Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Helena Bonham-Carter, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina in Ocean's 8

OCEAN'S 8

There's a kind of directorial smoothness, an almost tangible delight in the composition and pacing of the on-screen images, that keeps audiences alert and energized. Though the films themselves were of varying quality, Steven Soderbergh demonstrated this easy, breezy style in Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen – heist comedies that gleamed with their directors' signature polish. But there's also a kind of smoothness, a professional yet rather paint-by-numbers approach, that can lead to your mind wandering even while you're enjoying yourself.

That's basically what we get in director Gary Ross' Ocean's 8, a heavily female addition to the heavily male series about a group of professional cons, pickpockets, cyber-thieves, et al, who pull off staggeringly complex robberies with skill, panache, and a total lack of sweat. I smiled during my screening nearly throughout, and even given a few days' reflection, can't think of much that's fundamentally wrong with it. Yet there's a difference between lightweight and vaporous, and for all of its considerable strengths, Ross' outing generally feels like it's running on autopilot – as though most of the filming took place while its director was on a lunch break. Led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, the performers are uniformly winning, and the script (by Ross and Olivia Milch) boasts a number of juicy individual scenes and several satisfying twists. Apart, however, from a chuckle-inducing bit in which the camera travels underwater and the film's score, for a moment, sounds equally submerged, I rarely got the sense that Ross was having half as much fun as his cast. Even when his Ocean's material was wanting, you could sense Soderbergh's directorial enthusiasm. Ocean's 8 is amusing, engaging, and occasionally elegant – I had a good time. But I barely sensed a director's presence at all.

With George Clooney's Danny Ocean no longer around, at least for the time being, the job of caper connoisseur now falls to his estranged sister Debbie (Bullock), a recently released long-con operator who spent her five years in prison – a couple of them in solitary confinement – concocting what she says is an infallible plan to steal a six-pound necklace worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Her aim is to lift the pricey accessory from the neck of Hollywood starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) during the annual Met Gala – a scheme that involves infiltrating museum security, the catering staff, the guest list, and more to properly execute. Clearly, Debbie needs a team. Luckily for her, and for us, she assembles an awesome one: best pal and logistics expert Lou (Blanchett in biker-wear); master fence turned homemaker Tammy (Sarah Paulson); unassuming jewelry forger Amita (Mindy Kaling); quirky street hustler Constance (Awkwafina); a genius hacker known only as Nine Ball (Rihanna); and disgraced fashionista Rose (Helena Bonham-Carter), who has no obvious flair for larceny but, owing the government five million, is eager to give it a try.

Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock in Ocean's 8

For our part, we're eager to watch all of these charismatic talents give it a try, and as per usual in the Ocean's franchise, half of the entertainment stems from the elaborate preparation for the mission, and half from the attempt to pull the mission off – plus an aftermath in which the team's best-laid plans might go awry. (A wonderfully funny and droll James Corden eventually shows up as an insurance investigator well-acquainted with Debbie Ocean's checkered past.) Starting with Debbie's blithe, illegal procurement of free cosmetics and a hotel room, and with the comedic action backed by composer Daniel Pemberton's playful score, it's all pretty much equally enjoyable here. I could have done without the tedious subplot, and accompanying flashbacks, involving Debbie's former beau and partner in crime (Richard Armitage), which momentarily grind the narrative to a halt and add to the film an unnecessary layer of bad-boyfriend revenge plotting. And some of the James Bond-esque gadgetry, such as Tammy's miraculous “toy” that can make exact 3D renderings of priceless jewels, adds too many elements of contrivance to what is already an awfully contrived affair. But the cast is clearly having a ball, and when Ross isn't accidentally undermining their efforts with blah presentation, that means we are, too.

Considering how naturally appealing and specifically inventive the movie's chief players are, it's easy to wish they were all given equal opportunities to shine; Kaling, performing comic wonders with her one-word retorts, is too frequently sidelined, and while it makes sense for her character, Rihanna is unfortunately stuck spending most of her screen time communing with a laptop rather than her co-stars. Awkwafina, though, takes her minor role and runs with it, delivering a portrayal as physically witty as the expansively eccentric turn provided by Bonham-Carter. (The latter is verbally witty, as well, with the British great at one point impersonating a Scot who speaks fluent French.) Paulson is marvelous as a rejuvenated crook relishing her position as the last person anyone would suspect of duplicity. Hathaway, the most hands-down-hilarious of the bunch, is electrifying as a seemingly dim actress with plenty of hidden personality depths. And Bullock and Blanchett, who appear to have entered a competition over which one could pull off the smokiest eyes (it's a tie), are unfailingly cool, crisp, and confident – just the leads you want shepherding a big-budget frolic designed as more style than substance, given that with these two, substance just comes with the territory.

