Downsizing [2017] – A High-Concept Sci-Fi Comedy that Fizzles Out in Execution

The first 40 minutes of Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017) is nothing short of spectacular. It starts off as an ambitious sci-fi that satirically jabs at white privilege, mass consumption, social inequality, environmental degradation, etc. Taking into account the previous commendable works of Mr. Payne, the master satirist of American society (to say exactly, the Midwestern culture), it is natural to expect him to address the intriguingly laid-out premise and themes with great depth and alacrity. But the narrative doesn’t quite take a leap, laboriously hopping from one idea to another without fully exploring any single one. What’s more conspicuously missing in Downsizing is Payne’s trademark acerbic wit and profound display of human empathy.

Alexander Payne and his regular co-writer Jim Taylor deserves praise for crafting a studio feature that tackles the inevitability of global warming and ponders upon the fundamental inequalities, regardless of humankind’s noble intentions and higher ideals.  At least for the first hour or so, Payne and Taylor explore their preoccupations with vigor and acute observations which gradually broadens our marvel about this sci-fi premise. A genial Norwegian scientist named Dr. Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) invents a method to shrink human beings to about five inches. For half a decade, he and handful of people shrink themselves and lead a life without worrying much about carbon footprint. The scientists’ findings revealed in a surprising press conference: a tiny man at a tiny podium, placed above a normal-sized podium addresses the dumbfounded macro humans. The goal of the shrinking, of course, is presented as a way to curb climate change, as Dr. Asbjornsen’s ‘big’ colleague reveals how a tiny colony of people’s waste (for 5 yrs) could be fit into large plastic bag. Within the next few years, shrinking becomes both a lifestyle craze and ‘save-our-planet’ advocacy.

Few years later this technology has been fully commodified in America. Old people consider retirement in the form of tiny person, since being full-sized doesn’t bring much luxury. Moreover, a good portion of Middle-class Americans are coaxed to downsize themselves through freshly inaugrated lilliputian utopian communities. When one is just five inches tall (0.0364 percent the size of their full-sized counterparts), everything including food and material needs, gets smaller. Not only one could save the planet, but by trading their limited nest eggs, middle-class families could lead a life of great wealth in downsized worlds. Moreover, being small doesn’t affect citizenship or right to vote. At least that’s what the brochures of different tiny communities say. Of course, before consenting to miniaturization one should also understand that there’s no way to reverse the process. All such intrigues of the commoditized scientific invention are gracefully observed through the perspective of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a physical therapist and an average-American nice guy and his bored, irresolute wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig).

The pressure of taking care of (now-deceased) mom has affected Paul’s pre-med studies. He’s only an low-paid occupational therapist and hasn’t been able to buy his wife Audrey the home of their dreams. Taking the words of a recently downsized friend, the couple visits ‘Leisureland’, a lavish, crime-less suburb for the shrunken people. They learn that their equity will radically enlarge once they become small. Paul’s mid-life crisis and perpetual failures in life naturally pushes him towards this dreamland. The dates for downsizing are all set. It leads to the film’s most brilliant scene, the detailed process through which a person gets small: dental work undone since fillings can’t shrink which can literally make your head explode; row of people are sedated and nakedly lie on a stretcher, before being placed inside a well-lit chamber (the levers pulled and knobs turned outside the chamber could very well kindle the images of Nazi gas chamber); and finally the room full of downsized people are moved to tiny stretchers using spatulas (cinematographer Phedon Papamichael has done a magnificent job in this scene). Just when Paul thinks his blissful life chapter is about to begin, he learns that Audrey has had a change of heart.

The ‘Leisureland’ might be miniature in size, but it’s pretty much a mirror image of larger flawed society (a literal microcosm), with the same bureaucratic apathy, inequity, inequality, immigration problems and so on. In countries that are less democratic, the downsizing method is used upon the impoverished, dissidents, activists, etc. Paul Safranek hears this appalling news from his new huge mansion. However, a year later we see him working in a corporate cubicle and living in a teeny-tiny condo (the divorce probably has pushed him into this lucrative financial position). Paul is once again leading a drab, boring life. From then on, the narrative tries to make grand statements on poverty, exploited workers, compassion, cults, inevitable destruction of human race, without ever sharply focusing on the themes. What’s more worse is the dry characterization of Paul. Unlike Alexander Payne’s consistently thorough look at the existential malaise of middle-aged or old American Midwestern men (in Election, Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska), Downsizing’s Paul simply comes off as a punchline, and that too a very tedious one. He is so noncommittal and impassive to make any considerable impact in the proceedings.

Payne and Taylor’s highly ambitious ideas not only fail to take root, they totally fumble with the task of creating an interesting point of view. Christoph Waltz’s amoral yet charming black marketeer Dusan looks like a vibrant character, but eventually gets lost in the convoluted story structure. Hong Chau’s self-determined Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (who was shrunk against her will for protesting against the government) could have been the much-needed relief from Paul’s passive nature, but her character too verges on caricature and almost reduced to a dramatic device. Hong does provide a very committed performance, but somehow the latent romance between Tran and Paul isn’t built up with earnestness. In films like Nebraska and About Schmidt, Mr. Payne took story-lines rife with sentimentality and conceit to turn it into deep, unflinching examinations of human condition. But Downsizing’s later portions are plagued with cheap sentimental turns and dramatically slack ideas. And despite the vast thematic constructs, Payne’s ultimate message is pretty simple (being compassionate to the less fortunate is pivotal than our preoccupations about survival of human race or obsession over utopian society; and Payne usually don’t give messages, but simply raises ponderous question) so as to not warrant these rough narrative twists.

By the time, the narrative moves to ‘shrinking procedure’ scene, Downsizing comes closer to John Frankenheimer’s under-appreciated masterpiece Seconds (1966). That film tackled the dark ironies of human condition alongside the era's highly politicized notions through the well-defined subjective angle of a existentially scarred middle-aged banker. Payne and Taylor’s script, however, moves between individualistic and broader perspective, utterly failing to balance between the two. Downsizing (135 minutes) is definitely a disappointing movie from one of the great contemporary American film-maker; partly because the audacious story elements never coalesce to form a powerful sci-fi satire. It’s a lesson on how good intentions and challenging concepts could be easily marred by weak execution. 


Last Flag Flying [2017] – A Predictable yet an Endearing Journey of Middle-Aged War Veterans

What makes Richard Linklater’s movies great are the flashes of nuanced, understated & unforeseen truths bestowed upon viewers, which could be easily mistaken as canonical babbling of the grown-ups. The indie film-maker’s latest feature Last Flag Flying (2017) does retain the casually profound reflective mentality and tragicomic tone to instantly forge an emotional connection. At the same time, the final product seems a little heavy-handed and unrestrained, compared to Linklater’s other masterful intimate epics. The problem is more with the familiarity of its subject matter than with Linklater’s intuitive directorial approach. Yet Last Flag Flying is definitely engages us throughout its running time, thanks to superb central performances from Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne.

Last Flag Flying is based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2004 novel of the same name, which is a sort of sequel to the author’s 1970 novel The Last Detail (it was adapted to screen by Hal Ashby in 1973). Set in 2003, the story follows three Vietnam War veterans making an unexpectedly meditative journey across atrophied post-9/11 American landscape. The Last Detail was about two U.S. Navy sailors escorting a shy, young sailor to military prison. Linklater’s movie returns to some of the emotional terrain broached by the 1973 movie, although Ashby’s movie possessed a more profound atmosphere of bleakness. Of course, it isn’t compulsory to watch The Last Detail to understand the emotional dimensions of Linklater’s movie (Linklater has given the characters different names and slightly altered their backstories). Last Flag Flying works perfectly as a stand-alone feature and if I need to point out one area in which it excels like Ashby’s movie, then it must lie in shrewd establishment of emotional dynamics between the three principal characters.

Since the time Darryl Ponicsan wrote this book in 2004, there has been steady stream of films that ingeniously dealt with Iraq war from the home-front perspective. Of course, dangerous propagandist works like American Sniper, Lone Survivor continues to be made for every genuinely painful features like In the Valley of Elah or The Messenger. Linklater’s adaptation is definitely a somber work that addresses agonizing emotions which haunts individuals existing miles apart from the sandy battlefields, without sanitizing or misleading the nature of this particular war.  Nevertheless, despite the director’s minimalist streak, the very familiar narrative makes the movie too simplistic and flaccid. The screen adaptation may have more resonant if it was made a decade or so earlier. Last Flag Flying opens in 2003, in a crowd-less seedy bar, situated in the run-down part of Norfolk, Virginia. Shy widower and former Navy medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) shows up unannounced at the bar owned by happy-go-lucky boozer Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). Sal is Doc’s old Marine buddy and together they go to visit another Marine buddy Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), an erstwhile wild guy who is now a pious pastor.

There’s a reason for Doc reaching out his old buddies after all these years: he needs their company to travel and receive his dead son, Larry Jr.’ coffin.  Doc’s only son was also a marine, killed in action in Iraq. He is to be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. However, after arriving at the destination and confronting the military outfit’s dishonest behavior, Doc has a change of heart and decides to bury his son back home in New Hampshire. The rest of the narrative is about the three middle-aged men’s roundabout journey – who are also accompanied by Charlie Washington (J.Quinton Johnson), a young lance corporal and Larry Jr’s best friend – which is embellished with philosophizing or soliloquizing vignettes. There are also the boisterous, Linklater-esque scenarios of uncynical male bonding.

Last Flag Flying doesn’t exactly feels outdated as its reverential attitude towards the courage & patriotism of troops and ambivalent attitude towards the corrupt establishment that sends citizens into battle is expressed in a solid manner. But compared to the unfeigned, realist works of Linklater, this one feels wholly schematic and awkwardly self-conscious. Themes are overtly spelled out or dissected, and the usually organic Linklater-esque conversational flow mostly ends up as contrived sermons. It may be deliberate and Last Flag Flying might be the most mainstream work after the director’s 2003 comedy The School of Rock (which I very much enjoyed). However, the problem with this film is not just the conventional story-line, but also the lesser developed characters and overtly dramatized conflicts. Barring few powerfully written scenes, the three central characters never hits the transcendent note that turns them into real people (especially the proceedings doesn’t get deep into the head of Doc). It is true that Carrell’s amiable presence, Cranston’s enjoyable hysterics, and Fishburne’s laconic resolve (and their bromance) keeps us engaged throughout, but the characters doesn’t exactly stay with or haunt us after the denouement. The arguments over buying mobile phones or the discussion of generational schema provides some incidental pleasures, although what I earnestly hoped for is quietly shattering drama. On the whole, Last Flag Flying (125 minutes) couldn’t be dismissed as a bad movie, even though it is strictly conventional and slightly bland. While, it’s not the subtlest Richard Linklater movie, it’s still undeniably watchable. 

Barry [2018--] – A Pitch-Black Comedy about a Self-Deluded Hitman

Bill Hader plays Barry Berkman, a professional hitman, who in the series’ opening scene stands over a corpse, lying in the bed with a bullet to the head. But, make no mistake this splendid new HBO series has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, the comedy being mostly wry and dark. HBO’s half-hour eight episode series Barry (2018--) commits to a bold, if not a very familiar, premise: an anti-hero desiring to renew his identity. The catch is he seeks the change out of boredom, not wholly due to feelings of remorse or fear. Hence, similar to all the anti-heroes of good TV, Barry’s self-deception and malevolence only escalates alongside the manner he impetuously clings to his newfound dreams and passion.

Bill Hader with his slack face and big lifeless eyes (who co-created the series with Alec Berg) is a perfect fit for Barry, a former Marine now working as a contract killer. Under his handler/father figure Fuches’ (Stephen Root) orders, Barry expertly does each hit. He has numbed himself to do the job, but lately Barry is depressed. Despite insisting upon the irreparable damage he does, in the name of killing, show creators Hader and Berg primarily makes us sympathize with the guy. If we could brush aside Barry’s choice of profession, then his effort to overcome depression, to find new purpose and passion in life would resonant with us directionless souls seeking respite anywhere. But of course, it’s hard to avert the focus from his life of crime and accordingly our slight affection for the anti-hero is constantly put to test.

Fuches sends Barry to L.A. to decompress as well as make an easy hit for the Chechen mob. Once in L.A., Barry pursues his mark Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore) to an acting class, helmed by an old failed-actor/acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Barry the fish-out-of-water is easily swept away by Cousineau’s extolment of live theater and his starry-eyed wanna-be actors. Post-class, Barry drinks with Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a flighty woman striving to catch her break, who ostensibly becomes Barry’s love interest. Barry’s an awful actor, but he sees the medium as a better way to channel his anxiety, rage, and love, feelings he didn’t know he still has. The assassin hopes to balance his criminal life with the burgeoning love for Sally and acting. But when Ryan’s hit goes wrong, Barry finds himself at odds with Chechen crime boss Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) and his sidekick Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a criminal outfit full of oddballs. Meanwhile, the series of gang-related murders attracts the attention of the police, particularly the no-nonsense Detective Moss (Paula Newsome), who traces back the leads to Cousineau’s acting class.

