FlixChatter Review: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Edward Norton is one of the best actors working today, but I feel like it’s been a while since I saw him as a proper leading man. This time he also takes the helm in his passion project, based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a lonesome private detective with Tourette Syndrome attempting to solve the murder of his mentor.

One thing I noticed right away was the stellar cast, so I was quite dumbfounded when I read on IMDb trivia that the principal major stars worked for free here. Bruce Willis payed his mentor Frank Minna whom we learn later has taken Lionel and his colleagues who worked for his detective agency under his wing. It’s clear that Lionel loved Frank, perhaps even idolized him. The film is set up like a whodunnit classic noir of the Hollywood Golden age, but it’s actually not hugely unpredictable. Lionel’s constant voiceover provides so much info to the audience that initially it was overwhelming. Thankfully over time I was fine with it and actually enjoyed the way the story unfolds. There’s kind of an unhurried pace the way Norton tells the story, hence the nearly 2.5-hour running time.

At a council meeting, Lionel’s investigation reveals a bigger connection to the city than he originally thought. I have to say that it’s not until Lionel meets a black community lawyer Laura Rose (played by the sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that things started to get really interesting. Laura and her boss Gaby (Cherry Jones) are fighting gentrification in NYC where the poor and minorities are being driven out of the city by a development tycoon Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Baldwin relishes in playing a callous, unapologetically-corrupt, racist power broker (modeled after a real life ‘master builder’ Robert Moses) who utters lines like “Power is feeling, knowing, that you can do whatever you want, and not one fucking person can stop you,” Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe plays a rather beaten-down sort of a man who’s backed into a corner. This has been quite a year for Mr. Dafoe – his performance here might not be as memorable as the one in The Lighthouse, but he’s always fascinating to watch on screen.

As the lone female figure in a largely male cast, I absolutely adore Mbatha-Raw. I always lights up whenever I see her on screen, she’s so criminally underrated. The tentative bond between Lionel and Laura feels natural as they share something in common. Lionel friends call him ‘Freakshow’ though he’s a brilliant investigator and Laura, as a woman of color with a law degree, each have their own struggles about where they fit in. I particularly love the scene in a jazz club where Lionel slowly dances with Laura, as Michael Kenneth Williams as the Trumpet man performed on stage. It’s a sweet moment that gives us a respite from all the puzzle-solving scenarios, and it’s perhaps the first time Lionel feels ‘safe’ in the arms of a woman.

But there’s no argument that this is Norton’s film… a vehicle for his acting chops and directing endeavor. He’s in virtually every single scene… if he’s not visually on screen, his voice would be, narrating it. I find it interesting that two recent films by acclaimed actors feature characters suffering from neurological conditions. While Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck aka Joker suffers from the Pseudobulbar Affect that caused him to laugh/cry uncontrollably, Norton’s Lionel suffers from a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and vocalizations where he’d compulsively utters inappropriate words like ‘tits’ in public. I can’t comment whether his portrayal of the syndrome is accurate (I read that the Tourette’s Association of America approved of the film), but his performance at times invites laughter from the audience, and I can’t help feeling guilty every time I chuckle.

Now, as for his directing chops, I think he’s a promising filmmaker, but I think this story could’ve been much more gripping when done by a veteran director. For one, a tighter editing and more dynamic pacing would make the film feels less sluggish. But considering this is his sophomore effort, I suppose it takes time for someone to hone their craft. At least this movie isn’t boring, not to me anyway. Norton has said in many interviews that he learned from past visionary directors, the likes of Milos Forman, Spike Lee, David Fincher which eventually inspired him to direct.

It’s hard not to notice some of the timely parallel of what’s going on today… the commentary about insatiable power and that the Moses character has that Trump-like, big-bully mannerism and cockiness. According to NPR, Norton actually finished writing the script before Trump came into power, when he was just a game-show host. “I would say President Trump is a game-show host also — it’s just a more damaging game that he’s playing. …” The film is also a love letter to New York, a city Norton clearly loved. The production design, set pieces, costumes, etc. are meticulously-crafted to reflect 1950s NYC, shot beautifully by Dick Pope (whom Norton worked with in The Illusionist). The scene in the train station (apparently Norton’s crew recreated the Penn Station) look magnificent, and I love the night scenes, particularly the foggy night on the Brooklyn bridge, which shows just how dramatic and atmospheric NYC nights are depicted in the movies.

I love a good mystery film that isn’t overly grim and violent, and Motherless Brooklyn certainly fits the bill. It’s not quite as riveting nor utterly brilliant as L.A. Confidential, a 1950s neo-noir that Norton reportedly admire, but this one is still an enjoyable ride. It helps that I immediately sympathizes with Lionel, which makes me invested in his quest to solve his mentor’s murder. The revelation of what the title means is memorably poignant moment, I like that Norton isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. So despite the overlong running time, I still highly recommend this film, and I hope Norton would continue to make films in the future.

– Review by Ruth Maramis

Have you seen Motherless Brooklyn? I’d love to hear what you think.

TCFF 2018 Indie Film Spotlight: NOAH WISE & Interview w/ writer/director Ben Zuckert

The best part about attending film festivals is you get to see indie gems you normally won’t be able to see on the big screen. Twin Cities Film Fest celebrates indie films and indie filmmakers from all over the globe. And TCFF loves alumni! Ben Zuckert is back to TCFF after he premiered his directorial debut Larchmont a couple of years ago.

For his sophomore feature, Ben has crafted a wonderful music-themed comedy drama Noah Wise that’ll surely made you leave the theater with a big smile. It’s one of my 20 most-anticipated TCFF selections!

As a saxophonist’s quartet comes to an end, he meets a singer-songwriter whose career is just beginning.

Review by Vitali Gueron

Having it’s World Premiere at the Twin Cities Film Festival is the indie drama Noah Wise. The movie stars Mat Vairo and Raffaella Meloni as leads, and is written, directed and scored by Ben Zuckert. The premise seems quite simple — Noah Wise is a saxophonist whose quartet comes to an end.  Just as it seems like he is down on his luck, he gets set up on a blind date with singer-songwriter Rachel Byrd. The two hit it off right away and are there to support each other as they go through their own struggles in music and in life. The reason this movie is a must-see is because of its music, especially the delightful guitar and vocal performance by Raffaella Meloni towards the end with a trio of backing musicians.

The movie never feels like it’s trying to preach a message to its audience, although several subjects are brought up through character conversations including young peoples’ life ambitions, their financial responsibilities, and how one becomes civilly-engaged in the political process. The characters are very relatable and easygoing, and the young musicians cast in this movie — some are quite young — are very talented which adds a family-friendly element to the main plot line. Also mentioned in the movie is an average New Yorker’s lack of knowledge about the Midwest and how the fall foliage in Minnesota is far superior to that found in New York City. Maybe writer/director Ben Zuckert might have anticipated a fall trip to the Twin Cities, where audience would appreciate his knowledge of windchill values and the cold temperatures.

Overall, this is the perfect indie drama to watch with your best friend or significant other. You’ll find new appreciation for each other and come out at the end with a big smile. It’s just what is needed for the current politically-charged climate we’re living in. And just how many times can you say: “I just watched the world premiere of a movie in Minnesota!” This film certainly does not disappoint.

Q&A with filmmaker Ben Zuckert

Interview questions courtesy of Vitali Gueron

Q1. You’re returning to the Twin Cities Film Fest after successfully premiering Larchmont in 2016 with your second film Noah Wise – a world premiere! First of all, congratulations! Welcome back. Is there something about Minnesota or the Twin Cities that’s special for you and what have you learned about this state/these cities since premiering your first movie here?

Thank you, excited to be back! I had a great time visiting with my first film and really enjoyed the city. Being a part of the festival two years ago helped give me the momentum to write this new script and put the film together. In terms of Minneapolis, a big takeaway for me was how much the city is invested in the arts. I loved the museums, especially the MIA.

Q2. Your movie stars Mat Vairo as Noah Wise, a struggling musician who’s less than successful in a quartet, living off cans of sardines, and seems to be struggling to find himself career-wise. Is this character based on yourself or someone you know? If so, who is that person and if not, how did you come up with the idea of the character when writing the movie?

The character is fictionalized, but there are definitely aspects of myself. For one, I do tend to eat canned fish. But I also relate to Rachel and her self-doubt. I wanted her to be opposite Noah. She has talent, but questions music’s meaning, and he has less talent, but doesn’t question it.

Q3. I really enjoyed the music in this movie – especially the last song performed by Raffaella Meloni’s character Rachel Byrd. You’re credited as the music creator for the film on IMDb. Can you talk about the process you used to write the music and any struggles you had doing so?

Really glad you enjoyed the songs. I spent countless hours trying to write chord changes and lyrics that could fit both characters’ storylines. I would imagine the scene and try to have the tone match the feeling of the story at that moment.
I had never written lyrics before and I found it to be a good challenge – too on the nose and they fall flat, but too ambiguous and the song has no meaning.
Raffaella actually didn’t know how to play guitar before the movie, so I simplified all the guitar voicing. She learned how play them in only a month. I couldn’t believe it. She really made them her own.

Q4. In the movie when Noah Wise is asked if he’s Jewish by two separate Jewish Orthodox men on the street, he tells them that he’s not and “it’s complicated”. What did you mean by that and did this come from any personal experiences you might have experienced?

In New York, I get approached by Orthodox men during Sukkot and Hanukkah, and I find the conversations really fascinating – I always try to talk to them. Some of them will walk with you for multiple blocks! So it’s definitely from personal experience and also thinking about my own identity, being raised one way, but not currently practicing and sometimes feeling like others can define your identity for you.

Q5. While the movie is set in New York City, one of your characters (Rachel) talks with her roommate about the weather in Minnesota and the foliage this time of year. Is this because you’ve seen the foliage first hand and you can talk about it or is it purely coincidental?

Definitely firsthand – the last time I was here was the fall and the season really struck me. I was also trying to capture how people talk about the weather as a way to get conversation going. I tend to think, are you actually talking about anything?

Q6. There are some fairly young actors and musicians in this movie, and a good number of grade school level children. Talk about the process of working with these young musicians and the challenges (if any) to working with them?

It was one of the best parts of filming, but I had never worked with a group of kids that size before. I started to figure out a few techniques – I stopped saying “Action!” and we did slate after we finished filming. This way, the 5th graders wouldn’t get tense. I would point to Mat, who played Noah, and then he would just start the scene. So they didn’t always know when we were filming a real take. None of them had ever acted before. They were just local musicians in my hometown.

All their playing was recorded live on set. An unexpected challenge was them faking playing badly. I first said, “Ok, just play anything,” but it sounded too ridiculous. Instead, they each played the song in a different key/tempo. For getting the different angles for the performances, I’d have the 5th graders or lead characters play the song again each time we changed camera positions. They all did a great job with keeping tempos consistent between takes – it saved me a lot of time while editing.

Q7. Both main characters Noah and Rachel are set up on a date by mutual acquaintances. Have you ever been set up on date by someone you know and how did that end up? Do you think that Noah and Rachel have a future together or is their relationship just a good friendship?

It was made up for the story. I was trying to weave in a joke about people knowing people through other people and how you can’t keep track of how someone knows someone.

I was thinking that it’s just a friendship – I didn’t intend for it to be a romance. I wanted them both to be focusing on where their music and careers were headed. But it’s definitely up to the viewer to decide.

Q8. At separate times, Noah and Rachel meet a man in the park who is interested in talking/complaining about the elections and politicians, but admits that he didn’t vote himself. This seems timely as the 2018 Midterm elections are just a few days away. Was this on purpose? What has been your experience with the elections and why did you include it in your movie?

After the 2016 election, it was a strange time, and I was thinking a lot about politics and art and how they intersected. I was trying to figure out how art played a role in society under the new government. I was asking myself, could there be better uses of my time besides making films? Should I only be making something political? I was grappling with these questions and tried to explore them through different characters and viewpoints. I always find it interesting when people are opinionated politically, but don’t actually vote.

Q9. What’s next for you and when do we expect your third movie/project? Maybe next year in a few years back here at the Twin Cities Film Fest?

