Ocean’s 8

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gary Ross

Writers: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch


After 2016’s Ghostbusters, an uneven film that was neither good nor bad enough to be worth the substantial negative attention it received, Ocean’s 8 is the second major Hollywood blockbuster featuring a gender-reversed rendition of a popular male-dominated property to be given a wide release. With more gender-flipped titles in the works, including female-led remakes of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Lord of the Flies, it looks like this is set to become a major trend in Hollywood. On one hand this means more opportunities for more women to star in more movies with greater exposure, on the other it means doing so in the shadow of men. Even though attaching themselves to a recognised property does increase the likelihood of getting a green light, it means that films like Ocean’s 8 are inevitably disadvantaged by the burden of distinguishing themselves in comparison to their male counterparts. Even if Ghostbusters had ended up being the greatest comedy movie there ever was or ever will be, it still would have had to face an uphill battle just to be accepted as the original’s peer. It isn’t fair, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when a film with this distinguished a cast and this promising a premise turns out so unspectacularly average.

For fans of the original Soderbergh films, the set-up is familiar enough. The cool, calm and collected Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the dearly departed Danny Ocean, is released on parole after a five-year stint in prison and is ready to get straight back to what she does best. She reaches out to her best friend and longtime partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and reveals her plan to infiltrate the Met Gala in a few weeks time and steal the Toussaint, an ornate $150 million necklace, from the event’s host, Hollywood superstar Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). To pull this job off, Debbie and Lou will need some help from the best and part of the fun is watching them assemble their team out of a handpicked group of ne’er do wells who each bring their own personality and talents into the mix. Together they recruit Amita (Mindy Kaling), a jeweller eager for any excuse to get away from her controlling mother, Nine Ball (Rihanna), a laid-backed and tight-lipped computer hacker, Constance (Awkwafina), a young, streetwise hustler and pickpocket, Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a fence who left this life behind to become a suburban mom, and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a disgraced fashion designer with the profile they need to get into this exclusive, star-studded event.

Between these eight leading ladies there is more screentime to go around than with Clooney and Pitt’s male ensemble, which in theory ought to mean more room for the characters to shine and their chemistry to ignite. There are for sure some instances where this pays off. Bullock and Blanchett are great together as two seasoned cons who share an affectionate yet prickly sort of rapport. Their back-and-forths are smart and slick and there is an interesting dynamic between them where the hip and eccentric Lou is the one who has to rein Debbie in and try to keep her ambition and recklessness in check. Their prominence comes at the expense of the supporting players who aren’t as fleshed out as the actresses portraying them deserve. Carter gets to stretch her acting muscles a bit playing a rather melodramatic character (of course) and Rihanna gets some good lines but Kaling, Awkwafina and particularly Paulson, one of the most versatile actresses working today, are woefully underused in their roles. The movie pretty much belongs to Bullock and Blanchett right until the halfway point where Hathaway pulls out an intriguing twist on a role we thought we had figured out and runs away with the show. Playing a character whom we at first glance take to be a one-dimensional, air-headed showbiz narcissist, Hathaway peels away the layers to reveal surprising levels of vulnerability with some intriguing insights into modern-day femininity.

The cast is really the film’s saving grace because everything else about it feels mostly standard and safe. This is one of the points where the film might have been better off trying to be its own thing rather than attaching itself to a famous pre-existing title because, compared to Soderbergh’s idiosyncratic rhythm, visual flourish and stylised editing, Ross’ efforts cannot help but come across as tame. There are some moments that stick in the brain like when the team is gathered together on the subway and we see each member’s profile pop up on the screen like panels in a comic book before being united in the same frame, but they are few and far in between. Mostly the film unfolds in a fairly ordinary fashion with little of the panache that elevated Ocean’s Eleven beyond your typical caper flick. The planning and execution of the job doesn’t feel as slick, the dialogue doesn’t snap in the same way and that clicking sensation we get the moment when all the pieces come together and we learn that there was more going on in the picture than we were led to believe isn’t as strong or as satisfying.

Ocean’s 8 is a perfectly serviceable heist movie but, after the standard set by Soderbergh (in the first movie, I’m not going to pretend that Twelve and Thirteen were anything special) as well as the promise for the opportunity to watch badass women take Hollywood by storm, I wanted something a little more than serviceable. With such a formidable cast and a timely message to tell, I wanted to see something more surprising, more daring, and more distinctive. There is a statement the film is trying to convey about women’s place in society and what is expected of them, female camaraderie, and how the time has come for women to band together in order to assert their power and potential. Bullock says at one point, “A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored.”. This is a message that needs to be proclaimed loudly, unapologetically and with a distinctly female voice. Instead this feels like a movie that could have been made by anybody at any time. Sure, there’s probably a case to be made for mindless entertainment for mindless entertainment’s sake and the movie does deliver on that but I don’t think that’s all it was trying to be.

★★★

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Alice Through the Looking Glass

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: James Bobin

Writer: Linda Woolverton


Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of my favourite stories and I absolutely love the Disney cartoon to death. Although this story has been adapted to the big screen time and time again, the 1951 animation is one of the only true successes. Disney understood that it is the madness that makes Wonderland work and fully embraced it. Wonderland is a world of nonsense where logic and reason go to die. It is a world where up is down, black is white and wrong is right. The fun comes from watching the rational, level-headed Alice attempt to apply reason to her encounters only to get lost in the insanity of it all. This is something that the Disney cartoon appreciates but that the 2010 Tim Burton film does not. Here the ingenious surrealism of Carroll’s work takes a backseat to something altogether more boring and trite: prophecies, politics and civil war. The film didn’t work because it attempted to introduce logic and sense to a world where it didn’t belong and created a story that was illogical and nonsensical. Sadly the sequel makes the exact same mistake.

Three years after taking over her father’s role in his trading company, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) returns from China to find that she will lose her family home unless she agrees to sell her ship and stake in the company. Unable to cope with this ultimatum, Alice runs away and happens upon Absolem (Alan Rickman) who leads through a mirror back into Wonderland (I refuse to call this world by the name they use in these films). There the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and all her other friends inform her that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in poor health due to the loss of his family in the Jabberwocky attack. Alice sets out to meet Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and persuade him save the Hatter’s family. After he turns her down Alice takes the Chronosphere and travels into the past herself to change history. Time however is hot on her heels and is intent on stopping her before she destroys the very fabric of the universe.

Everything that was wrong in the previous film is wrong in this one. The colours are a little brighter and there are occasional glimpses of a world that actually resembles the Wonderland from Carroll’s stories but nevertheless the core problems remain the same. There is no madness, no wonder and no magic in this movie. Wonderland is a world of nonsense inhabited by crazy and fantastic characters where strange and wonderful things happen; being in Wonderland should feel like being in a dream. Instead the film tries to bring you down to Earth with its stories of Alice’s struggles as an independent woman in the oppressive Victorian world and of the tragic histories of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. If there has ever been a franchise that should not be restrained by the confines of a plot, Alice in Wonderland is it. A plot by its very nature has to be logical, coherent and structured. Wonderland is none of those things. Ironically the film is also none of these things but for the wrong reasons!

The film introduces the concept of time travel which should have made for an incredible adventure by allowing Alice to explore an entirely new dimension of Wonderland’s insanity. But then we learn that there are rules that have to be followed because the past cannot be allowed to change and paradoxes cannot be allowed to happen or else the very fabric of the universe will be undone or something like that. To make matters worse the film decided to introduce even more logic into the universe by explaining why some of these characters became “mad” in the first place. I really wish this film had a face that I could slap because it infuriates me how they can take something so wonderful, fun and creative and produce such a bland, clichéd and joyless story. This very idea of the Mad Hatter having father issues or the feud between the Red and White Queens being caused by some terrible secret is just so galling to me as it stomps over everything that made the original stories fun. It isn’t imaginative, inventive or surreal; it’s just overdone and dull.

Wasikowska’s Alice continues to be disinterested in the world around her and the incidents she experiences. She turns in the same one-note performance that made her a bore in the first film even though the film wants her to be some kind of strong, spirited figure who defies 19th century norms. Putting aside that I’m not convinced a feminist message is warranted in a story that has no point, the character in this film does not earn this status in any meaningful way. Many of the side characters from the first film return in this latest instalment and, if you enjoyed any of them the first time around, I suppose you’ll like them fine here. For me the only one who even came close to resembling her literary counterpart, and by extension the only one I found to be at all enjoyable, was Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Father Time is the biggest new character they introduce and he is actually quite interesting at first with his clockwork design and Werner Herzog accent. However there’s nothing about his personality that stands out because, just like the rest of the characters, it’s too grounded in logic and reason.

The kindest thing I can really say about this film is that it didn’t enrage me as much as the first film did. At least this time the drab, grey world of “Underland” (God, how I hate that name) has been replaced by actual colour. There was also the odd occasion when a character would actually do something that their character would do, that is something strange and nonsensical. Overall however this film was a bore and a displeasure to watch from beginning to end. It has next to nothing to do with the inspired, fantastical world that came from Carroll’s imagination and fails to conjure up anything even remotely interesting, fun or creative to take its place. It fails to capture that sense of imagination and wonder that is so crucial to making Wonderland the dream-like adventure that it should be. I believe that one of the most offensive things a film can possibly do is take a story that holds immeasurable promise and possibilities and then squanders it. This is why Alice Through the Looking Glass is such an offensive movie to me. The only reason this film even exists is to capitalise on the success of its equally infuriating predecessor. This film is unimaginative and lifeless and is entirely unworthy of the material it is based on.

Suffragette

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep

Director: Sarah Gavron

Writer: Abi Morgan


In this day and age when voting in the UK, as well as every other free country in the world, is an assumed and inalienable right, it’s easy to forget how fiercely (and recently) some people had to fight to win that right, especially women. It hasn’t even been a hundred years since Britain was a country where women strove, fought, sacrificed and even died for the right to vote. Voting is a vitally important right and is quite possibly the single most fundamental thing we all do as citizens of democracy which is why the Women’s Suffrage Movement is such an important and powerful story. The resolve and vigour they displayed and the hardships they endured serve as an inspiring example to us all. Suffragette attempts to depict and realise this struggle in a dramatic form by focusing on the story of a single woman in the middle of it all.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a working class wife and mother who gets drawn into the Women’s Suffrage Movement almost by accident when her kind and caring nature compels her to stand up for her ill-treated co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Through Violet, herself a determined suffragette, Maud falls into the company of such women’s rights activists as Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). As she learns more about this movement and comes to identify more with the cause, Maud becomes more and more active much to the detriment of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the local police officer Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the peaceful protests orchestrated by these women yield little results, the suffragette champion Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) entreats them all to resort to more extreme methods.

The decision to focus this story on a working class foot soldier caught up in the middle of this movement was a wise move on this film’s part. The sacrifices she makes and hardships she endures have greater resonances because she has more to lose than those that are better off. Maud depends on her work and her family to survive and would be destitute without either of them. As the struggle becomes greater and more unbearable, it becomes more difficult for Maud to decide whether this cause is bigger and more important than her own needs and those of her family. As well as the social and economic sufferings that Maud undergoes her perspective in the front lines of this movement provides a window into the other sufferings women endured. These women include the bold, working class Violet who finds herself powerless to oppose the sexual violence of her boss, the passionate, middle class Edith whose activism drives her towards extreme and unhealthy lengths, and the earnest, upper class Alice who despite her status feels powerless as she does not hold the right to control her own wealth and estates. The portrayal of the men also proves effective with Sonny serving as a working class man desperate to avoid any negative attention brought about by his wife and Steed as an ambivalent officer whose duty to the law trumps whatever personal feelings he might have.

Unfortunately there are a few issues I have with this film that I think prevent it from being the Selma of the women’s rights movement. One is that the film’s climax hinges on a real-life tragedy involving a character who doesn’t get nearly enough development. Maybe the lack of focus on this character was so she would stand as more of a symbol for all suffragettes by the film’s end, but I feel like the tragedy would have had a bigger impact on myself as well as the audience if we understood more about who this woman was, what she stood to lose and what the right to vote meant to her personally. Another issue I have, which admittedly is less to do with the film itself and more to do with its advertising, is Meryl Streep whose presence in the film is much smaller than the trailers or posters would have you believe. While she plays Emmeline Pankhurst well with all of the dignity and authority befitting her character, she’s only in the film for one scene. Her performance is essentially not so much a supporting role as it is a cameo. Even though I don’t have any particular problem with the performance itself or the character’s role in the overall story, I couldn’t help but feel misled.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement is an intense and harrowing tale and it takes a powerful film to depict it. Suffragette is not quite that film but it comes pretty damn close. The cruelties and oppression inflicted upon these women are depicted well and the entire cast succeeds admirably in portraying them. It’s only a want of a more refined focus and greater development that prevents this film from being the masterpiece it could’ve been. The film does end on an effective note as it lists the countries that now allow their women to vote and the years in which their suffrage was granted, some of those years being embarrassingly recent. Looking back it is astonishing how far our society has come in the last century in terms of women’s rights and feminism and, while there is still a way to go, this film serves as a reminder of the enduring bravery, strength and resolve of these women that lives on today and continues to inspire progress and change.

★★★★