Tag Archives: coens

“Suburbicon” has elements of quality, but lacks coherence

George Clooney, as a director, has a spotty record. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a great film. “The Monuments Men” is not. Now with “Suburbicon”, Clooney finds himself with a mixed bag of some interesting elements, some dull ones and a general lack of cohesion.

“Suburbicon” tells the story of a 1950s community in upheaval. When a black family movies into the neighborhood, the dark underbelly of the town begins to reveal itself. Gardner (Matt Damon) is a father who lives next to the new family with his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law, Margaret (also Julianne Moore). When a home invasion turns the family’s world upside down, Nicky discovers the secrets that his family have been hiding and that all is not well in the happy-go-lucky neighborhood.

Written by the Coen brothers and Clooney’s usual partner, Grant Heslov, the film has some promising setups and payoffs and some memorable plot twists that keep things interesting. Some sequences at the end of the film are exciting, and the acting and directing are fairly well-balanced.

Where the film struggles is its characters, tone and its theming. The characters are more stereotypes, one-dimensional goodies or baddies who don’t have a lot of remorse or second thoughts. For the Coens, one need only look at Anton Chigurh or the pair of kidnappers in Fargo to find examples of nefarious characters who are still interesting. The film is part murder mystery, part dark comedy and part social critique and these tones bump heads against each other. Some clearer direction would have gone a long way. And the theming is nothing original. There’ve been plenty of films about the “evils” of suburbia and their underlying racism. David Lynch has made an entire career out of it. If the film had something new to say about the matter, it would feel weightier, but as a whole, it just feels like it’s retreading old ground.

Nevertheless, “Suburbicon” is a somewhat enjoyable film that utilizes filmmaking (acting, cinematography, camera movement) to tell a familiar if flawed story.

Advertisements

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

8. Lost in Translation (2003)

As indie film took over the industry in the 2000s, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” asserted itself as a quiet, brilliant character examination that utilized so little but created so much. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging actor doing advertisements in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is abandoned in a Tokyo hotel as her photographer husband is out on assignment. A chance meeting brings them together in this land of personal emptiness, and they connect in a way that is so purely human over the course of the story. Revealing their inner fears, hopes, regrets and loves to each other, as the film connects these two lost souls, we feel that connection and remember the connections we ourselves have made and lost over our lives in such a poignant way.

7. Moonlight (2016)

A film about being black, poor and gay all at the same time,  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is a tale of acceptance and identity. Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) grows up with a mother addicted to crack. He befriends his mother’s dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Terea (Janelle Monáe), and they become surrogate parents to him. As he learns about his homosexuality, he is picked on at school, with only one friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland), whose relationship with him grows over the course of the telling. The film is told over three periods of Chiron’s life, from youth to adolescent to adult to fully illustrate his journey. It is about the barriers we create to hide from the cruelty of the world and how those barriers block us from true connection. A beautiful story, “Moonlight” will become a classic in the years to come.

6. Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood not only crafted a great film with “Unforgiven”, he made the defining Western movie. When a prostitute is cut up in the town of Big Whiskey, the whorehouse puts a bounty on the wrongdoer’s heads. William Munny (Clint Eastwood) is called to collect the reward from a young gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett). They partner up with Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and begin the trek to hunt down the two men. Big Whiskey’s sadistic sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), poses a direct threat to their efforts. The film utilizes the tropes of the Western genre, but places a moral compass in the middle of the narrative, showing how killing takes something intangible away from the killer. No film has ever been able to create as much heart from the genre as Eastwood did, and the film stands as the ultimate statement on the Western.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

“Schindler’s List” is more than just a film. It is a transcendent statement on humanity; the despair and the simultaneous hope that it brings at the worst of times. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a Nazi who owns a factory. As the exterminations of the Jews begin, he decides to save as many souls as he can, hiding them in his factory as “workers.” As the war drags on and the death camps continue, he attempts everything in his power to save his workers. Brimming with history and sorrow, director Steven Spielberg uses all of his creative talent to create not just the story of Schindler, but of the entire Holocaust. Haunting, humbling and unforgettable, it is the most revered film of all time.

