TIFF FILM REVIEW: Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” is a science-fiction tale that mixes whimsy with social commentary in constantly surprising ways but with ideas so scattershot that they never adhere as a satisfying drama. His filmmaking is so imaginative, however, that it’s a movie well worth seeing.

Matt Damon stars as a dull individual named Paul whose horizons are expanded when he elects to become miniaturised. A prologue explains in entertaining fashion how scientists have mastered a technique that shrinks living creatures to a fraction of their normal size with custom-made environments where they can lead virtually normal lives. The ecological footprint of these little people is thus reduced and by selling everything and investing their savings, they become rich in the process.

Director Payne establishes the concept with typical flair and Stefania Cella’s production design of a Truman Show-like world without observers is plausible and witty. With co-writer Jim Taylor, Payne infuses the scientific tosh with good humour and just as Paul gets used to his new circumstances, they take the story in unlikely directions. His new neighbour Dusan, turns out to be a flamboyant character, played with typical flourish by Christoph Waltz, who likes to throw noisy parties with beautiful people and runs a profitable import/export business.

That thread changes abruptly when Paul encounters a young woman named Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, pictured above with Waltz), who works as a cleaner. A Vietnamese political protestor who lost her left foot in an explosion and was reduced in size against her will, Ngoc Lan is such a vibrantly original character that it’s a pity Payne didn’t make her story the whole picture. As it is, she takes Paul into a world he had no idea existed in another part of the contrived construct in which he lives. Payne makes it clear that while humankind is under dire threat from climate change and other factors, the notion that we can flee from our fate by running away is a joke.

Dusan dismisses the likelihood that humans will escape their own nature and Payne shows that greed will sabotage delusions of safe haven: the plight of the planet must be faced head-on. Kristen Wiig (pictured top with Damon) and Jason Sudeikas have lively cameos and Rolfe Kent’s score is sprightly and fitting. Hong Chau is outstanding as the colourful Ngoc Lan, who embodies the film’s view. Damon is perfectly fine as Paul but it’s her indomitable character that stays in the mind.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. London Film Festival Oct. 13, U.S. Dec. 22 (Paramount Pictures); Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikas, Kristen Wiig; Director: Alexander Payne; Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor; Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael; Production designer: Stefania Cella; Music: Rolfe Kent; Editor: Kevin Tent; Costumes: Wendy Chuck; Producers: Jim Burke, Megan Ellison, Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor; Production: Paramount Pictures, Ad Hominem Enterprises, Annapurna Pictures; Rating: TBA; running time 135 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: Stephen Frears’s ‘Victoria and Abdul’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – That Judy Dench stars as the venerable English queen in “Victoria and Albert” tells you all you need to know about what to expect from another tale of one of the widowed monarch’s odd friendships.

The Abdul of the title is a young Hindu legal clerk who is ordered to Buckingham Palace from India in order to present the queen with a rare coin. Played by Ali Fazal, he is a handsome and awestruck fish-out-of-water who promptly violates palace protocol and charms the old lady in the process.

In the eyes of director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall, the ageing Victoria is as indifferent to the rules imposed by her courtiers as she is to the Indian coin. She is struck by the young man’s smile and bearing, not to mention that upon meeting his empress, he falls to the floor to kiss her feet. She insists that he remain to be a footman and then companion. It cannot end well.

A cast of familiar faces such as Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Eddie Izzard, Simon Callow and the late Tim Pigott-Smith can play stultified politicians and palace types in their sleep but Hall gives them little to do but raise eyebrows and try to hide their innate prejudices. Conflict grows in a predictable manner.

The scenery, including Arundel Abbey in West Sussex, is delightful, the luxurious production design observant and Thomas Newman’s lyrical score is a pleasure. Dench displays with typical subtlety her established range of facial expressions to convey everything from anger to delight to sadness.

That the queen ever held liberal views on the subjugation of a sub-continent is a dubious construct in the extreme but no doubt the illusion of nostalgia will appeal to those willing to overlook the film’s overweening subservience.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.K. Sept. 17 (Universal Pictures), U.S. Sept. 22 (Focus Features); Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal; Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Fenella Woolgar, Adeel Akhtar; Director: Stephen Frears; Writer: Lee Hall, based on the book by Shrabani Basu; Director of photography: Danny Cohen; Production designer: Alan MacDonald; Music: Thomas Newman; Editor: Melanie Oliver; Costumes: Consolata Boyle; Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Beeban Kidron, Tracey Seaward; Production: BBC Films; Cross Street Films; Perfect World Pictures; Working Title Films; Rated: U.K. PG; running time 112 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: George Clooney’s ‘Suburbicon’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Joyless, witless and pointless, “Suburbicon” is a would-be black comedy that is simply murky and not in the least comic. It boasts some big names – director George Clooney, stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore (pictured), and co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen – but were it not for Alexandre Desplat’s entertaining score, it would be a complete waste of time.

Set in the 1950s, the film begins with a commercial for a Stepford-style housing community called Suburbicon with lookalike homes intended for comfortable, middle-class white families. Condescension in place, the story follows two families who face very different fates but the storytelling is ponderous and predictable, the violence needless, and any sign of comic timing entirely absent.

Gardner Lodge (Damon) is a colourless executive who lives with twin sisters (both Moore), Rose, his invalid wife and Margaret, his secret mistress. One night, Gardner wakes up his sleeping son  Nicky (Noah Jupe) because their home has been invaded by two thugs who proceed to tie up and drug everyone. Gardner, oddly, is not particularly alarmed and when after Rose fails to wake up, he proceeds with his recently enhanced insurance claim.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) have moved in next door with their son Andy (Tony Espinosa) and caused outrage amongst the whiter-than-white folks of Suburbicon. The Mayers are black.

Reportedly scripted separately with the Lodge strand written by the Coen brothers and the Mayer strand written by Clooney and his production partner Grant Hesov, the two elements have nothing whatever to do with each other. As the film plays out, they do not connect, inform or illuminate one another in any way. The Lodges spiral off into a lazily contrived noir scenario involving fraud and murder with messily bloody violence while the Blairs, about whom we learn virtually nothing, become victims of racial prejudice that escalates to an all-out riot. Whatever point, satirical or otherwise,that might have been made to suggest the seeds of today’s alienated American society were planted long ago is entirely missed.

The performers wisely play it straight and emerge unscathed. For the Coen brothers, it’s just another silly idea that they tossed away for somebody else to make a fool of himself. That would be Clooney, whose earlier work as director has been clever and entertaining. Oscar-winning French composer Desplat appears to have conjured up his own notion of what the film might have been and, as usual, he emerges with his reputation enhanced.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released: U.S. Oct. 27 (Paramount Pictures); U.K. Nov. 24 (Entertainment One); Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Tony Espinosa; Director: George Clooney; Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov; Director of photography: Robert Elswit; Production designer: James D. Bissell; Music: Alexandre Desplat; Editor: Stephen Mirrione; Costumes: Jenny Eagan; Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Teddy Schwarzman; Executive producers: Ethan Erwin, Barbara A. Hall, Hal Sadoff, Joel Silver, Daniel Steinman; Production: Black Bear Pictures, Dark Castle Entertainment, Huahua Media, Silver Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures; Rated: TBA; running time 104 minutes.

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF FILM REVIEW: Dee Rees’s ‘Mudbound’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO: “Mudbound” is set in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s but with torrential rain, deeply ingrained racial hostility and changes wrought by World War II, it’s no treat to beat your feet. Two poor families – one white, one black – strive to find a little joy amidst chronic misery but simmering tensions lead to a violent conflict.

Slow-moving but involving, the film details the painful existence that besets both families as they struggle to make a living on a pitiless farming landscape. The central drama, true of many places when men came home from that war, is how to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) took his carefree view of life into the skies as a bomber pilot while Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) discovered that while he and his fellow black soldiers were segregated in barracks, the white Europeans saw only military saviours. Coming home to the hardscrabble lives of their families, divided cruelly due to the unaccountable racial hatred of the white community, is bound to test their liberated values.

Director Dee Rees, who has adapted Hillary Jordan’s novel with Virgil Williams, takes a deliberate pace throughout. Naive but determined Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) works hard to run his small-holding with his tenant and employee Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), who has a stalwart and resourceful wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and several children including Ronsel.

