"The Soloist" *** (117 minutes)

Thursday April 23, 2009

Director Joe Wright's directorial debut was his 2005 adaptation of Jane Austin's novel "Pride & Prejudice". He followed that successful debut with one of my favorite films of 2007, an adaptation of Ian McEwan's "Atonement". Wright gets the adaptation bug again this time adapting the real life story of the unusual relationship between a musically gifted homeless guy and an L.A. Times journalist.

Last month, CBS' news magazine show "60 Minutes" covered the story/film about the ex-Julliard student and prodigy, Nathanial Ayers, Jr. and how he ended up on the streets of L.A. only to be "discovered" by L.A. columnist Steve Lopez while Lopez was desperately pounding the payments in search of a story. When he came upon Mr. Ayers, who was melodically playing a cello under a statue of Beethoven, the result was not only a story but a happenstance that changed both of their lives.

As it turns out, Nathanial, if he wasn't suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, would probably be experiencing a thriving musical career (he is equally proficient on multiple instruments) instead of living a life of homelessness. As pointed out in the epilogue, there are 90,000 homeless individuals in L.A. What was it that kept Lopez particularly interested in Mr. Ayers' life long after the stories were published? That is the crux of the film and makes it one of the more fascinating human interest stories-especially since it is based on truth.

The 2 principals are played by 2 of Hollywood's finest standouts. Robert Downey Jr., as Lopez, is more than capable in the role. (However, I couldn't help looking at him and thinking "Oh, there's Downey playing Steve Lopez"-especially since he physically appears nothing like the real life journalist whose appearance was still fresh in my mind from the news magazine piece). However, the real standout is clearly Jamie Foxx. Playing mentally ill characters is never easy. It's hard to be subtle and so easy to act over the top, but Foxx successfully loses himself in the persona and, as a result, gives a memorable performance that just might be recognized by The Academy come Oscar time.

Catherine Keener does her usual competent job-supporting as Lopez's ex-wife who just happens to be his editor (in real life, Lopez is happily married-and she is not his editor. Ahh-dramatic liberties!). The screenplay by Susannah Grant ("Erin Brokovich") is serviceable if not spectacular. And the majority of the soundtrack by Ludwig Von will please most of the classical music lovers in the audience.

Although, this outing is not quite up to the level of Wright's previous 2 efforts (the film tends to drag in parts), it is worth seeing nonetheless-mainly for Foxx's performance (which raised my rating from 2 1/2 stars to 3 stars) as well as the feel good message we are all desperately seeking during these trying times.

To get everyone in the appropriate mood prior to the screening, was a brief wonderful performance by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra cellist, So Bo Li made (see below) made possible by the screening hosts, The Baltimore Sun Readers Rewards who also collected donated food for The Maryland Food Bank.

BSO soloist, So Bo Li, performs before the screening at The Charles

2 Award winners from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival

Wednesday April 22, 2009

Traveled down to The Charles to screen a double feature of 2 more critically acclaimed films that came out of last years Cannes:

"THE CLASS" *** (128 minutes)
Winner of the Palme d'Or, and nominated for The Academy's Best Foreign Film (it didn't win), this is a realistic portrayal of one year in the school life of a group of French lower middle-class group of teenagers.

The teacher, Francois Marin, tries his best to educate and control them using humor, understanding, and smarts. But, as we've seen in similar films, there are always those students who try to buck the system no matter how earnest the educators are to try and stop it.

Marin is played by real-life teacher and autobiographer, Francois Begaudeau, who co-wrote the script and the fact that he is a teacher in real life, lends a significant authenticity to the film. That and the fact that director Laurent Cantet ("Heading South") uses inexperienced teenagers (he worked with them for a year) as the students (they even use their actual first names for their characters) results in presenting a surreal, natural, documentary feel to the proceedings.

My main gripe is that the film is too long and a little stilted. I almost felt like I actually spent a whole year with these kids but, in the end, I admire what the filmmaker accomplished in presenting a film that will put you in this milieu like no other film like it.

"GOMORRAH" ***1/2 (136 minutes)
Next up is director Matteo Garrone's exquisite expose on the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples & Caserta, Italy-which just happens to be larger than it's more well known, but actually less widespread cousin, The Mafia. Their yearly revenues are said to be in the neighborhood of $250 billion and, as stated in the epilogue, is even invested in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center!

Winner of the Grand Prix Award & the European Film Award (but, incredibly, ignored by The Academy), and based on the best selling book by Roberto Saviano, 6 screenwriters (including Saviano & Garonne) introduce 5 separate story lines in such a naturalistic and compelling way that, although it feels as if you watching 5 shorts dealing with the same comprehensive subject, each could easily have been full length films. The connecting, disturbing thread is how intricately the syndicate is involved in virtually every aspect of this society.

Instead of focusing on the top of this elaborate food chain, the stories focus on the underlings of the syndicate in which age is clearly not a prerequisite: from the innocent, angelic looking child who has taken his first steps on living a life of crime; to the 2 teenagers (whose idol is Tony "Scarface" Montana) who brazenly steal a cache of Camorra weapons to begin an independent life of crime; to a young innocent man who is enlisted to assist in the illegal dumping of poisonous waste; to a courier for the syndicate who pays stipends to the survivors of those jailed or killed in the never ending war; to a middle aged fashion designer who is under the control of the Camorra but decides to moonlight as an instructor for outside sweatshops. Of course, drugs permeate some of the stories.

Garonne's shooting with a hand held camera only adds to the incredible documentary feel, and the surprise, matter-of fact killings come with minimal special effects making the experience all the more startling, real, and powerful.

