Sight and Sound Top 250 #157 – Solaris (1972)

Usually I end one of these posts with the trailer for the movie in question, but this time I’m going to start with it.

This is a perfect example of a misleading trailer and just goes to show that mis-marketing a movie, and pulling a bait and switch where the trailer promises one thing and the movie delivers something completely different if not just a recent phenomenon.

sol1aDespite what it may look like from what is shown above, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris is not an action-filled Sci-Fi thriller, but a contemplative meditation on the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how people react to and interact with their surroundings, first encounters with other species, and how they relate to each other. It is also about one man’s struggle with his inner demons and how one can and should react to overwhelming feelings of guilt and what today would be called survivor syndrome.

When watching Solaris, what with its languorous pacing, its Earth-then-space shuttle setting, and its slow burn mystery as to what exactly is happening or has taken place, along with a soundtrack that relies at times on classical music and at others on a more ambient soundtrack provided by Eduard Artemyev.  it seems almost impossible for American audiences especially not to at least initially mentally compare it to Stanley Kubrick’s much more famous and certainly more familiar epic space opera 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That, however, would be doing Solaris a supreme disservice as it needs very much to be taken on it’s own, or at least in its own context, rather than viewed through a Hollywood-centric filter.

Adapted (very, very loosely, and in a way that Lem largely objected to) by Tartovsky and co-screenwriter Fridrikh Gorenshtein from Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel of the same name, Solaris tells the story of psychologist Kris Kelvin as he leaves Earth to investigate the mysterious happenings aboard a space station orbiting the (fictional) planet Solaris. Once he arrives there, he is confronted not only with what is happening on the space station which has already driven one crew member to suicide and brought at least one of the others to the brink of madness, but with a possible ghost from his own past.

sol2Thus far we have a plot that could very well fit with the action oriented trailer above, and probably could provide a quite satisfying 90 minute or so sci-fi exploration flick. As a matter of fact, it sounds not unlike the plot of any number of Star Trek episodes and/or movies.

So what is it that sets Solaris apart and places it into the highest pantheon not just of science fiction movies but of films in general?

Well, first there is the fact that Tartovsky seems only peripherally interested in the actual plot of the film, and much more interested in exploring the more esoteric questions that the setting and circumstances raise. We actually spend the first third or so of the film not on the space station, but on Earth, as Kelvin prepares to leave his home planet for the possibly one-way trip to the station.

sol5These preparations, however, are not of the usual filmic variety involving training for the mission or even saying goodbye to loved ones, though there is a bit of the latter, as the action during this section does take place on Kelvin’s father’s farm. Instead, Tartovsky chooses to focus his camera on the man himself and his surroundings as he contemplates just what the voyage might mean and what he may be leaving behind forever. Again, in the hands of a lesser film maker, these scenes could very well turn maudlin or come across as overly melodramatic, but because Tartovsky knows and is able to get exactly what he wants from his actors, it never strays into that territory.

The director is also wisely willing to give the film  – throughout, and not just in these scenes -room to breathe and to spend plenty of time creating and exploring Kelvin’s surroundings and how they reflect the inner conflicts that are stirring in the psychologist’s mind, and as far as is possible, in his soul.

sol6Even once Kelvin arrives on the space station, the director does not rush the plot forward, Instead he chooses to let us, along with Kelvin, discover what is going on slowly, as he is again not really interested in the plot itself, but in what it might mean to Kelvin, to the other scientists on the station, to the future of space exploration, and perhaps even to the future of the human race as a whole and to our understanding of and ultimate relationship to life forms that are far different to our own.

In other words, hugely simplified: what is our place in the universe?

sol7Again, however, and as stated and restated above, Tartovsky really is far from interested in simply turning this into some kind of humanity versus the aliens sci-fi shoot-em-up as the trailer seems to imply, nor is he interested in trying to find quick and easy answers to the questions that he raises. As a matter of fact, he never actually even bothers to try to answer many of them, instead wisely retaining his focus on the effects of these questions and even the raising of them on Kelvin and on the other members of the crew of the space station.

sol8The other thing that raises Solaris far above so many other science fiction films is the fact that Tartovsky never loses sight of the fact that what he is creating is a film. That may seem an odd statement to make, but when you look at so many of today’s movies which are more interested in creating a sense of reality and in bringing their fantastical elements “down to Earth”, it’s interesting to note just how “cinematic” Tartovsky’s work here is. He has no qualms whatsoever in interspersing his narrative with shots of the fields of grain and flowers that make up the land that Kelvin is leaving or giving the viewer swirling images of the clouds and lakes that make up most of the surface of Solaris.

sol11The acting throughout the film is consistently thoughtful, with each of the performers bringing something special to the film and Tartovsky definitely getting superior performances from all of his minimal cast. Again, Tartovsky remembers that he is making a film, and not just telling a story, choosing to allow his performers to interpret their roles, often as much through their inaction as their action and through a knowing expression or gesture – showing, as only real cinema can do – as opposed to telling what the characters are thinking or feeling at any given moment.

In short, in Solaris Tartovsky has created a film that respects the viewer, that invites the audience to fill in the gaps and to understand what is going on through an active participation and investment in actually watching and thinking about the movie, instead of simply turning one’s brain off and letting the events flow by as is so often the case with sci-fi movies today. At the same time, the viewer who is willing to make that investment in time and thought will find themselves amply rewarded by a film that is not only beautiful but thought-provoking, and one that will stay with the viewer long after it’s closing shot.

Just don’t be deceived by the trailer.

 

 

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There’s Nothing Tacky About Oscar Isaac In This Short Film – Ticky Tacky (2014)

tt1Coming into writer/director/producer Brian Petsos’ 2014 short film Ticky Tacky, you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps you had stumbled upon some missed early Wes Anderson film. After all, there is the initial shot of the record stylus being placed on an LP thus establishing the source of the classical music which will make up the bulk of the soundtrack for this 15 minute short, and then there is the stylized wide-angle strictly-balanced establishing shot, in which, like many of Mr. Anderson’s set-ups, the right and left sides of the screen are practically mirror images of each other.

Fortunately, Mr. Petsos soon proves that he wants to be much more than just a slavish Anderson imitator as he puts his own unique stamp on what follows.

tt2I’ve written before about just how hard I think it is to create a truly great short film and the hazards that both the screenwriter for this sort of film and the director face when it come to being able to establish unique characters that are not merely two-dimensional placeholders which move the plot along, and to providing an actual story  with a beginning, middle, and end, rather than just shooting a scene and calling that a complete film.

Again. Petsos manages to avoid both of these pitfalls, giving his audience a compelling, even at times shocking story of a rich man who turns his mind to revenge for a perceived betrayal.

tt3Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the insanely talented Oscar Isaac to play the lead in your film, but as we know from Inside Llewyn Davis, even he can’t redeem everything he’s in. (Sorry, I know it’s kind of a cheap shot, but despite the acclaim for Davis, I really found myself disappointed by it.) In this case, Isaac certainly brings his “A” game, turning on an emotional dime and providing a truly compelling and at times downright terrifying protagonist. (Is that really the right word for this role? Hmm…)

tt4Another smart move that Pestos makes is casting the young Julian Shatkin as Isaac’s aide de camp. Shatkin proves himself well worthy of his role, and his seeming youthfulness provides the film with one of its most shocking moments.

Ticky Tacky is the first of Petsos’ short films that I have seen, (IMDB lists twelve writer credits for him and five directorial ones) but I look forward not only to checking out more of his already completed work but also seeing what he will bring to the screen going forward, For now, however, I highly recommend checking this one out. The 15 minutes it will take to watch it will definitely be well spent.

Throwback Thursday – The Parallax View (1974)

Between this blog and my previous one, Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, I’ve been writing about movies for quite a while now. Because of that, there are a lot of posts that have simply gotten lost to the mists of time. So, I figured I’d use the idea of “Throwback Thursday” to spotlight some of those older posts, re-presenting them pretty much exactly as they first appeared except for updating links where necessary or possible, and doing just a bit of re-formatting to help them fit better into the style of this blog. Hope you enjoy these looks back.

The current political season has put me in a mindset to go back to revisit some of the great political conspiracy thrillers of the late 60s and early 70s. Thus, for this week’s Throwback Thursday I thought we’d revisit a post from July of 2013 and a look at one of my favorites, Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View.

By the way, I know the postings here have been even more sparse than usual of late, but I’m hoping to get back on track starting probably the first of next week with at least a couple of new posts including the return of the Top 250)

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Conspiracy Theorists Need To Apply – The Parallax View (1972)

Parallax_View_movie_posterI’m not sure exactly why I decided last night’s movie would be 1974’s The Parallax View, or even when I put it in my Netflix queue. Still, there it was, and since I was in a kind of “what the heck” mood, I decided to give it a go.

Coming out at a time when political corruption, conspiracy theories, and political assassinations were all at the forefront of the American psyche, The Parallax View is according to Wikipedia, the middle film in director Alan J. Pakula’s so-called “Political Paranoia Trilogy” which also includes 1971’s Klute, which I haven’t yet seen, and 1976’s All The President’s Men, which I have. (Though it has been awhile, and I probably should revisit it sometime soon.) This is not to say that the film relies on any knowledge of, or even directly relates to either of those films, as the link between them is one of theme more than plot.

The Parallax view stars Warren Beatty as Joseph Frady, a somewhat naive reporter who finds himself drawn unwillingly into a world of political intrigue and, yes. conspiratorial assassination. The guiding force behind these assassinations turns out to be the titular Parallax Corporation which actively recruits people like Frady, people who seem to be on the edge, to become assassins.

Or do they?

pSub2The movie is very much one of its time, making use of then-popular pop-culture tropes such as personality testing and visual brain washing. There is even a scene which echoes the forced retraining scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, with a very interesting video montage, though the scene itself is much less disturbing and intense than that of the Kubrick film.

And perhaps that’s the problem with the entire film, and why it was less well received and remains much less well remembered than Pakula’s two other films in this “trilogy”. It simply never manages to convey any real sense of intensity or immediacy. Under Pakula’s direction, scenes such as the opening fight on the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, which could have provided great tension seem much too removed and foreshortened to truly give it any sense of what is at stake, and that is something that carries through the length of the movie, making it seem rather disjointed and – while it’s not particularly hard to follow – jumpy, as Frady moves from point to point in following the conspiracy depending far too much on what seems coincidence.

pLight2Of course, it could be argued that these coincidences are not what they seem, but that is not a point that the movie really addresses, so the viewer is left at times having to play catch up just a bit too much.

As far as the acting goes, Beatty, whose talent onscreen was unfortunately for most of his career overshadowed by his offscreen reputation turns in his usual engaging performance. He is very ably backed by a supporting cast which includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss, all of whom are good here, but never seem as engaged as they would be in other roles.

In the end, The Parallax View is a pretty typical 70s conspiracy thriller, complete with a relatively nihilistic ending which was the going trend at the time. It is certainly worth the time if you have nothing better to do with an evening and are a fan of this kind of film, but at the same time, I can’t consider putting it in the category of a “must see”.

(The preceding review was, by the way, paid for by the Parallax Corporation, but you should not take that as any indication that it was designed to throw you off the scent of any ongoing assassination conspiracies or other ongoing schemes. Probably.)

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Hope you enjoyed this blast from the past.

 

Throwback Thursday – Captain America: The Serial (1944)

Between this blog and my previous one, Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, I’ve been writing about movies for quite a while now. Because of that, there are a lot of posts that have simply gotten lost to the mists of time. So, I figured I’d use the idea of “Throwback Thursday” to spotlight some of those older posts, re-presenting them pretty much exactly as they first appeared except for updating links where necessary or possible, and doing just a bit of re-formatting to help them fit better into the style of this blog. Hope you enjoy these looks back.

This post from April 2014 was actually already an unofficial Throwback, since it was an adaptation of a post the originally appeared on the Professor’s blog – so I guess you can consider it a double throwback. Anyway, since Captain America: Civil War is opening here in the States this weekend, I figured this would be a good time to take another look at one of the earliest screen incarnations of the good captain…

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This Captain America Doesn’t Need A Shield, He’s Got A Gun – Captain America: The Serial (1944)

So since the big movie opening this weekend is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I thought it might be fun to revisit an earlier big-screen incarnation of the good captain, namely the 1944 Captain America serial, produced by Republic pictures.

This is actually another item that I covered back when I was writing Professor Damien’s Public Domain Treasure Chest, back when the first of the modern Cap movies, Captain America: The First Avenger was being released, and here’s what I wrote about it then:

cap2So pretty much anybody that’s been to a theater this summer or watched any kind of television has at least an idea of who Captain America is. The trailer for the new flick lays it out pretty well, and if you’ve actually seen the movie, well, then you’re steps ahead of the game here. Steve Rogers, a scrawny 78 pound weakling who has a big heart but is too stupid to know when to give up in a fight wants desperately to join the army so that he can join his bestest ever friend James “Bucky” Barnes in getting his face shot off in World War II. Repeatedly rejected by the military despite continuously trying and lying about who he is on his enlistment papers, this sad sack is finally spotted by an ex-nazi scientist who wants to continue his experiments in creating the master race of soldiers over here (experiments that the government and military apparently have no problem not only approving but financing, which should really come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the phrase “The Tuskegee Experiment”) and is taken back to a secret laboratory where he is shot chock full of super-steroids and irradiated until he finally becomes enough of a beefcake that the army decides he will, if not win the war single-handedly, at least be useful for some great propaganda films and USO tours.

Yeah, well, forget all of that, at least for today, because that’s not Captain America. At least not in this 1944 Republic serial.

Nope, instead Captain America is in reality crusading district Attorney Grant Gardner. Is he the subject of a secret super soldier program? Well, if so, it’s never mentioned, nor is any connection to the military. (And since poor Dick Purcell who plays Gardner/Cap passed away of a heart attack not long after the filming of the serial, it seems a bit disrespectful to point out that he looks rather more Adam West than Chris Evans, but there you go.) Does Cap spend his time fighting Nazis in Europe and rescuing P.O.W.s? Nope. How about fighting his arch-nemesis the Red Skull? Umm… no, but there is some guy called the Scarab (whose “secret identity” we actually find out in the first chapter, though it takes Cap a little longer). He at least has mind controlling powers. Well, ok, not powers exactly, but he’s got a mind controlling gas that he’s using to make people commit suicide. Bucky? Surely his sidekick Bucky is here in some form, either as a kid sidekick like in the comics or a contemporary and inspiration for Steve, oh, I mean Grant, to keep fighting the good fight? Not unless Grant’s secretary Gail Richards has a nickname that we’re not made privy to.

cap3“Oh, well”, I hear you say, “at least he’s still got the shield. After all, no matter what other changes they might make to the character, as long as he’s got that shield to throw around and bounce off of bad guys, there’s no doubt he’s the real Captain America, no matter what civilian guise he may be under.”

Yeah, kids, sorry. No shield here. Just a regular old revolver.

So what happened? How did Republic wind up making a Captain America serial that really doesn’t appear to have anything at all in common with the comic book character (or any other portrayal of the character) except for a fairly decent version of the costume? (And even it’s missing those little wings on the sides of his mask.)

cap1Well, that appears to be a good question. There is internal paperwork that suggests that Republic began work on the serial going on only a few sketches that the Timely/Marvel Comics company sent over, none of which showed any kind of a military setting or a shield, and by the time protests were made they were simply too far along to change things about. The most common theory, however is that the studio simply took a a script which they already had on hand, but was written for another character (perhaps The Copperhead from 1940’s The Mysterious Doctor Satan or Fawcett comics Mr. Scarlet, whose secret identity actually was “crusading district attorney” Brian Butler) and made enough changes in it to turn it into a Captain America script instead.

Nonetheless, whatever the behind-the-scenes reasons, this is what audiences in 1944 got, and the truth is, once you get past all the changes and simply let the serial unfurl, it’s not a bad piece of work. There’s plenty of action, the villain is nicely played by no less than Lionel Atwill, and the cliffhangers do leave you looking forward to the next chapter.

And it’s certainly more entertaining than the two Reb Brown starring TV movies made in the 70s, and they did have a character named Steve Rogers and super-steroids and a shield. So there is that.

At that point in the original post, I included a chapter of the serial to give my readers a taste of what the serial was like. However, because I love you folks so much, this time around I went ahead and threw together a playlist that will allow you to watch the entire serial, one chapter after the other, along with some bonus material at the end. Here ya go.

By the way, I’ll just mention that if you like watching these serials, you really should click on the Public Domain Treasure Chest link above and take a look, because I used to do a regular Sunday Serial feature there. Also, let me know in the comments below, because if there’s enough interest I might consider reviving it as a regular feature here.

Until next time, as always, Happy Viewing!

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Hope you enjoyed this blast from the past.