The Soloist

“The Soloist.” Joe Wright, director. Dreamworks, 117 minutes.

“The Soloist” begins the way “State of Play” ends: opening credits roll as newspapers are printed, bundled and delivered. The papers are a blur of color as they whiz through the machinery, a tribute to the pressmen who invented the processes that have sped up delivery of the news. It isn’t so very long ago that letters were fished individually from the upper and lower cases of a printer’s workshop and set individually into pages that were inked and pressed onto newsprint. Not long from now, newsprint itself may be obsolete. From town criers to Internet bloggers the process of telling stories has changed, but the desire to hear those stories has not changed. What we all want is to hear a good story.

There’s a difference between a reporter and a columnist. The reporter investigates a story, follows the leads, checks the facts, and presents the story in as unbiased a manner as possible. At least, that’s the goal. A columnist, on the other hand, wants to engage the reader’s emotions with human interest stories that incite humor, outrage, joy or pathos. The columnist is always on the lookout for human interest stories that can be turned into 700 words for a weekly column.

Steve Lopez is such a columnist for the LA Times, writing a weekly column entitled “Points West.” A couple of years ago, while experiencing a particularly dry point in his career, he happened to hear the strains of a violin in a park. Following the sounds, he met a homeless man with two strings on his violin and multiple voices in his head. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. turned out to be a former Julliard virtuoso who dropped out when the voices in his head made it impossible to continue in school.

Lopez wrote an article about the man, and a friendship developed. The friendship became a series of articles, the articles became a book, and the book became a movie starring two of the finest and most versatile actors in Hollywood today: Jamie Foxx as the schizophrenic musician and Robert Downey Jr. as the columnist with a heart. The result is an earnest and powerful look at mental illness, homelessness, journalism, and the transformative power of both music and friendship.

The film earnestly tries to be an Oscar contender, and this is certainly the type of film that the Academy favors. But occasionally director Joe Wright tries a little too hard, as, for example, when he directs his actors to step on each other’s snappy dialogue during scenes in the newspaper office. Director Robert Altmann perfected this natural style of delivery, and many directors have tried to imitate it. Altmann’s characters speak naturally, listening to one another and jumping in the way we do in a two-way conversation, breaking in as we catch the gist of what the other person is saying and then stopping when the other person does the same to us.

The problem with this film is that the actors don’t wait for the “gist.” They interrupt each other during important points of dialogue, listening for their cue but not really listening to each other speak and consequently not allowing the audience to listen either. Instead of feeling natural, it is merely annoying. Fortunately, there are few scenes in the newspaper office, and outside, where Foxx and Downey interact with each other, the scenes are close to brilliant.

One of the most difficult challenges in making a movie like this is how to portray schizophrenia from the inside, showing the audience what Ayers feels, and not merely what Lopez sees. Wright does this in a variety of ways, through the use of kaleidoscopic color, grainy photography, soaring music, and especially through skillful use of the theater’s sound system, isolating and overlapping the voices in Ayers’s mind so that they come at us from the left, from the right, behind us and in front of us, mimicking the confusion and panic Ayers hears and feels.

He also demonstrates the euphoria Ayers feels when he is playing or listening to music. While Ayers plays a Beethoven piece under a highway overpass on a cello donated to him by one of Lopez’s readers, Ayers sees psychedelic music in his mind. Pigeons begin flapping; scenes from GoogleEarth demonstrate the infinite eye of God. A full orchestra joins the soundtrack, and as the music crescendos, the birds fly higher. I couldn’t help but think of the scripture and hymn, “He will raise you up on Eagle’s wings.” Ayers has said that Beethoven is his God; fittingly, his music soars on pigeons’ wings. Later, Lopez tells his editor and ex-wife, “I’ve never loved anything the way he loves music.”

A third way that Wright demonstrates the experience of mental illness is through the use of non-actors to portray the hundreds of mentally ill people who live on the streets in LA. Using the cello and music lessons as bait, Lopez lures Ayers to the LAMP Community, a nonprofit homeless center and health facility in LA’s skid row that Lopez describes as “a lost colony of broken, hopeless souls.” (LAMP is a real organization that provides permanent housing and basic services for those with severe mental illness, no strings attached. I hope the movie leads to a well-deserved boost in their donations.)

In a scene that is pure documentary, Wright pans the LAMP plaza, focusing on several non-actor residents. One of them, a woman, explains repeatedly to whoever will listen, “Lithium stops the voices. The voices comfort me. If you stop the voices you stop the comfort. Lithium stops the voices…” These are some of the most intense scenes of the movie as Lopez moves through the crowded streets and plazas of LA’s skid row, trying to look brave and nonchalant but clearly moved by the conditions and never knowing whether he is safe.

Lopez cares about this gifted but troubled musician and wants to help him live a safer life by moving him off the streets into an apartment. He urges LAMP’s director to prescribe medications that will ease the schizophrenia and allow Ayers to return to a more normal life. “Just two weeks,” he pleads. “What if two weeks of meds could change him?” But the director barks back, “What he doesn’t need is one more person telling him he needs medication! What he needs is a friend. Don’t betray that.”

As Lopez continues to write his columns about Ayers and LAMP, they eventually reach City Hall. In a voice-over from one of his columns he intones, “Every now and then the hearts, minds, and wallets of the people open at one time,” as LA Mayor Villaraigosa pledges to spend $50 million to help the street people on skid row. Lopez exults, but I groaned. Yet again the press promotes a public solution to replace a private one.

Several scenes later, however, the police arrive and begin arresting hordes of previously peaceful street residents for such crimes as “possession of a shopping cart” or “possession of a milk crate.” That’s one way to clean up an area, but I don’t think it’s what Steve Lopez had in mind when he suggested that these people needed some help. Score one for the filmmakers after all.

When all is said and done, Lopez acknowledges that there are no easy answers. He wanted Ayers to exorcise the demons in his head, play with a symphony, sleep on a bed, live in a room with a roof and a door. In short, to be like “everyone else.” What Lopez learns is that some things can’t, and maybe even shouldn’t, be fixed. But they can be transcended. “The simple act of being someone’s friend can change his brain chemistry,” Lopez reports. Today Ayers is living a safer, and apparently happier, life. In the end, Lopez tells us, “Loyalty will carry you home.”

State of Play

“State of Play.” Kevin Macdonald, director. Tony Gilroy, writer. Universal, 127 minutes.

“State of Play” is a good old-fashioned newspaper thriller in which the curmudgeonly journalist solves the case using wits, not guns. The film is fast-paced without being manic, the story full of satisfying twists without abandoning credibility.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is an old-school journalist in a new-age market. He eats vending machine junk food while chasing down a story, drives a 20-year-old Saab, and writes his stories on a clunky computer with a 15-year-old monitor. He won’t file a story until he is positive it is accurate. Meanwhile, his journalistic nemesis is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), the smart young blogger for the paper’s new website who posts stories hourly instead of filing them weekly and never has a pen on hand. The two team up on an intense story that involves murder, politics, sex, and corruption–who could ask for anything more?

In many ways, “State of Play” is a comment on the State of Journalism, a paean to old-fashioned newspaper reporting in an age when print journalism is dying. Shots of the Watergate complex subtly remind us of 1972 and the pinnacle of investigative journalism. A key scene of the film even takes place in a parking garage. Ah, those were the days!

When Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), Cal’s friend and former college roommate, is implicated in the apparent suicide of a beautiful young research assistant, Cal vows to find the truth and clear his friend. With the congressman’s reputation about to be destroyed by the blog-now, ask-questions-later generation of journalists, Cal urges Collins to “build a plausible alternative story” to counter their jumped-to conclusions while he tracks down evidence that will clear him. The plot widens to include two other seemingly unrelated murders and a healthy dose of corruption.

Della is ready to file her story at every turn, and managing editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) urges the same, cynically explaining, “We print the story now. If it’s wrong, we’ll print a retraction tomorrow. And we’ll print a correction the day after that. The public will read every story–and they’ll read it in our pages. The new owners are interested in sales, not discretion!” But Cal is determined to get the story right.

Soon PointCorp, a private military company providing soldiers to fight in the middle east whom Congressman Collins is investigating, is implicated. Naturally. Modern Hollywood bad guys have to be financed by a giant corporation, and throwing in the military connection makes them that much worse. Ironically, when America is actually being nationalized and socialized faster than we can say “Bail out,” the characters in this film are horrified that Homeland Security might be privatized, with billions of dollars being directed to PointCorp to handle domestic emergencies, terrorism, and surveillance issues.

Frankly, I was ready to stand up and cheer for PointCorp, or any movement toward private solutions to our nation’s security problems. But that’s a different story. Meanwhile, I was almost shocked when the lead cop responds to the reporters’ theory with, “So you think a corporate conglomerate is behind all this? I’ve only ever seen that on tv.”

Ben Affleck contributes a solid performance as the congressman, and Robin Wright Penn is fine as his lovely and longsuffering wife. Jason Bateman is superb in his small role as public relations CEO Dominic Foy, with just the right mix of moxie, polish, and sleaze.

Crowe and McAdams work well together as the investigative team, with their personality conflicts focusing on the differences in their ages and experience rather than on their genders. Similarly, the role of editor Cameron Lynne, originally played by Bill Nighey in the BBC television miniseries of the same name, was given to Helen Mirren without changing a word of the dialogue. We crossed the gender bridge long ago, so it’s refreshing to see a film where gender simply doesn’t matter.

The most towering character in this film, however, is the newspaper itself. Be sure to stay for the final credits, and watch the process by which the story is finally printed and distributed. It’s a beautiful but dying art. But print journalism’s strength is also its weakness: more time is taken to investigate and write a print story, and it will include more background and details. But more time is also required to deliver it to the reader, and by that time it’s already yesterday’s news.

The sad truth is that, by the time Cal’s story reaches the front page of the Globe, the talking heads in the electronic media will have been scooping him for hours, repeating their headlines every 15 minutes with live footage of the eventual arrest. If it’s juicy enough, youtube will pick it up and millions more will see it that way. But that’s all it is–headlines. The newspaper veteran has done the work, but the coiffed blondes on cable will get the story. Meanwhile, three hours after Cal’s story slaps the reader’s driveway, it will be wrapping the garbage or lining the cat’s litter box. This well-crafted film is a salute to the dying monument.

Memorial Day Movie – Young @ Heart

“Young @ Heart.” Stephen Walker, director. Fox Searchlight, 107 minutes.

Like newspaper columnists, film documentarians are always on the lookout for a great story. The difference is, they have to begin filming the story before they know how it’s going to end, or even whether it’s going to turn out to be a story worth telling. But a gifted documentarian can sense a story as it begins to develop, and knows where to take the cameras to be in just the right place with just the right focus at just the right time. Such is the case with Stephen Walker, a British documentarian who smelled a good story in “Young @ Heart,” when he was astounded by the sell-out concert of a singing group made up of senior citizens whose average age is 81. Their shtick? They sing rock, punk, and heavy metal songs. The film is much more than a “making of” concert documentary; the story itself is pure gold.

Bob Cilman is the enthusiastic, upbeat, no-longer-young himself musical director whose gray hair betrays the 25 years he has been directing the Chorus. He demands professionalism from his singers as he puts them through the paces of learning such difficult songs as “Yes I can” (try getting your head around a lyric that simply says, “Yes I can, yes I can can, oh yes I can” about 93 times with various rhythms and numbers of “cans”), “Schizophrenia,” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” One of the reasons it works is that Cilman directs the concert on stage and performs along with them, helping them stay on time with the sometimes intricate rhythms.

Of course, this is a documentary about old people, and old people have health problems. Sometimes serious ones. Sometimes they die. If Cilman keeps this in mind as he selects his soloists and rehearses their numbers, he doesn’t let it show. It must be a great and dreadful occupation, producing a concert so full of life when death is always lurking around the corner. But despite their age and health problems, Cilman expects them to be on time for rehearsals and to sing with gusto. “I don’t want to lose my solo,” one member explains seriously when he comes to rehearsal just a day after being hospitalized.

These senior citizens do not particularly enjoy the songs they perform; they often wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes at some of the songs Cilman selects. Their own musical backgrounds range from opera to church choirs to dance bands, songs with lovely melodies and harmonies and lyrics. But they have learned an important principle of the free market: Supply does not create its own demand; demand creates its own supply. Nobody wants to hear a bunch of old people singing old songs. But they love hearing these old people singing contemporary songs in a new way, as evidenced by the sell-out crowds wherever they go.

The popularity of their concerts does not lie simply in the anomaly of watching old folks sing punk rock. Young @ Heart brings a fresh interpretation to songs that are familiar to their audiences, but not to themselves. Because it’s harder for them to memorize at this stage of life, they have to think more about the sense of what they are singing, and that deeper understanding of the lyrics comes through in their performance. Moreover, because of their classically trained technique they enunciate better, and the audience can understand the lyrics of familiar songs, perhaps for the first time. Their different stage of life can also bring an entirely different meaning than the one intended by the composer; for example, Sting’s song “Every Breath You Take (I’ll Be Watching You)” tells a whole new story when it is sung gently by a chorus of nurses to an old man hooked up to an IV.

The magic of the story is in the singing itself, and in the real life stories of the singers. Walker takes his film crew into their homes, their cars, even their bathrooms, pulling together stories that are heartwarming, funny, and wise. But the film would have been tedious if the filmmakers had simply made a behind-the-scenes concert documentary. Instead, Walker turns several of the songs into staged music videos with the chorus members strutting their stuff in a bowling alley while they sing “Stayin’ Alive” or ending up in a field surrounding a tour bus while singing “Road to Nowhere.” The music videos are just plain fun, and you can see how much fun the members had being a part of the filming.

One of the most poignant scenes of the film occurs when Cilman decides to present a concert for inmates at the local jail. These men are spending what should have been “the best years of their lives” incarcerated. You can see it in their faces as they hear the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” They’ll be old when they get out. But as they watch this enthusiastic chorus, older still but full of life and singing with such joy and animation, it seems to give them renewed hope that they, too, can be forever young. Several of the inmates unashamedly wipe away tears as they sit in the sunshine, listening to the concert.

The song that will stay with you the longest is Cold Play’s “Fix You.” From early rehearsals to final performance, the lyrics and the performers tell a poignant story of dreams deferred, friendships lost, and memories dimmed in a way that Chris Martin and his young mates, talented though they are, simply can’t achieve. Its gentle chorus reinforces the power of friendship and hope, even as life drawing ever closer to its end.