-Reviews of Ocean’s 8, Hereditary, and First Reformed
Genre: Crime/Thriller (Heist)
Director: Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, The Hunger Games, Free State of Jones)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson, and Helena Bonham Carter
with: Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, and James Corden
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 66%
Maybe it’s true that no one needed another “Ocean’s” movie. Yet, there’s something innately fun about the spin-off gang’s new heist that will keep the audience smiling throughout most of its run time. Part of it is the glamour, of course, but part of it is watching a plot that (mostly) works contain so many recognizable faces. Outside of Steven Soderbergh’s original “Ocean’s” trilogy, which admittedly had a really solid first outing followed by mixed success after that, there rarely are ensemble cast movies that are able to blend famous personalities successfully into a cohesive movie. The spirit of the initial trilogy is present, but the execution is new.
Danny Ocean from the original trilogy has a sister. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) gets out of prison to start the film, five years after her boyfriend (Richard Armitage) set her up after a failed fraudulent art scheme. Debbie has been working on a plan for the last five years, and immediately reaches out to her partner-in-crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) to plot their best heist yet.
She’s targeting the Met Gala, and wants to rob several expensive pieces of jewelry that will be present, especially a hundred-million dollar diamond that is kept in a vault below the museum. So, she recruits has-been fashion designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) to get a famous client and have her dressed in the multi-million dollar diamond for show. That star is Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), who is every bit the diva as her name sounds. Also involved are an old accomplice (Sarah Paulson), a pick-pocket (Awkwafina), a jeweler (Mindy Kaling), a hacker (Rihanna), and an insurance investigator hot on their tails (James Corden). All they have to do is strip their fake client of the necklace and divide it up…easy, right?
Now, this isn’t the sort of movie where there’s any doubt that our characters succeed. The tension mined in this movie is more about how innately crazy our characters plan appears on its face while still succeeding. The great old-fashioned screenwipes in transitions and fast-paced score still exist, but the movie is shot with a digital clarity and progressive sense of energy. The production style successfully influences the movie’s effectiveness, while all of the performances really work. Bullock, Blanchett, Carter, and Paulson all have plenty of acclaim among them, with multiple Oscar appearances. Truthfully, though, it’s Anne Hathaway who completely steals this movie. She perfectly portrays a diva with a biting sense of humor and hidden intelligence, and whether or not you want to connect this to her behind the scenes tabloids is up to you. But, she manages the glamour of a role designed for someone with absolute fashion sense, as well as the look of a true superstar. She consistently is underrated, and it speaks to Hathaway’s greatness that she can take a small role like this and turn it into a movie-making performance.
In terms of rooting for our characters, I just think that we can still get behind these people. Normally, when you think of violent crime or white-collar crime, our main characters would be unlikable, but there’s something about robbing a bank or stealing jewelry that we don’t take as seriously. Yeah, these people are committing a major heist, but the wealth fantasy of the potential outcome makes the audience have their back. It’s really important for the audience to root for these characters, especially if the director only lightly lays on the tension.
Finally, there’s no doubt that this adaptation raises comparisons to the ‘Ghostbusters’ reboot from a few years ago with Melissa McCarthy and co. This movie has been largely ignored by the internet community that feels it necessary to hate on every movie with female leads, and I think that’s because of the type of actress involved. Our leads have multiple Oscar nominations and a general gravitas to their names, and maybe that makes the difference. This movie is making decent money and has had a decent response, and I’m glad that this didn’t get the kind of intense hatred on the internet for no reason. It’s a worthy watch.
Director: Ari Aster (X)
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
The modern horror movie can really be split in two different camps. There are the audience pleasing jump-scare types of film, relying on a youthful audience waiting to leap out of their seat at every little noise or creak in the setting. Movies like The Conjuring or The Woman in Black did that style really successfully, but under the surface, horror filmmaking has been making a true comeback in terms of style and substance. Whether it be The Babadook, It Follows, or The Witch, directors are beginning to understand that there’s an audience who appreciates the atmosphere of horror, where it’s more about the feeling and the imagery than the sound design.
Hereditary is exactly that film. It’s from first-time director Ari Aster, and works a horror angle into the type of things we inherit from our parents; what’s contained in our very DNA. The film opens with the death of the family matriarch, our main characters’ mother or grandmother whom we never meet. She was mysterious, she was shut off from the family and alienated her daughter. She may have also been an occultist freak. After the funeral, Toni Collette’s Annie can’t understand why she doesn’t feel that bad. She’s a dollhouse designer, often sketching pieces of her own life in plastic to sell to the masses. She and her husband (the always reliable Gabriel Byrne) have two children, the high-school aged Peter (Alex Wolff) and the pre-pubescent, and disturbed, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The family’s lives change forever when Annie begins going to grief counseling and meets a woman there named Joan (Ann Dowd).
The review, essentially, could stop there. This is the type of film which is best consumed unaware of the plot twists, and see it, as I did, wowed by the sheer surprise of some of the choices made. The film’s themes, about the type of conditions (mental or physical, but mostly mental) that are passed down from generation to generation is such a powerful driver of how we can understand the plot as it dives down the path of being completely despicable. The score is daunting, the camera work is wonderful, but the real applause should actually go to how this film is lit. There are visual motifs which couldn’t have been caught without proper lighting and editing, and the eerie sound design and score only work to reinforce the imagery we’re already seeing. Then, the performances by Toni Collette and Alex Wolff really work to bring this movie home and make it believable.
There may be a spot in the film where it loses you, as it did me. What started as an intense and disturbing family drama with horror elements does become more routine in its horror depiction. That may satisfy fans who want a pure “horror” film, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the last 30 minutes of the film. Perhaps there’s a longer cut of the film where I can become more accustomed to the style and direction it wanted to go in, but my only negative is that the movie does place the viewer at a leaping-off point. And for that, it’s a really good modern horror movie which exemplifies all of the best qualities of this indie-horror surge, but it also can be frustrating and divisive.
Director: Paul Schrader (Blue Collar, Hardcore, Light Sleeper, Affliction)
writer of: (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, and Philip Ettinger
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Writer/director Paul Schrader has had an up-and-down career filled with writing screenplays for a couple of the best movies ever made to having spotty success as a director. It’s clear from First Reformed, however, that whatever energy Schrader had when at his best is present again here. First Reformed is one of the best movies of 2018 thus far.
Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, a former military-man turned clergyman after the family tradition of enrolling in the military resulted in the death of his son. He now sees over the first reformed church in New York, a church that is hundreds of years old and served as a pit-stop on the underground railroad for fleeing slaves.
Toller struggles with alcohol and general indifference in his life, but sees purpose when a local woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) tells Toller that her husband (Philip Ettinger as Michael) wants her to have an abortion. When Toller goes to speak to the husband, he reveals that he wishes to abort the baby not because of selfishness, but because of his extremism in environmentalism. He has become such a climate change guru and protester that he feels bringing a child into this deteriorating world will only cause pain. After this conversation, Toller begins reevaluating his opinions about the world. It should be noted, as well, that Toller has been experiencing problems with his health, like a raspy cough and bloody urine.
Ethan Hawke is just magnetic in the lead role of this film, and our entire direction and sympathy for this character derives from how wholesome his performance is. I’m not sure that a movie this small and this early in the summer will get Oscar attention, but I’d put it up there for screenplay and Hawke’s performance in a heartbeat. It also helps that he’s supported by a solid Amanda Seyfried, who does occasionally churn out one of these good indie-drama performances (see ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ and While We’re Young for examples).
The movie has the tension of a thriller but is mostly a drama, relying on its pervasive themes to sell the outcome of the story. One can make parallels between Toller’s declining health and the deterioration of the planet due to climate change, and a line in the film about how preservation can lead to true creation in God’s image. Maybe just deciding to preserve and be good to oneself (and the world) will be enough to lead to the creation of something new. The film also speaks a ton about the hypocrisy which lies at the heart of a political alliance on this issue; how the christian supporters could possibly band with big business and large finance to ignore the prescient problem of climate change. The film very seriously takes this on, when it’s clear that a large production company supports Toller’s church, but they also pollute as much as any business in the United States. These are the kind of assertions that often are lacking in modern drama like this, and Schrader uses the art of film-making to adequately sell his message about this same tension between how the christian value of generosity interacts with the way we interact with the planet. It also works to show that extremism doesn’t have to be a young-man’s game.
Political passion can come from anywhere, even a terminally ill, rural reverend.