OCEAN’S 8 (2018) – Mildly Entertaining Heist Tale

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Oceans-8

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies.

The Steven Soderbergh-directed trilogy did little for me in spite of its impressive cast, led by George Clooney. Of course, the first one, OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001) was a remake of the 1960 film, OCEAN’S 11 starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

With that in mind, I wasn’t all that excited to see OCEAN’S 8 (2018), the all- female take on the OCEAN’S formula, starring Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, younger sister to Clooney’s Danny Ocean, but I wanted to check it out anyway, mostly because of its cast.

For me, the Soderbergh OCEAN films always held such promise: they had fabulous casts and told fun lively tales about bold heists of Las Vegas casinos, but the trouble was, they just weren’t that fun and lively. The culprit? Scripts that just never brought the characters or the stories to life.

So, now comes OCEAN’S 8, where the heist features an all-woman team. Would the results be any different?

Sadly, no.

OCEAN’S 8 opens with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) getting out of prison after convincing the parole board that all she wants to do is live a normal crime-free life. Once out of prison, this promise last all of two seconds as she immediately scams her way into purchasing items from a high-end boutique followed by a hotel room. And before you can say Rat Pack she’s already assembling her team for her big heist which she had been planning during her five-year prison stay.

Ocean’s team includes Lou (Cate Blanchett), Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Amita (Mindy Kaling), Constance (Awkwafina), and Nine Ball (Rihanna). The job? To steal a diamond necklace, which they intend to do by manipulating the famous Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) into wearing it to New York City’s annual Met Gala where they plan an elaborate scheme to remove it from her neck and get it out of the building undetected.  It’s a job which would make her older brother Danny proud.

I had the same problem with OCEAN’S 8 that I had with the other OCEAN movies: love the cast and the plot, but the script not so much.

You can’t find too much fault with the cast here. They’re fun to watch, but none of the actors are enough on their own to carry this lackluster tale to higher places.

Sandra Bullock lacks the charm of George Clooney in the central role, and so you don’t have that same “bad boy does good” feeling going on here. It’s the type of thing that Cary Grant used to be able to pull off with ease- the thief who you actually really like.  Clooney could do the same.  Bullock here, interestingly enough, comes off as more of a villain than Clooney ever did.  Her take on the “family business” is far less playful than Clooney’s.

Cate Blanchett is okay as Lou, but it’s the supporting cast who actually make more of a mark. In particular, Rihanna as Nine Ball and Awkwafina as Constance both add considerable spunk and energy to their roles. Even though their roles aren’t any more developed than the others, I enjoyed watching these two whenever they were on-screen.

Likewise, Sarah Paulson was also very enjoyable as Tammy, as she, too delivers a spirited performance.

I thought Helena Bonham Carter gave the best performance in the movie as the manic and apprehensive Rose Weil. It’s nothing I haven’t seen Carter do before in her long and successful career, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t do it well.  I pretty much enjoyed her scenes in this one the most.

And Anne Hathaway does what she is supposed to do, as the wealthy celebrity Daphne Kluger, but it’s not really a role that moved me in any particular way, which doesn’t help the story, since she wasn’t someone I felt deserved to be an unwitting participant in a major jewel heist.

Which brings me to the weakest part of the film, the screenplay by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch.  The biggest knock against it is, like the earlier OCEAN films, it’s just not sharp enough with its humor or its story to make me care all that much. There’s nary a memorable line or scene to be found.  I’ve always found the OCEAN films to be only mildly entertaining, responsible for providing a minor diversion for a couple of hours, but hardly all that exciting or fun.  OCEAN’S 8 is the same.

And in terms of story, the heist has very little meaning. Anne Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger is no villain, and so there’s no feeling that she deserves to be robbed. Plus, since the jewels aren’t even hers, she’s not even the one being robbed. There’s also very little motivation for Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, other than that crime seems to run in her family’s genes. There are hints, as in the first George Clooney OCEAN film, that the heist is personal, as Debbie uses the crime to get back at the man who put her in prison, but this plot point remains minor throughout the film.

In addition to writing the screenplay, Ross also directed OCEAN’S 8, and while the film looks good, in terms of pacing, things never really build to a satisfactory climax.  I thought the whole film just seemed off somehow.

Ross also wrote and directed the first HUNGER GAMES movie in 2012, and his work on that film was much stronger than his work here.

OCEAN’S 8 might entertain you, especially if you’re a fan of the previous OCEANS movies, as it’s pretty much the same exact formula, but if you’re not really into the George Clooney films, I can’t see how you’d enjoy this one any better.

Underneath all the glamour and glitter, OCEAN’S 8 is just a mediocre heist tale, a mild diversion, the type of film you might want to catch at home rather than at your local theater.

And while an OCEAN’S 9 may be inevitable, what should come first is an OCEAN’S 101 for the writers who write the screenplays for these movies.  Now that would have some value.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – Colorful Superhero Adventure is the Best of the Thor Movies

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Thor_Ragnarok_poster

It’s no secret that I love the Marvel superhero movies.

And while I have enjoyed the THOR movies, I’ve preferred the IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA films.  They’ve had more life, and I just haven’t been a fan of the THOR plots which have taken place in the doom and gloom of Asgard, Thor’s home world.

Until now.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) sheds its seriousness within its first few seconds, and immediately becomes as playful and humorous as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.

A lot happens in THOR: RAGNAROK, so the less said about the plot the better.  The very evil Hela (Cate Blanchett), the first-born of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which makes her Thor’s older sister, sets her sights on conquering Asgard in order to make it her own, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to stop her.  But this is a fight that Thor cannot win alone, and so he enlists the aid of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), his estranged oftentimes evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The result is an action-packed often hilarious adventure that entertains from start to finish.

The best part of THOR: RAGNAROK is its lively script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost.  Evidently, the writers were influenced and inspired by the John Carpenter action comedy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), a flick that is not among my favorite Carpenter movies, as it’s downright silly at times, but that being said it’s still colorful and entertaining, and it stars Kurt Russell.

Now, I can easily see this influence.  In fact, even before I knew of this connection, while watching the movie, I felt that this THOR film was playing out as if it had been directed by John Carpenter.  And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in this film reminded me of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in BIG TROUBLE, from the over-the-top dialogue like “because this is what heroes do,” to the moments where the bravado and boasts come back to hit our hero in the face.  In short, it’s fun to see Thor not take himself too seriously.

The dialogue is fun throughout, the situations exciting and comical, and the characters are all well-written and fleshed out.

Also, like most Marvel superhero movies, THOR: RAGNAROK boasts a cast that has no business being in a superhero movie.  The combination of superior acting and strong writing creates both lively characters and compelling situations.

Chris Hemsworth can pretty much play Thor in his sleep these days.  He owns the role. And while previous THOR films haven’t been among my favorite Marvel movies, it’s not because of Hemsworth.  He’s always been excellent as Thor.  And he’s just as good if not better here.  He dials things up a few notches on the humor meter, which isn’t completely surprising, since he’s always given Thor humorous moments. Not only is he funny here, but he’s completely believable as a hero strong enough to tangle with the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, the giant green guy is the “guest Avenger” in this film, and Mark Ruffalo is back once again playing the character.  This time around we see more of the Hulk and much less of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. This is also the first time that Ruffalo is voicing the Hulk.  In previous movies, it’s been Hulk veteran Lou Ferrigno providing the voice.  Ruffalo does just fine, and I actually preferred his voice this time around.

As I said, Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, Thor’s villainous brother who continually shows up in these Marvel movies like a bad penny.  Now, I’ve never been a fan of Loki in these movies, so it’s saying something about THOR: RAGNAROK that this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed Loki.  Hiddleston seems to be having a good time playing him, and we get to see Loki taking stock of his character, as he joins forces with his brother to take on his evil sister.  It’s fun to see Loki fight for the common good while still not shedding his darker side.

Cate Blanchett is icy cold as Hela.  She’s the first major female villain to appear in one of these Marvel superhero films, and that’s long overdue.  In general, the Marvel movies tend to stumble with their villains, who are usually the weak link in the stories.  Not so here. Blanchett’s Hela is a formidable foe for Thor and friends, and she’s both sexy and evil when she’s on screen.

Even better than Blanchett is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.  Her tough warrior heroine would give Wonder Woman a run for her money.  She was one of my favorite characters in the movie.

Jeff Goldblum chews up the scenery in a scene-stealing performance as the Grandmaster, and his arena of death is right out of a John Carpenter movie.  I half-expected to see Snake Plissken show up.

It was good to see Idris Elba get more significant screen time as Heimdall, and Karl Urban also provides solid support as Skurge, a character who finds himself drafted by Hela to be her local enforcer.

I could keep going, as there are still more solid supporting players here, including Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin, who’s more enjoyable here in his brief screen time than he was in the previous two movies, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s on hand briefly as Doctor Strange.

Director Taika Waititi has made a colorful, action-packed superhero tale which fits in perfectly with the Marvel universe.  It’s closer in tone to a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie than a THOR movie, but that’s okay.  From its opening scene where Thor battles a giant villain and things don’t go as planned, to Thor’s first meeting with the Hulk and their subsequent banter, it gets the humor right.

The action sequences also do not disappoint.  The battle in the Grandmaster’s arena is a good one, as is the climactic showdown with Hela.

For most of the movie Thor is without his hammer, and he sees this as a disadvantage, and he questions his strength without it, but his father Odin tells him otherwise, which provides Thor with a telling and powerful moment later in the film.

But other than this, there’s not a lot of seriousness here. THOR: RAGNAROK is all fun and games, and this is a good thing.  It’s the perfect Marvel vehicle.

It’s easily the best of the THOR movies.

—END—

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN Entertains in Spite of Muddled Message

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The-Monuments-Men- posterMovie Review:  THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

Was it worth risking the lives of men just for the sake of saving art?

 

That’s the question asked throughout THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) the new World War II adventure written and directed by George Clooney, based on a true story, about a group of mostly middle-aged men enlisted by the army to reclaim the works of art stolen by Hitler and the Nazis, works of art that Hitler originally intended to place in a museum, until the waning days of the war when he ordered his men to destroy it all.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to save these works of art, but first, they have to find them.

 

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) seeks and receives permission from President Roosevelt to assemble a group of art experts to go into France and then Germany to recover the huge amounts of art stolen by the Nazis.  Since all the young art experts are already enlisted in the armed forces, Stokes is forced to assemble his team of art specialists, architects, and museum curators, from a pool of men beyond their fighting years.

 

The movie gets these introductions out of the way early, as we quickly meet James Granger (Matt Damon) who wasn’t able to enlist because of poor vision, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), as well as their young translator, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).

 

Once in Europe, Stokes pairs the men and gives each duo a specific task, the goal being to locate the various places in which the Nazis hid the stolen art.  Campbell pairs with Savitz, an interesting twosome since they hate each other, and Garfield pairs with Jean Claude, while Granger is assigned the difficult task of getting to know a French woman Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who worked for the resistance and who they believe has valuable information as to where the Nazis hid all the stolen art.  The trouble is, Claire trusts no one, and she suspects the Americans only want the art for themselves, and she tells Granger as much.

 

When the Nazis realize there is little hope of winning the war, Hitler orders his troops to destroy all the artwork as they pull out in retreat, which adds more pressure on the Monuments Men to locate the art as soon as possible.  It also places them in harm’s way as they need to be close to the action in order to get to the art before the Nazis soldiers destroy it.

 

Further complicating matters is that the Russians are also confiscating the art as they move in, only they’re taking it back to Russia, not returning it to its original owners.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to find these stolen treasures first so that they’re not lost to the western world.

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN is a very enjoyable movie filled with colorful characters and plenty of entertaining and humorous moments intertwined with some poignant ones, and even some suspense, but the trouble is its message that recovering the stolen art was worth risking the lives of these men doesn’t always ring true.

 

Clearly, writer/director George Clooney believes the sacrifice was worth it, but the movie doesn’t succeed in making this point.  For one thing, it tries too hard.  It asks the question “is it worth it?” so much it hammers you over the head with it. 

 

We see the Monuments Men engaged in various little adventures, which for the most part are all very entertaining, but compared to other soldiers— the soldiers at Normandy, for example— their sacrifice doesn’t feel the same.  The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov probably needed more time in the shop to get the message right. 

 

Don’t get me wrong.  The amount of art the Nazis stole was incredible, and had this been lost or destroyed, it would have been heartbreaking.  What the Monuments Men did was remarkable, but hitting the audience over the head with the notion that their mission was an amazing sacrifice somehow sounds hollow compared to what the rest of the soldiers were fighting for.

 

Another problem is Clooney’s Frank Stokes is a rather cold fish.  He’s not the best point man for selling an argument to an audience.  I almost wish the story had been told from the perspective of Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone character, who was a much more interesting and intriguing character than Clooney’s Frank Stokes.  Seen through her eyes, the Monuments Men would have been perceived as what they were, men doing the world a service, recovering people’s history and culture, but hearing Blanchett’s Simone say this, a woman whose brother was murdered by the Nazis, and who didn’t trust the Americans, it would have held more relevance than hearing it from Clooney’s stoic Stokes.

 

By far, the best part of THE MONUMENTS MEN is its talented cast, who really bring these guys to life.

 

George Clooney is just okay as Frank Stokes, but this is fine since he’s the level-headed one leading the team.  Matt Damon fares about the same as James Granger and is rather low-key throughout.  It’s the rest of the team that really shines.

 

It was great to see Bill Murray in this role as Richard Campbell, and he and Bob Balaban enjoy some fine moments together, some of the best in the film.  The scene where they’re surprised by a young Nazi soldier in the woods, and they end up sharing a cigarette is one of the best in the movie.  As is the scene when Murray hears a record sent to him by his family.  It’s a nice reminder that Bill Murray is much more than just a comic actor.

 

I also really enjoyed John Goodman and Jean Dujardin.  The scene where they’re fending off a sniper is a keeper.

 

But even better than all the Monuments Men is Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone.  She delivers the best performance in the film.  She also has one of the more emotional scenes in the film, when she’s told by her Nazi employer that her brother has been shot dead.  It’s a disturbing moment in a film that is strangely devoid of disturbing moments, a curious thing in a movie about Nazis.

 

The film would have benefitted from a visible Nazi villain.  Other than Simone’s boss who’s really not in the film all that much, there’s no one who makes your blood boil.  The villains are random soldiers with rifles.

 

In terms of entertainment, THE MONUMENTS MEN scores high.  I really enjoyed watching these guys and their efforts to recover the multitude of stolen art items.  Where it struggles is in its message that these men were putting their lives on the line for a cause equally as noble as the soldiers fighting to defeat genocide and world domination. 

 

That’s a difficult point to make.  Perhaps the movie didn’t need to try.

 

—END—