CVIndependent

Wed07172019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I watch a lot of movies. Like, a lot of movies, and it’s very rare for me to be thinking halfway into a movie: “Say, this could be one of the year’s best films!”—only to have it become one of the year’s worst films in the second half.

Well, that’s what happened when I watched the latest Matt Damon vehicle, from director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), the horribly off-balance Downsizing.

The film starts as brilliant satire mixed with science fiction: Scientists have discovered a way to reduce energy and resource consumption on our planet by shrinking people and putting them into miniature utopia communities. By doing this, not only do humans generate less trash; they essentially become rich when their finances are transferred into the downsized communities. A standard bank account goes from being worth thousands to millions.

Damon plays Paul, an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks living from paycheck to paycheck. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are tantalized by the idea of getting out of their crowded house and into something a little roomier with a nice pool—plus becoming millionaires. They decide to take the plunge to get small. Paul completes the process and miniaturizes, but Audrey has some complications during the head-shaving part—so Paul winds up all alone in a newly shrunken world, and he’s completely pissed off.

Through this point, the film is everything you’d want out of this kind of movie. It’s clever, with Damon using his laid-back comic charms in service of a screenplay that’s full of interesting insights. Visually, it’s a triumph: The scenes of full-sized adults chatting with mini people are seamless. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. This movie was racing up my Best Of 2017 list.

Then … Downsizing rapidly disintegrates into utter boredom and nonsense. The filmmakers apparently didn’t know where to really take the story after Paul enters the shrunken world, and the movie gets politically obvious, even stereotypical, in depicting Paul’s new world problems.

The second half starts off with Paul’s dating woes. This scenario has potential, and probably could’ve worked as the crux of the final acts—not as good as the promising first half, but it’s cute enough to be entertaining. But when Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), essentially an illegal shrunken immigrant, warning alarms start going off: The movie wants to hammer you on the head with some kind of grand message. Downsizing tries to become some statement about how typical problems would most certainly follow us into the shrunken world, because humans are the same big and small. Yeah, OK. That’s fine. This is supposed to be fantasy/satire.

But instead of continuing as biting satire, the movie becomes afraid of itself, and Payne tries to make a feel-good message movie that winds up insulting our intelligence. It drags on forever as Paul travels to the original “shrunken person” colony in attempt to save the species. None of this works, and whole enterprise feels like two movies—one good, one really bad.

I do believe Payne could’ve found a way to mix Paul’s tribulations with worldly problems, but what he’s come up with is so heavy-handed and predictable that it trashes all of his good intentions. This is not a movie that deserves a happy ending. It had a chance to really say something about the damage selfish humans inflict upon the planet and themselves, but it opts to go all touchy-feely.

Matt Damon … other than that awesome Thor cameo, 2017 just wasn’t your year.

Downsizing is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Something in the neighborhood of $17 bazillion zillion got thrown at this movie thing called The Great Wall, a mash up of American stars and kick-ass Asian directors.

That’s $17 bazillion zillion somebody would’ve been better off spending on masking tape and gummi bears. Matt Damon stars in this mess, and this may very well represent the low point of his career, a career that has included the atrocious Jason Bourne and Hereafter. He probably thought he was in safe hands, because The Great Wall is helmed by director Zhang Yimou, maker of such masterpieces as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and—one of my very favorite movies—The Road Home. Damon was probably all like, “Hey, Yimou is calling the shots. If anything, I’m going to look good in this pic!”

Then … he saw his wardrobe. It begins with big furry wigs and beards, and then declines into a sad man bun as the film progresses. He looks silly from frame one.

He sounds silly, too. He’s attempting some sort of accent here, a cross between Irish and Scottish and dickweed. Every time he talks in this movie, it hurts the ears, and the soul—especially the souls of those who love Matt Damon.

Damon plays Legolas … I mean, William, a mercenary, expert archer roaming China with his best mate, Tovar (Pedro Pascal), in search of the majestic “black powder,” which they hear can blow things up real good. One spooky night, the Green Arrow … sorry, William, slays a mysterious beast. He chops off its arm and stows it—something that will save their lives when they come into contact with The Great Wall.

You see, The Great Wall wasn’t just built for American tourists so they could run around on it and take Facebook selfies. Nope, it was built because the Chinese were trying to hold back attacks on their sovereignty by non-distinctive, shitty CGI creatures that look like a cross between a Gremlin and that ridiculous looking Ripley-alien baby that showed up at the end of Alien Resurrection. (I know that’s an obscure reference, but it’s totally true.)

Once the Chinese army discovers that Katniss … sorry, William was able to kill one of the legendary yet totally unoriginal beasts on his own, they invite him in for food, lodging and stultifying, inane dialogue. While inside, Robin Hood … oh, pardon me, William starts to like them and feel at home. He even shows them how good he is with his arrows, aided by more unimpressive CGI.

Willem Dafoe shows up as Ballard, a wild-eyed guy wearing an Obi-Wan Kenobi robe who hides in the shadows all bug-eyed and knows all about the black powder. He’s been living on the other side of the wall, inexplicably, for years, looking for his chance to escape. (I never did figure out if he was a prisoner, a willing resident or a male prostitute.) When Rambo … I apologize, William shows up, Ballard figures this is his chance to escape. As it turns out, his escape plan would’ve worked just fine on his own, and didn’t necessarily require somebody else, leading to one of the film’s many plot holes.

The wall itself is the product of more god-awful CGI. You would think with this budget (a reported $150 million, which might as well be $17 bazillion zillion), they could’ve made this movie look better. There’s one moment where Daryl Dixon … I beg your pardon, William is swinging with a girl in his arms, and it’s terribly obvious Damon’s face has been computer-glued onto a stuntman’s body. There wasn’t a single moment in this movie where the effects were impressive.

I don’t think Damon will be returning as Hawkeye … Jesus Christ, William in any sequels. The Great Wall is a great disaster of epic proportions, and an unfortunate English debut for the great Yimou.

Matt Damon should stick with movies about being lost in space and solving gargantuan math problems. No … more … wig … movies.

The Great Wall is regrettably showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

It’s been nine years since the last Bourne movie that mattered. (The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner, back in 2012 was a joke.) After saying he wouldn’t play the part again, Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne, with director-buddy Paul Greengrass in tow.

The result: Jason Bourne, a tedious, desperate and sad extension of the Bourne storyline.

At the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon’s Bourne woke up after a bridge dive and swam off into an unknown and unpredictable future. It seemed to be a fitting and perfect end to the character, or perhaps that particular story arc. Bourne found out his real name, learned why he was an assassin with amnesia, and got himself a little revenge. Case closed, right?

Wrong. Money matters, and Universal wanted to keep the Bourne locomotive on track. An attempt to keep the franchise going with a new star (Renner’s awful Legacy) was stale. Then Universal saw an opportunity with Damon, who hadn’t had a major hit in many years. (Damon decided to go back to Bourne before the release of The Martian last year, a movie that garnered him an Oscar nomination and showed he was still bankable.)

Greengrass and his writers have come up with a way to further confuse Bourne about his identity. As it all turns out, there’s more to his amnesia: HE DOESN’T KNOW EVERTHING AFTER ALL! He’s also got some daddy issues.

The film starts with Bourne pulling a Rambo III, subjecting himself to public fights as a means of fueling his unquenched inner violent side. Former work associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) meets up with Bourne in Greece to tell him that she discovered some more stuff about his identity while doing some computer hacking. For Jason Bourne … it’s not over yet.

It’s embarrassing to watch Damon and Greengrass go through the motions of the tired scenario they have put into play. One year after perhaps his most enjoyable and fully dimensional performance in The Martian, Damon is forced to put the now-boring Bourne pants on again. His performance lacks dimension, emotion and humor. It’s not entirely his fault: The part is written that way. Ten years ago, Bourne was a cool role for Damon, one that allowed him to strip down and do something different. He’s grown as an actor since then, and has essentially outgrown Bourne. It feels like a step backward for him.

Greengrass tries to beef things up on the villainous end by employing Tommy Lee Jones as a CIA jerkface, which is a move as predictable and clichéd as casting Tommy Lee Jones as Tommy Lee Jones. Jones invests nothing new into his character, a type he has played many times before.

Oscar winner Alicia Vikander shows up as an ambitious CIA employee looking to make her mark. Her performance here is more robotic than her actual work as a robot in Ex Machina. Vincent Cassel is also onboard as a hired assassin called “The Asset.” Man, somebody had to work overtime to come up with that name.

There had to have been a better way to do this. How about giving Bourne a new career, one that he’s happy with—and then having him find out something is still wrong in his past? Or could they have simply made him a paid assassin who is truly screwed up thanks to his past? The new gimmick Greengrass and friends come up with to further extend Bourne’s identity crisis is not shocking, surprising or inventive. It feels drawn out.

Attempts to modernize Bourne with mumbo jumbo involving a tech mogul (Riz Ahmed) and a new social-media platform make parts of this movie feel like a jettisoned episode of Silicon Valley.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens stands as the best recent attempt to continue a franchise without making it feel forced, desperate and like a blatant attempt to cash some checks. Jason Bourne does nothing to better the franchise. This storyline needs to end here.

Jason Bourne is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

Last year, Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar got stranded in space and wound up doing some rather rude things to Matthew McConaughey.

This year, Damon’s character in The Martian gets stranded in space, but this time, he refrains from trying to kill Matthew McConaughey (in part because McConaughey isn’t in the movie), opting instead to grow potatoes using his own shit.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a fun—and funny—movie that’s lighter than much of the director’s often-dark fare. Yes, it’s about some poor sap getting stranded on Mars, but, no, aliens don’t burst out of his belly after breakfast.

Damon spends a lot of time onscreen by himself as Mark Watney, a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who becomes the unfortunate recipient of a satellite dish to the gut during a storm—a violent squall that results in the evacuation of the rest of his crew. After an attempt by his commander (Jessica Chastain, also a veteran of Interstellar) to retrieve him, the crew leaves, thinking Watney has bought the farm. (Yep … that’s a botanist pun I just dropped right there.)

Watney awakens to find himself alone on the red planet—with a piece of metal stuck in his gut. After another Ridley Scott-directed self-surgery scene (reminiscent of that yucky self-surgery scene in Prometheus), Watney starts trying to find a way to survive. He fashions fertilizer out of jettisoned poopy-packs, finds a way to make water—and is soon up to his ears in potatoes.

The Martian has fun with science facts, involving things like the creation of fertilizer, the surprising effectiveness of duct tape and tarps, and attempts to make fire out of mostly fire-retardant materials. Scott and his writers present these overtly nerdy aspects of the movie with great humor and the right amount of intelligence.

Damon’s performance can be compared to the lone-wolf work of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Hanks lost a lot of weight for that role, while Damon settles for an emaciated body double and digital overhauling in The Martian. It’s forgivable; Damon has done all kinds of body antics for prior films (most notably Courage Under Fire, in which he played an ultra-skinny drug addict). Let the special-effects wizards and body doubles handle the weight loss. It’s important to keep one’s heart healthy when in one’s 40s.

Damon has never been funnier before in a role, with his Watney constantly making light of his situation and using a running series of jokes to entertain himself. One of the storytelling gimmicks involves Watney videotaping messages for mission control, and each one of those messages is entertainment unto itself.

The supporting cast is terrific, from an icy Jeff Daniels (who is as cold-hearted and emotionally streamlined as they come—and he damn well oughta be) to Chastain as the mission commander suffering from guilt pangs after leaving a man behind. Michael Peña provides comic relief as a sarcastic crewmember, while Kristen Wiig does the same as a NASA spokesperson.

Scott has been in a bit of a rut lately, although I liked Prometheus despite all the plot holes and inexplicable behaviors. (By the way, Scott recently announced at least two sequels to Prometheus, so get ready for some more Noomi Rapace outer-space shenanigans.) The Martian affords Scott a nice chance to play around in his science-fiction sandbox while telling an optimistic story about humans, rather than one in which they are chased by a creature with acid for blood.

The Martian could be in play for some Oscar honors. It’s an all-around solid movie with a truly winning performance at its core. Yet again, stranding Damon on a planet and watching him squirm reaps big entertainment dividends.

The Martian is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Upon revisiting Interstellar on Blu-ray, I would like to make the following observation: Matt Damon kicks mortal ass in this movie.

Yes, I know, most of the hubbub involving this film focuses on the Matthew McConaughey performance, and whether or not the science ideas hold up. For me, the most startling aspect of this flick is when Damon shows up deep in the picture and fucks things up, old-school.

I didn’t necessarily buy what director Christopher Nolan and his cronies were trying to postulate about wormholes and space travel. However, I did thoroughly enjoy Interstellar thanks to the work of the special-effects crew, the performances and, yes, Matt Damon playing a total douchebag.

