Linda Cardellini

Capone

03/03/21

Netflix

Al Capone is perhaps the best known gangster in American history. He’s been the subject of many films and portrayed by a whole host of celebrated actors; perhaps most famously by Paul Muni in Scarface and by Robert De Niro in The Untouchables. But he’s never been depicted as he is in Josh Trank’s downbeat film.

Capone is set in the dog days, towards the end of the gangster’s life. ‘Fonse’ has recently been released from prison and is suffering horribly from the neuro syphilis that has plagued him since his teens. Locked up in a palatial mansion somewhere in Florida, with devoted wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) at his side, and with regular visits from Doctor Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan), he regularly falls prey to vivid hallucinations that take him back to revisit experiences from his bloody hey day – from visits to booze-fuelled jazz clubs to crawling across heaps of bloodied bodies after a massacre he’s orchestrated.

Fonse no longer knows what is real and what is illusion and, unfortunately, this also extends to viewers of the film. While it might sound like a promising conceit on paper, it’s actually infuriating, particularly when the screenplay (also by Trank) refuses to stick to any kind of internal logic. I’m fine when I’m seeing odd happenings from Capone’s point of view, but what about when they are apparently witnessed by some of the other characters in the story? Is Capone’s old pal Johnny (Matt Dillon) actually still alive or just a vivid memory from the past? And who is the mysterious kid who keeps phoning Fonse from Cleveland? While I don’t insist that every loose end needs to be tied up, too much here is simply left hanging.

Hardy is generally a gifted performer but he’s saddled here with a thankless central role that offers him little chance to shine. Swaddled in some pretty unconvincing makeup, with a cigar (or a carrot) clenched relentlessly between his teeth, his dialogue is rarely more than a series of grunts and incoherent curses. He’s actually more eloquent when he’s noisily filling one of the oversized nappies he’s forced to wear, after suffering a few malodorous accidents in bed. Also… his constantly stoned expression makes him look a dead ringer for a grumpier version of Bernard Bresslaw from the ‘Carry On’ films.

The film’s one hour and forty-seven minutes’ duration consequently unfolds at a funereal pace, with very little in the way of progression. I feel rather like I am stuck in a traffic jam, trying to figure out what little I can see through the windscreen, and constantly wondering when I might be moving onwards again. I stick with it to the bitter end, but really have to force myself.

There’s probably a fascinating film to be made about the end of Capone’s life but, sadly, this isn’t it. Josh Trank probably had a coherent vision for his film; somehow it’s been lost in the mix.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Green Book

31/01/19

It’s 1962, and at the Copacabana Nightclub in New York, Italian American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is working as a doorman/bouncer. Known as an ace exponent of BS – and also for being very handy with his fists – Tony finds himself in a bit of a fix when the club is unexpectedly closed for renovations. How is he going to support his loving wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini), and his two sons (one of whom is destined to grow up to be a Hollywood scriptwriter?)

Salvation comes in the form of an unexpected job offer. Celebrated musician, Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), is planning to embark on a three month tour of America and, since he intends to appear in several venues south of the Mason Dixon line, he needs somebody to drive him – somebody who can handle himself in a tight spot. Tony seems like the logical choice.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Tony, you see, is a racist. Not a confederate flag-waving agitator or anything like that, but a man who chooses to drop a couple of drinking glasses into the trash after they’ve been used by black workmen who do some work in his apartment.

However, he’s also a pragmatist. He needs a job and this one will pay well, provided he gets his client to every single booking, so off the two men go in a hired Cadillac, using the titular Green Book to locates those rare hotels that are actually prepared to admit black guests.

On their travels, the two men’s relationship gradually develops into mutual respect and, as Tony witnesses the humiliating travails that Don has to undergo in those Southern states, the more he begins to understand how wrong he’s been for all these years. Here is a country where the man who has been booked as the star turn at a swanky establishment is unable to dine in the restaurant or even use the same toilet as the other (white) guests.

Of course, this could so easily become trite and over sentimental – but the script, written by Nick Vallelonga, successfully walks a perilous tightrope over the potential pitfalls. It is often downright hilarious and, when it needs to be, suitably heartfelt. Peter Farrelly (yes, that Peter Farrelly, the one who wrote Dumb and Dumber!) handles the direction with perfectly judged restraint. Mortensen, who has beefed up almost beyond recognition, is terrific as Tony, a man whom I initially dislike intensely, but who gradually works his way into my affections with his brutish attempts at humour.

It’s Ali, however, who is the real standout here, managing to imbue his effete character with an affecting vulnerability. Don, it turns out, is a stranger both to the white world in which he plies his trade and the black one, of which he ironically has little experience. Sitting in his swanky apartment above Carnegie Hall, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one in which Tony introduces him to the music of Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin – and then to the dubious delights of Kentucky fried chicken. I should also add that Linda Cardellini makes the very most of her limited screen time as Dolores, imbuing her character with real warmth.

Of course, this being based on a true story, there have been some rumblings of discontent, mostly from Don Shirley’s surviving relatives,  who claim that the friendship between the two men has been wildly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. This may be true but, whatever the realties of the situation, Green Book is nonetheless a terrific film that never loses momentum, despite a running time of two hours and ten minutes.

It fully deserves its five Oscar nominations. Go and see this, if only to remind yourself of how recently the horrors of segregation held sway in the American South – and, of course, to watch those two knockout performances.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Founder

20/02/17

The Founder may well be the perfect film for the era of Donald Trump – it’s all about crass commercialism, overarching ambition and a multi-billion dollar empire that was founded upon so-called ‘alternative facts’ – or ‘lies’, as we might more accurately call them. Michael Keaton’s triumphantly reptilian performance personifies the very essence of the current state of America, even if this true-life tale happened more than sixty years ago.

When we first meet Ray Kroc (Keaton) in 1954, he’s a down-at-heel travelling salesman, riding the highways and byways of Illinois, trying to sell multi-milkshake makers to the managers of drive-in diners and meeting with total indifference from everyone he approaches; so when he hears that a new burger joint has just ordered six of his machines, his interest is piqued, even though it means driving all the way to San Bernadino, California, for a closer look. There he meets the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), two likeable entrepreneurs who have devised a new and speedier method of feeding burgers and fries to their appreciative customers.

Sensing that the brothers have unwittingly stumbled upon something that could be absolutely huge, Kroc persuades them to go into business with him, offering out the McDonald model as a franchise. But he soon discovers that the brothers have some annoying traits:  a genuine pride in their product, for instance; and a stubborn refusal to cut corners in the manufacture of any food that has their name on it. What’s more, the tiny percentage that Ray is able to rake off from each new franchise he sets up is barely enough to keep him solvent… it soon becomes clear there will have to be some changes.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a sobering story of the triumph of corporate greed over common decency. Kroc emerges as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, obsessed with furthering his own ends, horribly dismissive of his long-suffering wife, Ethel (Laura Dern) and transparently greedy when it comes to the acquisition of somebody to take her place – that dubious honour going to  Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a woman clearly every bit as corrupt as Kroc. It’s to Keaton’s credit that despite it all, he manages to keep us interested in the man, as we witness his callous treatment of the poor suckers whose idea he stole and made his own.

It’s hardly what you’d call pleasant viewing, but as a demonstration of what’s gone wrong with the American Dream, it succeeds on just about every level. Keaton’s classy performance is simply the icing on the cake or, if you prefer, the pickle on the burger.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney