Movie Review – Downsizing

Downsizing (2017)
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne

In 2017, Alexander Payne had his first official box office bomb. Four years prior, he’d received fairly rave reviews from critics for Nebraska, and before that, The Descendants had also been similarly received. In a decision that can be read as an attempt to expand his creative sphere by making a satirical science fiction film. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor hammered out the details during the director’s hiatus from filmmaking between 2004 and 2011. The film was released on December 22 and proceeded to gross $55 million against a $76 million budget. I only bring up those numbers as that’s mostly how you see Downsizing spoken about. It did not make money therefore it is a failure. Because the film was so poorly thought out, it was a failure. It was the third of Paramount’s bombs that year alongside Mother! and Suburbicon, all high-concept films that feature lousy writing.

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Movie Review – Nebraska

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Nebraska (2013)
Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne

For the first time in his filmmaking career, Alexander Payne directed a script he did not write. The result was a film that got a lot of praise from critics. It wasn’t a box office smash, but it did better than expected due to awards season word of mouth. After the diversions of Sideways and The Descendants, Payne had returned to his Midwestern roots, exploring the humor and daily dramas of life in Nebraska. A pair of producers contacted Payne while working on About Schmidt with the Nebraska script. Payne already knew Sideways was in the pipeline and wisely realized he would be seen as “the guy who makes road trip movies” but thought the Nebraska script was great. It got put on the back-burner, and after The Descendants, Payne saw this as the time to make Nebraska.

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Movie Review – The Descendants

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The Descendants (2011)
Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash
Directed by Alexander Payne

It would take six years after Sideways before Alexander Payne released another film. His longest gap to date between movies. During that time, Payne would get divorced from his wife Sandra Oh; they were together for around six years, married for three. I am no psychoanalyst, and everything I say is complete speculation, but…it sure does seem like the divorce did not sit well with Payne. I say that because from this point on, women, who appeared to have a special place in his previous work, suddenly take on a much darker tone. This film and the next two all feature female characters that are “nags” and absurdly vulgar for no apparent reason other than to add levity to the movie?

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Movie Review – Sideways

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Sideways (2004)
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne

With Sideways, Alexander Payne caused a 16% increase in sales of pinot noir in the Western United States. How many movies can say they did that? It also increased tourism to the Santa Ynez Valley in Central California and decreased merlot sales by 2%. I remember seeing this movie while I was in college with my friend Sam. In the following months, he became more interested in wine, and I benefitted by getting to try a lot of it. I can’t say I like wine all that much. I always seem to get a headache the morning after. I think the magic of this film is that even if you don’t care about it, the writing makes you interested. This is the effect of having a genuine passion; the rest of the world becomes invisible when you are lost in it, yet often you become someone people flock to because of that passion. We all want to feel that way about something.

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Movie Review – About Schmidt

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About Schmidt (2002)
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne

While About Schmidt is credited as being based on a novel that’s not exactly the truth. Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor had completed this script years before Louis Begley published his book. As early as 1991, Payne offered the script to Universal, who rejected it. The novel came out in 1996, Payne saw similarities between it and his writing, got the rights, combined the two, and we ended up with About Schmidt. This will be the ending of Payne’s first act, a trilogy of movies centered on Midwesterners, finding drama in their often ignored lives while developing his craft as a filmmaker. The stylistic flourishes of Election are muted here, though the film retains the same dry sense of humor. Payne has remarked that his concept behind the film was always “The Graduate at age sixty-five,” a meditation on the pointlessness of devoting so much of our lives to capitalism.

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Movie Review – Election

Election (1999)
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne

There’s something deeply wrong in America. It’s a rotten core deeply embedded in the manufactured two-party political culture wars that go on endlessly. We Americans are petty, spiteful, hateful people. It’s simply the truth. Our elite spin fancy myths that seek to bolster our perceptions, but all you need to do is step back a bit, and you begin to see the fetid sludge come boiling to the surface. We crave the boot of brutal authority just as long as we can glance over and see our neighbor getting worse than us. When I first watched Election as an 18-year-old college freshman, I didn’t really get it. I don’t think the culture as a whole did, as I would hear things about Tracy Flick being such a bitch. She’s the villain of the movie, right? Not at all. She’s the victim. But we so quickly decided she was the bad guy.

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Movie Review – Citizen Ruth

Citizen Ruth (1996)
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne has been a presence in American film since the late 1990s, starting with this debut feature. Filmmaking has been a passion in Payne’s life since he was a teenager and got his first Super 8mm camera. Payne would eventually attend Stanford but not study film. Instead, he majored in Spanish and History. Then, in the late 1980s, he attended UCLA film school, where his thesis film, The Passion of Martin, started the ball rolling for future projects. 

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