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Entries in Matt Damon (10)

Friday
Sep092011

Contagion

Disease is a universal fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to be sick and no matter how hard one might try, sickness can’t always be avoided. The thought of a deadly pandemic is scarier than any boogeyman one can think up and it’s here that the latest Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, finds its inspiration. It takes the fear many have felt in recent years thanks to viruses like SARS and the bird flu and uses it in a mostly effective way, depicting a strain of infection that spreads like wildfire throughout the world and kills millions of people. If you aren’t a germaphobe now, you will be after watching this movie.

Contagion is a film that is guaranteed to freak you out mainly because events like this could actually happen, and have. Consider, if you will, the Black Death, which is alone responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths, and it’s only one example of pandemics throughout history. A new virus, unstudied and untested, can have a devastating effect and, though this is a work of fiction, a voice in the back of your head will be sure to remind you that we are at all times only a few steps away from a similar reality. That’s the strength of the film. It sets out to scare and it succeeds.

However, as with any scary movie, there must be strong central characters to care about. Otherwise, the looming threat means little. Unfortunately, Contagion has none. There’s Mitch (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson have just died from the virus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the CDC who is trying to control the panic that seems to be spreading faster than the virus, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the person who is determined to find a cure, even if it means testing on herself, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an Internet blogger trying to uncover a government conspiracy that may or may not be real, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a member of the World Health Organization who is about to find herself in a precarious situation, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is also doing her part to help, and more. There’s even a cameo by Sanjay Gupta.

I don’t mean to suggest these actors aren’t doing their part; the acting is all around fantastic. I only wish to point out how crammed this movie is. Despite good performances, too little time is spent with any random character to create a connection between them and the viewer. Think of it like a news report detailing a shooting (an unfortunate event that occurred just the other day). It’s sad, but it’s a general sadness. What we feel is a different feeling than what we would have felt had we personally known someone harmed in the event. That’s what happens here and we fail to care about any one person. The film jumps back and forth between characters far too much, to the point where some are left missing for large chunks of the picture. Dr. Orantes, for example, is kidnapped relatively early on and forced to help the last of a dying village in Hong Kong. By the time it got back to her after spending extensive time elsewhere, I had forgotten she was even in that predicament.

It’s a poor juggling act—the majority of characters should have been written out of the script in favor of a select few—but Soderbergh does what he can and, as one would expect, Contagion is well shot, if a bit safe. Soderbergh doesn’t break any rules here the way he does in his more experimental low budget films like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience and instead cranks out a conventional thriller, but his usual verve for filmmaking is nevertheless apparent. Most of the film’s problems stem from too much ambition—its attempt to pack so much into such a short amount of time was unwise—but it’s hard to fault ambition. At least Contagion has some, which is a quality lacking in most movies these days.

Contagion receives 3/5

Friday
Mar042011

The Adjustment Bureau

I’m noticing a trend in Hollywood, and it’s not 3D. While most of each week’s new releases run the gamut of stupidity, every so often there’s a movie that offers up intelligent thought on complicated themes and issues. The trend, however, is that those smart movies go off the deep end by their conclusion and lose what made them so good. January’s The Rite is only one exemplification of that trend, but, thankfully, Matt Damon’s new thriller, The Adjustment Bureau is here to break it.

Damon plays David Norris, who is vying to become the next Senator of New York. Although young, he is popular among his constituents and it looks like he is going to win the race, but after a video of him pranking an old college buddy gets leaked to the public, his numbers go down and he ends up losing. (Such a harmless prank seems like small potatoes when compared to the usual New York politician scandal.) What Norris doesn’t know, however, is that he was predetermined to lose by a mysterious bureau that operates under the public eye and causes things to happen, which adjust the course of time. Harry, played by Anthony Mackie, is assigned to Norris and has set him up for big things in the future, but when he accidentally neglects his duties, Norris comes into contact with Elise, played by Emily Blunt, whom he met once years ago, fell in love with and was never supposed to see again. This oversight also allows Norris to see behind the curtain and learn of the bureau. Rather than dispose of him, he is told to keep their existence a secret and also to stay away from Elise, but his feelings are too strong and he pursues her anyway.

