Matt Damon gets a crash course in the dangers of fracking in Promised Land. Also, read our reviews of Amour and West of Memphis.
Matt Damon's third collaboration with Gus Van Sant as a writer and actor (after their 1997 favorite Good Will Hunting and the 2002 oddity Gerry) begins promisingly enough, with the eternally likable Damon stepping into the skin of Steve Butler, an ambitious foot soldier looking to climb the career ladder in a national gas corporation. On the cusp of attaining a big promotion, Steve heads off on his latest sales run with his friend and partner Sue (Frances McDormand), which takes him to McKinley, PA -- a one-stoplight kinda town filled with untapped natural gas reserves that his company would like to well... tap into. A small town guy himself, Steve's natural rapport with these rural folk has made him a terrific salesman and there's no reason to suspect that his experience in McKinley will be any different. But, of course, it is. First, Steve puts his foot in his mouth at a big town meeting, allowing an elderly high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) to cast enough doubt on the corporation's practices that a community vote is scheduled in a few days' time. Then, a charismatic environmental activist (John Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Damon) shows up and further turns public perception against him and, in the process, captures the attention of the lovely schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) who caught his eye. The more time he spends in McKinley, the more Steve starts to doubt his own salesmanship -- not to mention his company's mission.
The first hour of Promised Land is a sturdily scripted and acted drama, one that manages to weave its timely subject matter (natural gas drilling and the controversial fracking process that's involved) into a dramatic narrative instead of out-of-context speechifying. Working fully in his mainstream mode, Van Sant lends the movie a keen sense of place, but otherwise puts the actors and story first. And that approach is fine until the film reaches its halfway mark, at which point Damon and Krasinki's script tries to outsmart itself, tacking on unnecessary plot twists that seem designed to deepen the intrigue, but only serve to make the proceedings more convoluted. Worse still, these developments stack the deck so clearly in favor of the little guys that there's no longer any drama in watching Steve wrestle with his personal and professional obligations. The romantic subplot pairing Damon with DeWitt is a complete non-starter as well and seems to exist solely out of star-powered obligation ("Damon's gotta kiss somebody!") rather than narrative necessity. (A far more interesting love story is the one that develops between McDormand and a local storekeeper, played by Lost's Titus Welliver. Something about watching Marge Gunderson make eyes at the Man in Black just tickled my fancy.) Based on Promised Land, Damon and Krasinski have the makings of a decent writing team, but their next script would benefit from a few more revisions.
After a night out at a piano recital, eightysomething married couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) sit down at the breakfast table, just like they do every morning. But in the middle of their meal, Anne suddenly stops eating and stares off into the distance, completely unresponsive to any of Georges attempts to rouse her. Eventually, her mind returns to her body, but it's too late: in that moment, both of them know that the comfortable little life they've shared for so many years is over and the eventual medical diagnosis (a stroke) just confirms it. So begins Amour, Michael Haneke's wrenching chamber drama, which picked up the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and will almost certainly win the Best Foreign Language trophy at the Oscars in February. Taking place almost entirely within Georges and Anne's Parisian apartment, Amour tracks the rapid dissolution of Anne's physical health and Georges mental health as he struggles to cope with the demands of caring for an invalid spouse. Visitors come and go -- including their grown daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) -- but primarily offer unhelpful platitudes and sympathetic glances in place of actual assistance. So Georges and Anne are left to face the end alone, a situation that puts their matrimonial bond -- to say nothing of the definition of the film's title -- to the test.
Frequently accused (inaccurately, as far as I'm concerned) of being a cold-hearted cinematic sadist, Haneke hasn't exactly gone soft here either. Amour is a difficult, demanding movie to watch in the unflinching way it depicts Anne's deteriorating condition, as well as the sometimes uncomfortable ways that Georges deals with his new existence, like locking Eva out of her mother's sickroom so he won't have to see her frightened reaction to Anne's current state. But the film's power stems from the way Haneke avoids milking the viewer's sympathy. Just like the characters, Amour isn't a movie that wants your pity -- it wants you to understand just what it means for someone to watch the person they've loved and lived with waste away before their eyes and how that experience could drive their partner to take an action that, in some people's eyes, may seem like the exact opposite of love. In a strange way, Amour might be Haneke's most hopeful movie, ending on a note that suggests that love -- true love -- can survive even death itself.
West of Memphis
In a world where Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost trilogy exists, do we need another documentary chronicling the sorry tale of the West Memphis Three? Not really, but Amy Berg's West of Memphis is a worthwhile appendix to the case anyway, particularly in its middle section when it departs most strongly from the narrative that Berlinger and Sinofsky already put in place. For the uninitiated, the West Memphis Three are, individually, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols (who produced this movie along with his wife Lorri Davis and filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh), a trio of Arkansas teenagers who in 1994 were tried and convicted for the murders of three little boys. From the beginning, however, there were serious doubts about their guilt and the first Paradise Lost film, which aired on HBO in 1996, brought the case to national attention. Over the course of the next seventeen years and with the aid of numerous friendly, lawyers and celebrity advocates, the three fought for a retrial. Finally, in 2011, Arkansas allowed them to enter Alford pleas (which meant they could proclaim their innocence, while technically pleading guilty) and the teenagers finally walked out of prison as free adult men.
West of Memphis devotes the first half hour of its nearly 150-minute runtime to recapping the case (drawing on footage from the Paradise Lost movies) before getting into the real meat of its argument -- namely building a strong case that Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, is the person who actually committed the crime that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin served the time for. (For the record, Berligner and Sinofsky second Paradise Lost film floated the idea of John Mark Byers, the stepfather of another victim, being another possible culprit.) Drawing on new interviews and fresh investigative material, Berg does paint a fairly damning portrait of Hobbs, who comes across as a deeply secretive man prone to violent outbursts. Because the Alford deal occurred during the course of filming, West of Memphis changes its focus again in the last half-hour, presenting the run-up to the men's release and briefly visiting with each of them after they've left prison behind. (Unlike the Paradise Lost series, which awards each of them equal screentime, Echols is the group's primary on-camera representative here both during and after their prison terms. ) The film's ungainly structure is its chief weakness, as Berg strains to craft a convincing legal case against Hobbs while also reacting to current events. And really, the most compelling story is what will become of the West Memphis Three now that they're out of prison and have the opportunity to lead ordinary lives... or, at least, as ordinary as their pasts will allow. That's the documentary that will hopefully be made next, whether its Berg or the Paradise Lost team behind the camera.
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