As an audience member you really shouldn’t be too ahead of your characters or they come across as idiots. Just as in horror movies where it’s a constant battle of dumbness with folks going backwards into dark rooms, splitting up and of course assuming the maniac is dead and not kicking their weapon away or shooting them again. James Gray’s “Two Lovers” doesn’t have any murders- just the predictability. Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is supposed to be a manically depressed, but often witty, regular-Joe. He has it half-down not seeming to be any fun in the least and almost “Sling Blade” slow. He also is just not believable as a middle-class Jewish boy (nor is Isabella Rossellini- yeah you heard me, as his mom.) Predictably Vinessa Shaw is the nice Jewish girl who would save him versus the fragile and exploitative shiksa played by Gwyneth Paltrow doing her best to sell the “New Yawk” accent. This film has received good reviews and I did find the camera work atmospheric and the mood appropriately downbeat. However the all star casting goes against it making it seem a little like an SNL skit- though if I could just transplant Adam Sandlers’ character in “Reign over Me” into Phoenix’s place we may have had the likeability we needed as we watch this dude stumble through his love life. Robin Williams also did a great job in a similarly toned, little known film “Seize the Day” twenty years earlier –so I think Phoenix’s performance was the problem. Then he went on Letterman in that prank deal- Oy Vey!
Having given thirty choices for best releases this year so far, I am happy to give my first recommendation for the second half of 09. “Waltz with Bashir” is an “animated documentary” about the 1982 Lebanon war as seen by the Israeli foot soldier. Director Ari Folman is the basis of the main character who has his own repressed memory of the war jarred after a friend tells him of a recurring nightmare which features the many dogs he killed during that war coming back to get him. The animation seems to be rotoscoping (painting over a filmed image), but supposedly it is not. Actors were filmed for reference only. I think the animation serves its’ purpose, adding to the unreality and dreamlike nature needed as various characters recount their war stories. It also captures the absurdity and odd juxtapositions of war (creepy dead horses, an attack in an orchard, apartment dwellers watching a firefight from their balconies) which I found to be reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now”. As our heroes’ memory is stimulated by his comrades’ tales we realize why he has blocked them in the first place. Perhaps this films’ compelling visual style will pull one teenager away from their war porn video games long enough to give the joy of killing a second thought.