“Downsized”

How an imaginative idea with such promise for comedy could turn into a sappy, moralizing mess is the truly sad tale. “We are meant for something bigger” turns both greedy needies and noble problem-fixers into a tale that switches tone after twenty minutes and loses all semblance of intent. The writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are at fault. “Five years later” and “ten years later” is jarring, even star Matt Damon looks lost. This sci-fi satire can itself be satirized.

“Downsizing” ’s premise seems simple enough: overpopulation has made the earth unsustainable. Volunteer to be a “miniputian” and have every cell reduced. Humans are reduced to 4 or 5 inches. The only side effect of going small is minor dehydration. The pluses are waste reduction and the elimination of financial anxiety. The procedure is irreversible.

After four years, thirty-six downsizers hold all their refuse in half of a regular-sized garbage bag. 152,000 dollars in home equity translates to 12.5 million in “Leisureland”, where diamond jewelry  dazzles and utility bills are low. Reduced human scale is explained in a TED talk. Motivational posters dot the walls at a high school reunion. Paul and Audrey Safranek ( Matt Damon & Kristen Wiig ) are interested since they are struggling financially and a few “reduced” former classmates are doing well and laud the procedure. With megaphones the size of toothpick they chant cheerleader fashion:  “Go get small!” The first twenty minutes are funny. I especially liked the keepsake marriage bands and the transitional therapy sessions, and the mass reduction chambers, the small group Tai Chi . There are worries about small people being able to get into the country. The movie’s concept is clever. Downsizing makes sense, but the film’s conclusion does not.

Audrey bows out at the last minute, but not before her husband is shrunk. Silly apologies and divorce ensue. A year passes and Paul begins dating a single mom. We learn that Leisureland has no birds or insects yet, and no chervil ! Then the film falls apart. Nineteen seventies disco parties with drugs and nudity are supposed to help cheer our little man from Omaha. Christoph Waltz, as the rich, partying neighbor, Dusan Murkovic, plays his part to the hilt. Pool scenes are boring, but when Paul is slipped a drug and starts dreaming of his ex, viewers are snoring. Paul passes out only to see the cleaning people enter in the morning. One cleaning lady has a limp, and Paul tries to help her. Asian actress Hong Chau plays Ngoc. The stereotyped syntax is cute, but bordering on racist. “ You come with me. help my friend, now”. “Leisureland people too selfish.”

As a Vietnamese dissident, she has lost her leg below the knee. Ngoc ministers to her community, outside of the resplendent Leisureland. Her friend, Gladys, dies and butterflies hold symbolic import. Cliches abound. Paul carries Ngoc up seven flights of tenement stairs, removes her peg leg, massages her thigh, and falls in love. They go back to Norway to the original small people colony.

There is more environmental danger. Methane gas is destabilizing the world. Only three-percent of the world has heeded the call to downsize. Nobel Prize winning scientists tell us that it will take 8,000 years for the Earth to stabilize. An underground, geo-thermally powered vault becomes Noah’s Ark. Not even lovely shots of fjords in Norway can save this picture, now. Middle Earth reigns. On the positive side, you will remember Ngoc’s bossy questions and orders. “ What kind of fuck do you give me?” “ You go down stupid hole!”

The ending spouts bromides like: “ When you know death comes soon, you look around more closely.” Get ready for the butterflies…no kidding.

Watch the trailer, and skip the movie. And, as the film says, “Don’t get short with me.”

“The Disaster Artist”

Seeing moviegoers take selfies in front of James Franco’s cardboard image of Tommy Wiseau was a tad surprising, but understandable once one experiences the paen to the writer, director, producer, and star of one of the worst movies ever made. A cult film this is, and it is fun to be a part of it.

“The Disaster Artist” lovingly mocks the making of “ The Room”, a love triangle roiling in sex scenes and the ultimate suicide. Like “ The Rocky, Horror Picture Show”, repeat viewings and participation comes with the territory. While I will not see it again, I know the four men who sat behind us will. And I am curious to see the “The Room” from the frame by frame comparison shown as out-takes.

“The Disaster Artist” is a spoof on making a bad movie that has themes of loyalty, friendship, and compassion for dream-seekers. James Franco won a Golden Globe for best actor.

Wiseau is famous for being bad at movie-making, and for spending over six million dollars 15 years ago to create a betrayal film based on his own life. Wiseau advertises his film “ The Room” by renting a huge billboard for five years. The display includes his visage and his telephone number. Initially, some people thought it was a cult.