If only Ross, as a director, had offered more active support. While most of his scenes play just fine, there's almost nothing, beyond the castmates populating them, to make them unique; each new sequence, each new turn of the narrative screw, feels just like the one that came before. There's certainly an integrity in this approach, as the adeptly assembled Ocean's 8 doesn't come off as haphazard, flailing, or desperate in any way. (To be sure, the same couldn't be said of the 2004 mess Ocean's Twelve.) The movie is likable, charming, and relaxed. It's also, in its unthreatening, connect-the-dots way, a little bit boring. Now that he's officially out of retirement, maybe Soderbergh himself – or, perish the thought, a similarly gifted female director … ? – can take the reins if there's an Ocean's 9 and/or 10 in our futures. The film's amazing women deserve an equally knockout director. So do we.

Gabriel Byrne and Toni Collette in Hereditary

HEREDITARY

I think it was the shadowy, grinning, naked man that finally sealed it.

Watching Ari Aster's feature-length writing/directing debut Hereditary – a psychological horror movie in which the protagonists, and their family dynamics, are as terrifying as the shock effects – I was frequently freaked out. The barely visible, ephemeral presence of an elderly woman whose funeral starts the film. The beyond-hideous car accident, followed by an endless, aching closeup on the traumatized driver's face. The repeated aural motif of a teen girl's tongue clicking against the roof of her mouth. But with the wholly unexpected arrival of that smiling weirdo in the movie's last act, a lingering creep-out I found as profoundly unsettling as the flickering appearances of that white-faced demon in The Exorcist, I knew that Aster's sensational achievement might forever haunt my dreams. Fastidiously composed and deliberately paced (which is critic-speak for “slow, but in a good way”), Hereditary is also an almost overwhelmingly emotional experience – a fright film that brings to mind numerous classics of the genre while existing as a nerve-wracking, deeply disturbing, hugely entertaining creation all its own.

Aster's film finds Toni Collette portraying that deceased woman's daughter Annie, an artist who works in miniatures and is gradually revealed to be working her way through numerous psychological issues. Gabriel Byrne is her husband Steve, a fundamentally decent sort whom, you sense, is purposefully keeping himself a peripheral family presence. Alex Wolff is their son Peter, a quiet, continually stoned teenager who walks through the house, and through life, as if on tiptoes. Milly Shapiro is their daughter Charlie, a secretive, evidently disturbed loner with a severe nut allergy and a penchant – one shared with her mother – for unusual art projects, such as crafting a figurine with the disembodied head of a dead bird. And I think that might be all I want to divulge of Hereditary's storyline, given that Aster appears far less concerned with what his movie is about than who it's about.

Milly Shapiro in Hereditary

For those desperate to know more about the narrative, suffice it to say it concerns grandma's hidden past, ghostly apparitions, séances, demonic conjuring, and a greater number of decapitations than the one inflicted on that poor bird. However, it's really about the disintegration of the family – both this film's and “the family” as a universal concept. Horrible, horrible things happen in this movie, and there are images, including the unforgettable sight of a crouched figure hiding in the rafters, as queasily powerful as any I've seen in recent years. Yet they weren't, in any significant way, more nightmarish than the family arguments in which galling, wrenching truths and accusations appear to be pulled from characters as if by supernatural force (as they may well be), or the scene that finds Annie pleading, begging, for Steve to believe her fantastical presumptions while he stares at her devastated and hopeless. Taking his directorial cues primarily from Kubrick and Polanski – specifically The Shining and Rosemary's Baby – Aster presents us with long scenes of existential dread, the measured movements of the camera intentionally off-set by the edginess of Colin Stetson's score. Yet the film is arguably at its best in go-for-broke mode, when the horror comes primarily from its characters' anguish, and both their emotional expression and retention are powerful enough to make you cry.

Obviously, that wouldn't be possible here without superior performances, and Collette gives one of the most audacious and ravaged that the fright-flick genre has perhaps ever seen. Aster gives her a number of generously lengthy, uncut takes to build Annie's breakdowns from sullen anger to escalating anxiety to wholly unglued hysteria, but Collette's high-wire turn never feels outsize or withers into camp. This is devastatingly instinctual acting, with Collette ensuring that everything Annie says and does, even after the film's supernatural leanings become apparent, is rooted in recognizable human behavior. (Collette's years of playing a woman with a split-personality disorder on United States of Tara have paid off brilliantly; the performer has become a wizard at lightning-quick emotional transformations.)

