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New reviews: Soloist, Informers, State of Play 

THE SOLOIST

**

Director Joe Wright is the British chap behind Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, so maybe placing him in charge of the decidedly American concoction The Soloist was an attempt to show that he's able to bust some Ang Lee moves by leaping over diverse genres in a single bound. Maybe he can -- I've never been in favor of placing anyone in an artistic straightjacket that limits their choice of material -- but in this instance, the overwhelmed Wright can't do much to bring any sense of style or substance to yet another film that comes off as little more than a liberal screed. By no means is The Soloist a painful watch, and it has its merits scattered about, like so many chocolate sprinkles adorning a scoop of ice cream. But for a movie that's about compassion and understanding, it makes for a shockingly indifferent experience, filled with too many calculated homilies to allow for much more than superficial connections. It may be based on a true story, but it feels synthetic all the way. The heart of the story -- the central relationship between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man who was once a Julliard-approved musician -- actually feels like the picture's most artificial component. Perhaps that's due to its similarities to Resurrecting the Champ, another recent film about the friendship between a white journalist (Josh Hartnett) and a black homeless man prone to delusional behavior (Samuel L. Jackson). Or maybe it's because of its greater role as yet another picture that tries to assuage middle-class guilt by using a proxy to allow moviegoers insight into the travails of the most unfortunate among us. But the problem with The Soloist is that it usually only skirts the issues it raises (homelessness, lack of health care, mental illness, etc.), with the genuinely raw scenes -- Nathaniel's physical assault of Steve, Steve's ex-wife and editor (Catherine Keener) drunkenly taking h im to task -- too few and far between. Foxx and Downey do what they can to keep the story prickly, but when they have to contend with scenes as offensive and patronizing as the one that ends the film, even they can't prevent The Soloist from frequently hitting the wrong keys.

STATE OF PLAY

***1/2

The inevitable American adaptation of the six-hour BBC-TV miniseries that aired back in 2003, State of Play is a movie that effectively operates on two levels. On one hand, it's the latest addition to the "conspiracy theory" sub-genre, a proud movie tradition that houses such dynamic entries as The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor and The Constant Gardener. Yet on the other, it's a representative of the type of film that might eventually go the way of the dodo: the newspaper yarn.As a thriller, State of Play is crackling entertainment, even if its pieces don't always fit together after all is said and done. Russell Crowe, in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind, stars as Cal McAffrey, an old-school news reporter for the Washington Globe. Once the roommate of rising Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) back in their college years, Cal is disturbed when he learns that his friend's comely assistant, who died after falling in front of a subway car, was also his mistress, a fact that threatens to derail Collins' political career. The story is assigned to the paper's political blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), while Cal is ordered to investigate a pair of late-night shootings that left one man dead and another in a coma. But once it turns out that both stories are tied together, Cal and Della pool their resources to research what eventually turns out to be a coverup with far-reaching implications. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) directs crisply and efficiently, wringing real suspense out of Cal's confrontations with a seasoned killer (most notably in a superbly edited sequence set inside a parking garage). As for the screenplay, I'm not sure what co-writer Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs) brought to the party, but I assume that the conspiracy material arrived courtesy of Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) while Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) boned up the journalism aspects. At any rate, the sharp script is also often humorous, providing Crowe the opportunity to fire off some choice quips. He's in top form here, and he's backed by an exemplary cast. Even recent Doubt Oscar nominee Viola Davis turns up in one scene (as a nervous coroner), although it's Jason Bateman who really gooses the proceedings with his key late-inning appearance as a playful PR suit. For all its success in the thriller arena, State of Play's real worth can be found in its attitude toward the newspaper industry. In an era in which any basement-dwelling hack with a keyboard and Web site can call himself a "journalist" (Cal has a great line about how the industry has been taken over by "bloggers and bloodsuckers"), and in which profit-driven publishers serve their shareholders rather than their readers, it's invigorating to see a motion picture that recalls the importance of the ink-stained newspaper as a tireless watchdog and champions the dedication of its honest reporters to relay all the news that's fit to print. Fit to print, people, not fit to Twitter.

THE INFORMERS

*

1987's ragged Less Than Zero remains the best Bret Easton Ellis adaptation simply by virtue of compelling work by Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader, while 2000's torturous American Psycho at least manages to make a couple of salient points about misguided machismo. 2002's The Rules of Attraction, on the other hand, is completely unwatchable, a designation it now shares with this latest atrocity. The problem isn't that Ellis enjoys focusing all his attention on vacuous, detestable people. After all, cinema is full of great Feel-Bad Bummers about life's losers -- it's hard, for example, to imagine a better representative of this field than Todd Solondz's Happiness, which made my 10 Best list for 1998. No, the problem with Ellis is that he makes his characters boring and their actions pointless, both unpardonable sins in any medium.
Set in 1983 (good research, guys, by playing Wang Chung's 1984 release "Dance Hall Days" in one scene), this follows the (mis)fortunes of various Los Angelenos whose paths keep crossing. William (Billy Bob Thornton) is a movie executive who has returned to his emotionally fragile wife (Kim Basinger) even though he still carries a torch for his newscaster mistress (Winona Ryder). Bryan Metro (Mel Raido) is a coked-up rock star who's constantly sleeping with jailbait (both male and female); his one adult tryst, with a sweet prostitute, ends with him punching her in the face. Peter (Mickey Rourke) is a career criminal who kidnaps a young boy off a suburban street and plans to sell him to the highest bidder (read: wealthiest sexual predator), much to the dismay of his cowardly nephew (the late Brad Renfro). Les Price (Chris Isaak) is a perpetually grinning father who takes his disgusted son (Lou Taylor Pucci) on vacation to Hawaii, hoping they can tag-team available young hotties . And William's son Graham (Jon Foster) engages in threesomes with his girlfriend Christie (Amber Heard) and best friend Martin (Austin Nichols), although he worries once Christie gets deathly ill in about the time it takes to tie one's shoes (it couldn't possibly have anything to do with that mysterious new disease being discussed on TV, could it?). Director Gregor Jordan attempts to establish the time frame by occasionally showing 80s-era music videos in the background (e.g. Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance"), but overall, the picture rarely exudes the aura of that past period (unlike, say, Boogie Nights). The screenplay, by Nicholas Jarecki and Ellis himself, is equally clubfooted, filled with narcissistic twits who never say or do anything of consequence or interest. As for the actors, Thornton and Basinger appear as bored as their characters, while it's regretful to see Rourke, coming off The Wrestler (although this was reportedly filmed first), slipping back into the sort of mumbling, sleazy character type that killed off his career in the first place. The only creative acting comes from singer Isaak, who's actually quite good as the leering, lecherous father. Of all the cast members, he's the only one who seems to be having any fun with this thin material. Unfortunately, that's a privilege that won't be shared by an yone shelling out to witness this desultory disaster.

BATTLE FOR TERRA

**

Battle for Terra is a new animated effort in which alien forces invade a planet, and it turns out that the invaders are, in fact, us -- that is to say, astronauts from the planet Earth. It sounds rather novel until one recalls that The Twilight Zone tackled this notion in one third the amount of time as this ambitious but ultimately disappointing feature. Assembling the sort of all-star cast that nobody ever thinks to unite in live-action movies -- at least not since the "disaster flick" went out with the 1970s -- Battle for Terra finds James Garner, Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Mark Hamill and many others lending their vocal chords to this sci-fi saga in which the peaceful Terrians find their planet under attack from a spaceship that harbors the only survivors of our long-destroyed Earth. Young Mala (Evan Rachel Wood), a Terrian with a rebellious streak, watches helplessly as her father (Quaid) gets abducted by the marauders; she eventually saves a human soldier named Jim (Luke Wilson), and together they work to rescue Mala's dad. But Jim finds himself conflicted every step of the way, as he tries to help this alien creature while simultaneously remaining loyal to his commanding officer (Brian Cox), a typical U.S. warhawk who seeks to kill every last Terrian man, woman and child. Battle for Terra is being presented in some theaters in 3-D, and that's clearly the way to catch it, as the presentation helps compensate for undistinguished voice work and a pro-environment script that feels old-hat on the heels of the far more imaginative WALL-E (speaking of which, there's even a robot who looks like he could pass for that Pixar star's brother on the assembly line). Yet most damaging of all are the Terrians themselves, who are rather flatly designed. Truth be told, they look like sperm, meaning that, as the Earthlings set about exterminating these extraterrestrial beings, I repeatedly kept thinking that the producers would have done well to borrow the name of an '80s adult classic. Then again, I don't think The Sperminator would exactly bring in the family audiences that the studio is presumably targeting.

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