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Movie Issues: The Monuments Men

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Movie Issues: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is a look into the world of war through the eyes of the people who see beyond the fighting, who see what happens once the fighting is over. What happens when we, as a society, lose our history and where we’ve come from? That’s just one reason why The Monuments Men did what they felt they needed to do to save our heritage. George Clooney directs, co-writes, and stars  as Frank Stokes, who leads an Allied platoon comprised of seven museum directors, curators, and art historians. They are tasked with entering Germany with the Allied forces during the closing stages of World War II to rescue artworks, which have been plundered by the Nazis, saving them from destruction or damage, and returning them to their rightful owners.

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Movie Issues: Elysium

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Movie Issues: Elysium

Neil Blomkamp, writer and director of 2009’s District 9, is back with a new disturbing look into a dystopian future with Elysium. Set in the year 2154, two classes of people exist: The very wealthy, who live in a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. The people of Earth, desperate to leave their crime and poverty ridden planet, need to use the state-of-the-art medical care up on Elysium. But certain people on the paradise space station will stop at nothing to enforce the anti-immigration laws that keep the rich citizens with their luxuries. With his life hanging in balance, Max (Matt Damon) will risk everything to get to Elysium, not only to save his own life, but millions of people of earth.

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The Adjustment Bureau

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The Adjustment Bureau

The previews for the Adjustment Bureau make it seem like a psychological thriller, but one with vaguely Matrix-y overtones.  In reality, this film is a romance in metaphysical thriller drag, and an interesting take on the notion of predetermination.  Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team,” which I have not read, this film veers away from Dick’s more nihilistic tones (see: Blade Runner) and into ones of overt sweetness, which I imagine are not present in the original story, but were pleasant to witness.

While watching the film play out, our winsome leads Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are compelling and lovely and the machinations of the titular bureau are interesting to watch.  As a work of filmmaking, Adjustment Bureau is sexy and solid and entertaining.  Damon is a credible young politician, driven and charismatic.  Blunt is a graceful but relatable dancer, the Perfect Girl embodied but with aspirations of her own.

The visual tricks that help convey the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Adjusters are simple and effective.  Thomas Newman’s score is reliably lovely to hear and John Toll’s photography is typically gorgeous.  I was amused by the mid-century-yet-timeless feel of the Bureau members and witnessing their petty bureaucratic hierarchies.  The messages of love and possession and release were all good, and the story kept me interested.

That said, once I left the theatre the whole façade fell apart.  I often have this problem with adaptations of Dick stories because for some reason the big ideas never really grow into anything with any solidity for me, which is why I suspect this story veers as above.   When your deus ex machine actually has a deus in it, you know you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

The idea of small moments causing huge ripples in the universe is not a new one.  The idea that there is a Plan, specifically on that undergoes constant revision, is the most compelling thing about the story. The fact that the interfering minions aren’t privy to the Plan was a fun running theme. The notion that the Plan changes but leaves echoes of itself behind (so that what was once meant to be later becomes not so) vexed me, but is integral to the story. An omnipotent, omniscient being running things through discreet micromanaging (a spill of coffee, a dropped phone call) seems both reasonable and ridiculous.

What is the point of all this meddling and greater good power if it is so easily thwarted or redesigned?  It confounded the cool idea that our free will is an illusion, that every time we as a species are left in charge of our destinies, we screw it up — so why respond to our stubbornness by updating the plan?  The film seemed too contradictory to really hold up.

That said, the chemistry and inevitability of Damon and Blunt was sweet to witness and the action as it unfolds is enjoyable to watch.  Rent at your leisure.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 3/4/11

Time in minutes 106

Director George Nolfi

Studio Universal Pictures

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The Brothers Grimm

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Terry Gilliam is as unable to make an uninteresting movie as he is unable to make a “commercial” film. This is a compliment, honestly. The problem is, no one is going to see this movie. Why would they? People like me are, i.e. “Terry Gilliam? I’m there!” and the few of us who still appreciate the source material of the Grimm fairy tales are right there, buying tickets. The Brothers Grimm confounds any rational dissertation of its merits in fewer than 25 words. Did you like it? “Well, yeah, I mean it was really neat.” And it is really, really neat. Like all Gilliam films, including tone and texture. Amusingly, this one feels the most commercial and least Gilliamesque to me.

The premise is not unlike that of Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners or (arguably) Ghostbusters; shams who are forced to do the real thing. What’s completely cool about it is how screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who specializes in the spooky) incorporated actual Grimm fairy tales into a new plot, and then had Jacob Grimm be the one all obsessed with the old stories and the one best able to figure out the mystery. The historical Brothers Grimm collected these tales to preserve them; these Grimm boys use their collection of tales to preserve themselves.

Elements (not necessarily plot) of many of the Grimm tales are mixed into this pot; Kruger was very clever in creating a new, post-modern story from such folkloric roots. The only complaints I have are these: One, that the film seemed to be straining uneasily toward comedy-adventure, rather than spooky-adventure. I’m not saying I begrudge them their light touch, but at times it felt like Dimension Films (Hello! Horror central!) wasn’t letting Gilliam be Gilliam. Terry’s gift for natural whimsy and humor was obscured by the banter. Two, the narrative was a little herky jerky at times, and occasionally I didn’t feel the characters’ belief in what they were doing, like maybe the actors were confused.

A delicious cast supports the tale – an un-Damonic Matt Damon, a very interesting Heath Ledger, and also Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce, and a very not-1813ish Lena Headey. An audience member gushed, “that guy is awesome” about Kevin Sussman (the powdered and uncredited aide-de-camp of Pryce). They converge in beautiful Prague, er, I mean, twee Marbaden, Germany, at the time of Bonaparte’s occupation. It is a perfect time for old folk tales to surface and bubble with life; reclaiming and preserving German heritage, comforting balms against the rancors of war, and of course, there is that thing in the woods stealing all the daughters. It’s a decent mystery, and unlike many Grimm tales, the solution isn’t completely a deus ex machina. Sadly, Gilliam’s penchant for the budget over-run appears to have left him little money for a real high-end special effects house. Anything mechanical was great, but the computer graphics were, well, Napoleonic.

Still, it’s a novel way to spend your movie-going dollar, so if the subject matter at all appeals to you, give it a shot.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 8/26/05
Time in minutes 118
Director Terry Gilliam
Studio Dimension Films

Ocean's 11 (2001)

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With such a winsome cast, how could a remake of a dreary Rat Pack hoke-fest be anything less extraordinary than decent? Well, apparently by letting Ted Griffin (Ravenous) adapt the 1960 screenplay, and letting Steven Soderbergh direct it. Yes, THAT Steven Soderbergh, formerly of the forgettable Gray’s Anatomy and The Underneath and recently Oscar bait from Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Can you imagine? I even liked Ravenous, except for the horrible music. I know Ocean’s 11 didn’t make an impression on me when I had to struggle to remember that I saw it a week before I started writing. I will admit, this is the first time I have ever found Brad Pitt sexy, which may surprise some of you. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that Brad is usually either playing “sexy” or “a good actor,” with occasional and welcome forays into “funny guy next door,” and, like Bruce Willis (hair=bad, bald=good), one can predict his performance just by watching the preview. But I squibble. Brad was perfectly fine, as were Julia, George, Don…

Here’s a clue – I had to check the IMDB just to recall who else was in the movie. Oh yeah, huge star Matt Damon, cultish star Casey Affleck, and old warhorse Carl Reiner. It was frustrating not to be impressed, it was annoying to only occasionally be engaged, and it was not refreshing to see another movie shot in Vegas about Vegas and about stealing. Obviously, it was far better than 3000 Miles To Graceland, but only because it was never really insulting. And Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner were nowhere in sight.

I like a heist movie, especially one with sexy people doing pretty complex and daring things in interesting locations, but I do want to think that they pulled it off with their brains and skills, not just an astounding Vegas-style run of super-luck. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s not unlike the infamous Powerbook interfacing with the Independence Day aliens kind of run of luck. So, there you have it. It’s merely OK, but it is completely watchable, and equally forgettable.

George Clooney is the titular Ocean, who assembles a crew of (guess how many) to rob some casinos. It’s a big deal, and the actors by and large seem to have a great sense of fun together on screen. The fun only filters off the screen and into the audience a little bit – we are too involved in checking to see who has the best hair to really get into the characters, and the plot certainly doesn’t give us many opportunities to sweat nervously. This is disappointing. It has also been excruciating to attempt to say much about what should have been the star power explosion of the year. I mean, my god, look at all these sexy people, conventional and unconventional. Look at Elliot Gould, for goodness sakes, and a severely Britishized Don Cheadle. This is an odd choice but I have to say, it made the film infinitely more interesting. As the weeks pass I find that his lines and Julia Roberts’ outfits are about all I have taken away as memories of that movie.

Why they chose to remake the cheesy genesis of the Rat Pack, a slightly dated notion of Vegas as a city of hope and wonder, I will never know. It is nice that no one sang this time, however. That would have been too much for too little.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/7/01
Time in minutes 117
Director Steven Soderbergh
Studio Warner Brothers

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

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What a mess. Characters come and go. They behave in inexplicable ways that remain unexplained. They are generally nice to look at but pale beneath the incredible Tuscan and Roman scenery playing out behind them. Matt Damon looks horribly out of place (as I suppose he should) in another boring, almost-interesting-yet-repellent movie helmed by the English Patient’s Anthony Minghella. I wasn’t even going to bother seeing this movie, what with the year-end crunch and all, but a trusted source said it was good. Oh heavens! I just found myself thinking “what?” and “why?” and “ugh” throughout. My much more tolerant (in general) companion also sneered and grunted with dissatisfaction and could offer me no assistance when random characters appeared and suddenly became very important. Oh, but look at that lovely island off of Italy, you know, the one with the castle or monastery or whatever it is on it. Isn’t it pretty? What? Oh I don’t know who that guy is. Is she sleeping with him? Is he in love with Matt Damon? Why is everyone else?

Gwyneth Paltrow was bland and given nothing to do. Jude Law was handsome and sexy (and had a smashing American accent, as did Cate Blanchett) but basically handsome and sexy and weird. Cate – wasted but the closest thing to amusing, with her rich-girl-who-detests-money business. Philip Seymour Hoffman, such an up and comer (as was Ralph Fiennes during That Other Movie), makes me never want to see him again. Thank goodness I saw Magnolia before this! The jazz clubs were nice, the clothes were unflattering, and in the final mix, I felt like I had eaten about 5 pounds of bad cheese. How massively disappointing!

Why do I say Network Premiere instead of Avoid at All Costs? The scenery is quite stunning, really, and maybe you, Gentle Readers, can make some sense of this malarkey. It’s not even sense that it is missing, per se – I mean, I know why (sort of) Damon’s character does what he does, from a big picture perspective, but I can’t imagine what motivates his smaller actions. Just like the cold, passionless blah affair and the non-sequitur nursing silliness from English Patient, and not unlike older foreign movies that have been (through no fault of their own) badly translated into English to the point of incomprehensibility – this movie was long, seemed longer, and I came away with nothing. Yuck!

I have no idea why this movie came off so badly – it’s an interesting idea, it carried the interesting idea places I did not expect, it had some super duper photography and some seriously half-assed watered down homoerotic undertones that really only left me more confused when the intrigue wore off – is he gay or are those people supposed to think he’s gay? What about that guy? Wait, in the credits, it named someone’s fiancé? When did we see him? Did they switch reels by mistake? Not a great start to the new year, let me tell you!

MPAA Rating R for violence, language and brief nudity.
Release date 12/25/99
Time in minutes 139
Director Anthony Minghella
Studio Paramount Pictures

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Dogma

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Kevin Smith films have to me, always had a nice, fun, friendly, low-budget feel to them, so you forgive a few technical slip ups or a flat delivery or two, and enjoy the fun spirit of the film. Now, Kevin has money, star power, and some indie cred up his sleeve, and the bar is raised. Supportive as I am of Smith’s work, I feel he needs to either stay in the small, tight ensemble comedy vein, with weird and wacky characters like Jay and Silent Bob, or make the big movies it seems clear he is itching to make (see also: Mallrats).

Dogma is a very thoughtful, carefully researched and written film, and definitely his most ambitious yet, with “real stars” and special effects and massive crowd scenes. Anyone who pays attention to extras in shots will notice a lot of repeating faces and a lot of terrible extras direction. This is a mark of a production that is still being run like a little indie, but with the expectations of a big movie. The shows were sold out all day the second day it was open, so it seems to be doing fine, despite a slipshod approach. An amusing disclaimer at the beginning of the film attempts to deflect any political ire that the statements and portrayals contained wherein may stir up, but the movie does not take its subject matter lightly enough to really offend anyone. In fact, it takes a pretty pedantic and thoughtful stance, which in and of itself is not really a bad thing, but it is a little expectations-breaking.

