Review: Ocean's Eight

Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, James Corden
Released: June 7, 2018
Grade: B-

Ocean's Eight
Hollywood has a new formula that it’s putting to the test – take a famous movie with an all-male cast and remake it with an all-female cast.  We saw it in 2016 with Ghostbusters and we’re likely to see it again in the next few years with planned reboots of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Lord of the Flies and The Expendables.  In the meantime, we’ve got Ocean’s Eight – a spin-off from the original Ocean’s Eleven released in 1960 and subsequent remake in 2001.  Some will see it as an exciting move forward in terms of female-led movies.  Others will see it as a lazy writing and question why such a great cast weren’t deserving of an original concept.

There is an overlap with the earlier movies as we learn during the opening sequence.  Debbie Ocean (Bullock) is the youngster sister of Danny – the character played by George Clooney who orchestrated a series of heists in the last three movies.  Debbie has just been released after a 5 year stint in prison for fraud and, despite what she tells her parole officers, she’s geared up and ready to commit more crimes.  When asked by a colleague why she’s doing it, her answer is simple – “because I’m good at it.”

There is another reason and it’s an obvious one – money.  Declaring that “banks are boring”, Debbie spent her time in prison crafting an unorthodox crime.  Locked deep underground in a safe at the Cartier store in New York City is a 6 pound diamond necklace valued at roughly $150 million.  It’s so valuable that it hasn’t been released and seen in public in more than 50 years.  With acclaimed actress Daphne Kluger scheduled to wear the neckless to the famous Met Gala, Debbie teams up with a diverse group of female criminals to infiltrate the Gala and pull off the perfect heist.

Her team is headlined by an old friend (Blanchett) and consists of a jewellery maker (Kaling), a computer hacker (Rihanna), an acclaimed fashion designer (Carter), a cunning thief (Awkwafina), and a mother who knows how to get things (Paulson).  All have important skills which will be called upon when the time is right. 

I love a good heist flick and this is a cool concept but Ocean’s Eight struggled to keep me interested.  Character development is kept to a minimum with much of the screen time devoted to watching these women plan and execute the robbery.  That may be satisfying enough for some but it feels inferior to great heist movies including A Fish Called Wanda, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Italian Job.  It’s lacking when it comes to villains and backstabbers and it all feels too easy as we watch events unfold.  It needed a bigger injection of laughs and tension.

That’s not to say you won’t be entertained.  The cast is fantastic with everyone doing their best to stand out and create a memorable character.  It’s hard to pick a favourite which is a testament to their respective talents.  In terms of the supporting players, keep your eye out for a few cameos at the Met Gala with famous celebrities playing themselves.  James Corden also deserves a mention as a humorous insurance investigator with a part to play during the final act.

So where to from here?  Will we see an Ocean’s Nine in a few years’ time?  I’d be up for that if we could add a few more twists to the screenplay.


Review: Tea with the Dames

Directed by: Roger Michell
Starring: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith
Released: June 7, 2018
Grade: B+

Tea with the Dames
South African born director Roger Michell has made some terrific films including Morning Glory, Changing Lanes and Notting Hill.  That said, he’s never made a more intimate film that this one.  Tea with the Dames is a documentary that brings together four of Great Britain’s greatest living actresses – Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins.

It was shot over a weekend at the home in Sussex shared by Plowright and her late husband, Laurence Olivier, since the 1960s.  It’s a relaxed “fireside chat” with each reflecting on their long and successful careers and from that, Michell has taken the best conversations to create a tight-knit 84 minute film.  It’s seldom dull.  It’s wonderful to hear these women speak so openly whilst also being treated to archival footage of their early performances dating back to the 1950s.  There’s a funny scene where Dench can’t even recognise herself when shown the material.

Over the course of the movie, they discuss a surprisingly broad range of topics.  They touch on the early part of their careers including how they all first met, how they were introduced to the theatre, how they deal with nerves and how they tackled iconic roles in Shakespeareans plays.  As the film progresses, they touch on their lives today including interaction with their families, negative reviews, and the battles of old age.

They each have a distinctive personality but it’s hard to go past the sarcastic sense of humour held by Dame Maggie Smith.  She’s strong-willed and isn’t afraid to express an opinion – a trait she’s possessed her entire life as evidenced by an old television interview we see.  There’s a funny conversation during the doco where she reflects on performances in the Harry Potter franchise and on Downton Abbey which have made her a household name around the world.

With the greatest of respect to Plowright and Atkins who are little more subdued, it’s Judi Dench who deserves to share MVP honours alongside Smith.  She’s such a great story teller and this is illustrated when sharing her experiences about a young paramedic on set.  She’s also not afraid to tell it as it is – humorously arguing that being knighted by the Queen gives her even more justification to slip an F-bomb into casual conversations.

The film is being released in Australia as Tea with the Dames but I much prefer the British title, Nothing Like a Dame.  It makes it sound more comedic and less formal – which is exactly how the finished product comes across.  It’s getting a short cinema release in select countries across the world before going straight to TV.  It may not sound like “big screen” material but it’s nice to see it in the company of an admiring crowd who, if my preview was anything to go by, should be laughing openly.

These four talented women have won Oscars, BAFTAs, Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards.  You don’t have to be familiar with all of their work to appreciate their experience and the words of wisdom they impart on the audience.


Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
Released: May 24, 2018
Grade: A-

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Disney had a lot to lose when it purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for the sum of $4 billion USD.  It all comes down to numbers.  The average Star Wars film has a production budget of around $250 million.  When you throw in marketing and overhead costs on top of that, you’re in a position where a film needs to pull in some serious coin to make a profit – whether it be in ticket sales, DVD sales, TV rights or merchandise.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the 4th film to be released since the acquisition and while the last 3 have been hugely successful (they’ve grossed a combined $4 billion), this movie had Disney worried.  Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were fired by producer Kathleen Kennedy midway through the shoot due to “creative differences” and replaced by Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind).  There were also rumours that star Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) needed an acting coach and was struggling to recreate the character made famous by Harrison Ford in the late 1970s.

I’m not sure who ultimately deserves the credit given the director change but Solo: A Star Wars Story, as a finished product, is an entertaining film.  We learn how Han Solo got his name, how he met Chewbacca, how he first fell in love, and how he came into possession of his coveted starship, the Millennium Falcon.  You don’t need to be a Star Wars devotee to understand what’s going on.  This works as a standalone feature.

For those already familiar with these characters, the film sits on the Star Wars timeline somewhere between Episode III and Episode IV.  We’re told it’s a “lawless time” with the galaxy overrun by crime syndicates in search hyperfuel – an extremely powerful energy source that is in short supply.  The film’s best action sequence arrives at the end of the opening act.  Working under a blood thirsty crime lord named Dryden Vos (Bettany), Han teams up with his quasi-girlfriend, Qi’ra (Clarke), and a shady criminal, Tobias Beckett (Harrelson), to steal a shipment of hyperfuel from a fast-moving train.

The run time is a lengthy 135 minutes but there’s more than enough material to hold your attention.  In fact, one could argue more time was needed to expand on key subplots.  Qi’ra and Han spend three years apart but when they finally get back together, it’s odd that neither wants to talk in detail about her past and newfound allegiance to Dryden Voss.  Some action scenes are also rushed such as an encounter with a space monster.  It’s over before there’s even a chance to get the heart racing.

These nit-pickings are relatively trivial though.  He may not have perfected Harrison Ford’s personality from the earlier movies but Ehrenreich brings a distinctive hairstyle and easy-going nature to the title role.  He’s well supported by a great group of actors.  It terms of a stand out, it’s hard to go past Phoebe Waller-Bridge who plays a sassy, feminist robot who has fallen in love with her master and has views of changing the world.

The last few Star Wars films have had a darker tone and while I expect that trend to continue with the untitled Episode IX, due to be released in late 2019, Solo: A Star Wars Story tips the scales back in the other direction and is a fun, likeable adventure.


Review: Hereditary

Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd
Released: June 7, 2018
Grade: A-

If you’ve seen the trailer or any other advertisements, you’d think Hereditary was a jump-out-your-seat horror film from start to finish.  That’s not the case during the opening hour.  It’s a dark, heavy drama about a family keeping secrets and dealing with grief.  It’s the sort of tale that would generate Oscar talk if released later in the year.

Annie Graham (Collette) is a renowned artist coming to grips the death of her elderly mother.  There’s a sense of loss but also a sense of relief.  Her mother was a private person from a “polluted” life who suffered from dementia in her later years.  The person struggling most with the situation is Annie’s social awkward 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Shapiro), who was very close with her grandmother and relied upon her friendship.

There are two members of the Graham household who also have a part to play.  The first is Annie’s teenage son, Peter (Wolff), who must confront a tragic situation of his own.  There’s a powerful scene around a dinner table where the tension between he and his mother finally comes to the fore.  The final family member is Steve (Byrne), the quiet husband trying to offer emotional support whilst also being the “voice of reason” when arguments overheat.

Written and directed by first timer Ari Aster, Hereditary doesn’t let the audience off easily.  It’s a film designed to have maximum impact.  The best example is a lengthy sequence involving a car accident which is viewed from the perspective of a single character from start to finish.  Lacking in sound and lacking it music, it’s tough to stomach.  We’re just looking into the eyes of someone, soaking it in and wondering what is to follow.

As anticipated, the film delves into its supernatural elements during the second hour.  Again, it’s hard to say too much without revealing spoilers but Aster deals with them in a fresh, reinvigorated away.  He’s hasn’t relied on old formulas to create cheap scares.  We’ve grown to care about these characters and so we’re fully invested in their fate.  There’s plenty to ponder as the credits start to roll.

It’s not a big cast but the performances are all worthy of the material.  This is the best we’ve seen from Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding) since her award-winning run on the United States of Tara.  You can sense Annie’s intelligence but also the struggle to keep her emotions in check as things start to unravel.  He isn’t required to say much but Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) also deserves praise for his intense performance as the scarred Peter.

Blending awkward family conversations with paranormal beings, Hereditary makes a big impression.


Review: Aurore

Directed by: Blandine Lenoir
Written by: Blandine Lenoir, Jean-Luc Gaget
Starring: Agnès Jaoui, Thibault de Montalembert, Pascale Arbillot, Sarah Such, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Philippe Rebbot
Released: May 17, 2018
Grade: B

The 2018 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival recently wrapped up after screenings at 10 locations across Australia.  More than 184,000 tickets were sold which is a clear sign of the love and appreciation for French cinema in this country.  A few of the more popular features from the festival will now get a wider release and the first “cab off the rank” is Aurore, the latest vehicle to star the popular Agnès Jaoui (Look at Me, The Taste of Others).

I’m reminded of the saying “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  That seems to be the case for 50-year-old Aurore who has spent the last few decades raising a family but now finds herself alone and unsure what to do next.  She’s separated from her husband, her kids have grown up and become independent, and she’s battling the early stages of menopause (complete with hot flashes).  She works as a waitress in a small café but it’s a struggle to stay motivated given the monotonous work and the remarks of her sexist boss.

The catalyst for change arrives in the form of a childhood sweetheart, Totoche (de Montalembert).  He was Aurore’s first love and they dated as teenagers but for whatever reason, things didn’t work out and they both went their separate ways.  It’s clear that he’s remained on Aurore’s mind based on her reaction when they bump into each other.  Could they possibly fall in love again after more than three decades apart?

As all of this goes on, Aurore is battling to keep other parts of her world in order.  Her elder daughter (Such) is pregnant – a fact she’s not entirely comfortable with given her daughter’s relatively young age.  There’s a little tension between the two as a result.  Her younger daughter (Roy-Lecollinet) is discovering love for the first time and with it, a clouded judgement.  There’s a humorous moment where Aurore comes home and hears them having sex in the bedroom upstairs.  Her best friend, Mano (Arbillot), is borderline deranged but her comedic antics leave a smile on her face.

There’s no huge twist or ground breaking revelation here.  This a character study about an ordinary woman looking to restart her life.  She makes a few mistakes and errors of judgement along the way but she’s likeable, warm-hearted and endearing.  She’s the kind of character who deserves a happy ending.  It’s a nice performance from Agnès Jaoui who works well under the guidance of director Blandine Lenoir.

Blending comedy, drama and romance, Aurore is easy to watch and easy to like.


Review: The Bookshop

Directed by: Isabel Coixet
Written by: Isabel Coixet
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Nighy, Kneafsey, James Lance, Harvey Bennett
Released: May 24, 2018
Grade: C-

The Bookshop
We’ve all found ourselves involved in debates over petty, trivial things.  It’s normally not worth arguing about but you can’t help yourself and are prepared to waste the time.  That’s pretty much my summation of narrative in The Bookshop, the latest film from Spanish director Isabel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words, Elegy).

Set in a British seaside town in the late 1950s, Florence (Mortimer) is a middle-aged woman who has been widowed since World War II and is looking to pour her energy into something new.  She’s loved reading since a young child and so, having learned the trade as a child, she acquires a rundown property (known as the “Old House”) and opens a small bookshop.  Her business strategy is sketchy.  She’s told that virtually no one in the small town reads books and so it’s no surprise that her bank manager, portrayed as a villain, is nervous.

The store appears to be profitable in its early days.  I’m not sure how since Florence and her teenage assistant (Kneafsey) spend more time reorganising and dusting shelves than selling anything.  We do meet one customer however.  Edmund (Nighy) is a hermit who has locked himself away in a hilltop mansion and reads all day long.  He’s too scared to come into the shop and so Florence makes selections for him and has the books personally delivered.

Things go further awry with the introduction of Violet Gamart (Clarkson), a wealthy socialite who is unhappy with Florence’s bookshop and use of the Old House.  She’d rather the property be transformed into an arts and cultural centre.  That in itself makes less sense than the bookshop but it evolves into a pointless battle between the two.  Violet uses all her connections in the town to destroy Florence’s business so that she will be forced to sell the property and give up on her dream.

That’s pretty much it.  This is a two-hour fight over whether a rundown building should be a bookshop or an arts centre.  Adapted from the novel written by Penelope Fitzgerald, Coixet struggles to create anything interesting.  The dialogue between the characters is stiff and unnatural.  The worst of the bunch is James Lance who plays a hopeless, slimy BBC journalist who earns Florence’s trust despite being a jerk for the entire film.  One way he sabotages the business is by putting a “closed” sign in the store window when it’s actually “open”.  That’s the kind of silly stuff we’re talking about here.

Things get even stranger when Violet lobbies for legislation changes in parliament to help get Florence evicted.  Does the arts centre mean that much to her?  Or is just a crazy power grab?  It’s hard to say given we know so little about Violet and her background.  The same can be said for most in this ensemble though.  Violet’s clueless husband pops up in two scenes with nothing to offer.  The journalist’s girlfriend is introduced and then disappears in a matter of minutes.  The strangest character in the mix is the narrator who chimes in at unnecessary times to explain Florence’s obvious mindset and other unnecessary details.

Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy are all accomplished actors but their talents are not enough to save this confusing mess.