Alexander Payne

Film Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

2018 has yielded a lot of interesting films, and it’s been hard to choose which most deserve Bouquets. Still, we’ve managed it, and here – in order of viewing – are those that made the cut.

Downsizing

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Alexander Payne’s brilliant satire had its detractors, mostly people who had expected a knockabout comedy –  but we thought it was perfectly judged and beautifully played by Matt Damon and Hong Chau.

Coco

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A dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to Mexico, this Pixar animation got everything absolutely right, from the stunning artwork to the vibrant musical score. In a word, ravishing.

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro’s spellbinding fantasy chronicled the most unlikely love affair possible with great aplomb. Endlessly stylish, bursting with creativity, it also featured a wonderful performance from Sally Hawkins.

Lady Bird

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This semi-autobiographical story featured Saoirse Ronan as a self-centred teenager, endlessly at war with her harassed mother (Laurie Metcalfe). Scathingly funny but at times heart-rending, this was an assured directorial debut from Greta Gerwig.

I, Tonya

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Imagine Good Fellas on ice skates and you’ll just about have the measure of this stunning biopic of ice skater Tonya Harding, built around an incandescent performance from Margot Robbie, and featuring a soundtrack to die for.

A Quiet Place

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This film had audiences around the world too self-conscious to unwrap a sweet or slurp their cola. Written and directed by John Kransinski and starring Emily Blunt, it was one of the most original horror films in a very long time – and we loved it.

The Breadwinner

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Set in Kabul, this stunning film offered a totally different approach to animation, and a heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s fight for survival in a war-torn society. To say that it was gripping would be something of an understatement.

American Animals

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Based on a true story and skilfully intercutting actors with real life protagonists, Bart Layton’s film was a little masterpiece that gleefully played with the audience’s point of view to create something rather unique.

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Drew Goddard’s noir tale brought together a brilliant cast in a unique location, and promptly set about pulling the rug from under our feet, again and again. There was a superb Motown soundtrack and a career making performance from Cynthia Erivo.

Wildlife

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Based on a Richard Ford novel, this subtle but powerful slow-burner was the directorial debut of Paul Dano and featured superb performances from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer, Ed Oxenbould.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen brothers were in exquisite form with this beautifully styled Western, which featured six separate tales of doom and despair, enlivened by a shot of dark humour. But, not for the first (or the last) time, we heard those dreaded words ‘straight to Netflix.’

Roma

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Another Netflix Original (and one that’s hotly tipped for the Oscars), this was Alfonso Cuaron’s lovingly crafted semi-autobiographical tale off his childhood in Mexico, and of the nanny who looked after him and his siblings. It was absolutely extraordinary.

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

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Downsizing

09/01/18

Downsizing is a high-concept film, its ‘what if’ premise explored with such fastidiousness that the undoubtedly outlandish seems utterly believable. We’re in the near future, and Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), has devised a means of shrinking organic matter (plants, animals, people). He envisages his discovery as a force for good, a way to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment, and to make space for the earth’s growing population. His prototype ‘tiny community’ is a success, and soon there is a growing demand for the safety and relative wealth downsizing seems to offer.

Eight years into the experiment, everyfolk Paul and Audrey Sefranik (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are seduced by the idea. They’re tired and disappointed by the life they’re living: they’re not poor, but they’ve nothing extra; they’re exhausted and unfulfilled by their work (as an occupational therapist and a shoe-shop assistant respectively); their house is fine, but it’s a long way from the ideal homes that are peddled as the answer to their dreams. When their old friends, Dave and Carol (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), tell them about their new life in American tiny community, Leisureland, it proves hard to resist the lure of a world where their $160,000 assets will translate into $12,000,000 in real terms. They can have the mansion, the country club membership, the social life, the freedom. They can escape the mundanity of their existence and live the fantasy lifestyle of the super-rich. Of course their heads are turned.

But (spoiler alert!), their plans are thwarted when Audrey realises that she can’t go through with the irreversible procedure; she doesn’t want to leave her friends and family behind. But it’s too late for Paul, who’s already been shrunk, and – after the inevitable divorce – he finds himself adrift in Leisureland, poorer than ever and working in a call centre. Because, of course, Leisureland is a miniature version of the society in which it was conceived, with all the same inequities. It’s America in microcosm, and it needs an underclass to serve its rich.

And this, for me, is where the film really shows its chops. Because it’s not just a silly fantasy about tiny people – Mrs Pepperpot or The Borrowers for a grown-up audience. It’s a meticulously realised abstraction, with all implications scrupulously examined. We learn, for example, of dictators shrinking political dissidents, of prisoners shrunk against their will. We learn of tiny refugees, using the miniaturisation process to aid their illegal passage into other countries; of full-sized tax payers angry that the small people contribute less yet still get a vote; of entrepreneurs who seek to exploit, to become rich off the back of this noble experiment. It pulls no punches, lets no one off the hook, and yet it’s still marvellously entertaining – funny even – and a real delight to watch.

There’s been some criticism of the supposed ‘white saviour’ narrative, and the suggestion that Vietnamese character Ngoc  Lan Tran (Hong Chau) is a racist stereotype. But I really don’t see these things. Sure, Paul Safronik attempts to ‘save’ Ngoc, who is an amputee; he’s keen to reassert his sense of self by helping to improve her prosthetic foot. But she rejects his help, and – when she finally capitulates – he completely fails. She might seem like a victim (a political activist, shrunk by her government, the sole survivor of an illegal  immigration, her leg lost in the process, working as a cleaner for the rich people in Leisureland), but she’s not: she operates entirely on her own terms. She owns the cleaning business, we realise; she employs Paul, puts him to work; it’s she who rescues him, in fact. And I don’t know how she’s a stereotype, unless it’s her accent, which Hong Chau says she copied from people she knew as a child (“I grew up around Vietnamese refugees, around people who don’t speak English as a first language”). Any which way, it’s hard to see how a film where the female lead is Asian, disabled, strong and independent, can be considered retrograde.

In short (sorry), this is a fascinating piece of cinema, one that – I’m sure – will bear repeated watching. I find myself utterly captivated by it, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes a film that makes them think.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

Nebraska

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07/09/14

The last time they were handing out Oscars, this low-budget picture by Alexander Payne managed to rack up six nominations, without actually winning anything. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why it was so highly regarded. From the note-perfect performances of the ensemble cast, through to the ravishing black and white images of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, (landscapes which evoke memories of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show – praise indeed) this is a fabulous little film that surely deserves to find a wider audience on DVD.

Veteran actor, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a cantankerous old curmudgeon living in Montana with his fabulously potty-mouthed wife, Kate (June Squibb.) When he receives a promotional flier in the post notifying him that he may have won a million dollars, he becomes obsessed with the notion of travelling to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his ‘winnings.’ Since he can’t actually drive, he keeps trying to walk there, even though it’s a distance of around a thousand miles. His son, Will (David Grant) tries in vain to persuade him that he’s wasting his time, but finally decides to drive him there, if only to spend a little quality time with the father who, because of a lifelong addiction for alcohol, has been notably absent for much of Will’s childhood. Will decides to break up the trip with a visit to Woody’s family en route. But when news gets out that Woody is going to be a millionaire, old rivalries and feuds come bubbling to the surface…

Alexander Payne doesn’t make many movies but this one must rank as his finest achievement. Both Dern and Squibb turn in standout performances, the dialogue is bleakly funny throughout and for once, here’s an American movie that’s prepared to examine the shabby underbelly of a recession-stricken USA. Nice too to see Bob Odenkirk as Will’s older brother, Ross, a role that’s very different to his sleazy turn as Saul in Breaking Bad. Plaudits too for finding a genuinely heart-warming (but never cheesy) conclusion to a story that you know from the outset, is not destined to end happily.

If like me, you let this one slip away on the big screen, here’s the perfect opportunity to catch up with it. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney