The American remake of a Danish drama looks at the cost of the War of Terror on one young family. Elsewhere, The Last Station celebrates the final days of Leo Tolstoy, and The Road isn't nearly as harrowing as it should be.
Oscar season often inspires an article or two about how depressing so many award-hungry movies are. Looking at the five films reviewed in this column, I’d say that’s only true about 40 percent of the time – and Fantastic Mr. Fox is such fun it’ll make up for a lot of gloom elsewhere.
As a great admirer of Susanne Bier’s original film but not convinced that it couldn’t possibly be remade, I went into director Jim Sheridan’s new version with a healthy curiosity and a little bit of sympathy. This Brothers was destined to get raked over the coals by a certain section of the moviegoing audience regardless how it ended up, and its pretty, indie-hip cast and long-on-the-shelf status weren’t going to help matters, either. But now that I’ve seen it, I can say that this is an interesting reworking of the Danish film’s examination of family, love and war. It’s not all successful, but I think Sheridan, screenwriter David Benioff and the cast all put in an honorable effort.
For those who didn’t see the original, the story concerns two brothers – responsible military man Sam (Tobey Maguire) and screw-up Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sam’s married to Grace (Natalie Portman), and they have two perfectly adorable little girls – he was the high school quarterback, she was a cheerleader, and their lives are pretty swell all around. When the film opens, Sam’s gone to pick up Tommy from prison, and while there’s a closeness between them, there’s also a clear sense that the rest of the family (which includes their stiff military father, played by Sam Shepard) has spent most of their lives asking Tommy why he can’t be more like his older brother. But when Sam is sent off to assignment in Afghanistan and believed to be killed in a helicopter crash, Tommy gets a chance to make amends with Grace and her kids.
The fact that Sam is not actually dead gives Brothers its central tension. Grieving because they believe they’ll never see Sam again, Tommy and Grace begin to bond (and, perhaps, share romantic feelings). But Sam is alive, and after he narrowly escapes his Taliban jailors, his seemingly welcome return home only complicates the relationships between all three characters. If you have seen Bier’s original, this area of the film will be the most scrutinized – and if you want to avoid spoilers, you may want to skip ahead to the next review. In terms of Sam’s escape from his captors, I think it lacks the shock of Bier’s film simply because we know what’s coming. As for Tommy and Grace’s platonic love story, Sheridan doesn’t give his actors enough time to really make their transition from wary adversaries to likeminded mourners convincing.
But this Brothers also does some things right. Some have criticized the casting because the actors seem too young for their roles. I think that’s entirely the point. In real life, it’s not Rambo going overseas to fight our wars – it’s kids – and the fresh-faced Maguire and Portman are ideal for conveying that sense that young adults are the ones most vulnerable to the unknown emotional and mental traumas of combat. They don’t overdo the pie-eyed naïveté, but you definitely pick up on the fact that these people simply don’t have the life experience to properly cope with the repercussions of Sam’s military life.
In addition, whether intentional or not, this film’s sometimes choppy transitions between sequences works well once Sam returns to the States. By thrusting him back into his idyllic family setting without much buildup, Sheridan is illustrating how abrupt the change back to civilian life can be for soldiers. It’s a nicely understated point Sheridan’s making – we bring these people back and act like everything’s fine without fully understanding their own rocky recovery period. This Brothers can’t help but feel like a shadow of the original – Bier’s movie was a provocative, occasionally manipulative, but ultimately overwhelming experience. Sheridan’s version can’t rise to the same heights, but its quieter stretches are quite successful. I know which version I prefer, but I think both deserve to exist and to be appreciated on their own merits.
The Last Station (Sony Pictures Classics)
Literate, pleasant, vaguely arty, good enough – every Oscar season has that one art-house film whose chief distinguishing feature is its refined tastefulness, and in 2009 that movie is The Last Station.
Based on a true story and adapted from Jay Parini’s book, writer-director Michael Hoffman’s romantic drama chronicles the final months in the life of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). The renowned War and Peace author is in his 80s and awash in celebrity – he even has a religion devoted to him. His wife of nearly 50 years, Sofya (Helen Mirren), isn’t happy that he’s recently decided to renounce his worldly possessions and pursue a life of simplicity. But that’s not her only concern: Tolstoy’s loyal disciple Vladimir (Paul Giamatti) is trying to convince the writer to revise his will so that the rights to his books will go to the people of Russia after his death. While these three battle over Tolstoy’s legacy, The Last Station also checks in on Valentin (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s impressionable new assistant who gets drawn into the maneuverings of Sofya and Vladimir.
The Last Station is most interesting when Hoffman subtly draws parallels between modern times and his film’s century-old setting. Near the end of his life, as least as its portrayed here, Tolstoy was famous but cut off from conventional society, and his fading health became a media obsession. His last year reminds us of so many popular figures that came after him: Brian Wilson’s time under the thumb of a manipulative therapist; the rise of Scientology’s celebrity-fueled religion; the countless legal battles over lucrative estates after the death of a commercially successful artist. Hoffman doesn’t bend over backwards or congratulate himself for his cleverness, but those understated parallels contemporize the issues at the heart of this film.
Unfortunately, The Last Station suffers from tastefulness fatigue. Perverse as it might seem, this film is a victim of its fine cast. All four leads are good, but they’re good in precisely the same way they’ve been before. Specifically, Giamatti is doing a variation of his cultured villain from The Illusionist, and McAvoy is playing yet another in his string of meek, polite young man who’s in need of exposure to the hardscrabble outside world. As for Plummer and Mirren, these roles don’t really tax their talents, although Mirren’s ability to make Sofya both sympathetic and insufferable as the wronged wife is impressive. In addition, the film’s themes – love, life, art, loyalty – feel completely worked-out before the first frame. There’s no sense of discovery or suspense in The Last Station: It rewards audiences who want to experience a little culture without wanting to be challenged. If this was an album, it’d be background music. Nothing against background music – sometimes it fits the bill for the mood that you’re in. But you can’t live off it.
The Road (The Weinstein Company)
My wife has read The Road and therefore doesn’t want to see the film. It’s not because she thinks it’ll be terrible – it’s that since she’s read the book, she knows what she’d been in for, and she doesn’t want to subject herself to that. So when I got home from my screening, her first question was, “So, how hard was it?” Part of the problem with director John Hillcoat’s big-screen adaptation is that, honestly, it’s not nearly as hard as it should be to sit through.
Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel was one of those so-grueling-you-have-to-check-it-out pieces of art that occasionally becomes a commercial success despite the fact that it’s a deeply unsettling experience. Clearly, a film version would never be a walk in the park but, its gorgeously bleak visuals notwithstanding, The Road ends up being more gloomy than harrowing. That’s probably good for your constitution but not so much for your viewing experience.
The film gives us the same setup as McCarthy’s novel: A man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering through an America that’s been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. Few people are left alive, and some of them have resorted to cannibalism to survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. But the man and his son carry on, looking for food and trying to reach the coast as they keep human scavengers at bay.
At a time when Children of Men and 12 Monkeys offer pretty frightening portraits of a devastated future world, The Road has stiff competition in any cinematic bleak-off. And it has to be said that cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and production designer Chris Kennedy have envisioned a terrifically charcoal-gray landscape. (It’s funny to think that one of Aguirresarobe’s previous films was Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a luxuriously sun-draped movie if ever there was.) But once you get acclimated to its dreary palate, The Road is a bit of a slog, its episodic nature containing great and dull sequences in equal measure. What you’re left with is a film that can be commended for its ambition but slighted for its so-so execution. And that goes for the performances as well. Mortensen doesn’t reach new heights here – the whole film is too muffled and damp to allow for anything virtuosic – but he’s got some of the same grim-faced determination that made him a star with the Lord of the Rings films. As for Smit-McPhee, you can make the argument that his character is really the emotional centerpiece of the novel – he’s the hope for a future amidst such bleakness – but the young actor never makes us believe that the story is in fact a right of passage for him. Like the characters – and like the audience – he pushes forward, step by step, but is he really getting anywhere?
Fantastic Mr. Fox (20th Century Fox)
Maybe it’s just me looking for coincidences, but I think it’s interesting that two talented-if-slightly-overrated filmmakers both turned 40 this year, both made movies based on beloved children’s books, and both made their best film in the process. The first is Spike Jonze, whose Where the Wild Things Are is so fantastic because it’s a serious, emotional kids’ movie that probably works better for adults. The second is Wes Anderson, who has always baffled me a bit. His live-action movies are meticulously designed and funny, but their gnomic, fussed-over quality made me wish that he’d loosen up a tad. In hindsight, it seems obvious now that he should make a stop-motion animated film – the medium highlights all his strengths while nullifying his limitations. Think his actors’ performances always veer toward caricature? No problem: Animated characters will make Anderson’s penchant for the cutesy seem utterly organic. Think Anderson’s better at creating his quirky worlds than following through with a coherent story? Let him adapt Roald Dahl’s book, which already has a story in place for him to follow. Never quite sure if his movies are being sincere when they’re being poignant? Transplant that into the realm of stop-motion, where his satiric edge gives everything a funny, wised-up quality while at the same time softening his cold-to-the-touch aesthetic. Like with Jonze, Anderson has superficially reverted to childish things to get at something truly touching about the human condition. Plus, I haven’t laughed as much as I did all year than during this film’s 87 minutes.
Me and Orson Welles (Freestyle Releasing)
You know how when Woody Allen does a period New York movie he can sometimes overdo the nostalgia? Richard Linklater’s ‘30s-set Me and Orson Welles is a nice corrective – still a bit romantic but also placed firmly in the real world. This imagined tale of a young actor (a very respectable Zac Efron) becoming part of an ambitious restaging of Julius Ceasar overseen by the great Orson Welles (Christian McKay) is a coming-of-age love story that slow-dances with a “let’s put on a show” behind-the-scenes theater drama. It’s a fun, smart movie about artistic aspirations, but its worthiness stems from McKay. It can be tricky to play a well-known figure who existed at a time when there were moving images of him – we all know how he sounds and looks. But beyond closely resembling the young Welles, McKay also nails his essence, harnessing the man’s cocky exuberance that came with the knowledge that he knew he was hot shit. These sorts of roles often get dismissed as being “just” impressions, but McKay’s performance goes deeper. You understand exactly why any young actor would go through a brick wall for Welles – he knew how to inspire and to flatter and to make you believe that you were in the company of greatness. To play Welles, you have to have a little of that greatness yourself, and McKay does. I almost feel bad for the guy: I honestly don’t know what he’ll be able to do half as compellingly after summoning Welles so completely.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.