Review of “Suburbicon”

Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is an average kid living in an average house in the average neighborhood of Suburbicon. His father Gardner (Matt Damon) works in insurance. His mother Rose (Julianne Moore) is in a wheelchair after an automobile accident. His Aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore) is visiting overnight when two men, Ira and Louis (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) enter the home, tie everyone up and kill Rose with an overdose of chloroform. It seems Gardner owes the men money and hasn’t paid it back yet so the murder of Rose was a warning. Aunt Margaret moves into the Lodge home to help Gardner raise Nicky. Officer Hightower (Jack Conley) tells Gardner to come down to the station and look at a lineup based on his description of the robbers. Margaret brings Nicky to the station because he doesn’t want to stay at the house alone. While Ira and Louis are in the lineup neither Gardner nor Margaret tells police who they are. Nicky is confused and wonders what his father and aunt are up to. Meanwhile, the Mayers family has moved into Suburbicon and caused quite a stir with the neighbors as they are black and this is 1959. The Mayers house backs up to the Lodge house and Nicky and Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), a boy about Nicky’s age, have become friends. Crowds gather at the Mayers house, making noise, banging drums and yelling at the family inside to move as they don’t want their kind in Suburbicon.

Whenever Joel and Ethan Coen are involved in the making of a movie I get excited. “Suburbicon” is a script the brothers wrote back in 1986 but it has only now been turned into a film by frequent Coen Brothers collaborator George Clooney. Clooney, along with writer Grant Heslov, added some story elements and Clooney directed. Perhaps George and Grant should have left the script alone because “Suburbicon” feels like a two different stories that have been forcefully fused together against their will.

The trailer for “Suburbicon” makes the movie look like a madcap crime caper and parts of the film have that tone; however, much of what is suggested in the trailer misrepresents what happens in the film with clever editing suggesting one thing is in reaction to another when the events are unrelated. Anyone walking into the movie expecting a somewhat more violent version of “Raising Arizona” is going to be disappointed. “Suburbicon” is far darker than the trailer suggests.

It is also uneven with a subplot about the community trying to force a black family to leave feeling very shoehorned into the film. It is a ham-fisted attempt by Clooney to make us see that what is the focus of public anger usually isn’t the real problem. While everyone in the neighborhood believes the black family is bringing in an unsavory element, the nice white family across the way is being terrorized by thugs because of the actions of the father. It screams hypocrisy and intolerance in a very clumsy way. Clooney has proven he is a very good movie director so it puzzles me why this effort is so uneven. I would like to know more about the creative process to put this film together because large parts of it are really good. That’s not to say the sections involving the black family isn’t good; but it just feels like it’s from a different movie.

It’s a shame the film is a bit of a mess since Matt Damon is so good as the morally corrupted Gardner Lodge. Lodge is a man that thinks he’s far smarter than he actually is; however, he quickly shows he’s quite dumb by not paying off the loan shark. Perhaps that is part of a larger plan; but even so, it spectacularly blows up in his face. Lodge is pushed further and further into bad decisions as the story progresses and is always trying to solve problems caused by other efforts to solve problems. Damon plays Lodge constantly seething with anger and on the verge of exploding. Like a good person of the period, he stuffs his rage down deep in his soul and tries to keep it bottled up. Should it be released well, people might talk and think poorly of him down at the lodge or church. Damon is infuriating as Lodge since most of his issues could be solved with one call to the police; but we know he’ll never make that call as he is a coward looking to avoid as much trouble as possible. Damon gives Lodge a boyish charm that gives him at least one redeeming quality, keeping the audience from hating him totally.

Julianne Moore is both Rose and Margaret but since the former is killed early in the film I’ll be talking mostly about her performance as the latter. Moore is stunningly creepy as the surrogate mother and wife. There is a streak of cruelty that runs through the character that turns what could have been a throwaway role into something meaningful and dangerous. Margaret is clearly mentally ill and is teetering on the edge of a breakdown throughout the film. Moore is masterful at portraying damaged characters and this one is clearly broken from almost the first time we see her.

The performances are somewhat hampered by a plot that moves at a leisurely pace. It takes too long to introduce the meat of the story after the misdirection of the black family’s arrival in town and the full story of what’s going on is never fully explained. We know Lodge owes money to the thugs but we don’t know what he got the money for. Are the thugs small time players or are they more heavily connected? Are Gardner and Margaret involved prior to the events in the film or only after? Gardner was driving the night of the car accident that put Rose in the wheelchair but did he do it on purpose to try and collect on her life insurance? There are a great many loose threads dangling by the end of the film with no satisfactory answers for any of them.

