Downsizing movie review

For inSing

DOWNSIZING

Director : Alexander Payne
Cast : Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård
Genre : Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2h 15 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In this sci-fi comedy-drama, Matt Damon discovers that it’s a small world after all. And as the song goes, it is indeed a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hopes, and a world of fears.

Damon plays occupational therapist Paul Safranek. It is the near-future, and Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) has devised a revolutionary procedure known as ‘downsizing’. In a bid to solve the world’s overpopulation crisis, those who sign up for the irreversible procedure are shrunken down to a height of five inches. While downsizing is controversial, it is also touted as helping to save the planet. One’s personal net worth and apparently, quality of life also increases exponentially.

Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) sign up to be downsized, after Paul is convinced by his high school classmate Dave (Jason Sudeikis) who, along with his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe) has become small. Paul and Audrey are set to move into the luxurious small community Leisureland. However, Audrey gets cold feet, and doesn’t go through with the procedure at the last minute, stranding a now-small Paul in Leisureland.

Paul gradually gets accustomed to his new life, and befriends his party animal upstairs neighbour, Serbian businessman Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a housecleaner hired by Dusan. Lan Tran is a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will. As Paul gets to know her better and visits the run-down dormitory tower populated by immigrant workers where Lan Tran stays, his eyes are opened to a world beyond his own. Eventually, considering an earth-shattering development, Paul must make the biggest choice of his life.

Director Alexander Payne, who also cowrote the film with Jim Taylor, is known for comedy-dramas that are slightly quirky but otherwise down-to-earth – films like Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and About Schmidt. Downsizing is his most outlandish effort yet, a sci-fi social satire with a wild premise that promises to tackle big ideas.

The setup works well: the world-building is amusing and well thought-out, and the film makes the concept of downsizing seem plausible within its reality. Textural elements like the Leisureland sales pitch, featuring cameos by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern, work as a riff on American consumerism. There are many delightful visual gags – typically involving everyday objects rendered absurdly large next to the now-tiny characters.

The production design by Stefania Cella is clever and subtly eye-catching. Rolfe Kent’s score is a joy to listen to, and highlights the inherent absurdity of the premise. The societal implications of downsizing and its implementation seem key to the plot at first, but gradually get pushed aside.

The film veers in a direction that seems like the wrong one, squandering its intriguing set-up. Yes, this centres around the Ngoc Lan Tran character, who has become controversial in her own right. While Hong Chau’s performance has been praised, and she was recently nominated for a Golden Globe, it seems that many poor decisions were made in the writing of the character.

Just like elsewhere in the film, the Lan Tran character has great potential – she’s a Vietnamese refugee who was forcibly downsized in prison, then escapes to America as a stowaway. Chau draws on her own past as the child of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees in portraying the character. However, it’s soon clear that Lan Tran is a caricature. She speaks in heavily-accented broken English, and this is treated as inherently funny. Her speech and mannerisms overshadow any complexity the character has.

The dynamic that develops between her and Paul ends up in a disappointing place. As this bond progresses, Lan Tran also takes on the role of ‘ethnic person spirit guide’ to Paul, showing him that there’s a world outside his relatively privileged bubble, and opening his mind. It’s no fault of Chau’s, who has defended the character as multi-faceted and well-written. However, as much as Payne and Taylor get right in the writing of Lan Tran, they make several more missteps.

Paul is hardly compelling, and ends up as little more than another guy in a movie going through a midlife crisis. He’s an ordinary guy placed in an extraordinary circumstance, but the character’s folksy “golly gee, gosh darn” earnestness rings false. While Damon may have been relatable, his recent public reactions to Hollywood scandals have eroded that somewhat. The original casting of Paul Giamatti might have worked better.

Waltz hams it up and is visibly enjoying himself as the aging playboy whose main goal in life is to enjoy himself. The pairing of Waltz and Udo Kier, a fellow European actor often typecast as scary villains, is effective and entertaining. Alas, despite being billed on the poster, Wiig is barely in the film at all.

Downsizing’s reach exceeds its grasp, and while it plants seeds early on that could grow into something fascinating, it seems to bolt in the opposite direction, becoming a story centred around a boring guy and his mundane epiphanies. This reviewer enjoys science fiction in the context of social commentary, but it’s tricky to pull off well. Downsizing makes a few miniscule steps in the right direction, but stumbles before our eyes.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Colossal

For F*** Magazine

COLOSSAL 

Director : Nacho Vigalondo
Cast : Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Genre : Sci-Fi/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Coarse Language And Some Violence)

In this sci-fi dark comedy-drama, Anne Hathaway learns that the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Hathaway plays Gloria, an alcoholic out-of-work writer whose irresponsibility has led to her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) breaking up with her. After getting kicked out of their house by Tim, Gloria moves back to Maidenhead, the small Midwestern town where she grew up. Her childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis) helps Gloria get back on her feet, offering her a job at his bar. Gloria becomes acquainted with Oscar’s friends Joel (Stowell) and Garth (Nelson), developing a romantic interest in Joel. When a giant bipedal reptilian monster appears out of nowhere to terrorise Seoul, Gloria comes to the startling revelation that she is controlling the creature. At a specific time every day, the monster materialises in South Korea, and mirrors Gloria’s physical actions. As Gloria processes this surreal turn of events, her personal relationships take similarly unexpected turns.

There is a film franchise centred on giant robots, which releases its fifth instalment this year and has the tagline “more than meets the eye”. While there’s often less than meets the eye with that film series, there’s far more to Colossal than one might think. Colossal comes from writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, who helmed the mind-bending Spanish-language film Timecrimes and the experimental techno-thriller Open Windows. Colossal’s zany premise of a kaiju that just happens to be controlled by a random American woman is only its first layer of weirdness. By the film’s end, it’s evident that this is not a movie that is weird solely for the sake of being weird. The film’s genre-defying nature plus its blend of comedy and genuinely unsettling drama might alienate some viewers, but it adds up to a uniquely compelling whole.

Colossal has been marketed as a quirky comedy; its trailer scored with light-hearted music and its cutesy poster depicting Hathaway scratching her head, with the monster standing behind her, doing the same. While the inherent absurdity of the premise does lead to some laughs, Colossal winds up in an unexpectedly dark, dramatic place. As characters’ back-stories and motivations come to light, things suddenly feel a lot more serious than they did earlier in the film. Rather than feeling like whiplash, this trajectory is earned. The story is gripping enough for this reviewer to go along with – even given an explanation for the film’s central phenomenon which requires more suspension of disbelief than usual.

The film’s budget is estimated at around $15 million, which is a paltry sum compared to summer blockbusters than can cost upwards of $150 million. Vigalondo smartly allocates his resources, and the visual effects spectacle holds up sufficiently well. The climactic sequence, which includes scenes of the South Korean army ushering panicked civillians to safety, is more riveting than this reviewer thought it would be.

Hathaway is goofy and endearing, but is also able to evince the hidden conflict within Gloria. The attractive woman whose life has spun out of control thanks to a drinking habit could well be the lead character of an insufferable sitcom, but like with other aspects of the film, Colossal takes that archetype and builds it out in a surprising way.

It’s difficult to meaningfully discuss Colossal without giving too much away, so skip past this paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers – we’ll try to be vague. This is likely the most depth Sudeikis has been able to display in his acting career. The Oscar character starts out as your standard ‘nice guy’ character, but the cracks begin to form. As defined in various think-pieces, the ‘nice guy’ is a man who gives the appearance of being thoughtful and caring while pursuing women, and who becomes bitter and resentful when his advances are rebuffed. The deconstruction of this trope as performed by Sudeikis is visceral, sorrowful and engenders just the right strain of uneasiness.

 

Stevens’ supporting role is a minor one, but he does get to retain his English accent. The friction that arises from the initial friendliness shared by Gloria, Oscar, Joel and Garth in the bar unfolds in believable fashion.

It is perhaps ironic that Colossal’s producers were sued by Toho Studios, who claimed the film was too similar to their flagship kaiju Godzilla. There are superficial similarities in that Colossal, like Godzilla, features a monster stomping about an Asian metropolis. However, the underlying allegory is completely different, and Vigalondo’s boldness in crafting a film that defies classification pays off, in that it is far from a jumbled mess. Colossal not only breaks the mould, it stomps on it with insouciant defiance.

Summary: Colossal is an odd beast, but the weirdness that fuels it belies surprising depth, salient social commentary and emotional resonance.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Masterminds

For F*** Magazine

MASTERMINDS

Director : Jared Hess
Cast : Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Ken Marino
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 35min
Opens : 3 November 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Sexual References)

masterminds-posterMost movies and TV shows would have you believe that criminals need meticulous, elaborate planning to get away with grand larceny. It turns out that some real-life criminals who weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer made out with a whole lot of cash. This is their story (with additions in the name of comedic license that we trust are minor in nature).

It is 1997, and David Ghantt (Galifianakis) is an armoured car driver working for cash handling company Loomis Fargo. He is engaged to Jandice (McKinnon), but his true affections lie with his colleague Kelly Campbell (Wiig). When Kelly’s friend Steve Chambers (Wilson) hatches a plot to rob the Loomis Fargo vault, they rope David in to do the actual dirty work of making away with the cash. The robbery is a success and David escapes to Mexico, leaving the bulk of the cash with Steve. However, Steve intends to double-cross David, and hires a hitman named Mike McKinney (Sudeikis) to take care of David. Meanwhile, FBI special agent Scanlon (Jones) is hot on the trail of the thieves. With their extravagant spending, Steve and his wife Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) aren’t exactly lying low.

Masterminds is, incredibly enough, based on a true story. The perpetrators stole a staggering $17.3 million, approximately $2 million of which is still unaccounted for. The direction taken by director Jared Hess, best known for cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite, is full-tilt silliness. While said silliness does yield some laughs, it also detracts from the ‘this really happened’ quotient, leaving the realm of strange-but-true and entering the land of over-the-top slapstick hijinks. With jokes that seem like they were written in a hurry, set pieces that are big but not overly complicated and an assortment of wigs and goofy facial hair, Masterminds is wont to remind audiences of Saturday Night Live. Most of the cast members are SNL alums, and SNL creator Lorne Michaels is a producer. Like SNL these days, Masterminds is a hit and miss affair.

masterminds-kristen-wiig-and-zach-galifianakis

Hess has wrangled a talented, funny cast. This might not be a highlight of any of their résumés, but because the actors seem to be having a fair amount of fun, the audience does too. David is a standard-issue Galifianakis character: the well-intentioned doofus. There’s more bodily function humour than there needs to be and we get a nigh-inordinate amount of Galifianakis bumping into or dropping things, but Galifianakis is charming enough. Maybe “charming” isn’t the right word, but you catch our drift.

masterminds-owen-wilson-and-kristen-wiig

Kelly Chambers seems like a role Jennifer Aniston would be great at playing, which is not a knock on Wiig. Wiig is often cast as awkward, endearing women, and in this film she’s entertainingly brazen and confident. Wilson plays a character with a sinister bent, which is slightly outside his wheelhouse, but not too much is asked of him.

masterminds-jason-sudeikis-and-zach-galifianakis

Sudeikis’ inept hitman is a scene-stealer, but one can’t help but think that the filmmakers missed an opportunity here. If it were an actor not known for his comedic chops, perhaps one closely identified with the action/thriller genres, it would be more novel and surprising. McKinnon’s role is relatively small, but she does provide a healthy number of laughs, playing a somewhat creepy, unbalanced woman. The presence of Jones as a no-nonsense Fed means that three out of four of the reboot Ghostbusters are present and accounted for. Bit of a shame that all three don’t share a scene together, or that Melissa McCarthy doesn’t get a cameo. Ken Marino is at the centre of the film’s most inspired visual gag.

masterminds-kate-mckinnon-and-zach-galifianakis

The film was pushed back a year because of Relativity Pictures’ financial woes. Masterminds doesn’t seem like something everyone was clamouring for, but it ends up being inconsequential rather than egregiously bad. This story of working class folk from North Carolina robbing a bank and getting away with it would make for great satire, but Masterminds settles for the most obvious low-hanging fruit at every turn. That’s not to say it’s completely unfunny, but it is unsatisfying. It’s hard to shake the feeling of “is that it?” as the film concludes.masterminds-leslie-jones

Summary: Even with its funny cast, Masterminds is middling rather than brilliant, passing up incisive social commentary for lazy humour. We will admit to laughing more than a few times, though.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Angry Birds Movie

For F*** Magazine

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 

Director : Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis
Cast : Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Blake Shelton
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 97 mins
Opens : 26 May 2016
Rating : PG

Red feathers at morning, pigs take warning. In this animated comedy, we become acquainted with Red (Sudeikis), a resident of Bird Island who has trouble keeping his temper in check. After a particularly bad flare-up, Judge Peckinpah (Key) sentences Red to anger management classes. The classes are conducted by Matilda (Rudolph), and Red eventually befriends the jittery Chuck (Gad), Bomb (McBride), prone to literally exploding when he gets upset, and the gigantic, constantly growling Terence (Penn). Out of the blue, Bird Island receives visitors in the form of green pigs, led by Leonard (Hader). Claiming to be peaceful explorers, the newcomers are received with open arms by all of Bird Island’s residents – apart from Red, who harbours his suspicions. Red is proven right when it turns out that the pigs intend to steal and eat all of the birds’ eggs. Red, Chuck and Bomb seek the advice of the Mighty Eagle (Dinklage), a mythical hero whose glory days are far behind him. In retaliation, the denizens of Bird Island stage an attack on Piggy Island to rescue their unborn offspring.

            The Angry BirdsMovie is an adaptation of the mobile game developed by Rovio, which became a cultural phenomenon around 5-6 years ago. Beyond the point that this might be flapping its way into theatres a tad late, there is another elephant bird in the room. Large swathes of the internet are convinced that the film is a thinly-veiled anti-immigration screed. It seems far-fetched that a kids’ movie based on a puzzle game might be politicised, but it’s not absurd on its face. The villains are insidious foreigners with a hidden agenda, their leader is sporting a curly beard, they arrive bearing gifts and the promise of peace, and our hero is the one guy who suspects all is not as it seems. Alternatively, it’s an anti-colonialist message, with the pigs as the conquistadors who have arrived to bamboozle the locals and make off with their resources. Naturally, the makers of the film won’t confirm or deny the hypotheses outright. It slingshots right over the heads of the young target audience, but it’s something to mull over – or just chuckle about – all the same.

            Past the possible political commentary, Angry Birds is very much a serviceable, run-of-the-mill animated comedy. There are reasonably well-known comic actors in the voice cast, cloyingly cutesy baby characters, getting-crap-past-the-radar jokes to make the adults snicker, and the inclusion of pop songs aplenty. The birds might be flightless, but a surprisingly high number of the jokes land. Amidst the more questionable gags, like a Fifty Shades of Grey reference and scatological humour, there’s a litany of groan-inducing puns – think “Kevin Bacon in Hamlet”, “Calvin Swine underwear” and “The Birds and the Bees Fertility Clinic”. Screenwriter Jon Vitti is a Simpsons alum who also penned the first two Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, so one kind of knows what to expect jokes-wise. There is a niggling sense that a lot of the jokes were cooked up by a writer’s room of stand-up comics roped in to do a last-minute punch-up. It’s also not terribly original: one scene borrows the “most annoying sound” joke from Dumb and Dumber, while another lifts the Quicksilver kitchen sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past wholesale.

            Angry Birds may be markedly unsophisticated, but its protagonist does go a good way to making it work. Red is flawed, a bitterly anti-social loner whose deep-seated issues stem from a childhood of neglect (he was orphaned) and bullying. Sudeikis doesn’t phone it in and ends up being pretty engaging as Red, allowing the viewer to sympathise with his myriad frustrations. Gad essentially reprises Olaf from Frozen, while McBride is reasonably cuddly as the gentle giant who just can’t help his outbursts. Dinklage is an absolute hoot as the Mighty Eagle, a widely-admired Wizard of Oz type who turns out to be out of shape and comically ineffectual – wait, the Bald Eagle is the national bird of which country, again?

            Hader could stand to be a little – yes, we’re going there – hammier in his role as the big bad of the piece. Leonard and his fellow pigs want to consume unborn children – it would’ve been interesting to see the movie acknowledge just how dark this is. And hiring Oscar winner Penn to grunt and growl seems even more puzzling than having Vin Diesel’s only lines be “I am Groot”. Penn taped all his, uh, “dialogue” in one recording session and co-director Clay Kaytis openly admits it was stunt-casting. Apparently, the film’s executive producer David Maisel is a friend of Penn’s and reached out to him. Penn, enjoying an early cut of the film (and probably not wanting to pass up the incredibly easy pay cheque), signed on.

            Angry Birds is sufficiently colourful, fast-paced and funny, such that parents won’t be tearing out their hair – though it’s likely they won’t genuinely enjoy it. It is what it is, a franchise-ready animated movie made by committee, and it really could’ve turned out significantly worse.



Summary:It’s an animated movie as ordered via corporate mandate, but The Angry Birds Movie does pack in the jokes and some lively animation. Have meaningful post-movie discussions with your kids about the supposed anti-immigration sentiment in the movie at your own risk.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Race

For F*** Magazine

RACE 

Director : Stephen Hopkins
Cast : Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice Van Houten, Barnaby Metschurat, William Hurt
Genre : Biography/Drama/Sport
Run Time : 135 mins
Opens : 3 March 2016
Rating : PG

            Rousing tales of athletes overcoming all odds in pursuit of ultimate triumph: audiences have seen them a hundred times, but we keep coming back for more. There certainly is competition for the title of “most powerful and inspiring” true story in sporting history, but that of Jesse Owens arguably leads the pack.

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens is a promising track and field star enrolled in Ohio State University, where coach Lawrence Snyder (Sudeikis), a former Olympic hopeful, takes Owens under his wing. Training religiously in between his studies and working a part-time job, Owens goes on to break three world records at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is poised to be part of the U.S. Olympic team. International Amateur Athletic Federation chairman Avery Brundage (Irons) fights a boycott of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, as Jeremiah Mahoney (Hurt), president of the Amateur Athletic Union, believes that American participation will indicate an endorsement of Nazi ideology. In the face of bigotry at home and the stoking of the fires of World War II in Europe, Owens must chase his dreams and bring home the gold.

While Owens was the subject of a 1984 made-for-TV movie starring Dorian Harewood, it’s somewhat puzzling that there hasn’t been a theatrically-released biopic made about him until now. All the ingredients for a supremely compelling story are right there, and it seems like a natural awards contender project, so it’s also somewhat puzzling that it’s being released in March, right after the Oscars actually take place. The film’s title, Race, tells you most of what you need to know about its approach. While Owens’ identity as a black man in the 30s definitely figured heavily into his career, the movie seems more concerned with being a political statement than actually shedding light on the person himself. Instead of the racial politics of the era being a backdrop to the biographical drama, it’s the other way around.

For a film about one of the most famous runners of all time, Race is often flat-footed, its handling of the talking-point big issues earnest but clumsy. There’s a predictable formula to Owens’ journey but then again, this is a sports movie and said formula exists for a reason after all. While general audiences might be fuzzy on the minutiae of Owens’ life and times, they should have a rough idea of the basics: he represents the U.S. in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, clinches four gold medals and leaves Hitler and the Nazi regime with egg on its face, discrediting the notion of non-Aryan inferiority. At 135 minutes, Race is definitely too long. Excessive time is dedicated to the subplot of whether or not the U.S. will boycott the Olympics, and the question of Owens’ participation in the Games is played for suspense, when we all know he did end up on the team. The establishing shots of Berlin are accompanied by almost-comically ominous music and there’s a lot of effort taken to demonstrate that the Nazis were evil. Well, duh.  

Young Canadian actor James, who replaces the initially-cast John Boyega, ably carries the film with a steadfast portrayal of Owens. Owens is gifted but also disciplined, yet far from superhuman and infallible. There’s a nervous energy and a welcome lack of cockiness, since star athletes are often portrayed as hybrid underdog divas. While the film surrounding him can come off as rote, there is a freshness and honesty that James brings to the table. Unfortunately, as is often the case with films of this type, the romantic subplot with Ruth (Shanice Banton), the mother to Owens’ daughter, feels largely extraneous.
The role of coach Snyder is the first major dramatic part for Saturday Night Live alum Sudeikis, and it’s always a gamble when a comedic actor wants to convince audiences that he’s got range too. As characterised here, Snyder is like any number of coaches in inspirational sports flicks past: his glory days are behind him, he’s haunted by previous failures, he sees the potential in a young person and takes it upon himself to guide said young person towards success, and of course, he’s strict but ultimately well-meaning. It’s a competent performance but one that sometimes calls attention to itself, Sudeikis occasionally giving off “look at me, I’m a serious actor now!” vibes.

Irons is reliable as usual; the subplot of Brundage’s dealings with the Nazis in the lead-up to the Olympic games might seem off to the side of Owens’ personal journey and is sometimes boring, but Irons himself isn’t. German actor David Kross is supremely sympathetic as German long-jumper Luz Long, who defies the Nazis he represents by befriending Owens.

To this reviewer, the most interesting character by a long shot is Leni Riefenstahl (Van Houten), the director tasked with filming the Games for posterity. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Metschurat) looks down on her, but Riefenstahl is undeterred by him and resolute in her artistic vision. Even though she has a relatively small role in this story, it’s fascinating to see how Riefenstahl presented Owens’ victories to the world against the wishes of her superiors. This is a pioneering filmmaker whose reputation was forever tarnished because of her close association with the Nazis and seeing her depicted in Racemade this reviewer want to watch a full biopic centring on Riefenstahl. There have been several attempts at such a project but none have come to fruition.



Race did bring this reviewer to tears, but the heart of this remarkable true story about a real American hero does often get lost in the shuffle of racial politics, historical procedure and established sports drama tropes. Hopkins helmed the far more unconventional biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, but his credits also include Predator 2, Lost in Space and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. There’s the sense that he’s going through the motions with Race, and while a Jesse Owens biopic that is less preachy yet more passionate is easier said than done, that’s the treatment the historical figure deserves.

Summary: The Jesse Owens story is too compelling to mess up entirely and Race does attempt to do its subject justice, but Stephan James’ excellent lead performance gets crowded out by heavy-handed preachiness; a certain spark missing in the storytelling.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong