Review of reviews: Film & Stage
Directed by George Clooney (R)
An idyllic white town reveals its ugly underbelly.
“George Clooney directing a long-lost Coen brothers screenplay would seem like a natural matchup,” said Sara Stewart in the New York Post. It isn’t in Suburbicon, a dark comedy undone by the “surprisingly tone-deaf” addition of a subplot that simply doesn’t fit. In the central drama, Matt Damon plays a picture-perfect 1950s family man who gradually reveals the heart of a sociopath. But Clooney chose to tack on a secondary story about a black family who after moving in next door endure virulent racist protests by their white neighbors. The director has his storytelling priorities upside down. Even so, the movie quickly becomes “a nearly two-hourlong advertisement for its own progressive ideals,” said Stephanie Zacharek in Time. Clooney aims to condemn bigotry by contrasting the dignified black family with their murderous white neighbors, but “the irony grinds through the movie so loudly that you might end up with a migraine.” The Damon storyline at least delivers “a grab bag of Coen-y pleasures”—including Oscar Isaac as a slimy insurance claim adjuster, said Ben Croll in IndieWire.com. Sure, the Coens do black comedy far better, but like a dive-bar cover band, Suburbicon “can be bluntly effective when playing the old hits.”
Only the Brave
Directed by Joseph Kosinski (PG-13)
An elite squad battles a deadly wildfire.
This drama about a team of real-life firefighters “could have gone in any number of directions, many of them disappointing or shallow,” said Bill Goodykoontz in the Phoenix Arizona Republic. In 2013, the unit answered the call when a small fire outside Yarnell, Ariz., spread quickly and unexpectedly across thousands of acres. But instead of presenting these men as cardboard heroes, Only the Brave lets the characters’ flaws show, and by doing so becomes “not just a fitting tribute, but an outstanding movie.” Josh Brolin plays team leader Eric Marsh with “laconic resolve,” and Miles Teller gives a fine performance as a troubled recruit taken under wing, said Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. As Marsh’s wife, Jennifer Connelly meanwhile “sweeps aside the clichés of her role with marvelous ferocity.” Unfortunately, the screenplay “keeps strumming the same chords,” as if the audience can’t be trusted to notice quiet heroism. Still, the movie “gets better and better as it goes,” said Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune. It balances spectacular, terrifying conflagrations with moments of “stark, unadorned drama.” When Brolin and Connelly square off late in a heated argument, “it feels real, reminding us that these are fine actors, giving their all.”
Directed by Brett Morgen (PG)
A you-are-there look at Jane Goodall
“How is it possible that Hollywood hasn’t yet made a movie about Jane Goodall?” said Mike D’Angelo in AVClub.com. The life of the pioneering English primatologist is tailormade for the big screen, as this documentary proves by making brilliant use of “truly stunning” rediscovered footage of the young Goodall living among chimpanzees in Tanzania. For a while, as we watch the former secretary learn and sense how the man behind the camera is falling in love with her, the movie is “almost miraculous.” Not everything we see is pure documentary, said Ben Kenigsberg in The New York Times. The wildlife noises come from separate audio recordings, and Goodall in some of the 1960s footage was already re-enacting certain key moments. Still, such tricks lend her important work an “adventure-movie momentum.” Her findings weren’t universally greeted with the respect they deserve, said Brian Lowry in CNN.com. Jane shares the sexist headlines Goodall attracted and, by weaving in interviews with its 83-year-old star, offers “a thoughtful look at the sacrifices such a missiondriven existence requires.” However well you know Goodall, “there’s more to learn from Jane.” ■