Short Takes 

THE SOLOIST
An old-fashioned tale for a new-fangled world, Joe Wright's overwrought drama turns on a series of columns begun in 2005 by Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez—an old-school vox populi whose writing about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musically gifted, schizophrenic homeless black man on the city's Skid Row, drew an outpouring of reader sympathy. Wright, who brought us the ghosts of upper-crust England past with Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, seems an odd choice to direct a movie set in the Other Los Angeles, and he vulgarizes Lopez's intelligent populism. Using local non-pro actors, he pumps up Lopez's laconically described Skid Row into a Ken Russell hellhole of social outcasts, a florid backdrop for Lopez's steep learning curve about the man he wants to save from himself. Screenwriter Susannah Grant has turned the happily married Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) into a barely socialized basket case divorced from his wife and boss (Catherine Keener). Stalwartly resisting the overkill, Downey delivers his lines in a flat mumble that's astutely complemented by Jamie Foxx, whose beautifully modulated performance as Nathaniel catches the way people with psychotic illnesses slip in and out of rationality. Foxx and Downey's disciplined duet come close to redeeming The Soloist from its visual excesses, but Wright leaves us with a parting shot of the dancing homeless that shamelessly exploits the very people he means to champion. (Opens Friday) ELLA TAYLOR

THE INFORMERS
The kids are most definitely not all right in The Informers, directed by Gregor Jordan from Bret Easton Ellis's 1994 novel and set in haute Los Angeles during the early years of the Reagan Era. With its crass, sleek brand of alienation, the movie might have been shot back then as well. The Informers is mainly a spectacle of privileged, pretty young people (and youthful actors) acting badly. Nights of omnisexual anomie, days of robotic synth-music videos, druggy excess, teenage orgies and (as this is an '80s allegory) a virulent mystery infection: Are these kids truly depraved or just fucked up? Bad parents? Too much television? A toxic environment? Playing a tragically married couple of tinsel-town aristos, Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger bring a weary measure of taut musculature and grown-up professionalism to the movie. Basinger's erstwhile '80s co-star Mickey Rourke is on hand as a dissolute prince of darkness; most lizardly in a leather porkpie hat, an orange tan and some scraggly facial shrubbery, Rourke elevates the movie's sleaze count even as he deflects his scenes toward narcoleptic comedy. Winona Ryder provides another odd flashback, in the role of Thornton's newsgal mistress. In this lurid trash compactor, there's plenty of incident but not much plot. (Opens Friday) J. HOBERMAN

CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE
Call this the most expensive Troma movie ever made, with the Lloyd Kaufman cameo to prove it. 2006's Crank was a riotous demonstration of the Actionvore's Dilemma: the harsher the swill you consume, the harder it is to find new highs. The second time around, squinting at a bar they set themselves for skull-busting dementia, writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor aim for nothing less than permanent synaptic damage. The heart that served Jason Statham's indestructible Chev Chelios so well in the original is literally yanked from his chest and plugged into a priapic Triad ganglord—David Carradine as "Poon Dong." (The buckteeth are a classy touch.) That leaves Chev to jump-start his Cost-Cutter synthetic heart with bigger, gnarlier jolts of electricity as he chases down his ticker: jumper cables to the tongue, Taser to the nutsack, high-voltage towers, etc. The diminishing returns of shock value are the movie's built-in joke, and it would be a lot funnier without the directors' unforgivably bratty post-sexist/post-racist/post-human showboating: It's a 25-way tie as to which of the women characters (even Amy Smart's inexplicably loyal girlfriend) is written, treated and photographed with the most contempt. (It's supposed to be funny when a stripper gets shot through the breasts and gel spews out instead of blood.) But I can't hate a movie that aspires to be the Gremlins 2 of action cinema, happy to derail its ostensible plot with a Godzilla-style rubber-suit throwdown or a picket line of disgruntled porn stars. (Now playing) JIM RIDLEY

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