Thieves, Vampires, Time-Travelers
By Fernando F. Croce

Poor Steven Soderbergh. Amply, variously gifted, the director has been cursed by his own versatility, accused of making movies nobody wants to see when following his esoteric impulses and called a sellout when doing mainstream blockbusters. Unfortunately, since Erin Brockovich and Traffic netted him a basketful of Oscars (and major-player status in the industry), he's decided to settle in for the latter, where some kind of bridge over the chasm might be at least more interesting. (Blockbusters that nobody wants to see?) The result, I'm afraid, is Ocean's Twelve, the sequel to Soderbergh's 2001 remake of the Rat Pack caper, and the ultimate apex of starfucking. There's no movie here. There's a maelstrom of US magazine shoots and Access Hollywood behind-the-scenes snapshots of pricey Beverly Hills stars romping around Amsterdam, Rome and London, vaguely animated to give the impression of a movie. But there's no movie.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia -- the gang is all here, back for another round of jaunty larceny across Europe. Ocean's Eleven was one long wink, but done with soft-shoe suavity, staged by Soderbergh like a bridge session among friends. There's a difference between that film's insouciance and the I-could-give-a-shit corruption of this one, however: the unstressed clowning of the first picture has given way to mugging arrogance where the only thing at stake is who gets the most close-ups. Soderbergh is nothing if not self-conscious about his hackery -- in a bit of dippy reflexivity right out of his Full Frontal, he has Roberts masquerade as, you got it, Julia Roberts! As a foxy Europol sleuth, Catherine Zeta-Jones, no favorite of mine, is more flatteringly photographed than Roberts' death's head, and gets the film's one (telegraphed) bit of emotion. But all of the editing and framing cleverness the director can come up with merely parade the laziness of an artist who has, by his own choice, grown snugly into the role of journeyman hack. Poor us.

*

Blade: Trinity is another sequel, and slovenly Hollywood trash from a genre I usually like. Vampire movies are interesting for their submerged thematics, which in the Blade trilogy, especially in the second installment, have always been racial rather than sexual. Vampirism, which often stands for the simultaneous lure and repulsion toward the release of corseted sexuality, here oddly symbolizes an ominous racial purity against which Wesley Snipes' eponymous avenging sword-slinger, half-human half-bloodsucker, plays raging, miscegenated Other. That would be the case, anyway, if the franchise had any impulse in its brain beyond gore and frenzied fight sequences edited within an inch of their lives to techno-beat. The expressionistic panache of Guillermo Del Toro, who directed Blade II, brought the motifs tantalizingly close to the surface, but David S. Goyer, who wrote all of the earlier movies and directed this one, scurries back to mindless comic-book theatrics.

A high-decibel blur, Blade: Trinity further dilutes the genre by adding unwelcome camp to the series. The biggest offender is kinky Sundance queen Parker Posey, who plays a snarling vampire bitch as if dropping by on her way to a dominatrix ball. Posey is at least having a blast; by contrast, Snipes' brooding has by now congealed into undisguised disinterest, which might explain why he spends most of the movie on the sidelines, rushed in only when needed to dice bad guys into piles of CGI ash. The rest revolves around the unearthing of Dracula (apparently the Dracula, played as Eurotrash beefcake by Dominic Purcell), found "in Iraq," and the attempts of the Night Stalkers (led by wiseass Ryan Reynolds and crossbow-toting babe Jessica Biel) to stop him from turning the human race into his private blood bank. Kris Kristofferson shuffles through a cameo, Natasha Lyonne pops up as a blind scientist, and Goyer's direction is garlicky in its ineptitude. Shoulda gone straight to video.

*

Next to these soul-sucking ventures, Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture is less alternative than antidote. To audiences flocking invariably to Ocean's Twelve and Blade: Trinity, it will be unendurably boring. I found it fascinatingly and, coming on the heels of those Hollywood efforts, purifyingly boring. The plot follows a history teacher (Leonor Silveira) on a cruise to Bombay, tiny daughter (Filipa de Almeida) in tow -- Silveira's plan is to reunite the tot with her estranged father, though, as their ship docks around the Mediterranean Sea, it becomes clear that the movie's main relationship is not with immediate family but with the weight of the ancestors variously responsible for the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and Pompeii. As the title suggests, and as befits an illustrated history lesson, chit-chat remains the film's main tool even as its vistas become more postcard-pretty -- chalk up another affront to the adrenaline-hungry viewer.

Portuguese auteur Oliveira is now 96 years old, and A Talking Picture is, needless to say, an old man's work: the pacing is serenely languid, the tone is contemplative, and the camera is unshakably eye-level. The director's Voyage to the Beginning of the World and I'm Going Home have richer feelings, yet Oliveira's melancholy and simplicity are more stimulating than all the with-it jazziness of Ocean's Twelve. Interestingly, these two movies, literally a world apart, retain overlapping areas: photogenic globe-trotting, deadpan almost-gags and, most notably, a stable of Very Special Guests. Here, it's French Catherine Deneuve, Greek Irene Papas and Italian Stefania Sandrelli, huddling with American John Malkovich for a dinner roundtable where each actor speaks in his or her own language and everybody understands each other -- a more conceptually daring move than anything Soderbergh comes up with in order to keep from dozing off with his stars' screen-filling grins. It is also, like the rest of the film, a document on being and time. It rubs the commercialist gunk out of your eye.

Reviewed December 14, 2004.


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