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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Talk about questionable prospects! Who could ever imagine that Paramount, preservers of Gene Roddenberry’s seminal Star Trek empire, would mount a massive reboot of the series, an attempt in 2009 to turn the fortunes of a forty year old property into something modern and merchandisable. For a while, it looked like Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest would have to rally around the aging nostalgia factor and forge a path more backwards glancing than forward thinking. But the past can’t hold forth in the future forever.


Even with the still popular possibilities of The Next Generation (and to some extent, Deep Space Nine), fans both young and old just can’t get enough of the 1960s series. And with prequels being so plentiful (and usually unsuccessful), going back to the very beginning of Trek would appear tenuous at best. Luckily, studio heads cleared enough to give Lost‘s J.J. Abrams the creative Con - and it’s a good thing too. His Star Trek instantly becomes one of the year’s best films.


Troubled and rebellious as a young boy, James Tiberius Kirk can’t shake the feeling that he was meant for something more. Similarly, Vulcan child Spock has difficulty deciphering his half-human, half-alien feelings. The two end up at Starfleet Academy, where they begin to learn the ways of the United Federation of Planets. Along the way, they pick up some close friends - Kirk and new doctor cadet Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and for Spock, the special affections of communications specialist Uhura.


When a mystery mining vessel carrying the angry Romulan Nero breaks through the neutral zone and attacks Vulcan, Captain Pike pilots the newly christened Enterprise to intercept. On board are Hikaru Sulu and Pavel Chekov, the two latest additions to the crew. Eventually, the Federation learns of the Romulan’s time-travel inspired plan, it’s passion to destroy planets, and it’s particular vendetta with Spock - even though they’ve “technically” never met the young alien…at least, not this version of him.


It’s hard to express in mere words how wonderful J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot is, especially for a worn in the wool die-hard Trek head like yours truly. It’s a silly, grinning from ear to ear experience, a ‘wow’ that works overtime to keep from ever letting you down. From the moment we learn of our heroes’ hamstrung youth, to the final confrontation that will define their legacy for star dates to come, there is a reverence and a revitalization that finally turns Trek into everything founder Roddenberry - and his throngs of devotees - hoped for.


This is more than just a ‘remake’ or a ‘reimagining’. This is brilliant filmmaking artistry filtered through a deep appreciation for what Star Trek stands for, for the years it held the lantern for serious science fiction while other efforts traveled toward the ‘dark side’ of action adventure commerciality. Granted, Abrams pours on the thrills, but he doesn’t cheapen the mythology that made Kirk and company true cultural icons.


This is a movie that performs remarkably well on all levels - as an introduction to the seminal characters for newbies, a welcome return visit to younger versions of old friends, a highly sophisticated mainstream entertainment, a rock ‘em sock ‘em effects spectacle, and a reminder that ideas can be just as exciting and interesting as images. Abrams, working from an excellent script by frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, takes his time with each element, letting information and concepts sink in before rapidly and rationally moving on.


The opening battle, which we catch more or less in mid-strategy, instantly encases us in the world we are about to enter. It also sets the emotional tone. By the time an underage Kirk runs his step-dad’s classic car up to (and over) the edge of a nearby ravine, we are ready to go anywhere with this story - and Abrams takes us there, both outside the characters and inside their deepest fears.


This is a true origin story, the kind which doesn’t skimp on the painful parts. Both Kirk and Spock are seen as deeply hurt by their childhood circumstance. It is a realistic foundation which explains a great deal of their later relationship. Similarly, we understand the motives of Uhura and McCoy, each one taking up defense for their friend. As actors, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are so note-perfect as our Trek titans that we often wonder if we are viewing Shatner and Nimoy through some kind of age-defying prism.


Also excellent are Zoe Saldana, John Cho, and in a last act appearance that’s a tad too brief, a wonderful Simon Pegg as everyone’s favorite “beamer” Scotty. Of particular note is Karl Urban. About a billion light years from Middle Earth (where he was Eomer), his McCoy is so delicious dead-on, so absolutely channeling the spirit and spunk of DeForest Kelly that he almost steals the film from everyone else.


But it’s Eric Bana who brings it all together. His villain with a heart hellbent on revenge is not some ridiculous raving psychopath. Instead, he’s someone who literally lost everything, and is determined to make those who he believes responsible pay in the exact same way. This leads to Trek‘s biggest surprise - the sheer scope and size of the threat. When we first realize what’s about to happen to one of the series well known places, the shock is matched only by the sensation of seeing it play out powerfully on the big screen. Star Trek is the very definition of a blockbuster, a larger than life experience that has to be seen theatrically to be fully appreciated. This is as epic an entertainment as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the original Star Wars, and Christopher Nolan’s operatic Dark Knight.


Once again, long time Trekkies (or Trekkers), have no fear. No one has raped your memories this time around. If anything, Abrams has acknowledged and acquiesced to them, giving your love of the original series as much care and consideration as you do. And those unfamiliar with the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, you too should feel unafraid. Accessibility is the key here, the movie made so stunning in its ability to hook you and keep you happy that you’ll soon forget your four decades outside the obsessive Trek fray.


For all others in between, heed this advice - Star Trek is destined to be remembered as one of 2009’s biggest and best surprises, a gamble that beat both the house and those holding the cards to turn everyone into a winner. This is the reason why movies are magic. This is why some of us fell in love with the original series in the first place. Bless you J. J. Abrams. May you live long, and definitely prosper. 


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Saturday, May 2, 2009

He remains an enigma, a brutal man with the gentle voice that literally took his sport to the heights of popularity, and then brought it crashing down around him when his ever-present vices overwhelmed his always scattered judgment. He was a powerhouse unable to contain his animalistic rage, a strategist who often resorted to pure physicality to defeat his opponents. As a legend, as a myth, Mike Tyson defies easy comparison. He lacks the activist spirit of those who came before him, but he also clouds the conversation over any current heavyweight champion. Now, as boxing dies its MMA trampled death, filmmaker James Toback sits down with the dethroned titan for a one-on-one that feeds into most people’s perspective of the man while offering enlightenment on subjects that heretofore remained unexplored.


Tyson’s story is no different from an entire generation of disaffected black youth. He grew up in a broken home, his mother and relatives so promiscuous that his concepts of sex were blurred and bruised at an early age. Running with the wrong crowd led to random crimes, easy money, and a stint in juvenile hall. A lack of discipline and a hard head took him upstate to more “authoritative” digs. There, he meets a mentor who eventually introduces him to boxing guru Cus D’Amato. Under the wise old man’s strict tutelage, Tyson learns there is more to the sport than punching power. For his elderly instructor, boxing is about the mind, not just the manner. 


With the focus provided, Tyson becomes a champion. With the spoils of any conquering warrior come the typical fame game trappings. Sadly, the young man, barely into his 20s, gives into many of them. A highly publicized marriage and divorce, a rape charge and jail term, and a series of spectacular/specious fights turn the world icon into a jaded, disenfranchised joke. Now he wonders, in his early 40s, what he will do with the rest of his life. With the help of archival footage and an incredibly candid back and forth with the subject himself, Toback takes everything we know about the man and filters it through a viewpoint veiled in a kind of denial and an unequaled sense of personal shame and pride.


This is a gutsy move on Tyson’s part. He realizes that, no matter what he says, there will be a contingency that sees through his so-called “excuses” and infers things into his words that really aren’t there. At the beginning, when he cries over his time with D’Amato and the number of juvenile titles he’s won, there’s an honesty and vulnerability that sheds new light on his character. But when we get to the Evander Holyfield fight and the infamous ear bite, the repeated mantra of “headbutt - revenge” grows old. Tyson has a lot of those moments, well measured out explanations for elements of his life that require a more profound insight. It’s not quite rehearsal. Instead, it’s the words of someone who has had plenty of time to think about his particular lot, and has come up with a complete set of well rationalized answers that he believes will quiet the critics - or if not silence them, give them a bit more backstory to chew on.


