Posts Tagged ‘Gary Ross’

As regular readers may recall, my friend Olinka’s suggestion that we go to see Hereditary did not exactly result in a glowingly successful evening, but one duff movie is not enough to dissuade her and she suggested we have another go, at a film of my choosing this time. Of the options which I offered, she plumped for Ocean’s Eight, which makes a certain kind of sense – this movie is kind of being marketed as a comedy thriller, and Olinka tends to assume any film she sees is a comedy thriller until forcibly persuaded otherwise. Well, you know, I saw the three Ocean films with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, and this one has an interesting cast, so Gary Ross’ new movie looked like a reasonable bet.

(I bet there was some serious hardball involved in deciding who got which place on this poster, especially the spots on the right hand side. It also occurs to me that someone didn’t realise that ‘pro’ has more than one meaning in colloquial English.)

Things get underway with Debbie Ocean (Sandy Bullock) attending her parole hearing, as she has apparently been in the big house for the past five years. Having been successful in getting herself let out of the slammer, she slinks off into New York wearing the evening gown in which she was apparently arrested. This sequence basically does the job in getting the narrative underway, but also raises a couple of important flags for the audience – firstly, it is established that George Clooney’s character (Bullock’s brother) has very definitely carked it, so one shouldn’t get one’s hopes up for a cameo from the big man, and secondly, it is made clear that this is the kind of film where attitude and appearance are more important than credibility or things actually making sense.

Debbie has spent the last five years working out every detail of a reasonably complicated robbery (they occasionally refer to it as a con, but it is basically just nicking other people’s property with a pinch of get-your-own-back time). To assist her in executing her scheme, she recruits her best friend (Cate Blanchett), who is also a criminal, as well as a dippy fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a housewife and part-time fence (Sarah Paulson – is there somebody at the door?), a skateboarding pickpocket (Awkwafina), a jeweller (Mindy Kaling), and a Rastafarian computer hacker (Rihanna). The plot revolves around stealing a $150 million necklace from the neck of a self-obsessed and rather vapid model (Anne Hathaway) at the gala night of the New York Met. And if Debbie can get her own back on the worthless ex-boyfriend who sent her to prison (Richard Armitage), then so much the better!

Well, the least you can say about Ocean’s Eight is that it has managed to avoid the tsunami of abuse which greeted the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake, despite the fact that it is essentially an All-Female Ocean’s Eleven remake – well, not really a remake, but a film with a very similar premise, featuring cameos from a couple of minor characters from the Soderbergh films. Is it just the case that insecure men on the internet have calmed down a bit in the last couple of years? Given all this chatter about raising funds for a less-feminist remake of last year’s stellar conflict movie, I kind of doubt it. It may just be that Ocean’s Eleven is less a part of people’s childhoods and they don’t feel as possessive about it. It’s certainly not because Ocean’s Eight is a better movie than the Ghostbusters remake, because it isn’t.

I mean, this is obviously what you would call a caper movie, and the pleasure point for this kind of thing comes from the cleverness of the plot, which will ideally have some kind of twist, and the fact that you are rooting for a bunch of appealing characters who have the odds apparently stacked against them. The problem with Ocean’s Eight is that the plot just isn’t that clever or surprising – there’s a lot of stuff about computer hacking and 3D printing (quite how they afford the printer, given Bullock has to go on a shoplifting spree at the start of the movie just to stay solvent, is not really gone into), but nothing to really make you go ‘Ooh that’s clever.’

There is an interesting range of performances on display from the ensemble. Blanchett, as you might expect, and Paulson, as you might not, emerge with the most credit and credibility, and Hathaway seems to be having fun in a somewhat OTT role. Most of the others are strictly functional, while Bonham Carter decides to deploy a somewhat dubious Irish accent (I was reminded of the apocryphal actor’s dictum: if you don’t think the script is funny, make sure you do a voice that is). Bullock is, well, watchable, because she’s Sandy Bullock, after all, but I was kind of reminded that a few years ago she largely stopped starring in anything other than slightly ditzy rom-coms, mainly because anything else is outside her comfort zone. As a supposedly super-cool criminal mastermind, she is, how can I put this, just a little bit inert. On the whole, in fact, if you asked me the composition of this movie, I would have to say it was about 20% Mission Impossible, 60% Sex and the City, and 20% hardboard.

Given that the plot doesn’t sparkle and the characters don’t engage, it is probably not a surprise that it’s quite hard to care about most of what happens in Ocean’s Eight, and – given they basically are just robbing a (relatively) innocent jewellery house – I couldn’t help feeling this is a film rather lacking in what you’d call a moral compass. Near the start, Bullock knocks off some makeup from a department store, and this is depicted in sufficient detail for young and impressionable audience members to very possibly have a go at doing the same thing. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days when Alec Guinness had to be led off in handcuffs at the end of The Lavender Hill Mob, for fear of sending the wrong message, but suggesting that a quotidian offence like shoplifting is somehow cool or clever is not quite in the same league as plotting a bullion heist.

Then again, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this movie, and for some insights from someone who is I turned to Olinka at the end of the film. ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked. She shrugged. ‘Well, it was cool, and some parts of it were funny, and I enjoyed seeing all the beautiful women in their expensive dresses – so yes, I enjoyed it.’ There is, I should mention, a rather contrived sequence of nearly all the protagonists swishing out of a party in couture, even the ones who have previously been established as working in the kitchen or hiding in a van nearby.

I have to say I was slightly surprised to learn that some conspicuous consumerism and escapist glamour was all it took to sell this movie to my friend, especially given how poor a lot of the rest of it is (quite apart from the stuff I’ve mentioned, James ****ing Corden turns up near the end, and (as usual) brings to the movie all the charm and fun of a urinary tract infection). But then again, I suppose this isn’t very much different from many male-oriented summer genre movies, in which ropy plotting and duff characterisation are excusable as long as enough stuff blows up.

There’s a sense in which Ocean’s Eight is just another quite mechanical and formulaic summer genre movie, it’s just one which has been clumsily retooled so the characters can be played by women. They still kind of act like men, though, even though rather than knocking over a bank vault they are stealing some pretty jewellery (I am kind of reminded of the summer of 2004, when Spider-Man saved New York from a nuclear apocalypse, while in her own movie Catwoman had to avert the sale of some iffy make-up). I’m all for better representation of women in films, and more feminine perspectives given screen-space (well, you know, I’m still a thunderous misogynist, but apart from that), but I’m sure there must be more options than either decorative subservience or playing a clumsily rewritten male stereotype. Sylvester Stallone was greeted with incredulity and derision when he announced he was working on a distaff-oriented version of his superannuated-musclemen franchise, to be entitled The Expendabelles. But Ocean’s Eight is uncomfortably close to becoming something very similar to that. I suppose it’s not an outright bad movie, but I would struggle to find anything really positive to say about it.

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One of the skills I imagine you have to master as the parent of a young child is presenting the proper expression of surprise and delight when they do something new – new and breathtakingly original and memorable for them, of course, but something which you yourself grew familiar with, accustomed to, and indeed perhaps even a little bit tired of a long time in the past. Every generation has to rediscover things for itself, of course, and so one ought to be indulgent in these matters.

As with toddlers tying their shoes or mastering bladder control, so with major entertainment corporations rediscovering and representing hoary old SF tropes and cliches, I suppose: which brings us to, need it even be said, The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross from the novel by Suzanne Collins.

In an unspecified future, North America is under the control of a totalitarian regime, and has been reconstituted as a single nation named Panem – presumably twinned with the nation of Circenses (one for the Latin scholars out there). The control of the ruling Capitol is maintained through the titular Hunger Games, in which young men and women from the outlying regions are forced to fight to the death in front of TV cameras on an annual basis. This time around, representing the remote District 12, where the inhabitants eke out an existence of bucolic deprivation, are Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – sorry folks, everyone has names like that. After being presented to the public and the preening judges and officials in the Capitol, the contestants are transported to the remote arena where the bloodletting will take place, and the stage is set for a battle roy – oops, hush my mouth…

Pointing out things that The Hunger Games is a rip-off of has become a bit of a blood sport in its own right recently: in addition to a certain Japanese movie, people are going on about Rollerball, original episodes of Star Trek, and so on, and so on. Well, you know, just because something isn’t original doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually bad, and it seems to me that the main donor of most of the narrative DNA here is Nigel Kneale’s 1968 play The Year of the Sex Olympics, in which a jaded population is kept pacified by savage reality TV ‘entertainment’. (Mark Gatiss has observed that in later life Nigel Kneale could have been given his own late night TV show where he just sat glowering at the camera and hissing ‘I told you so.’) So no, it’s not new, but it’s taking from the very best of sources.

And, naturally, as a new take on a classic theme, The Hunger Games does tell us a lot about the time in which it was made (i.e., now). As a portrait of the culture wars currently being waged in America, the film is rather interesting: the decent, homespun, countrified districts are controlled by the corrupt, decadent and effete metropolitans of the city. The political and social comment in this film is not overplayed – the producers steer clear of going into too much detail about any differences in religion and social morality between city and districts – which is probably just as well, as appearing too didactic or preachy would probably not be a good route to go down. Nevertheless, the line between being vicariously entertained by fictional slaughter and genuinely entertained by the real thing is probably thinner than most people would like to think, and it seemed to me the producers have missed a bit of a trick in not examining this theme in more depth.

Even so, the build-up to the start of the Games is finely done with considerable tension being generated: but, alas, I found the Games themselves to be rather disappointingly presented. We’re led to expect something truly vicious, and relentlessly, gruellingly savage and brutal – but commercial considerations (and the need for an accommodating certification) appear to have played their part and the action is relatively tame stuff. As a result the film comes across as rather anodyne and toned-down, where more overt bloodletting and violence would probably have suited its theme better. (At the risk of revealing a spoiler, plotting which allows a character to progress to the closing stages of this kind of elimination event without committing a single cold-blooded killing struck me as a bit of a cop-out, too.)

This is not a perfect film, then, but on the other hand it’s a superior piece of work, well-mounted, solidly written and with some very good turns in it. Jennifer Lawrence is making a bit of a habit of giving great performances in big studio movies and she does so here as well. She pretty much carries the entire picture here, without much sign of strain. Donald Sutherland seems rather subdued as the bad guy, and the guys playing Lawrence’s various love interests aren’t much more than placeholders, but Lenny Kravitz is impressive as her stylist. The only genuinely bum note is struck by the hammy performance turned in by Woody Harrelson as her trainer.

There’s a bit of a wobble late-on as some soapy teen romance insinuates its way into the story, which is an ominous sign as it looks like this is the route the inevitable sequels may be going down, but on the whole this is well worth the price of admission: involving, quite thoughtful entertainment that ticks the drama, romance, and action boxes very satisfactorily. Even so, it’s not going to change the world – its anger against the reality TV culture dominating modern TV feels entirely feigned. In the end this is simply superior entertainment, with nothing present that will discomfit Cowell too much – or even rattle Boyle.

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