Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton’s new movie Motherless Brooklyn is a nice try that doesn’t quite hit the spot. It’s a decent film, just not the home run that Norton was shooting for.

Norton is the director, the writer and the star of the film.

It’s a suspense mystery that some have referred to as Chinatown: East. Yes, Motherless Brooklyn does share some elements with that 1974 classic: a power hungry municipal public works figure, secret family dynamics and a murder of somebody who knew too much.

MB, set in late 50’s New York City, also has some cool vintage cars—as does Chinatown—though the auto livery here seems a bit heavy on big tail fin cars of the era.

Lionel (Norton), nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is a private detective. Lionel has Tourette’s. He has a number of vocal and physical tics. He has great memory skills which he demonstrates throughout the film. He is fully functioning and has good awareness of his problem—not quite Rain Man.

When Minna is murdered by a group of thugs, Lionel follows clues that lead him to jazz musicians in Harlem, equal housing advocates and a ruthless power broker named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

Randolph’s character resembles the real life mid-century New York development leader Robert Moses, the man who was sometimes blamed for the Dodgers relocation to Los Angeles. (Moses rejected the Dodgers’ plan for a new ballpark in Brooklyn.)

Lionel is fascinated by a mixed-race woman he meets at the housing office, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). For two reasons: she gives him information and she’s gorgeous.

Also among the cast: Bobby Cannavale as a fellow detective and Willem Dafoe as an activist, who is another of Lionel’s key info sources.

A couple of questions to consider: Does Norton merit best actor Oscar consideration? Not a slam-dunk but he should be in the conversation. Norton takes the advice of Tropic Thunder‘s Kirk Lazarus and does not go full (that way). Norton has played damaged individuals before so he knows restraint. Also, does Baldwin’s ruthless character bring to mind a certain power hungry NYC developer who now occupies the White House? Yes, actually.

Motherless Brooklyn is an ambitious project that, to borrow a classic movie quote, could’ve been a contender. But it falls just a bit short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Current War: The Director’s Cut

Current War

The Current War: The Director’s Cut is a brilliant movie. A complicated, nuanced story is boiled down to its vital plot points via a tight script by Michael Mitnick and the clever, often thrilling, quick cut direction of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

Character development is thrifty but, thanks to a strong cast, effective. The film clocks in at just under an hour and forty minutes. (This film has a real-life backstory which is noted below.)

The film features numerous stylish overhead shots, subjective shots and special computer effects (such as a panorama of Chicago in the 1890s). The soundtrack adds tension and tempo to actions and conversations and helps the narrative maintain its momentum.

The sequence that contrasts the bright lights of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the nation’s first capital punishment electrocution is contrived but makes an interesting point. And even if the film’s penultimate action set at Niagara Falls didn’t really happen, its irony is sharp.

The battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over whose system of electricity generation/distribution would power the nation was fierce and nasty. Spoiler alert: the device you are reading this review on is powered by (or its battery is charged by) a version of the Westinghouse system, alternating current.

Edison stubbornly stuck with direct current which was soon revealed to have significant shortcomings.

Some online commenters have complained that the film does not give Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) enough credit for his role as a contributor to both Edison’s and Westinghouse’s efforts. That may be valid but the film is about the promoters of the competing technologies, not about the engineers and support personnel who did much of the dirty work.

A few imdb.com users gave the movie low scores simply because they felt Tesla got shortchanged. TCW: TDC’s version of Tesla is a highly intelligent young man who has more than a few quirks. His amazing life story has been told elsewhere and is worth checking out.

It’s good to see Michael Shannon portray a solid citizen, not a dark, evil wacko. Cumberbatch might not be the obvious choice to play Edison but he embodies the inventor’s huge ego and intensity admirably. The cast also includes Tom Holland as Edison’s assistant Samuel Insull.

The backstory: The Current War was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and was due to be released later that year. Then came the Harvey Weinstein scandal. His company controlled the film and delayed release. Eventually a new distributor obtained rights. Since 2017, the director trimmed the runtime and perked up the soundtrack. His cutting and pasting have resulted in the film being officially titled The Current War: The Director’s Cut, even though only a mere handful of people saw the original version. Got it?

 

 

 

The Addams Family

AddamsThe Addams Family is a blast! It’s fun and it’s funny. The laughs come not just from its dialogue but also from its visual humor.

It helps that most of us are familiar with the Addams characters and their, um, eccentricities. They’ve been depicted in magazine cartoons, a 60s TV series, 90s live action movies and an animated TV series. This newest movie, to be clear, is a computer-animated tale.

In most animated films that use famous actors in the voice roles, certain voices seem to dominate. That’s not the case here. The voice work is excellent and efficient but does not call special attention to particular cast members. (Okay, maybe Snoop Dogg’s brief work as Cousin It merits a slight nod.)

Though Tim Burton is not connected to this movie, his influence is present. Not just his work in The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton did not direct but shepherded through its production) but also Edward Scissorhands. Of course, it’s not hard to guess that earlier incarnations of The Addams Family influenced Burton’s work. (Burton was initially booked to do a stop-action Addams film in 2010.)

In The Addams Family, Gomez (Oscar Isaac), Morticia (Charlize Theron), Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moritz), Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard), Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll), and Lurch (Conrad Vernon) live in a dark mansion on a hilltop, not unlike the locale of Vincent Price’s place in Edward Scissorhands.

Just down the hill from the Addams home sits a planned cookie-cutter community called Assimilation. The town and its colors echo those of the subdivision in Edward Scissorhands.

Assimilation’s town leader/busybody and TV home design maven Margaux Needler (Allison Janney) views the Addams clan as a threat to her vision of Disney-like neatness and conformity. She panics when Wednesday Addams gives Margaux’s daughter a Goth makeover. As the extended Addams family comes to visit, a showdown in inevitable.

To be honest, I have been disappointed with many non-Pixar animated films in recent years. Bad ideas and perfunctory execution have generated lots of yawns and shrugs. But The Addams Family revels in cleverness and the film moves through its narrative with smiles and chuckles and nary a slowdown.

The Addams Family is rated PG and runs just under 90 minutes.

Judy

Garland

In late 1968 Judy Garland was a pill-popping has-been. Oh, sure, she was legendary and beloved but she was broke and she couldn’t get a gig. Except in London where promoters were willing to book her despite her erratic ways.

The new film Judy, with Renée Zellweger in the title role, chronicles those few weeks when she worked her magic before adoring British audiences. She also had several disastrous episodes there, brought on by her drinking and her pills.

That’s right, Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland. With hair dye, makeup and a pucker, she gets the Garland look. Or close enough. My recent memories of Miss Z are of a slightly heavier Bridget Jones but Renée Zellweger is, in fact, a slim woman, as was the latter day Judy Garland.

Zellweger also nails the Garland kinetic body motion, like a bobblehead almost, likely a result of Garland’s being wired much of the time.

Judy is not a full life biography film but includes many flashbacks to Garland’s younger Wizard Of Oz and Andy Hardy days when producers and handlers were constantly hounding her about her weight. Even in those early days of her career, she was guided away from food and toward diet pills.

The film features several entertaining musical numbers and recreates the magic of Judy Garland’s ability to light up a room. But even with the accommodations afforded her by the London folks, she continues to live on the edge.

Along with her career issues, her personal life is a mess. She regrets having to leave her two younger kids with their dad Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) when she goes across the pond. In London, she marries the much younger Mickey (Finn Wittrock) who she barely knows. While she relishes the chance to perform again, her London promoters assign Rosalyn, a handler (Jessie Buckley), to make sure Judy shows up on time.

Judy Garland was a tragic figure and this film captures a representative slice of her life with its highs and lows. As much as the world loved her for Wizard Of Oz, A Star Is Born and her TV work, existence was a struggle for Judy Garland.

Cheers to Renée Zellweger for giving us a glimpse of Judy at her best and her worst. Is Zellweger Oscar-worthy? Portrayals of famous individuals do sometimes lead to awards. There will be buzz but she’s not a shoo-in. As they often say on TV, only time will tell.

 

 

Bio Movies: Dramatic vs Documentary

When presenting a story about a famous person on film, which is better: a scripted dramatic film starring professional actors or a documentary film featuring actual footage of the person with comments from friends, family and other associates?

This question comes to mind after seeing films during the last year about Freddie Mercury, David Crosby, Miles Davis, Linda Ronstadt and Judy Garland. Also, the Ken Burns PBS series about country music caused me to recall dramatic movies about Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, among others.

My examples listed here are music stars but the question also applies also to films about well-known individuals in other walks of life. It’s my belief that each style (dramatic or documentary) has its own virtues.

In a dramatic telling of a person’s life story or, as with the Judy Garland movie, a brief period of a person’s life, the filmmaker has the opportunity to massage the facts to present a coherent narrative with elements of conflict, romance and the ups and downs of life. Timelines can be condensed or expanded. Events that may have seemed inconsequential at the time can be presented as key turning points.

In a documentary film, the filmmaker also has the ability to shape the content that makes it to the screen, but he or she is working with actual events and real people. Is a documentary biographical film the complete and unvarnished truth? No. It is a version of the truth. But with archival footage and present day commentary, it has a level of authenticity. The best documentaries, I believe, have a point of view and may not present all sides of a story.

A successful biography type film, be it dramatic or doc, adds to our understanding of an individual and our appreciation for that person’s challenges and accomplishments.

Of course, a key consideration is money. Production costs for Bohemian Rhapsody are estimated on imdb.com at $52 million. The film’s worldwide gross is nearly one billion dollars. Documentary costs or revenues are never anywhere close to those numbers. For that reason, producers may be more quickly willing to risk an investment on a documentary about a person such as Linda Ronstadt whereas a dramatic telling of her life/career story would be a much riskier proposition.

With both styles of storytelling, there will always be complaints that a real life event was depicted incorrectly or that certain events or people are totally omitted. But, hey, you can’t please everybody.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ad Astra

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Is Ad Astra more than just another entertaining space drama? Not really. But if you want to layer some special meaning onto the story, that’s your privilege as a moviegoer.

Many males have complex relationships with their dads. This has been addressed in movies ranging from The Empire Strikes Back to Field Of Dreams to the under appreciated 2014 film The Judge. In this sci-fi tale set in the not-that-distant future, a son’s feelings about his father are a key element in the son’s psyche.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut whose dad Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), also an astronaut, led a mission to the outer rim of our solar system and has not been heard from in decades. Power surges that threaten human survival have been linked to this distant outpost just off Neptune.

Roy is directed by leaders here on Earth to go there and fix the situation. He is directed to “fly commercial” to the moon before heading to a station on Mars. Along the way, he gets intel about his dad from a crusty Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland).

Throughout the movie, Roy’s psychological fitness is periodically checked by AI devices. Many of Roy’s inner thoughts are shared via Pitt voiceovers.

On Mars, an evaluation of Roy’s mental state and his emotional attempt to communicate with his dad cause officials to scrub his further participation in the effort to mitigate the Neptune crisis. But he goes rogue and flies off to check on dad.

Ad Astra is filled with amazing effects and images but writer/director James Gray incorporates them in a way that’s not as flashy as those in some space flicks. His futuristic visions seem more matter-of-fact than included for jaw-dropping spectacle. (Or maybe I’ve just seen several space movies in recent years and my personal “wow” level has been recalibrated.)

