The Man in the White Suit (1951)

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Now. Some fool has invented an indestructible cloth. Where is he? How much does he want? Humble oddball chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is at a crossroads in his career. He’s been trying to invent a long-lasting clothing fibre, but his unreasonable demands for high-end equipment repeatedly get him fired and now he’s just an odd job man at a factory. Then he creates a white suit that is impervious to the elements – it cannot stain or wrinkle. At first he is celebrated as a hero for this boon to humanity but then the clothing manufacturers led by Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) realise that the perfect suit is actually very bad for business. When company founder Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger) pours cold water on the plan to licence the product Daphne Birnley (Joan Greenwood) pushes Sidney to publicise his idea… Flotsam floating on the floodtide of profit.  Alec Guinness excels as the mild-mannered scientist who thinks he’s improving the ordinary man’s lot but falls foul of the profit imperative in this joyous work from the house of Ealing.  Adapted by Roger MacDougall from his own play with John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick this is a subtle satire about how society changes with the advent of technology.  It gets its political scope from the aghast reaction of the workers who, in league with conservative employers, see their code of restrictive practice threatened. Not as nasty as it could have been (Ealing having its own restrictive comedic praxis) but it’s an awfully good commentary with a wonderful plinkety-plonk soundtrack by Benjamin Frankel (not Franklin) and her own natural auditory effects supplied by the ineffable Miss Greenwood in this darkly delightful ripping yarn! Now that calm and sanity have returned to the textile industry, I feel it my duty reveal something of the true story behind the recent crisis, a story which we were able, happily, to keep out of the newspapers at the time

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Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002

It seems to be reacting:  almost like it knows it’s being observed.  Clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is hired by the DBA corporation to investigate the unexplained behavior of key scientists (including Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies) on space station Prometheus orbiting the planet Solaris. They are traumatised by a phenomenon which appears to have caused the suicide of his friend Dr Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur). Once aboard he too falls victim to this unique world’s mysteries as well as to an erotic obsession with someone he thought he had left behind, his late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who appears beyond his dreams. Are the remaining crew crazy? Is he?... Who is it? What is it? Does it feel?  Can it touch? Does it speak? Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel was adapted for Soviet TV in 1968; and then in 1972 to acclaim by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Therefore it would appear at first glance to be rather unnecessary for an American auteur filmmaker (Steven Soderbergh shot and edited this too) to take on an unoriginal project and remake an acknowledged classic of world cinema. The additions to Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s narratives take the form of flashbacks, creating a tapestry of memories – real and otherwise. It establishes the parameters of Chris’ beliefs, upholstering his character and clarifying the nature of his obsession, building towards a solution for his guilt and a hope of redemption via virtual reality. It’s beautifully designed and looks splendid but somehow it’s hard to care beyond the immediate attractions. Cleverly constructed to form a logical continuum between time, space and memory, it lacks the mystery of really great sci fi in which the universal and the personal become interwoven to the point of being indistinguishable so it’s ironic that despite this being the narrative’s overt theme, it never really lifts off, even if it’s half the length of Tarkovsky’s inimitable and admittedly ponderous version. Produced by James Cameron.

Isle of Dogs (2018)

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I used to sleep on a lamb’s wool beanbag next to an electric space heater. That’s my territory, I’m an ‘indoor’ dog.  By executive decree all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast garbage-dump called Trash Island following an outbreak of flu. 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) sets off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) and including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture…  I wish somebody spoke his language. The films of Wes Anderson have a signature – a look and tone that is unmistakable:  flat, square and symmetrical compositions filled with collectibles adorning an arch and ironic narrative with an amusing bittersweet undertow. The term ‘quirky’ is often used in reviews. His high point has been The Grand Budapest Hotel, a live-action comic drama that used ingenious tropes to express deeply felt ideological and emotional issues: Ralph Fiennes was rightly recognised for his performance in the lead (and should have won the Academy Award); The Royal Tenenbaums has become a definitive NYC movie, often referenced in fashion. He works with a repertory of actors who are now as well known for their association with him over the past two decades as for their other work:  he makes them hip, they lend him gravitas. He alternates these outings with animation/stop-motion effects-led films of which this is one and it’s probably his least appealing – with ineffectual dry humour, a grey palette and fairly expressionless humans (Japanese, and rather blank) turning what should have been a feather-light confection into a dreary one hundred minutes. The wry expressivity of the voice actors is lost in uncompelling characterisations that come off as flat as the drawings. The linguistic jokes are put in an occasional set of (obviously droll) sub-titles so small they are hard to read. It feels like there’s nothing at stake although it’s life and death and there’s a family reunion at hand. A quest narrative needs to have jeopardy but it’s stilted and gives little to the viewer. The best thing about this is the title. Say it a few times and you understand what this is actually about. It’s a shame but, you know, nobody died. Anderson’s screenplay is from a story by himself & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura. Narrated by Courtney B. Vance.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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I need to get off this planet.  Crown Prince of Asgard Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the planet Sakaar and he has a race against time on his hands to return to Asgard and stop the destruction of the world (Ragnarok) by the evil goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett) – who turns out to be his sister. It means teaming up with his awful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is alive after all but can he be trusted?  Dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is on hand to guide him … Written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, director Taika Waititi responds to the humour in the material and the cast are given their funniest outing yet, with a great joke cameo at the beginning. Jeff Goldblum turns up as a Grandmaster glorying in gladiatorial contests and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to join The Revengers – as they call themselves – to help them take on their vicious sister. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) joins in on this mission as a whole society is at stake with Heimdall (Idris Elba) trying to lead them to safety. There’s a lot of intentionally odd 80s-style effects, self-deprecating humour (Thor’s masculinity is tested with a haircut) and a lot of nicely set up action sequences. Good-natured comic book fun in the second Thor sequel and the seventeenth episode of the Marvel series.

Geostorm (2017)

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I worked on this day in and day out, week after week, for years. What did they do? They turned it into a gun.  A few years after 2019 following an unprecedented series of natural disasters that threatened the planet, the world’s leaders’ intricate network of satellites to control the global climate and keep everyone safe is acting strangely.  Dutch Boy’s inventor Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is stroppy and a Senate Committee takes him off his own project and installs his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) in his place. But now, something has gone wrong: the system built to protect Earth is attacking it, and it becomes a race against the clock to uncover the real threat before a worldwide geostorm wipes out everything and everyone along with it. Jake has to go to back to outer space and Dutch Boy to try and suss out what’s gone wrong and finds himself in a political web with devastating outcomes as the machine designed to protect Planet Earth has become weaponised to destroy it and Max is the only person he can trust to get the POTUS to help as there’s a traitor in the crew … I don’t know about you but I’ve spent the last three weeks baking and I don’t mean cookie dough. Three months ago I was snowbound for a week and three months before that a huge storm nearly blew my house away. So even a trashy eco-disaster thriller with shonky FX, sibling rivalry, a barely-there political conspiracy and slim father-daughter story arc, compounded by some of the worst acting on the planet (take a bow, Mr Sturgess!) is somehow comforting in an era when some seriously smart people are arguing against climate change. Is it me?! Thank goodness the great Abbie Cornish is around to help save the world. Co-written by Paul Guyot with producer/director Dean Devlin. Batten down the hatches! And get me some ice…

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Let me give you some advice. Assume everyone will betray you. And you will never be disappointed. Scrumrat Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is separated from his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) on the planet Corellia and finds adventure when he joins a gang of galactic smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and career criminal Val (Thandie Newton) and including a 196-year-old furry Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Indebted to the gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) with whom Qi’ra has now thrown in her lot as a kept woman,  the crew devises a daring plan to travel to the mining planet Kessel to carry out a heist:  the booty is a batch of valuable coaxium, the kind of hyperfuel that gets the big bucks these days. In need of a fast ship, Solo meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the suave owner of the perfect vessel for the dangerous mission – the Millennium Falcon. As Qi’ra joins them on their mission, can she be trusted while a rebellion gets underway?… Let’s forget for a moment that Disney are all about squeezing the lemon dry.  The Star Wars Anthology Series continues with the most blatant sympathy plea ever:  the origins story behind Han and Chewie teaming up, sci fi’s most delectable meet cute.  In fact, tonally this has a lot in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark but then it was written by Lawrence Kasdan (working here with son Jonathan) who did Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders and The Force Awakens so we’re in good hands:  who knows Han better than this guy?! We find out how Han gets his name, how he and Chewie meet (cheers all round!), where he got the golden dice, how he meets dandyish smuggler Lando Calrissian (a welcome return albeit with Glover, who’s terrific) and in the other most anticipated meet cute – seeing the Millennium Falcon for the first time – and how he becomes its owner. Everything you really wanted to know, basically, is here in this SW primer, never mind the abortive milliennial trilogy. In fact this starts at a clip and mostly keeps it up in its own rackety style, with the literary names getting a payoff in a fight with a kind of sea monster out of Jules Verne: epic!  You’ll never mistake Ehrenreich for Solo (he looks too much like a young Orson Welles) but after a while you’ll take this on its own merits as he reluctantly discovers he’s not a complete rogue but a good guy against the background of a truly evil Empire. Interestingly for the principal female, Qi’ra is far from straightforward which will presumably lead us down some black holes in future outings even if Clarke is not convincing. If someone had never seen a Star Wars film (Heaven forfend) this would actually be a pretty good place to start even if I don’t always love it, neither the way it looks (too dirty and grey a lot of the time) nor the pace which doesn’t always maintain its consistency.  Never mind the box office, feel the wit. Directed (eventually) by Ron Howard.

Silent Running (1972)

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It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in – you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.  After the end of all botanical life on Earth, with all the flora and fauna destroyed and forests defoliated, ecologist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) maintains a greenhouse on a space station around the rings of Saturn in order to preserve various plants for future generations. Assisted by three robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie!) and a small human crew (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint), Lowell rebels when he is ordered to destroy the greenhouse in favor of carrying cargo.  The decision he takes puts him at odds with everyone but his robots and they are forced to do anything necessary to keep their invaluable greenery alive. But when he finds himself playing poker with his remaining robots he realises the desperation of loneliness and then his bosses locate him … This is one of a slew of environmentally conscious sci fis from the early 70s. It works because it asks the biggest question:  what do we mean in the universe? And it does so simply and without deep philosophical pondering, it’s just a guy in outer space who wants to save the world and realises he misses human companionship. Dern is superb as the uncomplicated man who tries to save himself. Written by Michael Cimino, Steve Bochco and Deric Washburn. The directing debut of 2001‘s effects guy, Douglas Trumbull:  when you see his charming robots you’ll know why he got a call from George Lucas for Star Wars. Ecological elegance.

Anon (2018)

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I can’t believe my eyes. In the near future, private memories are recorded as ‘Mind’s Eye’ and crime has almost ceased to exist. But in trying to solve a series of murders, troubled detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) stumbles upon a young woman known only as ‘The Girl’ (Amanda Seyfried). She has no identity, no history and is invisible to the cops,  a digital ghost. Sal realizes this may not be the end of crime, and it could be the beginning of it…  A Sky Cinema Original, you’ve got to admire any channel run by a megalomaniac that decides to fund films and one about mining personal data in a heavily surveilled state to boot. And then shoots an NYC-set movie elsewhere and camouflages it by grading it to grayscale. Owen is a limited actor at the best of times but he’s really phoning it in here albeit the writing is so ironically expository it’s understandable. None of the performers acquits themselves admirably including Seyfried and Colm Feore as another detective. Going where those lesser-known filmmakers Hitchcock and Spielberg have already been by implicating the voyeur in factual crimes, writer/director Andrew Niccol ponders point-of-view hacking in the realm of science fiction and dreams up a dreary monochromatic dud with a presumed first (I wouldn’t know) in non-porn cinema – the point of view of a man having anal sex with a woman: the come shot as it were. Painful. OMG.

The Dark Tower (2017)

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Darkness is your weapon, guns are mine.  Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, is locked in an eternal battle with evil sorcerer Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black. The Gunslinger must prevent the Man in Black from toppling the Dark Tower, the key that holds the universe together. With the fate of worlds at stake, two men collide in the ultimate battle between good and evil. with the Man in Black using the powers of clairvoyant children to target the Tower with their minds. This takes place in Mid-World, a parallel universe to present day New York where teenaged Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is being sent to therapists because of his inability to deal with his father’s death, his new stepfather and these mythical characters from his dreams that he draws … I’m not invested in the later works of Stephen King the way I am in the classic era of his 70s and 80s output so the poor reception for this adaptation of his bestselling saga didn’t bother me. As a viewer, no matter the origins, it does bother me however. A mythical exercise, it boasts King’s usually passionate and symbolic argument this time set in a wasteland but the short running time (91 minutes) gives you a clue that they knew this was a dog with whole sub-plots reduced to shards of suggestion. Reducing an eight-volume 3,000 word story of graphic violence nodding to Tolkien, the Arthur legends and spaghetti westerns to this length for a young audience may be one explanation. Apparently Akiva Goldsman took the central section as the principal material but that doesn’t excuse the shonky CGI and silly fights.  Elba does his serious spittle-enhanced enunciating act waving guns around while McConaughey skirts the edges of camp as the evil sorcerer/disco dancer whose very words can cause instant death. An oddity that had real promise but if you ever saw The Neverending Story you’ll have seen this, pretty much and if you recall The Shining you’ll know that calling Jake’s talent The Shine really reminds us of something far better in the meta-universe.  Directed by Nikolaj Arcel with a screenplay by him, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen.