Tag: matt damon

Suburbicon


Suburbicon (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is an excellent example of how incredibly difficult it is to pull off a great dark comedy. Get the tone wrong in the slightest and nearly everything becomes displaced in such a way that the entire work trips on its own feet eventually and falls to the ground with a deafening thud. There is potential in this twisty 1950s tale that takes place in an all-white community that is jolted by a black family moving into the neighborhood, but it does not possess the requisite balance of subtlety and obvious—as well as when to shatter such a state of equilibrium and perform truly shocking tonal acrobatics.

The material is written by the Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, and it requires a perspicuous eye and sound judgment considering that it tackles an enchilada of subjects, from the consequences of a home invasion seen through the eyes of a child, a scam gone horribly awry, and the prejudice of a supposedly warm and loving community. The strategy is almost always to hammer the audience with the obvious, afraid that the point will be missed by those who cannot be bothered to pause and think.

What results is an overwhelming feeling that the director can do so much more to tell an enthralling story but choosing the laziest option instead just so the work can be digested much more easily. By doing so, it sacrifices or dilutes what the story is about: the complexity of human motivations and the role of coincidence and irony when we are convinced we are in complete control of a situation. About halfway through the picture, a list of directors made its way on my mind like a marquee: the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé—all uncompromising filmmakers who would rather assume their viewers are intelligent and so they create specific stories without worry that such tales would come across as inaccessible or obscure. In addition, they have a knack for creating images that seep into the mind and their impact is felt days or weeks later.

I enjoyed some of the performances. Noah Jupe is quite wonderful as Nick who becomes suspicious that his father (Matt Damon) and aunt (Julianne Moore) might be up to something sinister right after his mother (also played by Moore) had died. Observe as he holds is own against veteran performers who are more than capable of changing the tone and mood of conversations at a drop of a hat. His terror, never one-dimensional because he adjusts the dial depending on the rhythm of impressions and disclosures, brings to mind a forgotten gem called “Parents,” a story, also set in the 1950s, about a boy who becomes convinced that mom and dad are serving human meat on the dinner table and so he decides to stop eating. With the excellent comedy-drama “Wonder” under his belt and a solid performance here, Jupe is absolutely one to watch.

Another combustible performance is delivered by Oscar Isaac. To describe his role is to spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that he brings a level of humor and wit at a point when the story desperately needs rationality. The character is designed to pester and I wished the character had been introduced much earlier on in the film because the mystery is not really a mystery for those that have seen a handful of mid- to late-1940s thrillers. I grew a bit bored because the material takes its time to dance around the obvious.

Despite numerous symbolisms and foreshadowings, somehow we see right through “Suburbicon” as if it were air—the material being so thin of intrigue, it fails to excite us, intellectually or emotionally, despite some incendiary and relevant topics it dares to tackle. Clooney’s playfulness with tone—and at times his lack of control of it—is an incorrect approach when the story demands that what we see, feel, and think about cut like a scalpel across the throat.

The Talented Mr. Ripley


The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person. — Tom Ripley

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a visually alluring, thematically complex, and airtight thriller that dares to put a heart inside of a monster—or at least an impression of a warm, beating thing that resembles an organ, a representation of what separates us from savages. It tells the story of a young man named Tom Ripley, a part-time pianist whose talent lies in impersonating people, preferably those born into money because he covets a luxurious lifestyle. Mistaken for a Princeton alumnus after a performance, a shipping tycoon (James Rebhorn) requests for Tom to retrieve his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), from Italy. Considering that all expenses are paid for, in addition to monetary reward if he were to complete the assignment, Tom quickly seizes the opportunity.

It is admirable that the screenplay does not rely on merely showing Tom as a killer. Doing so prevents the material from being reduced to another suspense-thriller or horror cliché. Instead, it pushes the envelope a bit further by daring to pull the viewer into considering the way Tom perceives himself as a poor, working-class nobody forcing himself to walk in the shoes of someone else, at times literally, that he perceives to be somebody, one who is loved, regarded, important. What results is an electrifying character study with tragic elements, mainly from the perspective of our antihero, until we realize that we have grown to care for a person whose very gift is deception. Tom has played us in addition to those around him. I applaud its courageous ending.

Casting Matt Damon to wear the skin of the charming and manipulative title character is a fruitful decision. Relying on boyish good looks is not enough for this role. Notice the performer’s control of varying levels of magnetism which is almost always directly tethered to how another person might be exploited for Tom’s benefit despite a veil of camaraderie or friendship. The screenplay supports the performer by being smart enough to blur the line between these ideas. It makes us question whether a sociopath like Tom is actually capable of forming genuine social contracts with others or whether people exist simply to either aid or prevent him from reaching his goals. And because Damon is excels at projecting minute emotions, especially feelings of hurt and betrayal, when the camera is up close, we end up empathizing with him even though we know that the character isn’t capable of empathy.

Supporting characters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Davenport, Sergio Rubini) are not mere lambs lining up to be slaughtered. They have distinct personalities, points of view, and lives to live. As they move in and out of the story, something about them is always changed the next time we encounter them. This creates an exciting experience because not only do we need to evaluate Tom whose motivations are consistently elusive, we, too, need to assess those around him based on what knowledges or suspicions they’ve acquired off-screen considering the fact that these characters share social circles. Making the characters intelligent, vivid, and life-like not only breathes a freshness to the film. It also provides genuine challenges for the main character. Tom must adapt. And sometimes it is actually amusing to see him squirm and trip over the details of his deceit. We wonder at which point his lies are going to catch up to him.

Tense at the right moments and surprisingly clever just when we are convinced the jig is up, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” offers a fascinating look at how a specific mind functions. While there is beauty and decadence behind exotic locales the characters see and experience, there is a darkness here that the material is willing to explore without relying on mere violence in order to induce dread or horror. Sometimes a friendly smile held too long is most telling.

Downsizing


Downsizing (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Alexander Payne is known for his deeply humanist films (“The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” “Sideways”) and even when his work contains characters with extreme personalities (“About Schmidt,” “Election”), there is almost always a warm and realistic center that is defined and deeply fascinating. It goes without saying that “Downsizing” is the filmmaker’s weakest film to date, but it cannot be denied that it contains many interesting ideas—so many, in fact, that the screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor does not spend enough time to explore every one of them despite a hefty running time of one hundred thirty minutes. It’s a mixed bag.

Those expecting a riotous fantasy-comedy are likely to be disappointed. Worthy of small chuckles throughout, the material is more inclined to establish a certain laidback mood, to give us time to ponder and ask ourselves questions like whether we would decide to downsize ourselves, a procedure in which a person’s body is reduced to less than a tenth of a percent of its original size, given the technology is available. The first half is strong because it is involved with details such as what the procedure entails before and after the fact, the sorts of questionnaires given to volunteers, how their assets would be translated, down to who made the discovery and under which circumstances.

But when it begins to tackle the subject of global warming and how it affects the sustainability of the planet, therefore impacting the human population negatively, it is neither that intriguing nor focused. It does not do or say anything that we have not heard of or read about before, assuming, of course, that the viewer is convinced of the fact that global warming is real. A strange juxtaposition is created between light comedy and a subject that is serious, increasingly relevant, and urgent. The contrast can work but it requires writing so sharp that the comedy is not at all safe.

Matt Damon’s ordinary Joe character named Paul is bland. I go as far as to say he is a bore. While it is possible that this is intentional because he is supposed to be a common man’s conduit into an alternate universe which contains technology capable of cellular reduction, the writers fail to give a great reason, or several good reasons, why he is worth following when he is akin to a leaf being blown by the wind. I think a more interesting avenue might have been to follow a character with a strong personality, like the party-loving neighbor (Christoph Waltz) or the Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau), because then we would have a compass by which to find ourselves in the constantly changing story.

A viewer might be wise or adjust his or her expectations because “Downsizing” is certainly not within the vicinity of quirkiness or bravado as Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” or Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” Perhaps this is the kind of story that might have translated better had it been pushed to such extremes as the aforementioned movies. With its original premise alone, it could have been a modern classic because the rift between the 1% and 99% is greater than ever. Perhaps on an alternate universe.

The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.

The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.

In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.

The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.

The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.

What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.

Elysium


Elysium (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while at work, Max (Matt Damon) is informed that he has about five days to live. Although his condition can be cured, it is available only to the wealthiest and they reside not on Earth—since it has become overpopulated, polluted, and diseased—but on a space station called Elysium led by President Patel (Faran Tahir) and run by Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). People on Earth know that the panacea comes in a form of a med bay and it is available to every home in Elysium. However, every time non-Elysium citizens try to breach the space station, they are killed without a moment’s hesitation.

I am not convinced that the concepts tackled by “Elysium”—the division between developed and developing countries, illegal immigration, the gap when it comes to healthcare between the rich and the poor—are fully developed. However, writer-director Neill Blomkamp sure knows how to construct a thrilling action sequence. As a social critique, it did not inspire me to think much but as a sci-fi action, I was entertained.

The look of the picture is quite beautiful. The slums of Los Angeles in 2154 look very lived-in but not so much that they look like an utter wasteland. Though Damon’s physicality, especially when his character is eventually fused with an exo-suit designed to enhance Max’ strength, dominates just about every frame, there is always something worth noticing in the background: children playing, vendors selling fruit, the way the heat rests on men hanging out under the sun. We can almost feel the dust being inhaled and tasted.

Conversely, the interiors and exteriors of Elysium look very polished. The trees look almost like plastic or genetically engineered to perfection. The floors are so white, one wonders if there is such a thing as mud or grime in the sheltered world. The extras are mostly white, happy, and wearing clothing that seem to come right off Ralph Lauren ads. The availability of space between them are also noticeable. There is room to move around and breathe air without dust. On Earth, just about everyone is only an arm’s length away.

The film excels in showcasing adrenaline-fueled action. I liked the build-up between characters using mostly guns initially and then eventually utilizing knives, swords, and fists to render or pummel an opponent into submission. Sharlto Copley, playing a psychopathic sleeper agent named Kruger who takes orders from the cold and calculating Delacourt, exudes a gruff menace so potent, I believed him as a formidable villain seconds after he first appears on screen. Kruger and Max are well-matched. Though the former has more experience and considers the hunt as a game, the other is fueled by desperation.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of “Elysium” is its less than subtle commentary on what is wrong with America today. Images involving the system imposing its power on those with little or without means made me look back on real-life footages shown in the news or documentaries. By comparison, it is a level of irony because even though what is shown here is more dramatized, it is less powerful than actuality. If the approach has been less forceful, maybe a challenge for comparison would not have been as recurrent.

The Great Wall


The Great Wall (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

With no intention whatsoever to deliver historical accuracy, “The Great Wall,” directed by Yimou Zhang, manages to entertain on the level of superficial action-fantasy. Clearly, the target audience is one who craves chases and battles right from the get-go with minimal exposition. For this type of film, it is the correct decision to make the length relatively short, the pacing fast, and the special and visual effects eye-catching enough for us to want to keep looking at it. Although not a strong action picture, it is interesting enough, I think, to become a favorite on late-night cable networks.

It is apparent that the filmmakers wish to have fun with the material. For instance, there are numerous amusing banters between the two non-Chinese men, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal), making their way through ancient China in search of black powder, perceived to be the next generation of weaponry in war. Even a potential romance between William and one of the Nameless Order commanders, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), protector of The Great Wall, is dealt with a certain level of silliness.

Movies of this type tend to take the material so seriously that usually they end up suffocating the audiences with their seemingly deep aspirations. Worse, they inspire us to roll our eyes both in disbelief and frustration. Here, I got the impression that the filmmakers, especially the writers, are aware of the painful contrivances so they, instead, attempt to amplify the more important elements in an action picture.

There is creativity in a handful of battle scenes. Particularly impressive is the first encounter against the so-called Tao Tei, massive lizard-like creatures with shark-like teeth and eyes adjacent to their forelimbs. According to the myth, a meteor crashed on a nearby mountain two thousand years prior and these creatures are to remind humanity of their greed. It is most exciting to observe the defenders of the wall taking position, getting their armaments ready, and observing the leaders’ faces anticipate a gory battle. Despite the fact that the monsters look computerized from a bird’s-eye view, there are instances when we get a chance to look closely at the creature and appreciate the finer details.

A shortcoming is a lack of characterization, even a superficial one, of the commanding officers. Sure, we get to learn most about Lin Mae of the Crane Troop. But also of potential interest are commanders of the Tiger Troop (Eddie Peng), Eagle Troop (Gengxin Lin), Deer Troop (Xuan Huang), and Bear Troop/General of the Nameless Order (Hanyu Zhang)—each specializing in an area of battle. Their fates would have had a stronger impact if we had gotten a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. One of the most beautiful moments of the film involves a funeral. But it fails to grab us emotionally.

“The Great Wall” is likely to be forgotten a few minutes after it is over, but this does not mean it doesn’t have strengths. As an on-the-spot experience, it engages enough to keep us wondering what might happen next—even while on our way to acquire the laundry.

Jason Bourne


Jason Bourne (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Jason Bourne,” written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, is like a mediocre greatest hits collection in that it plucks a few of the best elements from the excellent first three films and repackages them in a less inspiring way. While a smile was drawn on my face upon seeing Matt Damon playing the enigmatic title character after ten years, the writing does not offer enough good reasons to get viewers to invest once again in the bone-crunching journey of the amnesiac assassin.

The plot is propelled by an ally, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into U.S. government files and discovering that Bourne’s father was involved in establishing Operation Treadstone, CIA’s black ops program where recruits are trained to become highly effective assassins. Although Bourne has learned that he signed up for the program voluntarily, there is new evidence that perhaps Bourne, previously named David Webb, was in fact manipulated to join. Meanwhile, the CIA director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is preparing to launch a similar hitman program named Iron Hand and requires the help of a young entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) in order to spy on the users who use his technology.

There is only one standout action sequence and it is shown early in the picture. It takes place during a night riot in Athens, Greece where Parsons and Bourne decide to meet so the former can inform the latter what she has found. Great tension is eventually established because director Greengrass’ handheld technique is married with the increasingly violent protest while Bourne and company weave themselves in and out of tricky situations. We get the impression we are participants in, not merely viewers of, the action. The sequence reaches its peak when Parsons and Bourne, on a motorcycle, are chased by an assassin (Vincent Cassel) in a car. Extremely sharp turns, teeth-chattering stairs, and pedestrians appear to be everywhere.

I enjoyed that the hitman this time around is relevant from the beginning till the end of the picture. In previous films, they are disposed of during the second or right before the third act—and so we expect the same to happen here. Cassel has always had a knack for playing cold, lethal men—and he is rock solid here—but an argument can be made that the asset could have been a more effective and memorable villain given his role in the new information Parson has come upon. The duel between Bourne and the asset is appropriately brutal but expected.

The final action sequence in Las Vegas becomes more disappointing the longer one thinks about it because such lack of realism has no place in the Bourne movies where less is often more. The vehicular chase down the Strip is similar to that of the later “Fast and the Furious” films in terms of its excessiveness to the point of disbelief. While such an approach works for that franchise, it does not work here. Compare the Vegas chase to the Moscow chase in Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy.” It is clear that latter is much better in framing the action and translating the balance between suspense and thrills.

While still classier than many action-thrillers to come out of Hollywood, being passably entertaining is not good enough for this franchise because the bar is set so high. The acting and technical elements like camerawork, use of score, and editing are in a good place, but the writing is a big disappointment, failing to inspire itself and despite itself.