4. City of God (2002)

Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” tells the story of three boys, Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues). All three live in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s. Li’l Zé and Bené become crime lords while all Buscapé can do is witness the events surrounding him through the pictures he takes. The film’s narrative weaves together themes of poverty, opportunity, violence, yearning and history as Li’l Zé’s mob gang rises and falls. A coming-of-age story, the film examines social derision and the problems of the modern world in a powerful way.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Thomas Anderson has only made 7 feature-length films, but his vision and style are distinctive and incredible. Perhaps his greatest achievement is “There Will Be Blood”, starring a sensational Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview. On his quest for oil and power, he comes face to face with competition in the form of religion, personified by a radical preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The conflict between business and religion illustrates the methods both use to control the people they need, and in so doing, it relegates both as unethical and corrupt. Perhaps nothing speaks to modern times more than the themes utilized in Anderson’s film.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Few filmmakers have defined an era as much as Quentin Tarantino did during the 1990s. From his breakout hit “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), Tarantino blew the roof off with “Pulp Fiction”, as swag and as defining a film as has ever been made. Whether it is the Royale with Cheese, the gimp or walking with the shepherd, the memorability of the film is uncanny. Tarantino brought the B-list storyline into mainstream moviemaking and paved the way for indie films to become a leading force of the industry. “Pulp Fiction” is one of those films that will always be remembered, ingrained in pop culture with as much vitality as “The Wizard of Oz” or “Star Wars.”

  1. Fargo (1996)

We finish this list with, in my opinion, the best filmmakers of the past 25 years: the Coen brothers. As great as “No Country for Old Men” is, their ultimate work came 14 years beforehand: “Fargo.” It is the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a man who hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can collect the ransom money from his stringent father-in-law. But the star of the film is police detective Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who is tasked with investigating the murders that transpire as Lundegaard’s plot spins wildly out of control. The Coens don’t make films that are easy to digest. They take a bit of thinking to figure out what it all means and even then, you may find yourself changing your mind upon a second, a third, a fourth viewing. They are artists in an era where more and more of the industry is inundated with banality and a dearth of ideas. When the Coens make films, it’s a cinematic event, and “Fargo” is their seminal work, a film with interesting characters, an ingenious plot, an uncommon theme, great acting and fantastic writing and directing. It is everything we love about the movies.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 2

Link to Part One

17. The Social Network (2010)

The finely tuned tandem of director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin create a fascinating examination of the dawn of social media with “The Social Network.” Swirling testosterone mixed with betrayal and the potential of billions of dollars combines to alter the lives of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) in ways none of them can imagine as their project, Facebook, shoots off to become a phenomenon the world has never seen before.

16. No Country for Old Men (2007)

A masterpiece of cinematic craft, the Coen brothers create a folk tale from Cormac McCarthy’s source novel. When Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a bag full of money after a drug deal goes wrong, he runs off, initating a cat and mouse chase that features one of the greatest villains of the modern era in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Tommy Lee Jones plays the cop chasing the whole situation and who realizes the depths of carnage in the world around him. It is a brilliant examination of violence and the harm it does not just to the perpetrators and victims, but the soul of every man in the community.

15. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Hollywood had never really made an honest look into the slave trade until Steve McQueen’s immersive “12 Years a Slave”, a film that brought home the horrors of slavery and the crushing weight of its history. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man kidnapped by a couple of journeymen and sold into Southern slavery. His journey takes him across two plantations, one run by a semi-decent man (Benedict Cumberbatch) and one by a sadist (Michael Fassbender). A reminder of the pain and disgrace of slavery in United States history, the film examines how the act of slavery is not just a restriction of freedom, but a perversion of basic human decency.

14. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Perhaps no company has defined the past 25 years more than Pixar. Using ground-breaking CGI technology, the original “Toy Story” changed not only animation, but all filmmaking. The fact that it is a great film is an added bonus. But it is with “Toy Story 2” that Pixar officially became a cinematic powerhouse, with a film that added to the first film’s heart, humor and durability. When toy Woody (Tom Hanks) is stolen by a toy store owner who will sell him to a foreign collector, the rest of the gang (Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney)) will team together and venture out to save him. It is the story of Jessie (Joan Cusack) however that steals the heart of the viewer, a cowgirl toy abandoned by her owner and unsure if she can ever love again. A story about friendship and youth, all the “Toy Story” films are remembered by the child in each of us.

13. Groundhog Day (1993)

A modern day Frank Capra film, “Groundhog Day” takes a comedy premise (What if you lived the same day over and over again?) and imbues it with a deeper quest about life’s purpose and the value of love and community. Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a grumpy weatherman sent to Punxatawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony. Phil can’t leave however because he keeps living that same day over and over again. As he falls in love with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), Phil must cope with his seemingly hopeless situation as it drives him to near-insanity. Perhaps Bill Murray’s finest performance, he and director/writer Harold Ramis craft a film that simultaneously makes the viewer laugh, think and love all at the same time.

12. A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a brilliant interpersonal drama about gender, marriage, responsibility and truth. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) are trying to secure a divorce because he doesn’t want to leave the country due to his ailing father while she does. He hires a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), but when Nader’s father nearly dies when he is out, he blames her for negligence and attacks her. As events spiral out of control, the viewer can’t help but think of the state of the globe and the changing dynamics of old world versus new world in it.

11. Spirited Away (2001)

Hayao Miyazaki has been at the forefront of Japanese animation for the past quarter century and perhaps no film of his Studio Ghibli has been more admired than “Spirited Away.” Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents are moving to their new home when her father takes a wrong turn while driving, and they enter a magical world. When her parents are turned into pigs, it’s up to Chihiro to navigate the mystical land and find the help she needs to save her family and return to the normal world. The film is among the most creatively inspired movies ever made with breathtaking images and a moving story seemingly taken out of mythology.

10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Perhaps the greatest trilogy ever made, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” is a composition of everything we love about cinema: big, adventurous, thrilling and heartfelt. In the land of Middle-Earth, young hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) is given the ring of power. He must destroy the ring before it falls into the hands of its master, Sauron, who will use it to enslave the world. With a fellowship to guide him, his journey takes him across the world as war breaks out among the kingdoms of the land. The trilogy brought writing, acting and special effects together in a way that may be unequaled, and it has become a beloved piece of cinema history.

9. The Dark Knight (2008)

Boldly asserting a new type of superhero film, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” incorporated many of the lingering feelings of the post-9/11 world into its narrative. Batman (Christian Bale) joins forces with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to bring down the mob plaguing Gotham city, but the Joker (Health Ledger) emerges from the darkness, threatening their hopes and pushing each of them to their limit. Heath Ledger’s defining performance as the Joker gives the film edginess and charisma, and the encompassing idea of heroism and what that means makes “The Dark Knight” the greatest superhero film ever made.

Part 3

‘Hail, Caesar’ an unconventional love letter to the movies

The Coen brothers tell good stories. Whether it be “No Country for Old Men”, “Fargo”, “Burn After Reading”, “True Grit” or any of their other works, it doesn’t pound you over the head with themes or dumbs down its plot to accommodate the audience: they simply tell good stories in their own way.

In their latest feature, “Hail, Caesar”, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer dealing with conflicting emotions about leaving Hollywood. During a production shoot of the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar”, his star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped by a mysterious organization that calls itself “the future.” Over the next 24 hours, he tries to get Whitlock back, deal with a never-ending parade of issues, and resolve his qualms about decency in his life.

The cast is a long list of Hollywood stars in and of itself, including Frances McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. The fact that real-life Hollywood stars are caricaturing their counterparts of the 1950s adds to the flavor of the film. Each character is lost in some form or another, all trying to find their way; through religion, communism, love, politics, smoking. What unites them is their  idealistic vision of cinema, the promise of happy endings and creating movie magic.

There are so many characters and so much going on that sometimes it is hard to keep focus on what is happening, but the Coens have always been able to utilize the idiosyncrasies in their characters to make sure that even with limited screentime, they are still memorable and relatable. If the movie were a little bit longer and some of the characters were able to be fleshed out just a little bit more, it would really aid the pacing and emotional impact.

Though decidedly one of their “lesser” works because of its rambliness and overstuffed plot, “Hail, Caesar” is still a blast, a lesser work from the Coens equal to superior work from most other filmmakers.