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Matt Damon

Review: Downsizing

Alexander Payne has become known for directing bittersweet comedies rooted in recognizable—you might say warts and all—humanity. Movies like NebraskaAbout Schmidt, and Sideways are not always easy on their characters, but they sometimes crackle with lightning bolts of insight. Payne’s latest, written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, adds a sci-fi framing device to his work. But ultimately Downsizing looks a lot like his previous films—and I think that’s a good thing.

The gimmick here is that Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink people, a breakthrough that will lead to enormous environmental and financial benefits for the planet.

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Film Review: ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon

The movie begins with a hurricane on Mars, a life-threatening debris storm, and a spaceship that might not be able to lift off in the chaos. And that’s the easy part. After the rocket finally blasts from the surface, an astronaut—presumed dead—is left behind on the Red Planet, and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive by himself until a very improbable rescue mission could pick him up. That will take many, many months, if it happens at all. So The Martian is a problem-solving movie: How will castaway Mark Watney (Matt Damon) figure out the fundamental problems of food, shelter, and communication? The movie doesn’t waste much time worrying about issues of loneliness; after we’ve spent time with Watney, who has a complete lack of introspection and neurosis, it’s no wonder.

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Videophiled: Rebel Rebel – ‘Elysium’ and ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’

ElysiumElysium (Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) showed up more than any other film in the Criticwire survey of Biggest Disappointments of 2013. Don’t get us wrong; Elysium is a fun film with a slightly subversive political message, but its commentary plays out in the most conventional ways. Matt Damon is a former car thief trying to go straight as a factory worker in a Los Angeles of the future turned third world slum, who gets a death sentence thanks to technical glitch and a system that treats him like a disposable piece of equipment. He’s no revolutionary but he is desperate and angry and he takes on the 1 percent by invading their space station penthouse in the sky to unlock their protected technology for all.

This is a dystopian science fiction thriller rooted in the fury of income inequality and loaded with a plea for universal health care. The disappointment is how director / writer Neill Blomkamp (District 9) failed to capitalize on the premise, turning a potentially whipsmart sci-fi thriller into a conventional spectacle where technology is a gimmick, the action blurs into messy scenes of hyperkinetic editing and the battle against the system becomes an action cartoon. Jodie Foster is the ice queen security chief villain plotting a virtual coup during the chaos and Sharlto Copley plays the mangy bounty hunter as a sociopath handed a license to kill.

The DVD includes two featurettes and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy for download and instant streaming. Exclusive to the Blu-ray are four additional featurettes and an extended scene.

AintThemBodiesAin’t Them Bodies Saints (MPI, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) plays like the cinematic answer to an outlaw folk song. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play lovers Ruth and Bob, separated when Affleck heads to prison (taking a murder rap to protect his pregnant love). Ruth settles down to raise their daughter, looked after by Bob’s shady but loyal father figure (Keith Carradine) and looked in on by a lovesick policeman (Ben Foster), when Bob decides he can’t live without seeing her and escapes lockup.

Director David Lowery’s filmmaking is assured, with a portrait of rural Texas slipped out of time, straddling the entire era from the Great Depression to the seventies recession and smudging any clues that would definitively set the year. He has an attention to tone and atmosphere, to the nowness of the moment, letting it all settle into the image and the narrative, while the quality of light (from the magic hour exteriors to interiors lit by hurricane lamp and incandescent bulbs) warms the film while coloring it like a yellowed memory. Comparisons to Terrence Malick are not misplaced, but this has more in common with Altman’s Thieves Like Us than Badlands, with Affleck as both a wild kid and cold killer and Mara as devoted mother and lover balancing her heart’s desire with her realist’s understanding of how his desperate prison escape is destined to end. For all the poetry of his filmmaking, this isn’t the romance of outlaw innocents on the run. This life doesn’t offer happy endings, but these people do have a kindness and compassion that makes the effort worthwhile.

Blu-ray and DVD editions feature a documentary and deleted scenes among the supplements, but the more interesting bonus is Lowery’s debut feature St. Nick, never before released on disc.

More releases, including Museum Hours (Cinema Guild, Blu-ray, DVD), The Lone Ranger (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand), and Prisoners (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD, Cable On Demand), at Cinephiled.

‘Elysium’: Matt Damon as Sci-Fi Spartacus

Matt Damon’s hero prepares a data dump (with Wagner Moura, left, as his programmer)

Elysium hangs in orbit, a giant spinning space station of deluxe McMansions and WASPy country clubs; it’s a brief supersonic ride from the filthy, overpopulated Earth of 2154.

Elysium looks like the most boring place imaginable. But every home has a healing machine (like the auto-surgery modules in Prometheus), which is handy if one has absorbed a lethal dose of radiation and has five days to live. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, such is the dilemma of Max (Matt Damon), a worker-drone on Earth who must find a way to get to Elysium and fix his decaying body.

Already you can see the outlines of Blomkamp’s allegory, a world divided between the haves and the have-nots (such a remarkably consistent vision in futuristic fiction, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine through Metropolis and Avatar). If this lacks the startling originality of Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9, which shredded the imagery of apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa through a savage and funny alien-invasion scenario, the Elysium setup is still workable enough to qualify as satisfying old-school science fiction.

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Acting for Oscar

Matt Damon

Toward the end of last year, a friend and I were e-mailing about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Released in mid-October, the film, a meditative journey along the boundary between life and death, had already done a fast fade as a commercial prospect (death is such a downer) and subject for awards speculation. My friend disdains Eastwood’s filmmaking as much as I mostly esteem it, but he agreed with me about one thing: he was “blown away” by Matt Damon’s performance. I said I thought it was the best of the year but feared it would be ignored come Oscar season. Not only was Damon’s character one among several focal figures in a film with several story threads—”He doesn’t speak with a British accent, and he doesn’t stammer.”

OK, that was glib. But also on point and, as a prediction, accurate. Damon wasn’t among the Academy Award nominees announced the morning of January 25. He rarely has been (Good Will Hunting, 1997; Invictus, 2009). Yet Matt Damon may be the best actor in movies these days, even if that superlative usually cues people to envision such worthies as Javier Bardem or Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp. Damon has long since earned a place in their company, but neither he nor his work insists on it—as he doesn’t insist on his stardom. He’s mingled stellar turns in the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and the Bourne franchise with supporting and ensemble roles: Saving Private Ryan, Dogma, Syriana, the Ocean’s pictures, Invictus. That’s better than being the best actor. He’s the exemplary actor.

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also-true ‘Grit’

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn (photo by Lorey Sebastian)

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]

Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.

The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.

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