Early Man

Cast: (voiced by) Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Writers: Mark Burton, James Higginson


It has been a decade since the release of A Matter of Loaf and Death, Nick Park’s previous directorial work. A year later Disney produced The Princess and the Frog, which failed to secure a sizeable return, leading the animation giant to all but abandon hand-drawn animation as a format and instead focus on creating CGI features like those of Pixar. Such is the nature of the technology-dependent industry of cinema where the old, laborious, time-consuming methods are being left behind for the ease and convenience of the modern digital age. Aardman Animation now remains as one of the few leading producers of mainstream animation to keep one of the old practices alive, that being stop-motion. It is a meticulous, painstaking style of filmmaking where an efficient, productive week by a sizeable, multi-skilled team will result in about four or five seconds of filmed footage. At that rate, one might ask whether stop-motion is even worth it. Enter Early Man, an underdog story about a small community fighting against a new age of technology in order to preserve the ways of the past.

Early Man is set in the Stone Age where a young caveman named Dug lives in a peaceful valley with his rabbit hunting tribe. Bobnar, the chief of a tribe, is a cautious, passive sort who is perfectly content not venturing beyond their own territory or hunting any larger game, whereas Dug is keen to try new things and take a few risks. Their docile lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age army (complete the bronze-clad mammoths). They seize the valley for themselves and exiles Dug and his people into the volcanic badlands. Dug finds his way to Nooth’s city and there learns about the ancient, celebrated ritual of football. Standing in the middle of the stadium with the entire crowd watching, Dug challenges Nooth and his elite team to a football match for the return of his home. Nooth accepts, trusting that Dug and his tribe will prove too inept and dim-witted to prevail. This proves to be exactly the case until Goona, a resident of the Bronze city whose gender excludes her from being allowed to play football despite her clear talent, steps in to help them.

Much like Monsters University, which had an entire extraordinary world at its disposal and squandered it in order to make an 80s college movie, Early Man neglects to explore its own world of possibilities in order to make a British sports comedy. From the opening scene we are introduced to a land of volcanoes, dinosaurs, and prehistoric tribes of differing technology, and yet all it leads up to is a formulaic football match with a few jokes and a foregone conclusion. From the second act onwards the movie devolves into training sequences as Dug and his clan attempt to work out the ins and outs of football with the occasional aside to check in Nooth as he makes his preparations for the climatic game, and at some point the Stone Age setting just felt superfluous. It allows for a few clever visual gags, but this is ultimately a story that could have been told at any time which is why it feels like such a wasted opportunity. The film simply follows the typical beats that generic sports movies tend to follow and the characters you follow along the way just aren’t compelling or charming enough to carry it.

Beyond being an underdog sports movie though, Early Man is first and foremost a children’s comedy and it is one that is not at all embarrassed to be childish and silly. Your enjoyment of the film will therefore depend on whether you’re into that kind of humour. Jokes include animals being used a substitutes for modern-day inventions a la The Flintstones (baby crocodiles as clothes pin, a scarab beetle as a beard trimmer, an actual zebra as a zebra crossing, that kind of thing) and endless wordplay like Nooth ordering his soldiers to “start mining ore”, only for one of them to reply “or what?” For the most part the comedy didn’t really do it for me. I did smile at a few bits like a peasant woman exclaiming sliced bread to be “the best thing since… well, ever” and Bobnar declaring himself too elderly to play football at the old age of 32, but I found most of the jokes to be rather predictable and familiar and never found myself enraptured by the novelty of it all. Still it isn’t really the film’s fault, none of the humour is lazy, witless, or forced, you’re just either into it or you’re not. Still, some things did grow on me like the recurring gag about the message bird and Hiddleston’s unyielding commitment to a French accent worthy of a Monty Python character, but then there are all the football related jokes which aren’t especially funny if you’re not a fan of football.

Early Man is one of those movies where you can take it or leave it. Anybody who watches the trailer will know instinctively whether this film is for them or not, and I for my part wasn’t very optimistic (even with the mind behind Wallace & Gromit attached). Having said that, it is film that clearly took a lot of care and effort to make. The craft and attention to detail that went into the creation of the sets and models is to be applauded and the movie incorporates so much movement and visual comedy, from the elaborate to the blink-and-you-miss-it, that I cannot even imagine how many man hours went into putting it all together. I do wish they’d dedicated that effort towards a more worthwhile story, but I’ll take sincerity and care for one’s work where I can get it. Stop-motion is such a laborious process, it’s pretty much a guarantee that any movie that follows it all the way through will be a labour of love. Early Man pales in comparison to Aardman Animation’s greatest achievements, but it’s fun and harmless enough for kids and it at least tries to offer them something inventive and creative even if it doesn’t fully deliver.

★★

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Downsizing

Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier

Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor


This is an ambitious film for Alexander Payne. In the past his films, including Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, have tended to focus on average people in common, familiar situations with a slight satirical edge. He is a writer and director who thrives on the ordinariness of suburban America and its discontented individuals. Downsizing isn’t much of a departure for him; it retains his realist style, sense of humour, and focus on story and character over plot. Still, never before has Payne told a story where the themes have reached so far beyond the individual. As well as a film about one man’s search for belonging, happiness, and meaning, Downsizing is about environmentalism, the American culture of wealth and leisure, and white privilege. It’s a movie that starts off with a simple premise in Payne’s typically quirky manner but then gets more serious towards the end until it’s completely overwhelmed by the larger, apocalyptic implications of its story. The first half works well. The second half doesn’t.

Our everyman is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He lives a pretty aimless life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in Omaha where he works as an occupational therapist (not a doctor). He’s in that state where he’s realising that this isn’t the life he hoped he would have, that things just got away from him and now he’s stuck in a rut looking for some kind of change. At a high school reunion he and Audrey come face to face with Paul’s old buddy Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) and his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe), who both got downsized (shrunken to a minuscule fraction of their original size) and seem happier for it. Downsizing is a recent phenomenon that was devised as a solution to the environmental crisis being caused by humankind, but for Dave and Carol it was a chance at a second life where they get to live in luxury with their inflated wealth. Paul discusses the matter with Audrey and together they decide to just go for it and get downsized.

The scenes where we see the downsizing process in action make up the best part of the film. Payne’s imagination and attention to detail help to sell the idea to the audience and make for an amusing sequence as we see everything that is involved with taking the plunge in stature. The process only works on living tissue, therefore participants must have every inch of body hair shaved, every filling in their teeth removed, and must be completely nude. The facility has a team of normal-sized dentists on hand to work on everybody’s teeth before the process and a team of downsized dentists to work on them after. Once the process is done and the humans have been shrunk down to five or so inches, we also get to see the nurses carefully lift their sedated and now fragile bodies from their beds into boxes using spatulas. One can only wonder how the trial and error phase of the programme’s development went and what would happen if something went wrong (although we do learn later in the film why exactly the tooth fillings need to be removed). Paul wakes up at the end of it all to learn that Audrey backed out at the last second, leaving him little and alone.

Thus we follow Paul to Leisureland where he’s just as miserable as he was before getting downsized. His divorce from Audrey has sapped him of his expected wealth meaning that, far from living in luxurious paradise without a care or worry in the world, he must work a similarly menial job as he did in his old life to make ends meet. His social life in mostly non-existent, save his interactions with his noisy upstairs neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz), an Eastern-European party animal who feels it is his duty to teach Paul that life can still be fun. Paul however is more drawn to Dušan’s Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an activist who caused an international incident, barely survived fleeing her country, and was downsized against her will. Seeing her limp around on her ill-fitting prosthetic leg, Paul tried to help her and gets drawn into the plights of the downtrodden and overlooked residents of Leisureland.

This is where the film ventures beyond Paul’s story as an individual and starts exploring the bigger picture themes. On the one hand this should be a welcome change of course given what a dull character Paul has been. As the everyman Paul is a nonentity; he’s our way in to the surreal world of Leisureland but there is nothing compelling about his character or his arc to make him worth getting invested in. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie surrounds Paul with other characters who turn out to be much more interesting and entertaining than him, from the smarmy Dušan to the high-strung Ngoc Lan to the absent Audrey. On the other hand, the bigger picture never quite comes into fruition because Payne cannot really decide which way he wants to go. It’s never clear just how seriously the film takes the questions being raised and yet the film gets so caught up in those questions that it loses sight of what the original premise was supposed to be, leading to a conclusion feels largely unsatisfying.

The premise was an interesting one to start with; it fell right under Payne’s usual shtick of everymen looking for changes in their lives with an interesting sci-fi twist. Somewhere along the line however the film just lost me. The nondescript protagonist ends up in quite a generic story about learning to care for the less fortunate and along the way the movie diverges towards themes of ecological preservation, racial segregation, and materialism and gets so mixed up in them all that I couldn’t remember what the original point was supposed to be. I was enjoying this film quite a bit until I wasn’t and in the end I found myself feeling more disappointed than I was outraged, irritated, or uninterested. There’s a very good film in here somewhere but Payne lost sight of it. It’s still an interesting film and there is some good humour along the way, but ultimately Downsizing is an unsatisfying watch.

★★

The Post

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer


Although it tells the story of an event that occurred over four decades ago, The Post was made very much with today’s political climate in mind. In this day and age where the President of the United States has embarked on a campaign to undermine and antagonise the media and to render the very concept of ‘truth’ irrelevant, Spielberg set out to make this film in order to illustrate the vital role that a free press plays in a democratic society. Through this story, The Post champions journalistic integrity and free speech and demonstrates the necessity of a free press to hold those in public office accountable for their actions. Its weakness is that it can feel a little on-the-nose and self-important at times. The pressure and perhaps even obligation the crew felt to make a statement is very apparent, and as a result the movie often feels more like a commentary then it does a movie. It says the right things, but not with as much feeling as I would have liked.

The Post tells the story behind the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of documents detailing the government’s secret intention to enter what they knew would be an unwinnable war in Vietnam and the truth of the disastrous progress made in the years since. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a disillusioned military analyst, leaks these documents to The New York Times who immediately begin reporting on the contents. When the courts rule that the Times must cease their reporting, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) of The Washington Post tracks down Ellsberg and gains access to the Papers. His editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to run the story despite the court ruling, but the Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is worried that doing so will lead the company to ruin. It also doesn’t help that one of the figures revealed as one of the perpetrators of the great deception is her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defence under the Johnson administration. It is up to Kay to decide whether to back down and ensure the safety of her paper and employees, or to stand up for the freedom of the press and publish the government’s secrets.

For the roles of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, Spielberg could not have picked two more beloved stars if he tried. Both Streep and Hanks are paragons of liberal Hollywood and are the perfect pair to deliver an idealistic appeal for truth, duty, and liberty. Streep comes into her own as the beleaguered Kay, the publisher of the Post who struggles to reconcile her concern for her friends and her company with her responsibility to the readers of the paper and who faces pressure from the patriarchal board that doesn’t believe her capable of doing a man’s job. She brings a quiet dignity to the character as she tries to make her critical choice pragmatically, knowing full well what others expect from her and what the consequences will be should things go badly. As far as Bradlee is concerned there is no question about publishing and Hanks plays him with grit and gravity. He believes more strongly than anyone that what they do is vital to the country whatever the price, but the film grounds him just enough so that his ideals don’t come across as naiveté. He understands full well the ramifications of what they have discovered and it takes as much of a toll on him as it does anybody, but nonetheless it is still too important to be kept secret from the public.

The Post can be a chore to sit through at times. The film is sometimes so self-indulgent in the way that Aaron Sorkin can sometimes be, so certain in its own rightness and in the absolute truth of its rhetoric, that some scenes almost feel preachy and pretentious. However, whenever the movie feels like it will become too ostentatious, it is saved by the talent of the cast and crew. Spielberg has a talent for storytelling that few other directors possess and the fluidity and focus he displays here is on par with All the President’s Men and Spotlight. His expertise in creating engaging narratives comes through and he is able to make the story feel cinematic in a non-distracting way through subtle uses of the camera and sound. The long take during Streep and Hanks’ first scene together, for example, invites us to pay more attention to the dynamic between the two than a simple back-and-forth would have done. He is aided in his tight storytelling by a superb ensemble, including the likes of Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who make every second count in their strong, concise performances.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that the attention The Post has received can be credited more to the timeliness of its message than to its individual merits, but that doesn’t mean the attention is undeserved. Although it’ll be interesting to see whether the film will remain relevant or even regarded ten years from now, that’s not for anybody to say today. We can only judge a film as it stands in the present and, at this time, The Post demands a place in the public conversation. The story it tells was made to reflect on this modern age of ‘Fake News’ and it is intended as a direct response to the attacks on the American news media over the past year. The fact that the story it tells reflects so strongly on the world as it is today nearly fifty years afters its occurrence shows that the questions it raises are far from settled. Personally I would have liked this film to speak of the world today with a little more force and bite and to have left a more lasting impression, but if The Post is fated to be remembered as a film of its moment, then it certainly chose the right moment.

★★★★