Downsizing

Hollywood films frequently employ what’s called the “high concept” approach. That’s when you can describe the gist of the movie in a sentence. For the original Ghostbusters, for example, the high-concept sentence might have been: “A comedy in which geeky paranormal scientists use high-tech gadgets to catch ghosts and save the world from an ancient evil being.” Pretty compelling!

For Downsizing, the high concept pitch probably was something like this: “The world is changed when scientists discover a way to shrink human beings to five-inch size in order to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint and allow the tiny people to live like kings.” That sounds pretty interesting, too, and like Ghostbusters would allow for lots on great special effects, too.

But where Ghostbusters built great ideas and characters, like Mr. Stay-Puft and the controlling EPA twerp, into the plot and made the movie a classic, in Downsizing the premise just sits there, thrashing around in search of an identity. Is it a comedy, or a serious approach to global warming, or a treatment about how humanity is ultimately frivolous, caste-bound, and uncaring? Potentially interesting notions of how the big-people world and the little-world world would interact get raised and then vanish without a trace. Characters come and go, seemingly at random, stereotypes bizarrely intrude into the plot, and by the end of the movie, when a five-inch Matt Damon is beating on a drum on the shores of a Norwegian fjord with a band of hippies who are preparing to go underground to save the human species, you’re scratching your head and wondering what the hell the movie is really supposed to be about.

Downsizing shows that the initial high concept only takes you so far. The special effects are good, and the weird twists and plot holes will give rise to lots of after-movie analysis, but this film is a quickly forgettable dud.

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No Good Summer Movies

Jaws was released on June 1, 1975.  Taut, believable, and  brilliantly acted, telling the story of a gigantic great white shark that terrorized a resort town and then coldly set out to kill the men who were hunting it, Jaws was perfect fare for the summer.  Anyone who saw it in a theater with a big screen, with the iconic “dun-dun, dun-dun” music playing and letting you know to prepare yourself for the awful carnage that was going to begin at any moment, will never forget it and always feel a thrill when they think of it.

Summer used to be the big season for movies.  You could relax in air-conditioned comfort, enjoy the movie, and practice the hinge move on your girlfriend in a darkened room.  And Hollywood always seemed to deliver at least one great movie that ran throughout the summer.  Whether it was Jaws, the original Star Wars movies, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, or Animal House, every year there was at least one can’t miss movie that everyone was talking about.  Watch any of those films, or the other summer blockbusters that you remember, and you’ll see well-made films that stand the test of time.

Last weekend Kish and I decided a trip to the movies was a good idea, so we checked the roster at the nearby multiplex.  Another Transformers movie.  Another X-Men movie.  A silly comedy, Tammy.  A remake of a TV series, 22 Jump Street, that we never watched in the first place.  Edge of TomorrowThink Like A Man Too.  And others, equally forgettable.  And this weekend, the big premiere is of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — another remake, one that the previews indicate is full of computer-generated scenes of rampaging apes.  We yawned and decided to pass — and we’re not alone.  With these lame offerings, is anyone really surprised that Hollywood receipts are way down this summer?

In the past, Hollywood at least seemed to make an effort to deliver summer movies that were new and exciting, well-written, well-acted, and well-made.  Now, it offers a steady diet of remakes and movies that rely heavily on formulas and special effects, explosions, and groin shot humor.  If Jaws were released this summer, it would stand out among this tired and uninspired fare like LeBron James at a junior high school game.

C’mon, Hollywood.  At least try!

Egon Sadly Gone

I was very saddened today to read of the death of Harold Ramis.

Ramis was a titanic yet nevertheless underappreciated cultural figure who played a large role in many hugely popular, clever, often brilliant movies — like Animal House, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and Caddyshack — and who dazzled in some small roles that helped to make good films, like As Good as It Gets and Knocked Up, even better. Anyone who could write Animal House, direct Groundhog Day, and bring a poignancy and warmth to the role of Ben’s Dad in Knocked Up has more talent that most people could even fathom.

I’d like to focus specifically, though, on Ramis’ depiction of Egon Spengler, the genius who created the hard-scientific core of the spirit-catching team in Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler is arguably the greatest depiction of a true scientific nerd ever to grace the silver screen. Ramis captured every element of the character, from the Eraserhead-like hairdo to the lack of awareness of normal social behavior to the immediate knowledge of every page of obscure spirit guides and ghostly treatises to the willingness to create catastrophically dangerous ghost-catching devices without a second thought. We knew the Bill Murray was the clown and Dan Aykroyd was the rumpled everyman, but Egon Spengler and his protonic inventions is the one who allowed the Ghostbusters to match up with Gozer and could explain the extraordinary danger in it all by using a Twinkie as a illustration.

Ghostbusters is a great movie — one of the first “high-concept” blockbusters, where the gist of the plot could be captured in a single sentence — and Egon Spengler is what really made the movie work. The Spengler character made the Ghostbusters concept plausible, and Ramis had to sell that brainy, socially oblivious character as someone who could design ghost-catching traps and understand cross-dimensional portals. He did it brilliantly and hilariously . . . and, equally important for the nerds among us, in the process he somehow made being the nerdy scientific geek kind of cool.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many other modern figures who had the impact on popular culture of Harold Ramis. He was only 69, and these days you can fairly say that people who die at 69 die much too young. He will be missed.

Twinkie Torment

It makes me sad to learn that Hostess Brands, the maker of the Twinkie, is preparing to file for bankruptcy.

I’m sure the Twinkie will survive a bankruptcy.  As we all know, Twinkies will last forever and are the foodstuff most likely to survive a nuclear holocaust.  Still, it is disturbing that the company that makes one of the most classic American foods ever — a true staple of the school day sack lunch, and even mentioned in Ghostbusters — is being squeezed by sugar, flour, and labor costs.

On this sad day, I offer my poetic tribute to the cream-filled sponge cake marvel:

O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!

O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!  The noon hour now draws nigh

My morning classes will be done, to you my thoughts do fly

The bell will ring, the rush will start, and we will race to lunch

The crinkled paper bag will ope, on PBJ I’ll munch

But O!  Dessert!  Dessert!

My hungry heart doth beat

For in my sack I soon shall find

A cream-filled sponge cake treat.


O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!  Your sponge cake damp and gold

And filled with tasty frosting, sweet and white and bold

The wrapper tears, my eyes grow wide, the sticky mass I grasp

And clutch to waiting bosom like Cleo and the asp

And so to eat!  To eat!  To eat!

With glass of milk, ice cold

Then lick till clean the bottom square

Of its crumbs, wet and gold.


O Twinkie!  My Twinkie!  My lustrous sack lunch friend

The sight of you gives rise to thoughts of lunch’s happy end

Your taste I crave, and I desire to see you on my plate

I do not mind if you are made of calcium sulfate

Fear not, my friend!  Fear not!  Fear not!

We’ll eat you still with pride

Come Polysorbate 60, hell,

or grim diglyceride!