Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two Lovers (2008)

Like Martin Scorsese with Mean Streets or Victor Nunez with Ulee's Gold, James Gray makes films about the area he knows. That area is Brighton, which has served as Gray's dramatic stage for Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night. Gray's cinema is influenced by the pulverant pictures of the 1970s, and his first three works seemed to gestate within the womb of genre filmmaking. Within that framework, however, Gray strove to leave an indelible artistic impression on the content. Little Odessa is so equally impressive and precocious, that despite its limitations--Gray's determination to wring the most recondite ramifications from his Bergmanesque familial dichotomy is insatiable to the point of near-suffocation--it leaves an admirable afterglow that cannot be denied. The Yards is a scabrous generational portrait, and it plays like Gray's version of The Godfather (even to the point of James Caan graduating from Sonny Corleone to the Don Vito role). That the film does not quite reach in thematic importance what it maintains in textural and aesthetic consistency and agility--each tragic occurrence marked by an ominous glow into fading out darkness--again buttresses the picture's most visceral peaks such as a brutally realistic fight between Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix. We Own the Night yearns to offer another telling of the Biblical contest of brothers, but Gray's contrasting properties of authorial filmmaking--graced by an objectivism not wholly dissimilar from Otto Preminger or Stanley Kubrick but with a dynamic cylinder of mythical filmic interpretation rooted in bonds of blood like a young Francis Ford Coppola or perhaps Spike Lee--is finally too great a melange at the picture's center for it to wholly succeed.

Two Lovers marks Gray's clean departure from crime dramas. Some have noted the picture as Gray's abandonment of genre filmmaking. However, Two Lovers may be best received as another genre exercise, but Gray has endeavored to craft an incisive romantic drama. Displaying great deference to the American films of the 1970s yet again, Two Lovers is an intensely discomfiting cine that feels like the American arthouse films that were, ironically, influenced by the French New Wave masterpieces that were themselves inspired by Hollywood classics in that exceedingly important decade for American cinema. In truth, Two Lovers is separate from Gray's three excursions into neo-noir neither in atmospherics nor tone--Gray's four pictures put aside one another could play like one long, chilly and autumnal autobiographical fever dream of life in Brighton--but simply in its story, grafted by Gray and Ric Menello's somber screenplay. As a result, the film features all of the disparate components that make Gray's work intriguing, though now with his latest film he may be compared to Hal Ashby, creator of some memorably prickly, vexing and emotionally complicated romances.

Two Lovers stars Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance is his third for Gray and probably his best. Phoenix plays what would appear to be another artistic silhouette belonging to Gray, an unstable, deeply troubled young man named Leonard Kraditor who is living with his parents and working for his father's dry-cleaning shop. Like Gray's previous filmic incarnations, Phoenix's Leonard and his family are Russian-Jewish inhabitants of Brighton, and Gray once again essays the particulars of this ethnic clan and the commodious personalities who populate it. Two Lovers details Leonard's tribal obligations to the patriarchal and matriarchal forces of his Jewish family, who both urge him to establish a serious relationship with Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend with whom the Kraditors wish to merge their respective dry-cleaning operations. Meanwhile, he is quickly becoming hopelessly infatuated with the mysterious Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow). Two Lovers as a title refers not only to the two respective women in Leonard's life but the duality of Leonard himself, who behaves like two different lovers with them. Basing his story in part on Dostoevsky's "White Nights" and "Notes on the Underground," Gray revisits the idea of the inevitable. That journey, however, is made considerably less archetypal than Gray's more testosterone-fueled underworld sagas.

Viewing the mating process through the delicate personal, ethnic and financial considerations, Gray delineates a painful and powerful film about a man so devastated by past romantic tragedy he has become suicidal. Phoenix, though perhaps on paper too old for the part, is more than up to the challenge posed by his director, displaying a vulnerability and enervation of being that is nothing less than mesmerizing. Shaw's part is small but she enhances her appearances with a sincerity that is deceptively moving. Paltrow has the larger and more opulently emotive part and she works with the screenplay to embody a flaky mirage of an idea as a person from Leonard's love-sick perspective.

As with Gray's previous work, a sense of seeping and creeping foreboding, signposted with stark, caliginous photography by Joaquin Baca-Asay, haunts the film. The environs are shadowy, the climate cold and hibernal. Paltrow is repeatedly shot from disorienting angles, as though to accentuate the off-kilter, enormously affected point-of-view of Leonard's whenever she is around. The actress's flowing blonde hair often shrouds her countenance, and she appears eerie. The visual communication that makes Gray's work peculiarly vivid in its offbeat, low-key gradations of light and dark, is refined in Two Lovers, entrusting the viewer to take note when the director utilizes his protagonist as the portal through which the film's images play, simultaneously experienced by Leonard and the viewer.

With his latest film, nominated for a Cesar for Best Foreign Language Picture in France, Gray has indeed continued to comment on his own singular obsessions and experiences. Two Lovers is a melancholic, unironic and simply-unfurled drama that contuses with scenes of potent, unadorned honesty like Leonard slyly following Michelle at a train terminal so she can finally notice him. This is a film in which the relationships all feel painfully authentic, and the misunderstandings and moments of isolation, bitterness and anger are earned responses to situations that seem beyond rational control. Gray's film is a maturely and finely crafted, composed and detailed account of a man in rebellion against his own existence, and all that existence entails. Such decidedly heartfelt, unmannered art is an increasingly rare delight.

47 comments:

Moses Hernandez said...

Exceptional review. I really love how you describe the visual elements of this film and Gray's work at large. Very keen insights.

This is one of my favorites of 2008. Phoenix should NOT quit, that crazy bearded freak.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, Moses.

Haha, some of my friends have been calling me "Joaquin" recently because of my huge beard. Just shaved it off.

I'm glad you liked this film. I want to see it again, honestly.

Alison Flynn said...

Great review, Alexander. You've provided detailed analysis of all aspects of the film, many which I hadn't considered.

I saw this film last Sunday and really liked it. The emotions and relationships do feel completely authentic. This is a compelling and well-made drama about unhealthy romantic entanglements, needs, family, etc. The cast was terrific, particularly Joaquim Phoenix, who is a compelling and very watchable actor - it's unfortunate about the personal crises he's going through, and worse that it's all so public.

bernie madoff said...

hi i'm better than all of you

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Alison. As always, very appreciated. I found this film quite moving and powerful and I'm happy to see others whose opinions I greatly respect admire it as well.

Your analysis is dead-on--it's a fine dramatic film about unhealthy romantic entanglements, needs, family, and everything that characterizes life (unfortunately, haha).

Again, I'm quite happy to read that you enjoyed the film so much, Alison. And thank you again for the remarkably kind words.

Bernie, shaddup.

movie maven said...

LOVED this movie. Your review HITS IT OUTTA THE PARK.

James Gray keeps maturing and getting better. And Joaquin Phoenix has never been so superb. Damned good flick.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, movie maven. I agree that it is a "[d]amned good flick" and then some.

Steve said...

Perceptive piece. Some good points about how Gray's movies seem to be homages to 1970s American movies that were influenced by French New Wave masterpieces that were inspired by older Hollywood classics.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Steve. Good hearing from you.

Steve said...

I really dig what your doing here Mr. Coleman. I've been getting into movies alot more lately and I found your blog from a link on another one. Your writing and analysis is special and thought-provoking.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Steve, very much. I'm glad to hear from you, and I look forward to further comments in the future. Once you catch the cinematic bug, you can never go back. :-)

Sam Juliano said...

Coleman Corner's newest cinematic dissection is as potent and multi-faceted as any in the archives, and while I'll admit I haven't gotten to see this particular film yet, I will soon embark on a trip to out local arthouse multiplex in Montclair NJ to take it in.

This film is strongly permeated by an exhaustive discussion of styles, genres, and individual directors in a bravura analysis of how someone's work can be influenced by other artists. You wisely point out that this reliance or overdependence on revered masters does not always yield desired results, even if your absolutely marvelous summary judgement here finally informs the film's attributes:

"Two Lovers is a melancholic, unironic and simply-unfurled drama that contuses with scenes of potent, unadorned honesty like Leonard slyly following Michelle at a train terminal so she can finally notice him. This is a film in which the relationships all feel painfully authentic, and the misunderstandings and moments of isolation, bitterness and anger are earned responses to situations that seem beyond rational control. Gray's film is a maturely and finely crafted, composed and detailed account of a man in rebellion against his own existence, and all that existence entails. Such decidedly heartfelt, unmannered art is an increasingly rare delight.

In this sense of "cinematic indeptedness" I point to th efollowing superb points of interest:

1.) The first three films seem to "gestate within the womb of genre filmmaking" That metaphor is magnificent!

2.) "The Bergmanesque familial dicotomy" which as transcribed by Gray leades to a insatiability and suffocation.

3.) The penchant to embrace the "objectivism" of Kubrick and Preminger
and the "mythical filmic interpretation of Lee and Coppola, which, lamentably results in "too great a malange."

In other words--overeliance, perhaps at the expence of originality or the personal.

Similarly, your deft discussion of "genre filmmaking" in the lead-in and that time-worn Brighton backdrop is fascinating stuff as is that rightful acknowledgement that the French New Wave, (upon which TWO LOVERS is again somewhat indepted to)is actually itself an outgrowth of the principles of styles and/or relationships already broached in Hollywood classics. You make a superlative point, methinks, (without seeing the film, but knowing Gray's previous work--oddly I'll admit I wasn't the biggest fan of LITTLE ODESSA or WE OWN THE NIGHT, but I would see them again) by mentioning journyman Hal Ashby, who is known for his "prickly, vexing and emotionally comprehensive romances." How apt!

It's nice to hear that Phoenix's fourth performance for Gray is his best. And by the way I must tell you I loved this:

"As with Gray's previous work, a sense of seeping and creeping foreboding, signposted with stark, caliginous photography by Joaquin Baca-Asay, haunts the film. The environs are shadowy, the climate cold and hibernal."

Beautifully descriptive language, but then the entire review is breathtaking.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, for a person who has yet to see the film in question, that is one marvelously magisterial comment! Thank you so very much. For once I'm speechless.

I can't wait to hear what you think of this.

tim watts said...

It is exciting to see you return with such a tremendous review, Alexander. I enjoyed this movie a lot. What did you think of Elia Koteas?

Alexander Coleman said...

I liked him in his role very much, Tim. Not the most flattering part to take--or the most considerable--but he took it and ran with it.

Thank you for the kind words.

Coffee Messiah said...

Your reviews are very in depth and informative. I need to stop by more often.

On a side note, have you seen a preview of the new Che movie?

Cheers!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Coffee Messiah.

The preview for the Che film(s) is quite good. I'm sure it's available somewhere. (Well, I'm not sure, but I'm vaguely confident.)

Harold said...

Best review I have read about this one. Great job dude.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Harold. You're too kind.

Anonymous said...

Pheonx is a crazy guy (or maybe he's just ating more in a different way) but he gave a great performance in this ovie. Loved this film. Great review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I agree. Phoenix gave a heartfelt, impassioned performance that, his public antics aside, has remained with me since viewing this two weeks ago.

mc said...

I found this film a little depressing but your eloquent review has helped make me realize how terrific it actually is. Great piece here. Phoenix was spectacularly heartbreaking.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, mc. I agree. Phoenix gave a devastatingly convincing performance.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, mc. I agree. Phoenix gave a devastatingly convincing performance.

Daniel Getahun said...

"to embody a flaky mirage of an idea as a person from Leonard's love-sick perspective."

Great line! And review overall, as always. I wonder what Gray will tackle next...

And weird that the cinematographer is also named Joaquin?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Daniel.

Yes, it is a little strange that the cinematographer is also named Joaquin. Makes you wonder, hm?

I'm not sure what Gray is up to next, but according to you, he's evidently trying to line up Brad Pitt for it. I'll look forward to it in any case.

Daniel Getahun said...

Good lord, it does not bode well for me that I can't remember things I researched and wrote mere weeks ago...!

Yes, now I remember that Gray is on to do The Lost City of Oz with Pitt in the lead role. Should be interesting since it takes place in the Amazon.

I remember reading this article in the New Yorker years ago. It was so good I cut it out and kept it for future reading. Apparently it was expanded into a book that is being adapted by Gray into this film. Could be fascinating.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow. Sounds like Gray is really about to transform himself. Thank you, Daniel!

Anonymous said...

I just saw this movie last night. I thought it was very depressing. But I like your review alot.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

cinema guy said...

Mr. Coleman. Another excellent review... I thought We Own the Night was fairly dire - working within a genre that has already been deconstructed, re-invented, and frankly done to death, Gray attempted to make a straight operatic crime epic, and what resulted was overwrought, overplayed, cliche-ridden, and worst of all, boring. Evidently, he learned something from that experience because to say that he has scaled back in Two Lovers would be an understatement. For me, this is Gray's best work, largely because it feels less like an homage to films, and an era, that he clearly admires, and more like a singular work that only references these influences. You contextualize the film, in part, by harkening back to the great Hal Ashby - which is apt, although I find the film to be so minimal and self-contained it makes it hard to neatly classify - one can perhaps feel the influence of French arthouse in the construct... Oftentimes, modern films dealing with ethnicity have a real tendency to be overplayed, as if it's necessary to highlight the customs of the characters involved, rendering them cartoon-like in the process. Here, religion and ethnicity are simply shown in a natural way, with no undue emphasis to "show" the audience...I thought Phoenix was superb - playing depressed, brooding and distracted and believably troubled without delivering the kind of over-mannered performance most actors in his stead would have. The mumbling and nervous ticks seemed quite natural, which is perhaps troubling given Phoenix's recent actions (whether hoax or not). Phoenix does an excellent job playing a character who is not just one thing - at various times Leonard wavers between being naive and knowing; manipulative and generous of spirit; self-deprecating and painfully self-conscious; and honest and deceitful. The dichotomy you speak of in relation to his two very different love interests is about not just his actions when in their presence, but a kind of divergence within him that is perhaps based on his experiences as a young (though quickly aging) man living in an urban, modern world, who is still quite connected to a family with an extremely ingrained set of traditions and values. The interaction with the parents was also well-done, as Leonard is both respectful and nice to his parents, as well as being impatient and slightly resentful with them - an adult frustrated to be living with and working for his parents. I agree with your assessment of Shaw's work here. Mr. Coleman - her character comes off as someone so placid she could be on mood altering medication herself - a nice, beautiful young woman from a traditional home who is drawn to Leonard's vulnerability, and perhaps seeking someone slightly off-kilter to spice up what promises to be a pretty straight life (the lesser evil perhaps?). There is something more there though, in the character, and it is to Shaw's credit that she makes such a flatly written character more complex. Paltrow, at first blush, seems like strange casting, but although she's gotten a lot of critical pans for the performance I found her to be acceptably scattered. Her golden girl looks make it difficult to buy her as truly messy, but there are a lot of real-life attractive women whose personal lives are in shambles. .. Gray does a nice job with the Brighton locale - the crowded streets, the buildings, the cramped apartments - it's obvious how comfortable he is in this milieu, and he gets so many small details right... Though the ending might have been easy to call, it's so nice to see a filmmaker make a film that is, in a way, about fate - the inexorable path our lives can seem to take, and follow through with this idea to satisfying conclusion. Leonard chooses not to kill himself, although one wonders if his choice in the end amounts to a slower form of the same thing. He weeps in the end for the loss of a woman he fell in love with, and also for his chance at (at least the promise of) escape from his own quiet desperation.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow, another stupendous comment from you! Ha. cinema guy, if you are not too shy, I'd love to hear from you through email. You're quite mysterious, so perhaps you don't want to contact me in that manner. Nevertheless, you are invited to if you should feel the need to scratch such an itch.

I think this is a concise and beautiful way of putting it: "Phoenix does an excellent job playing a character who is not just one thing - at various times Leonard wavers between being naive and knowing; manipulative and generous of spirit; self-deprecating and painfully self-conscious; and honest and deceitful..." I found that to be all true throughout from the beginning to the end, as Phoenix juggles variegated emotional responses and recourses, which, again, were all handle with utmost naturalism by the filmmakers and the actor himself.

I agree that Gray's last film before this one was easily his weakest and most dire. He was in need of a refreshing, of moving onward to something different. You're completely correct in calling his third crime picture an attempted "opera" but it did not come off the ground. (I consider The Yards to actually be that "opera," but the film is in no way perfect, and the comparison to The Godfather is merely academic and thematic.)

Thank you for the kind words about bringing Hal Ashby into the mix here. I thought of him, and his highly complex love stories, as I viewed Two Lovers. The minimalism and "scaling back" as you call it plays a major part in that. And the location work is as you note quite excellent.

I found the ending to be almost as ambiguous as you state, though I think it's slightly happier--in that Leonard finally realized that the Paltrow character was just a mirage, a partly-manufactured person (of his own doing) and he moved on to the woman of stability, of actual strength who loved him--even if it came with all of the prices of family, home, tradition, ethnicity, etcteras (all of which, like you, I thought were remarkably handled--with exquisite subtlety--by Gray here).

It's good to see that Gray has developed, and it should be interesting to see where he goes from here.

cinema guy said...

Well, thank you for the compliment. I've really enjoyed reading your stuff and, as I've said, have learned a great deal from your pieces. The kind of dedication and passion you bring to the analysis of film, and the fluidity, eloquence, and profundity of your prose is something that is not run-of-the-mill in any way. Your breadth of knowledge - from classic noir to modern cinema - is staggering, frankly. Any books on the horizon? If not, Mr. Coleman, you should seriously think about publishing... Oh, and you're right - the ending was, I think, a bit more hopeful than I described. I can think of worse fates than Vinessa Shaw and the potential to inherit a small but successful business, but I guess I'm referring to the existential side of things - one wonders if someone like Leonard will ever be "happy" and whether he will view this as a good, "real" thing or will always look at this as settling. He may have found the thing he needed to keep him from a life of drifting and loneliness. In reflecting on it, that ending was great - because it is, like you said, ambiguous, and can have various shades of meaning.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you quite sincerely for the exceedingly kind comment, Cinema Guy. As I have said once or twice here, I have written three unpublished novels and I enjoy writing nonfiction as well. Thank you once again for the kind words and encouragement. And once again I agree with your analysis of this film's conclusion.

cinema guy said...

Well, perhaps consider putting together some film criticism as I have certainly read enough published collected work that doesn't come close to your stuff here...

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, thank you, Cinema Guy. There's a thought! :)

W.T.R. said...

Magnificent review. This film actually captured what it's like to be in love. Mostly, it's painful.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, W.T.R. Long time, no see. I agree with your thoughts as well.

Maven said...

Phoenix shouldn't quit acting. What a dork he is. But I liked him in this movie alot. And Gwyneth Paltrow was good too and thats rare.

i suck said...

you can't see me yo.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I finally saw this and I knew once I got around to seeing it I wanted to come back and read your review. I particularly like this part:

"As with Gray's previous work, a sense of seeping and creeping foreboding, signposted with stark, caliginous photography by Joaquin Baca-Asay, haunts the film. The environs are shadowy, the climate cold and hibernal. Paltrow is repeatedly shot from disorienting angles, as though to accentuate the off-kilter, enormously affected point-of-view of Leonard's whenever she is around. The actress's flowing blonde hair often shrouds her countenance, and she appears eerie. The visual communication that makes Gray's work peculiarly vivid in its offbeat, low-key gradations of light and dark, is refined in Two Lovers, entrusting the viewer to take note when the director utilizes his protagonist as the portal through which the film's images play, simultaneously experienced by Leonard and the viewer."

Brilliant as always Alexander. I didn't think the film was anything more than 'good', which is a place I often find myself sitting when it comes to Gray's films -- the potential is there, I just don't think he ever fully taps it. His films always seem like unfinished ideas, or a collection of great scenes strung together with plodding (you call it low-key, foreboding, creeping, etc.) transitional scenes.

"Two Lovers" is the kind of film I may like more once I give it another shot on DVD, but it definitely doesn't demand the viewer watch it a second time; something that I often find with Gray's films.

Great review as always. I see you haven't updated in almost two months, I've missed reading your thoughts on here. I hope all is well. I look forward to when you can come back and begin blogging again. Take care.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the thoroughly engaging response, Kevin. And for the exceedingly kind words.

Yes, Gray admittedly does not come without flaws. I believe I called him a frustrating artist somewhere here, because he does indeed have that potential about which you write, but it comes with the price of his somewhat aggravating instincts, which at their worst can certainly stymie his films (and I think most plainly damaged We Own the Night).

It's interesting that we have different interpretations of his films, however. On the whole, we don't disagree, but it is nevertheless intriguing. I'll be interested in hearing what you think once you take another look. As a matter of fact, I'm interested in seeing what I think when I eventually seek it out for another viewing.

Thanks for the well wishes. I'm happy to be back!

Anonymous said...

Sensational analysis. Your work here is very impressive. I love how visually literate a filmgoer and analyzer you are.

This movie is coming out on DVD on June 30th. Everyone should see it then if they havent seen it yet.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the exceedingly kind remarks, Anonymous.

Thank you for notifying the readers of Coleman's Corner about the release date of the film's DVD.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic work, Alexander Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Denise said...

Gwyneth Paltrow is not so pretty in this movie.

Great review Alexander.