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: A Wrinkle in Time

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CREDIT: Disney

I certainly enjoyed Ava DuVernay’s spin on A Wrinkle in Time, though I am a little disappointed it does not reach the level of blockbuster classic that I hoped it would. I think much of that has to do with its too-low-calorie mix of epic and low-key. Sure, Meg travels a great interdimensional distance to save her father from a dark entity threatening the entire universe, but she does so over just the course of an afternoon. That relative speed is part of the hook, sure, but it should not feel so speedy. It really would have been beneficial to more deeply explore the effects of tessering on Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace.

There are a lot of wonderful design elements and sufficiently creepy moments, but much of those do not feel terribly specific to what this particular film is trying to say. Perhaps the scariest sequence is the disturbingly harmonious cul-de-sac on Camazotz, but that is not really preying on any unique Murry family fears; the fight at hand is not really one against suburban conformity. As for the supposedly weightless bromides of inspiration and self-confidence, I do not find them terribly off-putting, but they certainly could have benefited from the offbeat verve that Zach Galifianakis naturally taps into as the Happy Medium.

I give A Wrinkle in Time 3 Happy’s out of 5 IT’s.

This Is a Movie Review Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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What up with Disney ransacking its vault to remake its own animated hits into (mostly[-ish]) live-action versions? This is not an inherently bad idea. These are stories that have been told over and over (often in fairy tale form) and will continue to be told over and over, so why not spruce them up with some 21st Century Pizzazz?

What does new-flavor Beauty and the Beast offer over the 1991 toon? Belle’s an inventor, but that does not factor in too much. There is an “exclusively gay moment” for Le Fou, but it is so inconsequential that you might need a study guide to locate it (I certainly did). So ultimately, this is about some legends of acting and singing giving it a whirl. Nothing earth-shattering, but we’re in good hands.

I give Beauty and the Beast 3 Rose Petals out of 5 Snowy Days in June.