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Corporate salesman Steve Butler arrives in a rural town with his sales partner, Sue Thomason. With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company's offer, for drilling rights to their properties, as much-needed relief. What seems like an easy job for the duo becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher with support from a grassroots campaign led by another man who counters Steve both personally and professionally.
For more about Promised Land and the Promised Land Blu-ray release, see Promised Land Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on April 18, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Rosemarie DeWitt, Lucas Black
Director: Gus Van Sant
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Promised Land Blu-ray Review
"What's your price?"
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, April 18, 2013
Director Gus Van Sant has two speeds: experimental hyper-realist indies and more mainstream character-driven dramas. The latter generally feature unknown actors, minimalistic scripts, quasi-improvisational dialogue, and docufiction camera techniques and storytelling devices. Think Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park. The former throw A-list movie stars in amongst the common folk, hinge on carefully orchestrated conflicts and crises, and simultaneously subvert and embrace Hollywood convention. Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting and Milk, among others. So where does Van Sant's latest fall? Promised Land is a mainstream character-driven drama, no two ways about it. Unfortunately, despite some solid performances from the director's smartly assembled cast, the film slowly drifts off course, relying too heavily on sermonizing sentimentality and a convoluted, wholly unnecessary C-grade plot twist; one that sullies almost everything that comes before and after.
Global Crosspower Solutions closer Steve Butler (Matt Damon) has a knack for sales. But he isn't selling material goods; he's selling a dream of a better life, and he's selling it to smalltown farmers and land owners living on top of untold millions in natural gas. It's his job to convince ordinary people struggling through extraordinary economic hardship to sign over the drilling rights to their properties to Global Crosspower, and Steve and his partner Sue (Francis McDormand) are the best in the business. But when the pair breeze into a rural town in Pennsylvania, they hit a wall by the name of Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), an elderly high school science teacher who knows a thing or two about Global Crosspower's controversial drilling method, hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known by its more notorious nickname: fracking. Yates raises calm, educated hell at a local town meeting, forcing Steve to go on the defensive. Matters are further complicated with the arrival of impassioned environmentalist Dustin Noble (Krasinski), whose family farm and hometown community were decimated by fracking. Steve and Sue suddenly find themselves engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the local townspeople, one of whom (Rosemarie DeWitt) catches both Steve and Dustin's eye.
Promised Land wasn't always Van Sant's baby. Developed by Krasinski and Away We Go screenwriter Dave Eggers, and eventually penned and produced by Krasinski and Damon (in what was meant to be Damon's directorial debut no less), Van Sant didn't join the project until late in the process, which goes a long way toward explaining the subtle tug of war that exists between the film's competing studio and indie sensibilities. There's little doubt where Steve is headed -- a career-crippling change of heart in rural PA -- and the journey may as well be a round of genre Mad Libs. And yet Promised Land is a thinly veiled message movie above all else; one that sacrifices cinematic integrity and eventually screenwriting nuance to convey the intensity of its environmental passions and the seriousness of its warnings. Don't misunderstand: it isn't the message itself that's problematic. It's the delivery of that message, which runs the gamut from compelling to contrived, from convincing and sincere to implausible and desperate.
To their credit, Krasinski, Damon and Van Sant manage -- for the most part -- to keep the film from wandering into an already bloody political arena, although some will no doubt scream "liberal agenda" from the rooftops. But Promised Land is no more an exclusively left-leaning film than planting a tree is an exclusively left-wing pastime. It goes to great lengths to rally behind small towns and farmland communities, and deal quite honestly with the tough economic times and uncertain futures they're facing. It begs for action and, more importantly, audience reaction. The action and reaction it's hoping for just so happens to be more welcome on one side of the aisle. Still, fracking is yet another hot-button talking point in Washington, meaning even the filmmakers' more successful efforts to sidestep the politics of the issue will go unappreciated by strict conservatives and liberals alike. One will cry, "it's another bleeding-heart democrat love-fest that villainizes corporate America!" The other will shout, "no! It doesn't take republicans to task or villainize corporate America enough!" To which I say: partisan absolutism must be exhausting.
That's not to suggest Promised Land doesn't have any agenda. It does, and Van Sant and company make no apologies for it. "Fracking is bad news," so goes the film's narrative, "and greedy corporations aren't above risking the lives of good folk to earn a buck." If that results in heart palpitations, a clenched jaw or a bad taste in your mouth, it might be wise to avoid the film altogether, as no amount of performance savvy or screenwriting sleight-of-hand will trick you into seeing it as anything other than a manipulative hack-job. Those who vehemently oppose fracking will enjoy it far more, of course, if for no other reason than it scratches a particular itch. Both sides will agree, though, that it all starts to come undone in the film's final act, as Steve's thinking begins to radically shift and Damon's performance slides into sticky, syrupy territory.
Before that, Damon is earnest and likable, if not a bit comically naive, and his work with Krasinski, Holbrook, DeWitt and McDormand is strong. Krasinski smears it on thick, sure, but he means well, even if his charisma is decidedly small screen; Holbrook is fantastic, injecting measured gravitas early on and quiet resolve throughout; DeWitt is charming, actively defying rom-com indulgences and further enriching one of the more fully realized inventions of Damon and Krasinski's script; and the character actors and locals who round out the supporting cast are fantastic, combating the ever-mounting implausibility of the film's underdeveloped third act with an uncanny middle American realism. But it's McDormand who rockets above the rest, impervious to the conventional pull that snags her leading men. Her Sue Thomason is tough and tenacious, a perfect blend of pleasant and shrewd, and very little rattles her cage; most surprising of all Steve, who seems to go wherever the corporate or environmental winds take him. If there's one respite of unpredictability to Promised Land, it's McDormand and her character. From start to finish, she stars in a more riveting and satisfying movie all her own.
If it weren't for the fracking plot twist (emphasis on Battlestar Galactica's use of the word), Van Sant might have pulled off a more meaningful study of the trials and tribulations of rural communities. Don't worry about the lack of a spoiler alert. It's a one-two punch of a double plot twist you couldn't possibly see coming, even knowing it's on the horizon. But it is one you'll wish you hadn't seen once it arrives. (Come to think of it, the entire reveal, particularly its second leftfield turn, could be yanked out wholesale and the film would be much better for it.) Not only does it irrevocably alter the driving force behind Steve's inevitable conversion, it borders on ridiculous, reorienting an entire character twice over and, with it, the story and its message. It's a shame too. At some point, Promised Land had real potential. It could have been a touching drama about a small town fighting to survive. Instead, it devolves into another sappy melodrama better equipped to preach to the choir than to host a serious discussion about wealthy corporations, desperate times, and the average, everyday men and women caught in between.
Promised Land Blu-ray, Video Quality
Promised Land's 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer won't strike many as a winner, at least not at first glance. But look closer and you'll find a proficient, faithful and, above all, film-like presentation that stays true to Van Sant and cinematographer Linus Sandgren's smalltown intentions, whatever the cost. Colors are fittingly bleak and washed out, the result of a tough-times palette that complements the film's tone and tenor. Black levels are a bit muted at times -- generally at night, or when Steve visits the local bar -- but satisfying on the whole, largely free of troubling crush and alienating delineation. Contrast follows suit, and Sandgren's use of natural lighting completes the picture perfectly. Surprisingly, detail is quite revealing, particularly in regards to closeups. Artistic softness is rampant but not unwelcome, as the image boasts plenty of crisp, clean edges, refined textures and well-preserved grain. Artifacting, banding and the like are nowhere to be found either, and the only issue worth mentioning is the inherent, source-born noise that crops up when the lights go low. All in all, it's an excellent video presentation. Not exactly stunning, but I'd wager the film couldn't look much better than it does here.
Promised Land Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The word "authentic" comes to mind when listening to Universal's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The film's documentary-like sound design is decidedly frank and forward, without any grand flourishes or tricks of the sonic trade. What the subsequent soundfield lacks in terms of power and depth, though, it more than makes up for in personality and presence. Dialogue is clean and clear on the whole, LFE output is restrained but reliable, and the rear speakers are bristling with ambient effects, even though the soundscape tends to be rather front-heavy by design. Danny Elfman's score presides over it all with respect and welcome fullness, and the entire experience suits the film nicely. Will it blow anyone away? Hardly. It does justice to Promised Land's original sound design, though. No one should expect anything more.
Promised Land Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Promised Land Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Earnest and sincere for a stretch, manipulative and implausible in the end, Promised Land is a message movie that nearly forgets its message. Rather than present an honest story honestly, Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski drill too deep and poison the waters, adding in a twist that almost ruins the entire experience. Still, the performances are uniformly excellent, McDormand is a joy to watch, and the film is backed by an admirable conviction, rather you agree with it or not. The Blu-ray edition of Promised Land improves matters, so long as you ignore the almost complete lack of supplements. Its faithful AV presentation sustains the movie even when Damon and Krasinski's script does not, making this a solid release of a flawed film.
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Promised Land Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Promised Land Blu-ray - February 21, 2013
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced and detailed the Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Combo Pack release of director Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, which stars screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski, along with Francis McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt and ...
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