Yet Tyson also recognizes his flaws. He realizes his lustful appetites, especially for women, got him in more trouble personally and legally than he should have ever experienced (his comments about the crime that got him sent away for three years are particularly brutal in their direct disdain). He freely admits to letting “leeches” suck away his money, making his last few fights all about the paycheck. He never defends his words, using a sideshow carnival barker strategy of promotion to explain his often outrageous words. There are times when he ties himself to individuals he’s not worthy of being associated with (Muhammad Ali is name checked, and Jack Johnson is referenced as well), but Tyson never forgets that boxing is basically an individual sport. It was he who came so prepared for his first fights that they barely lasted beyond the first round. It was also he who enjoyed the party aspects of his persona to the point where he, physically, couldn’t handle the competition.


For his part, Toback knows he has a live wire on his hands and never lets the camera leave him for long. This is not a standard exercise in talking heads. Tyson is the only voice we hear, except for various ring announcers and close confidants offered during the insert material. The camera stays close, never really leaving the ex-champs face, and the lisp that many have laughed over throughout the years is here, even more pronounced than before. Toback wants a linear story - childhood to fame to fall to fatherhood (Tyson’s new role is as able daddy to his six kids) - and he basically gets one, allowing the audience to drink in the totality of the man’s ludicrous existence. Time disappears for some of the discussion, our frame of reference forgetting that Tyson was barely 20 when he won his first heavyweight title, and not even thirty when he exited an Indiana prison. As he says at one point during the course of the conversation, he’s lived a whole lotta life in his merely 42 years on the planet.


That’s perhaps why Tyson isn’t the apology everyone is looking for. It is not a mea culpa meant to resurrect his reputation and rebuild his professional mantle. At his age, he is unsure what he will do next. There is no George Forman like resurrection in the future, the goodwill he built up three decades ago all spent on a wine, women, and the same old hard luck song. He maintains a friendly relationship with his ex, honors his numerous tattoos, prays to Allah (he defends Islam as the religion of love), recognizes his shortcomings without striving to fully correct them, and appears content to let the rest of the world define him as monster…or misbegotten hero. While there have been better documentaries on the subject of fallen idols, the gladiatorial nature of Tyson’s trip through the fame machine is fascinating in its own right. Because it’s personal, it matter - even if the end result is no more clear than the mystery that is the man himself.


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Friday, May 1, 2009

Remember when Matthew McConaughey was the next big thing? Around the release of A Time to Kill, when he was the “it” actor bound for superstar glory. Of course, many of these publicity puff pieces ignored the fact that he had been in the business for about three years prior, offering memorable performances in Dazed and Confused and Boys on the Side. Since this media-based blitz, his celebrity has revolved more around what he does off the screen (Naked bongo playing? Recreational pharmaceuticals!) than the roles he originates. In fact, his recent track record has him rapidly becoming the slacker personification for RomCom retardation. Even with its Dickens’ inspired gimmick, his latest film Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is the same old stereotyping. It shows that McConaughey definitely understands his current passé place in the contemporary cinematic landscape, and will probably do very little to change it.


Connor Mead is a famous photographer. He’s also a well known ladies man. Only problem is, Connor treats women like casual sex objects only, never allowing his real sentiments to be revealed. It’s earned him the reputation as a major league jerk. When he accepts an invitation to be part of his younger brother’s wedding, Connor expects a certain amount of criticism. What he gets instead is the cold shoulder from old flame Jenny Perotti and a visit from his dead Uncle Wayne, a noted lothario who raised his orphaned nephew in his slimy, sleazy image. He warns Connor that he will be visited by three ghosts, spirits from his past, present, and future who will illustrate how wayward his view of the fairer sex really is. Of course, Connor doesn’t believe in spooks - that is, until they actually arrive, and explain how deep the feelings are between himself and his lifelong gal pal.


When it sticks to the interpersonal stuff, the emotional links between old lovers, close brothers, and the family that supports both, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is quite tolerable. In fact, it’s actually quite good at times, filtering the feelings we all have through a prism of practicality and believability. This isn’t a movie about cosmic connections or spiritual belonging. Instead, director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) and his writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (responsible for the reprehensible Four Christmases) want to show people acting like real individuals, relating in ways the seem familiar and yet can easily fit into their goofball gimmicky premise. Whenever McConaughey or costars Jennifer Garner and Breckin Meyer interact, their conversations resonate with a kind of common sensibility that really hits home.


However, whenever the Scrooge stunt takes front and center, Ghosts goes flat. Worse, it indulges in some of the most hackneyed hokum this side of a medicine show. Michael Douglas, looking like a spray tan version of producer Robert Evans, is all ham and no humanity as the bed hopping relative who lived his life like one big narrative from Penthouse Forum. A little of Uncle Wayne goes a long, long way, and Waters unfortunately overindulges in the character’s tail chasing tenets. By the time he tries to convince Connor that there really is no reason to love somebody fully, we’ve already had more than enough of his scotch-soaked hedonism. Similarly, Lacey Chabert’s borderline Bridezilla provides sporadic smiles, but none of the boffo bellylaughs the over the top performance seems to suggest.


Additionally, most of the physical comedy feels like padding, trailer-told sequences such as the wedding cake crash (or a last act chase to right a ridiculous wrong) coming completely out of another script. There are also attempts at visual panache that just don’t cut it, as when Connor visits an “endless” bar where his many conquests sit waiting to read him the romance riot act. The setting looks fake, the effect nothing more than grade school smoke and mirrors. When he wants to, Waters knows how to handle the fantastic. Everything revolving around Connor’s initial trip back, spearheaded by the iconic ‘80s idiocy of Emma Stone as our hero’s hapless “first”, has the air of knowing nostalgia and smarts the rest of the film severely lacks.


And still, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past does work…kind of. We want to see McConaughey and Garner together, the latter getting most of the good lines as a way to show her still hurting heart. We enjoy the affection the two brothers feel for each other, and Connor responds in interesting ways when he sees himself as a boy. When we get to the last act soul searching, the Christmas Carol shtick starts to get in the way and yet we still want these characters to be happy and whole. Perhaps we’re just projecting our own misguided youth on these far too familiar fictional characters, or looking to like something that really doesn’t deserve such judgment. Still, almost subconsciously, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past provides the requisite amount of enjoyment for its scant, superficial running time.


This is the kind of film that does make one wonder about the state of cinema dealing with adults and the real world problems that sometimes (mis)guides their affections. Stripped of its spectral aspects, this could still be a really good story, a Rachel Getting Married or Muriel at the Wedding without either of those films’ post-millennial self-serving irony. McConaughey has this kind of character more than down pat, and Garner gives good caustic. Meyer and the rest of the cast, when not going for the cartoonish, are also quite capable. In fact, the most miserable element here is the one that undermines almost any attempt to modernize or manipulate Dickens’ definitive original. There was really no need to spend times with the Ghosts in this look back at Girlfriends Past. The non-paranormal material carries the day, if just barely.   


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Saturday, Apr 25, 2009

If there is one name that’s synonymous with over-generalized ‘80s ennui, it’s Bret Easton Ellis. From his initial literary phenomenon Less than Zero to the publishing scandal that was American Psycho, this so called savant has obsessed on the hedonistic decadence of the Greed Decade to the point where he’s literally blurred the lines between truth and taboo. Indeed, most of his stories seem shocking in their lack of human connectivity and with their rampant descent into sex and violence, he appears numb to the normalcy of individual existence. Now comes The Informers, a planned “satire” that was sidetracked by a studio wanting a more studied period piece. What they wound up with instead is a scattered, frequently intriguing omnibus that makes the audience work too hard to find something satisfying.


When their best buddy dies in a freak car accident, drug dealer Graham, video director Martin, their mutual gal pal sex partner Christie, and the rest of their cocaine-fueled friends take stock of their spoiled rich kid life in 1984 Los Angeles. When they’re not zooming around town playing grown-up, they are watching their parents fall in and out of love and loyalty. This includes Graham’s mother and father, who split up when he, a studio executive, began a torrid affair with a fresh faced news anchor. It devastated her life, to the point where she’s taken up with one of her son’s friends. Then there’s rock star Bryan Metro, returning to California for the first time since his previous band broke up amid the death of one of its members. He hopes to reconnect with his damaged wife and kid. Finally, Graham’s doorman Jack is being pestered by his criminal uncle who has the unsettling idea of kidnapping a young child to settle his illegal debts.


At its core, The Informers wants to be a tale about inevitability. It wants to argue that no matter what you do, no matter the precautions you take or the care you give to your decisions, the end result is predetermined by the situation you find yourself in to begin with. So when the late Brad Renfro discovers his felonious relative Mickey Rourke on his doorstep one day, the decision to not call the cops results in his eventual collaboration in an unspeakable crime. Similarly, when party boy Martin is marked as a bisexual prostitute selling his favors for whatever he can get, the cloud of AIDS that’s hanging over the story’s subtext is bound to make an appearance. Indeed, in this wasted world of bright lights, bad pastels, and an overreliance on Ray-bans, everything hinted at - homosexuality, promiscuity, self-gratifying excess - eventually comes back to bite the people populating this particular patch of Sodom.


But that doesn’t mean the movie works. Not at all. This is nothing more than Short Cuts with shortcuts. Indeed, Gregor Jordan, an Aussie with a resume that barely suggests an ability to handle a multi-faceted and dysfunctional narrative, spends so much time suggesting and inferring that he never gets around to actually answering any questions. What is the problem between the clearly alcoholic Chris Isaac and his dandy, determined son? Why is Kim Basinger always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and what was the “horrible thing” Billy Bob Thorton did to destroy their marriage? Does Christie have AIDS, or is she just another half-dressed supermodel corpse rotting in the LA sun, and is her propensity toward body fluid swapping going to doom those she’s favored? If it were sleazy fun, or seriously insightful, we might enjoy the experience. But Jordan, working from a heavily edited script by Easton himself and collaborator Nicholas Jarecki, thinks that somber is the same thing as dramatic. Somewhere along the line he got “engaging” and “inert” mixed up.


His cast tries, through an almost unrecognizable Brad Renfro (in his last film appearance, sadly) is a bit too mannered as the everyman tossed into his Uncle’s pedophilic like predicament. One of the biggest problems facing The Informers is the decision to cast a bunch of faceless pretty kids from the CW school of character representation. Basinger has presence. Thorton, when he’s not looking like he’s lost in a wave of near unconsciousness, has presence. Even Rourke going gonzo again has presence. But the semi-clothed wanna-tweens taking up space as supposed refugees from the by-gone era of blow and bad hair are like interchangeable dolls in Mattel’s new Really Bad Bratz line. Their acting may be adequate and their look reminiscent of a time that would support both Adam Ant and Jerry Falwell, but that’s where the charisma ends.


Indeed, by the time we see the tripwire rocker beat a corn-fed groupie, when Christie lays covered in sores from what seems like a weekend battling HIV, when Basinger makes her charity function move, we’ve stopped paying attention to the plot points. Instead, The Informers is by then coasting on a decent soundtrack, a nominal look, and a surreal sense of watching highly paid celebrities acting awkward for the sake of an unclear endgame. True, Jordan thinks he’s pitching a period meditation on the last bastions of freewheeling excess before Mrs. Reagan and the “gay plague” would come along and take all the fun out of life. Someone probably has a really insightful multi-character look at LA sitting around in their laptop, a truly important work that doesn’t substitute MTV for meaning or casual fornication for the shape of things to come. Bret Easton Ellis has made quite a career out of carving up the ‘80s into disposable bits of bite-size irony. With The Informers, the nibbles are nice, but the overall meal is bloated with unnecessary excess.


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Friday, Apr 24, 2009

Not every true story makes for good cinema. Sometimes, an intriguing idea is just that - a decent concept that can’t take the transition from fact to big screen “fiction”. From the soggy motion picture biographies of far more significant individuals to the frequently fabricated horror films based “on actual incidents”, the notion that truth trumps anything that a writer could create is narrow-minded at best, ridiculous at the very worst. Speaking of subpar, the proposed award season entry from last year, The Soloist, is finally hitting theaters just before the start of the Summer movie blitz. Many have waited several months to see Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx tear up the screen in anticipation of several little gold statutes. Based on the movie being offered, however, they will be waiting a really long time.