I had completely forgotten Damon was in Interstellar when I watched it the first time, so when he showed up as a scientist who was waking up from what he thought would be his final nap, I was blindsided. This time out, I was prepared and able to focus on his work from the very beginning. Damon is a rock star.

Did you know Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct his movie? If he had, it would’ve probably had a John Williams score and a whole other vibe. Instead, Nolan made a good movie that makes you think—a good movie that makes you think Matt Damon kicks ass!

Special Features: There’s a nearly hour long documentary about the science of the film narrated by McConaughey. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In the latest from director Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz plays a computer hacker “crunching entities” on a mission to prove that mankind essentially came from nothing—and will return to nothing.

I won’t say that Gilliam’s movie adds up to nothing in the end, but it becomes nonsensical, meandering mush after a promising, eye-catching beginning.

The movie has all of the watermarks of classic Gilliam films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The future is a claustrophobic place in which fluorescent colors replace the browns and grays of Brazil. There are also hoses and wires—lots and lots of hoses and wires.

There’s also another Big Brother-like corporation in the form of Mancom, for which Qohen Leth (Waltz) finds himself hopelessly employed. Forever sitting at a flashy computer console and manipulating numbers with what looks like a glorified PlayStation 4 controller, Qohen constantly complains to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), that “we,” meaning he, is dying, and his work would be done better in the confines of his own, burned-out church home.

After a meeting with Management (Matt Damon in a funny white wig) at a party, Qohen’s wish is granted, and he’s allowed to work at home on the company’s Zero Theorem project—a project that has burned out many programmers before. As Qohen slowly goes crazy, he’s visited by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), in some sort of strange effort by Management to distract him.

Of course, Qohen falls in love with Bainsley, who gives him a strange virtual suit that allows them to visit a beachfront virtual world where they can eat whatever they want—and make out, too.

The film’s settings—from the bombed out church co-inhabited by pigeons, to the multicolored streets where digital billboards follow people and converse with them as they walk by—give Gilliam a chance to play in his masterful visual sandbox. He’s still got it when it comes to presenting strange worlds, even if it is obvious that some of his visions are a few special-effects dollars short. (Gilliam doesn’t command the budgets he once did.)

What he doesn’t have is a script that amounts to much. The screenplay, by Pat Rushin (his first feature, according to IMDb), has grand ideas, but it cops out in the end—and this is a movie in which the end really, really matters. What happens is actually very reminiscent of Brazil’s dark ending—Gilliam’s original cut, that is, and not that “Happily Ever After” mess that aired on TV.

Waltz is good here, acting hard with a script that abandons him slowly. It’s a fully dedicated performance that deserved a better movie. Thewlis has funny moments; his repairman “field trip” to Qohen’s home is reminiscent of the visits paid to Jonathan Pryce by Robert De Niro in Brazil.

Yes, The Zero Theorem is one of those films in which a great director rips himself off shamelessly, and almost gets away with it. It’s Gilliam’s best film since Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, although that’s not saying much, seeing as the interim has included stuff like the awful Tideland and mediocre The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam is trying to mount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote yet again, and I’m hoping the project finally comes to fruition. Perhaps a chance to revisit this subject—something he is so passionate about—will allow him to put together another masterpiece. He’s due for another one, and I think he’s got it in him.

The Zero Theorem represents a great director starting to warm up again. It’s a miss, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Zero Theorem is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Sept. 19, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

Director George Clooney’s war epic about historians racing to save art from the Nazis looks and feels like it was taken out of a time capsule buried in 1958.

The Monuments Men is quite breezy for a war movie, and is peppered with laughs provided by a strong cast, including Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and John Goodman, as men trying to thwart Hitler’s plan for a giant museum.

The film has one of those whistle-infused soundtracks, and it doesn’t hurt that Clooney and Dujardin remind of Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly. The movie moves briskly—in fact, it may be a bit too weightless for a movie with such heavy subject matter. It also has a useless subplot involving characters played by Damon and Cate Blanchett that was deserving of the cutting-room floor. When they are alone on screen, the film comes to a dead stop.

Still, Clooney has a great command of the camera here; the ensemble (especially Murray and Goodman) shines; and the film is fun to watch. This is an interesting piece of World War II history, and it’s good that somebody has made a decent movie to cover it.

Initially, this was expected to be a big awards contender last year. However, the release date got moved, with producers claiming they needed to do some more special-effects work. They may have taken a look at it, realized they had a good but not great movie, and decided to give it a less-competitive opening date in 2014. The film wound up taking in $154 million worldwide on a $70 million budget, so things worked out just fine on the money front.

Special Features: A relatively meager gathering of supplements that includes deleted scenes and some short making-of docs.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director George Clooney’s war epic about historians racing to save art from the Nazis looks and feels like it was just taken out of a time capsule buried in 1958.

The Monuments Men is quite breezy for a war movie, peppered with laughs provided by a strong cast, including Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and John Goodman. They all play men trying to thwart Hitler’s plan for a giant museum. The film has one of those whistle-infused soundtracks, and it doesn’t hurt that Clooney and Dujardin look like Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly.

The movie moves briskly, and is perhaps a bit too weightless for a movie with such a heavy subject at its heart. It also has a useless subplot involving Damon and Cate Blanchett that is deserving of the cutting-room floor.

Still, Clooney has great command of the camera here; the ensemble shines (especially Murray and Goodman); and it’s fun to watch.

This is an interesting piece of World War II history, and it’s great that somebody has made a decent movie to cover this chapter of Hitler’s insanity.

The Monuments Men is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp follows up District 9 with another solid sci-fi effort in Elysium, a film that delivers terrific action—along with a reasonable amount of smarts.

Unfortunately, Elysium is also a little on the stupid and illogical side, especially during its ending. Yes, I just complimented the film for being smart—so it’s possible to be both dumb and brilliant in the same movie. (Heck, Guillermo del Toro did just that with his Pacific Rim earlier this summer.)

It’s about 140 years in the future, and man has, not surprisingly, screwed up the planet. It’s one big garbage heap (shades of WALL-E and Idiocracy), and the planet’s wealthy people have abandoned Earth for a bitchin’ space station in the sky.

This space station, Elysium, has everything a rich bitch would want: It’s got mansions, pools, sweet landscaping, 10 different kinds of tacos and, most notably, healing booths. These healing booths don’t just fix a bruised knee or a paper cut: They cure cancer, and can even reconstruct one’s face after it has been blown apart by an explosive.

Matt Damon shaved his head to play Max, an ex-con factory worker who puts together droids that police the decrepit Earth. One morning, he gets sassy with one of these very droids—and gets his arm broken for the effort. Then, while working under the watchful eye of the worst boss ever (William Fichtner, who is earning some cool points back after his dreadful turn in The Lone Ranger), Max microwaves himself and suffers radiation poisoning.

With only five days to live, only one thing can save him: a trip to Elysium.

While Elysium has the healing chambers, the snoots in the sky don’t allow Earth residents to use them—so Max can’t just hop on a space shuttle and get fixed up. After a visit to Spider (Wagner Moura), his former crime boss, Max gets a weaponized skeleton welded to his body (echoes of Robocop) and must agree to download a bunch of secret stuff into his brain in order earn a trip to the space station.

Yes, it’s all a little far-fetched—far-fetched and enjoyable, thanks to a stellar performance from Damon and some of the year’s best special effects. The dirty planet, the pristine space station … it’s all spectacularly done.

Sharlto Copley plays against type as a bad guy who is hunting Max. Copley is many miles away from his affable stooge in District 9; he’s a seriously awful beast here, with a fantastic and crazy accent. Jodie Foster gets some of her best work in years as Delacourt, the defense minister for Elysium. She also has a great accent, and has no problem shooting down ships full of Earth residents who are trying to enter Elysium.

Elysium displays super-cool gadgetry and brainy sci-fi—up until its finale, when the whole thing nearly falls apart. I won’t give away the ending, but it is rather dumb and illogical for a movie that had been so smart. That’s not the only issue: Blomkamp, who had delivered terrific action scenes throughout, settles for frantic Michael Bay-type editing for the final showdown.

Still, Elysium is till well worth your time, and establishes Blomkamp as one of the modern era’s kings of cinematic sci-fi. He gets sole credit for the screenplay, so its combined brilliance and silliness rest entirely in his creative hands.

As for Damon, he looks pretty badass with a steel skeleton grafted to his body and a computer drilled into his head. With this, and his turn in Behind the Candelabra, the actor is having a banner year.

Elysium is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Page 1 of 2