Caffeinated review: Ocean’s 8

I have seen a new movie! -impressive drumroll sound fx- And it was a good movie, so let me share a few words about it, eh?

The movie: Ocean’s 8

A few words:

Well, Danny Ocean isn’t actually in it. But it is an Oceans movie. Pardon me a potential spoiler, but… Danny Ocean was dead to begin with. It says so right at the beginning and then again on the marble his sister and Ruben visit at the cemetery. And Ruben passes along a very clear message from her dearly-departed brother that Debbie Ocean should not do the fool-proof heist she has been planning for 5 years. So make of that what you will, but the baton was certainly passed on to the Ocean sister. (My money’s on the theory that there will be another Oceans movie and that was the setup.)

Armed with the non-blessing of family, Debbie sets out to do the heist she’s been planning for 5 years. She pulls together her team of 7 questionable experts, all of them female because “a man will be noticed” and the job they’re attempting requires invisibility. (That’s actually a conversation they have.) Some of them have worked together before, some are scouted, some are novices so green they give up the gig. It is not a professional team but it is pulled together by professionals with a foolproof plan, so of course it will work. It’s an Oceans movie.

Oh, and no matter what you have heard, they are not robbing the Met Gala, they are only robbing one person *attending* it. So it only needs a few people. They can fence the $150million dollar necklace and make off with their cuts, no one the wiser. Easy peasy…

If you know the Oceans movies, you know they go big and then they go home. This movie went a different kind of big entirely. The big deal in this one was the slight of hand throughout, and they show you the pass offs and the cons and the surprises along the way. They show the plans coming together and they show the places where it gets weak and gets shored up. No tunnel diggers are necessary for this scheme. It is all on the ladies, each of them doing their job flawlessly and anticipating problems. It’s all about the characters of this team and this movie does not let you forget that you are watching a bunch of women kick ass and take names in the criminal world without a single drop of blood.

On that note, this movie is a kind of accidentally big feminist movie. The conversation about women-are-invisible kind of puts it right on the nose. Otherwise, the references are more subtle. Characters put on lifestyle facades that make them the good-girl (or the bad-girl) stereotype, show their hustle and their lives, and then throughout the movie, you see exactly what a con job it was. Cate Blanchett is a human chameleon just as an actress in general, and Anne Hathaway redeemed an absolutely obnoxious character. I have never seen Helena Bonham Carter play a quiet-spoken, nerve-wracked, has-been, and didn’t think she was capable of it, but she was a joy to watch. Mindy Kaling was perfect, and I didn’t know Rihanna could act, tbh. The ladies played full characters off and showed that women work the system and know how to game it, too. Ocean’s 8 working title could have easily been The Secret Life Of Women and not been a lie. It was amusing to see.

That being said, this is an Ocean’s movie that Danny Ocean could not have pulled off. It felt like they had an idea for the story but couldn’t find the character-mix to fill it. So they made it a new movie with a heavy tie-in at the ready, thus continuing the series until the next green light comes along. That’s why it’s an accidental feminist piece, just an afterthought, a bit of a bonus.

Does it pass the bechdel test? Well, yes and then again, maybe not. The one weak spot in the movie involves the long-con, and it doesn’t present itself until the last act when we get James Corden and Richard Armitage’s characters brought in.

Up until that point, all the ladies are signed up to pull this gig for purely financial reasons. It’s part of the daily grind, it’s money, everybody’s gotta eat, and gee, wouldn’t it be nice to eat off a bank account with $16mill in it? But the script itself gets dicey when it tries to break off of that plain and believable motivation and weave the boys back into things. It felt forced and shoehorned and was the least genuine aspect of the script, leaving a few glaring questions unanswered all for the sake of making the story ultimately about all the boys.

Saying more would be unfair spoiling, but not mentioning it would be unfair to me, because I sat in the theater watching that hook play out and just kinda feeling let down a bit. If ever I have had a “Bitch, don’t you do it!” meme moment, it was at that one segment of exposition in the last act that dealt a huge blow to the otherwise Girl Power!!! theme of the movie. It’s like an afterthought they had to toss in to stroke the egos of the movie execs. So when you see it, I’m suggesting everyone ignore it, pretend it never happened, it wasn’t necessary to the story anyway.

But the girls did rally and they kick all ass. It is an Oceans movie, after all. It ended exactly where it promised it would. It’s a fun movie, with a great cast, and an enjoyable adventure into the criminal world of Cartier and the Met Gala.

Writerly things… like Characters

Ah, characters. The good guys. The bad guys. The goofy sidekicks. The random passerby in the background. These are the bread and butter of the storyworld, the main staple that feeds the craft. They don’t always have to be human in some medium to still get the stories across and there can be stories without characters.  It’s not recommended, though, because the audience wants to know who to cheer for. For that you need characters to choose from.

Besides, creating characters is the fun part! What makes them unique?  What makes them a product of your imagination?  Even characters who are based on “real life” individuals have to be run through the imagination of the writer before they can be put on the page.  There’s always details that just won’t fit with the story the author wants to tell, from dialogue between characters to hair color to the preferred brand of booze they have while lamenting their broken homes. That’s all stuff the writer gets to make up and build stories around.

Part of that is looking at the way real people actually work.  It does no good to tell a story where everything is perfect and no one screws up because everyone is flawless.  The audience starts to feel a bit like they’ve just stepped in amongst the Stepford Wives Club and they immediately want to leave; there’s no one they know there, there’s no one they recognize or identify with.  The story can be lost because the audience looses interest.

The other problem point to the perfect-character is that a good story needs tension and perfection is the opposite of tension.  The Perfect World is the world where no one wants anything.  Tension is the result of a character wanting or needing something that they can’t easily obtain, there’s a conflict because something is in their way.  This is also something we as writers can borrow from “real life” in the creation of our characters.  We can build this conflict into the character’s past and we can use that to steer the plot.

Character and plot are actually related more than we immediately notice as an audience; what makes a character unique is that they can’t be plug-and-play inserted into any story, we have to give them their story for this reason.  What do they want? How would they respond to a given situation?  Their past experiences and their present needs steer the answer to those questions and the answers to those questions should ultimately show how the plot unfolds. A writer has to dabble in a little psychology to play in creating characters and explore the idea of “universal needs” and how those impact people in their day to day lives when they go unfulfilled.

Blogger and counselor Gina Senarighi compiled a useful list of examples of Unmet Universal Needs that impact how people communicate with each other in the real world. (It’s an interesting article, too, so check it out!) The list applies just as well to the fictional world.

Image copyright Gina Senarighi.

Just as an exercise, go through this list of “Unmet Universal Needs” and see what kind of character traits jump out at you.  What can you build from them? A whole novel? A short story? Or just an interesting background/support character?  Every character you put on the page deserves the same amount of attention in their creation, because you never know if they’ll come in handy later while you’re writing!