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Column Fri Apr 24 2009

The Soloist, Fighting, Earth and Anvil! The Story of Anvil

By the time you read this, I'll be well into my long weekend in Champaign attending my first-ever Ebertfest (also known as the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival and formerly known as the Overlooked Film Festival). In the last year or so, I've become friendly with Ebert and his lovely wife Chaz, although I think it goes without saying that without Ebert's influence in my life, you wouldn't be reading this column right now. Because Roger's ailment renders him without speech, for the past couple of years, he's asked various film industry types and peers (including the Tribune's Michael Phillips and the Sun-Times Richard Roeper) to come and handle some of the panel discussions and post-screening Q&As with filmmakers and actors. And as bizarre, unlikely, and somewhat disturbing as it may seem, Ebert asked me to handle some of these duties this year. I'll be taking part in a panel called "Film Critics and the Internet" on Friday morning and doing a Q&A with Catinca Untaru, the young star of writer-director Tarsem's great film from last year, The Fall.

It goes without saying that being invited to take part in this event might be the biggest honor of my career as a film critic. My respect and admiration for Ebert's accomplishments are well documented in both my condemnation of the current version of the "At the Movies" television show, and my interview with Ebert in October of last year. So I'm off to Champaign. I have little idea what to expect, and I fully expect that all of the lessons I've learned from my years of public speaking will fly right out the window. But I'm excited as hell about the lineup this year, and about being at a film festival that does actually seem to bring filmmakers and film lovers together in a setting where they might actually get to talk to each other. What a concept. Anyway, here are a bunch of movies coming out this week, including a couple very good ones.

The Soloist

I had the great pleasure of meeting Robert Downey Jr. a little over a year ago, just before his world exploded. Iron Man was still more than two months from hitting theaters, and the world at large barely knew what Tropic Thunder was, let alone could its inhabitants contemplate that Downey would get an Oscar nomination for performing in blackface. And while we did talk about those two films a great deal, the movie that he really wanted to discuss was the one he has just finished shooting with Atonement director Joe Wright, a film called The Soloist. I remember like it was minutes ago Downey locking eyes with me to tell me how profoundly the experience of making that film was to him and co-star Jaime Foxx, how they had shot large portions of the movie in and among the homeless community in Los Angeles. I remember him relaying to me how impressed with Foxx he was and how deep in his soul his comrade had reached to pull out his portrayal of Nathaniel Ayers, a former Julliard student now living on the streets. The way he described the film was so profoundly moving that he had convinced me that he would not only own the summer of 2008, but probably the awards season as well (the film was originally slated for a fall release).

I don't remember exactly when I first saw the trailer for The Soloist, but I do recall that it was after I saw Tropic Thunder and that my heart kind of sunk that day. I wasn't concerned because Downey was playing do-gooder L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez (the film is based on his book), or even because the movie looked bad. No, the reason I died a little death that day had more to do with my first thought after seeing the trailer all the way through: "Wow, look at Jaime Foxx going full retard."

The strangest part of finally seeing The Soloist was that everything Downey told me is right there on his face, up there on the screen. His interactions with homeless men and women are fascinating, and Foxx's complete dedication to this character as a part of that world is undeniable. Somewhere in these facts is a truly wonderful story, but this movie does not get it right. Wright consistently and without mercy undercuts any credibility his actors and his source material have given him by front-loading his movie with painfully, in-your-face messages and stylistic choices that bury some solid dialogue in its attempts to get inside Nathaniel's troubled mind. For example, he does things with his soundscape with overlapping voices, fading in and out as if what they're saying isn't as important as the fact that they are floating around in Nathaniel's brain. But the problem is sometimes what the voices are saying is important and offer clues to the birth of his mental troubles. We get a few flashbacks to his childhood and time at Julliard, but those moments are pretty standard-issue, mental illness, disease of the week scenes.

Much like the recent State of Play, The Soloist spends a bit of time contemplating the sickly state of newspapers in America, but the most analysis we really get is Downey's editor and ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener, saying something about noticing the trend of "our stock price goes down, and we lose reporters we can't afford to lose." The newsroom banter seems like forced hip-speak, although Downey sells it as best he can. I also didn't buy that for a guy who seem fairly concerned about losing his job, he spent a shitload of time out of the office hanging out with Sebastian, the central figure in a series of articles about the homeless that won Lopez recognition and many awards. But there are these other moments that really rang false for me involving Foxx listening to Beethoven, Sebastian's favorite artist. Instead of just letting us watch the look of wonder come over Foxx's face (the man can actually act, you may know), Wright decides to treat us to a light show of what he thinks Sebastian is seeing when he closes his eyes to listen to music. Um, why? Even watching Downey watching Foxx was far more compelling than any of these ridiculous bells and whistles and fireworks.

The Soloist isn't a terrible film or painful to sit through, but its meandering ways make the whole film seem intellectually out of focus. More than anything, I was disappointed. Wright managed to pull these two gifted actors together into this movie and squandered what that moment in time that could have been. For all of its gravitas, good intentions and a handful of great scenes, The Soloist still ends up feeling hollow and pointless — not offensive, but certainly not the best use of your movie-going time on Earth.


Fighting


Going into writer-director Dito Montiel's second film (after the impressive A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), I thought I had this one figured out just based on the casting. Seeing Channing "Mumble Pants" Tatum in the movie's trailer doing his tough-on-the-outside/squishy-on-the-inside routine immediately made me recall his less-than-deep work in Step Up and cameo in the sequel, Step Up 2: The Streets. But weirdly enough, the movie Fighting doesn't feature that much actual fighting — I think the final count is four, including one that gets interrupted midway through. There is no fancy martial artistry going on here. Tatum's Shawn MacArthur is a former high school or college wrestler (I could never quite get that straight) who knows how to scrap in the streets. The bare-knuckle brawls last only a couple minutes, and are about as savage as they come, but they hardly make up the bulk of this film.

Instead what we get is an admirable, if not entirely successful, attempt to actually create and develop a few characters in a setting that does its best to look and feel like a film made in the 1970s, complete with a cool, old school R&B soundtrack and a gritty atmosphere that often appears as though Montiel simply tossed his actors on the streets of New York City and let them play out their scenes among the civilian population. Throw in what sounds like a whole lot of improvised dialogue, and you get something more experimental and daring than you might at first expect.

Shawn is essentially homeless as he peddles what few goods he is able to collect on the street for money. When a couple of rip-off artists rob him blind, he retaliates by kicking a few of their asses pretty soundly. He still loses his money, but when he spots one of the players, a fast-talking hustler named Harvey (Terrence Howard from Hustle & Flow and Iron Man), the two men have a conversation that leads to Shawn lining up an amateur fight that he wins with much force. The two men use each other to make money, but they quickly become something resembling friends. Soon to be seen again in both Public Enemies (as Pretty Boy Floyd) and G.I. Joe, Tatum does a pretty solid job playing a guy who moved to New York from the South, and has had to learn to survive and fight back when necessary. It helps that he's under Montiel's guidance once again; his performance in Saints is still the best thing he's ever done. And Howard isn't half bad either. I like seeing him as something of an underdog, a man who crossed his business partners (played by the indelible Luis Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith) years earlier and has been attempting to re-establish some credibility ever since. He manages to encompass both stark confidence and masked timidity.

The characters in Fighting actually do grow and discover what is truly important in their small corner of the world. Shawn falls in love with a club waitress (newcomer Zulay Henao), and the relationship gives him some of the strength he needs to conquer his demons (which seem to date back to a fight he had with his father). But to get to the place where he needs to be, he must first fight an old rival played by Brian White (12 Rounds, "The Shield") in a contest Shawn is told he must lose to keep his life. The film has an ending that is as dopy as I found it predictable, and I guess that's the problem I had with most of the movie. When you have characters whose lives aren't that interesting (hell, their personalities hardly seemed totally formed yet), having the actors playing those characters improvise lines seems pointless. Most times, the characters just murmur words to each other that in no way resemble actual conversation. Howard and Guzman handle this task better than anyone else, and that's simply because they are the two best actors in the cast. Tatum has a handful of nice moments, but he flounders more often than he succeeds.

Dito Montiel does a really great job establishing the mood for Fighting, and when the performances were lacking, I enjoyed watching what else was going on on the screen. There are real bits of New York in this movie; it's practically floating in the air. And that adds a great deal to the authenticity of the entire piece. But the wandering way the dialogue is presented is awkward and off-putting. You could do a lot worse than Fighting, and I applaud Montiel's skill with the camera, but he needs to rein in his actors a bit more and make them do at least one take with the script actually open in front of them. This is a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.


Earth


I'll admit to being more than a little confused by the existence of this elegant and breathtaking nature documentary released under Disney's new Disneynature imprint. Not that there's anything inherently boggling about the film itself, but my point of confusion comes from the fact that I'd seen a great deal of the footage before as part of the groundbreaking, multipart "Plant Earth" series on the Discovery Channel a couple of years back. Still, serving as a sort of a Greatest Hits package, Earth has one very important thing going for it that the television series did not have — it gives us the chance to view these staggeringly beautiful images on the big screen, and you need to take full advantage of the opportunity to do so.

As narrated by James Earl Jones in the States and Patrick Stewart in the UK (for you completists, the series was narrated by Sigourney Weaver in the U.S. and renowned wildlife expert David Attenborough in the UK), Earth streamlines three of the remarkable stories from "Planet Earth" and fleshes them out with other incredible footage from around the globe of rare animals and natural phenomenon, all shot with the most modern camera equipment available. Yes, messages about conservation, global warming, melting ice caps, endangered species, the destruction of the rain forests and holes in the ozone layer all find their way into the film, but when you watch a fully grown polar bear starving to death because the ice he normally walks upon to find food is melting under his feet, the message kind of screams out whether the narrator says something or not. Parents should be warned that, although the editors do a decent job keeping the really bloody stuff off the screen, there are some pretty scary and deadly moments captured here. Watching a great white shark jump completely out of the water while swallowing a grown seal whole might be a bit much for young children to handle.

The first story involves a polar bear family — the father separated while looking for food, while the mother and two adorable cubs emerge from hibernation in search of their own source of nutrition. This portion of the film is the most difficult to watch simply because watching these creatures adapt to their changing environment is troubling. The second story follows a herd of African elephants making the long journey to find a massive watering hole that only fills up at certain times of the year. One particularly tense moment comes when a group of lions goes after some of the younger, smaller elephants. The third sequence is perhaps the most serene and humbling, as we journey with a pair of humpback whales as they travel 4,000 miles to a feeding ground in the Antarctica. Their journey doesn't seem quite as treacherous (other than when they swim through powerful storms), but that doesn't make watching them any less spectacular.

The films frequently diverts from the three main stories just to show us something cool, and there's nothing wrong with that. Since I'm guessing that the overall point of the Disneynature films is to get kids interested in protecting the planet and the environment and awesome animals in general, I really didn't mind the way Earth jumped around quite a bit, often sacrificing a cohesive narrative for images that are almost more than the eyes can take in. And while for some of us, the footage might be a bit of a rehash, I was pleased to see a trailer for Disneynature's 2010 offering, Oceans, which seems to be all-new footage. The film isn't nearly as thorough and detail-oriented as the series or even something like March of the Penguins, but at least Jones' narration isn't as pandering as, say, Queen Latifah's was in 2007's Arctic Tale. More importantly, I just like the idea that every year we'll be getting a new, feature-length nature documentary to see on the big screen. I grew up watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" and the original Disney nature shorts that Uncle Walt himself used to introduce and sometimes narrate. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have pieced together something that is magnificent, but more importantly they've produced a film that was destined for the big screen even if it was made for television. Even if you aren't much of a documentary person, Earth is something quite unique, and if you have children, you pretty much need to take them to see this. The kids in the audience that I saw this movie with were mesmerized for the duration. You'll love this film.


Anvil! The Story of Anvil


Straight out of the gate, let me say that my interest in metal music is minimal at best, and my awareness of the Canadian metal group Anvil was nil. That said, this documentary from director Sacha Gervasi that traces the band once on the precipice of megastardom through some of their roughest moments over nearly 30 years together is one of the single greatest docs about music ever made. What's even more incredible is that I'm about the billionth person on the planet to say as much about this movie since its premiere at Sundance 2008. I'm not exactly sure what it is about this film that taps into something so wholly universal. This isn't just a movie about music; it's about following one's dreams no matter how unlikely it seems you will ever achieve them.

A lot of people have called Anvil (the group and the movie) the real-life version of Spinal Tap, but to me this story is eerily similar to that of the filmmaker Mark Borchardt from the American Movie doc. Both Borchardt and Anvil's two core members, Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (no relation to the man who directed This Is Spinal Tap), live in extremely cold climates, hold menial jobs that pay shit, and are amounting debt that they will likely have until they die. But their in something in their fiber that drives them to finish what they started. And when Lips and Reiner met when they were only 14 (they are both in their early 50s today), they made a pact to rock until they dropped. A few of their early albums released in the 1980s were highly influential, if you believe the testimonials from the likes of Slash, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Lemmy from Motorhead, Scott Ian of Anthrax and many others. Their influence on a generation of metal mainstays is well documented, but for reasons no one ever quite has figured out, their own success never translated into million-selling albums or stadium tours of the world.

Kudlow and Reiner are the classic coulda-been/shoulda-been guys, and they grasp onto any small thread of hope at reviving their careers. When the opportunity to tour Europe comes their way, they leap at the chance. Some of the gigs are tightly packed, near-sold-out events, but occasionally they are met with a handful of fans thanks to poor promotion on the part of either their own management or the club owners. In Spinal Tap, these moments are amusing; in Anvil!, they are downright tragic. The never-ending string of disappointments causes a great deal of friction between Lips and the band, with some painfully heated exchanges between the singer and Reiner, who is like a brother to him. Their arguments often result in the film's most heartfelt moments, and don't be surprised if you shed a tear or two watching Anvil! You can't help but become emotionally invested in these men and their relationships.

Along their journey, we get to meet the band's families, their wives and kids, and their most devoted fans, who the band at one point turn to for help earning money in particularly lean times. Meeting these fine folks provides the much-needed perspective to make these two men seem less like guys who just don't know when to quit and more like passionate keepers of the metal flame.

Lips and Reiner seem convinced that getting back in the studio with legendary producer Chris Tsangarides (who produced their three most successful albums) will somehow result in an album that will bring them back to the forefront. At this point in the film, director Gervasi almost dares us not to conjure Spinal Tap in our minds. Anvil's lyrics are a combination of mysticism, dark arts, and sexual prowess. Tsangarides has recording equipment with dials that do, in fact, go up to 11; and since the band is recording in Dover, they have no choice but to make the long trip to Stonehenge. The experience seems to rejuvenate the band.

What's particularly strange about watching Anvil! is that you come to realize that the very existence of this movie is the unofficial next chapter in the band's life. They haven't been this popular and in the public eye since the early 1980s, and the overwhelming critical success of the film make give the band an audience it never could have imagined... or not. That is the true nature of the beast. However things work out for these fine lads from Canada, the simple fact is you will be hard pressed to find a documentary and wholly entertaining as Anvil! in 2009. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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