"The Soloist" is actually a duet on the theme of redemption. It's scored for two very different though equally remarkable actors, and performed with uncanny bravura. Jamie Foxx is Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic street musician who was once a distinguished student at Juilliard. Robert Downey Jr. is Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times columnist who first befriended Ayers in 2005, then wrote about their friendship in a series of columns and a book that inspired the movie. The fictional version, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, occasionally suffers from a surfeit of inspirationalism, but its core is marvelously alive and complex. My sense of the experience was summed up by a moment when Nathaniel, sitting in on an L.A. Philharmonic rehearsal at Disney Hall, says with intense pleasure, "It's the way it should be."
Should be, and seldom is. Films have romanticized mental illness, as in "Shine," or surrealized it, as in "A Beautiful Mind," but this one plays essentially fair with it. Music is Nathaniel's only refuge from the terrors and confusions of a merciless brain disease that ravaged his talent, destroyed his shining future as a classical cellist and defies anything resembling a cure. The movie is no less successful in its portrait of a journalist working at his craft. Other films, most recently "State of Play," reach for the fraught drama of contemporary journalism, but this one nails a host of authentic details -- Steve Lopez's paper has already begun the slide that imperils its future -- along with a special spirit. Far from being a bleeding heart, Lopez starts his journey of discovery as a self-ironic reporter on the trail of a good story.
Although movies often borrow the emotional power of great music, "The Soloist" boasts its own rich dynamics and contrasting tonalities. Mr. Foxx's musician provides the passion. Nathaniel cuts a bizarre figure as he plays a two-stringed violin in a downtown park near a statue of his beloved Beethoven. Still, his garish clothes barely hint at the florid disorder of his mind, which makes itself known through enthralling soliloquies that sound like the spiritual equivalent of a racing engine and a slipping clutch. By contrast, Mr. Downey's columnist provides a bracing coolness, at least at first. Equipped with the actor's characteristically clipped vocal rhythms, Steve tries to resist taking on responsibility for his subject's tumultuous life. It's hard to imagine these roles played by anyone else, even though Mr. Foxx played another passionate musician, Ray Charles, not long ago. The co-stars are both virtuosos, and their styles combine to create a harmony of friendship that cannot fix the unfixable, or redeem the irredeemable, but gradually grows into mutual help and a kind of love.
At certain points less might have been more: the overuse of orchestral power; the over-lyrical flight of symbolic birds (and camera cranes); the decision to make Nathaniel a musical genius right up there with Rostropovich rather than a merely notable talent; the false note that ensues when he seems unfamiliar with Bach's peerless cello suites. Instead of the hell on earth that was skid row in downtown L.A. when the story begins, the movie evokes a circle of Dante's Inferno. The religious zealotry of a professional cellist is a clumsily written intrusion. The script, which fictionalizes Steve Lopez into a divorcé, insists overmuch on similarities between his fear of becoming responsible for Nathaniel and his failings in married life (although Catherine Keener, wonderfully appealing as his ex-wife, is especially so in the scene that draws the parallels most closely.)
Yet these are smallish blemishes on a beautiful whole, and a beautifully photographed whole: Seamus McGarvey, who shot Joe Wright's previous film, "Atonement," has done superb work in sequence after sequence, including some downward-looking helicopter shots that juxtapose the eerie sprawl of Los Angeles with the spacious grandeur of a Beethoven symphony. Mr. Wright and his colleagues have made a movie with a spaciousness of its own, a brave willingness to explore such mysteries of the mind and heart as the torture that madness can inflict, and the rapture that music can confer. Bravo to all concerned.
Think you've seen enough of Mike Tyson for a lifetime? Think you know as much about him as you want to? Think again, and see James Toback's terrific documentary "Tyson."
The filmmaker and the boxer have been friends for almost a quarter of a century: Mr. Tyson even played versions of himself in two Toback features. This time, though, confronted by unblinking cameras, he ponders the question of who that self is, what that self has done and why. The detachment of that description isn't just a rhetorical trick. When he was younger, Mr. Tyson says, he had no sense of himself, only indelible memories of childhood hurts. Instead of an integrated personality -- not his phrase, but very much his idea -- he was a partial person who tried to construct a whole with traits taken from an assortment of public figures that included Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Errol Flynn. (Many years later, he chose the facial tattoos of a Maori warrior.)
These days, as he approaches the ripe old age of 43, his insights are considerable, although still limited. He knows he's been "an extremist" -- his phrase -- and has been widely seen as a brutal monster -- his phrase again. What's so affecting about him in the film, though, is that he doesn't seem monstrous at all. To the contrary, Iron Mike, having meted out epic suffering in the ring and other venues, seems to be a man who has suffered genuinely, even terribly, in the course of a life that he never believed would last 40 years.
Some of his wisdom sounds like rote learning -- psychobanality if not quite babble -- but startling stuff keeps surfacing. He recites a passage from Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" -- the one about each man killing the thing he loves. He reveals, and claims to regret, appalling attitudes toward women. He insists his boxing success came not from brute force but from speed -- many of the fighters he emulated were lightweights -- precision and, of all things, good cheer: "Nothing's more deadly and proficient than a happy fighter." And when he speaks of the late Cus D'Amato, the trainer who took him in as a surrogate son and tried to temper his ferocious spirit with kindness, the once-great warrior cries. Had D'Amato lived, Mr. Tyson's innate decency could have been a contender.
"Earth," which opened Wednesday on Earth Day, aims to enhance Earth love, and so it should. The film lends big-screen status to visual material that had begged for it, the spectacular wildlife footage of the BBC/Discovery series "Planet Earth." No trails are blazed in the realm of innovation, but the first documentary to be released under the banner of Disneynature combines majestic visions of migration with benign intimations of anthropomorphism to create a gigantic collage of energy -- animals ceaselessly on the move in a planetary evolution that proceeds apace. (Sometimes the energy is blind; a baby elephant, unable to see in a sandstorm on the Kalahari desert, bumps into a desiccated tree.)
The narration, read by James Earl Jones, is uninspired, but the images more than make up for it: three million caribou and the wolves who don't love them; a polar bear doomed to drown in a warming sea if he can't find land; the shimmering lights of the aurora australis, looking for all the world like a painted backdrop from "Fantasia." Most nature films depict migrations as smoothly oiled pageants. "Earth" eloquently shows the struggle, life doing what it must to sustain life. The spectacle is stirring.
Jamie Foxx is Max Durocher, a punctilious cabbie -- he knows the drive times for every route -- guiding a cab through nighttime Los Angeles in Michael Mann's elegantly crafted and genuinely thrilling thriller. His co-star, Tom Cruise, plays Vincent, a ruthless hit man who starts to change Max's life the moment he climbs into the cab's back seat. The crackling-smart script was written by Stuart Beattie, one of the writers on "Pirates of the Caribbean," with Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron doing the deep-noir cinematography. The cast includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill and the irrepressible Irma P. Hall.
"Two Girls and a Guy" (1997)
This mordantly funny comedy, directed by James Toback and shot in 11 days, stars Robert Downey Jr. as Blake Allen, a lying Lothario whose present catches up with him when two attractive young women discover that they've got the same boyfriend. In Mr. Downey's artful hands, Blake is the anti-Stanislavsky, an actor who can find falsity in any situation. When cornered, he resorts to words. When words fail, he notes that language always lies, so he plays a few bars on the piano. What Blake plays best, though, is victim; what he loves best is the lulling sound of his own voice.
Repetition is the sincerest form of flattery. I've recommended this astonishing nature documentary before, and will recommend it again until it's as widely known as "The Sound of Music." In fact, there's a connection between the treacly musical, with its Austrian hillsides in explosive flower, and the austere documentary, which explores, in macrophotographic detail, a day in the life of umpteen thousand insects, snails and other denizens of a French meadow. Exotic life forms fight, struggle and die in garden-of-Eden lighting that only accentuates the spectacle's solemnity. The film was directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.orgPrinted in The Wall Street Journal, page W3