Hader and Berg’s writing is marked by a style of absurdist comedy. They initially frame many of the characters as goofy or buffoonish. Gene Cousineau, Fuches, and Sally in the earlier episodes simply come across as eccentrics, but gradually the characters become distinct personalities as their own desperation and desire comes to the surface. “Do not fucking tell me what I am”, a character screams, which forebodes the different facets of the supporting characters. Each of them reveals real emotions unanticipated for their roles, placing them away from conventionality (Sally, played with gusto by Goldberg, is equally heartbreaking and annoying when she’s single-mindedly driven by her ambition). Even Gene and detective Moss’ hilarious courtship begins in a farcical note, but the creators slowly squeeze out genuine warm feelings. Both the members of Chechen and Bolivian gang pretty much remain as caricatures, but their ability to play for laughs without understating their characters’ cutthroat attitude keeps those portions deliciously entertaining . Carrigan and Fleschler are exceptionally good as they keep on bumbling through comedy of errors.

In spite of the quirky, dreamlike quality 'Barry' is punctuated with extreme violence. And the violence become less sporadic and more horrific as our awkward hit man gets entrapped within his self-delusion. What the decidedly unambitious Barry dreams of is being a family man, leading a boring life in the suburbs. He wants the perfectly banal American dream with all its idealized version of happiness. In the couple of early episodes, Barry’s shared humanity, loneliness, and passion took him close to an appealing figure; where he almost convinces us that the past is just ‘water under the bridge’. The intriguing narrative through line is Barry’s longing to leave his past reprehensible actions behind. However, the later episodes crisply present the unraveling although Barry, embracing the delusional beliefs, still thinks of himself as the good, decent guy. In fact, he is most dangerous than the villainous alpha-males portrayed on-screen. The manner with which Barry sees himself in the character of Macbeth (without ever feeling the guilt or remorse of Shakespearean characters) tells a lot about his line of thoughts. Unlike the lone assassin who killed for money, the allegedly reborn Barry doesn’t want to hurt people. At the same time, he doesn’t want his unsavory past to catch up and hurt him. Hence his current sociopathic exploits are loaded with new sets of reason.

‘Barry’ also balances the satire on the vapid, narcissistic life-style of Hollywood or L.A. theater culture with the noir tendencies. I loved the way the first season ended. Half-way into the final episode, we feel it’s all too good to be true. Then the fascinating twist arrives. As the visibly-shaken Barry finally crawls into bed next to his girlfriend Sally, and says to himself, “Starting n….”, before the screen fades to black, it felt like a perfect, dark ending. But since HBO has picked it for another season, it would be interesting to see Hader and Berg’s long-term vision for the character. The direction by Bill Hader is unshowy but impactful and efficient. The couple of episodes directed by Hiro Murai (‘Atlanta’) brings up the series most imaginatively rendered set-pieces (particularly the ‘bum rush’ sequence). ‘Barry’ isn’t without flaws. A good number of plot developments repeatedly defy logic (especially the unbelievably uncompetitive investigation of the police). Some of the characters are cooked-up to serve the series’ convoluted narrative mechanisms: for example, the inclusion of Barry’s military friend Chris. The acting class members are defined by their quirkiness and as the show progresses they are simply treated as props (D’Arcy Carden of ‘The Good Place’ fame is wasted in a thankless role). 



Barry (2018--) assuredly walks a tightrope between absurd flourishes of dark comedy and deepening sense of tragedy. It takes our unwavering fixation for TV bad guys to entirely new levels. 

A Fantastic Woman [2017] – A Well-Intentioned yet a Slightly Superficial Take on the Tribulations of a Transgender Woman

It is no wonder considering the awkward politics of Oscars that Chilean film-maker Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman ('Una Mujer Fantastica', 2017) won the ‘Best Foreign Film’ award. Its victory has got much to do with it being considered as a ‘narrative about a trans woman’. That is particularly ironic, considering the movie’s underlying themes. However, it would only be shocking to expect something different from the maddeningly politically correct Academy Awards. By making us and the movie’s protagonist see her image in mirrors at different occasions in the narrative, Mr. Lelio repeatedly insists on how the society’s definition of a person is often at odds with one’s own self-definition. It tries to say, ‘she is who she is’, and any methods to pigeon-hole her in the name of identity is an unnecessary infliction. Of course, few narrative decisions itself somehow reduces the complex individual qualities to pave way for transgender feminist flag-bearing. Moreover, the plotting isn’t its superior quality and despite the vibrant, indelible performance from Daniela Vega, the scripting never makes it a richer, profound exploration of the trans experience. A Fantastic Woman does boast a lot of gratifying qualities, but personally, I felt the other films in the Oscar shortlist were more deserving of the award.  

A Fantastic Woman opens in an elegant and tender manner. It starts with an intriguing misdirection, as we witness the routine activities of a sophisticated middle-aged man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Lelio’s camera traces the guy’s movements from a sauna to a hotel, office, and then a night club. At the club, Orlando fixes his gaze upon a singer named Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), and later we see the two celebrating her birthday with a musical cake at a Chinese restaurant. He is in his 50s, and she in her late 20s, but it’s clear they are enchanted by each other, the latest encounter is just part of long succession of loving get-togethers. After dinner, they are together in his apartment, with Marina looking forward to move in soon. Alas, Orlando collapses, falls down long flight of stairs, and dies soon after entering the hospital with the doctor clearly pronouncing ‘aneurysm’ as the cause. Up to this point, we have simply perceived committed relationship between two caring individuals. But it changes with Orlando’s death.

Now Marina’s trans identity is called into question. After announcing the fate of Orlando to his gentle brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), Marina tries to make herself scarce. She knows the attitudes of deceased man’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) and her eldest son, Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra), and their combined disgust for Orlando’s new relationship. Director Lelio doesn’t cook a mystery out of Orlando’s death. But Marina’s gender identity and sudden disappearance from the hospital instantly attracts the attention of local authorities, who are alleged to have been provoked by the scornful family members of Orlando. A police officer asks for her name, and when she says ‘Marina’, he asks again for her ‘real name’. The acts of misgendering or misidentifying her continues in both overt, aggressive ways or in very subtle manner. A female detective reassures Marina that she has sympathy for battered, humiliated individuals like her, but remains suspicious about the bruises Orlando got from falling down the stairs. Just to rule out the possibility of foul play, Marina is subjugated to consent to a humiliating examination. While all Marina wants is to process her grief and figure out life, her body and identity becomes an object of intrigue for others. Although she is often stripped off her dignity, Marina refuses to quietly relegate herself to a corner. She quietly exercises defiance to say final goodbye to her loved one.

A Fantastic Woman mostly comes across as a marriage in themes and styles of prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Spanish auteur Pedro Almodvar. Be it the symbolical mirror compositions or the striking moment of fantasies (especially the shot of Marina trudging through a windy street), Lelio tries to embeds tasteful melodrama and sentimentalism of those two legendary directors (even though Lelio’s film lacks the edgy, intricate structure found in the works of Fassbinder). Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza’s script fixates on protagonist at her most intimate moments, but never really gets into her consciousness. By pitting her almost as a lone crusader in the later portions, the complexities of Marina vanishes and is simply turned into a impassive conduit for exhibiting idealistic intentions. Focusing on the marginalized or ostracized character is really not same as deeply offering a portrait of her character. It becomes a character-driven narrative, where the character is just watched, accompanied by certain on-the-nose symbolism. Even if the narrative is only about social stigmatization of Marina, the series of troubles she encounters doesn’t seem complex on the whole. Leilo and Maza’s writing does hit stronger tones in the confrontational scene between Marina and Orlando’s ex-wife. She tries to make sense out of her deceased, ex-husband’s relationship, but little into the conversation, we see her brutal honesty making itself visible. “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” she tells Marina, further adding that she thought Orlando was just ‘perverted’ to choose Marina. Lelio brings out the general contempt trans people are subjected to without overly villianizing or caricaturing the ex-wife character.

Since Marina’s body is oft prodded or commented upon as if it’s an object, Lelio focuses on how she navigates through the consciously gendered spaces. There aren’t many dramatic visual flourishes, but there’s quiet power in the way camera conveys her looks of loss and challenge. I specifically the visually seductive scene, set in the sauna, when Marina expects to discover some missing link to duly process her grief. Finally, if there’s a reason that makes A Fantastic Woman, a must watch it is Daniela Vega’s ultra-nuanced approach in playing Marina. By making a trans actor like Vega enact the central role, we are spared from the irritating details of how so & so famous male or female actor mentally and physically prepared themselves to assume the role. Vega doesn’t go for big emotions. Her restraint and casual dismissal of other’s disdain looks very natural, as if the life time of ostracism and wrongful sort of attention has imprinted such qualities. Even when the narrative feels like a rhetoric, designed to superficially promote blunt social messages of tolerance, Vega’s towering presence makes it inherently worthwhile to watch. Moreover, one could hope that the actor’s intensity would open the possibility for making of more profound features on transgender experience than Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman.