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:


CROWN HEIGHTS (2017)

August 31, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being wrongly accused of a horrible crime would be a nightmare. Being wrongly convicted would be the worst possible nightmare. Prison life must be a daily nightmare. What could make such nightmares even worse? How about serving 21 years for a crime you didn’t commit, with about 4 years of that in solitary confinement.

Numerous recent projects have focused on a legal and justice system that sometimes seems broken. Some of the best include: HBO’s “The Night Of”, Ana DuVernay’s documentary 13TH, and Jamie Meltzer’s documentary TRUE CONVICTION. Writer/Director Matt Ruskin has adapted this most recent based-on-a-true-story docudrama from a podcast episode of “This American Life”.

While the general topic of “justice” is interesting enough, it’s the individual personal stories of justice denied that add such power, immediacy and emotion. In April 1980, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a young man is arrested on suspicion of murder. Lakeith Stanfeld (SHORT TERM 12) plays Colin Warner, a local petty thief whose family is from Trinidad. The “suspicion of murder” is really not accurate, since the arresting cops knew Colin wasn’t the guy, but were more interested in clearing the case than actually solving it.

What follows is a commentary on crooked cops, a flawed judicial system, and the willingness by the guilty party to let another go to jail if it means they remain free. However, more than any of that, this is a wonderful story of one man’s unrelenting pursuit of justice for his friend. Former NFL star Nnambi Asomugha (married to Kerry Washington) plays Carl “KC” King – Colin’s friend who refuses to give up on him and constantly hunts for someone to ensure justice is served … no matter how much time has passed. KC never stops, even when he realizes this is a system that doesn’t often admit its mistakes. The tenacity of KC is likely to have viewers questioning if they have a friend so loyal … or if they themselves could be such a friend.

Supporting work is provided by Zach Greiner, Josh Pais, Luke Forbes, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Adriane Lenox, Nestor Carbondell, Bill Camp, and Yul Vazquez. Natalie Paul plays Antoinette, the saintly woman who falls in love with Colin and marries him while he is incarcerated.

We watch as the wheels of injustice roll over Colin – even demanding that he admit remorse in order to have his request for probation considered. Being a man of strong conviction, Colin holds firm on his innocence despite being hardened by life behind bars. Director Ruskin has delivered a decent movie, but with its vital story and issue, it’s one probably better suited to a documentary structure. He wisely chooses not to pile on the legalities, and focuses more on the frustrations with a flawed system while also including an anti-death penalty message supported by the statistic of 2.4 million in prison – an estimated 120,000 of which are innocent.

watch the trailer:


THAT AWKWARD MOMENT (2014)

February 1, 2014

awkward Greetings again from the darkness. Writing about lousy movies is no fun, but if I can save even one person from wasting $10 and two hours on this garbage, it’s worth it. The only way this got the green light is because of the success of The Hangover movies, Sex and the City, and HBO’s “Girls“. The difference is that all of those projects had a sense of humor and style, while writer/director Tom Gormican somehow finds it creative to end numerous scenes with someone calling someone else either ‘a f***ing idiot’ or ‘an A-hole’.

Mr.Gormican’s only other listed credit is as Producer for the gross out Movie 43. Let’s just say he is now 0-for-2, and here’s hoping he never gets a shot at number 3. This is such a waste of a talented group of up and coming actors. Zac Efron loses whatever credibility he has built up since High School Musical by playing Jason the Jerk. OK, I added the Jerk part, but it’s true. Jason is best friends and co-worker with Daniel, played by Miles Teller, who was so good in The Spectacular Now. Daniel is a simple-minded misogynist with a razor sharp tongue. They are both friends with Mikey, a young doctor whose wife dumps him. Mikey is played by Michael B Jordan, a standout in last year’s Fruitvale Station. These twenty-somethings make a drunken pact to stay single and build their roster of casual sex partners, thereby avoiding the awkward moment of “So … where is this relationship headed?”

The guys live like frat boys, guzzling booze while spouting “jokes” on such thought-provoking topics as poop, penis, masturbation, homosexuality, and Viagra. To add even more insult to humanity, there are four female roles that could set back women’s advancement by 100 years … should anyone actually see this pile of junk. Imogene Poots, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin and MacKenzie Davis each play smart, beautiful women who somehow associate with these dunces. For the record, Jordan’s character is not as classless as the others, but guilt by association cannot be ignored.

Miles Teller still has the potential to be the next John Cusack, and Michael B. Jordan clearly has a future if he avoids projects like this, and Zac Efron will probably take his perfect face and go back to sweet romantic comedies. The four key actresses should all bounce back soon with far superior projects … movies that don’t denigrate men, women and movie soundtracks (it may be the worst since the 1980’s).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are related to director Tom Gormican and he has promised you a role if somehow someone asks him to make another movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have an ounce of decency or even a minor reason to spend your days doing something worthwhile

watch the trailer … and then forget about this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE_bE_kswEw