Tag: Linda Cardellini

Green Book (2018)

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are Driving Dr Shirley in Green Book

Director: Peter Farrelly

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga), Mahershala Ali (Don Shirley), Linda Cardellini (Dolores Vallelonga), Dimitar Marinov (Oleg), Mike Hatton (George), Iqbal Theba (Amit), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny Venere)

So here we are with a film that might as well be called Driving Dr Shirley. A gentle, ambling, Sunday-afternoon piece of film-making with a rudimentary message, a simplistic world-view and two very good performances at its heart doing all the lifting. Twenty years ago this would have swept the Oscars. As it is it had to settle for just three, including Best Picture, an award that already feels like a triumph of comfortable mediocrity, especially considering Spike Lee’s striking BlacKkKlansman takes such a profound and challenging view of the same issues.

Set in 1962, Green Book follows the “true-life” (heavily disputed by Shirley’s family) friendship between virtuoso classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the Italian American Copocabana bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) he hires to be his driver for a tour around the deeply racist Deep South states. Can two such different people, over the course of a road trip, find they have more in common they think? You betcha.

Green Book is practically the definition of unchallenging viewing. It tells a lovely, gentle story about two lovely people who, while dealing with the problems of racism in 1960s America, basically have a lovely time bar a few scraps. The film coasts through with a Edward Hopperish nostalgia-tinged views of 60s America peppered with a dash of racist unpleasantness from the people they meet along the way. All this is told with an anecdotal casualness – you can totally tell that the film was inspired by Tony Lip’s son wanting to turn his Dad’s old stories into a film.

And he creates a film where Tony Lip is the hero, and the world of the racist South only truly comes into focus through this white man witnessing the prejudice his black friend must endure (with dignity). While it’s good to have an anti-racist film – however much this film largely focuses on the genteel, country club racism of the upper classes and never dares to go anywhere near the lynch mobs and murders of the Deep South – this is a film that never dives deep with anything and in the end wraps up the instinctive racism and suspicion of Tony’s family in a neat bow and a family dinner with the whole cast. To this film, progress is the name of the game and racism a problem that we are well on the way to solving (again the contrast between this and Spike Lee’s work is really, really striking).

Since the whole film is told from the perspective of Tony – and since the film makers never bothered to consult with Shirley’s family at all, basing all their research on only one side of the story – we never get a real feeling of knowing exactly how Don Shirley might have felt about the attitudes he dealt with, or the reasons behind why he chose to undertake a tour of the Deep South to deal with them, or what he hoped to gain from it. In what should be his own story, he’s a supporting character.

Worse than this, it’s Don who largely seems to need to learn lessons. A dignifed, rarified, dandyish, upper-middle-class near-snob, it’s Don who the film suggest doesn’t understand black culture. It falls to Tony to teach him about everything from black culture: Don’s never heard of Aretha Franklin or Little Richard, never eaten fried chicken, and is deeply uncomfortable around any other black person he meets (unlike Tony’s easy rapport with his fellow drivers, all black). There is a fascinating film to be made here about a man who was at multiple different junctions of minorities – an upper-class black man out of touch with his fellows, a gay man in 1960s America, a black man in the Deep South – but the film doesn’t want to tell that story. I’m also going to leave it out there that only very short shrift is given to black culture (defined by 3-4 things) or Don’s argument that not all black people ipso-facto should like the same things.

Tony on the other hand doesn’t really need to learn anything. An opening scene has him uncomfortably throwing away two glasses used by black-handymen working in his home. But this is literally the last racist action or thought he has in the film – and seems like something that comes completely out of left field. He has no objection to working for Shirley, gets on fine with black people, reacts with increasing anger to racially tinged threats and insults etc. I can understand a son writing a script about his father not wanting to show anything unsympathetic, but the glass scene clumsily sets up an obstacle in Tony’s character that never needs to be overcome.

Instead Tony’s real problems with Shirley are based around class. He thinks he’s a snob. As soon as Shirley lightens up a bit, Tony treats him fine. He even happily accepts his homosexuality and playfully accepts some tutoring to improve his gentility. Tony is an overwhelming force for good who rarely says or does anything remotely unsympathetic.

Farrelly’s film is simple and forgettable in the extreme, but it’s enjoyable enough and passes the time. This is largely because of the two leads. Mortensen’s performance skirts around parody but has such larger than life joie de vivre you hardly mind. He’s very funny and also rather endearing and utterly convincing. Ali mixes in some genuine emotion and loneliness in amongst the more obvious class-based imperiousness. It’s enough that you wish we had got to see that slightly more interesting story under the surface. Green Book is utterly unchallenging and totally gentle. Nothing wrong with that, but it will fade from your memory as soon as the credits roll. Except with its bizarre Best Picture win it’s now a permanent piece of film history.

