OCEAN'S THIRTEEN directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Andy Garcia. A Warner Brothers release. 122 minutes. Opens Friday (June 8). Rating: NNNN
ANGEL-A written and directed by Luc Besson, with Jamel Debbouze, Rie Rasmussen and Serge Riaboukine. A Mongrel Media release. 91 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (June 8). Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Branding affects our perception. Steven Soderbergh, a very smart director, has a filmography that suggests that he's easily bored; he likes to do as many different kinds of films as he can.
In Angel-A, odd couple Rie Rasmussen and Jamel Debbouze inhabit the most romantic vision of Paris since Amélie.
Yet in this summer of threequels, here he is doing the third Ocean's film, and we can safely assume he knows the rules as well as anyone. In the third leg of a movie franchise, certain things will and will not happen.
Soderbergh knows that in films that function as creamy fantasies of cool, creating threats to the characters is an interesting idea but doesn't really mean much they're not going to kill off Don Cheadle, for example.
I'd argue that Soderbergh, recognizing the futility of the threequel, has created the most formally daring movie in this year's Cannes selection, a film with an oblique relationship to its own narrative.
The elaborate exposition in the opening, with all its side flashes and flashbacks, maps out the movie that's going to follow, if you can figure out what's happening.
If you can't, it doesn't really matter, since Ocean's Thirteen dissolves into an elaborate fantasia on themes of cool. There's a narrative of sorts, with Al Pacino as an evil casino owner who screws over Elliott Gould's Reuben, so Danny Ocean (George Clooney) gathers his gang together and comes up with an incredibly elaborate revenge scheme. The plan involves rigging casino games by getting into a dice factory in Mexico, Danny somehow shanghaiing a bunch of high rollers and Matt Damon joining the false nose society to seduce Ellen Barkin.
Acting as his own cinematographer, as he has on most of his films since Traffic, Soderbergh films a Las Vegas that looks like a dream. You can decry the corporate consolidation of the "new" Las Vegas, but there's a certain beauty in humankind's imposition on the stark beauty of the desert.
It's a piece of human overreach and an ecological nightmare, but it has its own crazy aesthetic. Soderbergh doesn't flinch at the craziness of it, but instead takes it at face value and turns it into the visual equivalent of a fantastic dessert.
Of course, I could just be justifying my own fondness for a massive pile of cinematic empty calories. It's certainly a film that's unanchored by any relationship to reality as we generally understand it.
Which also describes Luc Besson's Angel-A. Set in an exquisite black-and-white Paris, it's the dreamiest vision of the city since the romantic fantasy of Amélie.
Petty thief and con man André (Jamel Debbouze, the baby-faced Algerian soldier in Days Of Glory) is very bad at his job. He's threatened by a number of "real" criminals, who are mostly cartoon ideas of movie tough guys but still manage to scare the hell out of him. On the verge of suicide, he sees a beautiful woman who jumps into the Seine and feels the need to rescue her.
She's supermodel Rie Rasmussen (the other girl in the lesbian scene with Rebecca Romijn in Femme Fatale, the one wearing the jewelled snake thing), who turns out to be not just a woman named Angela, but an angel, his guardian angel.
Besson's first film as a director since 1999's The Messenger is a huge change of pace from the big, junky action movies he's produced in recent years (The Transporter movies and any movie in which Jet Li kicks French ass.)
It's a sticky feel-good fantasy, but it has a great visual gag in the improbable pairing of the tiny Debbouze with the towering Rasmussen, who's about 5-foot-11 and wears 4-inch heels. The sight of them together and Besson sets them against the cityscapes in ways that emphasize the height differences is funny for reasons I can't even define.
If you like Paris, fantasies or leggy supermodels, this is an entertaining movie. If you substitute Las Vegas for Paris and George Clooney for leggy supermodels, you can say the same thing about Ocean's Thirteen.
If you like plots that parse or thrillers that take themselves seriously, try something else this weekend.