SUBURBICON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

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, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba & Michael D. Cohen

SUBURBICON is a film that sounds great on paper. You have a talented cast starring in a darkly comedic period piece that was scripted by the Coen brothers (two master writers/directors who excel at pretty much everything they touch). Unfortunately though, this script has been floating around since the 80s and director/writer George Clooney took a stab at reconstructing the crime-comedy to include some rather forced social commentary. The resulting cinematic mess tries too hard to be quirky and attempts to do to many things at once, resulting in a movie that won’t completely satisfy anybody.

In 1959, the small town of Suburbicon seems picture perfect. However, things are not as nice as they appear on the surface. Clean-cut family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) finds his life upended when two robbers break into his house and kill his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Trying to move on with their lives, Gardner invites Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) to move in and curious son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect that all is not right with his father. Meanwhile, an African-American family has moved into this all-white neighborhood and supposedly caring neighbors begin to show their racist true colors.

SUBURBICON’s biggest problem is a direct result from its troubled production. Apparently, this final product was the melding of two unrelated scripts. One of which is the aforementioned crime draft from the Coen brothers and the other was a drama based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family (a black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in the 50s and faced endless harassment from their neighbors). The result mixes together about as well as milk and vinegar, which is to say not at all. There are two very tonally different movies in the space of SUBURBICON’s 105-minute running time and neither of them are particularly satisfying.

This film is at its best when it’s in full quirky murder-mystery mode. There are a few scenes that could only come from the twisted imaginations of Coens. My favorite moments easily belong to an over-the-top Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance investigator. However, he only pops in for two scenes that equal a grand total of 10 minutes. Matt Damon’s final bits of screen time are also great in a twisted way. There is occasionally good stuff within SUBURBICON. It just gets drowned out by the film’s overly familiar messy tonal shifts and a predictable narrative that seems like a lesser version of FARGO…but in the 1950s. The murder-mystery storyline also drags to the point where most of the interesting developments occur during the final third…as opposed to being a slow-burn tale that increasingly builds suspense.

SUBURBICON’s more dramatic side could have potentially served as its own serious film. However, it feels like a complete afterthought that just happens to take up a lot of screen time in this would-be dark comedy. Many of the Mayer family’s (not so subtly named after the real-life Myers family) scenes are appropriately upsetting. You’ll likely get angry at the racism on display, but it just seems so out-of-place in this film. These scenes belong in a different movie of an entirely different genre. A mixture of racially charged drama and murder-filled satirical comedy just wasn’t meant to be.

One positive highlight of the less-than-positive mess that is SUBURBICON comes in high production values that showcase a stylized view of the 1950s. Even if the more macabre moments rub you the wrong way (to me, they were the most redeemable bits of the film), you can’t deny that SUBURBICON looks good. It also makes this film’s poor performance at the box office stick out even more. If SUBURBICON were executed correctly, this might have wound up as one of the best films of last year and a potential Oscar contender. Instead, this is a mish-mash of uneven tones that don’t go together and will leave a lot of people disappointed. Good acting (the performers weren’t the problem in this film) and a handful of memorable moments aside, SUBURBICON is a huge misfire for Clooney and the Coen brothers (who clearly allowed their script to fall into the wrong hands).

Grade: C-

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence and some Language

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

(based on the novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant & Stephen Root

Throughout their filmography, the Coen brothers have written and directed plenty of great films. It wouldn’t be a stretch to list them amongst the greatest filmmakers working today and their crowning cinematic achievement will likely go down as their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This ultra-bleak cat-and-mouse thriller won four Academy Awards and is frequently listed as one of the best films of the 2000’s. As a fan of the Coen brothers, a person who frequently indulges on dark thrillers, and an admirer of cinema as art, I have to say that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of my favorite films.

In 1980’s Texas, Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. Amongst the blood, corpses and bullet shells, Llewelyn finds two million dollars and one thirsty survivor. After he steals the money and feels guilty about leaving the dehydrated man behind, Llewelyn returns to deliver a gallon of water and finds himself on the run from very dangerous people who want their stolen cash back. Though gun-wielding Mexicans and a good ol’ boy bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) are searching for Moss, his main hunter is psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss and Chigurh find themselves in an increasingly deadly game of cat-and-mouse, all while aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chases both men.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has many amazing qualities, one of the biggest easily comes in stellar performances across the board. Josh Brolin makes Llewelyn Moss into a likable protagonist, even if he makes a few bone-headed decisions. The entire plot is thrust forward by Moss making one giant mistake and it becomes a blood-soaked cautionary tale. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the most restrained performance of the film as the close-to-retirement sheriff, who’s sickened by the increasing violence and crime of the world. The film’s title mostly derives from Tommy Lee Jones’s character’s sullen storyline and the plot’s heavier philosophical content is packed into his scenes.

