Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Knives Out

Director Rian Johnson

Director Rian Johnson (right) with actors Chris Evans and Ana de Armas on the set

KNIVES OUT            B-                   
USA  (130 mi)  2019  d: Rian Johnson                       Official site

When people get desperate, the knives come out.
―tagline for the film

A terrific story does not necessarily translate to a terrific film, as this is easily one of the uglier digitalized film looks in over a decade, resembling some of the earliest efforts with the technology, overly dark, featuring plenty of troublesome empty shadows, while the facial crevices in the multitude of close-ups are just horrific, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dreary, colorless palette of Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009).  From the maker of BRICK (2005), still his most original feature, THE BROTHERS BLOOM (2008), and Looper (2012), this is a satiric, modern era update of the classical Agatha Christie thriller where a ghastly murder takes place in a Gothic mansion, yet no one is allowed to leave the premises until police can interrogate all the suspects, where a clever detective has a way of unleashing all the hidden family secrets, often pitting one suspect against another, where money is always a motive as insurmountable clues mount up, yet audiences relish the idea of playing along, making a collective game out of solving the crime.  This is old-fashioned homage entertainment, turning a house into a board game of Clue (which apparently grew out of the British popularity of Agatha Christie novels, writing 66 of them during her lifetime, devising all manner of novel ways to kill someone), given a modern era twist that lightheartedly pokes fun at the Trump administration’s xenophobic views on immigrants, subverting expectations by making a lesser character (an immigrant caretaker who is viewed as little more than hired help) the smartest person in the room, befuddling all the rich white folks who are screwed out of their inheritance by some vengeful trickery, quickly blaming the outsider, but it’s the family’s own avarice and malicious intent that ultimately does them in, every single one a freeloader, yet they’re left to bitch and moan about how they were cheated out of what was rightfully theirs, while they gleefully support the idea they are self-made success stories (despite receiving a generous million dollar loan to start their business), leading lives of privilege, always identifying with the upper class, continually blaming others for their own shortcomings.  While no one really distinguishes themselves here, no standout performances, you’d like to think there’s some sardonic Buñuelian wit about it, but that’s not the case either, as instead the model seems to be the Joseph Mankiewicz film SLEUTH (1972) based upon the wildly popular play by British playwright Anthony Shaffer, where a famous upper class author of detective novels is pitted against the unorthodox tactics of his lower class rival, each trying to outwit the other, yet the author’s supreme arrogance allows him to presume victory, where his expectations are masterfully subverted, slowly turning the tables, where that smug air of hubris finally gets its comeuppance.  That original source is lightyears better than this material, which feels so middle of the road.   
While it’s an unconventional but likeable enough ensemble cast of familiar faces, some absent from the screen for a while, as Johnson creates a pleasant atmosphere of murky suspense, where the viewing audience feels comfortable spending time with this group, much like Tarantino does with his casts.  At the center is the aging patriarch, successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is happily celebrating his 85th birthday, surrounded by his family, but winds up dead before the night is done, apparently slitting his own throat, which his family finds incomprehensible, thinking it must be murder.  Police detectives arrive in the form of Lakeith Stanfield as Detective Elliot and his underling Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), who is thrilled to be there, a huge fan, having read every one of Harlan’s books, offering commentary along the way, explaining how it resembles the plots from various books.  Sitting in the background is Benoit Blanc, (Daniel Craig), reprising that southern accent he used in Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (2017), an overly polite Southern gentleman acknowledged to be a hired detective, though it remains a mystery just who exactly hired him, yet he announces from the outset he suspects foul play.  Losing patience with the dull police routine, he eventually asserts himself as the sleuth mastermind, taking a lead role in the questioning, though at times his grandiloquent verbiage is so charmingly quaint that it feels he’s intentionally pleasing himself, adding a bit of color to the proceedings.  Jamie Lee Curtis is Harlan’s daughter Linda, a successful real estate mogul married to a deadbeat husband, Don Johnson as Richard, an opinionated oaf with decidedly racist leanings.  Harlan put his son Walt (Michael Shannon, always in bulky sweaters) in charge of his own publishing house, with strict instructions never to do adaptations for movies or television, which would make big bucks, but dilute the stories (exactly as this film does).  Joni (Toni Collette) is widowed from a deceased son, yet continues to be married to the lifestyle, while the black sheep of the family is the overly smug Chris Evans as Ransom (the offspring of Linda and Richard), who lavishly spends money like its growing on trees, viewed as a pompous ass, an object of derision by the rest of the family.  The nurse caretaker is Marta (Ana de Armas), who provides the needed medicine for Harlan, and seems to be the one person he could openly talk to, who at some point in the film is from either Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba, Paraguay, or Ecuador, though may in fact have been born in the United States, but her mother is undocumented.  Nonetheless, while professing sanctimonious appreciation for her services, she is largely viewed as undocumented herself, as if the family has done her a huge favor by hiring her.  

