Sunday, July 28, 2013

Promised Land

Promised Land (2012)
Drama, 106 minutes
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt and John Krasinski

There are a number of actors that I trust to give a good performance in almost any movie, and Matt Damon belongs on that list. He's probably best known for playing Jason Bourne, and some of my friends are disappointed that he didn't want to play similar roles for the rest of his life. I thought he was great as Bourne, but my favorite performances came in The Departed, Good Will Hunting, and Rounders. He elevated flawed movies like The Adjustment Bureau, Hereafter, and We Bought a Zoo, and gave excellent performances in several titles that I haven't mentioned.

Why do I like Damon?

I like that he's versatile, but most of all, I admire his understated acting style. He doesn't try to take over a movie, and that makes his performances all the more realistic. If Damon hadn't been cast in Promised Land, I doubt that I would have ever seen it. It's good to see him team up again with Gus Van Sant, who directed him in Good Will Hunting.

Promised Land is about the way in which a natural gas company, Global, attempts to convince a small farming community to sell land and allow it to be exploited for its natural resources. The people are poor and seem like easy targets. Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) are employed by Global to deliver their sales pitch. Butler grew up in a similar community and carries a lot of credibility as he visits the local farmers. He truly believes that it is in the best interests of the locals to accept Global's offer.

Butler encounters local opposition in the form of Frank Yates, who is played convincingly by Hal Holbrook. Yates is a science teacher and he's been making use of Google to uncover the truth about natural gas. Apparently, there are plenty of risks involved, and not all towns prosper in the way that Butler has implied. Additional problems arise for Butler when environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up with a tale of how natural gas exploitation ruined his community.

There are a couple of unpredictable twists later in the story, but it would be wrong of me to reveal them here.

It's rare to see a drama of this nature in modern cinema. There are no explosions or action sequences, and although there is a small romantic element, it's not the driving force in the story. So who is this movie for? Well, it would certainly hold your interest if you were a struggling farmer with the option of selling your land. However, I don't fall into that category, and I was engrossed by the story throughout.

The movie tackles real issues and raises questions about who is good and who is evil. It provides moral dilemmas for its characters, and we see how they choose to resolve them. Ultimately, it explores deeper themes about our function in life, and whether we are successes, failures, or creatures capable of questioning our established roles. It also looks at how the decisions of big companies can impact the lives of other people.

I wouldn't say that Promised Land is essential viewing, but it will work for fans of Matt Damon, and perhaps for those who like to see stories that don't follow the usual Hollywood pattern. I'm glad that it's in my collection.

Overall score 3.75/5 

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Triple Headers: Three movies which work well together

Triple Headers Part 1: Animation, Action and Comedy

Do you ever feel in the mood for a movie marathon featuring a particular actor, director, theme, or genre? I plan to write a series covering various genres, and other themes, highlighting movies which would combine well for a triple header. This first entry covers Animation, Action, and Comedy.

Animation, aimed at adults

Most animated titles are aimed at children or families, but some include themes that are not suitable for young children. 

Grave of the Fireflies
Studio Ghibli's tale of two children, caught up in a war. The story doesn't pull any punches, so don't be surprised to see leading characters die in the saddest of circumstances.

Watership Down
Most of the characters are rabbits, but that doesn't mean that they are all cute and fluffy. Villains, death, and hardship dominate this rich story. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox
This one might work for most children because it does contain plenty of visual humor, but the themes, meaning, and adult language will likely be missed by smaller children.

Animation, aimed at children

Here are three animated movies that most children will love.

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Silly British humor featuring Gromit the wonder dog. It's all in the eyes. I don't think I will ever tire of these characters.

The Disney princess theme actually comes up with a few original ideas at last. One of Disney's best modern releases.

A Disney movie so good that it's a wonder it wasn't made by Pixar. The three main characters are easy to love, and this is a wonderful adventure full of ideas.

Animation, Pixar

Talking of Pixar, here are my three favorites from the studio.

Still my favorite Pixar, although some people find the story a little slow. I can't imagine why. Remy has to be the world's most lovable rat.

Although Up is funny and contains plenty of action, one brief montage might bring you to tears. I think it gives the movie depth.

Monsters Inc.
Heart, action, and plenty of laughs. It's hard to find fault with this one.

Alternatively, you could watch the Toy Story trilogy.

Animation, Hayao Miyazaki

No discussion of animation would be complete without mentioning Hayao Miyazaki. The only difficult thing is limiting my choice to three.

My Neighbor Totoro
Probably the best family film ever made, with the most lovable character (Mei), and a setting that is always pleasant to visit.

Spirited Away
Imaginative and packed full of detail. It's not hard to see why it won an Oscar.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Futuristic, and full of heart. Nausicaa is yet another perfect film from Studio Ghibli.

Feel free to substitute any of these titles with Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, or Ponyo. It depends on your mood and the age of the audience.

Die Hard
Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Twinkies, explosions, fights, and some pretty good characterization and dialogue make Die Hard one of the best action movies ever made.

Proof that good acting matters more than muscle when it comes to action. This is a lean tale, with just enough information about Bryan Mills to make us empathize with his situation and consider his actions justified. Neeson is superb.

Tom Cruise isn't even close to being one of my favorite actors, but I love every minute of Collateral. Jamie Foxx is effective too.

Alternatively, watch the original Bourne trilogy.


This is a tricky genre for me, because my sense of humor is dark. Some of the movies which make me laugh the most belong in other categories, but here are three which clearly fall into the category of humor.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Yes, it's silly, but it's also clever, and easily one of the most quotable movies ever made. The only minor flaw is the abrupt ending, but the rest of the movie more than makes up for it. I can't think of a better comedy team than Monty Python.

The Naked Gun
Leslie Neilsen at his best. I've always liked the Zucker brand of humor.

Animal House
I usually can't stand college humor, but Animal House seemed original at the time and is still hard to match. John Belushi at his best. There's no real plot, but it doesn't really matter.

The next piece in this series will cover Crime, Drama, and Fantasy.

What would be your choices in the categories I covered today?

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel (1959-1979)
Directed by François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud
French Language

I didn't see The 400 Blows until 2010, and I've been interested in seeing the other four films featuring the character of Antoine Doinel ever since. When Turner Classic Movies decided to air them all last week, I finally had my chance. I'm not sure why, but I wasn't expecting the sequels to live up to the magic of The 400 Blows. However, I was pleasantly surprised. While the overall tone of the four additional entries in the series is quite different, I found that I was excited about seeing all of them.

Has there been another series of films like this, showing different stages in the life of the main character over 20 years or more? I guess you could count series such as Die Hard, Rambo, or Rocky, but those titles focused more on the genre than on the development of the main character. As a fan of the Harry Potter movies, I'm also aware of how the younger members of the cast played their characters for almost half their lives up to the point that the story ended. While all of those movies are in my collection, none comes close to Antoine Doinel's story, and they are not meant to be serious studies of how someone changes through the course of their life.

Let's take a brief look at Truffaut's five Antoine Doinel stories:

The 400 Blows (1959)
Crime, Drama, 99 minutes

I wrote a short review of this masterpiece in my 100 movies series. It begins Antoine's tale when his is a 12-year-old, living in Paris with his mother and stepfather. It's loosely based on Truffaut's own childhood, and we learn that Antoine's home life is not the easiest of existences. He's a bit of a rebel, and often in trouble at school, when he bothers to show up at all. His real love is cinema, and that's one of his main escapes from his troubled young life. Truffaut doesn't seem to judge Antoine. Instead, he shows us the facts and asks us to think about what we have seen. How would be react if we were in Antoine's situation. Is he good or bad? Should we root for him or not? Unlike the other four movies, this introduction is most definitely a drama. I appreciated it on first viewing, but it took a few more before I came to love the story. Because I'm hoping that you will eventually watch all five movies, I'm not going to ruin the plot of any by going into too much detail. All I will say is that it's one of the best coming-of-age stories I've ever seen.

Antoine and Colette (1962)
Comedy, Drama, 32 minutes

Antoine is now 17, and he's starting to focus on things other than his problems at home and his flirtation with crime. I found myself smiling that his life has taken a turn for the better. It was like meeting an old friend and seeing that they were suddenly thriving. The movie is a short, lasting just 32 minutes and ending rather abruptly, but it accomplishes a lot. At times, it feels closer in tone to The 400 Blows than the remaining three movies, but it has a fair amount of humor nonetheless. Antoine first sees Colette at a classical music concert, and he's immediately drawn to her. It's fun to watch his attempts to gain her attention, and interesting that he is so capable of impressing her parents, after struggling in that department with his own family. Antoine is somehow extremely likable, and it's easy to hope that wins Colette's affection. I felt as if I were in Antoine's shoes as I watched his audacious and inexperienced advances. I would love this to have been a full-length feature.

Stolen Kisses (1968)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 90 minutes

After being given a dishonorable discharge from the army, 23-year-old Antoine seeks out Christine (Claude Jade), his former girlfriend. Continuing the theme from the previous short, Antoine is well-liked by the parents of the girl he is pursuing romantically. Her father even manages to find Antoine a job as a night clerk. This movie has its serious moments, but it almost plays out like a romantic comedy. The acting is excellent, and it's easy to laugh at Antoine's attempts to succeed as a private detective. He doesn't seem to care what he does for a living, and focuses more on women, and passions such as music. The best moments feature Antoine's meetings with Fabienne Tabard (Delphine Seyrig), and one of her monologues is particularly memorable and effective.

