DVD reviews
September 2009

 

 

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


The Soloist

The Soloist is a fascinating look at an unlikely friendship, not to mention a celebration of the power of music. It also provides Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. with the kind of roles actors love to dig into.

Downey plays Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times reporter who makes the acquaintance of brilliant but mentally ill musician Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). Nathaniel is living on the streets, alternating between moments of sublime artistry and psychotic despair. Steve begins to write about Nathaniel’s life, leading to a deep connection between the two men, if not complete understanding.

Based on Lopez’s memoir of the relationship, The Soloist avoids the smarmy clichés found in so many would-be inspirational movies. Steve and Nathaniel both make serious mistakes, and their problems never have easy answers. Director Joe Wright creates a vivid portrait of L.A.’s skid row, a living nightmare of violence, addiction and madness, largely ignored by the outside world. Although screenwriter Susannah Grant (presumably following Lopez’s lead) is irresponsibly dismissive of medical treatments for mental illness, she at least acknowledges that there is nothing noble about Nathaniel’s “simple” life.

Grant and Wright keep trying to explore the social issues raised by the story, as well as commenting on the state of modern print journalism, and the movie drifts off course as it takes on more than it can handle. When it stays with Foxx and Downey, letting them reveal their characters’ complexities, The Soloist says ten times more than any speech about homelessness ever could.

Extras: A commentary track by Wright; deleted scenes; a 20-minute production feature; an interview with the real-life Lopez and Ayers; two short features on homelessness in Los Angeles. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 —LL


The Terry Jones Collection

In addition to being an actor, writer, director and founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Terry Jones is also the history teacher you wish you had in school.

Unlike many celebrities who get asked to narrate historical documentaries simply for their voices or, more likely, their fame, Jones actually understands the sometimes-arcane subjects he’s discussing and can make them accessible, fun and edifying. It probably doesn’t hurt that he has a degree in history from Oxford (where he met fellow Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin) and has retained his contagious enthusiasm for the subject.

In this two-disc boxed set of six hour-long specials he hosted for the Discovery Channel, Jones reveals that people who lived in the ancient world weren’t as unsophisticated as we’ve been led to believe in school. In the first disc, “Ancient Inventions,” Jones explains that many of the technologies we associate with the modern age are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

For example, the rifling in gun barrels that makes bullets travel more accurately though the air can be found in arrows at archaeological sites as well. Even tanks are based on principles that go back to the pre-Christian era.

Jones also explains that sex led the ancients to develop machines that most of us today wouldn’t associate with carnal activities. He recalls how the Chinese developed elaborate mechanical clocks so that the Emperor could be guaranteed to sire an astrologically compatible heir.

In the final episode of the disc, Jones also informs viewers that city grids go back as far as ancient India and that fire lanes, running water and street lights were standard features of Roman urban life. We also discover by looking at the past that new technologies frequently create as many issues as they solve.

For the second disc, Jones does more than simply drone statistics about life for ordinary residents of ancient Rome or Egypt. He tries on clothes from the era and actually eats the same cuisine that a typical laborer would have consumed.

In the most intriguing special, “The Surprising History of Sex and Love,” Jones also examines how perceptions of sex have changed radically from the ancient era (where displaying sculpted genitalia on public buildings was normal) to the repressive Middle Ages. He also reveals that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were initially developed to dampen sexual desire that seemed to be aroused by ham and eggs breakfast.

While he’s obviously an able comic, Jones is always careful to make sure that any wisecracks or clowning he does are in the service of a lesson instead of a distracting from it. Throughout these documentaries, Jones warns that the ancients frequently wrestled with the issues that confound us today and that we ourselves could be ruined by the same forces that doomed them.

Extras: None, which is a shame because it might have been interesting to learn the material that Jones and his co-writers consulted. Jones is so good at whetting our appetite for the past that it’s unfortunate that reading suggestions weren’t included. (N/R, although there is some appropriate nudity for some of the discussions of sexual history) Rating: 4 —DL


Adventureland

Set in Pittsburgh, circa 1987, Adventureland immediately distinguishes itself from glossier, more determinedly middle-class pieces of ‘80s nostalgia. Instead of hanging out at the mall and listening to Wham!, the characters in Greg Mottola’s amiable comedy are struggling through a bad economy while Lou Reed and The Replacements play in the tape decks of their beat-up cars.

Jesse Eisenberg plays James, who just finished college and has to take a summer job to pay for travel and grad school. With no experience, the only gig he can land is at a crummy local amusement park, where the games are rigged, the rides are flimsy and the employees are miserable (and frequently stoned). While doing his time at Adventureland, James meets Em (Twilight star Kristen Stewart), a rich kid who works there to get away from her obnoxious family.

Despite the relatively unique setting, Mottola’s thin plot doesn’t do anything unusual. The quirky co-workers, weird bosses, family dramas and romantic misunderstandings are all pretty standard fare for this genre. Adventureland is worth watching anyway, thanks to Mottola’s ear for wittily realistic dialogue and his obvious affection for his characters. No one comes off as completely good or bad in this story — just completely, charmingly human.

Extras: A commentary by Mottola and Eisenberg; a making-of feature; fake Adventureland commercials; deleted scenes; music-specific scene selections. (R) Rating: 3.5 —LL


Bill Plympton’s Dog Days

Walt Disney once rejected a young would-be animator named Bill Plympton because, at age 14, he was too young. Instead, since the 1980s, Plympton has been making his own idiosyncratic cartoons and leaving a formidable legacy in the process.

Bill Plympton’s Dog Days is a generous sampling of his unique work, which includes everything from Academy Award-nominated short films to commercials to music videos to a children’s Christmas special. There’s even an educational segment of Plympton’s animation devoted to the Shays Rebellion, which led the current American Constitution.

While there are several gems here, the highlights are Plympton’s three short canine cartoons (Guard Dog, Guide Dog and Hot Dog). They are loaded with a quirky black humor that’s tempered by the fact that all three feature a star who is one of the most endearing creatures in animation.

The bulldog in these shorts is brave, earnest and loyal, so it’s easy to love him even when his virtues lead him into darkly amusing disasters. In Plympton’s world, gophers can set up bizarre traps involving an angry bull and a Ronald McDonald costume (you’ll have to see this for yourself), and flocks for birds can abduct people just like space aliens. In all three of these films, Plympton conveys a lot of information to the audience without the characters uttering a single word.

Plympton’s animation style is distinctive. He often draws his characters and his backgrounds using colored pencils, giving his animation a jerky but more expressive style. In most of his films, he’s the sole animator (he claims to draw 100 sketches a day), writer and director.

In addition to the dog cartoons, the set includes “The Fan and the Flower,” a charming children’s short narrated by Paul Giamatti and written by Dan O’Shannon. It’s easy to see why this short won an Annie (the animation equivalent of an Oscar) because it actually makes you care if a flower and a ceiling fan will ever get to express their mutual affection.

Plympton also includes his music videos for Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say” and Weird Al Yankovic’s hilariously ironic “Don’t Download This Song.” There’s also a Christmas special (“12 Tiny Christmas Tales”) and a salute to the wonders of raising the middle finger. My only quibble with this collection is that it may have been released too soon. Plympton is already at work on another dog cartoon.

Extras: Plympton’s commentary track, storyboards and pencil tests and a revealing interview with Plympton himself. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 —DL


Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.