms. His actors, though, do a great job selling it, and forge a genuine chemistry, despite such overwrought handling – Ali welling with dignified resolve and Mortensen adding a ton of weight and tackling new emotional territory with a screwball sense of humor. Shirley has to stay in seedier hotels and can’t use the same restroom as white people, even though he’s the allegedly well-respected main attraction. Ultimately there’s the big end-of-tour performance in Birmingham at a white-glove country club (where Nat King Cole was once assaulted). The maitre’d, trying to appeal to Tony, explains that when the world champion Boston Celtics came to town, “even the big one didn’t get to eat in the club” after polite use of such phrases as “it’s a tradition” and “that’s how we do things down here.” Sign of the times, and one not to be forgotten.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

28 Jul

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’: Alcoholic cartoonist was hell on wheels

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The films of Gus Van Sant, be they the good (“To Die For” or “Drugstore Cowboy”), the total miscue (“Psycho” or “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”) or even a crowd-pleasingly mainliner (“Good Will Hunting” or “Milk”) have always been embossed by a gritty, streetwise authenticity. That’s Van Sant’s gift – plus, by skill, proximity or both, educing some of the great performances of the past 20 or 30 years from actors the likes of Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Matt Dillon, Robin Williams, Matt Damon and River Phoenix, to name a few. Here he’s re-teamed with River’s brother Joaquin, who played one of Kidman’s teen lovers-turned-hubby snuffers in “To Die For” (1995).

“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” isn’t a topical grabber; it’s a biopic about an esoteric satirist/sketch artist by the name of John Callahan who died in 2010 after spending most of his adult life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident involving a drunken driver. The terrible catch there being that the car was Callahan’s, driven by another (Jack Black) because Callahan was too drunken to drive.

“Don’t Worry,” however, isn’t so much about overcoming physical difficulties and beating the odds, but about confronting one’s demons. As the film has it, Callahan has an angry closet full of ’em. A raging alcoholic from the minute we catch up with him to the alcohol rocket of an evening that ends with Callahan’s VW Bug wrapped around a cement post, the slacker handyman out for the next good time seemingly has little prospects beyond his shaggy good looks and winning smile – and then that too seemingly gets taken from him. Strapped to a hospital gurney in the cold, sterile aftermath, Callahan flirts with his physical therapist (Rooney Mara, impeccable and fetching in the small role) and when peppering his counselor (Rebecca Field) about the functionality of his equipment, she suggests with grave seriousness that he ask the night nurse to sit on his face. Callahan flashes his old smile and accepts the challenge gleefully. Out on his own. Callahan returns to the bottle with self-pitying vehemence. It seems a fast downward spiral, but he also starts drawing acerbic political doodles that get published (“the place that publishes Gary Larson just called”) and elicit strong public reaction. He also checks into an AA group led by Jonah Hill’s ultra-rich gay swami, Donnie, who presides over the flock with the smarmy, manipulative charm of a cocksure charlatan. Callahan takes to Donnie, but keeps boozing on the side with angry-man swagger. All of which makes for a gonzo 12-step ride.

It might be treasonous to say, but Phoenix and Hill don’t have great chemistry. They’re fantastic, mind you, but not in the way Bogie and Bacall or Newman and Redford were, or even Damon and Affleck’s bros in Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting.” When the two are on screen together the film is undeniably intoxicating in its own quirky right; if you were at a bar with this duo, you’d find it hard to close out your tab before closing time. But they’re just not pouring the same stuff. And sans the bravura performances – self-righteous Hill and self-hating Phoenix – I’m not sure “Don’t Worry” would be that interesting of a film. Cultural icons Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Carrie Brownstein have small bits and feel plugged in but not necessarily engaged in the presence of the immersed leads. Gordon, best known for her work as a member of edgy ’90s rock band Sonic Youth, also had a small role in Van Sant’s “Last Days” (2006) the last chapter in the filmmaker’s Death Trilogy that reimagined Kurt Cobain’s demise. The other films in that series, “Gerry” (2002) and “Elephant” (2003), a repainting of the Columbine massacre, are similarly fact-based and likewise riveting. “To Die For” (1995) and “Paranoid Park” (2007) too might make apt bookends, and if you added in “Don’t Worry,” an individual alone in a country cabin for a weekend with the ability to stream such a double-triple program might emerge on Sunday depressed, enlightened and oddly invigorated. The most telling and frightening aspect of “Don’t Worry,” however, is its raw and honest depiction of addiction and the grip it has on the ensnared – and the ends they will go to in spinning a false narrative even as the knees of reality betray them.

Hidden Figures

7 Jan

One of the best films of 2016 (yes, it opened in New York City and Los Angeles a few weeks ago as part of awards season’s annual bait-and-switch shenanigans) happens to be a sentimental crowdpleaser that, for all its potential schmaltz and didactic pitfalls, maintains an incredibly poignant balance especially when it comes to matters of race – and there’s plenty of them; “Hidden Figures” is about three African-American women employed as engineers and mathematicians by NASA during the first space launch, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic push for Civil Rights was gaining its groundswell.

It’s not a widely known bit of history, but Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe, successfully doubling up as an actor) and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, killer good) toiled for NASA during the Mercury space program as engineers and computers – mathematicians doing the technical legwork before Big Blue dropped its first mainframe – and proved critical in getting John Glenn up and into orbit. One of the film’s most telling – and touching – moments comes when Glenn (Glen Powell) meets Johnson during a technical assembly of scientists and mucky-mucks where she’s not only the only woman or person of color in the room, but the only one able to solve complicated flight variables mathematically. Later, when there’s a snag in the mission and the reentry point needs recalculating, he asks for her aid, referring to her simply as the “the smart one.” Continue reading