Solaris – Steven Soderbergh (2002)


With Steven Soderbergh’s imminent retirement (to be a painter) apparently back on, I thought it was time to go back and take a look at the only film of his I genuinely loved, the George Clooney-starring remake, Solaris.

Yeah, yeah. A remake. Sacrilege, I know.

But spare me, Salman Rushdie. Solaris is not the typical Hollywood-out-of-ideas remake that we’ve become so used to in the last few years. It’s a genuine attempt to carve something new out of an old, beloved film while not disturbing the primary work. Tarkovsky’s 1972 original was a bold and brilliant reply to Kubrick’s 2001, putting a deep Eastern European thought process into the science fiction films that had always existed in science fiction writing. But it is a film that is not without its flaws, whether they were on purpose or not.

On its face, it’s a simple film: recently widowed psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned to a ship orbiting the planet Solaris when the crew members begin experiencing something unexplainable and unbearable. “I could tell you what’s happening,” explains Snow (Jeremy Davies), “but I don’t think that would tell you what’s really happening.”

So what is happening? As the scientists orbiting Solaris try to study it, it is reacting to their thoughts. Indeed, the planet is a shit-stirrer, and begins messing with the crews minds, conjuring up physical replicas of the people on Earth they apparently miss the most. For the crew leader Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who eventually sends the panicked message for Kelvin to join them, it is his son.  And he cannot bear it any longer. By the time Kelvin arrives, Gibarian is dead, suicide, leaving his replica son to wander the ship alone.

Gibarian’s son is not the only visitor of course. Shortly after arriving, Kelvin gets his visitor: his dead wife, Rhea (Natascha McElhone).

It’s a brilliant concept, one that makes you stop dead in your stride and instantly makes you think 1, who would Solaris conjure for you? and 2, what the hell would you do if it really happened?

Kelvin proceeds to freak out, breaking his otherwise-logical persona, and sticks the Rhea replica into a escape pod to get rid of her. To his immense surprise, he is soon greeted by a second Rhea replica, who has the same innocent, vacant child stare as the first replica. This one, though, he keeps. Getting rid of a second one is an unbearable thought now that he has had time to regret the possibility of it being the real Rhea.

One can’t help but accept his decision. It’s the same I would have made, and probably you too.

It’s all in the eyes, I think. Natascha McElhone’s ghostly perfect eyes, like piercing globes in and of themselves. Some eyes are the window to the soul, some are enough to keep you busy on their own. Hers are the latter. You can swim in her eyes and get lost along the way. These eyes reel Kelvin in the first time they met, and they’ve done it all over again as they are reunited.

Solaris must be beside itself, giggling. Poor humans. Poor stupid humans.

Clooney was probably miscast here as Chris Kelvin, but both the star and the director were hot off of their last collaboration, Ocean’s 11, when they began pitching this. It’s the kind of picture that goes into turnaround or doesn’t even get bought without a major star attached. Everything about is extravagant  even though the film itself is understated and darkly lit. Soderbergh’s — I mean Peter Andrew’s photography is sumptuously understated, artful, wonderful, giving us just enough of a glimpse of Steve Arnold and Keith P. Cunningham’s lavishly beautiful — and as expensive — sets without setting us into a whole new world, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky did before, or Lucas, or Danny Boyle before. It’s slick, angled and polished. Wood doesn’t seem to exist, with stainless steel and synthetic fabrics and fibers taking over every corner of the architecture and interior design of both the buildings on Earth and in space. It’s everything we always assumed the future is going to be, but probably will not. But it’s also not the point of the story. The point of the story is humanity. The biggest, greatest human flaw, even: emotion.

The film’s concept of a sentient planet as a most dreadful wish fulfiller is greater in our heads, though, where we can control what Solaris sees, not Soderbergh, where we can tailor the exploration to our own experiences.  but still, the driving paranoia Kelvin comes to experience because of — that he may have actually remembered Rhea wrong — is what gives this film its emotional bite.

It’s a superior play on the concept that anything we would have come up with in our own heads, I think, because we simply would have wallowed in the good times and never wondered if they were being remembered wrong. Or I would have. But Kelvin gets physical hints that he was remembering things wrong, hints that haunt him. Hints that would haunt us, should we have gotten them instead of the bliss of reunification. They hit Kelvin deeply enough in the end that the residual force hits us squarely enough to actually make us wonder what we have remembered wrong in our daily lives. Was Rebecca Solowitz really that great in fifth grade that I should still think about with regret 20 years later? Was I actually that good a baseball player or were there just no one better in the travelling team try outs? Was Nirvana really a good band?

