F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 27, 2017)

27 04 2017

For whatever reason, I found James Gray’s “Two Lovers” cold, remote and distant on first watch. Perhaps it was just too close to the release of the director’s film “The Immigrant,” my favorite film of 2014 (and potentially the decade). I knew to expect classical-style melodrama yet still found myself desperately searching for an access point that I couldn’t locate.

I don’t know what changed between then and now – more familiarity with Gray’s reference points, better understanding of melodrama, knowing the plot, general life experience – but I’d now easily put “Two Lovers” in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. The passion, disappointment and affection lurk beneath the surface of the film, not always palpable but constantly dictating the limited choices of the characters. Watching the film a second time opened my eyes to the straightjackets of expectation they all inhabit – and how difficult embracing another person must be with arms tied.

Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet, subdued Leonard Kraditor is not the lightning rod of easy sympathy in the way Marion Cotillard’s Ewa was in “The Immigrant.” For heaven’s sake, the beginning of the movie shows him moving back in with his parents after encountering a setback in his mental health. This gives them the excuse to propose the closest 21st century equivalent of an arranged marriage with the daughter of a business partner, shy but stable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Of course, this comes at the same time Leonard meets fellow building tenant Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a shaky yet spunky woman who draws a more carnal reaction from him. She’s a bit of a mess between a drug habit and an ongoing affair with her philandering coworker; Leonard pursues her all the same.

“Two Lovers” centers around the push and pull between the two competing impulses in Leonard’s life, most notably personified in the two women. Though desire and feeling are so often kept repressed in the film, I found myself inexorably drawn into the dramatized reality. Gray locates the tragedy in the common man’s story, a daunting feat that would ring as pretentious if it failed. It doesn’t, and “Two Lovers” emanates with Gray’s wisdom of the complexities of human behaviors and relationships.


16 01 2016

“Hands, give me the hands,” Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker vehemently instructs a cameraman filming Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sells her Miracle Mop on QVC. For Walker, the consummate showman (and perhaps the stand-in for writer/director David O. Russell), these appendages are the attribute that sets stars apart from the average person. Hands are important because, in his words, “that’s what people use.”

Russell uses hands as a motif running throughout “Joy,” a hymn to ingenuity and perseverance inspired by true stories of daring women. To him, hands mean physical labor, the kind of work traditionally delegated to men. But that traditional division of duties never stopped Joy, who built kingdoms out of paper as a child, dog collars as a teenager, and finally a self-wringing mop as an adult. Her knack for creation, when coupled with her practicality and pragmatism, means she has real potential for success.

Indicative of just how overextended Joy is among her large family, her hands spend most of their time at home doing household repairs like plumbing which would normally be left to the male authority figure. (Her ex-husband, Edgar Ramirez’s failed singer Tony, spends most of his day crooning in the basement.) On top of all the emotional labor of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of her two young children, she has virtually no time to pursue a path that could bring fulfillment and fortune. Yet another mess Joy must clean up enables her to dream up the revolutionary mop after shards of glass lead to gashes all over her hands.

In order to turn her flailing life around, Joy has to compete in the man’s world of business to get her product in front of customers. She has virtually no cues as to how to operate in this sphere; repeated asides from a fictional soap opera show the kind of cues from which Joy can draw. Boys get “The Godfather.” Girls get puffed-up camp like “The Joyful Storm.”

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F.I.LM. of the Week (August 12, 2011)

12 08 2011

Long before Jesse Eisenberg got slapped by Laura Linney, worked at an amusement park with the annoying “Twilight” chickfought zombies, escorted grey-haired Michael Douglas around a college campuscreated social networks, or robbed a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, he made one heck of a performance in a little movie called “Roger Dodger,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  His cinematic debut at the age of 19 still stands as one of his most impressive works, full of the same richness, depth, and neuroticism that has made the Oscar-nominated actor one of the brightest shining faces of a new Hollywood order.  Alongside seasoned pros like Campbell Scott and Isabella Rossellini, Eisenberg propels the movie to some impressively high heights.

Long before Ryan Gosling turned bar pick-ups into an art in “Crazy Stupid Love,” Campbell Scott’s Roger Swanson saw everything in the world through the lens of sex.  In a brilliant take on evolution in the opening scene, he composedly explains how it is the final utility to left to man – and how in the future, once it’s gone, men will be totally obsolete and unnecessary.  Soon after, he’s dumped by his stalwart mistress and boss Joyce (Rossellini) and left in the doldrums to wallow in fear of his irrelevance.

But a surprise comes in the form of his 16-year-old nephew Nick, played by the tense and naive Eisenberg, who has heard that his uncle is quite the libido-driven lothario and wants a sort of real-world sex-ed class.  Roger begins by exposing Nick to all the sex around him that he’s totally oblivious too and then dumps him in situations for seduction with some beautiful older women.  Despite being with a living, breathing manual for these kinds of moments, Nick can never execute, scaring Roger into thinking that the night will have to end with a prostitute.

It’s a fascinating evening as Nick is forced to confront his sexual limits amidst Roger’s mid-life crisis which is forcing him to confront the implications and consequences of his own sexual behavior.  Scott and Eisenberg animate these fascinating self-examinations with a humorous yet probing seriousness.  They are undoubtedly helped by writer/director Dylan Kidd, whose script is intelligent and asks some challenging questions to both the characters on screen and the audience watching them.  A fan can only hope that Eisenberg keeps getting golden material like this to highlight his exceptional showmanship.