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A planet to make you think, another to make you drink

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I think we might be asking too much of our movie-going audience. After a summer full of arthouse films disguised as blockbusters, Hollywood thought they could sneak Punch-Drunk Love in the back door without anyone noticing that Adam Sandler didn't do any of his crazy voices or sing "The Chanukah Song" in it. I recently had the distinct displeasure of standing near the exit of a theater showing Love, and was treated to the moronic comments of mouth-breathers who thought they were going to see The Waterboy 2:

            "Dude, what the fuck was that?"

            "I don't know. The only funny part was when he smashed that glass door thing."

            Now we're asking the very same dunderheads to swallow Solaris, which re-teams the creative talent that brought us Ocean's 11 (namely, director Steven Soderbergh and star George Clooney):

            "Hey, Jeff --- those Ocean's 11 guys made a new movie."

            "Mmmm... Ocean's 11 good."

            "We get meat first."

            "Mmmm... meat good."

            [This is most likely followed by a high-five or, possibly, a chest bumping.]

            But don't expect Ocean's 11. Don't expect a sci-fi thriller. Don't expect Solaris to be like anything Soderbergh has ever done. And, thankfully, don't expect it to be nearly three hours long, which was the running time of the first screen version of Stanislaw Lem's novel when the Russians made it back in 1972 (it won two awards at Cannes and is one of the oldest cult hits you've never heard of). Soderbergh, who gets the first screenwriting credit he's received on a film he's directed since 1983's King of the Hill, whittles the essence of Lem's story down to a running time that's much more ass-friendly.

            Solaris begins at an unspecified time in the distant future, where Chris Kelvin (Clooney) attends support group meetings to deal with the grief of losing his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone). He looks sad, mentally beaten and, with his quickly graying temples, more than a little like Robert Forster. One day, Chris gets a crazy message from an acquaintance named Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who is running a mission exploring a distant planet called Solaris from the spacecraft Prometheus. Gibarian says he wants Chris to join him on the Prometheus, but never really says why. "Amazing things are happening here," he crows.

            When Chris concludes the long journey to the Prometheus, he discovers a bunch of bloody handprints and two corpses as soon as he boards the ship. One of the stiffs is the decidedly less-enthusiastic Gibarian. The only two remaining members of the crew --- Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davis) --- talk in the same kind of spooky riddles Gibarian used in his message to Chris. Hoping things might make more sense after some quality shut-eye, Chris hits the sheets and has a dream about his late wife. When he wakes up, she's right there in bed with him --- as alive as she can be.

            This all happens within the first half-hour, and telling you any more of the plot might ruin the story. I will warn you that you'll need to bring your brain. There's a lot more going on in Solaris than Clooney baring his ass (it looks like he's wearing a black thong --- he's one hairy fella). That whole flap over the MPAA and Clooney's posterior seems like it was drummed up just to get the film some publicity. Since the word of mouth(breathing) won't be strong, Fox wants as many people as possible to see Solaris during its first weekend. It's too bad some people won't take a chance on the film, which features Clooney's best performance to date (by far) and a turn by McElhone that I like better and better the more I think about it (she's really playing four different roles here).

            For Jeff and his buddy, the beautiful and beautifully made Solaris will put the "mal" in minimalism. With long stretches containing no dialogue, it's a slow, sterile, meditative, thought-provoking film that will leave many unanswered questions rattling around in your head (other than "Dude, you wanna go to Taco Bell?"). It will make you think about your own existence. It will make you re-examine The Big Picture. Or, if you're just not into films with non-linear narratives that don't spell everything out, maybe it will make you want to kick in a glass door thing.

            Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has already been adapted for the screen over a dozen times, starring everyone from Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, to Orson Welles and Charlton Heston, to Kermit the Frog and the guy who played Mel on Alice. Now it's back again, but with two special updates: The story has been transplanted to the space age, and it's appearing in the super-duper IMAX format, in addition to regular theaters (this is actually the first time the same film has been released in both 35mm and 70mm formats simultaneously). Neither modernization should have you or your kids clamoring to see Treasure Planet, but it provides safe and decent family entertainment for parents too scared of this week's other animated film (Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights).

            Planet takes place in the distant future on a non-Earth-type world. Like the unpopular but very entertaining Fox television show Firefly, the characters act like they're living around the beginning of the 20th century, even though they fly around in spaceships and stuff. Our protagonist is young Jim Hawkins, who we meet as he reads a 3D book about a bloodthirsty pirate named Captain Flint and his hidden plunder, which is referred to as "the loot of a thousand worlds."       Flash forward 12 years, where Jim (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is now an earring-wearing, probation-enjoying, rat-tailed, windsurfing, skateboarding, free-falling kind of kid with big eyebrows (thick like Denise Richards; not bushy, like Andy Rooney). His father abandoned the family, leaving Jim's miserable mom to work a thankless job at a local restaurant. Jim doesn't care about getting into trouble, because he thinks his future is shot.

            Enter Billy Bones, who crashes near Jim's house and, before dropping dead, gives the kid an orb and warns him about a dangerous cyborg who has been trying to relieve him of it. The orb, of course, reveals the location of the planet where Captain Flint hid his booty so many years ago. Together with the financial help of a nerdy astrophysicist/restaurant patron named Dr. Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), Jim is able to commission a ship to fly to the titular treasure planet. While the foxy captain (Emma Thompson) and Thing-look-alike first mate (Roscoe Lee Browne) seem like a professional duo, the rest of the crew seem a bit shady. Especially the one-eyed, one-handed, one-legged cook (Brian Murphy), who goes by the name John Silver (naturally, his seafood preparation is quite dazzling).

            What follows is a typical trip that resembles The Goonies as much as it does Stevenson's novel (dig the name of the ship: the RLS Legacy --- a tribute to the author). Well, "typical" other than the Silver character --- he's either the best-developed Disney villain of all-time, or a total cop-out, because he never gets punished for any of the bad shit he does. Some of the visuals are stunning, like when what we think is just a regular old crescent moon turns out to be a spaceport, and a supernova-turned-black-hole. But when compared to a Shrek or a Monsters, Inc., Planet just doesn't cut it.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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