BATTLES BOTH BIG AND SMALL: Reviews of The Messenger and Red Cliff

The Messenger starts out a bit bumpy as it introduces two soldiers, played by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, who seem to be solely defined by the fact that they are angry. Very angry. It seems to seep out of their bones. Add to that the deep misogyny of Harrelson’s character and I was a bit disheartened, fearful that that’s all I was in store for. But Foster’s character soon softens and becomes less angry as he comes into contact with heartbroken, grieving parents and especially after he comes into contact with the amazing Samantha Morton, a bit more Rubenesque than usual with some motherly, working class heft to her, an actress who can seem to do no wrong (England’s been producing a ton of these ladies lately, like Emily Mortimer, Emily Blunt, Emily Watson and Kelly McDonald, though I do think it would be nice if they got together first and came up with names that were easier to tell apart). The scenes of Foster and Harrelson breaking the news that a son, husband, relative has died while in the army, are heartbreaking and powerful. Steve Buscemi especially shines as a bitter father who screams in fury at the two soldiers, then later seeks them out to apologize. The whole movie, with a screenplay by Alessandro Camon and the director Oren Moverman, is heartbreaking and powerful. It does have some issues. Once Morton’s character disappears from the story and Foster and Harrelson are left alone to bond, the plot feels like it stops going anywhere and it’s a relief when both Buscemi and Morton return. There’s also a scene where Foster and Harrelson crash the wedding party of Foster’s ex-fiance and they make drunken fools of themselves; I didn’t know quite how I was supposed to feel and found myself squirming rather than emotionally involved. Foster’s character arc also seems a little unclear; he tells Morton he’s staying on (staying on to what; reenlisting or just staying on the detail with Harrelson—whichever one it is, it’s a bit unclear why he makes the choice). But all in all, this is a strong and touching story with a strong and touching screenplay by Alessandro Camon and director Oren Moverman.

Red Cliff, the latest John Woo opus, is magnificent, absolutely magnificent. Did I mention how magnificent it is? Well, if I didn’t, it’s magnificent. And marvelous. And wonderful. And splendid. It’s the sort of movie Roget’s Thesaurus was made for and it’s the best thing Woo’s done since he came to the U.S. where his over the top, ultra violent style counterpoised with extreme sentimentality didn’t seem to impress the studios and so he ended up doing hack work like Face Off and Mission: Impossible II. The only real drawback is that the Red Cliff I saw was only two hours and forty five minutes of the whole five hours and how I so want to see the whole complete work. As incredible as the film is, the version shown in the U.S. is a bit underwhelming when it comes to character, which is probably most of what was cut before it’s opening here, leaving only the intense and exhilarating battle scenes and the drama concerning how the enemies were going to defeat each other. The story, screenplay by John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo and Heyu Sheng, details the conflict over the control of China during the Han Dynasty of the third century. And detail it Woo does. This is one of the few war movies in which every strategy, every move, every countermove, thrust and parry is clearly communicated. I knew exactly who was fighting whom, what was at stake and who was winning and why. And then there’s final conflict, in which whether a woman can seduce a man long enough for the wind to change is more suspenseful than any of the battle scenes. This is one of the finest movies of the year, perhaps the best directed, and it should not be missed. But to demonstrate the state of movies in the U.S., it should be noted that Red Cliff opened in L.A. not at the huge screen at Grauman’s Chinese nor at the Arclight Cinerama Dome. No, it opened at the smaller art house the Sunset V while Grauman’s opened Ninji Assasin, soon to be deemed a classic, I’m sure.

So tell me what you think.

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