Posts Tagged ‘Matt Damon’

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Free Will Hunting

Although Philip K. Dick is a writer who is also a philosopher pondering the meaning of existence, he has been a rich source for science fiction material.  The original material for The Adjustment Bureau was about a shiver in the universe as a seemingly meaningless event was “adjusted.” The only witness to the adjustment simply went home and got on with his life.  But the greatness of the existential story by Dick rests within the reader who wonders, once again, why life turns out the way it does.  Is there a master plan for all of us? Is there anyone in charge?

Such a question is naïve and immature, a child’s need for reassurance that there reasons for the world being the way it is.  The fact is that there is no master plan, we don’t learn from our mistakes or from history, and the universe is pitiless and arbitrary.  I prefer the philosophy of Terminator: “The only fate is the one you make.”  The Adjustment Bureau attempts to be as gutsy as Terminator as the protagonist tries to make his own fate but all it has going for it is the lovely pairing of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and hats, lots of hats.  Magic hats, magic hats that open doors.

Need I say more?

Not really, but I just want to add that this could have been an interesting movie. Many people have life changing and life altering decisions to make and one of the most fateful decisions is marriage.  In the film, Matt Damon, a possible President in the making, learns from his new friend at the Adjustment Bureau that he will never want political power again if he marries the woman he loves.  Unilaterally, he decides to pursue love but he never tells Emily Blunt that, if she stays with him, she will not become the “most famous choreographer in the world.”  He takes for himself all the free will he wants but grants her none of it.  Just come with me he says, and she follows along, thanks to the magic hat, through magic doors.  And, of course, at the end of the journey, yes, Virginia, there is a Magic Man Upstairs.  Each one of us has a little book with a plan in it. How comforting.

But why not let the couple just talk about their choices? Fame, fortune or marriage?  The movie stated that Damon would have been so happy that he would have lost the desire to be president in his marriage.  However, it was made clear that Blunt would see all her dreams and ambitions thwarted and no one mentions happiness for her.  Damon seems to assume that she would be wiling to forego all her dreams for him.  What a great twist the film could have had if she had been apprised of her choices and if she decided, no, I need to dance for the rest of my life more than I need you.  The movie could have ended there, the universe shuttered and time reshuffled back to the launching of Damon’s presidential career.  The end.

As the presence of Mad Men’s John Slattery warns us, The Adjustment Bureau is an old-fashioned romance.  Love is more important than a career.  Now that’s a Fifties idea.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

True Grit (2010)

THE “TRUTHINESS” OF TRUE GRIT (2010)


Despite all the good and glowing reviews of the Coen Brothers latest film, I did  not like True Grit. I was bored.

So what bothered me?

Why did I leave feeling unsatisfied and irritated?

But a few words before I diagnose.  First, let me disclose my intellectual failings: I do not read fiction; I read only non-fiction.  Therefore, I have never read the Charles Portis book.  Second, Westerns died and were decently buried in the Sixties.  The only good westerns after the Fifties were the “Spaghetti Westerns” and other Clint Eastwood films, especially the truly great Unforgiven. Third, the Coen Brothers have already done their western. It was called No Country for Old Men and it was as great as Unforgiven, and, yes, I actually read the Cormac McCarthy book.  Which brings me to True Grit…

True Grit, 2010

For any director, writer, or actor, the “Western” is a minefield of dangers.  In the Twenty-first century, we are too well-educated to accept the Cold War myth of the West as the symbol of America, a nation founded on individual enterprise and, of course, “true grit.”  The real facts have been thoroughly revealed since John Wayne and Kim Darby made the clean and shiny film of 1969.  The West was a place where misfits washed up on the plains, a site where sociopaths and post-war drifters, whores and prostitutes, and opportunists created an out-of-control society we called “wild.”

