Friday, October 27, 2017

'Suburbicon' Is A Mid-Century Modern Misfire

This review originally appeared on

I've followed George Clooney's career as director with guarded interest because his choice of material is always intriguing. He has a penchant for period dramas, often based on or inspired by real-life events, with all but The Ides of March taking place before the 21st century. But aside from Good Luck, and Good Night, I've always come away from his movies disappointed. Suburbicon is no different.

Once again, the choice of material sounds great, on paper. Based on an old script by the Coen brothers, with updates by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, the story takes place in the mid-1950's, in the picture-perfect and corporately monikered suburb of Suburbicon, in any-state America. It's home to families like the Lodges, with patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife, Rose, (Julianne Moore), who is confined to a wheelchair, her visiting twin sister Margaret (Moore, again), and son Nicky, (an amazing young Noah Jupe).

The neighborhood starts to come to pieces when the Mayerses, a black family, moves in behind the Lodges. Protestations begin at the local town hall meeting, and devolve into loud rioting in front of the Mayerses' home. Despite this, young Nicky befriends the similarly-aged Andy Mayers, after some urging from aunt Margaret.

One night, Nicky is awakened by his father, who tells him there are bad men in the house who want something, and they'll leave after they get it. With the terrorized family gathered around the kitchen table, the men--who seem to be on a first name basis with Gardner--chloroform them all, ultimately resulting in the death of Rose.

But young Nicky begins to suspect things aren't exactly on the up-an-up when aunt Margaret moves in permanently, and neither she nor his father seem too eager to actually find the men who murdered Rose.

The Coen brothers have used the crime-gone-awry plot several times, and there's plenty in the screenplay that clearly found its way into better Coen brothers films. Throughout Suburbicon, Clooney goes against the instincts of the script, and makes the choice to play the majority of the movie straight, (although the trailer falsely sells it as an arch Coen-esque comedy), so that when moments of comedy do come through, it feels completely wrong and tone-deaf.

One reason the film may have steered away from the comedy is the racial subplot. We can't be sure the original script didn't have the racial commentary this version does, but that subplot feels so painfully forced into the story that logic dictates it probably is what was added by Clooney and Heslov. Aside from Andy, no one in the Mayers family has identifiable first names, nor are they given much to say. They are simply symbols: the black family that chooses to counter racist violence with quiet dignity, just there to drive home heavy-handed symbolism about how the local bigots are too busy screaming at the innocent black family that just moved in to notice there are actual monsters living in the white house behind them.

This is the first movie Clooney's directed where he didn't cast himself in the role, and watching it I wondered if his presence would have helped. Matt Damon's performance doesn't have any steady footing. At some points he comes off as a scheming monster, and at others as a nebbish loser who is in over his head, and how he plays the two never meshes.

I do applaud the casting of Julianne Moore as the good and evil twin, both because it's a wry callback to her start on soaps where she played twins, and also because she's almost ten years older than Damon, and when was the last time you saw that kind of casting in a major motion pictures?

Oscar Isaac also steals the movie in his short role as a weaselly insurance adjuster who doesn't for one minute believe Rose's death wasn't premeditated. It's in his scenes that you can see the road the movie could have taken if the clumsy social commentary had been left out and the comedy simmering underneath had been played up.

But even when Clooney's movies fail, they're always beautiful to look at. I'm a sucker for mid-century modern design, and Suburbicon's art direction and costumes were spot-on and covetable. And the soundtrack, which hearkens back to classic Hollywood and the work of Bernard Herrmann, is also terrific. Combined it almost makes sitting through this terrible misfire worth it.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Save Your Money, Let 'The Snowman' Melt Away

This review originally appeared on

There is a lot of talent involved with the serial killer thriller The Snowman. Martin Scorsese was once set to direct, and he remains an executive producer. His longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut the film. Director Tomas Alfredson was behind the excellent, eerie teenage vampire flick Let the Right One In. And the cast is peppered with actors who have all given great performances in their past. And yet, The Snowman goes wrong in almost every way a movie can.

We can probably start with the name of the film's hero, which is Harry Hole. Now, I realize the character has been the center of a number of popular novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, and that in Norway, the name is pronounced "ho-leh." But no one in the movie speaks Norwegian, or even attempts a realistic Norwegian accent, so he's addressed as "Hole" throughout.

Which actually proves to be pretty apt, since the character as written and ultimately played by Michael Fassbender is a gaping black hole of nothingness. He's given no definitive backstory. His biggest personality trait is that he's a drunk, but he's never seen drunk after the movie's opening. He's supposed to be a brilliant detective whose work is taught to students in the academy, and yet all the sleuthing he does in the film consists of him reading files and ignoring the plethora of clues the camera seems to notice more than he does.

He lives alone, but is still in contact with an ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), having developed a fatherly connection with her fatherless teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates). Rakel has an amiable new boyfriend, Mathias (Jonas Karlsson) who doesn't seem to mind Harry's involvement, likely because Harry always seems to forget about the kid anyway. When a young detective named Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) joins the force, Harry becomes interested in one of her cases, centered on a missing wife and mother that seems to follow a pattern of similar disappearances in Oslo, and may have a connection to a murder in a neighboring city a decade earlier.

While the movie is set in Norway, everyone in the cast either speaks with their own accents, or a vaguely Nordic sounding variation. It's at the very least distracting, and at worst off-putting, like you've stepped into a weird, unidentifiable country where nothing seems to fit together or make sense. Everyone has Norwegian names, but they're pronounced wrong. It's winter and snow is everywhere, but no one wears gloves. Abandoned cabins on lonely mountaintops seem to be at the disposal of every citizen. And Harry Hole has no discernible personality, but women can't resist him. (Which, OK, Michael Fassbender. But still.)

The trailer and ad campaign make it seem like this is a serial killer movie where the killer plays cat and mouse with the cops, sending them taunting notes, and leaving behind grisly crime scenes with macabre signatures, but all of that is only hinted at. It's like watching the Cliffs Notes version of a longer movie. Clues are left behind and never investigated. (Are all the close-ups of cigarette butts left behind by the killer supposed to mean something? Or does the director just like how butts look in the snow? Are we supposed to think the film's prologue might be about Harry? And why does Harry carry his stuff in a plastic grocery bag?)

For some inexplicable reason, Chloë Sevigny plays twins. J.K. Simmons shows up as a local mogul campaigning to get the World's Cup played in Oslo. He also may or may not be involved in some kind of human trafficking, but he definitely enjoys taking pictures of women while using an unnecessary flash setting on his camera phone. Toby Jones has what amounts to a useless cameo that probably started off as a bigger role, but ended up with his character giving exposition and getting pissy at an office birthday party.

The whole thing is perplexing, and then becomes downright baffling when Val Kilmer shows up in a flashback, giving a performance so awkward I cringed during every second of his screen time. Kilmer has recently battled what might have been mouth cancer, which involved the removal of a tongue tumor that left him with an altered voice, which probably explains why every word of his dialog had to be dubbed in. But I feel like they still used Kilmer's voice, which at the time of looping had clearly not returned to normal. As a result, his dialog is limited and a lot of it is spoken while a camera is pointed at the back of his head. The rest of his performance is not memorable in any way an actor would want to be remembered, which just makes one ponder why they cast him in the first place.

I'll give The Snowman this: There is something appealing about a grisly story set in such pristine surroundings, and seeing the police trudging through snow makes you realize what a genuine pain in the ass it must be to process crimes scenes during a Scandinavian winter. The cinematography is lovely, and while switching the story's setting to a country that might have made more sense given its cast, it would have also meant losing the only redeemable thing about the movie: all that beautiful snow, those iced-over lakes, clean cities centered between gorgeous white capped mountains, and minimalist interiors. Alas, it is not enough to save a movie that is as emotionally engaging as your average IKEA catalog, with about as much plot.

Friday, October 13, 2017

'Happy Death Day' Is John Hughes With A Side Of Stabbing

This review originally appeared on

Happy Death Day does not hide its obvious debt to the film Groundhog Day — in fact a character comments on the similarities between the seemingly cursed heroine's plight and the plot of the 1993 film. But to call Happy Death Day the horror version of Groundhog Day is to miss the horror that's pretty inherent in any story about someone having to live the same day over and over.

In the new horror comedy from director Christopher B. Landon, whose previous work in the genre centered on the Paranormal Activity franchise, college student Teresa "Tree" Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) doesn't get to wander around a bucolic small town for eternity, but instead must spend each day knowing it will end with her brutal death.

That day begins with Tree waking up in the dorm room of nerdy but definitely cute Carter Davis (Israel Broussard) after an assumed one night stand. But Tree is an icy sorority girl who doesn't have time for pleasantries like learning his name, and is fast in taking that walk of shame back to her sorority house, also home to head mean girl Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and sweet roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who presents Tree with a candle-topped cupcake because, of course, it's Tree's death day AND her birthday.

As the day progresses, it becomes clear Tree is not a nice person, and there are probably several people who wouldn't mind seeing her dead. The first time she meets that fate is while on her way to a frat party, as she takes a solo walk through a creepy tunnel. Because this is a horror movie, Tree does the dumb thing and proceeds down that tunnel even after finding a creepy music box playing the Happy Birthday song and seeing an even creepier person in a giant baby mask (the college's mascot is a baby) at the end of the tunnel.

Slasher movies are predicated on such tropes. You always have to have characters doing dumb things. They're also filled with varied, elaborate murder scenarios played out for each victim. And of course, a good slasher movie usually features bad girls who get killed and a good "final girl" who lives. Happy Death Day is clever because it wraps all of that into a single victim. Tree is the bad girl who must learn from her frequent dumb mistakes to avoid death AND become the good girl who saves herself from the inevitably unmasked killer.

The time loop gives Tree the opportunity to figure out just who is trying to kill her, so she can stop it, but unlike Groundhog Day, she can't take advantage of this endless loop to also learn piano or French, because her brutal deaths take their toll, leaving her weaker with each repeated day. Which might explain why the only fun she's shown having is a day she decides to spend walking around campus naked...which? To each their own I guess. But I might have gone with something like seeing if I could literally eat myself to death at a buffet.

Happy Death Day is better when it's a comedy (and a romantic one, at that) than when it's going for the horror, as it's never truly terrifying, and Jessica Rothe is more entertaining when she's making us laugh than when she's screaming. Her scenes with Israel Broussard grow from awkward to genuinely sweet, and the fate of their romance becomes more vital than figuring out who the killer is, especially after multiple red herrings are tossed our way. Ultimately, Happy Death Day earns its homages to Vertigo, Psycho, and Sixteen Candles. It's John Hughes with a side of stabbing.