December 03, 2002 10:14am EST
Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is asked to investigate the strange behavior of a small group of scientists aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The expedition has stopped all communication with Earth and mission captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has committed suicide. Once on board the space station Kelvin discovers two surviving crewmembers who are suffering from extreme stress and paranoia brought on by studying the planetary body. He learns that Solaris can create physical personifications known as "visitors " which are drawn from the crew's subconscious memories. For Kelvin a "visitor" comes in the form of his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who committed suicide years earlier. Soon enough he finds himself in the same nutty predicament as the crew and becomes fixated on the possibility he can change the events that lead to Rheya's death. The film based on Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel of the same name is not so much a sci-fi pic as it is a futuristic romance. It's a slow-building story that raises many questions without ever answering them including the planet's motives.
While Clooney delivers a soulful performance as the worrisome Chris Kelvin it might have been more interesting to establish his character without spelling out his past. Kelvin's wife Rheya is supposed to be a character so dark that flowers practically die when she walks into a room. While McElhone's portrayal of Rheya is not bad her morbidity comes more from the character's back story than the actress's performance; Rheya is suicidal and has an abortion hence she is a sinister being. Viola Davis plays Helen Gordon one of the two surviving crewmembers on the space station. Good performance but her character is too inconsistent. At the start of the film for example she is holed up in her quarters and refuses to come out. In the next scene however she divulges everything she knows to Kelvin in a very logical and calm manner. What happened to the paranoia the extreme stress? Jeremy Davies is the second crewmember Snow (perhaps aptly named because he seems almost as though he's actually on coke). Doing his best Crispin Glover Davies is the most irritating thing about the movie.
Solaris was first adapted as a feature film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 in a much longer and truer version of the book. Director/screenwriter Steven Soderbergh decided to delve deeper into Kelvin's relationship with his wife Rheya than necessary. Not a sci-fi director at heart Soderbergh whitewashes many of the book's technical details such as what constellation the space station is orbiting or anything pertinent about Solaris itself. He chooses instead to focus on Kelvin's troubled relationship with Rheya which is established through sappy flashbacks. But what goes on between the couple on the space station is much more compelling than their overly sentimentalized past. Because the new Rheya is created from Kelvin's mind her own memories are actually his; if he remembers they met on a train for example so will she. Eventually she begins to question her own existence and demands answers from Kelvin that he cannot provide. Soderbergh examines religious philosophical and spiritual issues in a not-so-subtle manner but leaves the film open to interpretation. Completely devoid of splashy special effects Soderbergh's Solaris is beautifully shot with a minimalist effect.
New York City detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) teams up with Department of Health researcher Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) to investigate five bizarre deaths. Before long they discover that all the victims died exactly 48 hours after visiting the Web site feardotcom.com. The site itself looks amateurish with rapid-fire images of a strange doorway screaming faces torture tools and indiscernible grainy objects. Users log on to watch a twisted doctor perform autopsies on people--while they're still alive torturing his victims until they beg to be killed. The voyeurs must then interact with a mysterious woman who asks things like "Do you want to hurt me?" She challenges users to find her within two days--or die. Those who don't find her end up suffering whatever gruesome fate they fear most and--this is the best bit--it's brought on by some sort of evil force generated through the computer. Of course curiosity gets the better of them and Mike and Terry log on to the site only to find themselves embroiled in a supernatural violent fight for their lives. If this explanation made sense that's more than we can say for the plot of feardotcom.
Dorff is well cast as Mike Reilly a brash young city police detective whose curious nature gets him into trouble. But the character is too simplistic and underdeveloped to give Dorff much to do. Although we get a little more insight into McElhone's character Terry (we know she has a cat name Benny for example) there isn't much to like or dislike about her. Dorff and McElhone's characters strike up a sort of friendship as the film progresses but there isn't much chemistry between the actors. A couple of the creepier roles in the film are much more entertaining to watch especially Stephen Rea and Michael Sarrazin. Rea plays Alistair Pratt the twisted doctor whose torture victims provide feardotcom.com's "entertainment " while Sarrazin plays Frank Sykes a drunk and washed-up author. It's a shame these two didn't have more screen time.
Director William Malone explains in the production notes for the film that feardotcom offers both a scientific and spiritual explanation for what happens in the film and that it is ultimately up to moviegoers to decide which school of thought they subscribe to. But the film's storyline is so convoluted and contradictory that it's difficult to figure out what question the film is asking let alone find the answer. Even if nothing about the story--or the philosophical questions it purports to ask--makes sense the intense look of the film is enough to keep you watching. Malone bathes the film in murky blue tones and sunlight never even trickles in. Offices are dimly lit and apartments are always dank and dilapidated. It rains day and night. The weird flashes of images presented in this setting are graphic and disturbing making feardotcom a film for the strong of heart--and stomach.
Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) is on top of his game--he's the eponymous star of the highest rated kid's TV show Rainbow Randolph has his own Times Square billboard and makes lots of money. Until that is he gets caught taking bribes from stage parents. Suddenly he becomes the social pariah of the millennium and of course gets canned. Losing Rainbow Randolph however leaves the network in a bind. Now they have to find a squeaky-clean replacement pronto. Enter Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) and his alter-ego Smoochy an abnormally large fuschia rhino who sings children's songs about kicking drug habits and stepdads who aren't mean but simply adjusting. With his naivete unwavering ethics and unflagging ambition to make the world a better place he becomes the new number one show. Sheldon soon learns however how cutthroat children's entertainment can be as the powers that be try to corrupt his ideals. Meanwhile a homeless Randolph makes it his number-one priority to destroy the bastard who stole his life. Who's going to get Smoochy first the corrupt businessmen or crazy Rainbow Randy? Stay tuned...
When you hear the Smoochy cast list--Williams Danny DeVito Jon Stewart Catherine Keener--you automatically think mondo laughs. Added to the list is Norton who may not be known for his comedic talents but certainly adds credibility to the movie especially given that he rarely picks bad scripts. Luckily no one disappoints. Norton plays the straight guy with aplomb and shines brilliantly when singing his sappy yet lesson-filled songs. Keener whom we haven't seen since her Oscar-nominated turn in Being John Malkovich is also a standout as the jaded development VP who falls for Sheldon's sweet manner. She has an uncanny way of delivering lines that bite to the bone. And then there's Williams--as always he has extraordinary moments of sheer hilarity in the film. This isn't one of those films where the comedian has to attempt to act or simply be reined in by the director (as some have done) to give a good performance. Director DeVito (who also plays the greedy agent) is wise enough to simply turn the camera on the comedian and let him go. Just wish we could have seen more of him.
Ever wonder what it would be like to kill Barney? We're betting DeVito thought about it quite often--and things never turn out good for that purple dinosaur. The premise of Smoochy is one of the funnier ones in recent memory and seems to follow the dark comedic path DeVito has chosen in his other directorial efforts including War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train. Unfortunately Smoochy doesn't quite hold up to its hype (or its trailers) because basically it focuses on the wrong character. It's got some great moments granted especially when Smoochy is on his show. But instead of being about Randy's obsession to do away with his replacement the film chooses to follow Mopes and deal with the dirty business of making a kid's show which appears to involve the Mob (whatever). Smoochy would have been a lot funnier if Randolph could have finally succeeded in his quest instead of getting all sappy.
The Toronto Star assigned Daphne Gordon, its "Totally Blonde Entertainment Reporter," to write its review of Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon: It begins: "I've decided that while it's fun being beautiful, and it's fun being smart, it's even funner being beautiful and smart. I decided this last night, after I saw the cool new flick Legally Blonde. I totally loved it because it made me feel like it's okay to have highlights and still have big-time aspirations like becoming Prime Minister of Canada, or at least marrying a politician's son." Kenneth Turan -- hair color unknown -- of the Los Angeles Times is not nearly so enthusiastic: "Legally Blonde is basically Clueless Goes to Harvard," he writes. "Nothing wrong with that notion, but, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I've seen Clueless and this is no Clueless." On the other hand, Philip Wuntch comments in the Dallas Morning News: "As a comedy that celebrated shallowness while ostensibly scorning it, Clueless boasted sharper dialogue and direction. But Ms. Witherspoon far outdistances Clueless' Alicia Silverstone." Susan Wloszczyna in USA Today says the movie amounts to "Perry Mason Meets Miss Clairol." Her verdict: "Guilty of inciting a near-laugh riot thanks to an irresistible leading lady whose comic instincts are as impeccable as her manicure."
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.