A New Column: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (Starting With “Promised Land”)

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Back in 2010, a strange South Korean Western (clearly inspired by Sergio Leone) titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird” arrived in America to modest reviews. It mostly did not work for me, but it had its clever moments, and it also had that droll title.

When I was trying to think of a running column for my site, something that would not constitute a review — as I’ve made clear, this is NOT a review site; my main (freelance) review outlet is the Buffalo News — but would instead offer a simple way to analyze and ponder films, TV shows, etc., I thought of that title. It seems to me that it offers a fine pathway for analysis.

Let’s give it a try, shall we?

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” (2012)

It’s difficult to think of a filmmaker who has had a more strange career path than Gus Van Sant. Consider that he has directed landmark indies (“Mala Noche,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho”), a couple true box office successes (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”), a couple disastrous flops (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” the notorious shot-for-shot “Psycho” remake), and others that are pretty difficult to classify (“Gerry,” “Last Days,” “Restless”). He has never been one of my favorites, although I adore “Cowboy,” “Idaho,” and “To Die For.”

Van Sant is never dull … but he sure can come close. “Promised Land,” the story of a corporate guy dispatched to a small town to buy drilling rights, is modestly enjoyable (I’d go **1/2), but also anonymous, and pretty unmemorable. Let’s take a look at the film, which just arrived on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Good: 

  • The acting. Matt Damon was made for a role like this — the smart, likable, conflicted everyman who gets in over his head. His co-writer, John Krasinski, is also good as an environmentalist with some secrets to hide. Hand-in-hand with the acting, of course, is …
  • The casting. Consider the supporting cast: Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver. Holbrook, especially, has some nice lines as a teacher and sketpic. So, cheers to …
  • The dialogue. There are some wonderful scenes between Damon and McDormand, and Damon and DeWitt. He and Krasinski deserve some credit for these well-drawn characters. (It’s based on a story by Dave Eggers.)

The Bad:

  • So what? “Promised Land” doesn’t leave the viewer with much to take that we didn’t already know. We understood going in that fracking was a tricky subject. And so it remains. Part of the problem is a script that is straight-forward until a sudden “twist” that seems out of place and pretty damn unbelievable.
  • It should be shorter. It’s a lonnng 106 minutes, especially the last 30 or so.
  • The film is just not memorable enough. A movie about fracking should have more passion, shouldn’t it?

The Weird:

  • The director. Is this really a Gus Van Sant film? I mean, really? It’s visually pedestrian, and stylistically bland. In other words, this is “Forrester” Van Sant.
  • The release date. “Promised Land” was a late entry in the 2012 Oscar race, but for the life of me, I’m not sure why. It opened in limited release on December 28, at the height of “Les Mis,” “Django,” “Hobbit,” and “Lincoln,” and was buried. Even a film with the audience unfriendly topic of fracking should gross more than $8 mill if it stars Matt Damon and played 1,600 theaters. A late-winter release would have been far more effective, to say nothing of early fall.

In final analysis, “Promised Land” is reasonable entertainment, thanks to its performances and dialogue. Perhaps, then, Van Sant’s hands-off approach was wise. Just try remembering it a week later.

 

A couple other Saturday notes:

  • Cannes announces its awards tomorrow night, and it would be silly of me to make any kind of prediction — all I could base it on what I’ve read on Twitter. But the three films to keep an eye out for seem to be the lesbian coming-of-age favorite “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” and Francois Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful.” But never count out the Coens, Steven Soderbergh, or Marion Cotillard, either …
  • It’s nice to see “The Hangover Part III” proving to be a box-office disappointment. Can’t wait to see how hard it falls on week two.
  • “Arrested Development.” New episodes. Netflix. Tomorrow. Never thought all of those words would go together.

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

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