- The Lunch with Justin Chang, Chief Film Critic for Variety: Down to the Wire on 2013 …
- The Lunch with Director Shaul Schwartz of ‘Narco Cultura’
- The Lunch with Dir. Joel Allen Schroder of ‘Dear Mr. Watterson …’
- The Lunch with John Sayles, Director/Writer of ‘Go for Sisters’
- The Lunch with ‘Charlie Victor Romeo’ Directors Patrick Daniels and Robert Berger
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Tag Archives: Matt Damon
Roughly inspired by a 1954 short story from the same writer who had his works turned into the films ”Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Paycheck,” “The Adjustment Bureau” offers what science-fiction fans will recognize as Philip K. Dick in a box: conspiracy, reality-bending, big brainy questions and little weird details. Senatorial candidate David Norris (Matt Damon) is preparing a concession speech when he meets ballerina Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), and the connection is immediate. Nothing could keep them from pursuing each other … aside from a mysterious conspiracy of retro-stylish men with knowledge of some grand plan that must be kept to themselves, and that doesn’t include room for love between David and Elise.
Written and directed by George Nolfi, the film follows a fairly familiar set of rules and delivers a fairly familiar set of images and ideas. Imagine if “The Matrix” was not crafted to satisfy someone who watched Bruce Lee movies and read comic books while procrastinating on a computer science degree, but instead made for the enjoyment of someone who watched Douglas Sirk melodramas and read Harlequin romance novels while procrastinating on a theology degree. You get the same concerns – What’s real? Do we have free will? Can anything stop love? — but with foot chases instead of gun battles, discussions of divine grace instead of robotic evil, and love, not kung-fu, conquering all.
As David pursues Elise, he keeps on encountering roadblocks thrown up by the Adjustment Bureau, nattily dressed functionaries who talk like organization men but seem just a touch more-than-human. They have neat Moleskine notebooks that open up to display animated maps of the workings of the universe and a neat knack for opening a door in one place and stepping out through it in another place blocks or miles away. The neatest thing about these functionaries — played, moving up the ladder of management, by Anthony Mackie, John Slattery and Terence Stamp — is that they do have a ladder of management, and they sound like they’re out of “Office Space,” not some boil-in-bag cliché sci-fi film. Slattery, exasperated by David’s persistence in the face of warnings and obstacles, notes, “I just can’t catch a break on this case,” and you actually feel for the bad day at work he’s having.
To director Nolfi’s credit, he gets a substantial amount of chemistry out of Damon and Blunt — their initial meeting throws so many sparks off the screen it might as well be in 3-D — and he takes advantage of cinematographer John Toll (who shot the not-dissimilar “Vanilla Sky“) and New York’s shooting locations to terrific effect. It’s his directorial debut, and after writing for Damon in both “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” Nolfi has a good sense of how to best use the actor’s charisma and skills.
If one thing damages “The Adjustment Bureau,” it’s how it literally talks itself out of being really good, the energy of the final chase (full of space-shifting special effects shots so casually delivered it takes a few moments to realize how well-done and well-executed they actually are) diluted and undercut by a lengthy overexplanation of the film’s metaphysics by Mackie. The Bureau is such an interesting idea — capable of minor miracles and with the kind of gift for timing that when you imagine the metaphorical angels dancing on the head of a pin, these are the guys doing the choreography — that Nolfi’s need to answer every question in the last reel is more exasperating than enlightening.
Do Nolfi, Damon and Blunt create an instant classic of the emotional sci-fi subgenre like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Solaris,” where the big pseudoscientific idea in the film is just an excuse to explore philosophical ideas about love? Not quite. It’s a hyper-adrenalized date movie, one that owes far more to Nicholas Sparks than Philip K. Dick. (Getting the squirrely, speed-freak ideas of Dick’s wired, weird stories and novels on the big screen involves so much money and effort that the weirdness is often the first thing to go, as if the Philharmonic tuned up for needlessly large, elevator-music versions of Clash songs.) It’s too bad that Nolfi couldn’t stick closer to the cold bizarre brilliance of Dick’s work in his film. The sentiment of “The Adjustment Bureau” isn’t necessarily what sinks it, but the overexplained softened edges of the story turn what could have been an exceptional brain-bender into a good, but fairly standard-issue, heart-warmer.
With last week’s piece of my picks for what will win the Oscar versus what should win the Oscar inspiring both lively discussions and psychotic ire, I got more than a few mails. How could I, they said, dare suggest how the Academy should vote? But a couple of people — in between others being mad — suggested I go even further. With that in mind, here’s a list of the same categories as last week where I gave my picks for who should win and who will win — but this time, with my argument-starting thoughts on which non-nominated actors and films should be among the nominees, paired with the crueler lifeboat-ethics question of who you’d remove to make room for them.
I like Renner, as an actor, a lot, but his work in “The Town” is fairly solid tough-guy stuff, and the nomination feels like a bone thrown to the film. Damon made everyone around him in “True Grit” bring their A-game with a full, funny and completely selfless performance — and stepped out of the film when it was time to go.
I don’t think Kunis should win, but Kunis is, as Damon is for “True Grit,” the epitome of a supporting actress in “Black Swan.” And Steinfeld, really, should be over in Best Actress. The fact she isn’t is a bit of a joke.
Say what you will about “Inception”‘s flaws — and it has them, idiosyncratic and personal — but it’s also a great achievement that speaks to the idea of film as a meeting of arts, a marriage of media. “The King’s Speech” is, in terms of its direction, a 60-foot-tall version of a really classy high school play shot with a fisheye lens.
This may be the one that hurts the most: All five of the Best Actress nominees are great. “Rabbit Hole,” though, is tied with “Blue Valentine” as the film with the least number of nominations in the bunch … so, in this cruel case, over the side it goes.
The absence of Gosling in the nominees list is, to me, one of the biggest what-the-what omissions of the year; as for Bardem, well, I’m no fan of “Biutiful”‘s subtitled soap opera, so dropping him doesn’t sting a bit.
Add: “Blue Valentine”
Remove: “127 Hours”
“Blue Valentine” is a rarity — a grown-up film, a showcase for great acting, a superbly written work of art. And “127 Hours” — while a good movie — isn’t, uh, great. And isn’t that what the Oscars are supposed to be honoring?
Of course, with “True Grit” being a Coen brothers film, Hailee Steineld’s work as Mattie Ross — and the entire film — contains more than a few dark laughs. I asked Steinfeld if she expected the film to have as much dark laughter in it as it did. “Actually, some of the stuff, we could not get through without laughing, which was fun,” she said. “We’re so pleased that the audience gets that response as well, because it was as funny doing it as it was on-screen. The scene between LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and Mattie in the bedroom, I could not get through that without laughing. It was the funniest thing. I love the fact that not only is it a Western and drama, it’s got some comedy in it, so it’s great.”
Steinfeld may not have known exactly what to expect from a Western, because, frankly, she hadn’t see many of them. With her casting, that changed. “When I first heard about ‘True Grit,’ I watched the original,” she said. “Just this past year, I’ve been introduced to the genre of a Western. It’s funny. It’s something we don’t have a lot of today, and I think it’d be great to have them back. It’s fun. I think with ‘True Grit,’ what’s so refreshing about it is the fact that not only is it a Western — it has the guns and the horses and the cowboys — but it’s really about the relationships.”
(Later, in the press conference, Steinfeld casually established with co-star Josh Brolin just how quickly the cast had to get into the film’s darker, dangerous Western mood: “Like, 15 minutes after I met you for the first time, we were rehearsing … it was, you were, like, on top of me with a knife to my neck, so it was kind of interesting.” Brolin, for his part, praised his co-star: “She’s so precocious and amazing and present and just kind of went with it. I think it was more nerve-racking for me than it was for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin, you know?” For Brolin, the biggest trick about working with Steinfeld was watching his four-letter words, as she profited from the on-set swear jar: “Yeah, she made about $100,000. …We really searched a lot in rehearsal for character and all that, but she had already had it; she was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started.”)
I also asked Steinfeld if it ever really kicked in that her first big-screen acting job was the lead role in a film directed by two of the field’s biggest talents — and if she was worried about making sure her next film wasn’t a horrible letdown. “That’s definitely something that we’re concerned about, (and) making sure whatever is the next thing is the right choice,” she said. “I’m so, as you can imagine, so honored and so blessed to have been given this opportunity. I’m so proud of it, really, and so proud to be a part of such an amazing cast. I feel like when I got the call, it hit me then, but then when I saw the film … it’s so surreal. It’s a lot.”
And while some are talking about Steinfeld as an awards-season contender for Oscar glory, her interest in the season’s films is as a viewer, not as a competitor: I asked her which film she most wanted to see, and her answer suggests that the precocious actress may need to take along a guardian to the movies: ‘Black Swan.’ I saw the trailer, and I’ve watched it so many times and it never gets old. It looks so intense. I’m really excited for that.”
As interesting as it is to talk with Matt Damon about “Hereafter,” the actor’s crowded resume, past and present, means that any conversation will digress and diverge. I half-kiddingly asked Damon if he, after the success of “The Town” ever wants to yell at his old friend and collaborator Ben Affleck, “Return my calls. Put me in one of your movies, Mr. big-time director”? Damon laughed. “Yeah, I do. I’m sending him e-mails — daily e-mails — reminding him to cast me in his next movie. I was thrilled and not at all surprised to see ‘The Town’ be as good as it was and as successful as it was. I’ve been a big believer in him my whole life, but I’m just happy that everyone else is, too.”
But Damon’s just as generous toward new co-workers, too, like when I asked him about working with Bryce Dallas Howard, and if she seems as present in the moment during scene work as her demeanor suggests. “It’s funny you should ask that,” he said, “because Clint was just talking about her today at the press conference. He said she’s one of those actresses where you just know it’s going to be the first take, because she’s just right there. I don’t know if that’s a function of working with Clint — because he’s legendary for printing the first take, so actors usually come very prepared because they know he might print the first thing they do — but she definitely treated it like a play. She was ready to go from the moment they started rolling. And those are tough scenes, too. It was interesting, because we shot the main scene in the kitchen; that’s like a seven-page scene, and I think we did it in one day. And that’s a lot, that’s a lot to do in one day. Her whole role was a four- or five-day stint that she did on the movie. That role, in another movie, she would have been there for a month. It was intense. I think going into it, it’s going to be intense, so everyone’s prepared for that. You also know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to be intense for a week, so everybody comes with their game face on. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do in a movie, to show up in a short period of time and do intense stuff. You don’t get any kind of settling into the groove of the movie; you show up and go.”
On “Hereafter,” Damon also got to work with old friend Richard Kind (“A Serious Man,” “Spin City”), and tried to ease his pal into Eastwood’s rhythm. “I know Richard; I’ve known him for years, and I talked to him beforehand,” Damon said. “I said, ‘The only drawback to doing a Clint Eastwood movie is that it ends too quickly.’ We rehearsed together beforehand. We were at the same hotel, and he came over to my room, and we sat down and read through the scene a couple of times so we knew what we were doing, because you show up and it’s “The first take is good — you’re not going to do a second one.”
Finally, I had to ask: Damon’s taken a part in longtime friend and collaborator Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming viral thriller “Contagion,” and I wanted to know just how germophobic Soderbergh’s vision of a superplague was going to make me. Damon laughed. “Dude, literally, (Soderbergh) sent me the script and he said, ‘Read this and then go wash your hands.’ I’m telling you, don’t see it — it’s going to be like a grown-up horror movie. Scott (Z. Burns), who wrote ‘The Informant,’ just researched what really would happen if one of these superviruses got out, and it’s going to be great. But it’s terrifying. We were supposed to go to ‘Liberace,’” — Soderbergh’s long-planned biopic of the famed pianist — “and then Steven put it on hold because when he read (‘Contagion’), he was like, ‘I have to go make this next.’ I think it’s going to be terrific, actually. But it’s one of those things where I’m only working on it for three weeks. All the actors, everyone’s constantly dying in the movie. I don’t think anybody’s on the run of the show.” Damon laughed long and loud, amused by how death on-screen can make an actor’s life easier: “We’re all on three-week contracts.” “Hereafter” is currently playing in limited release.
Of course, the last time Matt Damon worked for Eastwood, he played the real-life captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar. I asked if playing a real person offers benefits, and challenges, that playing a fictional character doesn’t. “Yeah, definitely,” he said. “In ‘Invictus,’ I felt a lot of responsibility, actually, because I met Francois and spent time with him and really, genuinely liked the guy and wanted him to like the movie. So it was a different kind of pressure that I felt. While people in America weren’t as familiar with him, people everywhere else in the world know him and what he looks like, and I was anxious about that the whole time we filmed. There were so many iconic moments in that last game — there are archival photographs of he and Mandela and the cup, all this stuff — I wanted to get those details right so that we didn’t offend anybody.”
But in “Hereafter,” Damon doesn’t have that safety net, and he created his lonely medium George from the script and thin air. “The script is really good,” he said. “There was kind of a heartache to the whole script. The character just felt so lonely on the page, the way it was written, that I think, without ever saying it, that was one of the things we were trying to capture: the guy who just can’t connect to people. It’s the guy who goes to the adult cooking class — you know, he’s just trying to meet people and start over. All that stuff was right there on the page. The experience of reading it, I think, is very much like the experience of watching the movie. Clint doesn’t change the scripts, at least the two that I’ve done with him. And I’ve talked to him about it. If he responds to the script, he doesn’t want to screw it up by gilding the lily. He just tries to capture what he feels when he reads it in the film.”
Damon’s character finds comfort in an unusual place: the work of Charles Dickens, which figures into the final act. I asked if working on “Hereafter” made Damon a Dickens fan. “No, I always liked him. It was interesting, actually. Peter (Morgan) actually even wrote it in the script, and I talked to him about it. He says, ‘Most people would say Shakespeare, but Dickens for me is really the guy.’ We went and shot at the Dickens museum and (at) that picture, the Dickens dream picture. When you see it, it’s Dickens sitting at his desk and all of these characters in his books kind of bent around him; they’re in his imagination, but they’re like these ghosts that are haunting him, almost. So it’s like a perfect parallel for George, for the character who has these visions. And so it’s like in that moment George realizes maybe that’s the reason he’s always felt so connected to Dickens — because in fact he may have been having a similar type of experience on Earth.”
It turns out the person most surprised by Matt Damon’s latest film, “Hereafter,” is … Matt Damon. The actor didn’t think he was going to be in Clint Eastwood’s most recent film. Speaking from New York, Damon explained how it was easy to agree to work with Eastwood again after having collaborating on “Invictus” — but the trick, this time, was scheduling. “(Eastwood) was nice enough to send me a script. Which — it wasn’t just any script; it was a Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) script, and it was really, really good,” Damon said. “Actually, what happened on this one was he called me a couple months after we got home from Africa, and he told me about it. At the time, I was getting ready to go shoot a movie in New York during the time he would have wanted me for this. I was already booked, and I just said, ‘I can’t. Is there anyway you could wait till January to shoot, or could you go in August?’ Because he was wanting to go in October, and I was on something else. And he said, ‘No. I’m really counting on it. I want to shoot in autumn, and I’m really counting on being there. We’ve locked all the locations down and we’re ready to go.’”
Which, all things considered, wasn’t good news for Damon. But his explanation of what happened next illuminates both his and Eastwood’s working methods: “I was really crestfallen at that point. I ended up sending him an e-mail with three actors — without having read the script — I said, ‘Well, here are three guys roughly my age who I think are fantastic, and I go see everything that they do. Maybe one of them would be your best choice.’ And then a few weeks later, I went to California to do some looping for ‘Invictus,’ and he had thought about it, and what he figured was because there were three stories that converge at the end, he could just shoot the other two in the fall and he could take a hiatus and wait for me to shoot. We could shoot, really, in a month; we could do my whole story line. And that’s what he did. So I was just so happy that he did that.”
Asking Damon about “Hereafter”‘s nod to the supernatural — he plays a man who can talk to the departed and see people’s past lives by just touching them — and its matter-of-fact approach to material that other directors would wreathe in special effects and spooky nonsense, his response is as plainspoken as Eastwood’s approach to life and death. “Look, I came into it at a later time,” he said. “I just thought the script was great, and Clint was doing it. The matter-of-fact approach I think has more to do with Clint and the way he approaches all the stories that he tells. It would be a very different movie in somebody else’s hands. Ultimately, for me, I can’t speak about overriding themes — I’m an actor for hire on this one, and I just felt lucky to get the job.”
Topping the box office this week is 21, a based-on-real-life drama about a crew of college kids whose card-counting ring took several casinos for a fairly large chunk of money. The film’s okay in some spots and a bit dull in others — but, for me, watching the ring of big-brained youths run the system of counts and codes and protocols that helped them run roughshod over the house didn’t actually feel like gambling; it had the sure-thing, return-on-investment tedium of watching someone change the plan distributions in their 401(k). I’m no Dostoyevsky-style degenerate — I’ve gambled just enough to know exactly why I shouldn’t and don’t — but watching 21, as lead Jim Sturgess’s narration droned on, I found myself missing the energy of gambling in the movie — the sweat-slick calculations of risk versus reward, the exhilarating possibility of losing everything, the grim possibility of success. 21 doesn’t have that. But Rounders does.
Starring Matt Damon, Rounders is one of those movies where the immediate pleasures of the piece distract you from noticing the underlying quality until much later. Directed by the under-appreciated (and, frankly, under-employed) John Dahl, Rounders sees our hero Mike (Damon) risk his entire bankroll in a high-stakes quasi-legal game so he might raise the stake for the World Series of Poker. He’s studied. He’s trained. He’s tested himself. And someone forgot to tell the cards that, because Mike gets busted — cleaned out — and soon after transforms his life in penitence: No poker. No gambling. Just menial labor and law school, just the love of his lady (Gretchen Mol) and the pleasures of the straight-and-narrow. He’s doing the right thing. And it’s Hell.
And after a few months of this, when Mike’s lifelong pal Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison — in trouble, in debt, incapable of realizing those things are his fault — the twosome have only a few days to scrape up several thousand dollars, or Russian gangster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich, with a Boris-and-Natasha accent so blunt and brutish you could use it to cut sheet metal) starts breaking things. No, it’s not good. But, to Mike, it’s a reason to do what he wants to anyhow. They don’t have a lot of options: they figure they can play (and win) until they can pay (and escape). Mike’s an excellent player; Worm’s an excellent cheat, and the movie clearly delineates the difference between those two things. Of course, nothing’s that easy. …
And Rounders is impressively realistic about the nature of poker, and gambling, and putting all your chips in to the middle of the table. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his excellent review at the time of the film’s release, “If this movie were about alcoholism, the hero would regain consciousness after the DTs and order another double. Most gambling movies are dire warnings; this one is a recruiting poster.” And, like all recruiting posters, it looks great — the film nails the frozen-grey look of a New York winter, as Mike and Worm hunch in their jackets and conspire in the cold before heading in to play in dim, smoke-filled rooms. Damon’s a great lead — unlike Sturgess in 21, you actually care about what happens to him — but Norton steals every scene he’s in, capturing a hard-bitten amoral streak in Worm that, demonstrating the curious physics of well-captured roguishness in film, renders him so repellent it’s magnetic.
Rounders is a fairly modest film, but it absolutely delivers what it promises; the poker mechanics and minutiae are depicted with swift, sure strokes — we get a sense of what’s going on, but also get the sense that the filmmakers (especially screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien) don’t feel a need to explain and elaborate on every trick of the trade as if we were slow children. In the film’s climax, Mike has to make a choice: Stop when he’s worked his way back to nothing, or push his luck and try to get ahead? As Damon notes in the film’s perfectly-pitched narration, “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle. But you can’t win much either.” 21 wants to be a gambling movie — glitz and glam and action and excitement — but it’s about safe bets in more ways than one, from the card-counting performed by the group to the familiar curve of the lead character’s arc of self-discovery. Rounders is unashamedly, unabashedly excited about the nature of gambling — about how even when you know (or think you know) what you’re doing while you do it, anything can still happen. If you want sure returns, buy bonds; if you want to find out what you’re made of (and find out the hard way), now and then, you have to go all in.
