Steven Soderbergh

Solaris

14/09/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As soon as I see Solaris advertised, I find myself thinking, ‘How the hell are they going to make this work onstage?’ Most of us familiar with the title will know it from the infamous Andrei Tarkovsky film of 1972. Rather fewer of us will have seen Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, in which a bemused-looking George Clooney wanders listlessly around a space station, haunted by ghosts from his past.

But this version, adapted by David Greig from Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 source novel, sticks closely to the original concept, though it does take the opportunity to gender-swap the lead protagonist.

Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Polly Frame) arrives at a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, which is composed entirely of water. The crew have lost contact with Earth and Kris has been sent to find out what’s going on. She discovers that Sartorius (Jade Ogugua) and Snow (Fode Simbo) seem extremely discombobulated by recent events, which include the death of Kris’s old mentor, Dr Gibarian (Hugo Weaving, appearing courtesy of a series of videos that Gibarian is meant to have recorded before his demise).

It turns out that both Sartorius and Snow are being haunted by key characters from their pasts: alien dopplegangers, created from water, that eerily mimic the originals. Kris too is soon back in contact with Ray (Keegan Joyce), an old flame, who – she knows only too well – drowned years ago… and as she starts to rediscover what she liked about him in the first place, she becomes understandably torn between the strictures of science and her human emotions.

Despite its B movie premise, this production benefits from Hyemi Shin’s extraordinarily accomplished set design. A screen portrays a restless ocean, rising periodically to reveal a stark, roofed set, ingeniously devised so that – in the blink of an eye – it can transform into a different location aboard the space station. The arrival of Ray is at first a source of dark humour but, as the story goes on, it moves into more emotive territory as he begins to question what he actually is and, consequently, his reason for existence.

At the heart of Solaris lurks the grim spectre of loneliness; the story asks how far indivuals are prepared to go in order to ensure that they are loved. Matthew Lutton’s pacy direction keeps everything bubbling along nicely, and I particulary relish the presence of Sartorius’s drowned daughter (Almila Kaplangi/Maya McKee), which gives the events the delicious frisson of a traditional ghost story.

Solaris grips right up to its revelatory conclusion: even habitual sci-fi haters will find plenty to enjoy here.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Unsane

21/03/18

Continuing what must be the most unconvincing retirement in cinematic history, Steven Soderbergh is back once again with this energetic little exploitation movie. Allegedly shot on iPhones, it’s the story of a young woman’s struggle with an obsessive stalker. It’s fast-paced and occasionally gripping, even if the plot line sometimes causes the involuntary raising of eyebrows.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy, a long way from Buckingham Palace), has relocated to Pennsylvania after suffering two years of being terrorised by David Strine (Joshua Leonard), a man who first became infatuated with her when she nursed his dying father. But when she starts spotting a familiar bearded face around the office in which she now works, she starts to wonder if her mind is playing tricks on her. She decides to visit a psychiatrist and, during an apparently informal one-to-one,  confesses that she  sometimes has thoughts of suicide. She is asked to sign some papers, which she does. Before she quite knows what’s happening, she realises she has just committed herself to be an inmate of the Highland Creek Behavioural Centre, a place that specialises in admitting ordinary people and exploiting them until their medical insurance runs out.  Foy handles the slow realisation of her predicament brilliantly and Soderbergh maintains a steadily mounting sense of paranoia throughout, even though the  concept does seem decidedly far-fetched. We are reminded several times that Highland Creek isn’t averse to bending the rules, but really? It’s that easy to find yourself locked up? Gosh, I hope not.

Things rapidly get worse for Sawyer, with the arrival of a hospital orderly who looks and acts exactly like her old adversary, Strines. But is he real… or just a product of Sawyer’s disturbed mind? As the tension racks up, she has only two people she can turn to for help – her estranged mother, Angela (Amy Irving), and fellow inmate, Nate (Jay Pharaoh), a man who may not be exactly what he seems. Everyone else she speaks to treats her like somebody who has, well, lost touch with reality.

To fully enjoy this, you’ll need to be able to suspend your disbelief – and it’s not always easy. It’s well acted and queasily credible at times, but scenes that show Foy running around an apparently deserted building do make me smile at inappropriate moments. What’s happened to all the staff? And how can a hospital orderly exercise such total control over the place in which he works?

Still, it’s nice to have Soderbergh back, even if this doesn’t quite measure up to his finest work. And if this is an example of what can be achieved using an iPhone, then surely we really have entered an age where becoming a film director is as easy as pulling out your mobile – although most of us won’t be able to call on old pal, Matt Damon, to put in a virtually uncredited cameo role as a security expert.

Still, no worries. Pass me that phone. Now… quiet on set, please! And, action!

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Logan Lucky

07/09/17

It’s four years since Steven Soderbergh made the shock announcement that he was retiring from filmmaking. Mind you, he hasn’t exactly been putting his feet up with a cup of cocoa. There’s the little matter of directing two seasons of medical TV show, The Knick (under an alias) and his involvement in the upcoming project Mosaic (of which I know very little, other than it’s a ‘branching narrative’) So there’s the distinct impression that he may have returned to the big screen with Logan Lucky for a quieter life.

In a way, he’s returning to familiar territory, as this is a heist movie, a path he’s already worn fairly smooth. But put aside all thoughts of the slick, ultra cool Oceans 11. As one character observes in Rebecca Blunt’s caustic script, this is more like Oceans 7/11 – a tattered, down-at-heel story set in West Virginia. (John Denver on the soundtrack? Naturally.)

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his luck former sports star, who loses his job as a bulldozer driver because of an old injury which has left him with a permanent limp. Divorced from his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and with a precocious young daughter to care for, he comes up with a desperate scheme to make money, one that he shares with his taciturn one-armed war veteran brother, Clyde (Adam Driver). The two of them will rob the Coca Cola 600 Race in Charlotte, Virginia, a massive sporting event that generates millions of dollars. Clyde decides that he’s ‘in’ but, to carry out the robbery, the brothers will need to enlist the services of infamous explosives expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig, as you have never seen him before). Only problem is, Joe is already doing time for other misdemeanours, so the brothers will need to break him out of jail, do the heist and get him back inside without his presence being missed. Complicated? You bet. Impossible? Well, it’s going to take some planning and, of course, this is exactly the kind of premise that Soderbergh loves to play with.

There’s plenty here to enjoy. Tatum and Driver work well together, even if they are the most unlikely film siblings since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Riley Keough puts in an appealing performance  as Jimmy’s resourceful sister, Mellie, and both Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are brilliant as Joe’s dumb-and-dumber brothers, Fish and Sam, who Joe insists must be brought on board to help expedite the robbery. And Craig really does have a whale of a time as the outlandish explosives expert, addicted to eating hard boiled eggs and able to create explosives from the most innocuous ingredients. Gummy Bears? Who knew?

But not everything in the mix is perfect. I could have done without Seth MacFarlane’s oafish Max Chilblane, sporting an English accent that’s almost as bad as the one employed by Don Cheadle in the Oceans movies. Hilary Swank is mostly wasted in the role of a ruthless investigator trying to nail the perpetrators of ‘the Hillbilly Heist’, given little to do but stand around and glower at people and, in my opinion – at just under two hours – the film is about thirty minutes too long. A leaner, meaner narrative would have helped no end here, but perhaps I’m quibbling. This is a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema and there’s no doubt that Soderbergh has returned to the movie business with a palpable hit.

What next for him, I wonder? Another ‘retirement?’ More TV? And that branching narrative he keeps mentioning? We’ll just have to wait and see.

4 stars

Philip Caveney