I’ve become more interested in politics in the past few years, so I’m hoping to write a story more in that realm. I find all the Democratic energy for change really inspiring. I’d love to come back in the years to come. It’s a great festival that supports independent filmmakers in a tangible way.

Noah Wise is now available on AMAZON PRIME and TCFF Streams!

Thanks so much Ben Zuckert for chatting with FlixChatter!


ckssrs_secretsantaThis post is part of Cinematic Katzenjammer‘s NOT-SO-SECRET SANTA REVIEW SWAP blogathon. This is the second installment of the blogathon where you “gift” a movie and then get one in return. I did this back in July with my review of Tremors (1990). I welcome this kind of blogathon as it gives me a chance to step out of my comfort zone as it were, as you don’t know what movie you’ll be gifted. Fortunately Nick gave me something that’s available on Netflix streaming.

Gimme the Loot (2012)

When their latest work is buffed by a rival crew, two determined graffiti writers embark on an elaborate plan to *bomb* the ultimate location: the New York Mets’ Home Run Apple.


Director/Writer: Adam Leon
Cast: Ty Hickson, Tashiana Washington

I remember reading a review of this a while back and though I was intrigued, I kind of forgotten about it. So I was glad to get this one as a ‘gift.’ I was prepared to see something that’s off-the-beaten path, and this one certainly offers that, for better or for worse.

The premise isn’t something I’m familiar with, as I’m not a baseball fan nor do I know much of anything about the world of graffiti. Apparently the term *bomb* here refers to the act of graffiti writing, nothing to do with explosives, but that’s obvious from the start. The story focuses on two Bronx teens Malcolm and Sofia, a pair of graffiti artists who embarks on a whirlwind quest to bomb the NY Mets home-run apple. I didn’t even know what that place look like that I had to Google it. The very idea was sparked by rival graffiti artists from Queens who tag their work, so basically it’s a turf war of sort even though it centers more on how these two kids come up with $500, which is the amount of money needed to gain access to the stadium.


Though the film is set in NYC in English, I feel like watching a foreign movie as I could barely understand the thick Bronx accent with VERY colorful language. As you know, I’m not a fan of foul language, but in this case, it’s just the reality of how the people in this subculture talk in their daily life. It’s a bit tricky to follow what’s going on at times because of this reason though, but fortunately we’ve got quite a likable duo here with Ty Hickson as Malcolm and Tashiana Washington as Sophia. I’m especially fond of the latter, she’s definitely a talented actress I hope to see more of.

These kids are made tough by situation, and I can’t help but really feel for them as I learn just how significant this goal is for them. It seems that Sophia end up having a far worse day of the two. I mean she got robbed and swindled several times over the course of 24 hours! Granted they’re not saintly themselves, I mean Malcolm is a drug dealer and the two are petty thieves in their own right, but it’s clear these kids had it rough. The story feels rather all over the place however, there’s an odd encounter between Malcolm and a blond girl Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze) when he made his drug delivery. The acting is rather awkward though it could be because all of the actors don’t have a lot of experience. Ginnie becomes part of their scheming later on, which involves a rather elaborate plan involving a tattooed-fellow named Champion (Meeko). He’s an interesting character who turns out to be not so much a champion after all as he fails to pick a lock which is the key to Malcolm’s master plan.


What I do like is the effortless friendship between the two and the way the camera follows them around as they manage to come up with the cash anyway they can has a bit of a documentary feel to it. New York City itself is almost a character on its own right, as the film shows the non-glamorous side of the Burroughs and street corners we don’t usually see in mainstream movies. Their frank conversation between Malcolm and Sophia—however vulgar and uncouth—has a certain charm and humor. I’m especially taken by Tashiana Washington‘s performance. Her Sophia is definitely the strongest character between the two, and serves as the voice of reason throughout the film despite their dire situation.

Overall I quite enjoyed this one, so I’m glad I saw it. I just wish there’s more to the story and the ending was more sharply-written. The denouement just feels incomplete somehow, perhaps it’s deliberate but it just wasn’t working for me. I do like the fact that there wasn’t a forced romance written into the plot, which makes it rather refreshing. Not a bad debut from Adam Leon on a shoe-string budget.

3 out of 5 reels

Has anyone seen this movie? I’d love to hear what you think!