The Island (2005)

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I have discovered the Holy Grail of science – I give life! Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) lives in a sterile colony, one of thousands of survivors of The Contamination who dream of going to The Island. One of his friends is Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and she doesn’t believe him when he dreams things he knows he hasn’t experienced and then discovers they are clones waiting to have their organs harvested for humans outside somewhere:  he sees a moth in a ventilation shaft when visiting his engineer friend McCord (Steve Buscemi). They are really living in an elaborate organ lab run by Merrick (Sean Bean) who hires mercentary Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) when Lincoln and Jordan escape to the real world … McGregor and Johansson are superb as the clones who realise their humanity and make you stick with a drama that takes a little while to get going in that sterile facility that we have seen a hundred times. But when it takes off it never stops and it’s pretty heart-pounding. This takes potshots at eugenics, organ harvesting, the modern day obsession with breeding that leads to murderous mass surrogacy programmes, and ultimately the kind of control by tech billionaires that we all rightly fear:  the penultimate scene using a gas chamber tells you all you need to know about where we are all heading in this Nazified world of ours which seems even more relevant 12 years after this was released. The ultimate irony about this clone drama is that it is itself a clone – of a novel called Spares and 1979 movie The Clonus Horror to the extent that a massive seven-figure settlement was made by DreamWorks to the plaintiffs. Nonetheless it’s a gripping portrait of futureshock and all that it implies for contemporary life. Be very afraid. 2019 is just a breath away! Screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci from a story by Caspian Tredwell-Owen. Directed by Michael Bay.

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Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)

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They come cheaper by the dozen you know! Frank Gilbreth (Clifton Webb) and his wife Lillian (Myrna Loy) are efficiency experts – they would need to be with their enormous family – two are born in the course of the story, adapted from the biographical book by their son and daughter Frank and Ernestine by writer/producer Lamar Trotti. It’s a sweet, episodic narrative about the trials and tribulations of a good-natured family dealing with a house move, Father’s desire for recognition (talk of an invitation to a conference in Prague) and Mother (a psychologist) manfully giving birth to the twelfth child, a son, on father’s orders. The main drama is one boy’s desire for a dog and eldest daughter Ann (Jeanne Crain, who was 25 playing a teen) and her desire to be a flapper and cut her hair to stop being a freak.  Father believes in improving all his brood and amongst other things wants them to be great musicians but secretly knows they’re tuneless. There’s a very good scene when it turns out a fed up neighbour has suggested Mother be the local rep for Planned Parenthood. This was made at the height of Webb’s fame as Mr Belvedere and he’s terrific as the dad who is full of surprises – just watch him show the kids’ new headmistress how to bathe in seconds flat! – with Loy her usually sharp self. It looks lovely courtesy of legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy and is nicely put together by director Walter Lang with thoroughly charming performances in a comic drama which uniquely for the Americana being produced at the time is finally tinged with tragedy.

 

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

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Will I be plagued till my dying day by that infernal Jew? Keen young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) contacts the renowned Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) from South America with the startling news that Nazi war criminals are gathering in Paraguay under the aegis of Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). As he phones him a recording of a meeting detailing a strange plan he is killed and Mengele realises someone knows something they shouldn’t…. In Vienna, Lieberman opens a packet of photos Barry sent him and tries to make sense of what he’s heard – why must 94 sixty-five year old male civil servants in several different countries be killed by a certain date? After speaking to Nazi guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison he finds out that several male babies were adopted in the Sixties by women who were 23 years younger than their husbands. After speaking with biologist Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) he discovers that cloning is indeed possible and not necessarily from living donors:  Mengele has bred mini-Hitlers and is having them raised in conditions akin to those in which his glorious leader lived (his father was a civil servant who died before the boy was 15). Lieberman must stop the plot to rekindle the Fourth Reich. Ira Levin’s speculative fiction is probably closer to happening now than it was in the Seventies – since which time IVF, cloning and three-parent babies are a mere thought away from what Mengele was doing in his horrifying twins experiments in Auschwitz. So this is a lot less like science fiction than it is science fact. It plugs into the real-life work of Simon Wiesenthal (with Olivier perhaps atoning for his sins in Marathon Man!) when real-life Nazis were still relatively young and of course a huge number of high profile SS men were known to be living freely in sympathetic countries like Brazil and Argentina (never mind running Austria and Germany). It also uses the Lebensborn project as a basis for what is now entirely feasible – apparently. James Mason plays Eduard Seibert, the man who comes to rain on Mengele’s crazy rainforest parade but not before Mengele makes his way to Lancaster Pennsylvania to murder Wheelock (John Dehner) the father of the fourth cloned Hitler (Jeremy Black) a child who is as obnoxious and snotty as his copies in London and elsewhere but has a crucially murderous nature which Lieberman discovers after the boy sets the family’s Doberman’s on Mengele. There is a fight to the death – but whose?  This is literally sensational and for connoisseurs of Nazi villains (in cinema) it’s bizarre to see the great liberal actor Peck have a go at Walter Gotell whom he thinks is betraying his plan for world domination. Didn’t they meet in The Guns of Navarone?! Bizarre also to see Bruno Ganz pontificating about clones when his own resemblance to Hitler meant he would play him years later in Downfall. Most bizarre is the fact that Mengele was still alive (for at least another year, possibly longer) when this was released. And for all we know all those Germans in South America (and Europe) have already got their fortysomething men waiting in the wings. Adapted by Heywood Gould and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this had 25 minutes cut for theatrical release in Germany. Poor things! When will everybody stop talking about the Third Reich already?! In the words of the great Dr Henry Jones Jr., Nazis, I hate these guys.

The China Syndrome (1979)

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I know the vibration was not normal. A lot of films depend on luck to make a success – and a matter of days after this was released there was a major incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. So a story about an accident in a nuclear plant that is filmed by a TV crew that usually does soft news and how that impacts on the news cycle, the plant supervisor and potentially the wider environment, saw reality and cinema converge in the most immediate fashion.  Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) has nice hair and does a great job covering idiotic stuff to put at the end of the evening show in LA but wants to cover more serious stories. Cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector (Daniel Valdez) accompany her to a local nuclear plant where they witness a shudder that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) says should not have happened and he quarrels with colleague Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) about safety when the reactor is going to be cranked up. The film is stopped from being broadcast and the news crew try to protect Jack when he holes up in a motel so they can get an exclusive story. His bosses are on a mission to stop him from going public at an environmental hearing and are prepared to leave no murder attempt unturned … Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and director James Bridges, this was produced by Michael Douglas, who has always recognised a zeitgeist when he’s met one. This is as much an indictment of the politics of news production as it is about the propaganda behind the supposed safety of nuclear energy. Nobody comes out of this looking good. Excellent, tense storytelling, all the more extraordinary for a total lack of music other than Stephen Bishop’s theme song: the shudder of the reactor is terrifying enough and the acting from Fonda and Lemmon is superb, embodying their emblematic images as frustrated feminist activist and sympathetic conscientious objector – and in that order!

A Boy and his Dog (1975)

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It’s 2024. World War Four lasted five days and devastated the world as we know it. Vic (Don Johnson) and his clever telepathic dog Blood (Tiger, voiced by Tim McIntire) are foraging in the dangerous and doomy post-apocalyptic landscape of the southwest US when they happen upon Topeka, an underground pastiche of real middle class life as it used to be. He’s taken in by Quilla June (Susanne Benton) who’s a sexy ruse to get him to help father a new generation for a community led by Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) – all those guys living underground don’t have Vitamin D so can’t reproduce any more.  He leaves Blood overground, much to the dog’s annoyance:  he knows something is up …  Actor L.Q. Jones directed and co-wrote (with producer Alvy Moore) the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 novella when the author got writer’s block. Reportedly Ellison liked it pretty much until the final line – which is glib and misogynistic even for a black comedy.  Ellison’s work is focused on procreation rather than alien invasion which makes him rather unusual for the sci-fi fraternity. Johnson makes for an attractive lead – until he gets down and dirty and Tim McIntire is a wonder as Blood.  He composed the score with Ray Manzarek of The Doors (and Jaime Mendoza-Nava). Although it was a commercial failure it turned out to be hugely influential if you’ve seen the Mad Max series. Jones had hoped to make a sequel starring a girl, but once the fabulous Tiger died, the plans evaporated. Maybe …

 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

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Got a whale of a tale to tell ya lads! It’s 1868.  Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are stuck in San Francisco because of a disruption in the Pacific’s shipping lanes. The US invites them to join an expedition to prove it’s due to a sea monster. On board with them is the whaler Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and they find that the creature is actually a submarine, the Nautilus, piloted by the rather eccentric Captain Nemo (James Mason). The three get thrown overboard and end up joining Nemo, who brings them to the island of Rura Penthe, a penal colony, where he and his crew were held prisoner. When they are stranded off New Guinea the men are allowed ashore where Ned almost gets caught by cannibals. When a warship finds them the Nautilus plunges underwater and there’s an amazing battle with a giant squid. Then Ned entertains us by playing music to a sea lion. Nemo says he wants to make peace but tries planting a bomb at the ships’ base … Wildly exciting, funny, dramatic adventure adapted by Earl Felton from Jules Verne’s novel and Richard Fleischer directed for Disney and stages it brilliantly. Marvellous and gripping pre-steampunk stuff!

Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

Inferno (2016)

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Humanity is the disease, inferno is the cure. The second sequel to The Da Vinci Code begins horribly. By which I mean it looks like one of those cheapo knockoffs you see on The Horror Channel in the wee small hours (and otherwise). A lecturer (Ben Foster) throws himself off a tower after being chased. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, returning for the third entry in the series) wakes up in a hospital being tended by a doctor with an enormous overbite (Felicity Jones) – frightening in itself. She tells him he’s been shot while he has terrible hallucinations with blood pouring in torrents and people with faces back to front (you can see how that might happen given the company and a presumed brain injury). He’s lost his memory and has no idea how he’s wound up in Italy. Then some woman pretending to be police murders another doctor and the pair make away from the gunfire with some difficulty given he’s hooked up to IVs all over the shop. He’s been given a painting that depicts The Inferno but his copy contains elements that don’t belong in the original. And so we set off on a chase around the Uffizi and then we’re off to Istanbul and a rather interesting ending in a cave with shades of The Man Who Knew Too Much with some visits to the World Health Organisation in between. The visual palette is awful. It looks just like a brown below-par giallo. There is nothing to indicate that this is any good but its place in the Dan Brown symbology behemoth is typically humourless (despite the presence of the hilarious Paul Ritter) and unimaginative – let’s face it, we’re in Florence with a doctor called Sienna, which would indicate a left/right brain issue and not just Langdon’s. And so it goes. The lecturer though is revealed to be a billionaire keen to solve a global issue. We can all read the legal judgments on where Mr Brown got his stories:  I’ve read Lewis Perdue’s novels so I’ve a pretty good idea. However this is tampering with Dante. I know David Koepp is the rather gifted screenwriter entrusted with the book (and I must put my cards on the table and admit I’ve not read this one) and he’s not responsible for the choices of director Ron Howard (him again) or any aesthetic decisions. Hey – it’s an action thriller with Tom Hanks (paired again with Sidse Babett Knudsen after their desert romp …) and the world overpopulation problem. If you can find those old rose-tinted spectacles (literally) you might quite enjoy some of the incendiary scenes and a somewhat tantalising villain. And some running. Ho. Hum.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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How can you tell what’s a glitch and what’s me? In the near future Major (Scarlett Johansson) is a human enhanced with a cybernetic physique who’s been engineered to take on violent criminals. Rescued from a sinking boat that drowned her parents, she’s experiencing strange thoughts she cannot decipher. Meanwhile a terror group is attacking what appears to be the science project (2571) that created her in the first place – and she suspects her true origins are not what she’s been told. Partnered with a proper human, Pilou Asbaek from TV’s Borgen (aka Boring chez moi), she’s working for legendary Takeshi Kitano and appealing to the better instincts of the scientist (Juliette Binoche) who created her when things get rough. Then she meets the guy behind all the attacks and those memories or glitches remind her of something else than the past she’s been programmed with. Now she has to choose what side she belongs on. This is a perfectly judged adaptation (and remake) of an iconic manga/anime by Shirow Masamune, adapted by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger (haven’t heard from him in a while – welcome back). It’s reminiscent of a lot of other films – principally (and happily) Blade Runner – yet it’s done with a lightness of touch that escapes a lot of other future-genre cyborg outings. ScarJo is tremendous in the lead as the woman whose humanity overpowers the machine and seeks her origins. It plays perfectly into her star text, from her casting (we all know she’s Natasha in that comic book franchise) to that telling shot of her lying on her side in her panties in a Japanese skyscraper (remember the star-making shot in Lost in Translation?); while her pulchritude is aggressively put out there not just in her movement – barreling about, arms akimbo – but in that genital-free nudie action outfit as she powers through the air. It’s great to see Michael Pitt (billed as Michael Carmen Pitt) as her male Other or predecessor and the weirdly romantic way in which they look at each other and themselves as different evolutionary iterations of their selves in a world overwhelmed by technology companies, scientists interfering in conception (three parents, anyone?!) and where privacy is a thing of the past (sound familiar?). Whose memories does she experience? Rupert Sanders knows just how to stage this – there’s no excess, it’s just enough of everything and the science even works.  There are a lot of small things to appreciate in addition to the sweeping concept – the wonderfully 90s costuming by Kurt and Bart (I think I own one of those coats), the sweet way the animals are treated that’s so typical of anime and the mournful score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe. It’s also a great exercise in existential dread and marvellously free of the built-in snark that has come to distinguish most American live action comix of late. If it reminds me of anything else it’s Total Recall with Der Arnold’s line, If I’m not me den who de hell am I?! And what’s better than that? Great stuff.

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Three black women in a car get stopped by a cop. Turns out they’re not joyriders. It’s early 1960s Virginia and they’re mathematicians at NASA where Kevin Costner is watching the Russians send a monkey and a mannequin into space via satellite while they’re still trying to work out orbital range and stopping potential astronauts from burning up on re-entry. Everyone’s under pressure so it’s time to call in the coloured women in that other building with their own special lavatory facility. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi this tells the hitherto little-known true story of the gifted women who got those rockets into space. Kathryn Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, Cookie in TV’s Empire), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (pop singer Janelle Monae) are the three friends who are the numbers wizards and Jim Parsons is the head math guy in Costner’s wing who resents Johnson’s preternatural abilities which she still keeps up despite having to run a few miles every day to the coloured bathroom. Out of the loop and fed heavily redacted material, she still bests every man in sight. And they’re all white. John Glenn (Glen Powell) visits the site and makes sure to shake the hands of the human computers to the evident annoyance of supervisor Kirsten Dunst and it takes a village led by him and Costner to start slowly moving mountains – not from an altruistic position but because it makes sense to get good people to work faster since it’s a space race (in those days you didn’t get medals for just taking part.) Plus he doesn’t want to be burned alive and he trusts human judgement more than machines (the new IBM is kind of a running joke but with a different outcome than in Mad Men.)  Johnson is romanced by Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali and everything works out in the end: Glenn re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and they all get with the space programme. Some of the ‘facts’ are not even true but hyped up for effect (Johnson used a white bathroom). This is bland biographical soapy drama so keen not to offend that it loses its narrative affect early on. Just as the ladies keep their heads down and step back from the racial segregation demos (who has the time when they’re putting men in rockets) this sticks to calculating the optimum conditions for a launch into orbit and a safe return. And look what that focus has achieved at the box office – gold. Which is the only colour that matters in Hollywood. Stunningly shot by Mandy Walker, the vintage newsreel inserts are wonderful.