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

‘The Lighthouse’ is a Terrifying Portrayal of Isolation That May Just Be Too Much to Bear

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Director: Robert Eggers

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Sexual Content and Violence Covered in Mud and Seawater, and Uniquely Accented Profanity

Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited)

Very scary quite contrary. Ooey gooey muddy yucky.

Movies like The Lighthouse make me wonder if it should be standard practice to hand out programs to filmgoers as they enter the theater. While there is no shortage of assets in 2019 to consult to help with any cinematic confusion, there’s a big difference between visiting Wikipedia or Reddit afterwards and actually having a booklet in hand while watching. (It might be too dark to read during the actual show, but there’s something to be said for the security blanket quality of its mere presence.) Director Robert Eggers’ last film, The Witch, had the very helpful tone-setting subtitle “A New England Folktale,” which calibrated my filmgoing faculties exactly where they needed to be. Meanwhile, The Lighthouse, featuring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a couple of lighthouse keepers struggling with isolation and their growing antagonism twoards each other, is a much more throw-you-over-the-edge-without-a-life-preserver affair.

That’s not to say that I need, or even want, my hand held throughout The Lighthouse. It’s fine, and probably better, that certain things remain a mystery. Like the mermaid that Pattinson gets it on with that’s probably just a vision, though it’s hard to tell for sure in this landscape. Also, why is that seagull so angry? These are discussions I’m happy to have after watching a sensorially pummeling movie like this one! But while watching, I’d prefer it if I wasn’t constantly asking myself, “Where am I?” If Eggers had just given us one little crumb, like a subtitle along the lines of, for example, “A Sea Shanty,” I think I would have been able to digest this one a little more properly.

But despite this major reservation, I cannot dismiss The Lighthouse entirely. I will always encourage visionary cinema, even if I’m not a fan of the particular vision. And this black-and-white freakout about the horrors of isolation, presented in a claustrophobic 4:3 boxy aspect ratio, certainly qualifies as a vision. So I’ll remain open-minded to re-evaluating this ish in the future, but for now it feels like a silly slosh through the mud and an overindulgent assault on our senses.

The Lighthouse is Recommended If You Like: You Were Never Really Here, Mandy, The Witch

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Seagulls

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Aquaman’ is Overstuffed, But It’s Got Some Fun, Wet Weirdness

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

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

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison

Director: James Wan

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Combat Taking Place Undersea and the Sea Being Turned Into Weapons

Release Date: December 21, 2018

Everybody loves Aquaman. (Unless you have an opposing claim to the throne of Atlantis, that is.) This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it used to be that in all corners of the pop culturesphere, he was the biggest punch line among all well-known superheroes. But now Arthur Curry is everyone’s buddy. Although, in terms of how much he’s keeping his identity a secret and the level of hero worship, this movie does not make it entirely clear what the world thinks of him. It seems like the audience is expected to come in with some familiarity of last year’s Justice League. But that team-up picture was not completely comprehensive about how the terrestrial world felt about him. Suffice it to say, Jason Momoa is pretty much able to play him like the jolly giant that he is, and one scene that tells us all we need to know features a gang of bikers who look like they are about to beat him up but instead excitedly request a selfie.

The meat of the story, in a movie that has about a half-dozen active plot threads, is the half-Atlantean/half-human Curry attempting to ascend to the throne of Atlantis. As the eldest son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), it should be his birthright. He does not really want to be king, though, but the throne’s current occupant, his younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), is planning a war against land dwellers. But that storyline gets interrupted while Arthur and his love interest/personal conscience Mera (Amber Heard) ascend back to the surface and go on a scavenger hunt to track down a MacGuffin. So for about a half hour, the two globehop and track down clues, turning Aquaman into Indiana Jones for a stretch. Then all the other Atlanteans re-appear, and just about every plotline finds time to be resolved, because this sucker is nearly two and a half hours long.

But there is still some time to leave a few threads dangling, as the sequel must always be set up, which means that a few key issues are left unelaborated amidst all the bloat. The ostensible reason that Orm wants to start a war is because of all the pollution that ends up in the oceans. But that explanation feels so throwaway and never really plays into the conflict between Orm and Arthur. And there is no sense of whether terrestrial humans are or are not going to take responsibility for all their wastefulness. Ultimately, this movie jumps all over the place and does not know where to focus, but there are thrills to be had in odd details, like an octopus playing the drums, an Atlantean fighter sticking his head into a toilet for wet relief, and Randall Park’s all-too-brief appearance as a scientist sounding a call of alarm. And it bears repeating: everyone loves Aquaman (even though he is occasionally called an imbecile).

Aquaman is Recommended If You Like: Jason Momoa’s bonhomie, Water-based weaponry, Superhero movies that stretch past two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Water Spears

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Vox Lux’ is a Traumatic and Entrancing Journey Through Pop Music Stardom

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CREDIT: NEON

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

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe

Director: Brady Corbet

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for School Shooting Violence, Drug Use, and Staten Island Accented-Profanity

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

There is a scene about midway through Vox Lux in which pop star Celeste Montgomery (Natalie Portman) is at a diner with her daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who also plays the teenage Celeste), expounding about how the press is always hounding her, and it turns into this incomprehensible rant about the misbegotten state of the world. She sounds like someone who watched Fight Club too many times as a teenager, specifically the scene in which Tyler Durden espouses his whole philosophy. But the causes of Celeste’s unique psychology can actually be traced to much more intense external forces. The armchair nihilist philosophizing is just gravy.

The adult Celeste is the product of two adolescent experiences that no teenager is naturally wired to perfectly handle. Both of these types of experiences on their own can, and have, resulted in long-term negative effects for many people. But together they produce … well, they produce Vox Lux. Celeste’s journey begins by surviving a shooting at her middle school, which is obviously traumatic enough to produce scars that last a lifetime. During her recovery, she writes a song to create some love out of the violence, and it ends up becoming a huge hit and leads into a full-on pop music career. But teenage stardom is not ideal for most people, and Celeste does not buck that trend. Fast-forward to the present day, in which at 31 years old she is emotionally still a child.

The culmination of Celeste’s story is hardly surprising, but director Brady Corbet makes it entrancing even at its most disturbing. This is a truly singular whirlwind of a person, and even knowing how messed up her personal life is, we can see how she remains compelling through and through to the public at large. The final 15 minutes or so take place at her new tour’s kickoff performance at her hometown of Staten Island. Considering the series of crises on the way to getting her to the stage in one piece, I thought that this moment was going to end with her collapsing or otherwise failing to finish the show. But instead, she is a wonder to behold, as bedazzling as any modern pop star at the top of her game. This triumph is even more stunning considering the struggle leading up to it. Celeste becomes more admirable while simultaneously remaining as much of a cautionary tale as ever. She remains a symbol by holding up the weight of circumstances that are so much heavier than any one person could possibly bear.

Vox Lux is Recommended If You Like: The Spectacle of Pop Music, Black Swan, Staten Island accents, Actors playing the same characters 20 years apart

Grade: 4 out of 5 Losses of Innocence

This Is a Movie Review: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Reveals Willem Dafoe as an Uncanny Vincent van Gogh

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CREDIT: CBS Films

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

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Director: Julian Schnabel

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense Mental Turmoil and the Fallout of Self-Mutilation

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)

Wow, does Willem Dafoe sure look like Vincent van Gogh. I had never noticed the resemblance before, but now that the actor has played the Dutch painter in At Eternity’s Gate, I cannot unsee it, and I am left to wonder how I never noticed it before. Perhaps adding a bandage to cover up an ear (or where an ear should be) was essential for making the similarity come into focus. Casting a lookalike actor is not exactly the most impressive cinematic feat, but its effectiveness can transcend its lack of difficulty, as is the case here. The effect is complete only if the actor manages to forge an emotional connection as striking as the physical one. Dafoe is certainly up to the task, with the deep pools in his eyes conveying the sublime weight of the world that hung upon van Gogh’s face.

Van Gogh is one of the most famous examples of the troubled, mentally ill artist. Director Julian Schnabel does not romanticize that side of him, but nor does he attempt to remove it entirely from his creative process. Depression probably made it more difficult for van Gogh to get his work done, but it also forced him into certain perspectives that are strikingly illuminated in his paintings. However, At Eternity’s Gate is less about van Gogh’s creative process and more about how he relates to the world. He has trouble relating to most people, just as they have trouble understanding him. But he does have at least one cherished friendship, with his fellow post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). My brother was telling me that he heard that Gauguin’s purpose in this film is essentially to regularly ask van Gogh, “You doing okay?” That is correct, and it is a crucial purpose. In the film, the ear-cutting incident is played as a moment of panic when van Gogh fears that Gauguin is going to abandon him. It is a highly relatable situation for anyone who has ever experienced anxiety related to their friends moving on in their lives, and it serves to make the struggles of someone who lived over 100 years ago less abstract. The world can be overwhelming, and it has been for some time. Somehow van Gogh made his mark on that journey. We should cherish that for what it is worth, whatever that inscrutable value is.

At Eternity’s Gate is Recommended If You Like: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Melancholia, Willem Dafoe in a starring role

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Starry Nights

 

This Is a Movie Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Take on ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Has a Killer Instinct But Not a Killer Execution

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stab Wounds and Attempted Gun Wounds

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Kenneth Branagh’s take on Hercule Poirot, one of the most famous and prolifically portrayed detectives in English literary history, is the sort of man who cannot enjoy his breakfast unless his two eggs are perfectly symmetrically arranged. As he puts, “I can only see the world as it should be.” His skill at identifying culprits so precisely derives from his distaste for his surroundings being askew in any capacity. And when a crime has been committed, things are certainly askew. For a Poirot newbie like myself, this thesis statement is clear and compelling enough. It points to a tradition that has led to a recently predominant style in which brilliant detectives do not fit on a normative intellectual scale.

As for how this version of this most classic of Poirot cases plays out, Branagh is eager to put his many new spins on locked room mystery tropes. But first, certain typical patterns are unavoidable. Each passenger must be introduced with just enough color to make everyone a legitimate suspect, and the camerawork must be painstakingly particular to note every cabin, door, and hidden compartment. But once the setup is through, there is fun to be had (or at least attempted) in mixing up expectations. Oftentimes, characters in these stories try to get away with little lies or hide pieces of their identities that ultimately prove to be quite telling. In this case, the experiment – and alas, mistake – is that everyone gives themselves away with such dishonesty.

A good mystery should be a few steps ahead of most of its viewers. Branagh does indeed pull that off, but he is also a few steps ahead of his own movie, which is not similarly advisable. The result is an end product in which the love for the genre is clear, but the volume at which it is being poked and prodded is too much weight to bear. Most of the performances are overly stiff, stuck in roles within roles in which the unnatural seams start to show. Only Michelle Pfeiffer manages to truly cut loose. Branagh’s formal openness is a good start, but ultimately a star-studded affair like this one requires much more lasting personalities to really hit.

Murder on the Orient Express is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie completism, Marvelous mustaches, the Michelle Pfeiffer Renaissance

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Symmetrical Arrangements

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Florida Project’ is a Portrait of Life on the Edge Just Outside the Sunshine State’s Tourist Meccas

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CREDIT: Marc Schmidt/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Brooklyn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera

Director: Sean Baker

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Potty Mouth, a Few Scrapes, Discreet Sex That Doesn’t Stay Hidden, and An Impromptu Use of a Tampon

Release Date: October 6, 2017 (Limited)

I have frequently wondered how people with a thin personal economic safety net stake their place in the world. It’s such a different life than I know that it might as well be on a separate plane of existence entirely. But it is not absolutely foreigg. We all do what we must to survive, and we’re all wired to find fun where and when we can. But there are certain realities of a capitalist society that make any sense of a satisfactory life illusory. I firmly, theoretically, believe that material possessions are not the ultimate source of happiness, but I recognize that in practice, lack of material goods is the cause of a lot of hardship. The Florida Project is a portrait of such an existence, and thus it is a stressful watch, though I am happy to have seen it.

The marketing for The Florida Project is a lot more unfailingly happy-go-lucky than the actual film. The trailer and poster are not outright lies, as indeed a group of cute little kids do run around having the time of their lives and Willem Dafoe is more adorably gruff than hardass grump. But an overarching grim context is inescapable. Perhaps there is a concerted point in putting the film’s peppiest step forward, as it takes place in Kissimmee, Florida, not too far from Orlando. Head beyond that city’s tourist mecca, and you might just be a little less inclined to still call this land “the happiest place on Earth.”

The Magic Castle Motel may be a purposeful misnomer intended to lure in a few gullible tourists and also self-delude its longtime residents, but try telling that to 6-year-old Mooney (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) and her best friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Mooney knows that she and her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) don’t exactly have a lot of money (that is, when they have any at all), but she still knows how to spend a hell of a day, like by sneaking around an abandoned building or scrounging up cash for ice cream (by pretending to have asthma that can only be relieved by ice cream). And hey, soliciting secondhand goods in a hotel parking lot with Mom is a lot of fun, too!

But when The Florida Project delves into the less savory ways in which Halley gets by, it’s a little harder to say that everything is copacetic. Questions that society really needs to grapple with become to impossible to ignore. When living in poverty is so expensive, how can you expect a young adult on waiting lists for every legitimate job not to turn to illegal ventures? And when those ventures become serious enough for social services to get involved, is the best solution really removing a child from a loving, non-abusive parental relationship? A lot of this grappling within the narrative falls upon motel manager Bobby (Dafoe in a role tailor-made for him), who is alternately a father figure, taskmaster, guardian angel, and just human. Written all over the lines of his face is the thesis of the film: this is all too intense to fully make sense of, but someone (but really, everyone) needs to live in it.

The Florida Project is Recommended If You Like: American Honey, A Little Princess, Boyhood

Grade: 4 out of 5 Cussing Kids

This Is a Movie Review: The Great Wall

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The Great Wall

This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pescal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han

Director: Zhang Yimou

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cutting Away Right Before the Blood and Guts Spill Out

Release Date: February 17, 2017

Matt Damon’s prominence in The Great Wall’s ad campaign has caused a bit of a fuss. Is this yet another example of the White Savior complex, come to save the helpless foreigners? In the actual film, Damon is not the leader of the Chinese army that the promos seem to make him out to be. But he does save the day. Although he kind of does so accidentally. Except by the end when he knows exactly what he’s doing. So… you could aim your social justice call-to-arms against The Great Wall, but it would be an awfully silly flick to focus on.

Damon’s presence is essentially an afterthought, despite him being one of the main characters. He may have been part of the story from conception, but this smacks of a business rather than artistic decision, regardless of intention. The Great Wall is already a hit in China, and it would be nice if it could add some bank in the U.S. (and Latin America, thus Damon’s partner is played Chilean-born Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones and Narcos).

If the white faces are there to add star power, it does not quite work out that way, perhaps because director Zhang Yimou (HeroRaise the Red LanternHouse of Flying Daggers) does not have much experience outside of Chinese martial arts flicks. So the action is rousingly shot (Damon’s archery skills are thrillingly put on display throughout), but the English speakers find their charisma diminished. Luckily, Jing Tian, as the Commander of the Chinese Army, carries a lot of the heavy lifting of dialogue and plot progression, and she knows exactly what she is doing.

To get to the actual meat of this story, this film is concerned very little about cultural imperialism but a great deal about B-movie monsters. It posits that the Great Wall of China was built to keep out not invading Mongol hordes, but rather mythical lizard creatures that indiscriminately eat everything in their path. The character design and relentless ferociousness are fun in a schlocky, Midnight Movie Madness sort of way. (Thank you, Cinematic Gods, that they are not the umpteenth version of giant bug aliens.)

The sci-fi B-movies of the fifties and sixties represented the cultural fears of that era (particularly, nuclear holocaust and the insidious creep of communism). If we apply that same rubric to The Great Wall, then what does China fear in 2017? As it becomes a bigger and bigger player in the world economy, is there concern that the Chinese identity will be eaten up by Western hegemony? Or perhaps these monsters are the Chinese id, and this is a warning to everyone else of the Red Dragon’s Rise. Alas, they prove to have one key vulnerability that ensures their demise, just as this film ends up being a little too disposable to pay it much heed.

The Great Wall is Recommended If You LikeGodzilla, the archery scenes from Lord of the Rings, the Brood from X-Men

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Grenades