THE MESSENGER: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Oren Moverman, 2009)

There have been many movies in which we see Army men appear at folks’ homes to give notice of the deaths of soldiers. It is usually a brief scene with little spoken, but here these men, in the form of Ben Foster as a Staff Sgt. recently deployed from Iraq, and Woody Harrelson as a Captain whose war was Desert Storm, get their own movie.

Under Harrelson’s gruff mentoring, Foster learns quickly that a stint as a member of the Casualty Notification service can be as almost as wrenching and painful as front line combat. Harrelson deals with this by going by strict protocol. He sternly tells Foster to speak only to the next of kin and avoid physical contact: “In case you feel like offering a hug or something – don’t”. Foster replies “I’m not going to be offering any hugs, sir.”

Foster’s life in the downtime is pretty dire. He is love with a girl named Kelly (Jena Malone) who is marrying somebody else and he spends his time in his dark dumpy apartment drinking while blasting heavy metal music. He becomes infatuated with housewife Samantha Morton to whom he has delivered bad news.

Morton takes the news of her dead husband reasonably well, even shaking Foster and Harrelson’s hands while saying: “I know this can’t be easy for you”. On their walk away from her, Harrelson calls this response “a first”.

Foster’s infatuation with Morton is initially creepy – he sits in his car watching her through the window and he follows her at the mall. Once he makes contact with her some of the creepiness dissolves but uneasiness remains as they flirt on the faint edge of a relationship.

Her eyes hint at a back story that we never hear but we don’t need to – the emotional terrain of lives lost and those left behind sets the film’s entire tone.

Unfortunately this semblance of a plot involving Morton is abandoned for a large chunk of THE MESSENGER. Foster and Harrelson go off and get drunk, get in a fight, and crash former flame Malone’s reception in a pointless display of untamed testosterone for too much of the sloppy narrative. This is a shame because Morton’s scenes are the most moving. There are some other powerful passages in this film, mostly in the first half’s house calls (Steve Buscemi has an intense cameo as a heartbroken father of a fallen son), but the film is too disjointed and detached to have the searing impact it aims for.

Moverman’s movie just glosses the surface of the psyche of these disturbed men. Foster has proven time and time again that he has the chops to create fully realized characters – witness Six Feet Under and his scene stealing turn in 3:10 TO YUMA – but this soldier is just a sketch and so is its story. As a supporting player, Harrelson is on more solid ground but still suffers from familiarity – the older brother feel of his character is not unlike his turn in ZOMBIELAND.

Though I wasn’t feeling it, THE MESSENGER is sure to be regarded as a noble effort. Its attempt to delve into this tense territory is admirable and its sincere tone is intact throughout its running time, but I was too often distracted by its shrugging sensibility in place of a statement. Audiences of late have tended to stay away from downer Iraq war related film fare. This time out it’s going to be especially hard to blame them.

More later…

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK: The Film Babble Blog Review

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Dir. Charlie Kaufman, 2008 <!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} —)

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is unlike any other first time director’s film, but then it’s unlike any other film in existence, period. The noted screenwriter of such modern day masterpieces as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND now is presenting us with an epic construction in which art imitates life and life imitates art in such a spellbinding manner that they become entangled so that one isn’t sure if it’s art or life’s parts flailing on the screen in front of them. Attempting to describe the plot may be futile, but I’ll still have a go – Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Cayden Cotard, a playwright in a loveless marriage to an aspiring abstract painter Adele (Catherine Keener). Keener leaves with their daughter to conquer the German art community forcing Hoffman to deal head on with his loneliness and various sicknesses yet he is still inspired with the aid of a large grant to mount what he calls “a massive theater piece.”

Tormented but not creatively constipated, Hoffman assembles a cast and crew in a large warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district to set about building a vast replica of the city outside. Every actor is given notes on their individual scenarios because as Hoffman relates: “None of those people is an extra. They’re all the leads of their own stories. They have to be given their due.” Dealing with the women in his life alongside his literally towering ambitions is just as tangled as he clumsily courts Samantha Morton as an eager assistant, Michelle Williams as a devoted thespian, a self-help book plugging therapist (Hope Davis), and Diane Wiest as an actress who oddly takes over Hoffman’s role of a director not long after he tells her she is weirdly close to what he visualized for the character. “Glad to be weirdly close” she responds.

Tom Noonan, who can be seen in the background following Hoffman throughout the first half of the film, is hired though he has no acting or theater experience. His experience is in knowing everything there is to know about Hoffman including the address of his ex-wife and he even takes up with Morton. Morton has her own theatrical double in the form of Emily Watson who is neatly attired (and nearly indistinguishable) as a Morton clone. Hoffman takes up with Watson, albeit briefly, but these relationship mechanics hardly define or dominate; they are restless and surprisingly realistic elements that wind in and out of this colossal collage. Though there are many funny moments, the tone is not intensely comical but there is the case of Mortons house that is on fire and burns for years – echoing the successful surreal tangents of Kaufmans earlier work.

As layered and multi-leveled as the mock city that Hoffman creates, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is a mind bogglingly beautiful film. It isn’t concerned with notions of time (years pass with no convenient “six months later” or “a year later” titles), there are no pat emotional resolutions, and there is no big climatic reveal of the massive production to provide a soothing finish. What it does provide is ideas – themes on top of themes with implications and allusions to ponder over for years. At many pivotal points Hoffman, struck by revelation, states “I know how to do the play now” and he and the film take us one step further into the blurring of oblivion. Kaufman has already blown moviegoers synapses with his fantastical tangents but this time he goes places many accomplished film makers would never even think of venturing. Its extremely exhilarating that hes discovered on a grand scale that theres no need for films to have designated integrated dream sequences; the films themselves are dreams. For his first effort as director to be as incredibly challenging as it is powerfully pleasurable will certainly kick off an extraordinary career of craft. As yet another troubling frustrating female in our desperate protagonist’s life, Jennifer Jason Leigh says: “It’s all about your artistic satisfaction”. She says it with an air of smug condescension but she’s right, though in the end SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is all about everybody’s artistic satisfaction as well.

More later…