Thursday, April 14, 2005

Fresh spins from the DVD rack

I'm wrestling with the early stages of a cold today. Thus, with my always scattershot powers of concentration at a low ebb, I spent my morning watching a couple of new movies on DVD over coffee and bagels. Capsule reviews follow.

Ocean's Twelve. Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven being one of my favorite films of the new millennium, I've been looking forward to seeing the sequel. (KJ and KM saw it together in the theater on a mother-daughter night out, and loved it.) Given the level of anticipation, and a recent spate of sequels that outstripped their predecessors in excellence (Spider-Man 2 comes most immediately to mind), I was somewhat disappointed in this second outing. Not terribly disappointed, mind you. It's another fun romp of a caper movie featuring a gaggle of actors obviously having a high time working together, and fine entertainment in its own right. But it falls short of the prior film (I can't say "original," because Ocean's Eleven was a remake) in a number of critical ways.

Focus. The first film centered around the building of a team for a single mammoth heist, and the entirety of the picture rocketed along toward that resolution. Ocean's Twelve muddies the water with a couple of smaller crimes in and around the big one. Consequently, the momentum of the film jerks along in fits and starts.

Conflict. The opening scenes of Ocean's Twelve show the villain of the last film, bigshot casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), hunting down each of the members of Danny Ocean's crew. Then, for most of the movie, Benedict disappears, and a new bad guy enters the story, a rival thief who calls himself the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel). Not only is the Night Fox a weak villain, with none of the icy, palpable menace Benedict exuded in Ocean's Eleven, but we more or less lose the threat of Benedict because of the switch. A film like this without the dramatic tension of a strong antagonist feels loose and pointless.

Character development. Obviously, with twelve key characters to utilize (Danny Ocean's wife Tess, with Julia Roberts reprising her role), some will get short shrift in a two-hour film. To Ocean's Twelve's benefit, the characters that get the extra face time are reasonably interesting and identifiable -- notably Brad Pitt's Rusty Ryan (Pitt gets so much play that for a while I thought the movie had become Ryan's Twelve) and Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell (the most callow member of the team is more effectively used here than in Eleven, gaining the majority of the best comic moments). But the characters whose roles are minimized were the ones I most wanted to see again. Bernie Mac's Frank Catton vanishes from the movie almost entirely (despite Mac's higher-profile, above-the-title credit here), as does Carl Reiner's Saul Bloom. As two of the best characters in the first film, their relative loss is palpable here.

Still, Twelve offered plenty of good stuff despite its flaws. The addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones to the cast, which would seem to be one chick too many in this boys'-club adventure, adds a depth and dimension to the story that the first film lacked. Zeta-Jones is an underrated actress with exactly the right touch for this sort of material, and her ambitious and conflicted Interpol agent gives the plot an intriguing sidelight without distracting overmuch from the main storyline. And speaking of chicks, this may well be the first movie in which I've actually enjoyed Julia Roberts, whose appearance in a film usually means the kiss of death for me. She's actually fine here, and even gets to play a funny twist (her character Tess Ocean pretends at a key moment to be the real-life Julia Roberts), which she carries off with spritely aplomb.

I'll give Ocean's Twelve a solid B+ on the SwanScale™.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I've spent months kicking myself for not getting my hindquarters out to the theater to see this on the big screen, and now that I've seen it on DVD, I'm even more sorry. Sky Captain is a gorgeous, beautifully concepted and amazingly realized work of art. It's not a bad movie, either.

I didn't care much for the two leads. Jude Law seemed to me an awkward choice for the part of the heroic daredevil pilot, too easygoing and boyish. I never believed he was the guy who had experienced all of the adventures mentioned in the backstory, or had been to all the places he was supposed to have been. (Like I never would believe Leonardo DiCaprio was a devil-may-care captain of industry like Howard Hughes.) I would have chosen an actor with more grit -- more of a Viggo Mortensen type. Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I don't think I've ever liked in anything, didn't impress me any more here, though I could envision her as the sort of blonde waif that Hitchcock might have cast if he'd made this movie. But as a tough investigative reporter? I didn't buy it.

The rest of the movie was such a delight, though, that I barely cared how pallid the stars seemed, or how thin and derivative the script was. I loved director Kerry Conran's wicked cool retro-futuristic approach -- it was as though he'd watched The Rocketeer and Fritz Lang's Metropolis in the same evening and asked himself, "Now how can I turn those two movies into Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Sky Captain lacks the pell-mell energy of Raiders, and it has a wholly different creative agenda, but the two films are cut from opposite ends of the same bolt of cloth.

The CGI environment Conran created for this, his first feature film, is magical. I can understand how it would have limited appeal to the younger audience today, who wouldn't understand the muted sepia-tone color palette, or appreciate the action in the relative absence of overt violence, but to a kid who grew up watching Saturday serials on Armed Forces Television and reading the classic comics of the Silver Age, I found Conran's vision fascinating. It possesses a brilliance and vitality that is sorely lacking in George Lucas's latter-day Star Wars flicks, which are constructed in much the same way. Lucas probably spent three or four times as much on The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones as Conran had to work with on Sky Captain, but I can tell you which films flunked the wristwatch test and which one didn't.

And Angelina Jolie, in a small but essential role, is da bomb. Instead of simply retreading her Lara Croft persona from the Tomb Raider pictures, she creates a complex and compelling character (much more compelling than Paltrow's Polly Perkins, who gets her man in the end) in precious few moments on camera. I could have done without the high-tech resurrection of the late Sir Laurence Olivier -- in the main, these retoolings of dead actors give me the willies -- but it was brief enough that it didn't bother me. Most of the audience probably didn't know who that guy was, anyway.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow rates a B on the SwanScale™. I hope Kerry Conran gets the opportunity to make another big-studio movie. I'll be watching.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Charles offered these pearls of wisdom...

Have to agree about Paltrow. With so many talented actresses out there, I keep wondering how she gets work.

8:20 PM  

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