A while ago I got a call from my old mass-communications professor, a former reporter feeling forlorn over the closing of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Instead of trying to cheer him up with piddling platitudes, I should have taken him to see State of Play. He'd have had a good laugh at how Russell Crowe's cred as an old-school journalist is established by introducing him stuffing his mouth with Cheetos while singing along to "The Night Pat Murphy Died" and driving a rumpled hobo of a Saab. Or how about the perky blogger (Rachel MacAdams, a sort of de-clawed Parker Posey) who succumbs to the sexiness of old ink and finally watches the shaggy newshound typing his report one key at a time as if he were Michelangelo finishing the Sistine Chapel ceiling? The big news item in Washington, D.C., is the connection between the girl who gets smooshed at the Metro and the Congressman (Ben Affleck) who's chairing hearings on Blackwater-like security company vultures. It turns out that Affleck was once Crowe's roommate, and that the conspiracy at hand ("the Muslim-terror gold rush") encompasses Desert Storm vets, Jason Bateman's weaselly smirk, and a ton of bad-guy drumroll music cues. Can a last hurrah for crusading journos set in Capitol Hill resist the urge to drag in the Watergate Building? Not with Kevin MacDonald at the wheel, displaying the same non-flair and incoherence that sunk The Last King of Scotland. Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs) and Billy Ray (Breach) go into a huddle for the screenplay -- just one would have been enough for pomposity, three make quite a stew of "relevance." "A good newspaper is never nearly good enough but a lousy newspaper is a joy forever," says Garrison Keillor. If only that applied to cinema, as well.
In State of Play, Helen Mirren's tough editor points the way to a more interesting film: "The real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!" It's a story that's also on the edges of The Soloist: This time it's the L.A. Times, and as the boss (Catherine Keener) laments staff cuts, security guards accompany writers and their cubicle belongings out of the building. Unfortunately, the sublimity of music, brotherhood, and cuddly street people are the scoop in Joe Wright's hyperactive wallow. Because it's about healing, it starts with an encounter between the pavement and the face of a Times columnist (Robert Downey Jr.); lovely music lures him to the park (what is he, the Frankenstein monster?), where Jamie Foxx gravelly saws his tattered violin near a Beethoven statue. A former prodigy and Juilliard student, Foxx is now a homeless wanderer lost in torrents of gibbering -- a perfect subject for a head-patting newspaper profile, and for a patronizing, Oscar-baiting movie, too. Like the Scottish MacDonald in State of Play, the London-born Wright aims to bring a fresh eye to American locales and issues, yet both settle for bogus, self-congratulatory fantasies. The more antic of the two, Wright (Atonement) doesn't let a shot go by without fancy cross-cutting, hammy aural layering, showy camera fillips. Most disastrously, he doesn't trust music. When Foxx plays the cello, the camera cranes up, up and away as digital pigeons flap over pretzeling interstates; when our old friend Ludwig Van is heard at the Philharmonic, Wright goes for impressionism but only succeeds in suggesting the most vacuous moments of Fantasia. Downey Jr. and Foxx act their asses off, yet the solitary self-absorbion of the title is all too accurate: Both are so busy being virtuosos of emotional turbulence that their characters barely seem to be occupying the same cinematic space. Get me rewrite.
Politically conscious, pariah-centered and strenuously anti-style, writer-director Ramin Bahrani would rightly see The Soloist for the glittery sludge it is. Behind the noble intentions and cluttered rooms and grimy windshields of his latest film Goodbye, Solo, however, lies a salt-and-pepper portrait with almost as many undercooked contrivances. Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) is an ebullient Senegalese immigrant who drives a taxi in Winston-Salem, NC; his "preferred client" is a weather-beaten, tight-lipped, seventysomething local he cheerily nicknames "Big Dog" (Red West). What starts out with hints of Demme’s Melvin and Howard quickly coagulates into a gloss on Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry: When the cabbie tries to pierce through the passenger’s crust, he learns that the old man is dealing with some unnamed grief (obliquely related to his wanderings from his motel room to a theater box-office) and has scheduled a rendezvous with a precipice. People working on a thesis about the dent the current recession has put on American film will have their work cut out for them here. Bahrani’s characters vary a bit from film to film (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop) but his vision of a world of muddling whipping-boys has been remarkably consistent. That, along with the studied drabness of his films, has been enough for many to crown him the new millennium’s Rossellini. Despite his sobriety and dedication, I can’t get excited over Bahrani -- his "realism" is jejune, his "grittiness" lacks bite, his "humanism" places characters under dangling anvils. Still, Goodbye, Solo is his least deterministic work yet (it’s still a maze for mice, but at least the walls are farther apart), with a few lasting images towards the end and West’s indelible face. Some will be duly enlightened. Others will chant the title using a Jabba the Hutt croak. And so it goes.
Credit Cary Joji Fukunaga for sidestepping the obvious models in his debut, Sin Nombre: Rather than turning on the hopped-up editing and runny, saturated colors that the deplorable City of God established as templates for Third Word misery-porn, he goes for Malick's mix of ethereal tones and spurting violence in Badlands. The tranquil rhythms are set to pearly-green Mexican verdure viewed from the top of a slogging freight train, the brutality comes courtesy of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, feared thugs with cannibalistic hounds and enough tattoo ink on their faces to turn them into Blue Meanies. The journey centers on a couple of youngsters (Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan) whose pilgrimage toward Los States is meant as a physical and moral one. As befits what is basically a manipulative thriller with social-commentary aspirations, the visceral impact is much more successful than the supposed insights into immigrants and tribalism. Fukunaga has a promising eye -- even a clichéd shot like the mall parking-lot meant to stand for the alien Yankee land feels relatively fresh. But when it tries to take a serious look at people caught between backyard gangsters and border shootouts, Sin Nombre veers close to Sin Verguenza.
Reviewed May 16, 2009.