I got introduced to Richard Shepard’s work one afternoon in college when HBO decided to run Oxygen, a thriller he made back in 1999 about a kidnapper (Adrien Brody) who emotionally browbeats a cop (Maura Tierney) into confronting the darkest corners of her nature. I only saw the film the one time, and there’s a lot of little details that have escaped me in the 15-ish years since I randomly turned it on. I couldn’t even reliably tell you whether or not it’s a good movie. But something about watching the mom from Liar Liar being forced to haltingly confess and explore her love of sadomasochism kind of forces you to put the remote down and forget about that class you have in an hour. At the very least, it left a mark, and I’ll always respect that.
Not long after, Shepard’s follow-up, the fantastic Pierce Brosnan hitman comedy The Matador, hit the screens and hit hard, establishing him as a darkly comic wit and setting the tone for the rest of his feature output (The Hunting Party, Dom Hemingway). On the whole, he tends to fly under the radar; he’s probably best known for his work on Lena Dunham’s Girls, as well as directing the pilots for Ugly Betty and Criminal Minds. Still, whatever work he does usually manages to stay with me in some small way.
20 years after the release of Oxygen, his new film, The Perfection, is a return to the sort of twisted psychodrama that got my attention in the first place. And where Oxygen left a mere mark, The Perfection leaves a crater.
We start with Charlotte (Allison Williams), fresh from the death of her mother after a decade-long illness. Charlotte is a classically-trained cellist, once the pride of the prestigious Bachoff Music School in Boston. She also, going off the telltale marks on her wrists and the brief glimpses we get of her electroshock therapy, seems to have some mental health issues. With nowhere else to go, she calls her old teacher Anton (Steven Weber), hoping to get back into his good graces. Anton’s happy to have her back, but he’s got a new star pupil (Logan Browning, Dear White People) that Charlotte is very, very worried about.
And beyond the trailer up above, which I embedded early in case you decide to stop reading, that’s all I’m allowing myself to say about the plot. That’s right, it’s a twist-heavy narrative, and now that you know that, a certain number of you are going to be watching this movie at DEFCON 2, second-guessing every choice the film makes in an effort to figure out where it’s going long before it gets there. If that sounds like you, you’re free to bail out right here to give yourself the best possible chance at a blind first run; while I refuse to go into plot specifics, I’m going to be talking about things that’ll make it a lot easier to put the pieces together as you go along.
I don’t judge—I’m one of those people. Tell me a movie’s unpredictable, and it’s not so much a compliment as it is a dare; it’s less about trying to prove anything about myself or the film and more of an anxious compulsion. So even as I was enjoying the film, I was still watching it on my toes, picking up little details that allowed me to stay a step or two ahead of what was going on. That doesn’t matter as much as you might think; it’s a rare pleasure to find a movie that takes you by complete surprise, but I’ll take a predictable twist over a nonsensical one any day of the week. Any narrative that depends on withholding information from its audience should be able to survive its eventual disclosure. By that rubric, The Perfection passes with flying colors; I loved watching its reversals upon reversals play out, even as I called them, and they’re entirely consistent with the film’s established internal logic.
But if that internal logic got any more batshit insane, we’d be entering Salò territory.
Let me be clear: very little about this film’s ambitions are prestigious. It may not appear that way at first; something about setting the film in the world of classical music gives the work an air of sophistication, buttressed by Shepard’s too-formal-on-purpose style (in this case, complete with chapter cards that recall films like The Favourite). At its core, however, The Perfection is a dark, twisted little movie that has a full understanding of itself. It delights in the ways it gradually reveals its lurid nature, even going so far as to use those reveals to comment on the subject matter itself. It doesn’t feel like an accident that Allison Williams’ performance has more than a few echoes of her iconic role in Get Out; combined with Vanja Cernjul’s immersive photography and the steady pace set by editor David Dean, certain expectations are established that the film does an excellent job of unraveling as it goes along. There’s a needledrop late in the film’s third act that all but confirms Shepard’s taking the piss, and at that point, you might be ready to cheer him on out loud. Artful as it may be, The Perfection is not above exploitation, and its meta-textual awareness might be the best thing about it.
Now, smart exploitation is still exploitation, and I have concerns that there’s going to be a not-insignificant portion of the audience that will be deeply uncomfortable with how the film handles its delicate subject matter. Doubly so since the film is completely anchored to feminine experiences, and too few women are getting chances to bring their own perspectives into cinema. (Note: The film’s script is co-credited to Nicole Snyder.) I can only speak personally, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered. But I’m looking forward to discovering more feminist perspectives on the film, whatever side they may come down on, and possibly learning a little more from them.
Having said that, I remain bowled over by The Perfection. Looking over his filmography, Oxygen seems like such a strange blip in Shepard’s body of darkly comic work. But it’s thrilling to see him revisit that nasty little impulse he once had, now armed with a whole lot of confidence and no small amount of humor. If he ever wants to try it again, I’ll be first in line.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Richard Shepard Written by Richard Shepard, Eric C. Charmelo, Nicole Snyder Produced by Richard Shepard, Bill Block, Stacey Reiss Starring Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber Release Date: May 24, 2019 Running Time: 90 minutes
(Spoilers—and some triggering ableist language—follow.)
Regarding The Predator as a whole film: Picture yourself telling a story. Some are better suited to storytelling than others, but it’s a good bet you know the basics of telling a story; there are beginnings, middles, and ends, there are details you set up and then pay off, there is a clean thread of logic that you run along from start to finish.
Now imagine telling that story while you’re trying to run a five-minute mile.
That’s the short of The Predator‘s issues. The sharp, badass dialogue, clever ideas, and funny reversals that Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys) made his bones on in the second act of his career are there, but it’s directed and edited like he’s running for his life. If I were to summarize the film’s setup in a way that captured the experience of watching it, it would look like this:
So there’s a battle up in outer space and a portal opens and the ship being attacked goes through and crash-lands on our planet and over in Mexico Boyd Holbrook is trying to snipe some cartel guys with his team but then the alien ship crashes and the alien which is a Predator by the way you know what a Predator is anyway the Predator kills Boyd’s teammaates but he gets out alive along with some Predator tech that he sends to his PO Box for safe-keeping before he’s taken to be interrogated by the Army who wants to put a lid on alien activity but he’s a chump who doesn’t pay his bills so the post office sends it to his estranged family’s house and his autistic son thinks it’s a video game meanwhile Sterling K. Brown runs a government facility that’s keeping an eye out for Predators and he brings in super-smart biologist Olivia Munn who’s good but Brown is super arrogant and kind of evil anyway the Predator that killed Boyd’s team is still alive and it escapes from Brown’s facility and Munn runs after it at the same time Boyd and a group of section eights including Trevante Rhodes Thomas Jane and Keegan-Michael Key decide they want a piece of this Predator too and when they find out Boyd’s son has the tech that the escaped Predator is looking for things get super real.
Can you follow that? Maybe, but it’s uncomfortable, maybe even panic-inducing, right? That’s what happens when the storyteller barely has a grip on the story he’s trying to tell, likely because he’s distracted. “Running” is the example I use because the film is edited breathlessly, yanking you from one scene to the next without giving you time to soak in what’s happening or learn more about who these people are. Then once the film gets into its third act, it’s clearly out of breath and contorting under all the lactic acid coursing through its veins, and it just completely loses the plot. You get chunks of it between heaves as if it’s recalling a half-remembered fever dream: “Global warming…Twinkies…evolution…big hunt…shoulder mounted cannon blows the guy’s own head off…Predator dog…blinded…pet…” The movie doesn’t so much end as it collapses in a puddle of sweat and possibly vomit. Was it enjoyable? Maybe. But it’s exhausting and hell if you understand what exactly happened.
This is all uncharacteristic of Black’s work as a director; he’s never struggled with pacing and clarity like this before. There’s a couple of factors I’m tempted to blame—studio interference, general disengagement with the material—but it would all be Monday morning quarterbacking and I admire him too much to blindly cover for him. Point is, this movie sucks, and if that was all there is to it, I’d pad this out for another 400 words with some talk about the solid acting (Sterling K. Brown is a standout, one of Black’s finest villains) and the surprisingly inconsistent cinematography by Larry Fong (Zack Snyder’s go-to DP) and call it a day.
But this is Cinema From the Spectrum, and if you haven’t heard, there’s an autistic character in here that plays a big role in the story being told. Consider me behooved to talk about it.
It’s like this: Rain Man came out in 1988 and I think it’s safe to say it’s been informing the media discourse about autism ever since. Ray Babbit had fairly low emotional intelligence and was barely able to function in society, but he had a hidden knack for math that his brother was able to use/exploit to their advantage. You have to remember that this is a time when autistic people were just “retarded” and were dealt with by locking them in an asylum and writing them off beyond paying the bill every month. Rain Man hasn’t aged well for people like me or my friends, but I’d argue that it was instructive early on. It made us visible and empathetic; it got the ball rolling. I think there’s good in that.
We just haven’t moved beyond that initial template, as demonstrated by Robert Downey, Jr.’s immortal “never go full retard” monologue in Tropic Thunder:
Downey’s character is a celebrated Australian actor who knows how to game the system for accolades and has gone so far as to permanently dye his skin and take on a “black” vocal affect in search of his next award. The scene is meant to satirize actors who take dramatic “other” roles that “raise social awareness” because they want a cookie an Oscar. (The repeated use of the word “retard” is in line with that. Neither Ben Stiller nor Downey’s characters are meant to be seen as good people.) Now I go back and forth on whether it’s society that influences our art or vice versa, but I think this scene also reflects how first-world societies want to see people who are disabled, be it emotionally, mentally, or physically. They can’t just be disabled; they have to have some sort of special quality that “redeems” them, something that makes them even with the rest of society.
Autism is becoming a point of obsession with Hollywood lately. In recent years we’ve had an explosion of stories where high-functioning autism plays a role, including The Accountant (which I love*), the ABC series The Good Doctor (which I don’t), and the Netflix series Atypical (which I haven’t seen). That’s not counting shows and films where the word “autism” is never mentioned but the implication is obvious, such as The Big Bang Theory and Ramin Barani’s take on Fahrenheit 451. (Incidentally, the fact that they never call it autism allows these movies/shows to get away with some terrible portrayals of it, but that’s for another time.) In most cases, when a character has autism, it’s balanced out with savantry. Christian Wolff from The Accountant is a math wizard. Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor has a brilliant mind for medicine.
(*I suspect I’m in the minority within the autism community on this. When the film first came out, I wrote a review that summarized my feelings on why it was such a good take on autism despite leaning on stereotypes. I think it might be time for a revisit to see if my feelings have evolved; I might even write up a more in-depth breakdown in the future. Keep an eye out for it.)
Like with Rain Man, these stories aren’t necessarily terrible on their own. When you put all of these portrayals together, however, a pattern emerges, suggesting that if we’re not savants, we’re not worth shit. Bob’s Burgers actually called this out perfectly in its very first episode (though as far as I know Tina Belcher isn’t meant to be autistic):
So yeah, add Jacob Tremblay’s Rory McKenna to that list. When he’s introduced, he’s dressed in a neat button-down shirt and slacks in some kind of lab where everyone’s playing chess. A couple of bullies pull the fire alarm, which causes him to shut down while everyone files out because loud noises bother him. Those bullies approach him, knocking over chess sets, looking to eat some “ass burgers,” but they walk away after realizing Rory can’t fight back and there’s no fun in it (this beat’s a little hazy in my mind). The fire alarm ends, Rory gets up, and—to a twinkly piano-and-strings accompaniment, the kind of arrangement used every time a composer wants to say “THIS PERSON IS SUPER GIFTED Y’ALL”—arranges all the chess boards the way they were.
Let me nitpick this, bearing in mind that I’m drawing from my own experiences and there may be others on the spectrum who identify more with how Shane Black put this scene together.
Autistic people do often have a problem with loud noises, but—again, speaking personally—it’s tied to our comfort in peaceful, orderly environments. I actually just had a fire drill at my job; when the shriek of the alarm hit, I flew backward in my seat and yelled “SHIT,” my hands immediately flying to my ears; not my proudest moment. In the scene, Rory’s hands kinda float to his ears before he starts stimming.
Any teacher worth a shit would make sure Rory was out the door with his fellow classmates, but we can let this go out of respect for dramatic convenience (and frankly, it’s not implausible that Rory’s teacher isn’t really worth a shit).
Rory’s bullies snarking about “ass burgers” is definitely something that dickhead middle schoolers would do, so that gets a pass.
I can buy into Rory putting the chess pieces back the way they were, but it’s presented as something that we should be impressed with—and it is impressive. But that’s where I start having problems.
See, considering what comes later, I can see why Black opted for an outsider’s perspective on autism (as opposed to trying to get us inside Rory’s head) for this scene, which is empathetic towards Rory’s social struggles and deeply impressed with his preternatural talents—which ultimately include a knack for understanding the language and the tech the Predators use. But in doing so, he makes it a little harder to understand and thus identify with Rory, and he kind of misses one of the bigger points of our struggles with neurotypical society, one that a more aware script might have been able to tie into the film.
During a break in the action, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) mentions to Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) that some see autism as the next step in human evolution. Right away, I realized where this movie was going; sure enough, during the third act, the big Hunter Predator that kills and replaces the regular Predator midway through challenges all the surviving humans to run from him if they can, and that “McKenna” will be their leader, as he’s “their greatest warrior.” Is he talking about Quinn, the guy who’s been leading a team to fight back against the Predator invasion and doing a fairly good job of it? Nope, he’s talking about Rory, who’s been able to communicate with them despite being a human child.
And I’ll admit, it makes some sense; again, Rory’s a very impressive individual. But he’s treated as a sort of prize, a kid valued for his gifts and not for his personality or strategic intellect. Again, on its own, it’s not that bad; in fact, Black and Tremblay find some moments to give Rory something like a personality, including one of my favorite lines in the whole film:
Traeger (Sterling K. Brown): I bet you can’t get the door to that spaceship open.
Rory: That’s reverse psychology. I can do that too: Don’t go fuck yourself.
But whether or not you feel like that’s good enough, it’s ultimately part of a decades-long pattern of autistic characters who suffer from huge social deficits that are “balanced” by valued intellectual gifts. Here’s why that matters: A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are four times more likely than neurotypical individuals to struggle with some form of depression. As someone who lives with depression, I can partially vouch for that study, and I can tell you that people who are depressed don’t often think about what they can do well, even when we see a movie that tells us if we’re deficient in some areas, we make up for it in others.
People tell me I’m a great writer. That’s nice, I guess. But I also have to worry about reaching out to friends and family, speaking appropriately to them, not oversharing, mingling at parties and not disappearing into my phone all the time, staying calm when things don’t go my way, looking presentable, keeping a neat space, dealing with people who don’t have patience for me, and so many other things that neurotypical adults seem to just do. When all that is missing, tell me, why should my skill behind a keyboard matter?
When I see a movie like The Predator, I don’t think about how my knack for writing could balance out such deficits.
When I see a movie like The Predator, I think about how nice it must be to have a gift that makes me so important I’m thought of as the future of the human race.
When I see a movie like The Predator, I’m reminded that I’m all deficits.
And it’d be so easy if I could just blame Shane Black or Fred Dekker or Jacob Tremblay (as if I could fully blame an 11-year-old kid for not being up on political issues within the autism community) or really anyone involved in the production for this. But ultimately, I’m not sure if they even realize they’re supposed to know better. This is all part of the pattern reflecting our society, where autism is widely seen as something that would be a net negative if not for whatever gift the autistic person in question has. Consider Autism Speaks, which is pretty much THE non-profit when it comes to Autism Awareness. As much as they’ve raised “awareness,” AS has done just as much to stigmatize autism in ways subtle (their logo: a puzzle piece, meant to suggest our fixation on logic but actually implying incompletion) and overt (their mission statement up until 2015 involved finding a “cure”). Even if they’ve changed course, I’ve yet to see an apology from them—which I believe is more than owed, especially considering how much money they’ve made off us, and would do so much to eradicate the stigma that AS has built up over the years.
Maybe I’m just making excuses for a writer/director I’ve always looked up to; ultimately, nobody made Black and Dekker write an autistic character into their script. But well-intentioned as they were, they were still clearly influenced by a larger narrative that really doesn’t understand how autism works. And maybe that’s why I’m so hesitant to work up a frothy outrage about this; because I’m still figuring it out myself, alongside so many other people. We think of autism as a trade-off, losing what’s seen as basic social and/or self-care skills to gain talent in some other intellectual area. But if we’re really the future, then it’s not going to be because of whatever random thing we do well, but because of how we do what we do. The Predator shows interest, but never really examines that; instead of showing our unique mental processes as a positive, it’s awed by our magic tricks, pitying our hangups with everything else.
This ultimately stems from the same place that every other issue with the movie comes from. The Predator is in such a rush to tell its story that it’s not paying attention to the things that matter. And when you’re not paying attention, everything else might as well be magic.
Watch the (restricted) trailer here:
Images copyright 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Shane Black & Fred Dekker
Produced by John Davis
Starring Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 107 minutes
(This review contains heavy spoilers. Not kidding: I literally start by talking about the ending. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, give it a shot; it’s a great time and worth seeing blind, even if it falls short of the original trilogy’s magic.)
“You would have loved it.”
That’s the very last line of Ocean’s Eight, a spin-off of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Ocean’s trilogy directed by Soderbergh’s close friend Gary Ross, from a script by Ross and Olivia Milch (daughter of TV legend David Milch, who recently made her own directorial debut with the Netflix teen comedy Dude). It’s said by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), drinking a martini at the grave of her brother Danny, the dapper con-artist hero of the original films.
Oh, he’s probably not dead. That’s the occupational hazard of being born into a family of thieves; any news of your demise tends to be greeted with a jerk-off motion unless you leave an intact, visually identifiable body, at which point you’ll be granted the courtesy of an eye-roll. When Debbie first visits Danny’s tomb, she says, “You better be in there.” Later on, Danny casually comes up in a conversation between Debbie and young hustler Constance (Awkwafina): “You sure he’s dead?” “No.” Constance might as well have asked Debbie what she had for lunch. Debbie refuses to take Danny’s death at face value, and why should she? If nothing else, the audience sure isn’t; through three movies, we’ve seen him and his crew run heists like magic tricks, hiding crucial information from us—sometimes even in plain sight. We’ve been trained not to trust anything we’re straight up told about Danny. On a more metatextual level: In a post-Marvel age, who could resist the appeal of a star-studded crossover, or at the very least, a cool little pass of the torch from brother to sister?
And yet it’s resisted, if only for now: Debbie drinks her martini at her progenitor’s grave, salutes him, roll credits. Whether Debbie even accepts that her brother is truly gone at that point is up in the air; given the lack of tears shed, I’d assume she hasn’t. Anyway, this isn’t a story about dealing with grief. This is a story about women stealing cool shit from people who don’t need it and getting even with men who would treat them as disposable pawns in the process. Daniel Ocean is dead, or “dead,” because he has no place in it.
But he would have loved it, says Debbie. And while I come away feeling like the movie was a little too easy and not necessarily “cool” enough for (if I may be so gauche) the Ocean’s brand, I don’t think she’s wrong.
