Downsizing


Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon have no idea how small-minded people can be.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Søren Pilmark, Jayne Houdyshell, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Phil Reeves, James Van Der Beek, Alison J. Palmer, Tim Driscoll, Kristen Thomson, Kevin Patrick Kunkel, Patrick Gallagher, Linda H. Anderson. Directed by Alexander Payne

 

This is an example of a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Alexander Payne is one of the finest filmmakers on the planet but I suppose even the best have off-projects. This is his.

In Downsizing, scientists looking at Earth’s environmental challenges of climate change and limited resources come up with a solution – smaller people. Norwegian scientists Dr. Asbjørnsen (Lassgård) and Dr. Jacobsen (Pilmark) make a startling breakthrough – a machine that can shrink people to about five inches tall. A colony is founded in Norway by Dr. Asbjørnsen and his wife (Egeberg) and leads to colonies for the downsized as the folks who have been shrunk are called.

There are some incentives to do that. Because their need for resources is less, their wealth is stretched much further. Someone who has $30,000 in savings can be a millionaire. Financially strapped couple Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Wiig) Safranek decide to take the plunge but at the last moment Audrey changes her mind, leaving Paul five inches tall and about to be divorced. Audrey gets half of everything in the settlement which means that Paul can’t live in the palatial mansion he’d purchased but has to move to an upscale condo while working as a phone salesman for Land’s End.

One of his neighbors is Dusan Mirkovic (Waltz) who is everything that Paul isn’t; outgoing, a bon vivant, adventurous and a risk taker. Dusan makes income on the black market, supplying luxury items like cigars and champagne for the various Downsized developments. Through Dusan Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Chau), a Vietnamese activist whose political activities got her forcibly shrunk and a leg removed. She is walking around on a poorly constructed prosthetic that causes her to limp and is likely to cause some damage to her hips in years to come. Paul at first offers to help her get fitted for a better prosthetic but quickly finds the woman abrasive and pushy. He also finds that she has a generous soul that is all about helping those around her. Paul realizes that he has found a calling for himself, something he’d always missed as a normal-sized guy – but events in the larger world are putting all of his plans for his future into turmoil.

The first part of the movie seems to be a comedy and that’s how the movie was marketed but it really isn’t that. The movie seems to be an environmental call to arms but it isn’t that either. This simply put smacks of studio interference but the trouble is I’m not sure which part of the movie Payne is responsible for. The two sides certainly don’t integrate well.

That’s a shame because there are things to admire in both sides of the film. There are some very salient thoughts that this film forces the viewer to think about; there are also some genuinely funny moments. There was a chance to give the viewer a sense of wonder, seeing the world from a different perspective but Payne didn’t seize the opportunity and so basically the perspective is just the same as it would be from a normal perspective.

There are also terrible lapses in logic; the world of the very small isn’t well thought-out. The Norwegian colony should have had issues with insects and other pests; nope. We see butterflies from time to time but what about bees, wasps, mosquitoes, house flies? Not to mention beetles, bugs and spiders. It rains a lot of the time in Leisure World. Wouldn’t the rain drops seem bigger to people who are smaller? They look like regular rain though.

I also had trouble with the Ngoc Tran character. You can accuse me of cultural insensitivity if you like, but she is so pushy, so aggressive and so demanding that I can’t for the life of me figure out why someone as white bread as Paul would fall in love with her. It doesn’t make sense and the relationship is central to the movie.

I really wanted to like this movie and it had everything going for it; a terrific cast, a great concept and one of the best directors in the world. It just doesn’t work at all for me and has to be one of the biggest disappointments of 2017.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does have some thought-provoking moments. At least Payne doesn’t do what you expect him to in terms of where the plot goes.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie loses cohesion in the second half and nearly falls apart. There are too many lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual references, graphic nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production crew used an actual Omaha Steaks plant for filming and employees were used as extras in the scenes filmed there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret World of Arrietty
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Permission

Advertisements

Labor Day


Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That’s What I Am

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pulp Fiction

New Releases for the Week of January 31, 2014


Labor DayLABOR DAY

(Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, James van der Beek, Tobey Maguire, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges. Directed by Jason Reitman

