Monday, April 27, 2009


Review: The Soloist
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Last week I saw and reviewed the journalistic thriller “State of Play,” which had its closing credits superimposed over a Learning Channel-ready sequence of newspapers going to press, from lithographic plate to street corner. This week it's the fact-based tale “The Soloist,” which uses practically the same printing process as the backdrop for its opening titles, creating a smooth, serendipitous segue between the two films that couldn't go unmentioned. In “State of Play,” the images are used to romanticize the newspaper biz and drive home the need for truth in stark black and white. In “The Soloist,” their primary function is to introduce the life and work of Steve Lopez, a real-life Los Angeles Times columnist who in 2005 met Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic who just happened to be a brilliant classical musician. Lopez began writing a series of enormously popular columns on Ayers and, in the process, unexpectedly became the former Juilliard prodigy's benefactor and best friend. Lopez's articles brought much-needed attention to mental illness and L.A.'s drug-infested, vagrant dumping ground, Skid Row. They also led to a book – Lopez's “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music” – which, in turn, became this movie. Thanks to some beautiful imagery and interludes, the musical power remains intact, but a number of defects drain the drama from the friendship and make the dream of the story transitioning well to screen a lost one indeed.

Like “Rain Man” or “I Am Sam,” “The Soloist” is one of those inspirational stories in which the helper, not the less fortunate person being helped, unwittingly gets the most out of the relationship. Played by Robert Downey Jr., Lopez is presented early on as a disenchanted cynic with little interest in anything, least of all being a hero. When he first finds Ayers (Jamie Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin in downtown L.A.'s Pershing Square, the writer sees the rambling, oddly-dressed, but clearly skilled musician as just another subject, visibly distancing himself from whatever woes brought Ayers to such a fractured state. But as he digs deeper, and as his columns gain an increasingly devoted following, Lopez, reluctantly then resolutely, embarks on a mission to help the initially obstinate Ayers reestablish his talent, his sanity and his place in the world. In reality, the trials and triumphs of the atypical alliance changed the lives of both men, eventually getting Ayers off the street (and into the Skid Row shelter LAMP), and revitalizing Lopez's passion and career. It's clear that the film, written with very little grace by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) and directed with an equally heavy hand by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), is intended to convey those same profound changes, but it rarely succeeds, often unfolding before our eyes on emotional autopilot.

In order for any on-screen relationship to be dramatically effective, two things are needed: a believable, carefully-laid foundation between characters and chemistry between the actors playing those characters. “The Soloist,” which is entirely about its on-screen relationship, has neither. Blame it on Grant's running-time-conscious script, which whittles Lopez's and Ayers's bond down to a succession of plot-advancing encounters, breezing past important stuff like both men's motivations to get to (apparently) more important stuff like flashbacks and conflicts. Problem is, conflicts are futile without audience concern, and I never truly cared about – or even knew – why these guys were doing what they were doing and/or what they meant to each other. Blame it also on Wright, who facilitates Grant's chomp-at-the-bit adaptation with predominantly weightless scenes, and favors melodrama and stylish tricks over real drama and subtlety. Particularly in the ill-conceived flashbacks (which exhibit Ayers's lifelong musical aspirations and mental struggles), the director orchestrates disingenuous moments and makes irritatingly literal the voices in the soloist's head. Most reprehensible is Wright's failure to inspire his stars to create any real connection. Don't blame it on Foxx or Downey Jr., for both actors give dynamic, first-class performances individually. Together, though, they have the rapport of two people working on two different films, a fatal flaw that conclusively prevents “The Soloist” from ever reaching far beyond superficiality.

But, oh, what superficiality to behold! “The Soloist” benefits much from the crafty cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, the same Irish D.P. who made “Atonement” so breathtakingly lush and grandiose. Lyrically visualizing the director's wiser decisions, McGarvey does some slick and splendid things with his camera, such as fluidly pulsing through the L.A. Times newsroom in unbroken takes, offering bird's eye views of L.A.'s criss-crossing freeways, soaring through the Disney Concert Hall from the stage to the nosebleed section and homing in on Foxx's fingers as Ayers creates chords with various stringed instruments (he plays the violin, cello and bass, among other things). It is the photography that communicates that “redemptive power of music,” especially when paired with the film's exquisite sound and music design. When Ayers plays, “The Soloist” takes well-appreciated pauses, and though Wright employs odd gimmicks like CG birds and laser shows (don't ask), the scenes are mesmerizing and they're some of the only scenes that achieve poignancy and express what the characters care about (the others belong to Foxx and Downey Jr., who each nail their own private dramatic crescendos).

Other pleasures contained in “The Soloist” include a strong-as-usual but squandered Catherine Keener as Lopez's colleague and ex-wife; some cameos from seemingly non-actor homeless folks that dodge exploitation; and Ayers's continuously bizarre and gleefully colorful costumes, designed with uncaged inspiration by Jacqueline Durran (“Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Atonement”). But for a project with such encouraging source material and such an impressive pedigree (nearly everyone involved is at least Oscar-nominated), the movie is remarkably off-key, unable to hit the high notes of a remarkably uplifting true story.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Review: State of Play
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

If you're reading this review in print instead of online, and still regularly get your news from pages that require flipping and folding instead of clicking and scrolling, odds are you're the ideal audience for “State of Play,” a movie that's built up as a brainy political thriller but is in fact a sentimental love letter to the endangered newspaper industry. Based on the BAFTA-winning 2003 BBC miniseries of the same name, this film version – directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and written by the Herculean screenwriting quintet of Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon”) and the show's author, Paul Abbott – brings stateside the drama of an investigative reporter looking into the smoke-and-mirrors death of a politician's mistress. In just over two hours, it attempts to pack in all of the series' six hours' worth of conspiratorial content, making it as layered as a beefy stack of Sunday editions. Not all the layers work: some that pique our interest are left unexplored, while others should have been nixed altogether. As with the BBC show, the one that gets top billing is the murder mystery, which has a lot of its own skins to shed. But the one that's the most lasting and effective is a knowing, affectionate nod to the dying world of print journalism.

Cal McAffrey works in that world – for the fictitious Washington Globe – and he, too, is a dying breed. An old-school journalist, he types up his copy on an ancient computer, has a cubicle that's littered with notes and clippings, drives a cheap 1990 Saab and still has the kind of wise-assed moxie that's made him well-known around D.C., for better or worse. He's portrayed as a scruffy, unkempt workaholic by Russell Crowe, the leader of quite a powerful pack. Along with its plot elements aplenty, “State of Play” features so many name actors, I sometimes forgot a couple of them were even in the movie. Ben Affleck plays Cal's old college pal, Stephen Collins, a strapping, square-jawed U.S. Congressman whose illicit girlfriend's death-by-subway car sparks that major story layer. Rachel McAdams is the Globe's new blood and Cal's eventual partner, Della Frye, a plucky Capitol Hill blogger who wants the murdered mistress story so bad, she can taste it on her gossip-flapping tongue. Both Cal and Della work for Cameron Lynne, the newspaper's cold-as-ice editor who's got new corporate owners to impress with BIG stories and is played by Helen Mirren, a frigid Brit who even has the silver, “Devil Wears Prada” coif to boot. There's also Robin Wright Penn as Stephen's loyal-yet-humiliated wife, Anne; Jeff Daniels as a snide fellow Congressman under suspicion; and funnyman Jason Bateman as a sleazy PR rep whose ties to the dead girl make him an unlikely key source.

“State of Play” weaves together more twists, secrets and disparate threads than you can count on two hands, and it's a testament to the compounded skills of the writing team that all of it actually makes sense. It takes you down a rabbit hole with multiple detours. The murder of the young woman is connected to two other slayings, and all three apparently lead back to a shady, frighteningly powerful war profiteering company that Stephen has a case against. Cal's investigation of the events is often compromised by his friendship with Stephen, which is on shaky ground to begin with given Cal's especially friendly past with Anne. Meanwhile, on the loose is a creepy, military-trained assassin straight out of “The Manchurian Candidate,” one of a handful of dubious characters in what primarily becomes a ripple-effect whodunit. All this amidst the Globe's very possible – and very palpable, at least to some of us – termination, which is constantly acknowledged in the script and makes “State of Play” perhaps the first major U.S. movie since the country's economic downturn to pointedly address the changing state of news media. With his notepad in hand and his life on the line, Cal represents the merits of those still willing to stick their necks out for a good, old-fashioned scoop. Della, who “cranks out copy every hour,” has those merits, too, but she writes infotainment and uploads it, denoting the blurred line between what's newsworthy and what's not. It is this, the story of these reporters' evolving environment, not the story they're working on, that's the heart of the movie, even if it's presented in a very familiar fashion.

One of the dilemmas of “State of Play” is that everyone, from the disgraced politician (the affair goes public) to his equally disgraced wife who's forced to make a face-saving statement, is not a person but a type of person. In the newsroom in particular, characters like Cameron are given inauthentic dialogue and props like a desk plaque that reads: “Never Trust an Editor,” thus making her about as real as J.J. Jameson from the “Spider-Man” movies. Mirren's a pistol, but she could play this kind of role in her sleep. Same goes for Crowe, who seems so laid back and unchallenged as Cal you'd think the Oscar-winner shot the movie for fun in his spare time. The only cast member who struggles with the material is Affleck, who so clearly wants to be taken seriously as an ACTOR but can't seem to get past what he learned in the Ben Affleck School of Overcompensation. Apart from its nearly newsprint-thin characters, the script barrels down too many roads, however clearly defined they may be. It picks up some serious speed in its third act as the puzzle comes together, but it's only moderately exciting, and it's halted by an excessive amount of revelations and climactic moments, needlessly burrowing even further down that rabbit hole.

What sticks when all is said and done has very little to do with the Congressman, the dead mistress or the villainous war profiteers (heck, even the delicately underplayed, quietly alluded to affair between Cal and Anne is more intriguing than all of that). It's the fondness for newspaper men and women that endures, capped off by an excellent final scene in which most of the Globe staff watches intently as an exhausted and emotionally drained Cal bangs out what's essentially the film's conclusion just hours before deadline. For those in the field, it is a poignant scene, though I imagine it will resonate with other viewers as well, thanks in large part to a touching moment between two characters. “State of Play” lacks the kind of compelling suspense that makes the best journalistic thrillers tick, but it has the same soul. Its lead story may not grab you, but there's something special beneath the headlines.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Review: Hunger
5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Having crept its way into U.S. theaters with the haste of molasses, “Hunger,” a quietly brilliant and bracingly beautiful Irish drama, has a title that's now far more apt than originally intended. Technically a 2008 film, it's been whetting the appetites of serious American moviegoers for months, decorated with multiple international prizes and rhapsodic reviews from critics who've actually seen it. Though still in limited release, it opens in Philadelphia this Friday, nearly one year after its debut at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where it won the coveted Caméra d'or. To say that it was worth the wait is the grossest of understatements. The movie is a rarity among rarities, an unflinching and poetically realized knockout of an art-house picture that stimulates the mind as much as it does the eyes. Brutally dramatizing a particularly deplorable chapter in the history of European politics, it's not an easy film, it's not a pleasant film and it's certainly not one to which you should bring the family. But, for art enthusiasts like me who grow weary of mainstream conventions and – dare I say it – hunger for something more, it's a challenging and highly valued gift.

Unfolding in three distinct acts, “Hunger” depicts what most likely occurred inside the walls of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison during the 1981 Irish hunger strike, the devastating peak of a five-year protest by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who were imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the British government. Though historical knowledge of the events is not required to appreciate the film, it begins with a brief on-screen breakdown of the effects of “The Troubles,” the political and religious conflict of said region that spanned from the late '60s to roughly the late '90s and claimed the lives of thousands. One of the fallen was Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender of “300”), the unbending, Christ-like IRA revolutionary who started the hunger strike at Maze and adhered to it to his death. In a remarkably uncompromising manner and a succinct 95-minute span, the movie chronicles Sands's agonizing final six weeks of life, his body deteriorating while his purpose remains resolute. His struggle is used to represent the struggles of many, not only in the hunger strike – which lasted seven months and ended with the British granting the prisoners' demands – but in the conflict at large.

The virtues of “Hunger” start with its ingredients. Its subject matter is controversial, grisly, fascinating and of international and cultural importance. Though it ends in death, its story is heroic, timeless and relevant, hauntingly echoing the recent events in places like Abu Ghraib. And, of most crucial significance, it is painstakingly directed (and co-written) by English visual artist Steve McQueen, who has a famous name but is virtually unknown to film audiences. Previously notable only in the world of galleries and exhibitions, 40-year-old McQueen has never made a feature before this, an astonishing fact given its superior craftsmanship and bold, vivid storytelling. That such a seriously gritty picture was conceived and visualized by someone who is an artist first is key to its success. That an artist with no prior theatrical film experience (only film and video installations) could conceive and visualize something that so wonderfully speaks the language of cinema is something of a miracle.

The narrative of “Hunger” is communicated primarily through its imagery. Its first third contains hardly any dialogue at all. With the exception of the short, back-story opening, it establishes its setting and characters not by telling you what and who they are but by showing you and allowing you to fill in the holes yourself. Sands is not the first character introduced, nor is his introduction immediately indicative of a protagonist. McQueen initially shows us a Maze guard at home, getting ready for work in a routine that we later realize is filled with paranoia and moral confliction. We then meet a recently captured IRA prisoner and watch as he's processed in the facility, stripped naked and hauled to a cell that's coated, wall-to-wall, with excrement. This soon gives way to torture scenes more gruesome and cringe-inducing than anything in your average slasher film, showing inmates beaten, prodded, probed and humiliated with nightmarish clarity. Incredibly, all of this is captured by McQueen (and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) with stark aesthetic grace.

“Hunger” is what I like to call a “freeze-and-frame” film, meaning, perhaps obviously, that you could hit the pause button at practically any point and be left with a museum-quality photographic composition. Its beauty is consistent, inventive and staggering, making your eyes dart back and forth or holding them transfixed, even when what's on display is enough to make one wince. McQueen is constantly delivering graphic shapes and potent images (he even makes the swirling, feces-smeared walls a handsome sight). It's so rare for a movie to have that freeze-and-frame quality, the notion that, if de-constructed, it could still look as great as when assembled. Even rarer is such a movie that also possesses such an utterly engaging story. Rarer still is one that can do so while dealing with such mortifying material, and rarest of all is that it was done by a debut filmmaker.

The component of “Hunger” that's arguably garnered the most attention and buzz is the portrayal of Sands by Fassbender, whose gut-wrenching, transformative performance is comparable to the shrinking-man work of Christian Bale in 2004's “The Machinist.” Continuing the tradition of devoted actors suffering for their art, Fassbender puts his body through hell in this film, enduring strenuous sequences of physical abuse and drastic, bone-protruding weight loss. The physical dedication is, of course, dramatically effective, but nowhere near as weighty as a single 17-minute scene at the center of “Hunger” that serves as its fulcrum and its entire second act. Seated with a priest whose presence he requested, Sands divulges all of the details and motives behind the impending hunger strike, the first ongoing stream of dialogue after nearly 40 minutes of film. Loaded with political, cultural, religious and deeply personal insights, the one-take exchange is rumored to be the longest single static shot ever in a major motion picture, a mighty feat for Fassbender, for co-star Liam Cunningham and, of course, for McQueen. Its words -- penned by McQueen with Irish playwright Enda Walsh -- are what we hear as “Hunger” makes its final, silent descent, soon arriving at a harrowing conclusion that is, like the rest of the movie, unforgettable.