MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (2019)

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:


MR TURNER (2014)

January 11, 2015

mr turner Greetings again from the darkness. Director Mike Leigh is one of the least celebrated expert filmmakers working today. It’s a shame more people aren’t familiar with his films, and it’s also a shame that his latest, a fantastic biopic of artist J.M.W. Turner, probably won’t generate much mainstream appeal.

The spectacle begins with Timothy Spall’s performance as Joseph Mallord William Turner, an artist known for his use of light and color in seascapes and landscapes. Turner communicates in three ways, sometimes blending all three for quite a unique sequence: 1. Artwork 2. Verbal eloquence 3, Guttural grunts. We get to know Turner and his unusual methods of conversation in environments such as: the high society gatherings of the London art scene, at home with his aging father and uber-loyal housekeeper, and at the inspirational seaside community of Margate.

Director Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope brilliantly use color, light and texture in an artistic and atmospheric manner to complement the style of Turner the painter. Rather than run through a catalog of Turner’s most famous paintings, the time is spent showing us his method for inspiration and his frequent sketching to capture a potential sight for later work.

This is a most unsympathetic presentation of a creative man. Turner’s commitment to hard work and diligence with his art often rubs wrong those who most admire him, including the mother of his two children and those who make the art world thrive. One of the most glaring examples is his treatment of 19th century art critic John Ruskin (Josh McGuire) who dares favorably compare Turner’s work to other artists.

Mr. Leigh brings back many of his usual and familiar acting troupe including Ruth Sheen as Turner’s angry and boisterous ex, Paul Jesson as Turner’s dad (Turner really was an SOB – son of a barber), Dorothy Atkinson as the heart-breaking housekeeper (who ironically also adds a dash of humor), and Leslie Manville as Mary Somerville – the scientist who shared Turner’s fascination with light and color. Of special note is Marion Bailey who brings extraordinary and welcome energy and warmth to her role of Sophia Booth, who dredges up an inkling of intimacy from Turner.

Timothy Spall’s performance is reason enough to watch the film a second time. He physically and emotionally embodies the being of Turner in a manner never before seen on screen. From his thunderous footsteps (reminiscent of Robocop) to his pained and telling facial gestures to the aforementioned grunts and groans, Spall delivers one of the most interesting and captivating performances of the year. If you are a Mike Leigh fan, you will surely be quick to see this one. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this is one worth seeking out.

watch the trailer: