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The Thug Life

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The Soloist also brings a new kind of celebrity to its real-life subject, a schizophrenic musician named Nathaniel Ayers, played onscreen by Jamie Foxx. Discovered living on the street by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (here, Robert Downey Jr.), Ayers has now seen his past (virtuosity, Juilliard, breakdown) and present (homelessness, shopping cart, Beethoven obsession) become the focus of a column and then a book and now a movie—although, as in most biopics of non-famous people, the where-they-are-now end titles leave out the most important bit: “Having been played by Jamie Foxx, Ayers is about to see his life transformed like you wouldn’t effing believe.” Foxx doesn’t sentimentalize Ayers. He lightens his eyebrows, turns his face into a mask, and remains on his own remote wavelength. He’s stunning—the only flaw is his old Ray Charles head-sway. The drama in Susannah Grant’s script is what happens when a middle-class white boy tries to save someone who won’t and can’t be saved: How responsible is he? The movie is a noble enterprise, and Downey is stupendous as usual, but Joe Wright’s direction is too slick to elicit much feeling (Ayers’s visions while listening to Beethoven recall the iTunes Visualizer), and the use of actual mentally ill homeless people unintentionally echoes the central conundrum: You’ve made these people movie stars. Now what?

Delicate, wrenching, occasionally vexing, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain tells the story of two sisters (Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim), the older a mere 6, left with a drunken, inattentive aunt by their mother, who goes off in search of her wayward husband. The movie is an exercise in leaving out. The handheld camera hugs the faces of the little girls, rarely holding on their elders or giving us our bearings. It’s a study of children in a vacuum: of their bewilderment and grief, their hopeful fantasies, and—this is the merciful part—their resilience. The faces of the young actresses are so finely modulated, they seem made of stuff more gossamer than flesh and blood. Yet that leaving-out can make you exasperated. Is it fair for the director to strip away so much and leave us feeling so helpless? I’m still in pain; I don’t know.

Tyson
Directed by James Toback.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

The Soloist
Directed by Joe Wright.
Dreamworks SKG. PG-13.

Treeless Mountain
Directed by So Yong Kim.
Oscilloscope Pictures. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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