Locked Down (2021)

Doug Liman’s COVID-themed, straight-to-HBO romcom Locked Down has seemingly hit a raw nerve for a lot of the pro critics who were assigned to cover it. What I found to be a low-key, innocuous charmer has been burdened with tons of handwringing about what Popular Art is allowed to be made & distributed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The collective complaint appears to be that movies should transport their audience away from the time & place we occupy, not dwell in it; or at least that being stuck in our domestic spaces for the past year has emphasized a need for pop culture escapism. Locked Down‘s major faux pas against good taste is in its desire to be of-the-moment, compromising its value as fluff entertainment by reminding us just how miserable it is to be alive in our confined, isolated worlds right now. It has critics gritting their teeth in guarded anticipation of more COVID-themed pop media to come, especially since ongoing lockdown restrictions continue to limit what can be made & distributed in the year. I just personally fail to see how any of this is intrinsically bad.

A lot of my openness to COVID-themed pop media is an extension of my interest in, of all things, social media-themed horror films. I do love a gimmicky exploitation flick that fixates on the distinctly modern evils of momentary novelties like Skype calls (Unfriended), ride-share apps (Spree), Facebook timelines (Friend Request), Instagram clout (Ingrid Goes West), camgirl chatrooms (Cam), and so on. Not only are these technophobic thrillers entertaining for their traditional genre payoffs, but they’re also culturally valuable for daring to document the particular inanities of what our lives look & feel like online in a way that the more respectable corners of Mainstream Cinema wouldn’t dare. In a way, Locked Down (along with other COVID-era productions) is a natural evolution of that kind of strike-while-the-iron’s-hot exploitation filmmaking. It’s blatantly capitalizing on the idiosyncrasies of surviving the past year by using them to flavor an otherwise superficial, well-behaved genre film. The only difference is that it’s hanging those of-the-moment details off of genres people usually take more seriously than the technophobic horror: the break-up drama, the romcom, the heist film, etc. Whether or not that kind of cynical Life During COVID documentation violates a current cultural desire for Movie Magic escapism, it will only become more valuable the further we get away from this moment.

In fact, Locked Down is already a document of a bygone era. Its version of Life During COVID is more specific to the earliest lockdown orders of last March when the world at large finally started taking the virus seriously (i.e. when it nearly assassinated Tom Hanks). Anne Hathaway & Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a bitter Londoner couple who foolishly break up just when the stay-at-home orders hit the city, confining their romantic meltdown to a single (fabulously stylish) house they’re pressured not to leave. Their isolation from the outside world and increased “alone” time triggers an avalanche of neurotic second-guessings of their life philosophies & self-mythologies. They not only reassess their relationship, but also the overall trajectory of their life together, their individual professional careers, and the world at large. Meanwhile, early-pandemic observations about empty city streets, supermarket mask etiquette, at-home breadmaking, laggy Zoom calls (a convenient excuse for Celebrity Cameos), and the introduction of pajama bottoms to “office” wear anchor those alone-time reassessments to a very specific, instantly recognizable moment in recent history. All of this anti-romantic back & forth unfolds like a lightly bitter stage play (thanks mostly to the limited setting and the screenwriting contribution from Locke-director Steven Knight) until seemingly insignificant details accumulate to present an absurd opportunity to the struggling couple: they could easily pull off a minimal-effort diamond heist. Even just the suggestion of that risky transgression is enough to reignite their lost excitement for life & each other. The major conflict of the heist is not in its planning but in the decision of whether or not to go through with it at all.

In a word, Locked Down is cute. Like with the last time Anne Hathaway starred in a frothy heist comedy (Ocean’s 8), its only major sin is that it’s decent enough but Soderbergh could’ve done something phenomenal with the same cast & resources. Its major selling point—whether or not anyone knows it yet—is that it’ll be a great fluffy time capsule for people who were too snooty or squeamish to watch last year’s Host. The promotional materials for Locked Down have claimed that it’s “one of the first and most ambitious films to be conceived and shot during the pandemic”. I know that’s bullshit for two glaring reasons: 1. Critics who are professionally assigned to watch & review pop media are apparently already sick of grappling with COVID-era cinema, indicating that it’s far from a novelty at this point. 2. The found-footage Zoom meeting horror flick Host was conceived, shot, and released last summer, when many of Locked Down‘s more zeitgiesty observations would’ve still felt fresh. Host was also way more ambitious in its genre payoffs & budget-defying stunts, whereas Locked Down is mostly just handsome celebrities exchanging cutesy monologues in a few limited locales. Even its central diamond “heist” is mostly a series of conversations. The only difference is that Host (despite being the far superior work) happens to belong to a genre that most audiences don’t take seriously as Art, whereas Locked Down echoes more widely familiar moods & rhythms of Mainstream Filmmaking, which has largely been halted for the past 10 months. Despite the cries of its COVID-era commentary being Too Soon, Too Crass, or Too Much, I think there’s immense cultural value to pop media like this directly grappling with the real-world circumstances that are limiting its scope by effectively documenting them for cultural posterity. It’s time-capsule exploitation filmmaking at its sweetest & most harmless, so I’m a little baffled as to why it’s become such a critical scapegoat.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Since the city’s stay-at-home orders took effect this March, I’ve watched no fewer than six (six!) fashion-related reality competition shows: Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, and Glow-Up. A major part of these shows’ appeal to me during the pandemic has simply been the pleasure of watching someone routinely complete an artistic project from start to end without taking a second’s pause. Meanwhile, I’ve been wasting a lot of the downtime I’d usually dedicate to writing & illustrating by staring slack-jawed at my phone, endlessly scrolling through the same three or four apps long after I’ve drained them of their entertainment or informational value. These runway competition shows would have eventually snuck into my media diet with or without a global pandemic, however, since fashion is an artform I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in general. It’s probably the most vital artistic medium I’ve overlooked & undervalued throughout my life – an oversight I’ve been actively striving to correct in recent years. After tiring out on podcasts & documentaries, fashion competition shows have been an excellent crash course in the terminology & history of fashion as artform, but they aren’t the only resource that have guided me through this personal journey in recent months; they had a little help from a mid-00s romcom.

The Devil Wears Prada is more overtly about the fashion industry as a business rather than fashion as artform. Based off the memoirs of a disgruntled former assistant to longtime Vogue editor & industry tastemaker Anna Wintour, the film is presented as a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how stressful & cruel the industry can be for unsuspecting artsy types who get sucked into its orbit. It’s hardly the tear-it-all-down exposé that dating competition shows like The Bachelor got in the similar tell-all series Unreal, however. Instead, its peek behind the Vogue Magazine curtain is utilized as a backdrop for some fairly straightforward romantic comedy storytelling, which both helps & hurts its value as fashion-world insight. To its detriment, The Devil Wears Prada suffers the classic romcom problem of cornering its lead (Anne Hathaway, playing a fashion-ignorant academic who improbably lands a job at the fictional Vogue surrogate Runway Magazine) into choosing between two dweebs who don’t deserve her (a snobby line-cook who believes fashion is for vapid rubes and a publishing industry bigshot who believes she’s outgrown her former social circle). However, since the film mostly focuses on her terrified admiration of her boss (Meryl Streep as the tyrannical Anna Wintour avatar), it more or less gets away with that cliché. This is mostly a story about a woman falling in & out of love with fashion itself; the men she dates along the way are just accessories.

Hathaway may be the least convincing dumpy-nerd-next-door casting since Sandra Bullock play a l33t hacker in The Net. She’s a perfectly cromulent choice for a romcom lead, though, especially as the fashion-ignorant academic turns up her nose at an entire artform for supposedly being beneath her intellectually. By contrast, Streep is without question perfectly cast as a tyrannical auteur who barely speaks above a whisper but still has an entire industry groveling at her stilettoed feet. There’s rarely a crack in her emotional armor that reveals any vulnerability or trace of humanity, but she’s consistently the film’s most useful keyhole into the power of fashion as an artform (in her confident editorial eye) and its destructive nature as an industry (in the fear-based environment she runs as an employer). Streep is fascinating to watch, so much so that you never question why her least fashion-aware employee would stick around for the daily abuse – even when her closest friends do. In the film’s best scene, Streep delivers a distinct, cutting monologue about the couture to ready-to-wear pipeline that influences Hathaway’s dumpy lead’s daily life while she naively believes fashion to be an inconsequential frivolity that does not affect her personally. It affects & influences us all, maybe more so than any other modern artform, and the journey Hathaway goes on here is mostly in learning how to accept that inescapable truth and use it to her full advantage.

There’s nothing especially novel about The Devil Wears Prada in terms of craft; it looks & acts like almost any post-80s studio romcom you can name (which is especially apparent in its refusal to challenge the fashion industry’s addiction to weight-shaming). Its earned foundational respect for fashion as an artform is what really saves it from falling into total tedium, an accomplishment it could not manage without Streep’s steely presence as an industry figurehead. Hathaway holds her own as an audience surrogate despite her naturally glamorous beauty (in a role that makes her image-subverting turn in Ocean’s 8 even funnier in retrospect), as does Stanley Tucci as the fashion insider who teaches her that clothes equal confidence (a role that feels like the birthplace of Modern Tucci). This is somehow still Streep’s movie, though, even if she barely ever lifts a finger or speaks above a whisper. I’m not well-versed enough in fashion industry lore to comment on whether she captured Wintour’s specific persona accurately, but she’s effortlessly electric throughout the picture the way all enigmatic auteurs are within their own artistic fiefdoms. If nothing else, that monologue about the ready-to-wear pipeline really is an all-timer, maybe the most succinctly insightful summation of fashion’s undetected importance I’ve come across so far in my scramble to play catch-up.

-Brandon Ledet

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 opens exactly like the Soderbergh version of Ocean’s 11 that preceded it, with Sandra Bullock in a parole hearing interview pretending to be reformed so she can be released and launch directly into her next grift. George Clooney sat in that same position back in 2001, which partly makes Ocean’s 8 feel just as much like Ghostbusters-style gender-flipped remake as it is a years-late sequel. Bullock is not a reincarnation of Danny Ocean, however, but rather his sister & criminal equal, Debbie Ocean. Likewise, the film does not follow the Soderbergh “original” or its Rat Pack source material’s plot about smooth criminals simultaneously robbing three Las Vegas casinos, but shifts its heist’s target to the much more femme setting of the annual Met Gala, one of high-fashion’s biggest events of the year. For better or for worse, it also shifts away from Soderbergh’s experimentations in overly slick, early 2000s thriller aesthetics to adopt a style more befitting of a 2010s mainstream comedy. As a result, both films are noticeably distinct from one another, but also notably cheesy and of their time in a way that pairs them as clear parallels (even though, once gain, this is a sequel and not a remake).

Although it’s about a decade late to the table, it’s arguable that Ocean’s 11 needed this women-led sequel, as it’s a series that’s always struggled with doing right by its female characters. In Ocean’s 11, Julia Roberts mostly had the thankless role of reacting to male characters’ actions & muttering vague warnings under her breath. For Ocean’s 13, both she & Catherine Zeta-Jones refused to return to the series because they were told the script could not accommodate giving them substantial roles beyond a couple lines of dialogue, despite having room for over a dozen men. Ocean’s 12, by far the best in the series (even if you include the also-excellent Logan Lucky), was much more accommodating of both actors, particularly for the opportunity it gave Julia Roberts to poke fun at her own celebrity (the same role she fulfilled in Sodebergh’s Full Frontal). Anne Hathaway is afforded the same self-satire platform in Ocean’s 8, but this time she’s not surrounded by a sea of men in tailored suits. Ocean’s 8’s cast includes Bullock, Hathaway, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Cate Blanchett as the titular eight. None of these already-established celebrities are playing against type, but rather lean into their public personae in an exaggerated way, like drag or pro wrestling characters. Hathaway clearly has the most fun with the space afforded her, but the important part is that this heist comedy playground was ever offered to this many talented women in the first place.

Immediately upon release from prison, Debbie Ocean launches into a few minor grifts that provide her temporary food & shelter. Once recharged, she begins recruiting the crew she needs to steal millions of $$$ in diamonds from the upcoming Met Gala, a much bigger heist than she’s ever attempted before. Cate Blanchett joins as a longtime bestie in full Atomic Blonde drag. Rihanna & Awkwafina are aggressively casual stoners gifted at street-level hacking & pickpocketing. Kaling is a jeweler, Bonham Carter a cash-strapped fashion designer, and so on. It’s Hathaway who steals the show as an image-obsessed, emotionally fragile actress whom the team plans to steal the diamonds off of, though. Public opinion of Hathaway has always been grotesquely judgmental about her supposedly outsized ego, so it’s wonderful to see her subvert that perception by turning it into a caricature. The heist itself, from the planning to the execution to the fallout with law enforcement, is all standard to the typical joys of the genre, except in an unusually haute setting drenched in fashion & wealth. The most distinctive factor at play is that the film is staged like a comedy more than a thriller, which suits the material well enough at least in the way it distinguishes it from Soderbergh’s previous trilogy (except maybe Ocean’s 13, its closest tonal parallel).

