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Ocean's Twelve (2004)
A brilliant satire of the heist movie... I think.
I sat for a couple hours after seeing Ocean's Twelve trying to figure out why Soderbergh and gang had made such an outrageous film. Too much of it didn't add up: the ridiculous laser system guarding the egg in the museum and the equally ridiculous way in which it was defeated; the flashbacks containing information that completely undermined the apparent narrative thrust; Julia Roberts' plot twist and the avalanche of seemingly nonsensical and irrelevant self-reference that immediately followed; O12 had me completely stumped. Until I re-interpreted these scenes as clues towards something else: that O12 is not, in fact, a heist movie, but a *satire* of the heist movie.
Why else would someone of Sod's stature overstuff the film with clichés, like the enigmatic and debonair master thief, and the colorful and completely trustworthy team of people who would never exist in real life? One character (the woefully underused Eddie Izzard) even overtly mentions that one particular element of the film is a cliché -- but he doesn't say what it is a cliché *of*. Notice all the decoys, impostors, holograms, secret languages... O12 is littered with breadcrumbs, and I'm willing to believe that there was never actually a spec script called "Honor Among Thieves." As a heist movie, it falls flat on its face, arguably worse than Hudson Hawk (which suffered more from sheer goofiness overload, rather than bewildering nonsense). It simply does not make sense. How did the Night Fox get into that house in Amsterdam? Conveniently not explained. How did Benedict find all of the Twelve at once? Conveniently not explained. How did Julia Roberts' plot twist work, while Matt Damon is with her but does not experience the same story change? Conveniently brushed off. How in the name of Zeus did a certain someone show up out of the blue while the gang was locked up and help them with a certain problem? How was this individual aware of certain aspects of Isabel Lahiri's paperwork? An outlandish narrative convenience... or a satire of the genre? Why was so little narrative dedicated to convincing the audience of Benedict's extremely vindictive motivation? How else do you explain the obvious expenses the thieves racked up in their very quest to make money? I mean, come on, when Damon and the other two remaining thieves start spouting off all the heist jargon as they try to figure out a contingency plan... it's preposterous. No one talks like that.
Maybe I'm reaching. But either way you slice it, O12 is much, much more enjoyable as a *satire* of the heist film. That's the only way I can understand the film. I know why a sequel was made, certainly: The original made over $450 million dollars worldwide, far and away Sod's most financially successful film. Its closest competitor is Erin Brockovich, which made a little over $250M worldwide, and Traffic clocks in at a little over $200M. Successful, certainly, but not blockbusters like O11 was. A sequel was as inevitable as death and taxes. So it occurs to me that Sod decided he might as well have fun with it -- screw with the audience a little, poke fun at the actors themselves (good naturedly), and they still walked away with about $360M.
There also might be a meta-commentary going on about American audiences and how little they catch on to stylistic subversion (I am an American myself, for the record) but it's pure speculation. All I can tell you is that O12 simply does not work as a straightforward film and can really only be enjoyable as a satire. There's simply too many outrageous scenes and too many clichés. There are simply too many lines of dialog that only make sense if the whole movie is a genre skewer. It's also much easier on my brain. And I'd like to think that Sod hadn't morphed into a cynical robber baron who no longer cared about making a good movie.
In Good Company (2004)
An overlooked gem with some pitch-perfect performances
If you can get around Paul Weitz's cramming in of every current folk song he can think of, Cameron Crowe-style, then you're in for a surprisingly honest and entertaining movie that doesn't fall into typical Hollywood glurge traps.
In a nutshell, In Good Company is about making personal connections in a fast-paced globalized world, and how "corporate synergy" dehumanizes the white-collar work force and ends up offering the customer fewer choices and manufactured competition. It stops short of bringing up straw-man arguments (where you create an exaggerated opposition and knock it down with one-sided opinions). It's also a relationship movie, and a family movie. Despite these disparate elements, Weitz and gang are able to bring together a tapestry where the main characters have lives outside their day jobs and day jobs that heavily impact their personal lives.
There are many funny moments, and it's my favorite kind of humor: appropriate reactions to the trials and tribulations of life, rather than pratfalls, manic behavior, and toilet jokes. However, while there are some pitch-perfect performances, with Quaid as the exasperated and likable father of two teenage girls, Clark Gregg as a soulless corporate hit-man, and Topher Grace as, well, as the same guy he's been since That 70s Show -- self-effacing, witty, vulnerable -- Scarlett Johansson delivers the most low-key performance I've ever seen from her.
Granted, the script doesn't give her a lot to work with, and perhaps they hadn't initially had someone in mind with her range and depth, but as the love interest, it's important to the story and to Grace's motivation that she's actually interesting and engaging. Instead, the movie doesn't even grant Grace a subconscious reason for falling for this girl, and he even says something along the lines of, "I can talk to like this, and I can't to anyone else... and I don't know why." Well, figure it out, man, because since she's the daughter of the man who's job you just got and know works directly under you, you better have a damn good reason for not keeping your hands off her.
But like I said, the movie doesn't wrap everything up in a neat little bun like I was expecting, and that gets big point from me. You've seen a million movies like this one that took the easy way out, but In Good Company does not. It respects the audience. It's not a Hallmark Card, but a memo from your conscience, a meditation on growing older, and a reminder of the power of believing in what you do for a living. Could have used a little less of the dreamy soundtrack, and a little more Johansson, but it's definitely worth checking out, in my opinion.
Transporter 2 (2005)
My head hurts; Audi for the win!
The first Transporter was decent good fun -- lots of explosions, great fight scene set pieces, lots of relatively tasteful sexuality. Unfortunately, the sequel is beyond insulting. When the entire audience starts laughing hysterically because of some offensively nonsensical moments that have to be seen to be believed, two things come to mind: One, this film is a steaming pile; two, was this steaming pile screen tested anywhere? Transporter 2 has little of the fight scene set pieces that made the original so neat. There's a set piece with a fire hose, but even that doesn't approach the fight in the first film where Statham is covered in oil and fighting a dozen goons with weighted shoes.
And beyond some patently ridiculous vehicular acrobatic feats, there's also gaping holes of logic wide enough to drive an army through. Minor spoiler here: In two scenes, Statham is talking to a guy sitting at a computer that has access to a criminal database. Now, based on nothing more than a single photograph, the computer guy is able to sprinkle magic dust on his keyboard and pull up the guy's file in a matter of seconds. No name, no alias, no criminal history, place of birth -- anything. Just a photo. Although Transporter 2 gets points for not trying to "enhance" the photo, they get docked heavily for turning a criminal database into The All-Powerful Jesus of Fight 'Em Justice.
Moving right along. The entire soundtrack should have been left on the cutting room floor. It didn't help that the THX theater speakers were cranked up to 12, but the punishingly overbearing music never leaves an iota of space for things like, oh, subtlety or tension. Sometimes a scene is much more powerful without music. I think Transporter 2 could have held up on its own as trashy summer action, but with the clobbering Fight Music, Tension Music, and Celebration Music, this film ends up bludgeoning itself and the audience into numbness.
You have to do more than just turn your brain off for something as bad as this. You have to not respect yourself as a moviegoer, because it sure doesn't feel like these people respect us. The jarring juxtaposition of brutal violence and PG-13 titillation; of the hero's noble intentions without any motivation; and of talented actors trapped or letting themselves be trapped in this incredible disaster is almost beyond comprehension, until you factor in the cynical condescension that permeates mainstream Hollywood.
I'd give it a zero if I could.
Six Feet Under (2001)
Raw, personal conflict was never so mesmerizing
Six Feet Under is meticulous, beautiful, daunting, and powerful. One way or another, it will connect with you, perhaps in places you didn't expect and aren't willing to expose. At times wrenching, at other times cathartic, but always staring back at you knowingly, this show stands head and shoulders above the advertising-driven fare that clogs network TV with mediocrity, token minorities, and jarring commercial breaks. It changed the way I view television, and I recommend it to anyone who's tired of the same old crap.
After watching the series finale (which I won't spoil, don't worry), I sat in bed, unable to sleep. After poring over everything I'd seen over the past season, it struck me that SFU is the most raw and personal television show I've ever seen. Even more, there are no stand-alone episodes for easy syndication. Every single installment is part of a huge puzzle, or a few more miles on the Fisher family's road. I've always found Peter Krause to be a disappointingly flat performer, which is unfortunate because his character anchors the show, but the other actors are often transcendent. Regardless, every one of them radiates with a sometimes painfully familiar pathos. The cinematography is also staggering sometimes, taken from film rather than typical 3-camera TV work. If that's not enough, the music they choose to score the episodes is almost symbiotic; it seems ingrained into the film itself, even when you know it was just licensed.
This is not really a family-friendly show, though, encompassing profanity, nudity, violence, drug use, "alternative lifestyles" ... So in other words, it's just like real life. And despite the interpersonal conflicts that fuel the narrative to the point of melodrama, the show isn't afraid to pause every once in a while and let the show communicate without dialogue.
I feel very gratified to have watched SFU, and I've never felt that way about any other show in the almost-27 years I've been alive. Hopefully it will start a trend, if only on premium cable.
Red Eye (2005)
Better than expected
With breathless propaganda on one side and jaded boredom on the other, it's hard to make heads or tails of the comments so far. I personally think it's a solid, surprisingly nuanced film. It has some logic holes, and Brian Cox is woefully underused, but it's otherwise a fine way to spend some time in the theater. I saw it tonight at an advanced screening, and it seemed to be a crowd pleaser. People hooted, screamed, applauded, and gasped.
I think the camera was just about glued to McAdams the whole time, but that's not so bad because she's very attractive. The film style is pretty claustrophobic for most of the film, and Craven was meticulous in capturing the quirks of human nature and how people really interact. His grasp of behavior makes for some very authentic and entertaining interactions, and he builds on each scene involving the co-stars, resulting in some satisfyingly fist-shaking conclusions to their sub-plots. It's also amazing how much plot and characterization he was able to pack into a relatively short film. Red Eye is dense with detail, and you really have to keep your eyes on the screen the whole time if you want to keep up.
His career has been all over the map, quality-wise, and I'm glad to see him finally move away from high concept shlock, market-tested alt-rock soundtracks, random assortments of Young Beautiful People as his principals, and embarrassingly crappy scripts. It's almost as if someone else directed the film, chose the material, and approved the cast. I expected Murphy to be competent, but I was really impressed by McAdams. I haven't seen The Notebook yet, but I think this will be her breakout role. I found her harrowingly convincing, up until the end.
While I see her motivations from the director's point of view, I don't think the depth of her capabilities was sufficiently established for me to fully believe she could do what she ended up doing. I think the problem is that Craven is just not used to this kind of endgame territory. Hopefully he'll keep at it, though, because this is the best film of his I've seen since the original Scream. Unfortunately, judging by the list of films he's on track to produce, this looks like a thematic one-off for a career slashmeister.
Fantastic Four (2005)
Funny dialog mud wrestles with mind-bending stupidity
I guess I shouldn't have expected much from the director of the aggressively forgettable Taxi. Taken as a whole, the script feels like something that--at one point--had meat on its bones but was badly mishandled and mangled by a mission to prioritize merchandising over delivering a competent film. While this mercenary cynicism isn't surprising to find in a high-concept summer blockbuster, it's a disappointing step backwards after Batman Begins and the X-Men and Spider-Man films. Tim Story and his screenwriters don't seem to get the appeal of the Fantastic 4 or grasp the dignity granted to X-Men and Spider-Man. Worse, I can't tell how much they really care about being faithful to the source material.
Also, some migraine-inducing plot stupidity drains whatever enjoyment you might get from some snappy dialog or from ogling Jessica Alba.
