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

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The popular myth about A Wrinkle in Time is that it’s an “unfilmable” novel, but there have certainly been more out-there, ethereal works of fiction adapted to the big screen with great success, so I don’t necessarily buy that. Ava DuVernay’s recent big screen adaptation of the children’s fantasy novel is being lumped in with past failed attempts, including a horrendous-looking made-for-TV monstrosity from 2003 that’s way beneath its pedigree as a big budget Disney release. I don’t think that comparison is giving DuVernay’s ambitious, bravely earnest self-empowerment fantasy enough credit for the admirably bizarre (even if frequently minor) successes it pulls from its loose-logic source material. I think the problem might largely be viewers’ emotional attachment to a novel that meant a lot to them as kids, but must be streamlined & reshaped to be presentable in a feature length movie format. The best novels leave a lot of mental space for readers to fill in the details, which is a luxury the visual medium of filmmaking cannot afford, so the difference between a reader’s mental picture & what ends up on the screen is always going to be a little jarring. While watching A Wrinkle in Time I thought a lot about Boomer’s review of Annihilation, which he called an “A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel.” To me, that A+ means the adaptation was a total success, faithfulness to the source material be damned. I’d more likely call A Wrinkle in Time a C+ fantasy picture, as I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about Annihilation, but in being even a passably enjoyable film that could’ve been improved upon, it still defies the idea that its inspiring novel is “unfilmable.”

Oddly enough, its adventurousness as an adaptation is not the only facet of A Wrinkle in Time that reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting has already expanded upon the surprising similarities between their dual mind-bending trips into alien landscapes (The Camazotz & The Shimmer, respectively) elsewhere, but what’s fascinating to me is the way A Wrinkle in Time makes Annihilation’s brand of sci-fi psychedelia palatable to children by softening it with Oprah-flavored self-empowerment & Disney Channel precociousness. Oprah Winfrey herself appears in A Wrinkle in Time as a godlike figure in outer space drag makeup. She & her lesser eternal-being underlings (Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling) relieve a depressed young nerd from grief over her NASA scientist father’s disappearance by offering her a chance to miraculously travel through space & time to rescue him from a realm ruled by Fear & dark thoughts. Backed by a queasily earnest inspo-pop soundtrack and blown up to almost kaiju-sized proportions, Oprah is in her element here. The movie is built around her career-long self-help messaging about overcoming fear & self-doubt. This advice & reinforcement is doled out to our troubled protagonist in encouraging slogans: “You have no idea how incredible you are,” “Be a warrior,” “You have such beautiful faults,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents; it’s how you use them that counts,” etc. The middle school drama she suffers enough to need this New Age inspo encouragement has a distinct Disney Channel vibe to it that will directly appeal to children, whereas adults are likely to see cheese. Oprah & her magical space crew can only prepare this child so much for the psychedelic darkness that will greet her (along with history’s most annoyingly shrill adopted brother & a blank page love interest) as she enters the nightmare landscape of The Camazotz to rescue her father, much like Natalie Portman’s complete lack of preparedness at the edge of the big evil soap bubble in Annihilation. The surprises and challenges that await her there are genuinely odd, distributing stuff and make any of the awkward precociousness of the build-up worthwhile for the emotional payoff.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how A Wrinkle in Time could have been improved as an adaptation, so I might as well offer mine here: this film should’ve been animated. As a modern, Disney brand exercise in CG spectacle, the film is already in a way a live-action/animation hybrid. Oprah’s five-point star silhouette & 50ft stature already make her resemble a Hayao Miyazaki character. Reese Witherspoon briefly transforms into a flying lettuce dragon that would have been a lot easier to stomach in a 2D animation context. The literalized encroachment of an evil Darkness poisoning the Universe with fear & self-destructive thoughts works a lot better in the proto Disney-Miyazaki collaboration Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland. There’s a lot of reverence for flight & Nature in the film that feels familiar to Studio Ghibli territory (not to mention the studio’s tendency to adapt female-penned fantasy novels); the recent animated release Mary and the Witch’s Flower telegraphed its melding of science & magic; last year’s Your Name. laid out a lot of solid groundwork for how its more intangible, psychedelic impulses could’ve been represented onscreen in expressive, illogical indulgences in traditional animation. God help me, I think I’m saying I would have enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more if it were a modern anime, the last major refuge for traditional, hand-animated cinema. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough anime to be considered even slightly informed on the subject and hasn’t read the film’s source material in at least two decades, my take on how to successfully adapt A Wrinkle in Time to the screen should be treated as highly suspect. I do think the logical freedom of animation could do this book wonders, though.

