Suburbicon

Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov


Cinema is an art and the films that get made are inherently reflective of ourselves and the world we live in, which is why movies cannot help but be political and social constructs. Whether it’s done actively or passively, all movies are affected by the societies that shaped them and are indicative of the principles and values of their own time and place, whether it’s confirmation, opposition, indifference or ignorance. This applies whether it’s done well or badly and that brings me to Suburbicon. Clooney has been one of the most actively political American actors and directors of recent years and he has been successful in conveying his liberal beliefs in films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Here he tackles the difficult but important subject of race politics, a topic that has never seen much prominence in his filmography. Although I believe his intentions were honest and sincere, Clooney’s handling of the subject is problematic (to say the least).

Set in the 1950s, the film takes place in Suburbicon, a rural neighbourhood with a ‘diverse’ range of white residents. This peaceful community however is shaken up by the arrival of an African-American family who, despite being perfectly pleasant and agreeable people, are received with nothing but harassment, abuse, and scorn. So focused is everyone on their outrage against the Mayers family that nobody notices the dark dealings of the house adjacent to it, that of mild-mannered family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon). His house is broken into by two robbers, Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell), and he is taken captive along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose subsequently dies from an overdose of chloroform and so her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) steps in to help Gardner and Nicky rebuild their lives. Nicky however suspects that something strange is going on as his father and aunt start being suspiciously in the aftermath of the attack. His sentiments are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), the insurance agent brought in to investigate their case. As the case becomes more complicated and messy, so does the conduct of the white supremacists terrorising the Mayers become more aggressive.

What we essentially have here are two parallel narratives which work neither as parallels nor as narratives. The intention, I imagine, is to put a spotlight on the twisted and evil deeds of white people that go unnoticed because everyone else is looking in the wrong direction due to blinding racial anger. That would be fine if Clooney was prepared to completely invest the film into the characters of the Mayers family and fully explore their plight, but he fails to do so. We never learn the first names of Mr. (Leith Burke) or Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook) and the film never illustrates their discernable personalities or inner lives to us. They are there to serve as symbols of the African-American community in Clooney’s satire of 1950s racism. By taking this approach there is an implication that this kind of behaviour is a thing of the past, that it isn’t still going on in Charlottesville and other similar places. That may not have necessarily been Clooney’s intention, but by portraying these events by way of parody and depicting the effects on the black family not through their own eyes but rather the eyes of the white main characters, I cannot help but find the movie’s treatment of racism to be outdated.

The other narrative, which Clooney adapted from an abandoned Coen Brothers screenplay, concerns Nicky and the increasingly precarious situation growing in his house. Clooney, despite being a frequent collaborator of the Coens, proves unequal to the task of replicating their unique black noir tone and has instead made a movie that is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to make the material work. There is no energy in his direction or in Damon’s and Moore’s performances, and so the story unfolds at a steadily stale and stolid pace. Gardner and Margaret are both extremely unpleasant people, as is often the case with the Coen Brothers’ characters, but neither the director nor the actors can bring enough humour, appeal or life to make them at all enjoyable, relatable or memorable. Isaac does better as a shrewd investigator with an uncanny nose for bullshit, but not enough to save the film.

The movie is earnest and well-intentioned, but that just isn’t enough in 2017. This movie takes the real-life story of an African-American family who suffered the horrid persecution of white America and trivialises it. The event is distanced from the audience as a laughable relic of the past, it plays second fiddle to a far less interesting story, and its effects are felt not by the victims but by the white family next door. This kind of movie is patronising for black viewers and undemanding for white viewers. If a white filmmaker wants to take on the weighty subjects of racism, hypocrisy and white privilege, it’s not enough for them to acknowledge that they (white people) understand that these things exist, especially when the movie in question is the product of an industry historically and overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Movies like this need and demand to be more challenging, more inspired and more truthful. Suburbicon is the product of a filmmaker who either didn’t know or couldn’t decide what story he was trying to tell and it falls far too short of whatever good intentions he may have had.

★★

Advertisements

Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.

I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.

Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.

With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.

After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.

★★★★

Tomorrowland

Cast: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Thomas Robinson, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Brad Bird

Writers: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird


One of the biggest complaints about Hollywood these days is that there aren’t any more original ideas. According to the Box Office takings for 2015 so far, all ten of the highest grossing films of the year worldwide are sequels, remakes and adaptations. The highest grossing film with an original story, in 13th place (symbolic or what?), is the lacklustre Jupiter Ascending, a film that barely managed to secure a profit. Therefore it is unsurprising that Hollywood continues to produce films based on ideas that have already seen much success in the past, given that original films have proven to be risky moves that do not always pay off. The modest performance of Tomorrowland this past week suggests that audiences have not taken to it and that the trend is therefore set to continue. Even though it isn’t strictly an original story, it did not have a plot or characters to which the audience had already formed an established connection and was therefore a risky move on Disney’s part. I for one think it is a shame that Tomorrowland has not taken off with audiences because I thought it was a breath of fresh air and enjoyed it a great deal.

Tomorrowland is the story of Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a bright, plucky daughter of an engineer who remains largely optimistic in an increasingly dreary and pessimistic world. Whereas others around her are resigned to how morbid and hopeless the world has become, Casey remains steadfast in viewing these troubles as problems that can and should be solved. She comes across a strange pin that, upon being touched, immediately transports her to another world. It is a magnificent world of scientific wonderments, such as jet packs and holograms, and provides Casey with a living representation of hope and of a better future. She resolves to find out more about this world and sets out on a path that leads her into the company of Frank Walker (George Clooney), a brilliant scientist who has lost his enthusiasm, and Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a mysterious young girl whose answers only lead to more questions. Together they set out on an adventure to find Tomorrowland and to save the world and its future from a foreboding and imminent danger.

What I really enjoyed about this film was that watching it was really like going on an adventure. My unfamiliarity with the story and its characters meant that following Casey in her quest to uncover the truth about Tomorrowland was like setting out on a journey of discovery. I was fascinated with the mystery behind this world and wanted to learn more. The mystery itself is well crafted and is uncovered at just the right pace while still allowing room for good action and fun interactions between the characters. The three main characters are fun and compelling in their own ways and share an interesting dynamic between them. Casey is the optimist of the group and is an enjoyably quirky character who adds much heart to the film. Frank is the pessimist who has lost all faith in humanity but detects a glimmer of hope in Casey’s arrival. Athena is a realist whose spirited and idealistic disposition comes as a surprise given what is revealed about her character. The world that Brad Bird has created is visually stunning (in fact, I’m almost surprised he didn’t make the film in 3D) and invokes a sense of wonder and amazement from the audience. I was thoroughly absorbed.

However I do have one major gripe with this film which occurs in the third act. As the characters learn more about Tomorrowland and the nature of the threat they have to face, the film starts to deliver a message that I felt was pretty forced. I can’t really get into it because spoilers, but the delivery of this message was very blatant and sort of broke the illusion for me. Although I can understand why the writers felt the need to include it and appreciate that it it is an important and a serious message, especially considering that this is a kid’s film, I do think the same message could have been delivered with more subtlety. The way they kept trying to hammer it in drew me out of the film and disrupted my viewing experience of it. I don’t know whether this is something that would bother the rest of the audience but, for me, it was quite a glaring problem that I wasn’t able to ignore.

On the whole Tomorrowland is a very fun and enjoyable family film that deserves a much better reception than the one it has thus far received. The originality is very refreshing for a blockbuster of its size, the story and the characters that it offers are entertaining enough to provide a satisfying experience for the audience, and the world that Brad Bird creates is astonishing to behold. I entreat anyone who is unsure about this film to go and watch it. It is films like this which show that originality is not dead in Hollywood and I sincerely hope that the audience will embrace this film so that we may get others like it.

★★★★