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By Vernor Rodgers
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"GREEN BOOK"

Likely to be a contender for some Academy Awards, "Green Book" succeeds at being a feel-good movie while focusing on the distressing issue of race relations in the 1960s. Even more impressive is that its director and co-writer, Peter Farrelly, is responsible for such low-brow humor projects as "Dumb and Dumber," Me, Myself & Irene" and "There's Something About Mary," proving he is capable of putting together a thought-provoking film.

Farrelly's experience in comedy comes in handy here, as touches of humor keep "Green Book" from being a stern lesson-lecture on a darker side of U.S. history.

Elevating the movie also is a great pairing of actors, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, who drive the story with a realistic study of characters who in normal situations would never have encountered each other but when are brought together form a unique bonding wherein diverse lifestyles and cultures meld together, creating perspective, respect and the firm foundation for a friendship that would last for decades.

Ali, an Oscar winner for his role in "Moonlight," plays Dr. Don Shirley, a classic pianist who is a doctor of music rather than medicine. He leads a quartet that performs more jazz-like music, and the plan is for a concert tour in the Deep South in the weeks before Christmas in 1962.

Lacking a tour bus, Shirley opts to hire a driver / butler to accompany him on this trip, which could have a few bumps along the way.

Meanwhile, Mortensen's Tony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga is the epitome of New York's Italian-American population, a man whose world is his family, his work and his community. Likely, he never wandered more than 50 miles from the Big Apple, but to him, his life of full and rich, even if his existence consists of a constant battle of making ends meet. His work as a bouncer at the Copacabana is put on hiatus when the nightclub is closed for renovations.

He gets a referral for the driver job Shirley is offering, and even though he is put off a bit at the prospect of working for a black man, he needs a job, knowing he cannot support his wife and two boys by winning hot dog-eating contests, his only source of income at that time.

At first, Tony declines the job, saying he is willing to be a driver but not a butler. But Shirley, admitting that Tony came to him highly recommended, adjusts his demands, settling on Tony just being a driver.

"Green Book" now becomes a road movie, and a chance for both men to gain first-hand experience on circumstances neither went through before.

Green book in the title refers to a travel guide that lists places where blacks are accepted in the South. This provides Tony with his first look at Southern norms he finds baffling. Understand that Tony does have his stereotypic assumptions about black people. When Shirley admits having very little knowledge about the music of Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin, Tony chides him: These are your people, Doc. Tony, also delighted that there actually are Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Kentucky, believes Shirley avidly eats such faire. He ends up talking Shirley into trying some, and the musician surprises himself by enjoying the food.

While Shirley tries to smooth out the crude rough edges in Tony's persona ("I'm a BS artist," Tony boasts), Tony tries to gain some insight on this aloof, erudite musician. What he sees has him shaking his head. Shirley's two trio members travel  in a separate car, and the three men do not even socialize after the shows. Instead, Shirley's nighttime companion is a bottle Cutty Sark.

Tony is also surprised that Shirley essentially has no family. Shirley admits to being married once, and that he has brother from whom he is alienated. To Tony this is a strange concept. No doubt Tony had his violent tangles with his siblings, usually forgotten within hours.

The mutual respect grows as the two burrow deeper into the South. Shirley finds that Tony is good at bluffing his way out of trouble, but then has to lecture Tony when the New Yorker resorts to using his fists. Shirley insists that maintaining dignity in bad situations is far more effective than fighting.

Tony in turn marvels at Shirley's virtuosity as a pianist and how the man can be gracious under such degrading and inconsistent treatment. While white people pay to see Shirley perform, and give him standing ovations, they still adhere to the set values of blacks being treated as inferiors, not allowed to eat or sleep, or even use restrooms in most places. How can he shake these people hands after that? Tony wonders. Because, his fellow musicians point out, it takes courage to try to change people's hearts. Another sweet aspect of the story is that Shirley helps Tony write letters to his wife Delores (Linda Cardellini, wonderful in the few scenes she is in), turning them from just bland correspondence to gorgeously romantic prose.

Shirley learns that for all of Tony's simple views on life, he is indeed an honorable and decent man. He does not judge Shirley harshly when he discovers the musician's secret life, and when Shirley proposes giving him a raise when he fears Tony is quitting him, the New Yorker waves it off. We settled on my pay when I took the job and I am going to honor it, he informs Shirley.

