Mike’s Been Watching…
THE MESSENGER [Main Picture]
DIR: Oren Moverman
Despite receiving two Oscar nominations in 2010 (Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay) this deeply moving military drama has spent two years on the shelves of UK distributors, only now arriving on limited release. It’s a real shame too, as it means that one of the best films set around the Iraq conflict is destined to be lost amid the dozens of average response flicks such as Stop Loss (2008) and Rendition (2007). It’s not that those films are bad, but rather that their finger is too keenly on the trigger – already they’ve dated, and in ten years will serve little purpose. The great thing about The Messenger is that it’s not based on a New York Times article opposing a change in policy, but is simply about people, and people we can recognize. More precisely it’s about Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an injured war hero just out of combat, and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), whose job it is to notify the families of fallen soldiers of their loved ones passing. We can’t imagine how hard that must be, but The Messenger does an excellent job of exploring the courage and emotional difficulty required to knock on somebody’s door to deliver the worst possible news. The film avoids any kind of sentiment, especially in the flowering romance between Montgomery and recently widowed mother Olivia (Samantha Morton). Their relationship isn’t in a rush to get anywhere, and is rather fraught with pain and deep sadness. But the strongest relationship is between Montgomery and Stone, men from different sides of the war who are now allowed the time to face their own demons; their wounds, physical and mental. The two actors excel, with Harrelson delivering his finest turn since The Walker (2007) and Foster his finest performance to date. Highly recommended.
DIR: Jim Mickle
Despite the familiar surroundings (barren, post-apocalyptic trails occupied by mercenaries and nutters) Stake Land actually proposes a genuine twist on the ‘end of the world’ sub-genre. In this case the nutters come in two distinct forms, and they’re at war. Yep, it’s Vampires vs. Christians, and some substantial subtext dictates that the God-fearing zealots are more dangerous than the blood suckers themselves – especially in an odd set-piece involving Kelly McGillis playing a battered n’ bruised nun. Yes, you read that right. The film makes an admirable attempt, considering its modest budget, to balance style with substance, mixing introspective melancholy with claret-toned splatter. Unfortunately, despite the authentic bleakness of its environments (washed out, desperate and cased in lonely silence) Mickle and co-writer/star Nick Damici don’t quite know what to do with it, and the ‘plot’ meanders to its inevitable destination through bland and linear narrative clichés. Whenever the film threatens to get serious, with an eerie piano line (reminiscent of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ work on The Assassination Of Jesse James, 2007) and damaged voiceover, the violence amps up, but in a glossy action movie kind of way, and without consideration for consequence. The film wants to have its cake and eat it, but the ingredients aren’t quite right. Still, Stake Land is an exciting and often surprisingly emotional tale, and in the age of Twilight (2008) and True Blood (2008 – ) its savagery and ‘hell in a hand-basket’ worldview is refreshing, and executed with complete conviction. Certainly ambitious, Mickle’s second feature (after 2006’s Mulberry Street) marks him out as a talent to watch, and I’ll do so with high expectations.
Sam’s Been Watching…
DIR: Jodie Foster
I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. The Beaver really should have been great, and it’s not. It’s a bit of a challenge to define why it doesn’t work, because the constituent parts are all rather fine, but the film itself never quite comes off.
The film casts Mel Gibson as Walter, a depressed middle aged husband and father, thrown out by his wife (Foster), he attempts suicide, but salvation comes in the unlikely form of a Beaver puppet he found in a dumpster. Pretending that his doctor has prescribed a radical therapy, Walter begins to insist that everyone around him address themselves to The Beaver, rather than to him.
For a movie with a premise that is so wacky, The Beaver feels very familiar, very standard, the film’s structure and events actually end up being pretty predictable, and it takes no truly unexpected turns. Most hackneyed is a B story involving Walter’s teenage son (Anton Yelchin) and his will it/won’t it be requited crush on a cheerleader played by Jennifer Lawrence, both actors are good, but neither their characters nor their story serve any real purpose in the film.
As diretor, Foster draws fine performances from her whole cast, and especially from her long time friend Gibson, who is pretty extraordinary here in what seems a deeply personal and exposing role. He brings both Walter and the Beaver to vivid life, and allows us to understand this difficult man. Foster herself is also excellent, sharing good chemistry with Gibson and really grabbing hold of the film’s one truly outstanding scene; an anniversary dinner in which tension begins to show between her Meredith and The Beaver.
Unfortunately Foster’s visuals are flat, and she hasn’t advanced much as a filmmaker since her 1991 debut, Little Man Tate. Ultimately though, the film is let down by an overall weightlessness. Little has any real impact, the ingredients are all there, but something indefinable has gone wrong in the cooking process, and The Beaver just doesn’t quite come off. Still, it’s worth seeing Gibson’s performance.
Orange County casts Colin (son of Tom) Hanks as a high schooler desperate to go to Stanford and study with his favourite writer, whose ambitions are thwarted when his school submits the wrong transcript, so Hanks, his perpetually stoned brother (Jack Black), and his girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek’s mini-me daughter) go to Stanford to try and get them the real transcript and get him into college.
Orange County has its share of gross out and stoner humour, but it never uses them as crutches; it’s a film about characters, from Hanks’ intelligent, but refreshingly non-nerdy, student to his madcap family (Catherine O’Hara is priceless as his mother) and a very well rounded role as a caring but matter of fact girlfriend for Schuyler Fisk, everyone here has layers, yes, everything is quickly expressed (the film runs just 79 minutes) and everyone’s personality is rather heightened, but you always feel like you know these people, and from that comes the humour. Also refreshing is the general warmth of the film, even when it is gross it’s not cruel or mocking.
Mike White’s screenplay has a great spread of funny dialogue, and the cast does it full justice. Jack Black is perfect as perma-stoned Lance, Catherine O’Hara a scream as Hanks and Black’s sozzled Mother, and Fisk totally adorable (I’d put her up with Mia Sara’s Sloane Peterson as a great movie girlfriend) and there is also an array of effective cameos from the likes of Harold Ramis, Lily Tomlin, Ben Stiller and professional show stealer Jane Adams.
It’s not the best high school movie ever made, but Orange County is funny throughout, well written and acted, and just plain enjoyable to watch. Forget Bad Teacher and get this instead.