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.

 

Ingrid Goes West (Spicer; 2017)

Social media is not exactly a new subject for Hollywood, but it also isn’t a subject that’s treated with insight often.  The Social Network is arguably the best work on the subject, but it’s more of a story of how a social media giant came to be than how social media affects our daily lives, while films like Catfish and Hard Candy focus more on very specific dangers inherent to social media.  Ingrid Goes West is the story of a woman who seeks meaningful human contact through Instagram, and it’s one of the first films that meaningfully shows us a mirror of just how pathetic our cultural quest for likes and tags has allowed us to become.

The cast and crew of Ingrid Goes West are not neophytes by a long shot, but neither are they big screen regulars.  Aubrey Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, and most of us know her for her television work than her work in film.  This the directorial debut of Matt Spicer who also wrote Ingrid Goes West, and he only has one other major motion picture credit to his name on the writing end of things.  The Director of Cinematography Bryce Fortner does have a long list of credits, but again these are mostly for shorts and television.  The only true big screen veteran in the cast is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Taylor, the latest object Ingrid’s obsession, and even she has a relatively young career.  All this adds up to a film that has a very distinct style, even if that style isn’t terribly refined and often comes across as a really good episode of a television series.

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Ingrid Goes West opens with a quick montage showing Ingrid stalking a woman named Charlotte on Instagram on the day of Charlotte’s wedding.  We learn that Charlotte doesn’t even know Ingrid, that Ingrid has latched onto Charlotte since Charlotte once liked a comment from Ingrid on her Instagram page, and so when Ingrid marches into Charlotte’s wedding uninvited it’s a surprise.  When Ingrid sprays mace into Charlotte’s face as reprisal for not inviting her to the wedding, Ingrid lands in a mental institution.   Shortly after leaving the institution, Ingrid finds a new target to stalk – Taylor, an Instagram photographer and model of some notoriety, and when Ingrid’s mother dies leaving her a relatively large sum of money, Ingrid decides it’s time to go to Los Angeles and make Taylor her new best friend.

Ingrid Goes West is a difficult film to talk about in any real detail, as to do so may spoil elements of the film best left to the audience to discover, but I’ll take a small chance on a bit of a spoiler by letting you know that while the acting and visuals on display are well done (if, like I said earlier, a tad “television-y”) the reason to see Ingrid Goes West is it’s incredibly insightful look into just how much social media has infested every element of our culture and the impact it has had on our ability to treat others and even ourselves as real people rather than dispensers of instant gratification.  It’s easy to look at Ingrid in the film and write her off as pathetic and crazy, if also entertaining, but when we start to see that the characters we empathized with and saw ourselves in are just as fake and needy as Ingrid, just better at hiding it because they aren’t our point of view character, the movie starts getting real, for some it may be a bit too real.  The insight goes even deeper than this, and when the plot lines wrap up and our various characters are left to their fates at film’s end, you can see what a truly poignant and damning film Ingrid Goes West really is.

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Your enjoyment of Ingrid Goes West will depend not only on how open you are to the film’s themes, but also on how much you enjoy Aubrey Plaza’s style of comedy.  While Ingrid Goes West does have a strong cast of characters, Plaza’s Ingrid is the obvious ever present focus of the film, I don’t remember a single moment of film without her, and if you are not a fan of her deadpan, snarky, self deprecating while also disdainful delivery, then the other performers are probably not going to be enough to make up for the film taking on her demeanor as its own.  Elizabeth Olsen does give a great performance, as good as her showing in Wind River, O’Shea Jackson Jr. is charming as Dan, Ingrid’s long suffering landlord, and the remaining supporting cast are all darkly, quirkily humorous, but this movie is Plaza’s through and through.

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Final verdict:  Ingrid Goes West is a film that uses its razor sharp insight into our instant gratification social media society as both its main source of humor and commentary.  The humor is deadpan, often mean, and always smart, but it most certainly will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Last week I praised Taylor Sheridan’s script as the best of the year so far.  Ingrid Goes West, while radically different in style and tone, matches, and possibly even surpasses Sheridan’s effort.  Ingrid Goes West, while entertaining, is never light entertainment, and often is downright nasty, but it’s nasty with a purpose.  Ingrid Goes West exposes truths about ourselves we don’t want to confront, but if it forces some of us to do so, we may find ourselves better off and happier for it in the long run.