Nerd Chat with FACES OF THE GONE Author Brad Parks

If you’re a regular reader here, you know I don’t do interviews with stuffy people. If I’m gonna sit down to a lunch interview, have a phone conversation and exchange a bunch of e-mails with someone, that person had better be interesting, funny, smart and look good in a Speedo. Brad Parks is three out of four so I heartily welcome him to Pop Culture Nerd.

Brad "I'm too sexy for furniture" Parks

Brad is the debut author of Faces of the Gone, a mystery about Newark newspaper reporter Carter Ross investigating the case of four dead bodies found in an empty lot with execution-style bullet holes in their heads. The novel provides an unflinching look at life on inner-city streets and in the newsroom, leavened by a healthy dose of humor.

For intimate details about Brad and to see him in a turtleneck, visit his website. But first, read on for our nerd chat.

Pop Culture Nerd: You’ve been all over the blogosphere promoting your book and given shout-outs by everyone from the New York Times to the Sun-Sentinel. Since this is our first time together, I gotta ask: Have you been tested?

Brad Parks: You know what they say—when you blog, you’re not only blogging the blogger, you’re blogging every person they’ve ever blogged. So I might be a bit dodgy, yes. I mean, just blogging at Jen’s Book Thoughts alone probably made me filthy. That skanky ho Jen Forbus gets around.

The infamous Jen Forbus with her niece

PCN: Hose yourself down with Lysol, man! She’s been with everyone in the crime fic community, male and female. But I’ve got my hazmat suit on so we can continue. What was the biggest thrill for you on pub day? Did you go to stores, point to your book and yell at strangers, “That’s me!”?

BP: Honestly? While my pub month was a string of incredible, wonderful, I’ll-never-forget-them happenings, my actual pub day was a bit crushing. In my mind, December 8, 2009 was something I had been building up for years—behind perhaps only my wedding and my kids being born (but ahead of, say, college graduation) in terms of significant days in my life. But to everyone else it was just a Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I got dressed up in my best author outfit, stuffed a Sharpie in my pocket and charged out the door to meet my public. I first went to my local independent bookstore, where the owner (who is a friend) had been so busy with the holiday rush, she hadn’t had time to put my book on the shelves yet. Next, I started in on the chain stores.

Now, mind you, I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the front of these stores—that’s something you’ve got to earn. I wasn’t expecting to be face out on the New Mystery shelf, because that’s valuable real estate, too. But I’m with St. Martin’s Press, a reputable publisher, so I was thinking each store would have at least one copy. Even if it was stuffed in a musty corner somewhere, I would proudly sign each one, whereupon Cherubim and Seraphim would strike a heavenly chord, even if I was the only one who could hear them.

Instead, I got this succession of blank stares from store managers, and it quickly became clear to me that until I darkened their doorstep, they had no plans on stocking my book. After the fourth no-show, I gave up and bought myself a cheeseburger, which I ate alone. It tasted a lot like humble pie.

PCN: But then all the rave reviews and best-of year-end mentions started pouring in. Has your head blown up to melon size? How has your life changed since you became a published author?

BP: You may ask Brad Parks this question, which Brad Parks will be glad to answer, since you clearly acknowledge that He is a Better Person than you. No, seriously, the reviews have been lovely. And there have been some Sally Field you-like-me-you-really-like-me moments, when I’ve felt the warm glow of knowing my words were appreciated somewhere. Other than that, I don’t feel all that different. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my wife complains I talk about myself too much, but she did that before I was published, too.

PCN: Any interesting tour anecdotes you can share?

BP: Well, I wrote about this one for Shelf Awareness. To give you the Cliffs Notes version, it basically involves me white-knuckle-driving my way through an ice storm to a bookstore, where I figured I’d end up sitting in front of a large pile of my books in an empty store. But then…aw, heck, I won’t ruin it. Just click on the link if you’re curious. And promise you’ll come back to PCN when you’re done!

PCN: Thanks for sending both my readers over there. Now I’ll have to pay two other people to read this. You’ve said Carter is a lot like you, but if you could be like any character in crime fiction, who would it be?

BP: This answer probably changes on a daily basis. But today I feel like being Jack Reacher, who has spent all summer digging ditches and has puffed up to 250 heavily muscled pounds. And then I’d go play pick-up basketball. Having otherwise gone through life as a scrawny white guy, I’d like to be able to set a pick that means something for once.

PCN: Did you tell Lee Child about your Reacher daydreams when you fetched him a Coke at last year’s Bouchercon?

BP: I did tell Lee I daydream about being Reacher. Then he replied, “That’s funny, I dream of being Carter Ross.” Then we bro-hugged. Then I woke up.

PCN: What other authors turn you into a gushing fanboy?

BP: I would say Harlan Coben. I’ll know I’ve really arrived when I can spend time with Harlan and not have this little voice in my head—it sounds like an 11-year-old girl—constantly going, Omagod, omagod, I’m hanging out with HARLAN COBEN, omagod! Hasn’t happened yet.

PCN: I like how you equated the process of writing to open-water distance swimming in one of your guest blogs. What do you do if you get a cramp? Or jump in then realize you’re not a distance swimmer? And are Speedos or trunks better for that kind of swimming?

BP: I’ll take the last part of this question first, because it’s important to state—before any bad images get planted in anyone’s head—that I am a trunks-only man. No one needs to see my upper thighs.

As to the rest of the question: Obviously, you ought to have some minimum level of swimming competency, built in the safety of shallow backyard pools and municipal swimming holes. (Or, to extend the metaphor back to writing, stories in school literary magazines, articles in local newspapers or entries in personal journals).

But once you have that, I believe you need to throw yourself in over your head and make yourself swim for your life, cramps and all. That’s the whole point of open water distance swimming. You can’t just stop and walk. You have no choice but to keep going. And I think writers with unfinished manuscripts—know anyone like that?— would be well-served to think of their work that way.

PCN: One of your characters, Tee, has a booming business making R.I.P. T-shirts for gangbangers who get gunned down. The idea is both horrible and savvy. Is it based on something you encountered for real?

BP: Yep, that one is, as they say on Law & Order, ripped from the headlines. As a journalist working in a depressed inner-city, I was constantly fascinated (and saddened and appalled) by the culture of death that surrounds young people in areas with high murder rates. One day, I saw a set of R.I.P T-shirts wrapped to a telephone pole at a housing project in Newark—three kids, all killed before their 21st birthdays. I started poking around and learned there was a whole cottage industry of creating and displaying these shirts. Kids would actually wear them on the anniversaries of the days their friends got killed. So I wrote a story about it.

PCN: And then you wrote two more, books 2 and 3 in the Carter Ross series. The second one is called Eyes of the Innocent. Are you branding this as the body parts series, a la Sue Grafton’s alphabet books? What happens when you travel south of the beltline?

BP: Yeah, the body parts thing is going to be my schtick. And as I’ve told my agent, when we reach Thumbs Up My Ass we’ll know it’s time to quit.

PCN: Okay, so let’s just stay north of the nipples for now. You mentioned in another interview, #817, that you might write a non-fiction book one day. Would it be true crime or something else?

BP: That was actually interview No. 788. Please try to keep count. And, sure, I might write non-fiction someday. Maybe true crime. Maybe ghost-writing for some famous person. Maybe history. Maybe something else entirely. My curiosity is fairly boundless, and I started writing for newspapers when I was 14, so non-fiction is still pretty comfortable for me. More than anything—having gone back and forth between fiction and non—I find they’re a lot more similar than most folks realize.

At the end of the day, it’s all about telling a story. The only difference is whether you have to find the pertinent facts or make them up. Which, I would argue, are roughly equal in difficulty.

PCN: Lying, er, making up stuff is so NOT difficult for me. If you had to choose between writing books that sell 50 million copies each but are critically lambasted (I’m not mentioning names), or those that win busloads of awards but have only modest sales numbers, which would you prefer?

BP: Oh, this one’s easy: Give me the 50 million copies. And then give me 50 million more. Go ahead and shake your head and say, “Brad! How whorish!” And I am. But as commercial as that sounds, there are real, artistic reasons behind it.

See, I’ve never really written for myself. For me, the joy in the creative process has always been in the sharing, and in the reaction it provokes. I write with the hope my words have an impact on people, whether it’s to inform, to entertain, or just to make them shake their heads at something. I want that impact to be as broad as possible.

And it’s not about money. I get just as much of a charge from the fan letter that starts “I bought your book at the store and…” as I do from one that begins, “I got your book at the library…” Do I want critics to like my books and to win awards? Of course. But ultimately it’s because I know those things will increase the size of my audience. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

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Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s COMMITTED

After reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love three years ago, I became almost evangelistic about it, discussing it nonstop with others, buying copies for friends, etc. Wish I could do the same for her follow-up, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (out today). Because I think Gilbert is such an engaging writer, it pains me to say I didn’t love this book. **Mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t read EPL.**

The events here follow what happened at the end of EPL, specifically her meeting her Brazilian lover Felipe in Bali and their pledging love to each other with promises to never get married. (Both are shell-shocked survivors of divorce.)

At the beginning of Committed, they’ve been living together in Philadelphia when the Department of Homeland Security throws a monkey wrench into their non-wedded bliss by denying Felipe re-entry into the U.S. after an overseas trip. A sympathetic officer says the fastest way for Felipe to get a permanent visa is for the couple to marry.

Filled with dread, they nevertheless apply for the necessary papers then spend almost a year traveling through Southeast Asia (where the dollar stretches farther) while awaiting approval. Gilbert also uses the time to obsessively research the history of marriage and its different customs throughout the world in order to better understand the institution and hopefully reduce her fear of it.

Gilbert’s conversational style is winning; she’s smart, funny and not afraid to reveal her deepest fears and flaws. She still comes across as someone I’d love to have lunch with. But while EPL is charming because it’s her personal story, the author spends much of Committed delving into the origins of marriage, drumming up everyone from Greek philosophers to early Christian leaders to feminists, causing entire chapters to read textbook-y. The conclusion she finally reaches about marriage is interesting, a perspective I hadn’t previously considered, but I wish the focus stayed more on her relationship with Felipe.

Nerd verdict: Not totally Committed to this

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Reviews of SHERLOCK HOLMES, INVICTUS & CRAZY HEART

While I was away on holiday, contributing writer Eric Edwards was busy taking in multiple screenings of Oscar-bait films. He was kind enough to submit the following reviews.

Did you see any of these? What did you think?—PCN

Photo by Alex Bailey/WARNER BROS.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) is bored and depressed. His genius sleuthing abilities keep him from helping the throngs of people who write him because he solves their cases before he even finishes reading their letters. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) wants to get married, leaving Holmes’s childish behavior and their shared lodgings behind. Thankfully, a challenge to Holmes’s intellect arrives in the form Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a villain dealing in the black arts and one whom Holmes and Watson recently apprehended for Scotland Yard.

Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (who also penned Invictus; see review below) has taken the brilliant Holmes we’re all familiar with and attempts to make him more hip by adding martial arts to the detective’s arsenal. Holmes is even shown proving his prowess in the ring at an underground boxing arena. Oddly enough, in scene after scene in which he goes up against actual bad guys, Holmes doesn’t fare well.

In portraying the famous detective, the usually charming Downey, Jr. carries the burden of an English accent and it’s cumbersome. By contrast, Law’s put-upon Dr. Watson is much more interesting to watch because his accent is genuine and the actor uses a less-is-more approach. As Holmes’s former flame Irene Adler, the very talented Rachel McAdams is mired down by a script that doesn’t give her much to do. This movie is a mess that can be skipped by all but die-hard Holmes fans.

Photo by Keith Bernstein/WARNER BROS.

Invictus

The major problem with this “inspiring true story” of how newly elected President Nelson Mandela employs South Africa’s national rugby team to unite the apartheid-torn country is that it lacks a balance between earnestness and heart.

It’s supposed to be the end of apartheid in South Africa, but the hate between black and white still remains and Mandela (Morgan Freeman) needs to help his beloved country move forward. He looks to emulate the business plans of successful countries such as the United States and China. But how to appeal to the working-class citizen? Create a hero they can get behind.

Mandela summons South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to a meeting and they hit it off. While the president sets about memorizing the player’s names and stats and attending their matches, Pienaar visits Mandela’s former prison cell to better understand his new benefactor. A mutual respect blooms between the two.

Director Clint Eastwood sacrifices what could have been a heartfelt story and spends most of the film developing the relationship between Mandela and Pienaar. Damon and Freeman work well together and both deserve accolades for their performances, but as a whole the film is less than compelling. Each character, from Pienaar’s family maid to Mandela himself, speaks in clunky soundbites uncharacteristic of Eastwood’s usual subtle style. We never really get to know the rugby players, resulting in apathy on our part when we’re supposed to be rooting for the team. And if we don’t care about whether or not it wins the match and helps unite the country, the entire point of the film is lost.

Photo by Lorey Sebastian/FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Crazy Heart

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), once a famous country singer/songwriter, has seen better days. Five marriages and a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking lifestyle has left him broke, forced into playing rundown bowling alleys and small dives across the Midwest just to make ends meet. Bad can still put on a show, but his fans are fewer, much older and his brand of “real country” is no longer relevant to today’s country music fans. What he needs is the inspiration to write a hit song. Enter budding journalist and would-be muse Jean Craddock (a completely miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her 5-year old son, Buddy (Jack Nation).

Bridges’s performance, which includes doing his own singing, is solid throughout. His frustration with the cards life has dealt him is subtle, but etched as deeply as the lines on his face. Any frame of this movie without Bridges is a stark reminder of how much the film needs him to stay alive. It wasn’t the age difference between him and Gyllenhaal I found myself wincing at, it was the complete lack of chemistry between the two. Bridges, channeling a younger, better-looking version of Kris Kristofferson in his heyday, so richly deserves a more engaging companion to be inspired by and fall in love with than Gyllenhaal, who displays no allure whatsoever.

Colin Farrell shows up as Bad’s former protégé and current country superstar Tommy Sweet, and surprises me with his strong singing skills. Who knew? Both Farrell and Bridges could easily have careers as singers.

Writer/composer T-Bone Burnett provides the very catchy songs in Bad’s repertoire, but I wish the inspiring song that leads to his salvation was more memorable and not so morose. What should have been uplifting instead strikes one of the wrong notes in the film.

New Year Brings New Surprises

Got back to L.A. late last night after a wonderful time in D.C. with family, old friends and lots of amazing eats. Every day I had a balanced diet of cheese, pie, cake, candy and cappuccino. Is there a better way to ring in the new year?

Speaking of new year, everyone talks about resolutions at this time. I make the same one every year: Surprise myself. Do something I’ve never done or imagined doing. Even if I fail spectacularly, it counts, because I don’t sit around imagining spectacular failures.

My old college roommate already helped me accomplish this on New Year’s Eve. We had plans for lunch but she said she had to run a 5K to raise funds for diabetes first and then we could go eat. She invited me to come cheer her on. When I got there, I somehow got roped into running with her, even though running is as much fun to me as having monkeys poke sticks up my nose. Did I mention I was inadequately dressed and it was freezing, rainy, and muddy?

But run I did, which was the last thing I thought I’d be doing on New Year’s Eve. More surprises: my time wasn’t completely atrocious and I didn’t die in the process. Though my legs ached a little afterward, I was exhilarated my friend convinced me to run a 5K on the spur of the moment, helping me push the limits on what I think I can do. I also enjoyed replenishing my strength with a large plate of fries.

Happy New Year, everyone. How do you plan to push your limits?

Nerdies for Favorite Things of 2009

Hope you all are enjoying the holidays. Me, I’m having so much fun with family, I need more gigabytes in my brain to store all the memories being made.

I get grateful this time of year for 1) making it this far and 2) all the wonderful experiences I had in the last 12 months. So, between all the eating and social gatherings, I present to you my Nerdy Awards for favorite things this year.

Most Valuable Preposition: Up. Apparently, the best way to make sure a movie is good is by putting this two-letter word in the title. Up and Up in the Air tie for best movie I saw this year. Both are perfect blends of comedy and poignancy, light and dark, entertainment and explorations of what makes us human.

Best Reasons for Staying Home Wednesday Nights: Glee, Modern Family and Cougar Town. Wednesday nights are always a party in my house, as I sing along to Glee then laugh my face off with Family and Cougar. You’ve probably heard plenty about the first two but may not know that Cougar‘s cast, led by the game Courteney Cox, has really gelled into one hilarious ensemble.

Most Unique New Voices in Crime Fiction: Chet the Jet from Spencer Quinn’s Dog on It, Pietro Brwna from Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, and Stella Hardesty in Sophie Littlefield‘s A Bad Day for Sorry. The field is crowded with cops and detectives but this year, I met fresh new characters starting with Chet, a dog who narrates the adventures he has while solving crimes with his human partner, Bernie. Brwna is a hit man turned jaded medical intern who uses a deadly weapon I’ve never seen used before. And Littlefield introduced us to a 50-year-old, slightly overweight woman who helps abused women keep their partners in line partly by using S&M restraints. These books are all first in a series so discover them now before the next installments come out (Chet’s new case, Thereby Hangs a Tail, arrives January 5).

Best Noir Debut: Richard Lange‘s This Wicked World. This is Lange’s first novel but it reads like he’s been writing them forever. Worthy of a place on my shelf among the genre’s greats.

Best Avoidance of Sophomore Slump: Gillian Flynn with Dark Places. Her debut, Sharp Objects, was so stunning, I wondered if her second novel would measure up. I was thrilled, then, to find Flynn delving even more deeply into the female psyche’s dark, twisted side in Places. Few writers can write about damaged, prickly women and make them so mesmerizing.

Fattest Books I Finished in Shortest Time: I got lost in Kate Morton’s gothic, 560-page The Forbidden Garden for 3 days, while my eyeballs were glued to the 512 pages in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire for 34 hours, finishing it in almost one sitting, minus a few hours of sleep.

Most Soul-Shaking Book: Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. This non-fiction tale of a star football-player-turned-soldier gunned down by friendly fire in Afghanistan ripped me apart and made me re-evaluate how I live my life. A searing read I won’t forget anytime soon.

Funniest Person I Least Expected to Be: Brian Williams on 30 Rock. The veteran NBC Nightly News anchor made me laugh hard when he unexpectedly showed up on Rock, telling Tina Fey he wanted to audition for her show within the show by doing a stand-up act. The punchline wasn’t funny at all but Williams’s hammy, goombah delivery was very much so.

Favorite Movie Trend: Women 45 and over kicking ass at the box office. Sandra Bullock had two big hits (The Proposal, The Blind Side), Meryl Streep had three movies (Julie & Julia, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, It’s Complicated), one of which may win her a third Oscar. And Sigourney Weaver returns as sci-fi queen in Avatar. I hope this trend continues so I can stop watching actors get older while their female co-stars get closer to infancy every year.

Best Performance by Any Actor, Male or Female: Mo’Nique in Precious. Not so much a performance as a terrifying inhabitation of a nightmarish character.

Most Memorable Movie Quote: I just met you and I love you.” —Dug the talking dog in Up.

What were some of your favorite things this year?

A Tale from My Christmas Past

One year in college, I was stuck at school until Dec. 23 because of finals that must have been scheduled by Scrooge or the Grinch. Christmas was around the corner but I wasn’t feeling it. I was trying to cram a whole semester’s worth of astrophysics into my aching brain.

The dorms had cleared out and my roommate Lennie and I were the only ones left in our building. On Dec. 22, after many hours of studying, Lennie and I decided to take a break and finally do some Christmas shopping. We splurged on a cab to take us into town. We couldn’t really afford it but it was too cold to stand outside and wait for the bus.

When the taxi arrived, we were surprised to see the driver was a boy about our age. His name was Bobby. On the way to the mall, we learned it was his birthday but he was working a double shift to earn extra money for a Christmas present for his mom. He’d been on the clock since six o’clock that morning and it was about seven p.m. when he picked us up. Lennie and I said he should do something to celebrate his birthday but he insisted he’d prefer to do something for Mom.

We told Bobby to wait when we got to the mall then ran inside to See’s Candies and bought two boxes for him and his mother. We ran outside and gave him the candy with our cab fare. “Happy birthday,” we said. “And merry Christmas to your mom.”

Bobby stared at the boxes for a long moment, then turned off his meter. “I’m not charging you for the ride.”

“What?! You’re working late to earn money, not give out free rides!” Lennie said.

“The candy didn’t cost that much!” I said.

He refused our payment a second time, then said he’d wait to take us home.

“Stop being ridiculous. If you won’t take our money, then go pick up someone else you will accept it from. And we might take awhile.” Lennie and I thanked him, made sure he drove off, then went inside.

Two hours later, shopped out and ready to leave, we called for a cab and—surprise—Bobby pulled up.

“We’re not getting in if you won’t take our money!” I said.

“And I’ll just tell my dispatcher not to send anyone else if you call for another cab because I’m already here!” Bobby retorted. It was dark, snow was starting to fall, we got in.

Once we were settled, he turned around and offered his box of See’s.

“We can’t eat that. It’s your present!” Lennie said.

“Which means I can do whatever I want with it and I want to give you some,” Bobby said. Man, he’d be good in my Debate and Argumentation class, I thought. Bobby kept insisting; Lennie gave in and took a piece of chocolate. I might’ve taken two—only to make him happy, of course.

Bobby started driving us home, his meter dark and silent.

“Turn it on!” Lennie said.

“Think of your mama!” I added.

“It’s all right. I finally made what I needed tonight. I’m off after this.”

So he drove, taking the long way home, making detours through neighborhoods so we could look at Christmas lights. We ate candy, talked, he said his mother was the most amazing woman in the world, raising him as a single parent since he was a toddler. He hoped to someday go to college and start his own business, maybe buy Mom a nicer car.

When he finally dropped us off, Bobby said, “This birthday was happier than I could’ve imagined. Thank you.” I didn’t know how to respond, overwhelmed by a feeling I hadn’t had a few hours earlier.

Luckily, eloquent Lennie stepped in. “Thanks for giving us a gift, too, Bobby. And your mom already has the best one.”

He gave us a business card and said to call him if we ever needed a cab again. We never did, but I still have his card, yellowed and frayed at the edges, the printing faded but the memory still clear after twenty-three years.

Movie Reviews—IT’S COMPLICATED, BROTHERS, THE LAST STATION

With all the holiday activities going on, I’m woefully behind on everything (haven’t seen Avatar—what?!) so the following reviews will be a little abbreviated. They’ll take less time for you to read so you can fulfill your obligations, too.

It’s Complicated

In writer/director Nancy Meyers’s ultimate female fantasy, Meryl Streep plays a woman who’s lusted after by two successful, attractive men: her lawyer ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and the sensitive architect (Steve Martin) who’s renovating her house, an already gorgeous spread in Santa Barbara she’s trying to make bigger and more awesome.

The movie is a very mature, if flawed, exploration of the emotional complexities of divorce, not making anyone out to be the bad guy or completely blameless. Streep is as radiant as ever (she doesn’t age!), Baldwin has some very funny scenes, including an unfortunate Skype incident, and Martin turns in a lovely, understated performance as someone who might be falling in love but is reluctant to move forward with the bitter taste of his own divorce still fresh in his mouth.

The most refreshing element for me was seeing how the family, though damaged by divorce, is so functional. They talk things out, they’re respectful towards each other and the kids don’t seem to prefer one parent over the other. Conflicts exist and obstacles abound; the affected parties just don’t turn their affairs into a Jerry Springer episode. I’m not sure what it says about the state of our times when I was surprised, but pleasantly so, to see family members not bitching each other out on screen. Nerd verdict: Complicated but fun.

Brothers

After Marine captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes missing and is believed dead in Afghanistan, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) helps his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and daughters Isabelle and Maggie (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, respectively) through the grieving process. Uncle Tommy gets a little too close and of course, this is exactly when Sam comes home. [Note: This isn’t a spoiler. We see him alive in Afghanistan even while the family mourns.]

Maguire does impressive work as the conflicted soldier who comes back haunted by things he was forced to do to survive, actions for which he can’t forgive himself. He’s a shadow of his former self, unrecognized by loved ones, feared by his children. He’s intense in a quiet way, which is much scarier than an over-the-top way.

Portman is more sensual and womanly than usual as a young wife and mother trying to navigate uncharted waters. Gyllenhaal is believable as Maguire’s brother but I didn’t buy for one minute that he’s some tough ex-con who just got out of the Big House. The real stars for me, though, are the two actresses who play Sam and Grace’s little girls. They have a natural, easy style that made me think they were simply being, not acting. It’s an easy concept to grasp, not necessarily to execute on camera. Drawing out amazing performances from young actresses (see In America) is a specialty of director Jim Sheridan, who makes his movies intensely personal.

I also like his way of covering heavy subject matter with a light hand. He often cuts away from a scene before its natural end because he trusts we can fill in the rest. When two military reps arrive at Sam’s house to notify Grace of his so-called demise, we see Grace approaching the open door, the horrible realization washing over her face, and the scene ends without the actual notification. Sheridan doesn’t jerk tears; this isn’t a war movie. It’s about people trying to find a way to live again after a part of them dies. Nerd verdict: Relatable Brothers.

The Last Station

I’m going to keep this one brief because I fell asleep three times while watching it. The performances can’t be faulted, except for maybe Paul Giamatti’s scenery chomping as a devout Tolstoyan who wants Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) to will his estate to the movement, much to the chagrin of the author’s wife. The movie is one long melodramatic tug of war between Giamatti’s Vladimir and Helen Mirren’s Sofya and none of it was compelling. It’s more a history lesson than entertainment and even James McAvoy’s presence as Tolstoy’s secretary couldn’t save this for me. Nerd verdict: Bypass this Station