Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Two Lovers

"Two Lovers" (Magnolia) is a downbeat but well-acted domestic drama set in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, the depressed son of Jewish dry cleaners (Moni Monoshov and Isabella Rossellini). Though in his 30s, he still lives at home and works in the family business. He seems poised to continue in that trade, despite an apparent talent for photography.

In the film's opening scene, we see him trying to commit suicide by jumping into the bay, apparently his second attempt at ending his life. His anguish, we later learn, stems from a wrenching broken-off engagement.

Suddenly not one, but two, women come into his life, and he's torn between them: Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the emotionally troubled new gentile neighbor for whom he falls at first glance, and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the stable young Jewish daughter of his father's business partner, Michael (Bob Ari).

Leonard is infatuated with Michelle, but she considers him only a dear but platonic friend. Their apartment windows face each other, and they communicate with each other like conspiratorial kids. Eventually, she confides that she's having an affair with married Ronald (Elias Koteas) at her office.

She even has Leonard join them for dinner one night so that Leonard can size up her lover firsthand. The dinner is cordial, but when Michelle briefly excuses herself from the table, Ronald confides that she has a drug problem, and entreats Leonard to watch out for her.

Meanwhile, nice girl Sandra professes her love for Leonard and desire to take care of him, a match clearly endorsed by both sets of parents. Leonard, though not blind to Sandra's virtues, continues to obsess over Michelle and, paralleling Sandra's protective concern for him, longs to look after Michelle.

Directed with low-key naturalism by James Gray (who previously worked with Phoenix on "We Own the Night" and "The Yards"), the familiar triangular tale scores for characterization and mood with solid performances all around. If Phoenix follows through on his recent declaration about quitting the movie business, we'll be deprived of one of the best actors around today, as his fine, carefully shaded work here beautifully demonstrates.

Gray and Ric Menello's script treats its characters with compassion and sensitivity. Though Rossellini's character, for instance, might easily have been a domineering, overly protective stereotype -- as it is, she does peer under her son's door, and tries to eavesdrop -- she is shown to be concerned not controlling, and in one crucial scene, just when you think she'll pull the self-pitying mother routine and destroy her son's dreams, she holds back.

Though not exactly gripping, the film is enhanced by well-modulated performances and the exoticism (for some viewers) of the ethnic Brooklyn milieu.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Billy Elliot: The Musical

The 2000 film about a boy in a northern England mining town who, under the tutelage of a tough but empathetic teacher, discovers his talent for ballet against a backdrop of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's standoff with the striking miners in 1984 has come to Broadway from London.

With three talented youngsters alternating the title role (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish) -- a marathon part involving strong acting, singing and all sorts of dance -- this musical directed, like the film, by Stephen Daldry, with songs by Elton John, is extremely well done, though a few caveats are in order.

Though it features an 11-year-old boy as its central character, this is not a show for young kids. The rough language of the miners and the other characters is a far cry from Disney product.

But all in all, this is a rare musical that works as both drama and spectacle. Haydn Gwynne re-creates her original role in London as the dedicated instructor; Gregory Jbara is Billy's rough-hewn dad who comes to realize the boy deserves a chance for something better, and Carole Shelley plays his dotty but smart-as-a-fox grandma.

Peter Darling's choreography is tremendous, especially the "Solidarity" number where the young ballerinas' moves are brilliantly juxtaposed against the striking miners.

Your interest in the political situation may be nil, and the Northern accents might be a challenge, but for discerning adults not offended by the very strong language, this is as good as it gets. (Imperial Theatre, 240 W. 45th St., (212) 239-6200 or