Tag Archives: Dallas Roberts

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

Joe Carnahan’s The Grey

When the marketing campaign came along for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, they really tried their hardest to make it look like ‘that Liam Neeson movie about punching wolves.’ It’s understandable, because what we really got was a heartbreaking, human survival story rooted in character, streaked with sorrowful existentialism and so far from the rugged action film advertised. That kind of film is hard to sell in Big Hollywood, but it’s always better as filmgoers to receive something this thought out, carefully made, entertaining and deep when visiting the multiplex, and it’s gone on to become one of the best films of recent decades as well as a personal favourite.

Neeson is scary good as Ottway, hired gun for an oil company and resident badass at the remote Alaskan rig where hordes of rowdy labourers chase that paycheque they’re just gonna blow on booze the same night. On a routine transport back to Anchorage their plane crashes horrifically, scattering the tundra with bodies and leaving a handful of survivors to fight their way across the desolation. Led by Ottway, they soon realize their path has cut right trough the hunting ground stalked by a hungry pack of wolves, and they are now in the crosshairs as well as at odds with the cruel indifference of Mother Nature. The wolves here are never really seen clearly and don’t mimic what you might see on BBC’s Planet Earth, instead we get snarls, gristle, sinew and nasty unseen phantoms growling out there in the dark until one of them lunges for a kill. They serve not so much as literal wildlife but rather as harbinger of inevitability, a spectral reminder of one’s mortality in a situation like that, and the ever present fear of death.

Carnahan has a background in what you might call ‘manly movies,’ previously helming the excellently gritty Narc, the fabulous and underrated Smokin Aces and the silly reboot of The A Team, but The Grey is a brand new bag. Deadly serious, deeply thoughtful and surprisingly emotional, this is a film that loves its characters despite putting them through icy hell. Neeson is uncannily good, his character goes through sadness in ways that mirror real life tragedy the actor has been through, events we can see echo in his haunted, career best, primal howl of a performance. Dermot Mulroney makes brilliant work of Talget, a pensive man who just misses his daughter and holds onto that as will to live. Frank Grillo brings down the igloo as Diaz, a macho, hard bitten jerk-off who quickly discovers that such abhorrent behaviour is something both his fellow survivors and the wolves have no time for. Other fantastic work comes from James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, Nonzo Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw and more.

Roger Ebert said that the only time he ever walked out on a film was the next one in line after seeing this, and that sort of encapsulates the almost profound effect this one has. The first time I saw it was a bleary bootleg version on a laptop and I sat there stunned in silence after. There’s many aspects that went into attaining that quality, but what resonates and makes it work so well for me is how much it respects, loves, and treats its characters like actual human beings instead of cannon fodder victims for the wolves. They are all well developed, non-archetypal individuals, and it’s that that pulls you right into the story. There’s a scene where Neeson eases the passing of a fatally wounded man with comfort and grace, it’s easily the most devastating death scene I’ve ever seen filmed, made so by blunt realism and uncomfortable truth. My favourite scene has to be the remaining survivors sitting around a campfire, simply talking. They banter, Neeson shares a poem his father wrote, Mulroney tells a story about his daughter he misses so much and Grillo lightens their collective mood with a bit of humour. You feel like you’re sitting right there with them. A masterpiece on many levels.

-Nate Hill