GREEN BOOK – MUST SEE COMEDY-DRAMA LESSON ON HISTORY AND HUMANITY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GREEN BOOK REVIEW

 

SHORT TAKE:

Excellent buddy dramedy based closely on the real life friendship between a black gifted but haughty pianist and the thuggish but fundamentally noble white bouncer he hires to chauffeur him during a concert tour through the Deep South in the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Any mature mid-teen and up but with parental discretion due to language, the examination of extreme racism during this time period and some conversation topics.

LONG TAKE:

Green Book is one of the most delightfully charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. The story is about a New York Copacabana bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, conventionally bigoted for the 1960s, hired as the driver for a brilliant black pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, for a concert tour through the Deep South.

Based on a true story, Tony Vallelonga was already a part of Hollywood. The real Vallelonga appeared in movies like Goodfellas. His son, Nick, wrote and helped produce this movie based upon interviews with him and Dr. Shirley about this road trip taken when Nick was a little boy.

The title refers to the name of the catalogue the men use as a guide for the places that black people were allowed to go – the hotels, vacation spots, tourist areas, bars, and gas stations where black people could stay without fear of harassment from regional authorities and punitive local ordinances. The title comes from its author, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postman and a black man. The book was published yearly from 1936 until 1966, when Civil Rights Law made it, thankfully, obsolete.

The unlikely pair are wonderful to watch. An entire play could have been made just out of their time in the car together as they exchange observations of the world from their own unique perspectives. Tony is white, tough, with a mediocre education, naive in his own way, and world-wise in others, who lives in a simple small house with his devoted wife and two boys,  living somewhat hand to mouth, between jobs, even willing to engage in a hot dog eating contest for an extra $50 towards the soon-to-be due rent. Shirley also grew up poor, but after being recognized for his gifted playing has become an effete, sheltered, black man residing in an artfully appointed apartment literally above Carnegie Hall. He distances himself from his black heritage in particular and most people in general. Both have much to teach the other.

We get a tour of 1960’s Americana, from the gift stands at the local gas stations to the tough bars, and the “coloreds only” seedy hotels to which Dr. Shirley is relegated because of the color of his skin.

The acting is Oscar-worthy. Mortensen, stepping, chameleon-like into the skin of this gruff and uneducated but likeable and protective bodyguard, is almost unrecognizable in physique, mannerisms or even speech patterns from such previous characters as the seduced professor Halder from Good or the incorruptible hero Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Along with the accent, the body movements and facial expressions of Vallelonga, which surviving son Nick claimed were so accurate they brought him to tears, Mortensen gained 45 pounds to get into character. Mortensen’s Vallelonga is a three-dimensional character from moment one on the screen throughout. Brutal and thoughtful, principled and amoral, loving father, devoted faithful husband, and violent bouncer, Mortensen creates a completely recognizable person from characteristics which could have lent themselves to a cliched caricature.

Mahershala Ali (small parts in Hidden Figures and Hunger Games) does an excellent job of portraying the stiff and defensive Shirley while incorporating the subtle chinks in his armor through which the unassuming Vallelonga connects. His Shirley is sensitive and subtle with a tough core of dignity, principle, and determined courage.

Linda Cardellini (Daddy’s Home) is lovely as Tony’s devoted wife, Dolores. In real life the Vallelongas were happily married for 41 years until her death in 1999.

In addition there is the fantastic music, and delightful songs played in classical mode by Dr. Shirley. The background soundtrack was written by Karol Bowers whose hands, through the miracle of CGI, physically sub for the gifted Dr. Shirley piano performances. Much effort went into blending Ali’s physical performance with Bowers piano playing prowess and it works very convincingly.

Peter Farrelly, whose credits up until now mostly amounted to questionable  movies such as Three Stooges, Movie 43 and Shallow Hal, has really found his inspiration in this script. Green Book is masterfully crafted – balancing the natural humor that comes from people simply interacting with each other against the tragic drama of abuse, condescension and indignities which black people endured all over the country during the 1960’s. Every detail is complete and period – from the gas station gift stands full of trinkets to the chandeliered restaurants and the florid night clubs.

By all accounts the script details both their trip and their characters very accurately, coalescing experiences described in interviews with both Vallelonga and Shirley. The only liberty taken was that the road trip lasted, not two months, but a year and a half! While taken directly and in detail from real life, the story still serves as an allegory. Vallelonga is an  example of the transformation America was making from the caricature perceptions of minorities to the informed friendships and respect which would soon be crafted, blossom and become commonplace all over the country.

Historically educational, were it not for the rough language, admittedly appropriate to the characters, their occupations, times and places, and one scene depicting a massive character flaw of Shirley, this movie would be family-appropriate. As it is, while I very highly recommend this movie, it is only for midteens and up and even then only upon the discretion of a pre-informed parent. The language is not confined to profanity, but is littered with historically accurate racial epithets often casually included in conversation.

This is a movie both men should be very proud of having made. It touches on very sensitive racial issues from the ’60’s but does so with politically incorrect good natured humor, an acknowledgement of the past with both its virtues and its mistakes, and attention to detail in authenticity which would have made any history professor proud.

With its slice of the past, the inspirational character learning curves, the marvelous music, and the splendid performances, time going to see Green Book is time well spent.

THE FOUNDER – DULL BIOPIC OF THE BUSINESS VULTURE RAY KROC IN A WASTE OF KEATON’S TALENTS

SHORT TAKE:

Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton's efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc's lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.

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LONG TAKE:

If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I'm not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.

The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald's a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.

McDonald's was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackie here – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their's was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950's. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.

SPOILERS

The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think "small" but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don't know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray's personal motto is "Persistence" and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.

This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor's sly brother as guilty pleasures.  But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.

The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc's eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.

Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair's breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate's wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are  out – check. Movie over – check.

Don't get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there's one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy's Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable "hamburger joint" his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura "Jurassic Park"  Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight's Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.

This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – "If my competitor was drowning I'd stick a hose in his mouth." So "business is business" is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can't help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.

In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: "If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions." Kroc stole his partners' business, his friend's wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don't care. We don't know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character.  It's an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.

So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I'd much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.