PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Soloist (B)
U.S.; Joe Wright, 2009, Dreamworks
The Soloist is a very serious-minded, slickly produced and emotionally ambitious movie about a middle-class journalist -- a star columnist on a huge metropolitan daily -- who runs across a homeless man, living on the streets near his paper who turns out to be someone very special: a bedraggled, verbose, shabby wreck of a guy who carries all his possessions in a shopping cart and bags, but who may be possessed of musical genius.
The journalist, based on real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, befriends the man, based on Nathaniel Ayers, the subject of numerous Lopez columns and of his book. Steve brings Nathaniel a cello (Nathaniel's old instrument, replaced these days by a homemade two-string fiddle) and tries to help him off the streets and, at least partially, back into the world of classical music, and of Nathaniel's personal god, Beethoven -- whose symphonies and string quartets (he proudly knows all the opus numbers) ex-Juilliard student Nathaniel keeps playing and gabbing about.
But Nathaniel, who begins to worship his new benefactor, is afraid of emerging from his cavernous Skid Row world, a dangerous concrete jungle full of junkies, hookers, addicts and loonies, but one he understands. The two begin to clash -- woundingly.
The Soloist may sound somewhat pretentious and condescending. But the writer, Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), director Joe Wright (Atonement), and especially the two superb leading actors -- Jamie Foxx, who plays Nathaniel, and Robert Downey Jr., who plays Steve -- elevate the film. It's not the great movie its makers obviously wanted, but it's certainly a good one, and it has great moments. It's also a memorable showcase for two of the best contemporary movie actors, both at the top of their form.
Foxx has the showier, more instantly impressive role, and the actor who brought Ray Charles back to life gives us, without vanity, the greasy, street-worn look of Nathaniel, his isolation and schizoid ramblings, his obsessive clinging to his few possessions -- including the cello Steve brings him. Foxx doesn't do any obvious heart-tugging, but he also shows us how maddening Nathaniel can be -- and, in one scene, how potentially explosive. One of the movie's great moments is the heartfelt longing and happiness we see on Nathaniel's face when Steve takes him to hear Beethoven, played live by the L.A. Philharmonic and conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen.
Downey meanwhile delivers another knockout performance, in a quieter, but no less magnetic key. He plays Steve as a tough, smart, streetwise guy. But he also taps a quiet, nearly unspoken sensitivity, his big, dark, spaniel eyes melting with unsentimental sympathy when he watches Nathaniel and hears him play. We can believe him as a writer (even as a good writer) and as an L.A. celebrity, and we can also believe the vanity and skittishness Downey puts into him. Lopez and Ayers both acted as advisers for the movie (which changes events and especially Lopez's marriage), and Downey and Foxx don't fail them.
The other actors are good as well, particularly Catherine Keener as Steve's ex-wife, and Nelsan Ellis as the savvy, candid manager of Lamp Community, where Steve tries to place Nathaniel. Wright keeps the movie visually and dramatically alive. But screenwriter Grant seems to slight some things. We never completely understand Nathaniel's breakdown, and there seem to be scenes missing out of the Steve-Nathaniel relationship too. There are also some sequences, like the cameo for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (played by Marcos de Silvas) I'd rather have missed.
But I liked The Soloist. I admire its portrayal of how art can transform lives and transcend sorrows. As the movie so aptly reminds us, a world without Beethoven would be a much less joyous place. So, for that matter, would a world without Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.
The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu (Osamu Tezuka) (A)
Japan; Osamu Tezuka, 1962-88, Kino
"Astonishing" is no exaggeration. This splendid anthology offers 13 incredible cartoons by a Japanese genius who was a master of movie animation, of comics and of TV (Astro Boy) (Indeed, on the DVD jacket, Kimstim/Kino says Tezuka was known as the "god of manga" and the "father of anime.") Starting in the minimalist UPA-influenced American style of the '50s and '60s -- which he mastered stunningly, with the great 1962 Tales of the Street Corner, Tezuka later pulled off technical tours de force (like the amazing 1984 Jumping) and brilliant pastiches of '20s and '30s cartoon styles (in the 1985 Broken Down Film and the virtuosic 1987 Legend of the Forest.
And he cunningly deployed sound as well as sight, making highly evocative use of musical tracks, including Debussy's "La Mer" (in the 1954 Mermaid); Mussorgsky, in the 1966 Pictures at an Exhibition, a charming deflation of hero-worship on many levels, and Tchaikovsky, in the 1987 Legend of the Forest, scored to the composer's Fourth Symphony.
Thematically and emotionally, Tezuka was a hip romantic: one of the most powerful maker of love ballads in the annals of animation. If you're not familiar with Tezuka and his genuinely astonishing output, this set is a wondrous, entrancing introduction. (Extras: Interview with Tezuka.)
Elvis: "The Ed Sullivan Show" The Classic Performances (B+)
U.S.; John Wray, 1956, Image
The three rocking, smiling, impudent, scream-inducing, hip-shakin' 1956-57 performances that altered the pop music landscape forever: Elvis Presley's trio of show-stopping appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In some ways, they're not quite as good as you remember. The visual quality is raw and grainy, and Elvis does much of the same repertoire -- Don't Be Cruel, Hound Dog and Love Me Tender -- all three times. Sullivan himself, the great stone face of the New York Daily News, is only around for the last two shows. Elvis' first time out, which took place when Sullivan was off the show, recovering from an accident, Presley was introduced by guest host Charles Laughton, who may be a tad snide when he signs off the show, after the rocker's last scream-drenched go-round, by eloquently remarking "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast," and then promising that, when Ed returns next week, there'll be "no more of this kind of nonsense." (Don't be cruel, Chuck.)
On the other hand, what we're watching is historic and electrifying. Backed by his Sun Records backup band and the Jordanaires, Elvis saunters confidently into the national arena, rocks out and kills the crowd. The bedroom-eyed Tupelo stud has amazing command of the audience, and a lightning-fast sense of humor and self-mockery. Elvis keeps making fun of his most explosive, pelvis-gyrating song Hound Dog in his intros, at one point announcing it with "As a great philosopher once said..." and, at another, touting its "sad story" and "beautiful lyrics." Then he cuts loose on Big Mama Thornton's howler with swivels and shimmies and yowls that bring the house down. (That was probably the performance that condemned Elvis to being shot only from the waist up on in his third, tamest outing, which ends with the spiritual "Peace in the Valley.")
Laughton, great actor that he was, may have missed Elvis' magnetism the first time around, but we know we're watching a great pop singer taking the stage. He would never let it go. So what does it matter if the image is grainy? (Extras: Home movies of Elvis and Priscilla Presley; interviews with Sun Records' Sam Phillips and Wink Martindale, promos.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Icons of Screwball Comedy, Volumes One and Two (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1935-45, Columbia/Sony
Columbia was the studio where Frank Capra, Cary Grant, Kate Hepburn and Rosalind Russell made classic great screwball comedies like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday and Holiday. Those were among the peaks of the genre. This two-volume set offers instead workaday screwballers with good casts and skilled, if not quite upper-echelon directors and writers (Theodora Goes Wild's Richard Boleslawski and Sidney Buchman excepted), culled from the mid-Depression period of the genre's heyday, to the World War II years, just past its glory era.
They're still often mightily entertaining. With their daffy couples, screwy rich people, loony romances, sardonic servants, and atmospheres of affluence, frivolity and spicy romance (suggested, but never quite shown), they're among the Hollywood Golden Age's tastiest, most succulent treats. (Extras: Vintage cartoon, trailers.)
If You Could Only Cook (B)
William A. Seiter, 1935
With Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur in a My Man Godfrey-ish comedy of a rich, disillusioned auto designer who masquerades as a butler to woo saucy Jean Arthur, masquerading as his cook/wife -- along with Leo Carrillo and Lionel Stander as murderous but likable gangsters.
Too Many Husbands (B)
Wesley Ruggles, 1940
Arthur, because of accident, fate, and legal tricks, winds up with two husbands, Number One Fred MacMurray and his best friend, Number Two Melvyn Douglas. From a Somerset Maugham play: One of the naughtiest of all these screwballers, with real hints of a ménage a trois at the end.
My Sister Eileen (B)
Alexander Hall, 1942
The oft-staged, oft-filmed Greenwich Village adventures of author Ruth McKinney (Roz Russell) and her knockout sister Eileen (Janet Blair), adapted by Jerome Fields and Jerome Chodorov, from their play. With Brian Aherne, George Tobias and Richard Quine, who directed the 1955 movie musical version. Broad, but lots of fun.
She Wouldn't Say Yes (C)
Russell is a feminist psychiatrist, tamed by that flat leading man Lee Bowman as a happy-go-lucky comic strip writer/artist. With Charles Winninger, Percy Kilbride and Harry Davenport as lovable old coots and Adele Jergens as a dim-bulb femme fatale. Least of this bunch.
Theodora Goes Wild (A-)
Richard Boleslawski, 1936
The only real high-style classic in this screwball double package: Irene Dunne is a small-town belle who secretly writes a hot, sexually sophisticated novel that has Manhattan at her feet, artist/wolf Melvyn Douglas on her trail and the town in a turmoil. With Thomas Mitchell as the town's liberal newsman and Spring Byington as its busybody. Based by writer Buchman (Mr. Smith goes to Washington) on a Mary McCarthy story.
The Doctor Takes a Wife (C+)
Serious teacher Ray Milland and famous bestseller-author Loretta Young have to pretend they're married to dodge bad press and publicize her next book. Despite the cast (Edmund Gwenn and Reginald Gardiner are also around) and a George Seaton script, this is pretty silly, if always amiable.
A Night to Remember (B)
Richard Wallace, 1942
Murder in Greenwich Village, investigated by Aherne as a mystery writer prone to fainting fits and Young as his gorgeous wife. A sort of comedy noir, and it works surprisingly well. Canny Sidney ("Charlie Chan") Toler and pugnacious Donald MacBride are the cops; Gale Sondergaard a suspect.
Together Again (B)
Charles Vidor, 1944
Dunne, this time as a sagacious small-town mayor, is pursued by another randy artist: Charles Boyer as a very French sculptor hired to repair her late husband's lightning-damaged statue. Nice-looking and sparkly. With Charles Coburn.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Sling Blade (A-)
U.S.; Billy Bob Thornton, 1996, Miramax, Blu-ray
Director-writer-star Billy Bob Thornton's finest hour so far: a fine piece of Southern Gothic about a paroled killer convict with a bestial voice and a noble soul (Thornton). The story reminds you a bit of Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote and Horton Foote, and there are showcase roles not only for Thornton, but for Robert Duvall, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter and Dwight Yoakam. An expansion of Thornton and George Hickenlooper's short (with the same character) Some Call It a Sling Blade.
Race to Witch Mountain (C)
U.S.; Andy Fickman, 2009, Walt Disney
Ex-wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (no relation to wrestler-actor Tor Johnson or the late Van Johnson) is a big, charismatic actor with, like Tor, massive presence and, like Van, a likable flair for self-mockery.
But I hope he doesn't get trapped in movies like this one: a nonstop Disney kid's sci-fi chase adventure, inspired by the Disney '70s oldies Escape From Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain, in which Las Vegas cabbie Jack (Rock) and two wildly talented child extraterrestrials, Sara and Seth -- played here by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig (no relation to Chuck Robb or Ludwig of Bavaria) -- are pursued all around Vegas, a UFO enthusiasts convention, and the surrounding desert, by bad-tempered Homeland Security agent/meanie Burke (Ciaran Hinds) -- no relation to Samuel Hinds or Gregory Hines.
They're finally cornered, under the sand, in a whole '70s James Bond movie's worth of underground laboratories, hardware and firepower.
Carla Gugino (no relation to Gran Turino) is around to add some spice and adult companionship for Jack as Dr. Alex Friedman (no relation to Dr. Milton Friedman). And Garry Marshall (related to Penny Marshall) steals the movie as UFO expert/writer Dr. Donald Harlan. Watching over them all with a benevolent eye is the obviously nonjudgmental director, Andy Fickman (Reefer Madness: The Musical and She's the Man).
Still, I had the awful feeling, especially toward the end, that Race Back From Witch Mountain or maybe Race Up and Down Witch Mountain (or that moving social drama Brokewitch Mountain) was on somebody or other's production planning list. Say it ain't so, Rock. After all, you coulda been a contendah, and maybe even played something like Mickey Rourke's role in The Wrestler."
U.S.; Rowan Woods, 2009, Sony
An all-star multiple-story L.A. tale, in the mode of Altman and Haggis (Crash), about the tribulations that befall the people in a diner who crossed paths there briefly with a creepy-looking gunman bent on massacre, and lived through it. The survivors and emotional victims include Dakota Fanning, Forest Whitaker, Guy Pearce and Kate Beckinsale; their families and friends include Jennifer Hudson, Jackie Earle Haley and Embeth Davidtz. These actors are good, of course, and Whitaker is especially effective. But the movie is a little corny, melodramatic and obvious. (Extra: Commentary by Woods.)
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (C)
U.S.; Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2008, Peace Arch Home Entertainment
This is an approximation of an American art movie, based (very loosely) on Michael Chabon's well-regarded novel, but here, with little of Chabon left, it comes off as just another navel-gazing coming-of-age script. It doesn't even matter that the navels at which coming-of-ager Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) mostly gazes belong not to Art himself, but to knockout classical music playing tippler Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller) and her seductive psychopath boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard), both of whom log in some bedtime with Bechstein.
In between these diverse nude romps, Art keeps having edgy dinners with his gangster dad (Nick Nolte wasted), who must be upset at what a dull narrator his son turned out to be, and just can't straighten him out, no matter how hard he glowers. Neither can Art's hot-to-trot screw-anywhere Book Barn boss lady (Mena Suvari).
Despite its admired novelistic source, this is another example of a movie type I mostly dislike: the coming-of-age romantic comedy drama in which a middle-class kid, stultified by suburbia, or morose with money, escapes the chains of family and bourgeois hypocrisy, and finds redemption of a sort in the sack or with wild-ass friends.
I can understand why filmmakers (and novelists) would want to write those stories (sometimes from life), and why they would consider them real, tough and honest -- and good opportunities for rock nostalgia soundtracks. But too often, they reek of self-pity and payback and late-night drunken monologues you don't want to hear. And they usually only work if they strenuously avoid becoming sex fantasies, and if they're really funny or unusually perceptive. Most of them aren't -- including this stab at Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
Sarsgaard and Miller -- give them credit -- really try hard to be the self-destructive and seductive sex objects required, but it's a losing battle. Foster is mostly a mope. (Spoiler alert.) When two of the movie's characters hold hands at the funeral of a third, I checked out.
Woody Woodpecker Favorites (A-)
U.S.; Walter Lantz, producer; 1940-55, Universal
How much wood would a woodpecker peck if a woodpecker would peckerwood? You may never discover the answer to that mind-teasing, head-busting, Lantz-wielding query. But everything you always wanted to know to about Woody Woodpecker but were afraid to ask (such as what in the world Mel Blanc had to do with his voice), can probably be found in this marvelously compact and entertaining little Junior Woodpecker Guide book. (Hi-hi-ha-ho! Hi-hi-ha-ho! Hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi-hi!).
Fifteen classics from the Woodster's '40s heyday. Five bonus cartoons featuring Woody's friends. (Three of these are directed by the great Tex Avery, of "Red Hot Riding Hood" fame.) Two episodes, with eight more cartoons, from the less inspiring, slower, tamer TV series. Woody's very first appearance (1941's "Knock Knock") annoying the bejeezus out of Andy Panda. His highbrow classical music classics "The Barber of Seville" (Chuck Jones isn't the only cartooneer who can loot Puccini) and "Musical Moments From Chopin," where pianist Woody, playing duo pianos with Andy P., literally burns down the house.
Woody W. was one of a number of Golden Age cartoon scamps -- mad magpies, screwy squirrels and the like -- who adopted the loony, goony, bent-beak, over-the-top craziness of Warners' resident wild bird, Daffy Duck, though, in his prime, Woodbird probably could have driven Daffy nuts too. If you wuv and want Woody, you won't be disappointed here. And if you don't want him, that nutty, wild-ass bird doesn't give a wood-wood-woody di-di-di-damn. Hi-hi-ha-ho!
Extras: Two episodes from "The Woody Woodpecker Show." With appearances by Lantz and eight cartoons, including "The Bird Who Came to Dinner" and "Billion Dollar Boner."
Includes: "Knock Knock," "Pantry Panic," "The Barber of Seville," "Ski for Two," Chew-Chew Baby," "The Dippy Diplomat," "The Loose Nut," "Who's Cooking Who?," "Bathing Buddies," "Fair Weather Fiends," "Musical Moments From Chopin," "Banquet Busters," "Wet Blanket Policy," "Sleep Happy," "The Redwood Sap" (all starring the Woodbird). Plus Woody's pals in "Fish Fry," "The Legend of Rockabye Point," "Sh-h-h-h-h-h," "Crazy Mixed Up Pup" and "Pied Piper of Basin Street."
The Fallen Sparrow (C+)
U.S.; Richard Wallace, 1943, Warner Archive
Somewhat sluggish but ultimately stimulating left-wing noir, featuring John Garfield as a mind-mangled vet of the Spanish Civil War (or is he?), Maureen O'Hara as a femme fatale (or is she?) and Walter Slezak as the wheelchair-bound (or is he?) boss of a cabal of slick fascists. Based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes, but not as good as either of those other Hughes-mined classic noirs, Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse or Nick Ray's Bogey masterpiece In a Lonely Place. Still, Garfield, one of the Black List's great victims, and the man who didn't play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, sparks up almost any movie.
Billy the Kid (C+)
U.S.; David Miller, 1941, Warner Archive
Robert Taylor is a little mature to play Billy "The Kid" Bonney, but he seems happy to be on a horse in this early adult western. Brian Donlevy basically plays Pat Garrett, though he has a different name, and the supporting cast includes evil Gene Lockhart, stalwart Ian Hunter, thuggish Lon Chaney Jr. and Mexican serenader/Billy's pal Frank Puglia. David Miller directed one (I insist) great western in the Trumbo-scripted Lonely are the Brave. Here, he makes an okay one -- though it's a long ride from the best Billies: Penn's The Left-Handed Gun and Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.