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|April 30-May 6, 2009
• Solo with no encore
by Michael Phillips
• Unearthing our planet
by Kenneth Turan
Solo with no encore
by Michael Phillips
The Soloist is a duet for homeless street musician and crusading columnist. Another way to put it: The film showcases a 102-piece orchestra, in which a yearning solo cello struggles, mightily, to be heard amid 101 Hollywood strings of schmaltz.
You couldn’t ask for better actors; the real-life characters, however, deserved a more dimensional screenplay. When the end credits roll on director Joe Wright’s picture and Jamie Foxx’s name comes up first, it’s more or less news to the audience. He got top billing?
Screenwriter Susannah Grant, whose Erin Brockovich had the virtue of telling one real-life crusader’s story, here labors to keep two intersecting lives in focus. We get only a drive-by sense of who Nathaniel Ayers, the former Juilliard music student plagued by undiagnosed schizophrenia, really is underneath the agonized surface. The film’s poster lets you know who the movie’s about: It’s about the star Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., whose influential columns on Ayers and his downtown L.A. skid row existence led to huge readership, political reform, a book deal and a movie sale.
The dramatic lopsidedness may be inevitable, because Lopez serves as the insider’s entry point to an outsider’s universe. Trolling for column fodder, Downey’s Lopez meets Foxx’s Ayers in downtown L.A.’s Pershing Park, which qualifies as one of the stranger urban slabs of concrete ever to be called a park. Ayers is playing Beethoven on a battered old two-string violin, near a statue of Beethoven, the muse for his precarious existence. “I apologize for my appearance,” he says. “I’ve had a few setbacks.” Lopez, whose desk at the Times is surrounded by empty ones owing to downsizing, files him away under “possible column subject.” But when Ayers mentions his former Juilliard classmates, the bells start ringing. What is this man’s story?
Like any biopic — less than most, in fact — this one deploys the truth when it sees fit. Screenwriter Grant gives Lopez a fictional editor, played by Catherine Keener, who’s also his fictional ex-wife. Smaller adjustments include the decision to go easy on the anti-Semitic and homophobic strains in Ayers’ manic verbal riffs, before and after Lopez helps guide him to the protection of the L.A. social services agency known as Lamp Community.
The main challenge in The Soloist for director Wright concerns finding a visual approach that honors both the life Lopez leads and Ayers’ perilous street-level existence. This is the story of a complicated and fraught friendship, and I’m not sure Wright and his collaborators figured out how much Hollywood baloney and how much naturalistic grunge to apply to it. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Wright’s colleague on the lush period piece Atonement, and Wright’s longtime editor Paul Tothill contribute to a surface sheen and a tight, slightly nervous rhythm, but the effect is impersonal. The script hits its emotional marks, but often obviously, and you notice because the effective scenes really do spring to life. Foxx finally gets a chance to show another side of his character besides generalized, logorrheic mental illness. Here, Foxx’s rage and confusion startle, and Downey’s panic feels completely real.
Backed by his newfound A-list stardom, Downey brings to the project a wry swagger — crucial in an essentially reactive role. I wish, though, that The Soloist hadn’t spent so much time dealing with Lopez’s crises of conscience and career, even as they relate to Ayers’ story. When the preoccupations of a columnist are given greater weight than the life-and-death details of a homeless onetime prodigy, a screenwriter takes the wrong sort of risk. Also, the way Wright shoots the real-life homeless population of downtown L.A. (which remains staggering), it’s as background, rather than amplification. Wright may have been miscast on this assignment. And Downey and Foxx may well have felt some frustration unrelated to their characters’ frustrations, working on a script affording them lots of situation and drama but not much countermelody to augment the main theme.
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Unearthing our planet
by Kenneth Turan
It would be Pollyannish to pretend that the documentary Earth is without its problems, but the bottom line is, difficulties be damned, it shouldn’t be missed. What it does well is so remarkable that by the time the credits roll you likely won’t want it to end.
Walt Disney Co. is hoping people feel that way because it has a lot invested in this documentary from a corporate point of view — so much so that it has promised to plant a tree in honor of every moviegoer who goes to see it. Hoping to recapture the audience it had in the 1950s with its True-Life Adventures films, Disney is using this doc to launch an entire new label, Disneynature, devoted to the call of the wild.
If the notion of eye-popping, state-of-the-art nature photography sounds familiar, that’s because this film is the direct descendant of Planet Earth, the astonishing 11-hour BBC series that went to more than 200 locations in 64 countries, played widely on the Discovery Channel and sold millions of DVDs.
In fact, though the framework and focus of the theatrical feature is different from the TV series, an estimated 60 percent of Earth’s footage has already been seen at home. While this is not ideal, the reality is that so much of that footage is so compelling that it’s a pleasure to see it again on a theatrical screen.
Yes, fans of the series will remember the great white shark leaping completely out of the water with a seal in its mouth, as well as aerial shots of caribou without number on their annual migration. There are vistas magnificent enough to give you vertigo, glimpses of a world that human beings almost never go to or even see, and experiencing them for a second time is hardly a hardship.
In keeping with the Disney approach, the nature photography this time around, co-directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield and shot by some 60 cameramen, is focused on the trials of three different animal families.
Up in the Arctic, a mother polar bear and her two cubs look for food in the barren snows. In Africa’s Kalahari Desert, elephants fight off drought as they head for the promised lushness of the Okavango Delta. And under the sea, a humpback whale and her calf navigate a 4,000-mile migration, the longest of any for a marine mammal.
No matter what animals are onscreen, the theme of Earth is always the struggle of the different species to find enough to eat and survive. In fact, it is the fang-and-claw stuff that is invariably most compelling, and the infrared nighttime shots of a pride of lions making a rare attack on an elephant are riveting.
One of the interesting tensions in Earth is between the implacability of the animal world and Disney’s determination to make a family film with a G rating. So, while it is clear in several sequences that the end of an animal’s life is seconds away, the film always cuts away before the actual coup de grace is delivered.
Less successfully negotiated is the tenor of the voice-over delivered by James Earl Jones in what is definitely not his Darth Vader tone. While the Planet Earth narration was crisp and to the point, the talk here is much too cutesy and anthropomorphic for its own good.
These unfortunate lines include describing baby elephants as being on “their first road trip with the family,” a bird of paradise portrayed as “cleaning up for the big date tonight” and complimenting obedient baby polar bear cubs by comparing them with “human beings who don’t always listen to their moms.”
These frequent remarks are an irritant, but they’re not deal-breakers. Even if you have to put cotton in your ears when you see Earth, keep your eyes wide open, and you’ll be amply rewarded.
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