Cate Blanchett

Ocean’s Eight

19/06/18

I like Ocean’s Eight. I like its exuberance, its stellar cast, its slick plotting and its silliness. It looks great: as polished and meticulously groomed as the A-listers at the Met Gala, where the eponymous Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the franchise’s previous lead, masterminds an audacious jewellery robbery.

What’s not to like? Well, it’s just another heist movie, albeit a well-told one – a slice of polished nonsense, not particularly memorable. And it’s VERY American in its glorification of the maverick, a veritable celebration of outlaws and their crimes. Can you imagine a British film on a similar subject where everything runs so smoothly, where the thieves are as sympathetically presented, where no one bungles anything? Ocean and her team are almost super-human. All that talent – it’s a shame it’s wasted stealing sparkly stones. But still.

It’s great to see this fine group of actors given the chance to have some fun, playing roles that are strong, cool, funny and exciting. They don’t have to be seductive or damaged or any of the other limited options usually available to mainstream-movie women over thirty. (Of the eight, only Awkwafina is still – just in her twenties: Anne Hathaway, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling are all in their thirties; Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in their forties, and – almost unbelievably – Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham-Carter are over fifty now. How did that happen?) They all look like they’re having fun, especially Blanchett, razzing around on her motorbike, exuding charisma.

The plot’s a pretty simple one, even if the plan within is fiendishly complex. Debbie Ocean has been in prison for the past five years, and has spent her time conceiving every detail of this heist. She wants to pull off this crime, not just for the riches it will afford her, but for the kicks, and to live up to her family name. If she can exact revenge upon her ex at the same time, well, why wouldn’t she? So she looks up her old ally, Lou (Blanchett), currently engaged in watering down vodka at a nightclub she owns, and lays out her idea. They assemble a team and away they go.

It’s a shame there’s not much jeopardy: once the group has been established, the film is pretty much a series of daring steps, each one successful, building towards the climactic moment when the diamonds are snatched. The boldness is impressive, but there’s not much to feel other than admiration for their cunning; it’s pretty much a one-note film.

James Corden’s appearance in the final act is fun: he’s a much vilified man, but I’m never really sure why. He’s always been a good actor, and he’s very funny here, with some laugh-out-loud lines that help to puncture the smugness that’s in danger of creeping in.

All in all, this is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours; sadly though, that’s all it is.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Carol

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28/11/15

Director Todd Haynes seems to belong to another age. His films effortlessly capture the look and feel of the 1950s – the fashions, the furniture and, more than anything else, the cigarettes – not since the days of Bette Davis has a film made the simple act of smoking a cigarette look so downright glamorous. The characters light up everywhere – in restaurants, bars and in the street. (Even staunch anti smokers may leave the cinema longing for a cigarette). Despite its presumably unconscious promotion of nicotine, Carol may just be Hayne’s best movie yet. It’s a love story, a slow burner told at a languorous pace, featuring two fine performances from its lead actors.

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works in a department store, but harbours dreams of one day being a professional photographer. One Christmas, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) comes looking for a present for her daughter and Therese sells her a train set. When she leaves, Carol leaves her gloves on the counter (accidentally? On purpose? We’re never quite sure). There is an immediate connection between the two women and when Therese takes the trouble to return the gloves, Carol invites her to lunch. We soon discover that Carol is separated from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), largely because of an affair she has recently had with Abbi (Sarah Paulson). When Harge discovers the developing friendship between Therese and Carol, he decides to make life difficult for his wife, and claims custody of their daughter. Carol is faced with a difficult decision.

There’s so much to admire here – as well as perfectly judged performances from the cast, there’s glowing cinematography by Edward Lachman, a gorgeous score by Carter Burwell and an intelligent script by Phyllis Nagy, based on an early novel by Patricia Highsmith. The production simply oozes class and I loved the fact that it steadfastly refuses to sensationalise its subject matter. You might argue that there’s more than a passing similarity to Hayne’s 2002 production, Far From Heaven, but when the staging is as swooningly assured as this, it’s a resemblance I’m prepared to overlook.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney