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Suburbicon

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Suburbicon is a tense, smart, timely family heist film directed by George Clooney adapting the Coen Brothers script. The mining of ‘50s style, themes and narratives provides a rich vein of social critique and it is clear that the art department had fun, from the cars to the font of the credits; everything flows with modernity and the promise of optimistic future prosperity and outright greed.

Like all heist films, things go wrong, very wrong. The moment you have a kid involved the stakes get very high, very quick. Performances are outstanding, with Oscar Isaac perfect as the insurance investigator and Julianne Moore eating up the scenery as a ‘50s glamorous housewife. Matt Damon is starting to own the suburban dad-bod in a performance that is at once straight out of Straw Dogs and Mr Ed – the tooth grinding composure is great. We see the world from little Nicky’s perspective and he is impeccably performed with wide-eyed disbelief by Noah Jupe giving the film an urgency and a heart that drives it on one long breath. But it is the support cast of goons, housewives, neighbours and cops that really make this memorable.

The relevance of the ‘50s to today is manifest in that the double indemnity scam happens against the backdrop of the first steps of racial integration when the Meyers, an African-American family moves into Suburbicon – a proudly white upper-middle class community and the extremes that the white community go to drive them out. Their stoicism provides a fine counterpoint to the madness happening next door. The growing connection over baseball between Nicky and Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) points to a brighter future.

A superbly realised film that is paced to perfection and at once a critique and a celebration of the 1950s – smart, engaging and timely.

 
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Downsizing (Venice Film Festival)

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The notion of downsizing is both an environmental philosophy, creating a smaller footprint and generating less waste, as well as an economic manoeuvre to create more wealth in retirement. Alexander Payne’s new film, Downsizing, is a mainstream sci-fi satire about what would happen if people downsized both in terms of using less, but also and more importantly, if they shrunk down in size to about five inches. Think of the savings in space, real estate needs, food consumption, waste disposal and quality of life in Truman Show style luxury estates with simple netted security from predators such as insects and birds.

New Norwegian research facilitates this process, which is quick, efficient and communal – villages have emerged inhabited entirely by little people with a 200-year plan for global transitioning. But in the USA miniaturisation is sold by spruikers who would not be out of place flogging condos and wealth creation seminars. It seems to be a bit of a cult driven by social envy as people soon realise how much less money you need in a miniaturised world.

For Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) it is a solution to their debt crisis and their dream of owning a bigger, more luxurious home. The only problem with this solution to overcrowding is that it is irreversible. But to become small means that you become instantly rich.

 Downsizing is sweet but as far as satire about little people it is underwhelming, with modest ideas and a timid approach to speculative fiction possibilities, considering such a compelling premise. The beauty of the film is that it allows the audience to dwell on the industrial dimensions of what it would be like to create a miniature world and manufacture small goods and luxury items. Clearly diamonds and cigars would be far cheaper if they were designed for people only 15 centimetres tall.

Given the history of films about shrinking people, from the classic masterpiece of shrinking hysteria The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) to the goofy Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1987) and to the more recent magical The Secret World of Arriety and the superhero action sci-fi adventure Ant-Man, the shrinking in Downsizing is largely without conflict, the drama underplayed, the outcomes dour and the interactions with the big world – which invariably are the core source of the drama – largely absent.

The film will attract audiences who want a safe and lightly whimsical approach to their science fiction. People who are conceptually experimenting with doing something positive for the environment while motivated by lifestyle choices of living an upmarket life based on the sale of oversized property. Some of these concepts continue Alexander Payne’s much-admired investigations of grumpy but good-natured, kooky middle-Americans going through periods of transition. So while this is science-fiction (of sorts) and with a large story world, it remains intimate and small-scale, not unlike the emotionally charged connections between families, friends, co-workers, schoolteachers and strangers seen in Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, and his first significant film, Election.

Unlike those films, however, the character transformation is modest and the emotional connections are largely absent. The most emotionally satisfying moments are grabbed by Ngoc Lan (excellently performed by Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident shrunk as punishment by the government and who loses half her leg in escaping. Her selflessness and no-nonsense pragmatism make her the driving force of the film and generates the possibility for Matt Damon’s turgidly suburban timidity to be tested and transformed. She gives the film heart and meaningfulness in her brusque delivery that denies sentimentalism even in the face of death.

As a science fiction film, Downsizing sets up the what-if scenario and the best parts are the preparations for getting small – a sequence most often overlooked in the shrinking people genre. The details of the concept are that while all organic matter is reduced in size, not all augmentations will necessarily follow suit. So, a hip replacement means that the candidate is unsuitable for the procedure while dodgy operators in Mexico killed a man when they forgot to remove his dental fillings and his head exploded. The preparations are deliciously straight-faced from the full body shave down, the filling removal procedure, the enema (speculating why this was an important procedure is at the heart of contemplating what-if scenarios) and the finishing touch of a kitchen spatula used by the nurses to scoop up the little people once the procedure is complete. When Paul Safranek awakes, hairless and with an aching jaw he is greeted with the offer of a snack – a giant cracker package – a cheeky joke by the full-sized nurses teasing the newly miniaturised Paul who is in for even more rude awakenings.

This is a film about fear, modern anxiety, social envy and the search for doing something meaningful and being appreciated for good deeds. Of course, love conquers all – even among little people.

There is also a Christian message to the film, which is overwrought and out of place. After the initial set-up there are few surprises in an overly messianic and environmentally proselytizing sermon. The degree of tension or confrontation between the miniaturised folk and ‘normal’ people is minimal – there is one query by a big drunk guy that small people should only get 1/8th the vote because they don’t pay taxes, but otherwise the tensions and politics are swept aside. Interesting ideas about the abuse of luxury items for miniaturised people and the implication of the huge profit margins of transforming a single $50 Cohiba cigar into 200 branded cigars gives insight into the potential for profiteering but otherwise, save for a looming shadow of a dragonfly, the potential for the exploitation of the little people remains unexplored.

Downsizing is interesting, but a missed opportunity for something grander.

 
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Ocean Waves (Celebrate Studio Ghibli)

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Just before returning home for his high school reunion, 18 year-old Taku Morisaki (Nobuo Tobita) thinks he sees a former classmate – Rikako Muto (Yoko Sakamoto) – on a Tokyo train platform. While flying home, Taku reminisces on when Rikako transferred to his school and the complicated love triangle that ensued between them and Taku’s best friend Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki).

Ocean Waves is probably the least well-known and certainly the least seen of Studio Ghibli’s feature-length works. Unlike the studio’s other features it was produced for Japanese television. When it was made, Ocean Waves was intended to be a ‘breather’ project between theatrical features: it was the first Ghibli production not directed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, and was intended to give the studio’s junior animators their own project with which to prove themselves. After running over schedule and over budget, it was seen internally as something of a failure. For viewers, it is an odd little addition to the Ghibli canon. It is by no means as accomplished a film as the company’s usual fare, but for the dedicated fans it is a pleasant enough extra to track down and sample. As far as I can work out, it is receiving its Australian theatrical debut this month as part of Madman’s Celebrate Studio Ghibli festival.

Ocean Waves is directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, who had previously directed two animated feature films based on the popular manga Kimagure Orange Road. This is no surprise; both that series and Ocean Waves present a very similar sort of high school soap opera. In fact stylistically the film hews much more closely to those television anime serials than in does to the rest of Ghibli’s work.

That in itself is not a criticism; Throw in many of Takahata’s works – The Tale of Princess Kaguya, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and so on – and Ghibli clearly spans a broad range of styles and subject matter. Given the constraints of its television budget Ocean Waves has solid production values, and its slightly sketchy, loose art style gives it an awful lot of warmth. It is a film that comes across as very comfortable with itself, and at 72 minutes in total it never risks outstaying its welcome.

The one major problem that hampers the film is its characters: they feel weirdly arbitrary and under-motivated. Rikako for one is a weirdly unlikeable person, who lies to her friends to borrow money from them and slaps them in the face when they say things she does not like. Characters mention that she is unhappy and troubled, but the film does not show precisely what is going on to make her that way. Similarly both Taku and Yutaka pine romantically for Rikako without her ever really justifying their affections or making their emotions seem anything more complex than teenage lust. In the end this hand-waved characterisation drags down the whole film.

