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: ‘Welcome to Marwen’ is an Odd True-Life Story Made Odder by Fitting Into Feel-Good Movie Clichés

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CREDIT: Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

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

Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, Neil Jackson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Bloody Doll-Based Violence, Neo-Nazi Assault Flashbacks, and a Few Unexpected Sexual References

Release Date: December 21, 2018

Welcome to Marwen is a low-key film whose gentleness belies its supreme oddity. At least it comes by its unusual nature honestly. It’s based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, about the artist Mark Hogancamp, who was beaten nearly to death after he told a group of men that he was a cross-dresser. Then as a kind of therapy, he constructed a miniature Belgian World War II-era village and populated it with dolls representing himself and the people in his life. I haven’t seen Marwencol, so I cannot attest to any historical veracity or lack thereof, but given the premise, Welcome to Marwen was always going to be as tricky to make sense of as it turned out to be. Steve Carell, for his part, plays Hogancamp like the sort of meek, PTSD-afflicted, obsessive, highly impressive individual that corresponds with his story. But then there are ways in which Welcome to Marwen attempts to mold Hogancamp’s world into a traditional cinematic structure, and the movie itself feels like it is rebelling.

The biggest miscalculation is probably the romance storyline, which consists of a series of major miscommunications on the part of everyone involved. The doll version of Mark is typically accompanied by his female companions, and the scenarios he playacts quite clearly reveal the feelings he has for them. Figuring prominently is Mark’s new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann), which is pronounced just like “Nicole,” but spelled without the “e” for some inexplicable reason. She’s quite forward in her friendliness, which Mark interprets as romantic interest, which he appears to be correct about, until it is unmistakably clear that he is in fact very incorrect, rendering the audience confused by the ways in which Mark’s perspective is favored over everyone else’s.

While Welcome to Marwen has a few clear missteps, I am not sure how this story could have overall been presented much differently. One answer is that it should not have been made at all, leaving the documentary to stand on its own. But I reject that, on the basis of believing that all cinematic ventures, no matter how ill-advised, can theoretically turn out successful. However, while I am fascinated by this elaborate fantasy world created to deal with trauma and the way that director Robert Zemeckis presents it, I wouldn’t point to Marwen as the best example of this maxim.

Welcome to Marwen is Recommended If You Like: Extensive shoe collections, Romantic miscommunications, Playing with dolls and action figures at any age

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Glamonistas

This Is a Movie Review: Three Teenage Girls Make a Sex Pact, But It is the Parents of ‘Blockers’ Who Are Behaving Badly

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures

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

Starring: Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon

Director: Kay Cannon

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Girls Talking About Sex Without Any Shame, Butt Chugging and the Like, and a Concerning Amount of Drug Use

Release Date: April 6, 2018

What to do with a movie that has a really great message but that plays fast-and-loose with any sense of realism? You take the good, you take the bad – the facts of life! I didn’t go into this meaning to name-check a classic ’80s TV theme song, but as it popped into my head, it just felt remarkably right. At its core, and at its best, Blockers emphasizes the fact that teenage girls have sexual desires and treats that truth as matter-of-factly as it deserves to be treated. This isn’t some “girls can be gross, too!” twist on a “boys will be boys” classic. The sex here approached with maturity and it is often romantic. Any grossness in Blockers is due to insecurity or lapses in plausibility.

Have sex pacts ever occurred in real life? If so, I hope they are as supportive and sweetly motivated as the one in Blockers. On the occasion of her senior prom, Julie (Kathryn Newton) announces to her lifelong friends Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) her intention to lose her virginity tonight to her boyfriend. Sensing an opportunity for a shared anniversary, Kayla and Sam declare that they are in as well. They may not be in as serious a relationship as Julie is, but they’ve got guys who they like well enough and who have the necessary equipment. But when Julie’s mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s dad Mitch (John Cena), and Sam’s dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) catch wind of the pact, they are not going to stand idly by as their girls become women.

It is distressing that these parents have such regressively protective attitudes, though it is encouraging that they are presented as the ones so clearly in the wrong. And what’s more, their motivations are more complicated than not trusting their daughters. Lisa is a single mom who has raised Julie alone her whole life. She is struggling through deep-seated separation anxiety, worrying that Julie getting closer to her boyfriend means she will attend college thousands of miles away, which means that she could disappear forever. Director Kay Cannon and her team of screenwriters handle this unflinchingly, and I wish they would have devoted even more time to it. Hunter, meanwhile, knows that Sam is gay and is worried that her friends are forcing her to do something she doesn’t really want to do. Originally introduced as a deadbeat screw-up, he ends up coming off as the most open-minded of the trio, though the film does lose focus a bit on that tack for the sake of gags. Mitch is really the only one who comes as the stereotypically overprotective parent, and though Cena does imbue him with a fair amount of sweetness, he feels out of place in what the film is ultimately saying.

Blockers’ message that teenage girls should be allowed to make their own sexual decisions, especially if they are with boys (or otherwise) who they like and respect, is indisputably valuable. While it may be underlined a little too obviously, perhaps it is a message that needs to be repeated. It is also heartening to see a group of supportive teenage female friends on screen. Julie, Kayla, and Sam have their stark differences, but their loyalty runs deep. That well of positivity offsets a bit the parents’ surplus of bad behavior, which stretches the bounds of credulity a bit too much. Seriously, Blockers, you’re plenty funny without having to resort to butt chugging beer. That is to say, this is a movie that is much more sure-footed when it comes to romance (somehow making licorice the perfect food for declaring love) than when it swerves into the territory of illegal behavior.

Blockers is Recommended If You Like: Superbad and other Judd Apatow productions, particularly if they feature insecure parents, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Clueless

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sex Pacts