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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s 8

Ocean’s 8 is mostly a charming and inoffensive heist movie that coasts off the charisma of its central cast.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of itself. There’s nothing wrong in watching an ensemble including Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock bounce off one another, performers who are both talented screen and genuine old-fashioned movie stars. As with the series of films that obviously inspired (and named) Ocean’s 8, the cast have an easy chemistry with one another. Star power goes a long way, and there’s something almost refreshing in seeing a movie that runs almost exclusively on it in this age where these sorts of high-profile movies are largely driven franchising, high concepts and intellectual property.

Properly trained for this.

Of course, there’s some small complication in that in that Ocean’s 8 feels at times like an effort to split the difference between being a star-driven caper movie and also the latest installment in a larger recognisable franchise. Indeed, some of the movie’s weakest moment lean most heavily on nods and winks to the trilogy of Steven Soderbergh movies that provided a launching pad for this female-star-driven caper. The title character is Debbie Ocean, revealed to be the sister of Danny Ocean; that is the least of it. (Even the choice of “8” in the title seems designed to leave room for two more installments making a trilogy.)

Still movie stars are a dying breed, so it’s a novelty to see so many of them congregating in the same place and to see a movie that understands the appeal of watching confident performers playing competent characters who are constantly in motion. Ocean’s 8 lacks some of the more undervalued elements of the earlier films, the problems created by their absence here underscoring their importance, but it mostly succeeds as a light and breeze caper movie without a clear antagonist, without a strong directorial vision and with an over-extended third act.

Getting the gang together.

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Non-Review Review: The Happy Prince

“I am my own Judas,” explains Oscar Wilde around the midway point of The Happy Prince.

Just in case the audience doesn’t get the point, The Happy Prince is saturated with religious iconography and constant reminders of how Oscar Wilde was his own worst enemy. At one early point, Wilde confronts a group of homophobes in a church. At another, Wilde reflects on the local church that he visits for solace and how it reminds him what it is to suffer. Towards the end of the film, a priest is summoned to deliver the last rites, the splashing of holy water juxtaposed with the spit and venom of a mob in flashback.

Wilde at heart.

The Happy Prince is not an especially subtle or nuanced film, which is somewhat ironic for a biography about the life and times of one of the greatest witticists in history. Wilde was one of the most eloquent writers in the English language, as much in his personal correspondence as in any of the plays or stories that he wrote. As such, there is something strange in the bluntness of The Happy Prince, perhaps most transparently in the way that the film bends over backwards to construct a portrait of the writer’s final days that conforms to the eponymous story.

The Happy Prince is a story about a fascinating subject with a compelling central performance, but constructed in such a clumsy manner that the performance of Everett the actor cannot anchor the film of Everett the director.

It could use some fine tuning…

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Non-Review Review: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is an intriguing and compelling mess of a film. It is shrewd and clever, if never entirely human.

Director J.A. Bayona might be the first director since Spielberg to put his own unique slant on the Jurassic Park franchise, to move with just enough confidence and faith in his own stylistic sensibilities to escape the shadow of the legendary director who turned a pulpy novel into a beloved family classic. Bayona does that by allowing his own stylistic sensibilities to shine through, to embrace his own interest and to engage with the material on his own terms.

Dino escape.

Fallen Kindom walks a fine line. It is very much a creature grown in a laboratory to satisfy the demands of the larger franchise. There are elements here that exist purely because they are expected, because they are signifiers of what a “Jurassic Park movie” should look like, including both returning characters and new characters fashioned after familiar archetypes. At the same time, there is a coy and wry self-awareness to Fallen Kingdom that was sorely lacking from Jurassic World, a cynicism about its own nature that integrates rather neatly into its larger worldview.

Although it may be damning with faint praise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is easily the best Jurassic Park movie since Jurassic Park: The Lost World, the film in the franchise with which it shares most of its DNA.

Things are heating up.

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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

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Non-Review Review: Citizen Lane

Citizen Lane is the latest documentary from director Thaddeus O’Sullivan, following the life and times of Hugh Lane.

Essentially combining documentary discussion of the central character with dramatic reconstructions of moments both key and incidental, Citizen Lane sketches an intriguing portrait of a fascinating figure. Lane is perhaps best known as an art collector and dealer, whose name adorns one of the more prestigious art galleries in the city centre. However, Lane is something of a mysterious figure to all but the most devoted of Irish cultural historians, lurking at the edge of the frame in stories about artists like Yeats or Synge.

