September 12, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Downsizing” & “The Shape of Water”


DOWNSIZING (Paramount – Dec 22):  Alexander Payne’s latest film (written with his usual partner Jim Taylor) is a delight–and a bit of a mess.  On its face, Downsizing is a leap out of Payne and Taylor’s comfort zones, renowned as they are for small-scale character studies and social satires like Election, The Descendants, Sideways and Nebraska.  This time, they’re tackled a sweeping sci-fi saga, set in a near future where technology exists to shrink humans to roughly 3% of their current size.  This helps the environment, because it means they also use a tiny portion of the present-day’s natural resources.  What really encourages people to do it, though, is that their expenses are a fraction of what they had been, since they’re consuming mere bits of food and fabric, but they’re converting assets at their large-person value, making them hugely rich as soon as they shrink.  (The main district of the “small” is called Leisureland, because hardly anyone has to work.)  As that indicates, despite the CG and thematic scale, the strengths of Downsizing are what Payne and Taylor’s have always been, illuminating characters through their surroundings and actions.  The focus of the film is Paul (Matt Damon), an Omaha occupational therapist who decides to make the switch with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig).  Things don’t go as planned, and Paul finds himself on the bottom of the small-person scale.  Damon is very good as the Everyman, but Downsizing is stolen by Christoph Waltz as Paul’s constantly delighted (and non-villainous!) neighbor, and especially by the little known Hong Chau, as Ngoc Lan, a Vietnamese former activist Paul comes to know.  Between them, Waltz and Chau get all the script’s best lines, although Chau’s character also propels Downsizing into its latter and weakest sections, as Payne and Taylor get somewhat predictable and sentimental in the final act, giving Paul a social conscience.  Downsizing isn’t as perfect as their best intimate films, but at its best it’s very funny and marvelously imagined, a new world conceived as far more than a sight gag.

THE SHAPE OF WATER (Fox Searchlight – Dec 8):  After the big-budget fumbles of Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro is thrillingly back in form again with THE SHAPE OF WATER, one of the year’s major works.  Writing with Vanessa Taylor (whose resume stretches all the way from Hope Springs to Game of Thrones), del Toro has created a one-of-a-kind hybrid of fantasy, romance and thriller, a very adult E.T. set in a world of Cold War intrigue.  Eliza (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman in a Baltimore government scientific institution circa 1962, who develops a bond with the lab’s prize test subject, an underwater beast who resembles the Creature From the Black Lagoon (he’s played by longtime del Toro associate Doug Jones).  While scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon at his most Michael Shannon-ist) argue about whether to torture the “Asset” with tests or kill him and study the remains, Eliza is feeding him hardboiled eggs, playing him phonograph records, and teaching him sign language.  Soon enough, Eliza is plotting the creature’s escape with her fellow outcasts, black colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).  The plot is compelling and sometimes shockingly lyrical, and the cast is uniformly superb, with Hawkins a clear Oscar contender.  Del Toro’s technical achievements are quite spectacular, with gorgeous photography by Dan Lauststen, striking production design by Paul D. Austerberry, and a wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat.  The whole thing is funny and lovely, and more emotionally involving than it has any right to be.  The Shape of Water may not ultimately be Peak del Toro, since it lacks the tragic dimension of Pan’s Labyrinth.  But among his pulpier works, it’s the highlight of his career so far.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."