A chance meeting in a small town store brings Frank Chambers into the lives of 13-year-old Henry Wheeler and his mom. After Henry’s dad left, Henry’s mom has become reclusive, shaking uncontrollably and withdrawing gradually from the world. With good reason apparently – Frank is an escaped convict, in prison for a particularly heinous murder. All is not what it seems and soon Frank and Henry’s mom are creating a world of their own, although reality has a habit of intruding on these sorts of things.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality)

Bride for Rent

(Star Cinema) Kim Chiu, Xian Lim. In order to get his inheritance, a young heir is required to be married. Sadly, he is not but that’s not going to stop him from getting what’s his. He hires a woman to impersonate his bride, and at first the plan is working perfectly. Unfortunately, he didn’t count on actually falling in love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

The Saratov Approach

(Saratov) Corbin Allred, Maclain Nelson, Nikita Bogolyubov, Bart Johnson. In 1998, two Mormon missionaries working in Russia were kidnapped and held for ransom from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The movie opened in Utah last October and was such a hit that a nationwide release was set up.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence)

That Awkward Moment

(Focus) Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots. When one of a trio of bro-friends suffers a devastating breakup, both of his boys agree not to date until he’s ready. Of course, that’s easier said than done as that’s about the moment Ms. Right walks into all three of their lives.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language throughout)

The Big Bang


Noir, 21st Century-style.

Noir, 21st Century-style.

(2010) Mystery (Anchor Bay) Antonio Banderas, Sienna Guillory, James van der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Sam Elliot, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Kretschmann, William Fichtner, Robert Maillet, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, Rebecca Mader, Robert Ernie Lee, Rachel Handler, Sean Cook, Khanh Doan, Keith MacGeagh, Chandra Bailey. Directed by Tony Krantz

When you think of film noir, you think of hard-bitten detectives in rumpled suits, gorgeous dames in dresses two sizes too tight and big bruising thugs with brass knuckles. You think of soft black and white, foggy back alleys and sleazy private investigator offices. You think of Bogart, Bacall, Mitchum and Greenstreet. You don’t think of Antonio Banderas and neon colored strip clubs.

But they can be noir too. In this celluloid extravaganza Banderas is Ned Cruz, a P.I. from the mean streets of L.A. A Russian boxer named Anton “The Pro” Protopov (Maillet), freshly release from prison after killing a man in the ring, is looking for a girl. Not just any girl though – you can find one on the Internet – but the lovely Lexi Persimmon. You heard me. Anyway, she wrote him a bunch of letters in the slam but gave the galoot no info to go on, no address, no social security, no phone number – not even an e-mail.

There’s also this stash of $40 million in blood diamonds, a waitress named Fay (Reeser) who loves particle physics, a porn director (Dogg) who loves his product a little too much, a kinky movie star (van der Beek) with a dark secret, a cross-dressing nuclear physicist (Simpson), a crazy billionaire (Elliot) obsessed with finding the God particle and willing to re-create the Big Bang in the New Mexico desert to do it and the billionaire’s wife (Guillory) who might be the key to the whole sordid tale. Oh, and did we mention the three brutal cops (Kretschmann, Lindo and Fichtner) chasing down Cruz to find out where the diamonds are?

On paper this really does sound like my kind of movie – something smart but timeless, using the conventions of a noir detective thriller with a touch of sci-fi and a little bit of black humor mixed in. However, references to physics and science doesn’t necessarily a smart film make although this one is pretty clever in places.

Banderas is an engaging star but I didn’t really believe him in the role. Ned Cruz should have been a lot more badass than pretty boy; in some ways I think Danny Trejo might have been more suitable but of course Banderas is the bigger box office draw so from that standpoint I can’t really blame the producers.

The cast is pretty impressive for a low budget thriller with a tiny distributor but not many of them get the kind of screen time that makes for much of an impression. Most are little more than cameos although Elliot seems to be having the most fun playing the kind of character he rarely gets to play while Simpson camps it up nicely. Reeser and Guillory really don’t have much more to do but look pretty which to be fair they do very, very well – but I suspect if their characters had been given a little more fleshing out they would have risen to the challenge as well.

