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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Hopeless Hollywood Sameness

Yesterday Kish and I decided to go see a movie.  It’s been hot as blazes in Columbus recently, and humid, too, and the idea of sitting for a few hours in an air-conditioned movie theater watching an interesting film was very attractive.

We haven’t been to the movies in a while because, candidly, the array of films offered this summer hasn’t been very appealing.  We have a narrow window of consensus — Kish can’t stand sci-fi and superhero movies, and I groan at the idea of sitting through some deep study of dysfunctional families — but we thought we’d give Jason Bourne a shot.

rs-jason-bourne-ea2bec70-27d1-4c0a-abc0-dcd61b987aa9Several hours later, after we’d been assaulted by loud, chaotic, and grossly improbable non-stop action, we emerged with the realization that Hollywood apparently has run out of ideas.  I think I may have seen part of an actual Jason Bourne movie in the past, but I’ve definitely seen this movie before — over and over and over again.  The film is so trite and formulaic that it immediately seemed like I was watching a rerun.  Even Matt Damon, who typically makes interesting films, couldn’t salvage it.  If you’re considering going to watch it, save your money.

Take every car chase scene you’ve seen since The French Connection, Bullitt, and The Blues Brothers movie, make them louder and longer and more destructive, and move them to Athens and the Vegas strip.  Input a rote, duplicitous bad guy with absolutely no redeeming qualities as the evil head of the the CIA and expect the audience to root for him to be killed.  Take an ambitious female agent with ambiguous loyalties off the shelf.  Add in an unbeatable hero with superhuman intellectual and physical capabilities and have him tracked by another apparently unstoppable cold-blooded killer who he has to fight at the climax.  That’s the plot.  Sound familiar?

The summer movie season used to feature inventive, different movies, like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars and Forrest Gump.  That’s no longer the case.  Now we get sequels, remakes, and canned, tried-and-true formulaic crap.  It’s no wonder that the box office receipts are down this summer.  What we’re getting from Hollywood these days really sucks.

True Grit

It was cold in Columbus today and the Browns were getting their asses kicked by the Steelers, so it was a perfect day for a movie.  I’d heard good things about True Grit, so that is what we saw — and the positive word-of-mouth turned out to be right on target.

Who would have thought that they would remake any John Wayne movie, much less True Grit?  Have they remade Sands of Iwo Jima, or The Searchers, or for that matter The Sons of Katie Elder?  Wayne was such a huge personality that it often was difficult to separate him from the story.  The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, took on that challenge, however, and the results are strikingly good.  It is a beautifully photographed movie, with an excellent soundtrack and a stunning script.  To me, the biggest star of the movie is the English language.  Were the mud-spattered, tobacco-crusted residents of the old West really so articulate, with vocabularies as sweeping as the broad western vistas?  Whether they were or weren’t, it is a pleasure to listen to the actors speak the lines and appreciate the expressive richness of the spoken word.

The acting is pretty good, too.  Hailee Steinfeld, who plays precocious and iron-willed 14-year-old Mattie Ross, has a breakout performance.  The remake succeeds, in part, because the focus of the film is on Mattie Ross and her quest to avenge her father, and it wouldn’t have worked if the actor playing Ross had not delivered.  Steinfeld does, in spades.  Jeff Bridges has by now perfected the grizzled, whiskey-soaked hero role, and he is terrific — funny, pathetic, maddening, and then awesomely heroic when the chips are down.  Matt Damon is excellent as LaBoeuf, the talkative Texas Ranger.  Watching Damon convincingly playing a man of the frontier, you realize that he is developing a portfolio of fine performances in a wide variety of roles.  Damon is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and this film gives him another chance to display his talents.  There are a number of other great performances; my personal favorite was the beleaguered stable owner who comes to regret negotiating with the single-minded Mattie bent on properly settling her dead father’s affairs.

In modern Hollywood, westerns have been a neglected genre.  True Grit shows that timeless westerns can still be made, and enjoyed.