Suburbicon

Posted on October 26, 2017 at 5:30 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence including multiple murders, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 27, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 5, 2018

Copyright 2017 Paramount
“Suburbicon” is like a beautifully gift-wrapped box that turns out to be empty or a shaggy-dog story that entices you with promising details and then it is supposed to be funny that there’s no ending. A script by the Coen brothers that plays like a correctly discarded early draft of “Fargo” has been tweaked by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, a long way from their brilliant “Good Night and Good Luck,” and directed by Clooney. Even full-on stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore (in a dual role!) cannot outshine the real star of the movie, the ironic air-quoting production design. The only member of the cast who makes any real impression is Oscar Isaac as an insurance investigator who calls himself a “professional skeptic” and provides a too-brief jolt of energy and interest in a movie that is otherwise way to amused by itself.

“Suburbicon” begins with a cute commercial for a idealized 1950’s planned community that ends with a cheery, “The only thing missing is YOU!” It looks like Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, Dick and Jane readers, and all those sitcoms with cheery moms who vacuum in pearls and full makeup got together in all of their mid-century, postwar, consumerist, idealized, sanitized, and claustrophobically conformist and Everyone is welcome, it tells us, whether you’re from New York, Ohio, or Mississippi. But all of the people in the ad are white and all of the people in Suburbicon are white….until the Myers family moves in. They are black. This is a pointed reference to the real-life experience of the real-life black Myers family who moved to the conformist, consumerist planned community of Levittown in in 1957, resulting in constant harassment, threats, and a three-week-long riot, which the family endured with grace and patience.

That goes on here, as we see Mrs. Myers (Karimah Westbrook) told by the manager at the grocery that for her the price of a gallon of milk is $20, neighbors build a fence around their yard, and a crowd gathers outside their house, taunting them and setting their car on fire.

But that is not what the movie is about. The movie is mostly about what is going on next door, where armed intruders tie up and chloroform a family, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose, who is confined to a wheelchair (Julianne Moore), her sister Maggie (more Moore), and his young son, Nick (an excellent Noah Jupe). Rose dies in the attack and Maggie moves into the house to help take care of Nick and Gardner.

And then things get really tangled. They just don’t get interesting. The production design and camera work are excellent, but what actually happens on screen is just a pointless escalation of deranged violence with cutaways to the poor Myers family to show how dumb it is that the neighbors are terrified of the black family while the white family is what should terrify them. But just making that point as people run around doing terrible things to each other and to a child is neither insightful nor effective.

Parents should know that this film is filled with horrifying violence, some of it very explicit and bloody. There are many murders and other bad behavior. A child is in peril, and he witnesses violence, sex, and bad behavior by the adults in his life. Virulent racism is a theme in the movie and characters use strong language including racist epithets.

Family discussion: Ask members of your family for their memories of the 1950’s. Why did the Myers family stay?

If you like this, try: “Fargo,” “Blood Simple,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Serial Mom”

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Home Again

Posted on September 7, 2017 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, marijuana, discussion of antidepressant medication
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffle
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017
Copyright 2017 Open Road

Producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers has the formula on lockdown: Take one Oscar-winning performer, preferably of a certain age (Diane Keaton, Anne Hathaway, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet). Create a setting of lush, heavenly comfort with soft pillows, gleaming surfaces, white wine, and luscious food. Add a generic title (“The Intern,” “The Holiday”). Put some overly familiar pop songs on the soundtrack and use them to hide the lack of dialogue in scenes when we should be allowed to hear what the characters are saying that is making them think differently about each other. Settle back for a story where the female character is ADORED by everyone and also very capable and pretty much right about everything.

Whether her daughter absorbed all of this by osmosis or is merely a fully-owned subsidiary of the Meyers operation, we may never know. But “Home Again,” the first film from writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is produced by her mother and follows exactly the same formula. It is, to say the least, highly unusual for a first-time writer/director to helm such a high budget, high-profile project, starring, yes, an Oscar-winner, Reese Witherspoon, as yes, a women of a certain age who lives in a spectacularly gorgeous home (Fountain in front! Guest house in back!). But Meyers is a reliable commodity, and as generous with her daughter as her ever-beneficent heroines are in the films. Remember Streep bringing out all those pies for her friends?

If there are no surprises here, one of the non-surprises is that the movie is an easy watch, combining, as Meyers films do, pleasant fantasy with aspirational settings. I know I’ll watch it again when it comes on cable, or if I have the flu or need to fold laundry.

Witherspoon is Alice, as in Wonderland, a mother of two who has moved into her late father’s house in Los Angeles because she and her music industry producer who wears leather bracelets husband Austen (Michael Sheen) have separated. Her father was a much-married, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director because apparently that is pretty much the only world she knows or the only one we can dream of.

Alice goes out with friends on her birthday and gets tipsy with three young men who have just arrived in Los Angeles after success with a short, black and white film they are hoping to turn into a feature. She and Harry (Pico Alexander) end up in bed together, though too drunk to do anything. The next morning, Alice’s mother (Candace Bergen) arrives, befriends the three young men, and invites them to stay in Alice’s guest house.

Alice is against this at first, but comes to enjoy it, as the guys help her with the house and her girls and she and Harry end up doing what they were unable to do that first night. The ultimate seduction move is, of course, fixing the hinge on her cabinet, and I don’t say that metaphorically. They all of course ADORE her and are themselves adorable. Enter Austen, wanting to assert his alpha male status and win back Alice because of course he ADORES her, too.

So, basically a high-end Hallmark movie, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

NOTE: This is the second movie in a row for Meyers with an inappropriate and borderline offensive “joke” about children who take antidepressants. What’s up with that?

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, as well as family conflicts and divorce, a child dealing with stress, and a scuffle.

Family discussion: Were you surprised by Alice’s decision? How did Harry help her understand what she needed?

If you like this, try: “The Holiday” and “It’s Complicated” — and you can glimpse writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer in her parents remake of “The Parent Trap”

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I Do…Until I Don’t

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:27 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright 2017 Ways & Means
Hopes are high for Lake Bell after the delightful “In a World….,” which she wrote, directed, and starred in.  A terrific cast, a peek at the unfamiliar world of voice actors, and an endearing heroine made it an exceptionally promising debut.  Unfortunately, her sophomore effort retains only the superb casting and the affection for title ellipsis. “I Do…Until I Don’t” is more like an r-rated episode of the cheesy anthology series “Love American Style” than it is like “In a World.”

Bell clearly wants to explore the challenges of monogamy and marriage, a topic well worth exploring because most movies about romance end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” to be imagined.  Where “In a World…” benefitted from the sharp, vivid observations of a person who thoroughly understood a world that the audience had never seen before, in “I Do…Until I Don’t,” the barely-out-of-the-newlywed-stage Bell (she and her husband were married in 2013) is trying to explain marriage to an audience who have all literally lived in or with the experience of marriage as husbands, wives, children, and family members.  Her portrayal of three different couples is immediately apparent as superficial and unrealistic.

The entire premise is artificial.  Bell imagines a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) who is determined to expose the essential impossibility of the idea of marriage.  Her theory is based on the tired theory that the idea of lifelong monogamy was developed in an era when the average lifespan was less than four decades and is therefore unrealistic when we are living twice as long.  Of course when the lifespan was three decades marriages were more likely to be based on alliances of property and money than romantic love, which might have played into the expectations of the participants, but that has nothing to do with Vivian’s premise.  And of course she has a villainous British accent just to remind us that she’s the bad guy.

Three couples become the focus of her film.  Two of them are so unpleasant it is impossible for us to care very much whether they prove Vivian wrong, except to keep them off the market so they can’t marry someone nicer.  All three of them are so thinly conceived that even the very able work of an outstanding cast cannot give them any depth or reality, even in a heightened comic setting.

Bell plays Alice, married to Noah (Ed Helms).  Their business is failing. So are their efforts to become parents.  Alice tells Noah Vivian will pay them a lot of money to be in her film. It is a lie. She has to find the money somewhere, so she agrees to provide “happy endings” at a massage parlor run by Bonnie (the terrific Chauntae Pink).

Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) are middle-aged and constantly snipe at each other, especially Cybill, who puts real effort into it while Harvey is mostly playing defense.

The third couple is not married and has an open relationship because why not.  They are Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), free-wheeling hippie stereotypes.  Alice thinks Noah is into Fanny for no particular reason other than her own insecurity over not being honest with him about pretty much anything.

These people are not interesting and their realizations are completely unfounded.  My advice: don’t.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and explicit language, explicit sexual references and situations, prostitution, drinking, and marital problems.

Family discussion: Why is it so important to Vivian to be right about marriage? Which couple changes the most?

If you like this, try: “In a World…” from the same writer/director/star

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The Trip to Spain

Posted on August 24, 2017 at 5:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

In the third “Trip” movie, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon again traveling through gorgeous countryside, eating exquisitely prepared meals, and trying to top each other’s impressions, Coogan does something we have not seen before.  He laughs.  The series plays deftly with what is real (the actors’ names, the general outline of their careers, their improvised banter) and what is fiction (their heightened characteristics and tension between them, their family members, romantic interests, and professional colleagues played by actors and the created relationships and developments, the fact that they do not acknowledge they are being filmed).  Coogan’s character, that is, the version of himself he plays in the films, is at the same time insecure and superior, and therefore he usually responds to Brydon’s comments and performances by either insulting them or topping them.  But in one scene here, he can’t help himself; he just laughs, more than once, and we see a very different, more relaxed, genuine, and appreciative, perhaps more “real” Coogan.

In this third “trip,” the pair goes to Spain, where the literary overlay is Don Quixote (they even dress up as Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot), the impressions are as funny as ever (Mick Jagger, John Hurt, Roger Moore talking about the Moors), and the subject of aging comes up now and then. They assure each other that in their 50’s they are in the “sweet spot,” still attractive to women and if, too old to play Hamlet, still too young for Lear. Coogan, always wanting to appear erudite and successful, finds a way to mention the Oscar nominations for “Philomena” (he co-wrote and starred in it), and his new script, called “Missing.” And Brydon points out that “Philomena” was the story of a mother looking for her son and “Missing” is the story of a father looking for his daughter, so perhaps it might be time to go in another direction.  The two men go back and forth, jockeying with each other in a dozen different ways, as they obliquely and sometimes directly engage with the passage of time, between glimpses of flaming pans and delectable sauces being spread just so.

Coogan and Brydon are more comfortable and compatible in this version, and, as always, very, very funny.   If they get on each other’s nerves, for us in the audience they are excellent traveling companions.  The poignancy of their choices and disappointments adds some welcome depth and complexity.  There have been some complaints and controversy about the end of the film, which is jarring and out of place with the mood of the series.  I am not sure what it is intended to do, but I hope that there will be another trip to find out.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, alcohol, teen pregnancy, sexual references, and some implied peril.

Family discussion: Why do Rob and Steve enjoy impersonations so much?  Do you agree with Rob’s decision?  What should Steve have said to his son?

If you like this, try: the other “Trip” movies with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and of course “Philomina”

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