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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

You selected Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it’s not hard to see why you chose it.

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The Conversations: Overlooked, Part Two—Solaris

Ed Howard: You selected Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as the film from the last few years you believe to be unfairly overlooked, and it’s not hard to see why you chose it. There are few types of films that are more often overlooked and forgotten, en masse, than the amorphous category of the “remake.” Fairly or unfairly, critics tend to be inherently skeptical of remake projects, even if audiences flock to genre remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the “reboots” of franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween. In Soderbergh’s case, his film couldn’t even be called a commercial success; it was more or less a flop whose memory has almost completely faded from the popular imagination in just a few short years. When Soderbergh’s film came out in 2002, I skipped over it for the same reason that I suspect a lot of other people did: by all appearances, it was yet another Hollywood “updating” of a classic film from years before, a film that if you ask me didn’t really need to be revisited. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris is a classic of the science fiction genre, as well-loved and admired among art-cinema fans as Stanley Kubrick’s more popularly known 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which Tarkovsky was directly responding in making his own film. Moreover, the 1961 novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem is also a classic, one of the greatest works of sci-fi literature (and a personal favorite of mine). Soderbergh was stepping into tremendous shoes by attempting to tell this story, and I’m sure he realized that this film would inevitably be compared to its predecessors, making it difficult to evaluate on its own terms.

The question then becomes: on its own terms, what is Soderbergh’s Solaris? What was his rationale for revisiting a classic story? What does he bring to the film to make it his own? Does this new Solaris deserve its current obscurity or should it be remembered simultaneously with its predecessors (or even elevated above them)? I have my own opinions on these questions, but for now I’m interested to know what you think. Does what I’ve described gibe with your own reasons for picking this film? And why do you think Soderbergh’s Solaris deserves a second look?

Jason Bellamy: If I answered all those questions immediately, it would be a very long and very one-sided conversation. So let me focus on that last question first. Why does Solaris deserve a second look? Because I don’t think it got a fair first look, if it got a look at all. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Solaris, like Undertow, is a difficult movie to sell to the general public because it mashes together some rarely paired themes. Most obviously, Solaris is a love story set in space that’s equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings. (Name five other films that fit that description. They’re out there, I’m sure, but it’s going to take you a while to come up with them.) Soderbergh’s Solaris is a square peg in a landscape of round holes. It doesn’t fit well into any niche, which is the recipe for commercial doom. Ironically (or maybe not), Soderbergh’s adaptation includes a line about the search for extraterrestrial life that might as well be a forecast for the film’s eventual (inevitable?) box office failings: “We don’t want other worlds,” Gibarian says. “We want mirrors.” It’s sad but true: To the general movie-going public, that which feels unfamiliar tends to feel uncomfortable.

Additionally, Fox did the film no favors by marketing Solaris according to what the average consumer hoped a George Clooney romance would be, rather than what this movie really is. Or something like that. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon best summarized the misleading marketing campaign in his review, writing: “[Fox] has primarily promoted the film as a love story starring Clooney and a beautiful woman, which has the virtue of A) being true and B) sounding like something lots of people might want to see. What the publicity doesn’t make entirely clear is that most of the movie is set on a mostly deserted space station orbiting a planet that has some kind of psychological and/or spiritual powers (never specified or defined) and that the beautiful woman in question may be an alien creature or a fantasy projection but is in either case the not-quite-convincing simulacrum of a dead person.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I needn’t watch Mad Men to understand how advertising works. I realize that the majority of a film’s box-office take is made on opening weekend, regardless of whether folks get what they thought they were paying for. I respect that Fox financed the film, and it’s the studio’s product and Fox can market the picture however the hell it wants. And I concede that Solaris isn’t the kind of movie one could easily promote through toy giveaways at McDonald’s. Nonetheless, when people are walking out of a film after only 15 minutes—15 especially tight and propulsive minutes that we’ll talk about later—that can’t possibly be a black mark on the filmmaker or the film.

I was a witness to such walkouts. When Solaris was released, I was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which you won’t be surprised to learn isn’t exactly a hotbed for art films, or anything resembling art films. Solaris was the second movie I saw that chilly November day, and I remember that I had to hustle from my previous screening to get seated before the previews. Just before the lights went down, I looked around and noticed that females overwhelmingly outnumbered males in the audience. Stupefied, since that happens exactly never at sci-fi films, I immediately referenced my ticket stub, certain that I’d walked into the wrong theater. But, nope, I was in the right place. And, sure enough, I saw the kind of movie I hoped to see. In the meantime, at least a dozen people walked out over the course of the first 15 minutes, and one flock of about eight women who stayed (probably because it was a girls’ night out) started bitching about the film the second the credits appeared.

I mention all of this because it represents the uncertain reception that greeted Solaris that I’m convinced has been a factor in the film being unfairly maligned or altogether overlooked (which isn’t to suggest it was or is entirely without champions). In the above, I didn’t even touch on the skepticism of Tarkovsky loyalists (one of whom reportedly approached Soderbergh in the street and told the director that he should be “ashamed” for attempting a remake), nor did I go into detail about my hunch that, after a string of successes (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven) followed by a flop (Full Frontal), some critics were hesitant to re-embrace their filmmaking golden boy, as if suddenly skeptical of Soderbergh’s intentions. Heck, I have yet to argue the merits of the film. I’m eager to get to the latter, but let me shut up for a bit. You watched Soderbergh’s adaptation upon my urging, having read Lem’s story and seen Tarkovsky’s original film some time ago. What did you think?

EH: Well, I have to say, if this film was marketed primarily as a love story set in space, then I don’t think its marketing was so dishonest after all. Maybe I’m just too caught up with comparing Soderbergh’s adaptation to my previous exposure to this material, but I’m far from convinced that the film is “equally passionate about both its romance and its sci-fi trappings.” Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that the romance all but overpowers the sci-fi premise. For too much of the film, Soderbergh doesn’t exploit his setting, doesn’t deal with the nature of the living ocean below the space station. By far the most compelling concept in Solaris is Solaris itself, and it is the least-explored element in the Soderbergh film. I found myself wondering just how much this film would be changed if it was relocated to Earth, if Rheya (Natascha McElhone) was a ghost, or a figment of Kelvin’s (George Clooney) imagination, if it was all a dream or fantasy or earthbound tale of insanity brought on by grief. I tried to imagine if the film would be irrevocably altered by a change of setting, and I think the answer is, damningly, no—for a film titled Solaris, the planet is strikingly irrelevant to most of the action, to the themes that Soderbergh wants to explore. I almost laughed when, at the very end, the title dramatically appears onscreen: it seems like a non sequitur considering how little importance is given to the planet, how little the implications of Solaris’ existence are explored. It’s not a film about Solaris, it’s a film about a man who misses his dead wife, and who falls in love all over again with her doppelganger. Is it really so important to this film’s essential point that the doppelganger originated in the living ocean on Solaris?

Whereas Lem’s original novel was concerned with confronting the unknown, with the limits of human knowledge and humanity’s place in the universe and other dense, heady philosophical and scientific concepts, Soderbergh’s film is about a relationship, about loss and the desire for second chances. It’s a matter of focus and emphasis: the themes relating to the alien planet are still there, but largely relegated to the background, often literally. That line about “mirrors” is a crucial one, an important concept in both the novel and in Tarkovsky’s film, and yet Soderbergh just tosses it off, has a character speaking it on a TV set in the background and then never revisits the idea. Again and again, he downplays what should be the central ideas of the film, instead dedicating enormous amounts of time to flashbacks of Kelvin and the original Rheya’s life back on Earth, before she killed herself. These flashbacks are unique to Soderbergh, they are the primary invention of his screenplay, the most obvious way in which he diverges from his source material. And their effect is to take the emphasis off of Solaris, to move the setting from space to Earth, to replace the scientific acuity of Lem’s prose with a maudlin romantic drama.

Of course, Lem himself had similar complaints about Tarkovsky’s film, and it’s true that even Tarkovsky shifts the emphasis slightly towards the central relationship and away from the conceptual underpinnings of the story. I don’t think any adaptation of the novel could avoid that, considering how dense and technical Lem’s writing often is. But Tarkovsky does a far better job than Soderbergh of balancing the science fiction with the psychology of the characters and the romantic story. Tarkovsky’s film has the texture of conceptual sci-fi; Soderbergh’s film has the texture of a romance with incidental sci-fi trappings. I’m not one of those people who think Soderbergh should be “ashamed” for attempting to remake some sacred text—I’m not a “Tarkovsky loyalist” and in any event I don’t think Solaris is one of Tarkovsky’s best films—but I’m also not sure that Soderbergh has anything unique or interesting to say through this story.

It’s true that movie audiences generally don’t want “other worlds” but “mirrors,” and to satisfy that urge Soderbergh really tries to make this story as reflective as possible, to play down the essential strangeness and inaccessibility of Solaris and dwell on a love story that anyone could relate to. It’s ironic that, even after watering down Lem’s themes so much, the film still wasn’t simple enough or accessible enough for mainstream audiences, who apparently don’t want even the barest hint of challenging material getting in the way of their sappy romance. But ultimately, all Soderbergh’s film offers is that hint, the suggestion of deeper themes that he borrowed from Lem or Tarkovsky, and which were much more thoroughly explored in both previous takes on this story.

JB: “Maudlin”? “Dwell”? Thems fightin’ words! But I’ll respond to those jabs later. For the moment, let’s focus on the general thrust of Soderbergh’s adaptation. Is it a romance above all else? Absolutely! But let’s be realistic about those sci-fi trappings. “Incidental” or not to the romance’s evolution, they have a significant impact on the mood. This is, after all, a love story that unfolds in the surgical chill of a space station, with the hum of the ship’s operating systems routinely filling our ears. This environment hardly offers the typical ambience for a romance. I presume you’d agree with that.

Furthermore, Solaris is by no means “irrelevant.” Does the planet consume the attention of each scene? No. But it’s the key to everything that happens. And since Solaris itself cannot emote, we learn about it through what happens to Kelvin. I can see how the unveiling of the title at the end of the film might feel overly dramatic, particularly if it’s a reminder of all that Soderbergh’s adaptation isn’t. But, dude, we just finished debating Undertow. Let’s not get picky on titles. Besides, Solaris is to Soderbergh’s film what the titular wardrobe is to the first episode of the Narnia series. It doesn’t speak and it isn’t the center of attention, but we never forget it. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a character in the film, but I think you underestimate its influence over everything that happens.

In response to your earlier pondering on the topic, yes, Solaris would be irrevocably altered if Rheya were just a figure of Kelvin’s imagination on Earth. Under that design, this would be a story of Kelvin’s sanity (or lack thereof), because even if Rheya seemed to be “really there” by virtue of some inexplicable magic, like Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost, she still wouldn’t be “really there,” and we’d know that. (Fuck. Did I just refer to Ghost?) The Solaris construct changes the recipe in a subtle but significant way. Here Rheya is a wholly “real” creation of Solaris, even if she isn’t actually Rheya. Still, undoubtedly, she’s there. Kelvin can see her, and so can the other members of the crew. Thus, Soderbergh’s film stops being a question of if this is really happening and, through its romance, the film quickly becomes an ethical examination of what to do about it. If the same events unfolded on Earth, insanity would be the root of Rheya’s appearance to Kelvin in the first place. Here, Kelvin is fully sane when Rheya arrives, and the debate becomes whether or not he should willingly and knowingly give himself over to the insanity of pretending that this faux Rheya is the real thing.

Is this what Lem’s Solaris is about? I don’t have a clue. I haven’t read it. But, as I suggested in our Undertow discussion, a good filmmaker “borrows what works and then adds to it, enhances it, reinvents it.” If as a fan of the original material you’re upset that neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh fully captures the complexity or the spirit of Lem’s work, fair enough. To look at it another way, Batman wouldn’t be Batman if you failed to include Gotham, the Batmobile and arch villains and instead told the story of a guy in a funny black suit who lived in Malibu, drove a Mustang and played poker all day. On that note, maybe Soderbergh did drift too far away from Lem. I wouldn’t know. Then again, if Tarkovsky was justified in calling his film an adaptation of Lem, then Soderbergh is, too.

These two films are different, without question. They even have different aims. But they’re in a similar orbit. I’d argue that the reason Tarkovsky’s film seems more dedicated to the scientific concepts of Lem is because his picture is less successful at conjuring human emotion. I’d argue that Tarkovsky’s film doesn’t go into greater depth, just into greater length (169 could-hardly-be-slower minutes vs. a lean 99). I’d argue that Soderbergh’s film is indeed “heady” and “philosophical,” it just might not seem that way, because Soderbergh weaves these elements into the tragic love story of Kelvin and Rheya, rather than resorting to overt references of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But I’m prepared for you to tell me I’m wrong.

EH: I’m willing to admit that I may have overstated the irrelevance of Solaris and the space station setting to the film’s love story. And it’s certainly possible that to some extent I’m just disappointed that Soderbergh doesn’t do more justice to Lem’s ideas—though despite my similar issues with Tarkovsky’s film, I think it is unquestionably better and more complex than Soderbergh’s. Tarkovsky has substantially different concerns from Lem but the film is interesting in its own right. Soderbergh’s take on this story is distinct from both Tarkovsky’s and Lem’s, and that’s fine, as long as he’s purposefully going somewhere different. I can only assume he is, that there’s something motivating this film, but I’m not quite sure what ideas are actually being expressed.

Yes, there are tangential references to the encounter with the unknown, the mystery of Solaris, but they’re throwaways, relegated to the background like Lem’s great “mirrors” line: traces of the original story poking through here and there, that’s all. So if Soderbergh isn’t dealing with the ideas of Lem’s novel in any rigorous fashion, then what ideas is he exploring? It’s a perfectly valid choice to bring one’s own concerns and themes to the process of adapting another’s work—Tarkovsky injected a level of spiritual and theological inquiry into his Solaris that was hardly as pertinent for Lem—but this film doesn’t leave me with any profound sense of what Soderbergh saw in this story, why he thought it was so important to put his own stamp on it.

In the Salon review you quoted above, Andrew O’Hehir says that Soderbergh’s concerns are primarily formal, that he’s not deeply invested in the plot or ideas, and I think that’s about right. The film is visually striking and impeccably designed, but its beauty seems somehow empty: slick and sterile. You called the film an “ethical examination,” but of what exactly? The ethical dilemmas in both Lem and Tarkovsky had weight and substance; Soderbergh reduces everything to Gordon’s (Viola Davis) line, “Whatever it is, it’s not human and I’m threatened by that. And I want humans to win.” That kind of silly, overwritten line basically sums up my problems with Soderbergh’s film, independently of my disappointment with it as an adaptation: its themes are blunt and obvious, trafficking in the kind of “us vs. them” human/alien dichotomies that have driven countless science fiction films before it. So many of the supposed “heady” moments in this film consist simply of shouting matches between Gordon and Kelvin about whether the visitors are “real” or not. A lot of it reminded me of the debates that often take place in stories about artificial intelligence—like the Terminator films. The love story is conventional beneath its unusual exterior, but ultimately the science fiction elements in the film are even more conventional.

Indeed, the choices Soderbergh makes consistently seem designed to drain the premise of its inherent mystery and uniqueness. It starts as soon as Kelvin arrives on the spaceship, when Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon are far more forthcoming than they were in either previous version, giving the opening this weird, anticlimactic atmosphere as the two of them simply pour out exposition, deflating the sense of mystery and tension. Davies is a great actor within his particular niche—currently proving on Lost that he’s the go-to guy for twitchy, nutty scientists—and he’s fun to watch as always, but his character is just another example of Soderbergh seemingly changing things just for the sake of changing them. He sheds all the abstracted and mysterious things that character says about his visitor in both previous versions of the story—intriguing hints that the ocean is not necessarily drawing only memories from the humans’ minds—for the sake of a pointless twist that I guess is meant to add shock to the climax.

I know I keep coming back to the differences between Soderbergh’s film and its predecessors, and it probably seems like I’m just the usual bitter fan upset about a remake. I’m not, really; I would’ve been very happy had Soderbergh done something different with this story and done it well. But I think the choices he made in adapting Solaris reveal the limits of his vision. There are just too many places where his changes add nothing and elide a great deal, where he seems to be aiming only at expediency, at streamlining the story’s themes, at jazzing up (and sexing up) its narrative.

JB: OK, well, let’s start with the expediency. You suggested that the cut-to-the-chase conversation between Kelvin and Snow creates an “anticlimactic atmosphere,” but I don’t see it that way at all. For me, one of the refreshing elements of Soderbergh’s version is the way that Kelvin asks all the questions that we would ask, and in about the same order that we would ask them. Yes, the early exposition resolves without difficulty many of the riddles that go unconfronted to the point of absurdity in Tarkovsky’s film. Yet it creates riddles at the same time. As if marching to the commands of Syd Field, the first 15-minute segment of Soderbergh’s screenplay introduces Kelvin and the space station, lays the foundation for the effect of Solaris and then dangles a mystery: “I could tell you what’s happening. But I don’t know if that would really tell you what’s happening.”

This isn’t anticlimactic. It’s enticing. Soon after, Kelvin, who clearly has an inkling of what he might encounter at the space station, finds himself struggling to reconcile the difference between what he knows to be untrue and what he desperately wants to be real. As I said earlier, Kelvin’s ethical dilemma is whether to give in to the illusion. One might compare his struggle with that of an addict who knows that the right thing to do is to stay clean but that greater pleasure might be found in a drug-fueled haze. Human nature attracts us not to what’s “right” but to what feels best. In this case, human nature draws Kelvin to something that isn’t human. There’s some irony there.

Now, before I go further let me compare this to Tarkovsky’s version, where it takes until the 2-hour mark for the words “copy” and “matrix” to be uttered. In that film, Kelvin comes across as hardly human. Upon arriving at the space station, he sees a woman he knows shouldn’t be there and a boy he knows shouldn’t be there… and he has no reaction to this whatsoever. The most mysterious element of Tarkovsky’s version isn’t Solaris, it’s that Kelvin goes out of his way to avoid asking questions that might result in advancing the plot or addressing the elephant in the room. (If Tarkovsky’s Kelvin found a woman lying on the sidewalk, hemorrhaging from her eyes, he’d stop to ask her about her earrings. It’s maddening.)

In contrast, by not wasting time, Soderbergh’s Solaris is able to provide a depth to Rheya that isn’t found in Tarkovsky’s film. It provides what could be considered an early commentary on the ethics of human cloning. It explores some of the same mind vs. soul ponderings that power Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It reveals long before Michael Clayton how fascinating it can be to watch a George Clooney character think. And all the while Soderbergh’s Solaris demonstrates the challenge of facing unpleasant reality. The planet Solaris is preying on the crew’s vulnerabilities, weaving together visitors from the fibers of the hosts’ memories and emotions. This isn’t a battle of “us vs. them.” It’s a battle of us vs. ourselves. In that respect, I agree with you that much of the conflict might hinge on a line from Gordon. I just disagree about the line. For me, it’s about Gordon’s need to regain control. “I want to stop it,” she says.

EH: See, I think pretty much any Gordon line is problematic, because the character is such an amalgam of sci-fi action movie “tough guy” clichés, which needless to say is really jarring in a film that’s otherwise so low-key. She’s the character who Soderbergh changed the most, and as with most of his choices, I’m not sure why: Tarkovsky’s Sartorious is less an erstwhile action hero and more an ornery man of science who, though unsympathetic, is genuinely thinking through these problems. That’s what gives the conversations between him and Kelvin such an intellectual charge in Tarkovsky’s film, something that’s sorely missing here. Tarkovsky makes the conflict between Sartorious and Kelvin an argument between rationality and spirituality, with neither obviously having the upper hand. The tension between Gordon and Kelvin is much more prosaic. Clooney’s Kelvin may ask more questions than Donatis Banionis’ Kelvin, but that’s because Clooney gets such improbably lucid and coherent answers from the people he asks, whereas in the earlier film Snaut and Sartorious seem genuinely frazzled and distant, as though in a sleepwalking daze. It’s not that Kelvin doesn’t react in the earlier film, but that he quickly realizes he’s not going to get any worthwhile answers from the people on the station. And when the characters finally begin talking later in the film, what they have to say is so much more interesting than the routine exposition of Soderbergh’s script. At one point, Tarkovsky’s Snaut tells Kelvin, “Don’t turn a scientific problem into a love story,” a piece of advice that Soderbergh might have taken more seriously in making this film.

That said, I like the way you unpack the themes of Soderbergh’s Solaris; I just wish I could agree that the film is as deep and complex as you insist it is. I wish I’d seen the film that you apparently did. I did enjoy Clooney and the unconventionally beautiful McElhone, and in fact the performances are worthwhile in general, with the exception of Davis, who’s hamstrung by some really blunt writing. I also think it’s intriguing that Soderbergh shifts some of the emphasis of the story onto Rheya herself, trying to get inside of her head, tracing her thought process as she tries to understand who or what she is. That’s interesting, but ultimately all Soderbergh does with the idea is use it as an excuse to tell the love story through multiple, lengthy flashbacks to Kelvin and Rheya’s life on Earth. Also interesting is an idea that Soderbergh introduces late in the film but, typically, doesn’t explore: the suggestion that this incarnation of Rheya is somehow different from the real woman because Kelvin has remembered her “wrong,” that her personality is crafted from his mind and thus subject to the distortions and nostalgic tendencies and selectivity of memory. Like so many of the film’s best ideas, though, it’s brought up in passing and then allowed to slip away without delving into it further.

In contrast, Tarkovsky’s film centers the drama around the question of what it means to be human. Is it our capacity for love? Our independence? Our intellect? Our thirst for knowledge? Our sympathy for fellow beings? Our spiritual longings? And though Tarkovsky spends far less time than Soderbergh considering things from the visitor’s perspective, I think the earlier film is actually just as effective in exploring her internal conflicts and questions. Tarkovsky’s Hari slowly becomes more human as she spends more time with Kelvin, and her dawning awareness of her unique situation is, to me, just as poignant and affecting in the earlier film as in the later one, despite the fact that Soderbergh spends so much more time with Rheya. It’s a kind of Pinocchio tale: am I a real girl now? Soderbergh is ostensibly dealing with similar issues but keeps getting bogged down in the details of the tragic romance instead.

JB: Right. Soderbergh’s film is “bogged down” in the romance—because Kelvin is bogged down in the romance. Clooney’s character is making the very mistake that Snaut warns against in the first film. He’s confusing a scientific problem with a love story. Appropriately, Soderbergh’s adaptation reflects Kelvin’s internal struggle. The flashbacks to life on Earth aren’t just background. More significantly, they reveal the foreground of Kelvin’s thoughts and feelings. And that’s what I love about this film. I positively ache for Kelvin and his conundrum. Here’s a man who has spent years yearning to be with this person while disbelieving in an afterlife that would make that possible. Then, by virtue of some unexplained phenomenon, Rheya arrives. Yet as soon as she does, Kelvin can’t help thinking about how he lost her in the first place. (As you just indicated, this new Rheya can never be her own self, because her DNA is made up of Kelvin’s memories. She is doomed.)

One of the things I’m finding intriguing about this discussion is that I cherish the element of Solaris that you seem to most despise: the film’s unwillingness to complete its numerous thematic and philosophical explorations. For me, this format engages the audience, forcing us to fill in the blanks. These are open-ended questions that Soderbergh’s film is asking. And whereas Tarkovsky allows ample time for rumination, Soderbergh never lets us get settled, which is part of the reason why the film lingers in my imagination while managing to feel new each time I watch it (and I’d say I’ve seen it at least once a year since it was released in 2002). There are many elements of this film worth exploring in depth that, no, Soderbergh doesn’t resolve and that, no, I haven’t resolved yet either—part of the reason being that Soderbergh doesn’t give me enough time. In that respect, Solaris is the philosophical equivalent of another sci-fi film from the past 10 years that I adore, Danny Boyle’s suspense-crazed Sunshine, which spends 107 minutes following one near-disaster with another so as to keep us in the moment. Does that make Soderbergh’s picture Philosophy Lite, compared to Tarkovsky’s adaptation and Lem’s original story? I’m sure it does. But so what? I think Soderbergh’s motive with Solaris is similar to that of Charlie Kaufman with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which came along more than a year later. Solaris utilizes an atypical premise to knock us out of our comfort zone and give us a fresh perspective on otherwise weary themes.

EH: Yeah, we seem to have run up against one of those situations where we essentially agree on what the film is doing, but can’t agree on whether it’s a good thing or not. I find the open-endedness of Soderbergh’s film frustrating rather than enticing. It hasn’t lingered in my imagination or made me want to fill in the blanks; I’ve just found myself wishing there had been more there in the film itself, more substance, more time to think about the issues raised by Kelvin’s predicament. It’s why I still believe, for all its flaws, Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the superior film. It’s got nothing on the Lem novel, and Tarkovsky himself made better, richer films (The Mirror, Stalker), but it is a serious consideration of the issues that Tarkovsky finds in this premise.

Of course, neither adaptation quite captures the essence of Lem’s novel, but that is an entirely different issue. Indeed, it may be impossible to “faithfully” adapt that book to the screen; the only way into it is probably the route that Soderbergh and Tarkovsky took, bringing their own perspectives to bear on the basic plot. The novel is very dense, very textual and abstract. Kelvin spends a lot of time in the station’s library, reading through stacks of Solaris literature in order to review the various theories and observations about the planet by other researchers. The book is as much about Solaris as it is about Kelvin; the planet is a true character in a way it isn’t in either film. The history of humanity’s interaction with Solaris is discussed in great depth and detail. There are long passages that are strikingly impersonal and objective, using scientific jargon and meticulous cataloguing to convey the exact nature and extent of the alien ocean’s strangeness—and the exact boundaries of humanity’s understanding of it.

One source of my disappointment with Soderbergh’s adaptation is certainly the sense of missed opportunities. He presumably had access to sophisticated CGI and could’ve really explored the oceanic phenomena described so wonderfully by Lem, but instead the images of the planet in Soderbergh’s film aren’t substantially any different than what Tarkovsky achieved by crudely processing images of Earth’s oceans. They’re pictorial inserts, whereas Lem’s precise descriptions of the ocean directly engage with the special problems provoked by the ocean’s unique nature.

The book communicates a sense of wonder at the unknown, but a sense of terror as well, in that humanity is constantly seeking answers without really wanting to hear them unless they conform to what’s already known. In Lem’s book, the ocean represents a terrifying unknown so alien to human understanding that the only possible way to respond is to observe, to catalogue, to maintain an objective pose, obsessively arranging details with no hope of arriving at any deeper truths.

Given his particular obsessions, Tarkovsky naturally translated this idea into spiritual terms, using the ocean as a metaphorical God to slip by the Soviet censors, but for Lem the ocean’s unknowability is explicitly not religious or God-like. Kelvin himself rejects the idea late in the novel. Lem is more interested in the metaphysical implications of it all, the idea that the pursuit of “progress” is actually just man’s search for himself. The ocean represents a challenge to humanity, something so un-human as to be beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond any question of divining its intentions or reasons or “intellect.” I’m not sure Tarkovsky gets this idea across, and I know Soderbergh doesn’t; both directors are way more interested in exploring Kelvin’s reactions to his visitor and the feelings of loss and guilt awakened in him by her presence.

There’s a reason that even most of the aliens in our fantasies and sci-fi tend to be humanoid or at least demonstrate recognizable human behaviors and motivations. It’s rare that our science fiction features a truly unfathomable creation like Solaris; instead, our imaginations keep devising endless variations on ourselves, disguised and reworked. Even in books and movies, we travel halfway across the universe to encounter a mirror. It’s thus ironic but not especially surprising that both directors who have adapted Solaris, in very different cultural and commercial contexts, have responded by psychologizing the central problem, making it about human emotions and reactions rather than the humbling encounter with an impenetrable alien intelligence. This only proves Lem’s point: we humans are extraordinarily skittish in confronting that which is truly outside us.

JB: We agree on that. Indeed, whether it’s due to fear, ego, lack of imagination or something else, we seem to be seeking mirrors. At least, that’s what much of our art suggests. I think it’s funny, with all that we know about space and science today, that we still tend to imagine that the discovery of alien life—or alien life’s discovery of us—will unfold in the same manner as Columbus reaching the New World. This seems increasingly unlikely.

If you’d kindly indulge me for a moment: The sci-fi movie I’m waiting for wouldn’t involve space expeditions or high tech machinery. Instead, one day people across the East Coast would notice in the night sky a strange light that would look like a distant planet except that it would flicker, almost like Morse code. The point of light would narrow until it was almost unnoticeable and then it would widen again. It would do this repeatedly all night, and humans would be transfixed by it. By morning, there would be no doubt that this light was something else. People on the West Coast and all around the world would see the light, too. Two days later scientists would admit that they didn’t know anything, couldn’t explain anything. But, with studies ongoing, everyone would agree that this was a signal from some other world. Some would say that this light forecasted immanent doom, and others would suggest that it was the first message in a hopefully peaceful relationship that, due to the enormity of space, might evolve for generations before it led to any kind of face-to-face encounter. But everyone would agree that man wasn’t alone in the universe. With no way to decode the message, the light would communicate only that something smarter than us, something more advanced than us and something more aware than us was reaching out to us. This would be heavy. Imagine yourself in that scenario. Imagine if tomorrow you encountered undeniable evidence that some life form more advanced than man was out there watching us. Every other element in your life would be exactly the same as it is right now except for this one monumental and yet presently innocuous change. How would you react? How would I? How would anyone? What would it mean? I think that would make for an interesting film. But I digress.

I mention all of that because I think that germ of a story, within the context of our larger conversation, indicates how staunchly we believe ourselves to be the most advanced species in existence and how truly stunned we’d be if we were proven incorrect. Lem’s story, as you describe it, has unique qualities, I give you that. But in the end it’s just like any other sci-fi yarn in that it asks us to buy into something greater than man. Deep down, I’m not sure most of us are capable of believing such a thing—God-fearers excluded. And so while I respect all the ways that Soderbergh seems to have abandoned Lem’s intent as you’ve outlined it, in the end doesn’t he get it right? If the unfathomable Solaris is the device that reveals the fraudulence of man’s search for progress, then isn’t Solaris the ultimate mirror within which man is reflected back at himself? Isn’t Lem’s Solaris a story about man after all?

EH: Of course it is. As we’ve both suggested, we humans are probably not capable, psychologically or cognitively or whatever, of telling stories that aren’t about ourselves. It’s hard to even imagine what other kinds of stories we would tell. I suppose Lem’s as trapped by that as any of the rest of us, and so are you in the very interesting story you outlined above, which is, yet again, all about humanity’s reaction to aliens. I think the interesting thing about Lem’s Solaris is that it acknowledges being trapped by this limitation, it is in fact all about this limitation, about humanity’s oft-ignored limits and boundaries. It’s about our belief in our thought processes, our certainty in the scientific method, and about what happens when we encounter something that cannot be understood, something that simply ties our brains in knots trying to decode it or communicate with it. In a very literal way in Lem’s novel, Solaris is the blinking light in the sky that you describe above; it inspires decades of research and theorizing and just sits there, doing its own strange thing, through it all. What makes Lem’s novel unique is not that it gets beyond a human perspective, which is impossible for us, but that it directly engages with the limits of the human perspective.

Compare it, for example, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, that old sci-fi warhorse, in which we travel across the universe, through a wormhole to who knows where, only to encounter, ultimately, a giant human baby. Talk about mirrors. The implication of the film is that the entire history of the universe is driving towards creating some kind of refined form of humanity. Even HAL has a human personality with very human motivations and instincts; that’s precisely what makes him so dangerous. It’s ironic then that Tarkovsky’s film was a response to Kubrick’s 2001, which Tarkovsky deemed too inhuman, too cold and clinical. He wanted to make a film about space travel that focused more on human emotions and psychology as affected by space and the prospect of alien life. But the film also contains a very interesting scene that echoes Kubrick’s space baby, when Kelvin watches a video in which a frazzled space pilot describes seeing the giant form of a human baby being constructed on the surface of Solaris. In Tarkovsky’s film, it’s just a way of exciting interest about the alien planet, a shorthand method of communicating just how weird the place is. In Lem’s novel, it’s more explicit that this incident is the planet’s first trial run of sorts for extracting memories from human minds; the baby is the result of a very creepy “psychic dissection” process. Thus, though both 2001 and Solaris involve traveling across space to encounter an image of a human child, the implications of the two scenes are very different: one assumes human superiority while the other is rather conclusive evidence of something greater than us.

Another figure to think about in relation to all this is Dr. Manhattan, the most fascinating conceptual character from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He’s an ordinary guy who, after a lab accident that seemingly disintegrates him, reconstitutes himself as this glowing blue inhuman being with tremendous powers. He’s different from other superheroes in that what’s interesting about him is not actually his power, but the way his experience alters his outlook on life and the universe. He becomes distanced from humanity, from emotions, and comes to believe that subatomic particles only he can see are as valuable and beautiful as the entirety of human life, that inanimate rock formations on Mars dwarf all the achievements of man. Maybe that’s the key to getting beyond a human perspective. It’s hard for us to imagine valuing an infinitesimal quark as highly as even a single human life, let alone all life, but that perspective is certainly one step towards the incommunicative distance of the ocean on Solaris.

JB: I haven’t had time yet to see Watchmen, and I didn’t read the graphic novel, but I’m glad you’ve brought up 2001. I wonder if Kubrick’s space baby a) reveals an uninspired storyteller (Pauline Kael called 2001 “monumentally unimaginative”), b) acquiesces to the limited adaptability of audiences in a way David Lynch rarely does, or c) intentionally comments on man’s repeated insistence to figure human life as we know it into any rendering of progress (fuck Darwin, I guess).

As we float farther away from Solaris itself, I’m reminded of a concept that has been raised before in books ranging from Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies to Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live. In a nutshell, does the way we dream enable our ability to understand movies, or have movies (and television) shaped the way we dream? Watching films, are we able to follow immediate (one-cut) leaps in time and space because our dreams include similar leaps? Or do our dreams include such leaps because of the impact of cinema and television? Put another way: Did primordial man dream about anything other than what he knew firsthand—the search for food, the fight for survival—in linear episodes? If so, when did that change?

For the moment, these are rhetorical questions. I’m not looking to send us down a rabb—, er, wormhole. But this transformation of human understanding is what Kubrick is getting at in the moment when the obelisk first appears in 2001. At some point, this scene suggests, human (or pre-human) awareness went beyond what we actually knew firsthand. Then again, as the conclusion of 2001 proves, there’s a limit to what we can imagine. More often than not, we build our otherworldly visions out of familiar materials that we have stockpiled on “islands of memory,” to borrow a phrase from Tarkovsky’s film that should keep this conversation from drifting endlessly into space.

Before I miss the opportunity, I want to be sure to say that I admire Tarkovsky’s film, especially in light of the obstacles he faced in the form of government censors. His film is indeed less inhuman, less cold and less clinical than 2001. (Of course, so is a morgue.) There are many elements of Tarkovsky’s Solaris that succeed in revealing the human spirit—the evolution of Hari (Tarkovsky’s Rheya) being my favorite. Yet while I acknowledge that Tarkovsky’s Solaris is of a different era and a different culture, there’s a hollowness to many of its scenes that makes it hard to get close to. Additionally, I question the decision to spend almost 45 minutes on Earth at the start of the story, because I don’t believe it achieves Tarkovsky’s stated intent, which was to make us long for home once the story reached space. In the Earth scenes, Kelvin is seen at a pleasant cottage that sits next to a tranquil pond, around which he likes to take walks, with a horse roaming free on the grounds. Removed from the film, it’s a rather idyllic setting. But something about the way Tarkovsky films these scenes makes it seem like Kelvin is confined there under house arrest. In any case, when Kelvin leaves Earth for the space station it feels to me like liberation—though perhaps that reveals my own impatience.

Is Soderbergh’s film better than Tarkovsky’s, or the other way around? To me it’s apples and oranges. The scenarios in which the films were made are too different. It would be like comparing a baseball slugger’s stats in the recent (current?) steroids era to those of a hitter in the “dead-ball era” of the early 1900s. In terms of reflecting Lem’s original story, it sounds as if Tarkovsky has the edge, though perhaps only slightly. If I understand you correctly, Lem’s Solaris is about the process as much as anything, the same way that All the President’s Men is about what Woodward and Bernstein do to uncover Watergate more so than it’s about what they uncover; I don’t think either Solaris film gets at that. Still, on its own terms, I find Soderbergh’s Solaris to be nearly flawless. It’s on the short list of films from the past decade that remain as engrossing to me today as it was on my initial viewing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score by Cliff Martinez, which is nearly as significant to the effectiveness of this picture as Clint Mansell’s Kronos Quartet-powered score is to The Fountain (for my money, the best score of this young century), but mostly I think the film succeeds because Soderbergh takes so many compelling dramatic elements and philosophical teasers and forces them through a tiny aperture. I see how coming to Soderbergh’s picture having already been exposed to Lem and Tarkovsky has a way of revealing what his Solaris isn’t. But coming from the other direction, I can’t help loving what it is.

EH: Well said. You’re right that Lem’s Solaris is about the (thought) process as much as anything, with the emphasis on concepts rather than characters. Neither film captures that, and really why should they? Neither Tarkovsky nor Soderbergh were setting out to make a Zack Snyder-style “faithful” adaptation of Lem’s work, but to create original aesthetic statements of their own using the novel as source material. You’re also right that even the two films, though similar in some ways, are fairly distinct in terms of their intentions and aesthetics. Tarkovsky’s film certainly has its problems, and I’d agree that the long opening section on Earth doesn’t really achieve what the director wanted it to: Kelvin is just so obviously miserable, sleepwalking through life, that the beautiful surroundings hardly create an idyllic portrait of life on Earth. One gets the sense that it doesn’t matter to Kelvin where he is. Still, there’s a sensual quality to these early scenes—like the one where Kelvin stands outside in a rainstorm and Tarkovsky lingers on the impacts of raindrops in a teacup—that does provide a meaningful contrast to the coldness of the Solaris station and the isolation of space. I think the early scenes are crucially important for letting us slowly acclimate to the texture of Kelvin’s life, getting a feel for his loneliness and depression and, simultaneously, his appreciation of simple sensual pleasures. It doesn’t make us long for home, that’s true, but it does align us with the film’s sad sack protagonist, and it adds poignancy to the later scenes of Kelvin’s dreamlike nostalgia for his mother, and his conflation of her with Hari—scenes that, like the lengthy opening, weren’t in the book at all.

As for Soderbergh’s Solaris, maybe I just can’t escape approaching it through the lens of the two other versions of this story, but this, not the Tarkovsky film, is the one that feels “hollow” to me. There are plenty of things to like here, of course. Martinez’s propulsive Philip Glass-like score is one of them, though few scores could match the ethereal beauty of Eduard Artemyev’s ANS synthesizer score to the first film, one of the greatest electronic scores of all time. Soderbergh for the most part gets richer and more complex performances than the flatter acting of Tarkovsky’s cast. The imagery is often stunning. I just can’t get past the impression that the film is lovingly crafted but ultimately empty, presenting a beautiful surface that’s as slick and impenetrable as the oscillations of Solaris’ ocean.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Is an Elegy to an Era’s Sunset

The film is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is presented, right down to the ellipses in its title, as a diptych. But instead of just being a way to structure a piece of entertainment for commercial reasons—like the Grindhouse double feature, the two-part Kill Bill, and the “roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight, which was broken up by an intermission—this demarcation separates two distinct periods: the beginning of the end (February 1969) and the end itself (the summer of ‘69). And it’s a juxtaposition that shows old Hollywood in a time of transition, from dog days to death throes.

While Tarantino’s films tend to provide audiences with much evidence of where the auteur’s love of Hollywood’s lurid lore finds root (in blaxploitation, World War II dramas, kung-fu movies, or spaghetti westerns), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood gets the closest of any to giving us the complete picture. In this sense, the film is nothing less than Tarantino’s magnum opus—a sweeping statement on an entire generation of American popular culture and an almost expressionistic rendering of the counterculture forming at its margins, gradually growing in influence. It’s an uncharacteristically thoughtful and sobering film for Tarantino, while somehow also being his funniest, and most casually entertaining.

In the film’s first section, old Hollywood comes to life through montages of flashing neon signs, majestic old movie theater marquees on the Sunset Strip, and long-haired hippies hanging out on street corners, trying to bum rides from people who pass them by in their hot cars. Tarantino’s late-‘60s Hollywood is an immersive playground of opulence and iconicity, and thanks to the many exhilarating driving sequences that dot the film, the Los Angeles neighborhood conjures the adrenalized sensation of velocity and acceleration.

Navigating through this fast-paced Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of TV westerns trying to break into the movies, and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Both characters are complete fabrications, as are most of the titles they’re associated with, like Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Three in an Attic. And as Tarantino detours his narrative through depictions of these fictional projects, subjecting us to many scenes of Dalton playing different characters, this at first just seems like an excuse to make spoofy versions of disposable Hollywood product, like the fake trailers that appear between Planet Terror and Death Proof in Grindhouse. But these scenes actually serve to sketch the shifting dynamics on film sets of the late-‘60s, like the emergence of Method acting, and they also position Dalton as a kind of Tarantino surrogate.

In one of the film’s most clever sequences, Dalton regales his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), in between takes on the set of some low-budget western, with the story of the novel that he’s been reading. The character in the story is an aging cowboy who used to be the best but now is a shadow of his former self. As Dalton tells the story of the man’s misfortune, and all his aches and pains, he starts to well up, obviously recognizing how much this all applies to him. But the way the sequence plays out, with the young girl with the forceful feminist outlook putting Dalton in his place when he tries to call her by a cute nickname, effectively puts Tarantino in the hot seat, and for that matter DiCaprio, another artist whose aging career comes with the danger of obsolescence and of falling out of step with the times.

Progressing on a parallel track to Dalton and Booth’s narratives is another storyline, and the one that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has already become infamous for. The real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) comes to feel like the flipside of Dalton and Booth, her next-door neighbors in the film. The “It” girl flits through parties with her celebrated Polish filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and good friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). If the changing times threaten to discard and ignore Dalton and Booth, they’re bringing Tate too much attention: At various points in Tarantino’s film, she’s watched and coveted from afar, as in a scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gossips while ogling her at a party.

In the film’s finest scene, Tate even watches herself: at a matinee screening of Phil Karlson’s 1968 Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. The sequence is resonant in no small part for its layers, with Robbie, as Tate, watching the real Tate (Tarantino uses actual footage from The Wrecking Crew for the scene). The whole thing suggests a kind of eerie feedback loop of celebrity and its cycles of consumption, but it’s also a profoundly moving scene: Effortlessly nailing the moment, and without any dialogue, Robbie responds, in character, to the film on a diegetic level, watching her own performance, but at the same time, there’s also the added metatextual layer of Robbie watching the very actress whom she’s playing.

It’s the film’s commitment to fortifying its themes with such layers of self-reflexivity, while still anchoring its concepts to fully realized, emotionally invested characters, that makes it one of Tarantino’s great films—a dense but focused effort that validates the divisive artist’s status as one of American cinema’s preeminent pop-cultural figures. It’s also that self-reflexive lens through which to read Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that makes its finale harder to write off as the misstep that it would otherwise seem to be. Tarantino does, perhaps unsurprisingly, revert to some of his more vexing shock-jock tendencies, and even squanders some of his film’s emotional gravitas. But it’s difficult to deny how effectively he sets up what’s to come, when, in the midst of a tense debate between members of the Manson Family, one young woman (Mikey Madison) delivers an incendiary edict: “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder—my idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”

This chilling sentiment becomes the nexus of the film’s significantly darker second half, which jumps six months ahead to take the temperature of Hollywood on the eve of the Charles Manson murders. As the landscape and the sociocultural identity of Hollywood continue to change, inching toward a post-Flower Generation comedown, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes on an elegiac quality. The shift facilitates one of Tarantino’s more brilliant needle drops to date: of the Rolling Stones’s wistful, wounded, and ominous “Out of Time” playing over a montage of Dalton and Booth returning to L.A. from a sojourn to Europe and a pregnant Tate preparing her home for the arrival of her baby boy.

The flash and fun of the film’s first half gives way to a haunting decline into the valley of alcoholism, and to increasing signs that a new generation is about to push the old one out. And, then, inevitably, those tensions come to a head one August night on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It’s this sequence, and the Tarantino-branded ultraviolence that it ushers in, that puts the greatest strain on a film that had been setting itself up for tragedy but ends far afield from that. Still, this subversion points a path to our understanding of the broader intent of Tarantino’s commentary in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is less about addressing the violence that people commit against each other than it is about lamenting the existential violence that sustains some and leaves others out of time.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Perla Haney-Jardine, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Rumer Willis, Rafal Zawierucha Director: Quentin Tarantino Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 159 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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