In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, let me preface this review of Steven Soderbergh's Solaris by admitting that, in the first 15 minutes, I briefly nodded off.
This intensely serious, futuristic sci-fi film, a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 original, opens with psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) mourning the suicide of his wife, and being sent to a space station to study the increasingly bizarre behavior of its crew. During this prelude, Soderbergh's staging and pacing could, generously, be labeled "deliberate"; there are numerous static shots of Kelvin looking doleful, conversations with the crew members (Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis) that are laced with ambiguity and portent, elegant images of the vacuum of space, almost nothing in the way of background music. It's all high-minded and solemn and begging to be made fun of - in space, no one can hear you ruminate - and I momentarily conked out.
Once I came to, though, I don't think I blinked for the remainder of the picture. Kelvin awakens one night to find his late wife (Natascha McElhone) next to him, fully conscious but not quite there; the planet the space station is hovering above, it appears, is bringing the crew's deceased loved ones to life, not as they really were, but as the crew remembered them. This leads to all sorts of metaphysical conundrums involving the nature of reality and love, especially when Kelvin decides he'd like to keep this aberration of a spouse. Under Soderbergh's guidance, Clooney and McElhone come through with quietly harrowing performances - the two make their earthly relationship, seen in flashback, vivid and hungry, and perform with delicate sadness and hesitancy when reunited in space - but the moral and philosophical questions Solaris raises would make the film fascinating even with lesser actors. That the movie is technically masterful comes as little surprise, but what's shocking is the level of feeling that comes from what is, at heart, a goofy sci-fi premise. Much as you might want to laugh at the film, its romanticism is utterly sincere and heartfelt - it puts the lovey-dovey gush of something like Titanic to shame - and it's a rare cinematic work of ideas that should have you arguing about it long after you've left the theatre. Soderbergh's achievement isn't a film for the masses, but (like its predecessor) it might be one for the ages; days after seeing it, my feelings about Solaris are still unresolved, and I'm aching to see it again.
You know an animated work is dull when you spend less time engaged in the verbal and visual goings-on than you do playing Guess That Celebrity Voice. Disney's latest offering, the Robert Louis Stevenson take-off Treasure Planet, displays a fair degree of wit very early on, as it imagines a futuristic world where literal space ships travel the galaxy and, despite all manner of technological advancements, characters still dress like refugees from Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean. But the movie itself is a mostly unimaginative, repetitive affair, so determined to keep kids from fidgeting that all of its chase scenes and explosions and "wacky" supporting aliens just make the film more boring. The colors and noise might keep youngsters occupied, the way pets can be hypnotized into watching television, yet the minds of most sentient adults will have wandered long before Treasure Planet's close, so you'll be forgiven for instead amusing yourself by trying to figure out who's doing the voices for whom. My score? Emma Thompson (whose brilliant line readings as the ship's captain would have let her steal the picture if she didn't, sadly, morph into a generic damsel-in-distress), David Hyde Pierce, and Martin Short (so aggressively antic that he almost makes his material funny) were easy to guess, I was quite proud at placing Laurie Metcalf and Patrick McGoohan, and I thought Roscoe Lee Browne was James Coburn and Michael Wincott was Harvey Fierstein. Oops.
Can one great performance make a movie? The simple answer would seem to be "yes"; even viewers who don't care for, say, My Left Foot or Erin Brockovich generally concede that the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Julia Roberts make the films themselves worth seeing. But both of those works, along with practically any other performance-driven example you can think of, feature at least a few impressive supporting portrayals as well; they're not strictly one-man (or one-woman) shows. Secretary, however, is. Steven Shainberg's dark comedy, currently playing at the Quad Cities Brew & View, stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee, a troubled young woman who willingly, and happily, enters into a masochistic, demeaning, and sexually adventurous relationship with her boss, and Ms. Gyllenhaal is rather astounding in it. It's a truly brave performance, not because Lee is "forced" to crawl on the floor and endure ritualistic spankings, but because she's so emotionally naked throughout the film. You can practically see Lee's psyche on Gyllenhaal's face, with all of her self-loathing, curiosity, and gradually dawning empowerment; she's not a cuddlebug like Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock, but she, too, has the power to make audiences fall deeply in love with her, no matter what you might think of the movie's politics. (Entire screen careers have been built on lesser portrayals than Gyllenhaal's.)
Though Secretary grows tiresome as it nears its finish and is a little too smug about its political incorrectness and taboo-bashing - the film ends with Lee staring the camera down, as if to ask the audience, "You got a problem with this?" - the results would certainly have been more dazzling if Shainberg had paired an actor of equal presence opposite Gyllenhaal. Yet, in a bit of casting so obvious it almost seems like parody, Lee's boss is played by James Spader. Part of his problem is that the role of Lee's employer is annoyingly abstract - though he, too, is seen as "damaged," we never come close to understanding how or why - but mostly it's that Spader is, once again, giving a quintessential James Spader performance; his tics and vocal rhythms and air of preppie-bastard snobbery are, by now, so familiar that his presence not only cheapens the character, but the film itself. (You can imagine the pitch meeting: "It's like Crash ... but in an office.") It's quite possible that the only current film actor more mannered than Spader is Solaris' Jeremy Davies, and - wouldn't you know it? - Davies himself shows up, hands aflutter, as Spader's nebbishy rival for Lee's affections. Apart from the marvelous work of Maggie Gyllenhaal, there's less going on in Secretary than its creators probably think, but as far as the casting of the males is concerned, they might be on to something: Isn't having to choose between James Spader and Jeremy Davies a far more masochistic proposition than any S&M situation you could conceive?