While there's never any doubt that Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land" was made with the best of intentions, something goes slightly awry in the execution of this environmental awareness movie.
Working from a screenplay by Matt Damon and John Krasinski ("The Office"), which was based on a story by Dave Eggers, the film sets out to expose the nefarious practice of fracking, a controversial technique used by energy companies in which drills are used to fracture shale and other source rocks to release petroleum and natural gas. A process that looks good on paper, this has been known to result in the contamination of ground water and farmland as well as affect air quality.
Little time is wasted before we know all we need to know about fracking as Steve Butler (Damon), a representative from Global Crosspower Solutions appears in a small Pennsylvania town with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), intent on obtaining drilling rights from its citizens.
This is like manna from heaven for most, as these farmers and blue-collar workers have been suffering financially with factory closings, bad crops and the economic collapse of 2008.
It looks as though Butler's job will be as easy as stealing broccoli from a baby until a respected high school history teacher (Hal Holbrook) mentions the downside of fracking at a town meeting and Dustin Noble (Krasinski), a good-natured activist, shows up to stir the pot. Seems his father leased his farm, fracking took place and all of the livestock ended up dead and the land contaminated. He's got the pictures to prove it, too.
It's all pretty black and white, though Van Sant and his two screenwriters do their best to introduce a bit of ambiguity to the story. Butler is tempted by the town's sexy single schoolteacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), but he's conflicted as her family farm is one of the biggest tracts in the town.
Equally troubling is that he also comes from a small town and was raised on a farm. The notion that he might be betraying his own looms larger and larger in his mind as Noble continues to reveal more and more about the downside of the process he's selling.
For such a serious film, there's an odd lack of passion about the whole affair. Even with an interesting twist in the third act, the story has no real surprises. The screenplay stacks the deck so heavily against the power companies that you know how it will all turn out. And while the film's environmental message is intact at the end, it lands with a bit of a thud rather than a fiery pronouncement. Had they delivered a more decisive statement, much like Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" (2000), the movie would have more resonance.
Damon and Krasinski are fine, though the latter lacks any shadings of gray, perhaps the biggest oversight of the movie is the underuse of McDormand. Always an intriguing actress, she's given far too little to do. It's suggested that she's a bit more mercenary in her approach and potential fireworks may erupt between her and Damon.
But it's yet another wasted opportunity in a film that has the chance to make a pronouncement and opts instead to make an offhand statement.
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt, Titus Welliver, Terry Kinney and Lucas Black.
Directed by Gus Van Sant; produced by Chris Moore; written by Damon and Krasinski.
A Focus Features release. 103 minutes. Rated R (language). At the Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
"Hyde Park" a disturbing misfire (2 stars). Not sure what director Roger Michell's intent was with "Hyde Park on the Hudson," but I'm pretty sure it wasn't for me to walk out thinking that Franklin Delano Roosevelt resembled the sort of creepy uncle you didn't want to leave your mother with.
Unfortunately, that's about all I got out of this misfire of a film that simultaneously looks at the intimate relationship between FDR and his fifth cousin Daisy and a summit between the president and the king and queen of England. As with any film at cross purposes, neither story is explored fully, nor are they successful in effectively conveying their themes.
During a hectic summer in the late 1930s, Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney) is called to spend some time at Hyde Park, the Roosevelts' retreat on the Hudson River in New York. The pressures of running the country have become overwhelming for the commander-in-chief (Bill Murray), and she has been summoned by FDR's mother to distract him from his worries.
Easy prey to FDR's charms, the woman begins an intimate relationship with him that will ultimately last for years. Never was this more intense than during the summer of 1939 when King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) visit in an effort to enlist the United States' help in the coming world war.
As this visit progresses, we're privy to the private moments Daisy and FDR share as well as the tense relationship between the president and his mother and father-son-like rapport that develops between him and the king.
Michell fails to achieve any sense of rhythm cutting between the various plotlines as he spends far too long developing scenes that go nowhere and focusing on characters we can't relate to. "The Great Gatsby"-like approach, in which Daisy is cast as an outsider allowed to enter a world of privilege she's fascinated in, only to be disappointed by the truths she learns about it, doesn't ingratiate her.
Rather, we're left wondering why she continues to associate with Roosevelt after he treats her in such a shoddy manner. Equally troubling is the fact that the king and queen of England are cast in a buffoonish light, hardly two people who instill any sense of strength.
The cast does its best to salvage this mess and they do what they can. Of note is Murray, who wisely doesn't attempt an imitation of FDR but rather, effectively captures the demeanor of the man. And while we're shown his jovial, optimistic side we're also privy to his manipulative, selfish nature leaving us with a portrait of a lonely man who had no compunction bending people to meet his own needs.
This is hardly the well-rounded character study that leaves you feeling more admiration for the subject for having overcome their faults, but winds up being a one-sided smear job of one of the great leaders of the 20th century.
Effective character study makes for a gripping "Django" (). Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino revels in being a polemic figure, and his movies often live up to his oversized personality. While many fall all over themselves praising his "innovative" approach, I've been of the mind that since his overlooked crime classic "Jackie Brown" (1997), he's been nothing more than a poseur, ripping off the style and themes of more talented directors who have come before him, building his reputation on being the purveyor of retro-cool.
There's a fine line between homage and plagiarism, and Tarantino errs on the latter side of that line far too often to be taken seriously.
His approach to his latest, his take on the spaghetti Western "Django Unchained," follows Tarantino's usual approach. The look and feel of the genre in question is replicated to a tee, actors whose careers have passed their expiration date are cast in key supporting roles and a teenage boy's sensibility towards violence is applied.
However, what makes this Tarantino's most effective film in 15 years comes in his writing as he creates two lead characters who are as charismatic and compelling as any in recent memory. The internal journey these two take makes the film worthwhile.
Tarantino sets the tone immediately with a riveting opening scene suffused with dark humor. Dentist cum bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) waylays a pair of slave traders and purchases, in bloody fashion, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who can identify a trio of brothers with a price on their heads.
So begins a bloody partnership in which genuine respect between the two grows. They become partners in the bounty hunting trade, and as Django's skill with a gun increases, Schultz agrees to travel with him to Mississippi in an effort to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic slave owner who makes those in his possession engage in fights to the death.
Their trek to Candie-land, Calvin's plantation, is littered with one memorable scene after another as they meet myriad nefarious characters. The comedy Tarantino employs is quite effective in underscoring the ignorance and immorality of their foes while his brand of gory violence proves to have its metaphoric uses along the way.
However, the most engaging element of the film is the relationship between the two leads. Foxx is great, showing Django's growth from a man unsure of how to respond to being referred to as a human being to realizing that he's his own person in charge of his own destiny. The actor initially displays his character's confusion with poignancy and the confusion he shows when realizing how his quest may damage his own morality is powerful.
Equally intriguing is Schultz, who goes from being a bit of a dandy to a conflicted ally in Django's journey as he comes to realize his chosen profession is not far removed from those who partake in slavery, a practice he despises. Amid the many borrowed elements in Tarantino's film, these two characters prove to be such engaging, original creations that they make putting up with the director's questionable methods worthwhile.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.