Suburbicon began as a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen back in the 1980s. They shelved it and went on to other stories and justifiable acclaim. George Clooney came across the old screenplay and rewrote it with his longtime partner Grant Heslov (Monuments Men). Clooney’s version of suburban strife is a wash and also easily the worst effort of Clooney’s Oscar-nominated directing career. I wish Suburbicon would make up its mind on which of the three different movies it wants to tell. This is possible proof that Coen brother stories should best be left chiefly to the Coens.
Set amidst the 1950s, an African-American family moves in to an all-white suburban neighborhood and instantly changes the climate. The Mayers have upset the other middle-class white neighbors who want them gone, and they don’t mind subjecting this black family to all forms of harassment to get the job done. Meanwhile, Gardener (Matt Damon) and his wife (Julianne Moore), her twin sister (also Moore), and his son, are threatened by loan shark goons. The family is never the same but there’s more than meets the eye to this domestic tragedy, and the costly cover-up ensnares everyone in danger.
This is a movie that feels badly stitched together with competing ideas and storylines. Two of these competing movies are so haphazard and lazily explored that it feels like Clooney and company tacked them on for some sort of extra failed social commentary about The Way We Live Now. The shame of it is that either of these vestigial storylines could have existed as their own compelling movie. The integration of the suburbs with a black family brings about an intense reaction. Fellow suburbanites harass the family at all hours of the day, destroy personal property, and do everything to let them know they are unwelcome in this “good-natured” community. The reactions are so virulent and disgusting, and all for a family just existing on the block, shopping at the same grocery store, thinking they too were eligible for the American Dream. There’s a movie there in its own right because, as evidenced in Suburbicon, it’s just background for a larger indictment on suburban values hypocrisy that never generally materializes. At no point does Clooney give the racist response any depth, nuance, or even a deserving spotlight. The only thing we learn is that it’s wrong, which should already be obvious. The entire storyline feels so unfairly attached to another unrelated movie. This family’s story is worth telling right rather than just having something else to cut back to.
Then there’s the larger satire on suburbia itself and its reported family values philosophy. Just because bad people exist and bad things happen in a “nice” community does not mean your satirical work is done. You’re just supplying air quotes to your location. This is the most facile form of irony, lazily slapping together something vulgar against an idyllic setting of morality. That’s why I had no interest in The Little Hours, a comedy that looked to be built around one sole joke, unexpectedly offensive nuns (“Oh ho, that pious person used profanity, and that will never not be funny”). Suburbicon is a story that could have existed in any setting, which further devalues any attempt at legitimate social satire. This isn’t about The Way We Live Now or Even Then.
If you look closely you can see the bones of a Coen brothers’ story here, the only movie of the three that could have worked for Suburbicon. An insurance fraud scam that involves murder and complications is a juicy start for a thriller with some dark comedy edges. This aspect of the movie is the most compelling because it’s obvious that the most attention has been paid to it. Also, there are reversals and unexpected turns that keep the story twisting and turning while accessible. However, the impact of the story is limited by the fact that none of the characters are generally likeable or that interesting. You won’t really feel anxiety over whether or not these people get away with their scheme, which deflates the film’s acceleration of tension despite the best efforts of Alexadre Desplat to replicate an ominous Carter Burwell, a.k.a. “Coen brother,” score. If you don’t care about the characters then they better get into some crazy escalating collateral damage. For a while, it feels like Clooney and Suburbicon understand this principle and begin to ratchet up a body count, though oddly it’s far too fast. Oscar Isaac (The Force Awakens) turns up as a nosy insurance investigation and is taken care of only in his second appearance. The film doesn’t take the time to force the characters to luxuriate in the unease. It just goes straight for the sudden violence, and after awhile it becomes pat and expected.
This is Clooney’s weakest directorial effort yet. He’s clearly working from the visual framework of the Coen brothers’ classics, using the cookie-cutter production design of colorful suburbia for intended kitschy menace. Even some of the camera angles feel like something lifted from the Coen brothers. Alas, Clooney is not the Coens. He is a director capable of great things depending upon the subject matter, but this movie is a misfire from the start. Clooney cannot decide what the tone is supposed to be, so different actors seem to be operating in their own separate, competing movies. Damon (The Martian) is at either turn hapless or malevolent. I never knew what his read on his character was supposed to be. Moore (Kingsmen: The Golden Circle) is so over-the-top as a distressed housewife that you think she might start bouncing off the walls. It’s only Isaac that feels like he finds the sweet spot of what Clooney must have been going for, and thus it’s even more disappointing about his character’s limited screen time.
Messy, tone deaf, and lacking greater commentary, Suburbicon is a fatally flawed, overbearing dark comedy that has things on its mind and no clear idea about how best to articulate them. It feels like dissonant movies badly stitched together. The overall execution is lazy and relies upon the simplest form of irony to substitute as subversive suburban satire. The tone veers too wildly and the actors are desperate for some better sense of grounding. The characters are pretty flat and poorly developed. It’s an altogether mess that has a few inspired moments and a whole lot more uninspired. The victimized black family deserves to have their own movie and not be the backdrop of somebody else’s broad comedy. The racism is far too real to mesh with the comic goofiness of the rest of the criminal shenanigans. Clooney needed to settle on the movie he wanted to tell. I doubt the final version of Suburbicon that I saw is close to the Coen’s original screenplay. There may have been a good reason that they originally shelved it. Clooney shows that replicating the Coen look and style can be a fool’s errand even by an otherwise talented director. This is the worst Coen brother movie and it’s not even theirs.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The biggest enemy of the celebrated Coen brothers always seems to be expectations. I count only two misfires during their storied filmmaking careers, but sometimes their larks are pilloried for not quite measuring up to their masterpieces. Hail, Caesar! is on par with Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s still a fun, fizzy, and entertaining film and a celebration of Old Hollywood and its movie magic. Loosely centered on an embittered studio head (Josh Brolin), the film is a series of vignettes highlighting different 1940/50s pastiches, including the realms of Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. If you’re a fan of the old Hollywood pictures and their stars, the indulgences will play better; you can certainly feel the warmth the Coens have for the films of yesteryear. The plot kicks off with a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped, but it’s really the small side stories and moments that are most memorable, and the Coens are still unbeatable when it comes to being silly and clever. I loved a scene where Brolin asks religious advisors for approval over the script of his biblical epic and they offer legitimate notes over flawed story logic. There’s also a delightful song and dance numbers with a group of sailors lamenting the lack of ladies (“But mermaids ain’t got no gams”). The real star of the movie is Alden Ehrenreich (soon to be young Han Solo) as singing cowboy-turned-actor-turned-studio-sleuth. The sequence where his character tries to rapidly adapt into a “serious actor” on the set of some British melodrama makes for great fish-out-of-water comedy, gamely matched by an increasingly exasperated Ralph Fiennes as the director. The ending doesn’t exactly tie everything together but Hail, Caesar! is more a movie of distractions, of spinning plates, or bumbling bosses trying to hide bad behavior from the press and keep hold of their sanity. If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, there should be just enough to make you smile. If you’re not a fan, then you’ll shrug off the Coens and their latest film lark.
Nate’s Grade: B
Jodie Foster hasn’t acted in a movie since 2013’s Elysium, and if you saw that movie you might have some sense why she’s taking time away. As a director, she has few film credits to her name, which makes each new Foster directing effort raise the question, “Why this one?” I would assume her last effort, 2011’s The Beaver, was her desire to work again with her Maverick co-star Mel Gibson and perhaps give him a career boost. Money Monster is a would-be hostage thriller with a socially conscience message about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street; however, the Bernie Sanders faithful, let alone anyone mildly educated on the excesses of Wall Street, will find this movie surely lacking, as will anyone looking for a competent and engaging thriller.
Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of Money Monster, a financial entertainment show where he provides stock tips to his loyal viewers. One day and angry man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), wanders onto the set brandishing a gun. He demands Lee strap on a bomb vest. Kyle lost his life savings on a bad stock tip and he demands justice. Lee agrees to hear the guy out and get to the bottom of why this stock dramatically fell of a cliff, which leads him to suspect internal manipulation from the CEO (Dominic West). Lee’s director Patty (Julia Roberts) stays put through the duress and remains the voice in his ear, coaching him to safety and running research to discover the truth.
While I was watching Money Monster I had to remind myself that this wannabe message movie existed in our reality, because the brunt of its ire against Wall Street criminal shenanigans is targeted specifically against one bad trader instead of the system. It’s like this movie exists before the 2008 financial meltdown, before the Oscar-winning movies Inside Job and The Big Short, but it doesn’t. It’s borderline insulting that the screenplay myopically focuses all of its attention on one bad actor and lets the rest of the Wall Street elite escape blameless for criminal misdeeds. The bulk of the movie after Kyle begins his hostage standoff is tracking down this bad trader and digging through archives to pin the blame for a stock fall on this guy, all the while keeping him away from the news so he doesn’t get suspicious. It’s a ludicrous turn of events that manages to take a big picture story with relevancy and find the smallest, most insignificant way to tell its tiny story. The condemnation should be for the system and not one guy, and not one character breaks from this preposterous thinking. It feels like they exist in a different time and place. If you didn’t know anything about Wall Street before this movie you would still be left clueless. Is there supposed to be a happy ending when they bring this guy to justice? The movie sets up an ending that doesn’t exactly feel like anyone learned a lesson or even that the villain was properly punished (oh no, he suffers the scorn of Internet memes!). The final line is so glib and self-satisfied that I groaned. By the end of Money Monster I was wondering what any character had learned from the experience except, maybe, to have better locks on the studio doors.
