Alexander Payne’s Downsizing

I was very pleasantly surprised by Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, an intelligent, methodically high concept social sci-fi satire that takes the Honey I Shrunk The Kids template and plays it for thoughtful, heartfelt laughs while thinking big, thematically speaking. Matt Damon turns on the dim witted charm as a regular joe who decides to undergo ‘downsizing,’ a radical procedure patented by the Norwegians in which a human is shaved, sedated and shrunk down to the size of a tennis ball. Why, you ask? It’s scientist’s answer to the growing issue with humans ruining our planet, and they figure having an itty bitty carbon footprint instead of a big ol’ one will do this rock some good. This is but one of a group of very ambitious ideas that Payne explores, and whilst he doesn’t quite have time to thoroughly wring our every theme and thesis, it’s nice to see such thought and care put into a concept that could have easily gone the brainless Dwayne Johnson route. Damon settles down in a mini hydra dome called Leisureland, where the inflation rate is minuscule and things cost a fraction of what they did topside. He’s got two hilarious neighbours in snarky Serbian playboy Dusan (Christoph Waltz alllmosttt has the accent down) and his fellow hedonist, salty Konrad (really nice to see veteran Udo Kier back in the Hollywood game in more than just ironic cameos). These two are his introduction to the way this procedure has affected everything in the world from commerce to social relations, but it’s not until he meets feisty Vietnamese maid N’goc (Hong Chau) that he realizes the same problems which have always afflicted humanity have followed them down to their pint sizes, and even become worse. Chau is so good she pretty much walks off with the film, her blunt nature and hilarious accent contrasted by a bruised heart beneath. There’s some.. oddly placed plot points in the third act and I could have done with a bit less of the preachy climate change chatter, but for the most part this one stimulates and goes for laughs, milking the ‘shrunk’ concept in ways Hollywood never before. Watch for peripheral work from Kristin Wiig, Rolf Lassgard, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Don Lake, Margo Martindale, Mary Kay Place and Joaquim De Almeida. Neat stuff.

-Nate Hill


Neil Jordan’s MONA LISA

With its dark and seedy narrative, mixed with off beat humor and performances that are as touching as they are ferocious, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa is a wonderful deep cut from cinema’s most often overlooked decade, the 1980s.

Bob Hoskins gives a raw and emotionally charged performance as George, a man that time as well as life forgot while he served time in prison for his mob boss Mortwell, played by a sleazy and smarmy Michael Caine. George’s payoff is driving for a high class escort, the exotic Simoe played by Cathy Tyson.

As George’s infatuation for Simone turns into an a love struck obsession, Simoe starts to groom and manipulate George into a graphic and dangerous odyssy to find her friend lost in the rainy streets and swearty backrooms of London.

Neil Jordan pulls a coup de grâce with this film. Hoskins brings his brutish affability to a dangerous and fearsome world that he’s a stranger to; bringing a physicality and soft sensibility to a role that remains his finest on screen performance that boasts his tough guy persona yet yields the floor to his humor and warmth.

Perhaps one of the more underrated aspects of the film is Michael Caine’s turn as the vile and disgusting antagonist who plays in a shade of grey that remains one of Caine’s more unique turns in a career populated with fabulous performances.

The film excels at its bizarre nature, not only using Nat King Cole’s seminal tune of Mona Lisa, but also Genisis’ In Too Deep in an almost jarring montage that works perfectly and quickly becomes one of the most fascinating aspects of the picture.

Mona Lisa is an unsung classic that finds the sweet spot in the canon that is transgressive cinema. It does not compromise a facet of screen time, spending each frame building a brooding and haunting story of how sometimes love can be a wicked game.

Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead

The 90’s was a heyday of hard boiled, ultraviolent film noir, a ripple effect that can undeniably be traced back to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, however it’s silly to say that they all are derived from that film, because plenty of them have their own distinct groove and flavour. One such flick is Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, a mouthful of a title that serves as harbinger to one of the most idiosyncratic, verbally flamboyant scripts Hollywood ever produced, penned by Scott Rosenberg. They scored the cast to back it up too, for a beautifully melodramatic neo-noir pulp opus that should be as legendary as any of the household name films to come out of that era. Andy Garcia is the definition of slick as Jimmy The Saint, an ex mobster on the straight and narrow who’s pulled back into the game by The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken) his former employer and the most dangerous crime boss in all the land. Hired to scare the piss-ant boyfriend who stole Walken’s son’s girl, Jimmy rounds up a crew that shouldn’t be trusted to watch a junkyard. Pieces (Christopher Lloyd, brilliant) is a diseased old porn shop owner, Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), tough guy with a heart of gold Big Bear Franchise (William Forsythe) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams) the psychopathic wild card who uses his day job at a mortuary as an anger outlet by pummelling the corpses like punching bags. Of course they royally fuck up the job, and Walken places scary, symbolic ‘hits’ on each of them. The clock ticks as they all try to either leave town or face the music, but Jimmy is the one with something to lose as he’s fallen in love with elegant, posh rich girl Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). The script could have easily gone for just colourful carnage and glib posturing, but there’s real, palpable gravitas to the character relations, especially between Jimmy and Walken, who’s history is hinted at and brought to complex life by the two pros. This is Walken at his weirdest and wildest, confined to a spooky wheelchair and locked up in a guarded, dimly lit estate like Count Dracula. There’s a touching subplot involving wayward hooker Lucinda (Fairuza Balk, always terrific) that brings out the dormant humanity in hardened Jimmy. The cast here really is a marvel, and includes Don Cheadle and Glenn Plummer as a couple of loudmouth criminals, Jack Warden, Jenny McCarthy, Tiny Lister, Marshall Bell, Bill Cobbs, Michael Nicolosi, and Steve Buscemi as a freaky hitman named Mr. Shhhh, because he shoots first and doesn’t ask any questions at all. The dialogue is unique and flows from the actors like urban Shakespeare, it’s one of the coolest scripts ever written, and serves not just to be slick for the sake of it, but use jive and jargon to bring forth character naturally, and effortlessly provide buoyancy to the story. One of the great hidden gems out there. Boat Drinks.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2007.  Directed by Andrew Dominik.

Hypnotic, quiet, and dangerous, Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic deconstruction of the Western and a bold commentary on America’s celebrity obsession.

Robert Ford is a 19 year old hanger-on to the legendary James Gang.  In the wake of their last heist, he slowly inserts himself into James’s family, beginning an intricate relationship in which both James and Ford recognize the threat in the other man.   As the decidedly non-glamorous violence begins to fray James’s already unhinged mind, Ford seizes the opportunity for glory, not fully understanding the ramifications of his deed until staring into his own, personal oblivion.

Casey Affleck delivers the performance of a lifetime as Ford.  His grasp of the homoerotic undertones and soul crushing evolution of Ford is so exposed that he almost evokes pity for his treachery.  The scene in which James takes his guns off is riveting.  Affleck’s expression is pained orgasmic relief, while Brad Pitt’s Jesse James’s nihilistic embrace is flawless.  Pitt portrays James as a near psychopath, barely held together by his wife and children.  These two actors are muted lightning anytime they are together, playing a dangerous game in which every expression, every gesture has malicious designs.

The supporting cast is a knockout.   Sam Shephard, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Garrett Dillahunt, James Carville, Zooey Deschanel, Ted Levine, and Michael Parks are all solid, each of them outlaws in their own right.  Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother is gripping in his display of all consuming guilt.

The always mysterious Nick Cave partnered with fellow Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis to create an engrossing, and haunting score that compliments the existential symmetry to near perfection.  Patricia Norris’s costume design is yet another pristine component of Dominick’s charade.   This is a film that is lived in and used up.   The legends of the dying west are real and flawed, hiding their weaknesses behind fancy cravats and sterling watch chains.  Janice Blackie-Goodine’s set decoration is meticulous, faithfully cataloging the world that was for the lost souls that wander throughout.

