Category Archives: hollywood

“Ocean’s 8” hits most of the right notes

The new craze in Hollywood is taking old franchises and rebooting them with an all-female cast. Never mind that this is just another excuse to stay away from original ideas under the guise of inclusion. Or undervaluing the fact that there is just as much discrimination behind the camera as in front of it (“Ocean’s 8” was directed by a man, Gary Ross). Can you imagine a franchise helmed by creative women and men, starring women and men in equal, genre-bending roles and full of inventive, original concepts not based on old franchises or the latest book series? Apparently, Hollywood can’t.

Rant aside, looking solely at the quality of the most recent female-led film, “Ocean’s 8” manages to be a fun, is ultimately less-than-fruitful, ensemble and another interesting heist film.

Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has just gotten out of jail, but over her five years in incarceration, she has developed a plan to steal the famed Toussaint necklace, valued at $150 million. She gathers together a team, including her old partner, Lou (Cate Blanchett), jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), schemer Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna) and costume designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter). Developing a plan to get noted actress, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), to wear the necklace at the famed New York Met gala, the team works to enact a tightrope scheme that will make them all rich.

The film follows the heist plot to the letter: hatch the plan, recruit the team, enact the plan, navigate the complications, get out, deal with the twist and savor the winnings. It’s fun yet so familiar as to be boring at times. We know what’s going to come before it happens and though we enjoy watching it, our suspense is placated. A change in routine, especially in comparison to the previous films, would serve the story so much better. Perhaps a mole in the group. Perhaps a gigantic twist in the course of the plan (an even bigger trophy presents itself and the crew changes course). Something that makes the film feel different other than a female cast.

Or perhaps, in true feminist form, the film plays with sexism inherent. There’s a bit where Debbie’s relationship to her ex plays a role in the plot of the film, but this could have been stretched even further. Perhaps we see the backgrounds of other characters as well, treated like dirt in a male-dominated world. The heist then serves as a rebuttal to all the chauvinism they’ve had to deal with, especially considering that what they’re stealing is a diamond necklace, a symbol of princess royalty. If films are going to utilize (some may say pander) to feminism, they should go all out and really drive home feminist ideals.

The other thing the film lacks is a strong heart at its core. We don’t really get to know the crew’s inner demons and personal motivations. Why does Debbie want to steal the Toussaint necklace? Because it’s what she’s good at, she says. That’s not very interesting. If her family had failed to get the necklace in the past and that resulted in their capture, that’d be more interesting. Her motivation is vilification. Or if we saw a flashback of her past when she was young and how she fantasized about having this huge necklace, that would make her journey a childhood fascination. Similarly, we could learn about the backgrounds of the rest of the team and what drives them. Money is just not a very interesting motivator. Finding a deep, psychological driver for the team would really put us behind them and drive our emotions.

“Ocean’s 8” does do a good job of differentiating its characters. They each have a distinct personality, especially Anne Hathaway’s Daphne, and seeing how they bounce off each other is fun. The appeal of all of the “Ocean’s” films is the star-studded cast in a big plot production. There’s Sandra Bullock. There’s Rihanna. There’s Cate Blanchett. They’re doing a heist. It’s fun, and the film meets that level of premise.

A few changes to the plot and a deeper motivation would have really made “Ocean’s 8” a winner. As such, it’ll just have to settle for a fun night out at the movies.

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“Deadpool 2” a lot of fun

The first “Deadpool” film broke the mold on what a successful superhero movie could be. You didn’t need a stand-up, morally righteous caped crusader who fought for the right thing. You could have a trash-talking, fourth wall-breaking, crude protagonist in an R-rated, violent film. And it can make money. Lots of money.

So for a sequel, it’s important to make something the audience is familiar with while trying to keep its originality. “Deadpool 2” is mostly successful at this venture, still delivering a fun movie that falls into some common traps of the superhero genre.

Directed by David Leitch, “Deadpool 2” continues the story of Wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). After a traumatic event in the film’s opening sequence, Wade goes on a mission to find his purpose, discovering a teenager named Firefist (Julian Dennison) who is being hunted by a time-traveling mutant badass, Cable (Josh Brolin). Determined to save the youngster, Deadpool creates a team including the super-lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz) to hilarious effect.

The character of Deadpool remains as crude and as funny as ever, with quips, dirty gags and violent killings galore. It’s not as ingenious as its predecessor because we’re not shocked by the vulgarity and blood as we were the first time. It gives the film a general sense of been-there, done-that to an extent, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

The plots for Deadpool films are generally secondary and that is the case here again. The viewer doesn’t much care if Deadpool succeeds in his mission to save Firefist. We’re here to see gags and action and laugh. It’s almost a shame that the plot is not totally outlandish as this might serve the character better. Perhaps a recently-formed X-Force team that goes on a killing mission against the gangs of New York leading to mass slaughter or Deadpool being cloned and going to battle against himself. There are plenty of off-the-wall premises that could really push the envelope into weirdness and absurdity.

As such, “Deadpool 2” suffers somewhat because he is now one of the big franchises he so successfully parodied. There’s a disconnect between trying to make fun of the Avengers, the X-Men and the DC Universe while at the same time also being on the same tier as them. New characters are introduced such as Cable and Juggernaut, Universe-building with X-Force comes to fruition and there will inevitably be more merchandise, more spinoffs, more movies. The original “Deadpool” worked so well because it bucked trends. “Deadpool 2” wades back into them somewhat.

“Deadpool 2” is still a fun time for fans of the character however, and it has an engaging story that feels bigger than the first film. Seeing Cable and Deadpool together onscreen at last is a treat, and there are plenty of funny moments and engaging action sequences. For those with a taste for the genre, it satisfies the craving.

“It” features strong characters and silly jump scares

The original “It” is a campy yet well-remembered miniseries that created the distinctly memorable Pennywise (originally Tim Curry). Adjusting for modern day standards, the possibility to create a new terror clown for a new generation is ripe with potential. The filmmakers behind the new “It” hit most of the right marks whether or not their intention was pure horror.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, “It” tells the story of a small Maine town called Derry, where a demonic, transforming creature hunts and devours children. After his brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappears, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) struggles with coming to terms that Georgie in fact may be dead. A loser in the town, he, along with his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), are bullied and tormented by older kids and misunderstood and disrespected by their parents and the adults around them. When they meet new girl in town Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and discover the secrets of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), they must band together despite their past and fears to stop him.

The characters are fleshed out and strong. Each of the kids has a distinct personality and arc that contributes to the overall story. Their harsh parents admonish in some cases abuse them, really reflecting author Stephen King’s sensibilities and tone. The kids’ bond is so strong because of their lack of upbringing and support. With no one else to turn to, their friendship is their only hope. Adults and adulthood are toxic and this is represented by Pennywise, a manifestation of the fear of growing up.

Skarsgard excels as the demonic clown, bringing new terror to an already iconic role. He manages to make Pennywise his own creation quite different and more extreme than the previous version. He is scary, campy, funny and disorienting.

The scares of the film are where things fall either positively or negatively depending on your experience. For those genuinely frightened by modern-day jump scares, the film will be terrifying. For those who find such tactics hokey and pedestrian (writer included), there is little terror and indeed several instances of laughter. But in a film such as this, it’s okay if not everything is not taken very seriously. It is a story about a demonic clown after all. Much like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise is so fantastical that the ingenuity of his terror is fun. In a way, this can be construed to show us how silly our fears really are in the grand scheme of things.

The film is a bit too long, but a beating heart at the core of the story powers the narrative through to its conclusion. It is definitively Stephen King’s original work brought to life onscreen.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.

“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.

