“Green Book”

A more pedestrian movie revolving around a Southern road trip in a 1963 Cadillac you will not find. The first twenty minutes are spent setting up the character of our Italian driver/bodyguard. It is slow going.

Our driver is Tony Vallelonga ( Viggo Mortensen ). Mortensen is good, very good, as the rough-around-the-edges Italian family man, who teaches the erudite, black virtuoso pianist as much about life as he, himself, learns about culture.

The film picks up once we meet the PhD.( Mahershala Ali) who needs a driver/protector. We hear about Nat King Cole being dragged from the stage during a performance in the Deep South and beaten. We know that Tony doesn’t drink from the same glass a black man has used, even after it is washed. Eyebrows are raised when two black plumbers are in the kitchen with Delores, his wife. Out of a job, Tony rejects doing “ things” for the mob. Will he be able to retrieve his pawned watched, and pay his mortgage by playing road manager for a black classical pianist, who speaks eight languages?

The interview and the bargaining for compensation and job detail gets the film finally on track. Director Peter Farelly, Tony’s real son, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Currie have written the screenplay. It is some pretty shallow story-telling. Steinways, Cutty Sark, and homosexuality mark our musician with loneliness and cultural isolation. His “identity crisis” does not play well. Ali’s one tirade seems off point. Prejudices are detailed on all fronts. Hanover, Indiana does not fare well.

Race relations in the early sixties were as bleak as the decades before. The film’s title “ Green Book” refers to the compendium of motels, hotels, and eateries where blacks could re-energize without becoming frustrated by refusals to host their needs. “Vacation without aggravation” is the euphemism used.

Based on the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, the film
gives the uninitiated a glimpse into the discrimination and civil rights abuses suffered by many. Epithets like “coon”, “ greaseball”, ”spook” and “dago” fly.

Tony’s eating habits, his getting around rules, and his calling Chopin “ Joe Pan” are minorly entertaining. He dumps trash and places the bin over a water hydrant in order to park nearer to his venue. He spits pimento cheese tidbits into his napkin and places it back on the serving tray.

The letter writing sequences are cute to a point. Dr. Shirley helps in the romance and spelling department as Tony writes the letters requested by his wife, Delores
(Linda Cardellini). You will not be surprised by the doc driving, the policeman helping, or the second knock at the door. You may be surprised by the thirty second close-up of Baby Jesus’s face, and the call to then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The bromides that “ dignity always prevails” and “you never win with violence” drew my yawns. “ My world is blacker than yours” is a tad insulting in light of the Raleigh sharecroppers standing aghast at the black man being chauffeured.

The “Green Book”’s theme is really about growth, and the pleasant idea that if two people ( no matter how different) spend eight weeks together ( in truth a year and a half), relationships blossom and understanding ensues. This feel good transformation is a crowd pleaser with a pat ending. I am just not one of the crowd.

“Hidden Figures”

  • Indianapolis native Kevin Halloran should be proud of his executive producer status for a film that will be shown for decades in every middle and high school in the country. As an alum of Holy Name Elementary, Cathedral High School and Indiana University, Halloran should be honored for his skill in seeing this film through to such grand completion. ” Inspirational” is the word that best describes these true stories of three Afro-American women who were integral to the success of the our NASA program. Why it took so long for Americans to laud Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn is the question for the ages.

Continue reading “Hidden Figures”

“Moonlight”

“Moonlight” is a beautifully acted, hard-to-watch film that is as profound as it is enervating and scattered. We begin with ten-year-olds running helter-shelter through brush and weeds, their backpacks flopping up and down with each leap. We are interested as the small boy nicknamed Little ( Alex Hibbert) hides in an abandoned trailer -like house.  We come to understand that he is being chased and bullied. Thrown rocks shatter window panes and loud fists beat on the closed door. The taunters retreat, and we meet a smiling adult who seems to take in what has happened and asks the shy Little to join him for lunch.

Mahershala Ali, who played Remy in “House Of Cards”, is the drug dealer, Juan. We are not certain if Juan is altruistic or plans on using the boy to help his trade. We surmise it may be both. He tells Little that he can’t be running around these dope-holes. Juan learns that Little already lives in one, and that he himself and his cohorts provide Little’s mother,Paula ,with her stash.

This is a coming of age tale where a shy and sullen black boy knows he doesn’t fit in. His mother, a crack-addict, comments on his walk, berates his gay tendencies, and emotionally abuses him with her alternating pushing and pulling. Her mixed messages leave their mark,and trust becomes harder to give. Paula, (Naomi Harris ) is animal-like in her needs, tender in  her intent, and abjectly terrifying as a parent. Harris’ accusatory,” You gonna raise my son now? You gonna keep selling me rocks?”  is perfectly delivered in anger and hopelessness.

Little’s one friend Kevin ( Jaden Piner) is pixie-like in his emotional intelligence. He accepts Little’s lack of words, and sparks fun where it is hard to come by. I adored this child actor in this “early Kevin ” part. His “Why you let them pick on you? Don’t be so soft.” leads to tender puppy wrestling. We have our love interest set.

In a remarkable scene, Juan teaches Little to swim. The operatic violin score is perfect as Juan turns Little on his back and opens up whole new horizons. Juan instructs him that he has to decide who is is going to be. As fatherly a role as I have seen, Ali ‘s performance is arresting. It is here that we hear an allusion to the play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” on which the semi-autobiographical script is based.