All of these elements are a distant second to Richard Deakins’s transcendent cinematography.  Using a variety of lighting to create authentic, blurred edges, while simultaneously capturing the natural beauty of the Western Canadian landscape that was used for the film.  The train sequence is a miracle to behold.   Deakins’s esoteric approach to the use of light has to be witnessed in order to fully understand how special his work on this film is.

Dominik’s command of these powerful tools is almost to good to be true.  His script takes its time, examining each theme with endless scrutiny.  The cost of fame is the center of the wheel, while celebrity idolatry, forbidden love, and mental illness are the spokes that move Dominik’s dark epiphany to it’s quiet conclusion.  The narration of Hugh Ross is another elegant nail in the romanticized American West’s coffin.  What begins as a thorough examination of the end of Jesse James unrepentant existence ends as a footnote in an era where popular opinion made devils into legends and cowardice into a matter of intent and opportunity.

Available now for digital streaming, and running at a colossal 160 minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an entrancing addition to the Western genre.  A revisionist epic on the surface, this more of an experience than a film.   It demands patience and thoughtful examination of it’s subject matter, which provides a visually poetic meditation on so-called heroes and those who blindly worship them.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

-Kyle Jonathan

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is lean mean, brawny and one of the director’s best efforts, one of his leaps into non horror territory and a high concept, exploitation template that has become so iconic that he’s had to sue one production for literally copying and pasting. More iconic still is growling Snake Plissken, a nasty, uncooperative, maladjusted piece of work that has calcified into both a genre titan and one of Kurt Russell’s most instantly recognizable, badass characters. Plissken is basically a villain transplanted into the protagonist’s seat, where he gets to shake up the formula and push the boundaries of being an antihero nicely. By now everyone knows the story. The President (Donald Pleasence) ejects out of Air Force One and crash lands in futuristic NYC, now a giant penitentiary housing unwanted criminals from all over, cordoned off from the rest of the world. Snake is sent in by General Hauk (Lee Van Cleef is a sadistic snake in his own right) as a ‘fight fire with fire’ ditch effort, given twenty four hours to retrieve POTUS at an extraction point and implanted with a microchip that will blow him into hamburger helper if he doesn’t make his deadline. Cue explosions, car chases, wicked stunts and set pieces galore, done in Carpenter’s careful, tactile, authentic and slightly non-Hollywood manner. The guy just has a knack for taking formulaic premises and giving them a just-south-of-normal spin, his own flavour and one that makes cult classics that are built to last. Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, freaky Frank Doubleday, Charles Cyphers, Tom Atkins and good old Harry Dean Stanton all provide standout support. My favourite aspect of the film is the original score, composed by Carpenter himself, of course. It’s a spooky, atmospheric riff that’s akin to the music in The Thing, and just has this synth-y way about it that transports you to the specific time and place of the film flawlessly, it’s a showcase example of an auditory mood board. No remake could ever touch this, it’s too idiosyncratic and special to be updated, and the sooner studios realize their never ending goose chase to capture lightning in a bottle twice is a fool’s errand, the sooner we’ll get back on track and make original contemporary films that will becomes genre classics in the future, just like this. I love Plissken’s final act of brutal rebellion, a reminder that this is not a nice guy we’re dealing with here, but one who plays by his own rules and shirks the standards, much like Carpenter himself. I imagine Plissken’s reaction to news of a remake would be similar, if not more hotheaded, than that final, lethal sleight of hand prank he pulls on a government that stabs him in the back. Solid gold.

