(On Cable TV, January 2019) Like many, I’m not overly happy with the recent tradition of relaunching franchises with gender-flipped casts—it smacks of opportunism, and a cheap way to revive franchises that have otherwise run their courses. But even grouchy me had a hard time resisting the charm of Ocean’s Eight, which resurrects the modern Ocean’s comedic heist franchise with a mostly female cast. Headlined by Anne Hathaway (going back to a sympathetic character after a too-long detour playing out-of-persona unlikable characters), the ensemble cast tears into the usual heist plot mechanics with gusto, with everybody getting a choice moment or two. Plot-wise, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, although it should be noted that rather than head for banks or casinos like their male colleagues, the women of Ocean’s Eight head for jewelry at a high-end fashion event … because why not. This enjoyable follow-up has a snappy rhythm thanks to director Gary Ross, and even the post-heist material doesn’t drag on too much despite wallowing in useless complications. (But it wouldn’t be a heist movie if they went for a simple approach.) The ensemble cast is at the top of their game, what with Sandra Bullock going head-to-head with Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter throwing in a bawdy French dialogue wordplay that is not adequately translated in the subtitles, as well as younger actresses such as Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Awkwafina having good moments. It’s not meant to be profound or sophisticated beyond surface appearance, but Ocean’s Eight is a fun heist movie, and I quite liked it.
(In theaters, May 2012) Massively hyped as The Next Big Thing in teen pop-culture, The Hunger Games generally lives up to its billing as a decent piece of filmmaking. It’s hardly perfect, but it keeps getting better as it goes on: Viewers will have to make it past the drab cinematography of the first section of the film and a premise that doesn’t sustain a moment’s scrutiny to start enjoying the film. Jennifer Lawrence is remarkable in the lead role (the first few minutes suggest the same self-sufficient Appalachian character she played in Winter’s Bone) but director Gary Ross’s work is a bit shaky at first. The Hunger Games only gets going on the way to Capitol, and then in the wilderness where the teenage protagonists start killing each other off. The script has its moments (as well as its anti-moments, such as blatant game manipulation that would send Games audiences in a righteous rage) but don’t expect much more than competence in this middle-of-the-road adaptation. Lead character Katniss comes across as more admirable than most film heroines, tapping into that same hunger for positive female role models that helped the book become such a success. Compared to the book, however, The Hunger Games comes across as a bit less disturbing (no mentions of the enslaved Avox, no hints as to the Wolf Mutts’ origins, fewer injuries to the participants, mere slight ambiguity as to Katniss’ true feelings for Peeta) and seems to err in trying to replace Katniss’ clipped narration with exposition-heavy scenes featuring third parties. Still, the result isn’t too bad once you can make it past the dreary first section and the dubious premise. Woody Harrelson turns in another winning performance as an over-the-hill champion, and the film finds a certain rhythm once the game gets underway. The film lags a bit toward the end (and makes sure that Katniss doesn’t really kill anyone in cold blood) but who really care? Preordained to be a mass pop-culture phenomenon from day one, The Hunger Games has the good luck of being actually watchable even by people who don’t buy into the central premise.