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Posts Tagged ‘Viggo Mortensen’

I expect I have spoken in the past of the way in which film trailers tend to get shown before movies with which they have a certain something in common, mainly because this is where they are most likely to find a receptive audience and actually do their job of making people go to see the film they’re advertising. So in a weird way I can sometimes get a sense of how much I’m going to enjoy a film from the trailers that run before it – if they all look pretty appetising, I can be more sure I’ve made a good choice. Ones that provoke a mutter of ‘Not even if you paid me…’ set alarm bells ringing. So, when I was treated in one session to the promotional material for Instant Family, Fisherman’s Friends, On the Basis of Sex and If Beale Street Could Talk, all of which look likely to be either glutinously sentimental or tediously earnest, my wariness about Peter Farrelly’s Green Book was only increased. (We also got the trailer for Alita: Battle Angel, but this doesn’t count as the Alita trailer is being shown before literally everything possible – I sense panic is setting in and the studio suspects they have a bomb on their hands, but I guess that’s what happens when you base a $200 million-plus movie on an relatively obscure manga and then release it in February.)

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Green Book is supposedly one of those marginally-true stories, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The film is set in the early 1960s and Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga, a slightly shady New York wise guy who – as the film opens – is working as a brutally efficient nightclub bouncer. (You have to hand it to Viggo when it comes to landing roles he doesn’t initially sound quite right for. The man is Danish, after all, and would not be, you’d think, anyone’s first choice to play Italian-American. But we should bear in mind Mortensen’s track record in performing roles of wildly varied ethnic backgrounds with great aplomb: Spanish, native American, Amish, Dunedain – this man can do them all.)

Anyway, when the club briefly closes, Tony is obliged to find a new source of income, and after a short stint participating in eating contests for money, he lands a job as driver, fixer, and general factotum for the concert pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Obviously there is the potential for a personality clash here – Tony is a streetwise, amoral, crude, profane, somewhat racist family man, while Don is cultured, restrained, fastidious, African-American and a confirmed bachelor. However, tensions between the two are secondary to those they may encounter on the road – for Tony is to accompany Dr Shirley on a tour of the deep south of the United States, where segregation is still a fact of everyday life and bigotry is openly on display. Before departing, Tony is handed a copy of the ‘Green Book’ – a list of the hotels and restaurants which African-Americans are allowed to use…

I should say that Green Book went on my list of films to look out for the first time I saw the trailer last year, but as the release got closer I must confess I grew increasingly cynical about it and moderated my expectations quite significantly. I realised that I already had a pretty good idea of the way this one was going to play out, down to some of the specific beats of the story: the two men would initially fail to connect with each other, but slowly, over the course of the film, a bond would develop in the face of the racism they encountered every day. Tony would become a better, more open-minded and tolerant man as a result of Don’s influence; Don, meanwhile, would be revealed to have some personal issues of his own, which Tony would help him begin to deal with. In the end there would be an uplifting message of friendship and acceptance of difference.

And, do you know what? I was entirely correct in this. (I shouldn’t take too much credit for this predictive feat, as most of the story is implicit in the trailer.) I feel I should also point at that the quote, prominently featured in the publicity, ‘Like no other movie’, presumably came from someone wholly unfamiliar with any of the numerous odd-couple buddy road movies of years gone by. But, and this is more important, the thing is that this actually really doesn’t matter at all.

Before going any further, it’s probably worth mentioning that many commentators have criticised Green Book on the same kind of grounds that I was thinking along: it is really just sanitised comfort-food for liberals and progressives, it skates over just how ugly and oppressive life under the Jim Crow laws was, it is even another example of the White Saviour narrative trope (according to some people, anyway). I am not in a position to say that any of this is definitely untrue.

But what does seem to me to be the case is that this is a charming, solidly-made film that never overtly seems to be preaching to the audience, never feels like it’s shying away from uncomfortable historical truths, and – most importantly – is driven along by two genuinely terrific performances from charismatic actors.

Viggo Mortensen holds the unique distinction of being the only actor that I know of to get his picture put up on my mother’s bedroom wall. This happened rather late in life for both of them, around the time that Mortensen enjoyed his highest profile due to his role in The Lord of the Rings (a film for which he was a piece of last-minute replacement casting). His rather chequered career before visiting Middle-Earth, and the fact he hasn’t been that prominent in big movies since then, might lead you to assume that this was a fluke, but even a brief look at the man makes it clear that simply being a Hollywood movie star is not something that really interests him very much – he is also a poet, musician, photographer, artist and author (in addition to speaking about seven languages, not counting Sindarin). It looks like he only makes the movies that really interest him.

This is great for Mortensen, I expect, but a bit of a shame for the rest of us, because what Green Book really underlines is that he is a genuinely great and compelling actor, entirely capable of carrying a substantial mainstream movie (I suppose his multiple Oscar, Bafta and SAG nominations might also tip one off to this). There is, as I say, the fact that Mortensen doesn’t really look especially Italian-American, but apart from this he is effortlessly convincing, and not afraid to be unsympathetic at the start of the film. One can only hope that we see more of him in future (it would make my mum happy too), but I suppose that depends on people sending him decent scripts. Fingers crossed.

Mahershala Ali is one of those actors who seems to have popped up almost from nowhere in recent years, having built a career on a series of smartly-chosen, well-executed performances. His place in history was secured when he became the first Muslim American actor to win an Oscar (for his early-exit role in Moonlight), and he now shows every sign of becoming the go-to guy for dignity, poise, and self-respect (he’s also in Alita, but a guy’s got to eat). The joy of this film is the chemistry between Tony and Don, and it really does feel like the focus is firmly on the two of them as individuals, although inevitably issues of race and culture do get raised as the story progresses.

So, in the end, yes, Green Book is a very predictable movie – but the story was such an engaging and well-crafted one that I really didn’t care, I was having such a good time with these two characters on their journey. This isn’t a particularly radical film, or an obviously angry one, but it’s a hopeful one with a positive message. It may well just be comfort food for white liberals, but it’s comfort food for white liberals that has come from a very classy kitchen.

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You have to admire Viggo Mortensen – not necessarily in the mouth-open, eyes-wide, posters-on-the-wall way that my mother used to demonstrate so well for a few years in the first half of the 2000s, but certainly for the guy’s integrity as an artist and a human being. I mean, there he was, suddenly – and perhaps a little improbably – elevated from jobbing actor to massive international and star and, for ladies of a certain age, heartthrob, with Hollywood beating a path to his door, and what did he decide to do? Well, he made one slightly dodgy mainstream adventure movie, 2004’s Hidalgo, but since then he has concentrated on challenging, critically-acclaimed movies that have nevertheless not exactly filled up the multiplexes on a Saturday night.

He hasn’t proven completely averse to genre movies, however, although most of the thrillers and so on he’s done have been a little bit skewed one way or another. Also John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, which is not quite the film it initially appears to be. This is not a remake of the lost Nigel Kneale TV drama of that title, nor indeed a movie of Jim Cartwright’s celebrated play with a definite article added, but an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.

Something terrible has happened, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. Most of the world’s animals have died, and the plants are gradually dying. Soon everything will be dead. Making their way through the ruins of the USA are a man (Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are heading for the coast, but their ultimate destination remains obscure. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) gave birth to him shortly after the disaster, but committed suicide when he was much younger, seeing the man’s determination to stay alive for as long as possible as foolish and futile. Yet he persists in his desperate attempts to keep the pair of them alive and raise his son well, drumming into him that they have to be good guys and ‘carriers of the fire’.

Staying positive at all is a heroic undertaking in the hellish wasteland which the duo find themselves. Food is almost impossible to procure, and bands of cannibalistic survivors are a constant menace. The duo often find themselves on the verge of starving to death. What, quite frankly, is the point of any of it?

So, as you may have surmised, not a lot of laughs in this one. It seems to me very telling that exactly what has befallen the planet is never really made clear – was it a nuclear war? An asteroid strike? Something more esoteric? – for the movie is not really concerned with the details of what has happened. The apocalypse is a necessary backdrop for the story’s concerns, which are those of paternal love and the degree to which the desire to be a good person can turn you into something quite different.

I’m not averse to something post-apocalyptic but The Road makes most films and TV shows in this kind of setting look incredibly frivolous. This is a setting in which not having enough bullets to kill everyone in your family, when the moment finally comes, is a serious problem and source of domestic strife. People just seem to be clinging on hopelessly for as long as they possibly can – and by any means necessary. The film depicts people hunting each other across country, and larders filled with human bodies. Any sense of common humanity seems to have dissipated, replaced by self-interest or the law of the pack or tribe. In short, this movie gives Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the bleak and depressing stakes.

As you may have figured out, it takes a fairly serious movie to be quite so downbeat, and for all that it contains moments that any horror movie would be proud of, The Road generally eschews the action-adventure stylings of films in this kind of genre for a more sober, introspective tone. This is matched by the muted, grey-brown tones of most of the movie, and the understated music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. When the film jumps back to a flashback from before the catastrophe, the screen bursts into life and colour and it’s like a sudden vision of heaven – which was surely the intention of the director.

Mortensen, as you might have expected, carries the movie with another intensely committed performance, but he is well supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee (he was also notably good in the Nu-Hammer horror Let Me In, but these days seems to have become marooned in the X-Men franchise). Robert Duvall briefly appears, as does Guy Pearce (this is probably another of those movies that everyone has forgotten Pearce has been in – of course I know Pearce is a movie star, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of more than a couple of the actual films he’s made).

In the end, however, this is a very personal story, one about the precise nature of the catastrophe which the characters have suffered – the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of their names, even. The man has become so obsessed with doing the right thing by his son, and teaching him to be a good person, that he has it transform him into someone who has lost track of essential human decency. ‘We’re not going to eat anyone, are we?’ asks the boy, worried, but the man is quite prepared to steal from others and kill in order to protect him. Society has crumbled, but without society what morality can there be?

The movie doesn’t really attempt to answer the question, which is in keeping with the general tenor of the place. The general mood of grim awfulness is so consistently maintained that it’s those moments when the film offers up a morsel of hope which seem oddly incongruous. Nevertheless, an extremely powerful and well-made film, if not an especially easy one to watch.

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My parents have enjoyed a long and mostly very happy marriage, but one of the few faint moments of tension came in the early 2000s, when my mother discovered the Lord of the Rings movies, and (more specifically) the actor Viggo Mortensen. Posters of Mortensen started to appear around the house and the VHS of The Two Towers was seldom very far from our video recorder. My father took all of this with commendable restraint, on the whole, but I think it is fair to say he was somewhat relieved when the series came to an end and appearances by the great man became both rarer and rather lower-profile.

However, perhaps the relationship counselling services of south-east Leicestershire should go to a state of high alert, for Viggo Mortensen has made another of his occasional returns to the big screen in Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, one of those hard-to-categorise movies which struggles to get a wide release but are so often well worth hunting down. There is no Orc-battling or horse-licking on display here, but this is still a significant piece of film-making.

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Mortensen plays Ben Cash, the devoted father of six children of various ages, all of whom he is raising and educating himself, deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. As Ben is a defiantly individualistic man (or, if you prefer, a raging loon), his curriculum includes not just languages and history, but also knife-fighting, rock-climbing, and a back-to-basics form of hunting (the opening sequence of the film depicts Ben’s eldest son stalking and killing a deer using just a knife). The family celebrates the birthday of Noam Chomsky rather than Christmas.

Ben’s wife has been away for some time seeking treatment for psychological problems, and then news reaches him that she has died and is soon to be buried. Her father (Frank Langella) is insistent that Ben and the children stay away from the funeral, which is being carried out in accordance with their desires rather than the terms of her will, but this is not the sort of thing which Ben pays much attention to. Loading the whole tribe into an old bus, he sets off across country to do right by the woman he loves…

There seems to be something about the road movie format which really lends itself to this kind of indie-ish comedy drama – I’m thinking of films like About Schmidt and Nebraska – but Captain Fantastic is a superior example of the form. Parts of it are very funny, parts are extremely moving, and above all it does raise some serious questions about the values our society has and what it means to be a good parent.
There is never any doubt that Ben is utterly devoted to his children and a deeply loving father, but his love can be quite tough sometimes and many people would doubtless find some of his parenting choices highly irresponsible (handing out lethal weapons as presents). The children are intelligent, literate, thoughtful, compassionate, and extremely healthy. But is he really preparing them to lead lives in the real world?

It’s a question of what you consider to be the real world, a point which Ben himself makes in the course of the film. Much of the comedy arises from the clash of values between Ben and his children and the rest of the world – ‘Is everyone sick? Why are they so fat?’ asks one of the younger ones as they travel deeper into society – but there’s a deeper issue here, of course: what kind of society is it that considers young people like these to be ridiculous misfits, and poorly educated, soon-to-be-obese X-Box addicts as paragons of normality? Is it just a case of a warped society producing warped citizens to populate itself?

The film is, naturally, broadly sympathetic to Ben and the children, and you’re never quite laughing directly at them no matter how inappropriate or naive their behaviour becomes. Much of this, I suspect, is simply due to the casting of Mortensen in the role. One sometimes gets the impression that a lot of screen actors are relatively ordinary people, apart from being celebrities: they are possibly less interesting than the characters they play. I doubt this is the case with the poet, photographer, and painter Viggo Mortensen, who seems to have a rather more substantial hinterland than most, and the film seems to be tapping into his presence as a significant figure, in addition to this being the kind of otherworldly, shamanic role he always plays so well. This is the most impressive performance I’ve seen from Mortensen, the kind that makes you wish he did more films, although no doubt a significant portion of his fanbase will also be curious to get a glimpse of (ahem) the full Viggo, which goes on display for a little while here.

He is well supported by a brief but effective appearance from Langella, and the acting from the children is consistently rather good too. This is a consistently impressive movie, for the most part: the shifts in tone are well-handled, the questions that it raises are not over-laboured, and it genuinely manages to feel properly life-affirming at more than one point. Perhaps you have to cut the film some slack in the manner of its conclusion, but that’s equally true of many other modern movies of considerably less substance than this one.

Captain Fantastic really defies conventional genre classification, but it’s a smart and actually rather beautiful film which genuinely doesn’t have an obvious weak link in it. Naturally this means you will probably struggle to find it in a mainstream multiplex near you. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, wheel on another sequel or remake…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 22nd 2003:

The book is too short.’ – JRR Tolkien

Given the tendency for epic SF-and-fantasy trilogies to go spectacularly belly-up in their third installment (particularly when part three’s title begins Return of the…) it would be understandable if we’d all felt a few misgivings ahead of the release of the final installment of Peter Jackson’s extraordinary Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. That almost no-one did is a tribute to the craft and skill and dedication Jackson and his army of helpers have invested in this project. Possibly in the entire history of the medium, only The Phantom Menace has been so breathlessly awaited by so many dedicated fans.

Attentive masochists will recall that I really, really loved the first two movies, for all sorts of reasons. I fully expected seeing this one for the first time to be one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. So maybe my expectations of this film were so great that nothing was ever going to satisfy them, because – while it is tremendous, stirring, emotive, and nerve-janglingly exciting – somehow I didn’t emerge from Return of the King as awe-struck and enchanted as I did its two predecessors.

It all kicks off happily enough: Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) are still trying to sneak into Mordor to get shot of the Ring of Power, not really suspecting the grisly ambitions of their guide Gollum (Andy Serkis), while their friends are reunited after the battle of Helm’s Deep and the conversion of Isengard from industrial hellhole to bijou garden centre (complete with water feature). But trouble’s never far away with that scamp Sauron about, and soon the city of Minas Tirith is under threat: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) scoot off to marshall the defences while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) joins the riders of Rohan1, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself having to raise his own army – literally.

For the first couple of hours this really is terrific stuff, everything we could’ve hoped for, as the hordes of Mordor close in on the city, and Frodo moves closer and closer to his fateful encounter with the horrible Shelob. As ever, it’s the moments you least expect to that stay with you longest – Jackson takes a seemingly-mundane sequence like the lighting of Gondor’s beacon fires, and, aided as ever by Howard Shore’s wonderful score, transforms it into something fantastically rousing and beautiful. The charge of the Rohan cavalry into the forces of Mordor is heart-stopping cinema and the following clash with enemy Mumakils every bit its equal.

But once the siege is lifted, and Sam and Frodo have made their way into Mordor, I thought the film lost its way just a tiny bit. There is still spectacle and emotion, but to me it all felt somehow rushed, the story and characters denied the chance to breathe – a particular problem as this story has a slight but definite tendency towards anticlimax no matter what medium it appears in. This is a very long film even by today’s standards, but even so the rhythm established in its first two thirds suffers as it nears its climax. Obviously the extended version will go a long way to fix this, and it’s very clear that a lot of material has been deleted simply to keep the running time down – Christopher Lee’s scenes have, notoriously, all gone, along with Bruce Spence’s appearance as the Mouth of Sauron. Merry swearing fealty to Theoden (which made it into the trailer) has likewise been excised, seemingly along with the clash between Gandalf and the Witch King (Gandalf’s staff, apparently broken in this battle, seems to disappear without explanation in the version actually released). There are times when you feel Jackson may as well put up a caption saying ‘New Scene Will Go Here On DVD’, so obvious is it – something which was never really the case with either of the other films.

This is still a remarkable, breathtaking achievement – it just doesn’t surpass expectation and vanquish cynicism in the way The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did. I emerged from both of those absolutely certain I’d just seen the best film of their respective years. This time round, I wasn’t – and while there have been a lot of good films out in 2003, I think the difference is still significant. It’s at least a very good film – and time and a re-edit may well reveal it to be a truly great one. But I can only speak of what I’ve seen so far.

Now, what are we all going to do next Christmas?

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