Turn of the Century City.

Citizen Lane pulls back the curtain a little bit, illuminating both its subject and the world around him. Citizen Lane closes on an imagined image of Lane wandering through the gallery named in his honour, unassumingly travelling through a series of interlocked rooms, largely unnoticed by those in attendance. This image captures what Citizen Lane suggests is the most compelling facet of its central figure, the manner in which he seems to move through early twentieth-century Dublin intersecting with the grand sweep of Irish (and eventually global) history.

Citizen Lane is an enlightening and entertaining piece of work, and a compelling argument for how works of art (and even those who engage with art) seem to turn a mirror back on the culture around them.

Painting a picture of life in twentieth century Dublin.

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Non-Review Review: Solo – A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is perhaps remarkable in how it is unremarkable.

That is not exactly fair. Most obviously, despite being the tenth theatrical release with a Star Wars brand, Solo: A Star Wars Story is still something relatively novel for a franchise; it is a big-screen outing that consciously and overtly marginalises a lot of what audiences have come to expect from the franchise. There are a host of familiar elements here, but often in minuscule amounts; either token gestures or sly continuity nods. Without confirming any of these elements are present, Solo certainly has fewer Jedi, Death Stars, representatives of the Empire, officially designated rebels, or lightsabers than most Star Wars films.

The Wookie and the Rookie.

More than that, the film’s production was notably troubled, which is striking for a production company as efficient as Disney and Lucasfilm. Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller finished shooting their version of the film, and were fired during the editing process. Reportedly, seventy percent of Solowas reshot by Ron Howard. Given the schedule demands of the actors involved, the complicated mechanics of the set pieces, and the budget of the film, this was no small undertaking. On paper, Solo would appear to have more in common with a film like Justice League or Suicide Squad than even the troubled Rogue One.

With all of that in mind, it is a credit to Howard that Solo turns out as well as it did. Howard is an efficient and often underrated director, one with a clean eye and with a clear storytelling style. Howard’s films tend to be unfussy and uncomplicated, a director who never gets in the way of the story being told. This is something of an underappreciated virtue, with Howard’s films often maintaining a firm grasp on the fundamentals of storytelling. Howard’s characters tend to have clear arcs and tangible motivations, with very little getting lost in the shuffle. Howard’s direction is unobtrusive, which likely made him such a good fit for this particular film in these particular circumstances.

On the cards…

Watching the film, there is little sense of competing tones or contrasting visions. There are moments over the course of the film when the cast are noticeably more playful, their banter a little more conversational and the comic rhythms a little more pronounced. However, Solo never misses a beat, never turns to sharply, never transitions too jarringly. There is a strange sense, watching Solo, that absolutely everything has ended up right where it was supposed to be with a minimum amount of fuss. There is absolutely nothing about the finished product screams “troubled production.”

At the same time, nothing about Solo screams anything at all.

Going Solo.

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Non-Review Review: Deadpool 2

Like the original, Deadpool 2 is being talked about as a deconstruction or comedy. It’s not really. At least, not primarily.

Deadpool 2 is most effective as a very simple and straightforward superhero narrative with a shade more violence and a dash more awareness. There are laughs in Deadpool 2. And a few truly great jokes. There are even occasionally moments where Deadpool 2 will take a montage or a couple of scenes specifically to set up a later pay-off. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. And it’s no coincidence that this set-up leads to the biggest laugh in the film.

Not basic Cable.

More to the point, Deadpool 2 never opts for a joke over an efficient plot beat. Deadpool 2 never even distorts its plot in order to cram a few more laughs into the runtime. The gags are largely there to decorate the plot, not to direct it. They’re fun, but they aren’t especially brutal or pointed. There’s never a sense that Deadpool 2 exists as a deconstruction or critique of superhero movies, that it has anything especially insightful to say about the genre beyond accepting that modern audiences are genre-literate.

To be clear, this is not an issue with Deadpool 2. In fact, what’s most remarkable about Deadpool 2, particularly in the age of superhero bloat and franchising, is the relative efficiency with which it tells a simple story. For all the jokes about genitalia and all the pop culture references that crowd the narrative, there is more genuine emotion in Deadpool 2 than there is in Avengers: Infinity War. The characters are better defined, their arcs and motivations clearer, their agency repeatedly affirmed. There is an endearing and infectious earnestness beneath the dick jokes.

Just Joshing.

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