Tag Archives: Robert wisdom

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

Advertisements

John Woo’s Face Off

John Woo’s Face/Off was originally conceived as a Schwarzenegger/Stallone vehicle and was to exist in a far more futuristic setting. I’m glad that the eventual execution was more down to earth because I get cold sweat visions of the 90’s Judge Dredd flick with Arnie swapped in for Armand Assante. Jokes aside, the performances, production design finished product turned out to be pretty much as amazing as anything you’ll find in Hollywood throughout the years, and has become a classic for me.

John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are perfectly paired as grizzled FBI super-agent Sean Archer and eccentric, psychopathic rock star terrorist Caster Troy, two star crossed arch enemies who find themselves battling on a whole new plane when their faces literally get swapped by the bureau’s fanciest clandestine nip tuck procedure. This gives the film not a only a high concept boost but the opportunity for each actor to really break free from the bonds of playing just one character and overlap into the realms of their counterpart, not to mention parody the absolute fuck out of their respective acting styles, which we as moviegoers know is never short on eccentricity for the both of them. Others revolve around them, specifically two very different women in their lives who are caught up in the in the titanic clash of will, ego and guns upon guns. Joan Allen is angelic poetry as Eve, Archer’s wife, and Gina Gershon adds a feline sexiness in Sasha, Troy’s old concubine. They both share a wounded nature in different ways, both having been drawn into the conflict and taking charge of their trajectory in different, equally compelling ways. Nick Cassevetes and his bald dome steal scenes as Dietrich, Troy’s trigger happy lieutenant, Dominique Swain shows early what talent she has as Archer’s strong willed daughter and there’s a galaxy of supporting talent including Harve Presnell, Colm Feore, CCH Pounder, Matt Ross, Margaret Cho, Thomas Jane, John Carroll Lynch, Alessandro Nivola, Chris Bauer, Robert Wisdom, Kirk Baltz, Paul Hipp, Danny Masterson, David Warshofsky, Thomas Rosales and Scottish badass Tommy Flanagan, early on before Hollywood gave him lines and those leering Joker scars did the talking.

This is the Cage/Travolta show most of the way though and they positively rock the house as two dysfunctional would-be siblings who could probably sit down and have a few beers together if they weren’t so busy trying to kill each other. Woo outdoes himself in a production that includes all of his hallmarks: white doves breaking formation in languid slo-mo, dual wielded berettas barking out clip after clip, symphonies of smashing glass, looming pillars of fireball pyrotechnics and the always classy tradition of characters having firefights clad in snappy suits. There’s a plane chase, a boat chase (my favourite sequence of the film), a breathless aquatic prison break, a church shootout of biblical proportions, a thundering FBI raid on a dockside stronghold, a vicious beatdown of Hyde from That 70’s Show (art eerily imitates life here) and the most inventive use of a harpoon gun I’ve ever cringed at.

Obviously the content of my favourite films is fluid and changes over time but in terms of a top action film, this is likely the constant. It’s like the whole genre went to sleep, had a dream and this was the resulting output. I gotta mention the original score because it’s a doozy, but I’ve always been a bit confused who to thank for it. IMDb has John Powell credited, whose work I love on the Bourne films. But other research turns up evidence of stuff from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard as well, so I’m not sure who did what or if it was a collaboratively lateral thing, but in any case it’s fantastic work, particularly in the boat chase where the composition reaches that near celestial height where it has the power to raise the hairs on your arms. What else is there to say? “Gonna take his face…. off…!”

-Nate Hill

TNT’s The Alienist

Looking for a binge-worthy show to keep you going? Check out The Alienist, a terrifying tale that in the realm of dark murder mysteries, goes just about as dark as you can go. A period piece produced by TNT and conveniently dropped onto Netflix in it’s entirety the other day, it’s one part Jack The Ripper with a twinge of True Detective, but the truth is it’s way more psychological and well constructed than any log-line description could give, and it should be seen, savoured and absorbed as one long film rather than episodic tv. Darker and more fucked up than anything really has been since season 1 of True Detective, it sticks to its guns and pulls forth a doozy of a crime story to put anyone’s hairs on edge. Set in the late 1800’s before the turn of the century, New York is slowly becoming the economic and cultural hub it is today, but there’s still long shadows cast by the primitive customs of the past, and in one of those shadows hides a serial killer, a phantom who preys on young boys and leaves viciously mutilated corpses behind. As each episode will remind you in writing, people who studied mental illness back then were called ‘Alienists’, because those afflicted were seen to be alienated from their true natures. One such alienist is Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Brühl), an eccentric, difficult but altogether brilliant man who takes an immediate and laser focused interest in these crimes, with the help of his friend, crime scene illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans). Joining their crusade is Sarah Howard (Dakota Fanning) the first woman to work for the NYC police department and a plucky investigator herself. Orbiting them is a galaxy of characters, red herrings, dead ends, violent encounters, murders, and love triangles that stretch all the way from the slums and boy-whore brothels right up through the political ranks to New York’s richest and most powerful. It’s not an easy mystery to solve, for the three unconventional detectives, the bumbling, often corrupt police force or we as an audience, it’s a dense, compelling and very complex story with a lot of moving parts, well hidden clues and challenging story beats that demand attentiveness and force you to not look away, which is often an impulse in a horror story with so many atrocities marching across the screen (life, it seems, was incredibly rough for a good many people back then, especially in the Big Apple). The story pays a lot of attention to Kreisler’s deep fascination with the human condition, what makes a brain malfunction and cause the kind of behaviour we see here, and although one might get a little agitated at certain parts of the climax in the final episode, I believe that it wasn’t lazy storytelling but a very deliberate, unusual way to wrap up a story like this and says something important in the story arcs revolving around the human mind. The supporting cast is a rich, deep and rewarding patchwork quilt of young upcoming talent, familiar faces, brilliant cameos and veteran character actors. Brian Gerarty is perfectly cast as Teddy Roosevelt, commissioner of police and yes the same Roosevelt that would later go on to be President. Ted Levine earns sleaze points as Thomas Byrnes, the semi-retired chief of police who’s a slippery, untrustworthy devil with great influence over the worm of a new Captain Connor (David Wilmot, despicably good). Michael Ironside blusters in as a wealthy, powerful finance kingpin who is more disturbed by the ripple effect the killings have throughout the city than the actual murders themselves, as he sheepishly admits. Robert Wisdom and gorgeous Q’orianka Kilcher play loyal friends and pillars of Kreisler’s household, and the cast goes on with impressions from Sean Young, David Warner, Jackson Gann, Antonio Magro, Peter McRobbie, Bill Heck, Grace ‘Sarah Palmer’ Zabriskie and more. The heart of it lies with Brühl, Fanning and Evans though, who all three represent different factions of the human condition in various measure, from courage, compassion and intuition to persistence and empathy, their collective performances are spectacular and made me look at each artist in ways I never have, a hallmark of excellent, transformative work. I know there’s already clamour for a second season, and I want to see their further adventures as much as the next viewer, but I’m just as content with this season as it’s a standalone, beautifully bookended piece of work that thrives as a singular story, and is one of the best times I’ve had following a long-form series in a while.

-Nate Hill

Danny Devito’s Duplex

I will never not love Duplex, Danny Devito’s jet-black ode to neighbours from hell, a ninety minute domestic squabble of epic proportions and one of the funniest films of the last few decades. Devito knows how to do comedy at it’s meanest, lowest and most shamelessly un-PC, whenever he’s in the director’s chair you know you’ll get something that will either land squarely with those who have a deranged sense of humour (moi) or drive of the prudes in droves. Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play a hapless NYC yupple (yuppie couple, just made that shit up) looking for their perfect little love nest to settle down in. They think they’ve found it in a gorgeous, spacious Brooklyn split-suite, but there’s just one problem: sweet, ninety year old Mrs. Connolly (Eileen Essell), who is the tenant equivalent of the plague. At first she’s a benign darling, but after a few weeks pass, she’s a harridan hellbent on making their lives into an extended nightmare of never ending chores, sleepless nights and maddening disruption. The solution? Well there’s many in the real world, but in Demented Devito realm it’s to kill her, of course, an eventual resolution they come to quicker than your average ruffled landlord. It’s all in good fun if you’ve got the wicked internal lens to angle at it, and I find it to be a consistent laugh riot with each repeated viewing. Essell is comic dynamite, pretty spry for an old gal and always game to make the dialogue sizzle, as the film sort of relies on her character to work. Stiller and Barrymore stir up a collective brew of exasperation and screeching hysterics, while the wicked good supporting cast includes Wallace Shawn, Robert Wisdom, Justin Theroux, Swoozie Kurtz, Maya Rudolph, Amber Valletta, Tracey Walter, Michelle Krusiec, James Remar as a shady hitman and Broadway’s beloved Harvey Fierstein as New York’s sleaziest real estate tycoon. Devito’s scripts almost always veer into a dark, bizarro cartoon style once the antics get feverishly out of hand, and bearing witness to the many varied and idiotic ways Stiller and Barrymore try to kill the old broad are a showcase of him at his nuttiest. Gross, unpleasant, cheerfully in bad taste, relentlessly raunchy and delightfully mean spirited, pretty much all the things a great comedy should be.