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Entries in Matt Damon (10)

Wednesday
Nov052014

Interstellar

As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. While not all have been great, neither have any been bad. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today and early buzz for his newest film, “Interstellar,” seemed to indicate magnificence. Some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Having now seen it, I feel like I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level. “Interstellar” is a great movie, one that will inevitably end up on many critics’ best of the year lists, but to make such a direct comparison is overenthusiastic hyperbole. It’s Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film to date and it does a good job of exploring complex themes, but its philosophizing doesn’t always land. Still, when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more.

And it’s that intellectualism, even when it’s not up to snuff, that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. Matthew McConaughey, in what could very well be his best dramatic performance to date, plays Cooper, a brilliant engineer and scientist who, due to apocalyptic weather patterns diminishing Earth’s resources, is relegated to farming. He’s a naturally curious person and has passed that curiosity down to his children, namely Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, a young girl who swears there’s a ghost in her room trying to tell her something.

Eventually they learn the strange occurrences in her room are gravitational anomalies that began around 50 years ago. Around the same time, a wormhole in space appeared and has remained stable ever since. Using this wormhole, NASA was able to send its bravest men and women to a new galaxy with potentially habitable worlds. The data they’ve since received indicates a handful of those worlds could work to save the human race, so they enlist Cooper to leave his family behind and embark on a dangerous mission. Knowing that inaction could mean extinction for his species, he begrudgingly agrees.

In many ways, “Interstellar” is the polar opposite of last year’s sci-fi hit, “Gravity.” While that movie was essentially a 90 minute action movie in space with minimal characterization, “Interstellar” nearly doubles that length and is all about character. A few tense action scenes pop up in from time to time, but it’s the effect those scenes have on the characters that makes them so interesting. Before the characters even lift off into space, the stage is set for some wonderful human drama. The relationships are built in a believable way, which allows later scenes to lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. Characters aren’t mentioned in passing like Bullock’s daughter in “Gravity,” but are instead grown and explored through many years and even decades, thanks to a clever narrative mechanic grounded in real life science.

In fact, the lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. A great example comes in its portrayal of artificial gravity. Nolan could have very easily had the characters flip a switch to turn it on in their spaceship, but he instead has a 10 minute sequence where their ship docks with a circular apparatus that then begins to rotate, creating artificial gravity through centrifugal force. Is this sequence necessary for the characters or the drama? No, but it helps create a real, living world and, though minor in the big scheme of things, it allows viewers to sink fully into the desired immersion.

These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown. The writing from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, indicate as much. Wonderful scenes that mock Apollo landing conspiracy theorists and early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. The visuals similarly show this affection, with truly stunning imagery that looks pulled from NASA’s archives. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love here.

When “Interstellar” stumbles, it’s not due to these things, but rather a narrative that occasionally misses the mark. When the characters start to hypothesize about the meaning of everything, one starts to babble on with silly nonsense about love, about how it could potentially be an extra dimension beyond time and space that we aren’t yet able to perceive. In a movie as grounded as this one, scenes like this are worth little more than an eye roll.

It also loses some narrative momentum in its final moments. Despite a deliberate pacing and a runtime of 169 minutes, its conclusion is rushed beyond plausibility. Although undeniably interesting and unexpected, a specific character comes to a revelation completely out of the blue with little convincing context behind it. However, it must be said that this moment also leads to one of the emotionally impactful moments in the entire film, which makes it easier to forgive such hurriedness.

If nothing else, “Interstellar” goes to show that there are still some great ideas out there that the science fiction genre can lend itself to beyond giant robots crashing into each other. It might not be the intellectual equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some have argued, but it’s a wondrous movie in its own right that tackles complex themes, builds believable characters and hits all the right emotional chords while rarely relying on heavy-handed manipulation. Even with its faults, it’s one of the year’s best.

Interstellar receives 4.5/5

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

Friday
Aug102012

The Bourne Legacy

Movies are a business. It’s as simple as that. Most movies that make money are going to get at least one sequel, regardless of whether or not the story warrants one. Rarely, however, does a movie feel as much as a cash grab as The Bourne Legacy. The Matt Damon starring Bourne movies had their fair share of problems, but none were as cumbersome as this. The Bourne Legacy isn’t as fun, interesting or exciting as the original trilogy and it coasts by on name alone. Separate this movie from the franchise as a whole and it becomes an instantly forgettable and banal thriller.

The protagonist this time is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), a genetically engineered black ops agent similar to Jason Bourne. Due to Bourne’s events in the previous movies, the government has cancelled its black ops programs and has decided to dispose of all their field agents, a task assigned to Retired Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton). However, Aaron escapes and eventually meets up with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who worked on the program who is also in the government’s crosshairs. Together they set out to expose the government’s crimes.

The story isn’t complicated—it’s actually fairly straight forward—but The Bourne Legacy (and indeed, the previous films) needlessly convolutes it with too little explanation and too many location jumps. The movie starts at a training site in Alaska before jetting to Reston, VA, Washington DC, London, New York City, Chicago, Korea, Pakistan, Thailand and back again. While some jumps are necessary, others are not, existing only to show agents in other parts of the world as they are taken out one by one. Such obvious inclusions are unnecessary. We know what’s happening, why show it? The film includes many moments like these that do nothing but muddle up the picture and take away from the story at hand.

It’s moments like these that truly prevent The Bourne Legacy from finding a rhythm. Pakistan, Korea and many other locales in the film are visited as if their inclusion will be setting up important future scenes, but they never do. This tedious globetrotting is broken up by nothing more than random scenes of violence that are interspersed throughout. Like the original trilogy, this movie suffers from excessive close ups and nauseating shaky cam. Although there is some fluid camerawork, including one impressive sequence when, in a matter of seconds, Cross scales a house and jumps through a window to meet an intruder at the top of the stairs, much of it is too hectic to keep up with. The camera moves so gratuitously at times that it often feels like you’re watching an overproduced Tony Scott film. Cross may make for a good protagonist, but he’s not fleshed out enough for us to care and the clunky action doesn’t make up for it.

Renner is a capable actor, so this movie’s failures certainly isn’t his fault. It just appears that the Bourne series has lost its luster. Those not already over the franchise most likely will be after witnessing one of the most unsatisfying endings to grace the big screen this year. Just as the film finally begins to gain the momentum it so desperately needs, it ends. The ending isn’t quite a “non-ending” like January’s The Devil Inside, but it’s just as abrupt and inconclusive, no doubt due to the studio’s desire to continue the franchise. It leaves many doors open, but you likely won’t care.

The Bourne Legacy refers to the franchise’s hunted down black ops agents with the tagline, “There was never just one,” which may be true within the world the previous films created, but their stories are largely the same. We’ve seen this before and it was more interesting the first three times.

The Bourne Legacy receives 1.5/5

Wednesday
Dec212011

We Bought a Zoo

I wonder who came up with the idea to market We Bought a Zoo with “From the director or Jerry Maguire.” For a PG rated movie that is trying to appeal to families during the holiday season, it seems odd to remind parents that the director directed the filthy (though still great) Jerry Maguire. I can’t imagine it will be a turnoff for most people, or at least I hope it isn’t, because We Bought a Zoo is fantastic. It’s emotional without melodramatics, funny without a feeling of desperation and high spirited without being optimistically annoying. This holiday season, it should be on everyone’s must see list.

The story follows Benjamin (Matt Damon), a single father whose wife just passed away a few months prior. He is now a single father to Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and life isn’t great. Benjamin has just quit his job and Dylan is unhappy, partly due to his longing for his mom and partly because he’s simply at that rebellious age where nothing his father does is ever good enough. After Dylan steals in school one day, he is expelled, so Benjamin decides to start anew and they begin looking for a new house. Eventually, they find the perfect one and decide to buy it. The catch is that the house is actually part of a zoo that was just recently shut down. Buying the house also means buying the animals and ensuring their wellbeing. It’s a tough task, but Benjamin takes the responsibility anyway and, along with his zookeepers Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Lily (Elle Fanning) and Robin (Patrick Fugit), he begins to renovate the zoo for a summer reopening.

We Bought a Zoo is simple, but absorbing. It takes a family that was torn apart by the death of their mother and wife and uses it to form a new dynamic, one where they can begin to heal and move on without ever really forgetting what happened. Although the mother, played by Stephanie Szostak, is hardly in the movie, you still feel the love that existed between husband and wife, mother and kids, which is a testament to the actors onscreen. Matt Damon is terrific as usual, but the kids shine. Fanning, who is beginning to overshadow her older sister Dakota, is radiant as the young animal lover who develops a childhood crush on Dylan. Ford has the toughest part as the child with the most baggage and a pent up anger over things he can’t control that he takes out on those around him, even if he knows he shouldn’t. The adorable Maggie Jones works as the opposite of her onscreen brother and she elicits a sparkle every second she is onscreen.

All of those people help create a story that is engaging and lively, itself a moving tale of loss and love. Where We Bought a Zoo suffers the most is in its desire to create a conflict. Granted, conflicts are an essential part of screenwriting—without one, there’s hardly a story—but the villain in this movie is caricature, an out-of-place, over-the-top inspector, played by comic actor John Michael Higgins, that will do anything to ensure that the zoo cannot open. He forces them to go out of their way to ensure every single nook and cranny of the park is up to regulation, even if that means spending untold amounts of money to heighten a barricade by only a few inches. While these standards and precautions are no doubt necessary in reality, Higgins plays the character like he stumbled in from this year’s Kevin James dud, Zookeeper.

Still, that character isn’t prominent enough to detract too much from what is otherwise a lovely and inspiring picture. It may be a bit too long with a runtime of over two hours, but the ending is so touching and perfect that any type of restlessness that you may have been feeling up to that point vanishes and is replaced by joyful tears. We Bought a Zoo doesn’t look like much on the surface, but there’s something very special hidden beneath its simple veneer.

We Bought a Zoo receives 4.5/5

Friday
Nov182011

Happy Feet Two

The original Happy Feet is a movie that people will forever watch and wonder why it received as much praise as it did. While certainly not a bad movie, the title of “Best Animated Feature” seems a bit of a stretch. But one need only look at its competition from 2006’s Oscar season (Cars and Monster House) to realize it was merely the best of what appeared to be a disappointing year for animation. Those why say Happy Feet Two is better or worse than the original are fooling themselves. It’s just as charming, energetic, fluffy and, ultimately, forgettable.

Mumble (Elijah Wood), the poor penguin from the first film who was constantly harassed for his inability to sing and willingness to dance instead, has now been accepted into the pack. His heroic efforts from his last adventure did not go unnoticed, but his odd genetics have now produced a baby penguin named Erik (Ava Acres) who is just as awkward and clumsy and is, like his father back in the day, being ridiculed by those around him. In his dismay, he runs off and meets a flying penguin named The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria) who tells him anything is possible if he puts his mind to it. Eventually, Mumble finds him, but a terrible surface collapse back home has left the rest of his penguin herd stranded with no escape. Now they must combine their talents and save those they love before it’s too late.

Happy Feet Two begins with a flurry of popular songs, a medley that includes “Mama Said Knock You Out” and a cleaned up version of “SexyBack.” Right out of the gate, it bursts with vivacious, catchy, toe tapping fun. It’s a high energy the movie unfortunately isn’t able to maintain thanks to unimpressive original numbers and laughable plot turns, but they say first impressions mean everything and this thing grabs you from the get go.

This sequel follows the same trajectory of the original and utilizes the same basic narrative mechanics. The first film was about expressing yourself and using your God given talents to help others any way you can. The second is about, well, exactly the same thing. The cute little Mumble is now replaced by the cute little Erik. The first had the penguins facing starvation from a lack of fish. The second has them facing it again, though this time it’s because they’re stranded rather than due to human fishing. Also, as with the original, the penguins enlist the help of the humans to rescue them from their dire situation.

Happy Feet Two doesn’t even attempt to differentiate itself from its predecessor, but it’s easy to see why. That film made the viewer feel warm inside, despite whatever faults it may have had. It was a crowd pleaser that was guaranteed to leave a smile on family members young and old who went to see it. Why change the formula? Still, it’s this rigid hold on the original’s structure that keeps it from taking off and its faults are the same. The live action footage once again doesn’t symphonize with the colorful and vibrant animation—the dreary look of those scenes takes away from the beautiful look of the rest of the movie—and the one-with-the-animals mindset is silly at best, especially when you consider the laughable musical connection between the humans and penguins.

Where the sequel differs the most from its predecessor is in its B story. Whereas the original focused almost entirely on Mumble, Happy Feet Two constantly moves to other territories, interjecting footage of two krill named Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon). Their journey together to the top of the food chain is hands down the funniest and most delightful aspect of the entire film. It’s extremely clever and the dialogue is spoken with comedic vigor and spot-on timing, though it’s more or less inconsequential to the main narrative. The two stories cross paths, but are only connected by the flimsiest of means. It’s such a shame because both tales, though still entertaining apart, would have stood side by side in harmony. Still, Happy Feet Two is entertaining and it will teach kids in the audience to believe in themselves. This may not be a truly great movie, but that has to count for something.

Happy Feet Two receives 3.5/5