The ultimate core of the story is that each man learns the soul of the other. And it is a story of two different existences. One man is blissfully locked into his life and despite the challenges is satisfied. The other is an outsider in many ways, forced to perform a certain type of music when prefers another; and one who is unaccepted in the two cultures in which he must exist.

And ultimately, as the two men reach the end of their journey, their split is tinged with regret. Shirley returns to his fabulously furnished flat above Carnegie Hall, alone. Tony arrives home to an apartment full of family and love, realizing the richness of his life but a bit disconsolate his new friend is alone.

Yes, this is rectified in an admittedly guilty pleasure, sappy way. But the final line in the movie leaves a smile on your face.

"Green Book" is inspired by a true story wherein Tony and Don remained friends until their deaths a few months apart in 2013.

Kudos also to Kris Bowers for his musical score. He also served as Ali's pianist double during some remarkable shots of Shirley performing on the keyboards.

 "GREEN BOOK" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/QkZxoko_HC0

 

"WIDOWS"

Steve McQueen, director of "12 Years a Slave," has with "Widows" created an engrossing if somewhat fractured drama. On one level it is a crime adventure; on the other a social commentary. The two genres tend to conflict with each other and interrupt the flow of the movie.

The strongest aspect of "Widows" centers around Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is a professional thief. A burlglary goes tragically bad and Harry and his crew are killed. As if that is not bad enough, Veronica's grief is interrupted when a local community leader who also is running for a political seat, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), informs the woman that Harry owes him $1 million and she has a couple of weeks to come up with the cash.

Fortunately, Veronica discovers that Harry had a book in which he chronicled his earlier crimes and has included a blueprint to his next caper. Veronica drafts the services of two other widows of Harry's team, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and goes into drill instructor mode to prep for pulling off this burglary.

Meanwhile, another plot in "Widows" surrounds Colin Ferrell as Jack Mulligan, the current man in the spotlight of a Kennedy-like family that has dominated local politics for generations. Jack's heart really is not in it as he campaigns for office -- he is running against Manning -- and he clashes with his aged father Tom (Robert Duvall). Also he is dogged by possible scandals and really is corrupt.

Another side story is that of Alice and her volatile relationship with her mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver) and a budding relationship with David (Lukas Haas) that she clearly misinterprets.

So there are slow spots in the movie that prompted some viewer complaints registered in social media. The movie does redeem itself as the action picks up, thanks largely to a struggling hairdresser, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who joins the widows in the crime and provides some spunk, as well as a couple of plot twists.

Overall, "Widows" satisfies although there are certain parts that will fade from memory while others will stand out.

 "WIDOWS" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/nN2yBBSRC78

 

"OVERLORD"

This is a tense war drama / horror movie that takes place on the eve of D-Day in World War II.

Jovan Adepo plays Boyce, a young soldier who is in a group of men that is to parachute into a German-held area of France with the mission of taking out a radio tower in the church of a French village, thus crippling the Germans' ability to communicate once the Allies' invasion commences.

In a harrowing opening scene, Boyce is one of the few survivors who parachutes safely amid the aircraft being shot down. On the ground, he soon encounters Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), brought in from Italy for his expertise in bombs and explosives;  Tibbet (John Magaro), a rogue sniper; Chase (Iain De Caestecker) ; and Dawson (Jacob Anderson), another private. The four soldiers manage to find refuge in the home of Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a young woman left to care for her kid brother. She proves to be a valuable ally.

What the men soon discover is that the church where the radio tower is located has also been converted to a lab where some horrifying experiments are being conducted on locals and other war casualties by German scientists in an effort to resurrect dead people and make them super powerful.

"Overlord" does provide edge-of-your-seat thrills and chills. Directed by Julius Avery, as his second feature film, the movie lacks any big-name stars, although the cast does a commendable job. So the marketing strategy was to push J.J. Abrams, a superstar in the horror / science fiction genres, as producer. This ploy has not worked very well; by its third week in theaters, "Overlord" had fallen out of the top ten and the box office, making only $20 million, way short of its $38 million cost. But this movie is worth a look when its moves to other platforms.

 "OVERLORD" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/USPd0vX2sdc

 

"HUNTER KILLER"

Another action thriller that has not fared well at the box office -- $15.7 million after five weeks -- "Hunter Killer" is the kind of movie fans of TNT's "The Last Ship" would enjoy. Gerard Butler stars as Capt. Joe Glass, an untested submarine captain who is thrown into a possible apocalyptic situation. The defense minister of Russia goes rogue and has the premier kidnapped, so Glass and his submarine crew, along with a crack Navy Seals team, must traverse the perilous waters near Russia and rescue the premier before a world war breaks out.

