Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Movie Review: The Messenger

(For the radio version, please click here).

The Messenger is the Goldtown Nickelodeon’s latest great offering for Juneau film lovers.

Will Montgomery is an Army man injured in Iraq and a hero. He has three months left before he is discharged. In this time, his superiors team him up with commanding officer Tony Stone as part of the Army’s Casualty Notification Service. This “service” is how the Army notifies the death of a soldier to their next of kin. Those who serve in this capacity have the toughest job in the military – aside from getting shot at.

So, clearly, this is not a light film. It is not a flashy film. There is not one explosion. Not even a gun shot. The cinematography isn’t sweeping and grand. The setting isn’t urban. The people are not sophisticated. And the dialogue is not stylized. But this is a great film. This is a film about intimacy. This film is about real people rather than frothy fictional concoctions. This film is a showcase for good acting and writing. This film is slow.

And I mean slow in a good way, like beef braised in wine for four hours on a Sunday afternoon. I’m talking quality slow: the kind of slow that allows you to get to know the character; the kind of slow that allows intimacy. The Messenger reminded me of other slow movies like The Great Santini, Tender Mercies, and Sling Blade. And in addition to being slow, these movies also starred Robert Duvall.

Which gets me to the acting. Ben Foster plays Will wonderfully. Like a young Duvall, he displays all the pain and angst you might expect from a decent man, injured in war, trying desperately to make a connection in the civilian world while, above all, maintaining control. Mr. Foster constructs a subtle and natural acting performance. His interactions with Samantha Morton make up one of the most realistic courtship dances I’ve seen on film: awkward, painful, beautiful. Ms. Morton too shines as a mom dealing with her own serious fallout from the war. Woody Harrelson plays officer Stone as a soldier making up for never seeing bullets fly in battle with forced bravado. It’s a great performance and has Mr. Harrelson has been rewarded with a best supporting actor nomination. Why not Mr. Foster and Ms. Morton? Well, frankly, their acting is so good, it’s like their not acting. Great natural performances rarely get the oscar.

The screenplay has also been nominated for best original screenplay. I completely agree. Again, it’s hard even to describe the writing other than natural. It is very difficult, I think, to write how people actually speak. You can be like Tarantino and not even try and just develop masterpieces of stylized scripts full of quotable quips. Or, you can try to write like how people speak. Most of the time, I think writers miss the mark, but here, this film, the Messenger; it’s like eavesdropping.

The Messenger plays the next two weekends at our beloved Goldtown Nickelodeon. This is Clint Farr, Alone at the Movies.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Movie Review: An Education

(For the radio version, please click here).

It’s an exciting time to be a movie fan in Juneau. Oscar nominated films are playing everywhere. Be sure not to miss “An Education” playing at the Goldtown Nickelodeon this weekend. This film is a best picture nominee and it’s lead player, Carey Mulligan, is nominated for best actress.

And she deserves it. This coming of age story is set in London in the early 1960s. Ms. Mulligan plays one of my favorite movie archetypes, the smart teen who wrestles with the futility adult life’s grind. I like movies that treat their teenagers as fully formed human beings; films that acknowledge a teenager’s capacity for curiosity, intellectual brilliance, and nuance, while also exploring a teenager’s equal capacity of inept social graces and dangerously dismal judgment. By the way, that’s a lot to ask of an actor. The fact Ms. Mulligan pulls off a performance of such maddening grace makes her a front runner for that Oscar.

And here’s another thing about Carey Mulligan, I couldn’t help but stare at her. She has a screen presence. She looks like Katie Holmes, but is British and clearly a better actor. Beyond that though is this presence she has, that is to say, magnetism. Screen presence is a hard quality to pin down, but some actors you simply want to watch more than others. Ms. Mulligan has the most nuanced facial expressions. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. She’s really rather amazing.

The film is about choices and deception. It’s the kind of story that, had it been made in Hollywood, would likely have been creepy, violent, and exploitive. As it is, there is some creepiness, but overall the film maintains a level of decency it could easily have given up to shock the audience. Thus, the shock of this film is much more cerebral, much more about righteous indignation than a sucker punch to the gut.

The performances elevate this good film to something more lasting. In addition to Ms. Mulligan, Alfred Molina is great as an overbearing but loving father, Peter Starsgard plays the enigmatic love interest, Olivia Williams is a patient and understanding teacher, and the great Emma Thompson pops up as a rather nasty school headmistress.

I don’t know if the young Ms. Mulligan can beat the mighty mighty Streep come Oscar time. I’ll keep my fingers crossed as she was the most captivating woman on the big screen this year – in an understated, British sort of way. “An Education” plays this weekend at our beloved Goldtown Nickelodeon. This is Clint Farr, Alone at the Movies.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Movie Preview: JUMP

(For the radio version, please click here).

Full disclosure: I am an intermittent submitter of short films to the Juneau Underground Motion Picture, or JUMP, Society biannual festival of short films This includes the festival occurring this weekend. But I want to push self interest aside and spend my allotted three minutes here on KTOO and KXLL to sing the praises of JUMP and encourage your support and attendance of the festival.

Over eight years, 16 festivals, and nearly 350 films, the folks of JUMP – Pat Race, Aaron Suring, and Lou Logan – have provided a creative outlet for Juneau filmmakers. The festival allows Juneau filmmakers an opportunity to hone their skills in front of a supportive, sometimes irrationally enthusiastic, crowd.

The JUMP society will air any submitted film that is under ten minutes and has a strong Juneau connection. This is a brave and trusting philosophy. You never know what you’re going to get and you may have to sit through something painful. Like, something made by me. But like Folkfest, if you can hold out for a few more minutes, there is always hope and promise in the next act. As the years have progressed, the ratio of painful to enjoyable films has decreased dramatically. Every festival has a number of “Wow!” moments. As local filmmakers improve their craft and technology advances allowing evermore sophistication, the quality of JUMP shorts is increasingly outstanding. Juneau is getting good at making films. Very good.

For that, thank the JUMP Society and their generous attitude toward submittals.

Nearly every past festival showing has occurred at the Silverbow Baker and Inn. Bless them and their yummy bagels for their consistent support of good film in Juneau. This weekend’s festival however will occur at our beloved Gold Town Nickelodeon, ground zero for independent and foreign film in Juneau. I look forward to seeing the shorts on a large screen. If you’ve never been to Gold Town, take this opportunity to experience the crowning shiny nugget of quality cinema in Juneau.

When you come in, there is often a jar for donations to the JUMP Society. The money is used to rent space, buy equipment, and otherwise provide an audience with a quality show. Give. Give as much as you can. For years, Pat, Lou, and Aaron have provided this festival on a shoestring and a bit of luck. They deserve our thanks and appreciation. They are not paid. There are no Hollywood producers to snap up the rights to their, or anybody’s, short. The efforts JUMP and Juneau filmmakers derive from love of the craft and our community. And how fun to have what was once a small curiosity on a Friday night morph into a Juneau arts institution.

The JUMP Society festival of shorts will show this weekend at our beloved Gold Town Nickelodeon Thursday, January 28th – 7:00pm, Friday, January 29th – 7:00pm with a 21 and older show at 9:00pm, Saturday, January 30th – 7:00pm, also with a 21 and older show at 9:00pm. Then, there will be one last showing at the UAS Egan Lecture Hall on Friday, February 5th at 7:00pm. This is Clint Farr, Alone at the Movies.