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Entries in frances mcdormand (2)

Friday
Dec282012

Promised Land

Promised Land has nothing but good intentions and I agree with what it has to say. It tries to expose the dangers of natural gas drilling by highlighting a small farming community, the inhabitants of which don’t have the slightest clue about what could possibly happen if these companies begin fracking, and a small group’s battle to stop the destruction of their community. After watching the terrific Oscar nominated documentary film, Gasland, the dangers of such a procedure are clearly evident, and even with all that on its side, Promised Land still doesn’t work, exaggerating nearly everything to the point of absurdity, including the lengths a company will go to begin the fracking process.

Steve Butler (Matt Damon) works for a natural gas company. He is working hard for a promotion and his latest job entails purchasing a local farming community’s land so they can begin drilling for gas. So, along with his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), Steve sets off to do just that. However, before he’s even aware of it, an environmental group led by a sole activist named Dustin (John Krasinski) is in town and trying to change the people’s minds with horror stories of his own experiences with his community being overtaken by natural gas companies. It quickly becomes a showdown between the two factions, each fighting to convince the town that the other is trying to manipulate them.

Such a story is ripe for drama. The natural opposition between big business and small town, between those trying to make money through destruction and those trying to save their land despite their poverty, is gripping stuff. A small environmental group spreading truth and convincing the people to stand up against the bigwigs who think they can win any argument by throwing money at it is inspiring. But that’s not the direction Promised Land takes. Without ruining it, it instead approaches its topic from a “conspiracy theory” angle, with a late movie twist that is so ridiculous it somehow manages to over-demonize the corporation it has already made quite clear is up to no good anyway. Instead of feeling anger towards the characters in the movie, the ones that are aiming to harm the innocent townsfolk who don’t know any better, your anger is directed at the filmmakers for taking what should have been a simple, effective story and pushing it so far over the top as to be self-parody.

And that phrase isn’t used lightly in this context. In one scene, when Steve is sitting at a bar, the rest of the town now suspicious of what he’s trying to do, the film comes dangerously close to the clichéd “we don’t take kindly to strangers” bar scene that has been endlessly satirized at this point. In another, the townspeople stand in unison against the proposal to begin fracking in their town, similar to how soldiers in a war movie all step forward at the same time to fight the good fight. It’s like watching a movie come to life that was written by a first time screenwriter who wanted to tackle a serious issue, but knew nothing beyond the dramatic tropes he’s seen in television soap operas. All the more surprise comes when one finds out it was actually written by Damon and Krasinski, the former of who actually won an Academy Award for his Good Will Hunting screenplay in 1997 and should know how to avoid such typical Hollywood pratfalls.

The writing, put simply, lacks subtlety. It refuses to allow viewers to form their own opinions, instead forcing you to hop onboard with its heavy-handed approach or be left behind. Just when you think Promised Land can’t pile it on anymore, it somehow does and then continues to do so until the end. It’s as if the filmmakers made a bet with themselves to see if they could make each successive scene cheesier and more laughable than the last (and if that’s the case, bravo). The only thing saving the film from complete disaster is its surprising amount of humor, including its utilization of rack focus to create a number of visual gags that are downright inspired. The problem is that humor works counterproductive to the film’s serious goal, so when the drama does come into play, it feels out of place and exaggerated. If you’re really interested in the subject, watch the aforementioned Gasland, because it doesn’t matter if you’re for or against natural gas drilling, Promised Land reeks of manipulation.

Promised Land receives 2/5

Tuesday
Jun282011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Aside from the horribly inept, yet inexplicably popular, 1999 action movie, The Boondock Saints, Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is hands down the most overrated “guy” picture out there. If my experiences are any indication, men from all corners of the country hold that film up as an example of how action films should be, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. It’s loud, overblown, overlong and convoluted, among other things. It may not match the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which made my worst of the year list back in 2009), but it’s still a decidedly bad movie. It appears the third time’s the charm, however, for director Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best film yet in the series and although it’s far from amazing, it rectifies many of the previous films’ shortcomings, making it one of the most pleasant, if ultimately unfulfilling, surprises of the year.

The film begins with a history lesson, but it’s a little different than what you learned in school. After being informed by American scientists that something of mysterious origins has crash landed on the moon, President Kennedy gives his famous 1961 speech promising to take a man to the moon and back safely. The catch is that the mission is to investigate the crash site, where Buzz Aldrin and company find an alien spacecraft from the planet Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, carrying cargo of unknown capabilities. Meanwhile, in present time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and can’t find a job, despite saving the world twice and receiving a medal from President Obama. He soon finds out that his unemployment is the least of his problems, though, when the Decepticons find the cargo on the moon and threaten to use it to destroy Earth.

Based on that plot synopsis, it would be easy to conclude that the story here is just as inconsequential as they were in the previous two films, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s still rather ridiculous (as is the whole concept of alien robots from outer space, in fact), but it works here for one reason: Bay takes the time to develop it. For about an hour and a half, Dark of the Moon does a decent job of building its characters and allowing the story to flow naturally through dialogue. The romance between Sam and Carly, mercifully replacing the Megan Fox character from the first two films, is delicately handled and genuine. Huntington-Whiteley is a beautiful young woman with a surprising amount charm and comes off like a natural acting opposite the always amusing LaBeouf. Thanks to this, their chemistry rings true, which makes the later scenes of peril that much more tense because you’ll have invested so much in their relationship together.

There is some good humor too, much of which stems from their relationship and Sam’s jealousy towards Carly’s flirtatious boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), but Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nevertheless a darker film than its predecessors. I hesitate to call it a more mature film, however, because cinematic maturity comes with favoring story over explosions, but after that initial hour and a half, it devolves into another mind-numbing action picture. Like most Michael Bay movies, it begins to resemble something similar to what a 13 year old boy would do if given a camera and $200 million to play with. The story hits a standstill, the characters stop developing and the promising set-up is undermined by flavorless stupidity. It’s like Bay shot the movie in order, eventually got bored with all the talking and decided it was about time to blow stuff up. One of my chief criticisms of the original film was that the final action scene, as impressive as it was, went on for far too long, an exhausting 45 minutes. Well, in Dark of the Moon, the final action scene hits closer to the hour mark. Bay is a master at staging these types of scenes, there’s little doubt about that, but he needs someone to tell him when enough is enough. His refusal to edit them down to a manageable length does nothing but weaken an otherwise impressive finale.

What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon still work in spite of those stumbles is that the events leading up to the mindless action are better handled. Although it still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the previous films, many of them are fixed. There are no more offensive, stereotypical Transformers, no wrecking ball testicles, no small robots humping anyone’s legs and the acting is all around better thanks to a terrific supporting cast that includes veteran Frances McDormand, the personable Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich in a delightfully off-kilter role.

Of course, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just as shallow and empty-headed as its older brothers, but it’s competently handled and more coherent. And given the track record of this franchise, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon receives 3/5