Brad Pitt brings his usual A game to the screen and shows his range via a character who is wildly different from the one that will likely net him an Oscar nomination. (The expected nod would be for his Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. But sometimes awards voters cast a vote for cumulative efforts so his work here can only add to his chances of a win.)

Also in the film are Ruth Negga as a Mars base staffer and Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife Eve.

Ad Astra is a film to be enjoyed for what it is. If you want to read more into it than is made clear in the narrative, go right ahead.

 

 

 

 

Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool - Poster

The music of Miles Davis “makes my soul smile,” says Quincy Jones in the new documentary film Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool. “I want to feel the way Miles sounds,” says another of the many voices whose comments fuel the story of the jazz legend with local roots.

Along with the memories shared by childhood friends, fellow musicians, music business associates, historians and several of the women in his life, the words of Miles himself offer candid recollections. Those words are delivered by actor Carl Lumbly who employs the Davis rasp, the result of surgery on Davis’s larynx in 1956.

Davis was born in Alton and raised in East St. Louis. His was a well-to-do upbringing. His father was a dentist who also owned a farm in Millstadt. Despite his family’s economic situation, he experienced the sting of racism in St. Louis and later in other places. An encounter with a New York city policeman in the 60s resulted in significant injuries to Davis.

Director Stanley Nelson has assembled a huge volume of archival film clips and photos to tell Davis’s musical and personal stories. The trumpeter’s talent took him away from home and on the road as a teen. His recording career included the masterpiece album Kind Of Blue, released in 1959. He hired and nurtured several notable jazz musicians including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter, each of whom contributes to the film.

Davis’s periods of drug use are not skipped over. Davis fell asleep at the wheel in 1972 and crashed his Lamborghini. The pain he suffered afterward led him back to heavy drug use and a period in the late 70s when he did not pick up his horn for nearly five years.

Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool is a film that brings new details of Miles Davis’s life to hardcore jazz fans. It also provides a great introduction to music lovers who may be less familiar with the music of Miles Davis because it exists just outside of the mainstream. For those who may know his name but not his story, the film offers a fresh appreciation of a major figure in American musical history.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

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David Crosby has lived a charmed life. Born with singing talent and a baby face (which he disguised with abundant facial hair), he was part of two legendary rock groups and has enjoyed success as a solo performer.

The new documentary film David Crosby: Remember My Name examines his career and his life and reveals flaws and shortcomings along with fame and fortune.

Crosby was a member of the Byrds, the band for whom the term “folk/rock” was coined in the 60s. He later joined Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to form Crosby, Stills and Nash. (They soon added Neil Young to the group.)

Unlike much of the media coverage of Crosby in the last decade or two, the film does not overemphasize his health challenges. Yes, it does mention them and he and his wife Jan both acknowledge that he’s getting on in years, but the film reveals Crosby to be alive and feisty as ever.

With fewer talking head shots than are often seen in similar films, DC:RMN presents the expected archival images of Crosby’s milestones along with recent performance footage that demonstrates he can still sing.

Crosby himself has a good deal of on-camera face time, sharing memories. And opinions. Praise for Joni Mitchell. Dislike for Jim Morrison. Awareness of reasons why his former bandmates don’t speak to him.

Roger McGuinn tells why David Crosby was kicked out of the Byrds. Graham Nash gives his take on his recent sour relationship with Crosby. Photographer Henry Diltz talks about his recollections and takes some new pics of Crosby.

A memorable segment shows Crosby examining a large photo of the 1970 Kent State shootings and suggesting that he provided key impetus for Neil Young and the band to write and record the song Ohio.

David Crosby: Remember My Name will entertain and inform baby boomers. But will younger viewers care? I think yes, based on the success of recent rock-oriented films (dramatic and documentary).

Current media reminiscences of the Woodstock festival may also generate some interest in Crosby and others who enjoyed their greatest acclaim in the 60s and 70s. No, it’s not a coincidence that the film is being released on the 50th anniversary of that iconic event of modern pop culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino delivers one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a long time with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Speaking of long times, the film runs 2:45 but is worth almost every minute of it.

SPOILER ALERT! There are NO SPOILERS in this review. But beware of social media content, word-of-mouth and even unscrupulous reviewers who might tell too much about this buzzworthy movie.

Los Angeles, 1969. Or, as iconic radio station 93/KHJ calls it, Boss Angeles. The city looks great as classic cars tuned to AM radios playing classic pop tunes drive down boulevards with theater marquees touting late-60s movies.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV/movie star whose career is at a turning point. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stuntman and buddy. Leo is terrific. Brad is also at his charming best. Both actors benefit from being gifted with great roles and story lines from QT.

Dalton has a gorgeous home in the hills above Benedict Canyon. Booth lives in a trailer in the valley. The home just above Dalton’s is rented by Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).

In February 1969, Hollywood dealmaker Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) suggests to Dalton that he go to Italy and make movies there that could reignite his fading star. He does. The film then skips ahead to August 1969 when Dalton returns to LA for the film’s climax.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood contains scene after scene that bring true movie fan pleasure. Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Rick’s conversation with child actor Trudi (Julia Butters). Sharon’s watching herself on screen with a movie house audience. The clips from Rick’s TV show Bounty Law and his movies. A party at the Playboy Mansion where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) explains the relationship between Tate, Polanski and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

Other performances in the film that merit mention: Kurt Russell as stuntman Randy (he’s also the film’s narrator), Margaret Qualley as hippie chick and Manson family member Pussycat, Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker and Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme.

Gotta love the soundtrack! Treat Her Right by Roy Head, Good Thing by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show by Neil Diamond, Snoopy Versus The Red Baron by the Royal Guardsmen, Hush by Deep Purple, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man by Bob Seger, among many others.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an absolute treat that should not be missed. Thank you, QT. Thank you, Leo.

The Lion King

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Cute cubs and cool tech. That’s what’s most impressive about the new version of The Lion King. And the voice work, particularly Seth Rogen and John Oliver.

The Lion King has been a gold mine for Disney. The original film in 1994 was that year’s 2nd biggest film behind Forrest Gump and the stage productions on Broadway and elsewhere have run for decades will still be performed when you and I are long gone.

So don’t ask why this new version was made. It was made because computer animators are ridiculously adept with natural-looking renderings. It was made because director Jon Favreau and crew did such a good job with 2016’s The Jungle Book remake. And it was made to allow a more contemporary cast of voices.

The 1994 version remains a classic. But the new telling of the same story provides a fresh take for fans of the original with new versions of The Lion King’s classic songs. For a new generation, this is their version.

The appearances and the movements of all the animals are stunningly realistic. At some points, this film resembles a Disney nature film. The baby lions Simba and Nala are cuter than your own cute kitty at her/his cutest. If they sold plush toys at the theater, you’d want to get one on your way out.

Regarding the voices: I missed Robert Guillaume’s wonderful work as Rafiki the mandrill from the original and Jeremy Irons’s menacing voice as Scar. Other than those characters, the new voice acting crew is does a nice job.

Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter are the voices of the mature Simba and Nala. John Oliver is Zazu, a bird. (If you watch his Sunday night HBO show, it’s weird to hear him without an occasional F-bomb.) Seth Rogen is Pumba the warthog. Billy Eichner as Timon the meerkat is just a strong as Nathan Lane was in the ’94 TLK. Hakuna Matata, indeed.

The great James Earl Jones is Mufasa in both versions. Couldn’t find anybody to replace him!

If the first version hadn’t been made in 1994, would this new version have the impact in 2019 that the original had? I think probably not. But that’s a discussion you can have in the car on the way home from the movie.

Then have it again in 20 years when the hologram version is presented in your family room with a whole new cast of voice actors. The Lion King, you see, has its own Circle Of Life.