Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Premise Grand

     I think that director Gus Van Sant is a fantastic talent when he is really on, as evidenced in such films as Milk, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and, yes, Good Will Hunting (which is a little sappy, but still a good pic).  His last feature, Restless, was not met well at all.  Being something of a fan, I was hoping for a great comeback out of his latest, Promised Land.  I was somewhat satisfied with the direction it seemed to  indicate that the director is headed.  Overall, Promised Land IS an improvement over the director's previous effort.  It has a stronger cast (no offense Ms. Wasichowska, YOU could have held your own just fine, and the production values are higher.
     In many ways, it also has a superior script:  the characters are more well developed and the plot line does have a couple of really nice twists thrown in.  The problem is that Promised Land completely loses the edginess of many of Van Sant's finest films.  In this regard alone, Restless was actually superior, sporting a slightly uncomfortable tone that was right in the director's wheelhouse.  What's worse is that the tone of Promised Land is actually a little self-righteous and preachy.  This is coming from someone whose outlook on this issue is quite similar to the film's, so don't assume my assessment is based upon a problem with the message.  I merely object to the fact that the message, at times, became the movie.
     With all due respect, Mr. Damon needs to remember that if you are going to be vocal publicly about your political views, then you have to be careful to approach it more gingerly than this if you choose to write about it.  Otherwise...preachy.  We will tolerate a bit of that tone in the narration of an activist documentary (cough..cough), but in narrative fiction it plays on screen worse than anything this side of unending self pity.  Mr. Krasinski gets a little more of a pass quite arbitrarily because he never made me feel like I was re-watching Inside Job.  I apologize, Mr. Damon, if this is unjust.
     Now that I have that out of my system...that is the only thing that I can really say against the film.  Van Sant makes the most out of the strengths of the script, pulling some fantastic acting out of the ensemble and leading a tight production team.  I am unfamiliar with the previous work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, but he does some really memorable work here.  My favorite example would be when Damon is standing, framed by an American flag, addressing the town.  Pretty standard for this sort of film, but for the fact that the lense is focused in such a way that the flag is fuzzy and blatantly out of focus made it for me.  Few probably took as much notice of that particular frame sequence as I did, but I'm sure it had a subtle influence on many viewer's perception of the moment just the same.  The film could have used a little more of that approach.
     Mr. Damon DOES do a fine acting job in this film, and I feel bad about giving him a hard time on the script, so we'll talk about him first.  The role is one that is a little more mature than we are used to, a little more jaded by life than the "boy next door" roles that made him famous, but more approachable and human than his action hero work.  They left just a touch of gray in his hair, just a touch, and it helped to paint him at a man who is reassessing life and trying to figure out how he really wants to spend the rest of it.
     John Krasinski actually steals the show in several scenes.  His is a very interesting character with far more layers than he first appears to have.  Krasinski tackled them all with ease and a dynamic screen presence.  He roundly proves that if anyone is ready to follow Carrell from The Office to the Box Office, he's your man.
     Frances McDormand is also strong, giving probably the most grounding and subtle performance in the film.  Hal Holbrook has to get biggest bang for your screen time award, although Rosemary DeWitt and Titus Welliver also manage to shine in smaller roles.
     I didn't feel like I'd left a bad movie as I walked out of the theater and I was glad that I had caught it there. However,  it (aside from the preachy tendencies) WAS my sort of thing.  If a drama about a small town trying to make a decision about allowing Big Natural Gas to use fracking techniques on their property sounds particularly interesting to you, have at.  However, if it only sounds SOMEWHAT like your thing, I can heartily recommend the picture to anyone when it comes out on DVD.  It's a very GOOD movie.  4 out of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Restless Nostalgia is the Key (Restless review)

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