Ocean’s 8

There’s something to be said for novelty, for curiosity. If you add a twist to a familiar theme, you’ve got my attention. Such was the formula of Ocean’s 8, a spinoff of the popular Ocean’s Eleven franchise that spawned two sequels. This time around it’s Danny Ocean’s sister Deborah (Sandra Bullock, Our Brand Is Crisis) who has taken up the mantle. Recently paroled, Deborah begins cooking up her next caper soon after doing a 5-year stretch.  She connects with old pal Lou (Cate Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok), and the two hatch a plan to rob the Met Gala.

I’m usually skeptical of reboots and updated versions of movie franchises. For example, I was ambivalent about the Ghostbusters reboot and I generally dislike the idea of making the “Black” or “female” version of popular movies. However, I’m a fan like anyone else, and star power is a legitimate draw. An all-star lineup attracts audiences, and that is the universal appeal of Ocean’s 8. Somehow my snobby cinematic preferences went out the window when I heard that Cate Blanchett and Rihanna were going to be in the all-girl interpretation of Ocean’s Eleven, itself a reboot of the 1960 Rat Pack classic.

Writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) has created a fun, slick caper that doesn’t quite live up to Steven Soderbergh’s original Ocean’s Eleven, but more than holds its own against Ocean’s 12 and 13. Deb and Lou assemble a team whose mission is to swipe a diamond Cartier necklace from starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, Alice Through the Looking Glass), who will be wearing the jewelry worth 150 million dollars to the Met Ball. Through an intricate plan involving surveillance, reconnaissance, and good old-fashioned luck, the hodgepodge team of bandits set the stage to pull off the brazen heist.

Rihanna (Annie) features prominently as Nine Ball, hacker extraordinaire and overall badass, much like the singer herself. Rounding out the cast are Sarah Paulson (The Post) as Tammy, Mindy Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time) as Amita, high-strung and anxious to get out from under her mother’s thumb, and Awkwafina as a sticky-fingered hipster. The esteemed Helena Bonham Carter (Alice Through the Looking Glass) appears as fashion designer Rose Weil, tasked with dressing Daphne for the ball and rigging the necklace. The audacious caper requires extraordinary skill and luck, and of course it’s all farfetched, but that’s not the point!

Ross lacks the finesse of the aforementioned Soderbergh, so the film wasn’t as slick and polished as the other “Ocean’s” movies. Nevertheless, there were tonal similarities, and the cast’s chemistry and camaraderie made the movie as fun to watch as it probably was to film. The movie’s flaws weren’t significant, as I expect some suspension of disbelief and understand that any retread inherently lacks originality. Ross allowed the cast to shine, even if their considerable talents may not have been particularly tested by the material here. Rihanna was surprisingly effective, and Paulson and Hathaway were particularly endearing. This was perfect summer fare.

Grade: A-

Thor: Ragnarok

I don’t profess to be a comic book purist or Marvel aficionado, instead I take each movie at face value. I compare within the genre, and examine each film within the context of superhero film history. I’m not familiar enough with the source material to assess authenticity from that perspective; I’ll leave that critique to others. However, as we march toward Marvel’s epic culmination Infinity War, I thought it was the perfect time to round out the Marvel family. Thor: Ragnarok, the third installment in the series, was a fun ride, and significantly better than its predecessor.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Ghostbusters) has been a rather likeable hero, but besides being obvious eye candy, he is also a rather formidable opponent for most foes. When we find him in Thor: Ragnarok, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, Transformers: The Last Knight) has been exiled by Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island). The destruction of his home planet Asgard is imminent, as Ragnarok looms. Ragnarok is a kooky word describing the destruction of the 9 realms, including Asgard. Enter Hela (Cate Blanchett, Carol), Odin’s first born and elder sister to Thor and Loki. Blanchett smolders as the deliciously evil Goddess of Death, a nemesis the likes of which Thor hasn’t seen. In a stunning display of power, she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer, gleefully letting it sift through her fingers like sand.

Loki and Thor don’t have much of a fraternal bond, with Thor justifiably wary of his sibling, given Loki’s history of betrayal. As they devise a plan to thwart Hela and save their home planet, they face assorted obstacles along the way, including a stay at the circus-like home of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Independence Day: Resurgence), where he bumps into an old friend. Thor also finds an unlikely ally in Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), so nicknamed in honor of the Asgardian defenders from whom she descends. With the help of new friends such as Valkyrie and old ones like Heimdall (Idris Elba, The Mountain Between Us), Thor treks back to Asgard to face Hela in a showdown to save his home planet.

The word “Ragnarok” sounds silly to me, and the previous Thor movie left much to be desired. As a result, I wasn’t particularly enthused about this latest installment – but I stand corrected. Writer/director Taika Waititi infused the movie with the perfect blend of action and humor. I hate corny, forced laughs and I’ve found it to be a common cinematic trick, in what I suspect is an attempt to appeal to kids. Ragnarok refrained from that, relying instead on Hemsworth’s natural charm and comedic timing. Thor is like the hot, cool guy who is surprisingly down to earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously. In other words, he’s perfect. Hemsworth displayed good chemistry with Tessa Thompson, and the actress was an effective foil and compliment to his character. Anthony Hopkins elevates anything he’s in (even if you think it’s beneath the Oscar winner), and Cate Blanchett is incomparable. She is becoming one of my favorite actresses, and her work here evinces an adaptable versatility. This was just a fun, well-executed movie.

Grade: A



I don’t always need to be “sold” on a movie to see it. Even if the film seems questionable, if a favorite auteur is attached then they’ve probably built up enough cachet for me to patronize the film in spite of a mediocre trailer or tepid reviews. Mind you, this logic only applies if a movie looks at least ok, or average – I’m not willfully seeing a stinker. I’m a self-proclaimed Bond enthusiast, so I’ll pretty much see the latest edition in the franchise, even if it looks rather underwhelming. Spectre looked promising, but I may have just been distracted by the initial excitement of another Bond movie; and while I mostly enjoyed the film, I don’t think it’ll be remembered as one of the better Bond movies.

The 24th installment of the venerable franchise opens with a nail-biting sequence in Mexico City as Bond hotly pursues a man on foot, darting across rooftops before commandeering a chopper. This is what we’ve come to know and love: an action-packed beginning to set the tone, followed by an iconic backdrop of womanly silhouettes as the opening credits spill across the screen. Daniel Craig (Skyfall) was suave as ever, and if there’s a man who looks better in a suit – I haven’t seen him. Bond has always been a bit tongue in cheek in terms of action and relative invincibility, but the casting of Craig seemed to usher in a less campy, grittier approach to the franchise. In Spectre, there were a few times when the action sequences were comical in their implausibility.

Never afraid to defy authority or venture off the beaten path, in Spectre Bond is unsurprisingly on the outs with his superiors at MI6, and his antics in Mexico City don’t win him any favors. The “double 0” program is in jeopardy, and there’s been a new addition to MI6 in the form of C, an official who wants to end the program by merging various intelligence agencies, thereby eliminating the need for agents in the field like James. However, Bond proves his usefulness after following the trail he picked up in Mexico City, which leads him to Spectre. Spectre is a conglomerate of international criminals responsible for various global atrocities and assorted crimes. It’s helmed by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, Horrible Bosses 2), a shadowy figure affiliated with other notorious villains from Bond’s past like Le Chiffre, featured in 2006’s Casino Royale. Oberhauser is very familiar with James, and the true nature of their relationship isn’t readily apparent.

The film follows James Bond as he tries to dismantle Spectre by thwarting Oberhauser, who has strategically engineered terror attacks in key places across the globe in an effort to persuade foreign governments to invest in anti-terrorism measures from which he can profit. Certain plot elements bore similarity to the last Mission: Impossible movie, and while I appreciated the overall simplicity, I found the plot ironically nonsensical. I won’t elaborate by revealing any spoilers, but suffice it to say the movie didn’t coalesce in a satisfying way. The supporting players were capable, but Bond movies are a vehicle for Daniel Craig primarily – and it seemed like maybe his heart wasn’t in it at all times. Upon exiting the theater I overheard some moviegoers discussing Craig’s disdain for the franchise now, and I thought how unfortunate it is that he’s ready to move on from the iconic role. He was a refreshing departure from previous archetypes, but if he’s “over it,” perhaps it is time to move on. That Bond magic was noticeably absent. Grade: B-

My Personal Top 10 of All Time

I’m not saying these are the greatest movies ever made, but they are MY favorites

1. The Godfather

A timeless classic. It’s not a movie about crime or violence, it’s a movie about family, loyalty, and how a sense of duty and responsibility can reveal never before seen characteristics, like innate wisdom, courage, and leadership (Michael Corleone).

2. The Usual Suspects

A brilliantly written and acted film with a very accomplished cast, including at least 2 Oscar Winners and an Oscar Nominee. Bryan Singer directed an intricate masterpiece that was enthralling from the first frame. Who is Keyser Soze? The person you least expected. One of the best “twist” endings in memory.

3. The Sixth Sense

Which leads me to another movie with one of the best endings EVER. This movie has been parodied endlessly but when it was released and I saw it as a college sophomore, my jaw dropped. It was a groundbreaking movie and remains M. Night Shymalan’s best. He’s never been able to recapture lightning in a bottle, but I give him credit for this gem. Held together by the strength of Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis’ performances, this movie is a classic.

4. School Daze

I was surprised to see this movie catch some flack recently. People, it was a commentary about negative things on Black college campuses (misogyny, the “color complex”) not an endorsement of them. Spike Lee aptly portrayed the myriad of personalities that occupy the microcosm that is a college campus. Entertaining, funny, and poignant. One of my favorites from Spike. And here is another, at number 5.

5. The 25th Hour

Don’t try to put my man Spike in a box. He doesn’t just do “Black” movies, although if he did there is certainly nothing wrong with that. My point is that he can tell more than one story. He didn’t write the screenplay, so I can’t give him credit for that – but the vision was his. Edward Norton is one of the better younger actors of our generation, and I wish his catalogue were more prolific. Nevertheless, he was superb as Monty Brogan, a man on borrowed time.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper are no slouches either. This film just resonated with me for some reason. The last scene in particular, is wonderful. A great movie about friendship and most of all: regret.

