Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

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Being Flynn


Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

(2012) Dramedy (Focus) Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Eddie Rouse, Victor Rasuk, Liam Broggy, Chris Chalk, Thomas Middleditch, Sarah Quinn, Benjamin Foronda, Dale Dickey, Joshua Alscher, Dawn McGee, Billy Wirth, Michael Gibson, Kelly J. McCreary, Deidra O’Connell, Michael Genadry, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Paul Weitz

The relationship between father and son can be tricky. Not everyone who fathers a son can be a father. Often, whether or not we choose to accept it or even acknowledge it, the sins of the father are inherited by the son.

You wouldn’t think there was much of a chance of that in the case of Nick Flynn (Dano). He hasn’t even seen his dear old dad Jonathan (De Niro) in 18 years and has demons of his own to deal with. His mother (Moore) has recently committed suicide and he has continued to sink into a well of addiction, infidelity (his girlfriend has kicked him to the curb for both of these reasons if one wasn’t enough) and depression. He gets work at a homeless shelter, doing the kind of work that most people would shy away from – delousing new residents, bathing them, that sort of thing. Nick is a writer who has lost his muse; this could be a gold mine for him if he chooses to view it that way.

Unfortunately, Nick is too self-involved in a downward spiral of booze and guilt to see the opportunity and that spiral only gains speed when he finds his father taking a bed at the shelter. Jonathan, who is happy to tell you that he is the great American writer you’ve never heard of, has lost his only steady employment as a taxi driver and has been kicked out of his apartment for starting fistfights, is almost certainly suffering from some sort of dementia, growing more aggressive and misanthropic by the day until his antics get him ejected from the home, further straining the bonds between the two men. Both are if not at bottom pretty damn close; can they get past their demons and reclaim their relationship and use it to help each other rise above or are they destined for the same shabby fate?

De Niro has been in the pantheon of America’s greatest actors for decades although as of late he hasn’t had a truly memorable performance, sticking to mainstream comedies, mob roles that are a shadow of his triumphs with Martin Scorsese, and a few maudlin dramas here and there. This is a reminder of why he is De Niro, perhaps his most scintillating role since Casino which coincidentally was the last film he made to date for Scorsese. Jonathan is larger than life, an Irish bard with the edginess of a Holden Caulfield and the cynicism of a film critic. De Niro inhabits the role, giving us a man whose actions are unpredictable and mainly self-aggrandizing but there still remains somewhere buried deep among the bravado and the BS a decent human being.

Dano who has in the last few years begun to emerge as a pretty decent actor after years of playing the same sorts of roles has the thankless job of playing with De Niro but actually manages to hold his own. Nick refuses to acknowledge his own issues and like many addicts doesn’t see the dangerous reefs he is steering directly towards. There are times that his character is heart-rending but others when you just want to give him a good smack across the chops.

Also worthy of note is Moore in a brief but memorable turn as Nick’s mom and Jonathan’s ex. Even in the face of two really excellent performances she manages to stand out in her limited screen time. If I haven’t said it before, Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses in the world today and she deserves more discussion when it comes to that.

Where the production suffers is that Weitz (in all likelihood pressured by the studio) has made a kind of schizophrenic movie and I’m not even talking about the dual narration (we get the POVs of both Jonathan and Nick). What I mean to say is that there are times when the movie is edgy and gritty, but then others when it sinks into cliche. I get that this is based on a true story – yes, there really is a Nick Flynn and he really did run into his dad at a homeless shelter that he worked at – but there are some moments that really don’t ring true here.

This is one of those movies that came and went quickly with little fanfare or attention which is kind of a shame because De Niro’s performance alone is worth checking out. While the movie itself is flawed, there are some pretty good moments in the movie that you might want to give your attention to. If you haven’t already seen it, this is one of those movies worth watching when you’re looking for something different to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro is in top form here which is all you should really need.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes cliche instead of edgy.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some sexual situations, some drug usage and alcohol abuse as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which is the same title that the memoir that it is based upon is titled but studio brass balked, feeling that it would alienate its potential audience before they even walked in the door.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $540,152 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Asylum

Stuff


Stuff

Dinner at the Johnsons.

(2011) Documentary (Self-Released) Lawrence Johnson, Phil Wilson, Olin Johnson. Directed by Lawrence Johnson

We are all of us defined as not just who we are but as what we have as well. We are all collections of stuff; physical things, emotional things, memories…stuff.

Portland, Oregon-area filmmaker Lawrence Johnson is going through some issues. His father, Olin, has recently passed away from liver cancer. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is in a care facility. His marriage is crumbling and he’s been kicked out of his apartment by his soon to be ex-wife, his things left out in the yard along with his father’s things. Stuff.

His friend Phil Wilson, a carpenter, has also lost his father recently and means to inter his ashes in a grave next to Phil’s mom. She’s buried in Iowa, so a road trip is necessary. Lawrence asks to tag along and uses Phil more or less as a proxy for his own feelings towards his dad. After some time he allows himself to be interviewed and to a certain extent things come out but Lawrence is still keeping things inside. You know. Stuff.

Eventually the unemployed Lawrence who is deeply depressed after the twin losses of his father and marriage becomes homeless, living with his dog out of his van. He sells his book collection all the books of philosophy and psychology that has helped make him who he is. He feels a failure, estranged from his children, his friends, his life. Why not make a movie about it? A movie about…stuff.

So Johnson did just that. He mixed in some original animations to signify his thoughts and dreams (and nightmares), as well as home movies his dad, who was one of those home movie junkies back in the day, took of various family events from vacations to parties. His father was also a relentless collector of kitsch, from the logos of car manufacturers to…crap he might have been assured would appreciate over time but never did. Stuff.

The movie has a tendency to meander. I suspect that the movie wound up being about something different than what Johnson initially intended it to be. It went from being about his dad and Lawrence’s relationship to him to being about the things that tie us down. That kind of lack of focus isn’t surprising when you title your movie Stuff.

Lawrence is never truly liberated until the movie’s last reel when things begin to get disposed of. He also find a niche for himself and his movie begins to act as a sort of catharsis therapy for him. In a sense, what we’re watching is a condensed hour and a half long therapy session that took place over the course of years as Lawrence comes to terms with his own failings, those of his parents and of his place in society in general. That kind of stuff.

Lawrence narrates the movie and at times expresses some pretty deep and thought-provoking sentiments. He is most successful when he is discussing the dynamic between himself and his parents, particularly his father. That struck a chord in me – but then again, I live for that kind of stuff.

This is a very personal movie and those types of things will be successful to you depending on how much you connect with the person making the movie. Lawrence isn’t always the easiest person to connect with, having spent much of the movie expressing himself through animation, his own rambling narration and through other people. I can’t say that it always hits the mark, but it gives you something to think about and what more can you ask for? After all, it’s only stuff.

REASONS TO GO: Some interesting thoughts and some wonderful animation. Father-son relationship dynamic struck a chord with me.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on narration. The film seemed a bit unfocused and meanders quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: A little mild bad language and a few images that might be somewhat disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer John R. Smith was a member of the 1980s pop band NuShooz.

HOME OR THEATER: An intimate film that will be even more intimate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Potiche

Wendy and Lucy


Wendy and Lucy

Lucy patiently awaits the return of Wendy.

 

(Oscilloscope) Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Larry Fessenden, Will Oldham, Walter Dalton, John Robinson, Marilyn Hickey, John Breen. Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

The world is not always an easy place to live in, but it’s particularly hard on those who have nothing. Sometimes even making a move from one place to another to find work can be an undertaking requiring the bravery of a soldier running into battle. 

Wendy (Williams) is down on her luck, having dwindling funds and no job. She is driving from Indiana to Alaska to (hopefully) find work in a cannery, although nothing is certain. She is alone save for her only friend in the world, Lucy (a golden retriever) whom she hangs onto like a life raft. The only love Wendy experiences in life comes from Lucy. 

Unfortunately, as often happens to those who can least afford it, disaster sets in. Her car breaks down in Portland, Oregon. Unnerved, she goes to a grocery store to get some dog food for Lucy, and winds up being arrested for shoplifting. By the time the mess is sorted out, Lucy is gone. The rest of the movie is taken up by Wendy’s search for her only friend in a place she doesn’t know. 

The plot is deceptively simple but undeniably effective. Most of us have, at one time or another, lived on the ragged edge, one paycheck away from utter disaster. We can all relate to having nothing, or being left with nobody. Director Reichardt brings a sense of realism to the movie that is palpable; there is little background music and nothing forced about the plot. 

There are a number of background characters who flit in and out, most notably Dalton as a security guard who is the only oasis of human kindness in the movie. Most of the other characters in the movie treat Wendy with indifference or contempt, which is how the homeless are generally regarded by most of us, as if they chose homelessness over a life of productivity. While some may have, every last one of them has feelings just like the rest of us and this film reminds us of that. 

Williams does a courageous job as Wendy, her face expressing so much of the internal dialogue, reflecting Wendy’s hope, terror and concern when need be. She has to carry the movie to a real extent and she does so with a good deal of dignity. This isn’t a glamorous role – far from it – but it’s a role that can make directors and producers sit up and take notice and hopefully Williams will get a few juicy roles out of this. 

This is the first movie I’ve seen by Reichardt although she’s done several, and I must say she’s quite a talent. She keeps the tone low (perhaps too low for those who prefer their movies more challenging) and quiet; this isn’t a movie that gets up in your face but rather, it sticks with you. She co-wrote the script along with original short story author Jonathan Raymond (the two also collaborated on Old Joy) and while this isn’t a strident call to arms, the spirit of Tom Joad is alive and well and living in this movie. That is quite the legacy as far as I’m concerned. 

WHY RENT THIS: A decent indie film about poverty and the bonds of love that are unshakable. Williams gives an impressive performance. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s gut-wrenching at times. The overall tone is a bit slow. 

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a bit rough, and the subject matter is a little on the mature side; even though there’s a dog involved, this is probably more for the more mature members of the family than the kids. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get into character, Williams did not bathe for the two weeks of shooting, wore no make-up and did not shave her legs or cut her fingernails. After shooting was completed, her friend actress Busy Philipps treated her to a manicure and pedicure. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Reichardt also acts as a visiting professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College; she has thoughtfully included five short films by four of her colleagues made from 1979 through 2004. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or might have made a slight profit. 

FINAL RATING: 6/10 

TOMORROW: Zoom

Yes Man


Yes Man

Carl and Allison need to break out of their prison of negativity.

(Warner Brothers) Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp, Danny Masterson, Rhys Darby, Michael Higgins, Sasha Alexander, Molly Sims. Directed by Peyton Reed

We hairless apes can be a pretty negative bunch. We have a tendency to want to stick to our comfort zone, whether we are happy in that place or not. We rarely embrace the positive; we’d much rather say “no” to life than risk potentially making a fool of ourselves.

Carl (Carrey), a junior loan officer at a regional bank in Los Angeles, has taken this to extremes. Still emotionally stunted after a painful divorce three years earlier, he has blown off most of his friends, particularly Peter (Cooper), Carl’s best friend, who recently got engaged. Mostly he wants to avoid a chance meeting with Stephanie (Sims), his ex but in reality he’s stopped living.

When his boss Norman (Darby) asks him to a get-together, Carl says no. When someone hands him a flyer to see a band, Carl turns it down. Go out drinking with Peter and their other buddy Rooney (Masterson)? Forget about it. Carl would much rather cocoon himself in his apartment with a rented video before starting his dreary existence all over again the next morning.

That is, before Carl is dragged into a self-help group that worships the power of Yes. The guru of the group (Stamp) preaches the transformative powers of saying Yes to life instead of No. When Carrey appears hesitant (and endures a cult-like chanting of “NO MAN NO MAN NO MAN” from the seminar attendees), Carl is intimidating into accepting a covenant with the guru – that he must say yes to every opportunity that presents itself to him.

So when a homeless man demands a ride into a isolated hillside park? Carl must say yes. When the same man asks to use Carl’s cell phone? Of course, even though the homeless man drains the battery. Give the homeless guy all his cash? Si, amigo!

Strangely, this does prove transformative in Carl’s life, particularly when he meets Allison (Deschanel) who fronts a strange synthpop art band and runs a jogging photography class by day – how very quirky! However, one wonders how genuine the romance can be if one is required to say yes to everything the other suggests. Certainly Allison wonders when she finds out about Carl’s odd covenant.

This is a little bit too reminiscent of Liar, Liar for my liking – in that film, Carrey was a lawyer forced to say the truth no matter what by a magic spell. Here, it’s not so much magic as karma that goes after him; the first time he says no, he winds up falling down a flight of stairs and nearly mauled by the kind of dog that most apartment complexes won’t allow you to keep.

Carrey has never been my favorite comedian; he mugs a little bit too much and a little bit goes an awful long way. He really hasn’t varied his act much over the past 20 years going back to Ace Ventura Pet Detective and now approaching 50, it wears a bit thin. Still, when he reins in his more excessive tendencies (as he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) I actually do like him.

However, Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses. She has that quirky quality that indie film directors adore and she is also innately sweet, not to mention totally gorgeous. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie works and not just because of her beauty or her quirkiness. She plays off of Carrey nicely and the chemistry between them is genuine enough that it makes you forget the age difference which might have made the movie romance a little bit creepy.

The movie has an outstanding support cast. In addition to a pre-The Hangover Cooper and veteran actor Stamp, it has small screen talents Masterson (“That 70s Show”), Sims (“Vegas”) and Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) who is particularly engaging as the trying-too-hard bank manager Norman who has a penchant for nerdiness and Harry Potter.

Reed, who also directed The Break Up, shows flashes of brilliance in the director’s chair but is hamstrung by a script that follows Romantic Comedy formula 101 to a “T” which pretty much drains the movie of all its suspense. Also, the concept could have been tweaked a bit; Carl says Yes not so much because he has to but because he feels compelled to. It removes a bit of the dramatic tension that might have brought this movie a better rating.

For the most part, it’s fairly harmless and some of the humor that comes from the situations Carl gets into by saying yes gets more than polite chuckles. Given that I’m not a particular Jim Carrey fan may give you pause to consider that I might have rated this a bit lower than it deserves to be; certainly the work of Darby and particularly Deschanel make it worth checking out as a rental. However, at the end of the day this isn’t something I would watch again if I had a choice. That makes Yes Man a solid maybe.

WHY RENT THIS: Deschanel is one of the most engaging actresses in the business. Her chemistry with Carrey gives the movie added sweetness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit formulaic, particularly when it comes to the romance. When Carrey goes over-the-top, the movie gets a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor can be crude and juvenile at times, with emphasis on the sexual. There’s also some brief nudity and a smattering of bad language. All in all, this is probably acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel share the same birthday, January 17th – exactly 18 years apart (Carrey was born in 1962, Deschanel in 1980).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Both the DVD and Blu-Ray editions have music videos (which are in reality just full uncut takes of song performances) by Allison’s Munchausen by Proxy band, as well as a “Behind the Music”-like faux documentary on the band’s rise to fame. Norman gives us a tour of his bachelor pad/love nest and we see Carrey chug a can of Red Bull and give his spiel on Red Bull love on the Blu-Ray disc.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: In the Loop

Gigantic


Gigantic

Paul Dano is all wrapped up in Zooey Deschanel.

(First Independent) Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, John Goodman, Jane Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, Ian Roberts, Brian Avers, Robert Stanton. Directed by Matt Aselton

We all have our own set of aspirations. Some of them border on obsessions, which is fine. Some of them are a bit out there, which is also fine. Some of us give up on them, which is not so fine. And still others do not deviate from their plan on achieving those goals.

Brian Weathersby (Dano) is a mattress salesman in New York with seemingly low career goals, but that’s only on the surface. What’s really on his mind is the adoption of a Chinese baby, which he has wanted to do all his life and which he is now so close to he can just about taste it.

While his personality is rather bland, his life is somewhat complicated. He is repeatedly and without explanation attacked by a homeless man (Galifianakis) who might well be a figure of his imagination other than the facial wounds he leaves. He, his brothers and his father (Asner) bond over hallucinogenic mushrooms. Indeed, a Norman Rockwell family at its finest. Remember his famous Saturday Evening Post painting “Daddy gets high on mescaline”?

Brian sells a high-end mattress to Al Lolly (Goodman), an oversized man with severe back troubles. The mattress costs north of $14K so it’s not a slam dunk procedure. Al decides to send his daughter Harriet (Deschanel) over to test it out for herself before arranging the payment.

Harriet turns out to be one of those New York waifs with an independent spirit and who acts as if every moment needs to register on the quirk-meter in order to be meaningful. She falls asleep on the mattress, well past closing time. Brian somewhat sweetly places a blanket over her, more to make sure nobody looks up her skirt while she’s asleep.

They converse in murmurs. She asks if he is interested in having sex with her, and he confides that he might be. He tells a friend he’s not sure if he likes her. Brian’s whole life is about getting that baby; the presence of Harriet might jeopardize that in some odd way.

There’s no denying he feels something for her though. He brings her to meet his family which is a bit risky; only his mother (Alexander) is even halfway sane. Still, he’s not sure he can bring himself to love her when loving her might mean that he has to change the plans he has for his life.

This is the kind of movie that a lot of folks characterize as “fiercely indie” and that’s not in a good way. Not long ago these types of movies were all the rage at Sundance and Toronto, but these days more traditional storytelling seems to be more in vogue. That’s not to say that Gigantic is without merit. It’s perfectly cast and that cast is impressive, with all of them delivering solid performances at the very least.

Deschanel is one of those actresses who can make even an uninteresting role interesting and a too-quirky role seem more down-to-earth. She makes Harriet real and believable; in lesser hands the character would have been so annoying that Ellen DeGeneres might have been moved to punch her in the face. Dano has made a niche for himself as a somewhat deadpan character who displays little in the way of emotion except for occasional tiny cracks. It served him well in Little Miss Sunshine and it serves him well here. The romance between the two becomes believable.

This movie might have well made higher marks with me had they not tried so hard to be funny and quirky. Scenes like the one in the massage parlor are unnecessary and serve to jar you out of the overall mood of the movie; it’s like driving a car whose transmission is on its last legs. If they had just tried to tell the story of Brian and Harriet straight it might have worked out better.

Still in all, this is a solid film with several moments that are worth cherishing. It may not be the kind of indie film that breaks the mold but at least it gets points for doing what it does do very well.

WHY RENT THIS: Any movie with Zooey Deschanel is worth seeing. Great cast who all have their moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film loses steam in the last half. At times it feels like they’re trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, a whole lot of foul language and some scenes of sudden violence make this a bit rough for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Galifianakis’ role although listed as “Homeless Man” on IMDB, does not in fact appear on the film’s credits.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Easy Virtue

The Soloist


The Soloist

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx try to get away with some loot from the Disney Theater.

(DreamWorks) Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Nelsan Ellis, Rachael Harris, Stephen Root. Directed by Joe Wright

Friendships can sometimes be formed in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of people. These are the sorts of friendships that can be life-altering for both of the parties involved.

Steve Lopez (Downey) is a successful columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While his marriage is on the rocks (to his editor Mary (Keener) no less) and he has been injured in a bicycle accident, his career is at least doing well.

One afternoon he hears music coming from Pershing Square near the Times building and discovers a homeless man sawing away on a two-stringed cello and making astonishing music. This is Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and as Lopez later discovers, he was once a prodigy who studied at Julliard before his schizophrenia forced him to drop out of school and essentially from life.

Intrigued, Lopez writes a column about Ayers. A reader, touched by the story, sends a new cello for Ayers which Lopez delivers. This touches off a friendship between the two as Lopez acts as something of a guardian angel for the highly erratic and sometimes explosive Ayers. Lopez follows Ayers to a shelter in downtown L.A. (filming took place on Skid Row where the shelter is located and actual homeless people were used as extras) and inspired, writes a series of articles on the homeless situation in the City of Angels.

This leads to awards and acclaim for Lopez but he feels conflicted about this – like he’s profiting on the plight of his friend. He tries to help him, sets up recitals and an apartment for the former prodigy but Ayers’ mental illness is once again getting in the way. Will the demons in Ayers nature prevent him from leaving the mean streets of L.A.?

Like real life, the movie doesn’t answer this question because this true story is continuing. The real Nathaniel Ayers still lives in Skid Row and while his fame has allowed him to leave the streets, he still grapples with his mental illness.

Director Wright (who previously directed Atonement) has a good eye for detail and uses his L.A. locations to make a gritty, grimy portrayal of the streets which exist in a truly tragic juxtaposition within blocks of the glamour of the Walt Disney Theater in downtown L.A. Oscar-nominated (for Erin Brockovich) screenwriter Susannah Grant has the thankless job of trying to capture Ayers’ madness without compromising the story’s realism and for the most part, she succeeds although she does wander into maudlin territory from time to time though not enough to torpedo the movie.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Ayers and Lopez; if the actors can’t capture that then the film is a disaster. Fortunately, Wright cast two of the better actors working today in Downey and Foxx to tackle the roles and they both do stellar jobs. Downey has the more nuanced role in Lopez; he’s flippant and cynical but with a soft heart. He’s not the stereotypical driven and ambitious journalist; he’s more of an observer than a reporter.

Jamie Foxx resists the urge to over-dramatize the mental illness of Nathaniel Ayers but still manages to effectively portray the demons that torment him. This performance required a master’s hand to pull off and fortunately it got one. I don’t know if this is Foxx’s second Oscar-winning performance (it’s unlikely – the movie was postponed from its original November 2008 release date and relegated to the relatively barren April, when few films get any Oscar consideration) but it certainly merits a look.

Wright and Grant set out to make the movie as real and believable as possible and except for a few hiccups were successful. I like that the movie ended without tying things up in a neat package. I also admire the performances of the lead actors which are so compelling that some fine character actors also cast here are almost shuffled off to the wayside not through any fault of their own.

This movie, possibly because its release date was mishandled, didn’t get the kind of box office love it should have gotten (and might have gotten if the studio had stuck to a fall release date). Still, if you didn’t see it in theaters (and you probably didn’t), this is worth seeking out on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: Both Downey and Foxx turn in outstanding performances. The relationship at the heart of the movie is believable. The resolution of the movie is not really a resolution but ties the events together nicely while ringing true to the realism of the story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story occasionally meanders into the maudlin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of crude language, some drug use and the overall theme of mental illness and homelessness might be a bit much for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the final concert scene in the movie, the real Nathaniel Ayers Jr. can be seen in the front row of the concert hall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers Jr. in which the interplay that the actors modeled the relationship on is clearly visible. There is also a feature and an animated short on the situation with homelessness in Los Angeles which has one of the largest homeless populations in the world.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Astronaut Farmer