Take a Cue From Your Own Movie: Downsizing

downsizing

*Spoiler Alert

Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Nebraska) is a director who is known for “small” (small being basically synonymous with independent) movies with big stars (Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bruce Dern). His latest film, Downsizing, continues in that same vein, but with more studio marketing than for any of his previous films. Unfortunately, the best thing about an Alexander Payne film, a consistently quirky tone, gets abandoned this time around.

Downsizing explores a differen genres in each of its major acts. While in better movies, this might be rightly labeled “quirky” or “original” and might work for the premise, in Downsizing it does not.

The first act is a pretty by-the-numbers dramedy about the premise. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) learn about downsizing, a new process that shrinks you down to five inches tall. Once downsized, they get to live in a tiny community built for luxury and wealth. It’s supposed to be more sustainable and help the rapidly dying earth, not to mention increase your buying power exponentially, but it’s not without its problems. Here, the film is presented as a smart social commentary.

Then it takes a nosedive into a meandering second act where a newly downsized Paul wanders around, feels sorry for himself in his lonely new land, goes to his neighbor Dusan’s (Christoph Waltz playing Christoph Waltz, so I’m just going to call him that from here on out) European party, and meets Ngoc Lan, a former political activist whose government downsized her against her will and shipped her to America in a TV box. Ngoc Lan and Paul, through a series of adorable circumstances, find themselves working together to care for the people of the slum Ngoc Lan lives in. A commentary on immigration and poverty in the United States? Maybe?

In the third act, Ngoc Lan, Christoph Waltz, and Paul are invited to come to Norway to meet the original inventor of downsizing. Once there, they learn that the world is actually dying and that a group of small people are going into a vault to repopulate and continue the human race as the outside world dies. Life must find a way, and Paul can’t think of a better use of his life than to join them. But he loves Ngoc Lan and at the last minute joins her instead of going with the others. The end.

If that defied all of your expectations for the film, then you’re not alone. But is this the genius kind of crazy, or crazy kind of crazy?

Downsizing could be seen as a cautionary fable, and some critics, like Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter who named the film the best of the year, interpreted it as such. But unlike movies that are clear fables, like say, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, Downsizing does not present itself as one. It plays as an SNL skit that goes on too long, feels like it needs a political message, and invents an ending that is just an excuse to go hang out in the fjords of Norway. It begins to give a social critique, or make an interesting statement, but can’t complete a single thought. It’s a rollercoaster of different stories crammed into one.

Ultimately, I think Downsizing would work much better as a short film. The main parts of the film- man learns about downsizing, downsizes, is unhappy, meets woman, finds purpose in helping others- would be more coherent without hours of filler in between. It’s the filler in Downsizing that bogs down the film and makes it unclear. The second and third act don’t even need to be in a downsized world!

Another problem is with the character development. Paul is a nice guy the whole movie. He doesn’t have a character arc, so there is no real change in his character that reflects the change to “downsize” his life decision.

If I were to find a message in Downsizing, I think the end says something whole. Paul has the opportunity to go with the group of small people to keep the human race alive. Paul finds it all important and sacrificial, but Ngoc Lan wants him to stay with her, primarily for love. He is about to go into the vault when he decides to go back to Ngoc Lan and spend the rest of his days helping her in the slums of LeisureLand.

It seems that director Payne is saying Paul needs to think smaller. He doesn’t need to join some humanity-saving experiment. That big picture thinking is what made him small and unhappy in the first place. He needs to think small like Ngoc Lan, and care for the people around him. He needs to “downsize” his vision and purpose. This is actually a compelling message, except the film doesn’t quite set it up to be that. The film treats the small people going into the vault as doing a necessary and important thing, so why isn’t Paul supposed to be a part of it? And he goes back to Ngoc Lan for love- that’s why she wants him to stay, too.

This problem is representative of the whole film: it has a handful of messages it wants to say, but either doesn’t complete a thought or say something seemingly unintentionally. And because I crave meaning, I have had to dissect it from a film that might not have meant to say that at all. To see such a great premise, with a prolific team behind the scenes, is disappointing.

So if you do see Downsizing, which I can’t recommend, please-

keep your expectations small.

-Madeleine D

Revealing Humanity Without Humans: War for the Planet of the Apes

war ftpota

*Spoilers ahead

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, let us be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11: 4-9).

“And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley” (Genesis 19: 27-29).

These verses are here not just because I think the makers of War For the Planet Of The Apes would appreciate them, but also because they perfectly set up the atmosphere and morality explored in this last entry of the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

War for the Planet of the Apes begins where the second film left off. Caesar (the phenomenal Andy Serkis) is the leader of his band of enhanced apes. He is forced to fight a war that a crazy ape named Koba started before he died. Caesar tries to make peace with the humans he’s fighting against, led by a zealot Colonel (Woody Harrelson) but when his own family is murdered, he drops everything to carry out a revenge mission against the Colonel.

War FTPOTA is not only a visual feast, but uses its effects to serve its science fiction premise to the fullest. It does what science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about our world. This apocalyptic story about apes overtaking humans is simply a vehicle to ask bigger questions. What is the primary difference between humans and animals? Is it language? If so, what about people who can’t talk? If animals achieve human language, then what determines it? If there were a plague that infected your loved ones but put others at risk, what would you do? Is revenge ever justified? What makes a leader?

War FTPOTA asks big questions, and expresses itself through poignant imagery. It isn’t always subtle. There are strong Apocalypse Now parallels, to the point where some graffiti is shown that says “Ape-pocalypse Now.” It is the second film of the year to feature animals re-enacting a kind of holocaust (the first being Netflix’s Okja) and it loves religious imagery, too. Caesar is hung up on a cross and is pierced in his side. The Colonel, in explaining his backstory, says, “I sacrificed my only son to save humanity.”

It might not be subtle, but it’s interesting. War FTPOTA uses intertextuality to make this story bring in stories we already know to increase the emotional impact. It no longer seems as foreign, because we recognize the archetypes, just re-enacted with apes.

The film goes big with imagery, and it goes big in messages. War FTPOTA is political. All art is to some degree, because every creator has a worldview that impacts their work. But this film has a villain that is trying to build a border wall (I know the film was made before Trump became big, but still). It combines warfare and religious imagery, muses on how the ability to speak and use language defines us as human beings (consider the verses about the Tower of Babel above), and gives a compelling story about failed leadership. Caesar has been the leader of the apes for two movies now, and in this movie, he falls. Great leaders are ones that put aside their personal desires for the cause of the group. Here, Caesar lets himself get personal with the humans. When his vendetta becomes his focus, the entire group falls, and everyone suffers the consequences. While he is able to do the right thing in the end, he still dies.

With that storyline, it’s impossible not to see similarities to this year’s Logan, a film I loved. Both feature the patriarchs of a franchise showing wear and tear. They become father figures to young girls who don’t speak, fight military men to get across a border, take their charges to a safe Eden-esque place, and die. I don’t know quite what that pattern says about today’s culture, except that a maybe a lot of filmmakers are becoming parents and are trying to make blockbusters more prestigious, but again, I’m interested. I’m intrigued.

In the end though, if this movie proves anything, it is, say it with me:

Give!      Andy!       Serkis!      An!       Oscar!

Motion capture acting is real acting, and it’s about time the Academy at least acknowledges it. His performance as Caesar is emotional and intimate, yet stoic. The entire cast takes the project seriously, and it shows.

War for the Planet of the Apes exceeded all of my expectations. In the two weeks before seeing the film, I watched five war-themed films (Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Their Finest, Hunt for Red October, and Dunkirk). I would easily count this new Apes film among those. War films should reveal something about humankind at large, and War FTPOTA does that and more.

-Madeleine D

Ambiguity Does Not Equal Compelling : The Circle

the circle

The Circle, with its constant surveillance, data storage, and knowledge of your every move and secret, is not about the technology of the future. It’s about the technology of now.

Oversharing, the need to tell everyone of your every action, the ability to find anyone if you have the right resources, a camera with you at all times- that’s how technology works for many people now. If not now, maybe in a few years.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) plunges into the world of that technology when she lands a job at The Circle, a Google-meets-Facebook mega company led by Steve Jobs-y Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). When a series of events makes Mae decide to go “transparent” (wearing a camera on her at all times) she learns firsthand the consequences of being watched and analyzed with every move.

60% of The Circle is either Tom Hanks or Emma Watson giving Ted Talks about the future of technology. They stand on stage and talk about what The Circle will be doing next. If that sounds like fun to you, this may be your movie. If this sounds a little less like the exciting, thought-provoking drama you were hoping for, then you’re right. While both of these actors have the charisma to pull it off, getting long-winded explanations of exposition can be tedious, and sometimes they can’t even overcome the thesis-like script.

Now speaking of the actors, Emma Watson is the foundation of this film. She leads and keeps it, and for the most part, does an excellent job. She is very natural and is able to hold our attention. If you’re here for any other actor, though, you’ll be disappointed. John Boyega, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, and Karen Gillian are all very, very supporting. Which is a shame, because they all do a great job. One small thing though- let John Boyega speak in his natural British accent. Please. He’s been forced to do an American one, and it sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent in Doctor Strange. And I don’t mean it in a good way. He sounds like he has a cold. Give him a tissue. And more lines.

On the technical side, we are used to studio movies being competently filmed and edited. It’s just a given that the cinematography, score, technical aspects of the film will be good. And for the most part, The Circle is a slick film. But the editing here is really odd in parts. The camera breaks the 180 degree camera rule. There is a scene where two characters, side by side in separate bathroom stalls, are filmed at the exact same angle, so when it switches back and forth, it just looks like the actresses are teleporting and/or the editor is making extreme jump cuts. It takes you out of the film, and makes it look amateurish.

Emma Watson’s Mae seems to represent the biggest failing of the script. She is a very reactive protagonist, one that simply reacts to the incidents around her, and then goes back to her natural disposition. That makes her turn to “the dark side,” not a surprising one, and not one that seems earned. If at the beginning of the film, she had been presented the opportunity to turn, considering her lack of development, I would assume she would have. Therefore, there is no conflict. There is no real antagonist, or resistance by anyone or anything. This film just presents the spiral into complacency as a natural one. While it shows the horrors of a future like the one presented here, if our likeable protagonist can get behind it, and nobody else seems to have a problem with it, then is it really bad? The film doesn’t have a stance on it.

So are we, the audience members, supposed to be the protagonist? Are we supposed to see this cautionary tale and the characters within it and decide whether it is right or wrong? Maybe. The pros and cons of each side are listed out, in essay fashion. But with no strong emotions in play here, the story, despite its relevance, feels unimportant. Lackluster. Not something to worry about dwelling on. It is almost like director and co-screenwriter James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) thought, hmm, maybe if I make the end ambiguous and all the characters flat, and I don’t make a compelling case for or against either side, they’ll assume I’m really smart!

So, there is where it ultimately fails. I can forgive it for its odd editing, poor use of Tom Hanks and John Boyega, and sloppy character development and exposition. But I cannot forgive it for being dull about its interesting premise. How did you mess this up? Everything was in your favor!

-Madeleine D

Ghostbusters (2016): It’s Not Bad For The Reasons You Think It’s Bad

For this review, I’m going to steal the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

So you saw Ghostbusters

Yep.

First off, have you seen the original? Because that one is the best.

I watched it right before I saw the new one. And… well, to be honest, I didn’t love it.

*gasp*

I’m sorry. I know, blasphemy. I thought it was fine. Billy Murray was great. It was creative, and should be appreciated for being one of the first of its kind. But I wasn’t in love. The film uses tropes, silly effects, some lame jokes, and the world-building and setting up of the story is rushed or nonexistent. Maybe I can’t appreciate it as much because I don’t have the nostalgia factor, but it just didn’t grab my attention.

ghostbusters

Fine, it’s your opinion. I heard there was some craziness surrounding this movie before it was even released. My feed blew up with angry tweets, and didn’t Leslie Jones just make the news for something twitter-related?

You’re right, it was crazy. The minute Sony announced they were going to reboot the beloved franchise with an all-new female team, the internet went beserk. Suddenly, these well-liked actresses where the four horseman of the apocalypse, about to wipe every man off the face of the earth with their feminazi ideas and girl power. Suddenly the original was a modern Citizen Kane, and must be protected at all costs. This movie is a specific attack on everything America stands for! Women? They can’t be funny or keep our interest! They don’t need to be represented. They’re only 50 percent of the population and movie-going audience! Where’s my eighth Batman reboot?

You sound bitter.

I am. Here’s the thing. Women have had to put up with being the sexy secretary or girlfriend in movies for years. Rarely are they the main heroes. So Hollywood decided, hey, let’s see if doing the exact opposite, making only women the heroes and the men the sexy secretaries and boyfriend, will work. So now we’ve gone from 0-100. The ideal situation would be if there were male and female ghostbusters. But I’m not surprised Hollywood can’t do middle ground yet. I think if this movie worked, then it would be a step in the right direction to getting that balance.

So… did the movie work? Are we going to see more female-only franchises?

I don’t think we’ll see any more female-only franchise for a while, because the movie didn’t work and it isn’t making enough money.

So you didn’t like it. Is it preachy? Is it all about girl-power?

Not at all. The problem is that it is a really bland movie. It is not spectacularly funny, or even a good action film. It doesn’t make any real points about women, and while it caters to the female gaze for a change, it doesn’t make men feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t do much of anything.

Then why is everyone overreacting so much? A lot of people seemed threatened by the very existence of this film.

Any man with any amount of skin will be able to get over this movie. There’s maybe one or two jokes aimed at men, but none of them are malicious or preachy. The whole movie is so bad and nonthreatening, that it really does look silly in hindsight that anyone got upset about it. The 1984 original still exists. Go watch that if this one makes you sad.

So does the fact that the movie was bad mean that women really aren’t as funny as-

Stop right there. No.

But-

The truth is, because there are so few female-centric franchises and movies, it means every time one comes out it has to represent the whole female population, which is ridiculous. (And this doesn’t just go for lady-movies, but also any film centered around people of color.) No movie should have to bear that kind of weight. Yes, this movie wasn’t good. But most recent reboots aren’t, and that is where the problem lies, not in its on-screen talent.

Why does the movie suck then?

Before you reboot a franchise, you need to ask yourself (if you consider yourself an artist and not just a money-hungry Hollywood exec), Why am I rebooting this? What am I going to add to this brand? What will I change? What am I trying to achieve? Apparently, Sony and director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids) did not ask themselves these questions. I think the creative meeting went something like this:

Sony Exec #1- We want to jump on the 80’s reboot train. Let’s remake Ghostbusters.

Paul Feig: Okay. As an artist, I want to know how we’ll make it different.

Sony Exec #2- I heard Frozen and The Hunger Games are doing good. Those star girls.

Paul Feig- Ohh, I like it. I’ve directed several great female-led comedies. This could be a creative, unique choice! Now let’s discuss what else we’ll change-

Sony Exec #1- Eh, we’ll finish this meeting later.

(after Sony announces the reboot, and the internet presses the self-destruction button)

Sony Exec #1- (holding a bottle of wine) So…. that went badly. (chugs)

Paul Feig- We can solve this. We just need to make this a really good movie.

Sony Exec #2- No! We need to make a generic, almost scene-by-scene remake of the original and play it safe.

Paul Feig- But-

Sony Exec #1 and #2- (still drinking) NO!

That’s more or less what happened.

The movie is a scene-by-scene remake?

Basically. All the original plot points are there. The only big difference between the two films, besides the gender-swapping of all the characters, is the absence of a Sigourney Weaver/Dana character and instead the villain is just an angry little man who creates ghosts and possesses people.

So yes, it lacks in plot. The original wasn’t much more than an extended SNL skit to be fair. However, the first at least has some funny moments. The new one has a few jokes that made me grin, but most of the time I groaned. Considering the talent involved- Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth (who really should be cast in more comedic roles) somehow aren’t able to elevate the material… or make better material. The film seems like a lot of the jokes were originally improvised, but were only funny on set and no one checked if they translated to the film well.

Is it true that Leslie Jones’s character was a racist stereotype?

I’m not the leading authority on that. I would suggest checking out other reviews by African-American film critics to really decide. However, I would say that Leslie Jones has branded herself with the “big, sassy, and loud black woman” type of humor. She’s been doing it on SNL for a while now, so it’s not surprising her role is written that way. It is a stereotype, and some people might think that is racist. However, it does not at all excuse the racist hate she was shown on Twitter. For what it’s worth, the group I went to see the movie with all enjoyed her performance, singling her out with Kate McKinnon as their favorite parts of the film. I thought she came off as very likeable, along with the rest of the cast.

Okay, the cast is likeable. Are there any other positives?

As a female viewer, there were little things here and there that really struck me as normal. Completely and utterly normal. There was very little “cool factor” here. These were real women doing real women stuff (in addition to, you know, busting ghosts). The fact that that stood out to me is a commentary itself on movies today. This film is also more family friendly (although it is still rated PG-13, so not for young kids). It doesn’t have all the sexual innuendo of the original. And like I said, there were some good jokes and ideas put forth. It just overall didn’t do anything for the Ghostbusters brand. Nothing was really added. No new developments were made.

