PROMISED LAND: 2 STARS

Promised Land is one of those message movies you know is going to end with a BIG SPEECH, and you just hope it’s an entertaining ride until the final oration. In this case I think the movie let its sense of earnestness overpower the entertainment fact. It’s good, likeable actors in a story that might have been better served in documentary form, rather than the contrived drama presented here.

Matt Damon (who also co-wrote the script with co-star John Krasinski) stars as Steve Butler, a charming salesman sent to a small Pennsylvania farming community to lease land for a giant natural gas company’s fracking project. For him it’s a personal crusade; he believes he’s transforming the lives of the cash-strapped farmers. For his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) it’s a job that simply keeps her away from her young son. Complicating matters is Dustin Noble (Krasinski), an environmental activist who, as his last name might imply, comes to town to raise the alarm about the real cost of Steve and Sue’s business offer.

An issue movie with a point of view is nothing new. But this one really wears its sleeve on its sleeve. It’s a Davey and Goliath story that relies on the charm and likability of its cast to sell the idea that fracking is bad, and the corporations who dupe cash strapped farmers into leasing their land are evil.

Getting people to understand the point of the movie, however, sucks a great deal of the drama away. The scenes describing the harmful effects of fracking are clunky. It’s hard to make talk of water table pollution dramatic, and while “Promised Land” makes an attempt by giving much of the heavy lifting to Hal Holbrook, the grand old man of the cast, it’s still only as dramatic as a high school science class lecture.

The movie gets many of the details right—it’s set in a town where the general store is called Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas and people wear either “flannel or camo”—and its heart is certainly in the right place but unlike movies like “Erin Brockovich” which managed to mix message and medium, “Promised Land” is crushed under the weight of its own heavy hand.

 

ARBITRAGE DVD: 4 STARS

On the surface New York hedge-fund king Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is the model of success. At sixty years old and married to Ellen (Susan Sarandon) he’s preparing to hand over his empire to his Chief Investment Manager, who also happens to be his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling). He’s so rich he doesn’t even know what an Applebees is. Cracks appear in the façade, however, when an accident involving his mistress, French art-dealer Julie Côte (Laetitia Casta), threatens to uncover the dark side of his life, including a $400 million fraud.

“Arbitrage” has already earned Richard Gere a Golden Globe nomination and may be the role that finally lands him an Oscar nod. He’s terrific as the morally ambiguous banker (is there any other kind in the movies?), a cold—so chilly you want to put a scarf on when he’s in the room—calculating but charismatic wheeler-dealer whose motives are not always immediately clear. It’s a complex performance that shows the balance Miller has over his lives as a business-person versus family man.

His two powerhouse scenes are intimate ones, there’s nothing flashy about them, they simply moments of reckoning for a man between his wife and father with daughter. They are quiet, powerful passages in a sophisticated movie about deceit and flawed characters.

It’s a twisty, turny plot kept interesting by the uniformly strong performances. Tim Roth’s Det. Michael Bryer, the street-savvy cop trying to get to the bottom of Miller’s complex web of lies, is Columbo-esque, but he manages to make it his own.

Sarandon and Marling (who has a bachelor's in economics in real life and becomes the movie’s conscious) shine, but it is Nate Parker as the Jimmy Grant, the son of one of Miller’s friends, who almost steals the show from Gere. He’s the only character with a developed sense of right and wrong, and it almost lands him in trouble.

“Arbitrage” is an intricate, gripping crime drama populated by relatable, although not very likable, characters.