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Review: Suburbicon

Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson
Released: October 26, 2017
Grade: C+

Suburbicon
The first few minutes of this film had me thinking it was a remake of the brilliant 1998 comedy, Pleasantville.  It takes us to the 1950s and an idyllic community where everything is perfect – at least when looking through the eyes of the residents.  The houses are beautifully presented, the kids play in the street, and the adults smile and politely chat to all who walk past.  It’s not a world with which I am familiar.

It’s not long before we realise there’s a much darker undercurrent within the neighbourhood.  An African American family moves into one of the homes and this infuriates the all-white townsfolk who voice their disapproval at the Suburbicon Betterment Committee.  They may as well just call themselves the Kl Klux Klan given their actions and ridiculous mindset.  They will stop at nothing to have all black people kicked out of the suburb.

As all that goes on, a second story is told.  It’s given more weight and more air time.  Gardner Lodge (Damon) is a prominent businessman trying to grapple with the loss of his wife (Moore).  Her death was no accident.  She was given a lethal dose of drugs by two burglars who broke into their home.  Gardner, his son (Jupe), and his sister-in-law (also Moore) were also subdued as part of the robbery but lived to tell the tale.

Suburbicon began as a screenplay from the highly acclaimed Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country for Old Men).  They didn’t get the chance to bring it to the screen (perhaps because they were working on better projects) and so it was picked up and modified by George Clooney and his writing-producing partner, Grant Heslov.  These two have combined previously to make films such as Leatherheads, The Ides of March and the Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck.

In describing this movie, it’s hard to come up with a better adjective than “disappointing”.  You’d expect better given the calibre of the cast and crew.  The fault lies with the screenplay as it struggles to blend these two distinctive stories.  The part involving the African American family is laughably inadequate.  I can’t even recall a scene where the husband and wife share a conversation.  It’s mostly footage of protestors yelling, screaming and banging. 

The Matt Damon-led narrative appears to be the piece that originated from the Coen brothers’ first draft screenplay.  It wants to be a gritty, complex dark comedy but aside from a handful of unexpected twists, it’s not particularly funny or engaging.  A rare highlight arrives when Oscar Isaac, playing an insurance investigator, sits down for coffee and a chat with Julianne Moore’s character.  Aside from that, most of the dialogue is ho-hum. 

George Clooney has something to say in Suburbicon… I’m just not exactly sure what that is.

 

Review: The Snowman

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Søren Sveistrup
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones
Released: October 19, 2017
Grade: C

The Snowman
As a general rule, I try to read as little as possible about a movie before seeing it.  That said, I couldn’t help but read an article today about The Snowman that was doing the rounds on social media.  After getting poor reviews and a lukewarm box-office opening in the United Kingdom, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson made a startling revelation.  He admitted that the film isn’t as good as he’d hoped because about 10-15% of the material was never filmed.  They ran out of time and didn’t realise the problems it would cause until they hit the editing room.

I’m in two minds about this statement.  On one hand, I think it’s refreshing that a director would come out and admit that the finished product isn’t what they envisioned and that mistakes were made.  On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good look when the production companies are trying to recoup their costs – believed to be about $35 million USD in this case.  Perhaps he should have waited a few more weeks before opening up.

Based on the 2007 novel by author Jo Nesbø, The Snowman is a thriller that builds early intrigue but loses momentum during the middle stages.  Harry Hole (Fassbender) was once a top-notch police detective in Oslo but now he’s a laughing stock.  We never really learn why his career went off the rails but we can see the aftereffects – he’s separated from his long-term partner (Gainsbourg), he’s struggling to sleep at night, and he’s drinking a lot of vodka.

Pleading with his boss for a juicy case to work on, Harry is partnered with a new recruit, Katrine (Ferguson), and asked to investigate the disappearance of a young mother.  It’s clearly something he’s not interested in.  He has a quick look around the house, talks to the daughter, and concludes that the woman ran off with another man. 

It’s not long before Harry realises there’s more to this mystery.  Other women go missing and he gets a mysterious letter in the mail.  There’s a serial killer at work and their “calling card” is a snowman constructed in the front yard of his victims.  I’m not sure how there are no witnesses given some of the murders happen in populated areas but it’s best not to think too deeply.  You’ll only find more holes.

Even without reading the aforementioned article, it’s evident that there are problems with the screenplay.  Out of nowhere, the film introduces a series of quick flashbacks that feature characters that haven’t been introduced.  Their relevance has been deliberately concealed to keep us guessing but when all is revealed in the final half-hour, it’s not as exciting as one might hope.  Other subplots add zero value.  An example is the plight of high-profile politician (Simmons) who is trying to secure a major sporting event for the city of Oslo.

There’s a similar lack of character development when it comes to the main players in the current day setting.  Audiences will struggle with Harry.  One minute he’s a strong-willed guy trying to track down a killer.  The next minute we see him lying on the floor doing nothing.  One minute he’s a family fan trying to bond with the son of his ex-partner.  The next he doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything.  I never knew what he was thinking.

All the ingredients were there to make this a great thriller.  Alfredson has made some terrific films in the past such as Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The crew included Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker (The Departed) and Brisbane-born cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha).  Martin Scorsese offered counsel as an executive producer and the quality cast speaks for itself.

Given that Tomas Alfredson has given his own film the “thumbs down”, it’s hard for me to argue otherwise.  

 

Review: The Only Living Boy in New York

Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Allan Loeb
Starring: Callum Turner, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Jeff Bridges, Kiersey Clemons
Released: October 12, 2017
Grade: B-

Only Living Boy In New York
Fifteen years ago, Allan Loeb was a struggling writer trying to break into Hollywood.  He gambled, he traded stocks, he racked up huge credit card debts and he sold his car.  All of these actions were taken to help pay the rent and to put food on the table.  He had no choice given that studios were not interested in his screenplays.

It all changed dramatically for Loeb when the Black List was published for the first time in 2005.  The list contains a group of screenplays that have been liked by studio bigwigs but for whatever reason, have not been put into production.  It’s a way of promoting quality scripts that need some love and attention.  Oscar winners to have originally featured on the Black List include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Argo and Spotlight.

Two of Loeb’s screenplays were included in the inaugural blacklist and both have now made it to the big screen.  The first was Things We Lost in the Fire, released in 2007 and directed by Susanne Bier.  The second is The Only Living Boy in New York which has had a slightly longer gestation period but has now arrived under the direction of Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer).

The title may already be familiar to those who are fans of Simon & Garfunkel.  A song with the same name was released as part of their final album in 1970.  The song is used late in the film but there’s no correlation in terms of premise.  Rather, Loeb admits that he was inspired by movies such as Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Woody Allen’s Manhattan.  He rented a loft in New York during the summer of 2004, immersed himself in the city, and came up with this storyline.

The central character is Thomas (Turner) – a twenty-something year old from Manhattan wants to be a writer.  An argument could be made that we’re supposed to feel sorry for Thomas given his many problems.  His controlling father (Brosnan) wants him to see a career counsellor.  His mother (Nixon) doesn’t have much to add given she’s “depressive bipolar”.  He has a crush on his best friend (Clemons) but she doesn’t feel the same way.

All of that said, Thomas still has a privileged life.  This is illustrated during an early scene where Thomas and his father argue about where he should be living.  Dad wants him at home in their spacious apartment near Central Park.  Thomas would prefer his independence and is living in the Lower East Side (but still clearly at his parent’s expense).  Not everyone will find him endearing.

With the stage set, two new players enter the mix who will shape the second and third acts.  The first is Johanna (Beckinsale), a middle aged woman with whom Thomas’s father has been having an affair.  Thomas tries to break them up in an unorthodox manner – by seducing Johanna himself (hence the reference to The Graduate).  The other person of influence is W.F. (Bridges), a mysterious old man who lobs on Thomas’s doorsteps.  The two become friends with W.F. serving as his writing muse.

Without giving too much away, the contrived nature of the story makes it a challenge to fully connect with these characters.  It’s hard to understand why some of them act in a certain way.  Still, there’s some juicy dialogue on offer here and I was lured by the husky voice of Jeff Bridges who also serves as the film’s narrator.  The scenes he shares with newcomer Callum Turner are the clear highlight as they talk about the ways of the world.

Designed to be a coming-of-age story, The Only Living Boy in New York doesn’t quite live up to the great movies that inspired it.

 

Review: Home Again

Directed by: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Written by: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Pico Alexander
Released: October 19, 2017
Grade: B+

Home Again
Rich people are no happy than you or I.  Whether you believe in that saying or not, it’s put to good use during the early scenes of Home Again.  It is centred on Alice (Witherspoon), a 40-year-old woman from Los Angeles at the crossroads of her life.  When we first meet her, she’s crying in front of her bathroom mirror.  She recently separated from her husband (Sheen) and is trying to come to grips with how the world works as a single mum with two young children.

In terms of what Alice does for work, that’s a bit of a mystery.  She’s ordered a fresh batch of business cards and is looking to move into interior design.  It’s more of a “need something to keep me busy” hobby than a legitimate career.  She doesn’t need the money as her father was a successful film director.  He left Alice with a beautiful home and a large bank account when he passed away.

Convinced by her girlfriends to go out partying one night, Alice hooks up with Harry (Alexander), a 20-something-year-old who yearns of being a filmmaker.  Harry, his brother (Wolff), and his best friend (Rudnitsky) are trying to forge a career in Hollywood but fame and fortune are hard to come by.  With almost no money to their name, Alice allows them to move into her guest house (wish I had one) for a few weeks while they finish work on a make-or-break script.

The arrival of the three guys changes the dynamic of the house – mostly for the better.  Alice’s eldest daughter has been battling anxiety issues (she even asks for anti-depressants) but gains much needed confidence from her new housemates.  Alice’s mother, Lillian (Bergen), is also excited by developments and is doing her best to push Alice and Harry closer together.

Home Again marks the debut feature film of writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer.  She had a little help breaking into the industry.  Her parents are Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers – a power couple in Hollywood who have helped create films such Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride, What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated.  They were also behind the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap where they named the two twins after their own daughters – Annie and Hallie.

This isn’t a life changing movie but there are a few points of difference that make Home Again worth watching.  It tries to break away from the traditional “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” formula.  Alice isn’t someone who must be attached to a man to make their life better.  The support and friendship offered by the three guys is just as valuable.  It’s an interesting dynamic and I laughed at a line where she jokingly describes what they individually provide – sex, childcare and a business website.

Home Again is at its best when things are going well within the household.  The banter between the characters is fun and insightful.  The two children are particularly adorable.  The film feels less authentic when trying to create tension.  A missed dinner date causes an unnecessary level of drama.  A scene involving Alice’s husband and a punch-up is borrowed from the rom-com textbook.  I’d also argue that Harry’s ongoing interaction with his agents is an unnecessary distraction that soaks up screen time.

With a splash of pop-culture humour thrown in (e.g. Jerry Maguire, Sean Penn), Hallie Meyers-Shyer deserves praise for a likeable debut feature.

 

Review: Blade Runner 2049

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Jared Leto
Released: October 5, 2017
Grade: A-

Blade Runner 2049
Before tonight’s Brisbane premiere of Blade Runner 2049, a note from director Denis Villeneuve was shown on screen.  It read “I do not know what you will think of my movie, however, whatever you write, I would ask that you preserve the experience for the audience of seeing the film the way you see it today… without knowing any details about the plot of the movie.  I know this is a big request, but I hope that you will honour it.”

It’s interesting that a director would go to the lengths of making such a statement.  It’s not that he doesn’t want me to reveal any twists.  He’s going a step further and saying I should not reveal “any details about the plot”.  That leaves me in a slight predicament.  I generally try to provide a bit of information in terms of narrative to help audiences decide if it’s a film worth seeing.

An overriding factor is that Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel.  Many would be familiar with the 1982 movie which was only a modest success at the box-office but later developed a cult-like following.  That was film directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”

Knowledge of the predecessor is helpful but not essential when going along to this sequel.  Just like the original, it’s set in the not-to-distant future and portrays the world as a dark, desolate, bleak place.  Ecosystems collapsed in the mid-2020s and you won’t see a single glimmer of sunshine throughout the whole film.  The sky is always littered with rain, snow or fog.  Perhaps it’s not like that all over the planet but it’s certainly the case in California where events take place.

This is a world where man has created genetically engineered beings known as “replicants”.  They’re not Terminator-style robots.  They look like humans, they act like humans and they bleed like humans.  The key differences are that they had no childhood (since they were created fully grown) and they have no soul.  They were created to be used as cheap labour and help make life easier for the naturally born portion of the population.

Things didn’t go as expected and it fell upon a group of individuals, known as “blade runners”, to hunt and kill the replicants.  All of this was well-documented in the first movie so I’m not providing any spoilers.  However, I might leave it at that so as to honour the wishes of Denis Villeneuve.  He’s one of the most exciting directors to emerge from Canada having made a string of great films this decade – Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival.

With a running time of 163 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is the longest mainstream release to hit Australian cinemas this year.  The test with such movies is whether they can hold your attention.  While a few scenes could have been trimmed, the film is dense in terms of detail and the time flew much quicker than expected.  This is an intriguing world that provides insight into how technology could be used in the years to come.  As an example, there’s a love scene unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo) has created some striking visual imagery and he’s destined for a 14th Academy Award nomination (he’s yet to win).  The jarring music from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch will also keep you on edge throughout.  From the sound effects to the costumers, it’s hard to find any fault from a technical perspective.

I didn’t develop a deep emotional connection with the characters (they’re all so cold) but I was still engaged by the storyline and curious to see how events would unfold.  Harrison Ford reprises his role from the original movie and is joined Ryan Gosling and a group of strong women headlined by Sylvia Hoeks and Robin Wright.

Best described as a drama as opposed to an action film, Blade Runner 2049 offers a chilling view of our future.

 

Review: The Mountain Between Us

Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
Released: October 12, 2017
Grade: C+

The Mountain Between Us
A small charter plane crashes on top of a snow-covered mountain in a remote part of the United States.  The pilot is killed and the two passengers survive, albeit with a few injuries.  Joined by a dog who was also aboard the plane, this unlikely duo go on a lengthy trek through freezing conditions to find help before it is too late.

It’s a worthy premise.  However, how we get to that point is a little cheesy.  Ben (Elba) and Alex (Winslet) are two strangers who meet by chance at an airport in Idaho en route to Denver.  Every plane has been cancelled due to bad weather and this has thrown their plans into disarray.  Ben is a renowned doctor who must get home to perform critical surgery on a patient.  Alex is equally desperate since her wedding is scheduled for the next day.

With all hire cars taken, they go with an unorthodox option and approach Walter (Bridges), the owner of a small 4-seater plane.  He isn’t too fussed about the inclement weather (not sure why) and decides not to lodge a flight plan (not sure why either).  I should also add that Ben and Alex haven’t told any family members of the plans either (not sure why again).

All of these points are relevant for when Murphy’s Law kicks in.  The plane goes down and whilst Ben and Alex survive, there’s almost no point in waiting to be rescued because no one knows where they are.  They will need to harness every ounce of energy, climb down the mountain, and return to civilisation.  All of this takes place in the second act which is the most interesting part of Hany Abu-Assad’s film.  Whilst our two heroes are sharp, intelligent people, they don’t always agree on strategy.  The stress of the situation and the increasingly likelihood that they won’t survive starts to take its toll.

The film is ruined by a farcical finale that resembles something from a Nicholas Sparks novel.  Despite the fact that Alex is engaged and Ben is an emotional vacuum, the two fall in love.  I want to say a more but I need to be careful in terms of spoilers.  You’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen the movie.  It runs 10-15 minutes longer than it should and the final scene (just before the quick fade to black) exemplifies the clichéd nature of the material.  I guess screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) had limited options in trying to stay true to the novel penned by Charles Martin.

Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are both terrific actors but their skills are not enough to save this sappy mess.