The Soloist (2009)

The title might refer to the musician, a former cello prodigy, now fallen on hard times, a soloist who plays for the pigeons on street corners and under the freeways of Los Angeles. Or it might refer to the newspaper columnist, another soloist, who hasn't fallen on hard times, but who falls, hard, just as
The Soloist begins. The latter, Steve Lopez, faceplants off his bicycle. The former, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, lives out of a shopping cart. They meet under a statue of Beethoven, where Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) discovers that the sweet violin music he hears is played on an instrument with only two strings.

Lopez channels his amazement and curiosity into a column, digging into the past of the not-so-random man on the street: Ayers (Jamie Foxx) was once a promising Juilliard student who seems to have been waylaid by mental illness. The story turns into a rescue mission. Lopez tries to get Ayers off the streets, but encounters the hard truth about homelessness and mental illness -- there are no quick fixes or simple solutions. Good intentions are not good enough.

To his credit, Foxx does not give in to the impulse to offer up a showy or sentimental performance. Ayers is a volatile personality -- when he speaks, words flow out of him like a river, drifting and getting stuck in little eddies, swirling around, tumbling through turbulent rapids. It's a stream of raw consciousness, where the molecules of thought are connected only tenuously. He is a difficult man to understand, and someone frustratingly resistant to, and suspicious of Lopez's overtures of friendship and assistance. Yet Ayers is, despite his almost nonstop patter, fairly still, and his ability to immerse himself in music is his saving grace, if anything is. Lopez is a fast talker too, but also a listener, and
The Soloist is about his education in the bleak reality of homelessness. Downey just insists on doing everything right as an actor these days, and he brings an acerbic compassion to Lopez's do-gooderism, which is more hardheaded than softhearted. It is a virtue of The Soloist, which is based on a true story (and Lopez's book), that it does not go for easy uplift at the expense of difficult truths.

Director Joe Wright (
Atonement) can be a bit obvious and heavy-handed as a director, but he generally does right by The Soloist. There are only a couple of moments that are conspicuous for their unsubtle symbolism, some high-flying folderol that stands out in a film that otherwise keeps its feet on the ground. What the film does well, in its tale of two individuals, is continuously and insistently return to the bleak streets where all those anonymous, largely invisible people live -- and to underscore that they are all unique (and difficult) individuals as well. Wright takes an almost documentary approach at times, immersing the film in the dark, grimy, rat-infested streets. The movie employs as extras some of the homeless clients of LAMP, the L.A. homeless shelter where parts of the story take place. They can be fascinating and fantastically engaging people, and the film accepts them "as-is" without any obvious effort to exploit them or turn their eccentricities into feel-good quirkiness. So while it focuses on Ayers and Lopez, The Soloist succeeds in grinding, just a little, a political ax about the plight of all those who, for their various reasons, live on the streets. At the same time, the movie resists the urge to oversimplify or offer up comforting platitudes and bromides -- it is moving and sincere, and does not completely abandon all hope of a happy ending. But the real strength of The Soloist is not its softheartedness but its hard eye, and the willingness to look and not look away from the unfortunate, however uncomfortable, unpleasant, and uneasy looking might make us feel.


Crank: High Voltage (2009)

You may have noticed by now, dear readers, that I do not offend easily at the movies. I was offended by
Crank: High Voltage. It's dumber than dumb, it's loud, it borders on the pornographic both in its sadistic violence and its violent sex, but... and stay with me if you aren't convinced yet... it's boringly repetitive and virtually unwatchable and demands attention only by being more of the above. It's a long 85 minutes, let me tell ya.

It made me reassess several of the lesser film efforts to which I have been less than kind over the years. Maybe they weren't so bad after all. At least they were not Crank: High Voltage.

It's about a man looking for his heart. Literally. Three years ago (in
Crank) Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), a hit man, survived being poisoned, and then fell out of a helicopter. In Crank: High Voltage, he lands, at last, and surprisingly (or not) survives the fall. As he lies splayed on the pavement, Chinese mobsters (using a shovel) scrape him up and haul him off. Chelios' indestructible, poison-withstanding heart is removed and transplanted into an ailing Chinese mob boss named Poon Dong (David Carradine). For some reason, the mob docs keep Chelios alive by implanting him with an artificial heart. It's equipped with an external battery pack that requires frequent recharging. Thus Chelios must regularly electrocute himself with jumper cables, high voltage power lines, and Tasers. I'll confess it was the idiotic notion that a guy would have to defibrillate himself with jumper cables that drew me to Crank: High Voltage. I won't fall for that one again.

Did I mention the porno part? Turns out you can generate electricity to recharge your heart by having public sex on a horsetrack, during a horse race, with a stripper named Eve (Amy Smart). I'm sure that scene was meant to operate on all kinds of subtle levels having to do with metaphoric hearts and the rejuvenating power of love and interpersonal sparks and bare-breasted souls and horse penises -- you know, the kind of stuff Byron and Shelley would have written about if
they were going to make an action movie about a hitman looking for his heart. But Byron and Shelley, alas, did not make Crank: High Voltage. Neveldine/Taylor (aka Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) did, and they bring a sledgehammer sensibility to the movie. If you are still watching after ten thumps, they hit you with another ten.

So, Chelios goes off in search of his heart, zapping himself periodically, dodging bullets, and laying waste to the greater Los Angeles area. In addition to the stripper, there are several hookers in
Crank: High Voltage, notably Ria, played by Bai Ling, who is notable mostly because, although she is a celebrity best known for wardrobe malfunctions, she keeps her private parts under wraps in the movie. The same cannot be said for the other women therein, who all lack clothing, and who, if they are not hookers or strippers, serve as harems to various Chinese Triads and South American mobsters. The mobsters all want Chelios dead.

I'll say this for Neveldine/Taylor, who wrote and directed
Crank: High Voltage: they have a lot of ideas. Unfortunately, 85% of those ideas involve trying out different close-up camera angles of butts and boobs. The other 15% are more interesting, and include mixing animation, satire, riffs on Pulp Fiction, and parodies of Kaiju (Japanese monster movies), talk shows, and cheesy 50's sci-fi into the choppy-chop, bang-bang, rapid-fire, sensory overload action. The movie is an equal opportunity offender that features a great deal of diversity: Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, gay bikers, porn actors, and the disabled are all depicted in broad stereotype meant to be maximally offensive. It was probably meant to be funny too, but my funny bone was crushed early on by this movie, so I can't say for sure. There's also some dialogue in the movie, but about 80% of the words start with the letter F, which can work if the other 20% were written by, say, Tarantino, but they were not. Neveldine/Taylor are clearly pulp aficionados with Tarantino-aspirations. They're smutty gutter tourists who aim, more than anything else, to shock and offend. They're like attention-seeking kids trying to see how much they can get away with. If you don't ignore them, they'll just keep doing it.


Observe and Report (2009)

Weird and unexpected are good things in a comedy, and they are good things in
Observe and Report, a dark, bleak, violent comedy from writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way). Hill has said Observe and Report was inspired by Taxi Driver. Hill is no Scorsese, and Seth Rogen is no DeNiro, but Ronnie Barnhardt, the mall cop in the middle of Observe and Report, acts like a guy who maybe coulda seen in Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle a role model of sorts. Ronnie likes guns. He fancies himself a defender of justice and helpless women. He has bipolar disorder (or so he says), and pops prescription meds all day, but he still toggles rapidly between sweetness and rage. He lives in a trailer with his loving but inept alcoholic mom (Celia Weston).

As security chief of Forest Ridge Mall, Ronnie's a petty dictator who rules with an iron fist and a Taser. He experiences a crisis of leadership when a classically trench-coated serial flasher stalks the mall, exposing himself to hapless customers in the parking lot. When the flasher flashes Brandi (Anna Faris), a vain, cruel, slutty cosmetics counter salesgirl and the object of Ronnie's unrequited affection, the long simmering mall cop boils over. It gets worse when the mall calls in a real cop -- hotheaded detective Harrison -- to catch the pervy perp. Mutual hatred, professional rivalry, and escalating violence follow -- and that's just between Ronnie and Harrison.

Observe and Report is a misanthropic, foul-mouthed, politically incorrect, deepest dark comedy -- it mocks everyone, and likes no one. It has that in common with the work of the Coen brothers, but it is much looser and far less stylized (one might say sloppier and more anarchic too). It is also sadder and more weirdly melancholy -- the characters in Observe and Report are not so much stupid as they are petty, mean, and profoundly insecure. Behind his tin badge, Ronnie is full of bravado and contempt, but he's also unexpectedly competent. "Overkill" would seem to be his personal motto, but loneliness and insecurity are his demons. His mall security team includes his lisping right hand man Dennis (Michael Pena), who harbors his own dark, dank secrets, and gun-worshipping twins John and Matt Yuen (played by twins John and Matt Yuan).

The mall's equal opportunity offenders include the foul-mouthed vendor Ronnie calls Saddamn (Aziz Ansari), pesky, vandalizing skateboarders, and the zombie-like consumers Ronnie has vowed to observe and protect. And then there's that flasher (Randy Gambill), whose proud, mall-wide display of his wobbly junk is a reminder of Borat's misdeeds, and of those days, not so long ago, when male full-frontal nudity was strictly verboten in R-rated entertainments, let alone malls. The mall, it turns out, is a teeming cesspool of sex, drugs, and violence, a veritable bedlam disguised as a tranquil shopper's paradise. Ronnie is its self-appointed, self important protector, and Rogen does a fine job of roughing up the soft, pudgy edges of his generally affable, likable screen persona, replacing the usual tomfoolery with a streak of brutality. All of which makes
Observe and Report an unjokey, uncartoony, moody comedy that's funnier than it ought to be specifically because it's also sometimes deeply disturbing, surprising, and unsafe.


Adventureland (2009)

As any class of '87 college graduate can attest, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But mostly, it was the worst of times. It was the time of Reagan, covert wars, recession, and the crack epidemic. Throw in a liberal arts college degree in one of the humanities (with subsequent poverty), malaise, angst, and ennui, and that's why I don't heart the 80s. And so it goes for James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the hopeless romantic on the verge of a late blooming coming of age in

James has fairly modest dreams of a budget-conscious post-college summer in Europe, followed by grad school at Columbia, where he plans to study journalism and change the world. These dreams are unceremoniously scuttled by his parents (Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin), who inform him that Mr. Brennan's downsizing will result in some downscaling of the family lifestyle. James will have to get a summer job. As it turns out, a degree in comparative literature has given him surprisingly few skills considered marketable in Pittsburgh, which is how James ends up working the midway at Adventureland, a low-rent amusement park where other misfits misspend their youths.

Will James' stint as an underpaid carnie teach him things he never learned, but should have, in college? Duh. He'll also find love, and find that the course of true love never did run smooth (but he knew that from being a comp lit major), and discover that a baggie full of joints is a great way to win friends and influence people, including Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) the hottest, most coveted girl at the park. The true object of James' affection, however, is Em (Kristen Stewart), a smart, mopey NYU student with an emotionally complicated life.

Adventureland, written and directed by Greg Mottola (The Day Trippers, Superbad) travels a well-trod path, but with a light step and unconventional tone. Adventureland eschews the dopey immaturity one might expect from a story that features sex (and male virgins), drugs, teenagers, and carnies, and is instead surprisingly smart and sweet (and bittersweet), adding a few new twists to the old young-man-coming-of-age story. Sex and drugs and rock and roll figure prominently, but of course. The music is rolled into the story, however, in keeping with Mottola's general tendency to avoid exploiting the 80s for comic-nostalgic effect. James endures the torture of "Rock Me, Amadeus" because Lisa P. is a would-be dancer and because the local disco is one of the few places to hang out when Adventureland closes. Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" is James' favorite song, but it's equally important because it's a song that Connell (Ryan Reynolds) doesn't know. Connell is the park maintenance man, slightly older (and therefore more pathetic) than the other employees, married, and the kind of guy who carries a guitar case and a tool belt to work. Legend has it Connell once jammed with Lou Reed. The age-appropriate soundtrack also features Hüsker Dü and a Foreigner tribute band. As I said, the best of times, and the worst of times.

The ensemble cast is large, and includes Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park's silly-serious owners, and Martin Starr as James' pal Joel, an overeducated, pipe-smoking Gogol fan.
Adventureland gives all of the secondary characters unexpected depth and complexity (even when they are not very deep or complex persons). They supply more than local color or comic relief, and go beyond mere caricature to become substantial and interesting characters in their own right. The film meanders and drifts pleasantly, like a mildly buzzed park patron, from one attraction to the next with a narrative that captures the aimlessness and endless possibility (including the possibility of disappointment) of a summer night.