"Goodbye Solo" **1/2 (91 Minutes)

Sunday April 19, 2009

Indie director, and Winston-Salem native, Ramin Bahrani has been accumulating an impressive critically acclaimed catalogue of work starting with 2006’s “Man Push Cart”, followed by his 2007 “Chop Shop”. His latest, “Goodbye Solo”, is also currently garnishing nearly universal praise.

With that in mind, I was highly anticipating his latest. So off I went to screen it at Baltimore’s film club, Cinema Sundays at The Charles. Adding to my excitement was the appearance of local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield as guest speaker (see photo below). (His 2006's excellent debut film "Hamilton" had a limited exposure run in 2006 and is definitely worth checking out if and when it gets to DVD.)

Was it worth the trip? Well . . . let me just say the movie was a highly disappointing experience. Bahrani and co-writer Bahareh Azimi, deal with the topic of suicide and, believe me, you might feel like committing it yourself after spending a verrrry long 91 minutes gazing at the screen.

The film opens in the Winston-Salem taxi cab driven by Senegalese immigrant Solo (impressively played by newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane). His current fare is old, grizzly Southerner, William (Red West: actor, stuntman, and Elvis Presley’s ex-driver & bodyguard) who offers Solo $1,000 if, in 10 days, he will give him a one-way drive to Blowing Rock National Park. When Solo jokingly asks whether he plans to jump when he gets there, all he gets is a vague stare back from his passenger. It is never mentioned again.

From this opening scene, the film proceeds to show how Solo goes the extra mile, time after time, to try and connect with William after the initial drop off at a local cinema. All the while William unsuccessfully tries to disconnect from Solo's defiant determination to intrude into his life. Interspersed are scenes involving Solo's relationship with his Mexican wife (Carmen Leyva) and his pre-teen stepdaughter, Alex (convincingly played by Diana Franco Galindo), as well as numerous takes inside that taxi.

However, it is his relationship with the mysterious William that is at the heart and soul of the narrative. He and the audience are constantly guessing as to the motives & history behind William's actions. Ultimately, the continuous use of close-ups and periods of silence became unnerving to me. And Bahrani's technique near the end that helps to answer some of these questions had me rolling my eyes in disbelief.

During the more interesting Q & A, the topic of suicide, and whether or not it was realistically depicted on the screen, was a prime topic of discussion- including a perspective by a psychiatrist in the audience. (One of the great aspects of the club is the, at times, fascinating Q & A that follows even a dismal film). Also, when someone questioned Solo's persistent interest in William, who is clearly 30-40 years younger, the point was made that Africans revere the elderly as treasures and could help to explain his actions.

Whatever the reason, I didn't get as involved or moved as much as the filmmaker had intended; and I certainly wouldn't label Bahrani's latest feature, "an almost perfect film", as written by a notable critic whose review appears on a giant billboard in the lobby.

Guest speaker,"Hamilton" director Matthew Porterfield
& CSC host/WBJC program director, Jonathan Palevsky

"The English Surgeon" ***1/2 (92 Minutes)

AFI SILVERDOCS Director of Programming,
Sky Sitney, and Director Geoffrey Smith

Director Geoffrey Smith

Tuesday April 2, 2009

Off to The AFI Silver for another between festival event put on by the wonderful folks behind the SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival. This time around it's the screening of last year's SILVERDOCS Sterling World Feature Award winner, Geoffrey Smith's riveting documentary, "The English Surgeon".

Superbly edited, this multi-award winning documentary has director Smith chronicling the exploits of British neurosurgeon, Dr. Henry Marsh who, after falling in love with The Ukraine and its people after a lecture visit in 1992, proceeded to do his part to help reverse conditions that are, as he put it, "like being in a horror movie". Teaming with resident neurosurgeon Igor Kurilets, he has made annual visits to the country and we see him deal with several cases-most notably a brain tumor overtaking the life of one, Marian Dolishny.

Another portion of the doc deals with Marsh's pain on not having the ability to save a young girl early in his Ukrainian career-which has continuously haunted him ever since. We go along with him as he visits the child's family many years later and see that, even though there wasn't a successful outcome for his patient, his humanitarian effort was still extremely appreciated by those who were left behind to grieve.

Still a third segment deals with the heartbreaking case of a beautiful young woman who appears normal on the outside but on the inside has an inoperable condition that will take her life in a matter of months. We see Dr. Marsh, using his experience, advise Igor on how best to handle his discussions with the unknowing patient-how to offer even a glimmer of hope in such a hopeless situation.

The unobtrusive fabulous soundtrack was provided by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. A portion of the film might remind you of those surgical documentaries readily seen on Public Broadcasting (you can always look away if these scenes are too unsettling), but, by all means, don't let that alone keep you from seeing this remarkable human film about someone who will inspire and make you glad you are a part of the human race.

At the Q & A, after someone congratulated him on the soundtrack by Nick Cave, Smith revealed that he was friends with Nick and got him involved in the project (coincidentally, Nick was the writer & composer of one of my favorite films, 2006's "The Proposition"-which happened to be playing at the same time in one of the AFI Silver's companion theaters). When Geoffrey stated that Dr. Marsh was in his 50's, the audience was aghast as he appears much older and more than likely has aged beyond his years due to the nature of his work. Smith also informed us that the film is opening in several major cities this month and will appear on PBS' P.O.V. series in the fall. If it doesn't open in your city, be certain to check you local TV listings later in the year for this intriguing human interest profile.