Saturday, August 29, 2009

of Gray

should be
no irony;
you are
invited by
the movie
to be total-
ly empathe-
tic with the
people in it. We would never talk down to or be condescending to them.
-- The thinking behind Two Lovers

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My introduction to James Gray came through his second fea-
ture, The Yards, which screened at the 2000 Toronto Interna-
tional Film Festival with Gray and actors Mark Wahlberg and
Joaquin Phoenix in attendance (the film also stars James Caan,
Faye Dunaway, and an unrecognizably brunette Charlize Theron).

Gray was a little nervous about presenting such a personal film—
the title refers to the Queens railyards, where his father toiled—
in front of such a large audience, but he provided an eloquent
introduction, citing Rocco and His Brothers as an influence.

Phoenix, who is quite good in the movie, looked ill at ease
and said he was uncomfortable speaking in public. Wahl-
berg tried to get him to say more, but to no avail. After the
film concluded, Wahlberg, who couldn't have been more at
ease, threatened to launch into one of his Marky Mark and
the Funky Bunch raps if the audience didn't ask any ques-
tions. That got a big laugh, and people started to pipe up.

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The only thing that you can do is try to make sure
the film looks beautiful, better than you had imagin-
ed, as it slips away from you... If you hire the right
people, they can give you something better and
more beautiful than you’d ever imagined.
-- The thinking behind all his films

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Despite the favorable festival response, The Yards was a non-starter at the box office. It must not have been a priority for Miramax, as I don't recall much of a promotional push. If more people had known about it, I'm certain it would've done better.

Gray followed up with another crime film, 2007's We Own the
Night, which felt rote and lackluster in comparison, despite sol-
id, but not spectacular work from Wahlberg and Phoenix. (And
I don't want to lay too much blame at Eva Mendes' feet, but she's
no match for the other actresses who've populated Gray's pic-
tures, notably Oscar winners Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow.)

As with Luchino Vis-
conti's B&W Rocco,
The Yards may be
melodramatic, but
Gray is looking spec-
ifically to the classic
Euro-American me-
lodramas of the '60s
and '70s, and not just
amping everything
up for the hell of it.

The pace is stately but not lugubrious, cinematographer Harris
Savides' use of ochre and siena hues recalls the work of Gordon
Willis in The Godfather, and the actors make the Old Testament-
style dialogue ring true. Every decision can mean life or death
for these characters, and they usually make the wrong ones.

With 2008's Two Lovers, now available on DVD, Gray returns
to the Russian-American milieu of Little Odessa, which I caught on TV shortly after The Yards. Since his second feature was still percolating in my mind, I dashed off the following review.

For those new to his work, I recommend starting here before mov-
ing on to The Yards or Two Lovers. The latter operates almost as
a twin, and reunites the director with Phoenix, who imbues Lovers
with one of his strangest, most effective performances to date.

(James Gray, US, 1994, 98 mins.)

Only 25 at the time, James Gray wrote
and directed this depressing, but remark-
ably well executed debut. The soundtrack
that accompanies the small-scale drama is
particularly unusual in that it's mostly
hushed choral arrangements of Rachman-
inoff, Tchaikovsky, and Mussogorsky.

It's not what you'd expect from a post-Tarantino film about
a hitman, Joshua Shapira (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction
veteran Tim Roth), and the havoc his career wreaks on his
Brighton Beach-based Russian immigrant family (Maxi-
milian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, and Edward Furlong).

Like Elijah Wood, Furlong (Joshua's younger brother) looks as if he's here to stay. So many child stars disappear from the scene once they hit adolescence or make the awkward transition into adulthood with the hyper-critical eyes of the world upon them.

Such has been the fate of Macaulay
Culkin, a virtual has-been at the age
of fourteen. But Furlong has persever-
ed since he shot to fame in 1991's Ter-
minator 2: Judgment Day, by taking on more interesting and less commercial roles in films like American History X, and looks to have a good, long career ahead of him. Well into his teens by 1994, he plays a kid here, but this is definitely an adult film, in the non-pornographic sense of the word.

[How wrong I was about Furlong, whose last hurrah was Pecker.]

In Little Odessa, Furlong takes the lead, and not the better known actors who surround him, easily stealing the film right out from under Roth—who isn't bad, but this isn't one of his standout roles—and that makes the shocker of an ending all the more tragic.

Gray's first effort isn't for all tastes, but it's hard not to admire
the skill that went into its making, from the mournful soundtrack
to the moody camera work, which focuses on the snow-covered
Russian section of Brooklyn—the Little Odessa of the title—to
the economical script and, finally, to the naturalistic acting of
the entire cast. Little Odessa won the Silver Lion at the Ven-
ice Film Festival, and marks James Gray as a director to watch.

The theatrical trailer

Endnote: Except for Little Odessa, Joaquin Phoenix has ap-
peared in all of Gray's movies, making him the Al Pacino to his
Sidney Lumet or the Robert De Niro to his Martin Scorsese,
comparisons a classicist like Gray would probably appreciate—
and that a tempestuous talent like Phoenix would probably dis-
miss. Images and quotes from ICG Magazine (picture by Anne
Joyce, words by David Heuring), Big Pond, and Moviemaker.


Anonymous said...

Hi, from Greece .I put all my attention to this post. The reason was that I'm a great fan of "Little Odessa and of course a big fan of Gray's films. The man its a real talent. I dislike Tarantino fake and out of emotions stolen stories.
I' m Grrek and I catch the big tragedy on Little Odessa.
So all his films are better from last Scorsese films.
Eva Mendes is for sure not an actress but for me the Gray's
"We Own The Night" it's an underrate film.

Have a nice day

kathy fennessy said...

Thank you for your comment. I agree that Gray is a real talent, and I'm thrilled that Two Lovers has received so much positive attention. I wish the same for his future endeavors.