PROMISED LAND (2012, directed by Gus Van Sant, 106 minutes, U.S.)
NOT FADE AWAY (2012, directed by David Chase, 112 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Matt Damon and John Kasinski co-wrote/co-produced and co-star in Promised Land, an “issue drama” that seems Hell-bent on allowing its flat-footed attempt at drama get by on its good-intentions alone. Based on a story idea by fellow do-gooder Dave Eggers, Promised Land aches of being a film whose anti-fracking message came long before they decided on a story to hang it on.
Damon is Steve Butler, a servant of an energy company who cruises in to a rural Pennsylvania town with his cynical parter Sue (Frances McDormand) looking to buy farmland for development. The company plans on extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracking, a process shown to have side-effects including poisoning of water supplies, local temblors and all the other general creepiness that comes with the modern energy industry. Steve and Sue’s job is to minimize those fears with cold, hard cash and they are on their way to closing the deal when a local school teacher (played by the impossibly noble Hal Holbrook for Pete’s sake) and a incredibly fetching local lass named Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) soften Steve’s will to do bad. As the pressure builds, John Kasinski appears as the sweet-natured activist who takes up the people’s cause and competes for Alice’s attention.
I don’t blame director Gus Van Sant, he lends a beautiful naturalness that is the film’s only asset (he pulled similar duty on Damon’s Good Will Hunting). Otherwise, the film is the kind of predictable stacked-deck drama that is the hallmark of propaganda films of every stripe. As someone who enjoys drinking water, I couldn’t be more for the idea of stopping dangerous energy extraction, but this type of ham-handed preachiness smacks of the sort of “Limousine Liberalism” in which a man of the people can’t seem to help himself from simplifying the the lives of the working class and talking to them like idiots.
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As a point of obscure cinema history, popular movie serials, the 12 or 15 episode shorts that would appear with newreels and cartoons before the feature, were sometimes cut down into a 90 minute feature film. Just the highlights, strung together in as artful a way as the footage would allow. Not Fade Away is the first feature film by David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and darn if it doesn’t play like a feature film that whittles down two hours of highlights from whole season of TV episodes.
The film follows Douglas (John Magaro) during the mid to late 1960s as he takes over his high school rock band and steers them towards, but not really anywhere near, musical stardom. Standing in the way of manhood is Douglas’ surly old man (James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano himself), complaining about his hair, his attitude, the way he treats his mother, and that God-damned racket.
The strengths Chase brought to The Sopranos (and a number of other TV shows he produced, I’ll Fly Away, Almost Grown) are all present here, unconventional casting, closely observed domestic drama, and a sense of historical context. Every element is right, Chase just seems clueless on how to frame them as a feature film. It makes for a strange case of all the detail in a movie being thoughtfully tuned while the vehicle itself putters and swerves all over the place..
For a rock fan (which Chase undoubtedly is) there are pleasures galore; the garage band catalog played in their basement rehearsals, a funny aside of Mick and Keith meeting forming The Stones, and the revelations that come with each 60s rock breakthrough. And there’s Gandolfini, watchable as ever, even though he’s playing basically playing Tony Soprano as if he were a straight schlub of a dad. A big unconventional-looking guy, Gandolfini hit the jackpot finding the role as rich as the head of the Soprano family. Similarly John Magaro, mousy and unsure of himself for most of the film, is another unconventional-looking actor given a chance to front a Chase production but he is sorely lacking in the gravitas to pull it off. In playing a struggling wannabe rock star, the uncharismatic Magaro makes his failure not only believable, but a little too just.