Archive for the ‘Matt Damon’ Category

The Martian

16 Oct

The Martian – directed by Scott Ridley. Scifidrama. 141 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: An astronaut left behind and believed dead on Mars, contrives to survive, while rescuers on earth exhaust various schemes to save him.


Among actors of his generation Matt Damon possesses the rare quality of human decency – which Tom Hanks possessed and Jimmy Stewart possessed and which his contemporary Jim Caviezel also possesses. It means that he can bring to his characters an atavism, a strain of honesty which supersedes modernity by going back to the American primordial, a strain which is recognizable, trustworthy, and inviting. As such, Mark Damon is an actor as useful as bread. Not for just the characters he may sometimes play, but always for the way he plays the character.

For the character is not always white bread.

Here it is sour rye. His character is not peachy clean. He has temperament. Opinions. Dislikes. Vanity. Tartness. In embodying this, Damon gives to us someone we might know. And whose survival we might care about and root for.

All this, naturally, is in the writing, but Damon extends himself into each word said as a physical release – which is important, since he is often bench-bound. And since his resources for survival are so technical they cannot be appreciated, save in the actor’s practical, personal commitment to them.

The story is beautifully filmed and directed. Each member of the all-star supporting cast is scrumptious to watch. Each of them is a space program bureaucrat. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the NASA mission director; Michael Peña plays a fellow astronaut; Benedict Wong plays the rocket engineer; Donald Glover as the aerodynamics pro who masterminds one of the rescue missions; Jeff Daniels as NASA head; Jessica Chastain as the captain of a space ship.

If you like The Wizard Of Oz, you will find that this is the sort of story The Martian is. A fellow human finds himself unprotected and alone in strange land. Assisted by friends, plus his own gumption and perseverance, he must make a long journey through it to reach the salvation that will whisk him home.

You will cheer at the end. I understand you will cheer even more if you see it in 3D. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the story and the spectacle just as well. It’s a big hit, and Damon well worth the Oscar for it, don’t you think? For his opening scene alone. Check it out.


Behind The Candelabra

16 Sep

Behind the Candelabra – directed by Steve Soderbergh. Backstage Drama. 117 minutes Color 2013.
The Story: A young man is taken up by a renown entertainer and they becomes live-in lovers.

Lots of sauce but no fish.

I never cottoned to him. He appeared in our family dining room in the days of early television and I didn’t like what he was up to in any of its aspects. All I saw was greed. As a personality he was a lisping phony. His purpose was to seduce, ingratiate, reassure. His voice was a slow syrup dripping out of an ornamentalized pot. As a pianist he was a vulgar contortionist.

I never experienced him in his glory days in Vegas or on TV later. If he was around, I skirted him. I don’t like men to effeminize themselves. It means their feminine side is lost to them.

Lost in competition with their mother, maybe. A way of holding off their mother’s intrusiveness. Debbie Reynolds plays the mother here, and I didn’t recognize her. Who is that wonderful old actress they’ve got for that part? I asked myself, then read the credits.

The young man is played by Matt Damon whom it is impossible not to like, and whom we see gulled by the sequined manner of Liberace, who seduces him with a kindness so lavish it can only mean nothing. But he is taken in. I will not list the ramifications. But I will say that his playing of Scott Hanson is another notch in a belt Damon wears, notched by now it scarcely holds up his britches. Which is just fine, since he has a beautiful ass, and a willingness to use it and a unique talent to adapt to his material modestly.

Michael Douglas is another matter. He does not really go for it. He plays some of Liberace’s traits, but he does not play the bitch queen behind the emu feathers and the nastiness burning at the center of all those candles. It’s a performance you have to take on faith, which is not hard to do after a time, since it is exactly on pitch in so many ways.

The whole movie is a masterpiece of production, costuming, and makeup. These play a big part in Douglas’s arc, since he goes from middle-aged to face-lifted ageless to cadaver. It is very well written and directed. It is less a portrait of Liberace himself, about whom everything was obvious to a ten year old boy in his dining room, so much as it is about the love of the young man for him. People like Liberace don’t need to be loved. They just need to hand the word Love around like a canapé for popular consumption.



The Monuments Men

09 Feb

The Monuments Men – directed by George Clooney. War Drama. 118 minutes Color 2014.


The Story: A WW II mission to save works of art destined for destruction should the Nazis loose.

~ ~ ~

If ever a movie sank more solemnly under the freight of its miscasting, I have yet to see it. Art museum directors, curators, scholars, educators, archivists — George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray, thou never wert.

If John Goodman was not obviously such a good actor, he might be convincing as a sculptor.  And if Jean Dujardin were not so helplessly charming one might root for his loss from a profession we never grasp. This leaves Bob Balaban, who might pass for an academic in the world of world art, Hugh Bonneville as a former drunk, Dimitri Leonidas as the German-speaking Brooklyn Jew, and Cate Blanchett who is thoroughly convincing as the Jeu de Paume curator who kept a record of the stolen pieces.

All the others, wonderful actors though they are, exercise their noble craft as best they may, imagining that the good will which backs our affection and admiration for each and every one of them will supply the deficiency of their being in the wrong parts entirely.

George Clooney is the main culprit. For he is producer, writer, actor, and director. It is as a writer he is first to be stripped of his medal. For he has given the men the most routine of male chat to move things forward. Silent strength – you know the sort of thing – stalwartness in red, white and blue. I once worked in the high-testosterone History Of Art Department of Yale in the early ‘50s, and the chat was not that.

As director he lets his actors go where they will, as they will, each of them basically falling back on their star masculinity to perform their roles for them. As an actor, Clooney reverts to his casual, laid back, insouciant manner, and lets tacit charm muscle a job which has no place in it. Damon falls back on his Everyman quality, Murray on his piquant personality; both are irrelevant.

As producer, the picture cost 70 million – although how so blandly round a figure is come at one wonders – and it made what is essentially a small movie about a large subject, into a large movie about a subject which is invisible.

For Clooney sermonizes that these works of art must be saved from destruction and returned to their owners because they are the golden fruit of Western civilization. Everything we are fighting for! A great “accomplishment” which must not be lost. What vulgarity! What nonsense!

The only reason these works of art should be saved from theft and destruction, much less returned to their owners, is their priceless and inherent beauty. All these rescuers were chosen for their dedication to beauty. But “beauty” is a word never uttered by Clooney nor by anyone else. It is as though the word “beauty” were unmanly. The entire adventure operates under the cow pad of this omission.





26 Aug

Elysium – written and directed by Neill Boomkamp. SciFi Dystopian Drama. Earthlings now reside in a wrecked planet while the plutocrats inhabit a disease-free, gated garden in space which, seeking cure, a sick man and a sick child strive to reach. 109 minutes Color 2013.


We watch it because we want to watch Matt Damon carry another picture on his handsomely buffed shoulders. And we are not dissatisfied to see him do it once again. Except, of course, during the final reel, when, as is the long established and fitting custom in action/adventure movies, all character interaction dissolves in the tension inherent in his surviving the villainous remaining obstacles. This tension is in him and in us. Or is it in him? Or is it that we simply see him beat the odds with superior wit, muscle, and plot necessity, while we do all the tensing?

In any case, these sequences are over-cut, because we must not be asked to believe them, because to do that we would have to see them slowed down, and doing that, we would never find them credible. As it is we never find them credible. They simply zip by. And so the hero, the story, the human element – all are lost in the flash and speed of the editing, and we are bamboozled.

Are we bamboozled?

Nah. We don’t really buy it.

I’m not sure I buy the Jodie Foster freeze character of the mean Secretary of Defense of Elysium, as written, either. And I cannot understand two of the actors at all: Wagner Moura as Spider, Damon’s rebel chief, whose shaking curls destroy his articulation, and Sharlto Copley whose burr is so garbled and pitched that nothing the actor says can be heard. These characters, of course, are perfectly clear in their roles, but not in their gobbledygook. Bad direction. Too bad. It means all their humor is lost.

What’s not too bad is Damon, who, as always, is apple-pie, threatened, within or without, with strychnine. A completely identifiable actor, like Joel McCrae or James Stewart. And the entire contraption of the film is given and validated in its feeling and value by him and by Alice Braga. She is a wonderful actor, womanly, humorous, fluid, heaven to look at. She is a tincture of health in the sour atmosphere of nasty doom, exemplified by the part played by William Fitchner, a piece of work if ever there was one – Mr. Elegant Death, a sort of walking very expensive coffin.

The film satisfies as briskly as any other fast food you can think of. If you want to spend time without wasting time, you might like it.


The Informant

06 Aug

The Informant –­– directed by Steven Soderbergh. Big Business Biodrama. A corporate whistle-blower works with the FBI and into a hornet’s nest of surprises. 108 minutes Color 2009.


Am I crazy or is this character Matt Damon plays crazy? And, if crazy, how can I ask myself to invest in his story as one in which a drama of personal choice is embedded. If he’s nuts he can’t choose. Fix, lies, and audio-tape don’t work with a nut as protagonist.

