Saturday, December 26, 2009

In Theaters: "It's Complicated"

I keep trying with Nancy Meyers, and I’m not going to do it anymore; she’s an awful writer and a terrible filmmaker, period, point blank, end of story, and if there’s anything to be learned from her latest soggy mess of a motion picture, It’s Complicated, it’s that there no matter who she somehow manages to suck into her orbit, there is no actor who can emerge from a Meyers project unscathed. You’d be hard pressed to come up with three actors I’d more enjoy seeing in a film together than Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, but they are unable to do what Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Mel Gibson, and Helen Hunt couldn’t manage either: to make a Nancy Meyers “comedy” watchable. Her films are where good acting goes to die.

The storyline, which is (in all fairness) moderately clever, centers on Jane (Streep), your typical fabulously wealthy, supposedly independent Meyers protagonist. Ten years ago, her husband Jake (Baldwin) left her for the younger temptress Agness (Lake Bell), now his wife. Both find themselves drinking alone at the hotel bar in New York City, where they’ve gone for their son’s graduation; the drinks flow, the dancing follows, and before she knows it, Jane is having an affair with her ex-husband. The timing couldn’t be more inopportune; a faint flirtation has begun with Adam (Martin), the architect who’s designing the addition for her house.

An early scene in their courtship pinpoints one of the major issues with not just It’s Complicated, but with Meyers’ entire oeuvre. To explain, allow me to pose this question to you, gentle reader: Remember how exciting it was the first time your architect came over and marked off your new addition? No? Exactly. The running problem with her films (and those of her contemporary Nora Ephron, and films that ape their style, like The Women) is that there’s no relatability to them; they are the stories of over-privileged, dull, vapid white people in oceanfront homes with no real problems. Now is an especially bad time to ask us to give a damn about characters as conspicuously consumptive as these, and I know, I know, the Great Depression was also the golden age of screwball comedy, but you know what? Those films were fast and zippy and filled with sparkling dialogue, and there is absolutely none of that here. Meyers’ characters are hermetically sealed upper-class twits, and if you got stuck talking to one of them at a party, you’d be eyeing the snack table inside of 90 seconds. There’s no spark to her dialogue, no zazz; it’s all pleasantries and housekeeping, relentlessly vanilla. This is not the way people talk; it’s the way people on bad television talk. “You’ve outgrown him, you’ve blossomed; you’ve feng shui-ed your whole life!” goes one line. “Karma is the ultimate bitch in this one!” goes another. And so on. It’s not compelling, and it’s not entertaining.

And it’s not funny. Good Lord, is it not funny. There’s not an honest-to-goodness laugh from one end of this movie to the other. Witness poor John Krasinski, so good on The Office, playing the future son-in-law who is clearly supposed to be the family cut-up, but saddled with painfully unamusing lines and no clue how to play them. Note the tired, desperately unhip descent into turgid pot humor. But for a real course in how to screw up comedy, watch the climactic bit with the webcam, which has potential, and is set up just fine, but the execution is disastrous—it’s clumsy, overdone, overshot, overwhelmed by the obnoxiously whimsical score. The only thing worse than an unfunny scene is an unfunny scene accompanied by “funny” music. Watching that scene fall apart, all you can wonder is why they keep letting Nancy Myers direct movies, and nine years after What Women Want, I still don’t have an answer for you.

Indeed, it takes a special kind of bad filmmaker to get a bad performance out of Meryl Streep, but Myers does it. Streep’s work here is overcooked; it’s all eye-rolling and fake laughing, trying too hard to overcompensate for the mirthless writing. Her and Alec Baldwin have some chemistry, in spite of the script; they even have one entire good scene, a laid-back, honest chat in her bathroom that provokes some genuine chuckles. But he’s saddled with an irritatingly one-note character and no real through-line. Martin has some amusing moments and conveys real charm, but he tends to push too hard as well, desperate to wring some laughs out of the tired material.

It’s Complicated is exactly the movie you think it’s going to be. It is delivered as advertised, two hours of forced affability and wine-soaked “girl talk” and music montages and unrestrained self-indulgence on the part of its abysmal writer/director. I can’t imagine how anyone would willfully sit through it. I predict it will be a huge holiday hit.

"It's Complicated" is now playing in wide release.

In Theaters: "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"

Few directors’ work is as immediately and readily identifiable as that of Terry Gilliam. The opening scenes of his new picture The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are jam-packed with jaunty angles, trick lenses, and extreme compositions. Gilliam isn’t making any apologies; as with his last film, the fascinating but unapproachable Tideland, he’s making the film he wants to make, logic and common sense be damned. As with that film, Doctor Parnassus will likely embolden his detractors and reinvigorate his admirers—and though I’d consider myself to be more the latter than the former, it must be said that his bag of tricks is getting mighty shallow.

Tideland came and went with little fanfare in 2005, and Doctor Parnassus might well have suffered the same fate, were it not the final film appearance of Heath Ledger. The late actor plays Tony, a mysterious stranger whose hanging body is discovered by the titular company, a traveling caravan led by the good doctor (Christopher Plummer). Their show, frequently set up in parking lots and other undesirable locations, is a chintzy sideshow with one magical element: a mirror that allows audience members to take a journey beyond reality and into their own imagination. Tony is a bit of enigma, seemingly on the run, and he welcomes the opportunity to disappear into the company, though their future may be in jeopardy, thanks to Dr. Parnassus’ long-ago deal with the Devil (Tom Waits).

The picture has its pleasures—the funhouse atmosphere is infectious, Plummer makes for a marvelously stumblebum medicine man, equally wise and inebriated, and it is indeed hard to resist any film that features Waits (sporting a natty pencil-thin mustache, no less) as Beelzebub. But it’s something of a mess, from a storytelling point of view—the scenes are all sort of jammed up next to each other, like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit, and Gilliam seems to change his mind about what kind of film he wants to make approximately every 15 minutes. Gilliam’s self-penned screenplays (he wrote this one with Charles McKeown, his collaborator on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil) have never exactly been a model for narrative efficiency, but this one is all over the damned place.

Some of that may be due to the mid-film rewrites necessitated by Ledger’s untimely death, though he remains in quite a bit of the film. It seems that the bulk of his unfinished work was in the fantasy, through-the-magic-mirror sequences; friends and admirers Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell step in to play the character in that altered state. Their presence is both welcome and a distraction—in a normal film, it would pull us out of the narrative, reminding us that Ledger is no longer with us and that’s why he’s not in these scenes, but the narrative is so rambling and disorganized that it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.

The fantasy sequences are frequently self-indulgent and near-nonsensical, but they also have some of the energy and anarchic spirit of Gilliam’s Python animations. The company’s quaintly low-tech stagecraft seems a deliberate callback to the opening scenes of Baron Munchausen, while the trips inside the mirror ape that film’s flights of fancy as well. Gilliam seems to be repeating himself here, repurposing his earlier ideas and visual motifs in an attempt to create something new and distinctive. But he’s only exploding his least attractive qualities; while Time Bandits and Brazil had a wonderful sense of controlled chaos, his best films of recent years have been those, like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, in which his visual gifts were tethered to a strong, compelling screenplay—by another, more disciplined writer. His fights with studio brass are legendary, but more often than not, when let loose in the candy store, Gilliam tends to burn the mother down. He certainly does so in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, albeit in a sporadically entertaining fashion.

Doctor Parnassus may very well find success with audiences who find it appropriate accompaniment to a mind-altering experience (as his adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did), but most audiences will find it muddled and silly. As a de facto tribute to Ledger (who is, I have not mentioned, quite good in the picture), it is certainly heartfelt and valuable; as a cogent piece of storytelling, it misses by a mile. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t lose our interest either—it’s aimless, but it sure as hell ain’t boring.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is now playing in limited release.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On DVD: "Kobe Doin' Work: A Spike Lee Joint"

Spike Lee’s new documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, is a great movie for sports fans and a passable one for the rest of us; when it was over, I was still ready for a new Spike Lee joint. Make no mistake, it does what it does very well—presumably as well as it could possibly be done. What may come into question is whether it needed to be done at all.

When I heard that Lee was doing a documentary on Kobe Bryant, my eyebrows raised; he’s proven himself a skilled documentarian over the years, particularly in dealing with social issues (4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke), and he’d taken on a potentially controversial sports figure before, in the excellent Jim Brown: All American. Much to my surprise, Kobe Doin’ Work doesn’t even mention his notorious 2003 sexual assault case (later dropped by Colorado prosecutors). In fact, the film ends with a happy-go-lucky domestic scene, as Bryant, his wife, and their two daughters stroll playfully out to his Range Rover after the game and all but drive off into the sunset. There’s also no mention of the troubled relationship between Bryant and coach Phil Jackson (Jackson wrote a book in 2004 in which he said Bryant was “uncoachable”); they seem to get along well enough, although there certainly doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication between the pair. Based on what we do see, it looks like Bryant basically coaches himself.

So on one hand, it’s a bit of a wax job. On the other, Lee isn’t making some kind of a comprehensive documentary portrait. The conceit of the film is right there in the title—this is Kobe going to the office. It takes place over the course of one evening, during one important game (playing the Spurs in the Staples Center on April 13, 2008). Lee and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Pi, Iron Man), shadow Bryant as he suits up, stretches, watches game tape with Jackson, and gets ready for the game. Once it begins, they put 30 cameras on the game and put a wireless mic on Bryant, getting into his space and his head during an important play-off game.

Bryant does extemporaneous narration throughout—a device that’s a little off-putting at first. It’s something akin to watching a movie for the first time with the audio commentary on (and many of his comments have that same kind of tone—“This is funny watching because I didn’t realize I talk all that damn much”). Once you get used to it, however, it does work, and he provides some real insight into his strategies for defense and pacing himself, as well as the moment-to-moment play of the game. Lee chimes in with questions every once in a while as well (“Kobe, why don’t more teams use the triangle?”) and it’s good to hear from him; they also have some occasional amusing byplay of their own (early in the film, Bryant notes “I’m doing this voice-over after I just scored 61 points against Spike’s beloved New York Knicks”).

The body mic is also an ingenious device—and it is an unedited one, which is even more interesting. He throws around some four and twelve-letter words, whether reflexively after blowing a shot or while talking a little bit of trash on the line. He doesn’t apologize for it on the voice-over track (“Foul language is just a thing in sports. It’s just a part of sports”), and the use of it is refreshingly honest and unvarnished. In general, the film’s use of sound is masterful; Lee does some experimenting in the design, occasionally isolating effects; in one key moment, he takes out every sound but the bouncing of the ball and the swish of the net, nicely augmented by Bruce Hornsby’s charming score (it’s a jazzy piano number reminiscent of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm).

The cutting is fast-paced without going overboard; it moves, yes, and the multi-camera set-up is fully exploited, but this isn’t an MTV job. Lee stays with shots during slower moments and lingers on close-ups when necessary. Visually, the film is at its best when Spike stops worrying about the game and starts to play—he trots out some pretty inventive tricks. Slow motion is used at a couple of key moments but not abused; on a couple of other occasions, he shows a play or a trick move in a series of black and white stills rather than moving images (shades of his very first feature, She’s Gotta Have It). He also spotlights a couple of crucial moments with a series of quick replays; I don’t mean this in the style of a TV-sports “instant replay”, but rather showing the sinking of a decisive basket from three different angles, rat-tat-tat, with the sound (say, Kobe saying “gotcha”) repeating each time. It’s a neat trick and, again, not overused.

It’s just plain rotten luck for Spike that the Lakers take such a decisive lead in the third quarter that Bryant basically sits out the fourth; it surely made sense for Jackson to let the bench play out the fourth, but it makes for an awfully anticlimactic movie (a fact that Lee seems to acknowledge—“We should have shot tonight’s game!” he laughs). This does keep the movie short, though; he can compress the time that Bryant spends on the bench, which is presumably the reason that we only see the score during time-outs and quarter breaks. Or that might just be so it doesn’t feel like we’re just watching a game on TV. The only problem is, when Lee isn’t playing with his photography and having fun with his effects, it feels like that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s a good game, and an expertly photographed and assembled one, but when it comes down to it, that’s all it is. For some people, that’s good enough. I found myself wishing Spike had found a few more devices that would keep his movie-nerd fans interested.

"Kobe Doin' Work: A Spike Lee Joint" is available now on DVD.

On DVD: "George Lopez: Tall, Dark, and Chicano"

When stand-up comedy took a creative plunge in the mid-1990s, there were several causes—oversaturation, predictability, prop comics, etc. But mostly, fans came to resist the general hackery of the lesser lights who were suddenly getting TV time: comics who compared New York to L.A., complained about airline food, and (particularly on the once-groundbreaking, then cringe-worthy Def Comedy Jam) noted the differences between black people and white people. White people are more uptight, you see. And they speak with nasally voices. And they’re poor dancers. It’s funny because it’s true!

The “white people do that, but black people do this” school of comedy is mostly played out (thankfully), but Latino comic George Lopez is doing his damndest to bring it on back. Here’s the twist: he compares Latino people and white people! Clever, eh? His most recent HBO special, George Lopez: Tall, Dark, and Chicano is excruciatingly overlong at nearly 90 minutes, but it boils down to two pieces of commentary: a) there are many comical differences between Latinos and Caucasians, and b) the world is very different for people growing up today than it was when people of his generation were growing up. Who knew, right?

Tall, Dark, and Chicano was broadcast live on HBO in August, from the enormous AT&T Center in San Antonio. After an introduction by Eva Longoria Parker, Lopez struts onstage in front of the cheering crowd and spends a good five minutes crowing about selling the joint out; the entire opening is long, self-congratulatory, and irritating, though he does net a laugh when he proclaims that, between the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Cash for Clunkers, and his special, “this is a magical week for Latinos!”

I bear no ill will towards Lopez; I was never a fan of The George Lopez Show, but plenty of good stand-ups have done bad sit-coms. To be sure, Lopez is energetic and he’s got good timing, but the material is just plain weak. The jokes are frequently slapdash and poorly worked out, as if he didn’t take the time to hone or refine them; it mostly amounts to grinding away at the same old saws.

Here’s how a typical Lopez bit goes: He’ll talk about something that society in general, but mostly white people in particular, will do. Then he’ll note that “Latinos don’t do that! We--” and then he’ll proceed to explain the subtle and nuanced cultural differences. When he runs out of those jokes (which takes longer than you’d think), he goes into his other crutch: he’ll talk about some social norm or extravagance enjoyed by today’s generation. Then he’ll explain, “It wasn’t like that for us! We--” and off we go again.

That’s pretty much the extent of his point of view—that Latinos and white people have wildly different methods of communication, child-rearing, and food consumption, and that kids today are comparatively spoiled. Those are the two jokes, told over and over and over again. As with his contemporary, the even more inexplicably popular Dane Cook, once you see his formula, it’s hard to hear anything else in his act. (For the record, here’s the Cook formula: begin with an obvious bit of observational humor, then restate it LOUDER using BIGGER WORDS.)

It’s not that there aren’t laughs to be wrung out of these types of jokes; hell, Richard Pryor did the white people/black people stuff decades ago, and it still plays. But that’s because Pryor was coming from a place of honesty and humanity; Lopez relies on cheap punchlines borne out of lazy, obvious stereotypes. But even that isn’t reason enough to discount the special—those stereotypes can get big laughs, as anyone who watched Chapelle’s Show can attest. But the laugh lines have got to be stronger than these; in one section, for example, about the names white people give their kids, he surmises that a Latino would never name their child “Chance”: “I named you Chance—because I wasn’t sure you was mine.” Haw haw! Get it, because, there’s a “chance” that he wasn’t, and… yeah.

The obviousness of George Lopez’s concepts and construction, and the easy stereotyping of his laugh lines, wouldn’t matter if the material was funny. But with occasional exceptions (“You don’t think we speak English? We speak English. We speak Spanish because we don’t want to talk to you!”), Tall, Dark, and Chicano just isn’t funny. And on a stand-up comedy special, that trumps everything else.

"George Lopez: Tall, Dark, and Chicano" is currently available on DVD.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On DVD: "It Might Get Loud"

In the ingenious opening scene of Davis Guggenheim's documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White McGyvers a makeshift guitar, pretty much just using a chunk of wood, a Coke bottle, and a piece of wire ("Who says you need to buy a guitar?" he muses). It's a fine party trick, but it also sets the appropriate tone for Guggenehim's doc, which is simultaneously reverential and irreverent, taking the art of rocking out with the appropriate degree of seriousness (which is to say, some, but not too much).

The film is built around a filmed meeting on January 28, 2008, during which "three musicians came together to discuss the electric guitar." Those three were Led Zeppelin's guitar god Jimmy Page, U2's brilliant guitarist The Edge, and White Stripes/Raconteurs frontman White (who confesses, on the way, that he plans "to trick these guys into teaching me all of their tricks").

That meeting forms a through-line and jump-off point for the film, but less screen time is spent at it than you might think; much of the picture is spent on the three guitarists' individual biographies and current working methods. Page takes the cameras to the house where Led Zep recorded their immortal fourth album, while Edge visits the secondary school where he and his mates met and first rehearsed and performed (he even finds the bulletin board where Larry Mullen posted the note that assembled the group). White is seen traveling and hanging out with a nine-year-old version of himself (it's a bizarre contrivance that somehow works; don't ask me how). All three discuss and play recordings of the music that inspired (and continues to inspire) them; Page's sheer joy of listening to Link Wray's "Rumble" is only eclipsed by White's emotional (yet eloquent) response to the music of Son House.

An Inconvenient Truth director Guggenehim and editor Greg Finton jazzily hopscotch between the three biographies--all have great stories to tell, and the archival footage is priceless. U2 fans will eat up the vintage TV clip of the band; they seem impossibly young, though they look like old bluesmen when compared to Page's first TV appearance as a kid skiffle player. There are aural treats as well, particularly a scene where Edge plays some old four-track recordings from the Joshua Tree sessions.

That scene made this particular U2 fan just about pee his pants. However, if there's one flaw to be found in It Might Get Loud, it's that fandom might be a requirement; I love all three of these guys and have their bands on permanent iPod rotation, so for me, every anecdote was fascinating, every performance exciting. But more casual observers might find the film uninteresting, even dull. Then again, I don't have much use for anyone who doesn't like at least a couple of these guys.

The summit of the great guitarists provides some wonderful, if controversy-free, footage. There are some clear philosophical differences between the three men, occasionally highlighted by the editing; Edge's explanation of his love for effects units is seen as a direct contrast to White's disdain for technology, while Edge's list of the excesses of the rock era that preceded his includes a couple of items (like 15-minute solos) that Zep certainly indulged in.

