Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5

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The Two Faces of January (2014)

2016 #15
Hossein Amini | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English, Greek & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

The writer of Drive (and co-writer of Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but maybe he’d prefer we didn’t mention those) moves into the director’s chair with this Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Best know for her Ripley (as in Talented Mr.) tales, this is instead the story of a young American man, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who, while working as a tour guide in Greece, falls in with middle-aged American couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Apparently on holiday, they look like an easy mark for Rydal’s somewhat-con-ish moneymaking practices, but events soon transpire to reveal the pair’s secrets, and Rydal’s greed draws him deeper into their affairs.

Amini has picked some quality material for his directorial debut. The storyline is pretty straightforward, but it’s driven by some interesting characters with complex motivations. You’re never entirely sure what’s driving Rydal and Chester, even if it may appear obvious; and sometimes it can be as much of a twist that a character didn’t have a better plan as it is when their implausibly-intricate machinations are unveiled. It helps that the film has a pair of quality actors in these roles, who effortlessly bring believability to even the slightly-far-fetched elements of the narrative. This is only the second thing I’ve seen where Isaac has made an impression (the other being The Force Awakens; I’d forgotten he was in Robin Hood and Sucker Punch), but I can see why everyone’s calling him one to watch.

If Dunst doesn’t leave as much of a mark as the two chaps, it’s only because Colette is a subtler-still character. Some people reckon The Two Faces of January has a thin story and no development of its characters, but I can’t help but feel it was too subtle for such critics. On the surface it might just seem like Colette is the dim-blonde wife, going along with her husband whatever happens and flirting with their sexy tour guide, but there’s clearly more going on under the surface. How much does she really know about Chester’s actions? Is she an innocent bystander, or is she involved? Is it harmless flirting with Rydal, or are Chester’s drunken suspicions on the money?

By choosing to set the film in the novel’s original 1960s timeframe, Amini adds instant style and class to the whole picture. Didn’t everything look classier back then? I mean, Chester wears linen suits and Panama hats, not T-shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap. It just wouldn’t be the same set today. Even the locations look straight out of the ’60s, even though they’re hundreds or thousands of years old and the film was shot this decade. Marcel Zyskind’s attractive cinematography is surely to thank for that. Again, it’s an element I’ve heard some criticise as boring or plain, which (much like the above views on plot and character) I just don’t understand. It’s not showy or show-off-y, but that’s part of what works. It lets the natural beauty of the locations speak for themselves, with classical compositions and rich lighting.

The era of the setting also helps emphasise the film’s Hitchcockian overtones, which given Highsmith’s other most-famous work is Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitch, of course) is perhaps an obvious point of comparison, but by no means an inappropriate or negative one. As the narrative twists and turns, tightening the tension ever more, you think the Master of Suspense would’ve been quite pleased if this had been one of his pictures.

Filming this particular Highsmith novel was a long-held ambition for Amini (he first tried to acquire the rights after his big-screen writing debut, Jude, back in 1996). Such much-awaited dreams can sometimes lead to poor results, thanks to a rose-tinted perspective or close-minded obsession, but on other occasions the lengthy preparation pays off. The Two Faces of January is most certainly a case of the latter, a ceaselessly classy, subtly complex thriller that’s very rewarding for those open to its numerous charms.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Two Faces of January is on Film4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st, at 9pm.

Daylight (1996)

2010 #87
Rob Cohen | 110 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

Daylight is a disaster movie; the kind they apparently made lots of in the ’70s, and has seen a revival (to some degree) thanks to Roland Emmerich and his brand of apocalypse-bringing. This was made in the ’90s though and, lacking any self-aware qualities, might be seen as a throwback. Whether that matters is probably an issue for more well-versed disaster movie fans than I.

The plot concerns the collapse of an underwater car tunnel, trapping people inside (naturally). It’s a tunnel that connects Manhattan to another bit of New York. Or possibly New Jersey. To be honest, I can’t remember now. Suffice to say, it doesn’t matter, besides the points that, a) who doesn’t like a movie set in New York?, and b) it allows for a moderately diverse array of victims-in-waiting. How diverse? Not very. But a bit.

Following the collapse, a fireball rips through the tunnel. It seems to destroy most cars and kill most people, except for about a dozen survivors. How are they not killed by the fireball? Well, it seems to be by the good fortune of Because We Need Some Characters. Should you ever get stuck in an exploding tunnel, pray you find yourself in a disaster movie and had been doing something mundane yet passably interesting earlier on, and you might get to survive. Naturally some of these will die later, because a disaster movie works in more-or-less the same way as a slasher movie, only with less jumps. After a few “well, they sort of deserved it” characters are dispatched with, screenwriter Leslie Bohem seems to have drawn up a list of Which Characters Would It Be Most Tragic To Lose and started to work his way through them until he reached the end of the screenplay. I suppose it’s flat-out good advice for a disaster movie, but, try not to get too attached.

The film continues to stretch credibility to the max at every turn. Are there really a series of giant fans that Stallone could conceivably lower himself through to get into the tunnel? Maybe there are — it’s got to be ventilated somehow — but it doesn’t stop the sequence in which he does it from feeling like a science-fiction movie. On the bright side, the lack of concern for plausibility makes for a couple of moderately impressive effects sequences. Despite the notion that CGI has somehow made everything look more realistic, sometimes the limits of ’90s technology help. OK, most of Daylight’s effects still look like effects, but they’re at least as believable as the plasticky sheen that still pervades most CGI.

A closing pan up to the twin towers of the World Trade Center provides, thanks to hindsight, a crushing reminder of reality when it comes to disasters. It’s a shame that an arbitrary shot of a New York landmark almost inadvertently overshadows the whole film. I suppose any shot of the Center calls up those memories now, but it’s unfortunate that this one comes at the end of a disaster movie.

All things considered, Daylight’s pretty ridiculous; in fact, it’s so daft you might begin to wonder if someone actually researched the facts of what might happen in such a disaster and it’s all a case of Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction. Or perhaps it really is just The Movies. If you don’t care for disaster movies then it’s certainly not going to change your mind, but for anyone who is prone to liking them, Daylight is, for all its faults, an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Daylight is on ITV tonight, Friday 21st November 2014, at 11:15pm.

Eastern Promises (2007)

2009 #32
David Cronenberg | 97 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Eastern PromisesArguably most famous for his horror films of the ’80s (though a couple of his ’90s efforts could stake a claim), director David Cronenberg widened his appeal somewhat with the excellent crime thriller A History of Violence. Here he reunites with star Viggo Mortensen for another grim tale, switching the bright searing heat of the American Midwest for the rain-drenched nighttime streets of our fair capital.

Despite some similarities in plot and theme, Eastern Promises failed to engage me in the same way as the earlier effort. Perhaps this is because it plays tag with its central character, beginning with Naomi Watts’ do-gooder nurse before shifting focus to Mortensen’s mafia chauffeur with nary a blink. It’s an unusual transition, and consequently it’s hard to tell whether it’s skillful writing or a fortuitous accident that it comes off seamlessly. One theoretical screenwriting argument would have it that the film is actually all about Christine, the baby, and that’s why it works, but that feels a little too pretentious to engage with now.

Tied around the baby’s fate, screenwriter Steven Knight factors in some appropriately dark elements, like white slavery or the relocated criminal underworld that currently operates in the UK. Though these are handled with a certain amount of care, they’ve been covered in greater depth elsewhere (the excellent miniseries Sex Traffic, for example) and here are reduced to pawns in a different tale. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but remembering the detail from other such dramas can leave the topics’ inclusion here feeling lightweight.

Elsewhere, the screenplay suffers from some awkward dialogue exchanges and barely credible logic contrivances being used to jump-start the plot. Most of these come from Watts’ character, who seems too competent for much of the film to pass off as a naïve fool at its start. This may be Watts’ fault, playing her as intelligent when a naïve approach might render her actions more believable, but it seems cruel to lay the blame with her as she’s very strong all round. Armin Mueller-Stahl also gives his typically accomplished turn in his typically key supporting role.

Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated performance is the focus, however. Apparently thoroughly immersed in the role, he gives a distinguished performance throughout and is central to what are by far the film’s most memorable moments: a nude steam baths fight, which has become justifiably infamous (I suspect for the “nude” part, but it’s the “fight” that deserves it), and a game-changing twist, that I sadly had ruined in advance, though there are plenty of clues scattered along the way.

By its end, Eastern Promises has the feel of the first part of something bigger: while the story of the baby is resolved, many others are left open. Unresolved threads aren’t always a problem, but it feels like Cronenberg has more to say in this world. So it’s nice to know a sequel is possibly in the works, because Eastern Promises has the potential to be a Hobbit to some Russian mafia epic’s Lord of the Rings. On the other hand, a similarly low-key follow-up would be just as appropriate.

Though it failed to capture me as much as A History of Violence, possibly due to too-raised expectations, Eastern Promises has the potential to grow with repeated viewings. And either type of continuation would be most welcome.

4 out of 5

Unfortunately, plans for a sequel ultimately fell apart in 2012. Some more details can be read here.