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Save me! One of the stars of Disney’s Earth.

Pretty Bad News

By Ann Morrow

Earth

Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

The starving polar bear may be the poster child for global warming; in Earth, the big-screen debut of Disneynature films, the effects of melting ice on the planet’s largest carnivores are appallingly evident. Though the film barely alludes to the environmental impact of carbon dioxide, that substance’s devastation on the natural world is apparent from the arctic ice caps to the deserts of Africa, where an elephant herd embarks on a desperate trek for water.

Based on the acclaimed Planet Earth TV series, Earth the movie is, as expected from a Disney production, family-friendly. Scenes that may be too intense for small children, such as predators devouring their prey, are carefully cut away from before the first mouthful, though without being misleading—lions do not lie down with lambs, and in fact, a particularly eerie sequence shows (in spooky shades of night-vision gray) dozens of lions stalking and overpowering an elephant that’s lost in the dark. The film’s theme is the cycle of life, and that includes eating and being eaten. The environmental message, or proof, rather, is how it shows the effects of accelerated climate change, and the suffering this causes. A polar bear dies from exhaustion after four days of swimming in an ocean without ice floes solid enough to hold his weight, and a baby elephant falters from dehydration and loses his way on the long migration to a watering hole.

Mostly, though, Earth is a breathtaking experience buoyed by the expertise and passion of its filmmakers (directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, a crew of 60 camera operators, and a hot-air balloon for inhospitable terrain) to reveal wildernesses and wildlife with astounding intimacy. Flocks of fragile-looking demoiselle cranes navigate treacherous air currents 26,000 feet above the Himalayas; a newborn caribou spring-jumps through a rushing stream; and a cheetah (shown in super-high-resolution slow motion) sinuously careens at nearly 70 miles per hour. Maybe you’ve already seen Planet’s footage of a prehistorically enormous great white shark spiraling into the air with a seal dangling from its jaws like a tiny strip of jerky, but seeing it on the big screen is a primordial thrill.

Earth is as beautiful as it as astonishing: In a sequence called the “the beauty of the silent world” that utilizes aerial photography, a lynx slinks like a ghost through the arctic scrub pine, giving the voice-over narration (by James Earl Jones in an uncharacteristically cheery tone) a photogenic opportunity to explain the importance of the seemingly bleak stretch of conifers that oxygenate the atmosphere. Though the writing can be a tad cutesy, especially when following the progress of three animal “families” (polar bears, elephants, and a humpback whale and her calf), it’s child-oriented simplicity is surprisingly effective: “Grass is the unsung hero of the planet,” Jones chirps after a dismaying look at the expanding deserts that now cover more than an eighth of the planet. Though Earth doesn’t offer any solutions (rent The Eleventh Hour for more information), it’s a rapturous reminder of what’s at stake in the natural world.

Tell My Story

The Soloist

Directed by Joe Wright

I worried that The Soloist was going to be one of those movies in which a brilliant talent is derailed by madness or affliction, only to regain his groove in some magical way. In fact, I think that’s what my eldest was expecting when he very unexpectedly agreed to come see it with me. I, for one, was mostly pleased with the actual movie, whereas I think he was wondering where the revelatory moment was.

Written by Susannah Grant, The Soloist is about what happens when somebody reaches out to touch someone else, only to find that said contact results in ongoing commitment, perpetual guilt and greater understanding. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) happens upon a homeless street musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), who, in the patois of his particular form of schizophrenia, regales the journalist with a tale of his Juilliard past. Ayers, and his music, performed on a broken-down two-string violin, are strangely compelling and mesmerizing, and Lopez uses them both for a profile that results in a reader forwarding her unused cello (Ayers’ first instrument) to his keeping. Lopez delivers the instrument, and gets Ayers in touch with the real life LAMP community (a skid-row program for the mentally ill homeless), and smiling, prepares to go on to his next assignment, feeling that he’s done a good deed. Trouble is, Ayers keeps coming back. And people want more about him.

The movie deftly paints a portrait of Lopez as a solitary man, uncomfortable even phoning it in to his estranged college-aged son, and certainly ill-prepared for the commitment and/or responsibility Ayers represents. Lopez badgers David (Nelsan Ellis), a volunteer at LAMP, to put Ayers on medication, to get him into “some program” or hospital, anything, basically, to remove himself from the situation of having to actually deal personally with Ayers. David, eying this liberal do-gooder with a wary gaze, calmly informs Lopez about the legal, ethical and common-sense realities of the situation, before leaving him to discover the 90,000 homeless people populating the alleys and parks of downtown LA.

Wisely, the movie avoids the great “aha” moments in which Lopez realizes, wow, there’s so much more to it than medication. Much credit goes to Downey and Foxx, who avoid the usual shtick you get in these types of films, and I couldn’t help but remember Downey’s memorable “going full retard” dialogue with Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder. This isn’t to say that director Joe Wright employs the same restraint; his camera goes full-tilt into the deformed, oozing and ragged populace of homeless America, at times to the extent that it feels like a freak show.

Still, The Soloist does several things remarkably well. The act of working, whether it’s as a musician or a journalist, is given its due, so that we see what goes into being good at what one does. Of course, in Lopez’s case, we realize the catch-22 of his situation, having to write compelling pieces but then, by prorefssional necessity, having to move on to the next deadline. In essence, this is much of what The Soloist is about, our collective inability to think beyond that next work assignment or tonight’s carpool, in such a way as to truly connect with the souls who live, just barely, around us. The movie goes disgustingly overboard with its damnation of religion—particularly Christianity—as a failure in its attempts to deal with the poor and downtrodden; a Christian cellist comes across as crazed and impotent, a bigger danger to Ayers than the cops. That said, it does wonders with the concept of the transformative power of art on the soul, without giving way to the usual cinematic conceit that such will magically “cure” the sufferer. The broader implication is of acceptance, of what one can accomplish and what to expect of others, and in this, The Soloist soars.

—Laura Leon

Newsworthy

State of Play

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

What do you people want?

The nifty thriller State of Play is a lot of the things “sophisticated” moviegoers claim they want from a movie. It’s smart. It’s tense. It has an actual plot that relates to today’s headlines and is resolved in a satisfying fashion. It’s full of appealing movie stars at the top of their game.

And no one’s going to see it.

Many critics—and even some political bloggers (I’m looking at you, Matthew Yglesias)—are complaining that it’s an imperfect remake of a British miniseries. Blah blah blah. A Fistful of Dollars was an imperfect remake of Yojimbo; it’s still entertaining as hell. Also: This would be a more sympathetic argument if everybody didn’t fall all over themselves praising Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, an unfortunate remake of the Hong Kong drama Infernal Affairs that was sunk by unwatchable performances.

Really, what is it with you people?

State of Play begins with three seemingly unconnected, brutal deaths. A congressional aide dies under the wheels of a Washington, D.C., subway train; a street kid and a pizza delivery man are shot, execution-style, by a dead-eyed killer in an alley.

As ace reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe, reveling in underpaid-journalist shabbiness) unwinds these events and eventually connects them, we are presented with a charming rogue’s gallery of characters. At the paper, there’s perky-but-earnest blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a couple of nebbishy researchers (Josh Mostel and Michael Weston), and alternately nasty-and-nice managing editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). On Capitol Hill there’s Cal’s ex-college roommate, the too-heroic-to-be-true congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), his stoic—and politically savvy—wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn), and his “boss,” the smarmy party enforcer Sen. George Fergus (Jeff Daniels). Somewhere in between there’s a laconic D.C. detective (Harry Lennix), a deadpan coroner (Viola Davis) and a pill-popping, public-relations party boy (a hilarious Jason Bateman).

What’s not to love?

Maybe, just maybe, you people don’t like newspaper dramas anymore. Certainly many of you don’t like newspapers. Too bad for you. State of Play, like the best headline-driven dramas (All the President’s Men, His Girl Friday, Five Star Final), treats ink as if it were blood. And that’s what ultimately makes it so much fun.

—Shawn Stone


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