Review: Brooklyn

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“Home is home.”

No one would mistake young Tony Fiorello for Shakespeare. But tautological though he may be, Tony is perceptive: his girlfriend, a young Irish immigrant with a heart that straddles oceans, has never been able to shake the homesickness that calls her back to the shores of Éire. On the verge of her first return visit since moving to New York City in search of employment and opportunity, Eilis (pronounced ei-lish) clings tight to Tony, clearly as afraid as he is of her ability to abandon Ireland a second time. Home is home, and that thought is most difficult to shake when home is a thousand miles away.

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, John Crowley’s poignant, charming “Brooklyn” is several things at once: a coming-of-age story, a romantic drama, an immigrant tale. But overall, the film, adapted with clarity and an obvious depth of feeling by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby, can’t shake that old notion that “home is where the heart is,” and all that implies. Eilis’ travails are far from the harrowing experiences usually heaped on immigrants in American cinema – you won’t find gangs or violent crime here, nor (thankfully) even the specter of prostitution – but they are an expressive, fiercely empathetic depiction of the mundane concerns faced by fundamentally decent, hard-working people trying to make a living. A hot meal, a warm bed, a solid job, a caring lover: this is all most people ask for to build their lives, and Crowley refuses to give those anxieties short shrift in favor of sexier, darker scenarios.

With no apparent prospects in her rural hometown, Eilis braves the trip across the Atlantic thanks to her older sister’s friendship with a kindly Irish priest in Brooklyn. The priest (Jim Broadbent, as warm and squishy as a favorite pillow) finds the young woman lodging in an upstanding boarding home and a good job as a clerk in an upscale department store – immediately removing much sense of threat or urgency in Eilis’ new life. Not pressed for survival, she’s instead allowed to languish in isolation and longing, unable to think about much beyond the next arrival of a letter from her mother. Her co-workers and roommates are friendly and welcoming, but they are new, and “Brooklyn” understands that all new things have a sheen of uncertainty that must be rubbed off, like a fresh baseball that’s too slick.

You, dear reader, might not quite understand that metaphor, but Tony Fiorello would, the Dodgers-loving, Gene Kelly-imitating Italian plumber who arrives to hasten Eilis’ adjustment to America. As played by Emory Cohen, who previously stood out as Bradley Cooper’s white-trash son in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Tony is almost too good to be true: charming, respectful, intelligent and attentive despite his blue-collar upbringing. Cohen can’t stand taller than 5’6”, but he adds another six inches in pure charisma. He makes a lovely match for Saoirse Ronan, whose striking, wide-eyed, silent-film-star looks have always given her an outsized presence on screen.

Again, a more easily bored writer or director would’ve made Tony bad news, but that’s not the story that Crowley and Hornby are seeking. Eilis’ tale isn’t full of dramatic twists and turns, but small adjustments and lessons: a crash course in eating pasta without “splashing the walls,” for instance, or a trip to Coney Island where Eilis learns the virtues of putting one’s bathing suit on before heading to the beach. When bigger events do finally conspire to pull her back home, it’s a shock to realize we’re so far through the film’s running time: Ronan has made Eilis such a pleasant and engaging character that it is quite enough to simply spend an hour and a half with her.

But there are yet more challenges for Eilis to overcome. The home she left behind is not the home she returns to, and a life in Ireland suddenly seems much more plausible once that ginger paragon of adorkable human decency, Domhnall Gleeson, enters the picture. The possibility of a love triangle, once more, could’ve been fodder for a far more melodramatic take on this story, but Hornby and Ronan subtly navigate quieter waters: the question never comes down to a one on one showdown of opposing masculinity (“are you Team Tony or Team Jim?”), but what kind of life Eilis wants for herself. The insistent focus on Eilis, and the sense that her romance will be determined by her grander goals rather than the other way around, is an extremely refreshing portrait of female agency on screen (and quite reminiscent of Hornby’s previous work on Lone Scherfig’s “An Education”); all the better because it doesn’t call attention to itself.

The craft on display is top-notch, especially for a low-budget Sundance hit. The ensemble already mentioned are universally in fine form, not to mention a delightful Julie Walters as Eilis’ brusque but good-hearted boarding-house madam. Yves Bélanger’s saturated cinematography recalls the eye-popping palettes of classic Hollywood, lending the whole affair a dream-like, fairy-tale quality that supports Eilis’ increasingly enamored view of her new home. And Michael Brook’s score knows just the right moments to swoon, caught up in the swirling emotion behind Ronan’s eyes.

There is a passage from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” that has always stuck in my mind quite vividly, given the fair regularity with which I’ve moved around in my life:

In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.

“Brooklyn” is in a sense a visualization of Adams’ signal, a reflection of the particular, peculiar melancholy of being far from home. At the same time, it’s a source of comfort and commiseration, an assurance that immigration means not just leaving one home but the chance to build another. After seeing the film at BAM yesterday, I couldn’t help but wander down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where it looked like Yves Bélanger had personally lit the late-autumn sunset:

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Home is home.

Now playing.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Reviews: “A Most Wanted Man” and “Frank”

A Most Wanted Man

There were few actors who knew how to work an obscenity quite like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether he was going for pathos or fury, there was always something so desperately genuine about it when he swore. There was a line being crossed.

There’s a moment at the end of “A Most Wanted Man,” the last leading performance we’ll get from one of the greatest screen actors ever, where Hoffman gets to loose one more of his earth-shattering oaths. The scene is one of the neatest summaries of the work of John Le Carré yet put forward: a single, principled man, outflanked by an intangible, unfeeling system, exploding into a vacuum. Those with power can’t hear him, and those that can hear him are powerless. In Le Carré’s grimy world of spycraft and deception, it doesn’t do to invest in idealism.

Currency in this world is measured by information, and Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann seems a relatively rich man. As the head of an off-the-books German intelligence unit, tasked with combating terrorist operations in Hamburg (the unassuming urban locale where the 9/11 attacks were planned), Bachmann appears to have reached a level of relative success through a complex web of bait-and-switch contacts, allowing some low-level targets to roam free in order to get closer to the big fish. His tactics, however, draw the attention and ire of more blunt, results-oriented colleagues, including, perhaps, the CIA (represented here by a slippery Robin Wright, in fine “House of Cards” form).

So, when a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with potential ties to a radical Muslim cell arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann is given only a limited amount of time to execute his plan: first to find the man (spirited into hiding by a sympathetic pro bono immigration lawyer, played with Teutonic strain by Canadian Rachel McAdams), and then unwittingly turn him into a pawn against a charitable doctor fronting for funders of terrorism. As with many of Le Carré’s stories (“A Most Wanted Man” is adapted by Andrew Bovell from Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name), much of the fascination of this film lies in seeing how the sausage gets made: the intricacies of modern intelligence work, with hidden cameras, drop-offs and meetings in abandoned parking lots are carefully laid out, even as the dreadful sense of fatalism hanging over everyone’s heads suggests more than a little futility to the whole enterprise.

Much of that feeling comes from the queasy lighting and dank shadows of director Anton Corbijn’s visuals. The photographer-turned-filmmaker showed a precise command of style and tone in his first two features, the Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and the very Le-Carré-ish “The American,” and his penchant for unsettlingly perfect composition is a good match for the machinations of counter-terrorism. The hyper-competent cast (Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl and Homayoun Ershadi also drop by) play their parts as glorified automatons in this clockwork affair, but only Hoffman really breaks through expected narrative beats, signifying a great nothing with sound and fury.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

Frank

Charisma, quite like musical talent, can’t quite be explained. Logically, it makes no sense that Michael Fassbender should be spellbinding even with his entire face covered by a giant papier-mâché head, just as his character’s creative abilities defy much of the traditional motivations that lie behind most examinations of “great artists.” But, “Frank” suggests with black wit and unexpected tenderness, it’s not really for us to explain; inspiration strikes where and when it will, and chasing can be both the source and solace of madness.

Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan, previously seen in a brief role opposite his father in “Calvary” and as an endearing Levin in Joe Wright’s up-and-down “Anna Karenina”) plays the Salieri to Frank’s Mozart in Lenny Abrahamson’s caustic comedy, an aspiring musician thrown by chance into the chaos of the off-kilter, experimental, unpronounceable rock band The Soronprfbs. Jon’s utter lack of talent is made clear in a hysterically funny opening sequence, and much of the film’s tension comes from his character’s gradual, grudging arrival at the same self-evaluation. Piggybacking off the obscure but undeniable ability of The Soronprfbs’ enigmatic leading man, Jon slowly morphs from remora to leech, pushing the band to take a big gig at Texas’ SXSW music festival.

What could be a traditional “band hits the big time” narrative is complicated by the emerging truth that Frank is not merely a charming, zany eccentric, but genuinely mentally ill. For much of the film, Jon seems unable to process this, folding Frank’s sickness into his mythology, just a piece of the boilerplate “trauma” from which all true creativity surely flows. That pits Jon against Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s aloof, stone-faced bandmate, who tries to protect Frank from the public scrutiny she knows will ultimately hurt him. It’s wonderful for art to be shared and embraced, but for the person with the talent, embracing themselves should be the first and foremost priority.

Abrahamson skirts some heavy topics, but with a fresh, funny touch and vigorous pace that keeps “Frank” from ever seeming to revel in its’ characters pain or selfishness. They just sit there, alongside the laughs and lunacy, part of the total package. The unique physical challenge of Frank makes Fassbender’s performance stand out, but Gyllenhaal and Gleeson are also excellent, sparking off each other in Frank’s shadow. It’s also worth mentioning Scoot McNairy as the band’s cagey manager, Don; it’s a curious little role that could have been a throwaway, but McNairy lends him a tragic weight as an eerie, resonant foil to Frank.

The music itself, meanwhile, is as it should be: alternately odd, transcendent, or some combination of the two. The film’s final track hits a sad but optimistic conclusion, leaving the impression that the best art isn’t trying to be intentionally likable, or deep, or unique; it’s just allowed to be what it is.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Trailers of the Week: And the Band Played On

The Oscars are a week gone already, and the film world has settled into that soothing lull between awards circuit madness and the summer blockbuster explosion. Things will ramp up again very soon with “Captain America 2” on its way in early April, but in the meantime here’s a few rhythmically-inclined teasers to remind you that even now in the quieter weeks, the music never stops.

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson’s absurd-looking story of a musician who prefers to hide behind a bizarre fishbowl head had its share of defenders and detractors at Sundance, and indeed it strikes me as a conceit that could either turn out brilliantly or insufferably precocious. But I’m enthusiastic after this first look, which proves that Michael Fassbender is an unearthly charismatic performer even when he’s got nothing but his voice and body language. I’m a fan of all the ensemble, in fact – Maggie Gyllenhaal is at her best in the dry, incisive mode she’s showing off here, Scoot McNairy is the kind of character actor that delivers no matter thankless role he’s given (hello, “Non-Stop”), and Domhnall Gleeson is proving to be a likably offbeat leading man. As long as the black comedy outweighs the self-conscious quirkiness, this could be a winner.

Breathe In

Doremus isn’t really stretching himself in terms of style in his follow-up to 2011 Sundance sleeper “Like Crazy” – the melancholic, hesitant mood and deceptively controlled camerawork here seems much the same as his debut. The melodrama has been ratcheted up a notch, though, moving from the perils of modern long-distance relationships to the turmoil of a music teacher falling for the foreign exchange student he and his wife are hosting. Both Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones look relaxed with Doremus’ improvisational approach to his scripts – Pearce even manages to deliver that clunky, trite “you don’t seem as young as you actually are” line with authenticity. There’s a literary sort of emotional truth that helps “Like Crazy” mostly ring true, even when the plotting tips toward the incredulous – can Doremus bring that same touch to “Breathe In,” with what looks like an even more overdone narrative?

The Broken Circle Breakdown

The Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars is always an opportunity for a few adventurous titles to get their name out to a wider audience that would otherwise never ever hear of them. Titles like “The Great Beauty” and “The Hunt” had at least a little exposure to art-house viewers, but even the most dedicated cinephiles might have been hard-pressed to tell you anything about Belgium’s submission, a bluegrass-infused relationship drama that quietly earned a fair amount of acclaim on the festival circuit last year. Be forewarned, I read that “Broken Circle Breakdown” is far more “Blue Valentine” than “Crazy Heart” – but as a huge fan of the former, I have no problems with that, and this stylish little teaser has certainly piqued my interest.