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Posts Tagged ‘Sandra Bullock’

As regular readers may recall, my friend Olinka’s suggestion that we go to see Hereditary did not exactly result in a glowingly successful evening, but one duff movie is not enough to dissuade her and she suggested we have another go, at a film of my choosing this time. Of the options which I offered, she plumped for Ocean’s Eight, which makes a certain kind of sense – this movie is kind of being marketed as a comedy thriller, and Olinka tends to assume any film she sees is a comedy thriller until forcibly persuaded otherwise. Well, you know, I saw the three Ocean films with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, and this one has an interesting cast, so Gary Ross’ new movie looked like a reasonable bet.

(I bet there was some serious hardball involved in deciding who got which place on this poster, especially the spots on the right hand side. It also occurs to me that someone didn’t realise that ‘pro’ has more than one meaning in colloquial English.)

Things get underway with Debbie Ocean (Sandy Bullock) attending her parole hearing, as she has apparently been in the big house for the past five years. Having been successful in getting herself let out of the slammer, she slinks off into New York wearing the evening gown in which she was apparently arrested. This sequence basically does the job in getting the narrative underway, but also raises a couple of important flags for the audience – firstly, it is established that George Clooney’s character (Bullock’s brother) has very definitely carked it, so one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up for a cameo from the big man, and secondly, it is made clear that this is the kind of film where attitude and appearance are more important than credibility or things actually making sense.

Debbie has spent the last five years working out every detail of a reasonably complicated robbery (they occasionally refer to it as a con, but it is basically just nicking other people’s property with a pinch of get-your-own-back time). To assist her in executing her scheme, she recruits her best friend (Cate Blanchett), who is also a criminal, as well as a dippy fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a housewife and part-time fence (Sarah Paulson – is there somebody at the door?), a skateboarding pickpocket (Awkwafina), a jeweller (Mindy Kaling), and a Rastafarian computer hacker (Rihanna). The plot revolves around stealing a $150 million necklace from the neck of a self-obsessed and rather vapid model (Anne Hathaway) at the gala night of the New York Met. And if Debbie can get her own back on the worthless ex-boyfriend who sent her to prison (Richard Armitage), then so much the better!

Well, the least you can say about Ocean’s Eight is that it has managed to avoid the tsunami of abuse which greeted the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake, despite the fact that it is essentially an All-Female Ocean’s Eleven remake – well, not really a remake, but a film with a very similar premise, featuring cameos from a couple of minor characters from the Soderbergh films. Is it just the case that insecure men on the internet have calmed down a bit in the last couple of years? Given all this chatter about raising funds for a less-feminist remake of last year’s stellar conflict movie, I kind of doubt it. It may just be that Ocean’s Eleven is less a part of people’s childhoods and they don’t feel as possessive about it. It’s certainly not because Ocean’s Eight is a better movie than the Ghostbusters remake, because it isn’t.

I mean, this is obviously what you would call a caper movie, and the pleasure point for this kind of thing comes from the cleverness of the plot, which will ideally have some kind of twist, and the fact that you are rooting for a bunch of appealing characters who have the odds apparently stacked against them. The problem with Ocean’s Eight is that the plot just isn’t that clever or surprising – there’s a lot of stuff about computer hacking and 3D printing (quite how they afford the printer, given Bullock has to go on a shoplifting spree at the start of the movie just to stay solvent, is not really gone into), but nothing to really make you go ‘Ooh that’s clever.’

There is an interesting range of performances on display from the ensemble. Blanchett, as you might expect, and Paulson, as you might not, emerge with the most credit and credibility, and Hathaway seems to be having fun in a somewhat OTT role. Most of the others are strictly functional, while Bonham Carter decides to deploy a somewhat dubious Irish accent (I was reminded of the apocryphal actor’s dictum: if you don’t think the script is funny, make sure you do a voice that is). Bullock is, well, watchable, because she’s Sandy Bullock, after all, but I was kind of reminded that a few years ago she largely stopped starring in anything other than slightly ditzy rom-coms, mainly because anything else is outside her comfort zone. As a supposedly super-cool criminal mastermind, she is, how can I put this, just a little bit inert. On the whole, in fact, if you asked me the composition of this movie, I would have to say it was about 20% Mission Impossible, 60% Sex and the City, and 20% hardboard.

Given that the plot doesn’t sparkle and the characters don’t engage, it is probably not a surprise that it’s quite hard to care about most of what happens in Ocean’s Eight, and – given they basically are just robbing a (relatively) innocent jewellery house – I couldn’t help feeling this is a film rather lacking in what you’d call a moral compass. Near the start, Bullock knocks off some makeup from a department store, and this is depicted in sufficient detail for young and impressionable audience members to very possibly have a go at doing the same thing. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when Alec Guinness had to be led off in handcuffs at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob, for fear of sending the wrong message, but suggesting that a quotidian offence like shoplifting is somehow cool or clever is not quite in the same league as plotting a bullion heist.

Then again, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this movie, and for some insights from someone who is I turned to Olinka at the end of the film. ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked. She shrugged. ‘Well, it was cool, and some parts of it were funny, and I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful women in their expensive dresses – so yes, I enjoyed it.’ There is, I should mention, a rather contrived sequence of nearly all the protagonists swishing out of a party in couture, even the ones who have previously been established as working in the kitchen or hiding in a van nearby.

I have to say I was slightly surprised to learn that some conspicuous consumerism and escapist glamour was all it took to sell this movie to my friend, especially given how poor a lot of the rest of it is (quite apart from the stuff I’ve mentioned, James ****ing Corden turns up near the end, and (as usual) brings to the movie all the charm and fun of a urinary tract infection). But then again, I suppose this isn’t very much different from many male-oriented summer genre movies, in which ropy plotting and duff characterisation are excusable as long as enough stuff blows up.

There’s a sense in which Ocean’s Eight is just another quite mechanical and formulaic summer genre movie, it’s just one which has been clumsily retooled so the characters can be played by women. They still kind of act like men, though, even though rather than knocking over a bank vault they are stealing some pretty jewellery (I am kind of reminded of the summer of 2004, when Spider-Man saved New York from a nuclear apocalypse, while in her own movie Catwoman had to avert the sale of some iffy make-up). I’m all for better representation of women in films, and more feminine perspectives given screen-space (well, you know, I’m still a thunderous misogynist, but apart from that), but I’m sure there must be more options than either decorative subservience or playing a clumsily rewritten male stereotype. Sylvester Stallone was greeted with incredulity and derision when he announced he was working on a distaff-oriented version of his superannuated-musclemen franchise, to be entitled The Expendabelles. But Ocean’s Eight is uncomfortably close to becoming something very similar to that. I suppose it’s not an outright bad movie, but I would struggle to find anything really positive to say about it.

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You may well have been expecting a review of Terminator: Genisys (sorry, spellchecker) to appear here or hereabouts at around this point. Well, quite frankly, so did I, but I’m afraid we will both have to wait a bit longer for that. Instead, for reasons which need not really concern us, we will have to content ourselves with a review of Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda’s Minions.

minions-poster

This movie has been virtually inescapable for some time: trailers and merchandising spin-offs reached the point of total saturation a while ago, and why shouldn’t they, given that it’s hard to shake the feeling that here we are in the business of brand extension and the induced lactation of a monetary bovine (or, to put it another way, the milking of a cash cow): the first two Despicable Me films, to which this is a spin-off/prequel, made something like $1.4 billion between them, making the series what the Muppets would doubtless call ‘a viable franchise’.

I haven’t seen either of the previous films, but even so I know enough to understand what’s going on here: a popular set of supporting characters being elevated to the point where they carry (or not) their own vehicle. The characters in this case being the Minions, a swarm of small yellow morons who – it is revealed – evolved to fill the peculiarly specific niche of being sidekicks/henchbeings to the world’s greatest monsters, villains, and other ne’er-do-wells.

Being morons, they find steady employment to be difficult to come by, and eventually the whole tribe relocates to a remote icy fastness in despair. But Minions need a boss and it falls to a trio of the little yellow idiots to go forth in search of a new master. Their names are Stuart, Kevin, and Bob, and they find themselves in New York, 1968. From here they attend the world’s biggest Super-Villain convention and end up in the service of the dangerously glamorous Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandy Bullock) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm). Scarlet has a plan requiring the Crown Jewels of England, and packs the Minions off to get it for her – will they succeed and thus secure a future for their kind? Or is that whole ‘moron’ thing just a bit too hard to shake?

Hum. Now, as regular readers will know, animated films are not something I go to see terribly often, but I like to think that when I do I give them a fair crack of the whip – I’m usually pretty positive about Studio Ghibli productions, and I seem to recall saying nice things about Big Hero Six and Shaun the Sheep earlier this year too. So I hope you will understand it’s not just bias or sour grapes if I say that Minions just struck me as being an extremely average film.

This is mainly because the folks at Pixar, amongst others, have managed to raise the bar for CGI family films to an almost uncannily high level in the course of the last two decades: these films are almost unfailingly astonishingly beautiful to look at, with jaw-dropping levels of detail and visual invention, something that is matched by the wit and sophistication of the scripts, which generally include surprisingly rounded characterisations and an unexpected level of emotional content.

Minions has that level of visual polish and design, naturally, and there’s not much you can fault about the look of the thing – indeed, the film’s big set pieces are pretty much flawlessly executed, from an aesthetic point of view of nothing else. It’s just that there’s really very little going on beyond the most superficial level of being good to look at.

The film seems predicated on the notion that the little yellow idiots are inherently lovable and hilarious: scene after scene ambles by with the three main characters wandering about doing stuff, with the directors clearly convinced this is utterly enchanting to watch. I did not find it so. This is not to say that the film does not have any decent gags in it – it does, but most of them are in the trailer. The rest of it is either just somewhat amusing, or actively baffling – the actual plot feels rather like an afterthought, contrapted just to propel the main characters from one quickfire gag-montage to another.

The rest of it feels a bit chucked together too. The 1968 setting simply seems to be an excuse to fill the soundtrack with comfortably familiar classic pop songs (while the film’s grasp of British constitutional law also strikes me as being somewhat suspect too). There are various visual shout-outs to things like classic Bond, and Marvel Comics, and an inevitable reference to Comic-Con, but they don’t hang together coherently – there’s no sense of a world with a deeper reality beyond whatever gag is currently on the screen.

The cast list is filled with the names of more-than-competent performers – as well as Bullock and Hamm, Michael Keaton, Alison Janney, Jennifer Saunders and Steve Coogan all appear – but hardly any of them make much impression, simply because the script isn’t nearly tight or sharp or funny enough to work as a piece of entertainment for anyone other than fairly undemanding children. Minions will probably make a great big pile of money, and further instalments are apparently already in the works, but that doesn’t make it anything approaching the standards of the best films in this genre.

 

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As long-term readers should be well aware, I am member in good standing of the Kermodian sect of film-followers, which is to say that under normal circumstances I will happily go a very long way to avoid seeing a film in 3D. I can’t have seen more than half-a-dozen or so, certainly not more than ten, and most of those because the movie in question wasn’t released in a 2D format. Of those the only one in which the stereoscopy didn’t feel like a tedious piece of gimmickry was Hugo, and that was two years ago. However, now I have to add another film to that list, and the film in question is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Even Dr K himself has gone on the record to concede that (and I quote) ‘Gravity is worth seeing in 3D’, such a startling announcement, all things considered, that it surely signifies the coming of a really exceptional piece of work. And so it proves – we are so routinely bombarded with superlatives these days that they have lost any real meaning, which means that this will inevitably not have the impact I would wish, but nevertheless – Gravity is an astonishingly good movie, head and shoulders above virtually everything else released so far in 2013.

gravity-poster

Sandra Bullock is way out of her usual rom-com comfort zone as a space scientist, which is not inappropriate given her character is way out of any sort of comfort zone. Ryan Stone (for this is her name)  is a mission specialist on a space shuttle mission to refit the Hubble Space Telescope. It is her first time in space and she is having trouble acclimatising, not least because there is no climate in the first place. She is a complete contrast to the commander, Kowalski (George Clooney), a hugely experienced veteran on his final mission prior to retirement.

All is going reasonably well until news reaches the astronauts of an unfolding disaster in orbit, resulting in a dense cloud of debris travelling around the planet at supersonic speeds. The shuttle is in the path on the debris, and a close encounter between the two could have devastating consequences for the crew…

And that’s just the first five minutes (albeit of a relatively short film by modern standards). To say too much about what follows would inevitably reduce the impact of the story, but suffice to say that Stone and Kowalski are instantly flung into life-threatening danger which persists for the rest of the film, one way or another.

It all starts quietly enough, though: after captions deliver some salutary information about the hostility of hard vacuum to life as we know it, the film opens with a peaceful, breathtaking shot of Earth rotating. Nothing happens for what feels like a long time, until – with almost imperceptible slowness – the orbiting shuttle comes into view, slowly swelling to fill the screen. The camera lazily loops and spins around the vehicle, taking in Clooney lazily jetting around it by means of a new type of jetpack, a tense Bullock at work on a grappled Hubble, and so on – both actors’ faces are clearly visible. And this goes on for what feels like eternity, in what does an extremely good impression of being a single, unbroken shot. It’s utterly, utterly extraordinary, and makes the opening of Touch of Evil feel very pedestrian (not that this is really a fair comparison).

You are inevitably reduced to wondering how the hell Cuaron achieved this, how many different CGI and blue-screen elements are interacting in this single shot, and so on – but then, almost miraculously, the droll dialogue between Clooney and Mission Control (Ed Harris), and the obvious tension that Bullock is feeling, sucks you into the story and the characters, and your sense of sheer confoundment at the technical wizardry – and for once this does not feel like too strong a word for it – is reduced to a dull background roar. The actual plot is much too compelling for anything else.

Maybe Cuaron has tricked everyone and actually made the film on location in orbit. Or possibly he just managed to track down the people who faked the moon landings and got them to help him out. I would argue, not that it matters, that Gravity isn’t really a science fiction movie, as – the existence of a NASA orbiter programme excepted – everything in it is completely grounded in the realities of manned spaceflight, but even so it is one of the most convincing depictions of space travel I can recall seeing. Issues such as inertia, momentum, orbital velocity and reaction mass are crucially important again and again – even the difficulties of using a fire extinguisher in zero-G are addressed. There do seem to be some implied references to classic SF and space movies, most of them very deadpan – Harris’ involvement is surely a reference to his very similar role in Apollo 13, while later on I’m sure there’s a wry tip of the hat to Barbarella, of all things – but these are very incidental pleasures. The film is content to concentrate on being an utterly gripping drama.

If Gravity was simply a technically superb thriller set in orbit, given the virtuosity of its production it would still be a very notable piece of work. What elevates it to the status of a breathtaking instant classic is that the heart of the film is a deeply resonant and very moving human drama. The film is fundamentally about isolation and loneliness, about being cut off from the world. This is true of Stone both physically and psychologically, and the deftness with which the film makes this clear and charts her progress back towards something approaching normal reality is, in its own way, every bit as impressive as any of the special effects or directorial flourishes which Cuaron deploys. The key scene at the end of the second act of the film may well prove a little controversial to some people – whether it’s a brilliantly executed piece of metaphor or a hackneyed old cliche will probably be a matter of personal taste – but apart from this text and subtext complement each other perfectly and the result is a film which works brilliantly on every level.

The advertising for Gravity seems to be based largely on the film’s credentials both as a thriller adventure and a groundbreaking piece of 3D virtuosity. And both of these are, as I hope I’ve been able to communicate, deeply impressive. But it’s the human factor which really gives the film its power, and it’s the performances of Clooney and Bullock which bring it to life so vividly. This is an amazingly beautiful, desperately gripping, and in places profoundly moving film, as close to unmissable as any I have seen in recent years. Many Oscars await, if the award is to retain any credibility.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 27th February 2003:

(Extensive ranting about trailers featuring scenes not actually appearing in the finished movie has been snipped.)

…well, anyway, enough senior citizen moaning on my part (‘Special effects were much better when you could see the strings. And there hasn’t been a decent fantasy film since Ray Harryhausen retired’) and onto a proper review. This week I went to see Two Weeks Notice, a romantic comedy written and directed by Marc Lawrence and produced by and starring ol’ llama-face herself, Sandra Bullock.

Sandy plays Lucy Kelson, a committed, idealistic, and highly committed lawyer in New York. (She remains oddly fluffy and lovable.) While campaigning to stop the nasty Wade Corporation from knocking down her neighbourhood community centre (you have to admire, by the way, the brazenness with which the film deploys such a hoary old cliche) she meets the corporation’s ‘closer’ George Wade (played, inevitably, by Hugh Grant) – and no, I don’t know what a closer is either, but it’s the only job title Grant’s character seems to have. His job mainly seems to involve playing tennis and being a louche scallywag, if that’s any help. Wade is filthy rich, utterly self-absorbed and completely amoral. (He remains oddly fluffy and loveable.) He also needs a lawyer and so in exchange for his saving the community centre, Lucy takes the job. Of course, in his fluffy, lovable way George drives her up the wall, and eventually she fluffily and lovably quits. But, this being the land of rom-com, there may just be an outside chance the two of them will realise they’re actually perfect for each other, eventually acknowledge their true feelings, and wind up making saccharine speeches in public places, etc, etc, all before the final credits roll.

Two Weeks Notice is a film that knows what it wants to be and goes all out to be that thing: a gentle, amusing, frothy comedy with some romantic overtones. In fact I would say that it pursues the comedy element a little too fiercely, with the result that the characterisation and relationships are not as three-dimensional as they perhaps need to be. But, some unconvincing slapstick and sight-gags aside, this is all amusing enough.

Most of the credit for this must go to the leads, as Lawrence’s directorial technique almost wholly consists of him simply pointing the camera at whoever’s talking. Sandra Bullock’s performance in this movie rather reminded me of Geoffrey Boycott. I suspect that particular critical gem may require some exegesis, so here goes: just as the famous Yorkshire cricketer achieved his success through hard graft as much as natural ability, so Sandy isn’t, I would argue, the most naturally gifted actress when it comes to this kind of daffy, ditzy, screwball comedy. But by gum she puts 100% effort into it and in the end her performance is everything it needs to be and perhaps a little bit more besides.

Hugh Grant, on the other hand, could play this kind of part in his sleep by now. Not since the kung fu heyday of Bruce Lee has one actor dominated a particular film genre in the way that Grant rules the rom-com roost. Nobody plays this kind of part as well as him, but he does so with such effortless aplomb that it’s too easy to accuse him giving the same performance in every film he makes. As usual, he subtly modulates his screen persona to suit the movie: this time round he’s a bit more clueless and infuriating than usual. The lack of more serious elements to ground the film mean that the great man spins his wheels a bit in places, and this isn’t his best work by any means. But it’s impossible to imagine this film being as likable as it is without him.

The rest of the cast pretty much do what’s required of them (the only faces I recognised were David Haig and Alicia Witt, but you may have more luck), and Sandy has managed to convince Norah Jones and Donald Trump to make cameo appearances as themselves. One of them sings, and to avoid accusations of being a spoiler I will leave you to discover which one for yourself.

Two Weeks Notice isn’t a bad film, but it’s one I find difficult to get excited about. It’s entirely successful in meeting the target it sets for itself, but as that target is to be a rather formulaic comedy populated by near-stereotypes with not very many surprises in the storyline, this is not that great an achievement. Fun, but not exactly memorable.

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