“Before they were stars” poster boys Ben Affleck and Matt Damon twirl their way inexplicably through their roles, alternately sympathetic, pathetic, and unsympathetic. Linda Fiorentino looks like she just woke up the whole movie. Alan Rickman, definitely the high point, is pastily made up but with a drunken swagger rules the film. Chris Rock is not quite fulfilling his comedic potential, and Salma Hayek as an asexual muse is also a case of Smith underusing some serious resources. Jason Lee is a low-rent Bruce Campbell (consider that statement carefully) running about with unclear motivations and three surly hockey teens that so closely resemble today’s disenfranchised youth, it’s not clear if they are supernaturally controlled or just normal. Best stunt casting: George Carlin as a cardinal. Oh yeah, and Jay and Silent Bob again. They seem wildly out of place in this film, a running gag from Clerks that has been carried into Smith’s “new” career out of sentiment more than usefulness. Don’t get me wrong, sentiment is great, but what are these guys for, exactly?

I am sorry to say I was more titillated by the previews for GalaxyQuest, End of Days, Girl Interrupted, and Magnolia than by the film they preceded. Dogma is very interesting, and should spark discussion among people who are interested in discussing such things (though, no doubt, will just be blown off as a fluffy Life of Brian type of harmless movie with a secular audience in mind), but more likely will actually slip away into obscurity, despite being hotly anticipated for three years. It’s fine, it’s not hilarious, it’s not boring, it’s just a nice little movie about faith and the nature of living well.

Bonus cameo: Bud Cort!

MPAA Rating R-strong language, violence, crude humor ,drugs
Release date 11/12/99
Time in minutes 130
Director Kevin Smith
Studio Lions Gate

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Saving Private Ryan

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I saw Saving Private Ryan nearly 3 weeks ago and I have been unable to write any reviews since. Mayhap that says more than my review will. By now you have all heard stories of special phone hotlines springing up for veterans experiencing shell shock flashbacks after seeing this movie. You’ve witnessed grave theatre managers in the pre-show announcement offering the expectation-blasting disclaimer that “whatever you’ve heard about this movie is not enough to describe this cinematic experience.” With this more “legitimate” wave of hype than say, Godzilla’s, Saving Private Ryan is bound to make you expect the most important movie ever made – and if you don’t feel that way, you will surely go to hell or something. I tried unsuccessfully to ignore all the press about the movie. I went expecting a punch in the stomach sob drama and came out more thoughtful, reverent, and horrified by warfare, but with no emotional catharsis. This is not to say the movie fails in any way, it is just not what They are leading you to expect.

From a technical standpoint, Saving Private Ryan is pure art. Wallowing in surround sound, we have whizzing bullets and loudly crumbling destruction, colors fading as men focus on combat, alternative film speed and handheld action thrusting you into a shocking world that just doesn’t come across the same in a John Wayne movie. During the credits, my eye randomly caught the credit for the clapper loader, and I was struck by how very much not-movie SPR felt. I could not imagine a 2 dozen-person-plus team of regular people with chairs and film boxes and grip stands and sound carts and makeup bags and Polaroid cameras anywhere near what I was watching on screen. It was trying to picture a faceless man snapping shut the clapper “B Camera!” and walking off screen in jeans and a gore-tex windbreaker before watching the actors scrabble in the grey mud for their lives that truly drove home the “reality” of he movie for me. It’s like they just waged a real war and threw a 2 man crew in there. All the actors are familiar faces, be they Tom “the envelope please” Hanks or the plethora of people who have been on Friends, but at no point do you think of them as anyone but the men they are portraying. OK, that’s not true – Matt Damon’s preternaturally white teeth make him look like a Hollywood frat boy next to the men assembled to save him.

The story is based loosely on actual events (I mean, besides WW2 of course), otherwise it would ring jingoistic and improbable. As with Schindler’s List, Spielberg demonstrates that this is an important life-changing war without infusing it with personal, Oliver-Stonesque melodrama. I actually prefer Schindler’s List from an emotional standpoint, but this movie gave me new food for thought. In the weeks since seeing this movie, I have had more conversations about patriotism and bravery than I or anyone else I know have had ever. Generally, my generation (you know, the X one) agrees that by and large, if we were thrown into this situation as these men were, not really trained military personnel but folks from regular life handed a gun and told, “Get the bad guys,” we would all be crying on the staircase and die in a moment. I am not denigrating any of my contemporaries presently enrolled in the armed forces – I mean, like, the rest of us, the couch potatoes who would have been conscripted for that bloody mess. We’d be whining about how the water tastes and “I want my PowerBook!” Basically what I am saying is, I now have a million times more respect for veterans, particularly the older veterans of those wars back before the big red button, when there was a palpable enemy (as opposed to economic security being threatened) to fight and conquer.

Patriotism is almost an embarrassingly quaint, backwoods emotion to exhibit these days – we seem to associate it more with either sheep-like adherence to things only partially understood, or movies like Armageddon. Our soft, selfish minds consider getting shot for our country foolhardy and lame. Our executive branch is the target of tasteless jokes formerly targeting The Enemy. SPR has short framing segments at the beginning and end set in the present, and a well-cast older gentleman is at the veteran’s cemetery. All I could think at the end was, “That old guy I’m honking at while I am driving pell mell to my swing dance lessons went through all that? For me? So I can drive my Honda and speak English and watch cable TV?” Wow….so instead of the emotional punch in the stomach that I was expecting, I instead have a quiet, respectful reflection…oh, and did I mention the graphic depiction of the horrors of war? Do I need to? Most of the movie was spent agape in amazement at the hellacious conditions these boys were in, and the incredibly real-looking carnage and palpable pain and fear and tension. Forget Lt. Dan’s missing legs – watch Pvt. Smith’s disappear *before your very eyes!*

People ask me, “Have you seen Saving Private Ryan yet?” and I say yes, and they say, “So is it good?” I can’t answer that question with a yes like I can other movies. It is well done, it is vivid and thought-provoking, and it is three hours of….I can’t say entertainment or diversion, it’s genuine transportation into the world of the movie. And for a director to completely absorb me is worth every penny of admission. It’s not like other movies. Go see it.

MPAA Rating R for intense graphic war violence, language
Release date 7/24/98
Time in minutes 170
Director Steven Spielberg
Studio Dreamworks

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Good Will Hunting

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Good Will Hunting, as I am sure by now you have already heard, is a really good movie. It’s kind of a guy-bonding kind of Beaches movie, with men crying and identifying and so on. I just thought it had a supremely and surprisingly mature, sophisticated script, especially considering the age of its authors.

Matt Damon (The Rainmaker) stars, and with supporting actor Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy), wrote a really amazing screenplay. Damon plays a kind of loserly custodian type who happens to be a genius, and Affleck is his best friend who is not.

Generally it seems that people who write supernormal characters for themselves fall into that Kevin Costner trap of self-aggrandizing moronic yabbering, but not so with these guys. Damon writes himself as a sympathetic guy who is what he is but doesn’t care to be so, who loves his beer-swilling friends but happens to have an extraordinary wealth of book knowledge and comprehension. What makes the story into gold is how they wrote the older characters in the film (Robin Williams’ psychologist and Skellar Skarsgard’s math professor) as people actually wiser than the genius star. Williams in particular spends a great deal of the movie pointing out Damon’s flaws and his immaturity. All the “adults” have interesting character development, rather than just being dads or bad guys or just bitter shadows behind the star’s genius. At no point do we feel that Damon is unavailable to us or that he himself thinks he is just hot stuff. I especially appreciated Will Hunting(the character, sorry!)’s total lack of passion or drive for anything.

Damon gets involved with Minnie Driver, and she is not just a babe for him to play with while the plot skims along, driven by Danny Elfman’s unElfmanesque score. Driver is great and everyone is great. It’s all I can say, really.

I didn’t cry, as some of my men friends have, because I guess women don’t have these same emotional walls and infallibility standards that men do. I know I will get crap for that but I hope you know what I mean.

Directed by Gus Van Sandt, a man one could say is not known for churning out crowd-pleasers, Good Will Hunting seems to be totally loyal to the material and not concerned with Hollywoodizing it up. Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender may have helped Van Sandt along here.

Robin Williams, I am pleased to say, is back where I love him most – playing gently humorous but deeply heartfelt characters. He can still be real and funny and from the hip, but with his wisdom. A monologue he has, done almost entirely in one long, loving shot, is the best Robin Williams I have seen in forever.
So, you know, go see it.

MPAA Rating R-strong language, sex-related dialogue.
Release date 12/5/97
Time in minutes 126
Director Gus Van Sandt
Studio Miramax