Child 44


You've got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

You’ve got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

(2015) Mystery (Summit) Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Agnieszka Grochowska, Mark Lewis Jones, Petr Vanek, Jana Strykova, Ursina Lardi, Michael Nardone, Lottie Steer, Zdenek Barinka, Ned Dennehy, Finbar Lynch, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Sam Spruell, Tara Fitzgerald, Lorraine Ashbourne. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

I wonder sometimes if the current American regime misses the Soviet Union. After all, they gave us someone to hate and an ideology to deride. Then again, I suppose that ISIS has given that to us as well.

But in the bad old days there was Stalin and the Russians but despite everything they couldn’t have been worse for us than they were for the Russians themselves. The country was rebuilding after suffering horribly during the Second World War but after having Hitler’s troops knocking on their doorstep they had somehow managed to push them all the way back to Berlin. Orphan Leo Demidov (Hardy) had distinguished himself during the war, taking the Reichstag and planting the Soviet flag, becoming a national hero in the process. Boyhood friends Alexei (Fares), a wild but loyal man, and Vasili (Kinnaman), a vicious coward, had been at his side (and in Vasili’s case, slightly behind him).

These days, instead of chasing the German army Leo is chasing Soviet traitors for the MGB along with Alexei and Vasili. Their latest case, a veterinarian named Brodsky (Clarke) had resulted in Vasili shooting a mother and a father who had harbored the fugitive before Leo stopped him and humiliated him in front of the men. This makes Leo Vasili’s sworn enemy, one who will plot and scheme Leo’s downfall.

But things are already in motion. For one, Alexei’s child is found dead by the railroad tracks. It is officially ruled an accident but Alexei knows better – he knows his child was murdered. However since Stalin declared that murder was a Western capitalist affliction, it wasn’t possible for murder to occur in the Soviet Union. “There are no murders in paradise” goes the refrain (and it is repeated more than once, usually ironically). When Alexei questions the official ruling, he runs afoul of the authorities who quickly force him to recant. Leo is in fact the one who warns his friend what is happening.

Leo should be watching his own back. His wife Raisa (Rapace), a schoolteacher, has been getting restless in her marriage to the driven Leo and has been having an affair. However, Vasili makes a case against Raisa for being a traitor because the man she is seeing, a fellow schoolteacher, seems to have non-communist (or at least non-Stalinist) sympathies. When Leo refuses to denounce Raisa, he is punished by being sent to a backwater town under the command of General Nesterov (Oldman), himself in disfavor with the current Soviet regime. Normally Leo would have been executed but being a hero of the Soviet Union has its perks.

But there have been a series of child deaths in the vicinity, all with similar wounds to what Alexei’s son had suffered. Leo realizes that there is a serial killer in their midst. And since murder doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union (much less serial killers), the official position is that these deaths are all accidents. However Leo realizes that in order to protect the children of the district he will have to risk everything – including his own life – to bring the killer to justice. In the meantime, Vasili, who sees the perfect opportunity to take Leo out permanently, is closing in.

I expected this to be not very good, given that it got almost no push from the studio and received pretty miserable reviews but this is one of those times I got to be pleasantly surprised. The setting of the old Soviet Union filmed mostly in the Czech Republic – the Russia of Putin found the movie to be insulting to their history and promptly banned it – is unusual for Hollywood thrillers. The depiction here is of a drab and paranoid world in which the only colors seem to be grey and red and the only way to survive is to assume that everyone is out to get you which it seems is pretty much the case.

Hardy has become one of my favorite actors at the moment. Poised to be Hollywood A-list royalty (and will probably achieve that status with Mad Max: Fury Road later this month) he is on a role in which he seems to be incapable of delivering an uninteresting performance. His Leo is like a pit bull in many ways, but an honorable one – he doesn’t attack indiscriminately but only to those who in his view deserve it, such as traitors to his motherland. He chooses not to question the corruption that is in plain sight all around him, merely accepting it as part of the Way Things Are and when he becomes a victim of it chooses not to complain but simply adapt.

The rest of the supporting cast is for the most part solid; Rapace seems oddly subdued but still remains a very underrated actress, one who underlines how few really well-written roles for women there are out there. She makes the best of a fairly undefined character. Oldman is also another one of those actors who seems to always elevate the part he’s in whether it’s well-written or not.

While based on an actual case, this fictionalized movie comes across as a fairly predictable thriller despite being based on an international best seller which was reportedly anything but (I haven’t read it as of yet). It is the first of a trio of novels and no doubt Summit was hoping for a franchise here initially but given that the movie has been given little push and has been a box office disappointment, the other two are unlikely to be filmed.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. Now largely out of first release theaters with the first blockbusters of the summer season taking the lion’s share of screens, you can still catch it in second run theaters and likely soon on VOD. It’s actually a pretty interesting film and a well-made thriller worth taking the time to seek out. It isn’t perfect but I found it to be entertaining enough to overcome its flaws.

REASONS TO GO: Hardy continues to be a reason to go see a movie all by himself. Captures the paranoia and political infighting of Stalinist Soviet Russia.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit too rote in terms of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a few disturbing images, adult themes, some foul language and a scene involving sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel the movie is based on was inspired by the hunt for the real serial killer Andrei Chikatilo which was chronicled in the excellent HBO movie Citizen X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen X
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Misery Loves Comedy

The Purge: Anarchy


Purge biker chic.

Purge biker chic.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Noel G., Castulo Guerra, Michael K. Williams, Edwin Hodge, Keith Stanfield, Roberta Valderrama, Niko Nicotera, Bel Hernandez, Lily Knight, Jasper Cole, Brandon Keener, Amy Pierce-Francis, Chad Morgan, Dale Dye, Amy Paffrath. Directed by James DeMonaco

In a brutal environment, survival itself requires more brutality. When the world is kill or be killed, so must you in order to survive it. The way things are going in this world, the future won’t be for the faint of heart.

As explained in last year’s surprise hit The Purge, the New Founding Fathers – a kind of crypto-fascist neo-Conservative Tea Party on steroids gun-loving bunch have taken over the country and given the people what they wanted – safety, stability and prosperity. Of course, only if you happen to be white and wealthy.

The rest of us have the Purge, an annual night in which all laws are suspended and everything is legal including rape, murder and destruction of property. It is a night to, as the newscasters enthusiastically endorse, unleash the beast. As the day draws to a close and the Purge draws near, people look at each other nervously, murmuring to each other “stay safe” and praying that whatever protection they have be they state of the art security systems with steel window  covers and titanium doors, or plywood nailed hastily over doors and windows will hold against the onslaught of the night.

Sergeant (Grillo) is grimly gearing up for the evening. He has a small arsenal at his disposal and he means to go out hunting. Sweet waitress Eva (Ejogo) returns home to her ailing pop (Beasley) and her rebellious daughter (Soul) – is there any other kind – and prepares to ride out the storm as best she can. She can’t afford her papa’s medicine and her bitchy boss won’t give her a raise so that she can live decently. She is one of the working poor and although she does her best to make a decent life for her family there’s not much she can do on the paycheck of a diner waitress.

 

Liz (Sanchez) and Shane (Gilford) are a couple who are on the verge of splitting up. They can’t even agree on who to tell first. Picking up groceries on the way home, their car breaks down as the sun begins to set and they know they’re in deep trouble. They will have to find a way to safety on a night when there is none to be had and when every human they see will be out to kill them.

All of these five’s paths will coalesce in a moment of conscience and Sergeant will find himself trying to lead these people ill-equipped to survive in the urban jungle to safety, all the while his mission of vengeance uppermost in his mind. The night though is long and the odds are longer that they’ll make it through.

I will say right off the bat that this is a slight improvement from the first film. While there continue to be holes in logic and common sense in the overall story I found there to be fewer in the sequel than in the original and the pacing of the story was much more frenetic. The political overtones continue to be fairly blatant – this is certainly a fairly thinly veiled uppercut aimed at the American right, particularly the neo-cons in the Tea Party and the religious right (before nearly every murder, the lily-white upper crust Purge participants pray, invoking God’s blessings on the New Founding Fathers). I can’t imagine Fox News will love this movie particularly and I can’t say as I blame them for once.

 

Grillo who has been a sterling supporting performer for years finally gets a lead role and quite frankly I see more of the same in his future. He’s got the brooding Clint Eastwood-esque anti-hero quality to him only there’s a little more warmth to him. He definitely carries the movie along and stands out in a group of solid but unremarkable actors.

Another issue I have with the movie is that while there’s a ton of violence, there’s no imagination to it. People just open fire with automatic weapons and pepper human bodies with bullets. Not that I expect that in a real life situation that mirrored this it would be any different, it just kind of all runs together. There’s no cleverness here, just carnage.

I think that those who liked the first movie may well like the second while those who didn’t will definitely NOT like this one. While I get the sense that the filmmakers are probably on the same side of the political aisle as I am, their views may be a little bit too extreme for me. Even Fox News has something of value once in awhile and not all conservative ideals are as bad as they are made out to be here. I’ve met plenty of compassionate conservatives although it must be admitted that there are some who the New Founding Fathers resemble very much.

 

Needless to say, this still isn’t quite good enough for me to recommend. There’s just too many plot issues and not enough well drawn-out characters to capture my interest. This is very much a one-trick pony and if you happen to like that trick, more power to you – enjoy. For those of us who need a little bit more variety in our hour and a half in the multiplex, this probably isn’t the movie to see.

