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It burns: Murphy in Sunshine.

Trippy Physics

By Ann Morrow

Sunshine

Directed by Danny Boyle

In his latest film, Danny Boyle, the inventive director of Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, applies his intensity to the sci-fi genre. An update of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine is about a manned space mission to the sun. Like Kubrick’s space mission, Sunshine is mostly montage, using imagery, music, and often-incomprehensible dialogue to create a meditation on technology in which the visuals are more important than the actors. Unlike Kubrick’s film, it’s difficult to follow (at least on first view), though the welcome inclusion of an Alien–like subplot provides an element of suspense.

The eight-person crew of Icarus II includes Cillian Murphy as Capa, the physicist; Rose Byrne as Cassie, the pilot and his confidant; Chris Evans as Mace, the engineer and his antagonist; and Michelle Yeoh as Corazon, the ship’s botanist (all excellent). Icarus II’s mission is to launch a “stellar payload” into the sun to reignite its core before it dies out. Instead of apes with a monolith, the atmospheric opening is composed of Capa’s sister and her child standing in a frozen wasteland while Capa sends them a good-bye message via satellite. The scientifically dense screenplay (by Alex Garland) is a reversal of current concerns about global warning that makes little concession to audiences who don’t have a working knowledge of astrophysics. The mission itself is onerously convoluted and grim. While encountering difficulties with their trajectory, the crew members discover that the previous rescue mission, Icarus I, may still have life aboard. This causes a philosophical debate—should they risk saving the earth to rescue any possible survivors?—that intensifies their near-panic over having enough supplies to get themselves home should the mission succeed.

The artificial environment causes psychological tensions for the crew that drives one of them to attempt suicide. Though masterfully imagistic, the relentless interplay of personal conflicts, astronaut jargon, and the ship’s emergency status is a daunting amount of information to process, especially against its setting of grayish-blue light and wall-to-wall monitors broadcasting live feeds of the exterior that wall-off the ship’s claustrophobic interior. And within its murky chambers and banks of intimidating machinery, the crew must contend with zero gravity, an effect that is just as disorienting for the audience. In contrast, their spacesuits appear to be made of molten gold.

As the mission gets closer to its target, the film’s montages widen in setting and color, with spectacular CGI shots of the sun. As an arthouse, sci-fi tone poem, Sunshine succeeds. As a movie, though, it doesn’t quite achieve liftoff.

Indigestion

No Reservations

Directed by Scott Hicks

For those of you who were gen- uinely charmed by the German film Mostly Martha, or, for that matter, for those of you who thought that the more recent Ratatouille simply rocked, be forewarned that just because a movie combines verve and good storytelling with a gourmet inclination does not mean that it will succeed. Case in point: No Reservations, the Hollywoodized version of Mostly Martha, in which frosty chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) runs her kitchen with an iron spatula, refusing to allow for improvisation at the job or in life, until the cockles of her heart are warmed by the more winsome, less technique-centered chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart). The fact that true love will succeed is, of course, an obvious given, so the point of this exercise would seem to be to give the audience a funny, sexy romance, throwing in for good measure moments that glorify the sensuality of food, its cooking and eating. In the hands of director Scott Hicks and screenwriter Carol Fuchs, however, this is not the case.

From the get go, we are fully cognizant of the fact that Kate cannot brook any deviations in her complete and utter control. Her rage directed at a customer who complains about how his steak is done is nearly insurmountable, so much so that her boss (Patricia Clarkson) orders her to seek therapy, or loose her job. While on the couch, Kate talks fairly nonstop, only instead of revealing the secrets of her childhood, she regales her psychiatrist (Bob Balaban) with detailed recipes, sometimes even going so far as to make him succulent dishes. Everything changes, however, when her sister is killed in a car crash, leaving Kate to raise 11-year old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin). For a while, the movie does something interesting, indeed, cinematically rare: It provides a glimpse of how hard it is for a successful career woman to combine a demanding job with family. Kate is forced to contend with babysitting issues, and when that doesn’t work out, resorts to taking Zoe to work with her, a temporary solution upon which the devastated Zoe thrives, but which wreaks havoc with her schoolday. Making matters worse for Kate is the fact that her boss, while Kate was out burying her sister and moving in Zoe, has hired a second chef, Nick, to assist. Despite the fact that it’s clear that Nick took the job only so that he could learn at the master’s—that would be Kate’s—feet, our prima donna is none too pleased. She hates his opera, his loud chef’s pants, the easy camaraderie he shares with her staff. Of course, Zoe takes to Nick like a duck to water.

There are moments in No Reservations that challenge the viewer to take notice and to really care about the lives and situations of both Kate and Zoe, but the movie’s happy ending is marked by its utter artificiality. The film provides a pseudo-solution to all dilemmas, but—and, yes, I know this is just a movie—its pandering to that Hollywood ideal that you can have it all only serves to underscore the bare reality that something’s got to give. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers couldn’t have been a little more daring in, say, forcing Kate and Nick to have a serious conversation about division of responsibilities.

That said, Zeta-Jones plays Kate with a lot of spunk and some genuine vulnerability, and Eckhart is a real charmer, despite the fact that the filmmakers have created the perfect male—ruggedly handsome, humorous, a bit over the top at times, but, hey, the guy drives a he-man pick-up truck and wears jeans and boots when he’s not hamming it up in the kitchen. Interestingly, the American version of this movie takes out a scene in which, in the original, Martha’s satisfaction over a lovely at-home meal with German Nick and her niece comes to an abrupt halt when she happens upon the state in which he left her kitchen. Apparently, Hicks and Fuchs felt that showing Nick to be a little bit of a slob in the kitchen would detract from his better features, or give audiences reason to raise their hands when the minister asks if anybody knows of good reason why these two shouldn’t hook up.

For a movie that attempts to use food in ways to entice and arouse its characters and its audiences, there is little to recommend No Reservations for devout foodies like myself, who drool and obsess over the pages of each issue of Gourmet. This sterility carries through to the depiction of kitchen life. Strangely, the German movie conveyed a much warmer sense of relationships between kitchen and dining-room staff, whereas this version keeps its minor characters isolated (with the exception of a saucy turn by Lily Rabe, Jill Clayburgh’s daughter, as a randy waitress). Only Clarkson succeeds beyond the script, imbuing her character with a mysterious blend of smarts, sassy humor and brass balls, that has us alternately wondering whether she’s seeking to undermine Kate’s authority; Clarkson’s delivery, which would have been great in Mildred Pierce, makes me wish that this had been a movie more about the difficult relationship between two women, one the owner and money person, the other, a huge reason for her success. Only, please, don’t let Hicks and Fuchs anywhere near the script.

—Laura Leon

Big Screen, Small Subjects

The Simpsons Movie

Directed by David Silverman

A colleague asked if I had read New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s comments about The Simpsons Movie. Oddly enough, I had; “oddly,” because it’s usually bad policy to read another review of a film one is going to be writing about. (So, usually, I don’t.) But the tone of Scott’s comments had struck me—and my colleague—as decidedly strange, so there was little chance it was going to affect my reaction.

Scott, you see, seems to regard The Simpsons, the long-running animated TV show, as the culmination of Western Civilization. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the Times man definitely seems to think that it’s one of the great art-and-entertainment accomplishments of the age.

Well . . . OK. It’s a very funny show that, too often in recent years, tries awfully hard to be heartwarming. This big-budget, widescreen movie is much the same: It’s a very funny movie that, in the final third, tries awfully hard to be sensitive and heartwarming.

The first two-thirds, however, are flat-out hilarious. The Simpsons Movie is so assured, so comedically fleet, that it almost takes your breath away. (That’s how hard you’ll be laughing.) The jokes are so good, it’s awfully hard not to spill many of them right here—so I won’t. OK, just one: Grandpa has a religious fit in church, rolling in the aisle while relating visions of doom. When Marge (Julie Kavner) tells Homer to do something, he flips through the Bible fruitlessly, and makes a comment on God’s holy book that isn’t, well, exactly Christian. (There’s a gay joke in the same scene that might be the funniest in the picture.)

The plot is typical: Homer is a moron, and because Homer is a moron, he causes something catastrophic to happen that ruins both his family’s life and their hometown, Springfield. The something catastrophic, by the way, involves Homer’s new pet pig and a silo full of pig crap, and causes the president (a certain actor-turned-governor) to bring the iron fist of the Environmental Protection Agency down on the Simpsons—and Springfield. (The idea that the EPA even has an “iron fist” is a good, if painful, joke in itself.) The family flees.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned “sensitive and heartwarming.” These are not qualities I look for in animated entertainment—at least not from a snarky sensibility such as the one that belongs to cartoonist and Simpsons co-creator Matt Groening. Once the family is exiled from their hometown, it’s all about them—when it would be much more fun to spend time with, say, Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) and Smithers (also Shearer).

Let me put it another way: I can summon up more real emotion for the plight of oft-maimed cat Scratchy than I can for little Bart Simpson’s daddy issues, which, distressingly, take over the final scenes of the movie. One hopes that the inevitable sequel will be less caring and more crass.

As my colleague said, “thank God for The Venture Brothers.”

—Shawn Stone


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