In the past week we entered Phase II of our Summer Soderbergh Festival, and were rewarded with three winners that demonstrate the versatility of the man who may be the most prolific filmmaker this side of Woody Allen.
We started with "Solaris," a 2002 remake of a 1972 Russian film treasured by an impressive cadre of serious cinephiles. I'd never heard of it until I read that it was going to be remade, but then again it's not as if I watch a lot of Russian films.
"Solaris" is the kind of science-fiction that engages the mind and poses thought-provoking questions instead of offering a lot of special effects and action sequences (I don't have a problem with those kinds of movies, but it's nice to have some of the other kind every now and then). George Clooney is very good as Chris Kelvin, a psychologist who is clearly struggling following the death of his wife. After we see some scenes of Kelvin's daily life, he receives a message from his friend Dr. Gibarian, who is aboard a space station above the planet Solaris. Without going into details, Gibarian pleads with Kelvin to join him on the station, but when he arrives one of the first things he finds is that Gibarian is dead. All that appears to be left from the crew are Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis), and Snow (Jeremy Davies) - and both are pretty messed up, to put it lightly. Snow warns Kelvin that when he finally goes to sleep, he might want to consider locking his door.
When Kelvin finally does sleep, he is visited by his dead wife, who seems to know everything about him and herself, except how she got there. How she got there is the riddle posed by the movie, and as the plot advances we eventually learn that perhaps our assumptions about intelligent life and its purpose are far away from anything we might have imagined. The movie posits a compelling premise dealt with in previous stories, including "Star Trek: Generations" and Alan Moore's brilliant Superman story, "For the Man Who Has Everything" - provided the opportunity to live the life of our dreams, what would we choose? And is that dream life any less "real" than life itself?
We then moved on to what surely is Soderbergh's biggest hit, "Erin Brockovich" - the movie that won Julia Roberts an Oscar, and deservedly so. Amazingly enough I had never seen it, and was more than duly impressed. Movies like this are proof that movies designed to be popular entertainment can also be artistically rewarding. From Roberts down, the cast is perfect, especially Albert Finney as the lawyer who eventually learns to take Brockovich seriously, even as her outfits and demeanor become more outrageous. Another winner.
And last night we moved to "The Limey," almost the polar opposite of "Brockovich" - opposite in the sense that with this movie, Soderbergh was clearly taking advantage of his success to make the kind of movie that he wanted to make - a movie developed and crafted around an actor who during his career has been as great as he has been under-appreciated - Terence Stamp. Stamp is breathtaking in the role, playing a English thief recently out of prison, known simply as "Wilson," who travels to the states to find out who was responsible for his daughter's death, and take vengeance on those parties. Similar to Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast," Stamp is a force of nature - wreaking havoc on all those who cross his path. Those in his path include Peter Fonda, somewhat wimpy as a Phil Spector type rock mogul, and Barry Newman, mostly known for TV roles but riveting in the role of enforcer and all around nasty guy. The always reliable Luis Guzman is also outstanding, as a friend of the daughter who helps Wilson in his quest. Good stuff.
Not all of Soderbergh's movies are great, but he should always get the benefit of the doubt because he is constantly testing himself, and trying new things. There's few genres that he isn't comfortable working in, and when you see one of his movies, you're assured of seeing something interesting.