REASONS TO GO: Different sort of film than the first. Grillo a promising lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Overtly political. Relentless violence. Not very thrilling as thrillers go.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of violence, much of it unsettling and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character, known here only as Sergeant, had most of his backstory cut from the film during post-production; his name in the script is Leo Barnes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors

Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Patriot


The Patriot

Mel Gibson leads the charge against the Brits, disappointed he can’t paint his face blue here.

(2000) Historical Drama (Columbia) Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones, Logan Lerman, Mika Boorem. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

We often bandy about the term “patriotic” to imply our loyalty to our country. In reality, that has come to mean standing whenever the national anthem is played and making sure to cast our votes in each and every election. Most of us don’t even do that. There was a time, however, when being a patriot was dangerous; a man’s home, family and life were the collateral for his ideals.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has plenty of collateral. Although he mourns his recently deceased wife, he has seven wonderful children, a prosperous farm and as a hero of the French and Indian War, the respect and admiration of his community. However, the clouds of war brew on the horizon. The colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia are in full revolt against a tyrannical English king, and are soliciting support from the other colonies, many of whom have already given it. Martin’s South Carolina still debates the issue, but despite an impassioned plea by Martin to attempt other solutions (followed by a dire, Cassandra-esque warning that the war would be fought in the streets of their hometowns to be witnessed by their children), South Carolina chooses to fight for freedom. Martin chooses not to, but his passionate son Gabriel (Ledger) enlists in the Continental Army against his father’s wishes.

Two years pass. Lord Cornwallis (Wilkinson) has taken Charleston and as Martin predicted, the fighting is getting close to home. Following a skirmish in which Gabriel participates just outside the Martin farm, Martin and his household tend to the wounded on both sides. Into this scene of compassion canters the despicable Col. Tavington (Isaacs), who orders the wounded Colonials shot, Gabriel arrested and hung as a spy (for carrying dispatches on his person), the house torched and the livestock killed. In the ensuing pandemonium, Martin’s second-oldest son Thomas is shot before the horrified gaze of his family by Tavington, who sneers “Stupid boy!” in his best Snidely Whiplash fashion, and then gallops off, leaving Thomas to die in his father’s arms.

The despicable colonel forgets one of life’s basic rules (or at least one of the basic rules of 90s movies); don’t mess with Mel Gibson (you’d think the Brits would have learned that after Braveheart). He and his two remaining sons carry off a daring rescue of Gabriel, whereupon the elder Martin enlists himself and takes charge of a South Carolina militia whose job is to occupy Cornwallis and keep him from marching north to finish off George Washington. The militiamen do this at great cost, as Tavington carries out atrocity after atrocity.

This isn’t going to play very well in England, as the English here are portrayed as either sadistic, vain, arrogant and/or somewhat stupid. That’s OK, though; this is really our story, although ironically it’s being told by Roland Emmerich, the German director of Independence Day and Godzilla.

The battle scenes are terrifying, as armies get nose to nose and muzzle to muzzle, firing at point blank range at each other, standing in a line and praying that the volley of musket fire will pass them by, all the while cannonshot take the arms, legs and heads off of hapless soldiers in the front ranks. The violence and brutality are excessive at times, but the carnage is necessary to place in context the bravery of farmers, untrained in war, standing in the face of devastating British muskets firing with deadly accuracy into their ranks. Gibson is solid, though his performance is less compelling than in Braveheart, to which this will inevitably be compared. Here, he is a rough-hewn man with a dangerous temper boiling beneath the surface. Ledger is terrific – this was the performance that established him in Hollywood after success in his native Australia.

The Patriot is a bit over-the-top in places, and a bit predictable in others, leading to a half-star penalty. Be warned; this is a gut-wrenching, emotional movie. Da Queen rated it five hankies and there was a lot of snuffling going on in the packed theater in which we saw “The Patriot.” Da Queen was red-eyed hours after the movie was over.

The Patriot reminds us of the sacrifices that were made to give this country life. Men gave of life and limb, watched sons, fathers, brothers and friends perish, left their homes and families to exist in brutal conditions with the Continental army, and often watched their life’s work go up in smoke. Too often, we forget the commitment that created the liberty we cherish. That’s just the first step in losing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense battle sequences. Gibson is at his best here. Ledger makes a big splash in his debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turns the Redcoats into Storm Troopers. Fudges on the facts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of war violence here, some of it quite graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The house used as Aunt Charlotte’s (Richardson) plantation was the same one used as the residence of Forrest Gump. Benjamin Martin has seven children, the same number Mel Gibson had at the time of filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real people these fictional characters were based on and the lengths the movie went to for historical accuracy in terms of uniforms and so on (it’s a shame they couldn’t have been more accurate in terms in more important places).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.3M on a $110M production budget; the movie broke even in it’s theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Magic Mike

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