Monthly Archives: November 2018

Hit the Road

‘Green Book’ is Gold-Plated, Feel-Good Holiday Road Trip 

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Green Book
Starring Mahershala Ali & Viggo Mortensen
Directed by Peter Farrelly
PG-13

Ready for a road trip?

A Hollywood staple for decades, road movies feature characters who get closer as they travel farther along.

The delightful Green Book is a road movie about Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a cultured black classical pianist who leaves his palatial home in New York City to embark on a two-month concert tour throughout the deep South in the early 1960s. For a chauffeur, he hires Frank Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), better known as Tony Lip, a mouthy Italian-American muscleman temporarily out of work from his job as a nightclub bouncer.

When this odd couple hits the road in their big, bright turquoise Ford Fairlane, they’re guided by the publication for which the movie takes its title. The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a pocket travel atlas—published from the late 1930s though the mid 1960s—created to assist black motorists with information on restaurants and lodging in the South during a time of widespread discrimination and segregation.

The last stop on the tour is Dec. 23 in Birmingham. Will Tony and Don make it home for Christmas?

GB 5This Green car is full of gold—Oscar gold. Ali won the Supporting Actor trophy last year for Moonlight, and Mortensen’s been nominated twice, for his outstanding star turns in Captain Fantastic (2017) and Eastern Promises (2008). Both are pitch-perfect in their roles here, and the buzz is that either could be a strong contender again this season for more awards.

Mortensen packed on 30 pounds to play Tony, a beefy palooka with entry-level mobster ties—and his own casually racist attitudes to overcome. He tries to understand why Don isn’t more connected to his “own” culture, including the popular music of Chubby Checker, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. “C’mon, Doc,” he says, “these are your people!” He’s a little bit Archie Bunker, a little bit Joe Pesci, and a movie-meatball wonder to behold.

Ali nails both the isolated genius and the anguished rage of Don, who’s performed at the White House, plays black-tie concerts at ritzy recital halls and entertains lily-white patrons in their mansions—but he’s not allowed to use their bathrooms or eat alongside them. He’s torn between worlds, but feels like a misfit in both. “I’m not white enough, I’m not black enough,” he says. “What am I?”

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Linda Cardellini plays the wife of “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).

The movie lives and breathes as Don and Tony get to know each other. Tony steps in with his formidable fists when situations get dicey. Don coaches the nearly illiterate Tony on writing romantic “lettahs” back home to his wife (Linda Cardellini), and teaches him that the name of the classical composer was Chopin, not Joe Pan.

Green Book marks the flying-solo debut of director Peter Farrelly, best known for the yucky, gross-out, bro-fest comedies he made with his brother, Bobby—Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary. This is much more “grown-up” than any of those dopey, goofball romps, but there’s still plenty of genuine funny business as the initial comic friction between Tony and Don turns to true friendship.

The ugly truth of the times is always present—the film never shies away from the fact that it’s set in a place, and during a time, when racism was ragingly real. But Farrelly has a light touch that keeps an upbeat focus on his characters, even as the dark shadows of their situation remind us of scars that are still raw and bleeding today.

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It’s based on a true story—and the real Tony went on to become a real actor who had roles as mobsters in Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco and HBO’s The Sopranos. The real Tony and the real Dr. Shirley, who really did become lifelong friends, both died within four months of each other in 2013.

A rousing crowd pleaser, Green Book shows us two characters who feel the distance between them—and their differences—warm and dissolve as they travel the highways. The sugar-sweet, homecoming-high ending might make some cynics sneer. But hey, at a time when it feels like bad news is the only news and people are more polarized and farther apart than ever, give me another bouncy ride with Dr. Don and Tony any day.

GB 4 (72)At one point, Tony shows Don with typical gusto how to dig into a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken while rolling down the road. You gotta get greasy, he says, not worry about the crumbs and just toss the bones out the window. “Whatever you do,” Tony says, “do 100 percent.”

Green Book does it for me, 100 percent, and I’m ready to roll again and feel the miles melt away with two of the most unforgettable characters from one of the best feel-good films of 2018.

In theaters Nov. 21, 2018

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Green Machine

New Animated ‘Grinch’ is Groovy Green Kickoff to Holiday Movie Season

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The Grinch
Starring the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson & Cameron Seely

Directed by Scott Mosier & Yarrow Cheney
PG

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

The perennial holiday pest has been a part of our pop culture since 1957, when Dr. Seuss introduced him in the storybook that quickly became a children’s classic. He’s been the star of a TV Christmas special (1966) narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff, a movie starring Jim Carrey (2000) and a Broadway musical (2006).

