Out on Friday January 26
Alexander Payne proves a little Matt Damon goes a long way. Richard Linklater takes a staunch look at the casualties of war. The finale in the Maze Runner series.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Downsizing, Last Flag Flying, Early Man, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, 12 Strong, The Nothing Factory, The Bachelors, and The Cinema Travellers.
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Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, Nebraska – you might say that the films of Alexander Payne contain microscopic studies of masculinity, featuring men who try to find their own small place in the world… but not too small; it’s their very feeling of insignificance that forms a large part of the problem.
In Downsizing, Payne and his regular co-writer Jim Taylor take the theme as far as it will go, offering a dark, sand-dry sci-fi satire that envisions a near-future in which citizens can opt to undergo the irreversible procedure of ‘cellular miniaturisation’.
Why choose to be shrunk down to six inches and lifted off the operating table on a spatula, you might ask. Well, Payne and Taylor have some pretty persuasive answers – it’s great for the environment and, in specially built toy towns such as Leisure Land Estates, your meagre savings stretch to a lifetime of luxury. And so it is that struggling occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) elect to downsize and upgrade to a gigantic doll’s house.
The reality, naturally, is altogether different to the pocket-sized American Dream they were sold, with this Disneyfied Lilliput turning out to be little more than a microcosm of the world at large, with all of its burdens and ugliness. Having a noisy playboy neighbour (a grandstanding Christoph Waltz) is just the start.
Paul’s complacent eyes are soon opened to the troubles of cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Inherent Vice’s Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who lost a leg while being smuggled into the United States in a cardboard box, and is now living not in a world of A3 tennis courts, shoebox-sized swimming pools and white toothpick fences, but an itsy-bitsy slum.
By peeling back the layers to introduce pain and vulnerability to her ‘comically’ no-nonsense demeanour, Chau turns what at first appears to be a borderline racist caricature into the highlight of the film.
In fact, much like its heroes, Downsizing morphs as it goes on. Just when you have it pegged as a high-concept black comedy comprising meticulous compositions and tart one-liners – as controlled as the cine-worlds of the Coens or Wes Anderson – it loosens up and hits the road (to Norway, no less), allowing life, with all its ragged spontaneity, to flow into the frame.
Some will undoubtedly see the shift as a loss of focus. But in letting Downsizing expand, Payne makes room for the bigger questions (including the threat of human extinction) to be satisfyingly explored beyond a few sharp jibes, and for his often misanthropic humour to give way to humanism.
In other words, when it comes to heart and conscience, Downsizing goes pleasingly big.
THE VERDICT: No small achievement. Alexander Payne re-confirms his position as one of US cinema’s premier filmmakers.
Director: Alexander Payne; Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier; Theatrical release: January 24, 2018
Last Flag Flying
After chronicling childhood and early adolescence in Boyhood and the college years in Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater turns his attention to those heading past middle age. Last Flag Flying isn’t only about such matters: it’s also a study of friendship, regrets and grief, not to mention a staunch look at the casualties of war.
In essence, it’s a sequel-of-sorts to The Last Detail, Hal Ashby’s 1973 sweary classic with Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid as three military men on a road trip. That film was based on a book by Darryl Ponicsan – who here self-adapts (co-credited with Linklater) his 2005 follow-up novel.
Some character names and plot details have changed, perhaps to distance Last Flag Flying from the burden of being a direct continuation of Ashby’s movie. But like Last Detail, it’s a low-key, freewheeling story, centred on a trio of Vietnam vets who reunite after years apart to hit tarmac and tracks for a nostalgia-fuelled odyssey.
Set in 2003, it begins in a Virginia bar, owned by former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). In walks ex-Navy man Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Steve Carell), whom Sal hasn’t seen for 30 years. Without explaining why, Larry convinces him to find ‘Mueller the Mauler’, now preaching at a Baptist church as Reverend Richard (Laurence Fishburne).
Doc, it turns out, is in need of moral support; not only has he recently lost his wife to cancer, but his 21-year-old son – also a Marine – has been killed in Baghdad. On the verge of a breakdown, he asks Sal and Richard to accompany him to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and the trio set off.
Re-tooling Nicholson’s character, Sal is the boozy reprobate of the group, who delights in needling the now-pious Reverend Richard. The dynamic between Cranston and Fishburne is one of the delights of the film, which takes a sombre turn when they discover more details about the circumstances of Larry’s son’s death.
Drawing parallels with Vietnam and Iraq, Last Flag Flying ambles along, unfolding in that very organic, unforced Linklater manner. It’s not always successful (contrivances and detours blight the plot at points), but there are real moments to savour, largely thanks to the three central performances.
Linklater is hardly the sort of director to deliver a hard-hitting, tub-thumping anti-war film. Instead, there’s a quiet dignity here as he questions the pointlessness of wartime conflict. Last Flag Flying is best approached as a character study – one that offers a potent, poignant meditation on loss.
THE VERDICT: A salty road trip tinged with sadness, sensitively handled by Linklater and his cast. Unfocused in places, but never less than diverting.
Director: Richard Linklater; Starring: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018
Way back in 2005, Aardman Animations announced that its next movie project with then-partner DreamWorks would be a Stone Age-set comedy, co-scripted by John Cleese, entitled Crood Awakening. When, in 2007, Aardman parted ways with DreamWorks, the latter kept the rights to the idea as part of the divorce package. Five years later, the US studio released The Croods, a computer-animated caveman tale that, in addition to making more than $580 million worldwide, scored an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.
Yet Aardman still had ambitions of making its own prehistoric ’toon using its traditional stop-motion techniques. Thirteen years on from that initial announcement, the result is Early Man: a playful if derivative caper, full of the homespun charm and very English humour that likely contributed to the creative differences with DreamWorks.
Directed by Nick Park, Early Man begins in the Neo-Pleistocene Age (“Around lunchtime”) with the landing of a meteor that inspires Earth’s troglodyte inhabitants to spontaneously invent football. “A few ages later,” the crater where the comet hit is home to Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a cheery Neanderthal content with hunting rabbits with pet warthog Hognob and the rest of his engagingly clueless tribe. (Their numbers include a bumbling chieftain, voiced by Timothy Spall, who trims his facial hair with a beetle, and a naif called Barry, played by Mark Williams, whose best friend is a rock.)
All that goes pear-shaped when Dug’s valley is invaded by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), a rapacious Bronze Ager with designs on the minerals that lie beneath Dug’s unshod feet. Things look bleak for our heroes. Until, that is, Dug challenges Nooth to a footy match, with the valley going to the winners.
Revolving as it does around a battle for supremacy between a plucky group of Luddites and a technologically superior adversary, Early Man could almost be viewed as a metaphor for the Aardman-DreamWorks situation. This time, however, Park’s thinly plotted film – his first feature since co-directing 2005’s The Curse of The Were-Rabbit – shows the limitations of his medium as much as its strengths.
The jokes come as fast as we’ve come to expect, Park deploying everything from marketplace signage (‘Jurassic Pork’) to a pair of Match of the Day-style commentators (“That’s not cricket, Brian!”) to tickle the funny bone. But ultimately, it’s a by-the-numbers, underdog sports story that struggles to fill the brief running time.
There’s fun voice work from Maisie Williams’ rebel Goona plus Richard Ayoade, Johnny Vegas and others as Redmayne’s tribal buddies. A huge man-eating mallard, meanwhile, brings a jaunty new dimension to the exclamation “Duck!”. Hiddleston’s Python-esque, quasi-French accent, alas, quickly proves irksome, while the customary Aardman wordplay (“You haven’t eaten your primordial soup!”) feels like it’s propping up an edifice almost as unsteady as the stone goal Dug puts up for football practice
A scene in which Lord Nooth unwittingly receives a warthog massage is the kind of absurdist vignette that brings out the best in this Bristol-based powerhouse. Yet similar moments are too fleeting in a film that struggles to keep it up the full 90 minutes.
THE VERDICT: A primitive concept (cavemen play football) generates unsophisticated laughs in an animated caper that’s fun but rather second division by Aardman standards.
Director: Nick Park; Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Timothy Spall, Maisie Williams, Rob Brydon; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018
Maze Runner: The Death Cure
“This is a long way from the Glade,” says teen hero Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) to Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and their ragtag pals while staring at the walled city they must infiltrate in order to rescue pal Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and bring down WICKED, the corporation who experimented on them like lab rats.
Yes, it is a long way, and unfortunately this YA franchise has become less interesting and more formulaic with each instalment as it’s opened out from its contained, high-concept beginnings.
Still, this trilogy closer (thankfully James Dashner’s book has not been split in two) is solid enough, opening with a rip-roaring train heist straight out of a western – albeit with an armed chopper hovering above – and climaxing with all-out war raged on the last city standing in the scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape.
In between, there are run-ins with virus-infected Cranks and a quick dream sequence to plonk us back into the original’s maze with a biomechanical Griever in hot, slobbery pursuit.
The dramatic beats and themes of loyalty, sacrifice and blessed vs. dispossessed are familiar, but Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson and Barry Pepper return to add gravitas, and are joined, though all-too briefly, by a pustule-faced, noseless Walton Goggins.
THE VERDICT: It’s hardly fresh, but the spectacle is decent and the relationship dynamics absorb just enough to fill the lengthy run time.
Director: Wes Ball; Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Rosa Salazar, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Giancarlo Espositio; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018
A true story about the first US soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, Nicolai Fuglsig’s war movie (adapted from Doug Stanton’s 2009 account Horse Soldiers) will leave you ducking imaginary shrapnel and wiping dust from your eyes. Authenticity is key, and it’s fair to say Fuglsig’s combat scenes are vivid and visceral, as 12 special forces soldiers – led by Chris Hemsworth’s Captain Mitch Nelson – brave Afghanistan’s perilous Hindu Kush mountains.
Task Force Dagger, as they’re christened, are forced to team up with Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to fight against the Taliban. The general has his own agenda, making life difficult for combat virgin Nelson. And then there’s the mountainous terrain, “the graveyard of many empires”, accessible only on horseback.
With Hemsworth flanked by Michael Shannon, Michael Peña and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, it’s an eminently watchable ensemble, albeit working from a script where subtlety is not an option. Sentimentality – such as through Rhodes’ relationship with an Afghan boy – fills the air and character development doesn’t extend beyond men wanting to see their families again. You’ll shift in your seat when trouble flares, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be moved.
EXTRAS: A straight-arrow war movie, with credible fight scenes and a fine cast, but few memorable characters.
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig; Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018
The Nothing Factory
This sprawling agitprop drama from writer/director Pedro Pinho follows a group of Lisbon factory workers who occupy their workplace after learning of their impending redundancies.
Blurring the fiction/documentary lines (it features non-professional actors), it’s spiced with eccentricities: alongside Marxist theorising, we get ostriches and even a song- and-dance number.
Director: Pedro Pinho; Starring: José Smith Vargas, Carla Galvão, Njamy Sebastião; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018
The novelty of seeing J.K. Simmons as a romantic lead narrowly outweighs the sentiment that dogs this tale of a grieving widower intent on building a new life for himself and his son. Solace comes to them in the forms of a teacher (Julie Delpy) and a troubled student (Odeya Rush).
The story is predictable, but Simmons’ tighty whities and Delpy’s fish impressions compensate.
Director: Kurt Voelker; Starring: Odeya Rush, J.K. Simmons, Jean Louisa Kelly; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018
The Cinema Travellers
Twinned extremes of sorrow and optimism project a loving vision of cinema’s evolution in this wistful docu-tribute to India’s touring movie shows. Despite little narrative, the spectacle of these makeshift celluloid circuses nearing obsolescence brims with magic and melancholy.
Deep veins of hope in digital futures emerge from a palpable affection for what’s gone.
Directors: Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya; Theatrical release: January 26, 2018