Downsizing (Norway / USA / 15A / 135 mins)
Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Rolf Lassgard.
THE PLOT: Occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) is facing a grim future with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). The bank is chasing them and they could lose their home. Then a solution comes in the form of downsizing – literally. A revolutionary new technique developed by Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) allows humans to be shrunk to five inches tall. The point being that ‘going small’ could be the solution to overpopulation, as small people can live like kings and their money can go much further. Paul goes through with the downsizing procedure, but Audrey pulls out in a panic. Adrift in a new world of small people, Paul tries to connect with gregarious neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and bossy, peg-legged Vietnamese dissident Ngoc (Hong Chau)…
THE VERDICT: ‘Downsizing’ is indie director Alexander’s Payne’s first foray into larger films, with visual effects playing an important part. Given the nature of the story, the considerable resources of a studio are required. Hence, Paramount have footed the bill for this film – but the figures speak for themselves (the film was a big flop in the US). It’s an unhappy marriage for the usually more considered and careful director, with the core problem lying in the story.
Payne’s script with long-time collaborator Jim Taylor never really settles on what it wants to be. If anything, you get three films for the price of one here. It starts as a satire, shifts gears into a social commentary and then rounds off with a doomsday romance. These tonal shifts are awkwardly handled by Payne and Taylor, never gelling together coherently. The film never really recovers from the amusing and intriguing first act, as it then wanders off in other directions to give it all some sort of meaning. It’s a film that’s very much in search of a plot.
The general lethargy in the writing stretches to the characters too, most of whom are unlikeable oddballs like Dusan or dullards like Paul (not one of Damon’s most memorable performances). The one ray of light here is Ngoc, brilliantly played by Chau. She’s by far the best thing about this muddled film. Her character has suffered, having been miniaturised as punishment by the Vietnamese authorities. Even in her broken, almost-squeaky-voiced English, she knows the truth of herself and her situation. Any scene with her is a delight and she easily steals the film.
While done well and seamlessly, the visual effects are a distraction from the problems in the story. Payne has always been a sharp writer of character – ‘Sideways’ in particular. Perhaps it’s because he’s co-written an original story for a change rather than adapting one. While his imagination is commendable and the concept is amusing, something has definitely been lost – a voice. The voice of a director who is usually loud and clear. ‘Downsizing’ is a mini misfire that doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. A disappointment.
RATING: 2 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Early Man (UK / France / PG / 88 mins)
Directed by Nick Park. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes.
THE PLOT: A long time ago, in a valley far, far away… Well, outside Manchester anyway. Caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne) lives in peace with his Stone Age tribe, lead by ancient wise one Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall). Dug is a dreamer, curious about his ancestors who first settled there. The arrival of sneering Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) turns things upside down though. Nooth and his tribe are of the Bronze Age and are keen to move in. Not if Dug has anything to say about it. Wide-eyed Dug discovers the wonders of a game called football and Nooth’s apparently unbeatable team, Real Bronzio. Along with his pig/dog Hognob and Goona (Maisie Williams), a girl who is barred from playing, Dug challenges Nooth to an epic football game that will decide who is the boss…
THE VERDICT: Working from a self-described ‘shed in Bristol’, Aardman Animations have been creating handmade animated films for decades. There have been dalliances with Hollywood that didn’t quite work (the computer generated ‘Flushed Away’), but their commitment to keeping the British end up is admirable, in much the same way as Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Their latest stop-motion wonder is ‘Early Man’ which sees their frontman, Nick Park, taking on sole directing duties for the first time.
The story is quite simple, consisting of some minor tribal squabbles mixed in with some animal humour (a giant duck, a delirious bunny) and a lovingly local devotion to the beautiful game (there’s a great line from a pundit about a certain football team). Football is very much at the heart of this thoroughly historically inaccurate but fun film. Its contemporary qualities only make it more amusing. There’s a certain charm to the story, which should delight children and entertain adults in equal measure. Like Pixar, Aardman have the ability to cross generations with a universal story.
The characters are animated in that distinctive Aardman rustic goofiness, all big teeth and wide eyes, but each having their own personality. The voice casting is a bit odd though. It’s a little obvious to have a French villain in a post-Brexit film (why not a posh Londoner?). It’s also a bit too Monty Python, especially when you consider how outrageously fake the French accents are (Williams’ ow-you-zay accent sounds more American than French). These are minor quibbles though, for the film has enough heart and visually inventive humour to get by on. Not quite classic Aardman, but the charming ‘Early Man’ still rocks the Stone Age.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Last Flag Flying (USA / 15A / 124 mins)
Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson.
THE PLOT: Barman Sal (Bryan Cranston) is surprised one evening when an old face turns up – sadsack Larry (Steve Carell). Both of them served as Marines in the Vietnam War. Time has moved on though and it’s now 2003, with Saddam Hussein just recently captured. The two catch up and rope in third former Marine Richard (Laurence Fishburne), now a Reverend with a bad leg and a dedicated congregation. Larry’s son has been killed in action in Iraq and would like Sal and Richard to join him in laying him to rest. Larry resists the honour of burying his 21-year-old son in Arlington Cemetery, so the trio bond on a road trip to bring the body back to where it really belongs – home…
THE VERDICT: Richard Linklater’s latest film Last Flag Flying arrives with little promotional fanfare, but it’s a quietly powerful character piece that should resonate with audiences. On its surface, it could have been a flag-waving statement of American patriotism or a political condemnation of a controversial war. Leave that to someone more like Oliver Stone, even if his voice is blunted these days. Linklater is more interested in the fall-out of the Iraq War on a father who has to bury his young son. It’s a more human story which has a great deal of humour at its core.
Based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, it’s a spiritual sequel to the writer’s own The Last Detail, which was itself adapted into an acclaimed Jack Nicholson film in 1973. Ponicsan co-wrote the screenplay for Last Flag Flying with Ponicsan, filling it with characters and incidents that are typical of a road movie. There are conflicts with the military, flirtations with women, roads that lead down different paths in life, bust-ups and make-ups. Nothing too surprising or revelatory then, with the characters changing only slightly during the journey. A bit more change would have been welcome, just to round out the characters more.
Each of the three characters are wildly different from each other, with time catching up on them in ways they hadn’t quite imagined. Flawed yes, but there’s an innate decency to them which is why they come across as supporting each other so well. Cranston has said that he knows guys like Sal and was able to project that into his performance. It’s a rugged but agreeable performance. Carell tones down the flamboyance for a grieving father that shows his range for dramatic roles, while old reliable Fishburne is a force of nature (or God). Linklater’s direction is straightforward, taking a backseat so that his trio of actors can take centre stage. It may lack Linklater’s usually strong directorial stamp, but Last Flag Flying is still a journey worth taking.
RATING: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Attraction (Russia / 15A / 132 mins)
Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk. Starring Irina Starshenbaum, Alexander Petrov, Rinal Mukhametov, Oleg Menshikov.
THE PLOT: Teenager Yulya (Irina Starshenbaum) has always been a stargazer. She’s about to have a close encounter of her own kind soon enough. During a meteor shower, an alien spacecraft approaches Moscow and is shot down by the military. During the crash, it causes immense damage to the district and kills Yulya’s best friend. Her military father Colonel Lebedev (Oleg Menshikov) is put in charge and the district goes into lockdown, with curfews and a growing resistance against a truce between the humans and the aliens. It’s at this point that Yulya encounters apparently humanoid alien Hijken (Alexander Petrov)…
THE VERDICT: Russian sci-fi has a long and distinguished history, going back to Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’. It tends to be more thought-based and culturally infused with a Russian sense of weighty themes. More recent efforts have included the frankly bonkers ‘Night Watch’ and ‘Day Watch’. The latest contribution is ‘Attraction’, an unlikely-sounding title for an ostensibly doomsday film. That is, except for the fact that it isn’t really a doomsday film. Its closest American comrades would be John Carpenter’s ‘Starman’ and ‘The Abyss’.
The film starts as an alien spacecraft shaped like an eye with the rings of Jupiter spinning around it crashes into Moscow. It’s a spectacular and literally eye-catching sequence which, ruble for ruble, matches anything Hollywood could stage. Following this, the story could have gone down an immediate and obvious Us vs Them route of conflict that so many alien invasion films follow. Instead, director Fedor Bondarchuk contrasts the epic with the intimate, as Yulya sets aside her prejudices and accepts that she may hold the key to an inter-species understanding.
For the most part, the story works and Bondarchuk keeps the busy plot moving with a sense of urgency. Well, except for a sagging mid-section which unnecessarily slows down to a trickle as Hijken and Yulya wander off to discover what it means to be human. It might work in Russia, but it comes across as too cutesy and convenient here in the decadent west. Maybe something was lost in the translation.
Bondarchuk uses the large IMAX 3D canvas in much the same way as his explosive previous film, Stalingrad. He scatters clouds of ashes, debris and chunks of buildings all over the place with glee while staging some ordered chaos involving large crowds. It’s a visual feast for sure, with quality production values to match. The performances are pretty good too, lead by Brie Larson-lookalike Starshenbaum. While not a classic slice of Russian sci-fi cinema, ‘Attraction’ has its moments and is meaty enough to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.
RATING: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (USA / 12A / 141 mins)
Directed by Wes Ball. Starring Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Ki Hong Lee.
THE PLOT: Gladers Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) have set out to rescue their remaining friends, including Minho (Ki Hong Lee), from the nefarious hands of WCKD. Ava (Patricia Clarkson) and her right-hand man Janson (Aidan Gillen) want to use the survivors as guinea pigs to find a cure for the Flare virus, which has turned two-thirds of the human population into rabid zombies. Thomas has a choice to run for safety or to confront WCKD and the traitor in their midst – former Glader Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). A reckoning is coming… but will there be enough time?
THE VERDICT: Adaptations of Young Adult novels peaked a few years ago, but have slowly died off. The ‘Divergent’ series barely dodged a bullet in the head, with the fourth film pawned off to a TV movie instead. These are expensive films to make, so they have to deliver. With ‘The Maze Runne’r series, it’s very much the same kettle of fish. Great first film, a middling second film that nearly flatlined and now a just-about-OK conclusion with ‘The Death Cure’.
Returning director Wes Ball wisely made the decision to only do ‘The Death Cure’ if it was one film. The temptation to split the final book by James Dashner into two films (for more profit?) clearly didn’t work for ‘Divergent’, so what we have is essentially a conclusion over a longer running time. The good stuff involves the acting, which is consistently good across the trilogy. The younger actors play off well against more established talent like Clarkson, Gillen, Barry Pepper and Giancarlo Esposito. There is a clear drive in the plot too, which has more direction than The Scorch Trials and less of the meandering around in the wasteland.
The not-so-good stuff boils down to the fact that once out of The Glade, the characters and outside environment involving The Last City where WCKD have their ivory tower just isn’t as interesting as before. There’s a lot of rushing around corridors, shoot-outs, explosions in crumbling buildings and predictable last-minute saves. All stuff we’ve seen before, so Ball has nothing new to add here. The near-year-long hiatus in production to allow O’Brien to recover from an on-set injury sure didn’t go to the script. Well, except for one ballsy, stand-out sequence involving a bus which prompts the only laugh in the film.
Despite some good action, nothing quite matches the intensity and surprises of the first film. Looking behind the wizard’s curtain might not have been so wise, but that’s the nature of diminishing returns in film trilogies (a similar fate befell ‘The Hunger Games’). ‘The Death Cure’ is passable enough, but it’s a by-the-numbers film aimed more at fans eagerly anticipating a sequel rather than casual viewers. Not so a-mazing.
RATING: 2.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor