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.

★★

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The Legend of Tarzan

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz

Director: David Yates

Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer


Before we had Batman, Superman or the Avengers, there was Tarzan. In this day and age where superheroes command the box office, it makes sense that Hollywood would want to revive and capitalise on one of the original superheroes. It is however rather telling that the figure they chose is a white man who rises as a hero and saviour for the people of Africa. Since race is one of the hottest topics in the world right now, a movie based on a story that reflects 19th century values of white supremacy seems at the very least ill advised. The film does acknowledge some of the dated aspects of this concept but is less than successful in its attempt to rise above them. The larger debate that needs to be held is one that I am not nearly qualified enough to engage in but, due to the prominent role these concerns play in the movie, it is an issue that needed to be acknowledged. Putting the politics and racial issues aside, The Legend of Tarzan is a sometimes exciting but otherwise drab movie.

The film is set in the late 19th century and opens in the Belgian Congo where Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless captain, has been sent by King Leopold II of Austria to search for diamonds. There he meets the tribal leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and strikes a bargain with him. The bargain concerns Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who currently lives in London as Lord Greystoke with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Although the Tarzan myth is a popular one in England, it is one that Greystoke is determined to leave in the past. Therefore, when he receives an invitation from the Prime Minister and King Leopold to visit Boma and assess the progress of the Congo’s development, it is an offer he is inclined to refuse. His mind is changed by the American entrepreneur George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) after he shares his suspicion that the Belgians are engaged in an illegal slave trade. Greystoke thus returns to his home with Jane and Williams to investigate these claims and there finds that he must become Tarzan once again to save the Congolese people.

The reason I’m more inclined to view and judge this movie through a political and racial lens rather than, say, Disney’s Tarzan is because this film brings it upon itself. The story tackles such historically provocative subjects as African colonisation and slavery and presents a revisionist version of events that allows the Brits and Americans to come across as the goodies. One way it does this is through the inclusion of George Washington Williams, a real life veteran of the civil war and writer of African-American history. The film hopes that it can escape the racist and imperialistic connotations of the Tarzan mythos by having a black character around to assure the audience that everything happening on screen is just fine and to remind us that the Belgians are the real baddies. Maybe the movie’s heart was in the right place but it just doesn’t work. When the film features such images as the jubilantly white Tarzan and Jane being hailed and celebrated by the black natives, it’s difficult to resist the urge to groan or to roll your eyes.

A 21st century movie based on Tarzan was always going to be problematic and working around the undertones of the original story was never going to be easy. The Legend of Tarzan however falls flat just as a movie in general. There are some good elements like the flashbacks revealing Tarzan’s origin which work well in their lucidity and restraint. Tarzan himself however is about as bland as a protagonist can get. The physique Skarsgård achieved for the role is certainly impressive but it shouldn’t have been the most interesting thing about him. Waltz meanwhile is called upon once again to portray yet another watered-down version of Hans Landa. Robbie does well as the spirited and capable Jane, which is a change from the damsel in distress she is usually portrayed as if a little bit idealistic for a movie set in the 19th century. The movie could’ve used a lot more of the life that she gave to her role.

The fatal weakness of The Legend of Tarzan is that it is dull, dull, dull. While the action is well executed, it isn’t until the final third that we get to see any of it. The visuals are flat and uninspired, which comes as a great disappointment after the example set by The Jungle Book. The story is tedious and typical of Hollywood in its obvious and simplistic way. If the movie had been more exciting and fulfilling to watch, perhaps its backwards and misguided subtext might have been a little more tolerable. Even then, Disney proved that it is possible to take the story of Tarzan and turn it into a fun, exciting and innocent adventure. The Legend of Tarzan in contrast is a misguided movie with a white saviour story that it is constantly trying to excuse to the point that it gets uncomfortable to watch. When people say that Hollywood is out of touch, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

★★

Spectre

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes

Director: Sam Mendes

Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth


I’ve been a fan of Bond since I was a kid and for me Daniel Craig’s tenure as the MI6 agent has been the most consistent in terms of overall quality (although Sean Connery still remains my favourite Bond). Casino Royale is a fantastic thriller that did a terrific job of updating and rebooting the franchise and I think stands as the strongest of the Craig Bond films. The (slightly) underrated Quantum of Solace is easily the weakest of these films but I think that some of the criticism it gets is undeserved. It certainly isn’t a great film but I still think it has enough action and style to be worthy of the Bond name. The (slightly) overrated Skyfall on the other hand is a strong film but I’m not convinced that it is the masterpiece everyone says it is. I think that most of its praise was drawn from the hype surrounding the film than it was from the film itself, although the brilliant villain and the use of Judi Dench’s M certainly helped. Now Bond is back in Spectre which I think stands as the third strongest outing in this series only slightly behind Skyfall.

In the aftermath of the events in Skyfall James Bond (Daniel Craig) receives a cryptic message that sends him on a rogue mission. The trail he finds eventually leads him to the mysterious criminal organisation SPECTRE, led by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a figure from Bond’s past. Meanwhile in London M (Ralph Fiennes) is having his authority challenged when Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), the new Head of National Security, seeks to shut down what he perceives to be a costly and redundant 00 programme. Along the way both Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are enlisted to help combat these threats. As Bond is drawn deeper into SPECTRE’s intricate web he falls into the company of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of a former enemy who might hold the keys to SPECTRE’s secrets.

After the first three films which distinguished themselves from the classics with their post-9/11 fast-paced Bourne style of action, Spectre marks a return to the basics. All of the elements of a classic Bond film are here including the sinister villain, the beautiful and proficient Bond girl, the high-tech car and gadgets, the silent and intimidating henchman, the exotic locations, the secret lair and the stylised action. In fairness some of these elements are not executed as well as they could have been but I still thought it was a nice change of pace to have a Bond film that harkens back to the originals. Spectre still has the grit and intensity that has made the newer films so thrilling to watch but the inclusion of the tropes that made Bond iconic in the first place was very welcome.

The film’s greatest weakness however is its story. While the plot has never been the greatest strength of any of the Bond films, Spectre is nevertheless placing a clear emphasis on its narrative in an attempt to tie all four films together which is why the story’s shortcomings are more notable. This is perhaps a symptom of the impact television has had in recent years with audiences becoming more receptive to longer and more substantial narratives. This story however is very rushed and unpolished and lacks the necessary development required to make the kind of impact it is trying to make. Throughout the four films Bond has evolved as a character and this film marks a point where he has been emotionally wearied and damaged and is seriously considering the prospect of leaving this world of death and destruction behind. Elements of his past return to haunt him during his encounters with SPECTRE and threaten to be his undoing. I do admire the big-picture long-form narrative that this film is trying to tie together, the trouble is that it all seems too last minute at this stage.

At the end of the day however, I came to Spectre looking for a Bond film and that is exactly what I got. The action is as intense and stylish as ever, the biggest highlight being the opening tracking shot where Bond navigates his way through a Mexican carnival in pursuit of a lead. The villain was unfortunately quite a let-down with the film failing to take full advantage of Waltz’s ability to convey his uniquely charming form of intimidation. Seydoux however is on top-form as a smart and fully capable Bond girl who is second only to Vesper Lynd in her ability to challenge and serve as a foil to Bond. There are imperfections with this film, as there always are in the James Bond franchise, but I was on board from beginning to end and got almost everything that I wanted from this film. The thrills, the style and the charm are all classic Bond and its great to have him back.

★★★★