Review – Play It Again, Sam (“Motherless Brooklyn”)

Based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Edward Norton takes a crack at both adapting the screenplay AND directing this old fashioned 50’s detective noir with private dicks, crooked politician’s, damsels in distress, a mystery to be solved, twists & turns, and all with a smokey blues riff.

*

Downtown NYC in the 50’s and private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) and his team are nervously on the job while he meets up with some shady people. Unfortunately, things go south and Frank is killed, but by who and why? The only one with moxie enough to doggedly find out is Lionel Essrog, a young man who, even though he’s afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, has an eidetic memory and is trustworthy. Come hell or high water, he’s gonna find out who whacked his friend and why.

Following clues leads him to follow, and then talk to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who not only works for the city, but is also helping to stop the destruction of miles of slums that will displace hundreds of blacks and Latinos. But all her protesting is falling on deaf ears, because the guy in charge is the ruthless, power-mad, and greedy City Planner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), and he has BIG plans to tear it all down. At a protest meeting, Lionel (posing as a reporter) meets Paul (Willem Defoe), a crazed man who turns out to be Randolph’s estranged, but brilliant engineer brother.

With a little help from his friends at the office and some info from a jazz trumpet player (Michael K. Williams),  Lionel starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, but nothing is making sense. Before long Lionel, who keeps getting closer to the truth and getting beaten up for it, discovers the shocking link and tries to save not only his life, but others as well. Although the book is set in 1999, Norton wisely set it in the 1950’s. The movie, while lengthy (2 1/2hrs), is written so eloquently and free-flowing that you hardly even notice.

Adapted and directed by Norton, I was struck by one singular thought: why hasn’t this guy directed more? Norton has only directed one other movie and that was 2000’s Keeping the Faith. His style is akin to Scorsese with beautiful, choice angles, wonderful tracking shots, and rich POV filming. This guy clearly knows what he wants and what he’s doing. Then you have that screenplay that isn’t your run-of-the-mill gangster/detective movie. It’s written like Raymond Chandler with all the rich classic 50’s jargon thrown in.

Aside from the inventive disability that Lionel has, which proves to add the overall score of the film, the characters are more well drawn and fleshed-out than many other films. Credit this to Norton’s excellent acting skills, as he portrays Lionel as not only a tortured soul living with “shattered glass in my head”, but a driven man willing to endure physical pain to get to the truth. Baldwin goes toe-to-toe with Norton, cutting a swath with his performance; his third act monologue is riveting.

Defoe is deliciously deranged as the deposed brother and gets in some great scenes with Norton, and Mbatha-raw is terrific as the possible love interest and more. But Williams steals the screen for his small part as a blues trumpet player. It’s even a little funny that Bruce Willis, as great as he is, is only on screen for about 10 minutes. Like Westerns, you don’t see this kind of genre movie anymore and I, for one, am glad to see it. Give me a decent film noir with old cars, guys wearing fedoras toting Tommy guns and talking on candlestick phones, and I’ll be a happy camper.

Chinatown (1974)

*

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”. That memorable line closes out one the most acclaimed films by director Roman Polanski; a movie of gritty and seedy detective piece that earned Jack Nicholson a Golden Globe Award. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of intrigue, greed, lust, water rights, an assault on the nostrils, and incest most foul.

It’s 1937 Los Angeles and Nicholson is J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a former cop turned private eye who gets paid by the wife of Hollis I. Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the chief engineer for the L.A. Water and Power Dept, to spy on him. Gittes tails him and shoots pics of him with a young woman, which are then published on the front page of the following day’s paper. BUT! He later finds out it he was set up! That woman that paid him wasn’t his wife and the REAL wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), slaps Jake with a lawsuit. PLUS the guy he was tailing turns up dead the next day! Oy! This is turning out to be one helluva week!

Jake is naturally pissed. Who set him up and why? His investigation leads to checking out the L.A. river basin where Mulwray was recently found dead, but all he finds is a thug (director Polanski) that warns him to back off. . .using a switchblade knife through his nose! Ouch! Then Mrs. Mulwray drops her lawsuit out of the blue. WTF? More investigation by Jake yields conspiracies and power plays with land and water rights that are into the millions of dollars, and they all point to Mrs. Mulwray’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), a wealthy, smug bastard that seems to have a bizarre hold over his daughter.

What Jake finds out in the end, as he slowly starts to fall for Evelyn, is the teenager she’s got hidden away in an undisclosed house. Who is she? Beside the famous quote of “Chinatown”, here comes another famous quoted line from the movie as Jake repeatedly slaps Evelyn’s face to get the correct answer from her. What he finds out will chill him to the bone.

Polanski almost didn’t direct this film due to his horrible memories of L.A. (his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson gang in 1969), but he loved Robert Towne’s script so much, that he did it anyway. Speaking of Towne, this movie garnished him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The ending, by the way, was originally written with a happy, upbeat ending, but Polanski changed it to the bleak, tragic one we all saw at the theaters. The sequel, the much anticipated The Two Jakes, bombed BIG time at the box office.

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