Phoenix, cast are intriguing in 'Two Lovers'

"Two Lovers" is loosely based on Dostoevsky's "White Nights,' a short story which examines the theme of loving someone just out of reach.

In truth, though director James Gray's film is a triangulated love story, with all the attendant emotional baggage that triangles inevitably produce, its depth and breadth emanate from a compelling character study of a 30-year-old man, Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), who, after a devastating breakup with his fiancé, fell off a cliff into depression and suicidal ideation. His one attempt at taking his life landed him in the hospital for a time and post-hospital saw him (now medicated) once again living with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) and ensconced in his old room.

Phoenix's portrayal of Leonard, now slightly out of alignment, filled with tics of self-assertion contrasted with chronic demurrals, is startlingly good, as are the performances of Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw.

Leonard, improbably, falls in love with two women: Michelle (Paltrow) — needy, volatile, in love with a married man — who has recently moved into his building; and Sandra (Shaw) — lovely, even-tempered, the daughter of his father's business associate — who wants only to know Leonard better.

Of course, Leonard — the moth to the flame — becomes obsessed with Michelle, ready to forsake all if only to be close to her, all the while painfully aware that Sandra, who is tentative and remarkably understanding, is open to loving him.

This all gets sorted out in a gently paced manner with an ending that while tidily constructed is filled with ambiguity.

"Two Lovers" is the antidote to the glossy Hollywood romantic comedies that are recently ubiquitous and seem so far removed from anything resembling life. It is subtle, nuanced, painfully claustrophobic and always involving.

As an aside, Phoenix appeared recently on the David Letterman show looking like a member of ZZ Top, a mass of beard and long snarled hair, his eyes shaded by dark glasses, mumbling incoherently something about becoming a rapper and leaving acting forever. Hopefully Hollywood, with its distorting fame and ersatz reality, will not drive Phoenix into some Mickey Rourke alternative universe and away from acting. It would be a shame to take all that talent and encase it in some kind of hip-hop fantasy.

Race to Witch Mountain

So you're about 12 or 13 and looking to spend a couple of hours being severely entertained, wanting the world outside to drop away, the demands of peers and school to vanish. What better way to escape than to scrunch down in a dark theater, chat away with your buds during the trailers, and then get really quiet as "Race to Witch Mountain" fills the screen. Or, more specifically, as Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, fills the screen, his face serious and furrowed, his signature look ("I'm really annoyed") in place.

"Witch Mountain" is a smorgasbord of stuff that kids enjoy: two teenage ETs, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), whose spacecraft crashes on earth, hence are a long way from home (light years) and desperate to return home; government agents, led by Burke (Cirian Hinds), having recovered their ship, are in the hunt to find the kids so they can study them in a federal facility; an alien iron-clad terminator sent to kill them; a super-sized father figure in the form of Jack Bruno (Johnson) who has taken them under his muscular wing; lots of edgy chase scenes and close calls; an ET/SF Las Vegas convention with tons of Trekies and Star War geeks; and loads of piled-on special effects. Just perfect.

Of course, kids will watch "Race to Witch Mountain" uncritically, ignoring the lame plot and dialogue. Nor will said filmgoers point out to their peers that Seth and Sara, who have a truckload of ET powers, don't always use their powers, even when in a really, really tight spot. Case in point would be Sara, who can shoot energy bolts using the tip of her finger and holds off, even with the Feds closing in. Wouldn't you use the standby energy bolt?

But no matter, "Race to Witch Mountain" is a spiffy movie that will keep young moviegoers pretty much riveted.

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