Thursday, November 7, 2019

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN: GUMSHOE!



Written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. Starring Edward Norton as Lionel, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, and Bruce Willis as Frank Minna.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is not only one of the best films of the year but it features an amazing performance by director-writer Edward Norton.

The term “gumshoe” not only describes the genre of this neo-noir detective story but it also pertains to our gum-chewing protagonist, Lionel, whose nickname, “Motherless Brooklyn,” was conferred upon him as an orphan boy. Afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, Lionel chews gum to stabilize his errant, erratic thought processes. Indeed, Tourettes is not just a gimmick but an important element in the storyline. It not only inflects Lionel’s speech with unpredictable non-sequitors and bursts of profanity, but also fuels his obsession with detail and order, which eventually enables him to sort out the byzantine complexities of the murder mystery at the story’s heart.

When we first see Lionel, he’s picking at the loose threads of the cuff of his sweater. A perfect representative anecdote for the relentless way he picks apart the loose threads of the plot’s puzzle and weaves the strands back into a coherent solution.

Lionel works for a smart detective named Frank Minna. When Frank is killed during an aborted investigation, Lionel sets to work to solve and avenge his mentor’s death. As he seeks out suspects and suffers periodic ambushes from bad guys (a standard trope in detective noirs), he uncovers rampant corruption in the mean streets of New York City. At the center of the maze of corruption is Moses Randolph, a power-hungry builder who razes lower working-class districts and erects bridges in his unrelenting drive for power and influence. The resemblance between Moses and President Trump is obvious from the start. A racist and sexist sociopath who cares nothing about human values, Moses declaims, “I don’t obey the rules, I’m ahead of them.”

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a wonderful, albeit unheralded surprise. Here is a New York City in the late 1950s rich in period detail. As is proper to all urban noirs, Lionel’s odyssey takes from glitzy City Hall to seedy back alleys, trash-strewn streets, and smoke-filled jazz joints—all important scenic characters on their own.

In one of the finest onscreen performances of the year, Edward Norton invests his Tourettes-afflicted character with an endearing, even delicate deadpan charm and sincerity. A weirdly comic tone prevails; and we never know when a sudden outburst in speech or behavior will disrupt the action, either exposing him to danger or propelling him further into the secrets of the convoluted plot. The affinities between MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and other classic noirs, particularly Chinatown and The Two Jakes, are apparent enough and have been commented on by many critics. So, let’s leave that alone and just savor a film that is whip-smart and visually delectable in its own sordid majesty.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

THE CURRENT WAR



Directed and written by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla.
SWITCH ON!
THE CURRENT WAR may be the most important film of the year. Not because of its clever style and brisk storytelling; not because it features three big-name historical characters—Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nicola Tesla; but because of what it’s about. The late 19th century saw the irruption of forces, scientific, industrial, and social, that changed the world. The fracturing of space, time, and the cosmos that began with Galileo and Newton had arrived.

Every few minutes in THE CURRENT WAR somebody throws a switch. In 1880 Edison switches on his first light bulb. Two years later he switches on the lights of Wall Street. And a year or so after that another switch electrocutes a man in the first electric chair. Meanwhile, industrialist Westinghouse and inventor Tesla hurl electrical current thousands of miles across America to power the dynamos of Niagara Falls and the Columbian Exposition of Chicago. The world blazes with light. But with these new forces unleashed, mankind finds itself perched on the rim of the abyss.

THE CURRENT WAR takes its title from the intense rivalry between inventor-industrialists Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in the waning decade of the nineteenth century to power the dynamos and light up the world. Edison’s mode of direct current is countered (and outclassed) by Westinghouse and Tesla’s alternating current. Deception and treachery are at hand. Vast fortunes are at stake. And the future of us all is in the balance.

It’s a complicated story and THE CURRENT WAR’s clever mode of storytelling leaves some of us behind. We should have boned up on our history beforehand. Director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick are at the switch. Intimate character sketches and glimpses of vast dynamos flash by. Split screens, flashbacks and a restless camera slice, dice, and puree the narrative. If the screen is always gorgeous, the storyline is occasionally confounding. Thomas Edison connives and maligns Westinghouse. Westinghouse, in turn, gives as good—or bad—as he gets. And in between there is Tesla, flitting from one to the other, holding in his hands the switch that will leave them all in the dust.

Let me throw another switch and digress for a moment. In his memorable account of his visit to the Gallery of Machines at the 1900 Paris Exposition, statesman-philosopher Henry Adams was overwhelmed—“He began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross... Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.” The Virgin was the force that built Chartres; now, the Dynamo is the force that builds the world.

Is this the end? Is there no more room for spiritual man? As THE CURRENT WAR nears its end, and as a merger of sorts between Edison’s light bulb and Westinghouse’s alternating current creates General Electric, these two titans of science and industry meet by accident at one of the pavilions of the Columbian Exposition. While they talk shop, unnoticed behind them is a modest little Japanese woman bending with brush and ink at her calligraphy. Somehow, we realize, not all the forces at their command can stand against the power and grace in the creations of this woman’s skilled hand.

Friday, October 25, 2019

THE LIGHTHOUSE



Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

LAND’S END

SPOILER ALERT!

I like THE LIGHTHOUSE, although it is an unlikeable film.

Young Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has just come to a remote and windswept lighthouse to assist the grizzled old lighthouse keeper (Dafoe) in his daily chores. There’s thunder in the air. Seagulls daily assault the property. Mermaids disport themselves on the rocks.

And the lighthouse rears up against the tumbling clouds, its circling eye piercing the gloom, endlessly searching... perpetually warning...

THE LIGHTHOUSE is as grim and uncomfortable as it gets. Not just for the two men trapped in its stony entrails but for the viewer, likewise confined to his theater seat, reluctantly unable to look away. We’re all confined. And we get a sense of what’s in store when young Winslow smashes an offending sea bird against the rocks. Disaster will follow, warns his boss. The reference to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where all hell breaks looks due to the destruction of an albatross, is not accidental; indeed, the dark spirits of other masters of the grim maritime guignol, Edgar Allan Poe and William Hope Hodgson, are constantly evoked. Nightmares and monsters are coming to call.

Take these two men, inexperienced apprentice and grizzled old veteran, lock them into the lighthouse, shake rather than stir, and watch what happens. What begins as a sedately paced account of the daily chores of a lighthouse—hauling the coal up the cliffs, cleaning the cistern, scrubbing the walls inside and out—slowly turns nasty. Storms arrive and repel passing ships. Food supplies diminish. The water goes foul. The two men exchange their good-natured “Yo-yo-ho, and a bottle of rum” sea shanties for insults and knotted fists.

The lighthouse, meanwhile, is hungry. Its platforms, circular stairs, and revolving gears are the teeth and jaws waiting to crunch the men’s bones and swallow their blood. You could typify the entirety of THE LIGHTHOUSE as a deadly case of indigestion.

And pay attention, because as things get worse, master and apprentice seem to exchange identities. Who, now, is who? “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

And in the end, the lighthouse swallows and spits up on the rocks our young lighthouse apprentice. The sea birds feed on his corpse and tug at this liver. Prometheus is bound.

And we viewers, in the end, are lost, without a lighthouse to guide us home.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

JOKER


Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Gotham City has a sound. It’s the grind of several double-bass instruments flailing away in the basement of their registers. And Gotham City has a laugh, a high, maniacal laugh emitted from the throat of a psychopathic killer named Arthur Fleck. In case his name is not familiar, try... Joker.

And Gotham City has a theme. It’s a street sermon delivered with a sledge hammer about the ills of our cities and our citizens—that we are all mad; and that we are all jokers. In case that’s not abundantly clear by the end of the film, we have this amazing scene where the city erupts in flame and riot, and the streets are clogged with jokers, every one of them wearing clown masks. And one of them levels a pistol and shoots the city’s mayor and his wife at point-blank range.

And here’s the irony—we don’t know who that killer is. Is he the Joker? He could be any one of all the jokers (lower case) in the world. To compound the irony, the real Joker makes his escape by clapping on a clown mask over his own hideously clownish face makeup. Double jeopardy.

I think this movie is already in trouble. At least that was the muttered verdict overheard from departing viewers. That grind and that laugh is just too much. Joaquin Phoenix, who is already something of a “joker” in his predilection for bizarre roles, pulls out all the stops, relentlessly laughing until he chokes, tugging up the corners of his mouth at every opportunity, and dancing and capering down streets abd alleyways.

Must we have backstories for all our super heroes and villains? Must we explain away Joker’s sublime villainy with lurid tales of child abuse, a medical condition that produces uncontrolled laughter (it’s called “pseudobulbar”), and so much psychobabble? He emerges before us as just another sick dude. But one with a red nose and green hair.

At least some viewers will have fun registering all the references the movie makes to other movies likewise famous for their bleak, nihilistic tone—like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole on a theater marquee and references to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. And all the while, when we’re not listening to the grinding away on those double-bass instruments, we’re hearing soundtrack songs like “That’s Life” and “Smile” (written by another clown, Charlie Chaplin).

And so, at the end, we leave Bruce Wayne, a victim of Joker, standing alone, his slain parents dead at his feet. He now will join the Joker as just another traumatized child with a flair for costumes.

Prologue: A psychiatrist sits opposite a manacled Joker, now incarcerated in the Arkham Asylum. “Tell me a joke,” she mutters. Joker looks up, then whispers, “You won’t get it.”

Will you?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

JUDY



Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, and scripted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow.

NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING

Recent kudos to Renée Zellweger are well deserved for her astonishing turn as Judy Garland in this harrowing portrait of Garland’s last months during the weeks she spent touring the London theaters shortly before her death.

While paying due diligence to the standard bio-pic formula that requires flashbacks—Judy on the Wizard of Oz set, Judy cowering under the menace of nasty old Louis B. Mayer, Judy wilting under the indifference of her frequent co-star, Mickey Rooney, etc.—the film concentrates on the last, drug-filled weeks when Judy was presiding over the wreckage of her life and career. And I need to say at the outset that I did not watch JUDY as a portrait of Miss Garland. To the contrary, I bypassed the obligatory biographical details and watched it as a portrait of a person burning herself out. That’s drama enough, without worrying about whether or not Renée Zellweger resembles Judy (sort of) or if her voice matches hers (which it doesn’t). No, the more we concentrate on that, the greater the distance we feel from the character.

In other words, freed of that sort of baggage, I found myself wary and nervous in the onscreen presence of this person who only incidentally is calling herself “Judy Garland.” I found myself watching all those tell-tale tics, twitches, and lapses that betray a person losing control. All of us have found ourselves in close quarters with people like this, and we know there is never a moment when we can predict anything or feel comfortable in their presence. To stay with the entertainment industry, for the moment, I myself have spent many occasions in Hollywood with the National Film Society when we catered to the whims of movie stars and hangers-on like this during awards ceremonies and dinner tributes. The hours I spent in the company of Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino, for instance, bless them!, were not ones spent basking in the glory of their stardom but ones staring into the unstable abyss of defeat and regret.

Credit Zellweger here. This collection of faltering mannerisms could easily have descended into the grotesque satire that Bette Davis gave us in her impersonation of the mad old Mrs. Skeffington in that Hollywood classic. Zellweger, who is, by the way, one of my favorite actresses (check out her early film, The Whole Wide World) has wrought a miracle here—a portrait neither comic nor grotesque; rather, one that enlists our empathy. And one that burrows inside us to evoke our sympathy and wonderment at the extremities of which we ourselves are capable as we flail about, desperately holding off the inevitable darkness.

Recall the wonderful poem by Stevie, who observes a person far out on a lake—
“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”

IS HE WAVING AT ME, OR IS HE DROWNING?


Saturday, September 21, 2019

AD ASTRA



Written and directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.

Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and music by Max Richter.

