Reviews of Obsessed, The Soloist and Fighting
Directed by Steve Shill
Starring Idris Elba, Beyoncé Knowles, Ali Larter, Jerry O’Connell
“I knew it would come to this,” Beyoncé Knowles tells homewrecker extraordinaire Ali Larter in the climactic scene of Obsessed, a loose remake of such cautionary adultery-themed dramas Fatal Attraction and Disclosure with a little War of the Roses-style property destruction thrown in for good measure. She’s not the only one who knew this confrontation was coming. All of the trailers for Obsessed have hyped the Knowles/Larter stand-off as if it here the second coming of Ali vs. Foreman. And whenever I’ve seen the spot in theaters, those clips are the ones that generate the biggest applause, particularly the bit where Sasha Fierce hauls off and shoves her co-star (best known as “that blonde chick from Heroes“) like some kind of mixed-martial arts superstar.
As fans of exploitation cinema know, well-staged catfights are guaranteed crowd-pleasers, particularly when the fighters are as hot as Beyonce and Ali. And director Steve Shill milks this sequence for all that its worth. If we were still in ’70s-era New York, Obsessed is exactly the kind of film you’d want to see in a classic Times Square grindhouse surrounded by folks talking back to the screen, calling the characters idiots and offering their own sage advice. (Come to think of it, there are still theaters in NYC where you can have this experience—try Brooklyn’s Court Street multiplex or the midnight showing at the Empire on 42nd Street).
Watching Obsessed with that kind of rowdy crowd would also help you get through the slower passages of this overlong and occasionally over-serious tale of a happily married businessman named Derek Charles (Idris Elba in a strong star turn) who strikes up an office flirtation with the knockout new temp Lisa (Larter). At first flattered by the attention, the poor guy realizes the error of his ways when she starts coming on a bit too strong, grabbing his junk in the bathroom during the office Christmas party and turning up in his car clad only in a naughty-nurse negligee. When he rejects her advances, she tries to kill herself, which exposes their relationship to the police and, worse still, Derek’s wife Sharon (Knowles), who remembers her hubby’s pre-marriage playa days all to well.
In an interesting twist on the Fatal Attraction formula, where it was up to the man to solve his own psycho bitch problem, Obsessed depicts its hero as something of a cuckold who can’t bring himself to confront Lisa—or his wife—head-on. Instead, mama tiger Sharon ends up having to do his dirty work. The movie never tries to address the thorny racial politics behind its premise—predatory white woman tries to break up a happily married, upwardly mobile black couple—but that’s probably a good thing. Like the movies it’s imitating, Obsessed is best enjoyed as glossy, campy fantasy.
Verdict: Rent It
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Try though they might, it’s difficult for any A-list movie star to resist the lure of playing a character with a physical disability or mental illness. How can they when they’ve watched so many of their bretheren win critical acclaim and golden statues for playing deaf mutes, autistic blackjack players and one-legged skydivers with terminal elbow cancer. (Okay, that last one hasn’t happened…yet.) But for every My Left Foot or Rain Man, there’s a film like I Am Sam, Radio and now The Soloist, where a respected actor (in this case Jamie Foxx) delivers a performance that’s the equivalent of cutting one on the first date—completely embarrassing.
Adapted from a memoir by journalist Steve Lopez (who is portrayed in the movie, funnily enough, by Downey Jr.), The Soloist casts Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic living amongst the other lost souls in Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row. As a young man, Nathaniel possessed a singular skill for music that won him admission to Julliard. During his junior year, however, his illness led to a breakdown that he never recovered from. When Lopez first discovers him on the L.A. streets, he’s playing a two-string violin, while rambling disjointedly about Beethoven, God and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Ironically, it’s Foxx’s gift for mimicry—the same skill that made him a perfect Ray Charles—that defeats him here. He focuses the brunt of his energy on recreating Nathaniel’s physical tics and rapid speaking style, but never gets at the emotional core of this man. As a result, it often feels like he’s delivering a stand-up routine rather than a dramatic performance. The Soloist also suffers from a pronounced case of split-personality disorder, repeatedly cutting between Nathaniel’s genuinely tragic story and the cynical Lopez’s self-pitying quest for something or someone to believe in. Usually a live-wire screen presence, Downey Jr. sleepwalks through the film, barely bothering to generate any chemistry with his co-star. Or maybe he’s just pissed at Foxx for not taking his sage advice from Tropic Thunder: “Never go full retard.”
Verdict: Skip It
Directed by Dito Montiel
Starring Channing Tatum, Terrence Howard, Zulay Henao, Luis Guzman
It’s safe to say that most moviegoers are going to go into a movie called Fighting expecting to see some good…well, fighting. And I’m happy to report that the movie delivers on that level. Director Dito Montiel eschews the overly choreographed rumbles of street-fighting flicks like Lionheart and Never Back Down for rough and tumble brawls filled with cheap shots, wild punches and narrow escapes. The fights also remain honest to the skill sets of the participants. For example, our hero Shawn (Channing Tatum) is an ex-high school wrestler, which means he’s forced to combat his opponents—who range from a flyweight boxer to a skilled martial artist—with ordinary choke holds and ankle picks. It’s refreshing to see a movie pay attention to those kinds of details and it makes the actual battles that much more exciting than if Sean suddenly morphed into a young Muhammad Ali or Jet Li during each bout.
Too bad the rest of the movie is such a bore. As penned by Montiel and his co-writer Robert Munic, Fighting is basically a modern-day twist on Oliver Twist, with Tatum playing a lonely orphan from the boonies (technically his parents are still alive but he’s been on the outs with them for years) who moves to the big, bad city—in this case New York—and is recruited into a gang of ruffians run by a strange older gentleman named Harvey (played by Terrence Howard), who has connections in the Big Apple’s secret underground street-fighting scene. (Clearly I need to get invited to better parties—I’ve never had the pleasure of watching two dudes purposely beat the crap out of each other on the balcony of a lavish penthouse.) He also finds love in the form of the lovely Zulay (Zulay Henao), a nightclub employee with a young daughter at home. (Unlike Oliver, Shawn is actually old enough to woo and bed the woman he falls for.) Various complications arise on the way to the movie’s contrived finale, but none of them are particularly surprising or interesting.
Strong performances may have helped the non-fighting parts of Fighting go down more smoothly, but this ensemble all appear to be acting in different movies. Although Tatum has shown promise in movies like Stop-Loss and Montiel’s debut feature A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, he’s only believable here when he’s punching someone in the face. Howard, meanwhile, delivers one of the most bizarrely tone-deaf performances I’ve seen since Matthew McConaughey shouted his way through We Are Marshall. Still, those fight sequences are so creative, so well-executed, so much fun to watch, it’s hard to dismiss the movie entirely. Wait for DVD or, better yet, cable television, where you can change the channel every time Tatum stops fighting and starts talking.
Verdict: Rent It
Also in Theaters
Directed by James Toback
Most retired athletes write memoirs about their years in the spotlight; Mike Tyson tells the story of his rise and fall in a 90-minute monologue. The tale he spins involves a juvenile delinquent who grows up to become the heavyweight champion of the world, but always remained a scared little boy inside. Compelling stuff, but director James Toback errs by not talking to anyone who might challenge Tyson’s version of events, particularly his 1992 rape conviction, which is glossed over here. While it’s understandable that the controversial boxer would want to set the record straight, this one-sided account does his legacy little favor.
Verdict: Skip It
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
A condensed version of the multi-part BBC series Planet Earth (which remains a best-seller on DVD), Earth offers up some extraordinary images of this big blue ball we call home. No matter how jaded and cynical you might be, it’s hard not to feel a thrill at the sight of polar bear cups scrambling through the Arctic wilderness or a leopard stalking and then pouncing on its prey. While the film’s supporting cast of animals is extensive, it primarily follows a year in the life of three specific “families”—polar bears, elephants and humpback whales. As stunning as Earth is to watch, James Earl Jones’ intrusive, overly cutesy narration threatens to detract from the experience. Here’s hoping that Disney includes a “music only” track on the DVD so you can appreciate our planet’s natural beauty without someone talking your ear off.
Verdict: See It
Directed by Gregor Jordan
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Foster, Mickey Rourke and Amber Heard
The novels of Bret Easton Ellis have been notoriously difficult to bring to the screen. And even when they do result in good movies (like Mary Harron’s clever adaptation of American Psycho) they remain cult curiosities instead of mainstream hits. The same fate will no doubt befall The Informers, Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of Ellis’ 1994 short-story anthology. Co-written by the novelist (the first time he’s been directly involved in an adaptation of his work) the film chronicles the exploits of a group of wealthy L.A. power players living it up, getting it on and, in general doing horrible things to each other at the height of the City of Angels’ cocaine-fueled hedonism in the mid-’80s. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that every character in the film is an unlikable asshole, The Informers is strangely compelling viewing, filled with bizarre bits of deadpan comedy and moments of “I-can’t-believe-he/she-did-that!” shock and awe. The film wears out its welcome well before the final credits roll, but as Ellis adaptations go, this is one of the few to capture the dark, diseased spirit of the author’s words.
Verdict: Rent It
Directed by Anna Broinowski
In 2003, a little-known Jordan-born author named Norma Khouri published a book entitled Forbidden Love (entitled Honor Lost here in the U.S.), which purported to tell the true story of her best friend Dalia, who was killed by her family for daring to carry on a romance that they didn’t approve of. Hitting stores at the same time the subject of Islamic “honor killings” was a hot topic in the media, Forbidden Love became an overnight bestseller and its author a fixture on the talk show circuit. But cracks appeared in her fairy tale rise to fame when journalists in Jordan and Australia started picking apart her story fact by fact, eventually exposing her actual identity as Norma Touliopoulos, a real-estate agent/alleged con artist from Chicago. Director Anna Broinowski continues the story from there, with unprecedented access to both Norma and her critics. The result is a fascinating, if at times, overly self-conscious documentary (the film’s numerous re-enactments may have been a good idea on paper, but didn’t work out so well in execution) that explores the line that separates truth and fiction.
Verdict: See It
Throw Down Your Heart
Directed by Sascha Paladino
When renowned banjo player Bela Fleck decided that he wanted to record his next album in Africa–the birthplace of his signature instrument–he invited along a camera crew along to film his travels, as well as his numerous impromptu jam sessions with local musicians. The resulting documentary is a sweet and heartfelt portrait of how music can build a bridge across even the widest cultural divides. At 97 minutes, the film is a little long in the tooth, particularly since the story doesn’t have a lot of–or indeed any–conflict. But music lovers will get a kick out of hearing Fleck’s traditional banjo picking intermingle with the unique sounds made by the African musicians.
Verdict: Rent It