PROMISED LAND. Without Matt Damon and Frances McDormand in the leads, Promised Land would likely have faded into obscurity already. But both are eminently watchable, and very clever at giving life to the complex inner lives of the characters they play. They've each done more demanding work, but McDormand in particular is on her game here and makes the most of a relatively small amount of screen time.
They play the lead sales team (called land men in the industry) for a faceless multinational energy concern. Their job is to go into new territory and approach landowners, mostly farmers, to lease the rights to the natural gas deposits beneath their land. We learn in the opening, when whiz-kid Steve Butler (Damon) interviews for a big promotion, that he and Sue Thomason (McDormand) have handily outsold every other team in the company. This is mostly due to Butler's upbringing in an agricultural community that withered on the vine after the shuttering of a nearby equipment factory. He brings this personal history and an un-ironic, if misplaced, helping impulse to the table. People can't wait to sign on the dotted line.
When the team is charged with staking a claim in new territory, things go swimmingly -- at first. But then some of the townspeople start to question the methods of the faceless multinational energy concern. Enter a troublemaker from an upstart environmental group (John Krasinski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Damon, adapting a story by Dave Eggers), and it's an uphill climb to soul searching for old Steve Butler.
I can't fault Krasinski, Damon or director Gus Van Sant for wanting to make a message movie about "fracking" (short for fracturing, the invasive, controversial method by which natural gas is extracted from the ground), but this one doesn't quite do it. The screenplay is too precious with its words, so the scenes feel staged and overly rehearsed. Van Sant's direction, while clearly the work of a practiced craftsman, is soft and distancing, sapping the themes of any immediacy or authenticity. As much as the movie tries to demonstrate the complexity of the issue, it fails to really fill in the shades of gray between the good guys and the bad.
But, as I mentioned, Damon and McDormand both give very strong performances, as does an underused Titus Welliver. And Butler's character arc, as a genuine do-gooder excelling in a field where he doesn't belong, rings true. It's dynamic and detailed. I only wish the rest of the movie was, too. R. 106m.
NOT FADE AWAY opens with a young Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, pre-Stones, talking blues records on a train. One can't help but get the idea that this movie is about rock 'n' roll history. But we move from that fortuitous conversation to the living rooms and basements of suburban New Jersey, circa 1963, and it turns into a sad, inconsequential coming-of-age drama.
Writer-director David Chase (creator of The Sopranos) does use the rise of rock music in America as a sort of framework for his central story, but for the most part it's just set-dressing. At the heart of the narrative is young Douglas (John Magaro), a sort of adolescent everyman drummer who wants to start a band with his buddies and get out of New Jersey. He takes a run at it, along the way smoking a ton of weed and cigarettes and trading casualties in the war of the sexes.
The first Kennedy assassination, the arrival of the Beatles, the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam all get shoehorned in. And that, to me, is one of the main problems with this movie. It is well-crafted and well-intentioned, but there's just too much going on in the background for me to really focus on the trials and tribulations of the characters. Chase attempts to turn an intimate little story into a survey of America in the 1960s, and he runs out of room.
I admire his impulse, but I suspect that his story would have unfolded better in long form, say as a TV series. Despite its coarse language and frequent toking, Not Fade Away also feels a little light, lacking the grit and intensity of the music it ostensibly takes as its soundtrack.
Nevertheless, the movie proves watchable. Likeable, even. The period details seem spot-on, and the actors in the mostly young cast give compelling performances, particularly the always charismatic Jack Huston. And great music abounds, even if it feels underutilized. R. 112m.
--John J. Bennett
ZERO DARK THIRTY. This critical darling and political lightning rod chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden, with director Katherine Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who collaborated on The Hurt Locker) reportedly pulling no punches in depicting torture inflicted by the U.S. military. R. 157m.
GANGSTER SQUAD. Fedoras and Tommy guns and Sean Penn, oh my! It's Los Angeles in the 1940s, see? And the LAPD wants East Coast gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) and his ilk outta town, see? With Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Emma Stone. R. 113m.
A HAUNTED HOUSE. What, four sequels to Scary Movie weren't enough? This horror spoof looks promising ... as an early contender for worst movie of 2013. R. 86m.
Speaking of fedoras and Tommy guns, the Humboldt County Library resumes its Based on the Book Series this month with the theme "Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Films." Scandalous! See the Calendar section for informative background info. Next Tuesday's free screening at the Eureka main branch of the library will be Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932). 6:30 p.m.
This Thursday's Ocean Night at the Arcata Theatre Lounge features a pair of conservation-minded docs: Groundswell, a 25-minute chronicle of eco-surfers exploring the coast of British Columbia, and Watershed, an activist's look at the beleaguered Colorado River, executive produced and narrated by Robert Redford. ATL's 6:30 p.m. Friday night screening brings Frida (2002), director Julie Taymor's rich biopic about renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; 8 p.m. Enjoy a swift kick in the pants Sunday with Kung Fu Panda (2008), the witty computer-animated comedy with a voice cast led by Jack Black; 6 p.m. Next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night asks the question, "What do you call a half-man, half-monster?" and answers, Manster! (Duh.) This 1959 B-movie curiosity, a U.S.-Japanese co-production, plays at 7:30 p.m., with doors at 6.
DJANGO UNCHAINED. Quentin Tarantino's violent Blaxploitation fantasy about an avenging slave in the antebellum South is the most audacious and entertaining film of the year. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. R. 165m.
THE HOBBIT. Peter Jackson's gonna milk this Middle Earth business for all it's worth, isn't he? This bloated Lord of the Rings prequel (part one of three) looks beautiful but sags. PG13. 169m.
THE GUILT TRIP. Odd couple road comedy starring Seth Rogen as The Seth Rogen Character and Barbra Streisand as his embarrassing Jewish mother. PG13. 95m.
JACK REACHER. Tom Cruise stars in the title role, a former Army major turned vigilante drifter who gets pulled into a mass-shooting case that's not what it seems. Slick if forgettable. PG. 130m.
LES MISÉRABLES. Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) brings the mega-selling Broadway musical (based on Victor Hugo's French historical novel) to the screen with corny bombast. PG13. 157m.
LIFE OF PI. Ang Lee's adaptation of the bestselling book by Yann Martel is a visual feast, a technological marvel and a glib homily about spirituality. PG. 127m.
LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as grandparents using old-school discipline on their 21st century grandkids in this utterly disposable crap-a-thon. PG. 104m.
TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D. The latest escapades of Leatherface, everyone's favorite chainsaw-wielding killer, find him terrorizing teens again, the rascal. R. 92m.
THIS IS 40. In this "sort-of sequel" to Knocked Up, writer-director Judd Apatow cast his own wife and kids alongside Paul Rudd to examine the tragicomic reality of marriage and parenting. R. 134m.