Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Payne’

‘No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision,’ wrote the Australian critic and novelist John Baxter, referring to the American director Jack Arnold. There is, indeed, no reason for normal people to have any idea who Arnold was, but for the fact that he was responsible for some of the most vivid and memorable SF and fantasy films of the 1950s – films which are still hugely influential, to judge from the fact that The Shape of Water, currently enjoying thirteen Oscar nominations, seems to owe a distinct debt to Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing likewise seems to have very much been made under the influence of Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Can a remake of Tarantula by Werner Herzog be very far off?

Downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a mild-mannered occupational therapist who is as surprised as everyone else when Norwegian scientists announce they have discovered the secret of ‘cellular reduction’ – a process where living creatures can be permanently and irreversibly shrunk, without suffering any ill-effects in the process. The benefit of this to the planet is an enormous reduction in the resources they consume and the waste they produce. The personal advantage to the shrunken folk is that their money stretches much further, allowing them to enjoy a luxurious standard of living within the sealed communities in which they live.

Encouraged by an old friend, Paul persuades his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to sell up and move down to Leisureland, one of the largest of the communities of small people. All is set fair for them to commence the new existence of their dreams. But, of course, events conspire to sabotage Paul’s dream. Though there are new friends to be made in Leisureland (Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau amongst them), it turns out the place has a darker side, one which causes him to question his assumptions about life…

Alexander Payne may not personally have the secret of miniaturisation, but he certainly seems to have figured out how to polarise an audience: Downsizing is one of those films which seems to have received a very lukewarm reception, judging by the critical aggregation sites. Looking a little closer indicates that this is one of those films which people seem to love or hate in pretty much equal numbers.

I can understand why some people might respond negatively to this movie: beyond the fact that it’s obviously a science fiction film, it’s quite difficult to say with complete certainty what kind of story it is telling. Is it a satire? Is it pure comedy? Is it a drama? Is it something more philosophical? Certainly at times it seems to be all of those things. The lengthy running time is also probably an issue, especially when coupled to the apparent lack of focus: negative reviews of this movie often include words like ‘rambling’ and ‘meandering’.

I have to say that I am in the other camp, and found Downsizing thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing entertainment, not least because of the way it defies easy categorisation, beyond SF. Now, I have to say that as actual serious science fiction the movie is on very shaky grounds. While the script quite sensibly declines to go into the details of just how cellular reduction works, I’m still pretty sure that if you did shrink someone down to roughly 0.03% of their natural size, not only would they have severe difficulty in maintaining their body temperature without constantly snacking, they would also be unable to breathe (their lungs would be unable to process the now relatively-giant air molecules).

Once you get past that, however, this is an impressive and rather commendable attempt at a proper piece of genuine SF. One of the reasons for the unusual structure of the film is that it takes a particular concept – in this case, the notion of human shrinking – and explores it in a relatively systematic and comprehensive way. Just how would the world be changed? The film eschews the action-horror staples generally associated with size-change in SF and thinks in wider terms – how would it affect society? How could the technology be used and abused? (Despots start shrinking dissidents, for instance, who then start trying to enter the USA via some fairly unusual routes.) Once again, the economics as posited by the movie strike me as a little wonky, but I am prepared to cut it some slack: very often, SF ideas in films come with a single metaphor baked in, which the film then laboriously articulates over and over.

Downsizing treats the shrinking process as a piece of technology, rather than a metaphor-made-real, and one of its most drolly amusing sequences is the one in which we see Damon being processed – exactly how the mass-miniaturisation of new residents takes place has been worked out in some detail. The question is rather one of what the process reveals or illuminates about the human condition and our society in general, and the shift in perspective is enough to make one see the situation inside the shrunken colony in a new light. There are some striking moments of revelation, the heady stuff of proper science fiction.

In the end, though, the film seems to me to be mainly about the nature of life and particularly what it means to live well. Several possibilities seem to be offered in the course of the film – does a good life mean the absence of every little inconvenience and problem? Is it the luxurious materialistic hedonism promised by Leisureland’s advertising programme? Is it in taking a longer view and acting in the best interests of humanity as a whole? In the course of the film, the different characters make their choices, and I can easily imagine viewers emerging with differing opinions as to who is right and who is wrong.

The film is well-realised, with some striking visual moments, and Matt Damon gives a quietly impressive performance as something of an everyman, someone struggling to find his place in the world. The support from the likes of Waltz, Chau, and Udo Kier is also good. The film has a consistent inventiveness which means it is frequently thought-provoking and occasionally very funny. As you can tell, I was rather charmed by it, and willing to go along on the journey even when it sometimes seemed unclear where the film was taking me. There is much here to enjoy and think about; this is one of the best SF movies of recent years.

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As you may have noticed, I am quite lucky, or at least determined, when it comes to actually getting to see the films that I want to see. Since the back end of 2010 it has been quite unusual for a mainstream film to come out and my not to be able to catch it on the big screen in some form, the main exceptions being a particular style of mainstream thriller which the Oxford city centre multiplexes don’t seem to like very much.

Nevertheless exceptions do occur and I am lucky enough to have a colleague who not only enjoys movies as much as me, but also still buys DVDs. Apropos of I-don’t-remember-what, he asked me a while back if I’d seen A Field in England, and when I admitted I hadn’t and that this was a source of some regret, he was kind enough to put it in my direction. Also included, and which I was (of course) much too polite to demur about, was Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.


Now this was a movie which did get a release at the Oxford Phoenix and which I could quite probably have gone to see on the big screen, but I must confess that something about it didn’t really appeal: a black and white road movie comedy-drama about a dysfunctional American family? I don’t know, I thought I had much too strong an idea of what this film was going to be. (And I must confess to having gotten Alexander Payne jumbled up in my head with Alexandre Rockwell, despite having seen and enjoyed The Descendants and About Schmidt, though I doubt that’s a hanging offence.) It took me a while to actually getting around to watching the DVD, in rather the same way it’s taking me a while to actually start writing about Nebraska – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find enough things to say about it now beyond simply restating the obvious.

The core of Payne’s film is the relationship between Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly man in small-town Montana, and his son David (Will Forte). Woody is, not to put too fine a point on it, a contrary old git, a borderline alcoholic who appears not to give a damn about anyone but himself, and when he is discovered one day seemingly wandering at random on the edge of town, there is a sort of communal sigh of dismay from everyone connected to him.

But Woody insists he is not senile: he is in possession of a letter assuring him that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstake. It looks like an obvious scam, but Woody refuses to accept this and tries again and again to leave town, heading for Lincoln, Nebraska where he can collect his winnings. Short of having his father put away, David realises there is no way he can convince him to stop: and it’s with a certain sense of resignation that he realises he has no really pressing business to prevent him driving his father to Lincoln himself.

Various complications inevitably ensue, and David and Woody find themselves taking an extended break from their journey in Woody’s home town of Hawthorne. Staying with the family brings all the usual little problems, and provides several reminders of Woody’s chequered past: but there is a more serious concern as well. Word of Woody’s supposed good fortune gets around, with the result that various interested parties and longstanding debtors come out of the woodwork, all making their claim on the apparently-nonexistent fortune, and making not-so-subtle threats as to what may happen if they don’t get it…

So, Nebraska is a black-and-white film from an indy-ish director whose biggest star – internationally speaking, at least – is probably best known for films he made back in the 1970s (I’m thinking of Silent Running and things like that). The opening shot is of an urban landscape, with a tiny human figure stumbling through the snow towards the viewer for what feels like a very long time. A violin is playing soulfully on the soundtrack. Is this simply just the kind of film that it appears to be?

You know what I mean: Arty and Significant and probably just a bit Slow and Depressing. It has to be said that Nebraska does go on for over two hours, and a lot of it consists of various characters driving back and forth between the same handful of places. The plot contains no great reversals or stunning twists.

The fact that Payne chooses to film it in black and white is, I think, a significant artistic choice, rather than the result of budgetary constraints. The results have a sort of pristine clarity which is is quite beautiful; the cinematography is quite beautiful. The thing is that much of the film is actually taking place in locations and concerns people which you wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being remotely pleasant to look at: hospital and motel rooms, scuzzy taverns, the backs of cars, filled with large men in baseball caps and dungarees or slightly decaying older people. This is a very blue-collar world, in places almost a redneck one, and it seems to me that by filming it in such an elevated style Payne is trying to summon up the magic of the everyday and commonplace and invite viewers to look again at the world around them. I suppose this does tie in to the theme of the film somewhat, which is that of David Grant reappraising his father and their relationship, and to some degree himself.

On the other hand, if Payne really is trying to suggest that beauty is all around us, filling his movie with so many small-town grotesques and cantankerous elderly curmudgeons is a strange way to go about it. Nearly everyone in this film is either mildly weird and/or objectionable on some level, or very weird and/or objectionable. The exception is, naturally, David himself, because as the viewpoint character he has to be someone the audience identifies with – but it’s never really explained why he should be the only normal one in the family.

