Mike at the Movies

Green Book (PG-13) *****

There should be a run on old Don Shirley recordings. The snippets heard in this film will make music fans drool, they are so good.

And the odd thing is that the trio is a bass, cello and piano—no drums, no horns, just those three instruments. The  performances of the actors is the basis for the success of the film, of course, but the movie is about race and music and it  makes its several points vehemently yet silently.

Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a reserved, formal, aloof man. His driver, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a former bouncer at the Copacabana in New York, is a rough-hewn, eat everything (he downs a large pizza rolled in two during the film) Queens  tough guy. He also gives Shirley his first fried chicken, thinking beforehand that it would be something Shirley would be acquainted with, being black.

Tony makes several assumptions about “Doc” that prove wrong, but this is a film about wrong assumptions and the results of them. The magic of the film is in the slow realization as it progresses that both characters share more than they realize. The realization evolves into a touching relationship that we all hoped would happen. Doc goes so far as to dictate letters to Tony, who writes them to Doc’s wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini).

There are a couple of meetings with police in the dark, one of which goes very badly. The most touching moment in the film, and the turning point for Tony, is Doc’s anguished admission: “If I’m not black enough, if I’m not white enough, what am I?” He is a renowned performer, his trio is world-class and he is a black man in the early ‘60s in the South. His fame is not enough to save him. We know why, but it is still maddening to see the maître ‘d at the Birmingham club where he is the featured act for a large crown, turn him away. “It’s our tradition.”

A lot of traditions are examined in this wonderful film, perfect for the Christmas holidays, and the change of Shirley’s character
is beautifully acted. This is a “don’t miss” for your holiday viewing. Just a great experience in film.

The Front Runner (PG-13) ***

It’s 1988 and Sen. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) is giving it another try to become the POTUS after falling short in 1984. Expected to be a film about the Hart campaign, this is more about the press vs. politics and how one is used to attack the other.

Hart, after telling the press to follow him if they liked, warned them that they would find it boring. Two members of the press followed him and found it anything but boring. Reporters and a photographer from the Miami Herald found him bidding farewell to an apparent house guest, former model and politico wannabe Donna Rice (Sara Paxton).

Hart’s campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), frames the issues rather well as he soon recognizes that the only way his man can survive politically is to make the story about press vs. politics rather than an affair. In fact, the entire film turns into a dialogue about the ethics of the press vs. the ethics of a prominent man apparently caught in the cookie jar up to his elbows. Post reporter AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie), who actually broke the story, sums it up by asking Hart in a press conference: “Have you ever committed adultery?” Hart responds, after some hesitation: “I guess I don’t accept that as a fair question.” Sorry, wrong answer.

The media comprise a howling mob, intruding every chance they get on the candidate’s life. In fact, the turning point in  the situation, the one that caused Hart to give up his campaign temporarily, is his discovery that his daughter, Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), had been hounded. That, in addition to the hassling of wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), was the last straw. (Gary and Lee Hart are still married, by the way.)

Hart maintains that “… the public doesn’t care about this crap.” Then, as now, that’s the wrong take on a public that is  insatiable for salacious news about public figures. Yet so convinced was he that the public wouldn’t care that he later tried to resuscitate his campaign only to fail to reach over 5 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday. Later, it was claimed that the head of the Republican Party, Lee Atwater, who later confessed to dirty tricks during the campaign, orchestrated a photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap. The account was later denied by a Herald editor.

Suffice to say that the dirt spread during the rumor period was not a high moment in American politics. We are left with the film’s confusingly patchy portrayal of pathetic machinations about a man who might have become the POTUS.


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