SUBURBICON (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated R
(for violence, strong language, and some sexuality)
Released: October 27, 2017
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe

George Clooney is an interesting filmmaker, attracted to very interesting material, so even when he makes a pretty big miscalculation it usually ends up resonating like a minor one.

That’s the case in Suburbicon, a film based on an old unproduced script by Joel and Ethan Coen. Clooney tries to shoehorn in some social relevance to this dark comic tale of greed, lust, and murder, yet does so to absolutely no effect or impact.

Nevertheless, Suburbicon is still a compelling experience, and pops with a sharp tapestry of cinematic craft for good measure.

Set in the late 1950s, “Suburbicon” is the name of an idyllic housing community that personifies the American Dream. Well, for white people at least. But after a house invasion leads to tragedy, a morally corrupt underbelly emerges.

Matt Damon plays Gardner, the new widower, and Julianne Moore is the twin sister-in-law that stays with Gardner and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) to help recover from the trauma. Things turn more ominous, and deadly, as others (including a spot-perfect Oscar Isaac) have their eyes on an insurance payout.

A subplot unfolds in counterpoint, about the neighborhood’s new arrivals: the first black family to live in this residential utopia. The locals want to keep their population as white as their picket fences; protests, rioting, and violence eventually erupt.

The Coen Brothers’ DNA clearly remains in this script’s foundation, but the addition of Civil Rights Era racism (inspired by a real-life event) is entirely of Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov’s thematic gene pool. Topical issues have never been the Coens’ forte; they stick to the universal seven deadly sins.

I’d wager that Clooney and Heslov were on to something by drawing this parallel…which is why it’s surprising how, in the final analysis, it’s so awkwardly crammed in.

And yet that clunky overreach is merely an occasional distraction.

On the main, Clooney has made an intense reflection on nostalgia, and burdens it with a grieving unease. What it has to say isn’t anything new (a.k.a. there are sins hiding beneath our materialistic veneer), but the story allows its dominoes to fall according to unintended consequences, defying the selfish, criminal plans that people have best laid, as Fate and Providence lay in wait to wield their mocking comeuppance.

To Clooney’s credit, and my surprise, Suburbicon doesn’t come off like Coens-lite, or a pale Coen carbon copy. He’s clearly gleaned a lot from his collaboration with those auteur brothers, but his influences are more of the time, not the Coen canon. Clooney’s not straining for quirk; he takes his affection for that bygone era, drapes it in melancholy, then punches it with a pulpy chaser.

The period is richly rendered, too. Clooney and his crew – anchored by cinematographer Robert Elswit (a favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson) – evoke midcentury Americana with vibrant precision, and composer Alexandre Desplat eerily transitions the score from plucky charm to warm sentiment to Hitchcockian tension and back around again.

Clooney brings it all together in an assured aesthetic as he captures, satirizes, and upends the era, not simply facilitating an elegant pastiche. This is one of the better looking, and made, films of the year. Indeed, it’s fitting that, by dividing the title in two, you get the words “Suburb” and “icon”, with the latter half commenting on the former.

The film can’t support its director’s thematic ambitions, but it’s hardly bogged down by them either. Suburbicon is a consistently engaging yarn about the absurdity of immoral hubris (and moral hubris, too, for that matter).

For all its ugliness, the virtues of America win out. The film suggests that our ideals are real, and true, and not just rose-colored nostalgia, incarnated in the most American of past times: out in the backyard, playing catch.

NETFLIX AND KILL: The Real Victims Of Their Day-And-Date Strategy (ANALYSIS)

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The Hollywood studios aren’t the ones who need to worry. Neither are the multiplexes.

The threat that Netflix poses to the movie industry, with their streaming exclusive releases of Awards Season-style hopefuls, is to the independent movie houses that cater to discerning cinephiles. To the art house theaters that actually care about film as an art form, not just a business, and fight to keep their doors open while providing a sophisticated experience for diehard film aficionados.

One need only look at three Netflix originals that have premiered this fall to see how direct the threat is.

Through September and October of 2017, Netflix debuted two films that garnered raves at the world’s premiere film festivals. A third also dropped, one that’s right in the wheelhouse of every indie theater’s primary demographic – older adults:

The festival track that Meyerowitz and Father followed, first starting at Cannes, is exactly the type you see leading up to strong fall release strategies. It’s these movies – with their calculated rollouts – that smaller, smarter movie theaters look to for solid, reliable, sustainable business.

But then Netflix came along to snag the new critically-acclaimed films by Noah Baumbach and Angelina Jolie, keeping them almost singularly for its own small screen subscription venue, save for a handful of lucky theaters in New York, LA, and a few other major cities where these films played in limited runs so that Netflix could crassly qualify for Oscar consideration.

There was also Our Souls at Night, a film not strong enough for a big awards push (despite its multi-Academy Award winning leads Jane Fonda and Robert Redford), but still one that would play like a bread-and-butter tentpole for indie theaters whose core base is older patrons and well-to-do retirees.

The local historic theater in my city of Tulsa – Circle Cinema – could’ve fed off receipts from Our Souls at Night for a solid month, probably longer. Add Meyerowitz and Father to that and it’s a banner quarter.

We can go further back, too, to June with Okja, the latest from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho; he tells artful, gonzo tales that parallel relevant issues. Art house theaters really could’ve benefited from that one when trying to fend off the onslaught from Marvel, DC, Pixar, and more during the summer months.

Yes, on its war path to marginalize theatrical distribution (and even burn it all down), Netflix has major studios in its sights, too. In December, it’ll stream Will Smith’s Bright, a sci-fi spectacle made with the blockbuster price tag of $90 million.

There’s less to worry about here, though (if anything), because the studios and theater chains will continue their symbiotic relationship regardless of what Netflix does, or achieves, even as they make necessary adaptations to lure customers from their couches.

But indie theaters don’t have that kind of money. They need the product that Netflix has begun to hoard at major film festivals.

Art house cinemas give a platform to more ambitious fare. Even when those movies do middling business, they become a part of the cinematic conversation – both now and ongoing – because of the life they’re given through theatrical release windows, instead of being buried in the casket of the Netflix streaming app.

So what can we do, those who care about independent cinema and the theaters that serve as a cornerstone to any city’s artistic culture and community? Boycott Netflix? No. That is futile fool’s errand. To say so is not defeatist resignation, it’s a practical reality.

Instead, we need to frequent our local art house theaters like never before, to keep those vibrant circles of society alive, and thriving, to show the shareholders of Netflix what Amazon Studios has already proven with their Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea: there is money and prestige to be had by embracing independent theaters, not abandoning them.

Here’s perhaps the best way to consider it:

Do you think Moonlight would’ve had a shot at its historic Oscar upset had Netflix streamed it? Would its director Barry Jenkins now be a premiere auteur? Would that small $1.5 million budgeted passion project with no stars have secured the place it now holds as a landmark work that will be talked about, studied, and appreciated in the canon of great American movies? Of course not.

It’s the Moonlight’s that Netflix endangers, and the indie theaters that give those movies their chance to stand out, soar, and make history, not the Dunkirk’s or the multiplexes anchored by an IMAX screen.

photos by Andrew Nichols

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OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (Movie Review)

Our Souls At Night
*** out of ****
Rated TV-14
(for brief language, adult themes, and mild sexuality)
Released:  September 29, 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Judy Greer, Bruce Dern

Streaming exclusively on Netflix

Rarely, if ever, does a movie succeed in spite of its director, but this one does (barely) thanks to a pair of legendary leads.

Simply made, with clunky side-stories and choppy transitions, Our Souls At Night ends up blossoming – and occasionally flourishes – because Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are, well, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

Fifty years after their first on-screen pairing in Barefoot in the Park, these immortally gorgeous Hollywood idols still exude chemistry, but now more casually (that’s a plus, not a minus). Everything and everyone else around them is just a distraction.

They play Addie and Louis, two locals of a rural Colorado town whose spouses passed away years ago. Though merely acquaintances, Addie extends to Louis a unique proposition: they should sleep together. Not make love. Not even cuddle. Just sleep together.

Considering the film’s exclusive streaming distributor, Addie’s provocatively unprovocative overture, which Louis accepts, allows Our Souls at Night to put a sweet (and relatively chaste) spin on Netflix-and-Chill.

Abruptly, the story rushes into the premise of Addie’s decent proposal. The iconic stars, however, more than make up for what’s lacking in proper setup and character development. Their enduring personas (and our affection for them) easily fill in the blanks.

There’s also nice touches of how retro they still are; reading newspapers rather than websites, Louis’s landline phone (with cord!) rather than cell, and information written in notebooks rather than on smart devices.

