TWO LOVERS And 2 New DVD Reviews

TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008)

Joaquin Phonenix‘s Leonard Kraditor is the latest in a long line of New York lovelorn schlubs that includes Ernest Borgnine’s comical Marty Piletti and to a darker extreme – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Phoenix brings a disturbed pathos to the character that, as reports indicate, may extend into Phoenix’s real life. We are introduced to the troubled character in an opening scene suicide attempt off a bridge in Brooklyn (not the Brooklyn Bridge, mind you). He doesn’t go through with it; he surfaces and is helped out of the water by passing pedestrians.

Soaking wet, Phoenix returns home to the disapproving looks of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Issabella Rossellini) and a small cluttered bedroom. That night his parents are having a dinner party and intend to set up their son with the daughter of Moshonov’s business partner played by Vanessa Shaw. They hit it off but Phoenix’s eyes wander to neighbor Gynneth Paltrow, an outgoing free-spirited beauty that he is instantly attracted to. Unfortunately she is involved with a married man (an asshole lawyer portrayed perfectly by Elias Koteas) so their budding relationship is unlikely to bloom.

Phoenix has palpable, if at times awkward, chemistry with both Shaw and Paltrow. An audience will surely pull for him to wind up with Shaw (who’s just as attractive) over Paltrow for more than just “good brunette” over “bad blonde” reasons, but the emotional discord within that Phoenix displays can’t be easily dismissed. We still feel for the guy even when he is being deceptive and come to care deeply whether or not he makes the right choice. Possible Spoiler!: In the end it’s not his choice to make and there is an edge to his actions that come more from fear than true love. As my girlfriend said as we were leaving the theater: “How romantic it is to be someone’s choice over death or being alone.” Good point for sure, but this little spare drama should be commended for its non-contrived storyline and unpretentious tone regardless of its uneasy aftertaste. Resembling a Woody Allen relationship movie without the one-liners, TWO LOVERS is an engaging experience that is sure to be remembered long after tales of Phoenix’s odd off-screen behavior have faded away.

And now, a few new release DVD reviews:

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Dir. Phillippe Claudel, 2008)

Kristen Scott Thomas as a woman recently released from 15 years in prison affects a somber trance as she suffers societal scorn in this drawn out drama. That makes it sound as though this movie is a trial to endure which is not the case. It’s a carefully paced character study with very subtle appeal that lingers for days after viewing. Thomas, going through the motions of reassembling, comes off like an ashamed ghost in the presence of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) who offers her a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Zylberstein‘s husband (Serge Hazanavicius) is sceptical of having Thomas around the children because, after all, she went to jail for the murder of her own 6 year old son.

We follow Thomas through these day to day unpleasantries, feeling for her even when we are unsure where our sympathies should really lie. She befriends a few empathetic souls – her probation officer played with aplomb by Frédéric Pierrot and Laurent Grévill as a kindly colleague of her sister’s. I’ll definitely say no further because the film’s biggest asset is in the unwrapping of its intriquing layers. Thomas deserved greater recognition in the now concluded award season for this performance; her work is immaculately measured and nobly nuanced. The film surrounding her is much the same except for some embellished misteps like the inappropriate acoustic guitar flourishes and some abrupt editing. These are minor beefs though, for I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG is one of 2008’s finest films that just barely missed making my top ten.

ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008) The track record for movie adaptations of the works of noted novelist Philip Roth is pretty poor. His 1969 bestseller PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT was made into a critically derided forgotten film in 1972 (Ebert labeled it “a true fiasco”) so it wasn’t until 30 years later that Hollywood tried again. The result: THE HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton, 2003) which was one of the worst films of the last decade if not ever. Not to be discouraged, 5 years later, Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, yo!), dive head first into Roth’s “The Dying Animal” – the third book in his fictional professor David Kapesh series (if you can call it that).

In this ambitious adaptation, renamed ELEGY (meaning “a mournful poem”) presumably because the original title wasn’t very accessble (sic), Ben Kingsley plays Kapesh as a eloquent man of the arts. We are told how much a celebrated cultural warrior he is from the first shot of him pontificating on the The Charlie Rose Show. His voice-over narration, or commentary, sets up his falling for one of his students with such pithy asides such as: “How is it possible for me to be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy?” The student in question, a shy for once Penelope Cruz, 30 years younger than Kingsley is seemingly just as smitten. Kingsley confides in best friend Dennis Hopper as a Pulilzer Prize winning poet who offers: “Stop worrying about growing old, start worrying about growing up.”