It sounds like I had a terrible time watching Nebraska, doesn’t it? And, to be fair, the early part of the film does have an air of quiet desperation about it which could bring a person’s mood down, as David realises nobody’s life seems to be going anywhere, and Woody’s quest to collect his million is really no more absurd or quixotic than any of the concerns held by the other characters in the film.

But it was never actually a chore to watch, and as the film went on I found myself warming to it quite considerably: I do like me a slice of low-key comedy-drama once in a while, after all, and it would be absolutely unfair to suggest that Nebraska is anything other than extremely well written, directed, and performed. Dern gets the showy role, obviously, but Forte is extremely good as the straight man of the film: his is a performance of considerable subtlety, and the transformation in attitude he goes through by the conclusion of the film is convincing without feeling heavy-handed. The final sequence of the film is, to be honest, quite charming and lovely, without going into details too much.

So there you go, proof that a really good film can win you over even if you do (figuratively speaking) turn up to it with serious reservations. In narrative terms it’s a small, low-key story, but one about universal themes of family and respect and coming to terms with the disappointments of life. I’m not saying I’m in a hurry to watch it again soon (which is a shame, as I should probably give the DVD back), but somewhere down the line I would definitely like to look at it again.


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Proof that the yearly round of gong shows will soon be upon us once again is amply provided by the fact that, likely as not, currently showing in a cinema near you is at least one film that gives every impression of having been made by intelligent and mature adults for the enjoyment of the same. We still have a few months to go before the onset of comic-book and computer-game adaptations that, reassuringly, marks the beginning of summer.

One movie doing rather well in terms of gong nominations is Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. In 2002 Payne made About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson, which I was rather impressed by, so I turned up for the new film with quite high expectations.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer with a lot on his plate. Not only does he have final say over the disposal of a vast and potentially lucrative tract of virgin land which could very well make both him and his large extended film rather wealthy, but his wife is in a coma following a boating accident, leaving him in charge of their two daughters. He is not very comfortable with this, but things are about to get even worse.

Matt’s wife shows no signs of recovery and under the terms of her living will her life support systems are to be disconnected. Also, his elder daughter (Shailene Woodley) has something to impart: completely unbeknownst to Matt, his wife has been having an affair with another man.

The film is about how Matt comes to terms with this and resolves his various issues, and on one level I can fully understand why this movie has become such a critical darling: as I suggested up the page, this is a thoughtful and grown-up film about the realities of life, made by an accomplished director, and built around a big leading man performance by a proper movie star. However, I have to say I haven’t fallen in love with it quite as much as everyone else appears to (with the exception of my landlady, who advised me categorically not to go anywhere near it – though not until after I’d seen it).

On a purely technical level Clooney’s performance is very good, of course, but I have to say that as his daughter Shailene Woodley is possibly even better. Either way my problem with the film is not with the cast but with the script, which – at least to begin with – isn’t quite up to scratch. The film is really about loss and grief, but the situation at its centre is presented to us via a very trite and unremarkable voiceover – we barely get to see Matt’s wife prior to her accident, and as a result there’s very little sense of who she was or what the other characters have lost now she is gone. The performances make the anguish that Matt and the others are feeling very clear, but it’s somehow difficult to genuinely feel or share it.

It may also be a factor that a few key scenes essentially take the form of various characters delivering lengthy monologues to each other. Even when the audience is comatose (I mean the listener in the scene, not people actually watching the film in theatres – it’s by no means that bad a film), this still seemed to me to be rather theatrical, even bordering on the melodramatic.

All this said, I did warm rather to the film as it went on, particularly when Shailene Woodley’s character became more central to the story: her performance really is impressive. To be honest, I wasn’t initially sure what this film was about, beyond the slightly soapy central drama, but eventually it seemed to me to be about the difficulties of trying to be a genuinely good individual when encumbered by all the emotional and personal baggage that this typically entails.

