The Messenger flirts with being a great film but doesn't fully make the cut. Director/writer Oren Moverman (with fellow scribe Alessandro Camon) definitely comes out of the gate strong with his first feature and his best card is his eye for performances, and his leads, in the form of Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, do not let him down.
Sgt. Will Montgomery (Foster) is a wounded Army soldier who is back in the States serving out the last three months of his enlistment. Upon his return, he's tapped for a new duty as one half of a casualty notification team--officers who deliver the news of combat deaths to the families of the fallen.
Montgomery doubts his qualifications for the position as he is not religious nor particularly connected to life himself after a tour in Iraq, which has left him with more than just physical scars.
He's paired with a no nonsense Captain, Tony Stone (Harrelson), who views the job with somber respect and cynical weariness in equal parts. Stone trains Montgomery, dropping tidbits of wisdom and regulation (never touch the next of kin, the NOK must get the news before they see it in the media, stick to the memorized script, men react more unpredictably than women, etc.), and they quickly begin going about their grim business.
Before long the working relationship becomes a cautious friendship. Montgomery and Stone are both loners with no children or any meaningful romantic relationships--Montgomery is screwing an ex-girlfriend [Jena Malone] who is about to marry her current boyfriend, and Stone is a recovering alcoholic who still hangs out at the bar just so he can be around people.
The emotional rigors of the work begin to take their toll on Montgomery, despite his seeming hardness. Then, one day, they pay a visit to an unwittingly single mother, Olivia (Samantha Morton), and something about her and her strange reaction to the bad news intrigues him. Soon Montgomery finds himself stalking her--for lack of a better word--offering his time to help her get back on her feet. Eventually, his reasons for being there become more personal.
The Messenger is driven by its characters. The movie centers on Montgomery and Stone and the way they both begin to drop their defenses--though they do so for different reasons--and learn things about them they either didn't know or skillfully hid and never wanted to admit. They are wonderfully written, but what really makes the film work is the performances of Harrelson and Foster, both of whom are in top form here.
I have less familiarity with Foster (30 Days of Night, 3:10 to Yuma), so it is naturally easier to believe his measured turn as Montgomery. His restrained nature conceals a barely contained rage tempered with the melancholy of one who has seen horrors and suffered wounds that will never let him truly feel at home again ("It's like coming back from another planet", he said). He's quick with a smile and he still has a heart, but his discontent never sleeps for long.
Harrelson, however, has history and at this point in his career he has a Jack Nicholson-like tendency to act in varying degrees of his own personality. He doesn't totally escape that here, but what he does is disappear into the role of Tony Stone enough that I never once found myself thinking of Mickey and Mallory Knox (Natural Born Killers).
As Stone, Harrelson conceals a broken self-esteem that manifests itself in his need to not be alone. As soon as he gains respect for Montgomery, his new friend becomes as integral part of his day-to-day as the Army he intends to serve for the rest of his life. It's as vulnerable a performance as I've ever seen Harrelson pull off and his natural likeability (I have yet to meet someone who doesn't like seeing Woody Harrelson in a flick) is the icing on the cake.
In a film with not much of a plot, per se, being invested in the characters is paramount.
Harrelson and Foster's exemplary work here rise to that calling, tying together the film in ways that might not have been possible with lesser talents. The same goes for Samantha Morton as Olivia. The Oscar-nominated Brit turns in a wonderfully subdued performance by dropping accent and becoming Olivia Pitterson, an emotionally confused widow who uses her strength to combat the fearful uncertainty of her future, and the fear of her feelings for Montgomery. Morton's unconventional beauty is dialed back, and her performance studied and subtle while never becoming contrived.
The film does falter in one respect that, I suspect, lies mostly with first-time director Oren Moverman. Clearly the guy has an eye for performance and a talent for writing that I wish had extended to the films visual polish and style.
The Messenger is a low budget affair, which is fine by itself (as written it could very easily have been a stage play), and the script has qualities of the New Hollywood aesthetic pioneered by such masters of diagramming the human condition as Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson. In particular The Messenger reminded me of The Last Detail, not so much for any direct correlations in their plot or structure (though there are a few), but as a bar that it doesn't quite reach due to it's lack of visual sophistication.
