No. 41: “Quills” (2000)

“Are your convictions so fragile they cannot stand in opposition to mine? Is your god so flimsy, so weak? For shame.”
~~Marquis de Sade

In 1987, a photographer named Andres Serrano dropped a plastic crucifix in a jar of his urine and snapped a photo. The result, “Piss Christ,” snared accolades and secured grant funding for Serrano. That photo also ignited a firestorm of dismay, disgust and outright hatred, prompting some detractors to send death threats. Fifteen years later, he fired back a retort aimed at everyone who damned him a heretic: “I like to believe that rather than destroy icons, I make new ones.”

The Marquis de Sade likely had a giggle at that, since nobody exalted artistic hubris quite like he did. Such is the man Geoffrey Rush presents in “Quills,” a literate, sexy and unapologetically twisted adaptation of Doug Wright’s award-winning play. Rush’s devilish Marquis is many things in his own mind: a sexual dynamo, a proponent of free speech, a consummate artist. In the minds of his keepers at Charenton asylum, the Marquis is something else entirely: a head case in need of experimental treatments to right the wickedness of his mind. Rush turns in a dynamic and tricky performance that makes us believe the Marquis is both. The image of the writer huddled in the corner of his empty room, robbed of his clothes and quill pen, is haunting. Is the Marquis a martyr for his cause or a hack with delusions of grandeur? Maybe his true character can’t be painted in black and white.

Most of the people in Charenton, from the patients to the chambermaids and physicians, make their homes in the gray areas; that’s why “Quills” sidesteps preachiness and depravity. Closest to the Marquis is Madeline (an alluring, achingly naïve Kate Winslet), a laundress who hides his work in linens and smuggles the pages to a horseman (Tom Ward) and the printer. Her innocence makes her the perfect muse for the Marquis, who awards her starring roles in his work. His response to her beauty is less than chaste, prompting the priceless line “You’ve already stolen my heart … as well as another more prominent organ south of the Equator.” Madeline also catches the eye of Charenton’s overseer, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, the unchallenged master of Crushing Inner Conflict), who lets the Marquis produce plays but actually thinks little of his prose (he calls him “a malcontent who knows how to spell”). Napoleon (Ron Cook) orders the Marquis’ execution, but an advisor persuades the ruler to send Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a man with … questional techniques, to fix this reprobate.

Once Caine and Rush stand eye to eye, “Quills” turns into an exhilarating battle of wills. Though Dr. Royer-Collard poses as a righteous man, he gets a gleam in his eye when he attempts to torture the demons from the Marquis’ mind. The good doctor’s eyes give away the delight that his mouth won’t let slip. And the more the Marquis, equally crude and poignant, taunts him, the more the truth comes out. Dr. Royer-Collard isn’t better than the Marquis; he’s just better at hiding his fetishes. Rush plays up his character’s shrewdness to tremendous effect (it takes a sadomasochist to know one). Caine, in the meantime, does a terrific job of concealing all emotions, which makes him even more monstrous. There’s no villain so scary as the one who wields a Bible like an executioner’s handbook. Winslet and Phoenix’s heart-tugging would-be lovers, barely capable of repressing their desire for each other, discover the doctor’s intentions too late.

The sets, costumes and cinematography of Philip Kaufman’s “Quills” only serve to reinforce the immense power of the performances. Somehow art director Martin Childs and set designer Jill Quertier understand the soul of Wright’s play and the film; they understand the soul of Rush’s character, walled up in this festering madhouse, and they manifest his frustrations in colorless soiled dresses and muted, dank castle walls. Every inch of Charenton resembles a medieval torture chamber, notably the Marquis’ final holding pen. Though it may be dreary, he decorates it in such a way his drive to speak his truth can’t be ignored, and surely you won’t forget it.

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Review: “Two Lovers” (2009)

Two_LoversLeonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stumbler. He stumbles into two relationships — with the stunning, troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a kind-hearted family friend — clumsily and without purpose. He stumbles into jobs, hobbies, social interactions. Things simply seem, in Leonard’s addled mind, to happen to him, never the other way around. This mix of confusion and listlessness makes him a perfect disaster of a lover but one fascinating and inscrutable antihero.

In another movie starring another actor, a character like this would be an annoying mess – whiny and sad and grating, able to see opportunities for change but unable to seize them. But director James Gray has a flair for understatement. Phoenix, one of those actors who seems perfect for every part, has a gift for softening our hearts toward the least desirable characters, ones so dumb or damaged or purposeless they’re stuck in a hamster wheel of bad choices. This director/actor pairing is something of a revelation, and one that makes the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers” more of a compelling character study than a soppy melodrama about a love triangle.

The film’s title gives away the major crisis: “Two Lovers” revolves around Leonard’s romantic entanglement with Michelle and Vinessa. Sandra, who is sweet and undemanding, likes Leonard perhaps more than any woman should like a 30-something man medicated for depression who moved in the Brooklyn apartment of his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after failed suicide attempts. Why this man, so obviously unstable? Sandra’s attraction to Leonard hints that she may have an affinity for strays. But she’s far more dependable than Michelle, the willowy blonde Leonard meets outside his parents’ apartment. Michelle plays see-saw with Leonard’s heart, still fragile from a broken engagement, by inviting him to meet her friends, then weeping to him at 4 a.m. about her married boyfriend (Elias Koteas) and her crushing indecision. (Note: There’s a crucial difference between women who call at 4 p.m. and ones who call at 4 a.m.) While Michelle fascinates and excites Leonard, Sandra calms his anxieties. She accepts his distractedness without question. Both women fill different needs, and so he cannot envision losing either.

The fact that neither woman feels like the de-facto “right choice” illustrates the subtle sophistication of the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers,” based on Luchino Visconti’s “Le Notti Bianche.” This is not the kind of film where answers are easy, motivations are transparent and characters are staid. In fact, the people in “Two Lovers” are impossible to stereotype. Though Leonard’s mother Ruth (Rossellini turns in a nuanced performance) worries about her son, she doesn’t hover or smother. Nor does she force him to see Sandra as a cure-all, the good girl who will morph him from a troubled boy into a mature, respectable man. All Ruth knows is that Leonard has problems that run much deeper than post-relationship grief. Her patience with him, her willingness to let him find his own way makes her one of the film’s most moving characters. 

Shaw, too, does a fine job creating a love interest who is not a boring cardboard cutout, the Sandra O. to Paltrow’s Rizzo. (To be fair, Paltrow does avoid turning Michelle into a cliche, instead letting us see humanity in her insecurity — because women that attractive always seem to be insecure.) Sandra goes into her relationship with Leonard with eyes wide open: She knows he has depths she can’t touch and she loves him still. Yet Shaw makes Sandra’s timidity and no-questions-asked acceptance of Leonard tell us she’s not as simple as she seems. She has demons she won’t let us see.

And that Joaquin Phoenix. An egocentric kook, maybe, but me oh my can that actor make somber, beaten-down and complex look new and shiny every time he plays them. He has a resume littered with broken characters, but Leonard may be his best yet — vulnerable and maddening and touching in one fell swoop. How sad, then, that Phoenix has said “Two Lovers” was his last movie. If that’s the case, it’s fitting he’s gone out with a whimper, not a bang. Sometimes it’s the whimpers that hit hardest.

Grade: A-

10 great Joaquin Phoenix roles

buffalo_soldiers

Hmmm ... Joaquin's level of craziness must be directly proportionate to his amount of facial hair.

Now that the furor over Joaquin Phoenix’s recent attempts to outdo the Unabomber in terms of sheer weirdness and facial hair has subsided, we fans are left with a few nagging questions. Should we have seen this breakdown coming? Were there context clues along the way that we missed? One day, will we look back at his stunts — and, most memorably, that awkward Letterman appearance — with the same kind of “hindsight’s-a-megabitch” pained insight we feel for “The Sixth Sense”?

Eh, who knows. It’s hard to make sense of this undeniably talented actor’s antics — best to let them run their course. Maybe they have. In the meantime, many one-time Joaquin fans are bailing on this sinking ship. And they’re not wrong. Maybe he’s an egotistical kook looking to become a Personality, someone on par with Howard Hughes. Maybe, after a relatively short career of not that many movies, he’s just not worth the trouble.

But me? I’m not giving up hope yet. The fact that Joaquin has range and enormous talent as an actor cannot be disputed. Once this phase passes, it will be a blip on the radar, a Chris Gaines fiasco that got too much press for no good reason. And we’ll all laugh heartily.

Until then, though, let’s remind ourselves of the good ole’ days, when Joaquin gave us these 10 fiery, pathetic, wickedly lovable, charming and utterly unforgettable characters:

1. Ray Elwood, “Buffalo Soldiers” – Shelving and reshelving on “Buffalo Soldiers” after 9/11 assured that almost no one could see Joaquin work his magic as Ray Elwood, the cynical, opportunistic “guy who gets things” — be it heroin or a truckload of heavy artillery — on an army base in 1989 Berlin. What a shame, for this is his defining moment as an actor. He makes Ray one hell of a sly, fast-talking antihero for the ages.

2. Commodus, “Gladiator” — Let’s agree to move past this unfortunate name? Done. Great, now let’s talk about Joaquin’s performance, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2001. There aren’t many times we get to see the insecurities beneath a villain’s rampaging, unchecked id. Joaquin gives us a bad guy as squeamish, insecure and fearful as he is dangerous. Brilliant.

3. Johnny Cash, “Walk the Line” — Does Joaquin look like Johnny Cash? Have the same rumbling, churning voice? Maybe not, but he has what really matters: the wounded yet sure-footed presence that made the Man in Black a legend. Joaquin, always one to put his stamp on a role, creates not a copy but a tribute, and that makes this role one of this best.

4. The Abbe du Coulmier, “Quills” — That Joaquin can do damaged, conflicted and dark is obvious. But what we didn’t know is that he could make a forlorn, wimpy priest who sodomizes, well, a corpse a sympathetic character. (Believe it.) It’s the kind of thing you have to see to understand. Joaquin pulls it off somehow, giving us perhaps the most unlikely romantic in movie history. 

Too cool for porn: Joaquin as Max California in "8MM."

Too cool for porn: Joaquin as Max California in "8MM."

5. Max California, “8MM” — Joaquin has a way of stealing movies that don’t belong to him. Witness his funny and inexplicably moving turn as Max California, a smartass porn shop worker who provides Nicholas Cage a way into the underground abyss of snuff films. He’s easily the best thing about this otherwise dour, grim film, and his performance leaves you shaken.

6. Lewis McBride, “Return to Paradise” – It’s been said there are no small parts, just small actors. Joaquin drives that one home, and hard, as Lewis McBride, who wastes away in a Malaysian prison while the two strangers he shared hashish with go home unscathed. Watching him unravel bit by bit is painful, but Joaquin makes Lewis’ tragedy so compelling (re: not melodramatic) that you can’t look away.

7. Merrill Hess, “Signs” — “Signs” runs a close second to “Sixth Sense” as my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film, and Joaquin’s Merrill Hess is a big reason why. Who but J.P. could take a popular high school jock who can’t quit reliving his glory days and make him broken-down, reflective and comically self-aware? This is a classic Joaquin move — give him what could be a flat part, and he’ll do beautiful things with it.

Joaquin as devastated father Ethan Learner in "Reservation Road."

Joaquin as Ethan Learner in "Reservation Road."

8. Ethan Learner, “Reservation Road” — Bachelors rarely pull off the concerned parent routine in movies. (Just ask John Cusack about “Martian Child.”) But Joaquin is nothing in a movie if not nakedly emotional, so his Ethan Learner, whose son is killed in a hit-and-run, is the kind of walking wound you can’t ignore. This is Joaquin at his most wounded, and his performance will haunt you for days.

9. Jimmy Emmett, “To Die For” — People have remarked that all Joaquin really does in this marvelously black comedy is play a dumb high school kid. That’s accurate — to a point. He takes it a little farther than that, making Jimmy, who falls for a blonde TV personality and agrees to off her husband, endearingly clueless and menacing in equal measure. It’s a small part, but it has sticking power.

10. Clay Bidwell, “Clay Pigeons” – To be honest, “Clay Pigeons” belongs to Vince Vaughn, who plays funny-creepy-serial killer a teensy bit too well. But Joaquin registers impressively as the ineffectual but well-meaning Clay, a doofy Everyman who gets swept up into the bizarro web of a murderer (Vaughn) and can’t wriggle his way out. That he doesn’t disappear by the scenery Vaughn chews up is a testament to Joaquin’s talent.

(Note: If ole’ Joaq had it in his head to give people just enough roles to make a top 10 list, then he succeeded. Because truth be told, by the end there I’d gotten to the algae and gunk and crystallized remains left at the bottom of a dry well.)

