Review of: My Brothers Keeper (v.4) 

reviewed by dbialy on 12/20/2007
Credited Review
A new angle on Able Credited Review
An interesting story, told in a very intriguing way, set against the exotic background of Spanish Civil War (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about the Irish fighting for the ‘republicanos’). A very good choice that is also a very expensive one, budget-wise.

The plot unfolds rather slowly and we don’t know where it will take us, which is fine with me. Two brothers: Able and Cain… Sorry, Michael and Sean. One Good, the other Evil. The obvious (or was it?) intent was to show, as the closing Michael’s V.O. states, that:
“The truth’s a painful burden to bear at times. The truth is that we all must seek what is right in our hearts and protect that with all that we are worth” – and herein seems to lay the problem of the script IMO
(Sorry Bob, praising your great work would be nice and sweet, but wouldn’t reflect my personal impression in its entirety and would do nothing to help you improve). I leave the well deserved praises for others and concentrate here on what, in my opinion, doesn’t work in your script.

Personally, I’m admirer of your rich human tales. Read four of them. It’s clear to me that you pour all your heart into them, research your subject well and manipulate all the dramatic components to achieve the best possible cinematic result. Sometimes however, I feel like screaming: “Why isn’t this better?!!!”
Your tales are so rich in raw human emotions, so engaging, overall, so worthwhile to tell. And yet, there’s something in them that ‘sags’ me (couldn’t find a better word to accurately express my feeling).

The above mentioned V.O. statement of your protag Michel, at the end of the movie, is clearly the THEME of your script. Everything else is built around it, which is precisely what one should do when one writes a screenplay (and precisely what I didn’t yet master). This V.O. statement is the most important statement uttered in your movie, because it encapsulates the essence of the whole. As such it should be refined and polished to the max. It isn’t. At least to me personally, it seems to be saying something that it wants to say, but doesn’t quite finds the best way to do it, and the message gets lost in sort of moral confusion.

“The truth’s a painful burden to bear at times” – Michaels says. True. But curiously he talks about his private ego-limited ‘truth’ and not the universal one, that I think you should strive for your character. If he spoke of the painful truth about himself that he just faced, after slaying his own brother, in the name of the ‘greater Good’ and his own self-righteousness, then the TRUTH, would ring true. As it is, it seems to me askew and warped. If there was some deeper subtlety in your script, that I didn’t pick up, I’m sorry. I can only tell you what I see and feel from my own perspective, regardless whether it was intended to be seen and felt that way or not.

In your synopsis, you pose a question: “What would you do if there were no good guys?”
This gives some indication that perhaps the closing V.O. was meant to be read as a statement of a deluded soul, an ironic comment on human nature. If that’s the case, I don’t believe the audience would get it the way you intended. Much, much too subtle for an average viewer.
I would prefer for Michael to recognize it himself at the end. It would give him a sort of semi-arc.

I know, you wanted to show what a war does to the ordinary good people and how it warps their inner world. Good intention, but somehow, to me, you went astray with the delivery.

Sofia volunteers and assassinates the Archbishop merely on the accusation of Sean, the man she well knows has a black heart. Why? Because she is a ‘leftist’? Don’t you think it’s a big ask for the audience to swallow it? I couldn’t understand her internal motivations and responses regarding the assassination as much as I couldn’t quite understand her dealing with, and bedding all the different men in the name of free Spain. How was it even possible for her to be an active lieutenant in the republican army and a servant in the enemy camp?

Showing the real human face in evil behavior of people in extraordinary circumstances takes the valuable screen time. You didn’t have enough of it, so you skipped it, and, as a result, I’m scratching my head now.

And Michael is even worse in his puzzling responses to the excesses of his power and blood-hungry brother. And he’s much younger, mid-twenties, mind you.

Okay. Have a look at Sean’s character.

Discounting the Belfast incident in Poker Room which could be viewed as justifiable, with some stretch of imagination on our part - the corrupted by violence moviegoers, we didn’t really know what kind of man Sean really was, until page 44.

Only when he ruthlessly kills the elderly enemy soldier that already runs away scared, we know Sean is ‘not quite right’ in his heart and soul (Page 44? A bit too late).

Page 63. Sean shaves his beard (nice touch, good symbolism). I knew you’ll show now Sean’s true colors, but didn’t expect it to be so abrupt (you could milk that tension created by the audience sensing the change in Sean, much more). He slashes Jack’s cheek with a whip for spilling a box of rice.
And what his do-gooder brother does? Absolutely nothing. Later, “Michael can’t help but smile at his impetuous brother”. At that point, (page 77) I started losing my sympathy for Michael, and the feeling of mild distaste began replacing it. A bad sign.

Page 84. Sean unjustly shoots defenseless Jack locked up in a jail. And what our Michael does? He restrains Sean in a ‘bear hug’ (was it an intended irony?). Now, my mild distaste turns into contempt for Michael. His reactions towards Sean don’t seem to arise from his love for him, but from the weakness of his character to face his brother like any good man would.

I admit, you very cleverly set up the drama in that unstable but strict recruit-army environment, to make it believable that it was as easy for Sean to show his evil side, as it was difficult for Michael to oppose it. But still, a Good Man, as understood by contemporary moviegoers, would act differently.

Resolution of your story is the hardest to swallow (only if I’m reading the whole thing right, of course). Michael kills his defenseless brother in an ambush because of what? Because Sean liked killing as a soldier and exacted his revenge when pushed to his low threshold limits? Was that a sufficient reason for a Good Man to kill in a cold blad? I don’t think so. How Michael was different from Sean then? Wasn’t he just the other side of the same coin?

Michael and Sofia’s responses and behavior are here more akin to the mob mentality in 'The Good Fellows', where the only morality is that of the Family and if someone ‘deserves’ to die, it is done in business-like fashion with the real Human Conscience switched off completely.
But Michael and Sofia in Spain? They both had no external forces (except the war itself), imposing on them some sort of prefabricated warped Morality. They were free to express their own. They didn’t. Not the one we would expect them to express, anyway.

So, in short, the morally confusing THEME expressed through closing V.O., was reflected and amplified in a greater moral confusion of the plot itself, at least for me personally.

Couple more things:

The constant and numerous “Spanish with Subtitles” in dialogue parentheses could be perhaps replaced by a note “Dialogue in Spanish, subtitled”, just before the dialogues. I think it’s an acceptable formatting technique.

Character interactions: Sofia/Michael and the Lieutenant/Garcia (p. 49). In both cases one character has a gun pointed at the other, suspicious and/or accusing of betrayal. In both cases it ends up with a sudden and unrealistic change of hearts – “I suppose you’re right” – sort of thing. It was unnatural and forced to suit your plot. Try to give a bit more plausible reason for changing the ‘gun-holder’ attitude towards his ‘target’.

The massacre of the ‘Blueshirts’ in the Poker Room in Belfast could be done better. It was too abrupt. You could milk it much more with some tension and suspense so naturally lending itself to scenes like this.

Oh. One more. Didn’t figure out why Michael had to run away with Sean to Spain. He was not in danger. I think giving some plausible excuse would be much better than just hang it on Michael’s desire to ‘take care’ of his little brother. Or did I miss something?

Other than that, the three-act structure, the dialogue (with some small exceptions) and the pacing of your spec was really good. The Belfast dialogue rang particularly true and even with real Irish accent in my minds ear. Good stuff, lad. I also liked and appreciated the nice smooth transitions from scene to scene. You’re always mindful of all those little things that make big difference - that's why I like your writing.

Good luck with this one.

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