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Gus Van Sant tends to go back and forth between two types of films.  On one hand, he makes personal, edgy, independent movies like Mala Nocha, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Last Days, Gerry and the incredible Elephant.  His other films are more conventional, like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Milk. His more personal films are exciting, chance taking, challenging.  His more conventional films are entertaining, but, well…conventional.
Promised Land is one of his conventional films.  And it’s a fine film.  A really fine film.  No, I mean it, it’s perfectly fine.  It’s also entertaining and has some moving moments, top notch acting, and I can’t imagine you’d be bored if you saw it.  But in the end, well, the best thing to really say about it is that it’s a, well…a perfectly fine film.
The screenplay is by Matt Damon (as in co-writing Good Will Hunting Matt Damon) along with John Krasinski and Dave Eggers.  The story basically revolves around Steve (played by Damon, yep, he’s in it, too), the representative of a natural gas company, and his efforts to convince a small farming community to lease their lands for fracking.  This rep has just received a promotion because of his exceptional skills at selling pigs in a poke (and at a good bargain, to boot) and the town seems ripe for the picking, made up of citizens who seem desperate to get out from under their economic woes.  But problems occur when a high school teacher who is not what he seems (a marvelous Hal Holbrook), suggests that maybe they should think about what they are doing before they actually, well, you know, do it.  Complications then ensue when an environmental presence (Krasinski’s Dustin Noble, don’t you love that name and yep, Krasinski’s in the movie, too) shows up and challenges Steve not only for the hearts and souls of the locals, but also for the heart and soul of a local school marm (Rosemary DeWitt’s Alice).
The first part is the strongest aspect here.  It moves at a solid pace.  There’s a lot of wit and the characterizations are strong.  The writers are especially good at creating very believable relationships.  It’s obvious that Steve has been working with his partner, Frances McDormand’s Sue, for some time.  The two have some very cute moments of people who know how to push each other’s buttons, both for good and for bad.   And when Holbrook’s school teacher rises (with a face that feels as if it belongs on Mount Rushmore) and puts flies in Steve’s ointment, it’s a striking moment.  At the same time, it’s also one of those moments that are there due to formula so that at this point, and with the arrival of Noble, the story starts, well…fracking apart a bit.
First, I found it just a bit hard to buy Steve’s innocence and naivety.  According to the screenplay, he has no idea of the truth behind his company even though he’s been with it for so long and is such a good salesmen that he gets a promotion in the opening scene.  Not only that, he has the ability to bribe a city official with a single bound, employing the cut throat skill of Rick Blaine paying off Captain Renault in Casablanca (I have to be honest, I did think of the good Captain’s line, “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here”, when it came to Steve).   Yet still, in spite of all this, his character arc is basically that of someone losing his virginity.
But once Noble arrives, just when the tension should increase and the suspense mount, the plot actually loses forward momentum.  Part of this is because the actual competition between Steve and Noble is not that well dramatized; you’re not given enough information to keep score, so you never know who is winning and who is losing.  Steve keeps complaining that Noble is hurting their sales while at the same time claiming that they have the vast majority of the land leased.  Noble keeps claiming he’s winning, but we see very little evidence of it.  But perhaps the real issue that is not explained clearly is that the ultimate success of either party will be determined by a city vote—but exactly what this vote consists of or what they are voting on is never clearly stated.  We’re not even sure how bad off this town is; people say they are in trouble, but there’s no real evidence of it.  It’s all so vague that the conflict in the movie that is dramatized the strongest is not the battle over fracking, but the battle over Alice, as if that’s what’s really important, not the future of the farms.  I mean, who cares if the land is raped and destroyed as long as our hero gets the girl, right?  (The second conflict that is dramatized the strongest is whether Krasinski can replace Damon as the most charming actor in Hollywood these days–it’s a draw, but if I was Damon, I might be concerned).  And the central fracking conflict (God, sometimes I feel like I’m on Battlestar Galactica) finally becomes so muddled that Steve’s come to Jesus moment is not really earned and is more there for formula rather than a true outcome of character.
The result is that the part of the movie that never really gets dealt with is the bigger and more important issue (certainly more important than who gets the girl) of a town being caught between a rock and a hard place—if they frack, they lose; if they don’t frack, they lose.  But this philosophical through line just never plays that strong a part here.  But in the end, isn’t it a little hard to root for a side if neither side can win?

CALL OF THE WILDS: Reviews of Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Where the Wild Things Are had to grow on me. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I finally figured out what it was about: a character study of a young boy with a classic case of serotonin deprived depression. Max Records plays Max (well, wasn’t that convenient), a young boy with wild mood swings of grandiose highs and debilitating lows, all out of proportion to the circumstances surrounding him, though those circumstances (he’s new to a neighborhood; no friend; child of divorce; a sister too much older than him to find him nothing but an annoyance; his mother has a new boyfriend) do add to his problematic situation. His mother, played excellently as usual by Catherine Keener, doesn’t really understand what’s going on nor has the time to figure it out. After a particularly egregious tantrum, Max runs away, finds a boat and sails to an island of gigantic and somewhat weird puppet/animal like creatures, strongly voiced by such actors as James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. The film began working for me when I realized that these creatures all had similar, though even deeper and more irrational, emotional problems than Max. For the first time, Max gets to see himself as other people see him. He returns home, but it’s unclear whether this adventure has really helped him. The creatures are wonderfully animated, especially the mouths, and the music and songs are heaps of fun. The main drawback may be Spike Jonze (who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers) who directs the piece as if he were Paul Greenglass doing a Bourne film. I found myself at times trying to fill in the blanks because Jonze had a yen for using jump cuts. But by the time it was all over, I was moved.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is well…fabulous (bet you thought I was going to say “fantastic”, didn’t you; please, it would be so obvious to include that word in this review). It’s as clever and fun and quirky as Babe, which is saying quite a bit. There is one rather odd aspect to it. Fox and his friends are animals who can walk, talk, reason, etc., basically humans in animal bodies. But they feed on other animals, like chickens, geese, turkeys, etc. This is rather creepy and almost comes across as cannibalism; it’s actually borderline disturbing. Of course, if one realizes that the original story is by Roald Dahl, whose stories always did have a unique and somewhat creepy aspect to them, I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising that this isn’t your typical everyday children’s film. The suave and debonair Fox is played by the suave and debonair George Clooney. He’s actually a character I would have little to do with in real life since he’s so incredibly vain and egocentric, running roughshod over everybody else, doing whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it and if anybody else has a problem with that, too bad (he’s also pretty rotten to his son). However, that is one of the great things about art—one can spend quality time with someone one would never have anything to do with in real life from the safety of a movie seat. His longer suffering wife is played by Meryl Streep (that makes three films in one year for both of them–aren’t they the busy little bees) with an appropriately long suffering voice. The screenplay (by director Wes Anderson and the tres droll Noah—Squid and the Whale—Baumbach) is witty, energetic and never runs out of cleverness. The direction by Wes Anderson is ever so much the same; no scene is complete with some extra bit of visual manipulation that just gives it that something…well, extra, to make it memorable. The animation is remarkable, down to the moving hairs on the characters’ face. It’s what is called sophisticated and adult; the question then is whether it will sell in the multiplex. One can only hope.