Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, betrays the director’s general disinterest in conventional SF tropes. His film does honour the mind-blowing outlines of Lem’s concept, which deals with a manned mission to investigate a planet-sized extra-terrestrial consciousness. But where Lem speculated about the practical boundaries of human intellect in the shadow of the universe, Tarkovsky opts to explore human feelings of loss and insecurity in the face of mortality. For Lem, the failed Solaris mission is emblematic of the difficulties we humans would have comprehending and communicating with a radically different form of life. For Tarkovsky, the mission re-opens old psychic wounds, flooding us with regret that we weren’t better to the people we loved. “Shame [is] the feeling that will save mankind,” murmurs protagonist Kris Kelvin near the end of the film. In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, we have made contact with the aliens, and they want you to call your mom.
Confession: my only previous exposure to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director who’s one of the most lauded auteurs currently working, was a DVD copy of Tropical Malady, which frankly bored my pants off. Watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on the big screen at the New York Film Festival’s Alice Tully Hall, it occurred to me almost immediately that waiting to see anything by Weerasethakul on DVD is a terrible idea. For Uncle Boonmee, the large theater screen works like a window onto a bigger world populated by larger-than-actual-size memories and myths. And the photography is not the kind of crisp, high-contrast work that translates well to home video (though Blu-ray might do OK by it) — shots taken within the Thai jungle, for instance, are unfailingly dense and moody, with different and ever-darker shades of green layered on top of each other like thick brush strokes in an oil painting. Sometimes it feels as if the whole film were shot at twilight, or using day-for-night shooting and processing trickery. When one of Weerasethakul’s rare bright daylight exteriors hits the screen, you feel it like waking up at noon.
I first encountered Monika Treut when wandering the aisles of The Video Station, the great video-rental emporium in Boulder, Colorado, where her playful, enigmatic, and slightly unsettling lesbian art film Virgin Machine sported perhaps the most provocative box art in the entire German-language section. I liked Virgin Machine a lot. But then there are many things I liked a lot in 1989 that I’d be vaguely embarrassed by today. After I finished watching Ghosted, Treut’s newest film, I found myself digging out my decades-old VHS copy of Virgin Machine to try and square my memories of Treut’s earlier film with my experience of her latest. Virgin Machine still seemed weird and wonderful, and its star Ina Blum, first researching the idea of romantic love in Germany, then searching for her mother in the Oz of San Francisco, felt like she could be Treut’s Anna Karina, her face and form the text and subtext of so many shots early in the film, before Susie Bright (nee Sexpert) shows up and helps her learn to have fun exploring eroticism. Its black-and-white, borderline expressionist aesthetic aside, Virgin Machine feels a little like an early Godard film where the anti-capitalist screeds have replaced by cheerful pro-sex polemics.
In some ways, the defining characteristic of Om Shanti Om is that it is not Saawariya, the competing musical that it opened against around the world last November. For one thing — and most obviously — Om Shanti Om is clearly a product of the existing Bollywood industry, featuring repeated and loving tributes to old-school Indian cinema. Saawariya, on the other hand, was widely perceived as the work of carpetbaggers — although it was directed by native son Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who made the hugely expensive hit Devdas in 2002, it was financed by Sony Pictures Entertainment, a Hollywood studio.
Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal)
Charlie Wilson’s War is a rare thing—a funny political film, a sexy
history lesson. Director Mike Nichols brings a light comic touch to the
story of the Democratic Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) with a thing for
the ladies and a soft spot for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Julia
Roberts plays the wealthy conservative socialite who convinces Wilson
to orchestrate the covert diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars
to the Afghan rebels in the years following the Soviet invasion in
1979. Neither Hanks nor Roberts is particularly convincing as a Texas
politico, but that’s OK. The film crackles whenever Philip Seymour
Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, comes on screen, ripping
mischievously through his sardonic dialogue and bringing everyone
else’s game up a notch. Adapted from a book by the late George Crile,
Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay strongly suggests that
the Congressional failure to help rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated
post-war infrastructure helped make that country an eventual hotbed of
terrorist activity. But what sticks is the criticism of U.S. politics
as essentially a popularity contest, driven by friendships, favors, and
fickle public opinion—a system prone to leave jobs unfinished as they
become unfashionable. Originally published in the White Plains Times.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Charlie Wilson’s War (Widescreen)
Easy Living (Universal)
Sturges began his career at Paramount in 1937 by writing this
Depression-era-New-York comedy about a wealthy industrialist (Edward
Arnold) known as The Bull of Broad Street, his unhappy son (Ray
Milland) who leaves home to work as a busboy at an automat, and working
girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), whose life changes after a
crazy-expensive fur coat chucked off the roof of a Manhattan apartment
building lands on her head. (She turns around, angrily, and demands,
“What’s the big deal anyway?” The turbaned dude behind her
responds, deadpan, “Kismet.” It’s that kind of screenplay.) Turns out
the coat is a powerful status symbol, and Mary soon learns that nothing
attracts wealth as powerfully as, well, more wealth. The no-frills slapstick of director Mitchell
Leisen (an accomplished art director and costume designer) is no substitute for the elegance that Sturges
would later develop helming his own material, but it’s fairly well-tuned for this sophisticated, breezily entertaining farce of
misunderstood identities. And Jean Arthur is terrific. I’m not sure how
good the DVD looks, but it’s got to be better than my VHS copy, which
was recorded from Showtime almost 20 years ago.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)
Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s ostensible valedictory film, is most clearly and obviously about the pleasures of family — even the farting, adulterous and shame-faced family that’s so often exposed here. In that respect, I suppose, it’s an old man’s film. Bergman may identify, to some degree, with the matriarch of the Ekdahls, who is seen early on gazing out her window as her relatives stumbling noisily through the snow outside toward home. She murmurs happily, “Here comes my family.” What surprises, then, is the way the story becomes a sort of fairy-tale-cum-horror-movie – this is a ghost story whose subjects are the living and the dead, magic and imagination and the nature of God.
The title of Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, Volver, literally means “to return.” But, at least when pronounced with an American accent, it’s not hard to imagine an aural pun referring to a certain part of a woman’s anatomy. If that’s deliberate, then the title is not only a reference to the film’s status as figurative ghost story, but also a declaration of intent to explore the lives of a handful of women sprung (as all women are) from the wombs of their mothers.
As anyone who’s clutched the arms of his chair during a screening of (the original version of) Ring or felt a tightening of her chest during (the original version of) Pulse can attest, there’s something about Japanese horror movies. It’s not that the stories are so much more sinister than their Western counterparts (although there are an awful lot of vengeful ghosts in the Japanese afterlife, which is a rather disquieting notion), but that there’s something in the Japanese filmmaking tradition that gives the supernatural plenty of room to live and breathe on screen. Where American horror movies generally put the monster in your lap, their Japanese counterparts have a way of making you meet them halfway — drawing you in, piquing your curiousity, expertly suspending your disbelief, and finally, with exquisite timing, sending the coldest shiver down your spine.
J-horror has been in serious vogue for the last eight years or so, but the country didn’t figure this shit out overnight. The tradition goes all the way back to Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, released in 1926, and maybe even farther. One of the best-known examples of Japanese horror filmmaking is 1964’s Kwaidan, which isn’t grab-your-chair scary but manages to work up a pretty good head of creep anyway. It’s an anthology film based on ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, a Western author who took root in Japan in the late 19th Century, and was apparently tailored to make a splash with Western audiences. The first story is about a Samurai who abandons his wife only to come crawling back to her years later, with dire results; the second has to do with a deadly woman who shows up in very bad weather — apparently the very personification of hypothermia — and is definitely not to be fucked with; the third details the sad story of Hoichi, a talented biwa player who is recruited to sing ballads in the middle of the night for the spirits of dead Samurais and loses his ears for his trouble; and the last, especially curious one, deals with a fellow who sees an odd man’s face appear in a cup of tea — for some reason, not sure why, he reminded me of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train — and comes to regret gulping it down.
Each story is a gorgeously mounted production, with the art direction taking center stage via ornate sets (at one point I felt like I was seeing the inspiration for every PlayStation 2 adventure game ever made) and deliriously expressionistic backgrounds. (Just as a stranger in this film is never an ordinary stranger, a sky is never just a sky.) And if you let yourself slip into the right frame of mind, each segment is nicely creepy in its own way. The main liability here is an overly indulgent pace — the Criterion DVD is over 160 minutes, and the new (NTSC) DVD from London-based Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection clocks in north of three hours — that makes proceedings soporific as well as occasionally scary.
The extra 20 minutes of material (including a brief sex scene in the second episode) seems to make the new European release a no-brainer, but I’ve got to say that I miss the vivid colors of the older Criterion transfer. Criterion’s picture is quite a bit darker and shadow detail is lacking, but the image is in my eyes more filmlike overall, gives the painted backdrops a chance to blend more smoothly into the image, puts some blood in the faces of characters, and emphasizes the film’s extravagant visual qualities. The new DVD’s colors are frankly bland by comparison. (You can see a side-by-side comparison of three different transfers of this film, including the Criterion, at DVDbeaver.com.) Without having access to a properly timed theatrical release print, it’s hard to say which transfer has the more accurate color — but, for what it’s worth, if I feel like watching this again I may well reach for the Criterion version.