2 stars

REVIEW: Downsizing (2017)

The world is suffering from overpopulation but some Norwegian scientists have found a solution – shrinking people to five inches tall. When Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to change their lives and become small, things don’t go the way they expect.

Downsizing has a solid first act. The concept of shrinking people down so they don’t use as much resources or produce as much waste is fascinating and it was really cool to see how the process worked and what it meant for society – both for those who became small (an irreversible process) and those who stayed normal size. Seeing small people (and things), in a normal sized persons world is weird but enjoyable because it’s so unusual.

The premise is an interesting one, with what it tries to say about the environment, poverty, and society as a whole but unfortunately it seems to try and say too many things so it ends up saying nothing of real substance.

This is the unfortunate thing about Downsizing, the premise and the set up is great but it never really lives up to that. After the first act, the film, much like Paul himself, meanders along, and things just happen to Paul without him really being that proactive. The film doesn’t go where you think it might but if anything, that makes it worse as it seems almost aimless, and you feel the just over two hours running time.

Damon is fine in his role but Christoph Waltz as Paul’s neighbour Dusan is the most fun and engaging character. He lives life to the full and has some of the funniest lines. With the character of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) a Vietnamese revolutionary, it seemed the film wanted you to laugh at her. She often seemed like a racist caricature and again the film didn’t really seem to know what to do with her.

Downsizing is supposed to be a comedy, and at times it is. Other times though it feels like the concept was stretched out to more than it could be, losing humour and any real character development on the way. 2/5.

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REVIEW: Columbus (2017)

When Jin’s (John Cho) father becomes seriously ill, he travels from Seoul, Korea to Columbus, Indiana to wait to se if he recovers. There he befriends Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who loves the city and its architecture.

I will start this reviewing by being honest and telling you that I did miss a bit of this film due to nodding off in the cinema. I’m not sure how much I missed, maybe about 15 minutes in the middle, as I felt my eyes drooping and waking myself up by my head suddenly falling forward. While I the fact I had a snooze might not make Columbus a bad film, I think it was a sign it’s a film that wasn’t for me. Now onto the review proper.

Columbus is a very slow film, focused on two different people who find someone to talk to. Jin doesn’t want to be stuck in this town as he waits for his father to either get better or die, he mostly stays because Eleanor (Parker Posey), his father’s friend, says he should. Casey loves her town, her job in a library with her friend Gabe (Rory Culkin) and while she’s smart and everyone says she should go away to college, she’s reluctant to leave her mother (Michelle Forbes). Cho and Richardson both give great performances and they do feel like an unlikely friendship.

Columbus does some really interesting things with how it frames its characters and the landscape, with buildings and sculptures often getting more space on the screen than the people. There’s one scene where you are seeing the characters through their reflection in mirrors rather than face on. This makes a layer of distance between the viewer and the characters. This along with the fact that important conversations or character moments are often unfinished or seem to happen off screen makes it difficult to connect with the characters and what they are going through.

Columbus is a beautiful looking film with a calm, soothing soundtrack, but not a lot really happens. While everyone gives good performances, there’s not enough to pull you in and become attached to any of them. If you like interesting architecture, with characters walking and talking about architecture, Columbus might be for you. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Fits (2015)

While training in the boxing gym with her brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), tomboy Toni (Royalty Hightower) becomes interested in the dance troupe that practices in the room next door. When Toni decides to join the troupe, she not only struggles to fit in with the other girls but finds herself in danger as the each of the group starts to suffer from violent fits and fainting spells.

The Fits is an atmospheric and intriguing film about a young girl growing up and the balance between trying to fit in and being yourself. Toni is athletic and strong, but it’s in such a different way to the girls in the troupe that she finds it hard to be a part of it to begin with. The film does a good job of showing how isolated Toni feels with the way the camera frames her and the music, or lack thereof. As Toni comes into herself and starts to get the dance routines you can see the joy shine through on her face.

The fits that the girls in the dance troupe almost begin to seem like a right of passage, as those who have had them discuss what it felt like, and those who haven’t wish to have them so they know what it’s like and can fit in. Toni’s budding friendship with Beezy (Alexis Neblett) is charming and the way they play together in the gym after dark feels incredibly real. that’s one of the good things about this film, all the characters and performances feel so organic you want these young girls to succeed.

The Fits is a slow film with a good lead performance but it’s a good job it has such a short runtime as I found myself getting more bored than interested as the film progressed. It’s a strange film that’s hard to describe, something it shares with many other small-budget indie films. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Dark Tower (2017)

Jake (Tom Taylor) has dreams of another world, of a Dark Tower, a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) called Roland who chases the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). But when Jake discovers a portal to another world, he realises that his dreams are real and he joins Roland on his quest to save the Dark Tower and defeat the Man in Black.

The Dark Tower is a fantasy adventure based on The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I’ve only read the first book (you can find my review here) but there is a lot of stuff crammed into this film for its 90-minute runtime. This film is disjointed. It has weird editing in a single scene, cutting between conversations when there doesn’t appear to be any need to, never mind the fact that it jumps from character, to place and there’s often no real connection between them.

Idris Elba is great in this and, from reading only one book in the series, I feel he does the best with what he’s given and is actually a really good Roland. McConaughey on the other hand, just seems to be playing himself. There’s no menace in him and there’s no real tension between him and Elba, he’s just there.

There are action sequences, and for the most part they look OK but some of the CGI is bad and noticeable, especially during the fight between Roland and the Man in Black. The problem is they’re never particularly exciting, they just happen. Also, the most interesting moments are all featured in the trailer so there are very few surprises.

The main problem with The Dark Tower was that it was dull and forgettable. There’s a lot of stuff that could be interesting but is never developed so you’re left with a fantasy world that’s pretty bland. The Dark Tower drags and Idris Elba’s performance is not enough to elevate it. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – China: The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung

Old Chen lives in Beijing, where a whole month has gone missing from official records, no one has any memory of it and no one cares about it either. Except for Old Chen and his friends – they realise something’s wrong with the Chinese people’s cheerfulness and amnesia. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they discover could shake them to the core.

The Fat Years is set in the near future so while things are different, for instance there was not just the financial crisis of 2008 a second one in 2011, a lot of Chinese history is mentioned. This is interesting and on the most part the social and political history is well-explained and is a great insight into what life is like in (almost) contemporary China. However, as the book progresses it becomes more dense and I struggled to get through the 100 page epilogue. There was a lot of talk about world economics and politics and while most of the book had been relatively quick to read, that epilogue was a slog.

The Fat Years is an interesting take on a near-future dystopia as so much of it appears to be heavily influenced by what we know of China today. There’s the heavy control of the media and the internet, and if someone disagrees with the government there’s strict punishments. It’s the sort of situation that’s scary and unsettling because it’s so realistic. I did like how The Fat Years talks about controlling governments and how the people tend to just accept what is happening, the sociological angle of how a month could go missing from people’s memories was very interesting.

I enjoyed the concept and it was well thought out and interesting however the characters were a bit of a mixed bad. I didn’t find the main protagonist Old Chen particularly compelling but I did like Little Xi, an internet political activist, and the mentions of her relationship with her son who is an ambitious party member.

If you have an interest in or a good understanding of Chinese political and social history then The Fat Years might be for you. Unfortunately, it became a bit too dense and complicated for me towards the end. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zimbabwe: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is an albino woman, serving time in prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. When she was nine she was adopted by Lloyd Hendricks, a wealthy white man. It is his murder she is now convicted of and is facing the death penalty. As she waits for her death she tells the story of the events that brought her here – but is everything as she remembers it?

The Book of Memory is an interesting story but one that I sometimes found hard to get through. It wasn’t till I got to the half way point that I began to like the book more and start reading it more quickly. I think that’s because The Book of Memory is split into three parts, Memory’s childhood with her family, her growing up with Lloyd and her time in prison. Though while the book is labelled like that, she does meander with her storytelling meaning it jumps from the present to various points in the past. I personally found the parts more focussed on her adolescence with Lloyd more compelling than her childhood – though I did like how the story brings those two halves of her together.

Memory’s name is apt as so much of her story is recounted from her memory and she doesn’t have anyone to collaborate what she remembers. It’s an interesting to see how something you see and remember when you were a child changes dramatically when you get more information.

Memory is a likeable character, as are many of her fellow inmates, though naturally the prison guards are the main antagonists Memory’s present situation. That being said, there is one guard whose behaviour towards Memory is so nice and almost kind that it makes both the reader and Memory uncomfortable.

I did like the smattering of Shona language used in the book, as well as how it didn’t give you a crash course in Zimbabwean history. Memory often would go between calling her home country Zimbabwe and Rhodesia, and talk about warring political parties and how white people were seen.

For me, there’s not much memorable about The Book of Memory. While I liked Memory well enough, the other characters weren’t particularly notable and there wasn’t many stand out moments in the story. 2/5.

REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is coerced by old flame Angelica (Penélope Cruz) and her father Blackbeard (Ian McShane) into a quest to find the fountain of youth. They aren’t the only ones after it though with the Spanish and the British, led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), searching for it too.

While On Stranger Tides continues the trend in this franchise of having great costumes, music and set design, it unfortunately doesn’t have the fun or emotional-heft of the previous films. This may be in part as it’s the first film not to feature Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and Will (Orlando Bloom), two central characters in the previous three films, and instead you have a new villain, new crew-mates, and a new love interest for Jack.

Blackbeard is a decent villain. He’s menacing and has a very clever ship, though this is probably down to Ian McShane’s performance more than the script. Blackbeard is set up to be a fearsome pirate but after you initially meet him, he’s not that fearsome. He’s by no means a nice guy and is incredibly selfish but he’s not terribly threatening after the initial reveal.

There’s a side romance with missionary Phillip (Sam Claflin) and mermaid Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) that could have easily been done without. In many ways, they are both plot devices, Phillip especially, and there’s not enough insight into their character for the audience to become attached to them in anyway.

On Stranger Tides is just a bit bland. It’s moves from one event to another and because there’s no real character development nor many interesting characters full stop, the times these characters are put in danger you don’t really care. Jack Sparrow, while still a bit mad and full of plans that unbelievably work, isn’t enough to make this film enjoyable. 2/5.