Monday, June 06, 2005

"Ocean's Twelve" Acts Eight

Ocean's Twelve. 2004. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vincent Cassel, Andy Garcia, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Carl Riner, Eddie Jemison, Elliott Gould.

Sequels generally fall short of their cinematographic predecessors, yet although Ocean's Twelve is no exception to this rule, it maintains a decent plot, cast of characters, and several good themes throughout. The story picks up a few years after the end of Ocean's Eleven, with the jealous Terry Benedict (Garcia) determined to make life pain for the eleven men who once robbed his casinos. Ocean's gang has, in the meantime, moved on; most are pursuing new and legitimate lives, careers, and even domestics; the news that they must suddenly repay their enormous debt is shocking and painful. Eventually they end up in Amsterdam, where their larcenies are balanced out by jealous ex-girlfriends, the European network of thieves, Linus' parents, and one particularly forceful rival thief who is determined to shame their attempts.

The cast of Ocean's Twelve, like that of its predecessor, boasts some astonishingly talented actors and also some who are painfully overbilled. Although all of the Twelve are strong actors and very fun to watch, the film, like its predecessor, focuses more on Daniel Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Pitt). Pitt's inability to act as any character other than himself, no matter the demands of the role, is overshadowed, for once, by Julia Roberts, who actually has the opportunity to play herself during the film and, unsurprisingly, offers no distinctions between herself playing Tess Ocean and herself playing herself. However, the problem here lies less with the abundance of superstars and more with Soderbergh's failure to use the numerous other skilled actors and characters available for development and sub-plots. When Linus Caldwell (Damon) begs Rusty for the chance to play a more "central role" the second time around, one has the impression that he refers not merely to the task at hand, but also to his position within the script, and it is a line that could be easily (and perhaps more accurately) argued by several other characters as well.

The film editing was strong but not spectatcular; the music was vibrant and carefully blended to make a very sleek film technically, and overall, the movie had a level of polish and completeness that is a joy to find in a sequel. The addition of a new villain (Cassel), and one so carefully added and motivated, could only benefit the plot; the addition of an interesting complication (Zeta-Jones) on the side of the law gave the script a beautiful sense of life. Truth is stranger than fiction, yet this film pushed and probed at that adage brilliantly. Cassel, in particular, playing the intrigiuing Francois Tolour, took a complex character and made him startlingly believable and frighteningly likeable.

Fans of the first film should assuredly see this sequel; the rest of the world should rent both the same night and watch them together. Although it is possible to see Twelve without Eleven, the connections between the films are strong, and the first film really provides the main foundation for the next. Although the films are not the height of film achievements, they are unified, fun, and strong enough in every way that they will probably and hopefully become classics.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Revenge of the Sith a.k.a. Revenge of the George

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. 2005. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christiansen, Ian MacDiarmid, Samuel Jackson, Jimmy Smits, and Frank Oz.

Fortunately for all concerned, Revenge of Sith fell short of the legacy of shoddy acting, stilted dialogue, and an absolutely horrific script that Lucas established for his viewers with the other two prequels. While Episode III did contain various hints of these foundational elements, it also managed to convey something beyond repetitive CGI carefully linked by a semblance of a plot; surprisingly, too, one or two of the actors finally managed to make their characters seem more than one-dimensional. Hopefully Lucas was not too appalled by this shocking and unexpected displays of humanity and plausibility sugggested for the first time within this trilogy.

Revenge of the Sith is unlike most films in that the general viewer knows exactly how it must end before even watching a prequel. Surprisingly enough, however, the film took two plot twists I didn't expect and was able, by virtue of the enforced ending, to spend more time fleshing out various scenes without having to worry about whether the audience understood the plot. Unfortunately, most of the scenes thus enhanced would have been better cut; Episode III tended to present long streams of action spotted painfully by Lucas' miseable attempts to create romantic or even meaningful dialogue. The script is rife with cliches, contradictions (Obi-Wan announces to Vader that "Only the Sith use absolutes"), and filler; some effort is taken to portray Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side, yet even this comes across as trite, superficial, and perhaps even a little foolish.

Easily, the best performance of the film belonged to Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu). This is a relatively unbiased comment because I generally loathe Jackson, but in all fairness, he gave a tremendous performance, particularly considering the script. Jackson actually managed to endow Windu with emotion and (dare I say it) humanity without overdoing it, although it could be argued that by turning in such a powerful performance, he failed to comply with the general sub-par acting presented by the rest of the cast. I also must acknowledge that Yoda, not unlike Smeagol from the Lord of the Rings films, is remarkably easy to understand and appreciate, not the least because his programmed actions and acting often seem more natural than those of his cohorts.

Chances are, if you liked the most recent Star Wars films, you'll find Return of the Sith fascinating; if you were distracted from Lucas' ideas by the many flaws of Episodes I and II, you'll see the intensity of these abate, although if you watch the film you will still notice parallel flaws. Those who have watched the other five should obviously see this one as well, if only to complete the series; however, older fans who haven't witnessed the misery of the other prequels could easily give this a miss, as well.