The Founder (2016)

Michael Keaton accepts the praise as Founder of the McDonalds Business Empire

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Michael Keaton (Ray Kroc), Nick Offerman (Richard McDonald), John Carroll Lynch (Maurice McDonald), Linda Cardellini (Joan Smith), B.J. Novak (Harry J. Sonneborn), Laura Dern (Ethel Kroc), Justin Randell Brooke (Fred Turner), Kate Kneeland (June Martino), Patrick Wilson (Rollie Smith)

McDonalds. The Golden Arches are ubiquitous, not just in America but across the whole world. But how did this happen? How did a small business – just one stand in a small town in America – suddenly become a global monolith?

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a luckless travelling salesman, selling supplies to drive-in diners. In California he encounters a diner the likes of which he has never seen before: a walk-up restaurant serving high quality food in disposable packaging, instantly. The business is McDonalds, run by brothers Dick (Nick Offernan) and Maurice (John Carroll Lynch). Kroc instantly recognises the potential of the business, and strikes a deal to franchise the formula across America, although the McDonald brothers will maintain control over all changes. Kroc, however, has the drive and ambition the McDonald brothers lack – and he slowly begins to stretch and expand the deal, taking on more and more power. Eventually he will become “The Founder” of the business that bears his original partners’ names.

What’s interesting about The Founder is that it has a certain element of wanting to have its cake and eat it. It’s simultaneously a semi-celebration of American entrepreneurship and a condemnation of big business crushing the little guy. This sounds like it should make for a confusing film but actually it kinda works. It fits the complex world of major business successes – someone like Kroc had the skills and the ruthlessness to actually make McDonalds into a global super-company in a way the McDonald brothers never did. At the same time, Kroc is clearly incapable of creating anything himself (even most of his business-building ideas come from other people) and the McDonald brothers have the real “American” entrepreneurial invention to create something new.

So the film becomes an engaging story of how businesses grow and develop, which largely manages to remove Hollywood sentiment from the equation. Kroc isn’t exactly a hero – he’s selfish, ruthless and places himself first constantly – but he’s not exactly a villain either. He’s a downtrodden striver, who has too continually push to be accepted by those who look down on him. He has a sense of loyalty and love for his brand – even while he begins to shut the McDonald brothers out of their own business. Similarly the McDonald brothers have a homespun honesty to them, but they are also naïve and unrealistic in their demands and desires for the business.

The film relies a lot for its success on Keaton’s slightly tragic desperation in the lead role, his yearning to improve and better himself. The first half of the movie shows his charm but also demonstrates his business acumen, his genius in recognising that what the McDonald brothers have invented could work on a huge scale. He’s hard-working and initially luckless, and the snobbish knock-backs he receives from banks and investors when peddling an idea get us on his side – after all we know it’ll be worth billions. It’s a Capraesque spin: he’s the little guy bucking against the system who becomes the very monolithic monsterous system himself. We can’t even be certain where we see the flip.

What becomes clear is that Kroc himself is somehow empty, somehow slightly devoid of depth, a man able to move smoothly from concept to concept with no lingering sense of guilt. He discards the McDonald brothers (after copyrighting their name) with as much calmness as he drops his wife (Laura Dern, in a thankless part as The Loyal Wife). Despite this though, the film never brings itself to condemn Kroc. It’s a little in love with the chutzpah of Kroc’s success and his persistent positivism, while seeing those he has had to drop on the way as tragic victims of the monolithic American business success Kroc has created.

We are invited to have similar sympathetic feelings about the hapless McDonald brothers: innocents in a world of business, able to create something that can change the world but hopelessly incapable of translating it into the type of scale that it could achieve. The film doesn’t forget that the McDonald brothers are the victims here, and Offerman and Lynch are both superb as two brothers with a deep personal bond and a love for their business and each other. But it also partly follows Kroc’s line – these two do not have the vision and ambition to take their idea to the next level. They are innovators but they are small-scale ones. The film daringly doesn’t just take their side as the little guys crushed by the system; it also allows itself to consider if they to a certain extent failed themselves. They never learn either, accepting Kroc’s handshake agreement for future royalties at the end of the film, an agreement we are all too aware even when it is happening will probably never be met.

The film has a certain love for the Americana of McDonalds and fast food joints, and it’s both an advert for the triumph of the business (the customers are all uniformly happy, and the ordinary employees in Kroc’s empire are all wonderfully warm) and a sad testament to the small businessman being swept aside by the big company. It’s quite a feat for the film to manage both at the same time and remain coherent. It’s both an advert for and attack on McDonalds, but it holds both these ideas simultaneously at the same time really well. Well worth a watch.