Saturday, December 30, 2017


STARS: Matt Damon,  Hong Chau,  Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
GENRE: Comedy/Drama

For viewing Downsizing, I'm suggesting you adopt a totally different mindset. One you would enter when preparing for a sitting meditation. You don't get the full effect of meditation until afterwards. In between, your mind may wander. You might feel bored. But if you're patient and hang in there, you'll find yourself in something of an altered state. And altered states are what Downsizing is (literally) all about. 

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are a lower middle class couple dissatisfied with their station in life. When a scientific breakthrough allows humans to be shrunk to around five inches tall and live in doll house communities with others who have undergone the procedure, the implications for the planet are huge. Something I've harped on for decades--that all of the world's major problems can be traced back to overpopulation--is at the heart of this film's premise. With people taking up much less space and using fewer resources, and polluting on a much smaller scale, perhaps Mother Earth could begin to recover. It doesn't hurt that a family of modest means can live like kings in the new scaled-down world either. 

Paul, who's a hapless kind of dude who is just trying to roll with the punches of life (many can relate), sees brighter days ahead, and undergoes the shrinking procedure. His wife balks at the last minute, and leaves him in this brave new world all on his own. 

He's going to learn that everything from the macro  pretty much transfers to the micro. People are people wherever you go. When slum tenements are shown, it's something of an epiphany. As above, so below. There is no utopia.

What makes Paul's journey (and this film) memorable is the relationship he develops with a hobbled Vietnamese woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). She pulls no punches, and will lead him to come to terms with who he is...and who he ultimately wants to be. (And Hong Chau is going to win something for this performance!)

While comedic elements abound--one of them is Christoph Waltz as Paul's free-spirited neighbor (the other memorable turn here)--the end of this visually and emotionally stunning film left me meditating on the ultimate fate of mankind. Will we wake up in time to save ourselves...or continue down the current path to self-destruction? 

That's a movie coming soon from a future generation.

Grade:  A


Watching Downsizing brought me back to a time when I was obsessed with building a doll house. Everything normally used for what it was meant to be used for became something else: white bottle caps were tables, pennies turned into patio pavers, etc. So when these pint-sized people began appearing, I loved it.

At first, I thought the movie was going to be about Damon's relationship with his decidedly larger wife. (Whose decision not to miniaturize herself was one I definitely identified with!) Then it became another movie – about Damon's survival in his strange and sterile environment. And lastly, the movie morphed into yet another Cocoon like tale. Too disjointed for me. And I'm not comfortable with too many plots. Or too much overt preaching.

I, too, think Hong Chau will be nominated for her brilliant performance. And it's not the first time director and co-writer Alexander Payne has introduced us to an Asian lady with acting chops. Remember Sandra Oh in Sideways? (Granted Oh is Korean and Chau is from Thailand but you get my drift....)

And Christoph Waltz has always been one of my favorites. I remember when he received a Best Supporting Actor award for his role in Inglourious Basterds as a totally evil, totally believable Nazi. I half expected him to be equally evil in person. Quite the opposite. He was humble, almost shy in his acceptance speech.

But I felt Downsizing dragged in spots, especially towards the end. It's not the first time shrinking humans have been depicted in a film (Meet Dave with Eddie Murphy, Tooth Fairy with Dwayne Johnson, Gulliver's Travels with Jack Black, etc.) I'm sure it won't be the last. I just hope next time, the movie will stick to one theme.

Grade: B-

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Rated:  R

STARS: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
GENRE: Drama/Sci-fi/Fantasy

The Shape of Water wants to be an endearing movie. It tries really hard. It wants to be E.T.  It wants to be La La Land. It wants to be Creature From The Black Lagoon.  It wants to be Beauty And The Beast. That's too many films for me to keep track of in my head.  It wants to be poetic...and yet there's an overabundance of gore. It's like having Freddy Krueger reciting Emily Dickinson at the end. What the hell was that? Bottom line, it doesn't know what it wants to be.

Elisa Espisoto (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaning lady who hears just fine but doesn't speak. She works at a secret government lab that is housing an "Amphibian Man" who looks a lot like the Gill Man from Creature From The Black Lagoon. The merman was captured in the Amazon by government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who gets his kicks by abusing the poor thing with a cattle prod. (Fish Guy gets a measure of revenge by biting off a couple of Strickland's fingers.) The evil fed wants to kill the amphibian (played by Doug Jones) and study him like a dead frog in a biology lab. Strickland is opposed by scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who wants to keep the scaly being alive. It's 1962--in the thick of the cold war--and a subplot has the Russians trying to get their mitts on Amphibian Man for their own nefarious purposes.

Elisa, being an outcast herself, repeatedly sneaks into the chamber (security seems to be really lax for an "asset" of this magnitude) where the creature sits in a tank tethered by a chain around its neck. She and Amphibian Man hit it off right away. Cut to the chase: An escape plan must be hatched, as the creature's days are numbered. With the help of Elisa's unemployed artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she springs the fishy dude from his confines (like I said, security is really lax) and takes him to her abode. That's where the real fun begins, as Elisa ends up naked in the shower with him and discovers he's a lot more like a regular guy than meets the eye!

Okay...The Shape of Water is a fantasy, so anything goes. But to buy into it hook, line and sinker, the willing suspension of disbelief must kick in. That was hard for me because Amphibian Man looks sorta like Frankie Valli in a wet suit with barnacles hanging off him. At no point are you going to think it looks like anything but an actor dressed up in a cheesy rubber costume--a la those laughable creature features from the fifties. The only reason I can imagine why  director Guillermo del Toro--in this era of CGI wizardry--chose to go this low tech would be as a way of paying homage to that era of cinema, which he seems to love.

But The Shape of Water does have its visual delights, and one of them is Sally Hawkins. They've got her made up to look really plain--as befitting a lowly toilet cleaner--but they couldn't hide her light under a bushel for the whole movie, and that becomes abundantly clear when she strips down for the steamy shower scene.

There are aural delights as well, with a big band flavored soundtrack from Alexandre Desplat. There's Andy Williams, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and a silky rendition of "You'll Never Know" from opera singer Renee Fleming.

Nice touches...but not enough to make me gush about this movie.

Grade:  C +


Finally. Tim and I disagree! I found The Shape Of Water to be absolutely brilliant, even Oscar-worthy. (Hell, it's already nominated for seven Golden Globes.) For starters, the opening underwater sequence deserves a special award for its dank and delightful originality. I was not prepared to like this film since sci-fi and/or fantasy is not one of my favorite genres. But I'm so glad I allowed myself to see it!

The girl I went with, a visitor from Oregon, liked it too. But afterwards, she mentioned how similar this creature was to the creature in Hellboy. I later looked up that movie and was blown away by the physical similarities. And the fact that both films were directed by Guillermo del Toro!

I do agree with Tim about the lax security. But by then, I was hooked on saving the poor creature from any more cattle-prodding. And since Tim gave away the finger chomping bit, another friend pointed out how the smell of rotting flesh would have been apparent to both Agent Strickland and anyone else long before those blackened digits departed. Sure, there were a lot of implausible scenes in the The Shape of Water but romances between humans and non-humans have worked for a long, long time. (Beauty and the BeastPhantom of the OperaKing Kong, etc.)

The Russian plot was, for me, unnecessary. But I did find it interesting that the roles played by the two Michaels (Shannon and Stuhlbarg) were reversals of the roles they played in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." In that one, Stuhlbarg played mafia boss Arnold Rothstein and Shannon was a bumbling FBI agent. And Richard Jenkins, who never turns in a bad performance, was superb. (I wept for him at the end.)

Grade: A