With ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Edward Norton Takes Us Back to the Era of Mid-Century Urban Gumshoes, with a Purpose

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Leslie Mann, Josh Pais, Robert Wisdom, Fisher Stevens

Director: Edward Norton

Running Time: 144 Minutes

Rating: R for Involuntary and Voluntary Profanity, and a Classic Mix of Guns, Knives, and Fists

Release Date: November 1, 2019

Motherless Brooklyn is basically Chinatown but if the lead character had Tourette syndrome. You’ve got a bigwig public official trying to control the city’s municipalities, a woman with surprising and controversial parentage, and a protagonist who gets his face roughed up when he starts to get involved way over his head. Comparisons to one of the most acclaimed crime films of all time can make for impossible-to-meet expectations, but this directorial effort from Edward Norton proves that there is plenty of room to play around in this sandbox. The mysteries come hard and intriguingly as private investigator Lionel Essrog (Norton) uncovers a web of power and corruption in 1950s New York City. What was his mentor Frank (Bruce Willis) getting involved with when he got himself killed? Why is city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) the most powerful man in the city? Why do people within the orbit of young activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) keep finding themselves in deadly trouble? These are all compelling questions, and reason enough to give Motherless Brooklyn a go.

What might give some viewers pause, however, are Norton’s more unique directing and acting flourishes. Casting himself as someone who involuntarily spouts out a string of profanity and general word salad could certainly be controversial. But I think he handles it empathetically and sensitively, suggesting that we are all messed up in the head and that so much (or perhaps all) of life is the struggle to either keep that noise at bay or let it be part of who we are. Possibly even more controversial is the generally affected milieu embodied in the performances, music, and production design that basically shouts, “This is the 1950s!” It could play as indulgent nostalgia, but it avoids that pitfall by serving an essential thematic purpose, as Motherless explores what is lost when poor and minority neighborhoods are pushed aside in the name of urban beautification. Moses Randolph is a person who has somehow made himself a hero to the people while brushing away all the inconveniences that stand in his way of unmitigated power, while Lionel Essrog is forced to have his inconveniences be a constant part of his daily life. Take a wild guess which one of them is better company.

Motherless Brooklyn is Recommended If You Like: Chinatown, Mid-20th Century New York City

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fedoras

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Glass’ is an Off-Kilter But Rewarding Examination of Superpowered Beings

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CREDIT: Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Popping Veins, Sharp Objects, and Bodies Thrown Violently

Release Date: January 18, 2019

With Glass, M. Night Shyamalan is attempting a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Superheroes. According to this particular model, the stories told in comic books are based on the exploits of real people. We only think they are myths because they have had to live in the shadows. I’m pretty sure that Shyamalan does not actually believe that there are superheroes and supervillains in the real world, but the wonder that infuses those stories is very real. It is what drives us to understand the unbelievable. It is also what drives Shyamalan to deconstruct the entire superhero genre at its most atomic level.

Picking up nearly two decades after the events of Unbreakable and soon after those of Split, Glass kicks off with Bruce Willis’ super-strong guardian David Dunn tracking down James McAvoy’s ravenous multi-personality villain Kevin Wendell Crumb. They are both subdued by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in patients with delusions that they are superpowered, a condition that she assures us many people are suffering from. They end up at the same institution that has been housing Sam Jackson’s Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, the man who engineered a series of terrorist attacks to uncover a superhuman like David. Also returning are Spencer Treat Clark as David’s son Joseph, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mother, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Kevin’s surviving kidnapped victim. Oddly enough, most of the film takes place within the institution, making this mainly a battle of wits between Dr. Ellie and her charges. It is a surprisingly talky approach to what is ostensibly an action film, but it is profoundly part and parcel of what Shyamalan is doing.

As Glass reveals what it is all about, much of the dialogue turns into language that only ever appears in comic books. That is to say, it is the language of comic book narration, of the variety that goes “the bad guys are teaming up” and “this is an origin story, but not for the character you thought.” Not only do real people not talk like this, neither do movie characters, and neither do comic book characters. The only actor who manages to deliver any of it with any gravitas is Jackson. Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy, on the other hand, sound as unnatural as possible. However, as disorienting as all that is, I am not eager to write this element off as a failure.