Should I see it?

It’s not a must see, and I can’t really recommend it as good entertainment or even a fun movie. However, I think if you have young girls and you want them to see role models in movies, this could be a good choice. Even though the movie isn’t great, I hope I see some little kids dressed as ghostbusters for Halloween. That will make it worth it.

-Madeleine D

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

For this review, I’m going to steal the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

What is Midnight Special?

It is the newest film by Jeff Nichols, who, as my dad said before the movie, was “3 for 3” in good movies. He didn’t say “4 for 4” after the movie.

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Okay but doesn’t your dad like Terrence Malick and poetic films and foreign language films? This looks like a cool supernatural road-trip movie.

Yes, but that isn’t the problem. He loves all sorts of movies. If it was a cool supernatural road-trip movie he probably would have liked it a lot more actually, but it wasn’t.

So what is it?

A good idea that had no ending that someone greenlighted anyway.

So the ending is bad?

The ending is so bad it invalidates the whole film.

Okay. but back up. Is it good before the ending?

Ehhhhhh

???

Let me start from the beginning. [Warning: Spoiler Alerts ahead!] So the story is about Alton, who is a little boy (super cute Jaeden Lieberher) with unusual abilities. He can shoot lasers out of his eyes, bring down satellites, create bomb-thingies, scream out government coordinate thingies, and a lot of other random thingies. And that’s all you’ll ever know about that. A cult living on a ranch is created after they hear him speaking random numbers, and somehow sermons are created from the numbers.

????

Exactly. So the government sends Kylo Ren to find Alton, who is on the run with his father, Roy (a good, but somewhat muted Michael Shannon), mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, who is reduced to looking mildly upset), and their friend Lukas (Joel Edgerton.) Their mission is to get Alton to a field, which they have been planning for for years, yet the day before they get there, Alton tells them what will actually happen when they get there.

That sounds cool, though.

Yeah, until the end when Alton and his mom finally get to their destination and all that happens is that Tomorrowland from Tomorrowland shows up, Alton goes off with some misty alien dudes (misty because the special effects budget ran out,) and Sarah looks mildly unhappy, cuts her hair to signify change, and Lukas and Roy go to jail.

The end.

So was Alton an alien the whole time?

WE NEVER KNOW. All he says is he is “from the future” and “a distant time” and he doesn’t belong here and his parents act like this seems reasonable, odd since they gave birth to him.

So Alton was a plot MacGuffin! I figured the movie out. It was an artistic statement.

No. Sorry, you didn’t figure it out. A plot MacGuffin works if in the end it doesn’t matter. The journey is what matters. EXCEPT THE JOURNEY HERE DOESN’T MATTER IF WE DON’T KNOW WHAT ALTON IS. The journey is fairly entertaining, and I am a huge sucker for road trip movies, but the motivation, the character’s sympathy, all rests on figuring out what Alton is. When it turns out it doesn’t matter, the journey is useless, the characters are as unreachable as ever, and why the heck did we even bother?

Maybe it was a political statement.

Don’t you dare use that line on me, that is my line and it does not apply here.

Okay, so the ending was bad, making the whole movie’s plot bad. Were there any redeeming things?

The acting was good. Even though the characters were hard to relate too, they were all well-acted. The style of the film was nice. The world-building, with the simple ways the deep south was represented, was subtle. And I really enjoyed a lot of the action. The car chase at the end and the kidnapping of Alton were really exciting and kept me on the edge of my seat. I also really liked Adam Driver’s performance (save for some of his plot conveniences, casually explained by the screenwriter as, “Look! He’s a nerd! He could obviously figure this out!”)

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Adam Driver plays a nerdy government worker that creates plot conveniences?

Yes.

Okay, so should I see it?

If you like Jeff Nichols, go see it. If you like road trip movies with random endings, go see it. If you like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, don’t see it. And if you’re like all the critics who are praising this movie for its vagueness, go see it.

What if I need to choose between seeing this movie and another movie?

Choose the other movie.

What if that other movie is God’s Not Dead 2?

Then, for the love of cinema, save your money for The Jungle Book.

-Madeleine D