Damn you Soderbergh. Damn you Tarkovsky. Damn you Lem.

You brilliant bastards.

Isabella – Pang Cho-Cheung (2006)


Early on in Isabella, we find thirtysomething Ma Chen-Shing (Chapman To), a moderately corrupt cop on the island of Macau, as he wakes up and finds the girl he slept with the night before, Cheung Bik-Yan (Isabella Leong), on his couch eating a bowl of instant Ramen.

In spite of her apparent young age, his hand slowly finds its way to the back of her head and begins to push downward, but she fights it with a frightened rabbit look in her eyes.

He paid good money for her time, so why was she so hesitant?

The answer, as we find out, is that she is his daughter.

It took me a little while to figure out how to put a defense of this film into words. At first glance — especially with the shoddy Media Asia subtitles (more on this later) — the film dips almost into the same territory as Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (which, by the way, Wikipedia does not accurately describe the depth of the mother/son relationship in its synopsis). But Murmur of the Heart was nominated for an Academy Award, and it was an honestly deserved nomination, as it’s possibly Malle’s best film (certainly in his top three). So why should I have a hard time defending a movie where there wasn’t actually incest? Why should I even have to defend it at all?

Of course, Bik-Yan isn’t the girl that Chen went to bed with the night before. Taking the time to track him down following the death of her mother, she has sneaked into his apartment when the actual girl he slept with left in the morning. She had no where else to go. Unable to pay the rent any longer on the apartment she once shared with her mother, her landlord has padlocked it and she has come the Chen for help.

Chen, for his part, never knew he had a daughter. As a teenager he got a girl pregnant, but thought the girl, Isabella, had an abortion. Chen, though, ran away from the clinic before she’d done anything, and Isabella hid the truth from him despite seeing him often (and often with other women) on the small island.

It’s a piling up of misery for Chen at this point, who is about to be indicted for helping mobsters smuggle cigarettes into the country. The film takes place in the late 90s, as Macau was to be handed over to China much like Hong Kong had been handed back to China from Britain in 1997.

As an outsider, it’s difficult to say exactly what something like a handover means to people. Being ruled, or administrated, for better or worse is a part of your identity, so intensely for some in Macau that they identify as Macanese instead of Portugese or Chinese. It’s something that seeped through the action veneer of Hong Kong films in the run up to their handover by Britain as well, but was handled mostly in a flurry of gun violence and Kung Fu instead of honest drama, as is done here.

But with the handover rapidly approaching, officials are trying to sweep up the corruption and make everything as tidy as possible, which leaves Chen with few options. He can either kill the man who informed on him and risk life in jail, flee or Thailand or serve his sentence for corruption. The arrival of Bik-Yan does nothing to help him make a choice.

In Hong Kong, Chapman To is more known for comedies than dramas, but the movie he may be most known for in America is his dramatic co-starring turn in Infernal Affairs, the Andrew Lau/Alan Mok film that Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was based on. He’s always been charming, but hard to take seriously in most of his roles. He has a good comedic presence, but Isabella came as a shock to the system for people who didn’t realize he had some acting chops. He has a lot of acting chops, honestly. He ends up being almost a poor man’s Little Tony Leung, stretching his role into entirely vulnerable areas that you’d never expect of him. His character is all flaw and all vulnerability all of the time. He drinks too much, gambles, smokes, takes up with whores and, as mentioned earlier, is a corrupt cop, though mildly corrupt compared to what surrounds him. It is a snowball effect, it seems. One thing leads to the next and the next, and so on. Chapman To carries all of his on his small shoulders and delivers it right into our laps.

Isabella Leong is a mega-star in the Canto Pop scene, and even tried to break into the American market with a turn in one of the God awful Mummy movies. Needless to say that just like South Korean megastar Jun Ji-hyun before her, it didn’t work out as well as it did for Zhang Ziyi. Still, there is something about Isabella Leong’s performance here as a teenage in trouble that draws you into this picture fully. If she didn’t have that unexplainable “it” factor to her, Chapman To’s performance might not have been enough to make the film work. She too is vulnerable, which is nothing new for young girls to portray on screen, but beyond that there is a deepis fragility and naivety to her, but still she tries to make her new situation work. She does for herself what no one else will do any more. It’s one of those roles that will probably always be part of the definition of her career, especially in my eyes since I don’t listen to C-Pop. She will always be Bik-yan, no matter who she plays. While that might be a great thing for her career, it’s a great thing for this film.