“Seven Psychopaths” a fun character story

There are actor’s movies. There are director’s movies. There are even cinematographer’s movies. “Seven Psychopaths” is a writer’s movie.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film tells the story of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who becomes entangled in the story he’s writing as he becomes surrounded by seven psychopaths, including Billy (Sam Rockwell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Hans makes his living kidnapping dogs and returning them for ransom money. When he accidentally steals mob boss Charlie’s dog, Marty is thrown into the struggle of his life as he, Billy and Hans go on the run.

The story of the seven psychos is intricate and interesting. Seeing how they all interact together with Marty’s journey gives a fascinating portrait of madness and how it ties into violence. Though all violent in their backstories, all 7 characters find solace in peace at the end, asking the question, what qualifies you to being a psychopath? And can you change once you realize what you are?

The film is well-acted, well-shot and decidedly well-written, with many funny lines and sublime character arcs. Some have compared the film to a Tarantino-esque style, but it is definitively McDonagh’s style, blending violence, comedy, high ideas and deep characterizations. He does a good job in all of his films of building the themes of his narrative up to the conclusion. Who would have thought that a movie like “Seven Psychopaths” would ultimately be a story about finding peace?

“Thor: Ragnarok” goes for straight-up fun and it works

The previous “Thor” films were admirable action adventures, but lacked heart and individuality. It’s hard to make a serious film when your protagonist is a hammer-wielding god and the villains are weird space aliens. So Marvel has wisely decided to ditch the pretense and go straight past logic into pure fun. These films are better for it.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarok” features the titular character (Chris Hemsworth) trying to prevent the foreseen end-of-days. Despite his best efforts, his long-entombed sister and goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), emerges to destroy the nine realms. Trapped on an alien planet with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor must team up with the Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to escape his bondage from the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and save his home before Hela destroys it.

In lieu of trying to capture the serious tone and majesty of “Game of Thrones” or “The Lord of the Rings”, “Thor: Ragnarok” instead throws caution to the wind and tells a fanciful adventure-comedy that ties in to its predecessor’s mythology. Never taking itself too seriously and playing up the dynamics of the visuals, the film is a constantly enjoyable ride. Most answers to the plot seem to be as simple as why not. We want to see Hulk and Thor in a gladiatorial match. Why not. Wouldn’t it be cool for Jeff Goldblum to be in a Marvel movie just playing himself? Why not. No room for Natalie Portman in the story? Cut her. Why not. Let’s have Thor fight a literal Satanic creature. Why not. Let’s put in Dr. Strange for pretty much no reason. Why not. There’s something oddly commendable about such an approach.

For the returning characters of Thor, Loki, Banner, Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), having been with the franchise for so long, they have developed a comforting rhythm. The viewers know what to expect and they deliver their part.

It’s sad to write, but again, it’s the role of the villain that is a tad shallow and forgettable. Even with an actress with the chops of Cate Blanchett, there’s just not a lot you can do with a one-dimensional, evil villainess role. Her desire is to destroy the galaxy because she’s the goddess of death and hated her father. That’s not very interesting. Throwing in that she’s Thor’s sister does little to deepen their connection since they’ve never actually met before. If Thor and Hela remembered each other, if they used to play as children until Odin banished her for being evil or Loki tricked her into becoming goddess of death, that would have added some personal stakes. Thor would be remiss to kill his sister because he cared about her once. Perhaps Hela might have second thoughts about annihilating everything, but chooses to forge ahead regardless. But instead we get just another going-to-destroy-the-world story.

Regardless of that, the even humor and colorful visuals keep the story entertaining. Most other characters, no matter how insignificant they at first seem, are fleshed out, interesting, and given good character arcs such as the Grandmaster, Skurge (Karl Urban), Valkyrie and Korg (voice of director Waititi). It gives the film an intriguing ensemble usually lacking in Marvel films.

The film fully feels like Thor’s story as the stakes for him grow higher and the personal choices he has to make impact his character. Can he take his father’s throne? Can he make the hard decisions he needs to without corrupting himself as his father did? Can he bring Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie to his side? At the film’s conclusion, the weight of responsibility for his people is all that matters and his love for them drives his heroic nature. His story therefore, with actual stakes to the film, is memorable.