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Ocean’s 8 – review

Image result for ocean's 8

Ocean’s 8 is a sequel to the earlier Oceans franchise starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, among others. Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Clooney’s character, who has since died. Debbie is determined to pull off a heist she has been preparing for while in prison, ever since she was double crossed and set up by her ex-boyfriend. To help, she assembles a crew, including Cate Blanchett, Rhianna, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling.

The most positive aspect of the film is the occasional use of rundown locations, such as disused and repurposed industrial buildings, a frequently unobtrusive camera, and scenes which are very often underlit. All this hints at the possibility that director Gary Ross was flirting with the style of seventies’ films such as The French Connection or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Most intriguingly, is the recurrence of shots through glass or which use reflective surfaces. Windows, glass panels, phone and computer screens, and precious jewels dominate the mise-en-scene.

These more interesting stylistic elements – the attempt at seventies style grit, combined with the dominance of shots which reflect the overall plot (the heist of a diamond necklace), are too tentative, and are drowned out as the film opts for the more predictable foregrounding of slow motion walking, or shots designed for no other purpose than to make the principle cast look cool.  These are the weakest moments of the film. Sadly, they populate the movie too often, and are clear attempts at creating a slick crowd pleaser which is at odds with the detached and restrained performances of Bullock and Blanchett in particular. This creates an uncomfortable fit between two stylistic approaches which ultimately fail to hold together.

It all falls apart during the climax, which resorts to having characters explain what has just happened out of the view of the audience – complete with flashbacks of events which the viewer previously knew nothing about. We are also not shown the ultimate fate of the villains, and due to the effortless criminal competence of the lead characters, there is very little tension during the heist and subsequent fall out. The film is compromised stylistically and narratively. This is a common problem for Hollywood films which are concerned above all else with making its cast look untouchable.

This is not to say that Ocean’s 8 is unenjoyable. The cast are all excellent, and a genuine double act is formed between Bullock and Blanchett. Any sequel which gave them a tougher task, or put them under a bit more narrative pressure, could work well. There are also several effective moments of dialogue, and some entertaining interplay which is entirely expected of a cast this strong. They look like they all had a good time during shooting, and while this is not always desirable, in an ensemble piece the spark and connection between the leads is necessary.

Ocean’s 8 is an attempt to create a low key Hollywood movie which is dependent on a quality cast, good writing, and solid directing. It succeeds in moments, but overall doesn’t quite achieve the promise of its earlier scenes.

 

Grace

My latest film, Grace, is now available to view online. It is a drama about a radio DJ who gets a worrying phone call from his past.

Grace takes place principally in one location. While writing the script I was inspired by films such as Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972) and Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001) as well as  Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994). Sleuth and Tape were originally written for the stage before being adapted for the screen, and I began to imagine Grace as a filmed play. Certainly, there is a lack of action and externalisation of emotion that characterises much fiction filmmaking. The challenge when bringing the script to the screen was in maximising the location, and visualising what was a very interior story. There were limited chances to create wide open vistas, and so I began to use the claustrophobia as an advantage. There are lots of close ups. In fact, the centerpiece of the film is a tight close up that lasts approximately twelve uninterrupted minutes. The visual design had to mirror the claustrophobia of both the setting and the story. The construction of the film is a continual process of opening out and closing in. We begin very wide, it ends very close, and in between the viewer is trapped in one place, looking at one man.

I also made the decision to shoot in black and white. The film was shot that way in camera, rather than being a later decision. There was no option to switch back to colour once we had started. Like many (most?) filmmaking decisions, to use black and white was a combination of art and logistics. So, while black and white is perfect for Grace because the film is about memory, it was also motivated as much from the fact that monochrome cures a lot of visual problems. I knew that with black and white I didn’t have to worry about poor costume choices, make up decisions, or even horrible green exit signs and fire extinguishers in the back ground. Black and white kills all the horrible colour that pervade modern rooms. By shooting black and white I was reaching into the bag of no-budget filmmaking tricks.

My directing style would be best be described as intuitive. While I always go in prepared and with a plan, I am also liable to follow my gut feeling and intuition while on set. Again, this is necessary when shooting very quickly and with no budget. Because things don’t go always as planned I have learnt to be responsive to situations, and am quite comfortable with some of the messy results. I don’t always make the correct decisions, but this approach meant that the film could be shot within four days. Schedules, and the (virtually non-existent) budget, would not allow for any more.

Grace is available to view on You Tube or Vimeo below.

Grace is Newton’s best film to date. As well as revealing the filmmaker’s gifted eye for shot composition, Grace offers a tense narrative which, in combination with the film’s claustrophobic setting, makes for compelling viewing from start to finish.” Chris Pallant, author of ‘Storyboarding: A Critical History’.

CfP Exploitation Cinema in the 21st Century

Symposium: Exploitation Cinema in the 21st Century

at Canterbury Christ Church University

Date: June 9th 2017

Deadline for proposals: 3rd March 2017

Keynote Speaker: Dr Johnny Walker, Northumbria University

In relation to cinema, the term “exploitation” has been adopted by various individuals and institutions over time, from opportunistic film producers and marketers of the 1920s to contemporary online distributors releasing new films in the 21st century. There is a current wave of exciting and productive scholarship on the historical developments of exploitation cinema, and its famous, and not so famous, films and filmmakers. But much of this research focuses on exploitation before the year 2000, with a particular focus up to and including the VHS era of the 1980s. Less research exists on the inflections of exploitation in the 21st century, and the trends and developments that have taken place since the turn of the century. This one-day symposium seeks to shed new light on the embodiments of exploitation cinema since 2000, with particular emphasis on current waves and cycles, the way in which they are now consumed (such as online rather than in theatres), and which particular exploitation filmmakers stand out as being important in contemporary times.

Topics might include (but are not limited to);

  • Analysis of single films
  • Studies of current waves or cycles of exploitation
  • Exploitation cinema from global national contexts (in particular from non-English speaking countries)
  • The re-emergence of old cycles since 2000 (Rape-Revenge, the Biker movie, etc.)
  • Individual filmmakers
  • New genres, sub-genres, and hybrids
  • High budget exploitation (such as that produced by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez)
  • Patterns of exhibition and distribution
  • Studies of industrial models or modes
  • Exploitation studios (The Asylum etc.)
  • Exploitation online
  • Exploitation fandom and audiences

We invite proposals of up to 300 words for 20 minute papers, plus a short bio (up to 150 words) by March 3rd 2017.

We also welcome video essays to be submitted with a 300 word proposal/150 word bio, sent to us by March 3rd 2017. Final video submissions should be sent by June 2nd 2017 via Vimeo link. Video submissions should aim to be 10 minutes maximum running time.

All proposal (and any queries) should be sent to Dr James Newton at james.newton@canterbury.ac.uk

 

Robin Hardy/Euan Lloyd

The opening weekend of July 2016 saw the deaths of two significant figures in the history of British genre cinema – director Robin Hardy, and producer Euan Lloyd.

Hardy became a hugely respected figure thanks to his 1973 masterpiece, The Wicker Man (1973). That film, the jewel of the minor sub-genre identified as ‘folk horror’, featured Christopher Lee in what was reportedly his favourite role. Millions of words have been used to eulogise The Wicker Man, and so I would like to shift attention onto its ignored (and occasionally maligned) follow up, The Wicker Tree (2011).

The Wicker Tree
Tressock Films Ltd.The Wicker Tree, Publicity & Production Stills.

Hardy wrote the screenplay based on his novel entitled Cowboys for Christ. It is a thematic sequel to the earlier film, involving a Christian pop group attempting to convert pagans in Scotland.

It is understandable as to why the film was met with disappointment. Its production values occasionally reveal the (relatively) low budget (though there are also plenty of beautifully shot sequences), such as a shot against a green screen cameo by Christopher Lee. Also, the plot is convoluted in comparison with The Wicker Man.

But for those interested in cult and exploitation movies, and films that defy mainstream convention, there are many pleasures to be had when watching The Wicker Tree. Its central premise is extremely witty. Not only are the Christian evangelists seduced and ultimately destroyed by the heathen Scots, but there is also a subversive backstory, where the attractive blonde female singer has a past of which she is ashamed, of a time when she was a Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson-esque singer, famous for a track called ‘Trailer Trash Love’.

The film can best be described as a glorious mess, and its tone and style resembles the later Ken Russell movies, such as Lair of the White Worm (1988).

The day after Hardy’s passing, it was announced that Euan Lloyd had died at the age of 92. Lloyd produced several high profile but critically reviled actions films in the mid 1970s to the mid ‘80s. Paper Tiger (Ken Annakin, 1975), The Wild Geese (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1978), The Sea Wolves (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1980), Who Dares Wins (Ian Sharp, 1982), and Wild Geese II (Peter Hunt, 1985), represent British cinema of a different time – muscular, epic, and extremely macho, featuring mostly middle aged stars. They are too high budget to be thought of as pure exploitation movies, but they have the single minded focus of the best exploitation films; sharp action sequences, overt political commentary, and aimed at specific niche audiences (in this case heterosexual men, with little concession to any other demographic). Combined with Lloyd’s earlier trilogy of British co-produced westerns (Shalako [Edward Dmytryk, 1968], Catlow [Sam Wanamaker, 1971], and The Man Called Noon [Peter Collinson, 1973]), they form a vital body of British genre output.

The two best are The Wild Geese and Who Dares Wins, which were both critically snubbed for their political leanings, and attracted accusations of racism and other phobias. The Wild Geese is actually a far more nuanced piece of work than criticism of it suggests, and appeals to a more centrist political outlook. It is a sentimental film, which undoubtedly makes extremely simplistic appeals for racial tolerance. But the action is brutal in places, and technically extremely impressive – as one would expect given much of its crew were regulars on the 007 franchise. In my mind, it is more effective than The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, two films it tries to emulate for scale and mood.

Who Dares Wins is inspired by the Iranian embassy siege in London in 1980. Lewis Collins plays an SAS officer going undercover among a far left terrorist group who want to detonate an atomic bomb on a Scottish airbase to show the devastation the nuclear threat is capable of. It is a right wing, possibly fascist, masterpiece. Like Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985), the film is a hard, gleaming, fascist spectacle, which extols physical strength and military violence. It climaxes with the SAS storming a building and dismissing the terrorists with little effort or resistance.

Who_Dares_450 (Large)

It is an easy film to dismiss because of its politics (if you are of any kind of liberal persuasion), but if you can allow yourself to go with the story, it can be enjoyed as a hard, truly adult (in that it expects the audience to be confronted with viewpoints it might not share), film experience.

The Wicker Man has had a profound influence on international horror, and resulted in a Hollywood remake. Lloyd’s films utilised faded big name American directors and ageing global star name actors. The Wild Geese in particular was a success in Europe, subsequently influencing a cycle of Italian war films (such as the Lewis Collins starring Codename: Wild Geese, [Antonio Margheriti, 1984]). But whereas Hardy’s The Wicker Man will stand the test of time, Lloyd’s output will be lucky to receive the same plaudits given how out of step they are with modern sensibilities. However, both filmmakers have produced important and significant moments in British cinema history, their films have transcended national boundaries and achieved a global impact.