This has all the elements of sea warfare movies from "Run Silent, Run Deep" to "Crimson Tide," with danger, courage, disagreements and possible mutinies, unusual but necessary alliances, and the standard tense moments in military command posts, where Gary Oldman, as a high-ranking Naval officer gets to rant only to have to eat crow later. Also of note is that this movie offers a dedication to the late Michael Nyqvist, probably most widely known for his role in the Lisbeth Salander "Dragon Tattoo" movies as journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He plays a rescued Russian submarine captain who agrees to work with the Americans in "Hunter Killer," his penultimate role before he died of lung cancer on June 27, 2017.

 "HUNTER KILLER" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/mnP_z3qXDCQ

 

"THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB"

And speaking of Lisbeth Salander, Claire Foy, recently seen as Neil Armstrong's wife Janet in "First Man," is now the third actress, joining Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, to tackle the role of the tattooed computer hacker genius and avenger of women abused by men. This latest venture, "The Girl in the Spider's Web," has been a box office dud, plummeting into the 20s on the list in its third week with only a $14 million take.

This episode does offer some insight into why Lisbeth now works on inflicting misery upon men who abuse women. It also presents a familiar, often absurd, plot device of someone willing to put the world in peril simply because he / she has family issues.

The only other observation to make is this: If Lisbeth Salander is such a genius in high-tech, why did she, in this movie, allow someone she is trying to protect to have a cell phone, thus making it easy for the bad guys to exploit it to track that person down? That was a major groan-out-loud misfire.

 "THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/XKMSP9OKspQ

 

"THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE"

It seems that the cautionary message of these demonic possession movies is this: performing an exorcism is a suicide mission.

This is driven home in the opening scene of "The Possession of Hannah Grace," when one of the priests trying to cast out the demon occupying the soul of a young woman dies in a most hideous way. This in turn prompts Hannah's father to commit an act no parents would ever want to do.

And so, that is the set-up for this latest in the demon shenanigans sub-genre. Like slasher films, these movies follow a standard format. The possessed goes through some gruesome physical transformations. People die. And maybe, but not always, good triumphs over evil.

In "Hannah," the story picks up three months after the tragedy of the failed exorcism. It now focuses on Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell, who was Emily Fields in the series "Pretty Little Liars"), a former police officer fresh out of rehab following a fatal incident in which she froze up. At the urging of her sponsor, Lisa (Stana Katic), Megan takes a job, doing the graveyard shift in the morgue of a Boston hospital. The absurdity of a person carrying around guilt over someone else's  death now working fulltime around dead people is one that has to be ignored here. On with the horror story.

On Megan's second night at the morgue, the body of a young woman is brought in. The story is she was killed by some man -- who manages to escape -- who followed the murder by trying to torch the body. Immediately weird things happen. Megan tries to take photos of the body, but the uploading of the photos fails. Same thing when she tries to download the dead woman's fingerprints. And after the body is stored in the body locker, the locker door keeps popping open.

Then a man manages to breach the hospital's security, kidnap the body and try to drag it to the crematorium. Turns out the man is Hannah's father, and he sounds crazed, claiming the body is his daughter and must be destroyed, as the demonic entity in it is still active. The man fails and is subsequently arrested, but Megan uncovers troubling evidence that supports the man's supposedly mad ravings. But by then things are out of control.

Per usual, there are secondary characters you know are going to die on way or another, like the goofy security guard who tries to woo Megan by subjecting her to cheap scares, as well as Lisa, who dismisses Megan's claims that something sinister is going on as just a symptom of her post traumatic stress.

The movie succeeds in being creepy mostly because any story that takes place in a morgue is going to be chilling. The biggest complaint that I had was the movie was photographed way too dark. Don't know if this was intentional or a cost-saving decision. It was annoying.

"The Possession of Hannah Grace" does offer some new twists to the demonic possession story, and at 85 minutes moves swiftly, with a few irksome moments of Megan dealing with her cop ex-boyfriend upsetting the flow of the movie.

This movie cannot be as effective as "The Exorcist," granddaddy of possession / exorcism films, because it offers nothing about Hannah Grace, whereas in the classic movie, we see the darling Regan pre-possession, which intensifies the tragedy and horror of what transpires.

"THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/RHAgri92JP8

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