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.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

First Trailer Review: Here
Second Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If there’s one feeling that governed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was nostalgia. Fans had toiled through the dark despair of the Star Wars prequels and were holding out hope that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) would bring them salvation in the continuing story of the sci-fi fantasy epic. So when The Force Awakens opened and was actually good, if not wholly great, most audiences that received the film well left the theater floating on a cosmic wave of good feelings of the old school charm that kept the original trilogy preserved so well over the years.

I count myself as one of those fans and gobbled up the film hook, line, and sinker. However, in hindsight it’s best to admit in the spirit of friendship that I fully recognize The Force Awakens was largely a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. Sure, it wasn’t a paint-by-numbers carbon copy but the familiar themes of the original didn’t go unnoticed. I wasn’t as big a fan of 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as many were, that film didn’t have anywhere to go so it remained flatter than a pancake to this viewer. Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi the producers and filmmakers would really be put to the test. Would they continue to pull from the past to create something to please the fans, or would they dare to try something different?

Well, The Last Jedi is a little bit like walking forward while cinematically rubbernecking to spot where you were coming from. It’s immensely entertaining when it wants to be (which is most of the time) and a little lackluster in laying the groundwork for future installments and whenever it gets too cerebral. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) ably picks up the reins from his predecessor and does more than just keep his seat warm before Abrams returns for Episode 9. There’s a forward thrust but it does take time to reach warp speed.

It’s always a special thrill to hear John Williams score announce the start of the film and a bit of excitement reading the opening crawl. The first fifteen minutes are classic Star Wars, with a group of rebel fighters including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) protecting their cavalcade and fearless leader (the late, great, Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) from an attack waged by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin). It’s here were a strange comedic chord is first heard, one that made me wonder if Johnson had decided to inject his film with more Spaceballs (Mel Brooks’ brilliant send up of the Star Wars films) than was appropriate.

We last saw young orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) traveling with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service) who was in a self-imposed exile. While Poe and Leia continue to evade the monstrous Hux, Rey tries to sway Luke to return and help the resistance defeat The First Order and their leader, General Snoke (a CGI creation that looks better here than in The Force Awakens, once-again voiced by Andy Serkis, Breathe). There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha), Leia and Han Solo’s son who turned to the Dark Side and is still smarting from the butt-whooping he received from Rey and Finn (John Boyega) at the end of the previous film. He’s out for revenge…but does he have more secrets up his well-armored sleeve that will change the course of The First Order and the resistance?

Juggling several storylines at once, Johnson keeps the 2.5 hour film moving a good clip. A race against the clock rescue mission involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, an excellent addition to this male-heavy world) manages to remain engaging even when it’s broken up and interspersed with the goings-on of other characters. The movie has a few endings but manages to justify them with ease.

Aside from Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) as a code-breaking thief and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) showing up with purple hair as Leia’s second in command, it’s largely the same old gang we first sparked to in previous installments. While certain players take more of a backseat in glorified cameos (12 Years as Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o is a mere hologram here), Johnson has introduced a few memorable creatures like the cute Porg’s, Crystal Foxes, and Luke’s island-dwelling servants that one critic hilariously dubbed “the fish nuns”. They’re not going to replace Chewie or R2D2 in your heart but they do rally a convincing bid for you to make some room.

The second movie in a planned trilogy can often feel a bit flimsy as a bridge between the first and final chapters but The Last Jedi avoids those pitfalls. Depending on your knowledge of the Star Wars universe, it could easily stand on its own. It makes you look forward to the next installment rather than feel desperate for answers that you might not get by the time the credits roll. The effects are top notch, the score from Williams sounds as glorious as ever, and try not to get a little choked up every time Fisher’s on screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts:

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!

The Silver Bullet ~ Wilson

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Synopsis: A lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged man reunites with his estranged wife and meets his teenage daughter for the first time.

Release Date: March 24, 2017

Thoughts: Though MN has been the setting for several notable Hollywood releases, it’s been a while since we’ve had a locally shot project to look forward to…especially one with such a strong cast. Adapted from the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes and directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) stars as the titular character who reunites with his ex-wife (Laura Dern, Smooth Talk) to visit the daughter she put up for adoption years earlier.  Harrelson and Dern on their own would pique my interest but the two stars together in a movie shot in my hometown featuring a host of familiar local faces?  Sign me up to get to know Wilson better. 

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.

 

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Wild

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Synopsis: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.

Release Date: December 5, 2014

Thoughts: Remember that time that Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line?  Yeah…that seems like a distant memory now.  Though I still feel Witherspoon was led to the podium by a campaign based on charm rather than an award winning performance (Felicity Huffman should have been honored for Transamerica that particular year), she’s proved more often than not that she’s a smart cookie of an actress.  Paired with Jean-Marc Vallée who led not one but two actors to Oscar victory in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club and working with a script by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild could be the movie that brings Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) back into the top tier of Hollywood’s A-List.  Don’t expect some wimpy outdoor version of Eat, Pray, Love either…the trailer indicates Wild will be a raw journey for all involved.  That alone makes it worth looking forward to.

Movie Review ~ The Fault in Our Stars

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Lotte Verbeek, Emily Peachey 

Director: Josh Boone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: After reading several early rapturous reviews of John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars I, like all my good bandwagon hopping peers, snapped up a hardcover copy to say I owned it and then let it sit on the shelf where it gained a fine layer of dust.  When it was announced in 2013 that the film version of the novel was hitting theaters in 2014 I dusted off the book and carried it around with me with the best of reading intentions…only to see it make its way back onto the shelf, unread.

Suddenly, it’s 2014, I’m seeing the film in a week, and my guilty procrastinating personality kicks into high gear and I finally crack open the book.  The rest is history…the kind of superior reading experience that maybe I was always destined to have.  Green’s novel, told from the matter-of-fact perspective of a girl dying of lung cancer, was a humorous, heart-string tugger that never felt sorry for itself or resorted to cliché to keep its audience tearing through the pages.  In the novel, love is found between protagonist Hazel and charming Augustus at the very worst time…when death is standing at the door.

Too many films adapted from popular novels suffer by comparison because they either fail to capture what made the action on the page so special or change too much so the product is unrecognizable to fans.  That’s not the case here, thankfully, so while it does retain some of the more problematic passages that made the novel perfectly imperfect, its devotion to being faithful made me respect it even more.

I can’t say for sure, but had I not known while reading that Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) was playing the lead I think I would have always imagined her in the role. As it is, after seeing Woodley’s sensitive take on the character I can’t imagine any actress out there today could have done the role justice as well as she does here.  As in the novel, Woodley’s Hazel is strong yet vulnerable, direct but caring, and wise well beyond her young years.  When she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort, last seen playing Woodley’s brother in Divergent) in a cancer support group, she finds a kindred spirit that shows her she’s got a lot of living left to do…and wants to live it with her.

Director Josh Boone teams with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber in bringing this sentimental tear-jerker to audiences without letting the film with such a melancholy subject feel too heavy.  The beats are all in the right place and the film enjoys a good hour of splendid magic before veering (like the novel) into a subplot that (like the novel) just didn’t work for me.  To say what this tangent is would be to betray what happens later in the film so I’ll merely say home is where the heart is.

As far as differences between the novel and the film, most are too small to report back on.  Even though the flash-forward opening moments of the movie had me on edge, it wasn’t the deal breaker it could have been in less devoted hands and thankfully, Boone and co. have figured out a way to smooth over (not change) the ending to be more cinematically sound.  As Hazel’s dad, Sam Trammell isn’t as weepy as the novel implies, bringing a welcome stoicism absent on the page that makes him more equal partners with his wife and daughter.  It’s hard to believe there was a time I wasn’t a fan of Laura Dern, never really warming to her performances.  However Dern (Smooth Talk, The Master, Jurassic Park) delivers moving work here as Hazel’s mom, further cementing my admiration for her talent.

Woodley and Elgort have chemistry for days, something the movie would have been D.O.A. without.  Largely thanks to Woodley’s earthy presentation of a dying girl and Elgort’s laid-back approach to a devil may care boy The Fault in Our Stars becomes more than a disease of the week three hanky weeper.  A well made film crafted by people who obviously cared about the book quite a lot, there’s little fault to be found here.  A nice bit of counter-programming for audiences already weary with effects heavy blockbusters.

 

In Praise of Teasers ~ Jurassic Park (1993)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Here’s my favorite kind of teaser: one that shows no actual footage from the movie itself.  I had all but forgotten this ad for 1993’s Jurassic Park, a clever intro to audiences not only that the movie was coming their way but in how the dinosaurs would be coming back to life in the first place. Though the movie did take ample time to explain the process, having the teaser give some info up front that there was some science behind it all couldn’t have hurt.

Now that the movie has spawned two (inferior) sequels, had an IMAX 3D re-release of its own, and is readying for an all-new adventure (Jurassic World) in 2015 it’s nice to be able to look back and see how Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking adventure first caught the eye of moviegoers.

Miss my other teaser reviews this week?

Check out my musings on Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Showgirls!

Movie Review ~ Jurassic Park 3D

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, BD Wong, Wayne Knight

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that Jurassic Park is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this  year – I still remember like it was yesterday seeing one of the first showings at the Edina Theater and going back a few more times that weekend to see the dino action, bringing my friends along to see their reaction.  I saw the film a total of 10 times that summer and have revisited it dozens in the years since but I still was a little leery of the movie being re-released in 3D and IMAX to celebrate two decades of T-Rex and Raptor filled scares.  The film was so entertaining to begin with; did it really need 3D/IMAX to increase the entertainment value?

The answer is “no” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t greatly enjoy seeing the film digitally restored with booming sound and a carefully thought out 3D conversion overseen by its director.  You see, Jurassic Park is such an old-fashioned thrill ride of a film that it could be played backwards and still give you a big bang for your buck…though the term “popcorn film” was coined years before it’s one of the best ways to describe the experience.

Most people are probably already familiar with the plot involving a theme park in the South Pacific home to cloned dinosaurs.  What looks to be a huge advancement in science and consumer marketing turns deadly as the aggressive dinos break free during a tropical storm…much to the terror of a small group of men, women, and children that have stopped in for a visit.

What works about the film (wide-eyed wonder, excellent action sequences, state-of-the-art visuals) still works and what was once iffy (the film has a tendency to feel overwhelming in its scope) feels corrected by seeing the movie again on the big screen.  Though I still feel that the movie is less concerned with its calculated leaps in narrative than it is about dropping the jaws of their audience, there’s no denying that the movie has lost little even after countless viewings.

I was struck at how solid Neill was in his lead role as conflicted Paleontologist Dr Alan Grant.  Though the role could have gone to a real name star (Harrison Ford), Spielberg made the right choice by choosing the understated Neill to really ground the film.  While I’ve grown to like Dern (check her out in The Master and especially Smooth Talk), I do still cringe a bit at her overzealous line readings delivered with a lilt that sends a shiver up my spine.  Goldblum’s kooky theorist goes down easier than it did back in the day thanks to our exposure to similar actors like Johnny Depp who have probably would have played the role if it were made today.  Oscar winning director Attenborough (A Chorus Line) hits the right notes as the man behind the park, wisely toned down by screenwriter David Koepp from his evil genius characterization in Michal Crichton’s source novel.  Mazzalo and Richards performances have retained their mostly pleasant early 90’s feel though the efforts of both feel a bit light when surrounded by such impressive special effects.  Jackson, Wong, Peck, and Ferrero are nice supporting players while Knight’s performance feels the most stuck in the past.

The Oscar winning effects still look incredible and the various thrill sequences that had you on the edge of your seat will make you climb right over it as you witness a T-Rex attack that feels more up close and personal than ever.  The 3D is used sparingly but to great effect as the textures and depth of the park are increased, giving the film some needed strength in its slightly slower middle third.

Looking back it’s amazing to think that Spielberg directed Jurassic Park and his Oscar winning Schindler’s List in the same year…two enormously popular films for very different reasons.  It only speaks to his talents as a director that he could produce such tonally different movies yet keep the undeniable Spielberg touch intact.

Only in theaters for a few weeks, there’s every reason to get your tickets to Jurassic Park whether it’s your first or thirty-first time you’ve seen it.  The surprises are still there, the unexpected scares are present, and you may even find yourself getting that warm fuzzy feeling of retuning to something that reminds you of one great summer and one great film.