Barry Jenkins wrote and directed “Moonlight”, and his script has Juan answering Little/Chiron’s question:”What is a faggot?”  Juan’s definition is sensitive and tender: ” It is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” It is Juan who hears how much Chiron “hates” his mother, yet Chiron knows, and Juan  admits  to selling her drugs. One of my most critical comments on the film would be that Juan is allowed to fade into the night. We don’t know what happened to him as Chiron matures. We know that he has taught Chiron not to sit with his back to the door.

The teen years are hard, and made harder in this urban Miami tale where anti-gay bullying continues in the classroom. This sequence of scenes is so realistic that every teacher, social worker, and admin. will feel an added stab to the heart. Hall pushing and jostling are shown. Now fifteen and only called Chiron, he is mocked with jibes when he comes into class late: “Chiron forgot to change his tampons.”  In the counseling office, the  disconnect between student and adult is perfectly rendered by Chiron’s glazed eyes and the musical score. Ashton Sanders seamlessly plays the role of Chiron. We see his reticent, younger self, but his anger is now boiling.

Jharrel Jerome is the teen Kevin, and he succumbs to peer pressure and the ultimate betrayal of his friend and first love.  The acting is what makes this film so outstanding. Complex facial expressions, especially with the eyes, mark every close-up. Details like the Royal Crown hood ornament, the dead bugs in the fluorescent light fixture, and the heralding of “Gramma rules”, all add to the realism.

Seven years pass. Chiron is now called Black, a nickname Kevin gave him. We find him  with a silver grill, an expansive build, and financially set as a drug dealer. But he is lonely, and a juke-box song reminds him of Kevin. Impulsively , he calls Kevin after almost a decade and drives to Alabama where Kevin works as a cook. Anger is replaced with missing the intimacy that they once had.

Trevante Rhodes takes over this adult-Chiron role, while Andre Holland plays the adult Kevin. Six actors representing two men’s lives meld because of beautiful character acting. The reconnecting is almost adolescent in its stumbling sweetness. The final moonlight shot is satisfying in ways that the film is not. It is slow and choppy, painful to witness, and more profound than entertaining. Oscars for the actors and lessons for those unaware of the harsh lives many are made to lead.

 

“Free State of Jones”

A Civil War saga steeped in politics taps the real life story of a Confederate Army nurse. Newt Knight is that  soon -to -desert -soldier/nurse and his story has been told before in  the 1948 film “Tap Roots”. Van Heflin and Susan Hayward starred. Boris Karloff and Julie London were in the cast. Directed by George Marshall it was based very loosely on Newton Knight, a daring rebel for some, a runaway for others. The film lost money, let’s hope the 2016 film based on the 1942 novel by James H. Street fares better because it is a story that needs to be known.

The romantic rebel who may stand as one of the last Great American men shows not just dissent in the Confederacy, but higher ideals of equality and self-sufficiency. A Southern Anti-Slavery Unionist who held up in the  Tulahoma Swamps of Mississippi in Jones County, Knight had as many as 600 followers who believed the Galatians’ tenet that ” what you sow, you reap.” When army mauraders confiscated fields, produce and livestock, Knight’s cohorts rebelled.

They declared their own country when  the Union General  Wm. Tecumseh Sherman questioned whether this band of southeastern Mississippi deserters comprised  a  true  military company. Citing four tenets: 1. No man stays poor so another can be rich 2. No man can tell you what to die for. 3. Every man is a  free man. 4. Every man reaps what they sow, the Free State of Jones 1862-1876 survived as a racially mixed community.

The film should, but may not survive the weekend. At two hours and nineteen minutes, it is  ponderously long. The pace slows down and speeds up for no artful reason. The editing is a mess. Holes in the storyline scream to be filled. Yet, the acting is good and the impulse to celebrate these ideals holds sway. Viewers learn a lot and many, like me, will crave to learn more. Not a bad reason to see a historical film. The 2009  publication of the book, “The State of Jones”  by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer may be another.

The  film’s images are some of the most gruesome seen. Grey – clad marching troops stare ahead. Left, right, left cadences are heard; legs step over fallen bodies into direct cannon fire. Faces are blasted away, bursts of powder haze the sky. Pigs eat a fallen lad’s guts, pallets of blood and  soaked bandages are foreground to saws and sinews.

Laws favor the privileged. If you owned twenty Negroes, you were free from conscription. One wealthy family member is exempt from service for every forty slaves owned. The Civil War is seen as a fight over cotton more than honor. Newt ( Matthew McConaughey) tries to bring his newly conscripted and scared, fourteen year-old nephew  to safety in one of the more harrowing scenes. Moonlight and mule carry the boy’s body in a muslin shroud back to his mother.

Women, babies, and rockers by the fire illustrate cabin life. The photography of Benoit Delhomme is lovely and authentic in feel. The near death of the Knight’s baby boy sends Newt’s wife Serena  ( Kerri Russell) leaving him for more serene climes. She returns five years later to find Newt in a common law marriage with the Creole who helped  initially break his son’s fever. Guru Mbatha- Raw plays Rachel, and she is secure enough in Newt’s love to accept Serena and the boy’s return.  They  all coexist together, and Rachel and Newt have their own son.

“You can not own a child of God” rings as an anti-slavery sound byte. The 1864 Ellisville  standoff and the  1940 tale of Newt’s  great-grandson get lost in the telling. Too many historical consultants or too much information send the movie into a tailspin. This is a shame because the acting is good.  Mahershala Ali brings Moses Washington to life and his hanging is symbolic of many. We learn of dissent in the Confederacy. We learn of interracial strictures in the 19th century.  The  script is just too much ; the story too unevenly paced to celebrate director and writer Gary Ross. Yet, without this film many would not learn of this Southern Unionist who supported the Republican Party of Lincoln.