Movie Reviews

The Messenger
Directed by Oren Moverman

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are an Army Casualty Notification Detail, tasked with informing the N.O.K. (next of kin) when their loved ones have been killed in action. It’s a soul-destroying assignment and, as explained by the older man (Harrelson) to his younger colleague (Foster), it’s not one that can be made easier by staged shows of understanding. But it’s a necessary function in a time of webcams and cable news shows. They race to get to the N.O.K. before they hear the news from anybody else.

Foster has been on the edge of stardom for a decade and may be best recognized recently as Angel in “X-Men: The Last Stand” or as Charlie Prince in “3:10 to Yuma.” As staff sergeant Will Montgomery, Foster turns in a gritty and realistic performance that’s similar to Ryan Gosling’s career-altering “Half Nelson.” This is also Harrelson at his best in the supporting role, with the mentorship between the two men reminiscent of Ned Beatty and Liev Schreiber in the woefully under-appreciated “Spring Forward.”

“The Messenger” is also a timely reminder of loss during a war in which we weren’t allowed to see flag-draped coffins and funerals. Harrelson’s captain Stone remarks that every funeral should be on live TV and laments: “…and then bullets fly and soldiers die and it’s such a shock – what did they think it was going to be like, ‘Fear Factor’?”

But the strength of the film is in its notion of what it means to be a casualty during wartime as the notification process produces even more casualties of war in the families of those who are lost. The notification detail themselves are also victims of time served in situations the rest of us will remain blissfully ignorant of. One wife explains that it’s hard to mourn the man who died during a third tour of duty in Iraq when you’re already mourning the man he was before tours one and two. They’re all casualties of lost lives, loves, and innocence and the movie is a remarkable portrayal of that harsh reality. “The Messenger” is vying with “The Hurt Locker” for this year’s top war film honors.

Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels

Last week, the US news media paused discussions of Afghanistan and healthcare to gush over Oprah Winfrey for two days, as though she had died suddenly rather than simply announced next season’s end to her talk show. The better Oprah story should have been her involvement as a producer in the remarkable film “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” about a young girl who, while still in junior high school, is pregnant for the second time with a child fathered by her own father. But you’ll hear a lot more about this film as the awards season heats up, especially for the performances of Gabourey Sidibe in the lead role of Precious and Mo’Nique as her volatile mother, in a strong cast of female actors.  

Much like the nature of casualty in “The Messenger,” most of the characters in “Precious…” are casualties of one kind or another. Precious attends an alternative school with other young people who are struggling to cope. She’s been raised to see manipulating the welfare system as an occupation. Even social workers are victims here. One is easily duped by a presumed caseload that provides for the briefest of family visits and another, played by Mariah Carey, is genuinely concerned but also worn down by the stories she hears. Precious lives through it by imagining herself as a movie star with her “light-skinned boyfriend” and adoring fans, something Gabourey Sidibe might need to cope with herself if the movie gets the attention it deserves.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Directed by Chris Weitz

The first and easiest thing to say about the second in the “Twilight” series is that it’s better than the first. Not that the bar was set very high. Actually, the bar was left lying on a patch of rough ground strewn with bad acting, awful effects, and a supremely awkward story of sparkly vampires.  

So it’s noteworthy that the second movie, directed by Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”), doesn’t just improve on the first but makes it hard to remember just how bad the first movie was. Now we have smoother acting (relatively speaking) and a sense of actual drama and tension that never quite seemed real the first time around. To some extent that’s because we’re not just dealing with vampires and werewolves and their long-standing and complex rivalry, but because we can appreciate the simplicity of the competition for affection between rival suitors. Plus the werewolves are cool.

Twilight #1 made me look forward to the train wreck potential of Twilight #2. But it now has me more genuinely interested in Twilight  #3. I just wish that Chris Weitz could go back and remake #1 and burn and shoot silver bullets into all the remaining prints.

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