Archive for April 9th, 2009

Director James Gray has only made four films to date, three of them feature actor Joaquin Phoenix.  All three are set in or around New York (particularly Brighton Beach, Brooklyn) and have a grim gritty realism to them.  Before taking a look at the latest Two Lovers I want to take a quick look back at the first two films they made together. 


The Yards (2000) is set around the rail yards in Queens that repairs and rebuilds the New York subway cars. This is a very lucrative business and like all lucrative businesses it attracts corruption. Willie Gutierrez (Phoenix) works for Frank (James Caan), one of the contractors and his job includes sabotaging the competition. After getting out of prison his best friend Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), the star of the film gets involved when he offered a job by from Frank who is also his uncle. Things go badly wrong on sabotage mission and Leo finds himself on the run from his family as well as the police.


In We Own the Night (2007), Bobby Green (Phoenix) comes from a family of cops. Shunning the “family business” he runs a nightclub in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn for friend and mentor Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). Things are going well at work and he is devoted to his girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes), they plan to open another nightclub in Manhattan. As the NYPD’s war on drugs heats up Bobby discovers Buzhayev and his nephew Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov) are heavenly involved. Things escalate quickly and Bobby has to choose a side.


twoBased on the title you may expect Two Lovers (2008) to be a light and breezy romance maybe even a romantic comedy but when you see it is directed by James Gray and staring Joaquin Phoenix you know you are in for something far darker and heavier. Leonard (Phoenix) a thirty-something bachelor is living back at home with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) following the breakdown of a relationship and a failed suicide attempt. His parents, trying to play matchmaker introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) the daughter of a business associate. Around the same time he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is immediately infatuated. What follows can not be described without giving the plot away but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it centres around unrequited love. Like the directors previous films this is a study of family and hinges on choices the main character has to make. The characters have their faults and foibles, this makes them all the more realistic. The film is well paced thoughtful and well acted. The casting is perfect with every actor playing their part believably. The one criticism I have is that Sandra’s character isn’t really developed or explored. By the end of the film we know almost nothing about her. This could have been done intentionally by the filmmakers as a way of controlling the sympathies of the viewer.

So what’s next for the duo? Well if you believe Phoenix he has now retired from acting and will be concentrating on other pursuits including music. Gray has suggested this isn’t the last we see of Phoenix and believes he can persuade him to come out of retirement in the future. He is currently working on his next film; The Lost City of Z that it has been suggested it will star Brad Pitt. The plot according to IMDB is: “Explorers search for a British Colonel who disappeared trying to find a legendary City of Z during the 1920s”. Whatever happens Grey and Phoenix have given us some interesting films.

Other recommended viewing: 

Joaquin Phoenix:


Walk the Line (2005):  Phoenix’s Oscar nominated role playing Johnny Cash.


Buffalo Soldiers (2001 but not realised until 2003 due to the start of the war in Iraq):  A black comedy about U.S. soldiers stationed in West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin wall.  A fantastic film that more people should see.


Quills (2000): Phoenix plays Abbe de Coulmier the man who run’s the asylum holding the infamous  Marquis de Sade.


Gladiator (2000): Phoenix plays Commodus based on the real life Lucius Aurelius Commodus opposite Russell Crowe’s gladiator Maximus. 


To Die For (1995):  following a career as a child star this is probably Phoenix’s breakthrough adult role.  Gus Van Sant’s black comedy about a teacher who uses her pupils to help her kill her husband in order to help further her career.  Although the film claims to be fiction it is actually based on the real-life case of Pamela Smart previously made into TV movie “Murder in New Hampshire” staring Helen Hunt.



James Gray:


Little Odessa (1994):  Gray’s only other film.  Made in 1994 and about the relationship between professional killer Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) and his younger brother Reuben (Edward Furlong).  The film takes its name from the Brighton Beach location that is know to locals as “Little Odessa” after Odessa in Ukraine where many of the resident come originally from.  

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