Movies reviewed this week: The Aviator, Bad Education, House of Flying
Daggers, Ocean?s Twelve, and A Very Long Engagement
In order of unwrapping: Ocean's Twelve. The gang of eleven, the ersatz Rat Pack, reconvenes (Clooney, Pitt, Damon, et al.); the newcomer, the apparent twelfth, is not a member of the gang at all, but a member of law enforcement (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Even the victim of the previous heist returns (Andy Garcia), rounding up each of the thieves in a laborious preamble, demanding repayment plus interest, or roughly $19 million per head, after having been informed of their identities and whereabouts by a rival heister known only as the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), who wants to force them into a bragging-rights competition to swipe the "famous Fabergé coronation egg" on exhibit in a Roman museum. Smugness, rather than the promoted "coolness," would seem to be the predominant attitude, not only of the cocksure crooks but also of the filmmakers, fresh from laughing all the way to the bank. Steven Soderbergh, as he found out on the first film three years ago, has built up enough credit with critics (some of it well earned) that they will go a long way to make excuses for him. This time they will need to go a long way and a little farther. The plot, as best I understood it, seems so nonsensical that I am obliged to believe I understood it incorrectly. I therefore feel justified in taking a chance on "spoiling" it -- either it's a cheat or I'm misrepresenting it -- by asking why our eleven would go through the motions of attempting to steal the egg from the museum (several of them getting pinched in the process, the rest of them regrouping for a second attempt and getting pinched themselves) if they had already stolen the egg on its path to the museum, before a counterfeit egg could be put on display in its place. That's just the biggest niggle. It oughtn't to be necessary, though, to pick apart the plot in detail in order to demonstrate the contempt of the filmmakers for their material and their audience. It ought to be sufficient to cite the lame comic twist whereby the character played by Julia Roberts is asked to put on a Southern accent and impersonate the real Julia Roberts; is accepted as such by the Roman press as well as by Bruce Willis (playing himself); and is put in the position of speaking over the telephone to "herself" on her Taos ranch. Far from being some postmodern Pirandellian prank, this smacks of the desperation of an old-time middle-of-the-road Hollywood comedy such as Take Her, She's Mine, in which the character played by James Stewart gets hounded in France on the grounds that he looks like James Stewart. Of course an old-time middle-of-the-road Hollywood hack such as Henry Koster had no one to make excuses for him.
House of Flying Daggers. Martial-arts bodice-ripper about a blind showgirl (the jug-eared China doll, Zhang Ziyi) who is neither blind nor a showgirl, but an agent of an underground movement (and, evidently, a 9th-century forerunner of Zatoichi) opposed to the tottering Tang Dynasty. Zhang Yimou's follow-up to his Hero, released over here in late summer after a delay of two years, dispenses essentially more of the same -- more, that is, of the sameness -- more of the monotonousness. And the addition of more and more and more ultimately equals less. What's done has been done. To death. A lot of wonderful work went into the color, the fabrics, the sound effects in the opening brothel episode, but once the initial impression has been made, once the viewer can be presumed to be in the palm of the filmmaker's hand, there is a falling-off in those departments. Always, the splendor of the settings -- the birch forest, the bamboo grove, the flower meadow, the red and yellow tapestries of autumn leaves, the climactic snowstorm -- overpowers the whimsicality of the action. (The weapons for which the rebels are named are not just "flying" daggers; they're "smart" daggers, changing direction in midflight like guided missiles.) To put it a different way, the variety of the settings overpowers the repetitiveness of the action.
A Very Long Engagement. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's visualization of a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, a name firmly entrenched in the mystery and suspense genres: The Sleeping-Car Murders, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, One Deadly Summer, others. While I have read much of his genre work, and with much pleasure, this one has eluded me. It is plainly in the grips of a greater ambition, a WWI-period romance about a tuba-playing, polio- crippled cutie (Audrey Tautou), pounding the trail of her soul mate (Gaspard Ulliel) who vanished on the front lines at the quaintly named bunker of Bingo Crepuscule. So, there's still a mystery element in it, and even a professional detective (not one to inspire much confidence), but the overriding feeling of the thing is expansively, unconstrainedly "novelistic," with scraps of information gathered willy-nilly from different time zones and a narrator to fill in the gaps. Neither the pet composition -- giant faces floating in front of a blurred background on a convex canvas -- nor the monochromatic, butterscotchy color manages to redeem the film as cinematic. (Though the first shot, of a broken Christ hanging from a cross by one hand, is a grabber.) The scrambled structure never quite enables you to believe in the Great Love or to follow the train of detection. And the winkingly tall-tale tone disengages you to the point of uninterest.
Bad Education. An Almodóvar paella of priestly pederasty, transvestitism, female impersonation, film, stage, assorted spices and savories. (Gael García Bernal in the persona of cabaret artiste Zahara looks strikingly like a blond Julia Roberts.) The presentation is polished and colorful as always; the onion-y layers of reality -- of fiction within fiction -- appear muddled and murky. What his fans will nonetheless be certain to find a satisfying dish will be judged by others to be show-offy and self-indulgent. A tasty bit on which everyone might agree: the predatory priest and boy soprano in a guitar-and-vocal duet of "Moon River" en español. A true crossover number.