October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Gumshoe film noir from the 1940’s and 1950’s is probably my favorite genre after suspense thrillers. Classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, KISS ME DEADLY, A LONELY PLACE, LAURA, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY draw me in with style, mood, and character flaws. Tough guys and clever women combined with secrets, empty clues, and false bunny trails can mesmerize me for hours. Evidently Edward Norton shares my affection for this genre, as he purposefully shifted the time frame of Jonathan Lethem’s novel from 1999 to 1957 for the big screen adaptation.

Norton dons 4 hats for his passion project that’s been brewing for almost a decade. He writes, directs (his second time at the helm), produces, and stars as Lionel Essog, the assistant to Private Investigator Frank Minna (played by Bruce Willis). Lionel, often referred to as “Brooklyn” or “Freak Show” suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, causing him many uncomfortable moments of awkward verbal outbursts and physical tics, while also blessing him with a photographic memory and world class attention to detail. The concern here was that Norton the actor would turn the character into a gumshoe “Rain Man”, but that never happens, as his affliction rarely overshadows a scene or the story.

One of the first things we notice is that the film looks beautiful. The costumes (Amy Roth) and set design (Beth Mickle, Kara Zeigon) and cinematography (2-time Oscar nominee Dick Pope) are all spot on and top notch. The classic cars are especially impressive, despite my pet peeve of each being perfectly washed and waxed in every scene. Daniel Pemberton’s retro score perfectly captures the neo-noir moments.

This era in New York included jazz clubs, corrupt politicians and power struggles for profiteering from the growth. Norton’s film delivers The King’s Rooster jazz club with the great Michael Kenneth Williams as the featured trumpet player … he looks like a natural on stage in the smoky club. We also, of course, have plenty of big time corruption and scheming. The main culprit being City Planner Moses Randolph, the epitome of corruption and racism. Alec Baldwin could play this role in his sleep, and he performs admirably in the not-so-subtle riff on the real life Robert Moses.

The film’s opening sequence leaves Lionel committed to solving the murder of Minna, his mentor and (only) friend. His co-workers played by Dallas Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Ethan Suplee come in and out of the story, contributing very little. Things are most interesting when Lionel crosses paths with brilliant city engineer Paul (Willem Dafoe in a less salty role than in THE LIGHTHOUSE) and activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), in a role that would have benefitted from some beefing up in the script. Other supporting roles are filled by Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, and Josh Pais.

The story follows a path not dissimilar to the all-time classic CHINATOWN, and it’s in that comparison where the weaknesses in Norton’s film are most evident. The dialogue never quite clicks like it should, and at times it comes across like the actors are simply playing dress up 1950’s-style, rather than actually experiencing the struggles of the story. Everything just seems too ‘clean’ for this genre, even the moments of violence. It’s the details that make the difference in this genre, and even Norton’s voiceover is mishandled. As narrator, his voice is low and gruff which is customary for noir; however, while in character, the voice is high-pitched and sporadic. Both voices are as they should be, but since it’s the same character, the contrast takes us out of the moment when the narrator chimes in. The Tourette’s Association of America gave its stamp of approval to the film, and we do walk away with sage advice: “Never lie to a woman who is smarter than you.”

watch the trailer:


January 29, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is certainly not the typical lame, formulaic action movie that we have come to expect most every January. Director Joe Carnahan teamed with Ian MacKenzie Jeffers to write a strong script based on Jeffers’ original short story. With a touch of spirituality mixed with an excruciatingly intense story of survival, this film is more of an emotional experience than one might expect based on the trailer.  It’s not just Man vs Nature.  It’s also Man vs. Himself.

The film opens as Ottway (Liam Neeson) is composing a letter (and narrating) to his beloved wife (Anne Openshaw). At first we aren’t sure of their story, only that this was a painful loss for him and he is washing away his sins with an apparent final letter. We later learn more through flashbacks as she is the “happy place” into which he retreats in moments of stress … and there is certainly no shortage of those! We also learn that Ottway is a hired sharpshooter to protect the roughnecks on assignment in the Alaska oilfields. We see him in action as he quickly and precisely nails a charging wolf.

 After the first spiritual interruption at a key moment for Ottway, we next see him and a group of the workers boarding a plane to escape the storm. The plane crashes, killing most onboard and stranding the small group of survivors in a barren, frozen wasteland of Alaskan wilderness. If only that were their biggest problem. As if no food or water, and sub-freezing temperatures during a blizzard weren’t quite challenging enough, they are being systematically hunted by a pack of ferocious wolves. Ottway’s experience and personality lead him to the position of group leader as they look for a way out.

There have been many fine survival movies including The Edge (Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins), Deliverance, and The Thing. We even get a wise-crack about the movie Alive, where the plane crash survivors stooped to cannibalism. While I am a fan of all of those movies, none are as full of tension and intensity as this one is, from beginning to end. What really sets this one apart from many is not the action scenes, but the character development. We actually see the character of these men evolve as their plight worsens. Watch for the similarities between man and beast as Diaz (Frank Grillo) challenges Ottway.  Also observe Ottway’s transformation as he goes all out to fight for life.

 The other supporting cast members include Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney, but the strength of this movie stems from the script and the casting of Liam Neeson. Supposedly Bradley Cooper was originally cast, and later replaced by Mr. Neeson. It’s probably safe to say that my comments would not be as favorable if that change had not occurred. Kudos to director Carnahan who gave us another very intense film called Narc. Since then, he has only delivered shallow works like The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces. Here he pays so much attention to detail … like a wolf paw print in the snow as it slowly fills with blood. Don’t be scared away thinking this is just another macho action film. It is much more and, at times, even a very quiet and deep piece of filmmaking … that will leave you exhausted!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are up for an intense story of survival that shows how hard some will fight to keep on living.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a member of one of the protesting groups who believe the film portrays wolves in an unfair manner.  If that’s you, I recommend Never Cry Wolf instead (very good movie that shows wolves in a more positive light)

watch the trailer: