April 10th, 2009

Whale fluke

FLASHBACKS: Good Will Hunting, 2/17/1998

[2009 note: The film wasn’t released in Hermiston, Oregon until February; the closest it had come in its first release was Kennewick, Wash., 30 miles north.]

A smart, funny, and affecting film has come to Hermiston – just in time to mark its nine Oscar nominations, which I really hope brings in viewers. Good Will Hunting, directed by Oregon’s own Gus Van Sant (To Die For and My Own Private Idaho) from a screenplay by co-stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is effortlessly intelligent, strylish, and warm. And it’s that rare film that makes math a rush…

Damon plays Will Hunting, a young Boston punk who’s smart enough to take a job at MIT so he can absorb that college knowledge without paying tuition; he’s a janitor, but one with a photographic memory and a knack for proving fiendishly difficult math theorems. He and his best friend (Affleck) survive day-by-day on the meaner streets of Boston, and often get into street fights and other troubles.

Damon gets the attention of an MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgard of Amistad), who wants to ensure that he overcomes his troubles and makes use of his gifts. Damon resists, with often pretty funny results, until he meets his match: another prof played by Robin Williams. The older man learns how to see through Damon’s smart-aleck exterior to find a young man in pain – and he does this by opening himself up, to show he’s also in pain.

Meanwhile, Damon gets the attention of a Harvard-based grad student played by Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends); he starts dating her, and they start falling in love. This raises the stakes further, because he doesn’t feel ready to be honest with her about his background…so he lies with creativity and faked conviction until circumstances come to a head, though not in an obvious, plotted way.

The people who made Good Will Hunting loved this film, and their concern for it shows. Danny Elfman provides his now-trademark intricate and textured music, which is given an Irish tinge to reflect the Boston setting and is played with affecting delicacy. (He scored Van Sant’s To Die For with “la la la” irony, which was great for that film’s empty-headed Suzanne Stone, but thankfully he doesn’t repeat himself here just because it’s the same director again.) And many scenes are shot with a natural, unforced warmth – even a street fight (you’ll see).

The film also is an intentionally generous acting showcase; actors love meaty dialogue and monologues, and Affleck and Damon have a great ear for the spoken word (they wrote the dialogue only after they acted out each scene many times). Their writing, in fact, just feels exact: Williams explains exactly how much Damon has to grow up, Damon explains exactly why he won’t take a federal job offer, and Affleck explains exactly why Damon is shooting himself in the foot by trying to avoid using his talents. There’s a scene pointing out that known prodigies, depending on circumstances, can be either Albert Einstein or the Unabomber, and the film shows what’s really at stake for Good Will Hunting – while still remaining very funny. You will go through a lot of moods during this film – humorous, sad, ironic – but your final feeling should be satisfaction as the gentle ending unfolds.
Good Omens

John Carpenter 101 (more FLASHBACKS!), 11/10/1998

I was too forgiving of John Carpenter’s 1998 film Vampires, so I’m not going to quote my whole review. But I’ll share this:

Here’s general stuff about John Carpenter:

Carpenter is the maker of such famously brutal flicks as Halloween, Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Escape From L.A., The Thing, They Live and Big Trouble in Little China.

As for his style of film, let me put it this way: if he had directed Armageddon, the ending probably would have been the astronauts accidentally blasting the asteroid so that it hits the moon, knocking the much larger rock on a collision course with Earth. He’s that kind of filmmaker: perverse. He destroyed technological civilization in at least one film of his, and his remake of The Thing featured a death by what writer Harlan Ellison called “killer Italian food.”

Carpenter’s characters usually have smilingly ridiculous dialogue that sounds like what pro wrestlers say. His witty alien-conspiracy film They Live (1988) has “Rowdy” Roddy Piper march into an alien-infested bank and announce “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I am all out of bubblegum.”

His films don’t always work. The dialogue in Escape From L.A. (1996) sometimes sounds like each line was written by a different person in a different room. (Still, L.A. had highly cool and clever music by Carpenter and Shirley Walker that – how can I put this so it’s both delicate and still befitting this filmmaker? – is all out of bubblegum.)

But when a John Carpenter film works properly, characters don’t walk through the movie – they cool through it. (This is like what the Air Force says about its tank-like A-10 bomber: “That plane uglies its way through the air.”)