Film Review: “Green Book”

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins

 Nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in five categories at the upcoming 2019 Golden Globes, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, “Green Book” is one of the most acclaimed films of 2018 with 49 nominations from various cinema-related organizations. Inspired by a true story, this period drama is a surprisingly complex, emotional work considering its director, Peter Farrelly, is best known for comedic fare like “Shallow Hal” and “Dumb & Dumber.” With “Green Book,” Farrelly captures the stark racial divide of 1962 America with an exploration of the relationship between Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as they travel across the Midwest and Deep South. 

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Tony Lip is a man you don’t want to mess with as he is the kind of tough guy who will hit you when you get out of line and will hit you harder if you strike back. Tony is thus the right fit as a bouncer at a New York City nightclub that’s frequented by wise guys from the Italian mob. However, despite their efforts to lure him to their line of business, Tony stays on the straight and narrow, sort of, as he is more than happy with being a devoted family man. Now while that’s all well and good, Tony has a set of racist attitudes towards people of color, exemplified when he tosses two water glasses into the trash after two black handymen drink from them in his house. When the nightclub he works at is shut down for remodeling, Tony Lip resorts to all sorts of ways to earn money for his family, including his participation in an impromptu eating contest that gets him fifty dollars. Thanks to his reputation as a man who can get things done, Tony Lip is called in to interview for a job as a driver for famed classical pianist Don Shirley.

It doesn’t go well at first because while Tony Lip is about as uneducated and uncultured as they come, Don holds multiple degrees and can speak several languages. Ultimately, Don hires Tony Lip because he needs someone who can protect him during a two-month concert tour that will take them through the heart of the segregated Deep South. As the two men learn more about each other, the more their divides begin to melt away to be replaced with curiosity and even friendship. This is helped by the conditions they witness as Don experiences for the first time the true pain of segregation and Tony Lip has his eyes opened to the injustice of it all.

Farrelly’s creation, with its terrific music selection, costumes and lingo, puts us in a time machine that takes us back to an America that had yet to lose its so-called innocence to assassinations and the Vietnam War. “Green Book” reminds us that that innocence was tainted with bigotry and hatred. It also reminds us how ignorance can be overcome with unity. In addition to its smartly written script and solid direction, “Green Book” contains a pair of dare I say Oscar nomination worthy performances. Mortensen dazzles with his knack to bring to life every subtle nuance of the characters he plays. This role is no exception as he helps make Tony Lip someone we can truly care about even though in the beginning it’s a little tough to do. Ali, a 2017 Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” gives Don a vulnerable sophistication while also breathing out a certain degree of naivete without seeming to break a sweat. It all adds up to “Green Book” being the type of rare movie where everyone can feel a little bit happier about the world when the lights go back on.

Film Review: Free State of Jones

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Directed By: Gary Ross
Rated: R
Running Time: 139 minutes
STX Entertainment

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

American Civil War movies are either critically claimed masterpieces (“Gone with the Wind” or “Glory) or the bane of moviegoers existence (“Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg”). “Free State of Jones” fall somewhere in between. There’s enough entertainment and magnificent acting to keep it afloat, but too many nauseating history lessons and a lack of narrative to make it watchable. It may get some future use in high schools across the country, but could also be a punishment for a rowdy classroom.

“Free State of Jones” follows Newton Knight (McConaughey) a MacGyver of 19th century America. He’s a nurse as battles wind down, a soldier when war flares up, a farmer at home, a blacksmith and carpenter when the script calls for it, and many other things. Knight watches too many of his friends, family, and countrymen die for a cause he doesn’t believe in. He views the Civil War as a rich man’s war being fought by the poor residents of Mississippi. So he goes AWOL, evading troops on the lookout for the fresh deserter.

Knight goes into hiding in the swamps where he befriends runaway slaves and slowly starts attracting other deserters to his camp. Over time, he collects more slaves and deserters to help form his own militia. Their core belief isn’t anti-Confederate, but more around the belief that no army or government should steal from the people and that the people have a right to what they create with their own bare hands.

The movie takes place from 1862 to 1867, which already has any historian reading that scratching their head. The Civil War ended in 1865. Un-effectively, “Free State of Jones” is like two different movies. One about the small rebellion against Confederate beliefs and the fallout of the Civil War in the South with Knight having to constantly defend the rights of his African American friends.

Narratively, it’s a mess. At no point does the movie blatantly or subliminally promote a unique theme or message. “Free State of Jones” is another; white man comes to save the day for minorities, history lesson from Hollywood. The movie highlights the corrupt system in place after the war, which prevented minorities from voting in the political process. That could be a link or statement of affairs today in this political climate, but I’m not willing to give the creative team behind “Free State of Jones” that much credit.

It’s a well shot movie that captures the essence of war, but McConaughey is the true highlight of the movie. He works well with the emotional and physical toll of war as he progressively becomes older in “Free State of Jones”. But I can’t help but dislike his character for some of the selfish plot points in the movie. It doesn’t help that the movie constantly jumps forward around 80 years into the future where Knight’s relatives are going through a legal battle. It’s another speed bump that slows down the overall pace of the movie.

“Free State of Jones” is definitely a unique tale for the Civil War that highlights the divide in a traditionally proud part of the country. Even today, people still sport Confederate flags and re-enact famous battles. There’s something interesting that can be said about how war can divide even the most patriotic of people. But “Free State of Jones” doesn’t want to talk about that. It seems more obsessed with messages we’ve heard before and reminding us that slavery is still evil.