In San Francisco, June 13th , 1998 we see a group of student actors attempt to take Jean Shelton’s (Melanie Griffin) charge “to reveal themselves”. Tommy ( James Franco)  does an imitation of Brando’s “ On The Waterfront” ’s: “Stella! Don’t ever leave me, baby.” Fellow promising actor Greg Sestero ( Dave Franco) follows him out of class and asks to practice  a scene with him. Greg calls Tommy “fucking fearless”! After a hilarious diner scene, Tommy and Greg bound further and decide to move to L.A. and support each other’s dreams.

Watching this loving mockudrama makes me think of how much fun real bros James and Dave Franco must have had making this movie. It is not for everyone, but I appreciated the loyal friend tale and the mysterious Polish immigrant dream of making it in the movie business. “Everyone want to be star”, Tommy states in his unusual syntax.. Greg shares how “Home Alone” changed his life, because he was home alone, too. Tommy confides that he wants his own planet. They give “pinkie swears” and  yell, “Road Trip”. It is such adolescent indulgence for a nineteen -year- old, and crazy for Tommy, who may be pushing 50.

Megan Mulhally plays a cameo as Mrs. Sestero, Greg’s mom. Protective and suspicious of Greg’s new friend Tommy’s intentions, and fearful of her son leaving town, she quizzes Wiseau on his age. “How old are you?” A great comedic moment ensues.

Seth Rogen is the deadpan script advisor. His slow motion energy is a good foil to the frenetic cast. Questions which are really statements hold court: “Are you on my planet?”

Tommy is often late to the set. He is jealous of Amber, Greg’s new girl friend. When Greg wants to move in with Amber ( Alison Brie) ,  Tommy feels glum and betrayed. Greg has a chance to play a bit part in Brian Cranston’s “ Malcolm in the Middle” tv show. He needs one day off and his beard to stay. Tommy denies him both: “I will not give favor. “Shoot day 58 of the scheduled 49 goes on as Tommy wishes.

Writers Scott Neustadter and  Michael Weber have used Greg Sestero’s book on the filming of “The Room” as source material. The script is both poignant and silly, and says very little about the creative process. Wiseau is seen as a sensitive goof. Sequences where Tommy asks,  “ What’s the line?” will remind you of  “Whose on first?”

The soundtrack makes good use of “ Never Gonna Give Up”, “It Takes Two”, “Good Vibrations” and “What You Want”.

Enjoy the many film references: “Ready To Rumble”, “Shakespeare  In Love”, “The Birds”, “Giant”, “Rebel Without A Cause” and “East of Eden”. “Oh, Hi, Mark.” will stay with you, if no other high marks are met in this production of a production! Stay for the out-takes, and watch the Golden Globes 2018 as Tommy Wiseau tries to take the microphone from a laughing James Franco. Enough said.

“I, Tonya”

What a delightful surprise! The film’s trailers had left me cold , but “I, Tonya” may just turn out to be one of my favorites of 2017. Its title “I, Tonya” assuredly reflects “I, Claudius” in the plotting, scheming, and poisoning arena. More than a “mockumentary”, this superbly fresh film forces us to rethink our initial judgments on the event that banned Tonya Harding from ever again competing on ice.

Steven Rogers’ screenplay is pitch-perfect. And the same can be said of Craig Gillespie’s seamless directing. The tension build-up shows all the ways to disable people, making us as sympathetic to Harding as we were initially to her Olympic teammate, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was purposely kneecapped. We are all implicated in our talk show laughter at “trashy Tonya”, and while Tonya is never glamorized or completely exonerated in this film, she is shown as the abused, feisty underdog~the polar opposite of the reigning figure-skating elite.

Though five inches taller than Harding, Australian actress Margot Robbie captures the fiery swagger and spirit of a little girl with ice princess dreams. Robbie, herself an amateur ice hockey league skater, was helped by skating doubles Heidi Mungy and Anna Malkova. Visual effects and actual footage of Tonya’s routines also serve to bolster Robbie and celebrate the beauty of the sport.

The film does not move chronologically, but begins with interviews. Flashbacks serve emotional purpose. One by one, the principals tell their truth, or not.  Most alarming is Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Golden, Tonya’s mother, for which she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress with Cruella De Vil flair.

Not since “Mommy Dearest” has a birth mother shown such villainous disregard for the well-being of her child. Yet, until the final coup-d-etat, she believes she is raising a strong, self-sufficient child with her “hair brush and knife throwing methods”. Her scathing admonition to Tonya contributes to her portrait as a rancorous bitch: “ You fuck dumb: you don’t marry dumb.” The irony is not lost coming from a women who has had six husbands. Tonya is the fifth child of husband number four.

On the ice at three and a half, Tonya (here Maizie Smith) proves her mettle and wins the coach who will drive her to be the first American woman skater ever to do the triple axel. The talented McKenna Grace has a few extraordinary scenes where she plays  the eight to twelve year-old Tonya. She will steal your heart as she did in “Gifted” (2017).

Robbie, while a standout and worthy of the Oscar here,  has an awkward time playing a fifteen year-old (as does Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s boyfriend, and soon to be husband, Jeff Gillooly. ) Putting braces on Robbie’s  teeth did not erase the years, or Robbie natural poise. And Jeff’s, “You Like food?” for a first date icebreaker seems forced. LaVona accompanies them to the diner, by the way.

Domestic violence, guns, and alcohol all play out with lawyers, restraining orders and reunions. The tone of “laugh til you cry” is modulated to have the viewers’ emotions roiled. It works big time. Director, cast and writer mesh to amazing effect.

Margot Robbie’s face is unforgettable as she applies her blush-like war paint before high-stepping it onto the ice. She is a powerhouse in purple.

Julianne Nicholson plays the sensible coach, Diane Rawlinson. She is a foil to the sleazy and the irrational; yet, she demands that Tonya play the game for her second chance: drop the metallic blue nails and the unconventional music, spit out the gum, watch the foul-mouth tirades, and ease up on the cigarette smoking. Tonya’s asthma inhaler is often seen on the ice. A favorite close-up shot is of her skate blade slicing the butt of her tossed smoke.

The score is well-matched from “Dream a Little Dream of Me” to “Barracuda”. The last shots of the 2003 Tonya being punched in the boxing ring  are horrendous. When she states that “violence is what I knew anyway”, we get the irony. She had become a punching bag, spitting blood as blue-collar scrapper, and staring at us from the mat’s surface.

Gender, class and politics, all play a role in mirroring and satirizing a fallen star, her associates, and the expectations of the era.

Shawn Eckhardt, the “bodyguard” and delusional emasculated male, is another sad, damaged character. “None of my women get the last word.” , he chortles as he stuffs his caramel corn into his mouth. As the perpetrator of much of the racketeering, psychological warfare, and assault, actor Paul Walter Hauser eases naturally  into the role. Docu-drama never looked easier.

Bozos hanging out at “The Golden Buddha” at the stroke of midnight fuel the humor. One only wishes that virtual reality gaming might keep RL ( real life) safer for the next generation. With avatars there may be  less infiltrating in the real world. Shawn’s brags of being four steps ahead of the FBI. And Tonya mimics her own mockers as she smirks: “ a secret agent who lives with his parents”.  As the lyrics are sung “ How can you stop the sun from shining, how can a loser ever win”, viewers will think that the disgraced Tonya won with this movie. And we will think that we did, too: A must see.

“The Darkest Hour”

Churchillian drama is abundant in cinema, but Director Joe Wright has added a tenderness not often seen in the gruff Churchill. Gary Oldman is sure to be an Oscar winner with his portrayal of Winston as Clementine’s Project. We begin with a curmudgeon in bed lighting a cigar. The spark flares as Churchill does.

The premise of the film, superbly written by Anthony McCarten, is one of ideals. Should Churchill negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany or take a huge risk with the liberty of a nation?

“The Darkest Hour” begins on May 9th, 1940. We see images of helmeted men, tanks, and Hitler. Three million German troops are on Belgium’s border. The Nazi Peril has Parliament doubting that Neville Chamberlain can lead the British in wartime.

The initial bed scene with Winston’s black pen, clock, morning whiskey, and strong, secretarial demands for double-spacing his missives,  is brilliant.  His curmudgeon side has him calling his first typist a “ninconpoop” for striking the keys too loudly. Verbally abused to tears, she continues to throw the carriage. As the verbal lambasting continues, she runs from the bedside to be soothed by Kristin Scott Thomas, Churchill’s wife Clementine.

The film depiction of  Winston’s wife, Clem, had me borrowing her biography from a friend and neighbor. I was as enthralled by Kristin Scott Thomas’ portrayal, as I am with the biography written by Clementine and Winston’s  daughter Mary Soames. The book published in 1979, “ Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage” is as enlightening as the film.

Thomas was given lots to work with, and she makes quite a remarkable portrait of the force behind Churchill. She admonishes Winston with three adjectives: “…rough, rude, overbearing~not as kind as you used to be.” She calmly proceeds with a compliment: “ I want others to love and respect you as I do.” It works. The second typist, the lovely Lily James of “Cinderella” fame, fares better.

A second image of Churchill, garbed in black, has him rising in a golden elevator to heights unknown. Oldman is a marvel at showing a multi-dimensional and complex man, yet Clementine’s rejoiner to the underling typist rings true, too: “He is a man like any other”.

McCarten’s script plays up the class distinctions only to dissolve them. Churchill is depicted as never having ridden a bus, and his speech for a new administration to include all classes is balanced by his dictation given from a steamy bathroom and his monogrammed pajamas in the ready.  His  mastery of phrase will remind some that Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

The politics of  winning the  Prime Minister post, the war cabinet map room , the seven million refugees on the move, all give the story a hefty  scope. The cinematography with its close-ups of stamps, slow motion umbrellas opening,  and  a dead soldier’s red eye reflection adds to the viewers’ understanding of truth.

After seeing this film, one will no longer just remember Churchill’s gruffness, his “Will you stop interrupting me interrupting you” . One  will remember the romantic fantasy of fighting to the end, and his: “You can not reason with a tiger when your head is in his mouth.” One will remember Dunkirk and the lonely Churchill. One will remember a king considering leaving with his family for Canadian soil. And one will remember Clementine’s wisdom  and love: “You are wise because you have doubts.”

The last minutes of this film are stirring: “We the people” stuff. Dont miss it.

“The Shape Of Water”

Water makes room for whatever it surrounds, and Guillermo del Toro’s new film “The Shape Of Water” makes room for a lot. Not only does del Toro write and direct, but he also dubs some of his imaginative sea creature’s vocals. A fable, a fairy tale, an allegory, a 1940’s musical with 1960 Cold War spy underpinnings, no matter. It is a delight held together by an unusual romance, beautiful cinematography, and actors who seem to love their roles.

The score under Alexandre Despalt’s direction splashes our psyches with just the right tempos to keep us smiling and cowering in equal measure. Del Toro is the kind of man we all want for a friend. He applauds art, understands sex, is masterful, funny, campy, and frank. He seems as magical as the art he creates. Guillermo’s Mexican Catholic upbringing pushes toward a humanist warmth that encompasses amphibian creatures and cats.

The “Shape Of Water’ begins with water bubbles, sea grass and lab lights, and morphs into floating furniture~mid-century kitchen table and chairs to be exact. Our narrator in a crome-like voice muses: “ If I spoke about it , what would I tell you?” We are hooked.

Our setting is in a coastal city, far away. Baltimore! Our  protagonist, a princess without a voice~ a mute mop girl, Eliza. ( Sally Hawkins)  Our theme is a tale of love and loss transformed.

Eliza lives over a movie theater. She has two close friends, a gay, out-of-work artist, Giles ( Richard Jenkins) , and a loyal work friend, Zelda ( Octavia Spencer). Zelda and Eliza have a Fascist boss (Michael Shannon), who taunts a specimen with a cattle prod and  loses two “tater-tot” fingers while wrestling the scaled creature kept quartered in the lab. Doug Jones ( Jones is an Indianapolis native, who learned to swim at The Riviera Club. He is a graduate of Bishop Chatard and Ball State University. ) plays the teal-marked reptilian rumored to be a god dragged from a South American river. Eliza is empathetically drawn to him and teaches him the words “egg” and “music”. The boss wants to dissect and mimick his two systemed breathing . The Russians are  interested, too.

Eliza has found a soulmate to save. Their encounters are magical. Russian spy and lab scientist infiltrator, Bob Hostetler , aka Dimitri  ( Michael Stuhlbarg ) agrees to help Eliza. The calendar reads Oct. 10th, “Life is but the shipwreck of our plans”. Suspense and fantasy merge and pure campiness holds it all in shimmering amber light. Enjoy stabs at car ownership, Cadillacs , in particular, the art of positive thinking, and Carmen Maranda’s “chicka boom-boom” . This film has it all.

 

“Loving Vincent”

Four of my review-followers took their time to message me not to miss the innovative film, “Loving Vincent”. I went alone mid-week, early afternoon, and was surprised to see forty people in the theatre. The uniqueness of this Polish Film Institute’s handpainted animated endeavor had been well-publicized evidently. Over one hundred artists captured Van Gogh’s brush strokes through his familiar interiors, portraits and vistas. The screen shimmers in light and substance.

Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welshman and cinematographer Tristan Oliver deserve accolades. “Loving Vincent” is the world’s first fully painted film. Over 65,000 frames were created to bring screenwriters Kobiela’s, Welshman’s , and Jacek Dehnel’s story and homage to the screen.

Structured like a murder mystery, the known acquaintances of the thirty-seven-year-old Van Gogh are met and interviewed by Armand Roulin, the son of the village postmaster, who liked Vincent. The elder Roulin saw Vincent almost daily  in his rounds, and he respected Vincent’s work ethic and his daily letters to his brother, Theo.

Chris O’Dowd is the elder Roulin, who sends his son to deliver the last letter Vincent wrote to Theo. This kind courtesy, delivering a dead man’s letter, has us meeting some of the magnificent cast of PBS’s “Poldark”. Both Aiden Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson have key roles as the boatman and inn proprietress. Dr. Paul Gachet, Vincent’s psychiatrist/doctor is played by the gifted Jerome Flynn. Vincent Van Gogh is rendered beautifully by Robert Gulaczyk, who reminded me of Ralf Fines in his nuanced performance. Dr. Gachet housekeeper, Louise, calls Vincent an evil nutcase, “Nothing has been the same since he came here.” “ He killed himself on Sunday~his own ungodly act.” We feel his art change how we see the world, rather than how he left it.” The cast is superb. Art’s gift inspiring.

Van Gogh’s life framework is told through his paintings. The cause of his death is surmised. Suicide and the tortured soul made human, rather than clichéd. We learn a few new factoids about Vincent, like the fact that he made all sorts of noises when he painted.

One of my favorite visual metaphors was Vincent’s changing reflection moving in a cup of water. His use of yellow and blue pigment has never been so impactful to me as when I watched this film. Stay for the complete credits and listen to the lyrics:” Now, I think I know what you tried say to me~how you suffered for your sanity..”

The score should win this oil-painted animation more kudos.  “Starry, Starry Night” will bring tears to your eyes, some rolling down the canvas of your face.

“California Typewriter”

A documentary on the subject of vintage typewriters and the people who love and repair them is a tad arcane. Yet, this collection of people who understand that no good typewriters are ever going to be made again draws us in.

Like the assemblage  of  Australians who came to love the canetoad, vintage machines get their homage. Though the film can be rather tongue in cheek in  tone, the earnest Tom Hanks tells us that he types almost everyday. In fact, Hanks has a book of short stories each centering on the machine. Published this month, “Uncommon Type: Some Stories ” has gotten good reviews. In “California Typewriter ”, Hanks shows us some of his own collection. He owes over one-hundred.

Hanks is should not the only personality obsessed with the machine. The late Sam Shepherd works in tandem with his Hermès from Switzerland, and compares his composing on it to a kid working on his bike: you can see what you are working with. The songwriter, Pony Blues, tells us that he wants documentation of his writing process. Typewriters are seen as haunted thought. Historian David McCullough and John Mayer also are advocate interviewees.

Viewers learn that Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee invented the typewriter in 1867. Remingtons, Smith-Coronas, Olivettis, Olympias, Hermes, Underwoods, Royals, and Brothers and more are showcased. The Sholes and Glidden exist in 175 museum examples.

A quirky tapestry of machines and characters flow through Director Doug Nichol’s film. The 100% given by Rotten Tomatoes over reaches in my view, but I was engaged by the LA repair shop and the crazy Boston orchestra musicians and artist who were inspired by purpose, sound, and “useless parts”. The typing poet you will experience in New Orleans. And the typewriter key jewelry is appreciated.

Flea markets, the Martin Howard collection of 18th century typewriters, and the 2870 wooden prototype before Remington did metal in 1874 are shown.  Even Indian street typists are part of the celebration. Hanks waxes elegant  on “ the rise of the keys” and “the solidity of  the action”.

Typewriter enthusiasts will find the 113 minute ode to the machine  fly by like a carriage  speedily thrown, while the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto is over the top.