Movie Review ~ Promised Land

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources

Stars: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The ads for Promised Land make it seem like it’s a cross between Erin Brockovich and Silkwood — while there is a definite David vs. Goliath element to the plot, it turns out that the film is less interested in the business side of things and more focused in the subtle exploration of what constitutes the “right thing to do”.   In the end, the film is perhaps too subtle for its own good and ends up barely making a blip on the radar despite even keeled direction and strong performances.

Damon and McDormand are representatives for a natural gas company that is looking to lease precious farm land from a community sitting on top of a 150 million dollar payload.  Instead of going in as smarmy salespeople, the two seek to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople so they can make their pitch with ease.  It’s a tricky balancing act to perform; we aren’t sure if they believe what they’re saying/selling so it’s hard to know what to discredit.

We’re shown early on that the team of Damon/McDormand are at the top of their field, so it’s no surprise that any sort of problem with this particular town takes a while to become evident.  It’s the combination of an informed retiree (Holbrook) and the appearance of an environmentalist with a personal story to tell (Krasinski) that throws two very big wrenches in what should have been an open and shut sales trip.

I appreciated that the film kept the big city business element out of the picture – there’s very little involvement from the billion dollar company that has sent Damon and McDormand out to close the deal. Instead, we watch as the two continue to meet with their target audience to not only sell them on their plans but stand up to the claims that their mining procedures would eventually turn the soil and water toxic.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay from a story by David Eggers and the piece is very timely.  As we continue to deplete our natural resources and fight for oil overseas, there is the thought that we need to look within our own soil for a way to fuel our country.  As farming begins to disappear across the US, the leasing of land to natural gas companies may be the only way for families and communities to survive.  To its credit, the movie does make good points on both sides but because it never really takes a solid stand either way there is a feeling of neutrality that may leave some unsatisfied.

Reteaming with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, Damon delivers a nicely nuanced performance — though I found it hard to believe that it’s this particular town that opens his eyes to problems within his company.  A shoehorned semi-romance with a teacher (DeWitt) doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the movie and the implied competition with Krasinski for her hand feels a bit too pat.  Speaking of Krasinski, it’s clear that he’s got more in him than the character he’s played for nine seasons on television’s The Office but it’s strange that he’s written himself such a one dimensional role.  It also bugged me that his environmentalist character is very concerned about chemicals in the ground but could care less about scattering hundreds of pamphlets around town and Damon’s truck.

It’s really McDormand that quietly steals the show from her male counterparts.  Clearly realizing this is simply a job to support her family, she can be equal parts bulldog and supportive parental figure.  Her scenes with a local business owner (Welliver) have the kind of on the money feel that the film needed more of.  Wearing little make-up and dressed down, she looks the part and acts it wonderfully.

Swede cinematographer Linus Sandgren helps Van Sant’s even-keeled direction with a nice eye for small town life.  There are the requisite shots of American flags, county stores, and endless fields of harvest but it’s straightforward enough to not feel gimmicky.  Danny Elfman’s score is a far cry from the work he’s done for Tim Burton and it’s nice to hear something smooth and considerate from him.

Promised Land is a perfectly fine film with good people doing good work.  It’s going to fade from your memory quite fast and probably isn’t a movie you’ll revisit after it’s over.  Perhaps it’s too small of a film to really have an impact on the big screen – had it been made for television it might have worked out better.  That being said, it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of anyone involved or some of the stronger thematic material it covers.

Movie Review ~ Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two young people journey through the dreamlike worlds of Cirque du Soleil to find each other.

Stars:

Director: Andrew Adamson

Rated: G

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Canada’s highly regarded Cirque du Soleil has spent the last several decades slowly expanding their artistry throughout the world.  With sit down shows in Las Vegas, touring shows around the globe, or getting in early on the reality show bubble (Fire Within on Bravo), the group always seems to be first in line to try something and not have a fear of failure.  They are really just trapeze artists without a net and that’s what has made their work so strong.

Like their inventive stage shows, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away won’t be for everyone.  The nearly dialogue-free film marvels maybe a bit too much at its own creativity…but in the end the striking visuals and surprisingly engaging stunts work their magic on audiences to help tell the tale of two young people crossing the dizzying Cirque worlds in their quest to be reunited.

As is the case with many of their performances, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away begins with a pixie youth entering a world unfamiliar.  Circus Marvelous is where the film begins as Mia (Linz) wanders around solo, catching the eye of a young Aerialist (Zaripov).  It’s during his stage show that both Mia and The Aerialist find themselves swept away into an alternate universe from the creative minds at Cirque du Soleil.

The Worlds Away are basically filmed segments from various Cirque shows around the world.  Now before you dismiss this as a movie pieced together from clip reels let me say that what Cirque du Soleil did was go back to their shows to see what pieces would work best in the film and then adapted them to fit with the story.  The thread that ties everything together is admittedly weak because it’s really just a way to get to a series of performances observed by Mia or The Aerialist…but as the film progresses it gets more interesting and focused.

The first half of the movie is probably less “fun” than the second with more of the ribald and funny acts coming in after the halfway mark.  The opening acts come from the shows O and Kà and there is no grandiosity lost as we marvel at the wondrous beauty of the merging of magic and water with O.  Kà draws on visuals from imperial China with gravity defying stunts that are highlights of the film.  Other sections are drawn from Viva Elvis, Love (The Beatles), Mystere, Zumanity, and more.

More than a glorified 90 minute ad for the troupe, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away has another trick up its sleeve courtesy of an excellent use of 3D technology from director Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and producer James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar).  The movie was filmed in 3D so there is a striking amount of depth to the image that really does enhance the film experience.  It’s worth the upcharge to take in the Cirque worlds that burst with color and rely very little on digital effects.

I was worried going in that some of the tension of seeing a Cirque show live wouldn’t be present and was surprised that I was as involved with the film as I was.  Though nothing can compare with witnessing some of the magic live, Adamson and his Cirque collaborators have done a smashing job with putting to film some of the crazier stunts that have been conceived.  Using very little special effects is another selling point and helps the audience believe in the stunts they are seeing, creating the desired effect of actually being a part of the show.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away is an entertaining trek that allows audiences to experience the world of Cirque du Soleil from whatever city they may be seeing the film in.  It starts off pretty ordinary but ends in typical Cirque fashion with a rousingly moving finale.  You don’t have to go to Vegas or wait for a touring company to introduce you to the wonders of Cirque du Soleil.  Though I highly recommend shelling out the dough to see them live if you ever have the chance, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away should fit the bill as a worthy substitute.

The Silver Bullet ~ Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

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Synopsis: Two young people journey through the dreamlike worlds of Cirque du Soleil to find each other.

Release Date:  December 21, 2012

Thoughts: It seems that Cirque du Soleil is absolutely everywhere today.  With sit-down shows in major cities and several satellite troupes out on tour, the exposure of the Canadian circus group is as high as it has ever been.  The company will get another jolt of attention when they release their collaboration with James Cameron and director Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) for this 3D fantasy poised to lure families who might not be able to shell out the hefty dough to see a Cirque show live.  The trailer is visually stunning (of course) but it does leave me wondering what exactly the audience is in for and how the thrill of live performance will be captured on film.  Considering the talent of all involved, I’m not too worried.

The Silver Bullet ~ West of Memphis

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Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three.

Release Date:  December 25, 2012

Thoughts: Though the case of the West Memphis Three has been well-documented in the three Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis presents another look into the devious child murders that rocked a small town and the witch hunt that saw three men on the cusp of adulthood and the wrong side of the tracks be targeted as the culprits.  Produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, West of Memphis looks to be another strong documentary arriving in theaters just in time to provide strong true crime counter-programming to the usual holiday fare.  Sign me up.

Movie Review ~ Anna Karenina (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel.  The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  ‘Tis the season for grand costume dramas adapted from classic literature and the holiday is off to a good start with this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian drama of alienation, deception, and doomed love.  Though Anna Karenina has been seen on screens both big and small since film was invented, this 2012 version is ablaze with passion framed within a highly theatrical landscape that is both inviting and cold.  Think Moulin Rouge! meets Merchant Ivory. 

Now don’t roll your eyes…Moulin Rouge!  has its rabid fans as well as those that wrote off Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical as MTV hyper cut filmmaking but it reintroduced some needed theatricality into film that had been lost for some time.  I consider Anna Karenina a sister film to Moulin Rouge!…meaning that if Moulin is the excitable sibling that can’t sit still, Anna is the lovelorn romantic that dreams of something bigger and better.

Re-teaming for the third time after collaborating on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Wright and star Knightley have brought in playwright Tom Stoppard to lend his distinct voice to the telling of this sad tale.  Stoppard has cleared away some of the muck in Tolstoy’s hefty (but well respected) tome and let previously underplayed storylines come to the forefront with ease.  Though the story is clearly centered on Anna and her affairs of the heart, under Stoppard’s pen we are treated to some beautiful moments from our secondary characters.

Wright has consistently given Knightley her best work (and led her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice) and Anna Karenina is no exception.  I’ve found Knightley to be a hit or miss type of actress – her screeching performance in 2011’s A Dangerous Method almost broke the camel’s back and her work in the little-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn’t do her any favors .   Thankfully, she’s ended 2012 with a searing take on the Russian wife swept away into a sea of deceit spurred on by an unfaltering love.  Though she knows it will lead to no good, she can’t pry her heart out of the trouble it’s getting into.

As the two men in her life, Law and Taylor-Johnson are interesting choices to stoke the fires of her heart.  Law, with a balding pate and stuffy demeanor shows us his struggle more than he actually lets us see behind his cold exterior as Anna’s husband that tries to save her from ruin.  Taylor-Johnson is the young buck who catches her eye and falls just as hard for her without remorse of consequences.  It can be frustrating to see some of the choices our characters make…but our actors make these choices appear unavoidable.

Secondary love stories are usually introduced for comic effect in classic literature but Stoppard has given a nice sheen to Gleeson’s courting of Vikander’s pretty princess.  Though she only has eyes for Taylor-Johnson’s character, a shift in her heart happens on screen that is a wonder to behold – and it’s not just because Taylor-Johnson goes after Knightley instead.  Gleeson and Vikander share one of the best scenes of the year…a wordless exchange where they literally spell out their feelings for each other.

On its own, this Anna Karenina had all the elements to make a perfectly respectable motion picture but Wright takes it several steps further by setting the film in a theatrical environment that adds a magical touch.  Largely set in and around the stage of an ornate theater, Wright lets the camera push through the scenery into a Narnia-like world that exists behind the curtain.  Scenes are shifted in front of your eyes to new locations with striking detail.  Production designer Sarah Greenwood should keep Oscar night free because her lavish sets and ornate design will earn her a nomination without question. 

Even highly theatricalized, the film doesn’t seem gimmicky.  It would have been so easy to take this too far and make the film much too strident in its artifice but it always seems to work like it should.  Sometimes it feels like the concept has been forgotten but soon Wright sweeps you back into the backstage drama that plays out.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates a hypnotic pulse that the film hums along to…a dance sequence is played out with breathless beauty that captivates you fully. 

It’s a film that has been on my mind as the days go by but be aware that, like Shakespeare, there is a period of adjustment you must get through with Anna Karenina. When the film began I wasn’t sure this was going to be something I would enjoy as much as I dd.  The first fifteen minutes or so just spills over the audience and it’s up to you to hunker down and get up to speed.  For those that do, you’ll find a clever and visually stunning film experience that is good fodder for a wintery day at the movies.