AD ASTRA recalls Judith Merrill’s classic definition of science fiction as “whirling wheels and soft footfalls of thought.” Here, the wheels—all the hardware of rockets and space stations and whiz-bang gadgetry—and the thought—a man’s search for identity—all work together in a film that will disappoint the fanboys of Star Wars but delight enthusiasts of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Let me explain. Astronaut Roy McBride is on a mission to locate his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing while on a 30-year exploration of life in the galaxy. There is some evidence that dear old Dad might be still alive; that he may have gone insane; and that he may be unleashing Zeus-like power surges that are threatening the very existence of the solar system. Call him “Mr. Kurtz.” And so, like Conrad’s Marlow, Roy provides some interior narration threading through the movie.

Roy spends most of the film adrift in the spaceways, lost in the limbo of his consciousness, and uncertain in the ambivalence of his feelings for the father that deserted the family thirty years ago.

And we viewers find ourselves likewise treading water in a movie whose narrative drive is as slow as Roy’s heartbeat and as (seemingly) random as the course of events. This is not a bad thing. Rather, the aleatory music of Max Richter and the amazing visuals by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema sustain our attention. And yes, critics are already all over Brad Pitt’s blue eyes commanding the screen. (No kidding!)

Consider AD ASTRA a cosmic expansion of another crazily-ambitious film by James Gray, the estimable Lost City of Z several years ago. It too involved a father and son’s journey into the “heart of darkness” of the Amazonian jungles. AD ASTRA may look up to the heavens rather than down into the forest primeval, but the search for identity has the same compass heading—True North.



Sunday, September 15, 2019

OFFICIAL SECRETS: NOT A BANG BUT A WHISPER



OFFICIAL SECRETS, written and directed by Gavin Hood, starring Keira Knightly as Katherine Gun, Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson

OFFICIAL SECRETS is my favorite movie of the year, so far. Although it begins and ends not with a bang but a whisper, the concussion, while quiet, is deafening.

Here is a model of sturdy, no-nonsense storytelling. It’s quiet, but relentless. Its script brooks no distractions and allows us no relief. The casting is superb, from top to bottom.

It recounts the true story of Katherine Gun (Keira Knightly), a British whistleblower who leaked information about an illegal NSA attempt to extort the UN Security Council into supporting America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. We know that her efforts and those of others to prevent the invasion failed. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war were slain. And the reputations of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and General Colin Powell were irreparably damaged.

So much is history. OFFICIAL SECRETS teases with what we know, what we think we know, and what we have forgotten.

Meanwhile, Gun, a translator for British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), is having a hard time. Her initial actions were patriotic attempts to forestall the invasion, but quickly she’s in over her head: Her violation of Britain’s Official Secrets Act draws the unwelcome attention of Scotland Yard and British and American security forces, damages her marriage to a Turkish Muslim, and promises a prison sentence for treason. The firm of lawyers she turns to, including Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), offers little hope, beyond a “guilty” plea and a diminished sentence. The crux of her salvation lies in how the Iraq War is to be judged and defined—Is it legal or is it illegal? And is the document that has crossed her desk an authentic NSA document or a British hoax? The answer to all of this, more precisely, resides in the spelling of one of the words in the memo: The word “favorable” appears in the NSA document; but in its re-release to the public the word is spelled “FAVOURABLE.” So what, you say? The parsing of this spelling riddle will literally spell Gun’s innocence or guilt.

This nicety of British and American spelling is perhaps my favorite part of the film. It’s a tiny scene, barely whispered, and you have to watch closely lest you miss it. Upon such details can hang the fate of nations—and that of a lowly civil servant.

OFFICIAL SECRETS joins the honorable list of recent films—THE POST, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, CONCUSSION—that remind us how important newspaper investigative journalism continues to be. In this case, the venerable British newspaper, The Observer, leaps into the fray. As print disappears into the cybersphere in our post-9/11 era, and as readers prefer the computer screen to folded newsprint, we wonder how many stories like this fall between the cracks.

OFFICIAL SECRETS speaks softly, but its message is loud and clear.