Two Lovers in Gomorrah X (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week:

twoloversTwo Lovers (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

The people behind “Two Lovers” were probably hoping for a slightly different publicity push from the star of their film.

They couldn’t have reckoned on the sudden career change currently represented by the bushy beard on the face of Joaquin Phoenix. The actor’s insistence that he is no longer an actor but a hip-hop singer, and his monosyllabic appearance on the Letterman show, has already gotten him parodied at the Oscars.

The Phoenix affair may yet turn out to be a piece of “Borat”-like performance art. Unfortunately, it’s eclipsing the release of a pretty interesting film. “Two Lovers” is another slice of grungy, downbeat Brooklyn life from director James Gray, whose previous films include “The Yards” and “We Own the Night.” Nothing has cheered up Gray lately, it seems.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a man living with his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after a suicide attempt and a breakdown. He has vague ideas of doing something with his photography, but the reality is he’ll probably keep working in his father’s dry-cleaning shop. The title suggests his dilemma: should he stick with nice stable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) whose parents are family friends, or should he gravitate in the direction of the flighty Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose window he can see across the courtyard?

There’s little new in this quandary, but Gray and his actors certainly instill it with a great deal of anguished emotion and a palpable sense of place: a nightclub, an upscale restaurant, the dry cleaning shop—these locations are lived-in and authentic.

Phoenix’s inarticulate presence comes across as mannered, but I can’t deny that he blends into the character. Paltrow is very good at playing the kind of person that perpetually justifies the behavior of her married boyfriend (Elias Koteas), a kind of denial that suits Leonard and his desire for escape. Despite being prominent in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Vinessa Shaw has never quite graduated as a movie star. Perhaps this film will change that; she’s impressive in a role that feels pretty unlikely.

This is the first Gray film I’ve actually liked. Maybe it’s the fierce concentration on a tiny piece of emotional turf (sometimes the world narrows to the surface of a cell phone), but this filmmaker’s more pretentious tendencies are hemmed in. Now it’s time for him to lend some career advice to his enigmatic star.

Gomorrah. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

It’s no surprise the younger hoodlums in “Gomorrah” run around pretending to be Al Pacino in “Scarface.” They’ve absorbed the romance of gangster movies.

As though offering corrective medicine, this scathing Italian film has no romance in its criminal saga. It’s not just that there are no warm-hearted godfathers blathering on about the proper amount of garlic in the marinara sauce; this movie doesn’t even allow you the basic pleasures of a story unfolding in linear fashion. Instead, we’re dropped pell-mell into the ugly, violent world of the Camorra, a Mafia organization in and around Naples (their name allows the filmmaker to reference the biblical yarn about a corrupt city in his title).

A handful of different storylines weave through the film, including one about those two teenage gangster-wannabes, who make the mistake of thinking that they can parlay a cache of guns into the beginnings of their own little empire.

Not a good idea. In this arena, naivete will get you a permanent home in a ditch.

Other threads include a tailor working under the Camorra heel, whose factory exploits cheap-working immigrant workers, and a longtime mob operator whose underling might just be seeing the truth about this diseased system (their particular specialty is toxic waste, which they spread around like candy). Except for the Pacino fans, most of the characters are middle-aged men, and I have to confess that, especially with the different pieces of plot coming from all directions, it took me a long time to tell these various characters apart, let alone piece together their stories.

“Gomorrah” obviously isn’t designed to make it easy for the viewer; it doesn’t seek to engage us, and it’s not in any sense entertainment, in the traditional sense.

It is horrifying, though. And the dangerous locations in which director Matteo Garrone did his shooting leave little doubt about the movie’s credibility on the subject of real-life issues that have made this section of Italy a hotbed of murder and corruption.

“Gomorrah” failed to get an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film, a category run by a relatively small group of voters who tend to like conventional pictures (it’s one of the only Oscar categories where the voters must actually watch the movies they’re voting for). The omission isn’t surprising—this is a tough film that doesn’t pull punches—but it still looks like an oversight.

Ben X. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

From its earliest images inside an online game world to its final sequences (parts of which take place only inside the hero’s mind), the Belgian-Dutch film “Ben X” is something of a head trip.

The head we are locked into belongs to Ben (Greg Timmermans), a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, the high-functioning form of autism. Highly intelligent but socially bewildered, Ben has learned to mimic the behavior of others, even though he can’t comprehend concepts like metaphor (the phrase “give me a hand” is completely puzzling). At school, he’s bullied. At home, he disappears into the landscape of his favorite multiplayer computer game, where his heroic avatar conceals all his awkwardness. Eventually, the woman who interacts with him in the game is going to want to meet him, a challenge far greater than his 3-D animated quest.