I don’t think the movie achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, but it is entertaining enough to be worth a look-see. Although I criticized his casting earlier, Banderas at least does an adequate job of playing the tough guy and of course doing the narration which is a noir tradition. While the movie takes a few left turns too many, it nonetheless at least doesn’t disgrace the genre and given that since its heyday many have tried but few have succeeded in giving us a good noir thriller I have to at least admire the attempt.

WHY RENT THIS: A noir thriller involving particle physics – I can’t make this stuff up. Decent cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes a little bit off into left field occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and quite a bit of sexuality (some of it graphic), a bit of foul language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an extended sex scene shot that got the film an NC-17 rating that was removed from the film in order to bring it down to an R rating; director Krantz refers to it on the home video commentary track but the scene isn’t included on the Blu-Ray release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Host

Stolen (2009)


Stolen

Josh Lucas can't get a break - a decent performance in a film that was ignored.

(2009) Mystery (IFC) Jon Hamm, Josh Lucas, James Van Der Beek, Jimmy Bennett, Jessica Chastain, Rhona Mitra, Joanna Cassidy, Morena Baccarin, Michael Cudlitz, Andy Milder, Holt McCallany, Jude Ciccolella.  Directed by Anders Anderson

For many of us, our children are our lives. When our children are taken away or disappear, our lives are not just disrupted. They are destroyed.

Detective Tom Adkins (Hamm) is a smart cop with a broken heart. Eight years prior, his son Tommy Jr. disappeared while in his care and hasn’t been seen since. The relationship between Tom and his wife (Mitra) is strained to say the least. Tom has never given up on his son, even though an arrest has been made for his disappearance – a body has never been found.

When a boy’s body is found in a box, at first the fear is that it is Tommy Jr., but forensics reveals that the body has been in that box for over 50 years. It turns out that the boy is John Wakefield (Bennett), the developmentally challenged son of Matthew (Lucas). If it weren’t for bad luck, Matthew Wakefield would have no luck at all.

He’s been out of work for quite awhile and unable to secure a new job. The pressure gets to his wife who kills herself, leaving Matthew with three children to raise. His sister agrees to take two of the children in while Matthew goes off in search of work, but her husband refuses to take in John who can be a handful.

Matthew finally finds work in the construction trade and makes friends with an educated sort, who is nicknamed Diploma (Van Der Beek), but Matthew is regarded with suspicion by the townsfolk and he is just one misstep away from being thrown out of town. When John disappears, he gets virtually no help in finding his boy; instead, he searches for him on his own and with Diploma, along with a friendly barmaid (Baccarin). However, it will be all for naught for his son will wind up being found in his lonely, forgotten grave 50 years after the fact.

50 years later, the discovery of John Wakefield has refueled the obsession of Tom, who believes that the two cases may against all odds be related. The man he suspected in the case, Roggiani, may provide the answers for both cases – but is Tommy Adkins alive or, like John Wakefield, patiently waiting for his remains to be discovered in a box of his own?

There are elements of the standard whodunit here, which hold the movie back from being what it ultimately could be. I like the idea of the two parallel stories; the elements in common hold the film together and help elevate the tension level.

Hamm has been getting a great deal of notice for his work in “Mad Men” and this movie was made just at the cusp of his career surge. He has upcoming roles in such high-profile films as Sucker Punch and Bridesmaids; here he has to combine the intensity of the grieving father with the calm, cool logic of the police detective. He isn’t always successful in merging the two sides of Adkins’ personality, but he does a good enough job that you can see the potential shining through. Hamm has a formidable talent and may well be a major Hollywood star in the very near future.

Lucas, on the other hand, has mostly performed on the big screen (most of the rest of the main cast is known more for their TV work) and carries himself with confidence as well as hot. In many ways, Matthew Wakefield is the emotional center of the movie more than Tom Adkins is and you feel real sympathy for a good man who has, through no fault of his own, fallen upon hard times. You feel for Matthew, who has been beat down his entire life and doesn’t deserve the fate that is thrust upon him.

Van Der Beek has come a long way since “Dawson’s Creek,” but I think the subtleties of the role he needed to play here were a bit too much of a stretch for him at this point in his career. Mitra alone of all the characters here has something more three dimensional to work with and she’s one of those actresses who simply perform admirably every time out without attracting the notice she deserves. This is one of those occasions.

The problem here is that there is little or no excitement. Part of what makes the story so compelling – the parallel story lines of the missing boys fifty years apart – is also the issue here. We know what fate awaits John Wakefield and, to a certain extent, Matthew Wakefield as well. That the story makes Tom and Tommy Adkins’ fates just as predictable detracts from the potential of the film. For me, that’s the real crime because this had plenty of potential.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fine performances from Hamm and Lucas, as well as a compelling story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Film seems oddly lifeless and flat when it should be suspenseful and exciting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a very sexy scene and some implied violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jon Hamm’s Tom Adkins character was named for Jess Thomas Adkins, the actor who played Carl the Trashman on “Sesame Street” who was the acting teacher for writer Glenn Taranto.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,943 on an unreported production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Drive Angry 3D

Formosa Betrayed


Formosa Betrayed

James Van Der Beek goes in guns blazing.

(2009) Political Drama (Screen Media) James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, Tzi Ma, Will Tiao, John Heard, Tom Jay, Chelcie Ross, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang, Adam Wang, Mintita Wattanakul, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Tonray Ho. Directed by Adam Kane

Most people are woefully uninformed. For the most part, it’s simply because we don’t want to be but even if we did we rarely get much truth from either the media or our governments. The way things appear to be are often not the way they are.

It all starts with what appeared to be a robbery gone bad. Professor Henry Wen (Foronda) is shot and killed by what appear to be ordinary carjackers. However, things begin to go sideways. The police discover that Wen was an outspoken opponent of the current regime in Taiwan (this movie takes place during the Reagan administration, by the way). The suspected killers appear to be Taiwanese nationals. The FBI is called in and Agent Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) is assigned to the case. When the suspects flee to Taiwan, Kelly is sent after them – but as an observer, not a participant. The actual capture of the killers is left to the Taiwanese police.

This much is made clear by the starchy Susan Kane (Crewson), a liaison from the State Department. Kelly is immediately thrown into a curious charade that simply extrudes intrigue. He is sent to parties celebrating his arrival; the police are remarkably uncooperative when it comes to letting him in on any real investigation. Kelly begins to suspect that something is rotten in Formosa.

Kelly is contacted by friends of the late professor; Ming (Tiao) takes him on something of a tour of Taiwan’s underbelly, where the face of democracy is replaced by a corrupt military dictatorship. Ruthless and repressive, it soon becomes evident that the murder of the professor was in all likelihood ordered by the Taiwanese government. This is not good news; it would be a diplomatic nightmare if word got out that a United States citizen (Wen was of Taiwanese descent but was a citizen of the U.S.) had been murdered by a foreign government, particularly one we didn’t recognize.

I am pulled in different directions by this movie. On the one hand, it is about something that is not reported on often in the United States. For that reason, I admire the film’s content. However, the execution leaves much to be desired. The setting is done as a standard thriller with many of the clichés of the genre, with car chases, shadowy figures, shoot-outs and lantern-jawed heroes.

Van Der Beek, who is best-known as Dawson Leary from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” is actually more than satisfactory in the FBI agent role. He gets across the character’s competency as well as his idealism while remaining a professional demeanor. It seems to me that an actual FBI agent in a similar situation would act with the same demeanor as Van Der Beek’s Jake would; however, his actions going all cowboy on the Taiwanese does seem a bit far-fetched, although it’s the kind of thing that gets forgiven in other movies with traditional action heroes in them. Crewson does a pretty good job as the diplomat who starts out by the book but ends up sympathetic. Heard is also a good fit as Van Der Beek’s superior.

I suppose because the subject matter was so compelling I wanted the rest of the movie to match up to it, and simply put, the writing seems a little bit formulaic to me. The actors try to work through it and do at least decent jobs in roles that are pretty much by-the-numbers, but the movie is rescued by a compelling story that is at least partially based on actual events, which makes the movie even more fascinating in my eyes.

WHY RENT THIS: Casts some light on events not well reported in this country.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfortunately, makes the setting a rather poorly executed potbroiler.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some of it unexpected and jarring. There is also a torture scene that some may find disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released on DVD in Taiwan on November 10 and proceeded to set records for single-day and single-week sales in Taiwan.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $326,034 on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Fighter