THE SPECTACULAR NOW and ELYSIUM



This year has been something of a horse race for coming of age films.  I don’t think I’ve ever really kept count, but I don’t remember seeing as many in one year as I have this one.  It’s not a particularly close horse race as horse races go.  The lead, when it comes to quality, is obviously, as far as I’m concerned, a dead heat between Something in the Air and The Bling Ring.  Behind those two, and lagging far behind it should be noted, are The Way, Way Back and Mud.  And behind that, in a distant, distant, distant last place, is The Kings of Summer.  However, a movie has now come along that may just about dislodge The Kings of Summer from its singular location.
After seeing The Spectacular Now, I turned to my friend and told him, I swear I’ve seen this film before; it was part of a TV series called The Afterschool Special; starred a couple of familiar TV kids of the day; and was about teenage alcoholics (there were actually a couple of shows like this: a made for TV movie, The Boy Who Drank Too Much with Scott Baio and Lance Kerwin and that Afterschool Special one, The Late Great Me! Story of a Teenage Alcoholic).  No, The Spectacular Now is not a remake; but overall, I really couldn’t see all that much of a difference between The Spectacular Now and an episode of a series that was often made fun of in its day for it’s obviousness and PSA feel (it was only a few steps up from those films shown in school in the 1950’s on the dangers of premarital sex). 
I really don’t understand the big hoopla over this film.  It gets the job done, but I’m not convinced it does much else.  But for some reason everyone, including film critics who should know better, is calling it original and non-formulaic—perhaps the two very words that could never be honestly used in describing this picture (directed adequately by James Ponsoldt, with a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber—a far cry from their exciting work of (500) Days of Summer).  It’s one of those movies in which every plot turn is telegraphed minutes, if not hours, before it happens; in which everything pretty much happens the way it always does, and always has, in movies like this; and just about worst of all, it’s one of those movies where, if you haven’t gotten the message that has been so obviously preached for the majority of the film, the central character actually tells you what it is in the final scene (really?  I mean, really?—Jesus, it’s like the ending of The Breakfast Club, except at least that movie had a bit more interesting of a message to its message). 
The story revolves around high school senior Sutter (played by Miles Teller, who is perfectly fine and does his Shia Lebouf best when it comes to his lines, though I’m not sure I ever fully bought him in the role).  Sutter has the smarmy personality of a used car salesman, and the drinking problem to go with it.  He’s one of these characters who is described in a way that is never dramatized: he claims to be one of the most popular kids at school and that no party is successful without him—of course, we have to take his word for it since he never does anything to prove it.  At one point at prom (which feels very underpopulated), he yells out that he loves these guys—why he does, I have no idea (in his defense, this is also the point where he has the best line in the movie: “we’ll never be this young again”).   His most moving and honest scene (and the one, perhaps, least encumbered by formula and predictability) is a moment he has with his boss, played by Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk, in which he is very honest about himself and describes himself in a way that, for the first time in the film, is actually supported by events in the story.
It’s not that the movie is without some moving scenes.  As clichéd as it is, Sutter has a scene with his father whom he hasn’t seen since he was a child that is quite memorable.  It’s not just that his father turns out to be someone other than what he seems at first (who didn’t see that coming).  Sutter’s father (played spot on by Kyle Chandler) is more than you’re run of the mill alcoholic; he is one mean drunk and the scene has some unexpected menace that the rest of the movie could have used.
