Skip to main content

We have nothing left to sell. And we can't afford to buy anything.

Promised Land
(2012)

(SPOILERS) Matt Damon’s would-be directorial debut finished up helmed by old pal Gus Van Sant. Scheduling conflicts got the better of the man who was Bourne. It’s easy to see why Damon wanted in; he co-wrote the script with co-star John Krasinski, and this is the kind of socially conscious fare Matt and buddy George Clooney have a yen for. Politically alert entertainments that raise issues and provoke the audience, however gently. Both have in mind the cinema of the ‘70s, but ultimately Promised Land is just to damn nice and well meaning to get under the skin. Like it’s lead actor, then. It takes a subject the public are fairly unequivocally adversarial towards, the fracking industry – certainly to the extent that few have any illusions over its environmental side effects – and manages to divest itself of a position; of any semblance of anger or righteousness. The movie comes from such an “understand all sides’ place (including that of big business) that in the end all it can do is shrug and mumble something about personal convictions. Krasinski and Damon overtly acknowledge that’s the age we live in (one character’s mantra is “It’s just a job”), so they only have themselves to blame. It should be no surprise that their resolutely unassuming movie failed to find an audience.


Whether or not that’s a result of pre-empting criticisms from the energy industry is a question for Damon and Krasinski. It’s certainly disingenuous to be surprised that a discrediting campaign started even before the picture’s release; this is exactly the sort of thing the picture’s salesman are in the business of encouraging. The Wiki page for the film even devotes a sub-heading to the suggestion Damon et co were somehow insidiously in cahoots with the Machiavellian machinations of the United Arab Emirates (which part financed the film, even though this only occurred after Warner Bros put it in turnaround) as part of a plot to mire the US’s natural gas industry. Okay…  They should probably have read the screenplay before investing, in that case.  The screenwriting duo utilised a storyline from David Eggers, and Krasinski has said (no doubt in part to distract those claiming he’s out to get the frackers) their original idea was to use wind power. That might have been more interesting in some respects, given the vocal lobby against wind farms cite reasons varying from the aesthetic to its subsidisation, but it leaves an empty hole where juicy plot elements like environmental disaster and conspiracy might be found (one could argue about the effect on certain species of birds, or the noise disruption, but it isn’t really compelling).


Damon’s Steve Butler is a hotshot employee of Global Crosspower Solutions, a hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) company, one who has a strong track record for convincing landowners to sell drilling rights on their land. He thinks he’s doing a good thing, coming from a small Iowa farm community himself (“I’m not selling them natural gas. I’m selling them the only way they have to get back,” he pronounces earnestly).  So he and partner Sue (the ever marvellous Frances McDormand) travel to the Pennsylvania community where they expect the sale to be a piece of cake. It proves otherwise, not least because of the galvanising effect of local teacher and engineering PhD Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), who is able to cut through Steve’s rehearsed bullshit. Things only get worse when environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) arrives with tales and photos of the dead cows from fracking back home in Nebraska.


The twist that Noble also works for Global is a rather good one, in and of itself; he’s a plant whose involvement suggests the type of conspiratorial subterfuge required of a decent ‘70s thriller. But Krasinski has little edge, and serves to emphasise how light this confection is. And the writers wilfully fudge any chance to polemicise. This isn’t about whether Global are or aren’t deceiving good-hearted salt-of-the-earth folk over the effects of fracking. It’s about how they lied to Steve and used him for their own ends. Which is basically what he’s been doing to the simple townsfolk all along.


Steve is intended as a well-meaning “good guy”, the type we’ve seen essayed by James Stewart or Robert Redford in previous decades. Yet here it’s difficult to swallow his innocence. He’s supposed to be well versed in fracking lore and counter-arguments, yet he’s shocked when actual evidence of environmental hazard is suggested? It’s not the capacity to deceive oneself that is difficult to digest; Steve’s sincerity contrasts effectively enough with the meat hook realities voiced by Sue (she isn’t going to lose her job for anything as noble as principles; she has a child to support).  It’s that he should surely have experienced this crisis of confidence much sooner if he was going to at all. And when it comes down to it, his disavowal of Global is of the most tepid kind. He pretty much says, “Fracking might be okay, it probably will be in your case”. Obviously, there’s a difference between the character’s view and the actor’s, but you end up thinking this movie has just bottled it.


One has to assume the reluctance to fully embrace an actual opinion is infused in the script’s DNA, though. The principle lecture on the effects of fracking could be viewed as patronsing in the extreme, since it is delivered by way of Noble’s school presentation to a class of juniors. Hey, if kids can understand, surely the cinema audience can too? But more than that, the heart of the picture lies not with the subject matter but the small town ethos it explores. The classic David and Goliath impulse is in there but it becomes more about Steve rediscovering his priorities, as embodied by Holbrook’s assurances that Butler actually is a good guy (this comes up so many times, it suggests the writers themselves are unsure, with only Damon playing Steve to really make it so) and his relationship with Alice (Rosmarie DeWitt).


The areas where I can’t fault Krasinski and Damon are those of character interplay and dialogue. If you leave out the debates, the interactions between the cast have an easy energy, a zip and brio. From Steve and Sue’s playful sparring to Steve and Alice’s flirtatious wit, scene to scene this often highly enjoyable. Damon usually has great chemistry with his co-stars; he’s naturally affable. But with DeWitt, he’s on overdrive. She’s a joy to watch; so smart and quick Steve can only defer to Alice’s superior wisdom. I hope these two appear together again, as they have a great rapport.


Nearly as enjoyable is the maybe-romance between Sue and Rob (Titus Welliver), the deceptively insightful owner of Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas. It’s another case of leaving great performers to do their thing, but it’s backed up by genuinely smart dialogue (“God, I wish I’d thought of that” says Sue on reading the store sign). Lucas Black and Scoot McNairy also make an impression in brief supporting roles. The former might want to think about branching out from hick parts, though.


Damon has a couple of good speech scenes, one of which is a bar monologue where he promotes the efficacy of “Fuck You money” to an unimpressed clientele. He conjures the spectre of the Clooney-esque smooth talking fixer. Yet the awareness of counter arguments to preservation and conservation, the needs of an a energy-thirsty society run amok without the will to find answers (“Yeah, let’s just run everything on rainbows and happy thoughts”), render the movie as a whole faint-hearted. Steve’s final sermon invokes metaphor to a cloying degree, hoping to distract from the matter in hand with sloppy vagueness (“We might be betting more than we think. But this is still our barn”). By doing so, Damon and Krasinski ensure Promised Land doesn’t become part of the solution, but part of the problem. Pervading ambivalence, where the only answer is individual choice because a united stand against the remorseless wheels of capitalism and “progress” is doomed to crumble. I’m glad Damon is making films with an ethical dimension, but he needs to try harder. Elysium is disappointingly trite in conception and execution, while Promise Land, unconsciously I’m sure, manages to suggest any attempt to push back the tide is futile. Better to settle down with a nice girl and forget all about it.


***  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

What if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Well, in this case, the cats are going to kill the curious.

The Avengers 5.8: The Hidden Tiger
Another of the season's apparent run-on ideas, as the teaser depicts a character's point-of-view evisceration by aggressor unknown. Could this be the Winged Avenger at work? No, it's, as the title suggests, an attacker of the feline persuasion. If that's deeply unconvincing once revealed, returning director Sidney Havers makes the attacks themselves highly memorable, as the victims attempt to fend off claws or escape them in slow motion.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…