One of the most impressive aspects of The Descendants is the way in which it handles this theme with appropriate subtlety and ambiguity and accepts that there are no easy answers – maybe no answers at all in some cases. Everything is addressed through ambiguity and shades of subtlety rather than by glib absolute pronouncements. Clooney is justifiably angry with his wife for her infidelity, but at the same time insistent that his elder daughter not let her own hostility spoil the final hours she will share with her mother. And, towards the end of the film, Clooney takes a significant decision which he claims is for reasons that most people would find laudable – but, as the audience, we are aware he has another motive for doing exactly the same thing which would be outright petty vindictiveness. In a choice that I found deeply impressive, the film opts not to address this ambiguity in the slightest – not to even highlight the fact it exists – and trust entirely to the audience’s intelligence.

That said, I still found The Descendants more effective as a drama than a comedy – which is not to say that I didn’t laugh at all, and I should point out that many people at the screening I attended were roaring their heads off at times when I was barely cracking a smile. Too much of the humour was cutesy or obvious to really work for me, I’m afraid. And while most of the film is put together virtually flawlessly, the soundtrack grated with me after a while – and I will now get soundly told off by one set of my acquaintances, as the score of this film is made up almost entirely of Hawaiian ukulele tunes! (What can I say, give me some Formby syncopation any day…)

So in the end I thought The Descendants was a fairly interesting movie with some definite virtues but a lot of equally clear flaws. I don’t necessarily think it deserves any awards, but then neither would I be surprised if it won some, simply because it’s the kind of film people who vote for awards tend to like. If it is the best mature drama for grown-ups in the cinema at the moment, that says more about the state of that kind of film in general than it does for the actual quality of this particular film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 30th 2003:

Well, here we are in awards ceremony season again, and – what with our release schedule lagging the usual few weeks behind that of our former colonial cousins – many of the films being tipped for glory are only now pitching up for business in our fair country. You can always spot these as the newspaper adverts have tiny print at the bottom telling Bafta and Ampas members they can get in for free – surely that counts as trying to bribe the judges?

Anyway, one of these aspirant movies is Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, for which Jack Nicholson is being tipped for his twelfth Oscar nomination. At first glance this looks like another of the string of wedding comedies currently infesting multiplexes, but it’s not really an out-and-out comedy and it isn’t really about a wedding.

The film opens with the last day of work for Nebraskan actuary Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), and then moves on to his grisly, wake-like retirement party. As he struggles to adjust to retired life, Schmidt slowly realises that he hasn’t really amounted to much, something the sudden death of his wife and the subsequent re-evaluation of his life only confirms. Schmidt resolves to make the best possible use of the time left to him (as an actuary, he knows there’s a 73% chance he’ll die inside nine years), and hits the road in his mobile home, intent upon a noble quest – to stop his only child (Hope Davis) from marrying a dopey water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney)!

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Nicholson’s performance is to the success of this film. He’s in every scene, but beyond this the film is the story of Schmidt’s growing self-knowledge and ultimate acceptance that he hasn’t made the best use of his years. Nicholson is immaculate, delivering a restrained, touching, and witty performance. Part of what makes it so striking is the almost total absence of the Nicholson-isms – the snarl, the leer, the manic eyebrow-twitching – that have become a routine part of most of his work over the last ten or fifteen years. Occasionally he lets rip – Schmidt writes regular letters to a little Tanzanian boy he’s sponsoring, which the audience hear as a voice-over, and the first in particular gives Nicholson a chance to do his thing – but the very rareness of these moments makes them all the more effective. Nicholson gets all the laughs in this film, but more often than not they arise from his deadpan reactions to the other characters he encounters on his travels. (There is one moment of terrific physical comedy, though, as Schmidt grapples futilely with the water-bed his new in-laws have put him in.)

The restraint and minimalism of Nicholson’s performance is matched by that of Alexander Payne’s direction. He’s a director of enormous precision, and you never doubt that a great deal of thought has gone into every aspect of this film. And it’s a remarkable film in many ways, but chiefly because of its attitude to Schmidt and the other characters.

Schmidt is a failure, a bumbling and rather deluded old man who makes a mess of virtually everything he attempts to do. But while the film is unflinching in making this clear, it never seems to be holding him up to ridicule, either. It’s a razor-thin tightrope between pathos and mordant black comedy that Payne navigates with tremendous skill, barely putting a foot wrong. Schmidt may be a failure, but more often than not this is simply down to a basic human decency he just can’t break free of. This is not really a very sentimental film, but it’s a hugely compassionate one.

About Schmidt rambles a bit in places and is perhaps a little too long. Don’t go to see it expecting a wall-to-wall comedy festival, because I did and it took me a while to figure out that that wasn’t what’s on offer. What you’ll get is an outstanding central performance in a film of great subtlety and enormous charm. Recommended.

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