Sold to us a comedy, this a Good Humor man selling us the same bill of goods as the criminals in it. The fault lies in the length of the piece, which has a wonderful screenplay, but which offers us at the last twenty minutes a string of daft surprises, as though everyone involved suffered the obsession as the main character and simply couldn’t stop. “This stuff really happened. It is so good, no one could make it up.” Yes, but you have to apply the same rigors of story-telling as if you had made it up. Your responsibility is to entertainment not to journalism.

Mark Whitacre is a fabulist from the start. That is to say he tells himself a story about himself, and then tells it to everyone else around, and he is so whitebread, everyone believes it, particularly himself. For instance, he seems to believe that once he overthrows the company-heads for price-fixing that he will be put in charge of the company himself.

Everyone rolls their eyes at this daffy dream, but no one comes outright to say he is dumb to think this and, moreover, to install it as the basis of his operations as a white-hat do-gooder. This is big-business. No one is going to put him in charge for turning them in. Doesn’t he get it?

What Matt Damon brings to the part is his willingness to wear a lot of padding over his buffed frame, to wear a mustache the shape of a fart, and to engage his head with a bald wig that renders him virtually unrecognizable. But he also plays the part with a naiveté that fuels Whitacre’s acts and keeps us as the audience on the sympathy-with-the-character side of the fence. Damon keeps us fooled. Just as Whitacre keeps fooling himself, and with the same means: innocent fairy tales.

It may sound like faint praise to call Damon the most useful actor in films today, but it is meant as real praise. For he takes on all sorts of non-leading-man, character roles, as here when, at the peak of his masculinity and looks at age 32, he embarks on this impersonation. An actor of perhaps fatal likeablity, because of Damon, we stay for the outcome of Whitacre’s life long after we have lost patience with it. Damon tends to play his characters as men of marked reserve, and, because the script doesn’t offer it, we never get inside Whitacre, although we get a lot of outside. If Whitacre is bi-polar, we never see it here, perhaps because being bi-polar is just another Whitacre fable. Here Whitacre is just a crafty fool. It would be interesting to see Damon play a character of high temperament. It would be interesting if Damon one day gave us poles.

The film is beautifully shot, directed, written, and beautifully scored by Marvin Hamlisch.


Promised Land

14 Jan

Promised Land – directed by Gus Van Sant. Drama. Two oil salespeople interlope a Pennsylvania farm town to sign it up for oil fracking, and come up against an informed populace and a charming environmentalist. 106 minutes Color 2012.
Everything else is decor. There are three elements in a movie. The acting, the story, the narration. And here’s a film you really want to root for.

The acting is impeccable. Matt Damon is one of the few actors who can actually mull on camera. He can transfer from a likeable hero to a likeable wretch in the same role and you go with for the ride. He is the most useful actor in films today. Frances McDormand, belovèd of all, has an inner humor and heart that is staunch in all dire straights. John Krasinsky is masterfully fluid and appealing here, and if I have never seen him before, I would be interested to see him again. We have Hal Holbrook – when has he ever wronged us? – while Rosemarie DeWitt upgrades every scene she is in.

Gus Van Sant’s direction of all this is balanced, easy on the eyes, sure. His sense of place gives us town and farm scenes that make us confident that we are there.

And the story? Ah, the story. It is like Frank Capra’s State Of The Union with Matt Damon playing Spencer Tracy. It’s the story of a man setting out on a worthy course, only to be seduced by his own rhetoric. And it would work – but it has a trick ending, and trick endings o’erset everything as a rule, including the audience’s faith in what they have just committed their trust to.

The issue of every story is: How do you get out of this predicament? But the problem here is divided predicament. Is the predicament how inconscionable large corporations are? That is to say, will Matt Damon realize he mustn’t continue in his career because corporations are wicked and manipulative?

Or is the predicament, how can he be gotten to see that fracking is poisonous and that he should not embrace a career that promotes it?

The answer to the second is that the Matt Damon character should already know that fracking kills water tables, long before he gets to Pennsylvania; he is 38, after all. Or is he a dope? – which is not the way he is presented. As to the corporations, the trick ending leaves us in no uncertainty about that. But that is a trick to cover a defect of focus. The trick ending shatters our credulity, and in our betrayal such questions snap to the surface, where they should never arise at all.

Damon and Kasinsky produced the picture as well as wrote it and stared in it, so there was no way such questions could snap to the surface of them. They lost us because they were lost. The film would have been far more successful had it been much less pat, more at loose ends. Does Matt really regain his manhood just so that he can walk into the arms of Rosemarie DeWitt at the end? Is that all there is: a hardon? What does he do then? Raise chickens? Children? Cain? Well, that too is unanswerable. As to the film? Well, I liked it, but, obviously, oh, I wish I had liked it better.


We Bought A Zoo!

18 Jan

We Bought A Zoo — directed by Cameron Crowe. Family Drama. A widowered adventure writer takes his kids and his inheritance and buys a small zoo on its uppers. 124 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

As soon as Thomas Haden Church appears on the screen we know we are in for a forgone conclusion: it’s going to be a dogmatically sentimental tale plotted-up so’s everything ends hunky-dory at the credits. Mr. Church is wonderfully amusing as the character of the narrow-minded older brother trying to convince his younger brother not to jump into the swamp of zoo-purchase. The problems lie not with the actor but the role. It is the role of a false antagonist, unneeded because we have a real antagonist in the person of the stickler zoo inspector played with equal comic skill by John Michael Higgins. Up until the older brother, we are sailing along quite nicely in the company of Matt Damon and his two children, a darling little girl played by Maggie Jones who never missteps into the poo of child actorishness, and by Colin Ford, playing the 14 year-old sullen son. For as soon as Church does appear his performance is our gain and the story’s loss, for we instantly know the film is going to be devoured whole by massive plot contrivances. The conflict in this film is really simple, and does not need either a contrivance or a plotty plot: it is whether Matt Damon can kill an old suffering tiger. In favor of its putting-down is Scarlett Johansson. She is a plain girl, and it is good to see her out of the sequins of her seductivity and instead where she truly belongs, in rude jeans and scraggly hair. She plays an experienced and devoted zoo professional, and is perfectly convincing in the role. But we are eventually given her hair set more glamorously in order, one supposes, to validate an attraction between her and Damon, an attraction which is completely disconsonnant with all we are told about his devotion to his recently dead wife. Along with this we are bombarded with a standard conflict between the father and son, a romance with the son and a local 12 year-old, the zoo inspection impending then occurring, running out of money, inclement weather on opening day, and even the misadventure of a fallen tree keeping customers out, and the older brother. What is lost by all of this?  What’s lost is Matt Damon’s performance. All this pulls the rug out from under it by doing all the work for him – whereas, good actor that he is, he might have compassed it all which we would have been glad to see him do. But Cameron Crowe does not seem to have the common sense to keep things simple. Moreover, we are wrung dry by the score which crowds us out more and more as the film goes on. Crowe doesn’t allow us to participate; he rams it down our throats instead of letting us swallow it on our own. He doesn’t allow us to do our job; he doesn’t trust his audience. Fortunately, his actors trust themselves and it is them that we bide our time with, with a certain satisfaction, even though none of them are given close relations with the animals themselves, save with the tiger, whose demise, the only real dramatic action natural to the material, we are, unfortunately, spared. There are a couple of good arguments and a couple of cunning one-liners, true. But I am not a robot. And I do not need controlling.




01 Oct

Contagion – Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Drama. A mysterious plague moves fast through the world killing millions. 109 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

I don’t believe this film succeeds in accomplishing what it set out to do, which is to incite. But I don’t know if that is what it set out to do, because the massive and spectacular documentary details of its execution, none of which we are allowed to dwell upon either, causes us to lose identity with the characters – such that the characters, in terms of narration, are executed tokenly – bigger than a cameo, smaller than a part — although they are not acted that way. A good example is the final scene of Marion Cottillard to whom is delivered the news that she has unwittingly participated in a fraud, and she simply gets up to rectify it presumably by telling those defrauded that they have been. It’s not enough. And over and over again the spectacle of ruination of the mysterious killer disease is shown, to the dead loss of all of the main characters, except in a sort of follow the dots plotting. But characters are not dots. So there is nothing to latch onto in the human realm, leaving the arrangement of the plague to look like a put-up-job, a numb what-if. The characters turn up here and there and are given very little screen time, leaving us with a fancy show of contagion, which does not frighten because no one we know is threatened. Why? Because the disease kills  immediately; it never threatens, it just does you in. Marion Cotillard plays a research person, and she really should give up playing non-character leads in American films. She is not a leading lady. She is completely cold on the screen. It is as if she were just waiting to find another monster to play. Gwyneth Paltrow is, as usual, an unexceptionable actress, in the part of the first carrier of the disease, as is Kate Winslet who goes out earnestly to stop the plague. Laurence Fishburne is the honcho in charge of Disease Control, and most of what he does is to transmit or suppress what is supposed to be scary information. Jude Law as an Aussie yellow journalist who early latches onto the story and attempts to radicalize it – but succeeds only in making it a scandal – seizes the screen between his uneven teeth and shakes it like a mutt shaking a dead rag. But it is Matt Damon who anchors the film; he’s a very fine actor, if one of modest means, and he deserves a lot of credit for way he holds this role. The acting is unadorned, and no one does a star turn, which is to the director’s credit. The fault lies with the writer’s conception that we could have a movie about a plague that looks like a documentary, is played like a documentary, but is really a whole sea of confetti made from cut up newsprint barged into at various points by neat O’Henry twists.