It ultimately leaves Ocean Waves more as a curiosity than as an attractive film in its own right. It is the film that Studio Ghibli fans watch because they have already seen everything else. It gains a little bit of an exclusivity cache as a result; everybody has heard of My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away, but only ‘true fans’ know about Ocean Waves. For the hardcore it’s certainly worth 72 minutes of their time. For anybody else Ghibli has many superior anime features available to watch.

 
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From up on Poppy Hill (Celebrate Studio Ghibli)

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In 2006 Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro made his directorial debut with the relatively unpopular Tales from Earthsea. When the younger Miyazaki returned five years later with his sophomore effort From up on Poppy Hill, more than a few Studio Ghibli fans appeared rather apprehensive about his chances. Thankfully their fears were unfounded. This grounded, sweet drama about a teenage girl in 1960s Yokohama was not only vastly superior, it sat quite comfortably among earlier Studio Ghibli productions such as Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995). It was, and remains, a wonderfully charming character piece.

The film follows Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Masami Nagasawa), a 16 year-old high schooler living in Yokohama. In her mother’s absence she manages and cooks for the family boarding house in between her academic studies. Umi connects with the editor of the school’s student newsletter, Shun Kazuma (Junichi Okada), and they grow closer while working to save the school’s decrepit student clubhouse from demolition.

It is a beautifully observed and animated film, with a genuine richness of emotion and character. Why Goro Miyazaki’s second film succeeds where his first faltered is likely down to Poppy Hill’s amiable, gentle screenplay. Unlike Earthsea it was co-written by his father, and the elder Miyazaki’s fingerprints are all over it. There is a classic Studio Ghibli warmth that fills this film but which felt absent from Earthsea.

There is an argument to be made that, as it features no fantastical or visually outlandish content, Poppy Hill could have been shot just as easily in live-action, and that as an animation it is a little redundant. This argument ignores the immense subtlety and more importantly the visual simplicity that the film gets as a result of being animated. While it could have been made in live-action, it would not have been half as engaging or emotionally effective. In a slightly perverse sense, this is the sort of film that demonstrates just now versatile animation can be: it isn’t simply about showcasing visuals that are impossible to achieve in reality, it’s about giving small intimate moments a level of abstraction as well.

The background scenery is particularly beautiful, with judicious use of CGI enhancing rather than supplanting the hand-drawn animation. Key animation is, broadly speaking, very good, however there are a few uncharacteristic moments where the quality wavers – generally when a bunch of characters are singing together. The film did have a slightly fraught production period, with the animation process coinciding with the 2011 tsunami, and the studio did rush to complete work to meet the original release date. In the end it is a minor problem. The film’s soundtrack is excellent, with the prominent use of Kyu Sakamoto’s “I Shall Walk Looking Up” (better known in the West as “Sukiyaki”) adding a nice element of period and thematic detail.

The huge jump in quality from Earthsea to Poppy Hill suggests a solid future for Goro Miyazaki’s career. Since completing this second film he has directed an entire anime television series, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter. I really hope he returns to direct a third feature soon; he has so much demonstrated potential.

 
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Happy End

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Happy End has been marketed as the story of a middle-class family dealing with set-backs amidst the backdrop of a refugee crisis, however apart from a few brief news segments that play onscreen, there is little to no other connection to said crisis.

This is merely a series of empty exchanges between one family; unfortunately, many of which do very little to progress the narrative or reveal anything of much importance. Most of the film’s tension comes from one particular incident that involves the family business, but regardless, it seems that almost every character is dealing with their own unrelated personal issues.

Apart from the lack of narrative, the main problem here is that the characters aren’t particularly interesting. In fact, their only real defining characteristic is that they have money. We don’t spend enough time with any one of them to reveal their true motives, nor do we feel either good or bad about the actions they’re taking.

The cast are underutilised; particularly the likes of Isabelle Huppert, fresh from her Golden Globe-winning performance in Elle last year, and Toby Jones, who only features briefly. The most impressive performances come from youngster Fantine Harduin and veteran Jean-Louis Trintignant. Due to their respective ages, these characters are often neglected and left feeling alone in a family that is too self-absorbed to even notice.

Prolific Austrian director Michael Haneke recycles the filming techniques he’s become renowned for; long single-take tracking shots and those distant “fly on the wall” scenes, which are often inaudible – and while they’re still effective for the sake of storytelling, they don’t have the same “Wow” factor that they used to.

To balance that, Haneke has adopted modern technology such as mobile phones and social media dashboards to capture the day-to-day lives of these characters. While they’re cleverly used, it would have been far more interesting to highlight the more complicated and sinister inner-thoughts of all characters rather than just one or two.

Unfortunately for Haneke, even though he has tried something a little different, this feels like an old dog doing the same tricks just with new toys.

 
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My Friend Dahmer (MIFF)

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Jeffrey Dahmer was an American serial killer who, between 1978 and his arrest in 1991, raped, murdered and dismembered at least seventeen young men. He is now the protagonist of a dramatic feature film, My Friend Dahmer, directed by Marc Meyers and based on the graphic novel by John Backderf. It is a challenging film in one key respect, but one that I suspect may lead some viewers to find it a difficult watch: it aims to make us feel sorry for a serial killer.

There is an almost knee-jerk reaction to that, and it’s one that I occasionally felt when watching Meyers’ film. It almost feels like a trick, one that uses well-worn dramatic techniques and familiar scenes to deliberately make us sympathetic to the struggles of an isolated, teased and misunderstood American teenager, right up to the moment when he starts murdering innocent people. In those moments there is an internal flinch backwards, and a momentary desire to blame Meyers and Backderf for making you care about what some homicidal lunatic felt or experienced. Here’s the thing: Meyers and Backderf may be right.

Backderf for one should know better than others: he went to high school with Dahmer, and the odd friendship they shared forms the core of the film. To a large extent My Friend Dahmer tracks a highly typical high school narrative, one based around friendship, rebellion, sex and drugs, and more than a few gloriously anarchic pranks against school authority figures. Then there is the other side, the one that creeps in from underneath. The obsession with dissecting dead animals, or slowly melting them inside jars of acid. The growing recognition of a closeted homosexual living without support. The disintegrating family situation. The family history of mental illness. Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) walks through school like a screaming cacophony of warning signs that something is going terribly, terrifyingly wrong, and time and again no one appears to notice.

His father Lionel (Dallas Roberts), to his credit, senses something is wrong with Jeffrey, but lacks the emotional maturity to articulate a supportive response. Of his self-proclaimed ‘fan club’ at school, which includes Backderf (Alex Wolff), only one of them recognises that what they think is funny encouragement of Dahmer’s public antics is actually a blind cruelty in place of genuine friendship. Even Dahmer himself appears to recognise something is going terribly wrong inside his mind yet like his father cannot formulate a functional cry for help.

There are essentially two points of view one can form about serial killers: that they are in some innate fashion evil, or that they are to a devastating degree suffering from mental illness. My Friend Dahmer absolutely takes that second approach, to powerful effect. It does not show its audience a single murder, and that is enormously to its credit. It is a story about a road to horror, and not the horrors itself, and it showcases every stop-sign along that road that Dahmer, his friends, his family and his teachers blindly drive through.

Technically the film is relatively mundane, without any significant stylistic flourishes or innovations. Likewise the screenplay, by Meyers, generally plays out in a very traditional and familiar pattern of numerous American high school dramas. As Dahmer, Ross Lynch is tremendous. He inhabits the character, performing with all of the awkward tics and idiosyncrasies described in Backderf’s graphic novel. It is an impressive transformation for Lynch, who remains best known as the wholesome blonde moppet Brady in Disney’s Teen Beach Movie franchise. After this, I suspect the kinds of offers he receives will change considerably. Anne Heche is also very strong – and likewise almost unrecognisable – as Dahmer’s emotionally unstable and erratic mother.

This is a hugely worthwhile film that raises a lot of questions by the time it ends. It feels inevitable: we watch, desperately wishing someone could notice the tell-tale signs before it is too late, but knowing from history that no one will. Out there in suburban America another teenager is probably showing the same signs now – will people notice them? The genius of My Friend Dahmer is showing such a familiar middle-class set-up, with such familiar characters and situations. In the young Jeffrey Dahmer we can probably all recognise people with whom we went to high school. Meyers successfully makes us care about him, worry on his behalf, and hope he can somehow find help. It’s a frightening film, but more than that it’s a drama. More than that it’s a tragedy.