Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer (1969) features a young and handsome Robert Redford as a gifted slalom skier and grade-A egotistical asshole. Aside from some seriously exhilarating racing shots, including a couple of lengthy POVs (cinematography by Brian Probyn), the film is basically a character study of a one-dimensional man (written by James Salter), mostly from the outside, which makes it kind of boring. But the few moments we do get inside his head make him a tragic figure indeed.
Okay, here we go. Green Book (2018)—directed by Peter Farrelly; written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga (son of the main character) based on his father’s letters and tape recordings and an interview with the other main character; shot by Sean Porter; edited by Patrick J. Don Vito; and with music by Kris Bowers—is a tonal, cinematographic, acting, and musical achievement, and a thematic disaster. The editing is acceptable. Based on the true story of Italian Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson) driving Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to his musical trio performances throughout the Deep South in 1962 by relying on Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a guide to the spaces and hours that are safe for a Black person to be at, the film features an entirely conventional and by-the-numbers mismatched buddies road movie plot that’s revitalized by the two leads’ performances. Mortenson plays Vallelonga as the trashiest kindhearted Italian man in the Bronx, while Ali’s Shirley is the epitome of tortured dignity and class. But the writing navigates deliberately into a racial minefield, careful to step on every single mine it can find.
Starring a naive and indignant James Stewart alongside the wisecracking Jean Arthur, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), written by Sidney Buchman and an uncredited Myles Connolly, constructs compelling drama out of institutional procedures and political machinations (literally, the political machine). One would think that it would therefore make great pedagogical material for a civics class or something, especially given how it celebrates Smith’s (Stewart) patriotic idealism, but it goes too far and reveals a seldom mentioned truth of democratic politics: Everything is subjective.
Paweł Pawlikowski’s 85-minute-long black and white Cold War (Zimna wojna / 2018) is laser-focused on its story, the tortured, romantic-to-the-hilt relationship between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), and the thing that both unites and confines them: music. The ending suggests that a truly lasting love exists only after specific commonalities end. But the script, by Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, and Piotr Borkowski, hints and signifies rather than expressing or emoting. We love the leads not because we know them, but because they’re gorgeous.
Even though just the trailer had me in tears, Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is, aside from being a major nostalgia trip, somewhat aimless. We don’t get a deep dive into the man, who by all accounts is not hiding any skeletons in his closet; nor do we find much exploration of the impact of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962-2001) on the nation or the culture beyond the mere existence of groundbreaking episodes. The only argument that I could discern has to do with tracing various aspects of the show back to the man.