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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Green Book

“Fantastic Beasts” and “Mortal Engines” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The choice of “Green Book” as a Best Picture Oscar winner is striking given that the premise of the movie is culled from off the shelf Hollywood movie parts. It’s an oil and water “Odd Couple” story and road movie. Stop right now and you can probably think of a few movies that follow that same formula.

The one aspect of “Green Book” that separates it from formula movies’ past is that this is based on a true story. For those who will object to the way some of the scenes are dramatically stereotypical and cliché, my answer is that when it comes to the phrase “based on a true story,” the wrong word tends to get focused on. Most people focus on the word “true” and get upset to find out that things in the movie didn’t happen exactly the way they happened in real life. This is a mistake. Instead, concentrate on the word “based.” This means that they took the true event and allowed creative license to make it more dramatically appealing. I have no doubt that many such liberties were taken with “Green Book.”

The movie stars Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, a Bronx-based, working class Italian-American circa 1962 who would be right at home in a Scorsese movie. His name is a bit hard to pronounce for the non-Italians at places like the famous Copacabana, so he calls himself Tony Lip. After an introduction in which we see that Tony can handle himself in violent situations, as well as get a glimpse into the opportunistic nature of his personality, he finds out the Copa is closing for a few months for renovations. This leaves him worried about collecting a paycheck as the sole provider for his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their two children.

Fortune smiles on Tony in the person of Dr. Donald Shirley (freshly crowned Supporting Actor Oscar winner Mahershala Ali). Dr. Shirley is a renowned New York City pianist with a spacious apartment above Carnegie Hall. He’s going on the road with his trio (or as Tony calls it, “the band”) on a tour of refined and sophisticated gigs around the Midwest and then the south. Given that this is Jim Crow era, Dr. Shirley needs more than a driver—he needs a bodyguard.

Smart move on Shirley’s part, but with the exception of one scene that involves a confrontation in a bar, the overt racism of a bunch of Neanderthals looking to hang someone for the crime of being black isn’t seen. Instead, it’s a more subdued form of racism, like “sundown” laws that are enforced by corrupt cops looking to nail anyone they can for the smallest infraction, and subtle hints like the fact that Dr. Shirley cannot use a bathroom or eat at a restaurant where he is playing as guest of honor. As Dr. Shirly points out, the whites respect what he does on stage, but off stage, they see him as just another black skinned person.

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What I enjoyed most about “Green Book” was the reciprocation in the relationship between Dr. Shirley and Tony as they get to know each other. Tony is rough around the edges and there is a bit of a “Pygmalion” aspect to the story as Dr. Shirley tries to refine him by teaching him morals and manners. At times it’s like a parent disciplining a child. In turn, the street-wise Tony watches out for Dr. Shirley and bails him out of some tense situations, teaching the somewhat sheltered doctor about the reality of the way things work outside of west side mid-town Manhattan.

I also liked the multi-angled look at racism that “Green Book” provides. The white on black aspects are obvious and to be expected. But we also see the prejudices that Dr. Shirley harbors, blaming “white people” for the way things are. Tony very quickly points out that he’s white and it’s wrong to blame an entire group of people for the actions of a select portion of that group. People should be judged as individuals.

It’s a nice sentiment. The problem is that the human mind isn’t programmed that way. We tend to compartmentalize. There’s no point in getting mad at someone for making assumptions based on the odds. Like Tony says, if people assume he likes spaghetti and pizza based on the fact that he’s Italian, he won’t get bent out of shape about it. Likewise, if even other black folks assume that Dr. Shirley likes fried chicken, he needs to lighten up and roll with it. Until and unless someone knows another person on an intimate personal level, assumptions are going to be made based on widespread common knowledge. It’s who we are as a species. However, things can and should change once individuals get to know each other. With Tony and Dr. Shirley in “Green Book,” we get two individuals with whom it is well worth spending two hours. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Yup. He’s gay. After years of rumors swirling around, “Harry Potter” author and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” screenwriter J.K. Rowling has all but spelled out that Professor Dumbledore, here played by Jude Law as the younger, circa 1927 version of the wizened wizard we love, is a homosexual. Put it this way: If Dumbledore’s statement that he and Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) are like “more than brothers” isn’t an unsubtle enough hint for you then I don’t know what else you need, short of Dumbledore himself coming out and explicitly stating he’s gay. He may yet, since I’m sure there will be another movie in this series. However, this does open up the Wizarding World to “Harry Potter” haters creating fan fiction about Dumbledore diddling students and using the Obliviate spell on them to wipe their minds. It almost writes itself.

Speaking of the Obliviate spell, remember that sad, awesome, well-earned, gut wrenching, difficult moment at the end of the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie when Queenie (Alison Sudol) had to Obliviate Jacob (Dan Fogler) after the two had fallen in love? Well, no worries apparently because now this spell only blocks out “bad” memories. So, Queenie was able to find Jacob and he remembered a lot of what happened so Queenie just filled him in on the bad parts.

Uh—no. This is one of the major dangers in sci-fi and fantasy type stories. A set of powers or abilities are established and rules are placed around the usage and limitations of these powers. These rules should be enforced and not cast aside just because it’s inconvenient to the next story you need to tell. Doing so is a surefire way to lose fans who have invested in the world. If anything goes, then who cares? This type of retconning can maybe get a pass in fan fiction but is a major faux paus for a movie that is meant to be canon. Rowling should be ashamed for taking the easy way out for this aspect of the story.

As for the rest of this “Fantastic Beasts” entry, the story is a well-paced mystery as our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) surreptitiously travels from London to Paris to assist Dumbledore in finding a person named Credence (Ezra Miller) whom Grindelwald is interested in—we just don’t know why. But we do know he’s really doing it because he finds out that auror (wizard/witch cop) and love interest Tina (Katherine Waterston) is on the case and he wants to see her again.

The CGI in “Fantastic Beasts” is a bit disappointing. It either looks a little too overly-polished and fake, or what is happening is so dark, murky, and quickly cut (a problem at the beginning and at the end of the movie) that I maybe comprehended half of what actually happened.

I do, however, like Johnny Depp’s scenery chewing performance as the cold-blooded Grindelwald. He’s a menacing and imposing figure. I also enjoyed the fan service of seeing Hogwarts and a young Professor McGonnagall (Fiona Glascott). It’s also comforting to know that, at least for a while, students at Hogwarts had a consistent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Fans of “Harry Potter’ will recall that the position of teacher of that class is a notoriously difficult one to fill with someone who will be around for more than a year.

The plot of “Fantastic Beasts,” much like its CGI, is a bit convoluted. However, there are some captivating twists and great surprises to behold, which set us up very well for the next movie. In spite if its flaws, it’s enjoyable enough to Rent it.

Mortal Engines

“Mortal Engines” starts off so amazing and filled with such promise—then it turns into such crap. It’s hard to believe the movie has only one director, Christian Rivers. It feels like the kind of movie where someone with a bold vision and clever sense of humor directed the first act of the movie, then the rest was done by a hack who relied way too heavily on CGI and uninspired action scenes.

The imagination involved in the set up is to be admired. Some 1,000 years after civilization was destroyed by a powerful weapon called “Medusa,” the continents on the planet have shifted and the major cities of the past roam the land on giant tank tracks. The biggest of these is London, and early on we see how it attacks smaller cities to gain resources.

The action is exciting, the visuals are compelling, the villain, played by Hugo Weaving, is satisfying in a sneaky, two-faced kind of way, and there is some good humor involving what people of this time consider relics of the past and who they regard as “deities.” There’s even a pretty good Twinkie joke.

I can tell you the exact moment “Mortal Engines” started to slip off the rails for me. It’s when protagonists Hester (Hera Hilmar) and Tom (Robert Sheehan) are about to be sold into slavery and are rescued by Anna Fang (Jihae), who looks like she just stepped out of a “Matrix” movie and into this one. As if she didn’t stick out enough like a sore thumb, she starts kung fu fighting a group of bad guys and beats them all without breaking a sweat. So much for the dirty and gritty world the movie established at the onset.

It only gets worse from there, as a character called Shrike (Stephen Lang), who is like the Terminator crossed with a “Lord of the Rings” Nazgul, is set free from an ocean prison to track Hester down and kill her. There is a back story with Hester and Shrike, but it’s very superficial and what’s more, the movie does a terrible job at explaining who Shrike is, where he comes from, how he got to be the way he is, and basically, all the reasons we should care about him as a character and not just regard him as a plot device with impractical glowing green eyes who shows up to cause trouble when the movie gets too slow.

All of the humor is sucked out of “Mortal Engines” after the first act, opting for a more serious tone for the rest of the movie. Even worse, the duplicitous Weaving character has the moment where he drops the pretense and becomes a standard barking and snarling Hollywood villain from that point forward. “Mortal Engines” is a hard movie to watch not just because it’s bad. It’s also hard to watch because if they would have kept on track with the mood and tone established in the first act, it could have been so good. Skip it.

More New Releases: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” about a young girl forced into a gay conversion therapy center, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Jennifer Ehle, and John Gallagher Jr.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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