“Mahershala Ali puts in arguably a career best performance…” – Wayward Wolf.
Hollywood’s fixation on historic racial divisions as being some kind of red flag and pointer towards the present day and so-called ‘systemic racism’, is somewhat troubling, to put it mildly.
All too frequently this line of thinking does nothing but exacerbate situations which have already, by and large, been successfully addressed and dealt with.
Fortunately, as text book as Peter Farrelly’s film Green Book is in this regard, it is also such a wonderfully realised piece, that we do not, having watched it, find ourselves then raking through the embers of historical racial prejudices, hoping to find obvious parallels with modern society. Instead, we can lament the past, but ponder on the admirably huge steps that mankind has undoubtedly taken with regard to such issues over the last half century or so.
Farrelly’s Green Book playfully mixes stereotypes with unlikely role reversals in a film based loosely upon the true story of the friendship between Bronx-based no nonsense, white, Italian hustler, Tony ‘lip’ Vallelonga, and his black employer, the eloquent, refined brilliant pianist Dr. Don Shirley.
Hired both as a driver and ‘muscle’, Tony is tasked with facilitating Shirley’s U.S performing tour. More pertinently, he is tasked with negotiating the considerable and inevitable issues that would accompany a notable black American’s visit to the deep south in mid-century America.
Viggo Mortensen is absolutely terrific as one half of our mismatched odd couple, portraying Tony, the portly Italian chancer with the insatiable appetite and questionable creative writing skills, whilst Mahershala Ali puts in arguably a career best performance as the uptight, well-to-do, Shirley.
Very much the yin to Tony’s yang.
As much as Green Book is a serious tale of differences and intolerance, it is equally a tale of togetherness and friendship that is ultimately most indebted to the sort of feel-good film making of the 1980’s; never better exemplified than in John Hughes’ timeless classic, Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
“ Perhaps more than anything though, The Mule successfully shines a much needed spotlight on traditional, fast-vanishing values…” – Wayward Wolf.
The hyper-sensitive mainstream arts media appears to have collectively ‘seen its arse’ over Clint Eastwood’s latest film, The Mule.
Such a litany of what one suspects is probably largely ideologically-orientated disapproval from such quarters is usually good enough reason to go out of one’s way to see any film, I find.
Of course if passing shots of the ‘butts’ of scantily-clad beautiful Latina women at Cartel pool parties offends you greatly, and the unwitting ‘casual racism’ from the mouth of the film’s chief protagonist is enough to have you spit your dummies out and run for the hills, then so be it.
But to be swayed by the wholly-undeserving negative sentiment that seems to have been unfairly heaped upon this piece by the oh-so-wise critical sages and upholders of artistic morality would be to miss out on what is an entertaining and refreshingly no-punches-pulled piece of film–making.
That’s not to say that The Mule is in any way perfect. Indeed, its imperfections are there for all to see, but one senses that the particularly harsh appraisal dished out by many a film critic stems less from problematic narratives or the film’s occasional tonal confusion, and more from the fact that this is yet another Eastwood offering that won’t cowtow to Hollywood’s ongoing false utopian vision of reality, and point-blank refuses to feed itself through the filters of modern day feminism and political correctness.
And what a rare and welcome thing that is.
Eastwood’s film is loosely based upon the true tale of an award-winning day-lily horticulturist named Earl, whose livelihood has been stripped away essentially by a refusal or more likely inability to get with the times.
“That damned internet. It ruins everything,” he quips.
Certainly it’s ruined Earl. With the bank having foreclosed on his property and now facing the very real prospect of living his twilight years both broke and homeless, the party’s well and truly over, and it’s only through a chance encounter with a young Mexican lad that a door to monetary salvation is unexpectedly opened.
Earl’s unwitting (at least initially) participation as a drugs mule fora Mexican cartel may well be a profitable venture, but at what long-term cost?
The elements of Earl’s personality and lifestyle that are initially deemed to be something of a risk in this line of work, it soon becomes clear are in fact his, and by association, the cartel’s greatest assets too, and key to his burgeoning success and growing profile within the business.
An old-timer who’s never picked up so much as a parking ticket in his whole life, dancing to his own tune and quietly going about his business, is deemed highly unlikely to attract the attention of the authorities, and so it proves to be. But such a low risk status inevitably begins to encourage greater greed, on all sides, and thus begins a gradual undermining of any previous need for stealth and caution.
Eastwood’s portrayal of this perhaps selectively naïve pensioner is highly entertaining and well realised on the whole. He paints a portrait of a man who has always put work before family. A man who struggles, like many, to adapt to the ever changing times in which we live, frequently falling foul of what is deemed acceptable and what is not.
Be he inadvertently insulting ethnic minorities or mistaking women for men, one senses however that there is little or no malice in Earl’s comments and actions. These are after all just the befuddled musings of an old man whose best years are now long behind him. Years that were lived – and lived well – in another age and time altogether.
But far from telling some sort of one-sided tale of racial prejudices in America’s deep South, Eastwood’s film instead demonstrates a refreshing level of balance. For every Mexican ‘beaner’ reference there is a ‘gringo’. And if there is racial stereotyping in the depiction of ruthless Mexican cartel members, this is equally true in the depiction of a racially intolerant white State Trooper, for example.
And then there is Earl, whose independent streak, unflappable nature and joy of life no matter the colour, happily straddles the spaces in between.
In slight criticism, Eastwood’s film could probably have benefited from greater analysis of Earl’s strained relationship with his family and ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), and perhaps as a whole, it’s a little lacking in punch when it comes to delivering some of its darker content. But these are relatively minor issues and don’t distract from the film’s core message.
Perhaps more than anything though, The Mule successfully shines a much needed spotlight on traditional, fast-vanishing values:
To have the freedom to criticise and offend and in turn to be able to accept criticism and offence ourselves. To appreciate the importance of community. The importance of facing up to our responsibilities in life. To have the good grace to admit when we’re wrong and to accept the consequences of our actions, not to seek scapegoats and to blame others. And most crucially of all, the importance of family above everything else.
A good, solid moral code by which to live any life.
A moral code bafflingly increasingly at odds with the expectations of modern society.
“Negotiate, demonstrate and resist” – the mantra and considered approach of one Martin Luther King Jr, the preacher and founder of the SCLC movement of the mid-twentieth century; a peaceful yet determined outfit, set on establishing voting rights and demanding equality for the back population of the United States of America.
Selma, Alabama; the backdrop to the scene of what was initially hundreds of black African Americans and later, thousands of black and white folk from all over America, marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, to confront its sinister and racist governor George Wallace (played by the excellent Tim Roth).
King Jr (a fine performance by David Oleyowo it should be said), is portrayed as a man of great passion and religious conviction, yet a man that seemingly struggles somewhat to balance his life’s calling with the responsibilities he faces as a father and husband.
There’s clearly a great deal of heartfelt reverence in director Ava DuVernay’s re-telling of this pivotal point in America’s race relations history and such a serious and faithful rendition requires a strong cast: Selma’s cast delivers, right across the board.
We’re probably all aware of Martin Luther King Jr; a great man in anyone’s eyes and therefore a man whose story can probably be afforded a little artistic licence without detracting significantly from the salient points of his mission and story, yet Selma feels a little too much like a King Jr biopic; a linear re-telling of historical events and not quite the all powerful, cinematic experience it might have been.
Yes, in a rare turn of events, I’m actually bemoaning a lack of ‘Hollywood’ in a mainstream Hollywood release.
2014’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ was another film based upon true events and again tackling racial tensions and prejudices in America’s deep south, yet somehow possessing the ability to translate this effectively to the big screen, a quality that this King Jr biopic certainly strives for, yet curiously never quite achieves.
Whilst Selma does contain moments of intensity and conviction (notably the more violent altercations that transpire, along with some interesting observations with regard to the power and influence of both the church and the media), we never truly get under the skin of Martin Luther King Jr, the man, and this you sense is a critical flaw.
There was certainly far greater scope to explore King Jr, the family man and the somewhat unavoidable marital tensions between him and his wife Coretta (played by Carmen Ejogo); to really sense his true emotions, his inner demons and to fully appreciate the weight of expectation resting firmly upon the man’s shoulders. Perhaps DuVernay thought that that would have side-tracked us away a little too much from the principle point and focus of the film, but I suspect it could only have added the piece a greater depth.
From rapper ‘Common’ to America’s favourite daytime agony aunt and matriarch, Oprah Winfrey, (who incidentally turns in a nice cameo as Annie Lee Cooper), right through to producer Brad Pitt, it’s pretty obvious that America’s ‘A list’ wanted in on this project, but maybe that’s the real issue here: The enormity of Selma – the subject matter and agenda – seems on this occasion to have dwarfed Selma – the movie – resulting in an admittedly well-intentioned, respectful and occasionally powerful homage to a great man and an important set of events in, American and world history, yet, for one reason or another, a piece that doesn’t truly satisfy or realise its potential on the big screen.
Good, but above all, a bit of a missed opportunity.