Monthly Archives: November 2002

Solaris (2002)

A most amazing thing occurred when I sat down in my theater to watch Steven Soderbergh’’s sci-fi remake, Solaris. The majority of the theater was women, no small part I’m sure to George Clooney and the promise to see his posterior not once but twice. As the film progressed I kept hearing the rattling of seats and the exit doors. When the lights came back on more than half my theater had walked out on Solaris. I have never seen this many walk outs for any film before, and if one has to hold this title Solaris certainly does not deserve this dubious honor.

Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, super future psychologist who is struggling to overcome the grief over the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). Clooney is dispatched to a space station orbiting the mysterious glowing planet Solaris. Seems strange goings on, are, well, going on. When he arrives he finds that the station head has taken his own life and the two remaining crew members on board could use more than a few hugs. Clooney goes to sleep (in a bed resembling bubble-wrap) and is startled awake when his dead wife is suddenly lying right beside him. But is it his wife? Is it merely his memories being recounted? Is it Solaris messing with his gray matter? Does Rheya have consciousness of the past or of her self? What are her thoughts on her new materialization? Good luck Steven Soderbergh, existentialist party of one.

It’’s not that Solaris is necessarily a bad film, it’’s just that it’’s plodding, mechanical and overly ambitious. There are long periods of staring, followed by brief exposition, then more staring, sometimes earnestly but mostly slack-jawed. Solaris is attempting to be an existential meditation on identity and self, but what really occurs is a lot of nothingness. For a movie that was over three hours in its original 1971 Russian conception, and a mere 93 minutes in its slimmer Soderbergh size, I could likely get this movie done in 6 minutes. It could be argued that its arduous pacing amplifies its methodical subject matter but whatever.

Clooney has said in interviews how Solaris was the most challenging role of his career. To this I make a collective noise of disagreement. Clooney turns from grief-stricken to confusion, then back to grief-stricken with nary a line of dialogue. The effect is more dampening than emotional. Clooney’’s conscious gets even worse when he banishes New Rheya into the cold vacuum of space then Another Rheya appears the next night. He just can’’t escape this dead woman.

I’’m very pleased to see the glassy-eyed, apple-cheeked beauty McElhone in movies again. She seemed to be on the cusp of mainstream acceptance after prominent roles in 1998’’s Truman Show and Ronin, yet she just disappeared. McElhone is a wonderfully expressive actress and deserves to be a leading lady.

Soderbergh’’s take on existential dread could be described as a noble failure. Solaris is the type of overreaching, underachieving film only really talented people could make. And for anyone wanting to leave after the double dose of Clooney’’s derriere, they both happen in the first 30 minutes. You can go after that if you so choose.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Die Another Day (2002)

Pierce Brosnan returns for his forth outing as super-spy James Bond, this time trying to thwart, here goes, a former North Korean militant who has switched genes to look like a wealthy Anglo-Saxon playboy. And what does this stupid evildoer want? To erase minefields in Korea with a giant reflective mirror in space that channels a giant solar beam… of DOOM! Commence smacking of the forehead.

And what about Halle Berry as the requisite Bond girl? Well Berry may have an Oscar for crying but she is not terribly great in Die Another Day. She is so awful that if she sucked anymore she would physically implode. Here’s an example: she literally stabs someone with a book and glibly says, “”Read that, bitch.”” Ugh. Want another? When asked by a diamond-studded baddie, whom sent her, Berry’’s defensive reply is, ““Your Mama.”” How in the world did this person become a secret anything?

The Bond series has always been great escapist fare but its age is becoming much more apparent. Die Another Day starts with a montage of Bond being tortured in Korea. When’ he’’s released our dapper gentleman looks exactly like the American Taliban, with flowing hair and beard. He’’s been abandoned by his people out of the fear he has confessed vital info while under 14 months of torture. Yes, that’’s right folks, 14 months of torture. You think an agent like Bond, who has foiled devious plots 19 previous times, would be worth retrieving.

Brosnan is dandy and a charming actor but even he is showing some gray. It may be time to tap another into the martini-swilling shoes. Dame Judi Dench and John Cleese provide stable supporting bits, but what is Michael Madsen doing in this?

Director Lee Tamahori has directed one of the best films on self-abusive relationships ever (Once Were Warriors) and also directed one of the worst thrillers ever (Along Came a Spider). Tamahori surprisingly brings some slick touches to Bond and seems to be trying to tinker with the stagy formula, and when he gets away with it Die Another Day is thrilling. A car chase set atop a glacier is visually stunning and pulse pounding. Then this chase continues into a melting ice palace. Brilliant if not a tad bizarre. What do ice palaces go for on the open market? What’s the upkeep like?

Die Another Day is the most self-conscious of the Bond franchise with numerous homages and in-jokes. Berry’’s introduction is a direct reference to Ursula Andress classic bikini-clad ashore entrance in Dr. No. Bond confesses his relationships with women never seem to make it to second dates, despite the vigorous sex, and a female agent (Rosamund Pike) even jabs, ““I know you, sex for dinner, death for breakfast.”” The flaccid villain runs a diamond company and actually has a magazine headline that states: “”Diamonds Are Forever.”” At least the multiple writers were having some fun.

The producers that hold the Bond rights are likely as stingy about following set guidelines as the ones behind the scenes at Harry Potter. Yes James Bond always has one foot planted in the fantastic, and the emphasis will still be on girls, gadgets and gargantuan explosions, but this formula cries out for some tinkering before more damage can be done. The robust derring-do occasionally lightens Die Another Day but the franchise is starting to look like it needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if it is to survive in our Mountain Dew, XXX world of tomorrow.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

So is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets better than the first film? Well, mostly yes. The story of Harry Potter is a long and complicated one, full of numerous funny names as well. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is still living with his abusive relatives and barred in his room. He’s warned by Doddy, a self-abusive CGI house elf, not to return to Hogwart’s School of Magic because he will be in grave danger. Fat lot of luck this does. Before you can say Jar Jar Binks, Harry’’s timid friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his flying love bug rescue Harry. They meet up with old friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and begin their second year of magical education. But danger surfaces as students with Muggle (a non-magically inclined family member) blood are turning into petrified statues. Lots of other stuff is crammed in (like broomstick rugby, Nancy Drew-like detection, and spiders oh my!) but let’s all be honest here, it’s not like a plot synopsis is going to push you into seeing this movie.

Much of the acting responsibilities falls on the shoulders of our three young leads, and all I can say is what a world of good puberty has done them all. Radcliffe, stiff and overly subdued in the first film, has grown a deeper voice. He seems to have settled into the part nicely. Grint, playing a noble coward, goes from squeal to grimace in 3.5 seconds. Watson has a winning smile and bounces with enthusiasm but sadly sits the last half of the film out.

Some notable additions to the Harry Potter family include Kenneth Branagh as the narcissistic new professor of the Defense Against the Dark Arts. Can anyone do ham better than Branagh? I don’t think so. Jason Isaacs is malevolently delicious as the aristocratic father of Harry’s school rival, Draco Malfoy. You could start shivering from the icy glare this man casts.

Chamber of Secrets is better than the earlier Sorcerer’’s Stone in many ways. The story has less exposition and contains darker elements that suit the story surprisingly well. The special effects are vastly improved from the first film. The child acting, as previously mentioned, is much better.

Despite lacking prolonged setup, Chamber of Secrets clocks in around 2 hours and 40 minutes — 9 minutes longer than the first! You could watch your life go by sitting through a Potter movie marathon. This might seem like an eternity to small children if they weren’t so overly obsessed with the book series.

So remember when I said Chamber of Secrets was “mostly” better than the first film? Well that “mostly” is because the amazing adult cast is hardly seen. Gentle giant Robbie Coltrane and Maggie Smith are mere background noise to the story. Headmaster Dumbledore (played by the late Richard Harris) has a weathered feel. What Chamber of Secrets needs are more scenes with the brilliant Alan Rickman, as moody professor Severus Snape. Rickman (Dogma) is perfect and a thrill to watch. I got a fever and only more Rickman can cure it.

Chris Columbus (Home Alone) is a director with no remarkable visual flair or distinct vision. Everything that is occurring is so faithful to the book that it has no individual flavor or distance. It’s directing with your hands tied. It should be Rowling’s name for the director’s credit because she’s the one with the vision being translated.

Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon that is already breaking box-office records and parents’ bank accounts. Chamber of Secrets plays toward audience expectations, but all of the components involved seem to be settling in their roles. Chances are whatever you felt about the first film you’ll relive during the second.

Nate’s Grade: B

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

So what do you get when you cross clown prince Adam Sandler and the writer/director of the lengthy epics Magnolia and Boogie Nights? Well you get the most unique romantic comedy ever, that’’s what.

Barry Egan (Sandler) is a self-employed supplier of novelty toilet plungers. His seven older sisters have made it their job to torment him ever since he was young. In moments of confession of his unhappiness Barry usually prefaces by pleading with people not to tell his sisters. Barry is a timid introverted wallflower yet full of volatile rage fit to senselessly trash a restaurant bathroom. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) pursues Barry after being introduced through one of his sisters. Lena latches onto the oddball and he finds the maternal comfort and acceptance he has missed his entire life. Somehow these two souls have crossed paths and become exactly what the other has always needed.

But Barry has trouble ahead of him. One night he called a phone sex line and innocently gave out all of his personal information over the phone. Now a sleazy Provo mattress store owner (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is extorting money from Barry and using four blond Mormon brothers as his muscle. When Barry confronts the thugs, whom have now begun to endanger Lena as well, he boldly states, “”I have a love in my life and that gives me more strength than you will ever know.”” You can’t help but believe it and genuinely feel for the resurgence of this character’’s dignity.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson spins an engrossing character study deconstructing the angry goofball Sandler has been so accustomed to playing in all his slapstick comedies. He plays the same character archetype but is now given new dimensions to play with and depth. The true revelation of Punch-Drunk Love is that Sandler can really act. No, really, I’’m dead serious.

The direction and writing are much more restrained than with Anderson’s previous films. The world of Punch-Drunk Love is full of stark colors, slow camera movements and vast amounts of spatial emptiness. The scope is much narrower, focusing on a small set of characters and just allowing them to tell the story without outside interference — like a frog shower. Due to the attention paid to Barry, everyone else becomes underwritten including the stoic love interest. After being convinced of Barry’’s instabilities the audience is left to assume sheer blind faith at what Lena sees in Barry.

Punch-Drunk Love gleefully ignores and plays with romantic comedy conventions. The running time is under 90 minutes, (which is still only HALF of Magnolia) but the pacing is precise. John Brion’s percussion heavy musical score wonderfully displays the boiling anger behind Barry’s placid exterior during key moments.

The storytelling of Punch-Drunk Love is full of uneasily accessible quirks and will likely be reacted to with hostility by mainstream America. What Anderson has crafted is an arty Adam Sandler movie that few thought even possible. Next thing you’’ll tell me is that David Lynch will do a G-rated Disney Film. What’’s that now?

Nate’s Grade: B+

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