New takes on older foreign films

Baltimore Sun

Big-star American remakes of foreign-language films have been with us since 1938. That's when Charles Boyer tore up the box office as the glamorous outlaw of Algiers' Casbah, Pepe le Moko, in "Algiers" - just a year after Jean Gabin originated the role in "Pepe le Moko." And American movies have taken foreign screenplays and transposed them to native locations at least since Henry Fonda, in 1947, took on another Jean Gabin role as the doomed factory worker in "The Long Night," from the French "Le Jour Se Leve."

But the art of cross-cultural adaptation gets an unprecedented double test today, with Robert De Niro starring in Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine," taken from Guiseppe Tornatore's 1990 "Stanno tutti bene" (which starred Marcello Mastroianni), and Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman starring in Jim Sheridan's "Brothers," taken from Susanne Bier's 2004 "Brodre" (which starred Connie Nielsen).

Why would an internationally acclaimed filmmaker like Sheridan ("In America") and a burgeoning director like Kirk Jones ("Nanny McPhee") risk the critical brickbats that remakes almost always attract? In interviews, these directors make a strong case for artists having the right to revisit plots and characters in their own verbal and visual idioms. I think Sheridan succeeds marvelously in his picture, while Jones starts strong and falters. But both talk a good game.

Sheridan has a simple explanation for why he wanted to remake "Brodre" as "Brothers": "All I can say is I love the original." So he greets the news that his version may be better than the original with bemusement. "The weird thing," he says, "is that with so many people writing on the Internet, they have to prove they know something - so they're always talking about the original, the original, and it gets kind of irritating. Doing a remake is sort of a Catch-22 anyway. ... But I think ours does have some good things in it."

In the Scandinavian director's archetypal set-up in "Brodre" for an extreme case of post-traumatic stress disorder, a heroic Danish soldier returns home only after Afghan thugs compel him to commit an unspeakable act. His secret guilt unnerves and exhausts him. He's paranoid about the charged friendship that sprung up between his wife and his black-sheep brother when they thought he was dead. His own small daughters grow to prefer the company of their uncle.

Happily, in "Brothers," Sheridan and American screenwriter David Benioff instinctively enrich Bier's stark characters scene by scene. The relationship between the straight-arrow brother (Maguire) and the bad apple ( Jake Gyllenhaal) is more believable from the outset. Even when the soldier picks up his brother from prison, where he has finished a sentence for a bank robbery, the two share a rapport that cushions any antagonism. "The original had them fight in the first scene," says Sheridan. "I asked myself, 'If I do that, where do I go next?' I just tried to play the fighting down and play up how much they liked each other."

In Sheridan's version, they're the sons of a Vietnam veteran who took out his own pain on his family, a circumstance that bonds them and makes sense of their divergent life choices. "The time bomb underneath doing any remake," says Sheridan, "is that the people who made the first one may end up hating it. So I called Anders Thomas Jensen [who co-wrote Bier's movie] and told him I wanted to make the father a military guy. ... And he said, 'That's a great idea.' "

With Sheridan prodding Sam Shepard into a near-great performance as the father, "You see he's hurting from the beginning. He's got some of the post-traumatic stress himself. And he does reach out a bit to his sons." Sheridan and Benioff decided to change the father's wife ( Mare Winningham) into the boys' stepmother. "The mother never had much of a role in the first one," Sheridan continues. "I decided to mask that by making her a stepmother." And this way she gets to tell the ex-con that his brother will soon be with his mom.

The sum of all these changes is to make "Brothers" a movie with a galvanizing mass character: a military clan in all its glory, hardship and resilience. It features a never-better Maguire as its rock - and, later, its volcanic core. "I think all the changes come down to the movie's substructure having a different DNA. Susanne was making a woman's movie, and at the center was the wife, the mother, in the middle of a kind of romantic triangle involving a dangerous love. I'm about making the family get back together. Mine is more male, in a way." Yet Natalie Portman proves far stronger in Sheridan's film than Connie Nielsen is in Bier's. Portman is self-aware and conflicted, Nielsen oddly flirty, even flighty.

Sheridan hails the original as "a low-budget piece of poetry; that's hard to redo." But Sheridan didn't so much redo it as reinvent it, responding to individualistic actors and landscapes. He filmed small-town America and the Afghani badlands in different parts of New Mexico. "It's an amazing thing about the desert there," says Sheridan. "It's the kind of place fish used to swim. You feel as if you're in the middle of something that used to be life. It's great for a foreign country. " The event that occurs there in "Brothers" causes Sheridan to describe the film as "The Deer Hunter" meets "Coming Home." The story hinges on "a transgressive scene, like the one in the middle of 'Psycho,' that changes the whole movie." The director knew it would be problematic ("We had to earn that scene"), but it was also the core of the piece and potentially a great pro-life statement. "It was depicting a moment where God puts you in a position that's untenable. It's beyond good or evil. You're asked to be a heroic suicide or live, but live in these horrible psychological circumstances. For me, it was a metaphor of dealing with, and winning against, a people who are suicidal, who see heroism in suicide killings."

American screenings of the first film taught Sheridan that U.S. viewers would accept Danish characters doing things they wouldn't accept in American ones. Sheridan's changes, though, were not about diluting the content but making it more potent and credible by "putting the emotion into looks rather than words." His enemy isn't the audience but a marketing system that pits independent films like "Brothers" against big-studio action films like "Armored" for the almighty opening-weekend dollar. Happily, this time out Sheridan has Senator Padme of "Stars Wars" and Jack Twist of "Brokeback Mountain" on his marquee, along with Spider-Man himself. With "Brothers," Maguire takes the "Spider-Man" phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility," into the real world.

Kirk Jones, the Bristol, England-born director of "Everybody's Fine," says he has long been a fan of Tornatore's 1987 "Cinema Paradiso": "I think some films cannot be done any better, and I put 'Cinema Paradiso' in that bracket." Tornatore's "Stanno tutti bene" tells the story of an aging widower - the De Niro-Mastroianni character - struggling to reconnect with grown sons and daughters. On a cross-country trip to visit them one by one, he uncovers a trail of big secrets and white lies.

Jones connected with the film emotionally and thought that unlike "Cinema Paradiso" it wasn't too well-known or beloved for audiences to resist another version of it. He figured "the idea of a family living away from their 'home' could work better in the United States - a pretty big country, where people travel to go to work or move extreme distances for a job."

He flew to the U.S. and took a continent-spanning journey, relying, as his hero does, on buses and trains. He snapped thousands of photos and interviewed about 100 people. He remembers looking out an Amtrak window between St. Louis and Kansas City when he realized he was focusing on "the telephone wires and their poetic, undulating rhythm." He had been seeking an occupation for De Niro, and he thought, "What if he were the guy in the factory who works the machine that coats the wire? The irony would be, here's a man who helped millions of people to communicate, and now has lost communication with his family."

Jones borrowed some specific devices from Tornatore, including a crowd-pleasing joke about a hooker and the father comparing the shape of their legs. But in this version, the father learns that he set high and unforgiving expectations for his brood. Jones, a parent himself, says, "I worry we're pushing children too hard, too quickly, not letting them find their own way and appreciating them when we see what their strengths are." The alienation of the father from his children also becomes a microcosm of a society in which instant messages don't translate into closeness or sympathy. This director feels we may be forgetting "how to listen properly. There are so many distractions, we may have become too lazy about how much effort we put into it."

Unfortunately, Jones' existential doubts translate to his treatment of the audience: He often telegraphs his points, then spells them out, and finally repeats them. Still, Jones displays his distinctive talents in the frisky observational farce of De Niro navigating a supermarket as well as the fresh observational dramedy of him responding to the frankness and sympathy of a female trucker played by Melissa Leo. At his best, Jones has a fleeting touch that tickles you as it goes by. It makes you think that if he changed "Everybody's Fine" into an all-out picaresque, everything would have been fine and dandy.

No review "Armored," a heist movie starring Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne, was not screened for critics.

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