For Ocean’s Eight, we trade in the luxurious, violent history of Las Vegas for the blasé decadence and self-importance of Manhattan’s Upper East Side; more specifically, The Met gala, a parade of celebrities and influencers dining and rubbing shoulders while dressed in the finest offerings from fashion’s biggest names. Like Vegas, there’s a lot about this scene you can criticize, but like its older brother, Ocean’s Eight is happy to keep that criticism in the subtext (if anywhere) and marvel at the glitz and glamour of it all. Even a jaded, fashion-unconscious individual like myself couldn’t help but gawk at the sheer lavishness of it, and the crew is right there with you. “Can’t we just go to this?” asks Amita (Mindy Kaling) during a briefing, ready to walk from a $16.5 million payday. “Do we have to steal stuff?”
Of course they do; not just because there’d be no movie if they didn’t, and—interestingly enough—not necessarily because this is personal for Debbie. As you can guess, The Met isn’t Debbie’s target any more than the Bellagio, Mirage, and MGM Grand were Danny’s targets in Eleven. But whereas Danny’s endgame was to pants Terry Benedict and show his ex-wife that she was with someone who didn’t care about her, revenge on Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), Debbie’s ex-partner/lover who snitched on her the second he started feeling the heat, seems to be a nice bonus rather than the goal. Rather, Debbie and the women she brings in just enjoy the thrill of it, and there’s a lot to be thrilled by, least of all the thrill of getting away with it.
For starters, the cons these women run are pretty close to some of the humdrum truths they live. Sure, there’s twists: Lou (Cate Blanchett) goes from running a nightclub to running the gala’s kitchen. Tammy (Sarah Paulson) puts her logistical expertise as a fence to help organize the gala’s wait staff. But consider Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a well-known fashion designer who Debbie and Lou recruit by promising to make her problems with the IRS go away. She doesn’t have to pretend to be anyone; she just has to get into the good graces of actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) and then do what she was trained to do: dress her for the ball, casually working The Toussaint—a $150 million diamond necklace owned by Cartier—into her wardrobe so it can be stolen right off her neck.
Don’t call it a comeback for Hathaway: She may have gone quiet in recent years but she never stopped killing it whenever she did appear in front of the camera, even delivering one of the great performances of 2017 in Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal. Here she has an absolute blast lampooning every stereotype of vain, insecure celebrity without ever falling into caricature. This is crucial because when she’s formally drafted into the crew for the third act, it doesn’t feel like it comes out of nowhere; Hathaway cleanly lays the groundwork for Daphne to catch onto the plot and willingly join in, despite not needing the money, because “I don’t have a lot of female friendships.” (And once she’s active, again, her part in the scheme comes down to doing a little acting; namely, continuing her seduction of Claude Becker so she can snap a picture of the piece of necklace Debbie planted on him, crafting probable cause for the cops to pick him up, thus leaving them free and clear.)
Camaraderie was always a key component of the Ocean’s trilogy; consider the sequels, where Danny and his crew regulates against their targets, first because they “broke rule number one [honor amongst thieves],” then because they violated the social contract between those who “shook Sinatra’s hand.” But in a world where “benign sexism” is defined as the otherwise impeccable John Mulaney joking about how there could never be a female Ocean’s Eleven because “two would keep breaking off to talk shit about the other nine,” that feeling of camaraderie resonates more than ever. The script even builds a subtle, perhaps unwitting contrast between the crew’s close bond and their targets, collateral or otherwise. We get a sense of the gala’s vibe of self-importance, antithetical to the concept of camaraderie, through Daphne’s funny anecdote to her table about the weird intricacies involved in meeting the frickin’ Queen of England. Meanwhile, Cartier owns the Toussaint necklace that Debbie’s after; as this excellent Vulture piece by Jen Cheney points out, the necklace was named for a woman, meant for women, but owned a company that is represented entirely by men here—men who, by the way, have locked it in a vault under five feet of concrete, never to be worn or seen by the public. It’s not making them money or giving them credibility, they literally own it just to say they own it. Rose has to practically pull teeth just to convince them to let her dress Daphne in it. In this light, this jewel heist becomes oddly virtuous beyond the usual “likable rich stealing from the unlikable richer” motives that supported the original trilogy.
If I keep comparing Ocean’s Eight to the preceding Soderbergh classic and its underrated sequels, it’s not necessarily because I think they’re impossible to separate. These movies defined “cool” for a generation of moviegoers both casual and hardcore, myself included, and as such, it casts a long shadow. Gary Ross has a tough job here; in creating a spin-off as opposed to a direct sequel, he has to come up with a visual style of his own, but at the same time he can’t just ignore what came before. On top of that, whatever Ross’ feminist bonafides may be, there’s further pressure to justify himself solely on the basis of him being a white guy directing a mainly female cast, while there are dozens of women who have long since proven themselves yet remain invisible because Hollywood is run by assholes. Honestly, I don’t think he pulls it off.
It’s not that he’s a weak director; far from it. He’s perfectly competent, and sometimes competence works. Sometimes competence means you get out of the way and let your actors and your production design do the work for you, and by God, they do the work. Bullock is an ice cold ringleader here, eminently believable as a member of the family Ocean, and the best, most quotable parts of the movie involve her light, playfully flirtatious relationship with Blanchett’s Lou. All eight women have distinct and big personalities, yet the absolute pros playing them never milk them too hard or turn them into caricatures. This is a fantastic ensemble.
But again, that long shadow of Soderbergh’s comes around to eclipse Ross. Ross came up as a writer and producer (he got on the map with Big), and as such, tends to be flexible with his style depending on what the script calls for. Look at his short filmography, side by side; if you didn’t know he directed all of those films, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. Of course, the flip side of this is that he’s never shown a strong visual sense unless the script specifically called for one. Pleasantville, nakedly allegorical as it was, is a brilliant work with a strong visual conceit that forced Ross to be on his game. The Hunger Games (which Soderbergh shot second unit for) didn’t have such a conceit baked in, but Ross set out to adapt the Young Adult classic as a sort of anti-Harry Potter: a brutal, unsentimental war film that eschewed visual gimmickry to bring us into Katniss Everdeen’s perspective, standing in stark contrast to Francis Lawrence’s work in the later films. If he brings a strong point of view to the set or the editing bay, he’ll make a film sing.
Apparently his point of view for Eight was “Be like Soderbergh, but not too much,” and it’s a half-measure of a half-measure. He apes the surface elements of the work, including late 60s / early 70s-inspired transitions that feel jarring, like they were rendered in iMovie. He doesn’t seem to have Soderbergh’s sense of timing or cool; he’ll use cuts and zooms to emphasize a joke or reveal where Soderbergh would let the viewer find it for themselves. Oddly enough, you can see where Ross would be onto something with the approach: Daniel Pemberton (coming up fast and hard in the film composition scene with his killer scores for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and All the Money in the World) takes a similar tack with a score that echoes David Holmes’s work for the original trilogy, coming off like an upstart younger sibling. Pemberton doesn’t get nearly as weird or creative with it, but goodness gracious does the music ever slap. Still, visually speaking, Ross can’t quite rise above competence, and being expectant of a certain level of visual panache in an Ocean’s film, it holds the whole thing back. As much fun as I was having watching this cast work in that environment, I’d occasionally wonder what Michelle MacLaren, Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck, or even Olivia Milch herself would do with this material.
It’s a shame, but it’s far from a tragedy. Standing toe-to-toe with the Ocean’s trilogy is an accomplishment, and while Eight doesn’t quite go the distance, it’s a hell of an entertaining effort that easily justifies its own existence through its great cast and breezy, occasionally observant script.
He would have loved it.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Gary Ross
Screenplay by Gary Ross & Olivia Milch; Story by Gary Ross; Based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell
Produced by Steven Soderbergh and Susan Ekins
Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 110 minutes
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