Edward Norton’s Ambitious, Intelligent Motherless Brooklyn

I was late to Edward Norton’s 2019 film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, mainly because the reviews I came across on the film had been critical of how far Norton strayed from Lethem’s source material. I’m happy to report that Norton’s film is ambitious, intelligent, dense, and makes for a fine and very different adaptation of Lethem’s book. I’d go so far as to say that Norton’s film is stronger than Lethem’s original work, but “the book was better” or the less often “the film was better” stance is hardly ever a fair argument for judging one text’s quality. That being said, here it is difficult to discuss Norton’s film without comparing and contrasting it to Lethem’s book.

There are some major differences between the two texts. While Lethem’s novel took place in 1999, Norton’s film takes place in the 1950s. In Lethem’s book, the protagonist Lionel seemed and acted like a much younger person while in Norton’s film he’s clearly in his late 40s. In both texts, Lionel is a private investigator working for the Brooklyn snoop Frank Minna along with three other hoodlums Minna once rescued from a Catholic orphanage along with Lionel. When Minna is killed pursuing a job, Lionel has to put his intelligence and investigative skills towards finding his boss’s and surrogate father’s killer. In Lethem’s book, Minna is a small-time hood with a buried heart of gold whereas Norton’s Minna is played briefly and touchingly by a far more dapper and warmer Bruce Willis. Norton plays Lionel, and convincingly conveys the character’s constant Tourette’s syndrome outbursts. In the book, Lethem paints Lionel’s tics and convoluted thought patterns in heartbreaking density. In the film, Norton displays his character’s verbal outbursts effectively and without relying on excessive VoiceOver narration.

Norton’s decision to move to film’s setting from the end of the 20th century towards its postwar period was not an unmerited one. Lethem’s detective novel is a noir piece, and the story lends itself well to a directly noir postwar period. Like the shell-shocked WWII veteran Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Lionel is an outsider unable to get proper institutional treatment for his affliction even as so many benefit from the postwar economic boom, but is saved by an equally benevolent and manipulative father figure (Philip Seymour Hoffman in PTA’s film, Bruce Willis here).

In Norton’s film, the real antagonist behind Minna’s murder and seemingly every injustice in New York City is Moses Randolph, a city planner played with prudent villainy by Alec Baldwin and clearly based on the real-life New York City planner Robert Moses. Randolph has maneuvered himself into multiple city commissioner positions and created his own Bureau Authority. He is enabled by a team of bureaucrats set to profit greatly from clearing African “slums” in order to build costly housing for white families. Like Daniel Plainview in PTA’s There Will Be Blood and Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Randolph is even willing to harm his own blood relatives, including his brother played by Willem Dafoe, in order to amass power and control.

The scholar Fredric Jameson has written extensively about how the conspiracy film is a poor man’s version of cognitive mapping, the impossible goal of situating oneself within global capitalism. What Norton accomplishes, intentionally or not, is an attempt at cognitive mapping. Just as Lionel’s mind leads him down an uncontrollable path of mental obsessions and verbal tics and outbursts, Randolph’s ever-expanding reach over land, roads, parks, beaches, and buildings creates a clear and complicated flow of money, human connections, and human and financial costs. Just as Lionel’s mental space is a mess, so is the sprawl of global capitalism. This is what Norton’s film so brilliantly and effectively conveys and what most film critics seem to have overlooked.

From The Dog Whisperer’s First Book

“It’s been published elsewhere, and I am not ashamed to say it:: I came to the United States illegally. I now have my residence card, have paid a large fine for crossing illegally, and am applying for full citizenship status. There’s no country I’d rather live in than the United States. I truly believe it is the greatest country in the world. I feel blessed to be living and raising my kids here. However, for the poor and working class of Mexico, there is no other way to come to America except illegally. It’s impossible. The Mexican government is about who you know and how much money you have. You have to pay enormous amounts to officials in order to get a legal visa. My family had no way to get their hands on that kind of money. So, with just one hundred dollars in my pocket, I set out for Tijuana to figure out how to get across the border” -Cesar Millan, Cesar’s Way, p. 38.

It Was Pretty Good

I was late to Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter Two. I had seen the first film in theaters and was impressed by its suspense, psychological terror, and harsh view of the world. Having seen much of the It mini-series I didn’t feel much need to see Muschietti’s second film until I felt drawn to the movie after being so impressed with the recent HBO show The Outsider, which was also based on a Stephen King book.

There’s no need for a full review of such a popular film, but I was impressed. The cast is near flawless (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Bill Skarsgard, among others), and the computer generated imagery actually serves the suspense well. At nearly three hours, the filmmakers could have easily cut out many of the flashbacks because the first film already covered the backstories of the adult characters when they were children.

I wanted to briefly mention It Chapter Two because the near-climax of the film brought to mind Alex Garland’s Annihilation. In the latter film, the diegetic sound (the sounds within the space of the story including character dialogue and noises) collapses and fragments with the non-diegetic sound (the sounds outside the story space, i.e. the film score). It Chapter Two briefly does something similar near the end of the film, and both its sound and imagery brings recalls Annihilation.

I mention this because I think that Garland’s film may have set a trend that filmgoers can expect to see more of in the future. In neither instance is this process done just for show either. In Garland’s film, the move reflects the way that the premise is about a zone where genetic cells in humans, animals, and plants are refracted like light. For Muschietti, the trick alludes to how the film’s evil clown Pennywise is a light source that reflects fear hallucinations to its victims. Anyway, these films illustrate that even some big budget films are doing intelligent, new things with cinema.

Mark Ruffalo and Co. Soar in I Know This Much Is True

Try as I might to watch less television, Derek Cianfrance, Wally Lamb, and Ruffalo’s mini-series I Know This Much Is True has been too good to pass up. The series is based on Lamb’s novel of the same title about two Connecticut brothers and their shared family history and traumas. In the series adapted and directed by Cianfrance, Mark Ruffalo plays both brothers, the serious and volatile Dominick and his vulnerable and also mercurial paranoid schizophrenic brother Thomas. Dominick’s life as a forty year old man revolves around taking care of Thomas, who he both loves and resents. After Thomas cuts off his own hand in a public library in an act of intended religious sacrifice, he is transferred from his group home to a state forensic facility. The stress of where his bothered has landed causes Dominick to have to deal with his own issues rooted in his difficult relationships with his violent stepfather, played by John Procaccino, and the women in his life including his ex-wife (a very good Kathryn Hahn) and his current girlfriend (Imogen Poots).

The entire cast is uniformly strong in this grim yet humane drama, and the show so far (two episodes have been broadcast on HBO) feels plausible and raw. I’ve become tired of films and TV shows using the same performer and computer generated imagery to put identical twins onscreen especially because the stories are usually just about male twins (Ewan McGregor in season three of Fargo, Tom Hardy in Legend), but I Know This Much Is True uses its special effects in the service of a story for grownups. I can’t post a full review because the full season hasn’t aired yet, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if this doesn’t end up being the television series of the year.

Possible Movie of the Year: Clark Duke’s Arkansas

I will be pleasantly surprised if I end up liking any new film I see this year as much as I liked Clark Duke’s comic thriller Arkansas. The film, adapted from John Brandon’s novel of the same title, is sad, funny, smart, and very unpredictable. I went into the film knowing very little so I’ll reveal only the basic premise. Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke play Kyle and Swin, small-level Southern drug couriers for a drug dealer they’ve never met named Frog, who is played by Vince Vaughn. At this point in his career, Vaughn seems to largely choose interesting projects, and Arkansas is no exception. In the film, a drug deal goes bad, and a series of misunderstandings are exacerbated by the shared arrogance of Kyle and Swin leading to twists, turns, suspense, and brutal violence.

Hemsworth is believable as the serious, strong silent type Kyle who is contrasted with the talkative and wisecracking Swin. They’re cocky and not very likable heroes, but Hemsworth and Duke make them a very human pair. Vaughn is reliable and unshowy as always. John Malkovich and Vivica A. Fox are very funny as Frog’s middle managers. Eden Brolin plays Swin’s girlfriend Johnna, and will surely become a major star. The presence of Michael K. Williams alone is in itself a treat. I’ll say little else except that the cast is uniformly brilliant, and that this is a rich and humane portrait of Southern crooks you might just end up caring about. With so much division in America these days, Arkansas is a simple and sad reminder that most of us share the desire for shelter and safety for our friends and family.

The Cacophony of Capone

Viewers expecting a traditional biopic of one Al Capone will likely be disappointed with director Josh Trank’s largely plotless and episodic film Capone (which originally had the stronger title Fonzo), but fans of the actor Tom Hardy and mood movies might find a lot to enjoy. For Fonzo very much is a fever dream film. Hardy plays Capone in the last year of his life as he lives with dementia and incontinence from a near-lifelong contagion of syphilis. To an outsider, Fonzo, as his family members call him, might seem to be living in paradise: smoking cigars and listening to music in a Florida mansion. However, Trank, who impressively also wrote and edited the film, presents the once notorious gangster as living in a deserved hell as he’s plagued by dementia, explosive diarrhea, and hallucinations of people he’s harmed and killed.

This tight film, barely running over an hour and forty minutes, shares common ground with other American films about big businessmen who come to humble or grotesque fates. There is the obvious link to Citizen Kane, and the more subtle connection to There Will Be Blood. In the latter film, the anti-hero Daniel Plainview has gone insane even though he’s wound up with all the material resources he’s wanted. Fonzo often feels like a film-length version of the last twenty minutes of There Will Be Blood, and that’s meant as a compliment. Like last year’s The Irishman, the film illustrates that no matter how successful someone is, they still have to suffer and die someday. Like it or not, death is something we all share.

Hardy is strong as always, and often quite funny. He’s ably supported by Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, and Kyle Maclachlan. El-P’s evocative score will surely become a cult classic soundtrack over the years, and this film likely will gain cult status with time too.

On Seeds and Sandler

I’ve taken a break from blogging because I mainly blog about films, and I’ve been trying to watch LESS films and television shows because so many are violent and conflict-driven. During quarantine, I’ve been reading the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ and his The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. In both texts, TNH really stresses the importance of being mindful to what we are putting into our minds and bodies. He mentions that we all have ‘seeds’ in our unconscious, and that they can be either wholesome or unwholesome. According to TNH, violent films water unwholesome seeds of fear and anger in us. To me, this makes a lot of sense so I’ve significantly cut down on watching films and TV shows. I’d just rather read about Buddhism, meditate, paint, pray, etc.

I did watch Uncut Gems yesterday after my sister, who works in the entertainment industry, recommended it to me. In the film, Adam Sandler plays a reckless and selfish NYC jewelry store owner and gambling addict who puts himself, his mistress, his employees, and his entire family in danger after getting deep in gambling debts. There’s been plenty written about the film so I won’t write a review. I’m mentioning the movie because it is a dark, violent, and depressing film, and being mindful I could feel and understand that this type of film does water unwholesome seeds in me (and likely many who watch it). I definitely felt sad, angry, and fearful watching it. This is why I largely avoid watching films and television shows these days. There is simply too much violence and revenge in film and TV.

With this being a positive blog, I will note that Sandler is brilliant in the film. I felt like I was watching an authentic human being and not one of Hollywood’s most beloved comic stars. There is a great actor inside Sandler as this film and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love show. I hope he continues to work in dramatic pieces because he truly is a master performer.

We All Live in a Black Sea Submarine

I was late to Kevin MacDonald’s gritty and sad 2014 submarine film Black Sea. The film came out right around the time critics were started to realize that Jude Law might make a fine character actor, now that his peak years of stardom had passed and his hairline had receded. In the film, Law plays Robinson, a marine salvage expert who is first shown being fired from his job by a much younger Human Resources worker bee. With his body hunched over the chair he’s sitting in, Law exudes the weight of someone crushed by forces he can’t control. Watching the film, I frequently forgot I was watching Law because he so believably inhabited this working-class character who has lost his family to the only job he knows how to do.

Robinson has a friend who has also been laid off by the same company, who knows about a sunken German U-boat holding millions of dollars in gold out in the Black Sea. As a way to get back at their employer, Robinson and his friend put a team together to man a submarine to the U-boat and take the gold. Theirs is a ragtag group of men who are good at what they do and have been used and fired by their blandly named corporate employer, Agora. Like in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, these man have been emasculated by capitalist forces and precarity, and the promise of wealth alters their character and their judgment.

There are many twists and turns in Black Sea so I’ll say little else about the plot. Law is exceptional, and he’s supported by a first-rate cast that includes Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Jodie Whitaker, and Michael Smiley.

Revisiting Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

Last night I watched Shane Black’s buddy comedy The Nice Guys for the first time since I watched it in a Detroit theater in the summer of 2016. The film holds up so nicely (I’ll try to avoid that word as much as I can) that I was half tempted to rewatch it a second time today. On the surface, the film is a nice (shoot!) comedy about two private eyes in 1970s Los Angeles. On a deeper level, the film taps into many interesting sociopolitical concerns that have been addressed in other recent films and television shows.

The set-up is that Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a widower, father to a precocious young daughter, and former L.A. cop turned private detective. He’s on case searching for a girl named Amelia, played by Margaret Qualley (who was also in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film that shares a lot of common ground with this one). Amelia doesn’t want to be found so she pays a local muscle enforcer from the Bronx named Jackson Healy, played wonderfully and believably by Russell Crowe, to rough up March and tell him to stop looking for her. March, Healy, and March’s daughter Holly then form an unlikely alliance to find Amelia when they realize she’s in danger and involved in a convoluted and deadly conspiracy involving the big three car companies from Detroit.

When I first saw The Nice Guys, the friend I saw the film with said that it reminded him of what he expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice to be like. Black’s film takes place in 1977 Los Angeles while Anderson’s film is set in 1970 L.A. They both include conspiracies where the unseen rich and powerful get away with a lot for the sake of profit. Like with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, both films have a commodity at the center of their conspiracies: in Inherent Vice, it is physical land to be developed as well as heroin to be sold while in The Nice Guys it is Detroit-made automobiles. The film also brings to mind Todd Phillip’s Joker. Both films share a ‘pastness’-signifying Time Warner logo from the late 1970s or early 1980s as well as pollution that stands in for the pervasiveness and destructiveness of late capitalism. In Joker, it is the ever present garbage bags on the streets of 1980 New York City while in The Nice Guys it is the constant smog hanging above Los Angeles.

One interesting thing to note is the way that the film both critiques and reinforces American capitalist patriarchy. Like Tarantino’s two he-men in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, March and Healy are actually rather conservative figures despite their hipster beards. They both complain frequently about how the generation after them has lost their way. This is glimpsed most comically in a scene where March and Healy attend a symbolic protest where young activists protest the smog in the air by pretending to be dead at City Hall. March and Healy are confused because the protesters are wearing gas masks. “Wouldn’t the gas masks save you?” they ask, and the protesters are puzzled by the question. They are another variation of the self-involved, self-righteous, and stupid Manson Family members in Tarantino’s film, though much more benign.

The film also critiques the patriarchy. March is far from a competent father. Healy is probably closer to a sociopath than just a tough guy. The heart of the film lies with Holly, the young girl who is both smart and compassionate. Most interestingly, by the time the conspiracy is revealed, the patriarchal white villains’ ethnic henchmen and henchwoman played by Keith David, Yaya DaCosta, and Beau Knapp are killed by the Nice Guys or at least beaten up and the white female head of the Department of Justice, played by Kim Basinger, is left behind as the villains’ scapegoat. Black’s film is much wiser than it seems. For the Nice Guys live and get to move on to other cases while the bad guys get away with murder. Welcome to the neoliberal world.

The Seminal and Influential Sidney Lumet

Check out that open shirt.

Published last year, Maura Spiegel’s Sidney Lumet: A Life is an absolutely first-rate biography. It is probably the strongest single director biography I’ve ever read and definitely one of the best showbiz biographies I’ve come across. The book is heavily researched, provides astute analysis of Lumet’s work and personal life, and Spiegel does a fine job of illustrating Lumet’s influence on more recent films and television programs.

I knew quite a bit about Lumet going into Spiegel’s biography, but I learned so much more through her enjoyable and accessible 363 pages. I was unaware that Lumet had grown up a stage and screen actor with deep Yiddish roots in 1930s New York. Through Spiegel’s book I also learned that Lumet had served in the American military in World War II, and had experienced Anti-Semitism as well as pervasive humiliation there (Lumet remarked on the humiliation of having to use toilets without stalls while serving). Racial prejudice and the sterility and messiness of institutions would appear again and again in his work.

Film critics often describe Lumet as being workmanlike in his aesthetic and output. This generalization often came from Lumet’s early work in television in the 1950s. What Spiegel’s book makes clear and what I’ve known for a long time is that Lumet was very much an auteur. Lumet was famous, maybe even infamous, for mainly shooting in his hometown New York City, and rarely filming outside of New York and Europe. He repeatedly returned to his theme that justice is fragile in films including 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and that institutional bureaucracy will always protect itself over individuals in his films Serpico, Prince of the City, and Dog Day Afternoon.

Spiegel really does fine work noting how Lumet’s films have influenced more recent projects by younger filmmakers. She points out the aesthetic influence of Lumet’s Prince of the City on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. I’d add that Lumet’s The Verdict and its depiction of the little guy fighting the big institution for justice certainly bears its influence in Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action and Stephen Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich. The sad and weary cynicism of Prince of City is painted all over David Simon’s series The Wire.

Spiegel also presents a clear understanding of Lumet as a man based on her research into his book on filmmaking, his unpublished memoir, as well as interviews she conducted with his friends and relatives. Lumet had a philandering father and an unstable mother who died while he was young, and his work as a child actor provided for his father and sister growing up. So Lumet was always working and always seeing someone. He was married four times in his life, and he is consistently remembered by his wives and friends as a kind, thoughtful, and generous person. This assessment also comes through how actors speak about him: as warm, caring, and patient.

Lumet seems to be getting a reappraisal among film critics and programmers, and Spiegel’s recent book attests to this movement. Hopefully we’ll continue to see this late legend get the recognition he’s long earned.