The beauty in films like this is in the back and forth banter between characters, where Johnson takes great relish in providing theatrically fun dialogue that moves along at a crisp pace, while unearthed clues and various backstory reveals add to a tautly connected storyline that continually develops over time, moving from one family member to another, where it has the feel as if the dead Harlan is actually pulling the strings behind the scenes, unraveling like one of his books, as so much of the story is generated through his character.  Each family member has a private conference with him on the day he died, the contents of which might provide an alibi for murder, yet each professes perfect innocence to the police, covering up any hint of suspicion, which, of course, arouses suspicion.  Blanc quickly discovers the key to resolving this matter, as Marta has a medical condition where she vomits if she tells a lie, which is like having a polygraph machine for all her testimony.  Rerouting all the witness testimony through her is a new angle, as if under a witness protection program by the police, who avail themselves of her resources, quickly determining that all the Thrombey children have lied to authorities and covered up what was really said behind closed doors, as the brunt of the film is to get to the heart of the matter, weaving its way through a circuitous path of lies and subterfuge.  The double crosses here are fast and furious, as what is presumed as the truth may later come undone, continually unraveling new information, where some of the most effective asides incorporate movie or TV reports about horrendous murders, with viewers intensely riveted by the material, including Marta’s mother, seen viewing a TV episode of Murder, She Wrote in Spanish.  The house itself plays out like a haunted house, protected by an iron gate and an elaborate security system, with two Doberman guard dogs, while the inside is filled with items Harlan loved, including masks, laughing clown or sailor faces (some identical replicas from the set of SLEUTH), with items crammed in every corner, where he was a lover of games of all sorts, spending much of his free time engaged in clever musings.  The film carries that same esprit de corps with each building mystery, as flashbacks, recounted testimony, or new revelations prevent any easy resolution, growing ever more complicated, where there are stories within stories within stories that may leave viewers confused, but that’s the beauty of the detective mystery.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the amount of screen time for Marta, a daughter of immigrants who thoroughly outworks the bluebloods, earnest and apparently sincere, the moral center of a surrounding cesspool, who was initially thought to have nothing to do with it, but may have everything to do with it, but she couldn’t be more distinctly different (though bland) than the vengefully manipulative family members who think only of themselves, where the reading of the will is a hilarious indictment of their true character, each one more detestable than the next, hanging themselves by their own self-centered testimony, eventually falling like a house of cards, coinciding with Blanc’s ultimate epiphany of truth, an indictment that spares no one, creating a topsy turvy world where nothing is real and fleeting perceptions can change in an instant.     

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Motherless Brooklyn


Writer/director Edward Norton shooting on the streets of New York City


MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN                      B                    
USA  (144 mi)  2019  d:  Edward Norton                  Official site

Words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys.  Caressing, nudging.  They’re an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde.  They mean no harm.
Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, 1999