After being amazingly underwhelmed by Spider-Man 3, I actually paused to survey the summer movie landscape, and saw a barren desert littered with the phrase “Part 3.” Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, Rush Hour, Shrek, all slated for third films this summer, and none likely to inspire much confidence. There are actually two “Part 3″ films this summer I’m looking forward to, one being Ocean’s 13, as that’ll just be dumb fun for grown-ups. (I once joked that if someone marketed a Happy Meal for Ocean’s 11, it would come with a shot of scotch and a $25 chip for The Flamingo as the toy.) The other is, of course, The Bourne Ultimatum, with Matt Damon returning as Jason Bourne — an effective assassin with a defective memory that’s made him a hotly pursued random factor in the world of intelligence.
Re-watching The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, it’s easy to overlook how flipping good these movies actually are; they pass in an blink, and pump so much adrenaline through your system with fights, chases and suspense that your capacity for rational thought almost gets drowned in the stuff. But there are a couple things worth noting about both of them that explain why they’re standout action cinema. One is that Tony Gilroy’s screenplay adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s original novels should enter the screenwriter’s curriculum as the master-class in how to turn wretched books into good movies. It’s been years since I’ve read Ludlum’s thick, turgid Bourne books — actually, it’s been years since I could lift them, ha ha — but I remember them being clotted and clogged with false identities, betrayals and conspiracies, larded with limp sentences and clanging similes. Gilroy and director Doug Liman, wisely, boiled the book down to essentials for the screen: A man (Damon) is pulled from the sea with bullets in his flesh and a cloud across his memory, and his hunt to discover who he was uncovers mystery after mystery. There is a goal; there is a girl (Franke Potente, as perfectly unexpected a casting choice as one could hope for, and superb); there are enemies all around. The plotline “Run, or die” isn’t exactly Proust or Shakespeare, but good heavens, it works just fine when the right people handle it.
It turns out that Damon’s Bourne was a complicated man; a marker hidden in his hip guides him to a safe deposit box clogged with money, passports and guns. Opening the box also gets him back on the radar of both his former employers and his former targets. One of the things that the Bourne films offer is a great suggestion — and I don’t care if it’s realistic or not, frankly — that the world of intelligence is just as screwy as your workplace, just as riddled with politics and miscommunication and petty rivalry. (Brian Cox’s intelligence upper-manager upbraids underling Chris Cooper for how he’s handled the Bourne matter: “So far, you’ve given me nothing but a trail of collateral damage from Zurich to Paris. I don’t think I could do much worse.” Cox’s reply comes back like armed Mamet: “Well, why don’t you go upstairs and book a conference room. Maybe you can talk him to death.”)
Now that Casino Royale has brought the Bond series blessedly back to earth, it’s easy to forget how welcome the Bourne films were. No invisible cars, no buxom nuclear physicists, no laser satellites, just guns and knives and the will to kill, wrapped in a mist of cynicism and world-weariness that played like John le Carre on fast-forward. (Clive Owen has a throwaway bit in the first film — “Look at what they make you give.” — that has more real feeling in it than all the Brosnan Bond movies put together.) Not only are screenwriter Gilroy and Supremacy director Paul Greengrass back for the third film, but Ultimatum has a few notable additions to the cast that make any film nerd feel pangs of excitement: Joan Allen’s back, as is Julia Stiles — and new faces include David Strathairn and Paddy Considine. The Bourne films still play amazingly well on DVD — they’re full of grit and grime and feel real, primarily because they’re superbly made and full of expert artifice. And in a summer full of grim prospects like Rush Hour 3, Shrek 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, I’d much rather watch Matt Damon deal with his amnesia at home than watch bloated big-screen multi-million dollar movies that make me wish I had it myself.