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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Suburbicon

Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov


Cinema is an art and the films that get made are inherently reflective of ourselves and the world we live in, which is why movies cannot help but be political and social constructs. Whether it’s done actively or passively, all movies are affected by the societies that shaped them and are indicative of the principles and values of their own time and place, whether it’s confirmation, opposition, indifference or ignorance. This applies whether it’s done well or badly and that brings me to Suburbicon. Clooney has been one of the most actively political American actors and directors of recent years and he has been successful in conveying his liberal beliefs in films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Here he tackles the difficult but important subject of race politics, a topic that has never seen much prominence in his filmography. Although I believe his intentions were honest and sincere, Clooney’s handling of the subject is problematic (to say the least).

Set in the 1950s, the film takes place in Suburbicon, a rural neighbourhood with a ‘diverse’ range of white residents. This peaceful community however is shaken up by the arrival of an African-American family who, despite being perfectly pleasant and agreeable people, are received with nothing but harassment, abuse, and scorn. So focused is everyone on their outrage against the Mayers family that nobody notices the dark dealings of the house adjacent to it, that of mild-mannered family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon). His house is broken into by two robbers, Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell), and he is taken captive along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose subsequently dies from an overdose of chloroform and so her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) steps in to help Gardner and Nicky rebuild their lives. Nicky however suspects that something strange is going on as his father and aunt start being suspiciously in the aftermath of the attack. His sentiments are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), the insurance agent brought in to investigate their case. As the case becomes more complicated and messy, so does the conduct of the white supremacists terrorising the Mayers become more aggressive.

What we essentially have here are two parallel narratives which work neither as parallels nor as narratives. The intention, I imagine, is to put a spotlight on the twisted and evil deeds of white people that go unnoticed because everyone else is looking in the wrong direction due to blinding racial anger. That would be fine if Clooney was prepared to completely invest the film into the characters of the Mayers family and fully explore their plight, but he fails to do so. We never learn the first names of Mr. (Leith Burke) or Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook) and the film never illustrates their discernable personalities or inner lives to us. They are there to serve as symbols of the African-American community in Clooney’s satire of 1950s racism. By taking this approach there is an implication that this kind of behaviour is a thing of the past, that it isn’t still going on in Charlottesville and other similar places. That may not have necessarily been Clooney’s intention, but by portraying these events by way of parody and depicting the effects on the black family not through their own eyes but rather the eyes of the white main characters, I cannot help but find the movie’s treatment of racism to be outdated.

The other narrative, which Clooney adapted from an abandoned Coen Brothers screenplay, concerns Nicky and the increasingly precarious situation growing in his house. Clooney, despite being a frequent collaborator of the Coens, proves unequal to the task of replicating their unique black noir tone and has instead made a movie that is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to make the material work. There is no energy in his direction or in Damon’s and Moore’s performances, and so the story unfolds at a steadily stale and stolid pace. Gardner and Margaret are both extremely unpleasant people, as is often the case with the Coen Brothers’ characters, but neither the director nor the actors can bring enough humour, appeal or life to make them at all enjoyable, relatable or memorable. Isaac does better as a shrewd investigator with an uncanny nose for bullshit, but not enough to save the film.

The movie is earnest and well-intentioned, but that just isn’t enough in 2017. This movie takes the real-life story of an African-American family who suffered the horrid persecution of white America and trivialises it. The event is distanced from the audience as a laughable relic of the past, it plays second fiddle to a far less interesting story, and its effects are felt not by the victims but by the white family next door. This kind of movie is patronising for black viewers and undemanding for white viewers. If a white filmmaker wants to take on the weighty subjects of racism, hypocrisy and white privilege, it’s not enough for them to acknowledge that they (white people) understand that these things exist, especially when the movie in question is the product of an industry historically and overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Movies like this need and demand to be more challenging, more inspired and more truthful. Suburbicon is the product of a filmmaker who either didn’t know or couldn’t decide what story he was trying to tell and it falls far too short of whatever good intentions he may have had.

★★

The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.

Jason Bourne

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed

Director: Paul Greengrass

Writers: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse


There is hardly an action movie today that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to the Bourne trilogy. After the slick, stylised action of Cold War cinema, Bourne pioneered a brutally intense style befitting the post-9/11 age we live in. Through narrow framing, camera shakes and sporadic editing these three films developed a style of action that feels more energetic and severe than those before it. It is a style that has since been widely adopted, emulated, misused, parodied and developed throughout the last decade. With all the time that has gone by since the trilogy ended, Jason Bourne is faced with the task of recapturing that same feeling without simply feeling like yet another imitation, something that The Bourne Legacy was unable to do. Given how Matt Damon long proclaimed that he would not reprise Bourne unless Paul Greengrass was on board and the script felt right, there was reason to be optimistic about this possibility. Sadly, the movie did not live up to the promise.

A decade after recovering from his amnesia and exposing Operation Blackbriar, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) been living in exile. He is found in Greece by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who informs him of a discovery she’s made regarding Bourne’s recruitment into Blackbriar and how his father might have been involved. Her intrusion into the CIA’s mainframe was detected by the head of the cyber ops division Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and reported to the CIA’s Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). To stop her, the CIA dispatches an operative known as the Asset (Vincent Cassel), who then proceeds to disrupt Nicky’s meeting with Bourne in Athens. From there Bourne must go on the run once again, must learn the truth of a mystery from his past, and must discover whatever secret it is the CIA is trying to cover up.

Jason Bourne is essentially more of the same and that is both a strength and a weakness. The action is technically still phenomenal. The scene where the Asset chases Bourne and Nicky through the streets of Athens while a riot takes place is a stunning sequence. The fistfights are as intense and energetic as ever. The impact however is somewhat lulled due to the widespread adoption of the trilogy’s style. This type of action is no longer unique to Bourne, therefore it doesn’t really stand out amongst all the other action-thrillers being made today. A compelling story with interesting characters would have been extremely helpful in this regard, but Jason Bourne failed to deliver on that front. Whereas the government agents in the first three movies were intently focused on finding Bourne and stopping him from exposing Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar, the main antagonist of this movie concerns himself with a subplot that is wholly immaterial to Bourne’s story. This subplot, which deals with issues of privacy and surveillance, is the movie’s attempt to be socially relevant, but in execution it steals away from the central narrative and does not affect the plot in any meaningful way.

The disparity in story made it difficult to become engaged with the characters. Tommy Lee Jones dedicated so much of his screen-time to a story irrelevant to Bourne’s that the link between them was not nearly as strong as it was with Brian Cox, Joan Allen and David Strathairn. Some viewers might appreciate the movie’s attempt to tackle such a critical political and social issue, but for me the central conflict of Jason Bourne just wasn’t personal enough. Vikander, who is plays more of a role in the hunt for Bourne than Jones, does a little better here. Damon himself is sufficiently tough and intense and Bourne, who has never been a particularly complex or emotive character, but does feel a bit like he’s on autopilot at points. This wasn’t as glaring as it was with Stiles though who was practically asleep in all of her scenes. Cassel I think was the one performer who really came through as a highly trained assassin with a personal vendetta against Bourne.

Sadly Jason Bourne is fated to join the line of unnecessary and underwhelming sequels in great franchises that should have left well enough alone, along with The Godfather: Part III and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While by no means bad, it wasn’t worth the wait and did not live up to the promise. After years of waiting for the right script to come along, I wonder what it was about this offering that convinced Damon and Greengrass that this movie just had to be made. Jason Bourne is a solid enough movie in its own right but under the shadow of its franchise it isn’t up to par. If all you want from a Bourne sequel is more of Matt Damon kicking ass and taking names, then this movie is just fine. If you want a movie that brings the Bourne franchise to new heights and inspires the same level of intrigue and captivation as the original Bourne movies, you will be sorely disappointed.

★★★

The Martian

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Drew Goddard


This is a film that surprised me for two major reasons. Firstly the film was much more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be. When I heard about the film’s premise I was expecting something much darker and more despairing, kind of in the same vein as 127 Hours. I was not prepared for how funny and exciting this film turned out to be. Secondly is because the film was directed by Ridley Scott. It occurred to me after I saw The Martian that it’s been quite a while since Scott has made a great film (heck, it’s been a while since he made a good film). I initially found this film to be a bit out of character for him until I realised what a versatile filmmaker he really is. In his time he has made a claustrophobic horror film in Alien, a philosophical mystery in Blade Runner, a heartening buddy movie in Thelma and Louise and a historical epic in Gladiator. Therefore why not an uplifting survival story as well? In any case I think The Martian marks a return to form for Scott and I hope there’s plenty more to come.

The story is that of the astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a part of a manned mission to Mars that gets cut short by an intense storm. In the chaos that ensues Mark is injured and presumed dead and so the mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is left with no choice but to go on without him. Stranded on a planet with a limited amount of food and supplies and without any means of communication, Mark must rely on his intellect, skills and spirit to make contact with NASA and to ensure his own survival until a rescue mission can be arranged. The team at NASA, led by its head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and the mission directors Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), soon learn of his survival and work vigorously on the effort to bring him home safely. Meanwhile Melissa and her crew are wracked with guilt from leaving their crewmate and friend behind and therefore undertake to ensure his rescue by any means necessary.

Any film that features Matt Damon as a lone astronaut being stranded on a forbidding planet as well as Jessica Chastain is bound to receive comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s visual spectacle Interstellar. However, whereas Interstellar was (mostly but not entirely) characterless, anaemic and self-indulgent, The Martian is positively bursting with life, flavour and colour. The characters actually talk and act like real people. The emotional stakes of the film’s conflict feels authentic. The planet even feels like a character in itself, a great red desert both beautiful and ominous that is so full of majesty and wonder and yet so desolate and remote. Being stranded in such a place with little to no hope of survival or rescue is a daunting concept and the isolation and futility of such a prospect would be enough to drive any man insane. Yet this film depicts Mark’s harrowing ordeal with such humour and heart that The Martian becomes an absolute delight to watch.

Matt Damon kills it as Mark in his effort to stay alive and to keep himself sane. Given the dire situation he faces Mark resorts to using humour as a defence mechanism in order to keep his spirits up, which I felt was a very human way to handle such a predicament. He records daily vlogs detailing his thoughts and endeavours as he attempts to “science the shit” out of his resources in order to keep himself alive and does so with such an anxious yet heartening attitude that he becomes all the more relatable. This could have been compelling enough as a one-man survival story, much like Gravity, but amazingly the rest of the ensemble shines as well. The scientists at NASA are made up of interesting and diverse characters all working together to deal with this crisis. I really like how the film resisted the urge to include some sort of clichéd, bureaucratic antagonist trying to halt the rescue mission as a means of generating conflict. These characters are all on the same side and are all working towards the same goal, even when they disagree with each other. The only characters I didn’t feel that much of a connection to were the crewmembers. I thought they were likeable but underdeveloped.

Another thing to say is that this film is a technical marvel. The visuals are simply gorgeous to look at, particularly the Martian landscape which I thought had a real otherworldly feel to it. The 3D also works really well by drawing the viewer further into the world they’ve created. I thought the film did a wonderful job of depicting this alien environment and the challenges Mark faces in inhabiting it. As someone who doesn’t even have a GCSE in science I can hardly account for the film’s scientific accuracy. I did however find the science to be both interesting and coherent. I think it’s probably safe to assume that the film isn’t 100% accurate but, as a standard inexpert viewer, I went along with it just fine. The methods adopted by Mark seemed reasonable and plausible given the context and my suspension of disbelief was never stretched beyond reason.

There really isn’t much I can fault about this film. The characters are great, the humour is hilarious, the story is well told and the visuals are superb. My only real criticism is that I think the survival theme could have been taken a bit further. When I compare this film to, say, Gravity, I didn’t really feel like this film ever really expressed that same level of danger and desperation. Mark does have moments of uncertainty but he never loses his charm or wit through any of it. So upbeat is this film’s tone that I thought the tension never really reached the point where the possibility of Mark’s survival was brought into question. That aside, The Martian is nevertheless an excellent viewing experience and a wonderfully entertaining film that provides a funny, moving and epic account of the human spirit.

★★★★★