Ocean’s 8 is a film of both familiarity and absence. The opening sequence features an Ocean (Debbie, played by Sandra Bullock) facing a parole board, much as this franchise started in 2001. Upon her release, Debbie reunites with a former partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett), and they subsequently recruit a motley crew of experts in nefarious activities and plan an audacious heist. Along the way there are surprises and twists, cross-cutting both spatial and temporal, an upbeat soundtrack and a slick portrait of opulence and wealth. The significant absences are an immersive sense of place and Steven Soderbergh’s ephemeral touch. Director Gary Ross gives New York a functional rendering that pales in comparison to Soderbergh’s almost otherworldly depiction of Las Vegas, and while Ross is competent enough he seems to struggle with innovative style. Fortunately, a game cast add as much sparkle as the object of the heist. Bullock and Blanchette are a superb double act, making this viewer hope they work together again with richer (no pun intended) material. Excellent support comes from Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rhianna, Helena Bonham-Carter and Awkwafina as other members of the crew, but arguably (and perhaps ironically) Anne Hathaway steals the show as she chews her way through all the scenery around her. Narratively and stylistically, Ocean’s 8 lacks substance, but its cast provides a glittering shine.
A long time ago at a cinema far away (from my current location), a friend commented that The Phantom Menace suffered from the lack of Han Solo. Twenty years later, we get a prequel/spin-off (pre-off? Spin-quel?) all about Han, later Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). Ron Howard’s film makes a virtue of omitting the baggy story of those earlier installments while still referencing such Star Wars lore as the Empire, Tatooine and the Kessel Run. The film’s closest cinematic cousin, however, is Serenity, incorporating elements of the western and the heist film. These elements include lawless planets, a train job, gun slinging (including an unambiguous first shot), crime syndicates complete with menacing boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), and perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film: a motley crew of vagabonds. This crew includes Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), the introduction of other familiar characters including Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and a certain spaceship that any Star Wars fan would love a ride on. Ehrenreich embodies the cocksure charm and charisma needed for the young Solo, and his relationships with Qi’ra, Beckett and Chewbacca give the film heart. Howard incorporates these characters into some thrilling action set pieces – including a speeder race that recalls the director’s Rush – and some exhilarating space chases and dynamic combat sequences including the closest the film comes to a light sabre duel. This distance indicates the film’s major weakness: without the mystical element of the Jedi and the wider menace posed by the Empire (used to great effect in Rogue One), Solo feels somewhat flimsy and underpowered, the central McGuffin allowing little more than suggested links to wider events. Han has always been a fun character, but he works best in comparison to more idealistic figures such as Luke, Leia and, more recently, Rey and Finn. Here, everyone is a charming rogue and Han is simply the fresh blood, his arc and contributions offering little that we have not seen before. Solo is enjoyable while it lasts, but overall it lacks a certain Force.
One of the interesting aspects about superhero cinema is the development of particular franchises, as subsequent instalments take the set-up of the origin stories to new places. When Deadpool was released in 2016, its irreverent, self-aware and achingly postmodern stance demonstrated there was still plenty of stretch left in the spandex. In the case of Deadpool 2, this same spandex gets stretched again, largely to the same places. As a result, David Leitch’s film, working from a script by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and star Ryan Reynolds, largely feels like a re-tread. Swear-tastic dialogue? Check. Fourth wall breaks? Check. Comically gruesome violence? Check. Anything that feels fresh? Not so much. This is disappointing because the first Deadpool felt fresh and vibrant, but Deadpool 2 is largely more of the same. Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Reynolds) continues his mercenary ways, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) tries to make Wilson into a superhero while Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) makes snarky comments, Dopinder (Karan Soni) idolises DP’s violent approach in disturbing ways. New arrivals Russell (Julian Dennison) and Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second Marvel appearance of 2018) add some additional concerns over destiny and consequence, but their arcs as well as those of the other characters feel stretched and almost redundant. The most interesting aspect of the film is frustratingly underdeveloped – a potentially disturbing aspect that does develop an ongoing conceit of the X-Men franchise as a whole. X-Men has repeatedly dramatised concerns over prejudice and intolerance, and in Deadpool 2 we see the DMC (presumably Department of Mutant Control/Containment) as well as a mutant ‘rehabilitation centre’, complete with creepy headmaster (Eddie Marsan). Annoyingly, these institutions and their draconian practices are largely relegated to the background. It may seem churlish to criticise a film for what it isn’t, but agencies such as these are ripe for satire and snubbing authority, exactly what Deadpool is famous for. Therefore, when the film resorts to the same flippancy towards dramatic stakes as its predecessor, there is little to get excited about. Deadpool 2 does succeed on the action front, including one bravura sequence featuring a long take centred on Domino (Zazie Beetz). In addition, the cast are all game and amusing, especially Reynolds whose charisma and devotion to the character ensure that Deadpool is still fun to spend time with. There are plenty of laughs too, but they probably won’t linger any longer than the injuries of our indestructible protagonist.
The final film in my list of ten significant movies is by far the most recent, released less than three years before this post. It is also the only animated movie on this list, and perhaps the only one that could be described as a comedy (it is certainly the funniest). It was my favourite film of 2015, and I include it because it had a therapeutic effect on me. When I saw this film, I was suffering from depression, and while now improved this is not a condition that goes away. Despite the negativity I often felt, I had a tendency not only to put a brave face on it, which a great many people do, but also to deny to myself that there was a problem, because I had the notion that there was no need, no justification, to feel sad. Then I saw Inside Out, which made the (to me) quite radical and astonishing suggestion that it is actually alright to be unhappy and that sometimes sadness is healthy and indeed essential. For me, this recognition was extraordinarily profound, and reduced me to a tearful wreck in the cinema, to such an extent that I purposefully constricted my throat so that my sobs would not disturb other patrons. For comparison, I had a similar experience the last time I watched E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. I have since returned to Inside Out many times, and it always makes me cry in the best possible way.
Beyond my personal attachment to Inside Out, it is also a magnificent film. The world of Riley’s mind is brilliantly realised with dazzling detail and witty invention, drawing from established psychology that is given superb animated form. The central characters are both archetypal and specific, working as representatives and as individuals. The lessons learned by Joy are valuable for anyone, the lack of appreciation for Sadness likely to be familiar to many, while the roles of Anger, Disgust and Fear are as relatable as the emotions themselves. The central conceit of the components of personality is complex yet understandable, and the tricky workings of the mind from imaginary friends to the Memory Dump to endlessly repeating jingles (TripleDent Gum anybody?) make for endlessly inventive adventures that swing from the hilarious to the breathtaking to the heartbreaking. Who would have predicted that a tale of the little voices inside your head would emerge as one of the most accomplished, enthralling and moving films of recent years? I had high hopes thanks to Pixar’s back catalogue, but Inside Out surpassed all of these and might indeed be the studio’s most impressive work to date. It remains my go to film when the world turns horrible, because as I often need reminding, Sadness is good to have around.
Those familiar with this blog were probably expecting this entry in my list of ten significant films, and it is one that will likely provoke eye-rolling and nodding in equal measure. A bold statement, but this film is the finest example of cinematic art that I have ever seen. I didn’t see it until I was in my late twenties, which is a good age to first encounter 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film carries a ‘suitable for all’ certificate, it is a smarter child than I was who would sit through a very deliberately paced (read: slow) and often barely comprehensible film. By the time I did see it, I was sufficiently mature and experienced in film viewing to appreciate it. Not that that stopped me from finding the film utterly baffling on first viewing, and deeply beguiling and thought provoking since then. I had a rule that I would only watch 2001 at the cinema because I thought TV would not do it justice, a rule that led to me seeing multiple screenings, often with an introduction from experts on the film. However, when I watched it on DVD, I found it just as impressive. I regard this film as the greatest cinematic achievement I have ever seen because it is pure cinema. The plot would fit on the back of a postage stamp – birth of humanity to dawn of new species – but the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene and the extraordinary combination of cinematography and editing make it a genuinely transportive experience. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms that the film receives is for me a great strength. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in the film is a computer, the HAL 9000. I don’t particularly engage with HAL any more than I do with the humans, and therefore I am not distracted from the experience of the journey, the Odyssey, itself. As I mentioned in my post on Titanic, lack of character and characterisation is not a problem for me, because the less character there is the easier it is for me to project myself into the film. The most powerful cinematic experiences for me are not where I follow a character’s journey, but go on one myself. I have similar experiences with Avatar, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Gravity, which also attract criticism for their lack of characterisation. Through Stanley Kubrick’s exquisite direction, I feel myself part of the revelation when Moon Watcher starts to use bones as weapons, myself on the journey to and across the Moon, I also spin through space away from the Discovery, and most memorably, I travel through the stargate and beyond the infinite. This sequence is the film’s pinnacle, where sound, colour, emotion and reason and the divisions between them merge into pure sensation, in possibly the most profound and compelling sequence I have ever encountered in cinema. I genuinely find this encounter hard to describe beyond it being an incredible and transportive experience, cinema taking me to strange new places. In addition, it turns out that 2001 is a great teaching text: when I ran a student debate on the film, the session was so filled with insight, argument and students sparking off each other that I was reminded of why I love to teach. Thanks, Stanley.
Sometimes a particular film highlights what you love in cinema. In the case of the latest film in our journey through ten films that Vincent Views as significant, I saw it knowing its rather twisty reputation, but completely underestimated just how involving and compelling it would be. I rented the film on VHS (remember those?) and started watching it leaning back in my chair. Within ten minutes I was leaning forwards with my elbows on my knees, completely riveted by what I was watching. I did not change my position until the credits rolled. This film cemented thrillers as my favourite genre, and is something of the gold standard when it comes to viewing thrillers.
Listing significant films inevitably means that they be memorable. Perhaps ironically, Memento is a deeply memorable film, mainly for its complex structure but also for its weighty themes, interwoven beautifully with the elements of neo-noir and modern tragedy. Repeat viewings as well as teaching placed this film within my top ten of all time, as each time I encounter the film I find something new and every discussion about it opens intriguing avenues. It was, perhaps as it was for many, my first exposure to Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker whose work continues to enthral and fascinate me. But while the extraordinary vision of Interstellar, the genre defining and then redefining Dark Knight trilogy and the intricate spectacle of Inception all have their time and place, Memento is perhaps Nolan’s finest work. It is a brilliant latticework of a film that merges form and content with crystalline precision, tells a deeply affecting story of a hopelessly flawed protagonist, and asks philosophical questions about morality, memory, identity and choice.
The seventh film in my list of ten significant films used to be among my top ten, and although it has been supplanted by another from the same director, this one still holds great significance for me. In 2000 AD, when this was released theatrically, I went through some bad times in which I felt that the majority of people were against me and that an institution I believed in was going to the dogs. Therefore, Ridley Scott’s epic tale of a general who became a slave, who became a gladiator, who defied an emperor, struck a deep, resonant chord with me. I went to see Gladiator five times on its original release, that’s right, five. While I have seen other films as many or more times in the cinema, those were due to re-releases and special screenings (yes, The Dark Knight, I mean you). ‘Gladiator’ offered me hope, inspiration, catharsis and the other positive feelings that one gets from bloody hand-to-hand combat and the deep-set rot of a once noble empire.
The talent behind Gladiator have to an extent gone off the boil. Russell Crowe was a known figure but became a star and an Oscar winner with this film, while Ridley Scott came as close to an Oscar as seems likely. Their subsequent collaborations such as American Gangster and Body of Lies failed to bottle the lightning of Gladiator. That said, it is fair to say that Joaquin Phoenix has become a more respected presence as time has gone by, not least by seeking out interesting projects from Walk The Line to The Master to You Were Never Really Here. Writer John Logan recently did us all proud with the excellent TV series Penny Dreadful, and The Martian demonstrated that Scott still has some decent work left in him (the less said about The Counsellor and Alien: Covenant, the better). But Gladiator remains undimmed in its epic grandeur, an awesome spectacle that works on a pure visceral level and has moving emotional depth. Furthermore, the film makes interesting comments about the proper uses of power and even our own violent appetites. Are you not entertained? I certainly am.