No Silver Lining

CGI, also known as computer generated visual effects, has become a celluloid plague.

Even though Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer clocks in under 90 minutes, the movie lags and meanders in and out of clichés, vacuous characterization, and pseudoscientific gibberish. What can be more unsatisfying than watching visual effects for the sake of visual effects? I was hoping that the addition of the Silver Surfer this time around could bring the Fantastic Four out of B-list superhero mediocrity. Instead, he really doesn’t do or add much.

Looking like a shiny hood ornament, the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence “Morpheus” Fishburne) glides in and out of the screen but he’s as weightless and dull as Jessica Alba’s acting chops. You can’t help but realize that the bulk of this movie is CGI, and the glossy surfer dude loses much of his shine when you come to that realization and it’s hard to shake off. There’s also not much to latch unto in terms of characterization and plot. At least the first film dealt with weighty issues of identity and family, and it was slightly fun to see Johnny Storm a.k.a. the Human Torch (the hammy Chris Evans) in action. In the sequel, Johnny’s fireball CGI is supposedly upstaged by the Silver Surfer, only because we are told so. As Johnny watches the Silver Surfer exit a skyscraper unharmed through an energy field in slo-mo, Johnny reacts “that is so cool.” Hey, if he said so, so shall we believe.

This constant spoon-feeding from recent visual effects-driven blockbusters is what stalls them. We’re not a dumb audience. We know what we like and we know what works.

Yet I’ll admit that the movie garnered a few light chuckles now and then, and it isn’t as convoluted as some recent blockbusters of late. Also, truth be told, the Fanastic Four are generally likeable characters. Non-offensive even if a bit bland. Ioan Gruffudd does what he can as Reed Richard’s a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic and Michael Chiklis is reliably gruff as Ben Grimm a.k.a. The Thing. Although Julian McMahon deserves props as he plays up the villainy and smarminess of the evil Dr. Doom. He’s got a believable handle on the character and its loads of B-movie fun to see our favorite TV plastic surgeon play a well-loved comic book villain.

Slapped with a guaranteed box-office PG rating, the Fantastic Four franchise needs to find its footing. In my opinion, it could use more bite come Fantastic Four 3 (yes, expect it). I brought my little sister along and even she found it a bit juvenile. About halfway through the film, she leaned over to me and whispered “You look bored.”

Maybe I was. A gluttony of CGI does not a movie make. If that’s the case, then I can just go home and stare at my screensaver for 90 minutes.

RATING: D

Shake Sinatra’s Hand

After a dismal start to a summer that seems to be marketed towards geeky fanboys drooling over confused pirates and superheroes, Ocean’s Thirteen whizzes along as a smart and cheeky film–one that delights filmgoers who aren’t all that interested in CGI and marketable toy products but snappy dialogue, witty repartee and heady filmmaking techniques. Oddly enough, O13 feels a bit misplaced in a summer filled with fraternity-minded comedies and nerdy threequels. Director Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and company have fashioned a tart, pure but hardly simple movie among bloated blockbusters. You can’t help but notice. O13 is like that one fashionable yet appropriately dressed gal in a picnic filled with girls in jogging outfits and sweats–she’s classy and simply stands out among the rest.

At the film’s core, this “class act” act is the point of it all, and a rather fine one at that. Soderbergh and the gang remind us how being a class act goes a long way. It’s a throwback to the lost art of being a gentlemen, and who would have thought that a bunch of fictional merry thieves would bring that into light?

This time around, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) enlist the gang to take revenge on casino owner Willy Bank (an understated Al Pacino) who ousted the ailing Reuben Tishkoff (an excellent Elliott Gould) from a partnership deal in owning their latest venture; an Asian-inspired casino on the strip shaped like ribbons. This sends Reuben to grave illness, almost to the point of death. Of course, no one does that to one of Ocean’s Eleven. Reuben reminds Willy that he can’t do that. “We shook Sinatra’s hand,” Reuben pleads. “Screw Sinatra’s hand!” Willy rebuttles. At that point, the driving force of the movie becomes clear. Even rich guys have no class.

The boys have no choice but to take revenge and bring down Willy’s casino on its grand opening, meaning they’ve got to rig the house to lose. As expected, there are lots of witty back-and-forth banter from the boys–dialogue that would make Howard Hawks proud, and of course obstacles along the way that seem impossible to the downright farfetched (a man-made earthquake). But still, you can’t help but root for the gang. Their motives are clearly backed up by a sincere sense of friendship and honor. Also, who else would you trust to take down the house in Vegas? Danny Ocean of course, and what fun–if for at least two hours–is it to see a house in Vegas lose? Those of you who’ve placed bets there would certainly agree with me.

Of course with Reuben, who often funds for all of Ocean’s expensive capers, being bed-ridden, who else are the boys to turn to for financial support? It’s the old adage of “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.” There’s no surprise that the 13th member of the group is no other than their former nemesis Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia).  Benedict wants to see Willy go down in flames because Willy’s new hotel casts a shadow over his Bellagio fountain pool. But then again, perhaps there’s more to Benedict than we think.

The film’s charm is undeniable and it has the cool slickness of the first, and the sheer audacity of the second. If the first film was an exercise in style and coolness, and the second being a frivolous (if not always successful) commentary on success, the third one is all about honor and friendship. It’s a fitting ending to our boys. But it’s not all sappy. The film is loaded with fun gags. The opening shot is amazing and the pay-off is hilarious. There’s duping the NightFox (Vincent Cassel) all over again (yep, he’s back) and well-placed Oprah jokes. There’s jokes about “soft openings” and Vegas traditions that pay off so cleverly and so well. The third time around, there is evident homages to the heydays of the Rat Pack and that lost Vegas myth of glamour and style. There’s much more throwback here than there was in the previous two installments, and for fans of that lounge-era, this is a welcoming touch.

Throwback has been the film’s engine from the get-go. Roman Nagel, the euro-tech guy from Ocean’s Twelve played with such delight by Eddie Izzard reminds Danny and Rusty that they have become “analog players in a digital world.” Rusty and Danny are perplexed, and rightfully so. Perhaps it’s a response to how fluffy popcorn flicks of this nature have become callous CGI videogame-like drones. Yet I think it’s a strong response to how gentlemen like Danny and Rusty aren’t the ones who are no longer in touch with the world we live in, but the other way around. It goes back to the whole notion of being a class act. Even though they’re genial thieves, they’re still thieves nevertheless, but at least they understand the meaning, the properties and social norms of being gentlemen.

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Perhaps it’s too much to ask. After all, this is the summer of pirates, ogres and toy robots. Clooney’s Ocean remind’s Pacino’s Willy that “he shook Sinatra’s hand once. You should know better.” Definitely a jab at Willy for not having any class.

Too bad. Half the summer moviegoers don’t even know who Sinatra is.

RATING: A-