The cast is exceptional, the choice in setting inspired. The worst that could be said about Ocean’s 8 is that director Gary Ross burdens the film with all the visual style & generic pop music of an Alvin & the Chipmunks squeakquel. The flatness in its imagery & its dispiritingly indistinct pop music cues feel at home with the standard approach to the modern mainstream comedy, though, which is largely where the film lives & dies. Ocean’s 11 is often framed as being a stylish subversion of the heist picture formula, but its own hideous color saturation & music video experimentation also feels beholden to the worst aspects of its own era’s aesthetic, a post-Matrix techno thriller hangover that culminated in the “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” PSA. Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, and now Ocean’s 8 all feel like improvements on that earlier picture in the way they work around its more glaring shortcomings, which is a kind of paradox in that they could not exist without it. Ocean’s 8 is, admittedly, the least impressive improvement of the three. It does the bare minimum of giving women something to do while still working within that film’s original framework, only shifting its genre context slightly closer to a standard comedy. It’s still funny & breezily charming within that modern mainstream comedy context, even while often slipping into pure unembarrassed cheese, which is the most Ocean’s 11 ever offered us in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

Colossal (2017)

With his intricately-constructed time travel thriller Timecrimes, director Nacho Vigalondo found dark humor in the depths of selfishness in human self-preservation, exposing the ugliness of humanity as a species through the mechanism of a sci-fi fantasy plot. His American language debut, the kaiju-themed black comedy Colossal, shifts its genre & intended targets just slightly, but mostly repeats the trick. Through an outlandish genre film scenario, Colossal gradually strips away the veneer of polite smiles & social niceties that makes human beings appear to be kind, empathetic creatures to reveal the giant monsters lurking underneath. The destructive behavior of alcoholism & pretty selfishness in particular is giving an a measurable, kaiju-scale impact of real world damage. Much like in Timecrimes, the inner lives of Vigalondo’s characters aren’t given nearly as much attention as the implications of their actions within the larger, metaphor-heavy sci-fi plot, but the mystery of how that premise works & what it implies about the ugliness of humanity is enough to leave a lasting emotional bruise on the audience.

Anne Hathaway stars as a New York City socialite whose alcoholism finally crosses the threshold from “fun drunk” to full-on dysfunction, a conscious departure from the A-type personas she’s been saddled with since The Princess Diaries. Kicked out of the apartment she shares with an uptight boyfriend (Dan Stevens in full Matthew Crowley mode), she finds herself with few options but to move back to her small town childhood home. She’s employed as a barkeep by an egotistically sensitive childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), which affords her way easier access to a steady stream of working class staples Jack Daniels & PBR than is likely healthy for her. The nightly blackouts that her addiction downturn sparks start to branch out from pure self-destruction to negatively affecting millions of people: namely, the city of Seoul, South Korea. Whenever our drunken anti-hero finds herself wasted in the playground near her childhood home at the crack of dawn, a corresponding kaiju appears in Seoul and mimics her exact, stumbling movements, blindly killing anyone in its path. Once these repeating scenarios become undeniably linked, she must face hungover epiphanies like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.” Getting sober & improving herself isn’t enough to solve the problem entirely, though. As soon as she starts to get her life back together, a second monster appears in Seoul, challenging her sense of control in an increasingly ugly situation.

What’s most fun about the metaphorical sci-fi plots of Vigalondo’s work is that they continue to develop & complicate after their initial reveal. It’s not enough that the connection between the protagonist’s alcoholism and the giant monster terrorizing Seoul is made explicit. The film also pushes through to explore why the playground location & time of day correspond with its appearance, why Seoul in particular is connected to her in the first place, and what is implied by the appearance of the kaiju’s robot challenger. The answers to this mystery are lazily revealed through the device of a decreasingly cloudy repressed memory, but are satisfying enough in their impact to justify the transgression. Complicating the kaiju metaphor detracts tremendously from the energy spent on potential inner conflict & emotional depth, but also expands the film’s themes beyond the selfish destruction of addiction to include crippling jealousy, the cycles of physical abuse, and a myriad of other forms of destructive behavior. By the end of Colossal you have to ask if the bigger monster is the protagonist’s addiction or the poisonous group of self-serving men that populate her life. It’s a testament to how strong the mystery & provoked themes of the central metaphor are that it doesn’t at all matter that the characters remain surface level deep. Vigalondo’s ideas are intricate, plentiful, and mercilessly cruel to the virtues of humanity enough to carry this small scale kaiju narrative on their own.

-Brandon Ledet