Bed & Board (1970)
Comedy, Drama, 100 minutes

Antoine is now 26, and married to Christine with a baby on the way. His latest job involves dying flowers different colors, but that doesn't last for long. After finally marrying the woman he loves, Antoine still isn't content. He always seems to be searching for something, although he rarely has a definite goal in mind. He's an opportunist, and things usually fall into place for him. Even when he has an affair, and occasionally seeks out the services of prostitutes, we never get the feeling that he means any harm to the women he loves. Why is that, I wonder? Bed & Board features plenty of amusing moments, and more than a few touching scenes. By this point, we know Antoine pretty well.

Love on the Run (1979)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 94 minutes

What was to be Truffaut's final entry in the Antoine Doinel series is probably the weakest, but it does have some memorable moments. After divorcing his wife, Antoine still lacks focus in his life. He has published a book, which isn't shy about detailing many of his former relationships, and some of the best sequences in the movie happen when he has a chance encounter with Colette, who is now a lawyer. Antoine is fixated on yet another beautiful woman, Sabine (Dorothée), and there's a great scene in which he explains how she first caught his attention. Love on the Run relies too much on flashback footage from the first four movies, but the best scenes still make it a must-watch. It's fun to see two of his girlfriends meet, and characters from the earlier movies making an appearance. One encounter in particular is effective at showing how Antoine has evolved, and how people he once knew now view him differently.

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel is gripping entertainment and, at its best, features some of the most compelling storytelling I have witnessed on screen. Truffaut's way of narrating the story places you right in the middle of the action, except when he deliberately creates distance by placing you outside a room or a store, while concealing dialogue with noise from the street. Antoine is always fascinating, and Truffaut's characters are fully-developed, and often endearing. The five films feature good acting, comedy, drama, romance, and plenty to care about. His leading ladies are all beautiful in their own way, and I am sad that Truffaut's untimely death (from a brain tumor at 52) robbed us of the conclusion to Antoine's story. This is probably the best episodic character study that I've encountered, and I hope that Criterion upgrades the entire set to Blu-ray as it did with The 400 Blows. I'm looking forward to seeing other Truffaut titles that have eluded me thus far.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Monday, July 1, 2013

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Animation, Drama, Family, 111 minutes
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo
Featuring the voices of Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Ashley Tisdale, Cary Elwes and Jean Smart

Who is Whisper of the Heart aimed at? It's animated, so it must be for children? The lead characters are young teens and there's a strong romantic element, so is it aimed at teens? I'm a 51-year-old man who doesn't have any children, but I love every minute of this film.

If you are a fan of Studio Ghibli, you'll know that Hayao Miyazaki has directed most of the studio's work. Yoshifumi Kondo directed this time, but Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, and his influence can be felt rather than seen. Whisper of the Heart is set in the real world and only contains the tiniest of fantasy references. It's a coming-of-age tale that just about everyone can identify with. Even if you are not a child, a teen, or a parent, you will remember living through similar moments to those depicted in this story.

Shizuku is a 14-year-old girl who focuses most of her attention on school, reading, and studying. One day, she notices that almost every book she borrows from the library has previously been checked out by Seiji Amasawa. She becomes curious about him, and wonders how someone could have such similar tastes to her own. At school, she's a good student, and goes through the typical things that most young girls experience. She talks to her girlfriends about boys, but writing is her real passion. She impresses her friends by writing song lyrics.

Her life changes when she encounters a cat on the train, and she follows it after it gets off at her stop. It leads her to an antiques store, owned by an old man. The man turns out to be the grandfather of the mysterious Seiji, and the two finally meet.

Although Shizuki studies hard, she has little idea of what she wants to do with her life. Seiji and his grandfather provide the inspiration she has been lacking, and she soon realizes that her true passion in life is writing. Seiji's passion is making violins, and the old man spends his time restoring antiques. This new focus means that her studies start to suffer, and she has to decide whether her writing is more important to her.

That sounds like a boring story, but it's nothing of the sort. There are no villains, no explosions, and not a lot of humor, but it's a sweet story with real characters that are easy to like and care about. You might find yourself remembering key moments in your own childhood, or perhaps wondering how different your life would have been if you had chosen a different path.

The film includes well-developed relationships with friends, parents, and siblings. Shizuku's parents are supportive, but realistic about their daughter's choices. There's a lot of respect present in her relationships with family, and the other people in her life. In typical Studio Ghibli fashion, Miyazaki's script includes many instances where characters stop and reflect on their actions. The animation includes little touches which add to the realism. For example, how many animated movies take the time to show someone using a vacuum cleaner?

The story is so realistic that I could imagine it having a positive influence on young teens or even parents. The messages are all positive, and they fit well with the story. My favorite Studio Ghibli films do include strong fantasy elements, but Whisper of the Heart is close to perfect while remaining firmly in the real world. These events could actually happen. It reminds me that Miyazaki must be a keen observer of human nature.

I've seen the film several times, and it always reaches me emotionally. The themes are simple and universal. I urge you to give it a try, even if you think that the genre isn't something you would normally enjoy. It's one for the whole family. If you do end up loving Whisper of the Heart, one of the characters also appears in The Cat Returns, and that's well worth your time as well.

Overall score 4.5/5

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