Monday, May 23, 2005

Jax Film Fest: Day Four

And so we come to the closing day. As I did with the opening shindig, I'm passing on the big closing ceremonies today. Instead, I took in a pair of films this morning that, in a way, are the two I was looking the most forward to.

Brothers (Official Distributor Site) tells the story of two brothers in Denmark. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) has his life totally in order with a wife (Connie Nielsen), two kids and a career in the military. His brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has a total mess of a life after getting out of jail. Shortly after Michael is deployed to Afghanistan, his helicopter is shot down and he is taken as a prisoner of war. The grieving Connie is soon comforted by Jannik, who inserts himself into her life for both the purpose of helping her and himself. Just as the feelings between the two get complicated, a traumatized Michael comes home to find it changed as much as he has.

Oddly enough, a review of this film appeared in Entertainment Weekly earlier last week (it got an A-). It's currently being put out in limited release, but I'm guessing that, barring a sudden wave of critical raves that turn into decent box office, it wouldn't have gotten out to our little berg if not for the JFF. I'm glad we did get it for this one showing, because this is a great little film.

What is it about European films that seem far more real than Hollywood fare? The director, whose previous effort Open Hearts followed the "Dogme" school (i.e. a completely bare bones, unglamorous filmmaking style), has passed over those rigid rules but has retained the spirit. Music is used minimally and never overshadows the action. There are a number of handheld shots that are used for a natural feel rather than as a gimmick. All the characters, places and dialogue feel real and substantive. All the better to be able to connect with these people.

The actors are uniformly good. Kaas, who resembles Jurgen Prochnow in his Das Boot days, plays the rebellious younger brother with a quirky charm. Thomasen has the meatiest role of traumatized prisoner of war (Think Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. Big Time.) and continues to torture himself long after the Afghans are finished with him. And then there's Nielsen, who is most familiar to American audiences through her roles in films like Gladiator and One Hour Photo. Her character is required to run the gamut of emotions, and she does so splendidly.

Roger Ebert has famously said, in regards to film lengths, that good movies are never long enough and bad movies can never end too soon. With Brothers, I felt the movie ended short. There is a resolution of sorts at the end, but I felt there was so much more story to see, and I was ready to see it. Still, the movie in its present form packs a helluva wallop and is one not to be missed if it happens to get to your neck of the woods. Nine out of Ten.

The Civilization of Maxwell Bright (Production Company Site) is a hard film to peg. At first, it seems that it's going to be a romantic comedy that takes on the unromantic subject of mail order brides. In this case, the title character Max (Patrick Warburton) is tired of looking for a woman that will put up with his boorish ways, so he decides to order a mate from China named Mai Ling (Marie Matiko). Little does he know that she will eventually change him for the better. And little do we know that the story itself will also change for the better.

This was the one film that I brought Mrs. Mosley to. When the woman introducing the film mentioned the change halfway through, I was worried that Mrs. Mosley might not like it since I described it as a romantic comedy (as I honestly thought it entirely was). I should have had more confidence in her, because she liked it as much as I did. It's hard to discuss such films that take such thematic changes (Such as Million Dollar Baby and Something Wild), so I will leave the plot description above to speak for the story while I discuss other aspects of the film.

Those of you looking to see some variation of Warburton's work on Seinfeld will be disappointed. Rarely has a bigger assh*le been portrayed on the screen. We're not talking your average jerk, but a completely violent and perpetually pissed off human being (on the bright side, ladies, you do get a glimpse of Puddy' Still, he's endearing enough of the time for the audience to want to follow his story. Matiko's calm presence strikes a balance to Warburton's frothing-at-the-mouth. Such a character can fall into cliche, but she makes the character human by small touches in the dialogue she shares with Warburton in the more intimate moments.

The supporting roles vary. Eric Roberts does a surprisingly touching turn as one of Max's oldest friends. Roberts has had a tough time since, hell, Midnight Train twenty years ago, getting good roles. Maybe this film is an indicator that as the years wear on him, he'll start getting the respect he deserves. John Glover, who really excels at playing creepy, also does well in the straight role of a preacher. As I said with Matiko's character, the city preacher character is often in danger of becoming a cliche, but Glover gives it a very human touch. Finally, with all due respect to Jennifer Tilly, there are some roles that some actors are simply unable to play convincingly. Tilly playing a smart, seen-it-all doctor falls into that category.

There are some defects in the film. As I mentioned, the film goes to rather extreme lengths to illustrate what an utter bastard Maxwell is. There is also a running joke throughout the film where the misogynist Bright is always running into female cops, never male ones. This is good the first several times it happens, but by the time one shows up outside his house looking like she's fresh off a photo shoot, it gets a little unbelievable.

This is a unique movie experience, overall, and a great way to end the festival. Eight out of Ten.

(This can also be viewed at Blogcritics)

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