Wednesday, December 30, 2009
By Harry Forbes
With each new film, Meryl Streep continues to astonish with her versatility and ability to invest her characters with insight and truth.
In writer-director Nancy Meyers’ new film, she plays a long divorced Santa Barbara restaurateur Jane who takes up with her estranged and since remarried ex Jake (Alec Baldwin) at their son’s (Hunter Parrish) graduation. She knows it’s wrong, for all the obvious reasons, but finds herself enjoying the affair, especially as the fling is so completely out of character.
But at the same time, she meets Adam (Steve Martin), a reserved and sensitive architect who’s been assigned to the ongoing renovation of her home. He’s a recent divorcee, reluctant to enter a new relationship, but attracted to Jane despite his qualms.
Streep’s son and two daughters (Caitlin Fitzgerald and Zoe Kazan) are oblivious to the rekindling of their parents’ romance, though the eldest girl’s fiance Harley (John Krasinksi) catches on. Rather like the twins in “The Parent Trap” (the remake, incidentally, penned by Meyers), Jane's children seem to yearn for a reconciliation, and take encouragement from the cordiality they observe at the graduation events.
Meyers’ script gives Streep and Baldwin some juicy comic bits, and they play them to the hilt. They kid their age – and in Baldwin’s case, his paunch -- without vanity, though it should be noted that Streep looks pretty darned good throughout.
Underneath the film’s gloss and comic elements, the script is savvy about relationships. The delicate dynamic between Jane, Jake and Adam is grounded in emotional reality. Jane’s dilemma is plausible, and Meyers maintains the requisite suspense throughout.
Whether boldly shedding her clothes (no actual nudity) in front of her former husband, or – for the first time in decades -- getting high on a joint with Adam, she proves, as she’s done not nearly enough in the past, a brilliantly deft comedienne.
With his resurgence in popularity thanks to “30 Rock,” Baldwin takes on his meatiest movie role in ages, and balances the blunt and sympathetic aspects of his part. He’s aided in the latter, in part, by Meyers ensuring the wife (Lake Bell) and particularly, the bratty stepson are less than lovable.
Martin has less screen time, and this is one of his most low-keyed performances, but his easy-going likability is right on target, and keeps the audience -- as much as Jane -- wondering which of the two guys would make the better match.
(Rated R by the MPAA for some drug content and sexuality.)
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
By Harry Forbes
In light of this being Angela Lansbury’s second delicious Broadway triumph of the year as well as the beauteous Catherine Zeta-Jones’s long overdue Broadway debut, it seems ungracious to declare this production of arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most perfect work a bit of a letdown. But so it seemed to me, despite the direction being in the hands of the estimable Trevor Nunn.
For starters, the production – which originated at the enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory, a scruffy London Fringe theater (also be the genesis for the coming “La Cage aux Folles” revival) -- David Farley’s physical production seems just a tad too bare bones for Broadway.
Secondly, Nunn’s direction and the musical tempi (music director Tom Murray) of Jason Carr’s orchestral reduction seems deliberately slow. It’s as if they wanted us to be sure we heard every one of Sondheim’s delectable lyrics.
Odious comparisons or not, the end result is several notches below any number of revivals here and in London, both large and small. In the former category, I’d include the first City Opera revival with Regina Resnick, London’s first revival with Dorothy Tutin and Lila Kedrova, and the more recent Judi Dench revival at the National Theatre.
In the latter category were terrific chamber versions at Equity Library Theatre and the Opera Ensemble of New York. The last New York showing was a revival of the City Opera’s production with a starry cast including Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, Juliet Stevenson, Mark Kudisch, and Anna Kendrick, currently winning raves for her performance in “Up in the Air.”
Still, you can’t go too far wrong with this sublime property, and this undernourished production puts it across.
The excellent Alexander Hanson, a Nunn favorite and the sole import from the Menier/West End original, is an apt Frederick. (I saw him two decades ago as Henrik in the Tutin West End version.)
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is an ardent Henrik. Leigh Ann Larkin has the right manner of the lusty servant Petra, and delivers “The Miller’s Son” confidently. Keaton Whittaker, one of two alternating Fredrickas, is one of the production’s bright spots.
I found Aaron Lazar’s Carl Magnus more austere than dashing – intentional I’m sure -- but he sang the part well. Erin Davie was appropriately acerbic as his neglected wife Charlotte.
Though her stage time is limited, Lansbury makes the most of the wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt, and delivers a “Liaisons” that ranks with the best of past interpreters like Sian Phillips, Elizabeth Welch (on record), Evelyn Laye, and or course, the great originator, Hermione Gingold. But all of Lansbury’s inflections were unique and brilliantly judged. Could a sixth Tony be in the offing?
Though most movie fans are unaware of the fact, Zeta-Jones is a veteran of stage musicals starting as a youngster in a legit version of “Bugsy Malone” in the West End. She looks lovely in her period costumes, with upswept hair and holding herself with gleaming confidence. She sings well, too, delivering a moving “Send in the Clowns.” And yet for all of that, I felt she was not quite right. She projects a contemporary manner, rather than Old World sophistication, and surprisingly, for such a deliberately paced production otherwise, rushes some of her lines.
The show’s biggest misfire is Ramona Mallory’s Anne. Though it was reasonable to assume her pedigree – daughter of the original Anne and Henrik, Victoria Mallory and Mark Lambert -- might result in a definitive performance, she overdoes the giggling immaturity, and her voice lacks the crystalline purity others have brought to the role.
There’s nothing radically wrong with Nunn’s staging, but he’s added little especially revelatory either.
Flawed though it is, Hugh Wheeler’s witty book and Sondheim’s now classic score, and the ladies above the title, still add up to superior entertainment.
(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)
By Harry Forbes
This funny and sad saga about a motivational speaker and professional downsizer is a worthy follow-up to director and co-writer Jason Reitman’s crowd-pleasing “Juno” and, quite simply, one of the best films of the year.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels the country firing employees at their companies’ behest. Happy to be free of personal commitments – his self-help speeches have to do with lightening our personal “backpacks” -- he considers as home the airports, planes, and hotels in which he spends most of the year.