But observing the trio playing, listening, and talking shop, we reflect that it's rare to observe this kind of powwow between skilled artists and craftsmen. Watching the three men jangling away at the power opening of U2's early single "I Will Follow" is a joy; seeing them collaborate on Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of My Dying" and the White Stripes track "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" is downright thrilling. But perhaps the highlight of those scenes is the look on White and Edge's faces as they watch Page play the signature riff from "Whole Lotta Love." In that moment, and in the finest moments of Guggenheim's documentary, we are reminded that true musicianship is not just about playing music, but hearing it and understanding it and, above all, adoring it; it is only then that, as White says, you can become a member of "that family of storytellers." It Might Get Loud is a love letter to that family, and from it.

"It Might Get Loud" debuts today on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "(500) Days of Summer"

Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer is a dizzyingly charming picture, the kind of film where afterwards, you have a hard time remembering what those niggling little flaws were because it's left you covered in a blanket of warmth and good feelings. It has its problems, sure, but what it does, it does so well as to nearly discount them. It may not be the best movie of the summer, but it's certainly the most likable.

The degree to which film writers and cinephiles in general fall all over themselves with their crushes on Zooey Deschanel is borderline embarrassing, and I'm just as guilty as anyone else. But you can't help it; every time she appears on screen, she's absolutely enchanting. (500) Days of Summer trades in on that--an early sequence (with wry narration) explains "the Summer Effect," presenting hard data as to exactly how she, say, exponentially increased profits at an ice cream parlor during her time of employment there, or the average percentage of asking price she customarily pays for a rental apartment.

The Summer Effect hits Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) like a bad case of the stomach flu. He's a writer at the greeting card company where Summer has just begun working as an executive assistant, and he's taken by her right away--their first conversation in the building's elevator is one of the great moments of movie smittendom. Watching Deschanel work with Levitt, who is one of our most consistently interesting young actors (from Brick to The Lookout to Stop-Loss, I have yet to see a poor performance out of this guy), you can see immediately what was lacking in the centerpiece relationship of her previous film, Gigantic (okay, maybe I only did because I'd just watched that film earlier in the same day): chemistry. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are outstanding together, finding every nuance and emotional beat within their well-written two-scenes (many of which are wisely kept in two-shots to preserve their first-rate timing).

When Tom and Summer finally begin to hit it off, there is much philosophical discussion of love and romance, and these scenes could have used another pass; this is dialogue we've heard before, and unlike the rest of the film, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber haven't figured out how to put a new spin on them. For that matter, some of the visual jokes and music cues are a little dumber than the movie (the only evidence I could find that the script was from the writers of The Pink Panther 2), though I'll admit that the post-coital dance number did eventually win me over.

Neustadter and Weber's screenplay tells Tom and Summer's story out of order, shuffling around through their relationship, popping from heartbreak to love pangs to first kisses to last. But the jumps are never random--they're always triggered by a prop or a location or a key phrase, similar to the non-linear chronology of Annie Hall. In fact, the entire film has a neo-Woody vibe to it, from the self-reflexive hero to proto-Annie heroine to the split-screen sequence, even to the architectural tour (similar to that of Hannah and Her Sisters).

These similarities may cause some to dismiss the film as too derivative, a romantic comedy example of mixtape filmmaking. And maybe they're right, maybe the picture is too gimmicky and clever. But the visual tricks and storytelling devices also manage to shake up the story's somewhat traditional three-act structure, to make it something fresh and new, and besides, it's not all flash--there are some terrific, truthful moments here. The scene where Summer finds out that Tom likes her is just about perfect; the writing and playing is so delicate, you lean forward in your seat in anticipation. A late-night apology scene at Tom's door is beautifully played, and shot in a striking silhouette (kudos, in fact, to the entirety of Eric Steelberg's lovely, sun-kissed cinematography). And I've never seen a film so accurately reproduce the moments where you're feeling someone slipping away.

"This is a story of boy meets girl," the opening narration informs us, "but you should know up front: it's not a love story." However, the way these two tremendous performers play their last scene together, you're not so sure. There's a sweetness to (500) Days of Summer, and not just between the two of them; this is a film intoxicated by the act of creating a love story, of finding its little truths and heartaches, and that sweetness catches--I had a broad smile on my face throughout the entirety of this delightful film.

