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Brothers (2009) – Jake Gyllenhal, Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman all turn in strong work for this low key work.  It’s the kind of small scale human drama that Hollywood is becoming increasingly hesitant to make.  Gyllenhal is the black sheep brother who steps up to take on family responsibility after Maguire’s character, a marine, is reported killed in Afghanistan.  In actuality he’s captured by Taliban forces and tortured.  He returns home months later, a broken man on the verge of madness.  “Brothers” doesn’t aim for Oscar level histrionics and that makes for a nice change.  It’s not a film out to change to world, just tell a compelling story and tell it well.  Director Jim Sheridan’s steady hand and restrained style let’s it succeed on both counts.  The screen play feels a little too sparse but the performances of the primaries fill it out in the places it needs attention with believable chemistry and skill.

Tetro (2009) – Francis Ford Coppola has decided to spend his senior years making small scale, independent efforts which appeal to his senses and adhere to visions as a director.  That all sounds respectable and admirable but someone needs to tell Francis that he needs to remember a few things about structure, pacing and character.  “Tetro” tells the story of a young American reuniting with his long lost brother who ran off a decade before.  The older brother has become a reclusive, mope, obsessed with his demons and keeping everyone away.  Though filmed with a lovingly immaculate black and white palate, Coppola sends his story teetering this way and that, never in focus enough to make it feel consequential or even mildly interesting.  It’s a shame.  Coppola still has a wonderful eye for photography, he simply lacks the discipline required to make his narrative work.

Fires on the Plain (1959) – In 1956 Kon Ichikawa directed the humanistic masterpiece “The Burmese Harp”.  That was film filled with empathy towards the human experience in war time and stands as an unarguable classic.  Three years later Ichikawa returned to the subject of Japanese soldiers during World War II in “Fires on the Plain.”  As far removed from the theme of human compassion as possible, “Fires” follows a ragged soldier as he’s dismissed from his unit so he can go back to the hospital, if they don’t take him he’s ordered to blow himself up.  The soldier spends the duration wondering the island attempting to eek out an existence as food is sparse, fellow soldiers are resorting to cannibalism and American’s are slowly appearing everywhere.  The movie is a difficult sit.  It feels one note, the misery never lets up, and our soldier never develops a personality we can feel for.  It’s an experience that leaves one feeling emotionally depleted and stomped on.  Fans of classic Japanese cinema, war movies or downer cinema in general will find a lot to like, but it’s not something to jump into lightly.

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