Brothers (2009)


Brothers

Tobey Maguire reactsas Natalie Portman gives him the news that she likes Thor far more than Spider-Man.

(2009) Drama (Lionsgate) Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Berry, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Suplee, Omid Abtahi. Directed by Jim Sheridan

 

The thing about brothers is that even though they come from the same genetics, sometimes they are nothing alike on the surface. Often though, they are more alike than you might think even though they don’t appear to be at first glance.

Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a family man and a respected marine. His men adore him, his family worships him and his father Hank (Shepard), ex-military himself, respects him. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) loves him without reservation and has given him two sweet young daughters – precocious Isabelle (Madison) and adorable Maggie (Geare).

Sam’s brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a different matter. He’s just out of prison where he served time for armed robbery. His father is ashamed by him, his sister-in-law barely tolerates him and only his brother and nieces seem to think that he has any value to him at all. Tommy is determined to make a fresh start and stay clean, but he’s said that before and unfortunately Sam is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He’s made it through three tours though and while Grace is worried she knows that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it back safely.

But this time, he doesn’t. Word comes in that the helicopter that Sam was in went down and all aboard were lost. Because it went down in the water, there isn’t even a body to ship home for them to bury. They’re all devastated, Tommy and Grace most of all. Hidden resentments between Tommy and Hank come out at the funeral despite the efforts of Elsie (Winningham) – Tommy and Sam’s mom, Hank’s wife – to keep the peace. Hank’s alcohol problem becomes a bit more noticeable now.

Tommy is racked with guilt – guilt over things unsaid, things undone. There are some repairs to the kitchen that Sam had always been meaning to get to but never had. Tommy makes that his personal mission now. He recruits some locals to help build Grace a new kitchen. He becomes closer to Sam’s kids, almost a big brother instead of a screw-up uncle. He and Grace begin to not only develop a closer relationship, but one which might go further than either one ever imagined.

Except that the reports of Sam’s demise turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. It turns out that Sam and fellow New Mexican Joe Willis (Flueger) were captured by the Taliban. Both were held by them for over a year, under constant torture and in cruel and inhuman conditions. In order to survive, Sam is forced to do heinous deeds – things that haunt him long after he’s rescued and brought home.

Once home, things don’t get any better for Sam. He’s paranoid and haunted by his terrible wartime secrets. He’s also convinced that Tommy and Grace had been sleeping with each other. The trouble with that is that even though nothing has happened between Tommy and Grace other than a somewhat passionate kiss after an evening of drinking, it wasn’t that the thought hadn’t crossed their minds to take it farther. And despite their protestations to the contrary, Sam can’t get past his fears, leading to an inevitable confrontation that may lead to tragedy.

This is based on the Danish film Brodre by Suzanne Bier which was a much more spare, Spartan film which was largely improvised. This here is far more scripted and features three actors at the top of their games – Portman (who would go on to win an Oscar just a year later), Gyllenhaal (who’d already been nominated for one) and Maguire, best known for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise.

In many ways Maguire has the most opportunity here and he seizes it. Generally he hasn’t had to access the darker aspects of his nature, but here he certainly must; it is the kind of performance that opens your eyes to new possibilities for an actor. Quite honestly, I’d always thought Maguire made a fine Peter Parker – a bit of a nerd with a few action chops and a pretty decent sense of comic timing. However, here he shows he’s capable of considerably darker roles and hopefully he’ll get considered for a few.

Gyllenhaal has a less meaty role as the brother finding redemption as he tries to pick up the pieces after a tragedy. The thing to remember here is that Gyllenhaal had a tragedy of his own to deal with – it was while he was filming this movie that his close friend Heath Ledger passed away, a passing that affected him deeply. Much of the middle third of the movie has Tommy dealing with the grief of the mistaken news of Sam’s passing; I don’t know how much of that portion of the movie was filmed before the news broke about Ledger but Tommy’s grief was a caged tiger throughout the movie, kept carefully inside his enclosure but the claws come out unexpectedly. It’s an understated performance that may not be flashy but compliments his other two leads nicely.

Portman is really in many ways the center of the movie, although ostensibly this is about the relationship between Sam and Tommy. She’s the lynchpin, the crux which the story revolves around. She’s not merely a plot device; she has real emotions, turning her grief into a renewed closeness to her daughters. Like Gyllenhaal, the performance is restrained and subtle; as a mom, she has to keep a lot of her anguish inside for the sake of her kids who need to lean on her as their rock (as does Tommy, to be honest). She’s very much a salt of the earth sort, one who does her duty without fanfare or need for applause – every inch the military wife. It wouldn’t surprise me if Portman spent some time with military wives to gain insight.

