Suburbicon (Clooney; 2017)

Suburbicon is going to be a difficult film to review without giving spoilers largely because the marketing campaign does such an excellent job at not giving away anything about the true nature of the film.  As usual, I will do my best to not give away any major plot points in the movie, but to even discuss the pros and cons will give away elements of the movie that are not obvious at all from the trailers,  So, I will say here to start that I do not recommend the film for prime time theater viewing, but it does have a message told in a unique if overly heavy-handed and over-familiar way (yes, I realize unique and over-familiar are contradictory, but I stick by that description) which makes the movie worth catching eventually on streaming or now at a matinee.

The year in which Suburbicon takes place is never explicitly mentioned, but it during a period in the United States in which the middle class was prosperous, houses in close-knit communities with greener than green lawns and white picket fences were the fashion, and ending segregation was one of the nation’s hot-button issues.  The film opens with a short faux advertising film reel letting us know why we should move to the community of Suburbicon followed by a bit showing a mailman making his rounds through the town which only needs Doris Day and a musical number with neighbors dancing with push mowers to make it complete,   We learn that new neighbors have moved into Suburbicon, and this has everyone excited and curious, but when the mailman goes to their house and discovers the African American woman answering the front door (Karimah Westbrook) is not an indentured servant, but is in fact the new neighbor Mrs. Mayers, Suburbicon’s attitude immediately changes.  The film’s plot really gets underway when Rose (Julianne Moore who also plays Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret) suggests to her son Nicky (Noah Jupe) that he invite the new neighbor Noah Mayer to go play baseball with him.  Despite Nicky’s protestations, he does befriend his new African American neighbor, but the very next day two men appear in the middle of the night to attack Nicky, Rose, Margaret, and Gardner (Matt Damon) in their home.

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Suburbicon is the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, who has previously given us a handful of mediocre to pretty good films, my favorites being Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, when working behind the camera.  Clooney has worked a lot with the Coen Brothers over the years, and you can see their inspiration in his directing, so I assumed when I was seeing such strong Coen Brothers’ influences in Suburbicon that it was just Clooney’s style.  While that may be part of the reason this seemed so much like one of their films, the real reason I discovered upon seeing the closing credits was that Joel and Ethan Coen share writing credits along with Clooney himself and Grant Heslov.  Comparing a film to the Coen’s films is nearly always a compliment, but here it is really just the trappings of a Coen film without the extra spark of wry eccentricity that makes their films so engaging.

I’m sure Clooney himself can be largely blamed for that lack of spark, but I think the biggest reason comes from the story itself.  The next sentence is such a spoiler I am going to make it only readable by highlighting it, but it is the number one problem with the film so it has to be mentioned.  The real problem with Suburbicon is that we’ve seen this movie before, but the first time it was called Fargo and it took place in North Dakota and Minnesota rather than in Pleasantville and it didn’t attempt social commentary via an awkward, honestly unneeded, parallel storyline.  This was also my major problem with Star Wars: The Force Awakens but in this case not only is the story being retread, it’s also being watered down and diffused.

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The cast of Suburbicon gives us some good work for the most part, though Noah Jupe comes across very one-note especially after seeing some excellent child performances this year from so many people that I’m wondering if actors under eighteen need to have their own category at the Academy Awards.  Julianne Moore and Matt Damon have the lion’s share of screen time, and while neither gives a particularly nuanced performance, they do obviously have fun with their roles and allow their natural goofball charisma to grab our attention.  Oscar Isaac has a small supporting role in the film, and he manages to steal the show every single time he makes an appearance making me wonder why he hasn’t gotten more lead roles as aside from his turn as Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse he has never given us a bad performance.

The visuals of Suburbicon are excellently put together with camera work which borders on art and charming art direction.  But perhaps best of all visually is the snappy editing style from Stephen Mirrione (Birdman, The Revenant, and many others), and while this effort won’t win him another Oscar, it is still worthy of what we’ve come to expect from him.

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Final verdict:  Suburbicon could have been a great film if its plot hadn’t been recycled, but it has so it isn’t.  Visually, there is a lot to like even if none of ever reaches the level of stunning, and the actors obviously have fun with Oscar Isaac really going above and beyond.  Heck, even the writing could have been something special as it does tackle a message so sorely needed in Trump’s America, but that message is so clumsily presented in a story we’ve already seen that it comes across as insulting rather than inspired.  While Suburbicon was directed by Clooney, it’s really a Coen Brothers’ film through and through, and it’s one closer to the Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers end of the Coen scale than Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil (Flanagan; 2016)

It started in 1996 with Scream that Hollywood found audiences really wanted to make fun of the standard horror movie tropes.  Scream, the Scary Movie series, Cabin in the Woods, Dale and Tucker vs Evil, the list can go on and on of films that look at the gullibility, poor decision making, jump scares, and so on that made up so many horror films and were turning the genre into a literal joke.  2016 has brought us The Witch, Lights Out, Don’t Breathe, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil to show us that those in Hollywood have learned a lesson and are bringing us stories with similar plots but that don’t rely on stupid tricks to scare us, they rely on psychology, paranoia, the supernatural…  things that really are scary.

Ouija: The Origin of Evil takes place in the mid 1960’s and focuses on the Zander family.  Some unmentioned time ago, the father in the Zander family died, and now the three women of the Zander family – mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and the two daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) – make their living by giving seances.  It’s all fake, but Alice rationalizes that they are helping bring a sense of closure to their clients. When older daughter Lina finds out about this new game called the Ouija Board at a friend’s house, she recommends her mother add one into her act.  Everything is sunshine and puppy dogs after that.

Film Title: Ouija: Origin of Evil

Here we see mother and daughter discussing what kind of puppy they should get to go along with their board game from hell.

Ouija 2 was brought to us by writer/director Mike Flanagan (and co-writer Jeff Howard), who has been primarily a television director until recently.  In 2013 he brought us Oculus which was an underrated horror film in its own right, but more prominently he brought us Hush the straight to Netflix movie which has garnered quite a lot of critical and audience praise this year.  Flanagan has shown he has a knack for giving us strong and smart female characters who do their best in horrific situations and this is no exception.  All three of the women in this story are intelligent, well rounded characters.  They all share a certain skepticism of the supernatural due their involvement in Alice’s profession, but all three show they are very much individuals when the strange events start occurring.  Flanagan and Howard show a real proclivity for character in their writing, showing that we are watching a family, with many similar learned traits but each one also an individual with their own, usually well thought out, way of doing things.

In addition to the excellent character work in the writing, Ouija 2 also has a ton of style.  The ’60’s setting is played up for all its worth, not just in areas like art direction and costuming, but even in cinematography which often uses techniques popular in horror films from the ’60s and ’70s (but, like everything else here, with a modern twist) and even goes so far as to add the marks in the upper right corner of the screen to let the projectionist know when to change the reels, even though there are no reels to be changed since everything is digital.  The film is also very aware of what the general public will be expecting from it making the occasional self aware reference as a sort of wink, but never to the point where it is distracting or cutesy, just enough for Flanagan to sort of look directly at the audience for a split second and say to them, “You though this was going to be bad, corny fun, didn’t you?”

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Now who would ever use someone’s preconceptions to take advantage of them for entertainment purposes?

Ouija: The Origin of Evil does have a few flaws.  It occasionally does break its tone in rather jarring fashion, particularly during the film’s handful of CGI sequences, and when you stop to think about it, it’s never really apparent at all why the Ouija board itself is necessary for the plot (though, this is perhaps a smart decision on Flanagan’s part, the board is there to get Hasbro sponsorship but never devolves into a pure marketing film).  But, overall the gripes to be had here are minor ones.

Who would have thought that a sequel to one of the worst movies of 2014 could continue the pleasantly surprising recent trend of intelligent horror films with an agenda of breaking through the stereotypes the genre has unfortunately brought upon itself?  Ouija: The Origin of Evil is a well acted, wonderfully written, stylistic film that will absolutely scare the living crap out of you and will most likely haunt your dreams for at least a few nights afterward.  Happy Halloween!

Rating:  7.6 out of 10