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Bad news: Foster in The Messenger.

Painful Reserves

By Laura Leon

The Messenger

Directed by Oren Moverman

A good friend and I were recently discussing, with some astonishment, the fact that solid movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—or, rather, the people who fought there—have had little box office impact, no matter how good the reviews. Of course, we were able to acknowledge that people simply don’t want to be reminded of what’s happening to their fellow Americans while we continue to lead relatively normal, if more cash-strained, lives. There are several scenes, both chilling and heartbreaking, in the great The Best Years of Our Lives, in which the returning servicemen try, with varying degrees of success, to fit back into their pre-war, civilian lives. The loss of commonality among lovers, spouses and family, the delicate yet permanent rupture that separates civilians from those who have served, permeates Years, and in some ways provides a backdrop for The Messenger.

Co-written (with Alessandro Camon) and directed by Oren Moverman, The Messenger follows Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), members of the military’s Bereavement Notification Team, as they crisscross a military town and its environs (actually, Fort Dix) to inform next of kin that their loved ones have been killed in action. While war hero Montgomery, recently returned from a harrowing tour of duty in which he suffered grievous wounds, has doubts as to his capacity to provide counseling, Desert Storm vet Stone assures him that their job ends at a recital of the facts of death; a grief counselor follows up with the “NOKs.” One might think that a series of notifications would prove redundant, but just the opposite proves true. Stone and Montgomery never know how their news will be met, or even if they’ll be allowed entry to homes whose inhabitants shirk from the cold hard reality of why they’re there.

As the movie progresses, the relationship between the two men evolves slowly from senior officer/junior officer to a sort of friendship. Stone, so rigid and by-the-book on the job, is much more of a mess after hours, as he struggles to stay sober and flirts with anything wearing a skirt. His late-night calls to Will interrupt the latter’s attempts to stop remembering by pounding beers and blaring headbanger music. The military calls Will a hero, an honor he heartily discounts, and when he finally opens up to Stone about his experiences, it’s done without drama or pathos, but, in a manner befitting a bereavement notification officer, straightforward and to the point. Harrelson has never been stronger, and Foster manages the fine line between still-vulnerable young man and efficient military expert. Both are bound, in fact maybe even preserved, by their military training and discipline; it’s what keeps them from cracking under pressure, from completely going off the deep end.

Much has been written about a scene in which the two men confront Olivia (Samantha Morton), a widow whose chief concern is that they get off her lawn before her son gets home. As they intone the script, she shakes their hands, then proceeds to ask routine questions such as whether she should notify her in-laws. Her crisp, if nervous, efficiency is almost shocking, until you remember that scores of other young neighborhood moms, silently thankful that they’ve been passed over, are watching from their own yards, and that suddenly, Olivia isn’t one of them but a war widow, somebody marked by Death. While this scene is, in fact, notable, it pales in comparison to two later ones in which Montgomery, somewhat guiltily drawn to her, joins Olivia in her kitchen in what may be a moment of tentative foreplay, and later, in which the two meet on her front lawn to discuss what’s next. Each is almost like a ballet, in which the participants are compelled toward each other and yet maintain a precarious distance, nervous about what they could be getting into—and we can see why. They’ve both been on the receiving end of the worst that war can give.

Heavenly Terminators


Directed by Scott Stewart

In the latest apocalypse flick, Legion, the inspiring quote, “My name is Legion, for we are many” can be taken as a reference to the many movies that it rips off, rather than the multitude of zombies, er, angels, er, demons, that provide the action. Aside from the names of the two warring angels, Michael (Paul Bettany) and Gabriel (Kevin Durand), Legion has almost nothing to do with bible stories and a lot to do with modernizing The Terminator for audiences who might be more concerned with conflicts from On High than renegade machinery. According to the film’s smidgeon of philosophy, God has lost faith in his favorite creation, and wants to exterminate the human race. Michael is the “good” terminator, er, angel, in that he falls to earth to protect mankind from God’s wrath. Gabriel is the bad terminangel, because he is carrying out God’s orders. Or rather, legions of demonized average citizens are doing it.

A sanctuary of sorts is created at a desert gas station owned by Bob (Dennis Quaid), who is a bitter divorcee and paternal supervisor of his staff of three: Percy (Charles S. Dutton), a one-armed fry cook; Jeep (Lucas Black), an innocent redneck mechanic, and Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), a waitress who is eight months pregnant. Just as Armageddon is unleashed, the staff and customers—including Kyle (Tyrese Gibson), the kind of armed loner that every last outpost really needs—are attacked by a little old lady who turns demon, insults the customers with her foul language, and then rips out a man’s neck with her piranha teeth. Michael arrives just in time to reveal God’s vengeance, and to protect Charlie, whose unborn baby, he says, will be mankind’s great hope. Hope for what, exactly, isn’t given much attention, although Charlie’s resemblance to Linda Hamilton’s character in the Terminator is as close to a prophecy as the film can be bothered with. As for Bettany, he appears to be in actual pain from playing a role that is underwritten almost to the point of non-existence.

The comic shock value of kindly citizens being revealed as cranked-up zombies is repeated several times, and, par for the course, the lucky few at the gas station are picked off one by one, as Gabriel sends in reinforcements. Competently directed by Scott Stewart, the action is predictable, and predictably alternates with scenes of interpersonal dialogue, along with a wisp or two of humor, as when Percy tells his non-believer boss: “In case you haven’t noticed, these aren’t exactly our regular customers.” The closest thing to a revelation in Legion—which occurs during the expected wings-of-steel angel smackdown—is that special-effects wingspans are much improved since The Prophecy movies of the 1990s.

—Ann Morrow


Tragic beauty: Cruz in Broken Embraces.

Bonbon Cinema

Broken Embraces

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

In his long career, Pedro Almodóvar has fearlessly mixed genres and moods within films—sometimes to great effect, sometimes capriciously. His latest, Broken Embraces, finds Almodóvar at the top of his form: With extraordinary grace, he has wrapped a comedy inside a film noir inside a story of forgiveness.

It takes a moment to realize that writer Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) is blind. After Almodóvar lets us in on this fact in a wonderfully salacious scene, we see the mundane life of a middle-age writer and the people in his orbit. There is his devoted literary agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), and her son, a DJ with his own literary aspirations, Diego (Tamar Novas).

We are also shown a newspaper obituary of a wealthy, powerful businessman, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gomez). The film, which has a contemporary setting, then shifts back in time to the early 1990s. We see Martel at the height of his power, and are introduced to one of his assistants, Lena (Penélope Cruz, never photographed more glamorously). It’s clear that he lusts for her, and she wants nothing to do with him. Circumstances, however, result in Lena becoming obligated to her boss—and it is rarely pleasant to be under obligation to the wealthy and powerful.

Eventually, it is revealed that Harry used to go by a different name; that he used to be a film director; that he was directing a film starring Lena, and they became involved; and that it all ended horribly.

Almodóvar has a different visual scheme for each story he tells. The present is light and airy, but remarkably colorless; the past is dark and sleek, with dramatic colors. The film within the film, Girls and Suitcases, is Almodóvar’s Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in disguise, and revels in that movie’s outrageous color palette and violent slapstick.

The film has a lot of fun with scenes relating to the movie business. (There’s a story pitch for a vampire series that sends up the current horror mania—and actually sounds more interesting than any of the recent vampire flicks.) And it has moments of utter terror, as the noir plot twists into a tangle of obssession and violence.

The shifts in tone are startling, but pay off beautifully. Broken Embraces presents us with acts of pure evil, yet ends on a hopeful note—a small portion of redemption that’s well-earned.

—Shawn Stone

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