Yet Byrne, enacting Steve's confusion and understated kindness, does exquisitely modulated work, the revelatory Wolff comes close to matching Collette in truthfulness and abject fearlessness, and Shapiro, with her hushed and alien oddness, is off-putting in the most enticingly spooky way, somehow pitiable and monstrous in equal measure. (Props, too, to the consistently magical Ann Dowd, cast as a friendly, concerned chatterbox from one of Annie's group-therapy sessions. Those familiar with Dowd from The Handmaid's Tale and The Leftovers know better than to expect her character to remain so genial.) Between the actors, the cleverly structured script that, in a genre rarity, doesn't fall apart, and Aster's staggeringly assured directorial finesse, I absolutely loved Hereditary. It consequently came as no surprise to see the film receive a CinemaScore rating of “D+,” a grade only somewhat more passing than the “F” awarded to such similarly remarkable and ballsy releases as Darren Aronofsy's mother! and William Friedkin's Bug. In 2016, David Eggers' The Witch – an indie that Aster's offering strongly resembles in tone and execution received a "C-." I'm beginning to think that if a horror movie nabs a straight “C” or better, it's probably not worth your time.

Jeff Goldblum, Zachary Quinto, and Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis

HOTEL ARTEMIS

A violent, quippy action thriller in the vein of all those sub-Tarantino knock-offs from the mid-'90s, writer/director Drew Pearce's Hotel Artemis is something I don't think I've seen before and hope never to see again: sentimental nihilism.

Its locale seemingly borrowed from John Wick's chic den of professional-killer detente, the titular hotel, for a membership fee, houses and heals career criminals in 2028 Los Angeles, and is lorded over by The Nurse, a skilled surgeon adept with high-tech gadgetry who's played, under what I pray is considerable aging makeup, by Jodie Foster. The two-time Oscar winner makes so few films these days – her last one was Neill Blomkamp's 2013 Elysium – that for a while it's a hoot watching Foster strut her stuff in a leading role again, as she's clearly having a hammy good time with her old-lady waddle, thick (if inconsistent) Bronx accent, and verbal sparring partner Dave Bautista. (The guy plays a sweetheart-bruiser orderly named Everest, and Bautista is just slightly less endearing here than he is as Guardians of the Galaxy's Drax.) Yet the fun of Foster's performance quickly fades, given that The Nurse, who's real name is revealed incrementally, is also a character in capitalized Pain: alcoholic, agoraphobic, prone to panic attacks, and mourning the long-ago death of her son. Foster pulls off the emotionalism convincingly, but she's doing more work than she should have to. Pearce's whole movie is a capitalized Pain.

Obviously, as in John Wick: Chapter Two, the hotel's strict no-rule-breaking policy is bound to be upended, and that it eventually is by talents including Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day, Brian Tyree Henry, Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, and Jeff Goldblum makes the inevitability a lot easier to bear. All of them are entertaining, and there are particularly well-written scenes for Day and Boutella, Brown and Henry, and Foster and Goldblum, even though the latter performer is now so comically eccentric in the Christopher Walken manner that he isn't remotely credible as the most dangerous head case in America. (Long before this purported psychopath enters the film, characters shudder at the threat of his impending visit, and when he finally arrives, it's like, “Really? All this time you've been scared of Goldblum?!”)

Dave Bautista, Jenny Slate, and Jodie Foster in Hotel Artemis

But although much blood is spilled and mildly well-choreographed action scenes ensue, Hotel Artemis remains weirdly tame. It's not enough that Foster is made to be a sleaze-fixer with a heart of gold. Brown and Boutella have teary scenes of regret over their characters' thwarted romance; black-sheep son Quinto longs to make papa Goldblum proud; Slate is revealed to be the now-grown tyke who used to jump on Foster's trampoline; Bautista's gentle giant gets his feelings hurt when The Nurse calls him fat. And through all this melancholia, we're witness to televised street riots spurred on by the inaccessibility of water – even those wielding the figurative torches and pitchforks are meant to be pitied. (Pearce's movie has been unmistakably modeled on a nightmare scenario of life post-Trump, where foreigners such as Boutella are anathema to terrified white men, and plans are made to escape “over the wall” to Mexico.) Grisly though it is, Hotel Artemis also wants to be sweet, or at least kindhearted, and that can't happen when we're being asked to root for as many bullet holes, slit throats, and crushed brains as possible. Even the Hotel Artemis itself makes no sense, as it's a downtown L.A. skyscraper boasting at least 50 stories – plus a gigantic neon sign on its exterior – that apparently only houses five rooms for guests. Those rioters shouldn't be rebelling against a lack of water, but rather a completely incompetent city planner.

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