Henry has a wife too, Laura (Carey Mulligan) from Memphis, young and new to the harshness of Delta life. They have two daughters and must make room in their dilapidated shack for Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an irredeemably offensive boor.

Several of the central characters contribute voice-overs to help tell the story but Rachel Morrison’s keenly observant cinematography, the verisimilitude of David Bomba’s production design and an evocative score by Tamar-kali combine to make the narration almost unnecessary.

The acting is uniformly fine even if the accents, supposedly from the Mississippi Delta, are all over the place from Alabama to Virginia. Rob Morgan (pictured above with Blige) is thoroughly convincing as the patriarch of the black family, Garrett Hedlund lends a touch of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday (from “Tombstone”) to the charming airman, and Jason Mitchell conveys subtly the young soldier’s transition to manhood. Clarke makes Henry bluff, open and unaware of his own ignorance while Mulligan and Blige complement each other nicely and Banks leaves at least some of the scenery unchewed.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival; Released on Netflix Nov, 17: London Film Festival: Oct, 5; Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks; Director: Dee Rees; Writers: Dee Rees, Virgil Williams; Director of photography: Rachel Morrison; Production Designer: David Bomba; Music: Tamar-kali; Costumes: Michael T. Boyd; Editor: Mako Kamitsuna; Producers: Sally Jo Effenson, Cassian Elwes, Carl Effenson, Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Chris Lemole, Tim Zajaros; Executive Producers: Dee Rees, Teddy Schwarzman, Virgil Williams, Jennifer Roth, Poppy Hanks, Kyle Tekiela, Dan Steinman, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr.; Production: Macro Elevated; Armory Films; Joule Films; Black Bear Pictures; International Sales: Good Universe; Rated: TBA; running time: 134 minutes

Posted in Film, Reviews, TIFF Toronto International Film Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drinking wine in the sunshine with Patrick Swayze

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Patrick Swayze jumped menacingly from the corral fence to the dusty ground of his ranch in the flats next to the Angeles Forest in La Canada. “Steve McQueen said what?” he said. “There’s nothing tough about making movies,” I repeated. Swayze shook his head. “God, I loved that man but that sounds like bullshit to me.”

That was a long time ago before Swayze had hits like “Dirty Dancing”, “Ghost” and “Point Break”. He would have turned 65 today but Swayze died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 in 2009. When I spent a day with him in 1985, when he was 33, he was full of life, feisty and combative. Continue reading

Posted in Film, Interviews, Memory Lane, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FILM REVIEW: Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The bleak but beautiful frozen wilds of Utah substitute readily for Montana in Taylor Sheridan’s taut, violent and gripping crime drama “Wind River” in which Jeremy Renner is both cool and moving as a troubled hunter who helps Elizabeth Olsen’s plausible FBI agent on the trail of a murderer and rapist. Continue reading

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The night Jeanne Moreau and I had square bottoms

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Standing alone in the middle of the stalls before a concert in Ghent, I saw the petite figure of a woman enter the hall and stroll to the seat directly in front of me. She turned and put out her right hand. “Allo,” she said. “I’m Jeanne Moreau.” Continue reading

Posted in Film, Memory Lane | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

FILM REVIEW: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a spectacular fireworks show filled with exciting action but as a record of an iconic World War II event it falls short and as human drama it’s a damp squib.

When fighter planes are screaming, bombs are exploding and bullets are flying, it’s pulsating stuff with a gut-punching battle between sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s score, which the composer wins through sheer verve and ingenuity. Continue reading

Posted in Film, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do film critics matter any more?

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When everyone is a critic, who needs critics?

It’s a question asked more and more in the movie industry as the ranks of mainstream critics dwindle and the tide of those with something to say online surges ever stronger.

The consensus is that some critics do still matter but their employers, the film industry and the general public hold them in less esteem than they used to. Meanwhile, everyone’s on Facebook. And Twitter. And YouTube. And Instagram. Continue reading

Posted in Comment, Film, Media, News | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FILM REVIEW: Vincent Perez’s ‘Alone in Berlin’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – For those who have not read Hans Fallada’s terrifying novel “Alone in Berlin”, Vincent Perez’s film version is probably a mildly absorbing drama about two people bucking the odds. For those who have read it, the film is hugely disappointing. Continue reading

Posted in Film, Music, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment