Sunday 16 December 2018

Cinema: Downsizing - the middle act is in particular need of a boot up the rear

Cert: 15A; Now showing

Matt Damon is convinced to shrink in Downsizing
Matt Damon is convinced to shrink in Downsizing

Alexander Payne made a name for himself via smartly observed comedy dramas about regular Joes faced with a crossroads and a time limit. Sideways (2004), a road movie set in a California wine region, nabbed an Oscar, as did its Clooney-led follow-up The Descendants.

Payne's seventh feature, however, is a little different. This time, a water-treading everyman is put into a setting that resembles some kitsch 1960s sci-fi throwback.

It sees Matt Damon in the role of Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist living in the age of "downsizing", a scientific procedure that physically shrinks citizens and thus their economic and environmental footprints too. With he and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) dragging their heels through nine-to-five drudge and meagre salaries, they decide this could be just the thing.

It turns out that consumer culture is alive and well in Leisureland, the fully-fitted miniature world that Paul finds himself in after being shrunk. Luxury he and Audrey never dreamed of is now affordable, but like any Stepford, there is something amiss being hinted at behind the curtain.

In terms of that silly backdrop, Downsizing is new territory for Payne and you wonder why a storyteller of his skill has resorted to outlandish fantasy when he was always able to do so much in the banal. You'll also find the points he and co-writer Jim Taylor make about consumerism and inequality over-laboured and not quite as clever as they perhaps think are.

Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau feature in a fine cast but the entire plot meanders too much in search of decent narrative hinge. The middle act is in particular need of a boot up the rear.

★★ Hilary A White

Early Man

Cert: PG; Now showing

It can seem like claymation supremos Aardman Studios have been tickling funny bones since as far back as the setting for this new animated romp. After Wallace & Gromit: A Grand Day Out hit screens in 1989, there was no getting away from creative leader Nick Park's pear-shaped heads, goofy overbites and dotty, delightful storylines.

Early Man poses the question of whether or not Aardman now needs to park that model and mine new treasures.

While the animation remains chock full of invention and the humour reliably athletic, this prehistoric caper somehow ends up being not quite the sum of its many witty and creative parts.

Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne, apparently) is one of a tribe of cavemen which dwells in an oasis on an otherwise uninviting, lava-strewn hell. Their leafy abode is taken over by a more sophisticated band of Bronze Agers led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) who want to plunder their resources.

When Dug learns that football is a favoured pastime in Bronze Age society, he proposes a match between the two communities in order to win back freedom for the cave people.

The voice cast is alive with talent - Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, Johnny Vegas - and we're treated to the unforgettable sight of a giant killer mallard.

Most of the gags hit their targets with an accompanying wry wink. None of it quite papers over the plot's pedestrian course, mind. ★★★ Hilary A White

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Cert: 12A; Now showing

Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Lady Bird has just received Oscar-acclaim for its celebration of those loveably awkward teenage years and the knock-kneed spirit of that age group.

You'd certainly take that colour scheme any day over this schlocky dystopian sci-fier that chains you to the coalface of the dreaded "young adult" genre, where heroes must be "special" on a messianic level and villains are parent-shaped authority figures looking to put young idealists in cages.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure sees franchise director Wes Ball close the circle that began with his first instalment of the James Dashner novel adaptations. In a world ravaged by a zombie virus (of course), Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his fellow "gladers" are part of a resistance trying to infiltrate Last City to save their chums and topple the nefarious WCKD regime. On the inside and possibly able to help is Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), but they have WCKD agent Rat Man (Aidan Gillen) on their tails. Last City? WCKD? Rat Man? Even the nomenclature is lame.

Of course, none of this will matter a jot to you unless you're firmly on board with the whole Maze Runner mythology.

Should you be unlucky enough to stumble into this film, however, you will find lots of formulaic guff about viruses and cures, pongy dialogue plucked straight from the 1980s action handbook and a constant feeling of being trapped inside a fast-paced video game with gun-toting teens. ★★ Hilary A White

Glory

Cert: 12A; Now showing

Glory (Slava) is the brand of watch which railway worker Tsanko (Stefan Denolyubov) sets in the opening scenes of this interesting Bulgarian story.

The watch will prove pivotal in the film, the second in the Newspaper Clippings Trilogy by writer-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. Although set in the Eastern European republic these satires have universal relevance.

When Tsanko reports a large amount of money on the railway track, government press officer Julia Staykova (Margarita Gosheva) sees an opportunity to deflect awkward questions about corruption. Julia represents The System and she sees Tsanko, representing The People, as simply a means to an end. Part of the process of making him a photo opportunity involves giving him a new watch but it is a careless swap that leads to unforeseen complications.

Shot with wonderful attention to detail, from the hands of the watch to the weight of a wrench, Glory is atmospheric and well acted and an awful sense of horrible inevitability leads to a surprising ending. ★★★★ Aine O'Connor

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