REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for the ‘M’ Category

THE MESSENGER (2009)

In Drama, Independent, M, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 am

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STUDIO – Oscilloscope Pictures

CASTWoody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jenna Malone

DIRECTOR – Oren Moveman

MPAA Rating: R

According to legend, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have uttered the infamous axiom “War is hell”. Starting in 2002, when American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we were re-introduced to the hell that is war for the first time since Vietnam. We have seen many a motion picture about soldiers on the front lines, soldiers behind the lines, and the brave faces on the home front. There have been portrayals of both the glory, spirit, and camaraderie, and the pain, claustrophobia, and chaos that is war. But, until The Messenger came along, there hadn’t been a motion picture which focused exclusively on the men and women who perform the solemn duty of informing someone their husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, or sister had died in combat.

Ben Foster stars as SSG Will Montgomery, who had just returned to the States after recovering from battle wounds sustained in Iraq. With only a few months remaining on his enlistment, he is ordered to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to act as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO). There, he is introduced to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is to be his trainer and partner in performing this duty. From the word “Go”, Montgomery doesn’t like this job nor the man who came with it, but he is a soldier; he is given a job, and he sets out to do it the best he can.

Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson) gives last-minute instructions to SSG Montgomery (Ben Foster) prior to his first CNO assignment

The Messenger is one of those movies that sinks into you slowly. And while, by co-writer/director Oren Moveman’s own admission, the tone of the movie is politically liberal, there aren’t any “in your face” moments that speak out against this (or any other) war. Rather, it is an intimate look into the lives of the military personnel assigned to perform this difficult task, and of the families impacted by them. This is a side of war that most of us never see, and that every military family wishes they never do see. It is grim. It is sad. It is gut-wrenching. It is also, unfortunately, the truth.

There are six scenes in this movie  in which families are notified of a soldier’s death, and each one plays out differently. There is the father (Steve Buscemi) who spits in SSG Montgomery’s face, the father (Angel Caban) who breaks down and cries when he looks back at his grandchild, the mother (Portia) who slaps Capt. Stone upon hearing her son was killed, and the father (Kevin Hagan) who throws up when he receives the news in a store (That last one, by the way, is against current military protocol, but it is based on an actual event in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War). Of the other two notification scenes, one is so moving and so poignant, that describing it here would not do it justice, and the other becomes the genesis of an unlikely romance between Montgomery and the widow of a fallen comrade, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).

I had a problem with how this relationship started out, because for one thing, a soldier performing as a CNO should never get personal with the people he encounters while he performs his duty. To me, the whole thing started out as some kind of twisted obsession, but (thanks to wonderfully low-key performances by both Foster and Morton) it evolves into a tender and nurturing relationship with a possible future. Woody Harrelson gave a powerful performance as Capt. Stone. Harrelson proudly proclaims himself to be “pro-peace” (as opposed to “anti-war”), so to see him playing a military officer with such drive and intensity was not only surprising, but brilliant, as well. And though this is very much an independent movie, his performance did not go unnoticed; Woody Harrelson received many accolades for his work in this movie, including an Independent Spirit Award, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actor.

There are several special features on the DVD, the most important of which is a companion-piece documentary called “Notification”, in which both Army CNOs and family members of the fallen share their stories on how the casualty notification process works. There is a behind-the-scenes look back by the cast and crew after finishing the movie, and a Q&A hosted by Variety magazine. And, for all you aspiring screenwriters out there, the DVD also features a .pdf version of the shooting script, which provides an excellent template for how movies should be written.

The Messenger is a powerful and moving motion picture that not only shows you just how difficult it is to be a CNO, but it is also smart enough to know when to let its hair down and enjoy the moment. Subtle and nuanced performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton make this movie required viewing. And on this weekend, in which this nation observes its anniversary, it serves as an invaluable reminder for all of us to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

4 (out of 5)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”