Saturday, October 10, 2009

But Where's the Art? - Commenting on 'The Soloist'

Last week, I rented a movie to watch while waiting for the theatre to clear out so that I could go home.

There was a poster on display for what looked like a great film; The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

It is the real-life story of a music prodigy, a cellist named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx), and his relationship with a newspaper reporter, Steve Lopez (Downey). Lopez discovers Ayers as an adult, a homeless schizophrenic who plays an old two-stringed violin, and claims to have been schooled in classical music at Julliard. Lopez sees a story in this homeless man, and their unlikely friendship begins.

Lopez uses his L.A. Times column, Points West, to highlight the mentally ill musician, and eventually, to try to give the artist a second chance at a life off of the streets, performing. What he finds is that, while the streets are a problem, taking Mr. Ayers off of the streets is not the cure. Mr. Ayers is not ill because of homelessness; he is homeless because he is ill.

So we have the elements of a fabulous movie; top-notch, talented actors, a highly compelling story, limitless opportunities for conflict and pathos, brilliant music (Bach, anyone?), and a gritty urban backdrop.

The stars of the movie gave restrained, dignified, brilliant performances. There were some sparkling moments from minor characters during the interviews that Lopez had with in the shelter where Ayers kept his gifted cello. I wanted to see much more of them.

In a show about a classical musician, I expected a soaring score and was disappointed there. The cello solos that underscored the movie were probably meant to represent the illness, but they were relentlessly dark, and used in a heavy-handed manner.

The cinematic choices were also heavy-handed. "That is what you call a Kodak Moment," I was told, as two pigeons flew straight up with the diminishing rooftops of LA behind them. It was not the only cheesy shot in the film, which went back and forth as a visual depiction of the rough streets of LA and a flight of fancy and idyllic memories. Maybe I just learned more about schizophrenia, and that is more representative of the illness. My usual method is to try to get lost in the story. It was a conceit that I could have done without, and I think that the movie would have been better off without those moments.

Unfortunately, the treatment of the story was so uneven that a documentary would have been a better choice. It seemed as though the director could not decide between having an 'important' film, or an entertaining one, and failed to do either. Of course my recommendation, unsolicited as it is; please decide to entertain us. Yes, the plight of the homeless is terrible and needs a light shone on it, however, if the ultimate (hidden?) goal of the movie is to do that, then the film must be entertaining enough to develop a very large audience.

These are two real larger-than-life characters, and a larger-than-life story, brought down to a mundane level in a film that tried to be a message about homelessness and mental illness without looking like it was a message. The actors certainly delivered on their art. The art of the story was sacrificed on the altar of realism, while the art of the cinematographer was sacrificed to the gods of dramatic visual underscoring. Ultimately, it ended up looking like a feature-length commercial for Mr. Lopez' book about Mr. Ayers.

I don't know the reasons or pressures on director Joe Wright to make the choices that he has made, but he had the sensitivity to create a beautiful version of Pride and Prejudice, so I know it's in him. Maybe there were too many other voices to placate in this one.

Such a shame, because this is a story that an audience could really sink their emotional teeth into. We are prevented from doing so by a style of story-telling that turned out to feel like emotionless reporting.

Unfortunately, The Soloist is flat.

Anne Marie

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Blame it on Rodriguez

So, we have decided to make a film, and granted that we have no experience, but we do have what the Cylons on Battlestar Gallactica have; a plan, sort of. Being a big fan of the first half of Desperado, I read up on the young director. He had said that (and I'm paraphrasing) to fake a big budget film when you have a small budget, shoot from many different angles with one camera. So, a few years pass and then with digital cameras and editing systems being so cheap, we decide to enter into the film forest. We decide to do a genre film, a horror film, because you don't need stars. You don't do it for the Oscar. And then we decide just before shooting that we should use green screen to control the lighting and the backgrounds, and a turntable to fake panning shots. And also, I hated the idea of doing a story board so we canned that. I'm lazy. As we have a theatre, we turned the space into a studio. Problem was the actors hated the green screen, and nothing seemed as real, so we ended up doing a lot of location shots. We filmed for three weeks and probably as of now have thirty percent of our film shot. The scheduling was awful, trying to get the actors together, because of real paying jobs or vacations or school in other cities, but in our hiatus we discovered Rodriguez's ten minute film school which I think is much longer than his five minute film school. This gem was on youtube.He was saying that you don't need a story board, and green screen can cover up for impossible schedules, Even if the actors never meet each other, they can be edited into the same scene via green screen. With Sin City and Terror Planet, it was primarily green screen. He also had a cheap looking turntable which inspired us to build one. Where once Hollywood would use big studios, big stages, they then moved toward locations, and now we have come full circle. You can do fantastic work in tiny stages with green walls. The studio is back. We're not the brightest light bulbs because we can't think of a name for our horror classic. It has something to do with Satan and claustrophobia and madness, oh yeah and blood and gore, but we can't think of a name for our film. From Dusk til Dawn is already taken, but it would be appropriate because it is during the night shift when things start to claw at our characters' sanity. So if anyone out there can come up with a name for our film we would be very grateful, and we would even put your name in the film as the person that thought of the title. We have lots of room. Our crew is very small. No one stands over five foot six.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Til The Boys Come Home

Our November production is a production of Charles Robertson's play; 'Til The Boys Come Home' which is a look at the dark clouds hanging over small town Canada when war is declared in 1939. The play follows the lives of teenaged boys and girls who are affected by the ultimate dramatic conflict. The story is told in six scenes by the ensemble cast. There is music, dance, and warfare to go with the acting. It is easy to think with teenage actors that they are age inappropriate, too young to play the parts of soldiers and young working women, as Hollywood tends to use older established stars to play the parts of soldiers. But many young Canadians gave their lives before they had even started living, before they had a chance to get married, have kids and careers. I suppose that with death as the ultimate event in everyone's lives, glory on the battlefield allows one to choose their last act. Today most of the veterans who survived the war have gone on to join their comrades, to renew acquaintances in the Elysian Fields. The play will take place at The Wellington Street Theatre in Kingston Ontario, which has a military base; CFB Kingston and The Royal Military College for Officer training. Kingston also is the home of Fort Frontenac which was a French military base set up in the late 1600's and Fort Henry which was built in the 1800's as a response to the growing threat of American military might, and was used in the Second World War as a prisoner-of-war camp. The play will take place during Remembrance day week from November 9th-15th, a particularly poignant time, with Canada's young men and women serving now in Afghanistan. Whatever one's opinions on today's wars or wars gone by, the one constant is the extreme sacrifice so many young people make in serving their country. They are willing to pay the highest price.

You can purchase the play on