I adored Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven when it came out three years ago and love it even more now that its cable-TV ubiquity has made it a constant channel-surfing Christmas present. Despite the great cast, it could have easily been unwatchable in the hands of a typical Hollywood director-for-hire, but Soderbergh's exquisite editing and subtle direction found the in-the-creases energy and small comic moments others would have missed, resulting in the kind of stylish, witty, and exciting popcorn movie Hollywood tries to make all the time and almost never does.
Soderbergh reunites each and every key player from the original movie for Ocean's Twelve, yet another go at the heist-movie-as-movie-star-vehicle strategy. More European in setting, tone, and visual style than the first movie, Ocean's Twelve manages to both match and challenge the charms of Soderbergh's earlier triumph.
Where Ocean's Eleven sunk its teeth into the procedural charms of the heist film, the follow-up takes the air out of the genre in a way some viewers might find dissatisfying. The heist details are not as thoroughly or lovingly explained, and the movie's plot twist hinges on a satirically low-tech gambit (not to mention a Red Sox-Yankees rivalry).
In its agreeable slackness, Ocean's Twelve is more similar than its predecessor to the Rat Pack original especially since the Rat Pack's Ocean's Eleven was also generally accepted as incidental to the stars' off-screen shenanigans. The difference is that Soderbergh is simply too good to make something quite so pointless.
Rather, the way Ocean's Twelve is ostensibly a straight narrative yet makes its plot a secondary concern reminds me of an older Hollywood tradition. Rio Bravo wasn't really about an Old West jailbreak; it was about Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin's jailhouse duet, Angie Dickinson's feather boa, and John Wayne's line readings. The Big Sleep wasn't really about, well, whatever it was supposed to be about. Instead, it was about the way Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall looked at each other. Likewise, Ocean's Twelve isn't really about a heist; it's about deadpan George Clooney reaction shots, Catherine Zeta-Jones' raven hair and red lipstick, and Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts.
In this way, Ocean's Twelve also endorses an older, still common but now less respected mode of movie acting. This is not the Brando/De Niro/Streep method school of character immersion or of tapping into an actor's emotional history. It's movie acting as the tweaking of a persona.
In this regard, Clooney is more the new Cary Grant than any other contemporary actor (especially in his suave mugging in Intolerable Cruelty), and Julia Roberts rivals the grand dames of the past Garbo, Davis, Stanwyck, Crawford, etc. Since hitting her stride with My Best Friend's Wedding, still her most meta role ever, Roberts has had a string of great performances in a mixed bag of movies all united by a sublime sense of self-awareness: Notting Hill, Runaway Bride, Erin Brockovich (her first collaboration with Soderbergh and the movie that finally won her an Oscar), Full Frontal, Mona Lisa Smile.
Roberts doesn't get much screen time in Ocean's Twelve, but her one set-piece, which I'll not give away here, is the movie's most giddily spontaneous moment.
And that is perhaps one of Ocean's Twelve's biggest flaws: With the original film's 11 crooks plus Roberts' Tess bolstered by a large groups of add-ons and cameos Zeta-Jones, Eddie Izzard, Albert Finney, Cherry Jones, Topher Grace, and many more and with Soderbergh's direction intentionally more lackadaisical, some players are short on screen time and threaten to fall through the cracks. But despite straining to make everyone matter again, it's a credit to Soderbergh's democratic, communal impulse (and, yes, that's what these Ocean's movies and Rio Bravo are really about) that he finds at least one comic grace note for each and every character, even the ones most in danger of slipping into inconsequentiality: Don Cheadle's munitions master gently deflecting Clooney's age inquiries; Peking acrobat Shaobo Qin's "grease man" bouncing on a hotel bed with a chocolate high; Bernie Mac's casino con-man failing to hide a faint smile.
In the end, that's what matters. Ocean's Twelve won't be as endlessly durable an entertainment as its predecessor, won't be a channel-surfing stopper par excellence. But it triumphs in the same way: This movie isn't about the mechanics of the heist film or a paid vacation for stars who don't need one. It's about movie-making itself and the notion that everyone has value and deserves their time to shine.
I sleepwalk. It's a strange, disorienting, and sometimes embarrassing phenomenon that leaves me exhausted in the morning and anxious during the day. It only seems to occur during times of high stress, but I'm always stressed out, so it happens fairly often. I never just wake up somewhere; there is always some half-lucid dream that leads to finally waking myself up and realizing that yes, yet again, I have taken an unnecessary stroll. Usually it involves me thinking that I am late for work or at work and having missed a deadline, so there are some nights when I have dressed myself and put in a full day's "work" before I finally wake up. This can happen several times in one night. Once, while staying in a hotel in London, I walked out of my room, down the hall, and knocked on somebody's door, waking them up. Once, I woke up outside my house and down the street in my underwear at 3 a.m. Sometimes I rearrange the room. It's always a little different and always a little bit the same. Someday I will get this checked out.
In The Machinist, Trevor Reznick (Christian Bale) hasn't slept in a year. Or so he says. In another variation on sleepwalking, he dutifully clocks in for his dreary, dangerous factory job, clocks out, pays nightly visits to an out-of-the-way airport diner to chat pleasantly with friendly waitress Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), and sometimes engages the services and company of friendly, snarky prostitute Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) before doing it all again the next morning. Day in, day out: work, coffee, sex, work, coffee, sex. In that year since he's slept, Trevor's also lost a lot of weight. He is told, with regularity, "If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist."
The arrival of creepy new worker, Ivan (John Sharian), at the factory sets into motion a chain of events that leads Trevor to question the motives of everyone around him even when a machine accident tears off the arm of co-worker Miller (Michael Ironside). Trevor had stumbled into the machine's ON button but was distracted by Ivan. And yet, nobody's heard of Ivan. Why is this strange man haunting Trevor's workplace? Is Trevor being plotted against? Somebody is leaving cryptic Post-Its on his refrigerator door with the "Hangman" scribbled on them. The more letters he fills in, the closer the little cartoon man is to being hanged. First, the word appears as "- - - - ER," then "- - LLER," then "- ILLER." What's next? Trevor's only solace the alternating comforts of good girl Marie and bad girl Stevie soon crumbles as he gets dangerously intimate with both women and as Ivan's identity becomes clearer. And Trevor is so very, very tired.
I mentioned the sleepwalking earlier because that is the personal basis by which I was most immediately able to relate to Trevor and understand his dilemmas. It's not easy to sympathize with him. Nice enough guy as he is, there is a guilty pall that hangs over him and a dreariness to his existence that isolates him from almost everyone around him. When things heat up with the two women in his life, he finally seems to wake up a little but not for long. His lucidity soon gives way to nightmarish paranoia and terror. But it isn't paranoia if they really are out to get you, is it? And doesn't everyone have somebody out to get them? I know I've got people out for me, and there's one or two people that I'm out to get. That's normal, right?
The Machinist is one of the most solid, creepy movies to come out in a long time, so thoroughly combining psychological suspense and atmosphere in Trevor's cold, dripping, steely surroundings that it becomes hard to differentiate the two. Emerging director Brad Anderson unblinkingly sets a tone and sticks by it to the bitter end, with a vintage-quality film noir score and a color scheme so washed out and drained of life that the sight of blood dripping from a refrigerator is almost comforting because we finally get to see a real red.
Bale, always a fine and committed (if humorless) actor, has gone above and beyond any call with The Machinist by famously losing 63 pounds and withering down to a skeletal 120-something. It's alarming to see the adorable Empire of the Sun boy all grown up and then wasted away. And yet this admirable (if maybe foolish) transformation is only a component of his equally impressive performance: starvingly committed, haunted, hollowed. The cinematographer seems equally dedicated to unflattering him with strange shots of Bale's depleted frame.
Spooky, unnerving, The Machinist proves that the only thing scarier than nightmares is not being able to sleep at all. • Bo List