At its worst Moverman's insistence on having one camera capturing extended takes from a sort of "fly-on-the-wall" perspective totally took me out of a few key scenes. It's an example of the camera drawing too much attention to itself, and the film would have been better served with more deliberate editing and evocative compositions.
It never enters the realm of ugly, but it could have been so much more. The film captures the ambiguity of its characters time in history, focusing on them and not the situation that brought them together (the war is merely something that is ongoing, not something that is judged as right or wrong). I really liked that, as it's something that adds to the film's slice-of-life naturalism.
The lack of visual sophistication might have sought to accentuate that naturalism; however it hamstrings the film slightly. It's the one element that had it rose to the level of the performances and writing, would have taken The Messenger to the next level fulfilling the promise that is certainly possessed by Moverman and placing this film squarely amongst some of my favorite movies from the late '60s American Renaissance. But taken as a whole, The Messenger is still one of the better films of 2009.
It didn't take long for me to realize what Black Dynamite isn't. A true blaxploitation movie. As a genre, blaxploitation filled a void in the '70s that is currently taken up by Tyler Perry now, whose films, in conception and execution couldn't be further from the gritty, guerilla-style, incendiary creations such as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Foxy Brown, Shaft and Dolemite.
Purely a product of that time and consumed in double-feature sized chunks at urban grindhouse theaters, the genre was born as an outlet for both underrepresented audiences and filmmakers alike. Whatever the sub-genre, be it action, comedy or crime film, the setting was usually a ghetto loaded with pimps, dealers and crooks.
A strong black protagonist fights against the evils of life in the 'hood, which more often than not could usually be traced back to The (white) Man. Whatever you want to say about them, from their shoddy technical merits to the reinforcement of racial stereotypes, they generally took themselves seriously. Black Dynamite emulates many of the genre's elements very successfully, but it is merely a spoof in the vein of Undercover Brother and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.
Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is a Vietnam vet and former CIA agent who is called back into action by his old boss Agent O'Leary (Kevin Chapman) after his brother, a former junkie who became an undercover cop, is murdered by a drug cartel. The dealers are flooding inner-city orphanages with heroin and nothing pisses off Black Dynamite more than people who harm the children--except maybe people killing his brother.
So, he navigates a rogue gallery of pimps, hustlers and willing women seeking clues that will lead him to his brother's killers and vengeance. Along the way he joins forces with a militant community organizer named Gloria (Salli Richardson) and with his trusty sidekick Bullhorn (Byron Minns, doing a note perfect Rudy Ray Moore) in tow, Black Dynamite follows the trail, dealing out ass whippings and smooth one-liners in equal doses. Together they discover a dreadful plan and a conspiracy that goes farther up the line than any of them ever dreamed.
Black Dynamite gets a lot of things right, particularly with its look and sound. It seems that instead of using modern techniques to "age" the film, ala Grindhouse, director Scott Sanders (writing with Jai White and Minns) just went and shot on old 16mm film stock and that goes a long way toward the authenticity of the film's visuals.
Had I not known some of the faces in the film and that it was made this year, you could have easily fooled me into believing this thing was shot in 1974. That attention to detail extends to all of the production and costume design, which is loaded with polyester, flared collars and platform shoes. Purposefully clumsy editing, wild zooms and some incredibly cheesy acting perfectly capture many of the shortcomings of the films of the blaxploitation era.
Round that out with a super-funky soundtrack that'll have you hearing the words, "Dyno-mite! Dyno-mite!" in your head every time you walk through a door or a roundhouse kick to some poor bastard through a plate glass window, and what you have here is a loving ode that (mostly) works. It's the film that Undercover Brother wanted to be.
That's not to say Black Dynamite is not without faults. It's structurally scatter-shot, like a Zucker Brothers film where they throw as many jokes at the wall as possible to see what sticks, and while they hit the mark most of the time, the cumulative affect begins to render the film a little too silly for its own good. For the most part it sustains focus, peppering the periphery of the plot with knowing nods to the canon elements of the genre. But the gags progressively lose their edge, making it seem like the film crosses the finish line of its brief running time on fumes, and not before a 3rd act reveal that felt like it jumped the 40 .oz.
Still, Black Dynamite is a pretty rare bird that succeeds more than it fails, and it's not like they are cranking out slavishly faithful homage's to grindhouse classics every other day. I'm ready for Black Dynamite II. Can you dig it?
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