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49″) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

Review: “Reservation Road” (2007)

reservation_roadBy all rights, Terry George’s “Reservation Road” should be a 2 a.m. Lifetime Television weeper. All the trappings are there — a freak car accident that turns into an unsolved hit-and-run case; a grieving father who sees closure only in revenge; a driver whose sanity is buckling under the weight of what he’s scrambled to cover up — just waiting to be exploited shamelessly. But here’s the real shocker: That … never … happens. “Reservation Road” is no crudely simplified fable with a villain and a hero and a gift-wrapped ending; it’s not that kind of movie. No, what happens here is complex, delicate and deliberate. Don’t expect to walk away unshaken. 

Of course, part of what makes “Reservation Road” so compelling is the (admittedly) hokey-sounding crisis at its center: Driving home from a late Red Sox game with his son, Dwight (Mark Ruffalo) veers off the highway and rams into a child on the roadside at a gas station, killing the 10-year-old boy while his father Ethan (Joaquin Phoenix) watches, too shocked to remember the car or the driver’s face. Dwight, without quite knowing what he’s doing, drives away, leaving Ethan, his wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly) and their daughter with a dead body and no answers.

All of this happens very early, and there’s a reason for those emotionally punishing first 10 minutes: These events provide a framework for the rest of “Reservation Road,” which grows more unsettling each minute. The pile of coincidences is a stretch — or is it? In a small town, is it so hard to believe that the victim and the criminal might know each other? Have kids in the same school? Maybe George pushes this angle a bit too hard, makes it a bit too unsubtle, but perhaps this is necessary to pull us in. After all, nothing about this film is easy because “Reservation Road” splits us right down the center, forces us t0 see humanity in the criminal (a divorced dad afraid to lose partial custody of his son), demons in the wronged man (whose grief takes him to an ugly place). To identify with one man is to identify with the other. Phoenix and Ruffalo’s gut-wrenching performances ensure this much.

Oh, and speaking of the performances: Many argue that the faceoff of 2007 was DiCaprio/Damon in “The Departed.” Hardly. What Phoenix and Ruffalo do in “Reservation Road” lays waste to that claim. These two pour themselves into roles that require a frightening amount of emotional energy. Phoenix, who specializes in surly intensity, shows how close resignation can be to blind rage. He takes Ethan’s sadness to a place no one can touch, not even his wife (Connelly, who’s more nakedly emotional than ever). “How do I get you back?” she asks. Damned if Ethan knows, either, and Phoenix makes this internal confusion hard to watch but impossible to ignore. Unglued, too, is Ruffalo’s Dwight, whose decision to leave the scene sticks in his subconscious like a hunting knife in the gut. He can’t shake the guilt. Credit must go to Ruffalo, one of the finest actors out there, for not reducing Dwight to weepy, drunken heap. Ruffalo is too smart, too intuitive an actor to make that mistake. Instead he gives us a man who is slowly unravelling, who knows more with each day that he did much more than kill a child: he killed himself.

And so “Reservation Road” leave us with a whole mess of unanswered questions. Dwight takes a life, reacts badly and suffers dearly for it. But does he suffer enough? Can he ever suffer enough? Does he deserve to die? Would his death give Ethan the kind of closure he wants and needs? Don’t expect an eleventh-hour hug, a Kleenex or a cheat sheet. “Reservation Road” offers no comfort and no answers … which, in an odd way, makes the film something of a miracle. 

Grade: A-

Say it ain’t so, Johnny!

Cry, cry, cry.

That’s exactly what this blogger — and, I imagine, legions of like-minded fans — will be doing after “Two Lovers” leaves theaters. Why? Well, it appears that Joaquin Phoenix (one of the best actors in Hollywood, in my opinion) will, in his own words, “quit the business” of acting after the romantic drama is released.

Phoenix, who’s played memorable roles such as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” a tortured priest in “Quills,” a wily, apathetic soldier in “Buffalo Soldiers,” and a wimpy Roman ruler in “Gladiator,” made the announcement yesterday, claiming he’s retiring to pursue music. (See http://movies.yahoo.com/feature/joaquinphoenix_blog.html for the full story.)

Great. That’s EXACTLY what the world was missing: another actor who fancies himself a musician. Joaquin, I’ve got two words for you: Bruce Willis. I’m sure your CD collection overfloweth with Bruno albums.

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