Suburbicon

157855A baffling misstep from director Clooney.

* * 1/2

George Clooney’s sixth feature as a director, Suburbicon is an unsatisfying movie. Adapted by Clooney and his longtime professional partner Grant Heslov from a Coen Brothers script, it attempts to be a black comedy noir, a satire of 50s/60s-era United States suburbia, and a statement on US race. It only succeeds at pulling off the first, and even then, only just, without much aplomb.

The noir plot feels very, very much like early Coen Brothers, and, as it turns out, that’s what it is – their screenplay has been dated to 1986. They’ve surpassed themselves many times over since then, and this story feels like a draft of their future abilities, an exercise, or at the very least an obviously nascent work. Themes that continued to intrigue them are here in abundance and character types they love are present in basic, unshaded form, but they themselves have done this type of stuff so much better since, and often. The obvious (and very thematically similar) masterpiece is Fargo, which has now inspired three seasons of an homage/pastiche television show; The Man Who Wasn’t There also may have drawn some of its characters from the draft versions present here. Ultimately, this part of the film – and this is the part that sort of works – feels, at its best, stale and redundant.

Worse – much worse – the racial story is incredibly, sloppily undercooked. The motivations of black families moving to all-white suburban enclaves, and the organised tactics used to drive them away, is fascinating and rich fodder for its own movie. Unfortunately, shoehorned around the edges of the main story as it is here, this emotionally and historically weighty element is hurried and simplistic, coming off as exploitative and cheap. Clooney is a political man, and has directed at least two movies which are directly political (and good), so his almost childish attempt at a statement here is simply baffling. This entire strand should have been left on the cutting room floor, for it simply and blatantly does not work. That would have left a pretty brief movie, but it may at least have been fun, if redundant; Suburbicon’s flaws ruin the fun.

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Money Monster

moneymonstersmall*1/2

This  dunderheaded hostage “thriller” wants to evoke Dog Day Afternoon by way of Network and The Big Short, but those excellent films would be offended by such a comparison; they crackle and pop with energy and anger, while Money Monster is about as angry and energetic as a Yorkshire Terrier on Johnny Depp’s jet.

George Clooney plays Lee Gates, a television stock market analyst in the modern hyper-caffeinated US cable style – i.e., crass. During the live taping of his show, a poor young generically Noo Yawk schlub – incredibly awkwardly played by Brit Jack O’Connell – takes over the set with a gun and a bomb, and Lee and his producer Patty (Julia Roberts) have to figure out how to stay alive until the situation can be defused. Of course, the gunman insists on them staying on the air. Cut to “typical Americans” in bars, workplaces etc watching it unfold – in real time! Gosh!

For those of us who spent the fifteenth of December 2014 glued to our television sets watching how a real hostage crisis goes down on live TV (originating in Martin Place in Sydney), the portrayal here is, naturally, completely artificial and borderline offensive. But everything in the movie is a total fantasy; it’s got a terrible, terrible problem with plausibility. Everyone looks like they’ve stepped out of a costume department onto a set – including the cops, the bystanders, and all those “real Americans” – but the story, and storytelling, is even worse. Time discrepancies, ludicrous character choices and inane dialogue all add up to an infuriating 98 minutes.

Along the way, Jodie Foster seems to give up on directing the film; it staggers and collapses, and the actors are left to wander vaguely, or simply sit down and cease to be. What happened to Dennis Boutsikaris’ character, Avery Goodloe? He must have wandered off to the catering table, and out of the film. Dominic West is wasted as the most generic Rich White Guy we’ve seen since the type became the go-to villain of the 2010s, Roberts is predictable, and Clooney is lumbered with having to deliver painfully unfunny wisecracks in the final act, which veers into comedy (probably realizing it wasn’t cutting it as drama; of course, the comedy tanks). All the cops stink. The only two who rise above the mess are Lenny Venito as Lenny (The Cameraman) – that’s how he’s credited, as though we needed reminding of his trade – and the exquisite Caitriona Balfe as an Evil Corporation’s Decent CCO. Told you it was a fantasy.

Tomorrowland

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*** (out of five)

Tomorrowland will be remembered as the film that launched Britt Robertson into movie stardom. As Casey Newton, the feisty, science-minded daughter of a NASA engineer, Robertson does everything she can to single-handedly power this awkward, confused, shambolic young adult fantasy along. She can do perky, she can toss a double-take, and her wide-eyed, eyebrows-up, mouth-agape look of surprise saves many a scene from total irrelevence.

It’s not that the movie is bad, per se, but it’s just so undisciplined. It feels like writers Brad Bird (who also directed) and Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) started with a blank page and an unlimited budget, wrote feverishly for forty-eight hours, and shot the result with no re-writing, re-structuring or even re-reading. It’s like a one hundred and ninety million dollar improvisation.

Casey is a teenage suburban terrorist (she continually sabotages a NASA structure that is zoned for demolition, in an ongoing attempt to stop it being demolished) who is chosen by a very perky little English girl, Athena (Raffy Cassidy) to help build a brighter future for planet Earth. Trouble is, as cranky old inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney, making bank) tells her, it’s too late. Essentially, there is no there there – the tomorrow of our dreams has been hijacked by a geezer named Nix (Hugh Laurie), and we’re to be left with the tomorrow of our nightmares, which, the movie and Nix state very emphatically, is the one we have actively chosen through our nihilistic and lazy pessimism.

Shifting tones wildly, incorporating some very dubious choices (I’m looking at you, head robot man) and featuring a relentless, mind-numbing score (Michael Giacchino) that cranks every scene up to a dramatic eleven, Tomorrowland knows what it wants to say, but says it way too often and often in gibberish. At the end of the day, its vision of Utopia is essentially a combo of Changi Airport and Walt Disney World. Guess which studio produced it?