A triple threat: Not Fade Away, Promised Land and Hyde Park On Hudson

by Mark Burger

Television titan David Chase makes a belated but winning foray into feature films with Not Fade Away (***), in which he and fellow “Sopranos” veteran (and executive producer) Steve Van Zandt pay tribute to the never-say-die spirit of rock ‘n’ roll music. Given that it’s set in New Jersey, there

are likely some auto biographical elements to the story, which is awash in nostalgia.

The career of leading man John Magaro ought to enjoy a nice boost thanks to his excellent performance as Douglas Damiano, an all-American suburban teenager whose love for rock ‘n’ roll blooms during the 1960s, a decade when rock music truly reigned supreme. He forms a band, wins the girl of his dreams (lovely Bella Heathcote), and travels the treacherous path of adolescence.

Yes, Not Fade Away is yet another comingof-age story, but one told with a spunky, funky spirit. There are echoes of Cameron Crowe here, but Chase (who also wrote the screenplay) puts a distinctive stamp on the proceedings. Fans of “The Sopranos” will also enjoy seeing James Gandolfini as Douglas’ dad, who occasionally butts heads with his boy but, deep down, loves and envies him.

The film boasts a great feel for time and place, as well as an irresistible selection of classic rock tunes on the soundtrack. That the story also has a fair share of loose ends and unresolved subplots isn’t too much of a distraction (rock ‘n’ roll isn’t renowned for being cut-and-dried, after all), and although the ending isn’t so much ambiguous as bizarrely surreal (it’s certainly different, that’s for sure), Not Fade Away is well worth a look and a listen.

Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (**) is a well intentioned, well acted, well made message movie in which the message hangs heavily over the movie. Written by leading actors Matt Damon (who was originally slated to direct) and John Krasinski, it’s yet another treatise on Big Business behaving badly.

Damon stars as Steve Butler, the sort of earnest, likable, hardworking guy inevitably due for a moral wake-up call. He works for the Natural Gas Company, and he and fellow field representative Sue Thomasen (the ever-flinty Frances McDormand) are buying up farmland so that the company can begin drilling.

The process the company uses, commonly known as “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing), has been the subject of considerable controversy due to concerns over water and air contamination. Yes, “fracking” is Promised Land’s big issue, and there’s no question as to which side of the debate the film comes down on.

Krasinski arrives on the scene as Dustin Noble, a one-man protest who attempts to persuade the townspeople to reject the deal, although his demonstration to local schoolchildren so borders on the obnoxious as to render his point moot. Needless to say, he and Steve are due for more than one confrontation.

Other interested parties include Rosemary DeWitt, as the obligatory attractive and single schoolteacher attracted to both Steve and Dustin, Lucas Black, Terry Kinney, UNCSA alumnus Tim Guinee, reliable Titus Welliver and the always-welcome Hal Holbrook, doing his Wise Old Sage routine (admittedly, few do it better).

For Steve, that crisis of conscience is brewing, and after the obligatory barroom dust-up, he begins to question his mission. Given that it’s Matt Damon, it’s not too surprising which direction he’ll eventually take. There is an interesting plot twist late in the film, but it’s not quite enough to circumvent the heaviness of the proceedings.

As portrayed in Promised Land, most of the townspeople are presented as noble and saintly in their ordinariness, while the corporate entity is presented (surprise, surprise) as venal and corrupt. That’s too simple-minded and too easy a depiction — in both cases — and it detracts from the story. The end result is a film that preaches to the converted.

Hyde Park on Hudson (**½) is interesting both for its subject matter and for its presentation. That the former outweighs the latter in terms of involvement prevents the film from making a lasting mark, although it’s not for lack of trying on the part of the filmmakers and cast.

Set in 1939, the film focuses on the relationship between Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), better known as “Daisy,” and her distant cousin and neighbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray)—– of course, the president of the United States.

That FDR would woo one cousin isn’t altogether surprising, as he married another one, Eleanor (played very well here by Olivia Williams), yet the details of FDR and Daisy’s relationship wouldn’t become known until after her death in 1991.

Running parallel to their story, and certainly outdistancing it in terms of historical and dramatic impact, is the impending visit of the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) to the Roosevelt estate in upstate New York. This is the first time that an English monarch has visited the United States, and with England already enmeshed in World War II there’s much at stake for both nations. It’s this aspect of the story that remains the most compelling, and director Roger Michell is unable to find a balance between the parallel storylines. Daisy’s relationship with FDR isn’t nearly as interesting as FDR’s relationship with just about everyone else in the film.

Murray brings a crafty sincerity to the role, playing the American icon as a master of careful manipulation and as someone very much in control of his own image. As befits her character, Linney tends to remain in the background, even though much of the story is seen from her perspective. West and Colman are fine as the visiting dignitaries, although they can’t erase memories of Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in the same roles in The King’s Speech (2010). It’s also nice to see veteran Elizabeth Wilson, enjoying her biggest role in years as FDR’s mother, Sara Roosevelt.

Despite some keen observations, the film tends to keep a respectful distance, and Linney’s wistful narration as Daisy fails to fill in the emotional blanks. Hyde Park on Hudson is serviceable as genteel comedy of manners, but it’s no more than that. There’s a sense that this could, and perhaps should, have been much more.

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