Steven Soderbergh used to remake Rat Pack flicks, now he remakes the Dean Martin celebrity roasts. Once I excused Ocean's Eleven as a gambling metaphor for mainstream filmmaking, though the flaunted arrogance of its two sequels has made it impossible for them to be seen as anything other than tanning salons where viewers pay to watch megastars smelling each other's farts. The Steven & George & Brad I Could Give a Fuck Special continues in Ocean's Thirteen, where the plot thoroughly scrapped in Ocean's Twelve is restored only to be drained of suspense, danger, character and human interest. Now there's just self-fondling fizz -- no, not even that, just a kind of quasi-Zen petulance palmed off as "cool." In a summer packed with unwelcome returns (Spider-Man, Shrek, Jack Sparrow), George Clooney and his gang of Vegas outlaw-hipsters (including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Shaobo Quin and Carl Reiner) still manage to ring up the season's most corrupt notes. Larceny remains a game, now with a twist of revenge: Elliott Gould, the gang's mentor, lies comatose after having been backstabbed by fellow marauding shark Al Pacino, so Clooney and Co. put their continuous vacations on hold to teach him a lesson. Pacino's grand casino is their target, wigs, phony mustaches and ostentatious winking are their weapons. The camera keeps on zipping, but the setups lurch -- Pitt dons hippie whiskers to infiltrate Pacino's office and warn him about a possible earthquake, which is being artificially manufactured by Cheadle while Affleck is in Mexico kicking off a factory revolt ("Have you forgotten Zapata?"). Meanwhile, Clooney smirks.
Eddie Izzard pinches Kent Jones's great line about John Carpenter ("an analog man in a digital world") to describe the Ocean's Thirteen bunch, and there's a whiff that the quip is meant to apply not just to the aging pretty boys cavorting on the screen, but also to the director supervising the party. Clooney and Pitt getting misty over Oprah episodes is about the heaviest acting they've done in years, and, color-coded mise en scène or not, Soderbergh by now shares their laziness -- his filmmaking isn't "breezy" and "light-fingered," but slothful and podgy (see Damon's seduction of poor Ellen Barkin for an encyclopedia of ways to screw up a scene). "You don't run the same gag twice," it is said as the fellas map out their time-devouring charades, a rule surely seconded by veteran vaudevillian Reiner yet altogether ignored in the atmosphere of casual conning, where even Gould and Pacino succumb to cuddly mugging. Insouciance is all in this least urgent of heist thrillers, although there's a vast gulf between the inclusiveness of the transparent meta-relaxation in, say, Howard Hawks' Hatari!, and the smug sense of privileged entitlement here; offered up as an undemanding palliative, Ocean's Thirteen is actually a tortuous, let-them-eat-cake doodle. The only identifiable character is unlucky hotel reviewer David Paymer, who suffers indignity after indignity and in the end grabs his cut of the loot for his trouble. No such plunder awaits other critics, who will have to make do with Sinatra serenading our sweetheart-crooks with "This Town" -- yeah yeah, Las Vegas ain't what it used to be, but Scorsese and Siegfried & Roy already told me that.
Money makes Hollywood go around. In Ocean's Thirteen it quakes the earth, in Hostel: Part II it buys life. It cannot buy creativity or talent, alas, and Eli Roth's soiling follow-up to his own unaccountably successful gorefest should have slithered straight to DVD. Talk about running the same gag twice: The asshole-jocks from the original have simply been replaced with a trio of vacationing gals (art-school baby dyke Lauren German, Bijou Phillips in hoochie overdrive, and Wiener Dog Heather Matarazzo), who take a stupid detour into Slovakia and become the meat in the exclusive abattoir where a secret organization offers Most Dangerous Game specials to bloodthirsty millionaires. To be fair, there's one good image (a Salome package reflected in some Dr. Evil's mirrored shades), one flash of wit (new victims being auctioned off in international, faux-eBay style), and one effective passage (a mournful Slavic dirge playing while Roger Bart and Richard Burgi, Yankee snuff-clients, get fitted for the slaughter). For the rest, it's poseur callousness all the way. There are hooded prisoners and attack dogs, Burgi evokes Chad and New Orleans and declares "We're the normal ones" -- and Roth somehow still manages to scrub all resonance out of the material, misreading and degrading the authentic transgression of the horror genre. As for viscera, there's gloating over sawed-off faces and scissored cocks, plus the money-shot (Matarazzo hanging upside down naked to provide a modern Countess Bathory with arterial ejaculation). With these two inexcusable sequels, you can either take the long route with Soderbergh's sweetened roofie or skip ahead to Roth's spike-dildo rape: Either case, you're getting screwed.
The company of cartoons is welcome after such live-action grubbiness. While Hostel: Part II wipes its feet on one's unconscious, Paprika aims to bend it, tickle it, enlarge it -- surfaces are liquid in Satoshi Kon's new anime, a whole circus squeezes out of a tiny clown car, vortexes open out of thin air and reality melts within. Police inspector Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka) navigates through a disorientating procession of psychological flights pivoting on a traumatically unresolved crime; the dream is recorded with a cortex-installed gadget called DC Mini, and played back afterwards on a laptop. Invented by boy-genius-in-obese-body Dr. Tokita (Toru Furuya), the device is stolen and an ominous, brain-engulfing reverie starts to swell, a disturbingly cheery mass of trumpet-playing frogs, kitchen appliances, confetti and an entire tourist shop's storage of Japanese dolls. Reality and fantasy leak into each other in short-circuiting jolts in Kon's cosmos, and his heroine is appropriately divided: Dr. Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara) is all-business in gray suits, then dives into psyches as her alter ego, a perky sprite called Paprika. "I swallow everything," the blob-prodigy says, and so does the film -- dreams, cinema, and the internet are posited as a mind-venting troika, The Big Sleep, The Shining, and Ghostbusters crop up, Konakawa goes from hating movies to lecturing on how they're created, obliquely summoning Ozu's radical, line-jumping technique. "Am I still dreaming?" becomes the ongoing query, Kon asks it the way eXistenZ and Mulholland Drive asked it, sublimely.
Reviewed June 22, 2007.