Archive for November 2002

Solaris (2002)

November 27, 2002

There are spaceships, but we hardly ever see them in flight. There are no villains, scarcely even any heroes. The few love scenes are haunted by guilt and loss. There are no narrative beats — they’re closer to gentle taps — and it ends with … well, how the hell does it end? Let there be no doubt: Solaris is far and away the most unusual movie to get a wide release in this country since Eyes Wide Shut. (In both, the virile male lead both flees and pursues female phantasms of regret and betrayal.) In adapting Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science-fiction novel, writer-director Steven Soderbergh has taken a page, if not the length, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s celebrated 1972 take on the same story. The proceedings are hushed, intimate, a slow recoil from the pain of the past and future. Like Tarkovsky, and Kubrick before him, Soderbergh has made a philosophical art movie in a sci-fi costume.

In most of his films, George Clooney has been your masculine pal: the guy who helps you fix your car for the price of a few beers, then amiably whups your ass at basketball. There’s none of that in his performance as the morose, distant Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist recruited to fly out to a space station orbiting the remote planet Solaris. Strange things have happened to previous visitors to Solaris, a purplish wad of shifting matter that may or may not be sentient. Kelvin arrives at the station and finds two corpses and two living specimens: Snow (Jeremy Davies, looking like Michael O’Donoghue channeling Crispin Glover), who seems to have lost his marbles, and Gordon (the intense Viola Davis), who is skittish about everything and won’t let Kelvin into her room. She, like Snow, has a regular “visitor.”

Kelvin soon gets one too: his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who killed herself a while back. Kelvin’s response to seeing his beloved alive again is not joy but horror: he locks her in a shuttle and shoots her out into space. Soon enough, she’s back again, with no memory of what Kelvin just did to “her,” but also not as needy as her previous incarnation. The mysterious life on Solaris — or perhaps the planet itself (have fun guessing) — seems to be reconstructing Rheya from Kelvin’s memories, dreams, and yearnings. She is whatever he remembers, and nothing more. She may not be a human being, but she aches like one. She is essentially Kelvin torturing himself. He can no more not think of her than you can not think of a pink elephant; she keeps coming back, and eventually he stops resisting.

This Solaris lacks the ponderousness — and, some will say, the oblique poetry — of the Tarkovsky original. Yet each has its unique charms, and Soderbergh was right to give us a smiling, witty Natascha McElhone in flashback on Earth, to contrast with the whatever-the-hell-she-is Natascha McElhone we see near Solaris. (McElhone, like Natalya Bondarchuk before her, is hindered somewhat by the film’s only-through-male-eyes construction of her character — part of the story’s point about how man wrongly bends reality to his own perception — but manages to triumph over it by sheer stubborn femaleness: these women may be boxed into male memories, but they wreak havoc there.) Soderbergh cuts to the bone of the story: What would we do if confronted with an alien consciousness that parodied our own need to have the universe mirror our expectations of it?

I’ll happily watch both versions of Solaris many times during the rest of my life; the basic story is so unbreakable that neither Tarkovsky (whose leisurely approach to the material did not please Stanislaw Lem) nor Soderbergh can dent it, though Tarkovsky tried to expand it till it popped, and Soderbergh tries to freeze-dry it down to a doomed love affair. The ingenious premise, tackled thirty years apart by two very different artists, still harasses our minds with more questions than it’s prepared to answer; it locks us in a shuttle and shoots us into inner space, alone with our hopes and fears. Soderbergh’s Solaris is gorgeously designed (he does quadruple duty this time, handling the editing and photography too — how auteur can you get?), the most mystifyingly beautiful film multiplex patrons will stumble across this year.

Soderbergh hasn’t had the gall to remake Tarkovsky — he’s made his own version of the book, and what took so long for someone else to do it? Personally, I’d pay to see Scorsese’s Solaris, Coppola’s Solaris, David Lynch’s Solaris; every few years a different director should take a shot at it, so we can see the story through their eyes, what they choose to accentuate or discard, perfectly in keeping with the story’s own concerns. I draw the line, however, at Michael Bay’s Solaris; though, who knows, with this director-proof material even he might shine.

Die Another Day

November 22, 2002

Critics have hailed Die Another Day as a return to what makes James Bond great, and a sign that the franchise hasn’t lost steam in its fortieth year. I’ll go so far as to say it passed the time nicely. Pierce Brosnan is as suave and unflappable a Bond as you could want, but the 007 movies of late — particularly Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough — have lacked something important: a sense of their own absurdity. Die Another Day largely dispenses with all the geopolitical mumbo-jumbo and whittles matters down to a revenge plot and a big laser gun. It’s the first Bond film in a long time that doesn’t seem drenched in flop sweat. It’s a solid if unsurprising piece of work, a perfectly respectable spy blockbuster.

Brosnan gets to show anger, pain, and sexual avidity here in a way he hasn’t before as Bond. He’s after a spy who sold him out in North Korea, leading to his fourteen-month capture and torture at Korean hands. (Do the math on that: it’s been fourteen months since 9/11, and after Bond is rescued and brought back to headquarters, Judi Dench’s M says “The world has changed since you’ve been gone.” “Not for me,” retorts Bond, letting us know that at least one thing — the 007 series — will remain a comforting constant.) Bond is stripped of his double-oh status, but he goes rogue in search of that unknown, backstabbing spy. It’s not just “007, you have to do this and stop that before the bad guys take over the world blah blah yawn” — although he also has to do that. The mission this time feels more like a personal score-settling, with the obsessiveness of a Sicilian vendetta.

Said obsessiveness probably comes courtesy of this ride’s conductor, Lee Tamahori, who made the scorching Once Were Warriors all those years ago and then fell into Hollywood stupor (Mulholland Falls, Along Came a Spider). I still think he’s wasting his talent on formulaic thrillgasms, but it’s clear that whatever’s been wrong with his recent films hasn’t been directorial weakness. Tamahori keeps things chugging along, pausing when necessary for eroticism or the obligatory tour through Q’s gadget room (John Cleese, though saddled with some awful one-liners, steps into Desmond Llewelyn’s shoes smoothly). He also stages a fantastic gnashing sword fight between Bond and stinky Brit foe Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, who overdoes the sneering Britishness for reasons the plot eventually clarifies).

Women? Well, Bond has something of a match in Jinx, played by Halle Berry with self-aware pulchritude and an infectious happiness at getting to be a Bond girl. As the first Oscar winner to snuggle into Bond’s pecs, Berry sure isn’t there as a career move — she’s there because she wants to have fun, and it shows. Another Bond conquest, Miranda (Rosamund Pike), is blank-faced and forgettable, and as if it weren’t bad enough that Madonna inflicts the most heinous theme song on 007 fans since Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” she also appears as Verity, a fencing instructor. She trades a few lines with Brosnan, who — proving himself a gentleman of unimaginable proportions — does not laugh in Madonna’s face.

There’s large-scale ridiculousness involving the aforementioned laser gun, and a skidding car chase through the fragile interiors of a lair made out of ice, and a helicopter whose rotors kick in just in time …. Die Another Day has a clear and uncomplicated throughline, and room enough for the heroes to be witty and the villains to be nasty. I’m still not a Bond worshipper, but the latest product off the Broccoli assembly line at least doesn’t stall halfway through. Unlike the last couple of entries, this one feels as though it was made by people who couldn’t wait to go to work every day — people, including Brosnan, who wanted to find new things in Bond while harking back to the films that made them want to do Bond in the first place. Die Another Day is both skillful and playful, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can give a 007 film.

Far from Heaven

November 8, 2002

For those who complain that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like they used to, writer-director Todd Haynes has gone to great trouble to make a movie like they used to — Far from Heaven, a melodrama set in 1957 that almost could’ve been made in 1957. Haynes, whose style has ranged from the stark white of Safe (1995) to the kaleidoscopic glam-rock glitter of Velvet Goldmine (1998), ties himself this time to a rigorous form of classical filmmaking. The lighting, the costumes, the stilted dialogue, the kids who call their parents “sir” and “ma’am” — Haynes seems to curl up and snuggle inside the sheer repression of the ’50s style. The people even mind their language, save for one meant-to-be-startling moment when an anguished character lets fly with the F-word.

It’s an obsessive triumph of design and tribute, beautifully acted by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as the central embattled married couple, but it exists in an uneasy zone between homage and parody. Haynes obviously means us to join in the sorrow, to empathize with Moore’s Cathy Whitaker, who develops tender feelings for black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), and Quaid’s Frank Whitaker, a deeply closeted gay man who’s submerged his desires thoroughly enough to sire two children and have an outwardly ideal marriage. But this stuff was somehow more fun in the ’50s, when interracial and same-sex love dared not speak their names, and directors had to sneak them in via coded subtexts that only hip audiences (or today’s modern audiences) could decode.

Quaid is intensely moving as the tortured Frank, especially when the poor man conscientiously seeks to “cure” his condition, growling “I’m gonna beat this thing” as though homosexuality were cancer and simply required the hetero equivalent of chemotherapy (heterotherapy? not an uncommon concept back then, actually — or now, sadly). But Far from Heaven would probably sink without Julianne Moore, who stampedes towards challenges that lesser actresses would shrink from. She nails the surface of Cathy — presentable housewife who lives only for Frank, the kids, and a well-appointed home — and somehow manages to read Hayne’s intentionally strictured dialogue as if a human being could actually say it. But when she falls for Raymond (Haysbert does fine, tender work), Cathy comes to understand the power of forbidden desires over her husband. She’s willing to forgive him his trespasses, even if he forgives neither her nor himself.

