If you’ve seen Ocean’s Eight by now, you’ll know that it’s full of narrative twists and turns, and a handful of obvious deceptions. But if you have seen it, then you might be wondering about the most obvious twist of all: the one in the title. When Debbie Ocean (a strangely under-used Sandra Bullock) assembles her “crew” she makes it clear that the diamond theft she’s planning will need seven people to pull it off. That means roles for Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina, making a total of seven. So who’s number eight? Well, again, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know. But given that the movie was touted as the female version of the Ocean’s Eleven idea, does the identity of the eighth member feel like something of a letdown? And given that Debbie Ocean says seven people are needed, that it’s also a bit of a cheat? Over to you…
Anthony Mackie, Billy Bob Thornton, Bolivia, Campaign, Comedy, David Gordon Green, Drama, Joaquim de Almeida, Negative campaign, Political consultants, Politics, Polls, Presidential elections, Review, Sandra Bullock
D: David Gordon Green / 107m
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, Dominic Flores, Reynaldo Pacheco, Louis Arcello, Octavio Gómez Berríos, Luis Chávez
When a Bolivian politician, Pedro Castillo (de Almeida), hires an American political consulting firm to help him win the upcoming Presidential elections, they’re unprepared for how unpopular he is with the Bolivian people, and how uncharismatic he is. With their candidate adrift in the polls by twenty-eight points, the consultants, led by Ben (Mackie), bring in “Calamity” Jane Bodine (so called because of the way in which she’s mishandled the last four electoral campaigns she’s overseen). Arriving in Bolivia, Jane is initially laid low by altitude sickness, and takes a few days to find her feet. During this time, the other consultants do their best to make Castillo more voter friendly, but nothing seems to work.
Castillo’s main rival is a plain-speaking man of the people called Rivera (Arcello). His campaign is being run by Jane’s nemesis, Pat Candy (Thornton), a man who – like Jane – isn’t averse to lying and cheating to getting the job done. When he orchestrates a physical assault on Castillo, Jane sees the answer to the campaign’s problems in Castillo’s response – he knocks his assailant to the ground – and at once she regains her old flair for electoral battle. She quickly energises the consulting team (and against their better judgment on occasion), and impresses on them that the message should be that Castillo doesn’t have time for silly publicity stunts; he’s too busy trying to get elected so that he can save the country from the crisis it finds itself in right then.
This approach begins to work, and Castillo makes up some ground in the polls, but there’s a problem: it won’t be enough. Jane advocates starting a negative campaign, looking for dirt on Rivera, anything that will put him in a bad light. But Castillo is resistant to the idea, and refuses to do it. Behind his back, Jane has some flyers printed that make it seem Rivera has launched his own negative campaign. Castillo relents, and Jane digs deep into Rivera’s background, uncovering a public funding fraud related to the purchase of some cars. It proves to be the first salvo in a battle between Jane and Candy that in time, changes the whole complexion of the campaign, and gives Castillo a fighting chance of winning the election.
For anyone watching Our Brand Is Crisis who finds themselves suffering an attack of déjà vu, it will be because this story has been covered before (with the real people concerned) in the 2005 documentary of the same name. Covering the 2002 Bolivian Presidential elections, and the involvement of US consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum, Rachel Boynton’s timely examination of political campaign tactics was both illuminating and worrying in equal measure. Arriving ten years on, and without the benefit of those elections to give it some much-needed context, Our Brand Is Crisis feels out-of-sorts with itself from the moment it touches down in Bolivia and tries to develop its comedy credentials by having Jane look ill and barf into a wastebasket.
It’s at this point that anyone expecting a political satire will begin to suspect they’re going to be disappointed. And so it proves, with the movie’s comic highlight involving the sad demise of a llama (so not really much of a highlight). Elsewhere there’s a nervy, whingy performance from McNairy that is meant to provide further humour but looks and sounds out of place, and the kind of uncomfortable banter between Jane and Candy that in any other workplace would have seen him fired for sexual harrassment. It’s hard to see why such obvious attempts at comedy were included in the movie, as all they do is interrupt the more carefully orchestrated drama, and detract from the somewhat clumsy message the movie is promoting (basically, never trust a politician or the people who work for him/her).
That said, the movie does get its point across quite succinctly at times. Castillo has a quiet exchange on the campaign bus with a naïve young supporter called Eduardo (Pacheco) in which he spells out exactly what’s going to happen if he’s elected, and by inference, what it will mean for Bolivia. It’s played with due restraint by the two actors and is the movie’s most plainly shot scene, a simple two-hander (with cutaways to Jane) that also shows just how good the movie could have been if the effects of political expediency had been shown rather than the lengths that some consulting teams will go to to maintain that expediency. And in its own deceptive way it illustrates clearly the difference between a campaign promise and an elected imperative.
Again, it’s the political dirty tricks that become the focus, from the revelation that Castillo had an affair (and which Peter Straughan’s script never manages to make as devastating as it’s meant to be), to the ridiculous notion that Rivera has Nazi sympathies. The game of political oneupmanship between Jane and Candy is also one of the movie’s less convincing sleight of hands, while the impromptu visit by Jane to Eduardo’s home (and which leads to her getting drunk and arrested) merely adds to the notion that the script hasn’t decided what it wants to be: searing political drama, raucous comedy, or mocking satire. In the end it’s none of these. Instead it’s a messy political exposé that fails to tell us anything new about either South American politics or the grubby tactics used by US consulting firms to ensure their candidate’s success.
It does, however, have one great redeeming feature: Sandra Bullock. In a movie that tries too hard and spreads itself too thin (and often in the same scene), Bullock is the through line that the audience can connect and stay with. Beneath her seen-it-all-with-warts-on demeanour and lack of shame at some of the things she devises, Jane is a memorable character made all the more memorable for Bullock’s portrayal of her as a media-savvy manipulator with hidden reserves of compassion. There’s a scene at the end that, in the hands of some actresses, would have appeared maudlin and unconvincing. But Bullock nails it with a dazed expression and eyes full of fear for what she’s done. It’s the movie’s strongest, most affecting moment; it’s just a shame that it comes so late in the day.
Developed by George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, Our Brand Is Crisis was originally meant to be directed by and star Clooney, but as time – and the movie’s development – rolled on, his intended participation dwindled to that of producer. Seeing the movie now this seems like a wise move on his part. Even though Green is a clever, often mercurial director, he’s defeated here by the hit-and-largely-miss script, and as a result he never finds a consistent tone that the movie can adhere to. Away from Bullock, the rest of the cast provide serviceable performances (thanks to some cruelly underdeveloped characters), with only de Almeida showing what can be done with the briefest of outlines. And Thornton, drafted in to give one of his patented Machiavellian opponent roles, does just that – and nothing more.
Rating: 5/10 – an undemanding look at how political campaigns can be manipulated toward a desired outcome, Our Brand Is Crisis lacks dramatic focus and a clear approach to the material; saved by Bullock’s performance, the movie nevertheless struggles to fly when she’s not on screen, and ends up as disappointing as the electoral outcome.
1968, Adoption, Amanda Seyfried, Animation, Ari Sandel, Behind Office Doors, Bianca Rusu, Comedy, Daphne, Deportation, Designated Ugly Fat Friend, Drama, Fashion, Fred, Horror, KISS, KISS World, Kyle Balda, London, Mae Whitman, Mark Wahlberg, Mary Astor, Minions, Morocco, Paris á tout prix, Pierre Coffin, Reem Kherici, Reviews, Robbie Amell, Robert Ames, Rodrigo Gudiño, Romantic drama, Sandra Bullock, Scarlet Witch, Scarlett Overkill, Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery, Seth MacFarlane, Shaggy, Ted 2, The Demonology of Desire, The DUFF, The Mystery Gang, Thunderbuddies, Velma
Behind Office Doors (1931) / D: Melville W. Brown / 82m
Cast: Mary Astor, Robert Ames, Ricardo Cortez, Catherine Dale Owen, Kitty Kelly, Edna Murphy, Charles Sellon, William Morris
Rating: 6/10 – at a paper supply company, personal assistant Mary Linden (Astor) is in love with rising young salesman Jim Duneen (Ames), but has to watch from the sidelines as he plans to marry a socialite (Owen), completely unaware of how she feels about him; a broadly entertaining drama that was probably as predictable to watch in 1931 as it is today, Behind Office Doors benefits from a good performance from the always watchable Astor, and a breezy approach to social affairs that – pre-Hays code – allows Astor to kiss Cortez without being introduced first.
Minions (2015) / D: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda / 91m
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin
Rating: 8/10 – the origin of the Minions takes us all the way back to the first stirrings of life on earth and then catapults the viewer to 1968 and the efforts of three intrepid Minions – Kevin, Stuart and Bob – to find a new evil master; as absurdist and mayhem-filled as the Despicable Me movies, Minions promotes the little yellow sidekicks to centre stage, and has all sorts of fun riffing on the Sixties, even though some of the voice talents are far from recognisable (Hamm, Keaton, Janney).
Paris á tout prix (2013) / D: Reem Kherici / 93m
aka Paris or Perish
Cast: Reem Kherici, Cécile Cassel, Tarek Boudali, Philippe Lacheau, Shirley Bousquet, Salim Kechiouche, Stéphane Rousseau
Rating: 7/10 – Moroccan-born fashion designer Maya (Kherici) finds herself in the running for a promotion but is deported back to Morocco when it’s discovered her visa has expired, leaving her with no choice but to pretend she’s off sick until she can find a way back to Paris and win her promotion; Kherici’s likeable, frothy comedy has its poignant moments too, and takes an affectionate stab at the fashion industry, but in the end, Paris á tout prix suffers by being too predictable and slow to get off the ground while using very broad brush strokes on the secondary characters.
Ted 2 (2015) / D: Seth MacFarlane / 115m
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, John Slattery, John Carroll Lynch
Rating: 6/10 – when Ted (MacFarlane) marries his sweetheart Tami-Lynn (Barth) and they want to have children, their adoption application leads to Ted being declared to be property rather than a person, and his only chance of reversing the decision is to employ the services of eminent lawyer Patrick Meighan (Freeman); a sequel was always in the works and to his credit MacFarlane hasn’t strayed too far from the first movie’s formula, but it also makes Ted 2 seem more like a rehash than a genuine sequel, and while some of it is as outrageous as expected, there’s a little too much unnecessary plotting getting in the way of the jokes.
Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery (2015) / D: Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone / 79m
Cast: Frank Welker, Mindy Cohn, Grey Griffin, Matthew Lillard, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Eric Singer, Tommy Thayer, Jennifer Carpenter, Garry Marshall, Penny Marshall, Doc McGhee, Jason Mewes, Pauley Perrette, Rachel Ramras, Darius Rucker, Kevin Smith
Rating: 5/10 – at the KISS World amusement park, the appearance of the Scarlet Witch and her search for a legendary rock leads to the Mystery Gang and KISS teaming up to unmask the Witch and save the park from closing; not the best of Scooby-Doo’s recent outings, Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery is overlong – an extended fantasy sequence soon becomes tedious – and doesn’t play to either group’s strengths, while the actual mystery is sadly, quite weak, all of which leaves the movie both disappointing and unrewarding (unless you’re a die hard KISS fan, in which case you’ll probably love it).
The Demonology of Desire (2007) / D: Rodrigo Gudiño / 22m
Cast: Bianca Rusu, Tudor Plopeanu, Jewelia Fisico
Rating: 6/10 – a teenage girl (Rusu) torments a younger boy (Plopeanu) who professes his love for her, and leads him into a nightmare of death and madness; regarded as art-core, The Demonology of Desire is less art and more waspish commentary on the futility of young love, but it does feature some strong visuals and a performance from Rusu that makes a virtue of some very poor line readings.
The DUFF (2015) / D: Ari Sandel / 101m
Cast: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Romany Malco, Nick Eversman, Chris Wylde, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney
Rating: 5/10 – ordinary-looking Bianca (Whitman) discovers she’s her two best (attractive) friends’ DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), but finds her way through the necessary social adjustments thanks to best friend Wesley (Amell); pleasant enough, though featuring too many stretches where the audience is likely to lose interest, The DUFF is yet another Cinderella makeover movie that adds little to its old-time scenario.
D: Jan de Bont / 116m
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck, Glenn Plummer, Richard Lineback, Beth Grant, Hawthorne James, Carlos Carrasco
When some of the workers in one of L.A.’s high-rise office buildings get into an elevator, they don’t realise they’ve just become hostages in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between ex-cop turned bomb-loving nut job Howard Payne (Hopper) and the police. With the elevator wired up with explosives, it’s down to maverick cop Jack Traven (Reeves) and his partner, Harry Temple (Daniels), to rescue the hostages, and capture Payne. However, while the hostages are rescued, Payne manages to escape.
Some time later, Traven is getting his morning coffee and doughnuts when a nearby bus explodes, destroying it, and the driver, completely. A pay phone rings; it’s Payne, with a challenge for Traven. There’s a bus rigged with explosives that will be armed if the bus travels at over fifty miles an hour. The catch? If it slows below fifty miles an hour, then the bomb will go off, killing everyone on board. Jack’s mission is simple: to find the bus, get on it and stay with it until Payne’s ransom demands are met. Once on the bus, Traven’s presence leads to the driver (James) being shot and wounded. Luckily, passenger Annie Porter (Bullock) takes over from him, and Traven explains why he’s on the bus. He also manages to alert Temple and their boss Lieutenant McMahon (Morton). With various obstacles and problems to overcome – a very sharp right turn at an intersection, a gap in the freeway – Traven and Porter keep the bus moving above fifty, while Harry tries to track down Payne.
Eventually, Traven realises that Payne has been watching the bus via a hidden camera all along. McMahon, with the aid of a local news crew, hijack the signal and overlay a recording of Traven and the passengers sitting quietly on the bus. With this in place, Traven attempts to defuse the bomb but without success, but he does get the passengers off (and himself) before the bus – now roaming an airport – collides with a plane and explodes. At first unaware of what’s happened, when Payne finds out he goes to where the ransom is to be left and abducts Annie, heading down into the subway. Traven goes after him, and while Payne is taken care of, he and Annie have a bigger problem: the train’s brakes aren’t working, and Annie is handcuffed around a pole…
The surprising thing about Speed is that after twenty years it’s still as exciting as it was on first release, it’s high-concept storyline and mixture of vehicular mayhem with a vivid sense of humour, still hitting the mark, and still an object lesson in how to mount and execute an action movie. It’s also a small miracle that it was made at all. Graham Yost’s original script – originally intended for Jeff Bridges and Ellen DeGeneres as Traven and Annie – ended when the bus blew up; the addition of the subway scenes helped get the movie the go-ahead. John McTiernan was the producers’ first choice for director but he turned them down. The dialogue was given an almost complete re-write by Joss Whedon. The scenes shot on the then unopened I-105 highway were filmed around the remaining construction work, leading to numerous continuity errors that appear in the movie. The producers weren’t convinced about Reeves (especially when they saw his haircut), and wanted a big name actress to appear alongside him; de Bont insisted on casting Bullock. And the production ran out of money before filming was completed; at very early previews the subway scenes were shown as animated story boards, but thanks to positive audience feedback for these scenes, extra money was found to finish the movie.
And yet, despite all that adversity, Speed is a triumph, a well-oiled adrenaline rush of a movie that rarely lets up, its central section so tightly orchestrated and edited (by John Wright) that there’s barely an ounce of cinematic fat to be found. The movie is often breathtaking, its propulsive qualities keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat, maintaining an immersive power that makes watching it as exhilarating as if you were on the bus yourself. Its tripartite structure, utilising various modes of transport – elevator, bus, subway train – is cleverly done, increasing the stakes as the movie progresses (as well as the speed these modes of transport can travel at), and providing each section with a satisfying pay-off (the bus/plane explosion is still one of cinema’s finest incendiary moments). The famous bus jump – filmed for real even though it doesn’t look like it – is the movie’s big heart-stopper and even now, can get audiences willing the bus to clear the gap.
With all that action going on it would be easy to forget that the movie has a big heart, and can pack an emotional wallop when required – Helen (Grant) trying to get off the bus and ending up under the wheels, the bus hitting the pram (what a shocker that must have been when the movie was first shown) – and there’s also the movie’s often wry sense of humour and quotable one liners: “Jesus. Bob, what button did you push?”; “I already seen the airport”; and “Yeah, but I’m taller”. It’s an inherently silly movie when all’s said and done, as preposterous an idea as you could possibly imagine, but it works, thanks largely to the cast treating it seriously and playing it straight (verbal quips aside). Reeves though is horribly wooden, a big thick plank of wood in a tight t-shirt, but he’s still a good fit for the character. Bullock takes a fairly nondescript role and turns it into a star-making turn, while Hopper, as expected, piles on the ham as Payne, chewing the scenery with barely restrained relish. Annie’s fellow passengers, from Ruck’s slow-witted tourist to Carrasco’s abrasive construction worker, come in and out of prominence as the script demands, but each actor has his or her moment to shine. And both Daniels and Morton are as dependable as ever as Traven’s colleagues in the L.A.P.D.
Viewers paying close attention will spot errors in continuity that should rankle, but end up being a part of the movie’s charm, and there are goofs galore including dialogue spoken when a character’s mouth is clearly shut, and Harry’s limp switching from left leg to right leg to left leg, and so on (and then being abandoned altogether when he and his team raid Payne’s home). But none of this really has any detrimental impact on the movie, and under de Bont’s more than capable direction, Speed sets a high standard that few action movies made since then have come close to bettering.
Rating: 8/10 – for all its inconsistencies and dumb-ass leading character, Speed is a thrill ride – mostly set on a bus – that compels the audience’s attention and rewards it with escalating tension and drama; quite simply, one of the best action movies of the Nineties, and a movie that shrugs off its Die–Hard-on-a-bus premise to provide an experience that is still as exciting as it was twenty years ago.
D: Alfonso Cuarón / 91m / 3D
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Several years in the making, Gravity arrives with a tremendous amount of expectation attached to it, its cutting-edge visuals hinted at in both trailers that preceded it. What wasn’t given as much emphasis was the storyline. Having seen Gravity there’s a good reason why…
Towards the end of a shuttle mission to service the Hubble telescope, mission specialist Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and retiring astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are working outside the shuttle when they’re advised by Houston Mission Control (Harris) that debris from a Russian satellite (recently destroyed by the Russians) is heading towards them. Before they can get back inside the shuttle, the debris hits, killing another member of the team and disabling the shuttle altogether. After Kowalski saves Stone from spiralling off into space, they head for the nearby International Space Station in the hopes of using one of its landing modules. But things don’t go according to plan…
There’s more to the story than that, but to mention any more would be a shame in terms of spoiling things, even if what does follow is disappointing in terms of the plot and Stone’s development as a character. Suffice it to say there follows a series of cliffhangers, and even though you can probably guess that Stone makes it back to Earth – doesn’t she? – it’s the way in which it’s arrived at that stops Gravity from being better than expected.
Thankfully, the visuals are superb, with space represented, if not accurately, then with a verve and a verisimilitude than adds to the (mock-)realism. The scenes where Stone is tumbling through space after the debris strike, where Earth seems to be tumbling around her as much as she is, are breathtaking, as is the opening sequence where the camera appears to be roving around the Hubble telescope in a dizzying whirl of images. As the movie continues, each scene is a feast for the eyes, with a standout moment coming when Stone reaches the ISS and the camera’s point of view – roving around Stone at first – suddenly becomes her point of view from inside her helmet (in 3D this effect is even more impressive). The technical advancement on view is nothing short of incredible and come the awards season, Gravity should be a shoo-in for pretty much every technical award going. The amount of work director Cuarón, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber have put into creating “space” as it’s never been seen before, close-up and frequently terrifying, has resulted in a movie that is both beautiful and astonishing to look at.
But still there’s Stone’s character and back story, neither of which inspire much of a connection, and stops the audience from empathising with her as much as needed. She remains a fairly reticent, removed character from beginning to end, and while Bullock does her best to project a degree of steely vulnerability, she never quite manages it; Stone only “steps up” in the final ten minutes and even then it seems forced rather than the organic conclusion of her journey for survival. Equally, Clooney isn’t best served by the character of Kowalski, a glib would-be raconteur with a story for every occasion that belies, and even undermines, his experience as an astronaut.
Rating: 7/10 – seen in 3D, Gravity is a genuine cinematic experience, and all the more impressive for being converted in post-production. There hasn’t been such an exceptional 3D movie since Avatar. It’s a shame then about the muted characters and the undercooked storyline.