Edward Norton

Motherless Brooklyn

13/12/19

Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Letham, has clearly been a labour of love for actor, Edward Norton. He’s been trying to put a movie version together for something like fifteen years now and, finally, here’s the result. As well as starring as lead character Lionel Essrog, Norton has gone ‘the full Orson Welles,’ serving as screenwriter, executive producer and director. He’s transposed the novel’s setting from the 1990s to the 1950s, an astute move, as the look and feel of the film is most definitely noir. Dick Pope’s bleak cinematography evokes memories of some of the great movies in this genre, particularly Chinatown.

Lionel is working for a small-time detective agency in New York. When we join the action, he and Gilbert (Ethan Supplee) are watching out for their boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who has an important meeting with some powerful people and has asked his employees to covertly back him up. 

The meeting goes spectacularly wrong and Frank winds up with a bullet in his gut. As a result, Lionel finds himself following up on Frank’s recent cases, one of which has him following Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist and daughter of a local jazz club owner. Lionel is able to call on some pretty special skills, as he has an uncanny ability to recall everything that’s ever been said to him. He also has a tendency to blurt out seemingly unconnected utterances at random moments – it’s probably Tourette’s syndrome but, this being the 1950s, his condition doesn’t yet appear to have a name.

As Lionel digs deeper into the case, he comes up against ruthless property developer, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also Randolph’s mysterious, down-at-heel critic, Paul (Willem Dafoe). But what do these two men have to do with Laura? And will the unravelling of the case prove dangerous for both her and Lionel?

Motherless Brooklyn is a curiously old-fashioned concoction, one that takes its own sweet time to roll out its labyrinthine story, but Norton, in what is only his second attempt at directing a movie (his first was Keeping the Faith in 2000) has done a pretty good job of pulling the various narrative strands into a satisfying whole. His performance is pitch perfect and he’s helped by a stellar supporting cast. Baldwin is particularly good as the decidedly Trumpian Randolph, a dead-eyed, frost-hearted megalomaniac with no scruples whatsoever, while Mbatha-Raw dazzles like an orchid in the drab heart of 50s America. I like the way Lionel’s disability is handled (it feels very convincing, just a part of who he is, ordinary to those who know him) and I also enjoy the film’s refusal to tie its storylines up with easy resolutions. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the jazz score, a style of music that usually repels me, works brilliantly here, as does a haunting piece by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

This won’t be for everyone, but those with an enduring love of film noir will find plenty here to savour – and Norton deserves much credit for his tenacity in seeing this slow-gestating project through to the end.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Isle of Dogs

25/03/18

The arrival of a new Wes Anderson movie is generally a cause for excitement and Isle of Dogs has the added frisson of seeing him return to work with the London-based 3 Mills animation team, whom he employed to such great effect on Fantastic Mr Fox. It must be said, however, that this is an altogether more ambitious project than his previous stop-motion foray.

The story is set twenty years into the future in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. After a recent dog-flu epidemic, Mayor Kobayashi (Komichi Nomura) orders all the city’s dogs to be rounded up and exiled to an offshore island, essentially a rat-infested repository for much of Japan’s unwanted garbage.

On the island, a group of dogs are struggling for survival, led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a battle-scarred stray who sees himself very much as the alpha male of the pack. His followers  are voiced by a whole menagerie of A-List talent (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, to name but three). The sudden arrival of Kobayashi’s twelve year old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin), changes everything. Atari is in search of his beloved lost pet, Spot, who the mayor has insisted must follow the example of all the other four-legged offenders and be sent into quarantine off-shore. This sets Chief and his pack off on a quest to help Atari by locating the missing canine and, of course, they uncover some startling truths in the process. Meanwhile, a pro-dog student group led by the intrepid Tracy (Greta Gerwig) are leading an insurrection against Kobayashi, who, it seems, has not been as honest as he might have been…

Some critics of the film have accused it of cultural appropriation, but I can’t help hoping they are barking up the wrong tree. The love and respect for Japan and its traditions are evident in just about every frame of this delightful movie, from the Taisho drumming sequences to the visual references to veteran directors, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Mizazaki. What’s more, the animation is so detailed and so brilliantly realised, it’s hard to suppress my gasps of admiration as the story scampers along at high speed from revelation to revelation. All the usual Anderson qualities are in evidence – witty one-liners, a steadfast refusal to get too sentimental about the characters and a delicious vein of dark humour that ties the whole package neatly together.

On the same day we viewed this, The Cameo Cinema hosted a dog-friendly screening, but, as we chose to attend the humans-only show, I cannot really comment on how it went down with its four-legged viewers.

But in my humble opinion, at least, this film is a howling success.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Birdman

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1/1/15

The first film of the New Year turns out to be this quirky and offbeat offering from Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu, a riveting slice of cinema that’s actually all about live theatre and the essential differences between the two media. It’s heartening to see a packed screening on opening night for what is essentially a highly experimental work, one that has as many questions as it does answers and one moreover that is cleverly edited to look like one continuous tracking shot.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is undergoing a long dark night of the soul. Formally the star of a series of successful superhero movies, he is attempting to rejuvenate his career by appearing on Broadway in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story which he has written himself. When his lead actor is injured the night before the first performance, he manages to acquire the services of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) a conceited method actor who is as destructive as he is accomplished. Meanwhile Riggan juggles the affections of his daughter cum personal assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), his lover Laura (Andrea Riseborough) his lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) and his manager, Jake (an unusually retrained Zach Galifiniakis.) But the spectre of his previous screen persona still haunts him and he is having terrible trouble differentiating between what is real and what is imaginary…

The film is never less than captivating and from time to time takes off on inspired flights of fantasy that dazzle the eye and stir the imagination. Keaton is a revelation in the lead role, giving the audience insights into the mind of a man who is constantly on the edge of insanity (his previous incarnation as Tim Burton’s Batman gives the story added poignancy) and the script comes laced with a vein of dark humour that never shrinks from savaging the very industry that has nurtured it. If the other films of 2015 are in this league it’s going to be a fine year indeed.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney