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Downsizing (Review 2)

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Alexander Payne

Stars: Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, James Van Der Beek, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Maribeth Monroe, Matt Damon, Neil Patrick Harris, Udo Kier

Released: January 24th, 2018

Immediately after walking out of director Alexander Payne’s latest, Downsizing, I wasn’t sure what to think. My first thought was that it was all over the place, but in a commendable way. I think I like it, I thought. I’m still pretty sure I enjoyed it and it has been quite some time since I saw it. Everything about the film though, is designed to upend your expectations of it. Being an Alexander Payne film titled Downsizing one immediately assumes this is will be a raw human drama about a middle-aged white male losing his job and realizing his life never amounted to the ambitions of his youth while likely coming to terms with the passing of time and its fleeting nature. It would be fair to assume that, but this Downsizing is not. Rather, the consistently good yet similarly themed films of the writer/director seem to have sparked a need for a different kind of endeavor in Payne and while Downsizing still shares a number of ideas (maybe one too many, even) that have very clearly sprung from what is on Payne’s mind at the moment he certainly doesn’t go about conveying them in the fashion one might expect given his filmography. Rather, Downsizing is very much designed to be one of those sincere, but rather goofy high-concept comedies of the nineties. One where everything in the world of the movie isn’t that bad for our protagonist even though they seem to be discouraged by the results of what they’ve become i.e. lame adults. One where the production design relates this new technological advancement to something familiar a la the microwave “ding!” that goes off each time the shrinking procedure is complete. One where the score is heavily made-up of those cheesily inspiring springs that intend to make the audience really feel the wonder of the moment at the film’s main discovery (think Jurassic Park). I guess, in a lot of ways, Downsizing is like Jurassic Park as it is a movie that revels in a discovery that is potentially the greatest thing since landing on the moon while also being one where man plays God; warning us of the potential dangers of technology. These advancements in both films, one being cloning dinosaurs and the other being shrinking humans, are thought of inherently as beneficial. While Downsizing ultimately seems to be for the better it doesn’t shy away from the controversy that grows to surround the procedure and so, unlike Jurassic Park, Payne isn’t preaching that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. He seems to think we should. He knows we needto do something and Downsizing is a way of saying as much about saving the planet without being overly serious or hackneyed about it. Too bad it doesn’t have dinosaurs though.

In Downsizing, we begin in Norway before venturing to Turkey as we see Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) crack and then, five years later, show proof of his findings to the world as he’s already shrunk or, excuse me, downsized himself, his wife, and thirty-four other people whose over four years of waste can now be held in less than a single average-sized trash bag. Why do this you might ask? The initial idea is the fact over-population is key to humanity’s greatest issues and the multiple threats to our species that come as a result of such. Asbjørnsen describes it as “cellular reduction” and seems to hope that if everyone were to “get small” they could save their planet that is currently destined to wipe out the human race faster than it has any other intelligent species that has walked its surface. From here we travel across the globe and a few more years down the road to Omaha, Nebraska to a world where downsizing is possible and the growing pains of such a large societal transformation are very clearly being felt. We are introduced to Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) who are a rather standard suburban couple whose, wait for it…reality has failed to live up with where they thought they’d be at this point in their lives. The Safranek’s still live in Paul’s childhood home with Paul still working as an occupational therapist given he wasn’t able to finish med school as he returned home to take care of his ailing mother. It’s unclear what Audrey does for work, but Wiig unfortunately plays the character as little more than a one-dimensional housewife who complains about the lack of what she doesn’t have until it comes time to do something about it at which point she backs out of the deal. You see, while attending a high school reunion the Safranek’s discuss with Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol Johnson (Maribeth Monroe) why they decided to “downsize”. While the whole deal about helping out the planet is still relevant for Paul, Dave emphasizes the more lavish aspects of the change as the value of one’s money goes up exponentially allowing someone who lives on a $50,000 annual salary in the regular-sized world to live like a king once “downsized”. Given Paul and Audrey have had some financial troubles in the midst of looking to buy a new house the Safranek’s decide to look into “downsizing” at one of the more popular communities for small individuals knows as Leisureland. After deciding to go through with the procedure Paul comes out the other side anticipating the arrival of Audrey who never shows. Audrey has backed out at the last minute leaving Paul on his own as a five-inch man in a world he doesn’t know. This sets in motion a chain of events for Paul that more or less changes his life in ways he never imagined, Christoph Waltz’s Dusan and Hong Chau’s Ngoc factoring largely into these reasons, but this is a change that ultimately seems to be for the better even if it is wholly unexpected.

Of note is the fact Downsizing starts nearly as strong as it finishes if not muddying the waters several times in between and even in the midst of some of its best moments. The film really nails the smaller aspects of this change in society and all the factors that might need to be considered rather than neatly brushing over them thus making the first half hour of the film more layered and complex than might initially be expected. Downsizing is nothing short of ambitious, this is for sure and it is commendable that Payne would go to such lengths in order to try and convey his vision of what is otherwise a rather small-scale story. In reality, this very well could have been another Payne movie where Damon’s character, who is completely serving as an audience surrogate here as he lacks anything resembling a personality, goes through a course of life-altering events only to realize these seeming blows to his routine were what would set him up for the unexpected facets of life that would instead reinvigorate his existence. This would have been simple enough and something Payne could have done without batting an eye at this point, but Downsizinginstead contains a sequence in which Damon’s Paul goes through this process of “getting small” and has to have all of his dental work undone, is shaven completely, and then is taken off the hospital bed as if he were a cookie on a cooking sheet. It is far and away the most visually ambitious thing Payne has ever done and the gag as well as the consideration of how each aspect is completed is pretty great. It will be almost too easy to write off Downsizing for feeling like a movie where the story and themes the writer/director wanted to explore weren’t specific enough and so, to make them more interesting, Payne and writing partner, Jim Taylor (Election, Sideways), decided to devise a social satire of sorts where they get to discuss a number of topics that include global warming, mass consumption, white privilege, and the tendency of man to revert even their freshest of fresh starts into a world of the same bad habits all without any of it feeling too heavy. It’s a lot to contemplate and even more to explore in the context of a piece of art which is why Downsizing ends up being Payne’s magnum opus of sorts at a lengthy two hours and fifteen minutes. This overall ambition of the project and the scope with which Payne has been able to pull this off is genuinely impressive and makes for an inspired experience on its own, but is it necessarily as groundbreaking or eye-opening as the director hoped it to be when imagining the possibilities as he crafted the script? Probably not. Still, there is plenty to like and latch onto here as I’m more inclined to be intrigued by a failed experiment than a safe retread and Payne very easily could have gone the route of the latter at this point in his career, That said, Downsizing is not a complete failure, but rather it is an inspired piece of storytelling that one won’t be able to tell where it is going and will be genuinely surprised both by the lengths at which it goes in order to flesh out its ideas as well as with many of the characters and how they strike you in terms of that aforementioned tone. There are no doubt moments in the film that will determine whether Downsizing is the kind of movie one can jive with, but I was able to stick with the movie through its two most obvious examples of this and more, I liked these decisions and couldn’t help but to want to know what happened next in the odyssey of Paul even if Paul is the least interesting aspect of his own story.

There is a scene early on in the film where Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern participate as these kinds of paid programming talking heads that sell those considering “downsizing” on the idea of it by telling them how much Dern’s character paid for her diamond bracelet and matching earrings. It is a measly eighty-eight dollars or something of the like due to the facts the diamonds are so small and therefore the cost so low. This is seemingly Payne’s way of reminding us that everything is about perspective. That, how we frame things is almost more important than the thing we’re framing depending on how we want people to perceive it. Maybe this is why the director decided to go so big with his latest endeavor, but while it could be said that Downsizing is the least sharp of all of Payne’s observations and the gimmick of shrinking exists to distract from this fact, this is still a film with a lot to say, chief among it this idea that deals in how much we’re hurting the planet and our insufficient efforts to make actual change. We’re doing things to make ourselves feel better, but that aren’t really making change because we’re not committing to larger changes that are needed for larger change. Chau’s Ngoc is the stand-out when it comes to emphasizing this idea though, and she does so in spades. Ngoc is a woman who isn’t sold on any preconceived notion of what she deserves or what her life was supposed to be due to the circumstances of her birth. She expects nothing and is therefore told she is strong because she has been through so much and isn’t someone who openly grieves or regrets what she has encountered because she had no expectations for anything else. She takes what she is dealt and makes the best of it. She is someone as genuine as you could hope to find because she doesn’t preach about what is right and what is wrong, but rather she walks the walk; doing work after work in good faith that she is making a change in these people’s live who are less fortunate than she. The test with Chau’s character comes with how the actor characterizes this individual. Chau’s performance is so bold, so out-there, and rather broad in that it is outrageously funny (maybe even a bit too much for the tone of the film or any film), but like everything in her life, Ngoc makes the tone of Downsizing fit her own intentions and mission and not the other way around. Of course, given the film’s biggest detractor up to this point was a complete lack of interesting characters it was both refreshing and enlightening to learn of this wholly unique individual. Waltz’s Dusan is a fairly simple character that could be summed up in a few words, but he has some of the best lines in the movie and is generally fantastic as Waltz tends to be. Downsizing becomes the story of Ngoc though, and her dedication to making her world as painless as it can be. Ngoc is largely consumed with her humanitarian activities, but there is more to her than her survival and we see this through the relationship that develops between her and Paul lending Damon’s character more complexities than he’d been able to play with prior as well. Paul is so genuine in his intentions which is funny given the film offers a rather cynical view on the human race in general, but despite the character starting out as someone who does things for the sake of making himself feel better Paul comes to learn that who he is will be the same no matter what he changes about his surroundings or his circumstances-that it is he who has to change if he wants the outlook of his life to change and it is with this arc that comes into existence once Ngoc is in the picture that not only makes Paul a more interesting character, but Downsizing a more interesting and better movie.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Beale Street Movie Marker

Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie Rating Movie Marker

Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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