At what point in a man’s life does he decide to become a dry cleaner? For Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Leonard Kraditor, in Two Lovers that day is never and yet he still finds himself to be one. He’s a sensitive soul whose mental health issues have resulted in several suicide attempts, a permanent relationship with medication and a need to start again with his loving parents in their small apartment in Brooklyn.
His father introduces him to the daughter of a business associate (Vinessa Shaw) in the hopes that a positive relationship might heal his son and also be a profitable development for the dry cleaning business. At the same time, Leonard meets and falls for the beautiful and mysterious upstairs neighbour, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose own relationship with a wealthy married man is doing her no good.
Two Lovers is written and directed by James Gray, the iconoclastic and uncompromising independent filmmaker responsible for the gritty New York dramas Little Odessa and last year’s We Own the Night , which also starred Phoenix. It’s a careful and sensitive picture about how so often love is about wanting to heal and protect someone – Shaw wants to heal Phoenix and he wants to heal Paltrow and none of them realise the extent to which they have to heal themselves first.
You can forget all talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger’s Joker. If anyone is going to win an Academy Award for wearing some dodgy make-up in a noisy blockbuster no one is getting in the way of Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder. Totally believable, every second, as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor (and multi-Oscar winner himself) who undergoes a radical skin re-pigmentation in order to portray tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Osiris in the eponymous Vietnam epic, Downey Jr’s performance is a thing of wonder: A masterpiece of technique, timing, self-belief and dare I say it, soul. I’m still chuckling days later.
Lazarus is one of a handful of pampered Hollywood stars on location to recreate the last great untold Vietnam story – the suicide-mission rescue of “Four Leaf” Tayback during the legendary “Wet” Offensive of ’69. Under pressure from the studio to get back on schedule (and from handless “Four “Leaf” himself, Nick Nolte, to toughen the pencil-kneck panty-waists up a bit) director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) goes verité. With the help of hidden cameras, special effects and some heavily armed South East Asian drug lords, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) find themselves up to their eyeballs in reality. Comedy reality, which is the best kind. One of my favourite films of the year so far, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Cruise’s dancing.
Compared to the ferocious energy of Tropic Thunder, Tina Fey’s Baby Mama seems like a comedy from a different era. Fey plays über-clucky Kate Holbrook – successful middle-manager in Steve Martin’s organic produce company. Desperate for progeny (yet strangely single), her T shaped tubes make her a poor bet for IVF and the waiting list for adoption is years long. Surrogacy is her only solution and she barely bats an eyelid at the $100k price tag (she must share John McCain’s accountant). Despite the amount of money changing hands it is the surrogate that interviews the, what’s the word, surrogatee and she successfully passes the aura test posed by white trash “host” Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory).
The lively Poehler kick-starts every scene she is in while better-known stars like Martin, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver phone in their performances. Meanwhile Fey (“30 Rock”) is likeable enough, although the character seems to be in a world of her own most of the time, and Romany Malco from The Love Guru plays the token black character – a servant. Baby Mama is funnier, the more pregnancy-specific it gets. When it goes generic (speech-impediments, Martin’s new age schtick) it misses even the biggest targets by miles.
Paris is both the subject and the object of Cédric Klapisch’s ensemble drama about a cross-section of modern Parisian society. Romain Duris and Juliette Binoche are siblings, single, on the cusp of 40 and alienated from their parents. Duris is told his heart condition may finish him off sooner rather than later and mopes around the apartment, feeling sorry for himself while Binoche (like women everywhere) puts her own life on hold to care for him and her three children. Meanwhile, hangdog academic Fabrice Luchini (Intimate Strangers) has a crush on his beautiful student Mélanie Laurent, his architect brother is about to become a father but can’t stop crying. At street level, the market stallholders are also looking for love in the big city but have a more direct way of going about finding it.
I’ve made it seem a lot more contrived than it actually plays out. The direction is subtle and the performances are involving. It does suffer from the usual French cinematic philosophy, that working class experience is somehow more real than the self-absorbed bourgeois middle classes, but actually argues its case pretty well.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 28 August, 2008.
Back in 1986 Frank Miller single-handedly reinvented the Batman franchise in book form with “The Dark Knight Returns”, a four-part mini-series which saw an ageing Bruce Wayne come out of retirement one last time to fight the scourge of lawlessness that beset his beloved Gotham City. Fans have waited in vain for that story (dark, cynical, epic and powerful) to arrive on the silver screen but Christopher Nolan’s current version of the hero (introduced in Batman Begins in 2005) is still heading in the right direction, even to the extent of cribbing Miller’s title for this second episode.
In The Dark Knight we join the action not long after the end of the previous film. The forces of Gotham City law enforcement (with the help of the masked vigilante and a few unfortunate copy cats in hockey pads) are squeezing the city’s organised crime syndicates and cleaning up the city. Only psychopathic freakazoid The Joker (Heath Ledger) seems to be able to act with impunity and he offers the Mob a deal: he’ll dispatch the flying bat in exchange for half their business.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still hankers after beautiful Asst DA Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) who promised they could be together if he could ever give up his double-life. The arrival on the scene of handsome and principled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as legitimate crime-fighter (a “white knight”) might just give him a way out, only Dent is also in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, The Joker’s plot to destroy Batman strikes closer and closer to home.
Despite being more than 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, The Dark Knight is a successful attempt to balance the thrills and spills of a modern day blockbuster with something a little more psychologically demanding. Nolan has claimed that there is very little digital effects work in the film and that he tried to shoot as much of the action as real as possible and it pays off – there must have been some digital in there but (apart from Dent’s astonishing and grotesque transformation into Two-Face) I couldn’t pick any.
It is disappointing that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City from the first film seems to have faded. Instead of the hyper-modern city in disrepair we got last time, now it looks like plain old modern day New York crossed with Chicago crossed with Toronto, and I guess that was one of the sacrifices made in the decision to ditch digital but the city itself is well short on atmosphere.
Bale, as ever, leaves this reviewer cold, but the supporting players are all fine actors in great form (particularly Michael Caine as Alfred, the former Special Forces butler). Ledger is tremendous and provides hints of the kind of liberating work he might have been capable of had he lived, although talk of a posthumous Oscar seems excessive. After all, since Cesar Romero in the 60s The Joker has been a license to ham and this version specifically is supposed to be all show and no depth.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 july, 2008. Sorry, I am so behind with posting. I’ll try and get this week’s edition up before the end of the weekend.
Notes on screening conditions: The Dark Knight screened at a surprisingly busy Monday morning session at Readings. And when I say “surprisingly busy” I mean over 100 people. At 11.00am!