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 “X-Men: Apocalypse”

En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac) has been alive for many lifetimes and is the leader of Egypt 5000 year ago. Born the first mutant and able to transfer his consciousness from one body to another, En Sabah Nur is being transferred into the body of a mutant with healing abilities which would likely make him nearly immortal when some of his guards turn against him and seal him within a pyramid buried deep underground. With the public finding out about mutants in the 1970’s, a cult has developed around the myth of En Sabah Nur. CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating one of these cults in Cairo when she witnesses the awakening of En Sabah Nur but doesn’t realize what she sees. En Sabah Nur, seeing how the world has changed by absorbing information from a satellite TV connection, puts into motion a plan to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth and rule a world of only mutants. He recruits four followers giving their mutant abilities a boost. First is Storm (Alexandra Shipp) who is able to control the weather, next is Psylocke (Olivia Munn) who can project psychic energy in the form of a purple sword or whip, third is Angel (Warren Worthington III) who flies with wings of metal growing from his back and the last is Magneto (Michael Fassbender) with the ability to control metal and magnetic fields. En Sabah Nur detects the mind of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) while he is using Cerebro to look for Magneto. Overwhelming Xavier, En Sabah Nur abducts him with a plan to use his psychic abilities to contact all living minds. Xavier’s students and fellow instructors Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), along with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) join forces to stop En Sabah Nur and his Four Horsemen from bringing about an apocalypse.

Perhaps it’s superhero burnout. Perhaps it’s the release of this film close to the vastly superior “Captain America: Civil War.” Maybe it’s just the quality of this film. Whatever the reason, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is a flat, uninvolving and somewhat repetitive mix of visually exciting CGI action and mind-numbing complications leading to a predictable ending and a post-credits scene that will only excite someone steeped in X-Men comics lore. I don’t hate “X-Men: Apocalypse” but I believe it could have been better.

My main issue with the film is it never involves the audience emotionally. Even when given a chance to with the death of a young mutant, it is tossed off like something meaningless. It never feels like there are real consequences to what happens in “X-Men: Apocalypse” as the ending is telegraphed by an early scene, showing us who will be responsible for the “good” mutants beating the “bad” mutants.

If you feel like that’s a spoiler you haven’t been paying much attention to the “X-Men” movies over the years. Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg don’t stray too far from the formula that has been the staple of X-Men and other superhero movies. While the film does drop a few hints about what may come up in future installments (including that post-credits scene), it doesn’t really stretch the lore of these characters the way “X-Men: Days of Future Past” did. That film committed what many fans thought of as an unforgivable sin and completely reset the timeline of the movie universe. This film stays locked within the lines and acts like there are hot lava alligators lurking past the comfortable and expected edges. They are characters based on comic books. They can be and do ANYTHING! They aren’t constrained by time, physics, death or any other rule we normal humans can’t violate. They brought Professor Xavier back after we watched him die in the third X-Men movie and gave us absolutely NO explanation and we all collectively went “ok.” Play with these characters and stretch them in directions that aren’t straight from the moviemaking rule book. After all, (SPOILER ALERT) Marvel comics just made Captain America a HYDRA agent. If they can do that, you guys can give audiences some surprises when it comes to these films.

“X-Men Apocalypse” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, action and destruction, sequences of violence and some suggestive images. Buildings are ripped from the ground and cars flung in the air but no loss of life is seen. One cameo appearance by an X-Men favorite leads to lots of dead bodies and some puddles of blood. Mystique is nearly choked to death. A woman and child are killed with a bow and arrow. There are other examples of mutant on mutant mayhem. I’m not exactly sure what the suggestive images are referring to as I don’t recall anything other than a couple of female costumes that might be considered such. Foul language is infrequent but there is one “F-Bomb.”

The story of “X-Men: Apocalypse” is rather convoluted but the idea behind the story is simple: Mutants are still feared and often abused or put on display by humans so En Sabah Nur uses mutants’ anger and fear to make them his soldiers. It seems fairly straightforward but for some reason Bryan Singer and the makers of the movie feel the need to throw in a great many complications, locations and action scenes to muddy the waters. “X-Men: Apocalypse” is an overwrought mess that needed to be reined in before it hit theatres.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” gets two stars out of five.

Love, music and more mutation hit screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these movies.

Me Before You—

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping—

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows—

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Review of “Ex Machina”