Isabella is a beautiful film as much as it’s a beautiful story. Pang, his cinematographer and art director capture all of the lushness of the island’s Pacific greenery and it’s Portuguese architecture, creating a depth of stunning visual texture to lay over the emotional texture.  What might have felt like an awkward love story in less capable hands becomes a story of engage and retreat, connection and disconnection, of isolation and dependence, and of reliance and self reliance.

The Troll Hunter – André Øvredal (2011)


At the start of the film, we are given a message that the following footage found and is offered to us without comment. It is the footage shot by three Norwegian college students (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Mørck, Tomas Alf Larsen) who were tracking down a news story about a series of bear murders around Norway, and the mysterious man in a weird van, Hans (Otto Jespersen), who is supposedly behind it.

They end up tracking him down to a trailer park where they ambush him with cameras and lights and try to get an interview. He brushes them aside and goes on about his business. They get the shock of their lives, however, when they follow him into the woods, hoping to catch him red handed. What they find instead is an onrushing Hans, screaming at them — “TROLL!”

They run, finding their car bitten in half, and eventually, from somewhere in the moving treetops, see it. A goddamn giant, monstrous, three-headed troll, running right at them.

Annoyed somewhat at his bosses, Hans tells them the students can follow him — as long as none of them are Christian. Trolls, you see, can smell the blood of a Christian man. The three all assure him that they are not Christians and they begin traipsing around Northwestern Norway in search of trolls — and answers.

It’s an impossible thing to deny the fact that The Troll Hunter is great fun (especially on a big screen), but it’s hardly a breakthrough experience. At times it treads too clumsily on the ground that The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield (etc…) have paved before it without bringing anything really new to the increasingly loathsome “found footage” genre of filmmaking. As the gruff, tired troll hunting veteran, Otto Jespersen serves up quite a lot to like, especially as he morphs into a reluctant father figure, trying to keep the students safe, but the films big comedy setpiece is one long troll fart joke that André Øvredal almost seems to be embarrassed about having included.

Growing up, I had a friend whose family was from Norway, but none of the stories he told us involved trolls, so I don’t know where this falls into the Norwegian myth canon, if it does at all. Even with the ’94 Olympics taking place in Norway, it’s a country that Americans were never really educated about, or at least my classmates and I weren’t. But the exquisite local atmosphere and breathtaking Norwegian mountain scenery are exciting inclusions that set the films secondary mode almost into travelogue territory. At points, they are worth almost as much as the story of troll hunting, if not more.

I would have preferred to just see it as straight storytelling rather than the reliance on the camera crew, but the film still works well. It’s a film that might work better as an experience than it does as film by itself, but that’s more than most films can say at the end of the day.

Le Mans – Lee H. Katzin (1971)


I don’t care for racing. I don’t like NASCAR, or Forumla One, or Indie or stock car racing, or even demolition derbys. I don’t watch for the racing, nor do I watch for the crashes. I’ve feared for my life during every impromptu drag race I’ve been an unwitting participant in (always in the passenger seat) down Aloma or University. Honestly: I don’t even have a driver’s license.

But Steve McQueen’s Le Mans is, to me, one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen.

If you explained the movie to someone without saying it was a Steve McQueen film, you’d probably get a blank stare and a shrug. There really isn’t much to the film beyond McQueen’s screen presence and the charm of a revving Porsche for nearly two hours. But when it’s Steve McQueen and a souped up racing Porsche, that’s more than enough to carry a film.

Le Mans is a 24 hour race in France where two drivers take turns racing one car and the film is portrayed as realistically as possible. It’s a race that McQueen himself has taken part in it, coming in second place behind Mario Andretti’s team in 1970.

The plot is the race, and the theme is overcoming demons to win a race. There are side characters and rivalries with other racers and car manufacturers, but boiled down to it’s essence, it’s all about the race. When you put it like that it sounds overly simplistic, but when it’s put in action by this group, the balls and guts behind it elevate it to something beyond. You feel the fatigue of driving in a way that you don’t in any other racing film. The race is edge of your seat stuff, and the portions when McQueen is resting are perfectly paced, and much needed, breaks from the action so you can collect your nerves and relax your ass muscles as well.

While you have to take movies like The Fast and the Furious or The Legend of Speed on face value and call them dumb fun, you couldn’t rightly call Le Mans dumb fun. There is a serious-minded bent to the film. There is so much riding on the race personally and financially, and doubtless some of the pressure from the film itself needing to be a hit (it wasn’t) comes through in the film as well.

It’s not meant to be fun, it’s meant to be exciting. It is fun, but not in the modern sense, where there is some resignation behind the sentiment, but fun in the gritty 1970s sense, like The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were fun, a sense that is now dead and will never return. In short, you don’t have to turn your brain off for Le Mans to make a connection and take hold in your brain. It’s all down to McQueen. By rights, you’d have to call this Steve McQueen’s Le Mans — he called the shots, he was the muscle that got the film made.

McQueen is, of course, a man’s man. He is probably the very definition of the term. There is a movie called The Tao of Steve that uses that idea as it’s basic thesis (though the thesis is sound, it’s application in the movie by Donal Logue is basically adolescent in nature). He’s done this stuff for real and it shows on screen. There is an easy confidence to him being on the race track that exudes from every pore of his being. He’s driven these cars in races. He belongs in that white and red racing suit, it’s as natural on his body as his short blond hair.

Of course, Mario Andretti just thought of him as an asshole from Hollywood, not as a real racer. Andretti, I think, was more terrified of losing a race to an asshole from Hollywood than he was of just simply losing, which is a position that you can certainly understand.

Andretti won at Le Mans, but McQueen won with Le Mans, even if it took years after the fact (and after his death) for that to come true.

Shopgirl – Anand Tucker (2005)


Before it came out in 2005, Shopgirl was poised to be a hit. It starred three name brand actors in Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman and Steve Martin (who also wrote it), and seemed to have the right pedigree of being based on Martin’s successful novella of the same title. The trailers and stills had an air to them that seemed to recall the young girl making it on her own screwball comedies of the 1940s, the kind of stories that might have had Margaret Sullivan or Ginger Rogers playing the shopgirl.

In it, Claire Danes plays Mirabelle Buttersfield, a pretty but cloistered girl who has moved to Los Angeles from Vermont to try and make it as an artist. Like most people who move with that goal in mind, she hasn’t made it yet, or even come close. She lives in a small apartment with her cat and her meds, working days at Saks Fifth Avenue selling evening gloves, which are in about as much demand as her artwork.

Doing laundry one night, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), an oddball starving artist who designs fonts and does logos for an amplifier company. Lonely and in need she agrees to a date with him, but ends up unfulfilled at the end of a long night. They are roughly the same age, but Mirabelle has long since passed Jeremy’s emotional age, and they are unable to make a connection, despite both grasping for one.

Enter Ray Porter (Steve Martin), the charming and successful computer mogul whose home high up in the Hills has a distant view of Mirabelle’s lowly Silverlake apartment. Ray is a different sort of guy than Mirabelle is used to – for one thing, he’s a man, not a boy. He’s accomplished, professional, and can make gestures, like paying a student loan, that are small to him, but huge to someone scraping by. He woos her as if she were the only woman he’d ever though about, and does it the old fashioned way. In contrast to Jeremy, it takes a few dates to end up back at Ray’s place where she is finally shot of her frustration.

But he travels for work a lot and he’s not looking for anything long term, which she says she understands, though she does a little bit of mental editing on, where he is not being entirely serious when he says this.

Jeremy, in turn, heads out on tour as roadie for a band fronted by The Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon front Mark Kozelek (who might look familiar from Almost Famous where he was a member of Sweetwater). It’s a journey of self discovery for Jeremy — one sort of forced on him by Kozelek, who plays a bit of a guru for Jeremy. It’s slow going, though. It’s a long process and he’s got plenty of maturity issues to work out. Simple things like owning a suit seem out of touch for him as he begins.

The film itself almost finds itself stuck in the emotional mode of 1940s films at some points, which is both a plus and minus. It’s a whimsical notion, and director Anand Tucker has fun exploring old fashioned joyous things like evening gowns, Love-in-the-Afternoon/Sabrina style relationships and simple, basic ideas like charm and grace that movies today just don’t have. But it’s interrupted so often by the modern real world of depression meds, private jets and voice mail, though, and the two worlds don’t mesh harmoniously to the point where you’ll find yourself wishing the film had just taken place in the golden age of Hollywood instead of 2005. Tucker never gets anything huge wrong, but the little things he does need a little mental editing of your own (something I found I did rather successfully when talking about the film with a friend and forgetting all about Mirabelle’s friends, and Bridgette Wilson-Sampras’ role). Danes’ turn as Mirabelle makes the mental editing entirely worthwhile, though. It’s not quite the part she was born to play, but it’s a part that only she could have played right. Her slender physique and non-assuming persona plays perfectly against Jeremy’s clueless (but growing!) aloofness and Ray’s dominant aloofness. She is elusive, it turns out, despite wishing to throw herself at both of them. Life, sometimes, has other plans.

It’s a difficult film to place in the Steve Martin filmography (much like his Silas Marner adaptation, A Simple Twist of Fate) because it’s not funny, and it’s not meant to be. Like his previous novellas, it’s meant to be charming and witty, but your sides will be firmly intact. The film means to kiss your extended hand and tickle your wrist a little with a sly, winning smile, and it does that all night long if you let it. It’s just up to you to let it.

Zelig – Woody Allen (1983)


When you think about, or talk about, Woody Allen films, its always the same few that come up. Between whatever he has out right now, Annie HallManhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters, they make up the lion’s share of the Woody Allen conversation as it stands currently.

If it’s a thought or conversation of any length, then Crimes and Misdemeanors or Bullets Over Broadway (or maybe one of the older, funnier films) might squeak in there somewhere, or else it’ll descend into some nonsense about the Soon-yi scandal, or turn to a question of which of his evil twins, exactly, made The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

The man has directed over 40 films now, going back to What’s Up, Tiger Lily? in 1966, so it’s not difficult to see why some films would necessarily get left out of the conversation. But of all of the films left out, it’s the brilliant faux documentary Zelig that seems like the greatest injustice.

It feels odd calling a film with a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes underrated. In fact, it was one of his best reviewed films upon release, and even did well at the box office for a highbrow comedy. But since then it has virtually disappeared from the Woody Allen conversation.

Zelig was written and shot in tandem with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and the two comprise his first works with Mia Farrow on board after a string of hits with Diane Keaton. It was one of his strongest periods, but it seems as if Zelig is one of the least viewed Allen films now for people under a certain age. It was even one of the last Allen films that I saw (for the record: all of them, except Alice and What’s New, Pussycat). There seemed to be no cultural pressure to see it, unlike Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or even Stardust Memories, Allen’s B&W take on Fellini’s 8 1/2. But I ended up seeing in Zelig one of the greatest comedies he has produced.

Allen plays Leonard Zelig, the great curiosity of the jazz age, a so-called human chameleon. So desperate is Zelig to be liked – or, more accurately, so desperate is Zelig to not be disliked – that he becomes, physically, the people he is surrounded by.  Around Greeks, he becomes Greek; around fat men, he becomes fat; around the great black jazz musicians, yes, he becomes a great black jazz musician.

It all stems from a party during his college days when he was asked his opinion on Moby Dick. Having never read it, he is seized by a fear of being ostracized by his peers for having not read something so basic and canonical, and so instead of admitting the truth, he instantly states that he has read it and enjoyed it. This simple white lie is the gateway to a deepening psychological state of ever-changing uniformity.

When he comes to the attention of the world at large (thanks in no small part to the jazz age’s other great legend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, at a party, observes Zelig morph between upper-class, old-money republican with the guests and a lower-class, poor democrat with the help), Zelig comes under the care of a female psychiatrist, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who is banking on making her career on solving his case and returning him to a normal life. For a woman in the ’20s to want to do this was an outrageous thing, and she comes up against the brunt of her male peers who dismiss her ideas and theories, going so far as to claim there is nothing actually wrong with Leonard. But she stands her ground in spite of private and public pressures to give it up, which serves as the perfect juxtaposition to Leonard’s easy way out.

Much of the psychology of this story stems from Allen’s childhood, which is greatly colored by the shadow of WWII. In Radio Days he spends his time in Coney Island looking for German U Boats. In Zelig, he spends his wit and insight on the ability of fascism to exploit this flaw in human nature to fit in, to be liked, or to not be disliked. Fascism depended on this willingness to get along that many, if not most of us, are the victims of. It was the great bully party, and there exists no real firewall to this flaw being exploited again aside from the easily distracted media and wonderful comedians, exploiting the exploiters.

But somehow the word mockumentary doesn’t quite fit Zelig, despite the fact that it fits both definitions of the word “mock.” At the time of its release, all anyone could talk about was that the film was a technological achievement for Allen and director of photography Gordon Willis, which is something that bothered Allen greatly. Well, it was a great technological achievement, of course – especially in the pre-CGI days when even ILM was still doing practical effects – but the story ended up being largely ignored as something funny, but frivolous, never quite reaching the heights of his previous films.

It’s an absurd stance, though. Zelig remains Allen’s most thoughtful commentary on the human condition. Yes, it looks like it will be boring from the trailer and the posters, but this is mainly because it is meant to mock those types of documentaries, the kind you were forced to sit through in school. There is just no way to accurately portray the depth and breadth of the film, promotionally speaking. There is only to sit back and watch it.