Seen at the Movies:

Probably only the powerhouse combination of director Steven Soderbergh, producer James Cameron, and star George Clooney could have gotten a major studio to release a movie like Solaris in the year 2002. A loose remake of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film of the same name (both movies are based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem), Solaris also recalls a more cerebral brand of science fiction that was occasionally produced by Hollywood studios in the late 60s and 70s: not only 2001, but something like the 1971 THX-1138, directed by George Lucas in decidedly pre-Star Wars mode.

The story is fairly simple: at an unspecified date in the future, psychologist Dr. Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is dispatched to the remote space station Prometheus, whose commander has committed suicide and whose two remaining crew members are tormented by a mysterious force. Kelvin soon discovers the variety if not the source of the problem when his deceased wife (Natascha McElhone) starts putting in seductive appearances aboard the station.

I'm a big fan of the original Solaris and of Tarkovsky's work in general. But the late director's movies (they also include Andrei Rublev, Stalker, and The Sacrifice), which are typically long, dense, and slow moving, are not to many people's tastes. Though Soderbergh tells the story in a bit more than 90 minutes—as opposed to Tarkovsky's 165—his Solaris doesn't make a lot of other concessions to restless multiplex audiences. Yet the director's impulse to make an art film is at times undercut by a tendency towards conventional explication, and an American-seeming literal-mindedness. Even if the movie doesn't quite reach a transcendent plane, however, it's a beaut in many departments, from the austere cinematography (credited to Peter Andrews, a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself) and production design by Philip Messina to the subtly futuristic costumes by Milena Canonero. The visual effects, supervised by Brooke Breton, are also minimalist, but quite vibrant in the depiction of the title planet. Also worth mentioning are Cliff Martinez's contemplative score, and the fact that Clooney delivers what is possibly his most passionate performance.

Treasure Planet, the newest animated feature from Disney, is a noisier kind of space opera with a somewhat eccentric gimmick: transposing Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island to space, but retaining traditional sailing vessels and nautical equipment from the book's 19th-century setting. While the conceit is a bit strained, it provides for some real visual splendor, especially if the film can be caught on an IMAX® screen (it was formatted for both 35mm and large-format venues). The 3D digital sets and effects are so vivid that one's notions about the separation between cartoon and live action break down. It's the character drawing and animation that periodically bring us back to the old-fashioned Magic Kingdom, and the fairly uninspired storytelling that hold us there. Treasure Planet is directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, with art direction by Andy Gaskill, visual effects by Dave Tidgwell, and computer graphics imagery supervised by Kyle Odermatt.

On a more adult-themed level, don't miss Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity, one of the year's best movies. The drama's triptych construction provides for portraits of three diverse women (played by Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk) whose fates are separate but momentarily related by chance. DP Ellen Kuras uses the digital video format more sensitively than perhaps anyone else has. (For an article about Kuras' work on the movie, check out the November issue of LD, or read it online.) At times, Personal Velocity looks and feels like an Impressionist painting: its characters' moods are as ephemeral as the weather.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: It’s a shame that The General From America, produced by Theatre for a New Audience, got such chilly reviews; to me, Richard Nelson’s historical drama is one of the most original plays of the season. The title character is Benedict Arnold, an infamous but rather shadowy figure in American history. In Nelson’s telling Arnold is a leading patriot—he led a decisive victory in the Revolutionary War—and also an egotist and blowhard who, under the stress of war, social upheaval, accusations of financial improprieties, and the proddings of his young wife, defects to the British, with disastrous results. The play’s most interesting aspect is its depiction of the American Revolution as a bloody morass of intrigue and betrayals, in which citizens’ committees actively suppress dissent and generals are forced to sign loyalty oaths.

At a time when sentimental patriotism is running amuck, this highly unsentimental history lesson has a bracing effect. The production is not an unalloyed triumph, however: most of the dramatic tension is contained in the first act, with the second devoted to the sad unraveling of Arnold’s career after a plot to capture George Washington goes disastrously awry. Still, Corin Redgrave is superb as Arnold, making him a complex character buffeted by winds of rage and pride, and there is good work also from Jon DeVries as a heartsick, morally compromised Washington, Nicholas Kepros as a British general who takes more than a casual interest in one of his majors, and Jesse Pennington as a suave Alexander Hamilton. Unfortunately, Yvonne Woods’ flat, uninflected line readings do very little for the role of Arnold’s callow, conniving wife.

Douglas Stein’s setting, a wooden deck and back wall consisting mostly of doors, conveys a strong period feeling; it also provides a flexible environment for a script that shuttles between New York, Philadelphia, and West Point. Susan Hilferty’s costumes—military uniforms for the men and period dresses for the ladies--are masterly in their detail; she is especially skilled are creating clothing that is both historically accurate and theatrically appropriate. Scott Lehrer’s sound design provides a constant sense of the world outside each scene, including the sounds of crowds and battles, and makes effective of period music to bridge each scene. James F. Ingalls’ lighting makes an admirable attempt to recreate the candlelit look of those times, but he could up the wattage a little--at times, the actors’ faces are hard to see. One or two scenes, making use entirely of offstage sources spilling through a doorway, don’t really work. Overall, though, The General From America is worth your attention.--David Barbour

Seen in Orlando: Walking the aisles of the recent IAAPA trade show in Orlando was the newly slimmed down version of Phil Lindsey, formerly a pyro-maniac at Disneyland in Anaheim. Not only has Lindsey shed 70 pounds, he's also started a pyro company of his own, A Shot In The Dark Productions, based in Ontario, California. He can be reached at sfxdesigner@yahoo.com.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen in Las Vegas: One of the highlights of LDI2002 in Las Vegas last month was the "Inside Las Vegas" tour of interesting attractions around town. A real standout was a tour of "The Art Of The Motorcycle" (currently on exhibit through January 5) at the Guggenheim Las Vegas at The Venetian Hotel. Lighting designer Traci Klainer, part of the New York City-based Luce Group, led the tour through the two-story exhibit housed in the Guggenheim space designed by architect Rem Koolhaus.

The exhibit itself was designed by architect Frank Gehry, with large, highly reflective polished stainless steel walls, towering chain-link curtains, and glass floors wrapping around an incredible collection of motorcycles. The challenge for Klainer was to effectively light the motorcycles as art in such a reflective environment. She did a great job, proving that lighting design, like the motorcycle, is indeed an art.--ELG

Solaris photo: Bob Marshak/Twentieth Century Fox

The General From America photo: T. Charles Erickson