Tag Archives: Cherry Jones

Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn

It’s always cool for two of my top ten films of the year to find their way to me inside a week. A few days ago it was The Lighthouse and yesterday it was Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a brilliant, sprawling noir epic that sees this accomplished artist behind the camera for only the second time in his career and in front of it for the first time since I can remember… I think the last thing I saw him in was that fourth Bourne film that didn’t even have Jason Bourne in it. He roars back into action commendably here as both writer and director in a passioned period piece that has a lot to say and one of those old school two plus hour runtimes to say it in as well as the kind of jaw dropping, star studded ensemble casts they just don’t bother to assemble much anymore.

In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Norton rewinds a 90’s setting back into the 50’s and comes up a winner playing Lionel Essrog, a private detective whose friend, mentor and father figure Frank (Bruce Willis lingers in a cameo you wish was more) is murdered by shady thugs whilst investigating the kind of lead that can only end in bloodshed. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome in an era where medication, compassions and science are sorely lacking and has thus sadly earned the moniker ‘freak show’ by his peers. That doesn’t stop him from using gut intuition to continue Frank’s work, leading him down the obligatory NYC noir rabbit hole of Harlem jazz clubs, red herrings, betrayals, corrupt government officials and bursts of sudden violence meant as warning but there to juice up the intrigue. It’s a fairly serpentine web of lies and decades old secrets involving many characters brought to life by one hell of a cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw scores soulful points as an activist whose involvement runs far deeper than even she knows. Alec Baldwin gives a terrifying turn as an impossibly evil, truly bigoted mega city planner whose agenda to bulldoze poorer communities shows little remorse in character and allows the seasoned actor to provide what might be the best villain portrayal of the year. I didn’t think I’d be raving about Willem Dafoe two times in one week (he crushed his role in The Lighthouse) but the guy is on fuckin fire, bringing cantankerous warmth to a vaguer role I won’t spoil. Also in the mix are Michael Kenneth Williams as a mercurial trumpet player, Bobby Cannavle, Dallas Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, Robert Wisdom, Josh Pais, Peter Gray Lewis and Leslie Mann.

Considering that Norton’s director debut was a Ben Stiller romcom, its fairly heavy lifting to pivot over towards a two and a half hour period piece adapted from a revered novel but he pulls it off and then some. He directs the actors with snap and ease so we get organic, underplayed yet lasting impressions from each performance including his own, a very tricky role that never comes across as a gimmick. His affliction is never conveniently absent when the scene requires it and he makes sure to find the frustration, humour and lived-in aspects of Lionel’s personality. Baldwin’s character serves to represent the callous nature of real estate development conglomerates these days and the tendency to gloss over less fortunate folk like invisible downtrodden, or downright see them as lesser people. Norton, as both actor and director, gently explores this world with a compassion for areas in which some have more than less and focuses on themes until we get to see a powerful morality play unfold within the already tantalizing central mystery. This film sort of came out of nowhere (I don’t remember any marketing outside like a month before release?!) and isn’t making huge waves yet but it’s a powerful, funny, touching, detailed, beautifully acted and directed piece, one of the best thus far of the year.

-Nate Hill

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs 


As much as M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs is a brilliantly structured ScFi suspense yarn that’ll give your ticker a run for it’s money, it’s just as effective as a touching exploration of faith and hopelessness, the warring notions that there is either someone or something out there looking out for us, or more distressingly, there is not. One need only watch Mel Gibson’s staggeringly well pitched performance as a man bereft of belief in anything beyond the tangible to feel as alienated as he and his beloved relatives do when a sneaky, marauding band of extraterrestrials take up residence on their remote farm, leaving vast crop circles all about the place. As a dimly paced, impossibly eerie invasion narrative grips us from the forefront, we’re also somewhat primally aware of the story of a once steadfast man, already ruined by personal tragedy, come apart at the seams and start to lose his last vestige of belief in anything beyond our world. Gibson’s wide eyed desperation is almost scarier than the otherworldly beings themselves, which is saying a lot considering these are some of the most unnerving alien critters ever seen on film. A farm is the perfect oasis of desolation to set these events in, and the nocturnal romps through the corn in search of these beasties will make your heart skip a few hundred beats in apprehension. Gibson abides there with his ex baseball pro bro (Joaquin Phoenix) and two adorably deadpan children (Rory Culkin and a very young Abigail Breslin). There’s a deep sense of coziness that is violently uprooted when these unwanted guests show up, an idyllic tranquility tainted by an unknown element most foul, raising the stakes nicely, leading up to the claustrophobic finale. The proceedings almost have a dream logic to them, as if this whole deal is happening on a plane removed several degrees from ours. Characters interact in peculiar, staccato fashion, certain elements here and there don’t sound or feel like they’re… “real”, for lack of a term that doesn’t exist. Whether by choice or happy accident, Shyamalan unsettles us far beyond being spooked solely by the aliens, who aren’t seen in full till way later in the film anyhow. There’s just a hollowness to Gibson’s plight, a restless gnawing anxiety fighting at the whites of his eyes as he struggles to find the light that has left his path. The ending is a perfectly etched out cap to his arc that sideswipes you with emotional heft you never knew the film had in it, and a thoughtful, planned out story beat that takes some contemplation to fully absorb. On the surface, Shyamalan’s work here is a restless sea, but there be dragons roiling underneath, internal demons that extend farther than the excellent science fiction storyline and touch upon ideas much more disturbing: the endless fear of what comes after death, and who is really out there watching us, besides cornfield dwelling lizard-men. Great stuff. 

-Nate Hill