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:


ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

watch the trailer:


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer:

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skpyDiCrMZs

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

August 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Bourne series has often been viewed as the American version of James Bond … only more serious and with more action. Doug Liman directed the first, which was taken directly from the Robert Ludlum novel. Paul Greengrass then assumed control over the next two and added hyper-kinetic speed to the action sequences and focused on conspiracy theories, with a fascinating hero looking to take down a corrupt system. Involved in all three as a writer, Tony Gilroy (dir. Michael Clayton) takes over as director in this fourth entry. Unfortunately, the Bourne series is not similar to Bond, in that the directors and lead actors are not so easily replaced.

 With Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) present only on computer screens, Jeremy Renner takes over the lead as the next super-spy-weapon. When Pam Landy (Joan Allen) blows the lid off Treadstone in a Congressional hearing, the shady back office meetings lead to the decision to shut down the program. We all understand what that means … destroy the assets and lose the records. This decision is made by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach, both new to the series.

The decision leads to a vicious scene featuring the always dependable character actor Zeljko Ivanek who almost completes his assignment, but misses out on Rachel Weisz (playing Dr Marta Shearing). Dr. Shearing is involved in the manufacturing of the “meds” that keep our super-spies and super strength and super intellect. Yes folks, our superheroes are roided-up! You have to hand it to Dr. Shearing – for a lab rat, she has a remarkable ability to stay alive despite being the target of many highly trained assassins. Of course, she does have a bit of help from Aaron Cross (Renner).

 Here is the real issue with the film. Instead of Bourne trying to bring down the corrupt system, this is really two hours of survival mode for Aaron Cross. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit as they face opposition on their castle storm “Run Away!, Run Away!”. Most of the first half of the film is spent with him in search of meds, like a common drug addict, and the second half is spent on a motorcycle chase that, while quite exciting, seems to go on forever.

As an action film, this one works just fine. The limited fighting and expanded chase scenes are well filmed and intense, it’s just that as a viewer, it really isn’t as much fun to cheer for someone who is running away as it is for someone (Bourne) looking to bring down a corrupt system. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, we get brief appearances from series’ regulars Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and Paddy Considine.

The hope is that this is just a placeholder in the series. It’s been five years since The Bourne Ultimatum, and hopefully, if the series continues, we will get Paul Greengrass back in the director’s seat and Matt Damon teaming up with Jeremy Renner to wreak havoc on the true enemies of state. Otherwise, the American Bond ends up as nothing more than an action film with no real purpose.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Bourne series and are curious to see it without Matt Damon OR you simply enjoy a well made action film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the intricate conspiracy story line that put the Bourne series on the map

watch the trailer:


MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)

June 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not many people think like Wes Anderson. That’s probably a good thing in real life. It’s definitely a good thing for movies. He is a creative and distinct filmmaker, though not one with mass appeal. My two personal favorites of his are The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. His previous film, Fantastic Mr Fox, was a solid hit and critically lauded. Now he delivers one that will probably only click with his core fans. It’s a thing of beauty … if you keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Set on the fictional New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in 1965, the movie opens with terrific visuals of the Bishop family’s lighthouse/home. Our tour is conducted as if the home were a dollhouse, and our eyes struggle to keep up with the detailed decor. We are struck by the color palette of tans, greens and splashes of red. This will continue throughout the movie.

The story centers around two 12 year old misfits: Sam and Suzy. Sam is an orphan and outcast in his Khaki Scouts troop, and Suzy is misunderstood and ignored by her selfish parents, who communicate with a bullhorn and through legalese at bedtime (they are both lawyers). Sam and Suzy are attracted to each other’s misery and decide to run away together (yes, they are on an island). This ignites a flurry of activity on this quiet island and showcases two first time actors with remarkable screen presence: Jared Gilman (Sam) and Kara Hayward (Suzy).

 The “grown-ups” on the island include Suzy’s parents played by Bill Murray (a Wes Anderson regular) and Frances McDormand. The island police chief is played Bruce Willis, who we soon figure out is also a social outcast. The Scoutmaster is played by Edward Norton with a regimented weirdness that will have you laughing in confoundment. For such serious topics, Mr. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola provide us many comedic moments – both through dialogue and site gags.

During the search, other colorful supporting characters get involved. Social Services is pursuing Sam. Tilda Swinton plays Social Services. In one of the few gags I’ll give away, Swinton’s character only introduces herself as Social Services. This is a gut punch to a system that is often under-staffed and forgetful of it’s true mission. We also get Jason Schwartzman as a very helpful, though slightly seedy, Cousin Ben. Harvey Keitel plays the senior Scoutmaster who is unhappy with Norton for losing a scout. Bob Balaban makes periodic appearances as a narrator … either for a documentary or for the movie, depending on the moment’s need.

The script does a wonderful job of capturing how the 12 year old brain works. Some of the scenes with Sam and Suzy are almost like looking a photo album … exactly the way our childhood memory works. Flashes of moments. The Alexandre Desplat score is heavy on percussion, but it works well with the minimalistic look of the film. It’s also interesting to note that this is one of the few movies where it makes sense to have a soundtrack with Benjamin Britten, Hank Williams and Mozart! If you go to this one, keep your eyes open and moving, and your ears receptive. The payoff is worth it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a devoted fan of Wes Anderson OR you are ready for an example of what makes indie films so intriguing to those of us who crave them

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  your movie preferences lean towards straightforward entertainment rather than off-beat dialogue from disturbed characters

watch the trailer:


STONE (2010)

October 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Psychological thrillers have long been my favorite genre of film. The best ones cause us to examine our own thoughts while analyzing the actions of others we probably don’t quite understand. Unfortunately, most scripts fall short in complexity and stimulation, and leave us with a half-empty character study. Director John Curran (The Painted Veil) and writer Angus MacLachlan (the superb Junebug) offer up a just-miss.

Robert DeNiro plays a parole officer on the brink of retirement. He is the guy that lives and works by the book to suppress his inner demons of which we get a glimpse in the film’s opening. Despite the horror, he and his wife stay married for decades … the relationship is built on a false worship of scripture and plenty of nerve-deadening booze. DeNiro decides to finish out his current files, one of which belongs to Edward Norton. He is an 8 year convict, serving a sentence for a crime that ended with the death of his grandparents.

The real fun begins when Norton enlists his schoolteacher wife, played by Milla Jovovich, to invade DeNiro’s cold facade. So really what we have is: DeNiro trying not to feel anything, Norton trying to pull one over on DeNiro either by himself or with his wife, and Jovovich trying desperately to obey her husband while playing evil mind and body games with DeNiro. This is the point I like to call “the table is set”.

Unfortunately, none of these story lines really go deep. The best seems to be Jovovich and DeNiro, but even that falls short of real grit. So much potential here and the actors all seem up for anything. It’s just the script lets them off way too easily.

Frances Conroy is excellent as DeNiro’s wife who had had her soul locked away. We never really get the full scoop on the Norton/Jovovich connection, but by the end, that doesn’t seem to matter. Is the film watchable? Yes. Could it have offered more deliciously evil interaction between these characters? Absolutely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been patiently waiting for Edward Norton to put his hair in corn rows OR swigging whiskey while reading biblical scripture is a family tradition you could embrace

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a promising premise of intellectual battles fizzles right in front of your eyes OR if the mere thought of a Robert DeNiro / Milla Jovovich hook up causes you to reach for the Pepto Bismol.