Love or Leave: Two Lovers, The Class, The International, Friday the 13th
By Fernando F. Croce

James Gray may have many directorial flaws, but insincerity isn’t one of them. In the first minutes of Two Lovers, Joaquin Phoenix, as an aspiring photographer shell-shocked by an imploded affair, casually leaps into a river, experiences a vision/memory while sinking, is pulled out of the water and sheepishly continues on his gloomy way. The sequence would have been a Kids in the Hall skit about Dostoyevsky’s White Nights if not for Gray’s earnest insistence on unguarded emotion, which, over and over, turns the laborious and the goofy into the unexpectedly beautiful. Living in Brighton Beach with his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Monoshov), Phoenix mulls over snapshots of desolate storefronts and grudgingly takes up with a caring, mother-approved Jewish girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw). He's further rattled by the blonde beauty (Gwyneth Paltrow) who lives in the same building complex, a party girl (and kept woman) who adduces a note of Manhattan glamour into the protagonist’s drab life but turns increasingly unstable. Gray here peels off the gangland shtick from his earlier films (Little Odessa, We Own the Night) to focus with a newfound clarity on his true theme, the bonds that both define and choke his characters. Some effects play like delayed time bombs: Gray cuts back and forth between Phoenix (in extreme, shadowy close-up, reduced to vulnerable eye and uncut yearning) and Paltrow (a distant, frazzled figure in a window) as they whisper to each other in their cell phones, then later pans gently from Phoenix and Shaw in bed to a view of the same window, now empty. Elsewhere, Gray bathes things in burnished skin tones, contrasts break dancing under disco lights with a sententious bar mitzvah, and doles out lines like "This isn’t a stupid fucking crush! You think I don’t know love?" Trying, unwieldy, and affecting: The wannabe auteur of underworld grit turns out to be a hooded romantic.

*

From Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite to Tavernier’s Ça Commence Aujourd’hui, French cinema has remembered Mark Twain’s jibe about not letting your schooling interfere with your education. The tall concrete walls surrounding the schoolyard in Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class unmistakably suggest prison (Entre les Murs, the French title, translates as Between the Walls), but the classroom itself is closer to a debate chamber. The tug of war is between the teacher (François Bégaudeau, whose memoirs were adapted for the film and who sort of plays himself) and a rowdy, multi-cultural crowd of students aged 13 to 15 in a school around Belleville. The range of races and accents and customs in the room -- Tunisian Arabs, displaced Africans, goths, Chinese immigrants -- reminds audiences that the critics who decried the homogenization in Amélie weren’t just party-pooping; pupils and lecturer push and chafe, the wobbly, handheld camera documents the kids who believe that conjugating in the imperfect subjective is "bourgeois" and the adult who keeps his composure until the word "skanks" slips out mid-discourse. On the basis of Human Resources (labor/management discord), Time Out (numbing white-collar turmoil) and Heading South (sexual commerce and First World entitlement), Cantet rivals Ken Loach as European cinema’s current social worker, which is another way of saying that his films are serious, intelligent and true to life, and a chore to watch. The Class has considerable urgency and growing humor (thanks greatly to the semi-improvised rapport of the students), but as the school year nears its end and the plight of a hot-tempered African teen (Franck Keïta) is trotted out to underline Bégaudeau’s diagrammatic view of educational quandaries, the film exposes itself as the Gallic art-house version of Half Nelson. Which, come to think of it, was the American art-house version of Dangerous Minds. "Plus ça change..."

*

When the book on new millennium thrillers gets written, the chapter on "recession subtext" (which follows "9/11 subtext," naturally) should leave room for Tom Tykwer’s The International. The villain is nefarious banking itself ("You control debt, you control everything"), a sinister corporation that sneaks past "the complexities of international law" while its tentacles encompass arms dealing and dictatorship support. The heroes are an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) and a Manhattan assistant District Attorney (Naomi Watts), both so driven by their need to expose the bank’s unsavory operations that they ditch the contrived love story (who has time for a gratuitous sex scene anymore?). Since neither of the protagonists is particularly interesting, one appreciates Armin Mueller-Stahl’s gravitas as a weary bank official who’s sacrificed his ideals on the Moloch of capitalism, and Brian F. O’Byrne’s canny blankness as a hit man adapted to the impersonality of the times. (The assassin is introduced in a museum, contemplating a Gothic Pietà: "I like the look of agony." Why? "I know it’s true.") How can reviewers praise the clutter of Bourne this and Bourne that and then shrug at Tykwer’s formal elegance here? The action ricochets globally (New York, Berlin, Milan, Istanbul) yet his alert feeling for surfaces and rhythms keeps it all in one piece. Ironically, his control deserts him in the one sequence critics are praising, an extended shootout at the Guggenheim Museum that goes overboard with jiggly edits. (There’s more cinematic excitement in the minute or so it takes a sniper to miss his target, reload, and get a surprise when he looks again through the rifle scope.) It’s not a bad thriller, but it’s dispiriting to see the gifted Tykwer doing the Ridley Scott fandango after the delirium of Perfume, wiping his fingerprints off a project that might as well be titled The Impersonal.

*

If Halloween can be remade, why not the far inferior Friday the 13th? There’s plenty of room for improvement: Jason Vorhees is arguably the dullest of the masked boogeymen, and the Friday franchise, a rather reactionary entry in a naturally transgressive genre, is the horror equivalent of the Police Academy series. Director Marcus Nispel, who in 2003 depredated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, distills the essence of that ’80s staple in a wicked pre-credits cocktail of weed, tits, and viscera. Nice. Unfortunately, there are still 90 minutes to go, and Jason’s clockwork slaughtering of faceless Crystal Lake campers (Danielle Panabaker and Aaron Woo were the only ones I was sorry to see getting the machete treatment) becomes grindingly monotonous. Nispel even misses the original’s one good joke, that a murderous, loony mom is the only character taking a stand for something while the complacent young clods around her become interesting only as Tom Savini gore effects. By my calculations, Jason turned 63 this year, a little old to be still hanging around teenagers. Unless... Of course! That’s Larry Clark behind the hockey mask! Mystery solved, on to the next useless remake.

Reviewed February 27, 2009


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