The latest version is a brisk, crisp, charming, 90-minute computer-animated romp from Illumination Entertainment, the same folks who gave us the Despicable Me franchise and the critically lauded The Secret Life of Pets. A groovy, green movie kickoff to the Christmas season, it will delight children and remind grown-ups why Dr. Seuss (author/illustrator Theodor Geisel, who died in 1991) still rocks.

Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice of the Grinch, the grumpy, green grouch with a lifelong Yuletide bone to pick: He absolutely hates Christmas. He lives with his loyal dog, Max, otherwise alone in a craggy mountain lair above the teeming town of Whoville. And it’s really ruffling his fur that, down there, the merry folks are hustling, bustling, smiling and singing as they prep for yet another happy holiday.

The Whoville mayor (Angela Lansbury) has proclaimed that this year’s celebration will be three times bigger than ever before. That means a bigger tree, bigger ornaments, and more of everything. Grrrr—it also means the Grinch will have to come up with an even bigger plan to somehow ruin Christmas for everyone in Whoville.

Film Title: Dr. Seuss' The GrinchCo-directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney keep things brisk, light and lively, fleshing out the familiar storyline with visual flair, additional characters and witty details that hew closely to the wildly creative imagination of Dr. Seuss’ curiously surreal illustrations and the spirit of inspired anarchy that ran throughout all his work. When the Grinch tells Max about his new “gizmos and gazmos,” he’s not kidding—and he uses them all in the nifty Christmas-stealing sequence as he sweeps, siphons and stows away every scrap of Christmas from every home in Whoville.

Film Title: Dr. Seuss' The GrinchAnd of course, it wouldn’t be a story about the Grinch without Little Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely, who played Helen, the young daughter of P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman). The precocious tiny tot hatches a plot of her own—a ploy to trap Santa Claus on Christmas Eve—that accidentally provides a twisty, fateful encounter with the Grinch.

That’s Rashida Jones as the voice of Cindy Lou’s harried, overworked mom, and Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson gets plenty of chuckles as the boisterously cheerful, lumber-jack-like Bricklebaum, who would certainly be a contender if TV’s The Great Christmas Light Fight ever rolled into Whoville.

DSTG_6Max the dog is a real scene-stealer, as is Fred, the extremely rotund reindeer the Grinch corrals to pull his sleigh. “Santa had eight,” the Grinch grumbles, sizing up Fred. “He looks like he ate the other seven.”

Grammy-winning musician and producer Pharrell Williams narrates, informing us that one of the reasons the Grinch is a frosty frump is because his “heart is two sizes too small.”

For several generations that grew up with the original TV version of the Grinch, there are a couple of musical touchstones—like when the Whos gathering around the (massive!) Christmas tree and lifting their voices in “Welcome Christmas,” or the theme song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” this time a new rap version by Tyler, the Creator, performed over the end credits.

New musical spices include the Grinch’s alarm clock, which pesters him each morning by playing snippets of holiday wake-up songs like “Feliz Navidad,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Listen for Buster Poindexter’s “Zat You Santa Claus?” and some rockin’ Christmas cuts from the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Max has a daydream to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.”

The movie’s big feat is finding the funny in the Grinch’s frumpiness. He’s a character who’s impossible to hate, especially when you get to know him—and learn the heartbreaking reason he’s the way he is. Kids will laugh, a lot, at his “childish,” sometimes slapstick antics, and be touched by the way he comes around—moved by the innocence and goodwill of a little, big-eyed girl—to embracing Christmas, family and friendship by the end of the movie.

And everyone’s heart, like that of the Grinch, will grow three times bigger by the time the Grinch gives a toast to “kindness, love and the things we need most.”

He may be green, but turns out he’s not so mean, after all.

In theaters Friday, Nov. 9, 2018

Disney Dud

New ‘Nutcracker’ is an Overcooked Christmas-Movie Meatloaf

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley & Helen Mirren
Directed by Lasse Halleström & Joe Johnson
PG

Only in Hollywood can li’l vampires become Disney darlings.

Mackenzie Foy stars in this lavish House of Mouse retooling and respooling of the beloved Nutcracker holiday musical. You might remember her as the child who played the half-vampire, half-human spawn of Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart) in two Twilight movies.

In the time-warp-y Interstellar, she was Matt Damon’s young daughter, who grows up to be Jessica Chastain.

So as an actress, Foy, 17, is certainly no stranger to strange things happening.