Perhaps the biggest crime of the film, though, bigger than the triteness of the formula and simplistic story telling, is the use of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter’s mother.  Leigh is someone who had potential to become one of our greatest actresses with incredible performances in such movies as Last Exit to Brooklyn, Miami Blues, Rush and Georgia, but has now been reduced to playing parts easily beneath her, throwaway roles in movies she is too good for.   That is perhaps the only thing in this movie I didn’t see coming.
Writer/director Niell Blonkamp is brilliant when it comes to metaphors.  The movie that made his name, District 9, is a comment on race relations and immigration revolving around aliens from another planet making their way to earth and ghettoized in South Africa.  Elysium, his new sci-fi story, is a metaphor on the haves and have nots, the 1 percenters having fled a decaying earth to a state of the art space station, leaving the earth to the 99 percenters.  Unfortunately, this is about where any interest in this movie stops.
The metaphor is original and exciting, but the set up, the concept, the back story, never seems well thought out and doesn’t feel remotely convincing.  After leaving the theater, all I and my friends did was pick apart how unbelievable it all was (it’s a world in which the population has not just sub-par, but almost no medical care; lives on a planet that is losing its resources; an earth where the pollution is deadly, and yet the place is overpopulated—a neat trick if there ever was one, and just one of the many parts of the film that never made sense).
But the fact that after the movie was over all we could talk about was the errors in the premise suggests a much deeper problem here.  We were talking about the errors because none of us cared about the characters or what was happening to them.  Everyone in the movie seemed bland and one dimensional, spouting dialog that had no bite to it.  And the over crushing direction with the emphasis on disco-like pounding action, over crushed any possibility of an emotional connection to what was happening on screen.   And it all ends with a scene so ludicrous, I and my friends were desperately trying to be polite and not burst out laughing.
There are plenty of interesting names in the cast.  Matt Damon plays the lead with an absurdly ripped body that feels out of place in a world where people can’t get the right kind of nutrition.  His chief opponent is played amusingly by Sharlot Copley (who has the lead in District 9); but what’s amusing about it all is not his performance, but that he’s taken the Anthony Michael Hall approach to his career and built up his body so he doesn’t have to play the bullied pipsqueak anymore.   And it’s always nice to see Alice Braga and Diego Luna.  But perhaps the biggest irony of the movie is that the best and worst performance of the movie is given by the same person, Jodie Foster, as the head of security on Elysium.  Bless her heart, she gives it her all and works her ass off, including giving her character an odd, clipped accent; but almost nothing about her performance works.  At the same time, she’s compulsively watchable, so what are you going to do?
But speaking of Jody Foster, though the film preaches understanding and sympathy and how we should treat each other with respect and as equals and all the other ten points of the Sermon on the Mount law, I did find it odd that in the movie women were given only two choices: the female trying to do the job of a male and by doing so, becomes a bitch of a Lady Macbeth because, well, that’s what happens to women who try to do a man’s job; and the female who is an adjunct to the male and is defined by her relationship to him—in this film, she’s not even allowed to be a doctor, no that’s a man’s job, she has to be the nurse in the equation.
That’s not even bringing up the other issue in that we have a world where the vast majority of people on Elysium are white and the more than the vast majority of people on earth tend to be minorities, mainly Hispanic.  But who is the savior of the world?  The whitest of the white, Matt Damon. 
In the end, I am quite worried that with this second movie, Blonkamp may be on his way to becoming the next M. Night Shyamalan, someone with only one good picture in him.  What is worse, Blonkamp may turn into one of those filmmakers who is a great visual stylist and thinks that that also automatically makes him a good writer or that he doesn’t need a good screenplay as long as he is at the helm.  Even District 9 suggested that this might be the way of the world for Blonkamp; it was a great idea with a strong first half, but the second half become much more formulaic and lost much of the originality and vibrancy of what came before.  

PROMISED LAND



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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?

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG: Review of Invictus


Invictus is well meaning and sincere, directed and written by people who have no trouble wearing their hearts on their sleeves. The L.A. Times here compared it to such classic biopics as The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. I agree whole heartedly with the Times, but the problem I had is that the Times considered the comparison a compliment; I’m not so sure. All those films (what I and Jerry, my best friend in Chicago, call a typical Warner Brother’s biopic) are well done, often entertaining, with some great acting, as is Invictus. At the same time, they never really rise above what they are and there’s something a bit safe and stodgy about them as well. By the time this story of Nelson Mandela’s attempts to bring unity to South Africa by championing a rugby team came to an end (a sport only supported by the minority whites while Mandela was imprisoned by aforesaid whites), the only real impact I was left with were the incredible rugby scenes, a series of grueling, cruel gladiatorial matches. Where the rest of the movie got the job done, these scenes went for the juggler and succeeded. Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela. It use to be James Earl Jones who always played God; somewhere along the way when people weren’t looking, the divine torch got passed to Freeman as if they were running for the Olympic Committee. Morgan’s good and one can feel just how tired and weary this man is. Matt Damon as the captain of the rugby team does very well with his South African accent, a distancing effect that seems to help him give one of his better performances. The screenplay by Anthony Peckham (who also penned the new Sherlock Holmes movie) covers all the bases and is a solid enough journeymen script. The direction by Clint Eastwood is the same. All in all, I recommend highly a movie on the same subject that did not get all the hoopla Invictus did: Endgame, a film first shown on BBC Contemporary and then was released to the movie theaters. It’s less ambitious in scope, but more successful in what it tried to do.

IN WITH THE IN CROWD: Reviews of the movies In the Loop and the Informant


In the Loop may be a comedy, but it’s also one of the most depressing movies of the year. It’s political in a way only the British usually are—bitter, brittle and more bitchy than Noel Coward (House of Cards anyone). It’s also a study of contrasts between how the British get things done and how the Americans get things done. In England one bullies and threatens, at times becoming physically violent. To survive an assault, one simply stands up to it and refuses to let anyone get a leg up (a friend of mine says it’s all the outcome of British private schools and there are times you can almost hear someone say, “Sir, may I please have another”). In the U.S., one is manipulative and sneaky, dancing around everything, outfoxing someone while trying to find their weak spot. The only thing the two groups have in common is the number of four letter words they use. The story is all about the events leading up to a declaration of war between the U.S. and the Middle East. Though the country is never mentioned by name, it’s ridiculous not to realize the target is Iraq. Because of this, the movie begins to resemble French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, in which a valiant Hector tries his best to stop a war that will not be stopped. In the end, even though there comes a moment when you think the good guys will win, it becomes clear that conflict is a foregone conclusion because the war with Iraq indeed did take place. The comedy then gives way to tragedy. The ensemble cast is first rate with Peter Capaldi the foul mouthed stand out doing his role of mid-level bureaucrat one better than the one he played in the terrific TV series, Torchwood: Children of Men. The script (by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci—who also directed, Ian Martin and Tony Roche) is bollocksy brilliant, full of poetic vulgarities. The only problem here is that the script is so brilliant, it sometimes seems so carried away with itself, that one loses track of the some of the characters’ motivations. Somewhere along the way, I became a bit unclear just why some in England wanted to go to war and join forces with the U.S. and why others didn’t. See this as a double feature with Dr. Strangelove.

In the Informant! (with an exclamation point—excuse me), Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre joins the great sociopathic liars of the silver screen like Harriet Craig (Craig’s Wife), Stephen Glass (Shattered Glass), and Mary Tilford (The Children’s Hour). Not a bad group to be a member of. The story is about an FBI investigation into price fixing in the corn industry, but the real suspense is not if the FBI will make their case—the real suspense derives from how long Whitacre can keep up the lying and how often he can dig himself out of whatever hole he’s crawled into. I’m not sure it’s a brilliant performance. Damon is good, but there is a certain flatness to his performance. At the same time, there’s a certain flatness to everything: the cinematography, the bland 1970’s décor, the dated music by Marvin Hamlisch (though this last rises above the flatness). Of course, the 1970’s was a bland decade and director Steven Soderbergh seems to make the most of it and though I’m not sure how, it does seem to add something to the proceedings. The supporting cast also has that somewhat 1970’s look about them as well with the Smothers Brothers perhaps the most recognizable. It’s a well written entertainment (script by Scott Z. Burns) with perhaps its major flaw being the character of Ginger Whitacre, Whitacre’s wife, played by Melanie Lynskey. The author either couldn’t, or even worse, couldn’t be bothered, to try to understand what made Ginger tick. What little character she has is provided by Lynskey’s lovely, lilting voice. But the actress deserved better.