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:


TIME OUT OF MIND (2015)

September 8, 2015

time out of mind Greetings again from the darkness. Poverty, mental illness and homelessness collide in this film from writer/director Oren Moverman (Oscar nominated for The Messenger). About the third time I asked myself if something was ever going to “happen”, it dawned on me that it was already happening. This is Moverman’s illumination of how society treats the homeless, and his vehicle comes in the surprising form of Richard Gere.

We follow George (Gere, making good use of his familiar facial tics and mannerisms) around the city as he bounces from vacant apartment to hospital to churches to second hand clothing stores … and finally to one of the city’s homeless shelters. It’s at this point where George befriends the talkative and seemingly helpful Dixon, played by the great Ben Vereen.

One of the key points the film makes is how the homeless are basically invisible to the rest of society. The characters describe this as being a cartoon – meaning, they aren’t even “real” people to the masses of NYC. Supposedly, Gere was in character on the streets and was passed by without anyone noticing. Vereen’s character helps George get on track for re-establishing his identity. See, without any form of ID, there is no welfare, food stamps, etc (except, of course, voting – a topic for another time). The only real sub-plot involves George and his estranged daughter played by the always excellent Jena Malone. She excels in her scenes with Gere, and provides the most sincere and affecting emotion in the film.

It’s a very odd movie, as there are numerous “quick hit” scenes that feature such fine actors as Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams, Kyra Sedgwick, Geraldine Hughes, and Jeremy Strong. None are on screen for much time, but each help demonstrate the daily challenges faced by the homeless who are so dependent on the charity of others.

It takes a patient viewer to stick with Gere’s character as he comes to grips with his situation, but the camera work shooting inside/out and outside/in (through windows, doors, etc) provides visual interest, as do the lively and real sounds and movements of the streets of NYC. It may not pack the punch of The Messenger, but it’s further proof that Oren Moverman’s insightful projects deserve attention.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INHERENT VICE (2014)

January 12, 2015

inherent vice Greetings again from the darkness. What is an absolutely critical element to a good whodunit? The answer is “it”. By definition there must be an “it” that someone has performed or carried out.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel kicks off with a terrific scene that appears to set the stage for a big mystery that must be solved. But don’t fall for it … it’s really a parody of film noir that depicts the end of the care-free hippie era in southern California. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the paranoid era in southern California. Or maybe it’s something else all together. Whatever it’s meant to be, it is certainly a wild ride with a never-ending stream of colorful characters in strange situations.

Many of us consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the true creative geniuses of the film world. His 2007 There Will Be Blood was a towering achievement and complements his other films such as The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and the underrated Hard Eight. His latest veers into new territory and features one of his more outlandish characters in “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped hippie Private Investigator who never misses a chance to indulge in his marijuana habit. Welcome to 1970 SoCal.

It seems new characters and scenarios are being thrown at us in every scene, as Doc readily accepts new cases and new leads … only there really is no case, even though he spends most of the movie looking into things. His efforts find him crossing paths with his ex-girlfriend, the wife of a missing real estate tycoon, the Aryian brotherhood, a sax player who is either a Federal informant or a student dissident, a coke-fueled dentist, an Asian massage parlor, the FBI, a maritime lawyer, his pizza-delivering sometimes girlfriend who is also a District Attorney, a mysteriously named entity Golden Fang, and the tightest-wound/probably corrupt/ TV-acting police detective named Bigfoot.

Should you require additional weirdness, check out how many character names come right out of cartoons (Doc, Mickey, Bambi to name a few). Need more?  How about a soundtrack that features Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Can’s “Vitamin C”, and a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Or film stock that has the look of 70’s vintage … shot beautifully by Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit. There is just no describing the shenanigan’s other than to say the characters, situations and dialogue are alternatingly confounding and humorous. Our movie-watching brains are trained to follow a plot, but Anderson and Pynchon seem to be laughing in the face of this tradition as we try to assemble the nominally related puzzle pieces.

The cast is varied and fun. Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) plays Doc’s ex who kicks off that first scene, Eric Roberts is the kinda missing rich guy, Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a clue, Benecio Del Toro is the maritime lawyer, Owen Wilson is the sax player, Jena Malone is his clean and sober wife, Reese Witherspoon plays the DA, Martin Short is the horny dentist, Martin Donovan is another creepy rich guy, Joanna Newsome is the narrator and periodic assistant to Doc, Serena Scott Thomas (sister of Kristin Scott Thomas) plays the wife of the missing rich guy, and Maya Rudolph (the director’s real life partner) is Doc’s receptionist … and Maya’s late mother Minnie Ripperton sings “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin who really take this thing to the edge. It’s clear both are having fun, which is the best you can hope for while watching this one.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SNITCH (2013)

February 24, 2013

snitch1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has carved out a terrific career alternating between major action movies (Fast Five) and comedy flicks (The Other Guys) … both which take advantage of his real life Hulk-like physique and presence. Apparently two film genres is not enough. This time out he attempts to transition to a serious dramatic role as the Construction Company owner-divorced/remarried-suburban father who will do anything for his quasi-estranged teenage son. This would have been a Harrison Ford role back in the 1990’s and probably better suited to Matt Damon today.

Jason (Rafi Gavron) makes a dumb mistake by accepting delivery of a shoebox full of Ecstacy from his best friend. Next thing you know, Jason has fallen victim to the exceptionally strict minimum sentence federal drug laws for first time offenders. Enter Jason’s earnest, hard-working dad who pushes the politically ambitious federal prosecutor (Susan Sarandon) to allow him to infiltrate the drug world in an effort to reduce his son’s sentence.

snitch2 John (The Rock) has a nice suburban home, with a nice second wife (Nadine Velazquez from Flight), a nice young daughter, and a stressed-out ex-wife (Melina Kanakardes from “CSI:NY”) whom he kinda blames for Jason’s mess. John has loads of family drama plus financial issues at work as he is trying to expand his business. Now he has to figure out how to get into the dirty drug distribution world. His first attempt leaves him face down in the dirt after getting his ass kicked – not a sight we are accustomed to with this giant of a man. Finally, he gets help from one of his ex-con employees (Jon Bernthal) who is trying to stay clean, but really needs the money John is offering.

A meeting with scary Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky from “Boardwalk Empire”) leads to a meeting with a Mexican drug lord known as El Topo (Benjamin Bratt). John’s access to 18-wheelers is just what this drug cartel needed. For some reason, snitch3these brilliant drug dealers would rather trust some unknown trucker dude than spend part of their $83 million on buying their own rig. All logic aside, John works closely with a DEA Agent played by Barry Pepper, who is sporting the worst facial hair this side of Gandalf.

The director and co-writer is Ric Roman Waugh, who made his name as a super Hollywood stunt performer (and also directed Felon). His co-writer is Justin Haythe also wrote Revolutionary Road and the upcoming The Lone Ranger. The story is based on a true to life “PBS: Frontline” about a family who went through a similar ordeal. In spite of the overuse of the “shaky cam” there is some confusion on whether this is a political statement concerning the stringent drug laws, the abuse of power by political officials, or an insight into the moral dilemmas faced by “normal” types in this day and age. snitch4The script seems to exploit the issues in the same manner those with power exploit the first time offenders (often high school and college age kids).

The trailer is a bit misleading as the film only features two real action sequences and both are sampled in the trailer. This is more of a family drama with some moral dilemmas sprinkled in. Pepper and Bernthal are especially effective in their roles, while The Rock is just too distracting to play the typical suburban dad. He is a giant and you can’t ignore that he still looks like a world class wrestler and not a guy you would see at a PTA meeting. Still, if you don’t think too much, this one is entertaining enough for a February release.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see The Rock’s attempt to transition to serious drama

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are expecting the next big time action flick from The Rock

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rieI5g9fgRc