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Imitation of wife: Moore in Far From Heaven.

Not-So-Happy Days
By Laura Leon

Far From Heaven
Directed by Todd Haynes

Douglas Sirk made great movies in the 1950s that, if one looks them up in film guides, are usually described in condescending terms like “three-hanky” and “women’s picture.” Indeed, Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows were “women’s” movies in that they dealt squarely with the problems and desires of the female sex. Beyond that, however, they show the cracks that lie beneath the surface of the Eisenhower years, the tiny fissures that threatened the stability of the nuclear family, the suburban dream. Beneath their visual beauty, Sirk’s movies were incredibly subversive.

These kind of movies are rare these days: Filmmakers have largely forsaken melodrama for anything that shocks or thrills. Enter Todd Haynes, who of course has given us enough shocks and some thrills in movies like Safe, but who now somehow, with Far From Heaven, his homage to Sirk, manages to deliver a melodrama that, in its deceptive quietude, is shattering. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is the ideal late-’50s Connecticut wife, mother and hostess, the darling of the society columns and someone whose kindness to the less fortunate (read: Negroes) is the stuff of good humor among her well-heeled friends. Amid a swirl of crinolined skirts, the perfectly coiffed Cathy presides over a gracious home with the help of maid Sybil (Viola Davis). At times it seems as if Cathy and Sybil are better suited to one another than Cathy is to her sales-exec husband Frank (Dennis Quaid). When the dutiful wife, dropping off a home-cooked meal to her late-working hubby, finds him in the arms of another man, her entire being is rocked to the core.

Confronting her husband’s infidelity forces Cathy to consider the difference between the woman she is and that whom she’d like to become. Helping her in this painful realization is black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Their friendship, and the underlying chemistry fueling it, have devastating consequences—not so much in the attack on Raymond’s daughter by sneering white boys, but in the bitter truths it forces its would-be lovers to face and ultimately live with. Haynes borrows heavily from Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, which had widowed Jane Wyman falling for younger, slightly boho gardener Rock Hudson, to the shock and scorn of her grown children and friends. That story had a sort of happy ending; no such ending is possible here, of course, and one leaves the theater wondering whatever became of Cathy, who seems far more akin to one of those desperate, tossed-aside wives of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room than the glamorous (by ’50s standards) Wyman.

One wonders, too, how easy it would have been for a director to mock this sort of genre, and is thankful that Haynes respects it enough to play serious without straining too hard to evoke the hypocrisies and injustices of American suburbia (indeed, one of the sadder ironies of the movie is how little things have changed).

Moore, playing a decidedly artificial type, is transcendent; Haysbert somehow avoids playing the stereotypical noble African-American; and Quaid trades in his usual aw-shucks charm for an almost sinister hardness—he’s as tightly coiled in his secret longings as Cathy’s girdles. Haynes’ movie is all about the simple human desire to love and be loved, and his tragedy is that, as simple as that desire is, it can go awry without the slightest explanation.

Hunting License

Roger Dodger
Directed by Dylan Kidd

“You have to remind them that something is missing from their lives,” says Roger (Campbell Scott), an ad writer who makes people feel bad so they’ll buy his product as an antidote. In Roger Dodger, writer-director Dylan Kidd’s big-screen debut, Roger applies the same strategy to his compulsive womanizing, making his targets feel insecure about themselves and therefore more receptive to his attentions. Roger is so repellent, he’s mesmerizing, focusing his considerable intellect upon his prey with an intensity that freezes them, at least temporarily, like deer caught in the headlights. His hunting ground is the nightlife of New York City, which Kidd portrays through dank, glistening streets, the cadaverous underlighting of cocktail tables, and jittery camera work.

Played by Scott with neurotic ferocity, Roger is a prime specimen of the self-absorbed and cynical New Yorker, but that’s not what this skillfully appalling film is about. After a round of drinks during which he charms his co-workers through sheer force of bullshit, Roger is dumped by his older, and expertly controlling, boss (a flawlessly icy Isabella Rossellini), who tells him point blank, “I no longer want to see you socially. Find a way to deal with it.” Bereft of his status as stud, Roger uses his talent for vituperation on every woman he encounters.

Then his 16-year-old nephew from Ohio shows up. Naive Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is in town for a college interview. Having heard from his mother that Roger is a ladies’ man, he’s eager for his uncle’s advice on attracting the opposite sex. Flattered, Roger complies with gusto, relaying his corporate-style strategies for conquest (he refers to scoring as “closing the deal.”). That evening, Roger sneaks Nick into a bar, manipulates him into drinking, and uses the teenager as a novelty to lure women. Intrigued, two flashy prospects (Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals) play along with Roger’s pickup. But the women are more taken with sincere, adoring Nick than with his overbearing uncle. Rejection brings out the boorish in Roger, and he browbeats Nick with increasing savagery as the long night of drinking and cruising heads toward rock bottom.

Similar to the films of Neal LaBute, Kidd uses words as weapons, but without LaBute’s gratuitous sadism. Roger, the product of an alcoholic upbringing, is humanized by his desperation, and his verbal jags have a blackly humorous ring of truth. Late in the game, he explains to Nick that “winning time” is also the time when standards are drastically lowered by the fear of returning alone to an empty apartment. Roger and Nick each learn something from the other, although the value of this exchange is negligible. Exposing Roger as a self-loathing fraud is also of questionable worth, since it hardly comes as a surprise. What’s most interesting in Roger Dodger is Scott’s virtuoso performance, and the way sweet-faced Eisenberg rises to his co-star’s formidable challenge. Now that’s hooking up.

—Ann Morrow

Lonely Planet

Solaris
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is one of the biggest film geeks in Hollywood. Among directors, Quentin Tarentino may actually be the biggest film nerd, but Soderbergh is more catholic and adventurous in his interests. Tarentino labors over his excellent but narrowly reimagined genre flicks for ages, while Soderbergh is eclectic and compulsively productive. In the last two years he has revisted the cinematic oeuvre of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack in Ocean’s Eleven, and experimented with digital video in Full Frontal. Now he offers up Solaris, a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 despair-laden sci-fi epic (also based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem).

Solaris is easily the weirdest, most daring major-studio release this year. It is stark, mysterious and uncompromising.

The film is set in a nonspecific future, in an unnamed American city in which the rain falls continually. Global warming? Side-effects of pollution? The film is cryptic on this—as it is on so many other points. Psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) returns to his coolly functional, upscale apartment one night to find the shadowy representatives of a corporation that operates a space station orbiting the far-off planet Solaris. It seems things are getting a little strange out there, and his friend Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) has sent a special video request for Kelvin to join the unhinged scientists on the station, to sort things out.

By the time Kelvin makes the long journey, Gibarian is dead. The two remaining scientists are clearly disturbed, but not by Gibarian’s death. Mission leader Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) is an emotional explosion waiting to happen, and won’t let anyone into her quarters. Snow (Jeremy Davies) is scattered and distracted enough to suggest pharmacological damage. Neither can explain exactly what’s happening—Snow warns Kelvin, “Wait ’till it starts happening to you.”

Kelvin begins to have intense dreams about his late wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone). When he wakes up, she’s right beside him. As Kelvin is still tortured by the circumstances of Rheya’s death, this visitation is both disturbing and consoling. It seems that everyone on the station has had a visitor. They theorize that Solaris is a kind of sentient being, using their subconscious to create absent loved ones. No one can explain why. Like the others, Kelvin begins, ever so slightly, to start falling apart.

The filmmakers explain nothing. Everything is inference and suggestion. Though it’s a reasonably expensive sci-fi film, with a beautifully realized image of the planet Solaris, there are no explosions or pulse-pounding special effects. Soderbergh is interested in the painful human emotions of the situation.

Clooney is not his usual suave cinematic self as Kelvin; he’s tortured and thoughtful. He’s even overshadowed by McElhone as the disturbed Rheya, and by Davies, hilarious as the flaky Dr. Snow. Davis is equally good as the determined leader, though her character is shortchanged by the omission of parts of her backstory. The film is quietly intense, if not as profound as Tarkovsky’s original.

Solaris demands much from an audience: full attention, a willingness to be engaged by philosophical and emotional issues, and an openness to its open-ended conclusion. This is an amazing aspect of Soderbergh’s achievement.

—Shawn Stone

Fools’ Gold

Treasure Planet
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

Throughout Treasure Planet, I couldn’t help but wonder, why fast- forward Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale to the future, especially if doing so involves intergalactic characters of indeterminate gender or species? I mean, isn’t there enough to recommend to modern audiences in the original story of Jim Hawkins and his complex relationship with the Long John Silver?

Obviously, Disney thought so. And so, we have an edgier, more juvenile-delinquent Jim (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wreaking havoc on his poor mum’s sanity. Family advisor Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) is, I believe, a canine with a doctorate, and guests at the Hawkins’ Benbow Inn are a motley crew of one-eyed slimy creatures and infinitely more robotic types like doomed Billy Bones. This is supposed to take place in outer space, yet Mrs. Hawkins (Laurie Metcalfe), whose character is a direct ripoff of the mother in The Iron Giant, wears fetching 18th century corsets straight outta Forever Amber; everybody else seems to be wearing discarded costumes from animated versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Alien. Silver (Brian Murray) himself is a vastly unappealing mix of jowls and metal; he’s been “updated” to cyborg status, and by way of coolness, the filmmakers show him using his metal prostheses like so many Ron Popeil kitchen gadgets.

The movie utilizes a mix of traditional and computer-generated animation, which makes scenes of bustling wharfs and planetary way stations somewhat interesting in their intricacy. But for all its technical inventiveness, the story is completely flat—again, how could screenwriter Rob Edwards have deflated the excitement from the original work? By far the worst insult to moviegoers’ intelligence, let alone enjoyment, is the insipid writing of Long John Silver, who here comes off as a sort of gruff but cuddly father figure to Jim. Combine this with the newly sexed Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), the adaptation of castaway Ben Gunn (Martin Short), the introduction of bizarre-looking characters who fart and menace Jim, and the narrative mix of nautical adventure powered by rocket boosters comes off as extremely messy and ill-conceived. Who would have thought that any movie would make one yearn for Muppet Treasure Island?

—L.L.


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