While he recuperates from a bad bicycle accident, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez scours the city, looking for the next great human interest story. He discovers it in one Nathanial Ayers, a homeless musician who claims to have attended Juilliard. A little research proves the man’s claims as correct. A little more investigation reveals why he never completed his education - Nathanial is mentally ill, hearing a nonstop stream of voices in his head that only a life on the street can stifle. Lopez wants to help, steering Ayers toward a skid row shelter where he might get some much needed assistance. But the well-meaning journalist soon learns that Los Angeles’ street people need more than just a handout. They deserve and demand respect, something that even this high minded reporter can’t completely provide.


There is not a single honest emotion in The Soloist - from the divorced reporter who sees himself as the voice of a city to a schizophrenic virtuoso who saw the voices in this head ruin his chances at Juilliard, and all that comes from such a studied musical education. Like another movie about mental illness which substituted gimmicks for gritty truths, this is A Beautiful Mind with random accents of Beethoven. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is back in the good graces of Hollywood’s acting A-list, his troubled reporter reduced to spastic stoicism as a way of making up for his lacking as a parent and partner, and Catherine Keener is all hippy momma earthiness as his ex-wife/editor keeping the corporate wolves at bay while her man makes his way around the general interest elements of Southern California.


The minute Jamie Foxx shows up, however, whatever effectiveness director Joe Wright can muster is melted away in a community college level of thespianism. There is never an authentic note in what the former In Living Color comic turned Oscar winning egotist tries with the troubled Nathanial Ayers. While it all may be based in reality (this is a - mostly - true story after all), Foxx just doesn’t have the depth to pull it off. He’s so mannered, so obviously giving a “performance” that we see ever preplanned twitch, cringe at every ad-libbed attempt at turning reams of dialogue into demented rants. Foxx fails miserably here. He will be heroic and championed only by those whose cinematic experience is limited to movies made in the last ten years. Others who trodden down this territory and succeeded - Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? - could give the wannabe scene stealer a lessen or two.


None of this excuses Wright. Somehow, his epic eye in Atonement has gone cloudy and unfocused here. When Foxx “experiences” classical selections, the audience witnesses them in some of the most confusing, disconnected montages ever. One offers CG pigeons cascading across as Google Earth version of LA, while another is a direct rip-off of Fantasia, down to the darkened screen and the sudden bursts of rhythmically timed color. Ayers madness is realized in Dolby Digital delirium, the constant conversations in his head rendered moot of meaning or motivation. And then there are the flashbacks. The first one arrives so unexpectedly that we don’t even recognize that Wright has taken us into the past. Soon, whenever the story gets complicated, we are whisked back to sepia tones, bad fashion, and a repetitive reminder that, if it wasn’t for his bad brain, Nathanial would be a star.


It all becomes so trite and unconvincing - and that’s not even dealing with the excess material Wright feels compelled to add in. There are literal cinematic lectures about respecting the homeless, neo-noir journeys into the dark pits of Los Angeles Hell-like skid row, and an obsession with urine that’s never explained. Downey’s character is supposedly one of those gruff and uncompromising newshounds who can smell a story a mile away. Yet when the city pulls a fast one and uses its multi-million dollar commitment as an excuse to sweep through the streets with a “clean up” task force, he seems stunned. In fact, he’s so dew-eyed and defeated that he can’t see the object of his concern standing right behind him. From the ‘Go with God’ cello instructor that actually makes Ayers worse to the coda which claims that all is right with the situational world now that our subject is living indoors, The Soloist strains for credibility. All it manages to do is pull a series of motion picture muscles.


Had there been a more concerted effort to boil things down to a purely personal level, had Wright and his screenwriters stripped away all the strangled social commentary and simply focused on Lopez and Ayers, we might have something special. Indeed, had a real actor been paired against the always terrific Downey, we’d perhaps experience the same kind of emotional tug that made this tale so celebrated in the first place. No one is knocking the work the real Steve Lopez did to help Nathanial Ayers rise up from a horrible, squalid situation, and the movie never really exploits the talented and troubled man. But when dealing with the often harsh realities of life on the street, we shouldn’t be so aware of the falsehoods floating around. The Soloist is all artifice. It should have stayed true to the art involved. 


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