“Downsizing” Review

Downsizing

There’s an important difference between a good premise and a good story. Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has a good premise: In order to combat over population and humanity’s global impact, scientists invent a way to shrink people down to live in miniaturized societies. A good premise, however, can only take a film so far – and while directors like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze are able to take unusual and imaginative premises and use them to create stories about human connections and relationships, Downsizing is instead a mess of undeveloped caricatures and half-formed ideas that never goes anywhere or makes any sort of statement.

Matt Damon plays the main character Paul Safranek, and one of the most repeated jokes throughout the first half of the film involves people struggling to pronounce his last name correctly. I use ‘joke’ in the loosest term imaginable, as there’s no actual humour involved…it’s literally just people mispronouncing his name while he grimaces. Paul is an exceptionally dull and unlikeable protagonist as he condescends towards nearly everyone he meets, acts indecisive about every major decision presented to him, and remains self-righteous even when his actions exacerbate the problems of other characters. The only reason I find for Payne to centre the story around such a character is that he’s an average white American male and that’s somehow still viewed as a requirement for many Hollywood films.

It’s usually around this point in my reviews that I explore a film’s narrative in some way, but for the first hour of Downsizing it doesn’t even seem to have one. Paul is unhappy in his life, gets shrunk, and remains unhappy in his life – with about three immensely distracting time-jumps in between. It’s not until Ngoc Lan Tran, an activist and refugee from Vietnam who has been forcibly downsized by her government, is introduced that something resembling a plot picks up. Unfortunately this ‘plot’ is nothing more than a lazy and clichéd acknowledgement that ‘Minorities have hard lives’. Payne clearly wanted to make a point about racism, but by doing so only plays into racist stereotypes. It’s repeatedly stated that one of the appeals of being downsized is that a person’s net worth increases drastically, yet every person of colour depicted in the feature is either living in poverty or working a custodial job. Which brings us to the character of Ngoc Lan Tran. While actress Hong Chau does all she can with the part, utilising all her talents to make her easily the most sympathetic and likable character in the film, Tran is written to speak in broken English and with such an exaggerated accent that I just felt bad for the actress. I can’t say for certain if it’s a remotely accurate depiction of a Vietnamese refugee, but the script by Payne and Jim Taylor certainly doesn’t try to make her seem real – regularly using Tran’s distinctive way of speaking as a source for humour, and reducing a role that had serious potential for both Asian and disabled representation to a side-character whose own story is less important than how it motivates Paul’s growth.

There are few redeeming qualities to Downsizing, but I’ll take what I can get. Stefania Cella’s work as production designer fills the screen with clever visual quirks to remind the viewer of the miniaturized scale – with flowers the size of coffee tables and Popsicle sticks used as bedframes. Established character actors like Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier relish whatever screen time they’re given, but like much of the supporting cast never seem to exist beyond how they can serve Paul when needed. It’s immensely frustrating to see likable performers such as Kristin Wigg and Jason Sudeikis playing major parts in the first third of the film, only to unceremoniously vanish once they’re no longer relevant.

Alexander Payne has demonstrated himself a powerful director of sensitive personal stories with films like The Descendants and Nebraska, but ironically the topics he’s tackling in Downsizing feel too big for him to say anything meaningful. Themes of global warming, environmentalism, racism, and poverty are raised, but in the sense that it feels as though Payne is merely mentioning them with the confidence that someone smarter will find some solution. I’ve seen Downsizing described as a ‘satire’, but it’s unclear what exactly it’s satirizing. Materialism? Man’s ambivalence to the environment? I’m sure there are people out there who could accuse me of ‘missing the point’ Payne was trying to make, but honestly the only thing Downsizing managed to successfully shrink was my interest in the whole stupid concept.

1 and a half stars.

“Call Me By Your Name” Review

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“If you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter.”

Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age story as much as it’s a coming-out story, exploring the excitement, the anxiety, the heartbreak, and the joy of a 17-year-old boy’s first love as he forms a relationship with an older man. Director Luca Guadagnino has constructed an extraordinarily tactile film – I could feel the warmth of the Italian sun, the coolness of the water, and every slight brush of fingers against skin as the characters reach for stolen touches from each other. More than that, Guadagnino had me feeling the emotions felt by the characters as if they were my own, so that by the end of the film I felt as if I’d been through as life-changing and unforgettable experience as Elio.

