Jim Sheridan has way with child-actors that is basically incomparable. Go watch In America. Check out My Left Foot. If you get a chance to see his latest picture, the searing war-time drama Brothers (A-), you’ll see more of the same, with two of the best kid-actor performances that I've seen in a long time. But beyond that, Brothers offers thought-provoking (if disturbing) entertainment for people who can stomach some pretty intense dramatics, and again serves as a reminder of the toll that our soliders take when the take the field of battle. The plot is this: two brothers, one a good soldier (Tobey Maguire), one a petty screw-up (Jake Gyllenhaal), have to contend with life altering changes when the soldier goes off to war, leaving behind his wife (Nathalie Portman) and their two daughters. Based on Danish director Susanne Bier’s original film of the same name, this American adaptation by the screenwriter David Benioff (25th Hour, The Kite Runner) sticks extremely close to the original source material, and is all the better for it. I'm a massive fan of Bier's work; Things We Lost in the Fire is disgustingly underappreciated and After the Wedding is a masters class in direction and narrative economy. The one major difference between the two versions of Brothers is style; Bier’s original was a Dogme-inspired hand-held camera fest with lots of jittery compositions and scruffy surroundings. With Sheridan there is a Hollywood polish, which while not a bad thing, reminds you more of the fact that you’re watching a movie and not a slice of life. Again, not that Frederick Elmes’ cinematography is ugly – quite the contrary, actually. Brothers looks terrific, and has a snowed-out quality that works well with the chilly themes of the narrative. It’s just that Bier’s naturalistic style has a way of further drawing the viewer in than Sheridan’s all-pro craftsmanship can. And some of the pop-music cues felt off. But nevertheless, Brothers has three incredible performances, especially from Maguire, who goes deep here, and comes as close to Bruce Dern in Hal Ashby’s classic Coming Home as anyone else has in recent memory. As the mentally scarred soldier, Maguire is asked to do a role he hasn’t yet done; I’d like to see him go dark again. Gyllenhaal, as he did so effectively in Zodiac and the underrated Rendition, continues to imbue his on-screen characters with a quiet integrity. And Portman, who at first glance felt miscast, reminds the viewer that she’s an all-stops-out actress when she wants to be. Brothers is a smart, well-written film that doesn’t shy away from life’s complexities and cruelties.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (B+) is a stoney, hazy, somewhat sloppy political satire that hits a lot of funny moments but never feels fully formed. And maybe that’s the point when you’re movie is about a bunch of LSD-taking psy-soldiers who are trying to walk through walls and kill people (and the occasional goat) by staring at them. Based on a supposedly true story, this Looney Tunes-esque farce stars George Clooney with a funny moustache as a wild and crazy soldier, Jeff Bridges reprising his role of The Dude from The Big Lebowski as a New Age military guru, Kevin Spacey with seriously funny prickish attitude as the heavy, and a bevy of familiar faces in supporting roles. The fact that one of the highlights of this asinine yet entertaining yet slightly frustrating movie is a mass LSD trip-out involving soldiers and their huge and expensive military combat equipment might tell you immediately if you’ll find the proceedings funny. I can’t say that I’ve seen another movie quite like The Men Who Stare at Goats; it’s almost as if the filmmakers (director Grant Heslov and writer Peter Straughan) are daring you to hate their film. Had it been more tightly crafted, it would have been a better film. It felt to me like everyone was going for a Dr. Strangelove vibe, but nobody on this project was up for Kubrick's level of overall brilliance. This movie isn’t for everyone, but for people with adventurous cinematic taste and a craving for something heady and unique, go check it out. It’s not perfect, but it’ll leave you with something to think about and discuss, and if you have a sense of humor, it’ll make you laugh more than a few times.