Thanks to viral videos of his classroom humiliation, Ben is subject to public abuse as well as small-scale tauntings, beatings, and the other tortures handed out to “different” students. The film ladles this on so insistently that you might wonder whether anybody’s in charge at this school. Director Nicholas Balthazar doesn’t hold anything back, in repeated scenes of the two main bullies and their loathsome behavior.

The melodrama of this is heavy, but Balthazar has a cause. He also wrote the novel the film is based on, and was inspired by a true story of a 17-year-old autistic boy from Brussels who committed suicide after being bullied.

Periodically, Ben (and the movie) retreats into his computer world, where he lives out his Tolkienesque fantasy. Laura Verlinden plays the girl on the other side of his cyberspace connection.

Balthazar fills the movie with visual flash, which helps cover up how thin the material really is. Ben’s doctors, for instance, are broadly caricatured as a gallery of grotesques; I have no idea how this advances the movie’s ideas. Unfortunately, by the time you get to the end of the picture, it feels like a simple idea stretched out to 93 minutes. A spirited (and mostly nonspeaking) central performance by newcomer Timmermans goes a long way toward making it bearable for viewers over the age of nineteen.

Ballerina. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

If you’re going to do a documentary on a subject, you might as well go to the top: thus filmmaker Bertrand Normand made his film about ballerinas by traveling to the Kirov Ballet, the legendary Russian hotbed of dance.

“Ballerina” is the result, a film that focuses on a group of ballerinas at various levels of accomplishment and acclaim. This movie, narrated in English by Diane Baker, is admittedly guilty of merely providing a surface view of an exacting, painful form of expertise. But what a surface.

The Kirov has actually reverted to its original name, the Mariinsky Theatre (it was labeled the Kirov by the Soviets, in honor of a famous assassinated revolutionary, and is still known under that name when touring). But the standards remain high. We follow the stories of a couple younger ballerinas. Alina Somova is a promising student entering her first year at the Mariinsky, where she needs to adjust to the reality of no longer being the star of her class.

A year older than her, pixie-faced Evgenia Obraztsova seems already to have developed her own personality as a performer. That might explain why she achieves success outside the Mariinsky, too, as one of the stars of the French film “Russian Dolls.” She also shows poise beyond her years in dealing with the praise of the fans who come backstage after a performance of “Romeo and Juliet”—some of whom look like they spend a little too much time thinking about ballet.

Even if you don’t spend time thinking about ballet, you will probably be galvanized by Diana Vishneva, a prima ballerina with the company. In a sequence of rehearsal in a studio, Vishneva radiates the X factor: not just the skill to articulate her body in remarkable ways, but acting ability that communicates a character in a few short seconds.

We also hear the story of Ulyana Lopatkina, anointed as the finest Russian ballerina of her generation before an ankle injury sidelines her for a couple of years. During the break, she gets married and has a child, but now she wants to dance again. The excerpts from their onstage work are beautifully photographed, including pieces of “Swan Lake” and “Scheherazade.”

At 77 minutes, “Ballerina” can’t delve deep into these stories, or offer a distanced eye on the sacrifices involved. And it doesn’t give the detail-rich history lesson of “Ballets Russes,” a fine dance documentary from a couple of years ago. What it delivers is its title: women dancing at the top of the game.

(Another dead link here; the video has vanished) Also, an interview I did with actress-auteur Julia Sweeney is included this week on ArtZone in Studio; watch here for the story of Sweeney’s new film Letting Go of God, a one-woman show that manages to be completely bright, disarming, and convincing about what its title says.

Movie Diary 2/2/2009

Movies watched over the weekend.

Phantom (F.W. Murnau, 1922). Murnau heading for the virtuosity of The Last Laugh, with some great set-pieces (literally: the sets are a superb technical feat). The storyline covers territory Murnau gets into elsewhere: forbidden, single-minded obsession and a strong sense of self-abasement.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919). This movie has been in my head a lot lately. What amazes me is how alive it still is, 90 years later, and how well the (much debated) ending works. It’s one of the earliest examples of a film that looks back at you and implicates you in the watching. “Du musst Caligari werden,” for sure.

49parallel49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941). A really ingenious way to make a propaganda movie during wartime. And when else has Laurence Olivier looked like he had this much fun?

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Gini Reticker, 2008). Even good documentaries must have too much music. Still, a fine story. (full review 2/6)

Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976). Mostly insufferable frowze through fumbled improv with Falk and Cassavetes. Some people seem to like it. There’s something crazy in there, but who wants to actually watch it?

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008). Maybe this is because I saw it the night after Mikey and Nicky, but is Joaquin Phoenix a fusion of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes? This is Gray’s best film, by the way. (full review 2/13)

The International (Tom Tykwer, 2009). Quite possibly the best installation ever at the Guggenheim — oh wait, you mean that’s an action bloodbath scene for The International? (full review 2/13)