Luca Guadagnino’s previous film, A Bigger Splash, was less concerned with narrative and more a film about being taken away by the European setting and complex psychology of the characters. While based on James Ivory’s novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name is similarly focused on in-the-moment experiences and emotions, with the Northern Italy setting almost as vital a character to the film as the two leads. Emerging young actor Timothée Chalamet is a practical wunderkind for how much he brings to the role of Elio – playing complex musical pieces on piano and guitar, speaking English, French, and Italian, and delivering a performance that develops from repressed and confused to emotionally raw as he learns to acknowledge hidden parts of himself. Elio is the son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), spending his time over the summer reading, transcribing music, and awkwardly flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel). When his father brings over an American graduate student, Oliver, to stay with them over the holidays, Elio and Oliver form a hesitant relationship that evolves into something much deeper. While Armie Hammer had his break-through role in 2010’s The Social Network as both of the Winklevoss twins, he’s been struggling to find a role that suits him since – with some colossal misfires along the way (The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E marking two franchises he was attached to that are unlikely to get any further off the ground). Call Me By Your Name finally allows him to deliver on the potential displayed in Social Network. As Oliver he’s charming, confident, a little arrogant, and immensely attractive. The romance between Oliver and the much younger inexperienced Elio had the potential to be uncomfortable, but Hammer brings to it a nervous confliction and innocent tenderness that, combined with the unrestrained energy between the two when they’re together, makes the affair feel genuine and supportive for both.

Call Me By Your Name is a slow, measured film, but the pace is never boring or lagging. The novel is set in the 1980s but there’s an almost timeless, classical sense to the picture – the Italian setting looks as if it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years while the themes of love, desire, and loss are so universal they could take place at any point. Even Guadagnino’s direction echoes elements of the Italian New Wave while feeling fresh and alive. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is exceptionally bright and vivid, with the sun giving the characters and setting a warm golden shine, and at times he even allows the camera to drift out of focus as if to force the audience to get lost in the sensation and overall meaning of a scene rather than being caught up in the finer details. The largely piano-lead soundtrack by Sufjan Stevens acts as an auditory link into Elio’s mind, expressing his confinement, his desires, and his freedom as the story develops, as well as original songs by Stevens with such poetic lyrics that they almost fulfil the role of the missing narrator from the book. James Ivory’s screenplay is just as expressive and honest, with a monologue from Elio’s father towards the end that’s one of the finest summations of the value for love and heartbreak that I’ve ever seen, delivered with compassion and eloquence by Stuhlbarg.

This is a film easy to get absorbed by, a stunning and richly romantic experience that swept me away completely. When it finished I found the return to reality almost cruel, but Call Me By Your Name is a work of art that manages to leave you with memories and lessons of life and love that stay with you far beyond the doors of the cinema.

5 stars.

“Ferdinand” Review

Ferdinand

Ferdinand is a bull. A big bull. A big strong muscular bull that would be perfect in the bullfighting ring, if only he actually wanted to fight. He’d actually much rather sniff flowers and play with his owner and best friend, Nina. This big strong gentle pacifist is voiced by big strong wrestler John Cena, who in real life seems as happy looking after sick kids while volunteering for the Make-a-Wish foundation, for which he has granted over five hundred wishes, as he does in the ring. Despite most of Cena’s acting roles so far taking advantage of his size in live-action roles he’s pretty perfectly cast here, delivering a vocal performance that’s filled with a childlike enthusiasm and heartfelt earnestness. Ferdinand has an important message to share with its young audience, particularly the boys, that bravery isn’t always displayed through fighting and it’s okay to find your own interests. It’s a message that’s simply told by director Carlos Saldanha, but told well – when rival bull Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) asks Ferdinand whether he should just go off and sniff flowers rather than fighting, Ferdinand responds “No, that’s my thing. You’ll find your own.”

While the kids seeing Ferdinand will hopefully respond to and learn from its moral of sensitivity, older audiences will find less about the film that they haven’t seen before. The overarching plot of Ferdinand being separated from his owner and struggling to get back home has been done in countless prior animated films, most notably the Toy Story series, and many of the colourful cartoon characters Ferdinand encounters along his journey feel like the usual band of characters required by a summer holidays kid’s film. The only real notable one is the eccentric and somewhat delusional goat, Lupa, who instantly decides Ferdinand is her new best friend and declares herself his coach. As the voice of Lupa Kate McKinnon proves the manic energy she often brings to her characters on Saturday Night Live works just as well in animation as she manipulates nearly every line she has for the maximum comedic potential – aided by an endearingly off-putting character design and some delightful sight gags.

Blue Sky Studios utilise the Spanish setting of Ferdinand to create a bright and colourful visual palette, particularly when Ferdinand explores a town’s annual flower festival, and John Powell’s soundtrack plays with this Spanish influence, but I found myself distracted by the bizarre mix of accents on display from the vocal cast. While the human characters are all Spanish the bulls speak with American accents, excepting David Tennant as a Scottish Highland bull, and they’re regularly taunted by three horses in the adjourning field that act like German stereotypes for some inexplicable reason. It feels like the studio wanted to fill Ferdinand with as many wacky characters and voices as possible without much of a real narrative reason to do so, and indeed two of the most entertaining scenes – Ferdinand as a literal bull in a china shop and a lengthy dance sequence between the bulls and the horses – seem to exist purely to drag the plot of Munro Leaf’s original children’s book out to a feature length runtime.

That’s not to say Ferdinand ever feels like a waste of time – it’s a fun enough cartoon with a valid message to tell and appealing visuals, but while animation continues to evolve as a meaningful art form capable of telling rich stories with distinctive characters, this one still feels like it’s just for the kids.

3 stars.

“The Secret Scripture” Review

The Secret Scripture

“My name is Rose McNulty. I didn’t kill my child.

These powerful opening lines, delivered over intercut shots of a dishevelled Rooney Mara and a disoriented Vanessa Redgrave backed by Brian Byrne’s haunting celtic soundtrack, suggest that Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture will be an emotionally rich, moving story. Unfortunately, despite a top-notch cast, talented director, and gorgeous landscapes, the film never delivers on its initial potential.

It’s a story of an innocent woman whose life is crushed by pointless cruelty and jealousy, jumping between 1930s Ireland and a mental hospital in the 1980s, and in this regard Vanessa Redgrave makes the film work. As the older Rose McNulty the acting veteran’s face displays a lifetime of pain and confusion, making the most minor details moving and affecting. Rooney Mara continues her streak of excellent performances as the younger Rose in flashbacks, keeping her emotions closely guarded for much of the first half of the film before unleashing both her character’s frustration and passion as the story picks up towards the end. Eric Bana acts as the comfortably sympathetic audience substitute as Dr William Greene, the psychiatrist reassessing Rose’s case before the hospital closes down, and Theo James makes for an impressively intimidating figure as the local priest who becomes an increasingly imposing presence on young Rose’s life.

This is one of those films that should’ve worked, with accomplished director Jim Sheridan using the Irish coast to emphasise the quiet romance and loneliness of the story, but as is often the case even good directing can’t save a bad script. Rose is a particularly passive character for much of the first half of the story, so I had little reason to be connected to her beyond Mara’s own natural screen presence, and the main romance between her character and her supposed ‘one-true-love’ Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor) felt rushed and unexplored. We see more of Rose missing Michael or thinking about her love for him than we do of them actually in love. I could have overlooked these flaws as the film moves in a more tragic direction in the third act, with harrowing scenes of Mara being broken down and effectively ambiguous flashbacks that raise questions as to whether or not the older Rose is remembering the past correctly, if not for an absolutely atrocious ending that goes completely against the entire tone of the rest of the story. Admittedly I haven’t read Sebastian Barry’s novel that served as the influence for the film, so I can’t say whether this ending was a part of it from the beginning or an invention of Sheridan and Johnny Ferguson when they were writing the screenplay, but when it became clear what direction the climax was moving in I had to resist the urge to audibly groan. It’s an insulting, unnecessary twist to a story that didn’t need one, and what’s worse is how Sheridan tries to play it as an uplifting redemptive moment when even the slightest thought to it makes it seems tragic and cruel for more than one character.

Every time The Secret Scripture seems as though it has an affective, emotional story to tell it stumbles and trips over itself, and the final embarrassing face-plant serves only to rob the moments that worked of any lasting impact.

2 and a half stars.

“Wonder Wheel” Review

Wonder-Wheel-Poster

At the beginning of Woody Allen’s new film, Wonder Wheel, Justin Timberlake’s character muses through narration on the state of Coney Island – how it was once a glittering jewel of America but now seems seedy and decrepit. I couldn’t help feeling that makes for an accurate description of Allen himself, who has released at least one new film every year since 1982. While early films like Annie Hall and Manhattan are recognised as iconic and innovative pieces of American cinema, it’s harder and harder to appreciate the filmmaker’s works in light of highly public sexual assault cases and his uncomfortable personal life, particularly in the Post-Weinstein “Me Too” era. Perhaps it’s time for Allen to step away from the camera.

Yet until he does people will keep seeing his films, so I’ll try to consider Wonder Wheel on its own merits. Kate Winslet plays Ginny Randell, a waitress working in Coney Island who’s unhappily married and having an affair with Micky Rubin (Timberlake), a lifeguard. When her husband’s daughter, Carolina, comes to them for help escaping her mobster fiancé and his goons, Ginny begins to go through a mid-life crisis as she becomes increasingly threatened by Carolina’s interest in Micky and the opportunities offered to her that Ginny feels she missed out on. Allen’s scripts are famous for their dialogue and there’s plenty of it in Wonder Wheel – indeed, at times I felt like I was watching more of a play than a film as characters bustle through the sets in unbroken takes, performing their lines to an unseen audience rather than each other. Winslet in particular seems to be struggling with this – she’s an extraordinary actress who has plenty of lengthy emotional monologues to deliver, but her performance is hampered by Allen giving her little to hold onto or connect with. Many of Ginny’s most personal revelations are shot with just Winslet on screen, cutting back to other actors after she’s finished talking, so it often feels as though she’s just talking to herself. Allen has assembled a fine cast of character actors but rarely allows them to interact with each other, so they feel self-contained and isolated. Only Juno Temple as Carolina and, surprisingly, Timberlake manage to make it work. Temple is flawless as the wide-eyed yet scarred ingénue, and hopefully this role will serve as a stepping stone to more leading parts in the future, and while Timberlake’s acting abilities aren’t quite up to the same standards as some of his co-stars he approaches his part with such unbridled enthusiasm that I was more drawn to his character than nearly any other.

Famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also worked on Allen’s last picture Café Society, fills the film with lush, rich colours. The neon coloured lights of Coney Island are reflected on the characters’ faces, shifting tones and intensity as scenes progress, but while it looks stunning it never seems to be done with any real purpose. I was never quite sure what the purpose of Wonder Wheel was at all, to be honest. The script lacks Allen’s famous wit, the romance feels shallow and empty, and the characters are too melodramatic for the drama to have any lasting effect. There is a strong sense of nostalgia throughout the film within the soundtrack and the 1950s setting, but Allen doesn’t seem to be making any real point about the past – just living in it.

2 stars.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Review

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It’s hard to review a Star Wars film. It’s a series that means so much to so many people, myself included, that it’s difficult to separate the impact of the series as a whole from each new individual film. Fortunately director Rian Johnson and the team at Lucasarts are all too aware of that influence, and The Last Jedi is as much a film about legacy as it is about something new. This theme is largely represented by returning stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, with their iconic characters Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and General Leia Organa elevated to legendary status by their actions in the original Star Wars trilogy and beyond. Returning Force Awakens protagonists Finn, Rey, and Poe Dameron similarly struggle to deal with the expectations now placed on them as the battle between the Resistance and the First Order gets more serious, and new characters such as Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico bear the pressure of proving themselves amongst the established heroes. Johnson does a remarkable job at balancing the old, the current, and the new, creating a Star Wars film that seems to signify the original trilogy passing its legacy on to the next chapter.

One of the most common criticisms of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was that it felt too similar structurally to A New Hope, and a similar complaint could be given to The Last Jedi at times. Iconic scenes such as Luke’s training with Master Yoda, the Battle of Hoth, and Luke’s final meeting with Emperor Palpatine are deliberately mirrored, but every time I thought I knew where the film was going Johnson throws in unexpected twists and subverts expectations to demonstrate how much the Star Wars series still has to offer. Johnson’s script is funny in often surprising ways, particularly in scenes with a delightfully deadpan Mark Hamill, but not afraid to challenge established conventions of the Star Wars universe. The division between the Light Side and the Dark Side isn’t as clear in The Last Jedi, with Skywalker turning away from the teachings of the Jedi Order and the villainous Kylo Ren more emotionally conflicted than ever. Considerable emphasis is placed on the connection between Ren and Rey, and moments between Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley bring a heart and moral complexity rarely seen in blockbuster films lately. Kylo Ren is quickly turning into one of the best characters in the Star Wars saga, with his alliances and motivations never quite clear and Driver’s performance bringing every conflicted emotion to the forefront.

As is to be expected from a Star Wars film there are elements that are bound to be contentious. Two separate moments, one involving Leia Organa and another involving Luke Skywalker, overstate the characters’ abilities and powers so much that it felt to me like Johnson was playing off their reputations among the fans rather than honouring what they could believably do in the established universe. The special effects vary in quality – while for the most part the movie is a visual treat, CGI characters such as Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke stick out like sore thumbs when compared to the beautifully designed sets and top-quality practical effects. Yet two of the climactic battles, one aboard a damaged spaceship and the other on a planet of red salt, provoke such stunning images that certain frames resemble works of art.

Ultimately this is a Star Wars film that delivers what one could want from the series, be it the final heart wrenching performance of Carrie Fisher or John Williams’ typically excellent score, while demonstrating potential for where the series still has to go. By the end of The Last Jedi the pieces are well and truly set for a spectacular conclusion of the new trilogy still to come, one that promises to offer something new and unexpected in a series over 40 years old.

Guess I’ll just have to see this one another two or three more times while we wait.

4 stars.

“The Disaster Artist” Review

The Disaster Artist

There’s something incredibly endearing about terrible films. That’s not to say The Disaster Artist is a terrible film, in fact it’s a delightful one, but it’s about the making of a terrible film. More specifically Tommy Wiseau’s bizarrely awful The Room, which has a well-deserved reputation as one of the worst films ever made but a devoted cult following due to audience participation screenings and ridiculously quotable dialogue. The true story of how it was made is so absurd and hilarious that the filmmakers have even had to change moments from the book, written by one of the stars of The Room, seemingly because no one would believe it really happened.

James Franco directs and stars as Tommy Wiseau, the man who directed and stared in The Room. Hard to tell if that was a deliberate artistic choice by Franco to help him get in character, but if it was then it worked. Franco’s performance is hysterically funny at times and completely unrestrained, going so far as to perform one of the film’s most dramatic moments almost fully naked with just a pouch covering his, um, Franco. Yet he avoids making the man seem cartoonish, and anyone who’s seen footage of Wiseau himself will recognise how accurate Franco’s portrayal is. While a celebration of Wiseau’s film, The Disaster Artist also highlights his flaws, as he’s frequently seen to be insensitive, cruel, deluded, incompetent, and almost impossible to work with. The remarkable thing is how much sympathy I still had for him by the time the film is done, which is a testament to both Franco’s performance and directing.

Any character as absurd as Tommy Wiseau needs a Straight Man to balance them out, which Dave Franco does as the idealistic young actor Greg Sestero, who wrote the book the film is based on. The friendship between Sestero and Wiseau forms the crux of the film as the two encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The brother’s real life relationship works as one of The Disaster Artist’s biggest strengths, selling the idea that no matter how tense the relationship between Tommy and Greg may get they will still help and support each other. The younger Franco brings to the role the optimistic enthusiasm and idealism of a young man convinced they could do anything, but slowly comes to realise that they probably can’t. There are definite similarities to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Johnny Depp’s cheerful determination as the title character, once named the worst director of all time, though while Burton’s film ends as the premier of Plan 9 From Outer Space starts, Franco keeps the audience watching so we see Wiseau and Sestero’s very real pain and humiliation as their film is publicly ridiculed.

Despite this, The Disaster Artist isn’t a film about making something terrible. It’s instead a celebration of the act of making something at all. One of the things I found most pleasantly surprising about this film is that at no point does it feel mean or mocking towards Wiseau and The Room, opening with a montage of some of Hollywood’s biggest names expressing their genuine love and admiration for it. One of them even notes that the best directors in the world wouldn’t be able to recapture the mysterious magic that’s made The Room so endearingly awful.

Just before the end credits roll for The Disaster Artist we see footage from the real film, faithfully recreated by a professional crew and some of the most talented comedic actors in Hollywood. The recreations are lacking something about the original scenes that makes them so endlessly watchable and entertaining – Wiseau’s own brand of incompetent brilliance. Perhaps Franco and his team are just too good to be bad.

4 and a half stars.