In Brief: Another look at Edward Norton’s brilliant flick, Motherless Brooklyn
Here we are in what seems like week one-thousand since theaters closed up. The country is getting itchy to get back to normal and requirements for social distancing are slowly being relaxed. The “slowly” plans in Washington and Oregon, and most of the Northwest and California don’t include theaters or bars at this point in time.
As you know I’m a movie critic and not being able to do movies is a bummer. I’m also — as many of you know — a drummer for a classic rock band that is booked all summer in venues around the Portland area. My hobby is playing basketball.
So for me, the continued closure of theaters, bars and gyms, and restricting contact at gyms when things reopen is just bad news all around.
In the meantime, and as noted last week, we won’t really be looking at serious movie releases for at least another month. Theaters might be opening up in some states by then. Washington? Oregon? Probably not.
Time will — as they say — tell.
In June we’re going to see releases of movies that will definitely be award-worthy when the year ends and those giving out awards start considering them. That got me thinking of movies last year that I didn’t get a chance to review and that — strangely — didn’t make the award cut.
My favorite — and one of my favorite films of last year — is Motherless Brooklyn.
Edward Norton stars and wrote the screenplay based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel. He always loved the book and thought it would make a great movie. It just took him about 20-years to get the job done.
Norton also directs.
It is his second time in the director’s chair and his first acknowledged screenplay. By “acknowledged” I mean that some say Norton sometimes comes onto the set of a movie with his own version of his character. And some say he’s directed his own characters in some movies.
We’ll cover that more later.
As an “official” director he directed the semi-romantic, and — sadly — the semi-good romantic comedy/drama and starred with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman in Keeping the Faith.
Motherless Brooklyn is a different story. There is nothing semi about this movie and Norton had total control. It’s a very good and a very heavy crime drama set in 1957. Norton plays Lionel Essrog. He’s a detective who tries to find out who killed his beloved boss and why. The boss loved Essrog’s ability to remember detail and his loyalty.
That loyalty drives the detective. He’s also challenged. Part of the struggle to find the killer or killers is that Essrog has Tourette Syndrome. That makes things pretty difficult and at times, Norton’s interpretation of that challenge is kind of funny.
No, let’s make that really funny and say that it helps offset the serious drama swirling around poor Essrog and the mystery.
The film is packed with a nasty characters. They include a crime boss, his henchmen, and his frightened brother, crooked politicians, crooked cops and maybe crooked detectives. It’s the whole nine-yards couched in a long, detailed and complicated film packed with the kind of characters that make noir — well — noir.
Some critics say at 2:24 it’s too long. I’m not one of them. The film is the length it needs to be to do a good job of telling the story. That said, Norton did make a serious change in Lethem’s story. His book is set in the present and Norton said moving it to the 1950s would make a better movie.
Another plus is Norton’s cast of supporting actors that include Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, TV’s The Morning Show, Beauty and the Beast), Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, one of my favorite character actors, Bobby Cannavale (The Irishman), Bruce Willis. Leslie Mann and others.
The real jewel in this one — however — is Norton. His rendition of the Tourette’s challenged detective is brilliantly conceived and executed. In the 1950s no one knew much about the syndrome and he has to explain to the film’s other characters about his handicap and how his brain doesn’t quite work right.
It adds to the difficulty Essrog has in solving the movie’s mystery and his character’s credibility with those he encounters. It also end giving his character character.
Motherless Brooklyn was screened the same night as the last Terminator movie. It left me with an awful choice. Which one to do? One that I’d likely like or Arnold Schwarzenegger? Arnold’s flick was going to be the bigger movie so I had to pick it.
Such a lousy choice but it’s one I had to make.
KXL afternoon news anchor, Cooper Banks and I caught the movie a couple of weeks later. We both loved it and Norton’s performance. What shocked us most about the movie — and what we’ve talked about several times since November of last year — is why Norton’s acting was ignored by all the major awards givers at the end of the year. So was his movie. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences best picture Oscar nomination list can include 10 films. Last year only nine were nominated.
This one should have been the 10th.
The Golden Globes passed and others did as well.
Neither Cooper nor I can figure out why Norton was ignored. His acting topped an okay piece of work by Jonathan Pryce in true-life drama, The Two Popes and Antonio Banderas who was good, but not great, in Pain and Glory. Both got Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
In our minds his acting was close to as good as that of Joaquin Phoenix who won the Oscar and the Golden Globe, and other awards, for his acting in Joker.
Could the reason he was ignored be because Norton is hard to live with on a movie set and wants to control all aspects of what is done with the character he is playing? Some reports say he often writes his own script and insists that what he has written be done instead of that of the scriptwriter. Others claim Norton also insists that he control how his character is edited and is often — and very loudly and publicly — upset with original edits.
Whatever the case, his acting — and this film — should not have been ignored. If you’re a fan of film noir, this is a movie you should not ignore.
Motherless Brooklyn can now be found on many of the streaming networks that feature movies. If you see it, I’d be curious as to what you think of the movie and why you think the movie got ignored.
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter. Write me and let me know what you think.
In the meantime, I have, finally done something that Cooper has been nagging me to do for the last couple of years. Nagging complete and I am now binge-watching Game of Thrones. I’m almost through season two. This is — I have to admit — really good TV and as I sit on the cusp of season three, I’m reminded that there are five to go.
It’s hard for me to watch that much television but with very little else to do these days, I have managed to make it this far and am — like many of you — now addicted to the series.
To me, “Game of Thrones” plays out like a medieval soap opera. However, it’s brilliantly written and acted and as far as soap operas go, it’s about the best I’ve ever seen.
Director: Edward Norton
Stars: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Leslie Mann
This is film noir at its best and is a film that ought not to have been ignored when it was released in November of last year. The awards groups ignored it. I didn’t and you shouldn’t. Give this a 5 on the Friday Flicks with Gary o-to-5 scale.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.