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: ‘Isle of Dogs’ is an Adorable Allegorical Adventure About the Dangers of Fascism

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Dog-on-Dog Violence and Dictatorial Tendencies

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Nothing, right? We human beings still love dogs, and that cannot possibly ever change! But what if something so terrible happened that it could make us turn on them? One of the functions of fiction is training ourselves to handle horrible hypotheticals. Thus, with the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has delivered an invaluable how-to guide for if the world should ever turn so severely on our furry companions.

Twenty years in the future, Japan has banished its entire canine population to the bluntly literally named Trash Island, due to a widespread outbreak of snout fever and dog flu. The two conditions appear to be connected as how HIV can lead to AIDS. In this dystopia, the fear from those in charge that the disease could spread to humans is enough to override any bounty of puppy love, despite promising progress for a cure. So intrepid folks must step up on their own to save the dogs, like the young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphaned ward of the state adopted by his distant uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). Atari ventures to Trash Island to save his canine protector Spots (Liev Schreiber), who also happens to be the outbreak’s Dog Zero. Joining up with him in his quest are a group of other cast-off dogs with variations on the same sort of name – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – as well as Chief (Bryan Cranston), the fiercely independent stray who has always lived on his own.

An island entirely populated by dogs might sound like the pinnacle of Wes Anderson giving into his most indulgent instincts, but the darkness of the premise is enough to assuage any of those concerns. Plus, the animation does not hold back from the more aesthetically displeasing elements. These pups are mangy, with fur falling off and distorted pupils. They are also fairly irritable; one early standoff results in an ear getting bit off. Isle of Dogs works as an adventure film as well as it does because it does not back away from the danger, while still bringing plenty of fun to that peril. Fight scenes are portrayed in cartoon chaos clouds, while an accidental trip through a trash incinerator is met with droll acceptance. The set pieces are whimsical, but the stakes are life-or-death.

Isle of Dogs could easily be appreciated just for its surface level sensations, but like so many talking animal flicks, there is an allegory lurking not too far below. And considering current worldwide political trends, Wes Anderson’s anti-fascist storytelling is profoundly welcome. Quarantining a contagious population is an understandable disease control tactic, but what happens to these dogs is more banishment than quarantine. And when a solution appears to be possible, Mayor Kobayashi hides that development for the sake of retaining power, trotting out clearly fraudulent election results in the process. BoJack Horseman-style anthropomorphic dogspeak (“my brother from another litter”) helps it go down easy, but these are heavy ideas that deserve and are granted careful consideration.

A few more items worth noting: even though the setting is Japan, the dogs just about exclusively speak English, even when communicating with humans speaking Japanese. In fact, there is a good deal of American and Japanese cultural mixing. All the political machinations are translated by an interpreter (Frances McDormand), apparently for American and other English-speaking audiences, and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) leads a revolt against Kobayashi. The bilingual setup feels woven together mostly seamlessly, though I do wonder if Asian audiences might have a different take on the matter than I do. And I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score, pounded along by unrelenting taiko drums, keeping the tension both constantly uneasy and delicious.

Isle of Dogs is Recommended If You Like: Wes Anderson Symmetry, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Animal Farm, Zootopia, The Goonies, BoJack Horseman

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Puppy Snaps