A hugely ambitious project that some are calling a vanity project, but that diminishes the audacious hutzpah it takes to make a film like this, more of a labor love that borders on greatness in terms of the reach and scope of its efforts, as it attempts to be Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974) for New York City, but ends up being considerably less, though just as Jake Gittes uncovered the secrets of the power brokers behind the Los Angeles water supply, another private eye is searching through the recorded deeds to find who’s behind the changing shape of New York City, as neighborhoods are victimized by ambitious city projects that require massive relocation.  Written, acted, directed, and produced by Norton, this is something that’s been in the works for twenty years, buying the rights to Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel just a year after his spectacular breakout performance in the film AMERICAN HISTORY X (1998), but then holding onto it, waiting for the right opportunity, which apparently happened with the election of Trump, the ultimate New York City insider who knows where all the bodies are buried.  The gist of the novel is a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome, which means he has uncontrollable outbursts of profanity, or an inexplicable string of words that come flying out of his mouth along with accompanying tics and grotesque body movements than can be terribly off-putting, with the novelist staying inside his head, getting carried away with this wondrous assault of language, while making something poetic from the profane.  Onscreen it takes some getting used to as it’s discomforting and not at all pleasant, where he smokes marijuana to help him relax and calm the nerves, yet it’s an oversimplification to think this is some kind of narcissistic showpiece for Norton’s acting talents, as the film itself is a wildly convoluted and enthusiastic ride throughout, offering plenty of New York flavor eye candy along with some terrific performances, where there’s a wealth of fireworks to appreciate, not the least of which is the densely impactful storyline that only gets more intriguing.  Norton shifts the story from the contemporary setting of the 90’s to the 50’s, digitally resurrecting Penn Station (now demolished), accentuating a film noir era with fedora hats, vintage cars, and old-fashioned detective work which inevitably includes mysteriously difficult puzzles to solve, spending the majority of time searching for the missing pieces, allowing viewers to play along, like a blown-up game of Clue.  A running joke throughout is just how easily one finds parking spaces, an impossibility in the city as currently constructed, suggesting a nostalgic look back to simpler times.  But what it also reveals is the inside political realm of running a big city, exposing “the true meaning of power,” all the lies and dirty secrets, corrupt appointments, missing bodies, and overall shenanigans it takes to make the public believe some fairy tale while secretly behind-the scenes raw power ruthlessly does what it wants, usually crossing the lines of morality and lawful activity, shortcutting the rules in order to make things happen now, demolishing anyone or anything that stands in their way, all in the name of progress.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) flinches and grimaces as words inexplicably race out of his mouth with an uncontrollable gush of words, but in this film, New York City is such an energized world with so much activity that people barely notice, as it’s all part of the city’s eccentric personality, unique and distinctive.  But while we witness this grotesque display of awkwardness, Lionel is narrating the story in a calm and reassuring voice, coolly describing what’s happening, as Lionel works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who runs an old-school detective agency, who’s viewed as more than a friend, offering support to Lionel early on when he was in an abusive orphanage, tagging him with the nickname “Motherless Brooklyn,” also known as “Freakshow” due to his condition, but Frank doesn’t share the details of the case he’s working on with his crew, which makes things more difficult afterwards when he’s killed off in the first 20-minutes of the movie in an arranged meeting gone wrong.  While Lionel is a bonafide misfit, he also has a photographic memory, which is why Frank loves to bring him along, as he’s got a thing for details, going off the rails at times with his nervous disorder, but he loves to arrange things back into perfect harmony, like resetting the table exactly as it was.  This traumatic incident leaves things in a quandary, a scrambled mess that Lionel has to figure out, trying to decipher what Frank was working on, like putting together all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  That is largely the structure of the film, introducing various characters along the way, trying to figure out their angle, while dark forces are conspiring to prevent him, like Frank, from accomplishing that task, moving in secrecy, resorting to diversionary tactics, routinely misleading him away from what he’s looking for, and roughing him up, if necessary, even make him disappear if he ignores their warnings.  All of this is familiar film noir territory, but what makes it work are such fully developed characters of interest, along with their more murky shadow players hired to protect them.  Norton introduces a new character not in the book, a real estate villain, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, who of course plays Trump on Saturday Night Live), a larger-than-life figure based upon Robert Moses, a visionary yet contemptible builder who helped shape the look of New York City in the first half of the 20th century, whose reputation was severely damaged by Robert Caro’s Pulitzer prize winning biography The Power Broker in 1974.  He was also a champion swimmer, where the film keeps intact his habit of keeping people waiting sitting poolside to see him until he finished swimming laps.  When he’s introduced at the newly elected mayor’s coming out press conference, Randolph is a nebulous figure that operates on his own, actually towering over the presumed corridors of power, assuming titles to various city authorities, which allows him unlimited power which he wields mercilessly, having little regard for the diminutive others that stand in his way, as he aggressively pursues various urban renewal projects, which means clearing what were labeled “slums” for ambitious real estate projects (though they weren’t actually slums at all, but simply places blacks, Hispanics, and even Jewish people lived), using eminent domain to tear down what he wants, even if people are still living there.    

