Green Book represents an historical milestone for me as a critic. In my decades of reviewing and more decades following films, I have never selected a personal Oscar Best Picture two years in a row. I tend to be somewhat out of touch with the voting members of the Academy or even my fellow SEFCA (Southeastern Film Critics Association) members. But it finally happened. Last year my selection was The Shape Of Water, and it took the top prize. This year I went against the grain of the SEFCA members who chose Roma as the best film, and Green Book meandered to # 7 on their list. Fortunately, the Academy saw it my way for the second consecutive year, and Green Book took home the statue. Spike Lee threw a temper tantrum, and I’ll talk about that in my conclusion. Take it from me, Green Book was the Best Picture of 2018, and now Universal has released the film in all of its newly-minted glory in UHD Blu-ray in 4K. You shouldn’t even be waiting to read the rest of my review. Let me summarize it for you here. Click on the “purchase at Amazon” link to your right and order the disc now. Finished? Good. Now while you’re waiting for that shipment, you can read on and find out why you just bought the best film of the year.
Lord of the Rings alumnus Viggo Mortensen plays Tony Lip. He’s a bouncer at the legendary Copacabana night club in New York in the early 1960’s. He’s a typical son of Italian immigrants and fancies himself a kind of tough guy who just skirts the world of mafia mobsters and their like. We early learn that he’s a product of his age and a racist. When two black plumbers drink water from glasses at his home, he throws out the “tainted” glasses. His life fits him well until a disagreement with a mobster to which he was a party gets the iconic night club closed for two months “for repairs”. He’s looking for an opportunity when he’s recommended as a driver for a “doctor” making some kind of tour that coincidentally will last two months.
Enter Dr. Donald Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali. At the interview he discovers that Dr. Shirley is a doctor of music. He’s black, and his tour is going to take him to the deep south. In Tony’s world the deep south is Atlantic City. He’s a world-renowned pianist who actually lives in a lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall. Dr. Shirley has high expectations of the right man for that job that includes laundering and pressing clothes and shining shoes. Of course, there’s no way Tony Lip is going to do any of that, particularly for a black man. He turns him down, demanding less duties and more money. Of course, we know he’s going to get the job. The film becomes a road film that starts harmlessly enough in Pittsburgh where a vulgar reputation turns into a huge disappointment. When the tour takes them to the deep south, they must follow a road guide called The Green Book, which lists black-friendly hotels and services along the way. The trip is populated with some colorful encounters and situations and for both men revelations about each other and their own pre-conceived ideologies.
Racism has become a meaningless word in modern society. It’s overused and intended to describe the intentions of anyone making even the most harmlessly intended statements. The solution to racism appears in recent years to require some kind of punishment or demonization of white males, in particular that it seems the only solution is revolution and violence. Of course, that only leads to greater divides and an endless cycle of hatred that doesn’t solve anything but lines the pockets of “community leaders” who don’t really have a vested interest in the problem getting any better. But anyone who has ever dealt with people on a more intimate level understands that it’s not a fight that will end racism. It’s not confrontation or compensation for deeds done generations ago. The only cure for this kind of hatred is exposure to each other. When you begin to see another man’s struggles. When you recognize another human being having the same needs, concerns and basic human nature that the hatred and the suspicions begin to melt away. That’s exactly the philosophy that brings these two men together in an emotional bonding that no march, rally, riot, or speeches can deliver.
Forgetting all about the obvious social issues, this is a fun film to watch. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali share a great chemistry. This is after all the other stuff is peeled away a road movie, and the traveling characters/actors have to make you want to be along for that ride. These guys do just that. As the relationship grows, the chemistry continues to change and evolve. There isn’t really one moment where it happens. If that were the case, the film could be over a lot sooner. But there are a collection of certain moments where you see that it is changing. That’s particularly true for Mortensen, who has to come the most distance from where he started. By the end he’s less of the stiff wise-guy riff, and he becomes a little quieter. Mahershala Ali notices these moments but doesn’t ruin the movie by pointing them out. It’s through his subtle acting that you know without anything being said that he recognizes the changes in their relationship. And let’s be clear on the point that it isn’t just Tony who has to break down pre-conceived notions about the other. Dr. Shirley may be a black man, but the film takes some of it emotional beats to show us that while he feels the same injustice and prejudice, he doesn’t share the experience of most blacks of the day. He’s lived more of a privileged life than Tony has, and it creates an identity crisis within himself that the film quite emotionally confronts. As much as all of this is in the story, it all comes down to our traveling companions and how much time we want to spend with them. When the tour is over it’s a little sad, because there’s still so much more to explore about these guys and their worldviews, both of which have been changed irreversibly.
The film is based on a book written by Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real Tony Lip. Nick and a few other members of the family have cameo parts in the film. Some members of Dr. Shirley’s family have taken issue that it is one-sided, and to a certain extent it was. But it doesn’t paint either of these guys as a better person than the other; in fact there is a lot of candor about how badly Tony’s racism went. The truth is that both men remained friends until the day they died. Both died in 2012 within three weeks of each other.
Green Book is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.00:1. The ultra-high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec with an impressive average bitrate of 55-60 mbps. The ultra-high-definition image presentation delivers on pretty much every front. Although it was shot in digital, the filmmakers didn’t opt for the usual 2K to 2.6K. This film was shot in 3.4K, so the upconvert here doesn’t really have to come so far from the source material. Would it have been even nicer on film? Yeah. This is an organic film that would have looked even better on actual film stock. Still, colors are good. The blue-green Cadillac is the main set piece for the film, and the color almost becomes the default color piece for the road trip film. Colors are warmer when we hit the south, and here the film also becomes decidedly darker. Black levels are excellent, and the HDR allows some pretty solid contrast. The green rock is a prop that really pops in a world that isn’t really dominated by other strong colors. The Green Book itself is actually named after the guy who wrote it, but you can see green as a color theme throughout the film itself. It’s usually the one nod to anything vivid or bright.
The Atmos track defaults to a serviceable 7.1 mix. The audio presentation must take care of two major aspects of the film, and that’s the job. The dialog always cuts through even when Tony Lip is talking quietly, which isn’t most of the time. The next is the music. We are treated to several bits of concerts from the Don Shirley Trio. The music cuts through rather easily and with solid sound quality. The surrounds might take in some of the outside road noises or crowd audio clutter, but it never really gets in the way of those two things. It’s a sweet listen when Dr. Shirley is playing a piano. The surrounds add just the right audience and room dynamics to make each of these settings slightly unique, and you find yourself along with Tony captivated by the music.
The extras are on both the Blu-ray and UHD copies of the film.
Virtuoso Performances: (4:10) This feature focuses on the two leads. Cast and crew offer some nice insight into the characters and the dynamics that make the film work.
Going Beyond The Green Book: (4:20) This feature takes a look at the actual Green Book written by Hugo Green in the 1960’s.
An Unforgettable Friendship: (5:09) More on the chemistry and dynamics of the two leads with some insight into the real guys.
The best lessons are when it doesn’t really feel like learning at all. Films have this unique platform on which they can make social points that others don’t have the ability to do. It should absolutely be used in that way. But here’s the big kicker. Trust that the audience gets it. People don’t want to be beaten over the head with their failings. Spike Lee thinks that this kind of a film must be used against rather than for someone. His film was certainly a good film that we reviewed quite positively here. But he just couldn’t help himself. He had to throw in the Trump politics in an unnecessary coda of violence. He didn’t trust his own film to get the point across. He had to make sure “we got it”. Spike Lee isn’t interested in change. He’s interested in shock and hatred. Of course, he doesn’t understand why Green Book is so good. How could he? “It takes courage to try and change people’s hearts.”