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Viewer Guide: Avalon and Brothers

February 19, 2021 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 CLASSIC | AVALON

Avalon (1990)

 This week’s classic is Avalon, the 1990 family drama written and directed by Barry Levinson.

A Jewish-American immigration saga that is both epic and intimate, Avalon is the third entry of an autobiographically inspired four-film cycle, chronicling the history of writer-director Barry Levinson’s extended family in Baltimore. The film follows on Levinson’s breakthrough success with Diner in 1982 and then Tin Men in 1987, but this installment takes the family story back to its origins with the arrival of Sam Krichinsky in 1914, a Polish immigrant who naively misinterprets the city’s 4th of July celebrations as a personal welcoming ceremony. Reuniting with his brothers in the Baltimore neighborhood of “Avalon”—with its reference to the mythical Celtic island that is “the home of the heart”—Sam regards his new country as a wonderland of possibility, joining his brothers’ business as a wallpaper hanger while moonlighting with them as a musician. The Krichinsky brothers enter the postwar era with a growing and prospering family, yet not without some traumatic twists and setbacks along the way. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Sam in his senior years, with Joan Plowright as his wife Eva and Lou Jacobi as his increasingly resentful older brother Gabriel. The next Krichinsky generation is represented by Aidan Quinn as Sam’s son Jules and Elizabeth Perkins as his wife Ann, with Kevin Pollak as Jules’ enterprising cousin Izzy. And embodying the generation of director Levinson is a very young Elijah Wood, in his first major film role as Jules’ son Michael.

After an early career as a writer for “The Carol Burnett Show” and Mel Brooks—including a memorable cameo appearance as the maniacal “stabbing” bellboy in High Anxiety—Barry Levinson’s acclaimed film directing debut with Diner in 1982 vaulted him into the front ranks of Hollywood filmmakers, soon followed by the box office success of The Natural in 1984. Continuing his family saga with Tin Men in 1987, Levinson scored further success with Good Morning, Vietnam, later going on to win the Best Director Oscar for Rain Man in 1988. Garnering four Academy Award nominations including Best Screenplay and Best Original Score for Randy Newman, much of Avalon is directly autobiographical, and Levinson’s grandfather was in fact named Sam Krichinsky. The final film in Levinson’s family series—so far—was Liberty Heights released in 1999.

REEL 13 INDIE | BROTHERS

Brothers (2009)

Tonight’s indie is Brothers, a 2009 drama directed by Jim Sheridan.

Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman star as Sam and Grace Cahill, a young married couple living in suburban harmony and devoted to raising their two young daughters. But the Cahill’s are also a military family, with the expectation of Sam’s next deployment as a Marine captain hanging over every moment. Yet another cloud hovering at the edge of the family circle is Sam’s brother Tommy, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, just released after doing jail time for armed robbery, a dishonor that’s never forgotten—or forgiven—by Sam and Tommy’s father Hank, a tough ex-Marine played by Sam Shepard. Eventually, the inevitable happens and Sam departs for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Grace steels herself to endure another separation—but then the terrible news arrives that Sam’s Blackhawk helicopter has been shot down with all aboard believed killed. Grace’s world is shattered, yet the sudden tragedy awakens a dormant sense of responsibility in Tommy, who steps up to fill the void created by Sam’s absence. But when it’s discovered that Sam and a fellow Marine have actually survived, Grace and Tommy find their lives upended once again, as they struggle to reconcile their changing relationship in the face of a disturbing role reversal between the brothers.

Also featured in supporting roles are Mare Winningham and Carey Mulligan in an early career cameo.

With a screenplay by Game Of Thrones writer, director and producer David Benioff, Brothers is a remake of the acclaimed 2004 Danish film Brødre directed by Susanne Bier, whose recent credits include The Night Manager and Bird Box, and whose 2011 film In a Better World was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Jake Gyllenhaal reportedly wanted to play “good brother” Sam with Tobey Maguire interested in playing “bad brother’ Tommy, but director Jim Sheridan ultimately felt the reverse casting of the two stars would be more believable. Reportedly, it was during production of Brothers that Jake Gyllenhaal learned of his Brokeback Mountain co-star Heath Ledger’s tragic death on January 22, 2008, due to an accidental drug overdose. Gyllenhaal left the set for the day, returning two days later to finish the scene, then taking a longer bereavement break before completing production on the rest of the film.

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