Tuesday, April 15, 2014



The outdoor Christmas decorations I had installed at Chateau Maine are certainly the talk of the neighborhood. There was a little soiree down the street at Liz Taylor's house last night and I heard person after person saying things like 'Have you seen Chateau Maine?' and 'Isn't it unbelievable?' I do so like my taste getting the recognition it deserves. I don't often go to Liz's little dos; she's such an arriviste but I did feel the need to congratulate her on the Kennedy Center thing. Madame Rose has told me I'm a shoe-in for next year and that they keep putting me off as they want to make sure my co-honorees are just as magnificent as I am.

I only have one more week of shooting on Goodfollies, my fabulous new musical movie about lady mobsters in New Jersey. I shall be sorry to say good-bye to the character of Toni Soprano. She's been one of my most complex creations and I can guarantee that there won't be a dry eye in the house when I send Chris MacNeil, as Carmelina 'Big Pussy' Coloratura, off to sleep with the fishes in the finale. We shot it in the wave tank on stage three. Tap dancing on the pitching bow of the model ship while mixing cement and pouring it around Chris's ankles took all of my skill. The only hitch came when we allowed Chris's little daughter, Regan, onto the set. She immediately vomited all over the planking and I was sliding in it all through the next take.

After changing my shoes, it was time to call it a day and so I called my dear friend, Nurse Lynn, and we headed out for margaritas and a matinee at the local Cineplex. Our choice this weekend was the new George Clooney film, Solaris, directed by Hollywood wunderkind Steven Soderbergh. I had wanted a romance and Lynn wanted a science fiction fantasy and we thought this might fill the bill for both of us.

Solaris is a film version of a celebrated Russian novel by Stanislaw Lem (which I have not read) and was filmed in Russia once before, in 1972, by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (a film I have not seen). It was a great success in Europe, winning the Grand Jury prize at Cannes and was released the next year in the United States on the art house circuit. The source material is a novel of ideas about loss, redemption, the nature of humanity, and reality versus imagination - the sort of thing that is often called 'unfilmable'.

In this version, taking place in some unnamable and unknowable future, George Clooney plays Dr. Chris Kelvin (the name is symbolic - the Kelvin scale is the temperature scale in physics that begins at absolute zero, the point at which all molecular motion ceases), a psychiatrist living a painful and routinized life after the death of his wife. One day, he is visited by some security folks with a message from a friend, Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) who is on a space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris. The cryptic message asks Kelvin to come help the crew, implying that his personal loss makes him the ideal candidate for the job. The security folks tell him that a security team sent up there already has disappeared and they have no idea what's going on. With some trepidation, Kelvin accepts the assignment and soon is jetting through space.

On the station, Kelvin finds ominous splashes of blood, Gibarian dead (an apparent suicide), another dead crew member and other crew and security folk who have simply disappeared. The surviving crew include Snow (Jeremy Davies), who appears to be just sort of psychotic with all sorts of tics and neuroses, and Helen Gordon (Viola Davis), who has barricaded herself in her cabin. They can't explain what's been going on. Kelvin finds out that night; during his sleep, his dead wife, Rheya, played by Natascha McElhone materializes and is in bed with him in the morning.  ; Rheya is another symbolic name - Rhea is the mother earth figure of Greek mythology.  It doesn't take Kelvin long to figure out that this Rheya is a facsimile of the real one, drawn from his perceptions and memories and therefore incomplete as she has no existence or experiences outside of his recollections. He finds out that all of the crew have a visitor. Snow's is his brother (now missing); Gordon's remains unseen and unexplained but clearly frightens her; Gibarian's is his young son who still roams the corridors. Kelvin now has choices to make. Is this Rheya something inhuman to be destroyed or is she a way for him to make peace with his past and redeem himself.

Writer/director Soderbergh, using oblique and elliptical storytelling techniques, allows us to discover the story of Kelvin and Rhea but leaves much unexplained. The ending, for instance, is deliberately ambiguous but suggests that it is possible to move past the confines of the known world. The structure and purpose of the visitors is left unexplained. Why the intelligence of the planet Solaris would want to create them and what sort of intelligence it might be is left unknown and unknowable. This will frustrate viewers used to linear plots and full explanations of character and motivation. Soderbergh's pace is slow and deliberate. He reveals only what he must and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions. This is a film for thinking people and is likely to be reflected upon and discussed for days. I found it, at times, overly obtuse and the pace more glacial than necessary, especially early in the proceedings, but, as the film advanced, I was hypnotically drawn into the unfolding events.

Clooney, the master of the arched eye-brow and the cocksure delivery, underplays his role as Kelvin. This is a man frozen emotionally due to his past and his mistakes. As he develops a relationship with his visitor, he begins to thaw and slow and subtle transformations occur in his expressions and body language. Clooney has never been better but most will not recognize just how good his performance is as it's so quiet. Much has been made of his naked rear end in the film. It's a very nice one, and completely natural to the character and situation when it appears and doesn't feel in the least bit gratuitous. Natascha McElhone, on the other hand, has all the tempestuousness and raging that Clooney lacks. I found it a bit irritating and wished she were a bit more restrained. It's not a bad performance, but it doesn't really match up to Clooney. The stand out in the supporting cast is Jeremy Davies; his rat faced physiognomy, pasty skin, spastic movements and flight of ideas make all of his moments memorable, especially after his secrets are revealed.

The film is very much a character study and his claustrophobic in feel. Even the earth scenes show little of the surrounding world. We know it's the future (there's a fleeting reference to a female pope, for instance) but we don't know where or when we are. The spaceship is all grays and industrial fluorescents, throwing the humans into sharp relief. Soderbergh apparently did his own cinematography under a pseudonym and every shot is carefully composed. James Cameron, not known for his restraint, produced and his main contribution seems to be the look of the mysterious planet, all seething neon blues and pinks and purples - sort of like those static electricity balls used in old 'Mr. Wizard' science shows.

This is a film to make you think and, if you feel like doing that, by all means go. If you're looking for escapism, head next door for the new James Bond.

Dylan Thomas poems. Train meeting. Frozen scientist. Jettisoned escape pod. Red uppers. Blue downers. Symbolic handclasp. Antimatter particle beams.

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