Movie Review ~ Downsizing


The Facts
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Synopsis: A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie that doesn’t have ideas to share.  It’s becoming more and more common to describe big budget action films or insipid comedies as brainless and for me that would just be the worst if I were a filmmaker.  I’m impressed with films that clearly have a point of view and, even if the movie itself isn’t all that special, at least they can go down saying they gave it some semblance of a good shot.

Such is the case with Downsizing, the new film from talented director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) who has co-written an interesting satire that doesn’t have far to go but takes a long time getting there.  It’s not lacking in good performances, dedicated direction, or superior production design but what’s it’s really missing out on is a consistent playfulness that highlight its most memorable sequences.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, Promised Land) is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks in the not too distant future.  Living with his wife (Kristin Wiig, The Martian) in their modest home they make ends meet but aren’t really going anywhere either of them have much vested interest in. They are, like so many of us, just coasting through life and waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Attending a reunion, they reconnect with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis, We’re the Millers) and his wife who have undergone a drastic medical procedure introduced as a way to reduce the global overpopulation and pollution concerns.

Through a process known as Downsizing, humans are being shrunk to five inches and living in communities around the world that are tailor-made to their new sizes.  In places like Leisureland, your life savings that once wouldn’t have covered more than a nice trip to Europe can now buy you a mansion, allowing you to live the life of luxury while eliminating the continued build-up of environmental effluence.  This irreversible process has been slow to catch on globally but those that go through it speak of its life changing benefits.

Energized by the possibility of a better life “going small”, the Safranek’s commit to becoming shrinky dinks and that’s when two things happen.  The first thing that takes place is a shift in the Safranek’s relationship neither of them saw coming, the second is that the movie almost instantly becomes less interesting.  That’s troubling because at this stage in the film we’re only about 1/3 of the way through and so it begins a slow march to the finish line…a very slow march.

It’s not all bad news, though, because there are some bright spots that pop up here and there.  Though he has a penchant for playing the same role over and over again, here two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is having a ball not playing the villian.  As Dusan, a playboy neighbor that befriends Paul, he feels at home with Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s dialogue…proving he doesn’t need a Tarantino script or lip-smacking guile to turn in a memorable performance.

Even with heavy hitters Damon and Waltz present and accounted for, the film belongs to break-out star Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was put in prison for her political activism and downsized against her will.  A Waltz’s house-cleaner, Tran is no-nonsense and to the point, something that captivates Paul.  Finding himself in her debt, a relationship forms between the two that is both surprising and surprisingly sincere.  This connection carries the movie through the final act when Paul, Dusan, and Tran travel to the original downsized colony in advance of an announcement that will change all their lives forever.

There’s good stuff in nearly every frame of the movie and while I enjoyed the film for the most part during my initial viewing, the more I sit and dissect what it’s saying the less enamored of it I become.  Up for debate is the political correctness present in Chau’s portrayal of Tran but while some have called foul I’ve heard the actress talk about her approach and she stands behind her work.  As far as I’m concerned, if she’s OK with it, the discussion is finished.  More of a pain point for me is that the movie just isn’t as interesting as it wants us to believe it is.

The middle sections sags and drags and it’s thanks to Chau’s spirited performance that the movie recovers at all.  Payne isn’t afraid to shine a light on behavior or situations he finds eccentric, I just wish he had found a few more noteworthy turns to take on the odd-ball road trip he sets into motion.  Clocking in well over two hours, Downsizing should have reduced its running time along with its main characters.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jurassic Park III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A decidedly odd couple with ulterior motives convince Dr. Alan Grant to go to Isla Sorna (the second InGen dinosaur lab.), resulting in an unexpected landing…and unexpected new inhabitants on the island.

Stars: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It took four years for Steven Spielberg to direct a sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park and with the problematic reception of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, the award-winning director was understandably cool to the thought about returning behind the camera for the third entry in 2011. Instead, Spielberg gave his old pal Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) the chance to direct and while the end result was a marked improvement over his lugubrious sequel, Jurassic Park III has its own set of problems to contend with.

Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil, The Vow, making a welcome return to the series) is facing budget cuts and a scientific community more interested in his adventures at Jurassic Park than the research he’s devoted his life too. When a wealthy couple want to hire him and his assistant (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) to guide them on a sight-seeing trip over Isla Sorna (Site B featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park), he reluctantly agrees as a way to make ends meet. Nevermind that series fans will know that Grant never set foot on Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park took place on Isla Nublar)…it’s a detail explained later but not very well. A crash landing is only the start to the bad luck Grant and company encounter as they try to survive an island with dinosaurs that have run amok and double-crossing members of their party.

At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) the film doesn’t take much time to breathe (or to think) and it’s probably best if you follow suit. Between some fairly terrible CGI dinosaurs and animatronic models that look like they were plucked out of your local science museum, the quality of the effects took a tumble here.  Odd colored dinosaurs look like they have graffiti on them and the raptors have mohawks…punk rock raptors? A big bad dino has a head that looks so fake you wonder if Johnston wasn’t making a spoof of the original film instead of a continuation of that story.

Performance-wise, only Neil (and a brief cameo from Laura Dern, The Master) have any real sense of urgency. Everyone else seems to be present to chew the scenery or be chewed on. Particularly bad is Téa Leoni who takes one too many pratfalls and apparently gets several haircuts during the 24 hours they are stranded on the island. Leoni also has an annoying way of running through the forest screaming and waving her arms and legs like she’s on fire, leading me to wonder if someone ever bothered to tell her she wasn’t in a comedy.

It’s not as boring as The Lost World; Jurassic Park but it’s far sillier. Depending on your mood, that could be either a good thing or a very bad thing. Watching it again recently I rolled my eyes a lot but didn’t have the outright disdain for it that I had when it was originally released. The script (with a contribution from Alexander Payne, Nebraska) feels like a tired third entry in a successful franchise, nothing more and nothing less. Its lackluster performance at the box office signaled the closing of this beleaguered park, a wise move if nothing of substance could be produced.

 

 

Oscar Predictions 2014

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Hello!

Well, though I always find it difficult to nail down my Oscar selections pre-nomination day because I feel like I’m somehow cosmically jinxing  potential favorites, I’m taking part in The 2014 Oscar Contest over at Film Actually because…well…it’s just the right thing to do 🙂

This being a contest and all I threw in a few dark horse candidates and left out some bigger names just to keep it interesting.  I don’t necessarily think there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture but ultimately I couldn’t make up my mind on which ones to remove from my list…

I hope there are a few surprises tomorrow morning, though….even if it means I lose a few points in the contest 🙂

Below are my predictions for who will go to bed tomorrow night an Oscar nominee…

BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Spike Jonze, Her
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle

BEST ACTOR
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

BEST EDITING
Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, American Hustle
Joe Walker, 12 Years a Slave
Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips
Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger, Gravity
Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen, Her

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle
Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Philomena
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Hunt, Denmark
The Grandmaster, Hong Kong
The Great Beauty, Italy
The Notebook, Hungary

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years a Slave
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Roger Deakins, Prisoners

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Adam Stochausen & Alice Baker, 12 Years a Slave
Judy Becker & Heather Loeffler, American Hustle
Catherine Martin & Beverly Dunn, The Great Gatsby
Jess Gonchor & Susan Bode, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael Corenblith & Susan Benjamin, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SOUND MIXING
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST SOUND EDITING
All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Orlandi, Saving Mr. Banks
Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
Mary Zophres, Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alex Ebert, All is Lost
Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
Steven Price, Gravity
John Williams, The Book Thief
Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing
The Crash Reel
Stories We Tell

The Square

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Croods
Despicable Me 2

Frozen
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club
The Lone Ranger


BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Amen”, All is Lost
“Let It Go”, Frozen
“The Moon Song”, Her
“Ordinary Love”, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“Young & Beautiful”, The Great Gatsby

Movie Review ~ Nebraska

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  If one were to look at through the seven films that Alexander Payne has directed, one could conclude that the director loves a good road trip.  Four of his films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and now Nebraska) deal with the central characters making some sort of journey from their home to a destination not totally familiar.  It’s through this trek that they discover new truths about themselves and the people that surround them.

You’d think that after three films this trope would get old but Payne once again demonstrates dexterity as a film craftsman that helps keep Nebraska on a focused course.  He’s not alone in his success, though, thanks to stark black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael.  Papamichael’s luscious lensing of the dense tropical locations of The Descendants is countered quite nicely with the way he turns his camera onto the vast open expanses of the Midwest.

Skilled directing and excellent cinematography aside, a movie this delicate has to have the right cast to convey its message and Payne has assembled another ensemble that works in harmony with Bob Nelson’s script to create an array of broken (and hilarious characters).

Center stage is veteran actor Bruce Dern who delivers a career high performance in an already richly celebrated resume of films from the last four decades.  He’s Woody Grant, an alcoholic of creaking bones and wispy hair that could be either drifting into senility or simply not caring what he remembers any more.  When he receives a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like compay letting him know he’s a millionaire, he becomes fixated on getting to Nebraska to claim his prize and buy that truck he always wanted.

Much to the chagrin of his brusque wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), his stereo salesman son David (Will Forte) agrees to pack up his car and take his dad those many miles…because Woody has already tried to walk there on more than one occasion.  During the road trip there’s your typical father/son bonding but a stop in Woody’s hometown for a visit with old family, friends, and friendly enemies threatens to derail the journey altogether.

What Payne does so well is find new ways of exposing family secrets in a way that doesn’t feel trite or forced.  There’s a definite history of the Grant family in this rural rest stop where they find themselves and anyone that’s come from a small town will get a good laugh out of the way that news spreads fast amongst even the most out of touch townspeople.  The funniest moments (and Nebraska has quite a few) spring from the most mundane goings on and that’s the beauty of the discoveries Payne offers up.

Even at nearly two hours, the film doesn’t have a lot of slack moments.  You’d think that once Woody and David get off the road and basically wander around this quiet town that there’d be one or two moments where the film would lose some steam but in fact it only gets more interesting as its then that we truly learn more about Woody’s past and how his character influenced how he formed and raised his own family.

Deeply funny with a hint of a somber future, Nebraska still is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year.  Curmudgeonly Dern and the irascible Squibb are sure-fire Oscar nominees but special mention should also go to Forte for stretching his dramatic chops far beyond the confines of his previous post-Saturday Night Live opportunities.  Hitch your wagon to this cross-country comedy and enjoy the ride.

The Silver Bullet ~ Nebraska

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Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Release Date:  November 15, 2013

Thoughts: As a fan of the majority of director Alexander Payne’s work (including my favorite film of 2011, The Descendants), I’m eagerly awaiting his latest piece which won lead actor Bruce Dern the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.  Filmed in glorious black and white, this road trip dramedy looks spiked with Payne’s observant style and wry wit.  It should be interesting to see how Will Forte fares as Dern’s exasperated son, especially considering that up until now he hasn’t had much of a chance to show off any dramatic chops.  This is high on my list of films to see. 

Oh…and I am always excited when I see a director use a retro film logo (David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh also like pulling these out before their films)