GREEN BOOK (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a travel guide highlighting safe places for African Americans to stay, eat and visit from the 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. Yes, it was a real publication and yes, there was a real need for it during the Jim Crow era. The book makes for a nice movie title, but this sterling dramedy from director Peter Farrelly focuses more on the budding friendship of two men from vastly different worlds separated by a few city blocks.

Mr. Farrelly is one-half of the infamous Farrelly Brothers who have directed such raunchy comedy hits as THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) and DUMB AND DUMBER (1994). This is quite the change of pace for him, as it is for co-stars Mahershala Ali (Oscar winner last year for MOONLIGHT) and heavy drama stalwart Viggo Mortensen. We see a crisp blend of the era’s harsh racism and the inherent comedy of a buddy road trip featuring a working class NYC Italian-American and an upper crust, well-educated, world class African-American pianist.

The film kicks off in 1962 at the Copacabana, a mob-controlled club where Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (a beefed up Mortensen) gives us an up-close look at his bouncer skills. He’s quite good at his job. When the club closes for renovation, he takes a job as a chauffeur/bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who is beginning an 8 week tour as the featured player in a jazz trio through the Midwest and Deep South. Tony Lip is a walking Italian cliché, while Dr Shirley is a regal black man … in fact, he might view himself as royalty – living alone in a swank apartment above Carnegie Hall. This is a good time to note that Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script, is a producer on the film, and even makes an appearance as a State Trooper.

Inspired by the true story of this trip and the lifelong friendship that ensued, we get to know both men as they get to know each other. Tony Lip is a streetwise man who is comfortable with his lot in life, while Dr. Shirley plays his role in society while quietly stewing internally. He flashes his toothy grin to disarm the adoring white audiences, but then sucks down his Cutty Sark in the evening, as he is good enough to perform for them, but not good enough to dine with them (or even use their restroom). There are times the racism gets violent and that’s where Tony Lip comes in.

Don helps Tony write romantic and intimate letters to his wife Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini), while Tony teaches Don about KFC and Little Richard … proclaiming “I’m blacker than you!” in one of the film’s funniest moments. It’s an awkward buddy film that in real life developed into a decades-long friendship – one that only ended when both died in 2013. It could be described as a twisted DRIVING MISS DAISY with a dose of THE HELP. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, even delivering a mushy ending not dissimilar to that of PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. Of course we don’t mind, because after spending a couple of hours with these two, we are fine with a feel-good ending. The film is showcase for two terrific actors, and for those that don’t know, the real Tony Lip appeared in a few projects such as “The Sopranos” and DONNIE BRASCO.  Expect to see these two actors get some love at Oscar time, and this is one of the few that can be recommended to just about every movie lover.

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CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016)

July 15, 2016

capt fantastic Greetings again from the darkness. There seems to be no end to the theories on how to be an effective parent and raise kids who are productive, well-adjusted and successful.  Writer/director Matt Ross offers up a creative, entertaining and thought-provoking story of one family’s unconventional approach in a world that seems to expect and accept only the conventional.

We are first introduced to Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his six kids as they are stalking a deer while deep in the Pacific Northwest forest … only this isn’t your buddy’s weekend deer hunting trip. Each family member is covered head-to-toe in mud and other means of camouflage, and the oldest son Bodevan (George MacKay) takes the lead with his knife in what is presented as a rite of passage into manhood.

The family carries out a daily ritual that includes extreme physical conditioning, lessons on survival and living off the land, and advanced education that includes reading such diverse material as Dostoevsky and Lolita. Each evening is capped off with an impromptu musical jam. It’s evident that self-sufficiency, intelligence and family loyalty are crucial to Ben’s approach … an approach that is challenged when circumstances require the family board their Partridge Family bus (named Steve) and take a cross-country road trip into a civilization that doesn’t know what to make of them (and vice-versa).

The film is jam-packed with social commentary on education, parenting, societal norms, societal influences, and even grief. Who gets to decide what is best for a family or what’s the best method for education? Sometimes the dysfunctional family isn’t so easy to identify. Director Ross proves this in a gem of a dinner table scene as Ben and the kids visit Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn and their two sons in suburbia.

In addition to the terrific performance by up-and-comer George MacKay, the other actors playing the kids are all very strong and believable: Samantha Isler as Kieyler, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Shree Crooks as Zaja, and Charlie Shotwell as Nai. Screen vets Frank Langella and Ann Dowd bring presence to the role of their grandparents and provide the greatest contrast to the off-the-grid existence of the kids.

Viggo Mortensen truly shines here and gives a performance full of grace and depth as he displays many emotions (some of which aren’t so pleasant). He even goes full-Viggo for one of the film’s many humorous moments … though the comedy is balanced by plenty of full scale drama. His best work comes in the scenes when he begins to question that there may be some flaws in his plan … the moments of self-realization are stunning.

Many will note some similarities between this film and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though this one carries quite a bit more heft. It’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and captures the danger and solitude of the forest, while also capturing the more personal family dynamics. It’s a film that should generate plenty of discussion, and one of the questions is … will Noam Chomsky Day ever match Festivus in popularity?

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A DANGEROUS METHOD

December 26, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This film and story is yet more confirmation for my life-long belief that, in general, psychiatrists and psychologists tend to be the most unstable and consistently loony people in society. Whether in the medical profession, business world or scientific realm, over-blown ego affects judgment and clarity; and sometimes leads to the mis-guided notion that proving one’s theory is more vital than finding real truth.

Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) are considered the founding fathers of what we accept today as psychoanalysis. In this film, we see how the two men came to know each other and the subsequent prideful battle of egos that drove them apart. Just as importantly, we see how Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) evolved from clinical hysteria sufferer in 1904 (as the film opens), to Jung’s patient, to Jung’s lover, and finally to the level of respected colleague of Freud and Jung within the field. Her growth and change as a patient provided clinical proof to “the talking cure” method, which took the place of electro-shock therapy (except in extreme cases).

 The film is directed by David Cronenberg, although you might not believe it if you didn’t know it to be so. Mr. Cronenberg is known for such work as The Fly, Eastern Promises and A History of Violence. This is easiest his most dialogue-intensive work to date. Of course, that makes sense given that it’s based on Christopher Hampton‘s play “The Talking Cure” and John Kerr‘s book “A Most Dangerous Method”. The two main subjects love to hear their own words, though here Freud spends much of his screen time puffing a cigar and tossing in a few well-timed grunts. This goes to his belief that silence often leads others to conclude that his theories are so solid, debate becomes unnecessary.

 It is very interesting to see the personality differences between the subdued Freud and the more open-minded Jung. When mystical and supernatural subjects are brought up by Jung, Freud quickly dismisses them as hooey. Freud was almost a master marketer is his attempts to get psychoanalysis accepted into mainstream. He fought Jung’s more exploratory ideas. At the heart of the film is the evolution of Sabina and it’s impact on the three leads. There is also a bit of Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) thrown in to show just how open and vulnerable Jung could be.

Learning about these pioneers is crucial to understanding the topic of today’s psychiatry and psychology. There is no question that the foundation of their work led to the salvation of many suffering people over the years. Of course, it’s clear that many patients have also suffered at the hands of those in the field who are less scrupulous.

The look of the film is beautiful, as are the costumes and sets. An added bonus is the terrific score from Howard Shore. It’s difficult to see this one attracting a wide audience, but the performances and subject matter should please those who are drawn to it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you fancy yourself an amateur psychiatist OR you would like a primer in the beginnings of psychoanalysis

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you aren’t up for frequent tie-ins to sex … after all, it is Freud!

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