PICKS OF THE WEEK
Two Lovers (A-)
U.S.; James Gray, 2008, Magnolia Home Entertainment
Joaquin Phoenix, in various weird ways, has suggested that James Gray's Brooklyn romance Two Lovers may be his last movie as an actor. Maybe it will, in which case it's not a bad valedictory.
But I hope he reconsiders and comes back. Two Lovers isn't the work of a guy who should be contemplating a career change. It's a beautiful little movie, an intelligent, touching romantic drama with strong characters and lots of grayish cloudy-day Brooklyn Brighton Beach atmosphere. And Phoenix -- playing a Jewish amateur photographer and semi-lost soul named Leonard Kraditer, torn between two lovely but very different women -- does a fine job as lead man in a first-rate, razor-sharp acting ensemble.
Phoenix's performance, full of insight and spontaneity, is, like the movie, mostly a gem. His somewhat oversensitive character Leonard, who's been floundering along careerless, is being pushed into a marriage with pretty, ample-hearted Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of his parents' friends. (Both families work in the dry-cleaning business, and the Cohens may soon take over the whole shebang.) But bipolar Leonard, living home, falls in love instead with the sexier and far more dangerous Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), who lives across the courtyard and on whom he spies, in all her long-haired blond luminosity, from his window.
Gray marks the cards a bit. Sandra, whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music (and who knows that's an un-hip pick) presents herself as the perfect bed and helpmate, willing to do anything for her hubby -- while her dad, obviously, has a top dry-cleaning job all ready and on the hanger for him. But Michelle wins his heart just by flashing him some dazzling smiles and engaging him in some half-charming hallway chatter. And she keeps it, despite such messy complications as her affair with a married boyfriend, Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas, who would have played Leonard in his younger days), her pregnancy (with Blatt) and miscarriage and her general impulsiveness, self-centeredness and unreliability.
It's not hard to see why, though. In this movie, Paltrow is a knockout. When Michelle first meets Leonard and senses how rapt, wrecked and smitten he is, she asks him along on a club date with her and her gal-pals -- and he stays juiced even after discovering the truth about Ronald, and even after she arranges a later dinner meeting between the three of them, so he can critique his rival for her. Later, as things get messier, she imposes even more, as his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) and the Cohens (Julie Budd and the marvelously hearty Bob Ari) are busy trying to nudge him and Sandra into marital and dry-cleaning bliss. The ending is one of those sad-happy-sad affairs that happen more often in life than the movies -- and I thought it rang absolutely true. As does most of the movie -- especially the performances of Paltrow, Koteas and Phoenix.
Phoenix's Leonard is a nebbish with soul, like the roles Nic Cage used to do before he got trapped in action movies (he should start doing more of his old specialty again), or that Woody Allen cornered in his prime. The movie itself reminds you of a story by Phillip Roth or Bernard Malamud, one of the great Jewish American lit writers of the '60s. Michelle, in a way, is the shicksa goddess whom Roth or Allen's horny heroes are often chasing, and part of the movie's fun and power is watching her searing, girlish sexiness and his exquisite suffering. (The window scenes between the pair remind you, maybe deliberately, of both Hitchcock's Rear Window and Kieslowski's A Short Film about Love.)
Is Michelle a bitch? I don't think so. She's definitely not malicious. And, anyway, I tend to forgive people like this because they make part of life so wonderful. In my opinion, which is perhaps myopic, Michelle is a basically nice, self-indulgent but fatally pretty gal, who tends to live in the Holly Golightly-ish moment -- and who was pulled into a bad situation by the more manipulative rich guy Blatt. She's not cruelly stringing Leonard along. She likes him, she likes pleasing and attracting people in general. She's just keeping her options open. And he has no real kick coming, because, for most of the time, so is he.
Leonard and Michelle are the main couple of the movie, but that doesn't mean she's not bad for him. Gray knows that the conventional movie romantic resolution doesn't necessarily make for good literature or good movies, and he has the wit to keep us guessing and believing, until the end -- which he and the cast execute very nicely.
It's good to have Paltrow back again. She got almost everybody's motor racing last year in Iron Man, and here she's a near-flawless flawed romantic heroine. Paltrow is a generous actress who makes all her scenes work, and she may have the best smile in the business. (Brad Pitt, eat your heart out.)
