Coming up with a compelling hook is half the sale, and writer-director Oren Moverman has found one with The Messenger, a drama that looks at the wartime experience from a fresh perspective. Yet nothing about Moverman's angle feels gimmicky or sensational -- instead, his movie is honest and heartfelt, a justified tribute that pays more than merely the usual obligatory lip service to our men and women in uniform.
Writing his script with Alessandro Camon, Moverman has chosen to focus on the stateside officers who are assigned to the U.S. Army's Casualty Notification unit and ordered to inform family members that their loved ones have died in overseas action. The newest recruit to this unenviable position is Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who's just returned from Iraq branded a hero for displaying courage under fire. Will is placed under veteran soldier Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who's tasked to impart his limitless wisdom on his young charge. Tony rattles off a thorough checklist -- take care not to use certain morbid words, never touch the bereaved, and so on -- but that preparation can only go so far when faced with all manner of kinfolk, each guaranteed to react differently than the last.
The sequences in which the pair make their rounds are fascinating, with some family members (like the father played by Steve Buscemi) lashing out in anger at these bearers of bad news while others simply collapse in a heap on the floor. The film also manages to inject some romance into the mix when Will, perhaps unwisely, finds himself drawn to a woman (Samantha Morton) who has just lost her husband. These scenes are tastefully executed and never shy away from the moral implications of the situation (Morton's Olivia warns Will that everyone will accuse him of preying on her vulnerability and label her a "slut"), but the real power derives from the relationship between Will and Tony, two men who approach their assignments differently yet eventually find common ground.
Simply put, Foster is a revelation, while Harrelson has arguably never been better. It's their exemplary performances, combined with Moverman's confident handling of rich material, that make The Messengers worthy of our undivided attention.
After spending the better part of a decade mugging to the rafters in such films as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Analyze That, Robert De Niro opts to underplay in the family melodrama Everybody's Fine. But don't let this opposite approach sucker you in: De Niro isn't low-key as much as he's merely lethargic, and it's yet one more dismissive turn from an actor who once owned a major chunk of seminal '70s cinema. De Niro stars as Frank Goode, a widower who, disappointed that all four of his grown children have canceled plans to come visit him, decides instead to surprise all of them on their own respective doorsteps. He first visits David, an artist living in New York, but David never turns up at his own apartment. Undeterred, Frank presses forward, visiting in rapid succession his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale), an advertising executive, his son Robert (Sam Rockwell), a symphony musician, and his other daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a Vegas entertainer. It turns out that all three are hiding things from their dad -- about David as well as about themselves. Writer-director Kirk Jones makes an unhealthy number of unwise decisions, from pacing to casting to his mise en scene selections. Awkward and ill-matched, the members of the big-name cast fail to impress, although Rockwell comes closest to making his character something more than a dullard. Dramatic crises are played out in predictable fashion, with the one deviation from formula -- a climactic scene in which Frank imagines his offspring looking like children but arguing with him like adults -- proving to be disastrous. Although a remake of a 1990 Italian import starring Marcello Mastroianni, Everybody's Fine also has much in common, both thematically and narratively, with a Jack Nicholson gem from a few years back. Ultimately, though, this is less About Schmidt and more about nothing much.
Having sat through the witless preview more times than I care to remember, I was perfectly willing to let Old Dogs go gentle into that good night, one of the expected casualties during a period in which screenings of year-end award contenders come flying fast and furious. But then I read that in one scene, John Travolta plays the Joker, and I got excited at the sheer prospect of witnessing such a dazzling display of cinematic wretchedness. Truly, this would be a scene to surpass any given moment from such past Travolta bombs as Battlefield Earth and Look Who's Talking Too! But no. Contrary to expectations, there's no fantasy sequence in which Travolta plays the Joker; instead, his character has merely taken some medicine that causes his face to sport a Joker-esque grimace. Thus, what could have been a so-bad-it's-glorious moment instead falls into the so-bad-it's-only-bad camp. Then again, that pretty much describes the entire project, which casts Travolta and Robin Williams as Charlie and Dan, business partners who suddenly find themselves looking after Dan's newly discovered kids (twins conceived during one drunken night seven years ago) for a couple of weeks. Masters of their trade (sports marketing), the pair prove to be completely incompetent in the presence of the children (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta, neither exactly a find), leading to a series of excruciating sequences in which the adults are repeatedly ridiculed, humiliated and made to suffer great physical pain. The movie is never remotely funny, but it excels at being creepy. In addition to Travolta's aforementioned gross-out grin, Rita Wilson is on hand to deliver a skin-crawling performance as a hyperactive hand model. The sight of a gorilla nuzzling annoying Seth Green is equally nauseating -- more so since most audience members will be feverishly praying that the creature tears him limb from limb instead. There are countless moments of creative desperation -- reaction shots from a dog, golf balls to the groin, etc. -- although the nadir has to be the scene in which Sam is deemed so clueless a parent that a puppeteer (the late Bernie Mac, and if this doesn't rank among the most depressing swan songs ever) places him in an electronic outfit and, with the help of Charlie, guides him through every physical motion as this dud of a dad attempts to play King to his daughter's Princess at a royal tea party. At this point, I desperately wanted Alice's Red Queen to burst onto the screen and order beheadings en masse.