Three TIFF ’09 Films That Came Up Short – MY SON, MY SON WHAT HAVE YE DONE?, THE GOOD HEART, and HARRY BROWN

     September 20, 2009

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As a movie fan, there are times that I wish I could say “once more, with feeling,” and watch films with interesting premises and paths suddenly replay with the feeling and intrigue that they’re sorely lacking – the missing ingredient that could make them thrive. It’s easy to disregard a film with a faulty premise and delivery, but it’s not so easy to stomach the films with promise not met, like “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” “The Good Heart,” and “Harry Brown.”

Hit the jump for more on these three TIFF films.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done movie image  Michael Shannon (1).jpgWe’re used to murder mysteries playing out from beginning to end – the death, the uncovering of clues, and the revelation of the murderer. When Werner Herzog and David Lynch tackle the theme, however, nothing is normal. In “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” the mystery isn’t who is the murderer and how, it’s why.

Inspired by a true story, Herzog’s film follows a pair of detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena) called to the scene of a crime. They arrive at a house, and after a strange run-in with a rambling man outside, they enter the home and begin to investigate the death of a woman who has been run through with a sword. Quickly, however, they learn that this man, Brad (Michael Shannon), is the murderer, and the victim is his mother (Grace Zabriskie).

Brad holes himself up in his home across the street with hostages, and calls two friends to the scene – his fiancee (Chloe Sevigny) and the director of the play he had been involved with (Udo Kier). As the hostage situation plays out, Dafoe’s detective grills Brad’s friends, hunting for clues as to why this man would kill his own mother.

This set-up could easily make for a dark and foreboding look into the fall of a man, questioning the rationale of disturbed individuals and fleshing out how and why a man can be moved to murder. But rather than digging in to the why, the film’s execution stresses removal. Herzog’s classic “ecstatic truth” intermingles with Lynchian absurdity as Sevigny and Kier deliver stilted recollections that offer many reasons for Brad’s instability, but no real why – a strange world overflowing with flamingos, a mother’s incessantly overbearing eye (wonderfully and unsettlingly played by Zabriskie), dangerous white-water rafting trips, and plays that hit too close to home.

What results is a very theatrical world of quirk and weirdness that’s too real to thrive in the weird, and too weird to thrive in the real. Just try to imagine Herzog in Lynch’s world, and vice versa, and you might begin to envision the awkward world of “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?”

The Good Heart

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Imagine life if the “heart” of our personality could crumble with the strength of our physical, beating heart. In “The Good Heart,” Brian Cox plays Jacques, a bitter old man who has become weakened by a series of heart attacks. Convalescing in the hospital, he befriends Lucas – a young homeless man (Paul Dano) who tried to commit suicide. While they are opposites in almost every way – Jacques’ bitterness at odds with Lucas’ good and overly giving personality – they quickly become friends and Jacques decides to make Lucas his heir.

Jacques knows he won’t live forever, so he wants to fashion Lucas in his image – someone to run his bar just as he does – how he treats his customers, who his customers are, and how they are served. But things don’t work out exactly as planned. Jacques becomes increasingly “sensitive and sentimental” as he describes it, while Lucas becomes troubled and bitter. He is struggling with Jacques’ particular ways and the arrival of a young, displaced stewardess who descends upon Lucas’ life and quickly takes it over.

The thing is, while this film is about the heart from beginning to end – it doesn’t have a lot of heart itself. It is so concerned with the idea of a good heart, and how that can play out metaphorically, that it doesn’t look at whether there’s heart in the message. It is quite hard to understand the motivations of these characters, especially the flatly written stewardess whose presence seems to have little point or depth. Each scene has promise, but is eaten away by this distinct sense of detachment and neverending moments that make you ask “Why?” Why is this girl insinuating herself into the pair? Why does Lucas feel so little regard for himself? Why does Jacques care so much for Lucas?

These questions are never really answered, and it’s a shame, because with a little extra “heart,” “The Good Heart” could thrive. As it stands, however, the film is a moderately interesting look into matters of the heart, one that would be better served as a sharply edited short, than a meandering and sometimes depth-free feature.

Harry Brown

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Vigilante justice is the sort of fare that usually gets the darkly comic pulp treatment with the guy or gal strapping on the weapon, throwing a snarl on their face, and heading out to get bloody revenge. But when a vigilante film toes the line of reality, it’s a whole different cinematic experience.

Michael Caine stars as Harry Brown – an ex-Marine living out his final years in a neighborhood held socially hostage; dangerous street youth rule the area, terrorizing anyone who crosses their path. Harry lives in fear of the gang, continually journeying out to see his hospitalized wife, nervously eyeing the gang-ridden short-cut before taking the longer path. When his wife dies, however, things start to change. His lone friend Leonard (David Bradley, who plays Argus Filch in the Harry Potter series) is fed up with the gangs, and with the police who refuse to really help. He won’t be calmed by the seemingly passive Harry, and is desperate to take matters into his own angered hands. When Leonard gets killed, that’s the last straw. Harry’s passivity dies as he decides to make justice his own responsibility.

Harry’s revenge is dark and complicated. Caine plays it perfectly, moving from passive old man to the vigilante with a heart – small flairs from his past service making the jump believable. But the film focuses too much on his quest. If the movie focused on pulp and fun rather than story, that would be acceptable. But in a carefully placed drama, this quest comes off as superficial. There are some hints as to why these kids are so violent – what they learned from, the violence they experienced – but it’s vague and unexplored – teasing an added depth without truly providing it. Likewise, when Inspector Frampton (Emily Mortimer) hits the scene to investigate Leonard’s murder, she offers the fleeting rational voice of someone who realizes that something is going on behind the scenes, but she is not given much to do beyond playing the outspoken cop who no one believes.

If all these aspects could be fleshed out and balanced, “Harry Brown” would be an excellent film. As it stands, it’s an interesting look into one man’s vigilantism, whose partial success is entirely do to the many talents of Michael Caine.

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