Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 06, 2009 9:00 pm 
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A flawed remake of an instructive war story

This is a powerful, emotionally explosive story about how soldiers bring the war back home. An older brother, Marine Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), goes back to Afghanistan where his plane is shot down and he is reported dead. Just before he leaves his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), gets out of jail. The contrast is rather schematic. Sam has a pretty wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two little girls, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). The brothers' dad Jake (Sam Shepard), himself a Marine vet who fought in Nam, makes it clear he's never thought Tommy amounted to anything and Sam, a football hero, is the golden boy.

But Tommy finds a sense of purpose in supporting Sam's widow and helping take care of the two girls. To be helpful he finishes building the kitchen in his brother's house, which was left uncompleted. He and the widow gradually become friendly and they kiss, but it goes no further. Jake comes to some grudging acceptance of Tommy's worth.

But as this is going on the film reveals in briefer, alternating, sequences that the older brother has not died but is being held prisoner under terrible conditions, and is forced to do a terrible deed before the coalition forces raid the encampment and he is brought home. Sam returns traumatized by his experience as a prisoner and wracked with inarticulate guilt.

The Irish director Jim Sheridan, who's moved his operations to the USA lately, is often described as a "master storyteller," but here he is doing a remake -- and it's not quite as good as the original. The adaptation/translation by David Benioff is very faithful to Susanne Bier's Danish film Brødre (co-written with Anders Thomas Jensen) starring Connie Nielsen as the wife, Ulrich Thomsen as the older brother (Michael) and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as the younger one (Jannik). The American version has bigger names, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal (though Connie Nielsen is a star in both English and Danish films and a suaver actress than Portman).

Bier's movie provides so harsh an emotional experience, with its gruesome prisoner passages and violence when Michael comes home, that it doesn't let you think, but it's vivid and convincing, despite the crude set-up of the contrasts of the brothers, partly because of the rough, semi-Dogme style of the cinematography. The big problem is that Michael is never appealing, either before or after he's traumatized. What he is though is a grownup (the actor was 41), and thus a contrast to the charismatic, bearish Janik (as played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whose initial immaturity is as obvious as his warmth and sense of fun. Jake Gykllenhaal does a good job of creating a similar character. Though oddly, since he's a heartthrob, he's not quite as appealing as Kaas, he still seems appealing, and also strong enough to rally and build kitchens and support a family. You can well believe in both movies how the younger brother would win over the hearts of the two girls. Sheridan is good with kids and Bailee Madison is quite remarkable as Isabelle, the more difficult, older girl. But while Brødre left me feeling jerked around, it looks superior when you compare it to this version. Though Bier's lovely, rich After the Wedding (2006) was a greater accomplishment, Brødre feels authentic in ways that the remake doesn't.

The root problem is the casting. Maguire and Portman are unsatisfactory. Both seem like kids. The diminutive McGuire is starved down to extreme thinness (not his first time for a role) to evoke his prison experience, which makes him seem even more like a child (if an aging one; he is 34 now), and he's always seemed boyish, borne out by his light voice. So Sam never seems more grownup than Tommy. He just seems scary and dangerous when he comes back. He overdoes this, and becomes a creature from a horror film rather than a damaged man. Everyone in Bier's film, even Michael, seems more relaxed. Sheridan's actors seem tensed for the coming fireworks at all times and so they feel staged, not organic.

In both movies, you're just sort of left hanging. Sheridan's apple-pie Americanism is that of an Irish immigrant and seems artificial. His Irish immigrant story In America, a mythologizing of his own, also seemed hammy and operatic. It's his Daniel Day Lewis collaborations that, though uneven, are the most worth watching. Basically the question is why Sheridan would helm a remake. Has he lost his way, and become a producer of hack work? You can see why Hollywood would think Bier's Brødre would make a good movie. Its overly schematic elements make it seem easy to translate. But why not give it to a new director who'd bring something fresh to it -- with a better adaptation than Benioff's, which leaves out some useful details but adds almost nothing? Reviewers have repeatedly said that this version is too slick and polished, and it does lack the rawness of the Danish movie and only adds theatricality. That's true, but I still go back to the business-oriented casting. Even Sam Shepard, always a pro and good at unsympathetic characters, is too familiar now and the Danish actor in the father's role has a stolid, distant quality that's very convincing.

Still, what does work is Afghanistan. The Danes were there five years ago, and the Americans are there now, and probably this story can be told in another five years' time of this perpetual war on intractable land. And it's good for Americans to see a story about how soldiers bring the violence home, now more than ever, it seems.

Sheridan is preparing to do another remake, of Kurosawa's Ikiru -- an absolutely terrible idea. When something has been been done pretty well, it's risky to redo it. When it's a masterpiece, it's downright idiotic. Tampering with Ikiru won't just be a misguided effort: it'll be a travesty.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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