Monday, June 18, 2007

Limit on All the Numbers: "Ocean's 13"

Ocean's 13 (2007, Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Willie Bank
: This town might have changed, but not me. I know people highly invested in my survival, and they are people who really know how to hurt in ways you can't even imagine.

Danny Ocean: Well, I know all the guys that you'd hire to come after me, and they like me better than you.

-- Ocean's 13

You might think that the exchange above is an appetizer, a portent of things to come: a battle of wits and brawn between real estate magnate and all-around scumball Willie Bank (Al Pacino) and our slick operator with the heart of gold, Danny Ocean (George Clooney). That the exchange comes at the climax of the film and is meant as the final word says all you need to know about the third installment in Steven Soderbergh's unexpected trilogy of caper movies: any hint of menace or danger is shrugged off with a smart-aleck line. Ocean's 13 is a thriller without the sweat, a souffle without an ounce of fat or sugar.

Which is not to say that it's surprising that these movies have proven to be popular. Heist flicks have a long and storied history, and the original thinking behind Soderbergh's update of the Rat Pack pseudo-classic from the 60s was unassailable: take the only American actor today capable of channeling the cool-cat calm of the old-style Hollywood stars (Clooney), surround him with a gaggle of young upstarts (Matt Damon, Casey Affleck), veteran hambones (Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner), and respected character actors (Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle), throw in Brad Pitt for good measure, and stir it all into a frothy, if not necessarily heady, brew.

For all its complicated jiggering and plot feints, Ocean's 11 coasted by on Clooney's charm, even as he was saddled with the charmless Julia Roberts as his would-be girlfriend; while the film had fun with the boys-will-be-boys shenanigans of the central heist, making the crux of the story a tug-of-war between Clooney and Garcia for Roberts' heart tended to sully the mix. The less said about Ocean's 12, with its French New Wave poses and over-reflexivity (Julia Roberts' character pretends to be Julia Roberts the actress, how cute!), the better.

Ocean's 13 gets off to a promising start: Danny Ocean is back to his knight-errant ways, as his mentor and pal Reuben (Gould) is swindled out of his life savings and a prime piece of real estate by Pacino's Bank, and left in the hospital with a coma. Vowing to get even, Ocean calls in his trusty right-hand man Rusty Ryan (Pitt) and reunites with his team on his home turf of Vegas, where Bank is scheduled to reap the fruits of his illicit labors with a garish new casino titled The Bank, appropriately enough. The Ocean gang's assignment: force the casino to go belly-up on its opening night. No ladies to moon over this time -- when Pitt asks where Roberts is, Clooney pointedly declares, "It's not their fight." That line, reinforcing the boys-have-more-fun mantra that propelled the best parts of Ocean's 11, suggests that we'll have a similarly fun outing this time around.

And it's fun for a little while, as Ocean and his boys pull together all the cons that will derail The Bank: everything from loaded dice to one of the underground drills that helped build the Chunnel between England and France, all the better to short-circuit The Bank's ultra-advanced AI security system and simulate an earthquake at the appropriate moment. Along the way, we get a host of guest stars -- Eddie Izzard as a hacker genius, Ellen Barkin as Bank's overbearing and undersexed assistant, David Paymer as a hotel reviewer who is about to have the worst stay in the history of casino stays, and Vincent Cassel as a French jewel thief (because you can't have a heist movie without a French jewel thief). We're also treated to unusual sights such as Matt Damon donning a fake nose and seducing Barkin with the help of a pheronome mist; Casey Affleck in a Zapata mustache inciting Mexican sweatshop workers to strike (a complication that is resolved with a simple payout of $36,000, by far the smallest amount of cash paid for anything in this film), Don Cheadle in an Evel Knievel costime, and Clooney tearing up at the sight of Oprah Winfrey helping out some disadvantaged kids on television (a seemingly throwaway moment that leads to the movie's funniest bit).

Overstuffed? It most certainly is that, and Soderbergh, ever the cinephiliac, throws in references to at least a dozen other movies (a 20-second scene with Damon in London exists just so Soderbergh can throw in some shaky-cam action cribbed straight from Damon's Jason Bourne flicks). It all shoots forward agreeably enough, with Soderbergh coating scenes with every day-glo color in the book (the red lighting doesn't do Clooney and Pacino any favors) and indulging in split screens and other editing tricks just because, well, he can. All this flash doesn't disguise the hole at the heart of the narrative, though. The best caper movies work on two levels: they involve us in the caper artists' complicity, and then they make us sweat along with them as they carry out the heist. Rififi, the granddaddy of them all, is the blueprint: with nothing more exotic than carpentry tools and a can of shaving cream, we are let in on the thieves' plan every step of the way, bite our fingernails with them as they carry out their heist, and then nibble some more in the aftermath, when every little thing that could possibly go wrong threatens to ensnare them.

In marked contrast, Ocean's 13 is as grand and unapproachable as a magician's trick: We see expensive pieces manuevered into place, and are meant to gasp in awe at how it all comes together, but it's not half as fun as knowing what the trick is beforehand and wondering if these guys can actually pull it off. And forget about the aftermath; once the heist is over, our heroes are free and clear, without a single threat of retaliation, or a sidewise glance over their shoulders.

Maybe Ocean's 13 is just a souffle, and shouldn't be looked upon as more than a confection, but it does seem pretty leaden for something that's supposed to be light on its feet. The plot is so busy slotting characters into their roles that no one is given room to manuever. Even Clooney and Pitt seem utterly detached: their major role in the affair seems to be sitting around in swank pads and discussing pros and cons. It's one thing to be too cool for school, but it's quite another to be an expensive silk suit sipping iced tea by a poolside and exchanging vaguely cutesy-cryptic dialogue:

Rusty Ryan: Relationships can be so...
Danny Ocean: Sure.
Rusty Ryan: But they're also...
Danny Ocean: That's right.

Stranded on the sidelines, Clooney looks peaked here, like Sinatra after a three-day bender, while Pitt is left spouting meta-commentary about Clooney the star's love life ("When are you going to settle down, get married?"). The others don't fare much better: it's good to see Barkin onscreen again, but she's treated cruelly by the script, just another overbearing bitch that needs to be taken down a few pegs; after a promising introduction Pacino is left to simmer and stew; Bernie Mac is reduced to a three-minute vaudeville number with a rigged casino game; and the other members of Ocean's crew bicker their way into the woodwork. Only Andy Garcia, reprising his role as Terry Benedict, the slimy patsy from the first two Ocean movies, seems to be having any fun.

Ocean's 13 knows exactly what it wants to be -- what it doesn't realize is that it's possible to have a fast, funny caper that also gets high on the fumes of danger. Preferring to do the ring-a-ding-ding rather than ratchet up the stakes, mistaking designer suits for class and busy-ness for wit, it's a monument to safe cinema and reduced expectations, a contraption that favors mechanics over style.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Baby Buggies, Butchered Beatles

[Originally posted to the Camberwell Carrot blog]

Songwriting's a funny thing. And no, I'm not going to get all confessional and twee on you. I'll let my bandmates Tim, Jason and Ping write about their own creative processes as the spirit moves them. For me, it usually starts with a line or phrase ("Jacky with a Y"), something that suggests something else, and you follow along as best you can, like driving a car at night with malfunctioning headlights, and you think you're doing all right even as the cliff looms.

And then sometimes you get a little dash of inspiration, maybe a riff or a chord -- make that a simple chord, because those are the only ones I can play. So I had this line in my head for a long time -- "Baby buggy, built like a tank" -- and it festered there for quite a while. And then finally one night, looking through my guitar chord encyclopedia, there it was, a D6 chord, and before you can say Paul and John, the opening chords for "Two of Us" were being strummed on my guitar, and just to make the allusion complete, the first words out of my mouth were "Cry, baby, cry." From there I took a few endless hours of playing a tinny demo on loop, scratching lyrics and chord changes in and out, until I had something of my own. Maybe it coheres, maybe it doesn't, depending on whether you want it to or not.

So then you coddle your little creation, style your demo, get a few positive comments from friends who aren't going to say anything negative anyway, and all proud of yourself, you bring "Baby Buggy" to the party when you get together with your band to record music. And the band promptly takes what you've got and blasts off in a new direction. Not different, just a branch-off, as you leave the smooth artificial highway of simple strums and drum machines and barrel down the dusty back roads of fuzzy guitar, keyboard interjections, and snappy snare beats. It isn't a glamorous ride, it's not tidy, in fact it's downright shaggy-dog. But it's real.

That's just the story behind one of the songs we put together at our Shasta sessions. More to follow.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Music and Lyrics: "Once"

Once (2006, Dir. John Carney)

Once, Once
I knew how to look for you
Once, Once
But that was before
Once, Once
I would have laid down and died for you
Once, Once
But not any more

-- Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, "Once"

They don't make musicals like they used to. For some, that might be a good thing -- in our increasingly prosaic world, the idea that someone would break into song and dance at the slightest provocation seems unreal, overly fantastic, outside the realm of possibility (never mind that classic musicals remain one of Hollywood's best and only expressions of unfettered imagination, without all that "reality" stuff getting in the way). And thus musicals have become more hidebound over recent years, working ever more strenuously to couch their flights of fancy in "realistic" terms. Just look at Chicago: You see, they're not really singing and dancing, it's all in their heads!

The arrival of Once suggests that we've reached a new low in the prosi-fication of musicals -- the songs are real songs, because this is a story about real musicians! Shot in Dublin over a period of 17 days and directed by John Carney, former member of the band The Frames, the film is decidedly un-musical -- filmed on gritty digital video, it has no big dance numbers, no glitzy stars, no big finale. Not even romance -- at least, not the kind of romance you'd expect in a musical (more on this in a bit). Yet Once can't be dismissed as a ramshackle musical-wannabe because it captures something no musical has captured in quite a while: a generosity of spirit, a warmth and sincerity in the telling.

The title Once suggests the preamble of a fairy tale ("Once upon a time...), and like a fairy tale, the film is simple in the setup: Guy meets girl, guy and girl make beautiful music. In this case, the guy (Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Frames) is a busker on the streets of Dublin, making coin with covers of Van Morrison songs by night and working in his dad's vacuum cleaner shop by day. The girl (Czech musician Marketa Irglova) is an immigrant who hops from job to job as a cleaning lady, and she happens to need her vacuum repaired. Impressed by his original songs, the girl tries getting friendly with the guy; still smarting from a recent breakup with a girl who's gone on to the "big time" in London, the guy is initially reticent. When the two of them find themselves in a music shop, and the girl proves to be an accomplished singer and piano player, they collaborate on a song on the spur of the moment...

It sounds like something from A Star Is Born, but the scene in which Hansard and Irglova play together for the first time is anything but precious, and succeeds as a set piece because it captures the honest joy of performance, the way musical ideas and noodlings sometimes coalesce into something whole, like magic. Those going into Once expecting a "boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love" story may be disappointed by the narrative thrust of the film, in which Hansard and Irglova certainly grow close, but are halted just short of love due to other commitments (Irglova cares for her mother and young daughter while waiting for her estranged husband to come to Dublin, Hansard wants to give it another go with his old flame) -- the true romance taking place in this film is the romance of music.

Thus the story of Once is shaped not by the story of two people falling for each other, but two kindred spirits getting together to make an album. As musicians, Hansard and Irglova are perfect sparring partners -- he's impassioned and full of bluster, she's reflective yet heartfelt. The music they make tends to shade towards the Hallmark side of the dial ("Take this sinking ship and point it home, we've still got time"), but in the context of the film, it's the perfect dramatic counterpoint to the understated goings-on -- like all good musicals, we learn more about these people from what they sing than from what they say. Hansard and Irglova also play off each other well as actors; he has a hangdog charm (one thinks of Hugh Laurie with a shaggy Celtic upbringing), and she is an intriguing mix of ballsiness (the way she tosses off the word "fuck" as if it's just another word is a delight) and vulnerability.

Once is very matter-of-fact yet lively about its characters' milieu -- Irglova's home is an overcrowded tenament building where neighbors pop in without warning to watch TV, but it retains a certain charm, while Hansard divides his time between the cold streets and his instrument-infested room at his dad's house, living the life of a kid who hasn't grown up. During the course of the movie we tour the Emerald Isle's sparkling coast, attend an intimate get-together with folk singers, and are given a tutorial on how to bargain for recording studio space. As Hansard and Irglova gather a band and record an album over a whirlwind weekend, the "production numbers" accumulate: Hansard composing a tune to accompany home videos of his lost love, the act reclaiming MTV-style sentiment as something more personal; the initial recording session, which begins with apprehension and reaches joyful release; a late-night piano ballad that finally redcues Irglova to tears; and most memorably, Irglova walking the Dublin streets at night, walkman in hand, singing improvised lyrics to an instrumental, the camera following her all the way from the drugstore to her home in a movement that is simple yet as liberating as any choreographed setpiece.

Once the album is finished, the film should likewise be finished as well, but loose ends need to be wrapped up, our soul-mate musicians resigned to going their separate ways, and even these moments are presented blarney-free -- still, there is something unsatisfying about Hansard and Irglova's parting, mainly because their past loves remain specters, talked about but never felt, and thus their rationales for leaving each other seem undernourished. Or perhaps we've been suckered by old-fashioned musicals into thinking that relationships must be escalated in time for the climax. Surely two people who make such beautiful music should be partners in some fashion ...

Despite the lack of an ending that measures up to the merry music-making that precedes it, Once has the good grace to leave us on a winsome note -- Irglova happily pounding away on a new piano, life in sunny Dublin going on outside her window. I'll wager that Once won't inaugurate a new golden age of musicals, but hopefully it'll serve as a worthy reminder that modesty and charm go a long way these prosaic days.