Let's say, hypothetically, that you save a man from getting hit by a truck, but in the process you cause a massive pileup, a chain reaction that leads to people dangling over precipices and flying into the abyss. Dozens of bystanders witness the domino fallout of events. Yet because you manage to salvage this traffic catastrophe that you created, you are hailed as a hero as soon as the dust settles. The plot of Fantastic 4 is shot through with nonsensical set pieces like this that. By the time the film wraps up its by-the-books, slam-bang action movie conclusion, you're mind will probably already be working on where you parked your car.
Surprisingly, Alba was the most consistently engaging character, despite the script she had to work with. She managed to utter reams of inane dialog with charming dignity and made her character almost believable. She's also nice to look at, and the cinematographer new how to make her shine. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a pretty face.
Great co-stars carry an engaging series
What I've always loved about pay cable series is how the episodes are actually strung together with season-long plot arcs, unlike broadcast or basic cable. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but not many. What I love about Entourage in particular are Kevin Dillon and the scene-devouring Jeremy Piven. Unfortunately, Grenier, who plays the main character, is a grating pretty boy who wanders an uneasy territory between weak delivery and a parody of self-centered, uninteresting Hollywood actors.
If only they'd had a stronger anchor for the show, I could recommend it unequivocally. I still look forward to every episode, and even watch older episodes for Piven's impeccable sarcasm and Dillon's endearingly susceptible masculinity, but Grenier needs a kick in the acting chops if he's going to go the distance.
Absorbing, jaw-dropping...and tragically one-sided
I was astounded to learn of the devastating firebombing of Japan during WWII. I was fascinated by his take on Vietnam, which he pitched as a struggle against a stubborn President, where Johnston wanted to win the war against Communism at all costs. I was moved by his moments of sadness and regret.
But with no counterpoint throughout this epic-length interview, I still don't know what to take away from it. How much of it is his own personal spin, custom tailored to reduce the stain on his legacy? Why was he given such latitude on discussing Vietnam--going into exhaustive detail here, but clamming up there? And his reluctance didn't appear to be an issue of justified secrecy. I was impressed by his overall frankness, but this is far more an interview (although a very good one) than a proper documentary.
Dancing at the Blue Iguana (2000)
Underrated, in my opinion
Some minor spoilers in here...
With a score of only 5.8, I think Blue Iguana is destined to be lost in the attic of the indie film world. Personally, I think it was a moving and compelling portrait five refreshingly real people, and I didn't even know it was improv until I saw the credits. The pace will be a little slow at times for some viewers--I won't lie about that. But there's a grace to each scene, and a lack of artifice that scripted action and dialog can bring. The scene with Sandra Oh and Kristen Bauer in the dressing room is astonishing because I don't think there's a single cut or a bit of camera movement for what felt like ten minutes--but it's still gripping.
Not each scene works smoothly, and the individual plot lines of each character sometimes get a little bogged down, but I'm glad I spent the two hours or so winding my way through this film. My main gripe is that Sheila Kelley's (Stormy's) involvement wasn't as well integrated into the film as others, and she could have been completely cut out of the film, in my opinion, without losing the story's power. That always seems to be a pitfall when you do a ensemble cast piece.
The Rules of Attraction (2002)
A jarring drama pitched as a teen flick...
...Which is probably why it rubbed so many people the wrong way. There are no endearing characters, kooky sidekicks, trendy bands on the soundtrack, or neatly satisfying conclusions in this film. It's a dark journey that the viewer wasn't properly prepared for by the Hollywood glitz machine, a college film with no positive message or escapist love story. Just people stumbling through a brutally eye-opening phase of life that presages what they will experience when they finally leave the doors of institutional education. If there is any comedy, it's in the authentic absurdity of a given situation, not in a crude punchline or pratfall. Rules of Attraction is the polar opposite of stuff like American Pie.
The brilliant cinematography, hilariously deadpan dialog and effective chronology will be an acquired taste for those weaned on mainstream fare, but those looking for an intelligent, honest film about the way young people really behave, you'll probably enjoy this one.