In order to continue keeping this site as active as possible while I have not been able to write as many full-length film reviews as I had planned initially, I figured that another solution would have come by in placing my Letterboxd entries starting from the week before here as a placeholder for eventual full-length reviews that are set to come by, if I were able to find the time to write another one. But as is, these are quick thoughts that I figure would be nice to keep afloat so that the site will remain active on a regular basis.
I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be! And I love him for the man he almost is!
Dorothy Boyd, Jerry Maguire; written by Cameron Crowe
Well folks, it’s the end of the year. You may have forgotten what that feels like since this year felt about as long as ten years, but as we all go through our various end-of-year rituals, us critics have to start thinking about the best movies we’ve seen this year so we can pick our horses for the Oscar race and yell at everyone who doesn’t agree with us.
In addition to our best of lists, however, many of us like to publish “Worst Of” lists. Not me. To be clear, I don’t mean to be judgmental of those who do; looking over my Letterboxd Diary it seems I’ve only seen 78 films from this year. There’s one more I’m hoping to squeeze in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a little low for someone who calls himself a film critic, and as much as I rag on critics who build careers out of hating movies, I respect the urge to just go “fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you” at all the films that wasted your precious life one last time before you have to move on.
I’ve yet to hit that point, though, so dwelling on the stains of the year just doesn’t interest me. What does interest me, however, are movies that missed their mark in whole or in part but still get at something interesting or worth looking at. I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge these interesting, perhaps noble failures, and while I’ve got this platform, I think I’d like to put my money where my mouth is.
Enter The Maguire Awards, a non-sequential list of five movies I saw this year that fell short in various ways but still get my respect and, yeah, my love. Maybe they left it all out on the field, so to speak. Maybe their successes were completely unintentional. Maybe they just had too much nerve to not be respected. Whatever the reason, I think they’re worth saluting as we close the book on 2018.
Enough preamble; let’s jump in.
I actually love this movie; as I said in my review, it’s strangled by some uninspired cinematography and editing in contrast to the original trilogy—which was already going to be impossible to live up to, given that those movies were directed, shot, and edited by a borderline living legend. Gary Ross tries his best, but he doesn’t have Steven Soderbergh’s cool hand; the film’s visual plan feels like a flat diet version of the master filmmaker’s style as a result. It’s disappointing, especially when you consider the multiple female filmmakers out there with dynamic styles of their own who could’ve given this film a more unique and appropriate identity.
Give Ross credit, though: He put together a hell of a crew for this spinoff—I’m tempted to go down the list to pad things out, but for these purposes it’s just easier to say that everyone kills—and he and Olivia Milch gave them a fun, solid script to work from that subtly comments on the patriarchal world these women live under without losing track of the fun heist flick we came to see. (It also winks at the absurd nature of the spinoff. Danny Ocean is supposed to be dead, but Debbie doesn’t believe it, and her denial barely registers as a point of drama because this is Danny F’ing Ocean we’re talking about here.)
No, it doesn’t live up to its progenitor, but it goes the distance, and god bless it.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture
It’s a biopic, with all the good and bad that comes with: the high highs of success, the low lows of drug use (there’s always drugs somewhere and it’s always bad), and the plot beats that you can set your watch to, especially after a quick Wikipedia lookup of the subject. If you wanted to be cheeky, you could say that A Futile and Stupid Gesture is aptly named, celebrating the genius of Doug Kenney and mourning his damage without really digging into how the two were linked and using his story to teach us anything beyond “Yeah, apparently even brilliant, funny people can have depression, it really sucks.” Arguably, if you can’t do that, what’s the point?
Damn if David Wain doesn’t try to do his subject justice, though. The director of Wet Hot American Summer can’t dig into Kenney, but he still did his damnedest to tell the National Lampoon co-founder’s story in a way that would have made Kenney proud. Whether he succeeds at that or not, I’m in no position to say. But the movie is genuinely hysterical, in ways that feel right at home with what I know of Kenney’s sense of humor (going off Caddyshack and Animal House). Key to that: An inspired framing device of an older alternate reality Kenney (played by Martin Mull) narrating the story and popping in every so often to crack wise at the necessary sanitization and even outright invention that comes with the biopic format.
Beyond that, Wain has a blast recreating the little-dramatized comedy scene of the 70s. Watching this, there’s no doubt that he feels a great debt to Kenney and everyone involved with the Lampoon for inspiring his own work; the film is shot through with reverence for the subject. This can be dangerous, but considering the sheer number of outright legends that came from this era, such reverence feels appropriate and warranted (even if, by the film’s own admission, “everyone was a lot more sexist and racist than they appear to be”). Wain also gets excellent performances from his cast. As Kenney, Will Forte is in prime form, and Domhnall Gleeson is a great foil for him as Henry Beard. But nearly walking away with the whole show is Thomas Lennon’s utterly bonkers turn as Michael O’Donoghue. This is the versatile State alumnus’ best performance to date; wherever he pulled that from, I want more of it.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t stick with you the way it probably should have. But it’s funny enough and just unique enough to more than justify its own existence.
“You wanna talk about Russian interference? You wanna talk about election hacking? Pay attention dipshit: Peter Berg’s always been a smarter filmmaker than most of the mindless sheep of this world give him credit for, but my motherfucker lives in two worlds. In one world he’s a good liberal boy—maybe neoliberal or centrist but who gives a flying fuck unless you’re a goddamn commie or something, I dunno—who once fuckbarreled Mitt Romney for using ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose’ in his presidential campaign. In the other, he’s a dude that comes from a Navy family who gets off on watching this country’s military and police flex on rude fucks who step out of line. So you get movies like The Kingdom and Battleship and Lone Survivor that revel in war but are also cheekily anti-war, you could write a whole fuckin’ book about that shit really, but he goes out and makes this movie, where all his characters are badass spec-ops types that seriously talk and swear just like this, like fuckin’ Lenny Bruce stubbing his toe on a cop’s dick while suckin’ on your momma’s titty. And they talk like this because they think if they make even one mistake it could literally be the end of western civilization, which simultaneously puts them under some real fuckin’ pressure while inflating their egos to the size of a meteor that could wipe out life on Earth. And it’s possible that the whole goddamn fuckin’ point of this movie as underlined by its twist ending is that these sad fucks and their ‘fuck you I’ll smoke you and your whole fuckin’ family if you step in my fuckin’ area you fuckin’ fuck-ass fuck’ approach to life might actually be a net negative for the world. It sure as fuck ain’t good for their interpersonal lives.
“But—partly because Berg’s working with noted Southie hate crime perpetrator Mark Wahlberg, who got to be the big fuckin’ hero in Berg’s three back-to-back movies about real-life tragedies—any meaningful message gets drowned out by basic-ass ‘hoo-rah’ Call of Duty Black Ops bullshit, Poe’s Law One-Oh-Motherfucking-One. Couple this with the decision to show much of the action on security cams that are constantly shaking, leaving you with no sense of geography in a movie with action phenom Iko Motherbitching Uwais, and you’ve got a real five-alarm four-star shitshow starring Brian D’Arcy James in a limited engagement at the Shubert Fucking Theatre. But that doesn’t mean you just wipe your ass with it like your three-year-old’s drawing of the family dog because my dude Peter Berg is a smart motherfucker and when smart motherfuckers fail, it’s still worth watching unless you’re gonna be a punk-ass bitch about it.”
“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”
“AND I ASKED YOU, PERSONALLY, FOR A DAVE’S DOUBLE FIFTEEN FUCKIN’ MINUTES AGO! YOU KNOW WHAT COULD HAPPEN IN FIFTEEN MINUTES? ISIS COULD BLOW UP A DIRTY BOMB IN THE MIDDLE OF TIMES SQUARE STARTING A CHAIN OF EVENTS THAT WIPES OUT THIS GREAT FUCKIN’ COUNTRY THAT MADE DAVE FUCKIN’ THOMAS POSSIBLE, ALL BECAUSE YOU FUCKIN’ HOTSHOTS CAN’T MAKE A SIMPLE GODDAMN BURGER WHEN YOU’RE ASKED TO! STOP FUCKIN’ LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT AND GET ME MY LUNCH!”
There are two ways to look at John Woo’s big return to popcorn filmmaking. One way, it’s an absurd, cornball half-measure of a film with a plot that doesn’t seem to make any sense helmed by an unengaged director cashing in on his considerable reputation. The other is that Woo, even at his best, has always had an absurd cornball streak and is having a blast dusting off all his old tropes and twisting them in fun ways. For instance, his signature doves return, but this time Woo really leans into the spiritual symbolism of their presence by having them literally save the lives of our main characters through not one, but two freak coincidences, one after the other. The akimbo gunfighting style Woo popularized? Returns for a scene with a brilliant innovation that pays homage to Hitchcock, Woo’s favorite director. Just about all his old films and tropes get referenced at some point, right down to the final line of Broken Arrow—and then just for the hell of it, he drops “A Better Tomorrow” into a line of dialogue at the last minute.
As far as I’m concerned, this is The Maestro having fun with his own legend in the hopefully-long winter of his life. Does it work as a movie? Hell no. As mentioned, the plot goes completely off the rails, with a lot of disparate elements that, while not necessarily boring, probably could’ve been cut or reworked to streamline things without losing too much. Still, it’s a blast to watch; even if all it does is remind the world that nobody does Woo like Woo, it’s more than enough to get my thumbs up.
(Note: As you can see from the poster, this film was released in China in November of 2017 after bowing at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival. However, I’m counting it as a 2018 film as that’s when most of the world—and more importantly, I—got to see it.)
Bad Times at the El Royale
If this movie was somehow 30 minutes shorter, we’d probably be talking about a stone classic. Two and a half hours is way too long to be sitting for such a nasty little neo-noir like this, even one that takes such clear inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. I was in a weird position at the 100-minute mark of the movie, thinking to myself “Wow, this is great…but shouldn’t they be wrapping up soon? My butt’s kind of hurting.”
There’s a lot of strong elements here that can’t quite congeal into a strong overall package for whatever reason. Drew Goddard shoots a hell of a film with DP Seamus McGarvey, and his script, pacing issues aside, keeps throwing new surprises at you, even after you think he’d be tapped out. His ensemble is stellar; as (most of) the established names in this cast, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Dakota Johnson are rock solid, giving ample room for relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, and Cailee Spaeny to break out with some juicy, ferocious roles of their own. Then there’s Chris Hemsworth, giving an outstanding against-type performance as a murderous cult leader who seems to dance in from a whole other movie to turn this one completely on its head. Now add in some gorgeous late 60s production design and a badass soundtrack, including score from the reliable-at-worst Michael Giacchino and a collection of 60s standards that fit the movie like a glove. I’ll probably associate Deep Purple’s “Hush” with this movie’s heart-stopping roulette scene for the rest of my life, and I’m more than a little mad that Erivo’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” isn’t available anywhere.
All the individual pieces of this movie are so, so, so good, which is why I wish it didn’t feel almost like a chore to sit through it the first time. Turns out you probably can have too much of a good thing.
So there you have it: Five films that don’t quite fall into greatness but still deserve to be admired for what they are and perhaps almost were. I’ll be back on Monday with my top ten of the year, but for the weekend, I’m throwing it over to you: I want you to tweet me @DivisionPost with five films from this year that you respect more than you actually like. Films that went big but fell short for you. Films with problems you recognize but don’t give a damn about. Because sometimes, the movies that demand our passion are the ones with the most glaring weaknesses to defend against.
(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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