True Grit

22 Jan

True Grit – written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen – Western. Seeking revenge, an adolescent girl hires two conflicting agents and accompanies them on the quest for a low-life killer. 110 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

As with all the Coen boys’ works, the excellence of the piece depends upon the writing, and this one sure does. It’s set forth in the style that omits verbal conjunctions. No one says “it’s”; everyone says “it is”. This gives the work the elevated tone of fable, and if we were reading it we would be reading a dime Western of the day. The second stylistic trick is to write it in lingo. The lower class types speak in a vernacular completely fabricated by themselves, while the educated  speak in fancy locutions, such that they do not say “leave” whenever they can say “depart”. In both cases the audience is faced with the task of translating English into English. And translation is a formal task and we take it on readily enough. For that task immediately produces in the audience a respect for the material, that is to say, a standing back from it to regard it, and this is a proper and pleasing thing to do. It both distances us and engages us at the same time. And no point does it fail to entertain us, for two reasons. First the narrative is so beguiling, by which I mean the way the directors handle what-happens-next of the story. The journey through the Indian wilderness is one instance and the rescue at the end is another, and it is so all the way through, making it one of the very best pieces these boys have ever given us. When we are done we know we have seen a movie worth seeing. The second ingredient is the performance of a very well cast cast. Jeff Bridges clobbers his way through the thicket of dirty beard, tobacco, booze, and one good eye to bring forth that cantankerous geezer we’ve all met, all remember, and would not wish to spend a lot of time with. Hailie Steinfeld plays the righteous adolescent (think of Katherine Hepburn aged 14), who does have to spend a lot of time with him. James Brolin, as the target of the revenge, is marvelous in his few scenes, particularly in the middle of a river facing off against her. And Matt Damon, the humorless Texas Ranger, plays his role like an Eagle Scout On A Mission For A Merit Badge, which is just right, for it makes him look like a fool. For fooling us is a Coen Bros’. stock in trade. We are even fooled by that bear-headed medicine man we meet. I suppose the Coen Brothers are a bear-headed medicine man themselves. They sure are The Brother Grim. And they sure do entertain us here.




27 Oct

Hereafter –– directed by Clint Eastwood –– a suspense drama, as three people, with three different relationships to the afterlife, work out their destinies. –– color 2010.

* * * * *

The story completes itself with that Dickensian coincidence of plot which it is always so gratifying to encounter, is it not? Nothing could be more true to life, as Dickens himself well knew, than coincidence. Indeed one of our trio is a Dickens fan, and this very passion is what eventually draws the trio together under one roof. Matt Damon plays him, and he is an actor so solid in his craft that his work appears simple, but it is not with a trick of emotion that he holds a film together, but rather with his ability to play fear of his own destiny, a talent that has held him before our willing eyes from the start of his career. Against this ground of being, everything plays off, with a mysterious quiet vitality. Frankie and George McClaren play the twins, and they are simply wonderful from beginning to end. Speaking of the beginning, it starts with the most spectacular sequence I have ever seen in a film. I shall say nothing more. Because of it alone, don’t miss this film. As with all Eastwood’s films, the narrative works when dialogue is on camera, but the passage work and narrative liaisons are flaccid. Here, for instance, when we move to Paris he shows the Eiffel Tower, then a medium shot of  a French building, then one of the lady; when in London, we get London Bridge, and so forth; when Matt Damon at work, Eastwood gives us the C & H Sugar factory in Crockett, then the interior, then Damon talking to a co-worker. These “strong” establishing shots are weak because disconsonnant with the paradox of the material. For a while now, this director has told stories that don’t involve revolvers, an assortment sometimes badly cast, as in the case of Angelina Jolie, and here, in the instance of the woman playing opposite Damon at the beginning. She giggles all the while and makes faces; she has come from the Situation Comedy School Of  TV Acting, and you really wish to push her into a ditch. Damon is manfully alive opposite her. In any case, we have Cécile de France, perfectly cast as the French TV anchor woman. The whole subject of the afterlife is treated warmly, respectfully, and interestingly. The playing of the boy and of Damon and of de France has the power of great emotional economy. This is not paranormal or supernatural material by the way. No, it’s quite real, and quite fine. See it. A film for grown-ups.


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