The other debilitating problem is that Money Monster is a movie that cannot find a character for you to care about. The setup should be so obvious and elicit audience sympathy and a natural underdog to root for against a corrupt system. Instead Kyle is a moron. First off he invests all of his money into one single stock based upon one tip from Lee’s TV show. That’s a pretty big risk. Next he takes hostages and makes demands, and yet none of those demands are for the return of his money but rather a simple apology. There’s also the fact that he’s more a ranting and raving angry lunatic than somebody who has targeted ire against the body of Wall Street, making for a pretty uninteresting hostage scenario. You also have to factor in that there will be no good outcome for Kyle, and so he’ll be leaving his girlfriend and unborn child left to fend for themselves after he blew away all their money on a bad gamble. This is not a sympathetic character nor is he rendered in a fashion to make him that interesting. He’s an angry and impulsive man whose actions are almost always about himself and his sense of being wronged. The other two primary characters, Lee and Patty, are completely absent personalities beyond staying cool under pressure. If you put a gun to my head I would not be able to tell you anything about either of those characters as people. Lee doesn’t seem to go through any sort of introspection over his own culpability with his TV show, and Patty is so laser focused on the problem at hand that we know nothing about her other than her capability. Spending 90 minutes with this trio of lackluster characters is a waste of 90 minutes.
Despite the brisk pacing, I was bored mercilessly with Money Monster. I just didn’t care and Foster and company gave me no reason to care. The pacing made it hard to develop these characters; they felt like chess pieces being randomly assembled across a board, moved when the plot required it, and inert without these manipulations. When the movie goes outside is another example of nothing feelings believable. The will-he-be-shot suspense sequences are hackneyed and dumb. There are a couple of moments of solid comic relief at the expense of character egos, with Emily Meade (That Awkward Moment) serving as the highlight of an otherwise monstrously mediocre movie. Here is a list of other actors that are wasted in do-nothing parts: Caitriona Balfe (TV’s Outlander), Giancarlo Esposito (TV’s Breaking Bad), Christopher Denham (Argo), Lenny Venito (TV’s The Sopranos), and Chris Bauer (TV’s True Blood).
Money Monster is a disappointment in just about every stripe, from its perfunctory performances from it’s a-level movie stars, to the development of its characters, from its suspense sequences, and especially from its frustrating and laughably short-sighted vilification of Wall Street misdeeds on one culprit. It’s like this movie was pulled from a time capsule from the 1990s. Foster’s direction is perfectly acceptable though indistinct from any other journeyman. I cannot say what attracted her to this project as a director except for the opportunity to work with Clooney and Roberts. Otherwise, Money Monster is a thriller that keeps butting heads against reality, reminding the audience at every turn of its airless artificiality and stark superficiality.
Nate’s Grade: C
Crafting movies around theme park rides is a rather risky creative proposition. For every Pirates of the Caribbean mega-franchise, there’s a Haunted Mansion. Theme park rides are more locations then they are stories, so it’s an adaptation where there’s nothing really to adapt except for a setting starting point. Tomorrowland has a few nods to its spiritual source material, but it’s an original science fiction film with much on its mind beyond entertainment. With Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Iron Giant) turning down the new Star Wars to make Tomorrowland, I had definite expectations. Bird hasn’t made a bad movie yet. He still hasn’t but Tomorrowland is definitely the worst film in Brad Bird’s heretofore-unshakable pedigree.
Casey (Britt Robertson) is a dreamer with a capital D. While her teachers bemoan the cataclysmic shape of world events and instability, she doggedly raises her hand to ask, “Yeah, but what can we do to fix it?” Her father works for NASA but the nation has lost interest in space and has stopped looking at the stars. Casey sneaks out every week to thwart the demolition of a NASA launch platform. She can’t let it go. She comes across a mysterious pin that, when touched, transports her to a hidden world, a future city called Tomorrowland. But there are others that are looking for this city too. A slew of androids chases after her to retrieve the pin. Robot child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) becomes a protector for Casey and the two set off to find Frank (George Clooney), a hermit and mechanical mastermind who once lived at Tomorrowland before becoming disillusioned.
This is one of the few movies where the more characters explained the plot the more confused I ultimately became. The story by Bird, Damon Lindeloff (Prometheus, HBO’s The Leftovers) and Jeff Jensen doesn’t exactly a clear narrative, and that begins with the structure, inserting two framing devices that are too cute for the movie. The first 15 minutes is Frank’s childhood experience discovering Tomorrowland, and this is probably because we won’t see Clooney’s grown-up Frank until an hour into the movie. It takes far too long to get going, instead becoming a series of unnecessary plot detours, like a trip to a collectibles store in Austin or a trip to the Eiffel Tower. Is there a reason that a return to Tomorrowland is saved for the very end of its final act? Probably because utopias are boring, which the movie itself admits and admonishes us for accepting. You see, dear reader, it’s all of us and our collective negativity poisoning the planet. Our use of cynicism and our love of dystopias in movies and literature are to blame. In this proclamation, a movie as madly genius as Mad Max: Fury Road is leading to the downward spiral of humanity, and nobody who sees that brilliant film could accept that. Tomorrowland has some legitimate points, precisely aimed at the inconvenience of action over the convenience of stasis. In one of the better articulations of its shiny happy message, a character says that people accept the worst because “they don’t have to do anything today.” It’s the global equivalent of, “I’ll start my homework tomorrow,” knowing we’ll probably never get around to it, to our own detriment.
Tomorrowland’s idealism would be easier to swallow if it wasn’t so oppressively scolding. First, allow me to reject its notion that popular culture wallows in darkness and there is no inherent value with this predisposition. If this was true then no one would read the wealth of Russian literature, which is reams and reams of pages of suffering, unrequited longing, confusion, anxiety, pressure, and finding what grace one can. One of Casey’s teachers upholds George Orwell’s 1984 as a living testament to what we’re going through today, but Orwell’s novel isn’t popular or well revered just because it’s desolate. Would millions of readers be foolish for finding something powerful and poignant in Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning dystopian cannibal road trip, The Road? Just because one is optimistic doesn’t mean you’re in the right, and just because one is pessimistic it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong. Perhaps the culture is too hesitant to take necessary action because it’s easier to buy into the argument that our actions are meaningless; hence why the newest argument against environmental reforms to curb the effects of climate change amount to, “Yeah, but what difference will it make now?” If Tomorrowland was trying to rouse its audience into action, it went about it the wrong way. The movie’s tone is far too scolding and stuck on can-do platitudes to be anything beyond an earnest motivational poster that will ultimately be ignored.
Then there’s the film’s restricted view on what constitutes the Right Dreams. Casey refuses to allow the NASA launch station to be demolished because it supplies her dad with a job, but really it comes down to her idealism of man’s capacity to achieve. And yet, her chosen way of expressing this, besides general perkiness, is to cling to an older definition of what constitutes achievement. The space shuttles were grand but we’ve outgrown them and space travel itself has migrated into the private sector. Just because U.S. astronauts aren’t being launched into space with the frequency they once were, does that means the country has somehow lost its ideals? Or are we allowed to adapt to the demands of the times? Strangely, Tomorrowland holds onto a retro definition of what constitutes achievement, something also touched upon in Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey shook his McConaugh-fist at all these young kids for not having the same level of interest in the old technologies and pursuits. Tomorrowland fixates on the scientific dreams of the 1960s, but that’s no longer a representation of our world. What it ends up pining for is a throwback to Disney’s own era of gee-whiz futurism, a world where flying cars are valued above, say, the Internet.
If you think about it, Tomorrowland’s utopia is pretty much a progressive version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s famous ideological tome, the “best and brightest” (a.k.a. rich industrialists) decide they’ve had enough with the common man getting in their way, and so they up and leave and start their own secret paradise where they won’t be disturbed by the likes of us “normies.” With Tomorrowland, it’s not the business types who take their ball and go home but the inventors, scientists, and artists, the creative class, who are given magic passage to a hidden world where their work will be undisturbed by those deemed less creative and/or essential. It’s intended to be inspirational but it awkwardly falls into a murky class-consciousness it can’t escape. Who defines the value of creativity exactly? Is there a Tomorrowland board of directors that says, “You know what, we definitely need that guitar player. Forget having plumbers.” Are the day-to-day laborers and paper-pushers, the ordinary people that keep the infrastructure of the world running, are they just deemed less significant? Tomorrowland apparently only has the best and brightest when it comes to all things, including the people that take out your garbage and unclog your sinks. Are the gravediggers the finest from around the world? Is the world’s greatest and most creative gravedigger still a few notches below a rather lackluster environmental scientist? As you can see, it invites all sorts of questions that will go unanswered because, again, the film’s message is everything, and the particulars of its invite-only exclusive society are off limits.
The action sequences are also strangely dull for a filmmaker such as Bird. Each sequence has its moments of inventive orchestration, especially a brawl in the sci-fi collectible shop that squeezes in lots of homage. Too often the action is missing the creative spark Bird has showed in so many of his past films, particularly 2004’s The Incredibles. The mayhem is also a little too intense for younger children, especially with real people being so callously zapped into dust out in the open (not exactly keeping a low profile, robot henchmen). There’s also a child robot who factors into a lot of the peril, and then very uncomfortably into a late scene where she expresses her love for the grown-up Frank. I understand they had a connection when they were kids but the movie still ends with Clooney cradling a child in his arms and talking what could have been their tale of romantic love. It’s just a little creepier than affecting. Speaking of which, are children going to be entertained by something this message-laden and obtuse in plot? Are adults going to be entertained with this movie? Who is this movie actually for?
The saving grace of Tomorrowland is the performance of its plucky heroine played by Robertson (The Longest Ride, TV’s Under the Dome). She’s got great presence on screen and a naturally charm that is far less oppressive than the material she’s delivering. Clooney (The Monuments Men) is his standard appealing, handsome, wounded leading man, and it’s a mistake to hold his character out of the action for so long. When George Clooney is on the poster for your big-budget sci-fi movie about the power of dreamers, you shouldn’t wait a whole hour to get around to his character. Magnifying this problem is the fact that the narrative has so few characters who actually matter, mainly four, and one of them isn’t significant until an hour in and another isn’t until the very final act.
Tomorrowland is a sincere, hopeful, and idealistic film that shoves its message in your face and doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative besides, “Do better.” The problem is that this message of hope and agency is lost amidst a plot that is swallowed whole by near-constant exposition, a clunky framing device, and a world-destroying scheme that seems horribly convoluted in a manner unfitting for the supposed smarty-pants antagonists. It’s simply not a very good story, not told in a very good way, and a message that needs to go beyond a simplistic slogan to be more inspirational. It’s a pretty film with some fun moments, but Tomorrowland is a reminder that not all nostalgia is credible, not all dreams are equal, and messages are digested better when the audience cares about what is happening and (key point here) understands it. Me? I’ll prefer going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, but that’s just me dooming humanity. Worth it.
Nate’s Grade: C+
An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.
It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.
The film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.
Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?
Another problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.
Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.
One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Director Alfonso Cuaron spent over four and a half years developing his latest film, Gravity. The tale of two stranded astronauts had to invent technology to fully realize Cuaron’s zero gravity vision, carefully programming precise camera movements into a room full of LED flat screens to orient the harnessed actors and light them properly. It could have gone stupendously wrong in so many ways. Instead it’s the biggest leap forward in movie technology since 2009’s Avatar and surely one of the best science fiction films since 2006’s Children of Men, Cuaron’s last movie. It is a thrilling, awe-inspiring, astonishing, illuminating, and altogether brilliant film. Films like Gravity are the reason we go to the movies.
High above planet Earth, astronauts Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are repairing the Hubble telescope when a field of satellite debris crashes into their shuttle. Both of the astronauts are adrift in space and have to maneuver to the safety of a space station. The debris storm circling the Earth is gathering size and force, and these two are running out of oxygen and safe places to hide.
Gravity is one of those movies that you feel like ordinary English adjectives do it a disservice. I can refer to it and visually resplendent, awe-inspiring, and borderline transcendent, but my words will ultimately prove fruitless, because the experience of Gravity is beyond description. This is the reason we go to the movies, to be amazed, to feel something new, and Cuaron has taken the next great leap forward in technical moviemaking while also retaining the artistic soul of an engaging thriller. You could simply view Gravity as a visual feast and be content, or you could view it as a harrowing survival thriller and be content, or you could view it as Cuaron’s spiritual exploration on the perseverance of life against all odds (more on this later). Any way you shake it, it’s hard to come away from Gravity being disappointed, though I know with every lofty word of praise I inject that the bar is set even higher in audience expectations.
From a visual standpoint, Cuaron has crafted a truly immersive film going experience that puts you in the center of the action. The signature long takes amaze just as much as the visuals, both of which give you the sensation of what it’s like to be in space, weightless, free-floating, and oh so vulnerable at a moment’s notice. It’s been almost 45 years since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 showed the visual poetry of zero-gravity acrobatics, and the sheer visual still has plenty of potency left. But coupled with Cuaron’s blinkless long takes, the illusion is rarely broken, especially in the first twenty minutes, which establishes the stakes and the reality of survival in space. Ignoring all aspects of the plot and acting, you could sit through the entirety of Gravity and find it a sumptuous, invigorating experience purely from the cutting edge special effects. There is a real sense of majesty to the views from space, overlooking our blue orb, the vastness of it all. It would be overwhelmingly beautiful if it weren’t also simultaneously terrifying. Space, much like nature itself, has an indifferent cruelty to it, and Cuaron does an exceptional job of presenting both the grandeur and the inherent dangers of space.
My nerves were racked throughout those tense 90 minutes of intense orbital activity. As a thriller, Gravity is a very well constructed setup with pristine execution. Each problem is dealt with in the immediacy, the unique particular of space allowing us a new perspective on the survival/disaster thriller model. First she has to stop floating. Then she has to get more oxygen. Then she has to get to a more safe location. Then she has to get back home. It may sound like not enough little plot pit stops but each one is pivotal and a remote respite from jeopardy. The wholeness of space is so complete that it feels like the odds are forever stacked against Stone. I was breathless through many of the suspense sequences, nervously tapping my feet, urging the onscreen characters onward. Cuaron and his son, co-writer Jonas, make it clear early the steps of her journey, and each feel like a natural result of the dire changing circumstances. The accumulative debris is given a 90-minute countdown for return, so we’re always wary that Stone will be caught back in the orbiting mass of projectiles. The sense of peril is kept on high and doesn’t relent, leaving you feeling like every nerve is spent by the conclusion. It’s a top-notch thriller that doesn’t involve the use of a single gun or car chase.
If there is one complaint, I suppose it could be over the somewhat thin back-story and characterization of Stone. I don’t know what a medical officer is exactly doing in space fixing the Hubble telescope but oh well. Cuaron keeps the audience firmly stuck in Stone’s predicament; we do not cut away to any flashbacks of life on Earth, and so it makes fleshing out a central character notable difficult. People don’t usually open up into revealing monologues while they’re trying to fight for immediate survival. She’s got the standard tragic back-story, losing a daughter, but for me this was enough to work with. I don’t necessarily need Stone to be a thriving, complex, emotionally nuanced character because my empathy was already there as soon as the peril began. I wanted her to survive because she was a person; I didn’t have to relate to her on a deeper fundamental level to root for her survival. There are some nice late scenes where Stone reflects on the existential crisis, on knowing her imminent death, on the fog she’s been trapped within since her daughter’s accidental death. Bullock (The Heat), in her best performance to date, is able to pull you in. If faced with your imminent end, how would you attempt to make peace of things, let alone stranded away from all human contact? It’s a strong awards-caliber performance and while her character isn’t given much development, she still has an arc, and I think there’s a greater thematic link with her crossing.
I’m no fan of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, To the Wonder) but I understand people’s assertion that the man is a film theologian, making the theater a borderline religious experience for his faithful fans. In my eyes, Gravity has an unmistakable spiritual subtext that it can be viewed in different directions. Firstly, it’s hard not to feel an overpowering sense of awe when taking in the sheer magnitude and beauty of the incalculable universe. But then there’s Cuaron’s opening text that prefaces how outrageously impossible life in space is, contemplating all the harsh realities. And yet, here we are. Whether you chalk that up to something religious like God or just the fortune of the cosmos, it’s still a remarkable journey. The evolution of Stone is also reminiscent of that of life on Earth. When she finds refuge in the space station, she removes her suit, curling up in a fetal ball, while the camera centers her and she slowly rotates. The womb imagery is obvious but still effective. There’s also a third act assist that seems like direct divine intervention by most accounts. Then, spoilers, as she lands on a hospitable planet, she emerges from the sea, triumphant, taking her first steps onto land. Triumphant against all odds, against the cruel vacuum of space, life proves to be the winner. Again, whether you ascribe this to a creator God or a wonder of lucky evolutionary forces, it’s hard to escape Cuaron’s spiritual subtext tugging away at you, making the personal survival of Stone a greater analogue for the genesis of mankind and the emergence of humanity.
This is one of the few films I would recommend seeing in 3D. Cuaron has spent four and a half years translating his vision to the big screen and you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t see Gravity on the biggest screen possible. It is a film experience to be savored that will not measure up when you are forced to watch such outsized splendor on your puny home TV. This is an expertly made thriller, a visually transcendent, cutting-edge trip to space, and a revitalizing time at the movies. It’s as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. It’s bursting with stimulation for the senses as well as a reawakened sense of spirituality, of something greater to be thankful for. I am in awe of Curaron as a filmmaker and I am in awe of his finished product. It was worth the wait. Now I hope I never have to wait another seven long years again before I see the words “directed by Alfonso Cuaron” again.
Nate’s Grade: A
We’re so used to seeing George Clooney as a smooth operator, a guy who coasts on his suave charm and chiseled-from-granite good looks. But in The Descendants, Clooney is more vulnerable than he’s ever been, trying to keep his family together, and as the film plays out we realize just how mighty a task this goal is. His character is ill equipped to take the lead of his family, especially a family of growing girls he is consistently confused with. His journey is much more than just becoming a better father. That lesson would be far too pat for director/co-writer Alexander Payne. It’s been a good while since Payne’s last film, 2004’s Sideways, but in that time away he has shaped another outstanding human comedy that manages to squeeze in more emotion than most Hollywood movies could ever hope for.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-described “backup parent” who has been thrust into the lead role. His wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a traumatic head injury from a Jet Ski accident. The doctors say that she has no hope of waking up and she will die in a matter of days. Matt must break the news to his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The headstrong Alexandra clashes with her faltering father, finally revealing the reason why she blew up at mom months ago. She found out that Elizabeth was having an affair. Matt is reeling and searching for answers from friends, family, and his two daughters.
Payne’s specializes in pitch-perfect bittersweet character-based comedies, ones that seem to unfurl over a journey of self-awakening. His fictional worlds feel exquisitely rendered, where every character beat and every line of dialogue feels genuine. That’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker of any scope. Even when dealing with caricatures (like in 2002’s About Schmidt), somehow Payne gets away with it. With The Descendants, the sunny setting of Hawaii is just an exotic backdrop for some wonderful, and wonderfully relatable, family drama. It’s hardly the worry-free paradise. Uncovering his wife’s secrets has lead Matt to reassess the woman he loved. The movie completely upends the standard deathbed goodbye trope. Instead of characters openly bawling about the loss of a saintly soul taken far too soon, we have characters dealing with real conflicted emotions, particularly anger, directed at the indisposed and unfaithful mother. Every character is approaching grief differently, and every character is trying to make sense of their feelings before Elizabeth’s inevitable passing. Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster) is harsh with accusations at the ready, blaming Elizabeth’s tragedy on Matt’s shortcomings as a husband. His pain is raw but al too recognizable. Matt and Alexandra are plotting how much info to reveal to young Scottie, trying not to ruin her image of her mother, a tremendous challenge with no easy answer.
This is the stuff of grand drama, and Payne doesn’t skimp on the heart-tugging moments. The Descendants is also a great comedy, naturally finding humor drawn from the situation and characters. The advertising has made The Descendants appear like a broad family comedy, with Clooney flapping around in his noisy flip-flops. This is not the case. The comedy doesn’t feel insensitive or too macabre, instead it adds another enlightening level to these people and their pain. We try and make sense of our world, to cope with our struggles and failures, with comedy, and so too does Matt and his family. You’ll probably be surprised how often you laugh and then in the next moment feel a lump in your throat. The character of Sid (Nick Krause) starts off as a questionable plot tagalong, a doofus for some easy laughs. His reaction to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s is the movie’s one point of questionable validity. As the film progresses, this laid-back guy is revealed to have more layers, just like the rest of the clan. The second half of the film becomes something of a minor key detective story as Matt and Alexandra search for the elusive “other man.” As Alexandra eggs him on, the two bond over this manhunt and Matt becomes bolder, more confident, and clear-headed about the hard decisions that are necessary for his new life. The emotional rewards of the film are nourishing. Watching Matt and his daughters sit on the couch watching a movie together (March of the Penguins no less. Draw your own connections about parental turmoil), you’ll feel satisfied that this broken family has begin to heal itself.
The Descendants takes an interesting turn when we learn more about the other man’s background. Matthew Lillard (Without a Paddle) is actually respectable as Brain Speer, the real estate titan having the aforementioned affair with Elizabeth. Matt’s confrontation is subdued, sidestepping righteous grandstanding for a better attempt to seek understanding. Instead of lecturing Brian, he wants to know more about what his wife was after that Matt could not offer. Sure he’s still angry and doesn’t let the guy off easy. Complicating matters is the fact that Brian has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two children. Matt is trying to find answers without willfully harming Brain’s family. Greer (Love Happens) has an outstanding sequence where she feels beholden to forgive rather than hate, a note of grace that feels rather profound.
Clooney at one point says he’s just trying to keep his head above water, and you can see why. The man shows a great deal of range as his character confronts his grief. There is no “right” way when it comes to grieving, something deeply personal. Matt’s dilemma is given an unlikely situational twist, but the feelings of betrayal and confusion are all too believable. Matt is looking for answers when the person who holds them all lies sleeping. As he develops a lager picture of his wife and her unhappiness, Clooney expertly flashes through a multitude of thoughts. While arguably not as textured as his performance in Up in the Air, Clooney is in fine form, showcasing a deeper sense of loss and anxiety. Matt is trying to find his footing while his world radically adjusts, and nothing has adjusted more than his feelings toward his wife. Clooney doesn’t have any Big Moments of Great Emotion, though lashing out at his comatose wife comes close, but the man’s nuanced portrayal of a life in flux is the stuff that award ceremonies were made for.
Woodley is a remarkable discovery, more than holding her own with Clooney. She is excellent in her portrayal of an aggressive, mouthy, rebellious teenager. It’s all the more astonishing because Woodley’s long-running TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is one of the worst shows still running on television. The show is so inartful, the dialogue is so tin-eared, and the acting is wooden like the actors have been imprisoned. Where has this actress been the whole time? Woodley’s performance is so alive with genuine feeling, stripping away any reservations of the too typical bratty teen role. She’s much more than a troubled teen sent off to boarding school. Her every inflection, hesitation, motion feels completely natural for her character, and when Woodley gets her big dramatic scenes she is a force to witness. Upon the sudden news that her mother will die soon, she plunges underwater in the family pool and screams as loud as she can, tears squeezing out of those sorrowful eyes. For goodness’ sake, this girl cries underwater. An Oscar nomination is assured for the 20-year-old young actress. Maybe she can quit her crummy TV show after the wave of good press and fawning praise that await her.
The Descendants is an incredibly observed human drama, a humane and touching comedy, a movie so engaged and plugged in to the messiness of human emotions, eschewing the bitterness of some of Payne’s earlier works. This is a thoughtful and nuanced flick that is elevated to even grander heights due to the excellent performances of father/daughter team Clooney and Woodley. The film hits all those traditional emotional notes but on its own terms. The movie approaches a graceful resolution by accepting the incomprehensible disarray of life. The Descendants is just about everything you’d want in a movie: supreme acting, strong characters, an affecting story, and emotions that are completely earned. Payne’s mature and tender movie is, by the end, rather hopeful, a celebration of family overcoming adversity. It’s not schmaltzy in the slightest but a powerful antidote to simple cynicism. This holiday season, be a good movie citizen and spread the word of The Descendants.
Nate’s Grade: A
The Ides of March is that rare political thriller that pulls the curtain away to come to the stolid conclusion that our entire political system is incontrovertibly stuck in the muck. This is a deeply cynical movie that posits that politicos are just about spinning truth, cutting backroom deals, attaining power and influence, and living to fight another day. Even the ones who champion integrity have plenty of salacious skeletons in their closet. So while Ides of March is in one way a liberal reductive fantasy, casting co-writer and director George Clooney as an Obama-style change agent, and Clooney can assert all the rabble-rousing missing from the current occupant of the White House, it still sticks to its deep-seated cynicism. There is nobody that looks good by the film’s end. Ryan Gosling stars as a magnetic campaign director trying to push his guy over the top by winning the all-important Ohio Democratic primary. As the primary gets closer and the race gets tighter, Gosling has to cover up potential scandals while skillfully using his intimate knowledge of them for opportunistic deal making. The film moves at a great clip, the dialogue is intelligent, the characters are rich and ambiguous, and every one of the sterling thespians gets at least one big scene to stretch their acting muscles. The film has plenty of intriguing twists and turns, as the pieces all fall into play for one final power play. If you’re a fan of smart political thrillers, then do not beware The Ides of March.
Nate’s Grade: B+
This movie was a big letdown given the cast, the strange true origins of this fantastic tale, and even with the title. This odd little film feels tonally off. The material feels mishandled, mixing broad humor and with military satire and the dark realities of the war in Iraq. The premise is solid — a Pentagon program training psychic soldiers, men convinced they could run through walls or terminate goats through the power of thought. Why then does the movie feel so misguided and rudderless and, ultimately, boring? Never has such an outlandish concept, based on true events, felt so devoid of edge. The satire picks safe targets and the comedy remains farcically broad. I think the film’s downfall can ultimately be traced to the decision to turn this material into a fictional narrative. I would have preferred an actual documentary detailing the men, women, and goats involved in the real Pentagon program. If truth can be stranger than fiction, why dress it up and then dull it through fiction?
Nate’s Grade: C
Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t get t the point of calling this the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.
Nate’s Grade: A