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (original Swedish version)

This is the most recent addition to a list that was firmly set in place. An absolutely visceral, dark and mind-blowing tale of intrigue and suspense.  This is one of the most riveting movies I’ve ever seen. Words don’t do it justice. Layer upon layer of mystery and suspense. Disturbing, violent, and powerful.

7. Pulp Fiction

Tarantino is a genius. It took me forever to see this movie and when I did, all the fuss was justified. A non-linear work of art. Nobody was making movies like this in ’94.

8. The Dark Knight

This was not a corny movie like one of the Spiderman sequels or the old school Superman movies. I’m not knocking those movies, because they have their own place. But The Dark Knight was MORE than just a comic book movie. Don’t call it that, it’s an insult. This was a cinematic masterpiece. Director Christopher Nolan is The Shiz, check his resume. Heath Ledger gave a tour de force performance.  The nuances he brought to The Joker were nothing short of brilliant. Aaron Eckhart nearly stole the show as Two Face. What I loved most about the movie were the psychological dilemmas it raised. Do tragic circumstances force us into becoming something we never thought we could be, or do they reveal what always was inside us? One question of many.

9. No Country For Old Men

I wasn’t ready for this one. I didn’t know what to expect, but the Coen Bros rarely misfire. This movie was a lesson in the art of storytelling with a central figure so evil and compelling, I thought my heart would thump out of my chest in the theater. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it’s not for the faint of heart. If you have the guts to follow a stone cold killer and madman, this is a hell of a movie.

10. Jackie Brown

This is just a personal favorite. I like movies with ensemble casts, and I like “caper” movies. Tarantino is a master of dialogue and there are some gems in this one. Check the scene between Chris Tucker’s character and Sam Jack’s character. Priceless. When Robert Deniro has a throwaway role, you know a movie is awesome. Pam Grier and Sam Jack are the definition of cool. I love it.

Meet Jameel Saleem: Exit Strategy

In life, some people sit on the sidelines, and some people get in the game.  The thing that separates dreamers from achievers is one simple word: action.  If you believe in something, make it happen.  This blog is a small representation of my dream of becoming a writer, and a small representation of the immense love and joy I get from the art of film.  I encourage all dreamers to make their dream happen.  And when you do, I’ll support it.  With that being said, I’d like to introduce anyone reading this post to Jameel Saleem, a very promising young filmmaker with a bright future.  You heard it here first.

Hailing from Baltimore, Saleem’s first solo directorial effort was Cream Soda, a comedic romp about an average twenty-something who seeks comfort in the simple things in life (like his favorite soda) when things get complicated.  Exit Strategy is his third film, and the growth Saleem has shown is nothing short of remarkable.  He stars as James, a young man who finds himself in a predicament when he is evicted from his apartment.  Kimelia Weathers is featured as his girlfriend Kim, and there are notable appearances from Quincy “Q Deezy” Harris as James’ best friend, along with comedian/actor Kevin Hart (Think Like a Man) and radio personality Big Boy in supporting roles.  When James is evicted, he is forced to rapidly accelerate the pace of his relationship by moving in with his girlfriend of three months.  This was a very believable premise, because we all know that fate has a cruel sense of humor and life will bite you in the ass before you can blink.  Normally James wouldn’t be living with a girlfriend he hasn’t even slept with yet, but it’s either move in with Kim or live on the streets.  James goes into it with an open mind, but quickly realizes that Kim has the patent on a new and improved type of crazy.  She nags and bosses him around like a parent, telling him when to go to bed and forcing him to do chores on Sunday rather than allowing him to watch football.  How can another adult “allow” you to do anything anyway?  He’s a grown ass man!  These are the things you don’t know about a person until you live with them.  She’s so delusional that while brushing her teeth during a conversation with James, Kim inexplicably spits her toothpaste in his hand rather than walk the five feet to the bathroom sink.  If I were James, at that point the curb might not look too bad.

When your home life sucks, everything else seems to follow suit.  Eventually the domestic discontent begins to permeate every aspect of James’ life.  He finally enlists the help of his friends to end his relationship.  Complicating matters is the fact that James wants to break up with Kim but remain living with her, as roommates.  He doesn’t want to take their relationship to the next level; he wants to take it to the previous level.  His efforts prove futile when it looks like Kim just wants to be in a relationship, no matter how terrible it is.  She won’t take no for an answer, so James gets more creative in planning his “exit strategy.”  If Kim won’t let him break up with her, he’ll force her to break up with him.  Unfortunately, his efforts at undesirability fall short, but all is not lost.  Eventually Kim has her “light bulb moment” after James resorts to the most extreme tactic to turn her against him.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but let’s just say that everyone is happy.

Exit Strategy was one of the best independent movies I’ve ever seen.  The writing, editing, and direction belied no inexperience and the premise was perfect for a screwball “unromantic” comedy.  I salute Jameel Saleem, and the sky is the limit for this exciting young filmmaker.  We must nurture and support young talent so that it may thrive as an example to others.  Be on the lookout for Exit Strategy in a city near you.