Devised as half a mediation on growing old, half erotic obsession study, ELEGY delights in flowery exposition and artfully shadowed sex scenes. Kingley lies to his long time lover Patricia Clarkson about his affair but like everything else it hardly registers. “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life” Kingsley detachedly remarks at one point and I was like, uh, I never thought of it like that before and you know what? I never will again. Beneath all his sophistication and culture lies a pretty despicable dude that I could never care about, I just cringed at his every labored turn.

Hopper finds a little poetry in his part particularly in a spiel about how women are invisible because men are blinded by their beauty and their soul can’t be truly seen, which is as pretentious as it sounds, especially with the ever present piano tinkling and lush presentation, but still more affecting than the bulk of material here. So disinterested was I that at one point I found myself thinking nothing more than how Kingsley and Cruz have such curiously shaped noses. As “a work of art that reminds you of who you are now” (professor Kapesh’s words) ELEGY just reminded me that I’d rather be washing the dishes.

More later…

IRON MAN = AWESOME And Some Other Random Babbling

IRON MAN (Dir. Jon Favreau, 2008)

Now, you ordinarily wouldn’t think of Robert Downey Jr. as an action movie star – particularly a comic book hero-type, right? And you you wouldn’t think of Jon Favreau (MADE, ELF) as an action movie director, would you? What about Gynneth Paltrow as a girl-next-door-type sweetie that is obviously overlooked by our hero or even the idea of Terrence Howard as the black-guy best friend? Hold on, how about Jeff Bridges (the Dude, man!) as the villain? Sounds all pretty improbable as far as Summer blockbuster premises goes, huh? Well, IRON MAN throws all those folk and a bunch of seamless CGI craft into the mix and it all, and I mean every single bit of it, works. And remember this is coming from a guy who is not a big fan of the big ass comic book action genre.

Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark – a billionaire industrialist famous for creating nuclear weaponry and every kind of arms used in the war on terror. He gets captured by terrorists after a demonstration in Afghanistan and is forced to build them a version of his powerful “Jericho missile”. Instead, with the help of a fellow prisoner – Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), he constructs an elaborate but crude suit of armour which he uses to escape from captivity. Back in the States he announces that his company will no longer manufacture weapons to the intense displeasure of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

In a funny series of scenes Stark works on a new suit with better technology, more firepower, and a cooler looking shininess that, yeah, is a pretty sweet design. Stark’s best friend Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard) finds out about his suit in the middle of a killer sequence involving his return to Afghanistan to destroy the terrorist gang’s weapon stockpile. Stark’s assistant, and of course possible love interest, Pepper Pots (Gywneth Paltrow) suspects something is up and gets caught up in his major mechanical antics of which I will speak no further.

IRONMAN is a blast – the right amount of humor, the precise assembling of a neat narrative, and a great cast. As I’m sure every review will label Robert Downey Jr. an “unlikely hero” but he is perfect in the part – slickly engaged and slyly sarcastic, he plays all the right notes. A bald bearded Bridges is dead on too in a role that’s not just un-Dude it’s incredibly non-TRON!

Going in I was not at all familliar with the comic book it’s based on but a friend who I attended with filled me in a bit concluding that the movie is fairly faithful to its source. Obviously that didn’t matter because it stands alone as a superior formula super hero movie. I usually use the word “formula” as a criticism but here its a good solid thing. Favreau has surprisingly done a excellent job with the tried and true framework and its his best film by far. IRONMAN indeed transcends the summer blockbuster film form but simply said – it’s a lot of fun.

Some Random Babbling:

MovieZeal wrapped up their excellent April Coen Brothers Blog-A-Thon (though with their banner displaying a different cool Coen Bros. screen capture it seems like it’s still going on. It’s well worth your while with a stable panel of great film bloggers contributing reviews of all their movies, articles about the Brothers, and a very well compiled The Top 10 Most Memorable Coen Brothers Scenes. I wrote Part II of my Musings on the Coens’ Music which I hope you check out.

I recently joined The Large Association of Movie Blogs – I’m LAMB #82! Please visit and sample some of the other movie blogs. LAMB lists a lot of good ones so click away.

I also took part in a survey for Buck On Film. It’s a column in Academia – an online magazine and resource for academic librarians. It was about “what are the Oscars to you?” Please visit that too.

Okay, well more summer movies are coming and the birthday of a long gone legendary actor/director is to be celebrated when Film Babble Blog returns so please stay tuned.

More later…