James Gray is a filmmaker whose movies, which include the classy realistic thrillers, family dramas and neo-noirs Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, have the depth and personal feeling -- the artfully revealed humanity -- of a good novel. They also have the moody, smoky romantic/naturalistic visuals of a Coppola or a Kieslowski. They're good, but this is the one I enjoy most. And I hope he continues in this vein -- not necessarily abandoning neo-noirs for romantic drama, but perhaps fusing elements of both, and imbuing them with this kind of smarts and soul.
As for Phoenix -- who also worked for Gray before in The Yards -- he should start reconsidering his retirement plans. This is not the performance of an actor ready to let it slip away. Phoenix gets us into Leonard's skin with ease, and he's got the secret of most memorable romantic performances; he's willing to look as dopey or desperate as necessary. So why should he relegate himself to being good comic material for Ben Stiller? After all, there's nothing drastic about taking a year or two off -- by which time Gray may have another script ready. Or Paltrow another come-hither smile.
My Dinner With Andre (A)
U.S.; Louis Malle, 1981, Criterion
Andre Gregory is a noted Manhattan theater director -- a dapper gent tall and whimsical as a giraffe in cashmere -- who founded the famous experimental stage group the Manhattan Project, and whose works include a memorable acid era Alice (adapted from, of course, Alice in Wonderland). Wally Shawn is an actor-playwright discovered by Gregory, a gnomish irritated-looking little guy who later achieved greater fame as a movie actor/comedian, thanks largely to this picture. (Shawn's father was the legendary New Yorker editor (in its '50s-'60s heyday) William Shawn. Their dinner of quail and wine, recorded here by French director Louis Malle, takes place in a neat little European-style uptown New York restaurant (a replica of the actual Café des Artistes), where Andre, whose life recently seemed to be spinning mysteriously out of control, has invited Wally for an evening of fine food and philosophy .
So the two of them talk, for about two hours. (The film is done mostly in real time). At first, Andre describes what appears to have been a mild breakdown, which left him uninterested in doing more theater and eager to explore life and spirituality instead. Then he recounts a series of mystical adventures beginning with a Polish encounter with his mentor and fellow radical theater experimentalist Jerzy Grotowski, and continuing with travels to Tibet, Scotland and to Richard Avedon's estate in Montauk (where he's "reborn").
The sum total of Andre's adventures seems to be that the current world and our era are doomed and teetering on fascism, with the exception of a few artists or others you might read about in the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure Section -- an attitude one can well understand, coming as it does at the dawn of the Reagan era, when America really did seem to be a land of too many rough beasts slouching toward banality.
Shawn, who listens for quite a while with an expression of dormouse perplexity, finally breaks in with a squealing outburst, full of relentless self-deprecation and nasally hip mundanity. How can Andre be so set on philosophical doom and gloom when he lives in a city that offers (though Shawn doesn't necessarily mention them) Dean and Deluca's, off-Broadway, magazine covers by Saul Steinberg or Milton Glaser, good pot, jazz in Central Park and, of course, career opportunities for offbeat artist guys like Andre and Wally? Where does all this whining picaresque get you anyway? Give me a break. And just who the hell is Grotowski when he's at home?
We know Wally doesn't quite mean it -- methinks the laddie doth petulantly protest too much. Shawn is a longtime friend of Andre's, and he's fascinated with his dinner companion's ideas, eccentricities and hip allusions, or he wouldn't have been willing to dream up and collaborate with him on this chamber play-cum-film script -- made into a little masterpiece of glib gab and polysyllabic angst by French director Louis Malle. At its best, it's like an argument between Woody Allen and Jean-Paul Sartre, refereed by Ingmar Bergman.
For two hours, we and Louis watch and hear these two elocute passionately, and occasionally munch a bit of quail or sip some wine. But there's not a boring bite, and the time passes like a wildfire scored by Beethoven. My Dinner with Andre gives the lie to the notion that you need 20 car crashes, 10 high speed-chases, gobs of CGI effects, two major stars in the mold of Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis -- or a comedy with three idiots, no bras and a hundred dirty jokes, to keep audiences staving off boredom.