When he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), an equally footloose and sexually playful fellow traveler, with whom he can have casual trysts without complications, and Natalie, a young efficiency expert who has introduced his boss (Jason Bateman) to the concept of firing long-distance by videoconferencing without travel, Ryan has an epiphany.
Clooney is at the top of his game, beautifully conveying a man waking up to the shallowness of his life, and realizing there’s more to achieve than frequent flyer miles. Farmiga projects empathetic warmth beyond the initial flirtatiousness, and Kendrick, who as a teenager was nominated for a Tony for her scene-stealing kid sister role in “High Society,” brings out all the contradictions of her still-maturing character.
The scenes of Ryan and Natalie carrying out their unpleasant duties – filmed with real people who have recently lost their jobs – are especially poignant and even painful to watch. There’s good work, too, from Melanie Lynskey as Julie, Ryan’s about-to-be-married sister, and Danny McBride as her fiancée Jim, who in light of Ryan’s carefree existence, gets a serious case of cold feet before the planned wedding.
Reitman has made a film for our times that is both moving and entertaining on many levels. Adapted from the novel by Walter Kim, Reitman is responsible for two key components: the characters of Alex and Natalie. The film – crisply photographed by Eric Steelberg and chicly designed by Steve Saklad -- looks quite splendid.
(Rated R by the MPAA for language and some sexual content.)
Thursday, December 24, 2009
By Harry Forbes
This is a fast moving, revisionist take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s endlessly popular sleuth, consistently engaging, if not totally gripping.
Robert Downey, Jr., who demonstrated how well in can play British in “Chaplin,” again affects a thoroughly convincing accent and demeanor. But his scruffy, perennially tousled Holmes is a far cry from Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. Proficient at martial arts and swordplay, this Holmes is a fierce pugilist, as we see when he takes on a boxer in a working class pub. And you’ll look in vain for the familiar deerstalker hat.
His sidekick Dr. Watson is not in the fuddy-duddy Nigel Bruce mold, but closer to Doyle’s concept of more active partner. He’s an Afghan War veteran on the brink of marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), and he’s played with dapper, mustachioed charm and agility by Jude Law.
The plot pits them against the villainous Lord Blackwood (versatile Mark Strong), a purveyor of the dark arts. He’s sentenced to hang fairly early in the story, after a series of ritualistic murders of young women. But he seems remarkably blasé about the impending noose.
And sure enough, after the hanging, it would appear he is not dead, even though Watson had solemnly pronounced him so. Adding spice to the dirty doings is the dark-haired American, Holmes’ old nemesis, double-dealing Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) – from the short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” -- with whom Holmes is smitten.
Director Guy Ritchie employs his usual quick-cutting, muscular style and maintains a confident, fast pace, but the general spirit isn’t quite right. He was on firmer ground with his last film, the twisty, clever “RocknRolla.”
Still, the performances here are all worth watching, and theater buffs will recognize Geraldine James – recently Gertrude to Jude Law’s Hamlet on Broadway – as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ housekeeper. Eddie Marsan is Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, disapproving of Holmes’ unorthodox methods, but grudgingly grateful for the help.
Sarah Greenwood’s production design is gorgeous: a teeming, grimy 1890s London come to life, though the action -- which includes an exciting finale atop the only partially constructed Tower Bridge -- has that contemporary feel.
Hans Zimmer has composed a tense, pulsating score and special mention should be made of the evocative period credits.
Those devoted Holmes fans, the Baker Street Irregulars, could tell us how true in spirit to Doyle is the script (by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg) but matters of plot notwithstanding, I think many will find the end result a diverting enough couple of hours, but somehow not the Holmes they revere.
(The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material.)
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
By Harry Forbes
After its critically-acclaimed and sold-out limited run at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the powerful revival of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic work has deservedly transferred to a new venue.
Brutus Jones is a former Pullman porter and ex-con who sets himself up as “emperor” of a Caribbean Island, duping the natives (“bush niggers,” he calls them disdainfully), and making his fortune. When, after two years, the locals get wise, he is forced to flee the island through the dense forest in the dead of night where his bravado quickly diminishes.
John Douglas Thompson is simply sensational morphing from cocky arrogance and fearlessness in the opening scene on his throne to trembling helplessness as the woods close in on him (literally), and he’s surrounded by imagined ghosts – or “haunts,” as he puts it -- and fearful reminders of his past misdeeds. Thompson’s delivery of O’Neill’s naïve Negro dialect – performed as written -- is masterfully done.
Ciarán O’Reilly directs the 75-minute piece, surely one of the finest productions ever mounted by the Irish Repertory Theatre, with a tension that never lets up.
Charlie Corcoran’s setting is satisfyingly evocative, despite the small stage. The use of surreal costumes (Antonia Ford-Roberts), puppets and masks (Bob Flanagan) to evoke the spirits in the forest scenes is tremendously effective. Brian Nason’s moody lighting maintains the increasingly nightmarish mood.
And there is a powerful use of music and sound effects (Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson), including the escalating beating of drums that drives Jones mad, as he imagines the natives are approaching.
As Jones descends into madness, he recalls the man he murdered for playing with crooked dice, and the chain gang overseer he killed with his axe. He envisions himself a slave on an auction block, while specters of slave buyers waltz around, and later cowers before a witch doctor.
Peter Cormican is strong as Smithers, the alternately swaggering and obsequious Cockney trader who fawns on Jones, privately holding him in contempt. He and Thompson have the major speaking roles, but Sameerah Lugmaan Harris as the native woman who gives us the opening exposition, and Jon Deliz, Michael Akil Davis, Sinclair Mitchell, and David Heron, who comprise the all-important ensemble, are all first-rate.
This great production and Thompson’s outstanding performance should not be missed.
(Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, 212-691-1555 or www.sohoplayhouse.com; through January 31, 2010)
By Harry Forbes
“Race” is an intriguing if not always plausible drama from David Mamet in his trademark rapid-fire, sometimes overly verbose, style that grapples with its titular theme head-on, particularly as regards black and white relations, and the shame and guilt that go with it. Matters of class and gender come into play as well.
The latest in a season rife with race-themed theater (e.g. “Superior Donuts,” “Memphis,” even “Finian’s Rainbow”), Mamet’s work is fashioned as something akin to a police procedural.
In fact, it is the star of “Boston Legal,” James Spader, who plays cocksure white lawyer Jack Lawson who’s in partnership with short-fused black lawyer Henry Brown (David Alan Grier). Well-to-do Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas) comes to them for representation as he’s been accused of raping a black woman, tearing her red-sequined dress (a vital plot point) in the process. He insists the act was consensual, but he’s conscience-stricken enough to seem to the partners like a dangerously loose canon, one who's even anxious to tell his side to the press.
The partners would as soon not take the case, but their (African-American) assistant Susan (Kerry Washington) – either by accident or design – has accepted Strickland’s check, and the case is ergo theirs.
Brown lays out the black-white multi-faceted conundrum right at the start in the snappy Mamet patois. The witty jibes ring true, but often register – much like the play as a whole – as academic debate, not the way people really talk.
Lawson is self-assured and not a little smarmy – the prototype of a cynical lawyer – and he comes to believe he can win the case, even though during the alleged sexual encounter, Strickland was overheard to utter a racist comment.
During the short first act, Susan is mostly an observer. In the second, she reveals issues of her own, especially when a detail about her hiring comes to light.
Is Strickland guilty? Thomas’ poker-faced performance and Mamet’s text really never tell us. But the play holds your interest, and the issues are thought-provoking.
Spader and Grier make lively sparring partners, and Grier (known mainly for comic roles) proves a solid “serious” actor, and though Washington and Thomas’ parts are comparatively small and their characters underdeveloped, both have their moments, particularly in the second act. There are strong overtones of “Oleanna” and “Speed-the-Plow” in the enigmatic Susan.
Santo Loquasto’s highly detailed office set gives the intellectual argument a semblance of reality.
Mamet himself leads the proceedings with the special authority that generally comes when a playwright directs his own work, and “Race” is head and shoulders above his last new Broadway outing, last year’s comic “November.”
(Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street, (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)
Monday, December 21, 2009
By Harry Forbes
“The Young Victoria” is an engrossing historical drama about the early life of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt).
The narrative charts her course from headstrong young woman determined not to allow her mother, The Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and advisor Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) to form a Regency when King William IV (Jim Broadbent) should die (thereby blocking Victoria's succession); her eventual coronation; and, of course, her courtship with her German cousin, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).
We see how she comes to vanquish her mother and Conroy with the help of the self-serving yet loyal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who eyes her growing closeness to Albert with some suspicion.
Albert, in turn, is under the sway of his uncle – King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Krestschmann) – who supports the match, assuming (wrongly) that Albert will be his pawn in England should a union ensue. But surprisingly, Albert and Victoria genuinely fall in love, though Victoria doesn’t, at first, commit to marriage.
When she becomes Queen at 18, she allows her allegiance to Melbourne to interfere with the government custom of allowing the new Prime Minister Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) to recommend members of the Queen's household staff. This obstinacy in keeping her former ladies in waiting causes a surprisingly vehement public backlash.
At her wit's end, she summons Albert back from Germany, and they marry. Rather than serve as a mere companion to his queen, Albert shows his mettle by recommending changes in the household, standing up to Melbourne, and after some initial opposition by Victoria, proving a strong ally. He has a persuasive advocate in King William’s wife, Dowager Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter) who wisely helps convince Victoria to allow Albert to share her duties.
Like many historical films of late, “The Young Victoria” attempts to eschew the sometimes stodgy style of past period films, but Julian Fellowes' script has intelligence and wit, and movingly relates the great love story at its core. It also humanizes the monarch much as the famous Helen Hayes play “Victoria Regina” did decades ago, but in a pointedly more contemporary style.
The beautiful Emily Blunt would seem as unlikely a Queen Victoria as did Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' casting as Henry VIII on Showtime’s “The Tudors,” but she charmingly conveys the high spirited and determined young woman long before the monarch’s familiarly iconic image as a plump old lady perennially outfitted in black.
And Friend is especially appealing as her ardent suitor, but the entire cast is excellent, Broadbent having an especially good moment in a lavish banquet scene.
French-Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee directs at a good pace, and together with Ilan Eshkeri’s sumptuous score, and Patrice Vermette’s handsome production design make for above average entertainment.
Interestingly, Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York – who, after all, should know a thing or two about royal doings -- is among the producers who also include Martin Scorsese.
(Rated PG by the MPAA for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence, and brief incidental language and smoking.)
Friday, December 18, 2009
By Harry Forbes
As with “Chicago,” the musical “Nine” has taken its sweet time to get to the big screen – and again, we have director Rob Marshall and Harvey Weinstein to thank – but 27 years after its stage premiere, the adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 1963 film “8 ½” is, at last, a movie, and a dazzling one at that.
Purists may object to changes to the overall concept and some missing songs – the “Grand Canal” sequence would have been fun to see onscreen, to name one -- but the show has been brilliantly reconceived in cinematic terms.
On Broadway, under director Tommy Tune’s direction, it was a superbly stylized staging as Guido Contini, a womanizing Fellini-esque movie-maker with a case of serious director’s block, played by the late Raul Julia, interacted with an all-female cast, excepting the handful of young boys who played Guido and his friends in the flashback scenes of his childhood. Maury Yeston wrote the multi-faceted score, with a book by Arthur Kopit, Jr. (Mario Fratti was credited with adapting the property from the Italian.)
The film’s screenplay is by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, his last project.
Marshall’s impressive cast of female star power -- not any of them known for extraordinary musical talent -- delivers the goods. Marion Cottilard (here singing in her own voice, after her Oscar-winning lip-syncing turn as Edith Piaf) is his long-suffering wife, Luisa; Penelope Cruz his sexy mistress; Nicole Kidman his muse Claudia who sings the show’s most beautiful and famous song, “Unusual Way” but otherwise has little screen time; Judi Dench, his costume designer, who appropriates Liliane Montevecchi’s “Folies Bergere”; pop star Fergie, the neighborhood prostitute from Guido’s childhood who sings the rousing “Be Italian”; and most apt of all, given her stature in Italian cinema, there’s Sophia Loren – “8 ½” star Marcello Mastroanni’s most frequent co-star – lovely and gracious as Guido’s mother.
The part of a “Vogue” journalist has been added to the mix, and she’s well played by Kate Hudson, but the part seems gratuitous, apart from explaining the phenomenon of Italian movies to today’s audiences. This she does in a lively pop-styled number called “Cinema Italiano,” one of three new numbers Yeston has written for the film.
As in “Chicago,” the songs are mostly fantasies, here in the mind of Guido. Each of the ladies has one big song, Cottilard two, her second a sexy strip number called “Take It All.” Loren’s number “Guarde La Luna” was adapted from the stage show’s orchestral “Waltz from ‘Nine.’”
Those who found the editing of “Chicago” too frenetic may find the cross-cutting more to their liking, though there are stylistic similarities. Marshall draws excellent performances from his cast, and brings his choreographic flair to the musical numbers, though the “Be Italian” number seems a tad too stylistically close to Bob Fosse’s “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret.”
Daniel Day-Lewis, with a suave Italian accent, replaced the originally announced Javier Bardem as Guido, and though certainly not the first person you’d think of for a musical, handles his musical chores just fine, and reveals a concentrated angst and Continental charm to this Casanova coping with mid-life crisis. Dench brings her characteristic tart delivery to her role as Guido’s confidante. Cruz makes a fetching, touching mistress, and her part has been considerably expanded from the stage. Cotillard is superb as Guido’s long-suffering, former actress wife.
Visually, the film is an eye-filling feast, courtesy of production designer John Myhre, costume designer Colleen Atwood and director of photography Dion Beebe.
This “Nine” rates a big Ten.
By Harry Forbes
Writer-director James Cameron has really outdone himself with this one, and it’s a project that’s been percolating even before “Titanic.” He has said in interviews that he needed to wait for technology to catch up to his vision. Well, it has.
This is a lavish and tumultuous science fiction epic about a wheel-chair-bound marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who joins an expedition to the distant moon of Pandora in year 2154. It’s a biological mission for a corporate consortium hoping to mine a rare mineral that will solve the Earth’s energy crisis.
The titular avatars are man-made humanoids (that is, a hybrid of human and the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, which are elongated blue-skinned figures with almond-shaped eyes). These avatars can safely traverse the alien landscape while their human alter-egos sleep in hermetically sealed containers at the home station, Hell’s Gate.
In his avatar mode, Jake’s handicap poses no problem, and he can walk, run, and fight with the best of them. In the course of the film, he befriends the Na’vi creatures, falls in love with their clan’s huntress daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and eventually sides with them against the establishment which cares nothing for their culture or their Eden-like environment.
Cameron has succeeded in marrying an intelligent – even if familiar – story with truly groundbreaking special effects, and that includes the ungimmicky use of 3D. At 162 minutes, the film is long – including a lengthy battle sequence near the end – but the pace never flags, and Cameron makes every shot count.
The Australian Worthington (with a good American accent) makes an empathetic hero, and indeed, all the performances are a cut above for this genre, including that of Cameron’s “Alien” star Sigourney Weaver as the mission’s top biologist Grace Augustine; Stephan Lang as hard-nosed Colonel Miles Quaritch; and Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon, a scrappy pilot on the Hell’s Gate base; Joel David Moore as easy-going Norm, another scientist on the team; and Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge, a cold-hearted administrator in league with Quaritch. Even though the avatars get the most screen time, the CG performance capture technique used here gives us, as never before, the subtle nuances of the actor playing the role.
This is a grand, fantastical adventure, but beyond the exciting action set-pieces like that climactic battle and Jake’s escape from several monstrous creatures, there are some breathtakingly beautiful sequences including several wondrous flights which Jake and Neytiri take on giant birds, and gorgeously detailed settings such as the floating mountains and the lush rain forest. (I’ll take this version of paradise over that currently on view in “The Lovely Bones.”)
Of course, we’ve seen this story of a Yank who decides to help an indigenous people retain their territory and their culture (e.g. “Dances with Wolves,” “The Last Samurai”) but this epic – a milestone in digital technology – presents it in a dazzling new light.
Beyond its dramatic virtues, Cameron’s script admirably carries a strong pro-ecology subtext and its portrayal of the military machine – in particular, Lang’s steely commander – registers as a scathing indictment of U.S. imperialism with several pointed references which will bring to mind the Bush administration and Iraq.
(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.)
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
By Harry Forbes
This is an unabashedly inspiring drama that really delivers on that level without ever seeming cloyingly sentimental.
Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” it focuses on South African President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his support of the mostly white (except for one player) Springboks rugby team as a way of uniting a racially-divided nation in the wake of apartheid in 1995.
Freeman – who also executive produced -- is superb in his portrayal, perfectly capturing the leader’s cadences and dignified demeanor. Just released from 27 years in prison, Mandela assumes the presidency with a largely white staff from former President de Klerk’s regime anxiously fearing they’ll be given the axe. Much to their surprise, all he asks of them is their support.
In the same spirit, he persuades the incredulous black National Sports Council to accept the Springboks – heretofore, a symbol of apartheid -- as the national team for the good of the country. "They are our partners,” he argues, a strategy that pays off beautifully. The title, by the way, derives from William Ernest Henley’s famous poem (“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul“) that gave Mandela solace when in his jail cell.
Matt Damon is Francois Pienaar, the Springboks captain who is summoned by Mandela who proposes that the team – thus far, on a losing streak – make a play for the World Cup. They men forge a respectful alliance. Damon’s South African accent sounds impressively authentic and he gives an admirably unshowy performance.
Clint Eastwood has directed the epic moments – mostly the teeming stadium scenes – as confidently as the intimate ones. The climactic World Cup rugby match is superlatively done, if a little protracted.
There are some wonderful moments throughout: Mandela conscientiously learning the names of the Springboks players so he can address them on that level; the team co-opted into playing with black school children, and then having a genuinely good time; and, reflecting Mandela’s philosophy in microcosm, the growing respect between Mandela’s wary African National Congress black security detail (Tony Kgoroge and Patrick Mofokeng), and the Special Branch white agents (Matt Stern and Julian Lewis Jones) with whom Mandela insists they work.
There are good performances from Adjoa Andoh as Mandela’s chief of staff, and Marguerite Wheatley as his fiancé Nerine, both of whom are skeptical of Mandela throwing himself into the rugby stakes with so many other pressing issues.
This is, for the most part, a restrained drama – so much so that Anthony Peckham’s script twice adds false tension by making us think Mandela’s life is in serious danger – but the central portrait of this extraordinarily forgiving leader wisely contriving, and succeeding brilliantly, in bringing reconciliation to a divided populace with the motto “One team, one country” is absorbing enough without the red herrings.
(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for brief strong language.)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By Harry Forbes
Though the generally excellent Roundabout production with the late Natasha Richardson is still fresh in mind, this gripping and revelatory production of Tennessee Williams’ oft-revived 1947 classic here becomes a new experience. The wonder is that it arrives on our shores courtesy of Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, currently run by actress Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, and that it is directed by the great Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.
Blanchett takes on the role of Blanche DuBois, and she is truly one of the great ones. Those who only know her by her excellent movie work will be newly impressed with her masterful delivery and riveting stage presence. Of all the Blanches I’ve seen, her cadence comes closest to Vivien Leigh in the film, though her timbre is huskier and lower. Perhaps she sounds something akin to Tallulah Bankhead who played Blanche in the mid-1950s.
Though she plays Blanche with more overt calculation that I’ve seen before, the mental fragility and yearning for refinement, good manners, and culture are palpable. Blanchett brilliantly captures all the contradictions in the character.
I found Joel Edgerton’s Stanley Kowalski quite the most satisfying since Brando. Though Alec Baldwin, James Farentino, Aidan Quinn, Treat Williams (on television), and others have hardly been slouches in the role, Edgerton better succeeds in conjuring the requisite Brando-like animal magnetism without ever falling into mimicry.
Robin McLeavey’s Stella is equally strong, projecting an appealing easy-going earthiness, strength of character, and tender compassion for her sister. The husband-wife dynamic is especially well delineated. And this trio anchors the play superbly.
Tim Richard’s very working class Mitch vividly shows how his ill-treatment of Blanche, when he learns of her sordid past, is borne of hurt not malice.
All those iconic lines – Stanley’s pitiful cry for “Stella,” and Blanche’s “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” – sound freshly minted. In Ullmann’s compassionate view, all the characters are, in some way, hurting, and their sometime cruelty masks deep vulnerability.
Even Stanley’s climactic sexual union with Blanche is played with both characters drunk, not as a rape but with Blanche a willing participant. A brief tableau after the blackout – Stanley sleeping nude face down, Blanche sitting calmly on the back of the bed – confirms the concept, which seems radical but actually works.
Blanche’s final exit, removed from the Kowalski home by a doctor and nurse for a mental institution, shows her walking solo towards the light in the wings, and would seem to suggest a final liberation from her demons. This was another brilliant stroke on Ullmann’s part.
Besides using Williams’ own instructions about sound effects – like train sounds at peak moments – Ullmann intersperses blues recordings during scene changes for atmospheric effect.
Ralph Myers’ New Orleans’ French Quarter set is intentionally drab, the walls of the Kowalski railroad flat are an ugly pink. There are some Edward Hopper-like tableaux we observe through the window of their upstairs neighbors, the Hubbells (Mandy McElhinney and Michael Denkha), but the vast gray masking which predominates, though accentuating the Kowalski’s cramped quarters, is simply uninteresting. Still, we can see, as never before, the extent of Blanche’s intrusiveness.
Matters of set decoration aside, if this production were on a bare stage, the performances and direction would carry all before them. Definitive is a dangerous word – and perhaps the Elia Kazan film with three out of four of the original cast deserves that moniker (despite some period censoring of Williams’ text) – but I don’t expect to ever see a finer production than this one.
(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, 718-636-4100 or BAM.org; through December 20)
Sunday, December 13, 2009
By Harry Forbes
According to Ayn Rand herself, the best film version of her work was not “The Fountainhead” made in Hollywood in 1949, but this 1942 Italian version of her novel, one "as close to an autobiography as I will ever write" she once said, and quite incredibly, made without her permission or knowledge.
Alida Valli, Rossano Brazzi (years before his starring role in “South Pacific”), and Fosco Giachetti were the distinguished stars, and Goffredo Alessandrini its director.
What was extraordinary about the film, beyond its genuine artistic quality, was that Scalera Studios managed to make it during wartime under Mussolini’s restrictive regime, even though the anti-Communist themes of the story contained elements critical of Fascism, too.
The film – so long it was released in two parts as “Noi Vivi” and "Addio Kira” -- was critically acclaimed and immensely popular but was eventually banned when the authorities finally determined it to be a condemnation of the Mussolini regime. The negative was ordered to be destroyed, but Massimo Ferrara, the studio’s ousted general manager, managed to conceal the negative.
We learn all this on the fascinating documentary, “We the Living, A Lost Treasure Recovered,” which accompanies the film. Duncan Scott, the restoration co-producer and distributor, describes how Rand came to be aware of the film’s existence, liked what she saw, and in the 1960s, had her legal representatives, Erika and Henry Mark Holzer, locate the film. After much sleuthing, this was accomplished, and under Rand’s supervision, the two films were combined into one of 174 minute length. The restored film would be even closer to Rand’s novel, and extraneous subplots, scenes that the Fascists insisted be added, or were otherwise extraneous to Rand’s original plot hit the cutting room floor.
The restored film was released in 1988-89 to critical acclaim, and subsequently appeared on VHS and laserdisc. The two-disc DVD includes a generous 45 minutes of those scenes excised by Rand and her team, as well as the aforementioned documentary, which includes interesting interviews with Scott, the Holzers, and Ferrara.
Print quality is excellent if a little soft, and some of the subtitles wash out against light backgrounds, but that’s a minor carp, in light of such compelling drama.
The DVD can be ordered at www.wethelivingmovie.com. Shipping is free on domestic orders through the end of 2009.
Friday, December 11, 2009
By Harry Forbes
The much recycled Christmas favorite, Judy Garland’s Christmas show from her 1963-1964 series, which has already been issued on VHS tape, laserdisc, and even DVD (on Pioneer a few years ago), appears again as a stand-alone in Infinity’s piecemeal reissue of the series.
But however familiar, its return is welcome, and it looks better than ever in its latest incarnation.
The show, which aired December 22, 1963, featured a living room set which purported to show its star at home with her young children, Lorna and Joey Luft, both appearing quite cute and unspoiled. The sophisticated Garland hardly registered as an average TV mom, but her warm rapport with the children was genuine, and their adoration of her palpable.
Musically, the show is top-notch, and Garland is in excellent voice for that period. She opens with her “Meet Me in St. Louis” classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sung to Lorna and Joe by the window, just as she did with Margaret O’Brien in the MGM film.
Then, she and the kids launch into “Consider Yourself” from the then-current “Oliver!” They’re shortly joined by daughter Liza Minnelli who “drops in” with her “beau” Tracy Everitt.
After Joey is hoisted on the piano for a very sweet (and surprisingly accomplished) “Where is Love” from the same show, Liza and Everitt entertain the others with a modestly choreographed “Steam Heat” from “The Pajama Game.”
Garland solos affectingly with “Little Drops of Rain” from her animated “Gay Pur-ee” after which Jack Jones “drops in” with a jazzy version of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Buffs will recall Garland performed with tenor Allan Jones in 1938’s “Everybody Sing” but son Jack has matured sufficiently to come across as Garland’s peer here.
Jones performs his hit “Lollipops and Roses” (not exactly a Christmas tune) as the others sit at his feet, and then Lorna sits on his knee to belt out “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
Liza’s best moment follows as she delivers a low-keyed swinging version of “Alice Blue Gown”
There’s more traditional Christmas fare once they’re joined by the series’ musical consultant Mel Torme who accompanies Garland on his “The Christmas Song” (which Torme wrote with lyricist Bob Wells). Judy muffs the lyrics twice; “Close,” quips Torme tolerantly.
A medley of carols follows, with Garland delivering a full-bodied “What Child is This?” that rates as her finest vocal moment on the show.
The hour concludes with Garland snuggling with Joe and Lorna on the sofa as she serenades them with “Over the Rainbow,” according to the hour's conceit, an annual tradition in the Garland home.
The DVD offers the original mono soundtrack or 5.1 surround sound.
By Harry Forbes
Peter Jackson’s well-crafted adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller walks an offbeat line between child serial killer thriller and New Age fantasy. I’ve not read the book, but taken on its own terms, I found the movie compelling, even if sometimes off-putting in its tonal shifts.
Saoirse Ronan, the trouble-making child from “Atonement,” here plays 14-year-old Susie Salmon, a happy suburban teenager who lives with her parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and siblings Lindsey (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Ashdale) in Norristown, PA. Susie narrates the story, and even as she cheerfully relates the commonplace details of her domestic life, including her passion for photography and crush on the handsome Ray (Reece Ritchie) at school, she matter-of-factly informs us that she is fated to be murdered.
The perpetrator will be her next-door neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). We are mercifully spared visuals of the heinous act, but the circumstances that lead up to it are disturbing enough, as the bespectacled, seemingly mild-mannered loner entices her to view an underground hideaway in the middle of a cornfield.
After her death, her father -- whom we already know has an obsession with scale modeling (i.e. ships in bottles), much as Harvey does for intricate dollhouses -- becomes fanatical about finding the killer, and barrages Detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) with names of scores of likely suspects.
Abigail ultimately can’t abide Jack’s neurotic behavior and moves out, leaving the family in the care of her good-hearted, if hard-drinking and chain-smoking mother Lynn (a campy Susan Sarandon with big hair and 70’s eye-liner).
Meanwhile, Susie has gone to an “In-Between” place between heaven and earth, a brightly-hued digital landscape of instantly changing seasons, something akin to the Horse of a Different Color in “The Wizard of Oz,” you might say. A celestial friend, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), urges her to leave earth behind, and continue onwards to heaven, but Susie can’t leave until matters are resolved, and her murderer gets his just desserts.
These scenes are imaginative, and suggest some of the Salvador Dali sequences in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” but hardly conjure a place of surpassing loveliness.
Besides being consumed with deep concern for her family, Susie regrets a never-kept meeting at the local mall with Ray, who mourns her loss along with psychically-attuned classmate Ruth (Carolyn Dando) who had a fleeting contact with Susie’s spirit the night of the latter’s murder. We are told she “accepts the dead among the living.”
Years pass, kid sister Lindsey grows, and also comes under the watchful eye of Harvey, the only person who, unlike the book, has not attracted Jack’s paranoid scrutiny. It’s strange that even though Lindsey feels the jitters every time she passes Harvey’s curtained house, she never confides in her father.
Ronan’s radiant exuberance as Susie makes her death all the more tragic. Wahlberg’s agonizing grief is well conveyed, but he and Weisz are so lightly sketched in Jackson’s script (written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), that we can scarcely empathize with them except in the most generalized terms. (Federman’s relationship with Abigail from the book has been jettisoned here.)
Sarandon provides some spice, though she seems to be a different movie altogether. Tucci is downright superb giving the creepy killer just the right mix of bland congeniality and sinister disingenuousness.
The overdone visuals detract from the crime story on earth, but Jackson’s mastery of his craft is never in doubt. There are some tremendously suspenseful sequences such as when Federman grills Harvey as an incriminating bracelet of Susie dangles a few feet away, or when a snooping Lindsey finally breaks into Harvey’s house. So, too, the story’s moral -- how the living must accept death, allowing their departed loved ones to move on, literally or figuratively – is clearly conveyed.
But even if the spiritual and police procedural elements never really gel as satisfyingly as they were said to do in the book, this is still a fascinating story told with a wealth of imagination.
(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language.)
By Harry Forbes
Colin Firth gives one of his all-time finest performances in this highly stylized version of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, which has been freely adapted by director Tom Ford (yes, the fashion designer) in a striking directorial debut.
Set in 1962 Los Angeles – and period trappings (the cars, the hairdos) are very well executed – Firth plays a British English professor George who is still grieving over the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, killed in a car crash en route to a family gathering some time before. We see how George was coldly excluded from the funeral when Jim’s brother called to break the devastating news.
The film charts George going through the course of a day. In a Cold War atmosphere of the period, George comes close to coming out of the closet when, at school, he veers off-course from an Aldous Huxley lecture to a rambling discourse on societal fears about everything from nuclear war, blacks, growing old, bad breath, and Elvis Presley. But he stops just short of adding sexual orientation to that litany.
After class, he’s approached by flirtatious student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who senses in George a need for connection. Later, outside a liquor store, George encounters a sweet-natured hustler (Joe Kortajarena), a Spaniard with a James Dean haircut, but George makes clear he’s not interested in sex. That evening, he has dinner with fellow British ex-patriot Charlotte (Julianne Moore) with whom he had once been romantically involved. It develops that underneath the cool exterior, George is contemplating suicide, though his elaborate preparations have a borderline comical edge. Will he or won’t he?
There’s an extended flashback of George’s first meeting with Jim in his navy whites in a bar in 1946.
All the performances are fine, but Ford’s focus is squarely on Firth who effortlessly conveys George’s pain, loneliness and frustration. The versatile Moore is right on target as a mod 1960s party gal with an authentic English accent to boot.
Ford and co-writer David Scearce have taken some liberties with the novel, apparently adding the suicide theme and softening Moore's character. But the end result – a moving study of love and loss, with its protagonist learning to value the little things in life he may have previously taken for granted – is extremely effective.
Ford shows a designer’s eye for visual detail, if he sometimes overdoes the enormous close-ups of eyes and lips, and recurring visual motifs, like two bodies swimming in water, scenes from Jim’s car crash and so on, some of this in slow motion.
Abel Korzeniowski (with additional music by Shigeru Umebayashi) has provided a churning musical score, very old-time Hollywood, which reflects George’s inner turmoil.
(Rated R by the MPAA for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content.)
By Harry Forbes
Disney’s welcome return to hand-drawn animation after a five year absence may not quite recall the golden age classics (as the Mickey Mouse “Steamboat Willie” logo would seem to herald) but with its lush backdrops, lively and tuneful score, and touching story, “The Princess and the Frog” offers reason enough to rejoice.
This is the first Disney feature to feature an African-American heroine, and she’s delightfully voiced by Broadway’s Anika Noni Rose. Not the Grimm brothers story of “The Frog Prince” as the title might suggest, the story is rather inspired in part by “The Frog Princess” by E.D. Baker.
In this spin on the eponymous fairy tale, Tiana is a young waitress who hopes to fulfill her late father’s (Terrence Howard) dream of opening a restaurant. (Oprah Winfrey voices Tiana’s mother.)
An irresponsible Prince named Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town, but though female hearts are aflutter, this prince -- who is anxiouis to marry well or else (gasp!) get a job -- has been turned into a frog after falling under the spell of witch doctor Facilier (Keith David). When as a spunky green amphibian, he begs Tiana, whom he takes for a princess, to bestow a restoring kiss, she turns into a frog as well.
Meanwhile, Naveen’s corrupt manservant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) has assumed the shape of Naveen, and Tiana’s vain and silly rich girlhood friend Charlotte (a very funny Jennifer Cody) sets her cap on him.
Tiana and Naveen – now a sparring pair in the classic Hollywood tradition – go deep into the Louisiana bayou to find the ancient crone Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who may be able to transform them back to human form. Along the way, they find allies in a giant trumpet-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) who longs to join a jazz band and a wizened Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings).
The animated backdrops of 1920’s New Orleans are gorgeous. I do wish the central figures were executed in more the old-style “realistic” Disney style. What’s here is more akin to the cartoony animation of “Aladdin” and “Hercules” than the more painterly “Bambi” or “Pinocchio.” It’s also a minor carp that Tiana and Naveen are relegated to frog status for most of the movie. Those who believe Disney’s “Cinderella” was ruined by giving too much screen time to the heroine’s mouse friends may have similar misgivings here.
But even if those amphibians may not seem the most romantic-looking of lovers, the story arc and good voice work eventually pull you in. There’s also a very sweet secondary romance in Ray’s adoration of a star he calls Evangeline which results in the film’s most poignant moments.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements maintain a good pace, and their script (co-written with Ron Edwards) is imbued with the usual Disney themes of striving for your dream, honoring your parent’s memory, and bravely overcoming obstacles. “Never lose sight of what is important,” says Tiana’s sage hard-working father early on.
Randy Newman’s tuneful and infectious score is probably the jazziest Disney songfest since the Sherman Brothers work on “The Jungle Book,” and the orchestral score is lushly arranged. I particularly liked Tiana’s bouncy “Almost There” Mama Obie’s gospel-flavored “Dig a Little Deeper,” and Ray’s infectious “Gonna Take You There.” The soundtrack CD should be a treat.
(The film is rated G by the MPAA.)
Monday, December 7, 2009
By Harry Forbes
Victorian sexuality, women’s identity, and the disconnect between men and women are among the themes of “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play,” Sarah Ruhl’s expert blending of social commentary and humor.
It is 1880, and Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) is a proper doctor ministering to women suffering from hysteria by administering therapeutic electrical massage – thanks to the discoveries of Thomas Edison whose name is invoked more than once – with the eponymous vibrator, as indeed was actually done at the time.
As we observe first hand with the tremulous Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), the nervous symptoms of sensitivity to light and sound vanish miraculously once Dr. Givings has administered the treatment, and the patient leaves strangely relaxed.
But upstanding Dr. Givings fails to realize that his wife, a delightful chatterbox (played with likable zest by Laura Benanti) is in need of treatment, too, though she’s kept in the dark about what it is exactly that her husband does with his patients behind the locked door. Her irrepressible curiosity about the treatment mounts as the play progresses.
She’s just given birth to a baby girl, and worries that she has no milk. Her loving husband, paradoxically distant and inhibited despite his profession, is clearly not satisfying her, and she is as much an hysteric as Mrs. Daldry. She gets her release by bracing walks in the rain and snow, sans umbrella.
She comes to enjoy the company of Mr. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife with whom she chats amiably in the sitting room, blurring the boundaries between their professional relationship with her husband and the domestic world just beyond the door of his operating theater.
Dr. Givings declares their new baby needs a wet nurse, and Mr. Daldry helpfully suggests their own housekeeper, Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who has, in fact, just lost a child and has the requisite milk. Mrs. Givings quickly overcomes her qualms about engaging a colored woman.
In the second act, Dr. Givings is visited by a male patient (Chandler Williams in a flamboyantly enjoyable turn), an artist who has returned from Italy his own form of “hysteria" after an unhappy affair. The sexually neglected Mrs. Givings is smitten with the charismatic stranger, though he is more interested in painting Elizabeth and the baby as a modern-day Madonna and Child.
Throughout all this, Ruhl never descends to the smutty or vulgar, and her play has an all-pervading sweetness and charm. She is careful that we realize Dr. Givings ministrations are strictly professional. His female assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) insures propriety, though Annie eventually reveals more complexity than her no-nonsense manner at first suggests.
Under Les Waters’ well paced direction, the cast is uniformly excellent. Benanti is both funny and moving, and Dizzia a special delight. Annie Smart’s set – the doctor’s locked office on the audience left, the living room on the right -- vividly delineates the duality of the action, and, like David Zinn’s costumes, evokes the period beautifully. The set’s transformation in the final scene underscores the stunningly moving conclusion.
Some of Ruhl’s dialogue has an anachronistic quality at odds with the period setting, but on the whole, she’s written a very solid play that delivers humor and substance in a most entertaining way.
(Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telcharge.com)
Friday, December 4, 2009
By Harry Forbes
Time was when Vanessa Redgrave was the brilliant second generation star of the Redgrave clan, and Lynn the talented and delightful kid sister. Vanessa’s lost none of her luster, but watching "Nightingale," Lynn’s one-woman reminiscence of the grandmother she never knew, I was struck, as often before in recent years, by her unique luminosity.
Under Joseph Hardy’s direction, she gives a mesmerizing performance. And that in spite of performing nearly the whole show seated behind a table with the script before her, though mind you, she gives it only an occasional glace.
Redgrave has said she wrote the piece is in a vulnerable state. After the breakup of her long marriage to John Clark, she sought refuge with her family in England, and one day while walking through a churchyard, came upon her grandmother’s grave, the name sadly obliterated by acid rain. The poignancy of a life lived and possibly forgotten set Redgrave thinking of mortality, and provided the genesis for this play.
A sort of dual biography, “Nightingale” contrasts the fictionalized life of that grandmother, Beatrice (or Beanie) Kempson, and her own, as a cancer survivor, though the text does seem to presume rather more knowledge of Redgrave’s personal life than every member of the audience will know.
Beanie was the rather chilly mother of Redgrave’s own, actress Rachel Kempson. As Redgrave tells it, Beanie had a strict Victorian upbringing, and dutifully married a dullish schools inspector named Eric. Their wedding night was fairly appalling (though it's quite amusing in Redgrave's telling).
It was, Redgrave believes, a loveless marriage marked by routine and loneliness, but it produced three children, Nicholas and Robin (Beanie particularly doting on the latter) and Kempson for whom Beanie developed an irrational animosity, one that Redgrave is at a loss to understand.
At one point, Beanie and Eric attend a performance of “A Doll’s House” starring Kempson, now Lady Redgrave after her marriage to Sir Michael Redgrave, and Beanie treats her daughter with patronizing contempt.
The character would be unrelievedly hateful if Redgrave didn’t also show us the pain of her grandmother’s situation and how she briefly experienced love with a rough hewn farmer when on holiday with her children. She and the farmer went for a ride one day, and – for one exquisite moment -- touched hands, but nothing happened. Redgrave’s tender recounting of what she imagines as the highpoint of Beanie’s life is very special.
It’s not clear how much of Redgrave’s detail about her grandmother’s life is true. She has referred to the piece as speculative fiction, and Beanie’s name was not even used in the play’s earlier incarnation at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. But her delineation of Beanie – however much invented – is absorbing.
The parallels Redgrave attempts to make with her own story – such as her own marriage in the 1960’s -- are less successful, but don’t detract from the central narrative. Rui Rita’s lighting helps clarify some of those not always clear transitions from her grandmother’s story to Redgrave’s autobiographical reflections.
This is the third time Redgrave has mined her family history but once again, she’s come up with a winner.
(Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org)
By Harry Forbes
The release of this film couldn’t be more serendipitous, coming as it does so soon after President Obama’s speech about troop escalation in Afghanistan. Though “Brothers” avoids any overt political stance, it certainly will generate reflection about the effects of this war on the 30,000 troops about to be deployed.
This release is, in fact, a remake of the 2004 Danish film “Brodre” by director/co-writer Susanne Bier. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are in peak form as, respectively, Sam Cahill, a dedicated marine deployed to Afghanistan in 2007, and Tommy, the wastrel brother who’s just finished a prison sentence for bank robbery back home, along with the marine’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and their two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare).
In Afghanistan, Sam’s helicopter crashes and he and a private (Patrick Flueger) are taken prisoner by the Taliban and tortured. Stateside, Sam is presumed dead, and as Grace and the girls try to continue life after the funeral, Tommy rises to the occasion, renovating Grace’s kitchen and helping her with the girls. Inevitably, there are romantic stirrings with Grace.
Sam is eventually rescued, and the family rejoices at the news. But he returns a shell of his former self, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Delusional and paranoid, he suspects his wife has slept with his brother.
Maguire and Gyllenhaal have never been finer: Maguire, after his return, looks convincingly gaunt and haunted, and Gyllenhaal skillfully shows shiftless dissolution morphing into genuine dependability. And quite remarkably, they really look like brothers.
Portman is fine as always though her role is rather conventional. Sam Shepard nails his not very likable character of Hank, Sam and Tommy’s rigid Vietnam vet father who has no problem telling Tommy he’s not fit to fill Sam’s shoes, but develops a grudging respect as Tommy’s character undergoes reformation. And young Madison and Geare are pitch perfect, and very much part of the adult ensemble.
The film flits between some fairly harrowing scenes in Afghanistan and the suburban Cahill home, but the emphasis is on the domestic situation of the latter, and the growing bond between Tommy and Grace.
Jim Sheridan directs with sensitivity and restraint, and there’s not a moment that isn’t absorbing. David Benioff’s script spells out some of what I gather was just suggested in the original, but this is a still a perceptive psychological study of polar opposites whose personalities are transformed by circumstance, as well as a portrait of the effects of war on the home front. In the latter respect, it resembles films like “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” from an earlier era.
(Rated R by the MPAA for language and some disturbing violent content)