Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lovers Triangle

Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and written by Gray and Ric Menello, is a haunting, subtle, film about thwarted dreams, broken hearts and the finite limits of redemption.  It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, the lonely neurotic character who brought him out of retirement.  Initially his story smacks of C.C. Baxter in The Apartment.  Leonard's in love with his damaged neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), but she's involved in a hopeless relationship with her married boss.  His parents (who he lives with) would prefer he date and ultimately marry Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), for the sake of their business merger with her parents.  But Leonard is a man on the edge.  

In the film's dizzying opening, Leonard tries to commit suicide -- unsuccessfully.  Later we learn that the root of his malaise is a failed relationship.  We as an audience see early on that Leonard's fragile heart will be safer with Sandra, but as their relationship deepens Leonard can't keep his mind off Michelle.  Leonard shares a frank chemistry with both women, but only Sandra sees him through a lover's eyes.  Michelle in contrast refers to Leonard as her "new best friend."  With each passing moment, Leonard's infatuation pushes him deeper into a full-fledged obsession with Michelle. Even as pressures rise for him to propose to Sandra.  At varying times, it is impossible to know precisely what the characters are thinking.  The writing is wonderfully nuanced and the cast acts out the full spectrum of human emotions.  

These emotions are articulated in wonderfully authentic, often contradictory terms.  Leonard's obsession with Michelle teeters on the edge, precariously charged with the question of whether he'll eventually charm her or self-destruct trying.  Phoenix's simultaneous vulnerability and volatility is frightening to watch.  We never quite know what he'll do next.  His every action is infused with a repressed combination of violence and sweetness.   When he finally makes a choice between the women in his life, the end result is far more ambiguous and inscrutable than one might expect.  The movie's offbeat tone is nicely expressed in the music, which features a sparing combination of lyrical harp and opera.  Silence is also bravely used to great effect.  

The central relationships unfold messily.  As in life, everything is not spelled out and the things the characters don't say are more important than the things they do.  We never know what Leonard did to hurt himself.  We never know what truly binds Michelle to her married lover.  And we never know for certain if Sandra is aware that she's the consolation prize.  Two Lovers contemplates the imperfections of love in ways that few modern romantic dramas are willing to do.   This may all sound overly bleak and portentous but the movie sings with the same melancholic wit that jazzed up some of the best of Billy Wilder's work.  The end result is hypnotic, provocative and strangely reassuring.  We see ourselves in the characters and we accept that like them, it is never too late for us to make a change.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gomorrah: The Real Godfather

Gomorrah is to The Godfather what last year's American Teen was to The Breakfast Club.  It strips away all the style, flash and romance, of the genre to comment on a real world community that has become inextricably linked with the movies it inspired.  Early crime pictures were fashioned as a reaction to the pervasive growth of organized crime.  Now, the real life members of said "families" are well acquainted with their cinematic counterparts and their behavior can be seen as a reaction to the movies that are based on them.  The reflexive nature of gangland violence is a relatively new phenomenon and something that Gomorrah elucidates remarkably well.      

The title is derived from the word Camorra, which denotes the Neapolitan mafia.  This is the subject of the film, but it also inexplicably calls to mind the interpretive section of the Jewish talmud.  Even if this second allusion is not intended it fits in an odd way.  The serpentine mechanics of the plot and the convoluted ethical conundrums of the characters have confounding philosophical implications that could keep even the greatest Rabbinic scholars busy for many fortnights.  

The movie deftly juggles five different story-lines that highlight the pervasive violence and corruption in the region.  There are a pair of teenagers (pictured above) who dream of being players.  There is a young errand boy who delivers drugs for the mob.  There is a tailor who betrays his employer by soliciting his designs to a Chinese factory.  There is a businessman who oversees the disposal of toxic waste in the countryside and finally there is a middle-aged money carrier who winds up trapped between two rival gangs.  

What makes the movie work are the raw hypnotic performances and the script, which drifts in and out of the various stories and documents the mounting predicaments of the characters with startling authenticity.  Many writers attempt to capture the fly-on-the-wall spontaneity of everyday life unsuccessfully.  Gomorrah, in contrast, is a stunning achievement.  The movie bristles with uncertainty and suspense in every frame, without relying on the conventions of movie suspense to engage us.  

The only occasional false note is Matteo Garrone's direction.  In the context of hundreds, maybe thousands of modern verite-style films, his camerawork and mise en scene sometimes feels lazy and unfocussed.  Characters pass in and out of the frame but the camera is slow to catch up to them.  It would be easy to dismiss this as a deliberate conceit, if not for the very essence of verite -- a style that is supposed to render the camera invisible and immerse us in the events unfolding onscreen.  Mr. Garrone's camera often moves without motivation .  It has a mind of it's own and as a consequence it reminds us that we are watching a film.  

Still, there is no disputing the breathtaking impact of the picture as a whole.   In the end it leaves us no comfort.  No easy answers.  The movie is so disarming and relevant, that Martin Scorsese has attached himself as the North American distributor.  Sadly, in a season of generic movie-theatre filler, Gomorrah deserves attention that it probably won't get.  The small audience I saw it with was clearly unprepared for the experience.

The man directly ahead of me took a brief bathroom break and on his return he slid right off his chair and hit the floor with a loud thud.  Later, he continued to hemorrhage coins onto the floor at inopportune moments -- perhaps he had holes in his pockets.  In contrast, the genius who was sitting behind me was engaged enough to offer his own unique commentary, while the film was still rolling through the projector.  His recurring refrain: "this is a strange movie," helped me to appreciate it even more.  Maybe in retrospect I was the one who missed the point.  

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Lost Art of Adventure

What happened to the adventure films of yesteryear?  The Man Who Would Be King (1975), is a Rudyard Kipling short story engagingly stretched into a feature-length narrative by director John Huston. Watching the film, I grew nostalgic (as I often do) for movies that credit the audience with having the patience to be told a story.  It seems to me, the assumption has become that mass audiences will not fork over their 12 dollars unless they are assured a precise number of whizzes, bangs and ka-booms.  There are no modern day adventure films.  Like the Western, they have gone the way of the dodo and why?  Because adventure films, like Westerns, emphasize the journey over the final destination, they emphasize character over plot and they depend on our willingness to imagine there are places we haven't even heard of.  Our willingness to transport ourselves to a simpler time.  Nowadays, in Hollywood, the phrase "period film" carries about as much cache as a carton of milk that's past the expiry date.  

The problem is, we're so accustomed to the relentless tempos of the modern action movie that a picture like this almost feels too quaint.  Special effects have modernized movies so much, that now movies without them seem less special and movies with them rarely have any residual impact.  We as an audience have consumed so many stories that we're preconditioned to anticipate the rhythms, sound effects, music and pyrotechnics of even the most dazzling popcorn epics.  Big scenes are followed by small scenes which are followed by even bigger scenes and so on.  It takes a picture like The Man Who Would Be King to remind us that spectacle can be special -- to remind us that modern effects have the power to exhilarate so long as they are placed within the context of a story.  

In this regard, The Man Who Would Be King is exemplary.  Sean Connery and Michael Caine play Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two former British soldiers and grade-A con artists who run out of people to swindle in India and set out on a journey to Kafiristan, in the hopes that they can dupe the natives out of a fortune in gold.  When they arrive, a string of chance coincidences convince the natives that Dravot (Connery) is actually a god descended from none other than Alexander The Great.  Dravot is only too happy to entertain this fallacy, until the power begins to go to his head and he and Peachy are faced with the dangerous consequences of overplaying their hand.  To say any more would be unconscionable, but this is the real deal.  For fans of old-fashioned adventure, the settings are spectacular and Connery and Caine's comedic chemistry is tough to beat.  The Man Who Would Be King is one of the last of the great adventure films.  It retains its ability to delight, nearly 35 years after its initial release.