The initial phase of getting to know each other is awkward but adorably so, not cutesy or pandering. As they begin to share about their lives, their pasts, and their regrets, scenes resonate with tender, unforced sentiment.

Eventually, the relationship goes from indoors and private to around town and public, making for a harmless winking scandal that the locals can enjoy (and for Louis’s diner friends, led by Bruce Dern, to playfully rib him about).

Family subplots, however, make the main plot plod. The introduction of Addie’s grandson is played as a bonding catalyst, but it feels boilerplate and unnecessary. We’d much rather get back to more intimate scenes of personal candor between Fonda and Redford.

In addition, Addie’s grumpy nearly-divorced son Gene is a major drag on what should be a pleasant slice of cinema. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is appropriately brooding yet he’s horribly miscast, his bitter Euro edge and barely-good American accent making for an odd fit.

Based on the novel by Kent Haruf, from his series of books set in the fictional town of Holt, CO, the screenplay hues closely to its source (apparently), which was generally well-received.

Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the duo behind other clever, layered romances like 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, it’s hard to blame the script for the movie’s missteps, and there’s certainly no fault in their stars (oh yeah, Neustadter and Weber adapted that, too).

The stark tonal deficiencies, then, land at the feet of director Ritesh Batra. The whole thing is cobbled together in bland, workmanlike fashion, documenting the script but little else. The assembly is particularly rough as some scenes end abruptly, cutting away mid-conversation or, inexplicably, from expressions of emotional vulnerability.

Like the leads, seasoned cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt makes up for a lot (especially with lush landscapes of Colorado forests and mountains), but Batra’s uninspired vision chops up what should be delectable movie night comfort food. Thankfully, Fonda and Redford keep this anchored and leisurely agreeable, while imbuing it with meaning (Fonda especially).

Our Souls at Night is effective in fits and starts, never settling into a consistent groove, but when it works – i.e. when Fonda and Redford are left alone to their own charismatic devices – it’s a delicately rendered two-hander about the need for companionship, especially during those lonely late night hours, for as long as there’s life still to be lived.

Rian Johnson “Makes His Mark” On Set Of THE LAST JEDI (VIDEO)

A generation grew up playing with Star Wars toys and figures.

So did Rian Johnson.

Now, in this new behind-the-scenes look, the writer/director of Episode VIII shares how he’s able to play like that once again, but on an epic scale. This video is another fun tease for what’s to come, and the backdrop of John Williams‘ iconic music helps provide maximum feels.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15, 2017.

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Trailer For PHANTOM THREAD Previews Final Screen Role By Daniel Day-Lewis (VIDEO/POSTER)

I’ll drink this milkshake.

Daniel Day-Lewis collaborates one more time with his There Will Be Blood auteur Paul Thomas Anderson in Phantom Thread, a film set in the London fashion world of the 1950s.

This will also be, according to Day-Lewis, the final screen performance for the 3-time Academy Award winning actor. He’s previously announced that he is now retired from film acting. Whether that ends up being true over the long run is a moot point in regards to why this movie is a must-see event; the DDL/PTA team-up is reason enough.

The subject and setting is a particularly interesting choice for the writer/director. Known primarily for a style influenced by American cinema of the 1970s, this looks to be an intriguing clash of austere period and PTA’s visceral intensity. Suffice it to say, the filmmaker’s obsession with obsession seems to be firmly intact.

And if all of that wasn’t intriguing enough, this film marks the debut of Paul Thomas Anderson as cinematographer.

Phantom Thread opens just in time for awards season, on December 25, 2017.

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LUCKY (Movie Review)

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*1/2 out of ****
Not Rated (for adults only)
(for strong language, smoking, drug use)
Released:  September 29, 2017 limited; October 20 expands
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: John Caroll Lynch
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Barry Shabaka Henley, Beth Grant, James Darren, Yvonne Huff, David Lynch

An actor’s showcase that doesn’t give its actor much to showcase.

That’s Lucky, an ill-titled character study and ironically named final screen role for Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away earlier this year. Talk about a guy who deserved better.

Lucky wants to be a movie about life and death, to say things about loneliness and meaning. But as this ornery hero strolls around town with a severely uncongenial disposition, all the movie does is play cute with its foul-mouthed weed smoking old coot.

Billed as “the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old atheist”, that provocative tag line bears no resemblance to the simplistic void this limp screenplay provides. It’s existentialism writ adorable, on a canvas of schmaltzy nihilism.

Stanton’s Lucky is no more an atheist than any other average non-sectarian agnostic seen in most other movies. There’s no talk or debate of God. Conversations lack any honest depth or true wisdom, at best peppered with clever one-liners and flat aphorisms that ring false. Even Lucky’s loner grumpiness is perfectly agreeable  to him, a state that’s proudly self-imposed.

As spiritual journeys go, its theme is the mystical hogwash that existence is nothing. We are nothing. All is nothing. Yet it’s a message (calling it a “message” is even being generous) that’s delivered with a surprising level of sappy pandering, as if a life devoid of meaning is supposed to bring peace to your heart and put a smile on your face.

Part of this lies in the notion that everything’s relative; a valid perspective, given life’s grays and complexities. But this film embraces a depressing form of humanism, and then drapes it in flaky sentimentality.

The disheartening failure of Lucky is no fault of its legendary lead. Stanton’s mere presence is substantial, and evocative, but he’s given little worthwhile to say, do, or contemplate, outside of a beautifully rendered song at a Quinceañera party. It embodies everything the movie aspires to be, but isn’t.

Character actor John Caroll Lynch struggles to tell a cohesive story in his directorial debut, or create a cohesive experience. It’s an amateur effort. It largely feels sincere, to Lynch’s credit, and he comes up with some inspired visual metaphors, but the screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja never sounds credible, let alone enlightening. It’s all randomly contrived instead of emerging from a personal, specific place.

The faux conviction is particularly hard to buy when you consider the legacy of Harry Dean Stanton himself, a character actor who made a lasting, meaningful mark on the cinematic art form, his fellow artists, and the cinephiles who grew to love him.

Philosophically vacant, Lucky embraces a dissatisfying, empty state of Zen. Consequently, as far as poignant swan songs go, I’ll stick with this one as the final on-screen ode for Harry Dean Stanton:

ONLY THE BRAVE (Movie Review)

 

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*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic content, some sexual references, language, peril, and drug material)
Released:  October 20, 2017
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch

Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) is on tap to direct the upcoming sequel Top Gun: Maverick. His latest film Only The Brave plays like a demo reel for that gig, but without the cocky soundtrack-fueled swagger.

A sobering ode to blue collar valor, Only The Brave imbues the tried-and-true template of real hero biopics with unassuming conviction. This movie won’t surprise you but it will move you.

By the end, you’ll respect the hell out of these guys who risk their lives to save our communities, and the loved ones who live with that burden every day.

Based on a true story, Only The Brave is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only municipal team of firefighters in the United States to ever achieve Elite status. Initially a “Grade 2” unit, one that aides top level wildfire fighting teams as backup and support, this crew from Prescott, Arizona lacked the proper connections to vie for Hotshot status, a.k.a. firefighting’s “SEAL Team” equivalent.

But with the driving passion of their “Supe” leader Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), these scrappy outsiders eventually completed their historic breakthrough.

Much of the film tracks that journey, and then builds towards a dramatic re-creation of the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 that was famously documented in the GQ article “No Exit”.

Once it gets past the clunky forced camaraderie and bravado of the opening scenes, along with some rote domestic sappiness, Only The Brave settles into a compelling, grounded narrative of this unique brotherhood, enriched by fascinating specifics about what their job requires.

There are nice character portraits here, too. Brolin and Jeff Bridges offer the kind of sturdy, stalwart men you admire from Middle America, and Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) continues to shine as possibly the best actor of his generation. Here, his rookie fighter Brendan McDonough is a junkie looking to overcome addiction and provide for a newborn. Teller walks this man’s path of redemption with real humility, not macho intensity.

Kosinki’s tone is similar to the gritty, credible elegies by director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day, Lone Survivor) but it’s more visually confident, without the erratic shaky cam overkill, and it’s the best, most insightful film about firefighting since 1991’s Backdraft.

There’s an impressive formalism to the shooting and editing style, too, but one that eschews Hollywood gloss for an aesthetic that’s natural and lived-in.

The scenes at home aren’t quite the equal to those “on the line”, dipping occasionally into overwrought melodrama (as wives compete with that mistress “The Fire”), but it’s still affecting on the whole, and earnest, in particular Teller’s scenes with McDonough’s girlfriend and daughter as he respectfully strives to become worthy of them.

Through harrowing challenges and, yes, sacrifices, we grow to appreciate the skill and commitment of these men, and their families. Only The Brave may be told in simple broad strokes, but they’re noble ones.