Back in 1981, when I lived in Manhattan, near Shawn's SoHo haunts, and just last weekend, watching the gabfest again on DVD in Chicago near the Water Tower, I hung on every precious, cranky, anxiety-ridden, ironic, quail-fed word that dropped from the mouths of irritable Wally and eloquent Andre, as they nibbled and quibbled on during their epochal dinner with each other. It may be Malle's most human, provocative and engrossing movie -- and he didn't have to have a Miles Davis score or Jeanne Moreau to get us on the hook. All he needed was a dinner reservation and two guys who love to talk. (Extras: interviews with Gregory, Shawn and Noah Baumbach; a BBC interview with Malle by Shawn; booklet with Amy Taubin essay and prefaces by Shawn and Gregory.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Andrzej Munk Trilogy (A)
Poland; Andrzej Munk, 1957, 1960, PolArt/Facets
Andrzej Munk may be the greatest Eastern European filmmaker that most of us have barely heard of. He died at 40, after making only five films. The best of them is here: the 1957 classic Eroica, the great dark comedy about the nature of heroism in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance and in the Nazi war camps -- along with two lesser-known but deeply absorbing and engaging works, the 1957 noir train mystery Man on the Tracks and the surprisingly bubbly 1960 satire on '50s Polish Communist rule, Bad Luck. (In Polish, with English subtitles.)
Includes: Eroica (A), Poland; Andrzej Munk, 1957. Man on the Tracks (A-), 1957. Bad Luck (A-), 1960.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Taxi Blues (A-)
Russia; Pavel Lounguine, 1990, Koch Lorber
A hard-as-nails, ex-hard-line taxi driver named Shlykov (Piotr Zaitchenko) gives a ride to a drunken dissolute but brilliant Jewish jazz saxophonist, Lyosha (Piotr Mamonov), then has to roust him out when he's stiffed by the saxman for a big fare -- beginning a feud/friendship that nearly careens into catastrophe and destroys them both.
The two Russians are a study in opposites. Shlykov embodies the old pre-Glasnost Communist Soviet Union: dictatorial, brutal and sentimental. Lyosha, who can wail on the sax like Charlie Parker or Dexter Gordon, symbolizes the new post-Gorbachev Russia: volatile, unpredictable, a bit selfish and corrupt. But, as played by the two Piotrs, they're real, live human beings, and Lounguine gives us a Moscow that feels real too -- a city on the edge of chaos as seen by a jazzman and a taxi driver just as alienated as Scorsese's and De Niro's. (In Russian, with English subtitles.)
U.S.; Barbet Schroeder, 1987, 101 Distribution
Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway shine grimly in a very sympathetic adaptation of Charles Bukowski's novel of the alcoholic writer barroom underbelly of L.A. An elegant movie about seedy people, with Rourke, as Bukowski surrogate Henry Chinaski, and Dunaway giving two of their more unbuttoned performances.
Diary of a Suicide (B)
France; Stanislav Stanojevic, 1972, Facets
Neglected but weirdly brilliant experimental film from the heyday of French art cinema; the story has stylistic grace and a Buñuelian, dreams-within-dreams feel; Sami Frey and Delphine Seyrig star as a Mediterranean tour guide and interpreter who are more than they seem, Marie-France Pisier is an anarchist terrorist and Sacha Pitoeff is a melancholy prison guard with a terrible secret. A mesmerizing little film, from a gifted, untamed but unprolific Yugoslavian-French filmmaker director who should have given us much more. (In French, with English subtitles. Extras: interview with Stanojevic.)
Party Girl (B)
U.S.; Nicholas Ray, 1958, Warner Archive
Robert Taylor is a brilliant '30s Chicago mob attorney who uses his twisted legs and cane to elicit jury sympathy; Lee J. Cobb is his brutal and murderous (but sentimental) gang czar boss; Cyd Charisse is Taylor's va-va-voom show girl lover; and John Ireland is Cobb's head gun-toting sleaze. It doesn't feel much like the '30s, especially when the gloriously leggy Charisse does her bongo-accompanied specialty number. But this is a quintessential auteurist fave from the great sad romantic auteur Nick Ray. The script may stumble, but the direction is sure-footed -- and the whole movie has a lush, glamorous, feverish gleam. I especially like the way Cobb (a superbly over-the-top actor, and, like Ireland, a fantastic heavy) toys with the acid he plans to throw in Cyd's pretty face if Taylor won't knuckle under. ("Could have been, could have been, Tommy. Could still be.")