he holidays are the one time of year when the difference between big and small movies is perhaps most noticeable, as blockbusters clash with Oscar contenders for attention and precious space on theater screens. But this week presents a more noticeable contrast than most, as Matt Damon’s comedy “Downsizing” — about a man who agrees to be shrunk in search of a better life — faces off against the cinematic juggernaut “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” now in its second weekend.
And yet another film, the groundbreaking hip-hop/classical pastiche “The Greatest Showman,” offers its own set of thrills for those willing to take a chance on an epic musical that’s grandly innovative. All three deliver on their own unique terms, giving movie lovers of all stripes reason to go home happy.
First up, “Jedi” offers a rather bold reinvention and expansion of what the “Star Wars” universe is capable of. Writer-director Rian Johnson — who previously displayed wildly inventive storytelling skills in indie classics “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom” and the Bruce Willis-Joseph Gordon-Levitt showdown “Looper” — takes the reins and creates a film that gives plenty of nods to the past in the first half while turning things upside down in the rousing second half.
“Jedi” continues the contentious battle of wills between a young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley), Han Solo and Princess Leia’s evil son, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Picking up right where “The Force Awakens” left off, Rey talks the long-secluded Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into giving her Jedi training, while the rebel Resistance is attempting to make a final advance against the First Order of the evil Empire.
I’ll leave the many plot twists unspoiled, but will make it clear that “Jedi” is a much, much better film than “Awakens,” which left me cold with its blatant gender-flip rehash on the plot of the first “Star Wars” film. Many feared that Disney had decided to dumb down its entire new string of films in the series, and that this would just be a twist on “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Johnson has thankfully found plenty of fresh new ground to explore, adding a surprising amount of humor and stylistic tricks to the mix along with action showcases for each of his heroes. By vastly improving his performance from the prior film, Driver gives Skywalker a worthy opponent. Hamill plays his role with an impressive gravitas that provides a shocking contrast from the callow farm boy he portrayed 40 years ago. It’s a hell of a performance, in one hell of a movie.
Meanwhile, “Downsizing” is a fresh entry in the impressive canon of co-writer-director Alexander Payne, who has served up a string of unique looks at American life over a 20-year career ranging from the wicked political satire of “Election” to the incisive yet touching character studies of “About Schmidt” and “Nebraska.”
The new movie stars Matt Damon as Paul, a good-natured, Omaha-based physical therapist who is happily married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig) yet feels a tug toward something more than a staid existence struggling to pay his bills. He sees a news report that a scientist has managed to shrink, or “downsize,” people who seem delighted with their new state of being because all of life’s luxuries are suddenly dirt-cheap when provided at microscopic scale.
Paul takes the leap, a move from which one can never return. He sees his money stretch further, but has immediate turmoil with Audrey, who has opted to remain full-size. Suddenly divorced, he embarks on an adventure to meet an entire colony of shrunken people who believe that they have the answers to surviving the impending environmental apocalypse — and finds himself falling for a downsized Vietnamese refugee (Hong Chau).
“Downsizing” has quieter pleasures to offer than “Jedi,” instead taking viewers along on a thoughtfully witty look at life in our modern times rather than in a galaxy far, far away. Damon is fun to watch in the everyman mode he regularly adopts between the hardcore action of his Jason Bourne spy movies, but Chau is a revelation — a largely unknown actress who is the odds-on favorite to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year.
It’s a quiet, thoughtful, funny and kind film — the type of movie that’s not made often enough in this age of explosive grandeur. At the same time, if you’re looking to be wowed, you might wanna look elsewhere. It’s very good, but not amazing.
Finally, “The Greatest Showman” puts Hugh Jackman in his best light as a singer-dancer-actor extraordinaire in a film that tells the story of 1800s impresario P.T. Barnum using an audacious blend of musical styles. Jackman is electrifying, but is perfectly matched by Zac Efron and Michelle Williams, a terrific actress who as Barnum’s wife is finally playing a woman that people will want to root for after a career of extremely negative characters.
Mixing together hip-hop and sweeping strings is the brainchild of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who took home the Oscar for their stellar “La La Land” tunes last year. It works in spades, giving an electric modern energy to what could have been a boring, traditional biopic. First-time director Michael Gracey achieves a miracle in pulling this all off in the most stylish musical since “Moulin Rouge!” 17 years ago. n
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” A
“The Greatest Showman”: A
Stars: Owen Wilson, Ed Helms, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken
Length: 113 minutes
Directed by: Lawrence Sher
Wilson and Helms were two of the funniest guys in movies until a couple years ago, but their teaming here as twin brothers who go in search of the father they never knew just doesn’t work. Their disparate looks alone are ridiculous casting, and the movie relies on repetitive, tired jokes about how their mother (Close) was a tramp in the 1970s. Countless other opportunites for laughs devolve into punchless sap. Grade: F
Stars: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Length: 125 minutes
Directed by: Joe Wright
Gary Oldman delivers a tour de force as Winston Churchill, covering the moment in which he assumed power as Britain’s prime minister on the cusp of the devastating Battle of Dunkirk. he movie reveals the possible political machinations and posturing between those who saw the threatening monster at the gates and those who thought Hitler could be reasoned with. Grade: A
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Length: 123 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) has crafted another masterpiece, mixing sweeping romance, sci-fi fantasy and historical drama in this tale of a mute female janitor who forms a relationship with an imprisoned aquatic creature in an early-1960s research facility. One of the most original films to come out in years. Grade: A
THE DISASTER ARTIST
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen
Length: 103 minutes
Directed by: James Franco
James Franco does amazing work both in front of and behind the camera in this humorous history of the making of one of the worst films of all time, 2003’s “The Room.” Casting his brother Dave as the best friend of eccentric filmmaker Tommy Wiseau – whom James himself plays- is a brilliant move, drawing out a surprising amount of heart from what could have been simple mockery and making this a “Rocky” for indie filmmakers. Grade: A
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Stars: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Some complain that this slow-burning tale of a mother’s quest for justice in the rape and murder of her daughter is too dark and sad. But to my mind, writer-director McDonagh has crafted a classic for the ages, a powerful depiction of love and loss, forgiveness and revenge, that is impossible to shake after seeing it. It’s up for a well-deserved slew of Golden Globes. Grade: A