Several luminaries, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, have recently warned against the development of artificial intelligence. Hawking even going so far as to warn it could begin the end of the human race. Despite these dire predictions, researchers continue to explore the frontier of creating a machine that can think or, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it: a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers. In science fiction films, the definition of artificial intelligence, or AI as it’s commonly referred to, is expanded to include the notion that the machine is in fact alive, self-aware and capable of all human behaviors including evil. Adding the evil element is crucial to use AI as the main driving force of a story. In “Ex Machina,” the AI is incased in a synthetic brain and housed in an android that could be considered very attractive, even sexy; but as the old saying reminds us, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) writes code at Bluebook, the top search engine in the world. Bluebook’s billionaire creator and owner Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is conducting a lottery amongst his employees with the winner getting to spend a week with Bateman at his secret compound. Caleb wins and soon finds himself in a helicopter flying to his eccentric boss’ home. Inaccessible by any other means, Caleb is left by the chopper and must walk along a river to a sleek home that can only be accessed by a security key card which is made for him at the entrance. Walking in, Caleb finds Bateman working out with a heavy bag. The two exchange small talk but it is stilted and uncomfortable. Bateman encourages Caleb to relax and consider this as two buddies hanging out at a really cool house for the week. Bateman tells Caleb the reason he’s there is to perform a Turing test on a new artificial intelligence program Bateman has created. The Turing test is designed to determine if a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The next morning, Caleb is surprised when an Asian woman walks into his room and delivers his breakfast. Bateman says her name is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and that she doesn’t understand any English. It’s a way to maintain security as Bateman’s home is also a research facility. Other than Kyoko, they are alone. Caleb is put in a room with a glass wall that looks into a larger suite of rooms. Soon Ava (Alicia Vikander) walks into view, sees Caleb and approaches. Ava is an android housing Bateman’s artificial intelligence. Her face is the only part of Ava that has skin. The rest of her body appears to be a metal case and transparent areas where you can see her inner workings. Ava is curious about this new person, only the second she’s ever met. Caleb is amazed at her grasp of language and her ability to learn. Caleb and Bateman discuss his impressions of Ava and Bateman shows a propensity for megalomania as he turns something Caleb said into implying Bateman is a god. The next day as Caleb and Ava are talking, the power goes out and the facility goes to emergency batteries. The outage also knocks out all the security cameras and microphones recording their interactions. Ava warns Caleb not to believe anything Nathan says. Confused, Caleb doesn’t report what Ava said to Bateman. Over the course of their talks, Ava puts on clothes and a wig to appear more human and Caleb begins to feel pity for the android that is locked away from a world about which she is so curious.

“Ex Machina” is a subtle tale of life, love, loneliness, deception, ego and what exactly it means to be alive. The U.K. film written and directed by Alex Garland is a quietly riveting tale. It is accessible sci-fi that asks hard questions and offers no easy answers. It is the kind of movie audiences will either love or hate but won’t be able to walk away from without having a strong opinion either way.

Aside from the somewhat creepy performance of Oscar Isaac, the standout role here is Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Vikander doesn’t do the expected stilted, emotionless performance that is the standard interpretation of artificial lifeforms. Ava is slightly emotional. You can see it in her face as Caleb describes the loss of his parents in a car crash when he was a teenager. The mixture of pity and concern on Ava’s face was a surprise as one might expect an unchanging expression from an android. Instead, Ava gives a minimal indication of anguish. It is enough to get the point across but not so much as one would expect from a person. Ava is in the wasteland between humanity and machinery. Vikander’s performance is a tour de force of subtlety. It is a subtlety the audience believes as Ava is an unknown that could behave in a million different ways from overly emotional to completely blank. Since Ava is an AI, perhaps she would misinterpret what was expected of her reaction. Vikander and director Garland play this scene and many others perfectly with a “less-is-more” philosophy. They let Gleeson and Isaac handle the big emotions while Vikander has the harder job of showing what a new consciousness would do. Ava’s movements, accented with quiet, slightly mechanical-sounding effects, are also measured and economical. There are times when Ava is shown lying down, curled up in a fetal position. In looking back, I now wonder why? Ava doesn’t sleep and can’t tire in the traditional sense so why is she lying down? Is it an effort to show us just how human she is? Is it motivated by Ava’s desires to be accepted as human so she does the things humans do? The fact I am asking these questions a full day after seeing the film speaks to the impact of the story.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are fantastic as Bateman and Caleb. Their initial uncomfortable interactions give way to an uneasy friendship which slowly dissolves. Isaac plays Bateman as someone who is constantly on the line between normal, average person and complete psychopath. Isaac turns Bateman on a dime, making a simple discussion into an uncomfortable showdown. Bateman always seems to have other motives behind his actions and Isaac is able to show the audience that he’s scheming without making it obvious. Bateman is not a mustache-twirling villain, he’s much more dangerous. Gleeson plays Caleb as a goldfish thrown into Bateman’s shark tank; but Caleb soon learns to have as dangerous a bite as his boss. Gleeson has Caleb wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Ava. It is a quick trip from considering her a science project to a person in trouble that needs his help. The cat-and-mouse game between Bateman and Caleb is just as interesting as the Ava storyline.

Ava’s look is as much a character as Ava herself. The mixture of metallic frame, transparent limbs, skull and midsection and a lifelike face make it nearly impossible to take your eyes from her. The effect is mechanical and futuristic without being so completely alien as to make Ava distracting. Her face, often shown in close up during her conversations with Caleb, is her only normal-looking human feature; yet it’s enough for the audience to quickly join Caleb in thinking of her as a person. There are other moments in the film without spoiling anything that show just how different a creature she is. All of the visual effects in the film are flawless.

“Ex Machina” is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence. There are several times we see fully nude women. There is a brief scene where a character describes how it’s possible to have sex with Ava and that she would enjoy it. The violence comes at the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say it is brief and rather graphic. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

After Star Wars came out back in the late 70’s, science fiction enjoyed a brief renaissance. Sadly, many of these films were merely repackaged plots from westerns and other genres that were now set in space. Many studios thought if their films had spaceships and ray guns they would make money. They were wrong as they didn’t try to make the stories they were telling compelling enough for the public to part with their cash. That has always been the problem with science fiction: If you peel away the special effects is there a story worth telling and being seen by an audience? Often the answer is no; however, “Ex Machina” is compelling and asks the kinds of questions that may need answers in the next 50 years. In the meantime, go see the movie.

“Ex Machina” gets five stars.

After all the hype and publicity it’s finally here: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” hits theatres this week as the only wide release. Normally I don’t say which film I’m going to review next; however, I don’t see any point in being coy when one of the most anticipated movies in the last 20 years is opening. So, next week you can be assured of what I’ll be reviewing. Here’s the latest trailer:

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