Matt Damon thrillers always have a sense of urgency to them and they’re grounded so steep in drama that lighthearted tones usually pass by the wayside. That isn’t the case with The Adjustment Bureau. While by no means a comedy, the film has a little fun with its subject matter and gives viewers a chance to smile and enjoy themselves. From the opening few minutes, where everybody from Wolf Blitzer to Jon Stewart joins in on the fun, to the zingy one-liners, there’s some real charm here and it instantly pulls you in its grasp.

Though pleasant, that beginning is also deceiving because it sets itself up for a goofy romp, but when it gets into the meat of the story, it brings forth a surprising amount of intelligence. Early allusions to who the bureau actually is open up questions that form the intrigue (and although it’s fairly obvious what they’re hinting at, it could be considered spoilers, so consider yourself warned). The bureau, as answered by Harry early in the film, has been called many things, including angels. They are the overseers who look out for us, but in a different way than most people who believe in angels think. They are not of this world and they operate under “the chairman,” or as earthbound humans call him, God. In this way, the film ponders over the idea of free will. It wonders what would happen if there were indeed a heavenly being watching over us, but didn’t trust us enough to make our own decisions. As one bureau member tells Norris, we are bad at living. We cause too much destruction. It is told that the chairman gave us multiple chances to run our own lives, but we repeatedly squandered the opportunity, so he decided to control us. Another interesting thought is raised here. What if God changed his mind? A discussion like that is probably better left to theologians, but there’s no denying that the argument would ruffle feathers among those who believe in a steadfast, omnipotent God that, due to knowing everything, would never need to change his mind. But it is precisely that questioning of such complicated issues that makes the movie so interesting.

It doesn’t necessarily answer what it questions, but it doesn't have to because it is questioning religion and religion itself is inherently mysterious. In its story construction, however, The Adjustment Bureau comes off as much too vague. When Norris is told he can’t see Elise again, he asks why it matters. They respond with, “because it matters,” which isn’t exactly the most sufficient narrative explanation. With no detailed reason to keep them apart, and the bulk of the movie consisting of him trying to get to her, the question of why keeps lingering in the back of the brain.

It’s not the tightest thriller in that regard, but its abidance by its own set rules shows the care put into its production. Its mythology set by the opening scenes is never disregarded in favor of more action. Instead, it weaves the action around the mythology, which keeps it at a certain level of style and finesse. At its core, however, amidst the sci-fi mystery thrills, The Adjustment Bureau is a romance. Its message that nothing, even divine intervention, can stop two people in love could have come off as sickly sweet, but meaningful performances from Damon and Blunt make it work. It’s the best wide release movie of the year so far and, though it probably won’t reach my end of the year list, you owe it to yourself to check it out. And don’t forget your thinking cap.

The Adjustment Bureau receives 4/5

Wednesday
Dec222010

True Grit

Many claimed years ago that the Western genre was dead. It’s an easy argument to make and a tough one to refute because the sheer number of films has decreased substantially (and I’m talking about true Westerns, not simply films with Western elements like Serenity or Jonah Hex). But I would argue they aren’t dead; they’re just dormant. Along with 2007’s terrific 3:10 to Yuma and the Coen brothers’ newest, hotly anticipated film, True Grit, proof is offered up that there is still some life breathing in those old Western lungs.

True Grit, adapted from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis (which was previously adapted to film in 1969 by John Wayne), tells the story of little Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is seeking out revenge against the man who murdered her father, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Despite her strong personality, she is too little and weak to get the job done herself, so she hires bounty hunter and ex-US marshal, Reuben Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help. However, a Texas lawman named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is also on Chaney’s trail, hoping to bring him in for a separate crime he committed in his home state. Although they initially agree to work together, a disagreement sets La Boeuf off on his own and a race for Chaney’s head begins.

With the exception of Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers are yet to make a movie I dislike. With No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and the oft forgotten, but all the same terrific, Blood Simple (all of which they wrote the screenplays for as well), the two siblings are one of the strongest forces in Hollywood. True Grit only reaffirms that statement. It’s a rough, tough, mean and entertaining romp through the wastelands of the old West, a vision we rarely see in our modern cinematic society that is too busy looking forward to remember where it's been.

This is how movies used to be made. Unlike 3:10 to Yuma, which more or less caved into the pressures of a modern audience that calls for action packed extravaganzas, True Grit takes its time. It’s about the characters and story, not how high the body count can reach. The Coen brothers may not always seem to know what movies audiences will flock to, but they know what makes a movie good and that is all that matters.

And part of making a good movie, of course, is assembling a talented cast. Jeff Bridges, collaborating with the dynamic duo for the first time since 1998’s The Big Lebowski, gives an award worthy performance as Reuben Cogburn. What with this and the much anticipated Tron: Legacy, he’s having quite a week. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Berry Pepper all show up to lend their considerable talents as well, the latter of whom is so good it almost makes me want to forgive his annoying performance in one of this week’s other (not nearly as good) releases, Casino Jack.

The weak standout is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who sometimes recites her lines as if she’s standing on a stage. While not a bad actress, she has a tough time working opposite Bridges and Damon. Whereas their dialogue flows naturally, hers is a bit stilted at times. She speaks with a matter-of-fact attitude, which suits her quick talking character, but there is a refusal to speak in contractions that brings the dialogue to a halt. Regardless of whether or not it was for authenticity’s sake, it didn’t work and became a major distraction.

That predicament isn’t limited only to Steinfeld, however; it’s a mass problem among every character. Contractions are used liberally, seemingly only when a line wouldn’t have been funny otherwise. This inconsistent approach is what bugged me the most about True Grit, but the wonderful direction, otherwise great performances and beautiful cinematography make it easy to forgive. This is the Coen brothers' best movie since No Country for Old Men. It's a must see.

True Grit receives 4/5

Friday
Oct222010

Hereafter

There’s no escaping it. We’re all going to die someday. While some would rather not talk about it, I find a healthy discussion cathartic. I like dissecting the possibilities of the afterlife with open minded individuals because nobody knows what awaits us after death. Maybe religion is right and there’s a god waiting to embrace us. Maybe nothing happens and our lives are simply over. Or maybe what happens lies somewhere in between. Because of this fascination, I love movies that explore life and death and I was hoping Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter would give me something new to think about, but sadly, it goes nowhere. Death and the afterlife are not explored, but rather are merely there in what is essentially another generic, bland, overly sentimental drama.

The movie follows three stories simultaneously. In America, George (Matt Damon) is attempting to cope with a gift he doesn’t want. Due to a surgical procedure on his brain as a child, he now has the ability to touch another human being and see their loved ones. He has become a psychic and communicator for the dead, though he has now given up the lifestyle and is trying to live normally. Across the pond, Marie (Cecile De France) has just lived through a tsunami, or rather died in it before being brought back to life. She experienced death and is beginning to write a book on what she saw. Elsewhere, a young boy named Marcus loses his twin brother Jason (both played at various points by Frankie and George McLaren) in an accident and decides he can’t live without him, so he seeks out information on death and the afterlife.

There is potential in Hereafter. Clint Eastwood is a fantastic director, despite what naysayers may proclaim. He doesn’t do anything too fancy with the camera, but it’s this simplicity that makes him so great. He never draws attention to himself when behind the scenes and he lets his actors bring out the story, which they all do wonderfully. The problem is that the story is insignificant.

Hereafter is a movie that wants to be something more than it is. It wants to say something meaningful about its subject matter, but it never goes the distance to accomplish that goal. A few bullet points are hit here and there, like the idea that religion is used as a comfort for those who fear death, but they never fully come together. Cohesion is not one of the film’s strong suits. Each time something is brought up, it stands alone like a blip on a radar screen.

This problem isn’t limited solely to the themes, however. The many different side stories that exist within the already-too-many main stories don’t feel completely finished. One such subplot shows George as he begins to make a connection with a girl he meets at a late night cuisine course. As prevalent as this is in the first half of the movie, it isn’t properly concluded. After she learns of his gift, she disappears and is never seen or heard from again.

The rest of George’s story is met with contrivances. At one point, he decides to leave the states to escape what his brother calls his “duty” as a psychic to perform readings. So he travels to the home of his favorite author, Charles Dickens, which leads him to a book convention where the other two characters just happen to be mingling, converging all of their stories in the least realistic way possible.

Although I have other issues with the film, like bad CGI and an excessively cheesy ending in the vein of Eastwood’s last film, Invictus, there’s nothing truly objectionable in Hereafter. It does no harm, but it fails to impress and it will likely fade away just as quickly as it appeared. For another filmmaker, this may be passable, but given the legacy of the great Clint Eastwood, this is a real disappointment.

Hereafter receives 2/5

Friday
Mar122010

Green Zone

I have a philosophy of not judging movies based on what they're about. Whether I agree or disagree with the subject matter, I try to look at it on its own artistic merit. With that said, I'm only human and am naturally drawn to things that reinforce my beliefs. But sometimes, a movie arrives too late to the party to have any real significance and I find myself distanced from the message despite my agreeance with it. Such is the case with Green Zone.

The film takes place in the early days of the Iraq war, in March of 2003. Matt Damon plays Miller, a soldier in charge of finding weapons of mass destruction. Despite the intel that tells them where to go, he and his squad have come up empty handed multiple times. He begins to get frustrated going on these wild goose chases that are putting him and his men in danger only to find nothing, so he confronts Clark Poundstone, played by Greg Kinnear, head of Pentagon Special Intelligence, who assures him that the weapons are indeed out there and they will find them. Nevertheless, something seems fishy and he begins to suspect the war in Iraq was started unjustifiably. With the help of CIA chief Brown, played by Brendan Gleeson, he hopes to uncover the true reason he is there.

Iraq war movies are no strangers to the film community. Stop Loss, In the Valley of Elah, and the recent Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker all have explored the war in different ways, some delving into the manipulative ways our government can keep our soldiers active despite their military term ending while others have explored the affects war has on those fighting. They are focused, meaningful and bring up important issues that the public may not be aware about. Green Zone is the opposite. It's a two hour Bush bash with the oft-heard message, "America entered into Iraq on false pretenses," thanks to our inability to find WMD's. Anyone familiar with the goings-on of the world already knows we were unable to find the weapons, so this becomes little more than an exercise in the blame game that tries to remind us how we got involved to begin with. I feel much about this the way I did about the economic downturn. Some blamed President Clinton, some blamed President Bush, but whose fault it was seemed unnecessary to me. Let's just fix it.

The message, however important it may be, is too late to the game. Had this been released three or four years ago, its impact would be hard to ignore, but now it seems like a childish indictment of a man many conservatives have even come to dislike. It is necessary to know how we got to Iraq, what mistakes we made along the way and how we can avoid them in the future, but dwelling on how we got there isn't as important right now as focusing on how to get out.

Director Paul Greengrass, the man behind The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, directs this in a similar style, the nauseating 'can-you-not-hold-still-for-one-second?' shaky cam style. As solid as his film's are, he has a tendency to go a little overboard with it and by the end, I was queasy and my head was pounding. It felt like somebody had been chipping away at my skull with a chisel for two hours. There's a fine line between using the shaky cam technique for realism and overdoing it to the point where you remind your audience they're watching a movie. When you cut to a man typing at a computer and the camera is still shaking back and forth like its mounted on somebody's shoulder, it's doing the opposite of its intended purpose.

I have many a problem with Green Zone, but in the end I'm still going to give it my seal of approval. Regardless of its relentless shakes and the message arriving a few years too late, it's often exciting, always entertaining and Matt Damon, as usual, is rock solid as the lead, giving another award worthy performance. Unfortunately, it's too worried about further crippling Bush's reputation to be bothered with saying something relevant.

Green Zone receives 2.5/5

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