“Suburbicon” is rated R for some sexuality, language and violence. There is poisoning, strangling, stabbing and other violence shown with some of it being very bloody. There is a riot that breaks out at the Mayers’ home with windows shattered and fires set. The sexuality is limited to a scene where Nicky walks in on Gardner and Margaret having a mildly kinky scene. Foul language is scattered.

There’s a really good movie embedded in “Suburbicon” that could have been the dark and violent domestic drama that the Coen’s made famous in “Fargo” and “Blood Simple.” Sadly, the addition of a needless subplot about racism and a languid pace put “Suburbicon” on the lower end of “Best Coen Brothers’ Movies” scale. Great performances from Matt Damon and Julianne Moore almost are wasted. It isn’t the best movie but it does have its redeeming qualities. If you have the patience check it out.

“Suburbicon” gets three stars out of five.

This week, there’s a rare Wednesday opening for a sequel and the arrival of the next Marvel flick. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

A Bad Mom’s Christmas—

Thor: Ragnarok—

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Review of “Money Monster”

If there are superstars in the world of financial television then Lee Gates (George Clooney) is then is the brightest. Gates’ show Money Monster features flashy graphics, back-up dancers and garish costumes. Gates would be unable to put together his show without long-time director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) who is able to deal with her star’s inability to stick with the script. While the show is live on the air, delivery man Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) walks on the set with a pair of boxes. When Gates sees him the host asks if the boxes are for him. That’s when Kyle pulls out a gun and takes Gates hostage. Patty cuts the feed but Kyle notices the screen going black and demands to be put back on the air or he will kill Gates. Patty puts the show back live and Kyle pulls out a piece of paper and begins giving a speech about how the system is rigged against the average working man. He blames Gates for his losing $60,000.00 in a stock called IBIS Global Capital that Gates called safer than a savings account but had crashed the previous day, losing $800-million in value due to what the company called a computer glitch. IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest live on the show but cancelled at the last minute. Kyle orders Gates to open one of the boxes and inside finds a vest wired with enough plastic explosives to kill everyone within 50 feet. Kyle has his thumb on the button of a dead man’s switch and if he lets go, the vest will explode. Kyle wants answers and he intends to get them even if he has to kill some people. Patty, talking to Gates through a wireless earpiece, tries to keep the host calm and feed him information about Kyle and IBIS as well as suggestions for keeping Kyle engaged, his thumb on the bomb button and his finger off the trigger.

The trio of George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O’Connell makes “Money Monster” an engaging and entertaining film despite the fact the three are never on-screen all at the same time. Their characters create a kind of ultimate dysfunctional family that manages to coexist and even thrive despite their massive flaws. The film works largely because these three give riveting performances despite the weaknesses of the story that on closer examination doesn’t hold up that well.

Clooney is in full “Clooney” mode at the beginning of the film. Gates is full of himself, enamored with his lavish lifestyle and connections to the movers and shakers of Wall Street and big business. He believes his own hype and enjoys the benefits of his position. Later, after seeing the influence his words have on people like Kyle, Gates realizes his power over people’s lives and it puts the shallowness of his own day-to-day into perspective.

Gates begins to show signs of Stockholm syndrome and starts to feel empathy and pity for Kyle. He and Patty do everything they can find out what happened with IBIS and why Kyle lost all his money. That aspect of the story feels a bit implausible. Patty gets in contact with various contacts they have used in the past to track down what happened and why. It all falls together a little too neatly and makes for a crowd-pleasing conclusion to a story that is somewhat reminiscent to 2015’s far superior “The Big Short” that showed, when playing with people’s lives and savings, there is no happy ending.

The entire “hostage held on live TV” aspect of the story is a cheap gimmick that only works in a movie. A scene late in the film (that appears in the trailer) where Kyle and Gates walk down a crowded New York City street surrounded by cops and bystanders attracted to the news story is utterly ridiculous and would never be allowed to actually transpire. The scene this walk leads to is also completely unbelievable.

Despite these implausible aspects of the story, the film works as a piece of pop culture entertainment. It provides clear good guys and bad guys and even manages to turn the person with the gun into a victim of a rigged system. The feel-good aspects of the film overcome what in many other movies might be considered nails in the coffin and make “Money Monster” into a highly watchable financial thriller.

“Money Monster” is rated R for language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence. There are a couple of shootings with very little blood. We see some sexual acts with very little nudity. I’m surprised the brief drug use isn’t mentioned but there is some of that as well. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Director Jodie Foster has managed to turn “Money Monster” into an entertaining film despite some glaring and obvious issues. Her terrific primary cast of George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O’Connell also has a winning chemistry that creates sincere interest and empathy. If any lesser elements had been in place, “Money Monster” would have been a losing proposition.

“Money Monster” gets four stars out of five.

This week three comedies hope to make you laugh your way to the box office. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

The Angry Birds Movie—

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising—

The Nice Guys—

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Reviews of “Hail, Caesar!” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Hail, Caesar!

Movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of Communist script writers who feel they are undercompensated for their work. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works for the studio as a “fixer” who tries to keep movie production running smoothly by taking care of any problems for the actors and directors. Mannix gets a ransom note asking for $100,000 for the return of Whitlock. Whitlock is the star of a big-budget Roman Empire film called “Hail, Caesar: The Story of the Christ” and is needed back on set as quickly as possible. He also wants to keep Whitlock’s disappearance out of the two gossip columns written by feuding twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Mannix is also dealing with the pregnancy of unwed starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and monosyllabic cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being shoehorned into an upscale costume drama much to the chagrin of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). As if this wasn’t enough, Mannix is also considering a lucrative job offer from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and is also trying to quit smoking.

Joel and Ethan Coen are the talented writers, directors, editors and producers behind some of the best movies in history (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Big Lebowski,” “True Grit” to name a few). They have also given us some interesting films with unique characters and a skewed view of the world. These films aren’t quite great but are certainly worth a look. Where “Hail, Caesar” falls on the list from worst to first will probably require some time to decide and may depend on your mood when you see it but, for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of their best efforts.

Right off the bat, you know you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie. The look of the sets, the way the characters are filmed and the often amped up energy between the actors are all signatures of a Coen Brothers joint, especially one of their lighter films. Adding to the mood is the utter self-absorption of some of the movie’s characters. They cannot see past their own wants, needs and desires to consider all the trouble they are causing. They need someone like Mannix to take care of the problems they are ill equipped to handle or blindly stumble upon. The film, set in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, gives the audience a peek behind scrubbed clean facades and into the dirty lives of Hollywood stars from the era. Reading a little of Hollywood history shows there were plenty of pregnancies, closeted gays and lesbians, and substance abuse to cover up keeping the real versions of Eddie Mannix busy. Watching the small emergencies and major catastrophes Mannix deals with fill his day made me wonder if what he does only enables the actors and directors bad decision making. Of course, the answer is “yes” since he was hired by the studio to keep the actors and directors working, on schedule and within budget.

Watching Mannix work is probably the most interesting thing about “Hail, Caesar!” making the subplot about the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock almost an afterthought. Sadly, that part of the story is written that way as well. There is a great deal of Communist ideology spewed by the group of writers holed up at a beachside bungalow. Granted, it’s all done in a friendly fashion, leading to a case of Stockholm syndrome for Whitlock. Nothing about this group is terribly interesting aside from the petty sniping between members. I suppose I expected a more aggressive gang hoping to convert Whitlock as a vocal and public advocate for their cause. Instead, Whitlock doesn’t really get it and is treated like the slow cousin at the family reunion with everyone just nodding and smiling as he tries to play along. Pretty much everything at the beach house feels like filler and tends to bring the movie to a bit of a narrative stop.

Far more entertaining are the films within the film being filmed. A water ballet featuring Johansson’s pregnant DeeAnna Moran in a mermaid costume and a big dance number with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney leading a group of sailors tap dancing on tables at a bar the night before they ship out contain dazzling visuals, impressive choreography and catchy tunes. I almost wish they had just made a movie that stitched these scenes together with a Hollywood backlot story about Eddie Mannix and left the Communist kidnapping plot out. Even watching Clooney chew the scenery in the sword and sandals epic his character is filming beats anything that happens after his kidnapping. It’s the dichotomy between what Hollywood is trying to sell us and what this movie is trying to show us about the real world that drags the film down a peg or two. It’s far from awful but I could have used a bit more screwball action and a lot less Communist manifesto.

“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. The suggestive content is very mild and hardly noticeable. Smoking is common throughout the film.

One of my favorite Coen Brothers movies is “Raising Arizona.” It is goofy and sweet and features some very memorable characters. From time to time, for no reason, my wife will just suddenly announce, “Short of Edwina. Turn to the right!” which is a line Holly Hunter’s character says on her first meeting with Nic Cage. “Raising Arizona” has more memorable lines. Perhaps that’s what “Hail, Caesar!” lacks…scenes and dialog that burrow into your brain and pop up for no particular reason in conversation. While that isn’t a requirement for a great movie, it does help.

“Hail, Caesar!” gets four guitars.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Bennet family lives on a nice estate in the English countryside. The five Bennet daughters have all been schooled in Chinese martial arts as all good young women should be in a land plagued by a zombie scourge. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) meets and takes an instant dislike to Col. Darcy (Sam Riley), a well-known zombie killer, at a reception at the home of Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). Mr. Bingley sees Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) and is instantly smitten, making Jane’s mother, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips), quite happy as she hopes to marry her daughters off to wealthy families as her own is not as financially secure as she would like. The zombie plague is beginning to overrun most of London’s defenses and Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) is brought in to improve them. Darcy and Wickham have a strained history going back several years that Wickham blames on Darcy. This drives a further wedge between Darcy and Elizabeth.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” henceforth to be referred to as “PPZ,” is a brilliant idea on paper. The juxtaposition between the mannered and stuffy British upper class and the mindless hunger of zombies should have been a no brainer (pardon the expression). Sadly, this theatrical representation of a genre mashup is about as dry and dull as a British costume drama without the ravenous undead.

“PPZ” isn’t funny, isn’t scary and isn’t otherwise much of anything. It seems to have taken more of the tone of the original Jane Austen work and left any of the excitement of Seth Grahame-Smith’s modification on the page. While there are moments when Austen’s words are said during a fight scene between two characters and that does provide some visual humor it doesn’t translate into actual laughs. Perhaps Grahame-Smith’s book wasn’t intended to be funny; however, if you want a film like this to appeal to a broad audience, it needs some laughs that aren’t the polite chuckles this film only occasionally provides.

The movie isn’t scary in the least. These zombies still possess some of their former intelligence and can maintain their composure at least until they consume human brains. After they get their first taste of grey matter, they become ravenous and aggressive. The world of 19th Century England dealing with zombies is somewhat interesting and the modified history, construction of a massive wall and deep moat to block zombie progress, is a nice touch of background; but it doesn’t do much to carry the story past the opening credits.

I suppose the filmmakers were hoping to attract fans of Austen’s work AND people that enjoy “The Walking Dead.” The Venn diagram of those two audiences doesn’t have a great deal of overlap and you need an audience big enough to justify making the sequel suggested in the film’s closing image. Considering the anemic opening weekend box office, a second film seems unlikely.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. We see a few zombie heads explode when they are shot. An arm is severed and zombies often appear to have severe injuries to their faces. We also see some corpses with large holes in the tops of their heads and their brains removed. Suggestive material is limited to the occasional sight of the tops of a heaving bosom.

When I heard “PPZ” was being made I was actually a little excited to see it. I believed it might be possible to turn a one-note premise into an entertaining movie. Sadly, I was wrong. With such a serious tone and ignoring its humorous potential, “PPZ” is largely a lifeless mess.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” gets two stars out of five.

This week, comic book fans get what could be a cinematic Valentine’s card from a much anticipated character. There is also a comedy about dating and a revisit from Blue Steel! I’ll see and review at least one of these films.


How to be Single—

Zoolander 2—

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Review of “Tomorrowland”

Frank Walker (played as a child by Thomas Robinson and as an adult by George Clooney) was a dreamer that, as a child, made a jet pack out of an old vacuum cleaner and other spare parts and entered it into an invention competition at the 1964 World’s Fair. The judge, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), was unimpressed since it didn’t work; but Athena (Raffey Cassidy) was taken with Frank’s enthusiasm. She secretly gave Frank a pin and told her to follow Nix and a group of other inventors as they took the Small World ride through the fair. Doing so transports Frank to an amazing world called Tomorrowland. A real place filled with dreamers like him who are allowed to turn those dreams into reality. In the present, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is also a dreamer who lives with her dad Eddie (Tim McGraw), a NASA engineer who will be laid off soon since the space agency doesn’t launch rockets for the foreseeable future. Casey tries to put off that future by sabotaging the cranes used to dismantle the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Casey is arrested for her actions and when she gets bailed out finds in her belongings a pin like the one Athena gave Frank. When she touches it, she sees Tomorrowland; but it is an interactive virtual reality recording. Desperate to get there, Casey begins a search that takes her across the country, to a sci-fi/fantasy memorabilia shop run by murderous androids, meeting Athena and a decidedly grumpy grown up Frank. Casey is determined to get to Tomorrowland even if nearly everyone she encounters is equally determined to stop her.

“Tomorrowland” is a political statement delivered in the mildest of terms. It encourages public action wrapped up in a package of light entertainment. It is radical manifesto from the people who brought you “Snow White” and “Dumbo.” It’s a call to action that is delivered far too subtly to actually lead to any change. Perhaps the mild delivery was a compromise in an effort to not anger certain segments of the political spectrum but it may have been a waste of Disney’s $190-million investment. Sometimes you have to kick the bee’s nest to stir up the queen. Otherwise, “Tomorrowland” is pretty good.

What will strike audiences most is the visuals of the film. Director Brad Bird has dipped into his Pixar history to make “Tomorrowland” look absolutely amazing. From jet packs to rocket ships, everything in the city of the future looks retro cool. Based in part on the look of the attraction in Disney’s theme parks, “Tomorrowland” is glistening spires, levitating swimming pools and hover scooters all in a land surrounded by golden wheat fields, glowing trees and clear blue skies. It is the kind of utopia that writers have been dreaming of for over a century. Bird’s visual effects team is likely to receive an Oscar nod for their work and it would be much deserved.

Just behind the look of the film is the tone: Hope gushes forth from “Tomorrowland” like a geyser. There’s innocence and wide-eyed wonder infusing most of the movie that I must admit was infectious. Leaving the film, I felt good and like anything was possible. That lasted about half an hour as reality crushed my buzz. That may be the film’s biggest weakness: It doesn’t have much staying power. While it offers hope, it’s in the form of those old musicals starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney where the clichéd line, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” comes from. In this case, “Tomorrowland” wants us to come together and save the world. The movie implies we can do that with technology and cooperation. I don’t argue that point but I do question the film suggests to get the ball rolling. In the movie, dreamers are introduced to Tomorrowland and are invited to take part. Here in the real world, the only way things happen is with political action. Political action appears to only happen when it appeals to the base supporters of a politician. Politicians appear to only involve themselves in real change when the lobbyists support it. Lobbyists support it only if it makes their client’s money. Sadly, nobody makes any profit from the “Tomorrowland” idea hence it will never happen. Sorry if I just crushed your buzz but at my age I’ve seen too many good ideas buried under political rhetoric and inaction. It appears our leaders lack the ability to dream, to ask “what if.” Had I the power, I’d force every member of Congress, the Supreme Court and the President to watch “Tomorrowland.” I’m sure it would be fodder for the talking heads on cable news channels to rail against the filmmaker’s agenda and draw unflattering comparisons to communism, socialism, environmentalism and any other –ism they can think of. I didn’t used to be so cynical but time and experience has beaten much of my own dreamer out of me. I guess I’m far more like Clooney’s character than I am Robertson’s. That’s sad.

Sorry this hasn’t been much of a movie review and more of a diatribe. Please forgive me and I’ll try to do better next time.

“Tomorrowland” is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language. As violence and action go, the film is very mild on both counts. Younger children might be troubled by the various bits of danger young Frank gets into when he enters Tomorrowland the first time. There is a fight between two characters at the end of the film. One character is crushed to death by falling debris. Another character is shot by a ray gun of some sort and knocked across a room. Various androids are dispatched in various violent ways including being beaten by a baseball bat repeatedly. There is some foul language that is widely scattered and gets no fouler than the “S” word. There is also a British slang term for testicles used once near the end of the film.

While it tends to drag at times and could have been shorter, “Tomorrowland” is visually stunning and chocked full of hope. It is also simplistic and offers no real answers as to how to solve the world’s problems. Maybe that’s asking too much of a Disney movie but it seems like we have to start somewhere so why not in a darkened theatre.

“Tomorrowland” gets four hopeful stars out of five.

Three new films open this week ranging from classic literature to disaster porn and I’ll see at least one of them.


Far From the Maddening Crowd—

San Andreas—

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