Moore takes you along on a fully developed emotional arc; this is an old-school women’s weepie, like the Douglas Sirk soapers (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, and especially All That Heaven Allows) Haynes adores enough to have made this valentine to them. The formulation is a bit too neat, though: homosexuality for the man, a Negro lover for the woman, both marooned in the intolerance of the ’50s yet depicted with 20/20 hindsight 45 years later (as if the same conflicts today wouldn’t also wreck a marriage). A less generous reading of Far from Heaven might be that the openly gay director is tweaking the sanctity of marriage, an institution that today hardly needs to be exposed, what with its high rate of failure. Then, too, Haynes could be capturing the moment in America, right before the turbulent ’60s, when people began to realize that a union founded on repression is founded on nothing.

I applaud Haynes’ achievement as a loving and radiant throwback, a true oxymoron that appreciates the lush surface of the ’50s (or ’50s cinema, anyway) while not remotely wishing for a return to the social dictates of that era. Yet what’s missing is the shameless emotional punch we associate with the old melodramas; Haynes, as brilliant as he sometimes can be, is simply too distant and astringent a director to pull out the stops and wring our tears. Far from Heaven comes to seem more of a cinematic position paper, or a postmodern stunt, than a drama (compared to something like Blue Velvet, which works similar territory to overpowering effect, it looks rather pallid). Haynes gets the surface, and the passions crawling underneath it, but that’s all he gets.

8 Mile

November 8, 2002

8 Mile, the major acting debut of Eminem (né Marshall Mathers III), isn’t nearly as bad — or, for that reason, as crummily enjoyable — as the only previous film starring debut of a white rapper, Cool as Ice with Vanilla Ice. (I make that comparison with all the authority, and shame, of someone who has actually rented Cool as Ice.) This is a grim, serious, half-decent fictionalized account of the days before Eminem was Eminem — before he splattered himself onto the American consciousness with “My Name Is” (“Hi kids! Do you like violence?” he began. “Wanna see me put nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?”) and just kept going. Love or hate Eminem, he’s a virtuoso of invective, with an intricate command of rhyme and a formidable eye for obscenely surreal detail.

The movie, which recasts Eminem as Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. “Rabbit,” tames him considerably and dulls his edge. It’s not till the climax, when Rabbit faces off in a battle of rhymes against various nemeses, that we really get a sense of Rabbit’s (and Eminem’s) heartless, weightless style — a battering ram that hits you so fast you don’t notice you’re bleeding. For most of the film, Rabbit mopes around in godforsaken areas of Detroit with his friends when he’s not clashing with his trailer-trash mom (Kim Basinger, overselling her lower-class twang), doting on his much younger sister (Chloe Greenfield), or standing around and facing in the general direction of Brittany Murphy as a local aspiring model who takes a shine to him.

Murphy’s character is in the movie to show that (A) Rabbit is heterosexual and (B) whether it’s your bingo-playing, jerk-magnet mom or a hot number who’ll drop her panties for you — or whomever else — in a heartbeat, you can’t trust women. (Rabbit’s little sister gets by because she can’t be more than six years old.) Aside from a clumsy tryst at the factory where Rabbit works and a couple of conversations, there’s nothing going on between these two, so when he finds her in flagrante delicto with a local braggart (Eugene Byrd) who’s been promising to get Rabbit some free studio time, Rabbit seems less angry and disappointed with her than he is with the braggart.

Working from an Eminem-approved script (by Scott Silver) that can only be called cautious, Curtis Hanson steps up to the material with every ounce of bleak verisimilitude this gifted director (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) can muster. It helps, too, that his cinematographer is Rodrigo Prieto, who worked magic on Amores Perros and here paints with a bucket of deep rich grays and blues. 8 Mile feels like a real movie only because Curtis Hanson never treats it as anything less than a real movie. It’s the sort of film that can deepen your admiration for Hanson even if the film’s content doesn’t sway you: Faced with an Eminem project, Hanson damn near turns it into a Curtis Hanson drama, with all his recently acquired respect for quiet moments and character-driven conflict.

Still, you leave 8 Mile thinking you’ve seen probably the most sober-sided, technically accomplished take on the Underdog Transcends Humble Roots genre since Saturday Night Fever, and even that movie had the escapist dazzle of the disco. Even in the scenes where Rabbit proves his virtuosity, 8 Mile comes out of the despair and rage of the powerless, and even though Hanson’s skill keeps things moving, the film is really no more than a two-hour prelude to a climax in which our hero … rhythmically tells people off. Eminem isn’t terrible in his many non-rapping scenes, but then the script protects him to the extent that he never really has to express anything other than occasional anger; he stands apart from his own story, uncommitted to the emotions in the drama, as if showing vulnerability would make him a “bitch.” If Jimmy had been allowed to be as funny and complex as Eminem’s rhymes often are, 8 Mile might’ve been something more than a genre film within a genre film: Underdog Director Transcends Humble Script.


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