The period of True Grit is the opening years of the Wild West when Arkansas was still the frontier, a time when the West was suddenly up for grabs and the place where the East sent its worst citizens and its sorriest losers.  We can measure the depths of the desperation and perversity of the West by the wild and immoral scramble for “free land” and the willingness of the American government, brutalized by four years of war, to countenance genocide of the Native Americans.  The West can no longer be mythologized.  There is no reason to feel sentimental about one of the most shameful periods in American history, much less to celebrate its passing in an “elegic” tone, to use one of the words written by many critics in relation to this film.

poster

poster

The best path of a Twenty-first Century Western is to humanize the inhabitants and to tell the truth about how the West was really “won.”  The reluctance to deal with the West as it really was only continues to hide a story that is truly compelling—how people discarded from the East built an entirely new political and social system that rose out of the ashes of crimes of theft and killing and inhumanity.  To be fair, truth was not the purpose of the Portis novel, and the Coen Brothers seem to have had modest goals: to give a “straight-up” account of the original novel.  The book is a more elegant and formal retelling of turn of the century pulp fiction.  I suspect that in this day and age such a re-telling would be difficult to recapture, even in the inspired hands of the Coens.

How could the tone of the past be recreated?  From the first time we see the town in the opening scenes—an Arkansas frontier town—the film looks false.  The buildings look like Hollywood sets on a back lot in the Fifties.  Now, this too-clean too-fake appearance may be intentional on the part of the Coens, and, if so, I applaud their intentions.  Too pristine, neat and tidy, the town of True Grit has the look and the feel of a simulacra—a copy of a copy of a copy, a free-floating signifier of a “reality” that was never real.  Simulacra work best as stilled images and are extremely difficult to pull off in a film.  In his early days, Quentin Tarentino was the master at activating simulacra, especially in Reservoir Dogs, one of the best film noir movies of the neo-noir period.  That said, True Grit is, at its heart, as the Coen Brothers indicated on Charlie Rose, a “young adult” novel.  True Grit is not a road movie, not a quest movie, not a journey into adulthood movie, not a redemption movie.   It is much more simple: it is about a young girl who leaves home, a remarkable event in the 1870s.  But the film turns into a male-oriented ham fest with a plucky young girl as spectator to the antics of lost and broken men in simulacra of a “western.”

Charles Portis novel

If the Coen Brothers were aiming for simulacra, then the acting let them down.  Once the plot leaves the fake town and moves out into the hardscrabble frontier of Choctaw Country, the look becomes more authentic and bleak.  The original Portis plot is fine but the characters are difficult to translate from the printed page to live action.  The actors are trapped—or trapped themselves—into characterizations, which lead them to hamming it up.  Each character is an archetype of the Old West, but what emerges is a stereotype—-the plucky little girl of the west, the old man who has become a professional killer, a Buffalo Bill Bounty Hunter, the sociopathic gunslinger and outlaw, and assorted colorful characters that come and go with little effect.  It’s a dangerous mix of the familiar, and Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin put on their Wild West costumes, climb on their horses, and go over the top.

The “Rooster Cogburn” character is unfortunately played for comic effect by a self-indulgent Jeff Bridges.   While Bridges is a much finer actor than John Wayne, he comes across like “The Dude” who has wandered into a Western   movie.  Brolin, also a fine actor, turns Tom Chaney into a moronic killer, hardly worthy of a quest, much less relentless pursuit.  One wonders how such a mouth breather—mere debris—could have eluded the bounty hunter, Le Boeuf, aka “Le Beef.”  Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon are the only actors in this film whose performances are centered and grounded and should be given credit for holding the storyline together.  I believe that Brolin and Bridges should have followed the lead of Steinfeld and Damon and played their roles straight.  Instead of being so self-consciously “in a movie,” the bounty hunter and the outlaw could have been authentic, played like a pair of damaged men leading deranged lives.  They were two sides of the same coin; the same trained killer split into two paths.  One man found his humanity and the other lost his.

It remains to be seen if I am right about this film—that the audience will be bored.  I will be watching the numbers on the attendance, instead of reading the reviews.   That said, I would be surprised if Jeff Bridges does not get nominated for an Academy Award, like John Wayne.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

GREEN ZONE (2010)

GREEN ZONE (2010)

Sigh.  Not good.  So not good.  The once unbeatable team that brought us the Bourne films, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, has produced something Shakespearean—-“all sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Noise does not content make.  Once again, we are confronted with the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.  We believe.  We believe.  But tell us something we don’t know.  The film, based on the far superior book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, does not do this excellent book justice. Chandrasekaran chronicles a betrayal of the American people who put their faith in their government and were witnesses to one of the great displays of incompetence in contemporary history.

The story is a familiar one: the little people must pay and the big people get paid off.  Matt Damon is a little person, “Roy Miller,” an idealistic soldier who has drunk the Kool Aid of the necessity of the Iraq War.  As a result, he is desperately searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction.  The story was “ripped from the headlines.” Indeed, so ripped it was that Matt Damon’s soldier could have read the newspapers a few weeks later and learned the answers. Bland-faced, Greg Kinnear represents the Bush administration and all its ill-informed political flacks, operating out of their depth in Iraq.  Kinnear is not a force of evil, however, he is merely being expedient and political.  He is what he is: a cipher.  Punching him is like punching oatmeal.  He is the man who wasn’t there, hiding at the midlevel, unremarkable and unreachable.

Although Greengrass was supposedly fueled by a sense of outrage, he actually lets the neo-conservative fabulists off easy. The most horrifying part of Chandrasekaran’s book is not the absence of weapons of mass destruction but the sheer incompetence and delusional behavior of the occupying forces. I was amused to realize that the center of the “Green Zone” was the “Republican Palace” (referring to the Republican Guard). Despite the vast responsibilities of “liberating” Iraq, underage Republican staffers were rewarded with a summer job and a blip on their resumés.  Like their elders, the low level operatives were attempting to run a destroyed and demoralized nation, which was invaded by a hostile and belligerent force in search of something that did not exist. In this film, we get no sense of the hubris of the American government.   We get no sense of the overwrought décor of Sadaam’s palace, teaming with irreverent American soldiers.   We get no sense of the suffering of the Iraqi people. Green Zone lets the politicians off lightly and sets up a mystery tale about something that is no longer a mystery and sends the audience on a diversionary course.

We are asked to believe that the CIA is a force of good and, as such, the organization, or one of its operatives (Brendan Gleeson), would work with a lowly, untrained, off the reservation soldier.  This soldier has not read Tennyson and has never heard of the “theirs is not to reason why” part and does not like the “theirs is to do and die” part, so off he goes.  Careening around a strange city, accompanied by an astonishingly convenient interpreter, Damon manages to locate the mastermind behind the insurgency and the only voice of truth, a revered Iraqi general on the run.  There are no weapons.  There were never any weapons, but no one in a war-hungry administration wanted to know the truth.  We are asked to assume that this Iraqi general is the only one who knew of the amazing vanishing weapons. To silence him, Blackwater-like assassins, working for the government, against the CIA, shoot the Iraqi general.  And the conclusion we are supposed to reach is that the administration disbanded the Iraqi Army because the leaders knew there were no WMD.  I think.  And the CIA knew the truth and used the soldier, Roy Miller, to rock the boat.  I think.

The real story was so much better than anything Greengrass concocted.  Regardless of the intentions of this film, however admirable they might be, the result undermines the message. Roy Miller and his Interpreter are Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday.  I can only assume that Greengrass was unwitting in his colonialist viewpoint that the imperialists would always have one-legged accomplices as sidekicks.  The superiority of the West over the disabled East is underscored as the limping Interpreter attaches himself to the Invader and happily saves the  life of Roy Miller.  And all for no discernable reward, other than, “I love my country.”  The actual culpability of the Bush administration in a War of Choice is elided in the end. The villains are the natives who supported Sadaam and the blame is laid at the doorstep of the Iraqis.  There is a Chalabi-type pretender to the throne who is dethroned due to the Arab habit of arguing loudly.  Clearly the Arabs needed “our” help to show them how to do democracy.  Thanks to plain Roy Miller, the Americans can emerge from this film, honor intact, with ideals firmly in place.

It has been said that films about the Iraq War are unpopular because the was is unpopular.  Possibly, but it could be that the films about the Iraq War are unpopular because they are simply bad films.  Except for The Hurt Locker.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger