Tag Archives: Gary Ross

Family Jewels

Ocean’s 8

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

More than 15 years ago, Steven Soderbergh recast the Rat Pack, pointing out a set of Hollywood A-listers led by George Clooney who were as stylish and cool as Sinatra and the fellas.

Three films later (four, if you count Soderbergh’s hillbilly version Logan Lucky, and you should) and the Ocean family is drawn once again to the big payoff.

This time it’s Danny Ocean’s sister Deb (Sandra Bullock). A life of crime runs in the family, it seems. Fresh from incarceration, Deb is looking to execute the con she’s been fine tuning over the last 5 years in lockdown.

What Debbie needs is a team, and she knows what kind.

“A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored.”

That’s a line well-placed and well-played, and though the film seems awfully familiar from the jump, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The music bumpers, throwback scene segues, strategy meetings and comfortable pacing set the cool vibe, and Ocean’s 8 is cheeky enough in its outright impersonation of the previous installments to shrug off feeling derivative. Instead, it comes off as second class, which may be more disappointing.

Though director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) can crib the style—his cast (including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and a spunky Awkwafina) can’t generate the same chemistry. No one does a bad job, far from it, but Ocean’s 8 lacks the overlapping dialogue and easy rapport of earlier efforts. They have the talent, they just don’t have the material.

Anne Hathaway is the real thief in this caper, stealing every scene with a fun and funny send-up of the Hollywood diva persona (including her own). James Corden, popping in as a fraud expert investigating the theft of a multi-million dollar Cartier necklace during the Met Gala, brightens up the third act as well with his fresh perspective and savvy delivery.

Otherwise, the side characters are neither as meaty or as interesting as in previous franchise efforts. Surprisingly it’s Blanchett who disappoints most. Too dialed down, her Lou lacks the color and definition to be effective as Debbie’s second banana, and Blanchett’s casual greatness feels wasted.

The best of the Ocean’s films rely on sharp characterizations and sharper sleight of hand. You believe you’re watching the con unfold only to find that …whaat?….the real heist was somewhere you weren’t looking. It is you who’s been conned.

While 8 follows that formula it succeeds only to a degree, its script simply not crisp enough to charm you into buying all in. The con itself is not believably intricate and Ross, who co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch, cops out in act three with heavy exposition.

But hey, heist movies are fun, and movies with this much star power are fun. Ergo, Ocean’s 8 is a fun time at the movies.

Glitzy, forgettable fun.

Swampland Rebellion

Free State of Jones

by George Wolf

For all the onscreen battles in Free State of Jones, a more persistent one dogs the film throughout, as writer/director Gary Ross struggles to find cohesion for elements that too often conflict. The historical drama at the film’s core is so vast, it feels as though Ross just couldn’t bring himself to restrain any part of it.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a farmer near Jones County, Mississippi who deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As the numbers of fellow deserters grew, Knight led what came to be known as the Knight Company, a small army of Southerners that battled the Confederacy in an attempt to establish the “Free State of Jones.”

Historians still argue over Knight’s true motivations, but the film is less than nuanced at the outset, clearly drawing Knight as a poor man refusing to die in a rich man’s war, and unable to accept “any man telling another man what he’s got to live for, or what he’s got to die for.”

Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) does find more subtlety as the film progresses, but Newton’s heroically righteous nature, albeit delivered through a committed and moving performance from McConaughey, feels manufactured. Ditto the minimal racial tensions present in a unit mixing runaway slaves and AWOL Confederates.

Conversely, amid this idealism, the film is effectively brutal in its depiction of war and the deep, ugly roots of racism. But even here, the pendulum eventually swings back to manipulation, as Ross’s aim seems to be less about learning from history and more about being proud of how badly we feel.

Sparring tones continue, most specifically when the Knight Company uprising is woven through details of a decades-later jury trial involving one of Knight’s descendants from his marriage to a former slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Bridges between each thread are built with dry, history-lecture sequences that are equal parts salient info and narrative distraction.

Ross’s passion is understandable. This truly is an incredible piece of America’s history, but one so expansive that an approach this broad is hampered from the start. Free State of Jones leaves fine performances and effectively-crafted sequences strewn across the battlefield, but the emotional connection needed to bind them remains just over that next hill.