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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In Suburbicon, director and co-writer Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and Grant Heslov, set out to explore the underbelly of the titular late 1950s community. The suburbs have always been Gothic, the darkness behind (or below) the neat rows of houses was always there, hidden beneath the veneer. It lurks in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), and even Desperate Housewives, (sorry, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet doesn’t qualify; its location is the small town, the darkness of Frank Booth et al is geographically ‘elsewhere’, likewise most movies adapted from Stephen King books).

Among the rows of neatly manicured lawns, small houses, and clean streets, life in Suburbicon appears straight forward. The 1950s suburb is beautifully evoked in the film’s art design and opening sequence. To its post-war boomer inhabitants the community feels safe and happy, everyone wrapped up warmly in their smug sense of themselves, talking to the postman and making custard pies. Until a black family, the Meyers (Leith M Burke and Karimah Westbrook), move in and the all-white suburb erupts into racism. In the house bordering the rear of the Meyers’, lives Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair bound wife Nancy, her carer and twin-sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But the veneer of this wholesome family is shattered one night when two robbers pay a visit.

These twin narratives are almost-linked through the vague friendship of each family’s sons, but ultimately the majority of the film focuses on the Lodges and a predicament that almost seems to echo the Coens’ more noir inspired works (watch out for the appearance of a VW Beetle, a nod to the brothers’ debut, Blood Simple). In part the story, which slips between uneasy comic tones and crime drama, echoes the brothers’ better thrillers – Suburbicon was apparently first written in 1986 immediately after Blood Simple – but it lacks the power of that work and the wry, witty intelligence of films such as Fargo.

While Clooney’s direction is efficient, the script lacks the necessary intensity, the cast – and Moore especially – deliver good performances, and as an ensemble piece the film is not without charm, but lacking the necessary narrative focus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists, and by the inevitable third act neither story climaxes with the necessary emotional power.

Suburbicon wants to say something about violence, about the darkness behind the twitching curtains, about the smiles that hide lies, about the fear of the outsider, about the motives that drive people, and about the undercurrent of the suburban dream of 1950s USA. But despite evoking the period through great design, the film just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Suburbicon


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Downsizing (Venice Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

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.