Blu-ray Review: The Soloist (2009)

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I. An Introduction

With American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road and now Away We Go, British director Sam Mendes has repeatedly proven his knack and keen desire to explore life for those living in these United States regardless of the decade, genre or if in fact a majority of it is even set within its boundaries (Jarhead).

And it's often been said that part of Mendes' success with American work is in his ability to approach things as an outsider which was precisely the same hook that finally enticed fellow British director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) to journey to La La Land for his American debut, The Soloist.

Hesitant to film in a country wherein he curiously notes on this Blu-ray release that he feels he has less of an understanding of it the more time he spends in the United States-- finally he realized that much like Mendes' sense of being an outsider in this enviornment, he could instantly relate to the fellow outsiders he'd be filming in the form of characters Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers.

And his passion for the project extended to the filmmaking process as he further revealed the fact that Wright would only make the film on the condition that he would be working with the homeless citizens of Los Angeles who reside in and around Lamp and Skid Row as he shares in one of the many extras included on the disc.

Obviously, since this was an unprecedented experiment since real lives would be affected in a biopic that was now teetering on the verge of a docudrama, this proved to be a challenge not just to both DreamWorks and Universal but the organizations located in the area as well since the results of such an experience would be uncertain.

However, eventually everyone agreed and Joe Wright embarked on a filmmaking experience that couldn't have had less in common with Atonement, despite the fact that themes of Pride and Prejudice seem to emanate throughout. Since I was fortunate enough to have reviewed the film in time for its theatrical release, I'll republish my original review below and go into the Blu-ray analysis and technical details in Part III.

II. Original Theatrical Review

Originally Published in
April, 2009

Similar to the old adage that there’s no “I” in team—most reporters will tell you that there should be no “I” when it comes to covering the news. However, this rule is immediately overlooked for those not working via the inverted pyramid style lead-heavy cover stories of the A & B sections. For, as once we venture into the realm of columnists and feature writing-- part of the charm of a solid article is a writer’s ability to interject their own personality into a piece to add a unique flavor to slice-of-life vignettes.

It’s when the writer has to negotiate the balance of understanding that on a cynical level you may be exploiting another to sell papers and earn a heavily read byline and where your responsibility lies to a fellow human being that makes this an ethical gray area for journalists. And of course, this dichotomy is made doubly complex when one’s subject is physically and/or mentally disabled and one isn’t quite sure whether or not they actually have “permission” to begin writing about a person who seems lost in his own world.

Such is the case of British filmmaker Joe Wright’s first American film, The Soloist, which finds the award-winning Pride and Prejudice and Atonement director leaving his homeland to-- as he explained-- blend “Hollywood and British realism together,” for a piece “that might benefit from his distinctly outsider’s point of view.”

The film, which centers on two very different outsiders in its unique approach of a male friendship love story benefits from the dedication shown for the material via Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susannah Grant’s adaptation of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s feature articles that began in the spring of 2005 about a homeless, schizophrenic, exceedingly talented Julliard trained musician.

The Soloist-- which stars Robert Downey Jr. fresh off his 2008 blockbuster run as Iron Man and the all-time method actor in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder as Lopez-- manages to engage us in an action oriented beginning wherein he’s injured in a bike accident and told he is going to be disoriented for four to six weeks.

However, Grant (or perhaps the film’s editor) inexplicably drops the thread of this great set-up and lead-in to Lopez’s first encounter with Jamie Foxx’s Nathaniel Anthony Ayers that-- handled a bit more directly-- may have helped give us a better sense of who these two men truly are and why they connect.

Instead of implying that perhaps they may have bonded precisely because they may have shared a similar sense of being a bit out-of-sync with the Los Angeles surroundings-- as depicted, Lopez’s character simply appears as though he’s just fishing for a story idea by any means necessary.

Thus, essentially starting the film twice with two introductions to our lead character and still a bit confused about his true personality-- the compelling “initial opening” feels like a first draft that gets discarded when the “new one” takes over. This kicks off as Lopez finds himself drawn to the charismatic but rambling, manic, mile-a-minute soloist currently spending his time on the streets of Skid Row, passionately serenading the environment and the wondrous statue of his idol, Ludwig Van Beethoven with his badly worn two-stringed violin.

When Lopez discovers that Ayers’ story checks out and he did indeed study at Julliard—the reporter in him takes over and as the positive reader response pours in with endless e-mails, Lopez continues to seek out Ayers learning that he’s moved locations to now performing in a busy Los Angeles tunnel as cars fly by.

With the gift of a cello sent in by a caring reader, Lopez takes it upon himself to at least attempt to get Ayers back onto his feet—as much as he can anyway—by encouraging him to stay at the Lamp Community, which is an “advocacy group that offers nearly 200 private apartments for the homeless.”

Frustrated by the potential of the undeniably gifted musician and the possibility that all it could take to set him back on the path to life as a professional musician is the right psychiatric medication, Lopez tries to morally and ethically rationalize just how involved he should get with the man who begins as simply his subject but becomes a true friend as the story continues.

It's a rare glimpse into a community that Wright cites as the reason he made the film—namely Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Describing them as a group of “people [who] are the most disenfranchised people in American society and don’t generally have a voice,” Wright takes great pains to take a movie he initially envisioned as one that was stylistically influenced by John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy in its gritty depiction of honest male friendship into something that later he ended up blending with the social reality of Italian neorealism and docudrama.

All in all, it's an intense work that boasts predictably excellent turns by its leads especially Jamie Foxx. Still, more often than not, the well-intentioned and big-hearted film falters throughout with some scenes that feel as though they are figuratively hitting you over the head as “message” moments as opposed to the more seemingly natural situations utilized in Mike Binder’s fictitious yet far more authentic work Reign Over Me starring Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler.

And while these failures of over-wrought sequences in The Soloist are possibly again the fault of the editing process as it ultimately abandons subtlety in favor of driving its very valid but extremely repetitive and—ironically-- exploitative points home, an unhealthy portion seems far too forced. For in certain instances, even an enormous talent such as the one possessed by Downey appears as though he’s just hitting his marks a few times by angrily shouting or kicking something to try and emphasize just how much he cares.

Despite this—the cinematography by Wright’s Oscar nominated Atonement lensman Seamus McGarvey which was painstakingly storyboarded and captured via 35mm anamorphic format to give The Soloist as McGarvey explains “an even stronger sense of veracity,” is a standout as we’re swept away by the dazzling bird’s eye view shots of the city of isolated Los Angeles residents.

While aside from one Disney Hall sequence ruined by setting Beethoven’s third symphony to a near parade of colorful flashing lights straight out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—it’s the visuals that leave us breathless as well as the strong sense of music that fills every scene from not only the classical sources but also from the Oscar winning Atonement composer Dario Marianelli.

Last week, the film was listed as one of the four most recent recipients of Heartland’s Truly Moving Picture Awards. And while the uneven Soloist is filled with the positive message of the importance of human connection, compassion and friendship, it’s also one in which thankfully Grant—taking a cue from Lopez’s writing from both the column and his subsequent book—attributes the relationship as having benefits for both the journalist and the musician.

And although it’s hard to fault Joe Wright’s admirable intention to bring the devastating problem of homelessness in Los Angeles to attention—more often than not, the Skid Row sequences overpower the plight of Lopez and Ayers. Thereby, it throws the narrative off balance and indicates that Wright was really trying to squeeze two different films into one and the humanistic tale of two unlikely friends is the one that ultimately suffers, which may have been why this film’s release date was continually pushed back from the fall of 2008 until its eventual debut in spring of 2009.

However, one benefit is—considering a few of the artistic liberties taken with the facts and the reminder given the film’s flawed structure that the columns were all jumbled together for dramatic effect—in the end Wright and Grant do manage to call much needed attention to the dying newspaper industry.

Therefore, despite the fact that contrary to the true art-form of feature writing, the “I” and the “reporting” get jumbled together in this big screen version of Lopez’s articles—the filmmakers of The Soloist succeed mightily in making those of us still left with unanswered questions want to read Lopez’s original columns either through the L.A. Times or captured in book form.

III. Blu-ray Review

While I've struggled with the sound balance on a few previous DreamWorks releases despite their unparalleled clarity, this release from not just DreamWorks but Universal, StudioCanal and Participant manages to excel in both technical areas, no doubt realizing that since music is such an integral part of the work, it would be under the closest scrutiny for those pursuing the film on Blu-ray.

As he cited that Midnight Cowboy was an influence, some of Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is purposely filmed grainy and docu-style in the Lamp and Skid Row scenes but the sweeping crane shots still soar even on the small screen. Their usage is not just for beauty's sake however but purposely illustrating as those involved note-- the not-too-far divide between the haves and the have-nots since Disney Hall is that close to a place where people are residing for whom wishes upon stars haven't managed to come true.

It's evident that almost like a community organization or volunteer experience, it was Wright's purpose all along to train and work with the residents in the area and collaborate with local leaders of centers for rehabilitation by having them as involved in the creation of the film as possible.

Providing them with skills and training to contribute as extras and help the process, they created what is overall an admirable message movie but one that again sometimes teeters over the brink from exposing the issue to exploiting it both in the feature and in a few comments made in the extras.

And unfortunately, there's yet another cringe-worthy politically incorrect slip-of-the-tongue when Downey Jr. praises his co-star. Although you can initially write it off as an extension of his Tropic Thunder character who lectured Ben Stiller for trying to play a disabled character to win an Oscar, when Downey raves about Foxx and says that he won't name names but he's "seen crazy done wrong" and shares that you don't want to mess with "crazy" since it means as an actor "you suck" you want to reach into frame and remind him he's not on Tropic Thunder anymore and may want to stay on script about the term schizophrenia. Still, as a Downey fan and realizing he worked on so many movies last year that I know he probably didn't mean it in the bullying sense of those who'd tormented the real Ayers, it's easily forgiven but it does stand out on a disc filled with acceptance and open-armed support of the mentally ill and homeless.

One of the strongest extras included on the disc was a featurette interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers whom we're thrilled to discover are still not only good friends but both fondly recall their experiences together. Additionally, it offers commentary from the director, deleted scenes and two important extras regarding the issue of homelessness including the short film "Beth's Story."

Yet the sole Blu-ray exclusive is a worthwhile albeit extremely brief salute to Julliard and the importance of arts institutions to continue to exist which can no doubt double as a great political ad and call to help raise funds for the schools that provide an outlet for those like Ayers who would never have managed to flourish or function nearly as well without creativity or music.

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