Woody Harrelson is charismatic as the cocksure bounty hunter, while Kelly Macdonald is convincingly naïve as Moss’s wife. The film’s scariest performance arrives in the form of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. This lunatic kills unfortunate souls in unique ways (e.g. cattle-gun, handcuffs employed as a deadly weapon, sound-suppressed shotgun) and is 100% terrifying. Bardem’s deliberate line delivery and dead-eyed stare create a foe that’s simply hard to read, which makes him even scarier. Chigurh also has a twisted set of principles that are never fully revealed to the viewer, but we see life-or-death coin tosses and chance encounters that end on quietly menacing notes (the “do you see me?” scene sends chills down my spine).

Though its set-up is simple, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN packs in plenty of deeper meanings, careful background details, and parallels between characters that are likely to be analyzed by viewers in many different ways. The quiet ending (that seemingly arrives out of nowhere) is sure to throw a few people for a loop, but I really enjoy how it book-ends the film alongside opening narration that sets up the violence to come. As far as background details go, small things like wires that resemble like nooses in a convenience store owner, Chigurh’s cattle-centric main weapon of choice, and a phone ringing as a symbol of death calling come into play. There’s also one distinct scene that’s repeated between Moss and Chigurh that surely means something, though I’m not entirely sure what.

Besides being pure pleasure for arthouse-loving cinephiles, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN functions just as perfectly as a modern western thriller. The violence is shocking and the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Most of NO COUNTRY functions without a musical score, which makes the stellar sound design and every line of cleverly constructed dialogue stick out that much more. The film also takes ambiguous turns that let the audience fill in the blank. There are moments that may not suit every viewer’s cinematic cravings, but NO COUNTRY’s unconventional storytelling seems to work for a bigger audience than most arthouse dramas would typically appeal towards.

When I was in high school, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was one of the most intense books I ever read. Through sheer filmmaking prowess and careful eyes behind the camera, the Coen brothers masterfully translated Cormac McCarthy’s simple-yet-profound tale into a masterpiece of a movie. The suspense and fast-paced action will please those who want a modern western thriller, while the deeper meanings and carefully placed dialogue will thrill serious film lovers. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is easily one of the best films from the 2000s and definitely belongs somewhere in my top 20 all-time favorite movies!

Grade: A+

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson & Peter McRobbie

BRIDGE OF SPIES sounded like a stellar project right from the beginning. You have Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a script written by the Coen brothers. It sounds like this film couldn’t possibly go wrong even if it tried. Based on a fascinating true story and set during the height of the Cold War, BRIDGE OF SPIES is an enthralling piece of cinema. That’s made even more impressive seeing that the film is made up of a bunch of conversations and people walking to conversations. If this doesn’t sound the least bit intense, then don’t worry, because you’ll be surprised at how suspenseful conversations can be when they involve warring nations and negotiations that might save lives.

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James Donovan is a gifted insurance lawyer living in Brooklyn. He’s very good at his job, so good that his superiors want him to defend a man who they believe no one else could possibly craft a defense for. Donovan’s latest client is Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Abel and mob mentality is calling for the man to be hanged. Donovan tries his very best to keep Abel from getting the death penalty. That turns out to be both a wise and humane move as Russia has captured an American spy of their own. Pilot Gary Powers was shot down in a specialized plane traveling through Soviet territory. So, taking his safety and life into his own hands, Donovan travels across the dangerous borders of East Germany and West Berlin to negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers.

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Unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance. The man knows how to emote on a convincing level and he does the same thing here as James Donovan. You can feel that Donovan is a man who just wants to do what’s right and the compassionate side to his character makes him charming to watch. This character can also lay down an articulate verbal beatdown on certain people in this movie who need a good tongue-lashing. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Mark Rylance in anything that stood out to me, but he’s great as Rudolf Abel. Even though he’s a Soviet spy, I couldn’t bring myself to hate this character. He seems quietly dignified and resigned to his fate, whatever that eventual fate might be. Next to Hanks, I’d argue that Rylance steals the show, even though his scenes are far more plentiful in the first half of the film. The rest of the performances are stellar, but I feel the only other major players come in Austin Stowell as Gary Powers and Scott Shepherd as a CIA agent who is aiding Donovan in his negotiations.

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As far as setting goes, Steven Spielberg captures an era where it seems like it was impossible to feel safe. As idealistically peaceful as certain movies and TV shows paint the 1950’s, it’s more realistic to believe that people were frequently worried that Russia was going to bomb the country or invade small towns. Spielberg successfully gets across the sense of unease that seems to have been a constant during the Cold War. I believed that I was watching an authentic recreation of a certain period in recent history and that becomes even more apparent when the movie goes to Germany for a majority of its second half. It’s all beautifully shot and pain-staking attention to detail seems to have been put into every frame.

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This constant tension also lives within the Coens’ dialogue. Though there are a handful of funny moments and good quotes, I found myself fully engaged in watching a number of different people simply have conversations for two hours about the Cold War and swapping spies. Every time I heard that the plan had hit a “snag” or had a “wrinkle,” I found myself thinking “How are they going to solve this mess now?” It became an automatic response for the plight of these characters and that alone shows that the story was insanely compelling.

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Spielberg arguably doesn’t go as far as he could have in depicting the harsh conditions of Berlin (this is PG-13 after all), but there’s a sense of constant danger here. A couple of speeches made by Hanks in the opening act border on becoming melodramatic, usually revolving around the repeated question of “What makes us American?” However, these are two minor complaints in an otherwise excellent film. BRIDGE OF SPIES is another winner for Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen brothers. I would love to see these four talented names unite once again for something special in the future. BRIDGE OF SPIES is mature filmmaking that should deeply move those who are up for a movie that’s on the more serious side of things.

Grade: A

A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Sexuality/Nudity and brief Violence

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Ari Hoptman, Adam Arkin, Simon Helberg & George Wyner

The Coen brothers have cemented themselves as two of the best filmmakers working today. While most people are able to cite FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE BIG LEBOWSKI as some of their famous work, there still seem to be a handful of flicks that get swept under the rug. A SERIOUS MAN is one of these movies that never really gets mentioned when discussing the Coens. It’s easy to see why that is when you take in what a strange tragicomedy this is, but SERIOUS MAN can easily be appreciated with the rest of the siblings’ filmography. Though it probably helps if you’re Jewish, you’ll possibly dig this movie if you enjoy pretty much everything that the Coens pump out to a certain degree. Though I still have to get through a couple of entries in their catalogue, the Coens haven’t made a bad film that I’ve seen. A SERIOUS MAN is a seriously enjoyable time that can also be dissected on deeper levels (there have been interesting essays penned specifically about this movie).

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Larry Gopnik is down on his luck. In a single day, his hopes for tenure have been placed on shaky ground, a student has threatened him, financial troubles are ensuing and his wife has asked for a divorce. Larry’s life doesn’t look like it could possibly get much worse, but that’s exactly what it continues to do. This middle-class Jewish man’s sad existence keeps going further and further downhill. The real question is to whether Larry will give up all hope and do what seems easy or will stick firm to his beliefs and keep enduring this rough patch to do what is right. Either way, consequences are definitely in store for either choice…

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Though it’s been labeled as a dark comedy, A SERIOUS MAN isn’t quite the conventional funny that some might be expecting. It’s actually nowhere close to the Coens’ usual brand of oddball humor. Instead, this is an outright tragedy with some definite laughs. There are running jokes throughout (most of which really worked for me), but you’ll find yourself wondering whether you should be laughing during a certain scene or crying. A number of scenes could garner both as an appropriate response. I felt bad for Larry. I honestly, truly did. At the same time, the over-the-top bad circumstances he finds himself in did get laughs from me. I couldn’t point to any recognizable faces among the cast of characters and that further sold this film as taking place in a suburbia that could be located in the middle of anywhere (though it’s set in Minnesota). Michael Stuhlbarg carries this film on his shoulders as Larry. There’s hardly a moment when the camera isn’t following this stressed out character.

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On the technical side of things, A SERIOUS MAN looks great. Small details and masterful framing make this film look like was somehow filmed in 1967 with HD cameras. It looks gorgeous, even though there’s hardly a special effect to speak of. As funny, sad, and all out strange as this film is, it’s not without a couple of problems that could ruin it for some folks. The prologue comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It was filmed well and was interesting, but there’s no earthly reason why it should have been included as it doesn’t tie into anything else in this film. There are also a couple of spots where things seem to be going in circles. I was entertained and enjoying the story, so it didn’t fully bother me. However, I could easily see more than a few people getting angry about this movie and calling it a pointless bore.

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A SERIOUS MAN is one of the more underrated efforts to come out of the Coen brothers’ filmography. It’s definitely not for everyone and stands as one of the more subversive films that this pair of sibling directors have taken on. There’s a definite sense that those who have grown up in the Jewish culture might have a greater appreciation for this story, but I enjoyed it purely as another weird piece of filmmaking from two of my favorite directors working today. It also left me with a bit to chew on as the haunting conclusion is a tad more serious than you might expect given how absurd everything else has been up to that point. If this movie sounds at all interesting to you, then by all means, give it look!

Grade: A-

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