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Mackenzie Foy

In The Nutcracker and The Four Realms, based on the Tchaikovsky ballet—and mainly on the book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which inspired it—she’s Clara, a young British lass who discovers a hidden parallel kingdom crawling with colorful, wacky characters and divided by old grudges.

It turns out that Clara’s late mother was actually the queen of the Realms, making Clara a princess—a Disney princess!

Clara’s on a quest for a key to unlock a musical egg, a cryptic Christmas gift from her mother. The same key may also be essential to saving the Four Realms. Interesting! If only she can retrieve it from that pesky rodent, Mouserinks, known far and wide as a scampering scallywag—and stay away from the Mouse King, an oversized beast of a creature that’s actually thousands of teeming, swarming mice.

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Morgan Freeman

Keira Knightly is a winged, pixie-fied delight as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with a wad of cotton-candy hair, a sweet tooth, an agenda of her own—and a soft spot for big tin soldiers. Morgan Freeman has a couple of scenes as Clara’s godfather, a wise, one-eyed inventor and tinkerer who points her on the path into the Realms. Helen Mirren plays Mother Ginger, the “banish-ed” Queen of Amusement now reigning over an abandoned circus and some super-creepy, somersaulting harlequins.

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Misty Copeland

There’s also the icicle-covered Shiver, King of the Snow Realm (Richard E. Grant), and the Flower Realm King, played by superstar Mexican actor and filmmaker Eugenio Derbez.

Acclaimed pro ballerina Misty Copeland, the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, performs an elegant classical number in the movie’s only real tie to theatrical productions of The Nutcracker.

A princess, a castle, a cute critter or two, beauty, a beast, music and magic dust—that’s pretty much been Disney’s bread and butter for decades. But The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels more like a snack than a meal, a Disney diversion instead of a main course.

It looks sumptuous, with lavish sets, extravagant costumes and whimsical designs—that don’t really add up…to much of anything. It’s a hodgepodge, a beloved holiday musical based on a musty book from 1816; a shoehorned ballet performance; fantasy elements that feel drawn from a variety of other sources, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Babes in Toyland. Sometimes the clever, plucky Clara seems like a cross between Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and Victorian London’s smartest STEM student. She can jailbreak clockwork doodads, plop down a rope from a castle tower, scale across rocky cliffs, crawl through massive churning waterwheels and even—yes—build a better mousetrap.

It’s all “science, mechanics and a bit of luck,” she says.

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But you’ll be out of luck if you come to this Nutcracker wanting to see actual nutcrackers—you know, those ornamental, toy-soldier dolls people unbox at Christmastime. The nutcracker in this Nutcracker is a real person, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight, a British actor in his first major film role. He’s a handsome guard who’s around for most of the movie, but he doesn’t get a lot to do.

And he’s no nutcracker.

Swedish director Lasse Halleström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, Safe Haven, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) passed the baton to Texan Joe Johnson, whose resume includes Captain America: The First Avenger, The Wolfman and Jurassic Park III, when rewrites and reshoots were required last year. That’s usually a signal of some kind of trouble—just like Princess Clara finds in the Four Realms. This overcooked, Texas-Swedish Christmas-movie meatloaf is a Disney dud that just doesn’t quite measure up.

Not every Disney princess can be Cinderella, and not every Disney movie can be a classic. This one will probably leave most Disney fans hungry and waiting for the next one, when Mary Poppins sweeps down in December to remind everyone what the good ol’ Disney magic is all about—and how it’s done.

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018

Rock Show

Rami Malek Rules Royally Rockin’ Queen Biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Bohemian Rhapsody
Starring Rami Malek, Gwilyn Lee, Ben Hardy, Lucy Boynton & Allen Leach
Directed by Bryan Singer
PG-13

“We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, playing for the other misfits hanging together in the back of the room,” explains Freddie Mercury to a record company exec in an early scene of this royally rockin’ biopic about the British band Queen.

As we see, the “rooms” Queen played got bigger and bigger, as the band became one of the most successful, acclaimed arena acts in the world—and Mercury became the most flamboyant, theatrical, front-man “misfit” in all of rock music.

Rami Malek, the Emmy-winning star of TV’s Mr. Robot, pops in a set of prosthetic teeth to play Freddie, who is clearly the star of this show as well. To cop a line from one of Queen’s hit songs, he…will, he…will…rock you!

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Malek with Gwilyn Lee as Queen bandmate Brian May.

Bohemian Rhapsody, titled after the group’s epic, progressive, majestic, multi-layered sonic soufflé from their 1975 album A Night at the Opera, traces Mercury’s timeline from the early 1970s, when he first met the other musicians who would become his band mates.

In an alley outside a London club where he’s just watched them perform, Freddie convinces guitarist Brian May (Gwilyn Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to let him replace the recently booted lead singer in their band, Smile, dazzling them with a quick vocal audition. “I was born with four additional incisors in my mouth,” he explains. “More space means more range.”

Mercury’s impressive range becomes a movie metaphor for the expansive effect he has on the group—he changes their name to the universally regal-sounding Queen and widens their horizons to a recording contract, international touring and worldwide hit records. He transforms them into a band that doesn’t sound like any other band anywhere, at any time, a unique performing and recording ensemble that doesn’t fit into anyone’s idea of a rock group, a pop act or anything else.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYHe tells the head of a record company that Queen wants to make “a musical experience rather than just another record.”

Mercury loved entertaining, experimenting in the studio, and living with his cats—and he loved other men, a fact that he discretely kept secret from the public. The movie is delicate—although direct—about how it addresses this part of his life (and lifestyle), even as it becomes the thing that leads to his eventual death from complications due to AIDS, in 1991.

The film is dramatically bookended by the band’s triumphant reunion appearance at the Live Aid charity event in 1985, culminating in a monumental, masterful, moving recreation of the concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, where Queen performed their greatest hits in front of a rapturous crowd of more than 70,000 people. It was watched worldwide on television by an audience estimated to be nearly 2 billion, the biggest ever for a TV event, much less a rock show.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

You likely know some, or perhaps even a good deal, of Queen’s music. You may even be a super-fan who knows a lot about the band itself. But you’ve probably never been where this movie takes you, particularly as it depicts the home life of teenage Freddie as he was “becoming” Mercury. Before that, he was Farrokh Belsara, the son of Parsee Indian parents who had immigrated to London after a revolution. One of the film’s most emotional parts is Freddie’s relationship with his father, who disapproves of his musical career—and his homosexuality—and who tells his son his mantra should be “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

And you may not know about Mercury’s romantic relationship with his early girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Their enduring bond, even beyond heartache and heartbreak, stirs one of the movie’s most tender undercurrents.

Allen Leach (he was Tom Branson on Downton Abbey) plays Paul Prenter, Mercury’s duplicitous manager. A truly delicious treat is the inside joke of casting Mike Myers as a flummoxed record exec who can’t see why his label should release “a six-minute quasi-operatic dirge” when the band brings him their latest project, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” One of Myers’ best known comedic bits, of course, is the scene in his movie Wayne’s World where his character rocks out to that very song.

Director Bryan Singer layers on the musical detail, and a parade of characters. (Queen’s bass player, John Deacon, capably played by Joseph Mazzello, unfortunately seems to disappear into the much more colorful swirl all around him.) Aaron McCusker, who played astronaut Wally Schirra in the 2015 TV series The Astronaut Wives Club, portrays Jim Hutton, Mercury’s life-mate and partner during the final seven years of Freddie’s life.

It’s a kick watching recreations of the band’s classic hits germinate and blossom, in the studio or on a piano bench, from the stomp-stomp-clap of “We Will Rock You” to the experimental rehearsal noodlings that eventually coalesce into the funky “Another One Bites the Dust.” An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink studio session—an amp swinging through the air on a rope, loose coins buzzing on a timpani head, a tambourine inside a piano—hints at how far the band wanted to push the norms of conventional pop music.

And Mercury’s rousing “Day-Oh!” chant, which could captivate massive arena crowds, also becomes shorthand for a much more private, poignant personal moment.

BH-1-72Malek struts like a peacock through Mercury’s constantly churning fashion evolution, from skintight catsuits to leather military jackets, glittery glam-rock capes and finally the iconic white tank top he wore at Live Aid. His immersive acting—and the grand, sweeping arc of the story—is the kind of thing that makes Oscar voters perk up, take notice and dole out little golden men.

He doesn’t do his own singing—what you hear coming out of Malek’s toothy mouth is a combination of Marc Martel, a professional Queen tribute singer, and actual Mercury tracks isolated from Queen master recordings. But the illusion, and the performance, are perfect, Hollywood movie-music magic at its finest. Close your eyes for a moment—but just a moment, because there’s so much to see—and it’s almost impossible to detect the difference, to convince yourself that what you’re hearing, and seeing, is really a quasi-Queen with a faux Freddie.

And at the center of it all, at the apex of this magnificent, music-packed movie tribute, is Malek. His remarkable, spellbinding performance reminds us of what we had, what was lost, and of the band, the songs and the singer who once made the whole world sing and clap and stomp along.

“We are the champions,” Mercury and Queen sang. And yes, day-oh, they were.

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018