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.
This may put me in the doghouse but I found the recent reboot of the Griswold Vacation films to be funnier than the entire original Chevy Chase series combined. The National Lampoon series is a big, clunky, unwieldy beast full of hit or miss humour, really bizarre instances and comedy that has dimmed and dated a lot since then, they’re not my favourite films and I remember fondly only for sheer nostalgia because they’d always show up on TBS Superstation back when I was a kid. This thing goes and totally does it’s own thing though and ends up being fucking hilarious from start to finish, if you have the right sense of humour that is and are open to a severely offensive set of jokes and very R rated mayhem, which is the best way to get me interested in a comedy.
Terminally nerdy Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, the grown up kid of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, who also turn up for third act cameos here. Rusty wants to recreate his childhood vacation to Walley World by dragging his wife (Christina Applegate) and two dysfunctional sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) on a chaotic road trip there, with everything naturally going completely wrong every step of the way. When I say it goes wrong though I mean that in every gross out, humiliating, cringey, scatological, immature sense of the word. The tone here is radically different from the old Vacation films and honestly I appreciated it, jived with it more. The screenwriters just want to make a balls out (literally), hard R, deranged comedy that happens to take place in the Griswold universe and I guess some fans couldn’t handle it.
So what’s funny about it? Well take your pick: Chris Hemsworth as a hysterically sexist cattle rancher with a ten inch cock clearly visible in his briefs, a hot-springs that turns out to be raw sewage dump filled with used needles, relentless sibling bullying, a shady truck driver (Norman Reedus in the film’s best WTF cameo) with a teddy bear hood ornament to lure kids in, a suicidal river rafting guide (Charlie Day), cows getting turned into road kill and much more. If none of that sounds like your picks the you were probably expecting something else and this isn’t gonna be your bag. This ain’t the whimsical, eccentric Vacation aesthetic from the Lampoon films, but that’s alright. My favourite joke involves the Albanian rental car Rusty procures for their trip, an impossibly inconvenient machine with a button that literally blows out all the windows and a NavGuide system that screams at them in Korean, which had me laughing so hard it hurt. Watch for fun cameos from Keegan Michael Key, Ron Livingston, Michael Pena, Regina Hall, Tim Heidecker, Colin Hanks and Leslie Mann as a grown up Audrey Griswold, married to Hemsworth and his magnum dong. This one was a huge winner for me, and while I can appreciate the hate thrown at it when compared to the original films, that didn’t bother me. If you just roll with this vision
Jake Kasdan’s Orange County is comedy gold that has since gone platinum, and one of the best examples of basket case comedy blending together with heartfelt moments I’ve ever seen. Kasdan is the son of legendary Lawrence Kasdan, and it stars Colin Hanks (Tom’s spawn) and adorable Schyuler Fisk is Sissy Spacek’s kid which is interesting, but any snarky remarks about nepotism can be shut down simply by how terrific the film is, they went out on their own, showed talent and made something genuinely good. Hanks plays a California surfer bum who has an epiphany and decides its time to go to college, Stanford in particular. Scoring admission proves a challenge when he’s saddled with his deranged family including hopeless druggie brother (Jack Black), emotionally stormy mother (Catherine O Hara, priceless) and manic nutjob dad (John Lithgow, equally priceless). Hijinks ensue as he tries to win over a tight assed Dean (Harold Ramis), hold on to his loving girlfriend (Fisk, the spitting image of Spacek) and babysit big bro. There’s a kind of full moon looniness on display here, an offbeat, near abstract style of comedy that won me over almost immediately, it’s lighthearted, raunchy when it needs to be and almost effortlessly enjoyable. Cameos abound, including Chevy Chase, Ben Stiller, Jane Adams, Leslie Mann, Lily Tomlin, Lizzy Caplan, Nat Faxon and a superb Kevin Kline. A winner.
ParaNorman is a film that’s just about as close to perfect as you can get. Released by a low profile studio called Laika that specializes in gorgeously crafted stop motion animation adventures, this one has the irresistible flavour of retro Universal Studios monster movies put to use in a smart, engaging story full of well written characters, maturely imparted themes and wonderful pathos. Young Norman (Kodi Smit McPhee) can see, hear and converse with ghosts, and that generally makes him a bit of an outsider in his town. When the spirit of a deceased relative warns him of some vague impending doom encroaching on the region, it’s up to him and his merry gang including best buddy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) his ditzy sister (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s hilarious jock brother (Casey Affleck) to solve the spooky mystery of a centuries old witch who has risen the dead. It’s a brilliantly told story with boundless animation, a sharp script full of subtle, off the cuff humour, heartrending sadness at the core of its narrative and some of the most dazzling animation this side of Burton/Selick. The voice cast is peppered with carefully chosen talent like Jeff Garlin, Bernard Hill, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz Plasse, Leslie Mann, Elaine Stritch, Alex Borstein and more. Jodelle Ferland voices Aggie the witch as a tragic character with the same haunted complexity she brought to the role of Alessa in Silent Hill. Laika studios is also responsible for gems like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Corpse Bride and last years Kubo & The Two Strings, they are a brilliant bunch who are trailblazing storytelling in exciting new ways. ParaNorman has to be my favourite though, it’s an enthusiastic love letter to golden age horror and an emotionally mature study of what it means to be different, how people react and the damage that can be done simply by not accepting someone for who they are. Trust an animated film to inject themes like that and explore them thoroughly while still having a blast of a fun time. I can’t say enough good things about this film.
What do you get when you combine acid tongued social satire, unnerving physical comedy, borderline horror/stalker elements, endless pop culture references and an abrasive yet pitiful protagonist from your worst nightmare? Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, that’s what you get. And yes, before the hands go up, I do consider Jim Carrey’s lonely, disturbed TV repairman Chip to be the protagonist of the film, mainly because he’s eternally more interesting than Matthew Broderick’s bland, lifeless performance as the poor average joe who becomes victim to his ‘friendly’ courtship. Chip is one part neglected child, two parts borderline psychotic with a dash of manic obsessiveness and a pinch of terrifying delusional behaviour. Doesn’t quite sound like a comedy, does it? It almost isn’t. Stiller’s vision is so pitch black that it takes a few well timed sympathetic beats from Carrey, infused with his googly charm, to make it work. It’s mostly a walk on the scary side though. Broderick has the misfortune of having Chip show up to look at the television, and the guy takes an immediate, unsettling shine to him, going to great and terrible lengths to solidify an unrequited bromance that is a complete one sided fabrication. Stalking, interfering, framing him for god knows what, roughing up a smarmy gent (Owen Wilson is hilarious) who horns in on his girl (Leslie Mann) are but a few of the life shattering misdeeds that Chip carries out, all under the pretense of the buddy system. He’s essentially Frankenstein’s monster that has grown up from a child left to his own devices, fuelled by a lonliness which has long since pickled into something sad and destructive, both to himself and others around him. Carrey plays him like a champ, never cheaping out or holding back, always willing to go there and show us the extreme degrees on the temperature of the human personality. Damn, I make it sound so dark, don’t I? It is, but at the end of the day we’re talking about a comedy starring Jim Carrey and directed by Ben Stiller, so there’s still the inherent comedic vibe that both of them bring, just drenched in tar this time around. Call it character study, stalker drama, a lifetime movie gone horribly awry or anything in between, whatever it is, it’s some stroke of demented genius and holds up well today. Watch for Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, Joel Murray, David Cross, Kathy Griffin, Charles Napier, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Gass and a pisser of a cameo from Eric Roberts as himself in a facepalming television melodrama.