The Soloist (Wright, 2009)

It’s usually a bad sign when a seemingly perfect meeting of Hollywood talent and inspirational subject-matter gets pushed from a plush Oscar-friendly release date to the following April, a minefield of post Winter, pre-Summer sludge doomed to mainstream inconsequence. This dynamic shift happened to Joe Wright’s much hyped The Soloist, a formulaic mess about a mentally ill homeless man/genius cello player (Jamie Foxx) and his friendship with an L.A. Times reporter (Robert Downey Jr.). The lack of confidence by its studio is completely understandable after seeing the disjointed, bloated final product. But coming on the heels of Atonement, Wright’s overrated Academy Award darling, the failures of The Soloist are not at all surprising, since both films suffer from the same lack of coherent focus in the story.

Atonement skates by viewers with a false whimsey and incredible camera movements, masking the simplistic love story underneath. However, The Soloist doesn’t have period piece settings or war time melodrama to hide its faults, and the relationship between the two leads suffers under the pressure of fitting a potentially complex and circular story into a square biopic model. Also, Wright has an embattled sense of pacing here, playing small moments up as if they were crucially important, only to throw away the earned momentum on standard outbreaks of emotion at the expected moments of tension. Foxx does crazy well, basically a ticking time bomb version of Ray Charles, and Downey, Jr. tirelessly pities himself until the “one moment” where he realizes it’s not all about him. The overall inspired performances can’t save a story that has nothing substantial to say about the complexities of their relationship. The Soloist is that dime a dozen Hollywood film that should work, but for innumerable reasons falls flat on its face, most notably because of a righteous self-importance toward the homelessness issue, worst on display in Wright’s hollow and thoughtless construction of Skid Row as a slow motion jumble of colors, screams, and beatings, something akin to Michael Bay massacring a scene from The Wire.

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Le Doulos (Melville, 1962)

In the crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville, trust becomes a rare and costly commodity. Structured gangster hierarchies are moot if it means monetary advancement or vengeance, while honor amongst thieves evaporates on a whim, usually leading to a bullet in the back. But Le Doulos takes this motif and makes it personal, setting its sights on a small, tightly knit group of French hoods who at once seem both incredibly close and uncaring toward each other.

Melville founds his entire film on the judgement of one character’s role as a police informer, only to pull a rug from under the notion half-way through. It’s a startling shift, one that enables the fluid and dark Parisian locale to seem even more deadly and uncertain. Shadows and screens mask men with guns, but their intentions are never clear until it’s too late. In this sense, Melville beautifully crafts each scene to subvert expectation, uncovering a honorable thread hidden beneath the many twists and turns of the plot.

If Le Samurai explores the breakdown of classic codes in the modern age, and Army of Shadows dispels such codes in the face of massive evil, Le Doulos levels a brutal hammer at why such ideologies begin to crack in the first place, inevitably due to the miscommunications and misjudgments of the men dependent on them the most.

Moon (Jones, 2009)

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Even though Duncan Jones’ Moon stems a great deal from Science Fiction – the film is set in space, a robot is prominent, with cramped interior spaces paralleling an uncaring corporate puppet-master – its most interesting narrative aspects depend entirely on genre traits of the Melodrama. Instead of the standard love triangle infused with jealousy or greed, the film turns inward to the multiple emotions within a single human being, molding a one man show (or is it?) around Sam Rockwell’s difficult and sobering solo performance, turning it into a slow realization of isolation and death.

There’s really no tension, or horror, or fright occurring within the story of Sam Bell (Rockwell), an astronaut who runs a mining base harvesting energy from the Moon. Just the simple and inevitable deterioration of hope in the face of complete insanity. First time director Jones doesn’t allow many scenes to unfold beyond the surface, which at first gnaws away at the pacing and bogs the film down. But as the story begins to take shape and Bell starts to unearth key information, Moon develops an interior conflict and a human complexity that resonates deeply. One of the more refreshing angles is GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), the robot assisting Sam in his daily activities. We expect GERTY to turn on Sam as the story unravels (like HAL in 2001), but Jones handles this relationship in a different way, connecting the two on an emotional level that transcends expectations about interactions between artificial intelligence and humans.

Moon has it’s glaring flaws, with pockets of cinematic inanity that speak to both the weaknesses of the script and direction, but it also contains plenty of confounding and engaging intricacies, a harrowing double performance, and moments of wrenching sacrifice worthy of Sirk. In space, nobody can hear you cry.

The Missouri Breaks (Penn, 1976)

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What begins as a dirty and schizophrenic revisionist Western akin to Benton’s Bad Company, gradually turns into a fractured and disturbing requiem for the frontier and certainly one of the strangest genre films ever made.  It’s impossible to discuss the oddness of Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks without first mentioning Marlon Brando’s out-of-this-world performance as bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton, a stunning jumble of cunning, flamboyance, cruelty, and professionalism. When Clayton shows up half-way through the film as a hired gun, Penn’s narrative almost spins off its axis under the pressure of such a force. Traditional Western archetypes become confused, impotent, and disposable as Clayton overwhelms scene after scene with a personality too big for his environment.

Jack Nicholson’s Tom Logan, a horse thief and the object of Clayton’s gaze, is the only character able to see past his opponent’s ridiculous facade and recognize the incredible danger of such a man. But what exactly makes Brando’s character so threatening to both his prey and the cattle baron who’s hired him? Is it his inferred homosexuality or his disavowal of honorable rules? Could it be both intertwined together? These are all questions that make The Missouri Breaks a near impenetrable but fascinating work. The film seems on the brink of saying something about the complexity and falseness of Western iconography and social codes, but like Clayton’s phantasmic ability to hop around the open terrain, the film morphs so often it becomes overly jarring, even experimental in certain usages of sound and image.  By the time Logan gets revenge, his Western world is already turned upside down – friendless, womanless. and homeless – and Clayton’s imprint has been left forever.

Wise Blood (Huston, 1979)

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John Huston’s Wise Blood depicts an American South caught between eras, where memories of slavery, religious evangelicalism, and destitution parallel growing modernization and urbanization. Racism and free-thought, progress and trauma, religion and capitalism are consistently at odds, creating an environment ripe for con artists posing as prophets. It seems everyone is looking for a cure, or at least an answer, especially Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a dynamic young man fresh out of the army hoping to transcend his grandfather’s extremist teachings and begin the Church Without Christ. Hazel enters the city naive and determined and immediately stands out to those eccentrics already entrenched in the vice of urban sprawl.

Together, Huston and Dourif make Hazel a dynamic force of uncertainty posing as strength, a twitching time bomb aching to exercise his past demons by starting a new vision of faith. It’s impossible to separate Hazel from his surroundings, since both character and space are equally tormented by the clash of various institutions, ideologies, and fallacies. This approach makes Wise Blood a fascinating and conflicted film, defined by tangents of indignation and hell-fire meant to highlight mood and atmosphere over traditional narrative techniques. Dourif’s great performance enters an exhausting psychological space forcing us to witness a degeneration of epic proportions. His noble intentions reveal damning cracks as selfishness and panic push friends away and embolden his enemies, isolating an already fragile incarnation. Finally, during a thick rainstorm that seemingly washes away the filth and faux-preachers, Huston paints a fitting and horrifying picture of limbo, a last compliment to Hazel’s philosophical demise.

Manhattan (Allen, 1979)

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I hadn’t seen this in years, yet it feels like an old friend I didn’t quite fully appreciate. Manhattan is possibly Woody Allen’s must subtle film, walking the line between character study and romantic comedy, blurring the rules of Cinema by devoting an entire seemingly simple story to one specific dynamic space. Of course this approach highlights many different moments and places depending on the viewer and their mood, whether it be the dynamic Gershwin-themed opening crescendo, the brilliant use of light and dark in the planetarium, or the cramped, frenzied decor of Isaac’s small apartment. This makes Manhattan one of those rare films that changes effortlessly upon repeat viewings. Also, the great ending struck me as Allen’s most superb singular moment where his writing, directing, and acting all converge to illuminate one character’s potential downfall and last chance at happiness, where a flood of emotions cross the screen for just a second, leaving a great wealth of possibility to consider while the credits roll.