For the most part, the plot moves at a crisp and even pace. That is, until the third act when things break down a little bit. Part of it is due to story construction – we know what Sam is hiding, and a good deal of time has been spent showing us what he went through. It might have been far more effective to leave that offscreen (or told in flashback form) so that we are on the same level playing field with Sam’s family leaving us off-balance when Sam starts to change. At that point, the movie goes in a fairly predictable direction.

Still, with performances such as the ones in the lead roles you really can’t lose. While I wish that we were left to wonder, as Grace was, why her husband was acting the way he was, I can’t quarrel with the strength of the underlying material nor with its timeliness. This is one of those movies that might have escaped your notice both at the box office and as a rental that you might want to give a second look to.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of the three leads are riveting. Tautly directed and well-paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the third act. Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is bad language and violence; some of the latter is pretty disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When a back injury threatened to derail Maguire’s participation in Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal would have been the first choice to replace him. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on how the picture developed from the Danish original and how the two films compare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $26M production budget; the movie fell just shy of breaking even at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Scream 4

The Lucky One


The Lucky One

Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling save the last dance for each other.

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart, Adam Lefevre Robert Terrell Hayes, Joe Chrest, Russ Comegys, Sharon Morris, Ann McKenzie, Kendal Tuttle, Courtney J. Clark, Jillian Batherson. Directed by Scott Hicks

 

The novels of Nicholas Sparks and the films that are based on them tend to sparkle with a certain patina of sentiment. They are filmed in rich autumnal colors, through hazy lenses smeared with Vaseline. They are the stuff of modern day fairy tales.

Logan Thibault (Efron) is a Marine serving in Iraq. While on his last tour he goes on a raid of a home and comes under heavy fire from snipers. He watches as men from his company and others are cut down by the insurgents.

The next morning he and his men are lounging around the now-secured area when he spies a photograph in the rubble. Curious, he walks over to it, bends over and picks it up to see a beautiful blonde  – when an explosion wipes out the men he’d just been standing with.

The rest of his tour he survives again and again, sometimes without rhyme or reason. One of his fellow Marines jokes that the girl in the picture is his guardian angel. Logan isn’t laughing though; he thinks she might just be.

After leaving the Marines he goes to visit his sister and her family in Colorado but it’s clear he has issues. He’s jumpy, morose and when startled reacts violently. He knows he can’t stay with his sister and her bratty sons; he decides to go find the woman in the photograph. By pure happenstance he stumbles on a picture of the lighthouse in the back of the photo with the woman and decides to hoof it from Colorado to Louisiana.

Six years later, he arrives in Louisiana with scarcely a bunion, his impossibly well-behaved German Shepard Zeus by his side. He shows the picture around town and is led to the local pet groomer’s where he finds the object of his search, Beth Clayton (Schilling). She is divorced from Keith (Ferguson), the town sheriff and son of the powerful Judge Clayton (LeFevre) and at the moment an uneasy peace exists between them, threatened by Keith’s alcohol abuse. Beth lives with her son Ben (Stewart) and her grandma Ellie (Danner) and their business is sorely in need of some help. Beth mistakes Logan for a respondent to her want ad but something about him – the fact that he confessed to having walked from Colorado to Louisiana made her a bit reluctant to hire him. However Ellie – who possesses a Sense About These Things – hires him on the spot, hoping he’ll re-ignite Beth’s spark.

Boy does he ever. It takes a few games of chess with Ben (who takes to the newcomer like a tick to a Golden Retriever), a fully clothed outdoor shower for the two of them together and a couple of beers and before you can say Logan’s Your Uncle, Ben the two of them are canoodling.

But the suspicious Sheriff doesn’t like having his ex hanging around another man and when he finds out that he has the Picture, he blabs it to Beth whom Logan neglected to mention that little tidbit of information to. Who had that picture and why will lead Beth to break things off with Logan, even though everyone and their cousin Moe knows that he’s The One for her. What will it take to get the two of them together? How about a freakish rainstorm?

Yup, this is Nicholas Sparks through and through, laden with coincidences and conveniences. In an interview, he talked about the book having a theme of destiny and fate, items he claims he doesn’t believe in himself. Me, I don’t buy it – most of Sparks’ books have an element of events conspiring to bring true love together by the final chapter, or tearing them apart.

Efron plays the taciturn Logan and we all know that he saw a lot of Bad Things over there because he’s supposed to be haunted. We can tell he’s haunted because his expression never changes. Ever. And his periwinkle blue eyes seem to look right through things. Efron may not be the most expressive actor on the planet but I know he can act. I’ve seen him do it in other movies. I think he either decided to play Logan as a soul-dead person, or he was told to by the director. Either way it was a poor choice. Even so, he has enough natural charisma that I actually liked his character. Go figure.

Schilling doesn’t generate a lot of heat with Efron and really doesn’t do much to make me think Beth is worth walking down the block for, let alone thousands of miles. Danner alone gives her role anything that can be qualified as memorable.

Yet despite all this I liked the movie much more than I thought I would and certainly much more than other critics did. I liked the story line and I liked Efron and I liked the dogs (there are LOTS of them) and I liked the Louisiana setting. I walked out with a good feeling and even though the movie is terribly flawed, I would still count it as a success just for that reason.

REASONS TO GO: Much better than I expected it to be. I liked Efron in this, although I would have liked a bit more expressiveness from him. Nicely photographed.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too over-reliant on coincidence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some war and domestic violence as well as a bit of sexuality and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers changed the location of the film to Louisiana from North Carolina where the book was set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.The reviews are solidly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message in a Bottle

ARMED FORCES LOVERS: The studio screened the film in advance on military installations throughout the world as a way of saying thank you to the men and women in uniform.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Five-Year Engagement

Haywire


Haywire

Gina Carano finds that Michael Fassbender makes a nice stool.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Michael Angarano, Mathieu Kassovitz, Eddie J. Fernandez, Aaron Cohen, Maximo Arciniega. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

Trust is a hard thing to come by and shouldn’t be given lightly. However at some point you have to at least hope that those in the same boat as you are going to watch your back. Sometimes though the people in that boat might have differing agendas.

Mallory Kane (Carano) is an operative working for a private security agency, the kind that takes care of things that government agencies can’t or won’t. After a hostage rescue in Barcelona doesn’t go quite according to plan, Kane and her fellow team member Aaron (Tatum) hook up before going their separate ways.

Mallory’s boss Kenneth (McGregor) next assigns her to a quick job as eye candy to MI-6 agent Paul (Fassbender) in Dublin as they pursue a French asset named Studer (Kassovitz). In a barn on the Frenchman’s estate, Mallory finds the hostage she rescued with a bullet in his brain. That raises her suspicions. When Paul turns against her and tries to kill her in their hotel room, that makes her downright paranoid.

She now has to escape her own operatives and law enforcement as she tries to get to the bottom of things as to why she was double crossed. She’ll have to discover who was behind it – Kenneth, the government official who employed him (Douglas), the diplomat (Banderas) who isn’t all he appears to be and the only person she can trust is her father (Paxton).

Stephen Soderbergh has done action movies before (The Limey) although he is best known for the Oceans 11 series. He makes a noble effort here but it falls a bit short of the mark. The problem here lies mostly in the writing. For one thing, there is no real suspense; most of the betrayals and double crosses you see coming. They’re not just telegraphed, they’re on digital video on demand.

Also, I found the pacing kind of uneven. The movie jerks along like it has sugar in the carburetor. There’s a scene of action, then a flashback, then exposition, then more action…there isn’t the kind of flow that makes a movie like this work. There’s also a distinct but odd lack of energy, like the cast and crew didn’t eat their Wheaties or something. It’s extremely laid back.

There are some good performances here. Carano, a MMF superstar, carries the load here and she shows a great deal of potential. She has one romantic encounter with Tatum and she looks like she felt awkward doing it but otherwise she handles herself well, not to mention she’s very attractive. Some female reviewers have expressed some satisfaction at watching her kick the asses of every other guy in this movie, but badass women are no stranger to Hollywood – maybe those reviewers should watch a couple of Pam Grier movies for future reference. Carano, a trained professional, is an excellent ass-kicker it must be said.

There’s lots of action for those who are into that, from car chases to occasional gun fights. I do like that Mallory works for an independent contractor and not a shadowy government agency, that is more in line with modern sensibilities. However, the pros and the cons of this film break just about even. I’m leaning towards a very slight not recommended, but I could be pushed either way.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action. Carano is easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is kind of choppy. The plot is kind of predictable. Lacks passion – felt more like a payday than a movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots and lots of violence. Then lots more.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gina Carano’s voice was digitally altered to make it deeper sounding after the studio decided her voice was too-feminine sounding for the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

EUROPEAN LOCATION LOVERS: Won’t be loving this. Most of the location shots could have been filmed anywhere. You never get a sense of place in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Girl on the Train