New and popular titles at Juniata County Library

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Downsizing (New DVD)

This movie was not an award winner but was quite popular and stars Matt Damon. Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starts with an intriguing “What if?…”, the launch pad of all good sci-fi stories, and very quickly devolves into a bland story about a nondescript khaki-wearing guy who learns to care about the less fortunate. It’s the least interesting way to go with what is a pretty interesting premise. The film takes place in an era not too far in the future when a group of scientists in Norway have figured out a way to shrink human beings into 5-inch-tall versions of themselves. The discovery is hailed as a revolution and a possible answer to the climate change emergency. If human beings take up less space, create less of a carbon footprint, make less trash, then perhaps the planet can be saved. Within a couple of years, “downsizing”–as the procedure is called–has swept the planet. “Downsized” communities crop up everywhere, with governments giving tax credit incentives to those who choose to go small.

An Omaha-based occupational therapist named Paul (Matt Damon) and his aspirational wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) wonder if they should “go small” after chatting with some friends who took the leap. Paul’s friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis) sits perched on a box of cookies on the kitchen counter, telling Paul–who hovers over him like a giant–how great it is to live a life of leisure with no financial worries. The biggest problem Paul and Audrey have in their lives is that they want a bigger house but can’t afford it. (Welcome to the club, Paul and Audrey.) They decide to go for it, applying for a spot at Leisureland, a “downsized” community in New Mexico, hyped up to hopeful applicants with a promotional video starring married couple Jeff and Laura Lonowski (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern), both wearing ear-mikes, doing marital “banter” in their echoing McMansion the size of a dollhouse about how awesome life is once you go small.

The “downsizing” process is shown in intriguing detail, and make up the best sequences in the film. They’re imaginative and funny and detailed. People’s gold teeth must be removed, otherwise their heads would explode during downsizing. All body hair is removed, too. These details support a logical universe (it would have been funny to see some of the disastrous early attempts to “go small,” a tiny man trailing a beard 20 miles long, etc.) When Paul wakes up in the recovery rooms of Leisureland, he learns that Audrey backed out at the last minute. (Unfortunately that also means Wiig has exited the movie.) Paul now must make it through Smallville on his own. Watch to see how things play out!

The Shape of Water (New DVD, Movie of the Year winner)

I was not looking to see a movie about a mute falling in love with a fish man, but once it won movie of the year I had to give it a try. In James Whale’s 1935 film “The Bride of Frankenstein,” the monster (Boris Karloff) says mournfully, “Alone: bad. Friend: good!” That’s what Guillermo del Toro’s latest film “The Shape of Water” is all about, the loneliness of those born before their time, born different. “The Shape of Water” doesn’t cohere into the fairy tale promised by the dreamy opening. It makes its points with a jackhammer, wielding symbols in blaring neon. The mood of swooning romanticism is silly or moving, depending on your perspective. (I found it to be both.) The film starts in a wavering green underwater world, with a woman floating in what looks like a drowned Atlantis. The image is otherworldly, magical and Alexandre Desplat’s score is wistful and bittersweet. Richard Jenkins narrates, asking helplessly, “If I spoke about it, what would I tell you” about what happened to the “princess without a voice”?

The “princess without a voice” turns out to be the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who mops floors in the cavernous underground tunnels of a Baltimore-based corporation (the word OCCAM–as in razor?–in towering letters over the entrance). Working alongside Elisa is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who provides constant running commentary through the day, responding to Elisa’s sign language with a torrent of words. The year is 1962, the background is the space race and the Cold War. The head honcho at the company is a sadist racist named Strickland (Michael Shannon), who swaggers around carrying a cattle prod (which he calls an “Alabama howdee-do”). Whatever is done at the corporation is top secret, and everyone is paranoid about the Russians, especially once “The Asset” arrives in a portable tank. The Asset is the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), discovered in the Amazon, once worshiped as a god and now contained in a tank, enduring occasional torture via Strickland’s howdee-do. The scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) pleads for mercy on the creature’s behalf. The Amphibian Man should be studied, not destroyed.

“The Shape of Water” shows over and over again the demonizing of the “Other,” the heartlessness of denying living creatures dignity. The film is on certain footing when it’s focusing on the brutal treatment of the monster, the “voicelessness” of Elisa, the lonely pre-Stonewall gay man. They all come from “the future,” before their time. But when the film portrays contemporary real-life events–the African-American couple told they can’t sit at the counter, Strickland’s racist comments to Zelda, the news footage of fire hoses turned on actual civil rights marchers–the fragile fabric of the film is broken. There’s something unsettling about using these things as “atmosphere,” even as the moments dovetail with the overall theme. At its worst, using these real-life events feels like a shorthand, a too-obvious pointing out of the similarities between the real world and the fairy tale, in case we didn’t get it.

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Vince Giordano has been the director of the Juniata County Library since 2015.

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