The secret of Randolph’s success is remaining outside the realms of politics, as he’s not an electable position, which means you can’t vote him out, as he’s perfectly protected, unreachable as an entrenched power broker, insulated by the feeble whims of the electorate.  Making this character even more interesting, Moses has a brother, Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), a brilliant architect with visionary ideas, but without the power to implement them, stuck in a sado-masochistic co-dependent relationship with his brother, who loves to humiliate him by rejecting his ideas, then taking all the glory for himself.  Paul is a pathetic figure, following his brother around at public appearances, becoming a leading voice of opposition, decrying his blatant corruption, yet barely ekes out a living himself, a loner who’s borderline homeless, while his brother lives in opulence, like aristocratic royalty.  Among the leading opposition figures is Cherry Jones as Gabby Horowitz, a community organizer and rabble rouser (an homage to Jane Jacobs) who represents those people who are being displaced by gentrification, all people of color, all poor, without the clout to stand up to the city’s grand plans.  Working with her is a black attorney, Laura Ross (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in an impressive performance), appearing previously in Amma Asante’s BELLE (2013), Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights (2014), and Peter Landesman’s Concussion (2015), while also winning an Emerging Artist Award during the Chicago Film Festival’s 18th Annual Black Perspectives Tribute in 2014.  Frank was apparently following her before he was shot, so Lionel does the same, discovering she lives near a jazz joint in Harlem owned by her father, a mysterious one-armed man.  Assuming the role of a reporter, this forces him to confront his worst fears, coming out of the background to interact and speak face-to-face with people, which causes insurmountable stress due to his affliction, where he can’t stop himself from tapping people on the shoulder, followed by an obligatory “Sorry.”  Following her, feigning an interest in her cause, she’s suspicious when he doesn’t jot down notes, but he appeases all anxieties by repeating word for word exactly what she told him, which is quite impressive to experience, as that’s out of the ordinary.  She doesn’t appear bothered by his various outbursts and mannerisms and invites him to the club, one of the showpieces of the film, featuring the talents of Michael K. Williams as the internationally renowned trumpeter, with Wynton Marsalis playing the solos, Daily Battles - Wynton Marsalis / THOM YORKE Motherless YouTube (2:35), which becomes the recurring musical motif for the film, also sung by Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, Thom Yorke: "Daily Battles" YouTube (3:22), which is profoundly effective, adding a dramatic pulse that feels strangely unique, adding an underlying layer of aching sadness.  While an unexpected romance develops between the two (he’s a generation older), revealing a couple of lost souls, it allows for a sweet release, despite suggestions of a “white savior,” and all the many recurring obstacles faced along the way.  An especially good showdown scene takes place between Lionel and Moses, with a large map of New York City behind him, a model construction of the city on the desk, while the imperious Brooklyn Bridge looms out the window, with Moses justifying his visionary intentions, suggesting he’s building for the future, that he can’t wait for everyday realities to slow him down, insisting he’s not above the law, “I’m ahead of it.”  While he’s consumed by power, he views the actions of relocating the poorest elements of the city as essential to delivering the necessary goods, adding longstanding racism and unembellished historical truths to a genre tale, leaving behind an expansive idea of an overwhelming sense of loss.  While flawed, most likely missing tauter editing and directorial prowess, there are nonetheless poetic flourishes, making this a highly entertaining and profoundly affecting picture.