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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Good Dinosaur

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Synopsis: After a traumatic event unsettles a lively Apatosaurus named Arlo, he sets out on a remarkable journey, gaining an unlikely companion along the way – a human boy.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: With all eyes on PIXAR’s June offering Inside Out (already garnering rave reviews) it’s easy to forget that the studio has a second film due out in 2015. This nice little teaser for The Good Dinosaur doesn’t give much away in terms of plot and that’s perfectly OK with me because it won’t be long until a longer, more descriptive trailer arrives that shows more dino action. 2015 looks like it could be a good year for dinosaurs between this and June’s Jurassic World and with PIXAR’s history of tugging at that good ‘ole heartstrings I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the big “What If” question that’s posed in the preview. Here’s hoping this is another strong effort from PIXAR, a still aces studio that has seen some strong competition in recent years.

 

Movie Review ~ Gone Girl

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Carrie Coon, David Clennon

Director: David Fincher

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I’ve been trying hard lately to catch up on my reading…especially with so many page to screen adaptations coming out in the next few months.  Even more challenging is that I try to time my finishing of a book as close to the release date as possible so the elements of the story are still fresh in my mind.  Recently, I finished the disappointing This Is Where I Leave You a few weeks before the slightly less disappointing film was released but with Gone Girl I was down to the wire, catching the film when the book’s pages were still warm from me blazing through them.

This actually helped me more than I could have ever dreamed because it afforded me the opportunity to pinpoint exactly where screenwriter Gillian Flynn improved upon her own novel.  By combining characters or excising them all together, Flynn has tightened what was already a taut narrative…and the end result is a film as razor sharp as they come.  Of course it helps that she had David Fincher as her director because he’s all about economical delivery, ready and willing to trim the fat to ensure his work is as lean and direct as can be.

That works well for Flynn’s tricky tale of marriage and murder where everyone seems to have a secret ready to be exploited.  Her novel was a blockbuster hit when released in 2012 and it’s truly a wonder it made such a seamless transition to the screen, largely keeping its twists under wraps until the moment of impact. Even knowing where the film was heading, I was engaged enough that I was on the edge of my seat right along with those in the audience that weren’t prepared for the journey Flynn and Fincher were about to take us.

It’s 2012 and the morning of the fifth anniversary of Nick and Amy Dunne.  Transplants from New York, they’ve been living in Nick’s Missouri hometown thanks to the economic downturn that saw both lose their jobs and reexamine their financial future.  Instead of celebrating, however, Nick is plunged into a nightmare when he returns home to find Amy has seemingly vanished into thin air.  As the police, media, friends, and family descend upon the town and start to examine the crime and, by proxy, the Dunne’s marriage we learn that some secrets won’t stay hidden for long.

Like the novel, the movie jumps between Nick’s present day narrative and Amy’s diary entries written from the time they met up until she goes missing that paint a different picture of the happy couple.  So far the marketing of the film has kept Flynn’s surprising twists in check and you won’t get a spoiler out of me…but let’s just say that through some clever bits of storytelling the film is far from over just when you think you’ve reached the end.

As is typical with Fincher’s work, the casting is pretty spot-on even if several choices are quite different from the original novel.  Ben Affleck (Argo) may not be the blond-haired tanned creation on the page but he’s wholly convincing as a husband on the edge, trapped by evidence that suggests he should be more concerned with his wife’s whereabouts than he appears to be.  Same goes for Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day) as the vanished Amy who has an even more delicate balance to play.  Pike’s always been an interesting actress but I was wondering if she was perhaps too chilly to play Amy, and boy was I wrong.  Her steel gaze turns out to be a major advantage here and Pike handily swipes the movie away from her more famous co-star every chance she gets.

In supporting roles, Fincher scored with Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister caught between what she knows is true about her sibling and the evidence that suggests more and more he knows where his wife is.  Another fine performance comes from Kim Dickens as a local cop assigned to the case with good instincts that she doesn’t quite know what to do with. Both Coon and Dickens represent Fincher thinking out of the casting box — here’s hoping their work elevates them as it should.  Also, I should add as a longtime fan it’s also nice to see Sela Ward cameo as a scoop hungry television personality.

Surprisingly, Fincher makes two unfortunate mistakes with the casting of Neil Patrick Harris (A Million Ways to Die in the West) as a man from Amy’s past and Tyler Perry (Alex Cross) as Nick’s high-powered attorney.  Harris seems too slight and off the mark for where the character needed to be, though admittedly he’s saddled with the least successful dialogue Flynn transported over from her book.  Perry, meanwhile, looks positively giddy to be out of his Madea garb and into some power suits…though his unconvincing acting still borders on atrocious.  These two distractions could be written off had they not been so pivotal to the story.  Too bad.

At 149 minutes, I was worried the movie wouldn’t be able to keep its momentum going strong but Fincher has never met a film he couldn’t move along at a breathless pace.  Like the book, the movie is pleasing enough for the first 45 minutes or so but really hits its stride around the hour mark before making a full out sprint to the finish line.  There’s some devious work afoot here and it’s incredibly satisfying.

I realized about halfway through Gone Girl how starved I’d been for a sophisticated, adult thriller.  Though it seemed to go out of style in the late 90s and been replaced by the political/espionage mystery fare Fincher has made his second bid (after 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) for its resurgence.  When the story is so good, the lead performances so on the money, and the direction this precise, the bar has been raised again for any takers that wish to challenge themselves to rise to Fincher and Co.’s level.

Movie Review ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a cowardly farmer begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town, he must put his new-found courage to the test when her husband, a notorious gun-slinger, announces his arrival.

Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The posters for A Million Ways to Die in the West tout “From the guy who brought you Ted”…that should have been enough of a warning for me to head for the hills.   For the “guy” in question is Seth MacFarlane and Ted wasn’t exactly my favorite film of 2012.  Though I’ve come to a point of forgiveness with MacFarlane after his arguably unforgivable job hosting the Oscars in 2013, I got saddle sores while sitting through his attempt to make a Blazing Saddles for his Family Guy audience.

I realized while watching (more like grimacing through) MacFarlane’s latest directorial effort that Westerns don’t often get a new spin but when they do, more often than not they work.  Blazing Saddles from 1974 and Django Unchained from 2012 are the first examples that come to mind.  While Saddles was a Mel Brooks exercise in comedic buffoonery, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western revenge epic was bloody good fun.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is an example of the wide, wide chasm that exists between films like Saddles and Django and MacFarlane’s raunchy and ribald supposed comedy.

There’s a good laugh right off the bat but sadly, like the roles played by Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi, the funny stuff all but disappears for more than half the film.  In place of actual laughs is MacFarlane’s ill-advised attempt to Woody Allen-ize every paranoid, fatalist diatribe he’s written for his character.  His clueless sheep farmer in 1822 speaks like an overindulged frat boy from Yale and looks like he got lost on a back lot tour of the set of Gunsmoke.  MacFarlane is so pasty white and healthy looking that when he’s in crowd scenes with his fellow dust bowlers he stands out like a sore thumb…either he didn’t want to get dirty or he’s going after an endorsement deal with Noxzema.

In Ted, MacFarlane only provided the voice for the naughty bear and that was somewhat tolerable.  This film makes it clear that he’s better suited doing his various voices behind the camera than being front and center.  Previously mentioned team players Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Ribisi (Contraband) don’t have much to do but make voraciously explicit sex jokes that had the college age guys sitting next to me literally falling out of their seat with laughter.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) spends the entirety of the film rolling her eyes (possibly mimicking the audience?) and Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, The Nut Job) provides another cinematic example of why needs to learn to say no to every role he’s offered.

Rounding out the cast is an unusually game Charlize Theron as bandit Neeson’s wife that takes a head-scratching interest in MacFarlane’s character.  Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) hasn’t done much in comedy and if she isn’t entirely successful here, I hope she gives it another go with a better script, director, and leading man because she has good instincts.  Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl) is overexposed.  There, I said it.  Even more in love with himself than MacFarlane, Harris’ broadly drafted mustached louse is a painful sight to behold — especially when he’s seen defecating in not one but two hats.

The defecating (and its fully visualized aftermath) is just one example from a film filled with an endless supply of gross out gags, aroused animal genitals, rogue bodily fluids, and rancid jokes that are lingered on and even explained for good measure.  I don’t doubt that the population in the early 1800’s knew how to swear a blue streak, but I have mixed feelings that the phrase “Let’s get f***ed up!” was popular at the time.

I’d like to say I’m not the target audience for the film…but that just isn’t true.  I’m all for dumb humor and the kind of time wasting that movies allow and provide excuses for enjoying…but this just takes things too far.  Thanks to MacFarlane’s major miscalculation that he knows from funny, A Million Ways to Die in the West should D.O.A. by high noon the day it opens.

Note: If you simply MUST see this film, there are several cameos that may make it worth your while.  One cameo in particular is brilliant…you’ll know it when you see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Gone Girl

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Synopsis: A woman mysteriously disappears on the day of her wedding anniversary.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve yet to meet a David Fincher film or marketing campaign I haven’t liked and it appears as though Gone Girl will be no different. From the clever poster to this simple first trailer for the drama/thriller adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, this looks like the dark material that Fincher thrives in. Another thing Fincher always seems to have going for him is surprising casting and while Ben Affleck (Argo) may not be the most out of the box choice for the role of the husband suspected of being involved with his wife’s disappearance, it would appear he fits the role quite well. Though multiple A-list actresses sought the titular role, Fincher opted to go with the lesser known Rosamund Pike (Jack Reacher, Die Another Day) and if early buzz is to be believed, she’s a revelation. I’m waiting until later in the summer to give the book a look-see but have every confidence Fincher and Flynn will deliver the goods.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Synopsis: A cowardly farmer seeks the help of a gunslinger’s wife to help him win back the woman who left him.

Release Date: May 30, 2014

Thoughts: Tough call, friends, tough call.  On the one hand, A Million Ways to Die in the West is headlined by Seth MacFarlane, a comedic presence that I’ve never really warmed to.  Complete annoyance as Oscar host aside, I’m not a devotee of Family Guy and felt Ted had some snuggle up and laugh moments but ultimately was a one-trick teddy bear of a film.  On the other hand, MacFarlane has assembled an impressive posse of actors that are worth their salt when it comes to wry comedy.  Charlize Theron didn’t get the credit she deserved for her bitingly funny turn in Young Adult so it’s nice to see her stretching her funny bone again.  While MacFarlane seems to be aiming for a next-gen Blazing Saddles, his go big or go home attitude assures us that like it or not this will rise or fall in a blaze of glory.