-Nate Hill

The Farrelly Brothers Dumb & Dumber To

I might catch some royal shit for this, but I loved Dumb & Dumber To, the Farrelly Brother’s decade’s later follow up to pretty much one of the best comedies of all time. It’s different; meaner, raunchier, a tad more meta and way less down to earth than its predecessor, it seems to be almost universally projectile vomited upon by critics and loyal fans alike. Fuck em if they can’t take a joke, because there’s no arguing that this one isn’t funny. In bad taste? Sure, but so was the original in its own 90’s way. Less charming? Maybe, but suck it up. Discontinuous to the nature of the leads in the original? Granted,

but it’s been like twenty years and the filmmakers/actors have changed as artists. Bereft entirely of valuable, effective humour? Not a chance. Just be thankful we got something to erase the pungent memory of Dumb & Dumberer, a prequel wholly undeserving of the legacy’s name. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are a little older and a little more leathery, but they’re still Harry and Lloyd, the two dim witted pioneers of mid 99’s gross out humour and buddy comedy shtick, resurrected for a brand new adventure. After a prologue where Harry rescues Lloyd from a care facility (that catheter is a wince moment), they’re off to find Harry’s daughter (Rachel Melvin) who he spawned with the notorious Freida Feltcher, brought to life by none other than Kathleen Turner in full hoe mode, she’s a face I haven’t seen in movies for years. There’s a half baked crime melodrama unfolding around them just like in the first one, and just like then, they’re too dumb to get what’s going on, a running joke that villains Laurie Holden and Rob Riggle (doing a double shift) carry amiably enough, but they’re no Joe Mental or Nicholas Andre, let’s be real. The highlight for me was when Harry and Lloyd bumble their way onstage at a TED Talk-esque (updating set pieces for a new millennium) as judges, and hurl moronic criticism at every invention that graces the desk. It’s not the same as the original but it’s been years, after all. The Farrelly’s have always been about distasteful, raunchy, whacked out humour that aims low and beats the laughs out of you, which is exactly what I found to be on display here. Vastly undervalued.

-Nate Hill

Alex Garland’s Annihilation

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a stunning, incredible, awe inspiring and strikingly unique piece of work. It’s the kind of film that has you leaving the theatre and wanting to run up to strangers on the street passing by, shout how great it is in their faces and promptly buy them a ticket of their own. It’s reassuring that smart, dazzling big budget science fiction still thrives in Hollywood, and projects like this build upon and terraform the preexisting genre to produce things previously unseen, stories that wear their influences upon their sleeve whilst simultaneously hitting you as something you’ve never conceived in your wildest fever dreams. It’s also not the film you might be expecting from trailers and descriptions so far, in the best possible way. Is it about a team that heads off into a strange, quarantined area to investigate a possible extraterrestrial presence? Yes, but not really. Is it a clever blend of Alien-esque horror and trippy, delirious cosmic futurism? Sort of, but that’s just the tip of a very large, very deep iceberg surrounded by a wall of scintillating effervescence dubbed ‘The Shimmer’ by wary scientists and the military. It’s into this enshrouded no man’s land that biologist Natalie Portman and a team of professionals with nothing to lose venture, and where the film really kicks off. Every character has some kind of inner trauma which has caused them to self destruct in their own ways, an unnerving theme that Garland holds up to his audience like a prism and explores with equal scrutiny. Portman has never been better, changed by the disappearance of her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) and eerily drawn to The Shimmer. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Ventress, coldly stoic and freakily collected as team leader. Tessa Thompson caught my eyes with her fiery work in both Westworld and Thor: Ragnorak, she’s purely haunting here as the detached, withdrawn and highly intuitive Josie, nailing her final scene with earth shattering poise. Gina Rodriguez burst onto the scene with her excellent work in Deepwater Horizon and is pure dynamite here as Josie, the emotional firebrand of their troupe, giving the character’s eventual meltdown scene a remarkably authentic edge. These four actresses pull the tapestry of the film’s narrative together with their collective and individual work ; they’re nothing short of superb. Garland has found a way to express otherworldly phenomena in an artistic and scientific way that no other filmmaker has yet achieved. The images are breathtaking, the visual effects beyond top tier, the ideas are ambitious and reach full on for the stars, and the whole deal should be the gold standard of genre films at the multiplex. I’ll say no more, and let you discover it for yourself. Oh but I have to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score, an indescribable auditory experience that reaches dreamy levels of expressive percussion in the third act. Ok, I’m done, just go see it right now.

-Nate Hill