CINEMA: One Is The Loneliest Number You’ll Ever Do

soloist_1.jpgTHE SOLOIST (2009, directed by Joe Wright, 109 minutes, U.S.)
EARTH (2007, directed by Alastair Fothergill & Mark Linfield, 96 MIinutes, U.S./U.K.)


This is what Oscar-bait looks like when things go wrong. A true story based on the popular best seller of the same name, The Soloist stars Jaime Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill former Julliard student who is discovered playing music on the streets by L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.). Over time they strike up a mutually beneficial friendship which supplies the homeless Mr. Ayers with some much-needed stability and supplies Mr. Lopez (formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer) with a career-making news story. That summary should tell you everything you need to know about why Hollywood was attracted to the story; you got a cross-racial friendship, a crusading reporter, a mentally ill genius (and Oscar loves actors who play the mentally ill) and a life redeemed by the power of music.  How could it lose? Decisively, it turns out. Originally primed for release in the fall (where potential Academy Award winners dwell), the release was finally pushed back to the pre-Summer blockbuster doldrums, a savvy decision because like Beethoven’s ears, The Soloist just doesn’t work.

Director Joe Wright (who mounted the glossy WW2 flick Atonement) takes an approach that is too smart by a half. Seeking to minimize the sort of TV movie sentimentality the story’s outline is prey to, Wright begins by directing this story with an in-your-face style that seeks to recreate the sense of danger felt by the paranoid Mr. Ayers. Much like the recent Diving Bell & The Butterfly, The Soloist traps its story its character in a claustrophobic present, unnerving the audience with a visual attuned to Mr. Ayers’ jittery experience. It is an uncomfortable place to visit but once the troubled musician is brought in to watch the L.A. Philharmonic perform we escape with him into a psychedelic lightshow of music and color (shades of Fantasia!) that is meant to express Mr. Ayers liberation through music.

The film gets more conventional from there, with flashbacks supplying Mr. Ayers’ tragic backstory but somehow along the way their friendship goes unillustrated. Oh, they’re together constantly yet missing is any sense of camaraderie, humor or ease between them. Without this sort of chemistry you’re left to guess why Mr. Lopez is spending all his time hanging out on skid row.  Perhaps this is best explained by the ill-founded idea of writing the real Mr. Lopez’s wife and child out of the picture, in an attempt to create a character who is just as isolated as the man he is covering. It’s a typical writers’ trick, drawing parallels between two apparently dissimilar characters but it only pushes the film away from the truth, or any truth for that matter. And poor Jaime Foxx, he’s acting his heart out here, he even reportedly chipped his teeth for greater authenticity. Left adrift by Wright’s unsure direction, his manic performance comes off as more of a stunt than it should. You want to applaud the film for side-stepping sentiment but if you’re going to remove the surefire heart-tugging you better replace it with something more than two hours of pure liberal

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And if you think the streets are mean, the wilderness isn’t much better. Disney’s return to nature documentary, Earth chronicles how climate change is threatening many of the iconic superstars of the great outdoors. Without dwelling on the man-made details, Earth captures the struggles of polar bears, pachyderms and assorted other whiskery friends as the attempt to survive in an increasingly unfavorable landscape. Cobbled together mainly from footage shot for BBC’s Planet Earth mini-series, Earth serves as a sort of highlight reel of that show’s more spectacular moments. And blown up on the big screen, they do look truly mind-blowing; exotic birds and amorphous sea life will remind the reverent among us that yes, the creator did indeed invent acid as well. Shortchanged is the science or illuminating context but new is the morose feeling (perhaps fed by the narration by Mr. Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones) that we better see ’em now, ’cause only the magic of CGI will be able to summon these critters within a couple generations.

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