According to research by the kiosk retailer Redbox, the average American will watch more than five thousand movies over the course of a lifetime. If you consider yourself a film lover, you can go ahead and double that, no problem. So, when a movie comes along that genuinely surprises you—that doesn't behave like any of the thousands of movies you've already seen—well, that's cause for celebration. Such is the case with DOWNSIZING, the rollicking genre mash-up from director Alexander Payne, best known for meticulously crafted comedy-dramas like Election, Sideways, and Nebraska.
Downsizing starts in familiar territory, with a schlubby everyman named Paul (Matt Damon) trying to navigate some minor midlife crises. Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristin Wiig), can't seem to improve their middle-class lot in life, and find themselves in that uniquely American dilemma of having everything they need yet still wanting more, a perennial Payne theme. The tone here is gently satirical, but he has real empathy for his characters, who are genuinely unhappy, maybe even soul sick, from living in a culture that tells them they're not enough.
Starting from this premise, the film gleefully sprints off into the wide-open vistas of pulpy science fiction, that most liberating of storytelling genres. By way of space-age miniaturization technology, Paul and Audrey join a commercialized subculture movement known as "downsizing," or being physically shrunk to around six inches tall.
Thanks to certain economies of scale, downsizers find that their assets are worth a hundred times more. Paul can finally afford to buy that McMansion he's always wanted, even if it's essentially a dollhouse in a miniature village called Leisure Land Estates.
Payne plays everything in a key of slightly heightened realism, fitting Downsizing into a tradition of wicked social satire that dates to Jonathan Swift. The special effects are understated and convincing, but the real thrill is the unpredictability of the film's cleverly braided plot lines. Intriguing new characters drop in, including Christoph Waltz as a Eurotrash hedonist and newcomer Hong Chau as a good-hearted activist from the wrong side of Leisure Land's tiny tracks.
The film also works as a sly ecological parable with some unsettling insights and sci-fi prognostications. Its gleeful appropriation of science fiction is similar to how this year's best movie, Jordan Peele's Get Out, crossed the wires of horror and satire to generate something new. Downsizing is a real delight, and a reminder that courageous filmmakers can still make movies that surprise. —Glenn McDonald
- Photo by Jack English of Focus Features
- Darkest Hour
Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech closes two films released in 2017. The first was Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's paean to the 1940 evacuation of more than three hundred thousand British troops stranded on the shores of France. Its unofficial companion piece is DARKEST HOUR, which chronicles Churchill's tumultuous first month as prime minister of the United Kingdom.
We remember Churchill today as the British lion who ferociously led his country, and even the world, against Nazi Germany during World War II. Director Joe Wright—who recreated stunning sequences of war-torn Dunkirk for his 2007 film, Atonement—reveals a more suspect Churchill (Gary Oldman), whose checkered military and political career made him a compromise choice for prime minister. He's no one's first option, including King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), still smarting from Churchill's backing of his brother during the abdication crisis.
Churchill is steadfastly opposed to brokering any peace with Adolf Hitler. While that position was on the right side of history, Wright illuminates its contemporary complexities, particularly as Germany steamrolled across France and pushed the whole British army onto the beaches of Dunkirk with no planned escape route. Churchill seems willing to sacrifice his countrymen for the sake of his stubbornness, bellowing that there will be "no surrender" and rejecting so much as an inquiry into the terms of an armistice, as is advocated by foreign secretary Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and former prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup).
Wright shrewdly uses lighting to accentuate Churchill's encroaching loneliness and isolation, shrouding the far corners of underground war rooms and the upper galleries of the House of Commons in darkness to sharpen the spotlight. That device wouldn't work if the actor weren't up to the task, but Oldman turns in a tour de force. Through layers of prosthetics and a halo of cigar smoke, he channels Churchill's public bombast and private doubts. He's charming and bellicose, doddering and domineering. His oratory soars, yet his conversations are humanized by Oldman's dead-on impersonation of his distinctive low-pitched voice. He angrily lambastes the timidity of his advisors, then phones Franklin Roosevelt to meekly—and unsuccessfully—plead for airplanes Britain has already purchased from America.
Oldman is a one-man show, and the film is more a historical snapshot than a biopic. It reserves little room for developing its supporting cast, particularly Churchill's wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who pop up any time the old man needs some encouragement. Churchill's children appear only long enough to hint at his absentee fatherhood. The lead-up to the climactic speech is overly mythologized, the supposed product of divine providence and a British stiff upper lip.
But what a stemwinder it is. Wright's film is both bright and slight, but his Darkest Hour is Oldman's finest hour. —Neil Morris