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Column Fri Feb 27 2009

Two Lovers, Gomorrah and Bigger Than Life

Two Lovers

If you believed the trumped-up, self-generated hype surrounding Joaquin Phoenix these days (hint: the crazy, bearded behavior is all being documented and compiled for a Borat-style fake documentary) then Two Lovers might be his last work as an actor. And after two pretty weak collaborations with director James Gray in The Yards and We Own the Night, Phoenix has finally hit his emotional stride with Gray at the helm. In the previous two efforts, Gray cast Phoenix as a tough guy thug type, but with Two Lovers, Gray taps into Phoenix as a purely emotional and slightly unstable creature who is trying desperately to get over the grief of losing a fiancee by throwing himself into an unwise relationship with a party-girl neighbor, played beautifully by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Phoenix plays Leonard, a nice New York City Jewish boy who lives with his parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) and helps out in his father's dry cleaning business. His parents set him up with a very beautiful Jewish girl named Sandra (Vinessa Shaw from the The Hills Have Eyes and 3:10 to Yuma remakes), and the two genuinely seem to hit it off, even after she notices the scars on his wrists. But then Leonard meets upstairs neighbor Michelle (Paltrow), when she's looking for a place to hide while her visiting father rants and raves in her apartment. There's a glamour to Paltrow in this film that is undeniable, but it doesn't take long to realize there are more than a few things wrong with her involving drugs and her dating habits (including a rich married man played by Elias Koteas). The seemingly unassuming Leonard somehow manages to balance seeing both women — Sandra as a lover and potential wife and Michelle as his passion — for a while until his obsession with Michelle takes over his life and the two make plans to run away together during a massive New Year's Eve party thrown by his parents.

Phoenix and Paltrow don't have the classic romantic chemistry, but their characters aren't supposed to. What they do so well, however, is mesh as creatures of pure emotion and co-dependency. She is perhaps too old to live the reckless party girl life, and he tries to entertain and take care of her in the hopes that one days she'll just open her eyes and be in love with him. Is it slightly pathetic? You bet. Is it fascinating to watch? Undeniably. Paltrow, in particular, is impossible not to watch, as she makes one bad decision after another and dates a man she and we know will never leave his wife as long as Michelle is willing to play doormat. Shaw's Sandra is so beautiful and sweet, we almost don't think Leonard deserves her, but we also know that without her presence in his life, he truly would go off the deep end once again. There's a sensitivity to Phoenix in this role that I've really missed and haven't seen since films like To Die For.

It's rare that a filmmaker will ask us to root against a relationship between his two leads, but that's essentially what I was doing. By wishing that Leonard and Michelle don't end up together, you're effectively praying for Leonard's salvation and probably hers as well. Two Lovers is a small, quiet piece that spotlights two great actors in fairly reserved but still deeply satisfying performances. It's also a beautiful-looking work that echoes the melancholy that absolutely permeates the movie; those familiar with Gray's work know that although his movies aren't always that good, they contain a dark atmosphere, and I love it. Two Lovers opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Gomorrah (Gomorra)

There's a scene in this tough-as-rail spikes portrait of Italy's organized crime underbelly that I probably will never be able to shake. It's an initiation ceremony of sorts, and the would-be criminals lining up to get into the area Mafia are children, just barely teenagers. One after another, each kid straps on an oversized bulletproof vest and takes a bullet to the chest. After they are able to stand up again, they are in the gang. Brave filmmaker Matteo Garrone (First Love, The Taxidermist) allows us to really savor each child getting shot, get punched down by the bullet, and rise rattled and bruised. That is just one of many unforgettable sequences in Gomorrah, a sweeping look at the way many still live in Italy (the film focuses on Naples and Caserta) within a "system" that is relentless.

Through five interweaving stories, Gomorrah sets up a devastating standard of living for its characters. The film's often used image involves Marco and Ciro, who live life believing they are characters in Scarface, especially when they stumble upon a stash of weapons belonging to a criminal gang. They steal a bit of what they find, and run around the town shooting machine guns in the air and reciting cliché gangster dialogue. Since the film offers very little in the way of hope for its characters, it's no surprise their misdeed is discovered.

My favorite story involves the seemingly harmless occupation of tailor. Pasquale works off the books for a small clothing business that specializes in getting high-end garments made in record time. But when Pasquale is approached by a Chinese competitor to teach that company's employees his secrets for a large amount of money, he is so flattered even to be asked that he secretly accepts... and is eventually discovered. The highest-ranking character in the film is Roberto, an educated man hired by the head of a toxic waste management to be his Number 2. Small compromises and minor infractions begin to add up as part of the job, and Roberto's guilt mounts far more than he could ever imagine.

Gomorrah has a seemingly endless number of scenes and moments such as these, so it goes without saying that "hope" is in short supply throughout the work. The film feels so unbelievably realistic that it makes you fear for humankind just a little bit more than you already did. There's a stark, ugly quality to the film that serves to underscore its commitment to realism. If there was a score to this film, I don't recall hearing it. What might be more sobering is a title card just before the end credits that tells us that the Gomorrah in Italy is one of many financial investors of the buildings going up where the World Trade Center once stood. Meditate on that for a moment as you watch this powerful and gut-wrenching masterpiece, which opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Bigger Than Life

It's not often that I get to review revivals of classic films, and that's mostly my fault. When a new print of a film opens at the Music Box Theater or Siskel Film Center, and I've already seen it, I tend not to watch it again and remind you why you need to check out these great film. But with Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life — a newly struck 35 mm widescreen print of which is playing as part of a weeklong double-bill engagement along with Ray's legendary Rebel Without a Cause at the Film Center — I felt I needed to make an exception since I'd never actually seen the film until I watched it recently.

Part drug paranoia film, part suburban critique, part statement on the changing role of women and family in America, Bigger Than Life features a near-flawless performance by James Mason as Ed Avery, a school teacher who wants so much for his family that he takes a second job as a taxi dispatcher so he, his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Richie always have enough. But when he is struck by a rare disease, the doctor's tell him that his only hope is a still-experimental drug called cortisone. Yes, I got a kick out of this reveal, which seems kind of silly today, but at a time when doctors often over-prescribed medications and the stigma of any illness was almost too great to admit to even your closest friends, the things dealt with in this movie were probably fairly accurate.

Ed ends up abusing his medicine and uses devious means to acquire more. The drug has some fairly startling side effects, including delusions of grandeur and borderline psychotic behavior, which eventually crosses over the line. Rather than call in the doctors to examine her husband's crumbling mental health, she leans on his closest friend Wally, played by the young, and dare I say, handsome, Walter Matthau. I couldn't help but be reminded of the current release Revolutionary Road as I was watching Bigger Than Life, largely because the two films cover some of the same ground. But Ray's film (made just one year after Rebel and two years after his wonderful Johnny Guitar) stays focused on Ed's increasingly disturbing behavior, which Mason plays with an increasing level of intensity as the film progresses. What begins as severe mood swings and mildly cruel behavior aimed at both his wife and son becomes stark-raving lunacy. The drug message is pretty in your face, but there's an underlying theme of questioning the medical profession and the norms of middle-class American living and stigmas. It's no surprise that Martin Scorsese has called Bigger Than Life one of the quintessential films of and about the 1950s. Who am I to argue with Marty?

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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