The film’s structure also leads me to question some things, particularly the revelation of Dr. Ellie’s true nature. I did not find it to be a huge shock, and I wonder if Shyamalan would have benefited from revealing it to the audience earlier to really explore the consequences of what her character represents. But even with the reveal at the end, that point can retroactively click into gear. And as for all the unnatural acting, I could say that maybe that is the point, and that this is a highly affected world, or at least these are highly affected people. That would be generous, though, especially considering that Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy sounded like much more typical humans in Unbreakable and Split. But even if I choose to have the least generous interpretation of every questionable element, I remain utterly fascinated by Glass. This is not Shyamalan at his most straightforwardly powerful, but it is also not him at his most insufferable. He is on a cloud of thinking that most people would never think to go to, but he has found insights there that I am very happy we now have.

Glass is Recommended If You Like: The Village, The Happening, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Grade: 4 out of 5 Origin Stories

This Is a Movie Review: Eli Roth’s ‘Death Wish’ is Plenty Entertaining If You Don’t Want to Grapple Too Much with Vigilantism’s Complicated Morality

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CREDIT: Takashi Seida/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Beau Knapp, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Mike Epps

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Gunfire and the Corresponding Bloody, Bone-Breaking Injuries

Release Date: March 2, 2018

By Eli Roth standards, Death Wish – a remake of the notorious 1974 Charles Bronson franchise-starter of the same name – is actually rather tame. The director of such modern-day exploitation as Cabin Fever, Hostel, and The Green Inferno has made a career out of pushing buttons, but the most objectionable elements of Death Wish are borrowed from the original. Based on the evidence on display here, I don’t know if Roth is an advocate for vigilantism, or if he even necessarily has any fully formed opinion. But no matter his own personal feelings, the film is plenty confrontational and liable to stir up heated feelings.

The setup is essentially the same as the original: Chicago-based surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) turns to vigilantism after a robbery by professional burglars leaves his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) dead and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma. He is frustrated by the lack of leads in the case and the constant gang-related violence in his city, so he takes to heart those who bandy about the maxim that police only arrive after the crime has happened. So he procures a gun, dons his hoodie, and does what he can to clean up the streets, initially dispatching the likes of carjackers and soon working his way up to executing career criminals in broad daylight. He becomes a viral sensation, with some calling him the “Guardian Angel,” with others opting for “Grim Reaper.” There are some clear racial overtones, underlined by footage of real talk radio personalities discussing his activity, as Kersey is white and his targets tend to be people of color. But pointedly, he is also protecting many people of color. Admirably, Roth actually lets this issue remain as complicated as it deserves to be, but it could still have been addressed more head-on

When viewed straightforwardly as action movie fish fulfillment, Death Wish is well-crafted, crackerjack entertainment. I cannot deny that I was thrilled, nor can I dispute the comic relief that comes in the form of Vincent D’Onofrio as Paul’s schlubby but loyal younger brother, or Mike Epps as the resident horndog doctor, or just a well-timed gunshot. But naturally enough I find myself hesitant to cheer any movie in which a vigilante is the clear hero. That is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Paul is so clearly a decent person and that everyone he kills is clearly a bad guy. But then that clear demarcation between good and evil makes for its own problems. That stark opposition can work, with Lord of the Rings perhaps the best example.

So I would like to propose a theory of the Uncanny Valley of Realistic Violence, wherein a fantastical setting makes it easier to stomach an inherently good character killing an inherently evil character. But the closer the setting is to reality, the harder the killing is to accept, because the good/evil split is not so easy in real life. Roth flirts with examining that complication, but for the most part he is more interested in being a showman. Despite my problems with Death Wish’s ickiness, I do not feel too compelled to condemn it all that strongly on moral grounds. After all, it is clearly a fantasy, because where else but in the movies would the lead detective (Dean Norris) close the case with a delicious bite of pizza and an equally delicious one-liner?

Death Wish is Recommended If You Like: Eli Roth’s in-your-face style, Bruce Willis downplaying while remaining intense, Comic relief when it might not be appropriate

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Head Shots

SNL Recap October 12, 2013: Bruce Willis/Katy Perry

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NASA Shutdown
Clever and timely, on two counts.  It unfortunately pales in comparison to last week’s “We Did Stop,” but that is a lofty standard.  This solid track record so far suggests there will be plenty of laughs for SNL to wring out of the government shutdown. B+

Bruce Willis’ Monologue
Bizarrely unmemorable.  I guess Bruce REALLY didn’t want to do anything else except play the harmonica, or Bobby REALLY wanted to play with him. C

24-Hour Energy for Dating Actresses
And with an absolutely (purposefully) awful gag, Kyle Mooney sneaks in the best line! B-

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