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An Aisle Seat Thanksgiving Feast

Andy reviews SOLARIS, James Bond & Harry Potter
Plus: A Bounty of DVD Reviews from GLENGARRY to TOY SOLDIERS

By Andy Dursin

The annual arrival of Thanksgiving means that the holiday movie season is in full swing.

I was fortunate enough to get a look at Steven Soderbergh's SOLARIS the other night, which unfortunately delivers a turkey of its own this weekend (I counted at least 20 people who got up and walked out during the Monday screening I attended). Also opening are movies ranging from Wes Craven's latest critically lambasted horror effort, THEY, to the Adam Sandler animated romp EIGHT CRAZY NIGHTS, joining the plethora of (better) choices movie-goers already have at their disposals this holiday season.

After a look at SOLARIS, scroll down for some brief thoughts on HARRY POTTER and the latest James Bond epic, DIE ANOTHER DAY, and -- of course -- a round-up of new DVD releases for your viewing pleasure.


New In Theaters

SOLARIS (*1/2): Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel runs nearly half as long as Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Russian adaptation, but the abbreviated running time results in a movie that barely scratches the surface of the original's deep meditation on life and human existence.

George Clooney, who also co-produced (along with James Cameron), plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist called into space to retrieve the crew of a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The crew members have become prone to illusions and the two surviving members -- Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Helen (Viola Davis) -- attempt to persuade Kelvin to leave before he, too, becomes the victim of Solaris' unseen, possibly extraterrestrial force.

Instead, Kelvin stays and succumbs to the temptation of seeing his dead wife, Rheya (Natasha McElhone), brought back to life as a seemingly living organism. In the process, her resurrection not only brings back Kelvin's love and affection for his deceased bride, but also the pain, guilt, and anxiety that stemmed from Rheya's ultimately suicidal impulses. Despite the fact that Rheya isn't REALLY Rheya, Kelvin becomes convinced to stay in the space station's orbit around Solaris in an attempt to change the past and make it right.

Soderbergh has fashioned a beautifully shot and hauntingly scored (by Cliff Martinez) film, no question there. SOLARIS raises timeless issues of coming to terms with the past, neglecting reality and settling guilt, but somehow Soderbergh's 92-minute film -- reportedly re-cut from a longer, two-hour version -- never satisfyingly elaborates upon the topics it so tantalizingly raises. It's a pretentious, dull, and cold misfire that rarely instills in its viewers the emotions that are supposed to be gripping its protagonists.

The side characters in the space station are treated as throwaways, with neither role being developed enough to make any kind of impression (ditto for the "images" they've been seeing -- one of many plot elements left unexplored). Clooney and McElhone naturally fare better in their main roles, and yet Soderbergh's script fails them both in two key areas.

There's not enough development of Kelvin's character for us to identify with him, and not enough convincing transition between the doubt over what he's seeing and his mounting obsession to reconcile his wife's tragic fate with a new future. The movie feels completely detached and the characters soulless, which is a rather large problem for a movie about strong human emotions and the highs and lows associated with them.

What also doesn't work is the character of McElhone's dead wife/"Solaris being" and the often abrupt switch in her character's identity. Is she a self-conscious being separate from Kelvin's wife, just a fragment of his imagination, or a combination of those elements? Again, there's not enough dramatic development of her conflicted nature so that we care about what happens, and there's no payoff at all in the resolution of the picture, which has a strange, "Sixth Sense" kind of finale (are they dead? are they alive?) that seems completely tacked-on.

SOLARIS is a great-looking picture that will still be worth a look for aficionados of the original version, but dramatically and emotionally, it ultimately fails on almost every level.

One final note: while I certainly wouldn't pin the movie's downfall on his acting, Jeremy Davies' absolutely dreadful performance as a scatterbrained space station survivor has to go down as one of the worst in recent memory. His affected delivery reminded me of comic Richard Lewis, and the film might have been a good deal more entertaining had Lewis been on-hand to provide some of his shtick. As it is, the crowd I viewed the movie with roared with laughter when an elderly audience member shouted out "he's TERRIBLE!" during the last of Davies' endless speeches. (92 mins., PG-13)


DIE ANOTHER DAY (***): Pierce Brosnan's fourth outing as James Bond proves to be a strictly formula affair -- but how many 007 epics aren't? If you can get past the fact that nearly every plot point is overly familiar, DIE ANOTHER DAY is robustly entertaining and much more energetic than several of Brosnan's previous adventures.

The story, penned by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, finds Bond being jailed after knocking off a North Korean general -- or so he thinks. Flash-forward over two years later, and 007 is freed, only to learn that the general's brother (Rick Yune) is still alive and inflicting terrorist havoc around the globe. What's worse, M has stripped Bond of his license to thrill, which does prove to be only a minor problem as James quickly escapes from a government hospital in Hong Kong. Evidence quickly points to the North Korean's involvement in diamond embezzlement and a genetics clinic in Cuba, where Bond meets up with a sexy American agent (Halle Berry) in an effort to track down the missing terrorist.

Yes, a lot of DIE ANOTHER DAY plays like recycled elements from the more recent Bonds. Brosnan is OK but once again he has little to do in terms of dialogue and feels less like Ian Fleming's creation than the leading man in a generic action film. I'm also getting tired of Judi Dench's constant worried look as M, especially in scenes near the climax where Bond is in trouble. The movie's main title sequence is an interesting misfire, attempting to play homage to Maurice Binder while simultaneously showing 007 being tortured at the same time (and no, it doesn't work, especially not with Madonna's terrible "bump and grind" techno theme song). And whatever happened to the copious references to past 007 films? (this was supposedly a 40th Anniversary film, was it not?).

That all being said, there's much to enjoy in DIE ANOTHER DAY. Unlike "The World Is Not Enough," there's an abundance of energy in terms of the performances and direction (by Lee Tamahori) here.

Brosnan seems a little more comfortable, Berry is fine in a somewhat standard heroine role (meaning she's under-utilized), while fetching newcomer Rosamund Pike and the Guy Pearce-like Toby Stephens acquit themselves nicely as 007 antagonists. The plot actually works well in comparison to recent Bond adventures (at least for two-thirds of the way), and there are some well-done stunt sequences, including an improbable but fun car chase through a melting "hotel" in Iceland. David Arnold's score doesn't mesh well on the soundtrack album, but it again works solidly in the film itself, with little of Madonna's inane title track heard outside of the credits (she does, however, put in a thankfully brief cameo as Bond's fencing instructor).

Even the slam-bang climax manages to be more interesting than usual, making DIE ANOTHER DAY a choice viewing for Bond fans of all persuasions. (PG-13)


HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (***1/2): Second cinematic installment of J.K. Rowling's beloved novels proves to be more relaxed and even more entertaining than the original.

This time, the beloved boy wizard is wrapped up in an unknown evil that's causing harm to various students at Hogwarts, which -- speaking of the magical campus -- boasts a new teaching wizard (Kenneth Branagh, in a delicious performance as Gilderoy Lockhart) and plenty of surprises for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint), all enrolling in their sophomore year. Among the highlights: a spectacular confrontation with giant spiders in the dark forest, a slithering serpent, a young girl's ghost, and the introduction of Fawkes the Phoenix.

All of the same cast and crew members that brought "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" to life are back for this sequel, which results in more wonderful sets and plenty of memorable moments. John Williams' now-classic themes are reprised by conductor William Ross, though fortunately this is a far from "Adapted and Conducted by Ken Thorne" situation (indeed, it seems Williams was much more "hands on" in this score than in similar circumstances in the past). Steve Kloves' script, meanwhile, takes its time establishing character and setting here, but the basic story is more captivating because there's less set-up and more time spent on the basic premise and mystery at-hand.

While the identity of the villain, once revealed, may prove to be a little convoluted for those who didn't read the books, CHAMBER OF SECRETS is a thrilling ride most of the way. The performances of the child actors are solid and contrast nicely with the uniformly fine work of the adults, particularly Jason Isaacs as the deceitful father of Harry's rival.

Grand, classy stuff, and about as magical a sequel as one could have hoped. (PG, 162 mins.)


New On DVD

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (***1/2, 100 mins., 1992, R; Artisan): David Mamet's acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play -- a cutting chronicle of desperate salesmen -- was brought to the screen by director James Foley in 1992. With a superb cast articulating Mamet's crackling dialogue, GLENGARRY GLENROSS isn't extraordinary filmmaking but it IS a great film just the same.

It all boils down to acting. I mean, where else can you see a cast like this? Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin (back when he concentrated on acting instead of politics), Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and a young Kevin Spacey, all giving strong performances as real estate salesmen going after a new lead that has mysteriously disappeared from their office.

Foley's film was criticized as being little more than a filmed stage play, but when you have this kind of cast assembled and strong source material to work with, why do anything else? Lemmon is terrific as an especially sad individual whose best times have long since past, while Pacino does his usual shtick as the #1 new salesman and Baldwin -- to his credit -- brings a great deal of intensity to his part, which was written specifically for the film by the author.

Artisan's long-awaited DVD of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS offers both 2.35 and full-screen versions of the film. Foley shot the picture in Super 35, meaning the full-frame version loses a little on the sides but gains picture at the top and bottom. Still, while the full-screen edition may be better for more intimate close-ups, the 2.35 edition is much more comfortably composed and recommended.

For supplements, Artisan has included a sporadic audio commentary with Foley, which is somewhat of a disappointment since Live/Pioneer released a Special Edition laserdisc some years ago that contained a full-length discussion by the director. A tribute to Jack Lemmon is one of the disc's highlights, offering new interviews and recollections of the star with comments from his acting brethren and family members (including son Chris). Another new 30-minute documentary, "A.B.C. (Always Be Closing)," intersperses comments from real-life salesmen with cast members, and it's of adequate interest. A bonus "hidden" commentary proves to be somewhat underwhelming, including the director of photography, Arkin and Baldwin offering brief comments on their work on the picture. Better is a segment from the "Charlie Rose Show" with Lemmon, and a brief, throwaway bit with Spacey on "Inside the Actors Studio." Sadly, no trailer has been included.

While the extras prove to be a little on the disappointing side, Artisan's strong transfer and the sheer strength of the film itself make GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS an essential DVD purchase for movie buffs just the same.


TRIUMPH OF LOVE (**1/2, 108 mins., 2002, PG-13; Paramount): Mira Sorvino tries her hardest in this Italian/British co-production presented by Bernardo Bertolucci and directed by his long-time associate, Clare Peploe.

In this adaptation of a Marivaux play set in 1732, Sorvino plays a Princess who infiltrates the villa of her exiled, long-time enemy (Jay Rodan), whom she has fallen in love with. Rodan is living with a stuffy philosopher (Ben Kingsley) and his sister (Fiona Shaw), and Sorvino manages to win them over before revealing her true identity.

Peploe tries valiantly to open up the play for the big-screen, but the movie never quite manages to escape the fact that it's a piece intended for the stage -- it just has that creaky, set-bound feel to it. That said, the movie is still airy and lightly entertaining, coasting along on the fine performances of Sorvino, Shaw, and Kingsley, along with warm cinematography by Fabio Cianchetti and a prim and proper period score by Jason Osborn.

TRIUMPH OF LOVE is by no means a great film but it's certainly better than the scant distribution and mediocre reviews it received from the few critics who saw it. The picture is wonderfully performed and fun, despite its claustrophobic feel, and is well worth a view.

Paramount's DVD offers a colorful 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. This is a superb presentation from the studio, though there are no special features available on the disc, making it a rental option more than anything else.


THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS (**, 105 mins., 2002, R; Columbia TriStar): Kieran Culkin and Emile Hirsch play a pair of altar boys growing up in Chicago during the '60s, whose out-of-church behavior ends up landing the dynamic duo in a heck of a lot of trouble. Jodie Foster, who co-produced the film, plays a strict nun who doubles as the boys' chief nemesis, both in the main story and the film's copious amounts of animated sequences, where Culkin and Hirsch's comic-book alter-egos do battle with an exaggerated version of Foster dubbed "Nunzilla."

Peter Care directed this adaptation of Chris Fuhrman's book, which careens wildly from a tender coming-of-age story to a melodramatic "Afterschool Special," complete with a cute young girl (Jena Malone) with dark secrets and a teary, tragic ending. Despite the picture's "edgy" tone and the presence of both Foster and Vincent D'Onofrio (as a somewhat understanding priest), THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS is contrived in both its story and execution. Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni's screenplay tends to telegraph its major plot points, and while the performances of Culkin and Hirsch are fine, the film only comes alive during its animated sequences, produced by Todd McFarlane and Terry Fitzgerald.

Columbia's DVD is a superb special edition. The 1.85 transfer seems a little tightly framed but looks good overall, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound contains some intermittent bursts of surround activity at various points (Marco Beltrami scored the film with Joshua Homme nabbing a credit for additional music).

On the supplementary side, Care and Stockwell provide a chatty audio commentary, while Todd McFarlane discusses his animated scenes in a separate segment. A Sundance Channel featurette, cast and crew interviews, a few deleted scenes, trailer, and TV spots round out a nice disc for an ultimately disappointing film that lets its fine cast down. (For a superior film about growing up set against a Catholic backdrop, check out the woefully underrated 1985 film HEAVEN HELP US, sporting an early score by James Horner).


TOY SOLDIERS (***, 1991, 112 mins., R; Columbia TriStar): OK, so call it a guilty pleasure. TOY SOLDIERS is basically "Die Hard" meets "Dead Poets Society" (now there's one that should have been on the press junket), and every bit as gleefully entertaining (if predictable) as that sounds.

Sean Astin (in his pre-RUDY days) plays a rebellious rascal at an uppity Virginia boarding school whose buddies (including Wil Wheaton and Keith Coogan) end up having to save the day when terrorists seize their home-away-from-home. Lou Gossett, Jr. is their strict but ultimately sympathetic dean, while Denholm Elliott and an unbilled Jerry Orbach round out the adult end of the cast.

David Koepp co-scripted this formulaic but definitely fun action romp, directed by Daniel Petrie, Jr. and edited by Steven Spielberg's long-time associate, Michael Kahn. The performances are all amiable and the location filming scenic enough to the point where the movie doesn't feel overtly claustrophobic. Also a plus is Robert Folk's memorable orchestral score, with a pretty main theme that was recycled in movie trailers throughout the duration of the 1990s.

Columbia's DVD is one of their lower-priced, no-frills DVD editions. The full-frame only transfer may disappoint 16:9 TV owners, but it seems to be an open matte transfer meaning that picture area has been opened up at the top of the frame without any loss to the sides. The result is a comfortably framed transfer which exhibits only a bit of graininess here and there. Sound wise there's a decent 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack, though only a few bonus trailers for extras.

Still, for action fans craving some '90s brainless entertainment, TOY SOLDIERS more than fits the bill and comes recommended on DVD.


REIGN OF FIRE (**, 102 mins., 2002, PG-13; Buena Vista): The year's best example of how a good trailer can be cut for a hugely disappointing film, REIGN OF FIRE is a formulaic genre outing spared from the trash bin by Matthew McConaughey's hysterical performance as an American dragonslayer on a future Earth where fire-breathing beasts have enslaved the planet. How and why this happened is explained in a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue -- the rest is dull filler, chronicling the exploits of rag-tag Brits (lead by the film's real star, Christian Bale) attempting to remain in their ragged "Waterworld"/"Mad Max"-like society while dodging the prehistoric monsters. One day a group of Americans arrive -- lead by the bombastic McConaughey -- who have a more direct approach to dealing with the dragons: they kill them. Using an Air Force chopper and plenty of firepower at their disposal (how they're able to recharge their weapons or find fuel is never discussed), the Yanks take down one beast, but then -- in the film's funniest scene -- McConaughey chews out the Brits for throwing a "soiree" over it.

"X-Files" vet Rob Bowman directed this hugely disappointing genre film, which offers no surprises or any suspense whatsoever (even Ed Shearmur's score is often a direct rip-off of "Aliens"). In fact, the film is so thoroughly routine that you'll find yourself on DVD fast-forwarding through it to find the special effects sequences, which themselves are competent but nothing extraordinary. This certainly isn't on the level of "Dragonslayer" or even the similarly disappointing "Dragonheart" -- what REIGN OF FIRE is, unfortunately, is a tired old, post-apocalyptic film whose creators should have spent energy on cultivating a good script, not a glitzy marketing campaign.That said, McConaughey's balls-out performance makes watching the film on DVD a lot more palatable than having to pay to see it in theaters. Buena Vista's DVD offers a dark but satisfying 2.35 transfer and a predictably active 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtrack. Supplements are pretty sparse: a pair of promotional featurettes look at the special effects and production of the film, while director Rob Bowman comments on his technique in a more revealing 15-minute discussion. The movie's trailer, which as I mentioned does a sensational job selling the movie, rounds out the package.


NEXT WEEK: Here come the MEN IN BLACK (again!), plus J-Lo's latest, ENOUGH, and more comments to spare. Send an email to dursina@att.net and Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


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