Tag Archives: NYC

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

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Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York

Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York might simultaneously be Christopher Walken’s scariest, most intense and also withdrawn and detached performance, so idiosyncratically does he a draw his portrait of Frank White, a dangerous career criminal fresh out of the pen with high ambitions on ruling the NYC urban jungle, take no prisoners. It’s one of the moodiest, most dour crime films set in the big apple, but it finds a dark heart of bloody poetry, frighteningly funny menace and an ultimate resolution that has you undecided on whether crime really does pay. Walken’s Frank is a strange man, surprisingly introverted for a guy who commands an army and takes on rival gangsters for the control of city blocks, but it’s in the quiet, dangerous charm that he finds his effectiveness, and as crazy as he still is here, it’s a fascinating far cry from some of his more manic, well over the top turns. There’s three would-be hero cops out to get him by any means they can, cocky hotshot David Caruso (before his talents fell from grace with god awful CSI Miami), Ferrara veteran Victor Argo and a coked up Wesley Snipes. They go so far over the line trying to nail him that the only thing separating them from the crime element is a badge, which seems to amuse Frank as he eludes them at every turn. Walken’s merry band of assholes is an armada of gangbangers and drug chemists which include the likes of Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Calderon, Roger Smith and a fearsome Laurence Fishburne as his first mate, young and rambunctious before his acting style gelled into something decidedly more cucumber cool (hello Morpheus). The violence and threat thereof is palpable, as Ferrara whips up a frenzy of boiling conflict that makes the epicentre of Hell’s Kitchen feel like the eye of a very angry hurricane, while still keeping the mood to a laid back thrum, it’s stylistic and tonal bliss the whole way through. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli shoots the city with an oblong, lived in, hazed out and very un-cinematic feel, throwing us right into the dirty digs with this troupe of miscreants and crooked cops, while composer Joe Delia makes gloomy, haunted work out of the score, especially in Frank’s darkly poetic final scene. As for Walken, the man is a dynamo and this may be his best work to date. He makes Frank a harrowing demon with humanity that catches you off guard when it breaches the surface of his opaque, unreadable persona, a suave, psychotic spectre of the NYC streets who won’t go out unless it’s with a bang, and won’t ever back down on his way there.

A crime classic.

-Nate Hill

OREN MOVERMAN’S TIME OUT OF MIND — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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At once formally audacious and emotionally direct, Oren Moverman’s exquisite new film Time Out of Mind is a bold and challenging work, a movie that dares to explore a subject so often swept to the side in our society (our nation’s homeless), while simultaneously acting as an impassioned plea to help those who are suffering the consequences of mental illness. This is a work that couldn’t feel timelier if it tried, and while it wasn’t made to point fingers or to offer up solutions, it’s a fairly monumental piece of work in that it strives to tell an inherently compelling story about something that could seemingly happen to anyone, set against a depressingly bleak back-drop, going to some areas that many people might find too upsetting or too believable for comfort. Starring an unforgettable Richard Gere as a man reduced to a ghost of his former self, Time Out of Mind reveals its stylistic hand and narrative intent quickly and immediately: This is a purposefully slow-moving, deeply introspective piece that isn’t looking to have everything (or anything) solved with a tidy bow by its conclusion, told in a slightly oblique manner, essentially conveying mood and story through visuals and sounds. Bobby Bukowski’s startling widescreen cinematography is some of the absolute best I’ve seen all year, and it’s because the aesthetic and the content feel so attuned to each other that this demanding and unconventional piece of cinema works as effectively as it does. Almost the entire piece was shot at a remove from the actors, with the camera peering through windows and glass, as reflections and lights and colors smear and streak off the actor’s broken faces. This impressionistic quality gives the film a dreamy (nightmarish?) atmosphere that has the potential to cast a spell on the viewer. And then there’s the fully immersive sound-work, recalling Kenneth Lonergan’s obscenely underrated Margaret and the collective works of Altman, where background noise from an entire city fills the soundscape, with the conversations of strangers fully audible, thus creating an sonic mosaic effect that melds perfectly with the stylishly off-kilter visuals and heightened color palette. I’m always fascinated by filmmakers and technicians who can communicate their ideas on a visual level first and foremost, and in Time Out of Mind, at least an hour passes before any sort of background information is organically doled out, leaving the viewer to fill in some gaps on their own, while deciding what is and what’s not important to wonder about.
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All you need to know about the “plot” of this film is that Gere is a homeless man, navigating the uncertain streets of NYC, bouncing from homeless shelters to park benches to churches, looking for any way to nab that next six-pack of beer, while trying to put some of the pieces of his past life back together. He’s got a bartender daughter (an effective Jena Malone) that he’d love to re-connect with, but in his heart of hearts, he knows he has a lot to make up for before he’s going to find any personal or familial solace. And then there’s his chance encounter with another homeless man, played by a nearly unrecognizable Ben Vereen, who is a literal motor-mouth of mentally broken fragments. The scenes between Gere and Vereen have a caustic edge to them, with tenderness slipping through the cracks now and again (that scene at the piano…). There’s nothing “Hollywood” about this movie, and even if the final moments HINT at something upbeat or potentially cathartic, Moverman is too smart of a filmmaker to reduce his powerful, incredibly intense film into something with phony sentimentality. And I loved how the film opened and closed in the same stylistic manner, reflecting the day-after-day quality that the narrative stresses at almost every turn. Moverman has been a serious and thought provoking filmmaker in the past, having co-written Todd Haynes’ trippy ode to Bob Dylan I’m Not There, and this year’s excellent Beach Boys/Brian Wilson examination Love & Mercy, as well as writing and directing the one-two-gut-punch of The Messenger and Rampart, both starring the utterly magnetic Woody Harrelson. Moverman’s strengths have been his driving sense of character and intelligence, always looking for an interesting angle to approach his subject matter, never content to settle for formula or easily digestible themes and narratives. This is the sort of mentality that I look for when searching for filmmakers to explore, as I’m constantly finding that I’m drawn more and more to projects that can’t easily be summed up by a logline, or that stress distinct and form-pushing artistic qualities rather than the demand to create sequels and merchandise and a hit soundtrack. Time Out of Mind is an art film that will be a very tough sit for some, but exactly the sort of filmmaking and storytelling that film lovers should be celebrating.

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