As a sucker for wide-eyed earnestness & soft psychedelia in children’s work, I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more than I found fault in it. The larger critical community’s dismissal of better works like Tomorrowland & Wonderstruck that operate within a similar tone means this movie never really had a chance for anything near universal appeal. That’s purely a matter of taste, though. What really bugs me is the idea that the movie was mediocre because its source material is “unfilmable.” In every other way Ava DuVernay’s Oprah-worshipping Annihilation Jr. psychedelia might have been only a mild success, but it’s in itself proof that an affecting, engaging adaptation of the novel can be (and now has been) done. There’s also huge chance that the film’s Disney-level distribution will get it in the hands of the people who need it most: depressed, unsociable middle school nerds who could use a 50ft Oprah-sized ego boost. I imagine those kids will then be led to the novel and form their own ideas about what is and what isn’t “filmable.” Those are the takes we should probably trust the most; feel free to ignore mine in the meantime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Night Before (2015)

fourstar

I should preface this review with the confession that Scrooged is my favorite Christmas movie. Bill Murray worship not withstanding, I feel like Scrooged is typically considered a minor, non-traditional Christmas comedy at best, not a typical go-to for the genre. I’m saying this because I greatly enjoyed The Night Before, but it’s hard to tell if its irreverent, drug-fuelled take on Christmas tradition will win over any longterm audiences, since it very much mimics the alcohol-soaked magic & pessimism of Scrooged. The Night Before not only mimics Scrooged‘s cynical, modern-world take on A Christmas Carol, but expands its adaptation scope to include touches of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, and (duh) “The Night Before Christmas”. Its excessive aping of former Christmas tales approaches allusions the same way its characters ingest “every single drug in the whole world.” Scrooged was a cynical, surreal adaptation of a Christmas classic told through the lens of alcoholism & Reaganomics. The Night Before is a similar beast, but it’s much less picky about its controlled substances or its source material & its lens is obviously more of a social media-era millennial brand.

You might expect that a raunchy comedy featuring long stretches of a Jewish man sweating his way through an aggressive cocktail of cocaine & psilocybin mushrooms would have little care at all for Christmas tradition, but The Night Before is far from the tradition-breaking excess of this year’s Everly or Tangerine. At its heart, the film is a simple story about three friends learning how to reconcile the changes that come with growing up & what it means to be a family. The three buds in question are living out a chaotic holiday ritual in which they fuck, drug, and vandalize their way through Christmas Eve while most people are sleeping or preparing for the big day ahead. Fearing that they might be becoming “those kids who won’t stop trick or treating” they decide to have one last drug-fueled blast to put the tradition to rest. And because they’re adults with adult issues looming over them, this hallucinatory catharsis of an evening brings to the surface crippling anxieties about their families, their careers, and the difference between being a good friend & being an enabler.

I wasn’t entirely stoked about director Jonathan Levine’s other Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s buddy comedy 50/50, but I did respect it for aiming for a more melancholy, real-talk vibe than most of Rogen’s comedy vehicles. The Night Before is a pretty great compromise between 50/50‘s grim tone & Rogen’s more over-the-top Judd Apatow-style ensemble comedies. Much like a lot of comedies in Rogen’s past, The Night Before survives a lot on the strength of its extensive cast of great comedians: Tracy Morgan, Ilana Glazer, Jason Mantzoukas, Mindy Kaling, Lizzy Caplain, Nathan Fielder, and Jillian Bell, who is so much of a perfect romantic match for Seth Rogen that I’d love to see them repeat their chemistry for at least one more feature. There are a few celebrity cameos to boot, which I’ll try my best not to spoil here, except to say that the mystic weed dealer character made me quite giddy. What makes all this work as something more than just an empty comedic exercise is Jonathan Levine’s touch with the tender & the melancholy. The Night Before has some grotesquely cynical moments for sure, mostly in its obnoxious ad placement for Sony & Red Bull, but for the most part it does a great job of balancing its lavish fantasy-fulfillment partying with subdued moments of emotional fragility. The tough-as-nails front the three leads put on is a deception at best, as is the film’s own supposed hedonism. It’s truthfully an old softy at heart, a traditional Christmastime sap-fest concerned with the (literal) magic of the season & the importance of familial bonds. It just happens to be one that features a supernatural weed dealer & vigorous bathroom sex.

-Brandon Ledet