REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘army’

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)

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THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, H, Independent, Motion Pictures, War on February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

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STUDIO – Summit Entertainment 

CAST – Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes 

DIRECTOR – Katheryn Bigelow 

MPAA RATING – R 

Welcome to Iraq, the most violent and chaotic place on earth. Director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow takes us inside the lines and shows us what war looks like today in the guerilla environment of the Middle East. In The Hurt Locker, a team from an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit is on their final days in-country before heading back to the States. When the team leader dies in the line of duty, his replacement, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) reports to the company to take his place. At first, SGT J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and SPC Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) think James is a loose cannon, but with hundreds of successful missions under his belt, he must be doing something right. 

SGT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, left) and SPC Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) help SSG James (Jeremy Renner) suit up

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, war has been largely portrayed as ugly, gritty, dirty business. The Hurt Locker takes this ball and runs with it by visually telling us that war is literally a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment, and no one is ever safe. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook more than once, in that at least two prominent actors in this movie are killed off, and one of the three stars gets wounded (I won’t say who or when, of course). 

This movie is one of those that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Working in EOD is very intense, very stressful, and very dangerous, and to do it, you gotta have a little crazy in you. In one scene, SSG James finds so much explosives packed into the back of a car, he walks back to his team, takes off his explosives suit, and says “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable”. And I am willing to bet that nearly every EOD and police bomb squad technician agrees with that mentality (though they know they shouldn’t). 

Shot on location in Jordan, The Hurt Locker has built-in authenticity, in terms of locale and environment. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jeremy Renner says that the sweat on the screen is real sweat. And in a hostile place where nights are no cooler than 90°F (32°C), there is no need for fake sweat! 

One more thing worth mentioning: Anthony Mackie’s performance as SGT Sanborn was also very exceptional. On many levels, I found myself relating to Sanborn, from how “by the book” he is, to how he somehow remains level-headed throughout most of the movie, to his desire to just get the job done. I hope I get to see more of Mr. Mackie in the future. 

Now to Kathryn Bigelow. Historically, war has been the pervue of men, and movies about war have been primarily written, directed, and produced by men. And most of the time, it was men who starred in nearly every movie about war since the beginnings of the motion picture industry. This makes The Hurt Locker a game-changer. Kathryn Bigelow did a superb job helming this movie, thus receiving a well-earned Oscar™ nomination (among the nine nominations for this movie overall, including Best Actor for Jeremy Renner) for 2009. 

Gripping, insightful, painful, reckless, and chaotic. This is an excellent movie, one that demonstrates the madness of combat in Iraq in the early years of the 21st Century.