Updated: Jul 8, 2019
By Derek May
YIN: Ocean's 8
The Ocean’s franchise is really based on three major pillars: the ensemble, the heist, and the fun. They certainly hit another homerun with the ensemble, gathering a collection of acting heavyweights along with a few inspired up-and-comers. And the movie effectively captures the fun and playfulness expected from the series. If there’s one flaw to nitpick, it’s in the heist. But I’ll go ahead and admit that it certainly doesn’t break the film, which stands as a worthy entry to the saga—certainly above the relative stinker that was Ocean’s 12.
This go round, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is, figuratively, out of the picture, though his presence looms large. Debbie Ocean, played by the uber-talented and ever-watchable Sandra Bullock, follows directly in her brother Danny’s footsteps, having conned her way out of prison, into a fine hotel, and into gathering a rogues gallery of cohorts for a heist she’s been planning every day of her recent 5-year sentence.
The formula is vintage Ocean’s, arguably almost too much so. The many parallels are likely meant as homages and to ground the audience into accepting the new slate of characters in this established universe. But it also tends to cause the film to veer just shy of formulaic. Yet, if you’re a fan of these films, then you’re more likely to take this as a positive rather than a negative, and the endearing troupe of performers certainly helps lessen the cries of derivativeness.
Bullock is, of course, the anchor. She exudes her usual charm, disarming those around her while keeping her façade cool and smooth as ice. The job is her baby, and she directs her team with intelligence, efficiency, and a commanding presence. Cate Blanchett’s Lou takes on the role of Debbie’s best friend, right-hand, and confidant. She sports a sharp, modern style, is close enough to Debbie to finish her sentences, and has the connections to track down the key elements of the team. She even confronts Debbie when she discovers that this con might have an ulterior, revenge-driven motive. If this all sounds familiar, it might be because it’s the exact same relationship that Danny had with Rusty (Brad Pitt) in the previous films. One key difference here though is that Lou isn’t given as many problems to solve, or as many “roles” to play. Lou gets at least one moment to pretend her way into the job, but it’s cut short (perhaps for time), with the juicier and more vital infiltration being done by Sarah Paulson’s Tammy, their fence. And while Paulson’s soccer-mom slash stolen goods middle-woman is played with an effective balance of befuddlement and confidence, I can’t help but feel that a fence might be the least qualified person to run a long, deep-cover con. While it certainly gives her character something to do while waiting to move the merchandise, it seems like a more fitting job for Lou and perhaps a missed opportunity to give Blanchett more screentime (when you’ve got a Cate Blanchett in your film, why not use her to the utmost?!).
It’s especially glaring given that things, for the most part, run so smoothly Lou isn’t given the chance to put out any fires; one of Rusty’s specialties. This actually leads into my issues with the heist. It’s certainly elaborate, with plenty of twists . . . but everything is just part of the plan. What’s missing here that was so endearing in the previous movies are significant obstacles to overcome. We do get one gigantic curveball that soars in just before go-time, but it’s resolved (and not by Lou) almost as quickly as it appears. After that, there are several wrenches that seem to find their way in, only to have Debbie well-prepared for those as well.
It may be legitimately argued that all of that shows just how perfectly Debbie was able to plan her job, and serves as a testament to her skills. I won’t disagree with that suffice to say that in movie-making terms, the lack of obstacles also creates a lack of tension, and leads us to simply watch the characters execute a plan rather than be concerned for whether they will. It also robs the character(s) of the chance to really show the ability to deal with the unforeseen in ingenious and unexpected ways.
All that being said, I’m nitpicking, which, hey, that’s the gig, right? Overall the plot works. Debbie has come up with a beauty of a job that affords each member the score of a lifetime while exacting a bit of justice on the one who put her behind bars in the first place. The team is quirky and interesting, and great at their respective jobs. Even the mark, super-diva Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), proves to be hardly the unawares simpleton they were expecting, and is given a clever turn that imbues a bit of fresh reality into the score.
All that adds up to what may well be the most important of the three pillars: the movie is fun! Each of the cast members is obviously enjoying their time together, playing out their nefarious fantasies while establishing a believable and palpable comradery. Helena Bonham Carter is a master at disappearing into a role, and her Irish dress-maker-to-the-Stars here is no exception. She chews the scenery with her subtle blend of naiveté and resolve. Both Mindy Kaling and Rihanna add a nice flavor, even if ultimately they spend most of their time executing their job rather than enhancing their characters (to be fair, that may be more a result of the Ocean’s formula than anything). I was giddily enamored by relative newcomer Awkwafina, having been a fan of her quirky raps for a few years now, and glad to see her making the most of the opportunity, holding her own against the seasoned vets with her off-kilter, streetwise sensibility. The gents too proved their worth, with both Richard Armitage (of Hobbit and Hannibal fame) and late-night host James Corden tacking unusual roles with charm and comedic fortitude.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out yet another poignant aspect of the movie. While there were a few keyboard knuckledraggers who instantly decried the very notion of an all-female Ocean’s film, it can’t be denied that the makers took full advantage of the opportunity. Aside from casting some of the best female actors in the business, they also managed to imbue several timely comments (obvious and otherwise) about not only sexism in the film industry but ageism as well. It was both organic and novel to include a few recognizable older women for a pivotal segment of the film, providing not only work for a too-often dismissed segment of the industry, but a subtle platform for issues that far too often go unaddressed. On the other end of spectrum, the notion of how quickly a younger starlet can replace even the most established star was given a resonance it might not have had in any other film.
With a truly stellar cast, a clever if somewhat flawed heist, and a boatload of fun, Ocean’s 8 effectively delivers what you’d expect from this series, and does so with a few welcomed and notable industry observations that boost it a little above the average popcorner. Certainly worth the view, and given the success of this first go, I can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with in Ocean’s 9 and 10.
YANG: Batman Ninja
Batman Ninja is, to put it succinctly, bat-shit crazy. In good way. Batman is one of those characters that defies typecasting, despite his concrete origin as a singularly devoted warrior fighting to ensure justice and to prevent the tragedy of his youth from befalling anyone else. Yet, we’ve seen the Caped Crusader bash criminals with unabashed ferocity, shake a tailfeather to the Bat-usi, delve into the dark psyche of a lonely crusade, and high-five a literal rainbow of Super Friends. And still we accept each disparate incarnation as a completely viable expression. Unlike many of his heroic comrades, Batman can take it, and not just because he’s the hero we deserve, but because he’s so well-drawn (pun intended) that as long as he’s fighting villains with his unique blend of superior brains and brawn, we stand by our Dark Knight wherever the era may take him.
And despite having seemingly covered every base possible over the past 80 years, he’s finally ended up in perhaps the most obvious place he could have: Japanese anime.
To be clear, we’re talking REAL anime. And I emphasize this because it seems to be a point of contention amongst viewers. Anime is a genre all unto itself, and while I don’t claim to be an expert, it has a number of specific and definable characteristics too numerous to justifiably list. We have seen superhero animation, including Batman, done in the anime STYLE, but what we get here from director Junpei Mizusaki is the full-on, balls-to-the-wall version. This isn’t a Western story told with some Japanese embellishments; this is the Japanese putting their cultural stamp on the iconic character.
As such, the storyline is, by Western standards, practically ludicrous. I’m not talking about Gorilla Grodd making a time machine that transports equal parties of heroes and villains to ancient Japan. That’s par for the course. I’m talking about giant steampunk castles that form into huge fighting robots. I’m talking about training monkeys and bats to assemble into equally massive constructions. This is GRAND SCALE action, with characters larger-than-life, performing impossible physical feats amidst sumptuous designs and highly-stylized movements. If you can accept that, then you’ll have a lot of fun with Batman Ninja. If not, you’re in for a world of disappointment.
Assuming we’re on board, the animation itself is a wonder to behold. The exquisite attention to detail gives the viewer a bevy of information to take in with each frame, from the accurate parts and pieces of the swords and armor to the clouds rolling amidst a textured, watermarked skyline. Famed character designer Takashi Okazaki plies the same skills he used on Afro Samurai here, offering fresh, inventive takes on Batman, et al. The Caped Crusader himself starts out with the more modern, technical outfit we’ve seen in versions such as the Arkham Asylum game series. This makes for an interesting contrast once he inevitably dons the traditional armor of the Land of the Rising Sun. The rest of the troupe is given equal attention, with disturbing-yet-awesome interpretations of the likes of Joker, Penguin, and especially Bane, while the heroes all sport distinct versions of traditional iconography.
Yet, amongst all the lunacy and anthropomorphic buildings, there is a surprising level of character development, at least in as much as any other comic issue. The Joker’s antics prove once again why he is and always will be Batman’s greatest foe, dancing through the story with maniacal genius. As usual, the nutjob seemingly flying by the seat of his pants shows that he not only has a grand plan, but is executing it 2 steps ahead of everyone else. And as such, he once again forces Batman to test his ethical fortitude. And given this is an “elseworlds” tale, we do sort of wonder at times if this is where that moral line might be crossed. The film also offers several quiet moments of contemplation, either philosophically or socially, giving some nice breathing room and buildup towards the climactic chaos.
In all, your enjoyment of Batman Ninja may come down to expectations. Taken for what it is, it’s a fun, crazy, and beautifully crafted film that offers a nice side-diversion to the usual tale, and provides a lens through which to see another culture’s interpretation of an American icon. It’s not without its problems certainly, and there seems to be several instances of points lost in translation, but if you’re a fan of the Dark Knight in all of his varied interpretations, I say give this one a chance, because whatever your final judgement ends up, Batman will continue on, as the legend who cannot be broken.