"(500) Days of Summer" debuts today on DVD and Blu-ray.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Theaters: "Brothers"

Jim Sheridan’s Brothers is a film that gets so many of its small moments absolutely right, you’re tempted to call it a great movie and be done with it. The problem is that it doesn’t nail the big picture; it’s got some great scenes and performances, but it bites off more than it can chew. If its goals and ideas had been more modest, they might have really had something.

The story (entirely divulged in Lionsgate’s spoiler-iffic trailer) concerns the Cahill family: Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), his wife Grace (Natalie Portman), and Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the black sheep who is getting out of prison mere days before Sam re-deploys to Afghanistan. Relations are strained, particularly between Tommy and the boys’ dad (Sam Shepard), a career military man; things aren’t exactly rosy between Tommy and Grace either. But all of that changes when Sam’s chopper is shot down and he is presumed dead—it draws the family tight, and as Tommy becomes something of a surrogate father to Grace and Sam’s daughters, he is drawn closer to his sister-in-law.

Sam then reappears; he was not killed in combat after all, but kidnapped and tortured before a tense rescue. His return is a surprise to Tommy and Grace, but not to the audience—Sheridan intercuts his tribulations in Afghanistan with the grieving of his loved ones, and I’m not sure that this choice works. Strangely, the drama back home is of greater interest, primarily because it seems fresher than the Maguire scenes—as sturdily executed as they might be, they’re recycled from countless other war movies. In addition, if the marketing had managed to keep it in the bag (which is dubious), his unexpected return could have been a truly shocking (and invigorating) plot turn, followed by glimpses and flashes of his ordeal, as they pertained to the unfolding of the story.

What Sheridan and screenwriter David Benioff (adapting the Danish film Brødre) get right are the intimate moments, the warm family scenes that quickly evaporate. The complicated relationship between Tommy and his father is one of the picture’s most fully realized; I particularly liked how their reunion after his prison stint consists of a pair of one-word greetings (“Son.” “Sir.”) and a terse handshake. Late in the film, Sheridan stages a tense family dinner that slowly boils up and over; there, as in the entirety of the film, his direction is simple and straightforward but brutally effective.

The performances are, for the most part, quite good. Portman’s delicate, fragile work is the standout—she captures a woman doing her best to be strong, but perpetually fighting off tears, choosing not to let them go. It’s a beautifully constructed, deeply felt performance, and watching it causes one to seriously question the sanity of Slate’s Dana Stevens, whose stunningly wrong-headed review is basically a drive-by shooting of the actress (let us never forget, when considering Stevens’ thoughts on the current cinema, that she wrote City of Angels and For Love of the Game). Gyllenhaal is similarly impressive; his is a tricky performance that keeps a lot of things hidden, from his raffish sense of humor to his quiet, bitter anger, and then gradually reveals them.

Maguire’s work isn’t terribly nuanced—it certainly isn’t a bad performance, but he’s only got about two speeds here, always either at 1 or at 10, and while that might be an accurate representation of the repressed and scarred combat vet, it doesn’t make for the most compelling on-screen dynamic. (He could also use some coloration within those two levels—his bug-eyed intensity grows tiresome by the picture’s end.) Shepard is very good (c’mon, Shepard is always good), as is the rest of the supporting cast—though, knowing what we now know about Carey Mulligan (from An Education), it seems a waste to only use her in one scene (though it is a helluva good scene).

The story comes to a head in a tough, difficult, and keyed-up climax, though the resolution is probably a little too easy; the closing scene feels rushed, the final voice-over overly simplistic. That’s a shame; Brothers is a film with passages of tremendous power, and performances with real guts. But it’s also uneven and a bit spotty, ultimately unable to place what works into a context that pays off.

"Brothers" is currently playing in wide release.