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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

Ocean's Thirteen

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Ocean's Thirteen
2007 (2007) - Warner Brothers

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/B-/C-

After the globe-trotting misfire that was 2004's Ocean's Twelve - the sequel to Steven Soderbergh's 2001 updating of the 1960 Rat Pack classic Ocean's Eleven - Ocean's Thirteen finds George Clooney's Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt's Rusty Ryan, and Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell and their gang of (almost literally) thousands firmly rooted in Sin City for more breezy capering and hijinks.

After the gang's elder statesman Reuben (Elliott Gould) is screwed out of his partnership in a new hotel-casino by Willie Bank (Al Pacino), he suffers a massive heart attack and is bed-ridden. Danny approaches Bank about restoring Reuben to his share and is rebuffed. As Bugs Bunny might say, Banks don't know who he's messing with and thus an outlandish and thorough preposterous scheme is hatched to rip off the casino to the tune of a half-billion dollars on its opening night.

To rub salt in the wound, they also endeavor to deny Bank a coveted "Five Diamond Award" that all his prior establishments had received by sabotaging the stay of the reviewer (David Paymer). Did I mention the millions in diamonds on the top floor, the Deep Thought-grade computer in the basement which monitors everything in the casino to detect shenanigans, and the simulated earthquake they are going to trigger using the drill used to dig the English Chunnel? That stuff is in there, too.

Soderbergh and company assume viewers know the series and don't waste a millisecond setting up the characters, launching into the plot and daft disguises immediately. It moves along smartly on a cushion of slick charm, but with at least 18 significant characters, there isn't much time for much deep characterizations. It's just a opportunity for the cast - including returnees Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Shaobo Qin, as well as newcomers Julian Sands, Eddie Izzard, and Bob "Super Dave Osbourne" Einstein - to get in a scene or two of flashy showboating before returning to respectable thespian pursuits. The token "girl" in this sausage fest is Pacino's Sea of Love co-star Ellen Barkin as Bank's right-hand facilitator. She gets an amusing showcase sequence where her "cougar" character is seduced by Linus' alter-ego, but it's a little depressing to see her 52-year-old lopsided grin puffed into a collagen-enhanced duck bill during close-ups. (What's worse: Aging or staving it off ungracefully?)

While the script gets a little to cutesy at times - a pair of characters are named Greco and Roman and the dialog makes sure we recognize the joke; a guise for Cheadle is named "Fender Roads" (Get it? Like a Fender Rhodes piano? Har har. Ahem.) - Ocean's Thirteen manages to avoid the self-indulgent Cannonball Run II vibe that hung over much of Ocean's Twelve. The caper is ridiculous, but other than a needless detour where Affleck's Virgil Malloy foments a workers rebellion at the dice factory where he has been sent to tamper with the goods, we're along for the ride. Clooney is in ultra-low key mode here, acting thru his eyelashes with the assurance that being the male Angelina Jolie (i.e. any woman he wants is his) provides him. Pacino is blessedly restrained as well, with nary any of his trademark theatrics in evidence. Bank's is a slimeball, but he's an in-control slimeball.

While the story may be glitzy and smooth, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is an awful mess. Shot by Soderbergh under his nom de DP of Peter Andrews, he eschews the obvious glamour cinematography a story like this deserves in favor of gritty, grainy, color-tweaked palette more like his work in Traffic. There is tons of grain and the color balance is pushed all over the place in an ersatz Seventies Technicolor mélange. But artistic decisions aren't the problems - the severely over-compressed and filtered transfer is. It looks like something from 1997, not 2007 with all sorts of edge-enhancement and pulsing patterns in the background. The digital effects of The Bank hotel towering over the Strip are hard to appreciate due to the jaggedness on angles and distracting flickering of buildings. A few spots rival VHS for sheer blobby softness. For such a high-profile title, that it looks like a bootleg is disappointing. The pretty people and places deserve better.

On the audio front, things are much better, though not spectacular. The English Dolby 5.1 Surround presentation is front-heavy like a showgirl (ba-da-bump!) and a tad muddy in the dialog as Soderbergh goes for an available sound style to go with the available light photography. There is some nice LFE activity during the earthquake at the end, but for the most part you can give 2.1 of your audio setup the night off.

Extras are also thin like the proverbial front-heavy showgirl (I'm here all week!) with no commentary and darn little film-related materials to speak of. The handful of Deleted Scenes (totaling 4:30) are all run as a single choice and mostly consist of extended or alternate versions of what was in the film. A couple could've been used instead, but their absence isn't ruinous. The Jerry Weintraub Walk and Talk (2:23) is nothing more than the veteran producer strolling through the casino floor sets and pointing out where the actors will be in the climatic scene. Superfluous overstates its significance.

Most interesting is Vegas: An Opulent Illusion (22:46), a look at the history and changes in Las Vegas over the ages since Bugsy Siegel began transforming this sleepy Mormon settlement in the early Forties. The subtle psychology behind the design of casinos is discussed by hoteliers, architects and Vegas writers. While occasional clips from the movie are sprinkled in, this plays more like a Discovery Channel program, however it is worth watching.

Fans of the first Ocean's flick who were let down by Twelve will enjoy Ocean's Thirteen. It's a slight romp, but we don't watch these movies for their lasting nutritional value. Unfortunately, the poor visual presentation and sparse supplemental materials make a recommendation of anything more than a rental hard to justify.

I Trust You to Kill Me

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I Trust You to Kill Me
2006 (2007) - First Independent Pictures

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/C-

Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but he never elucidated just how that quarter-hour would be obtained. Is it better to be famous for your own accomplishments or because of a fortuitous association with a popular celebrity and what are the pros and cons of using the latter to attract attention to the former?

For the achingly sincere alterna-blues-rocker Rocca Deluca, years of toil in the L.A. club scene paid off when a crew member on 24 recommended him up to series star Kiefer Sutherland, who proceeded to sign Deluca and his band, The Burden, to the Ironworks record label Sutherland runs with musician/producer Jude Cole.

While initially suspicious of the duo motives, the band came around and signed with the label. During 24's Christmas 2005 production hiatus, Sutherland acted as tour manager for quick mini-tour of London, Dublin, Reykjavik, and Berlin, in the hopes of giving his charges some European touring experience and exposure for their upcoming album - which provides the title for this tour documentary: I Trust You To Kill Me.

Through the constant gaze of director Manu Boyer, we are granted less a musical journey than a contrasting pair of portraits - one of a musician getting a break, but somewhat conflicted as to what it means; the other a candid look at an actor as he seems to be trying to figure out what he's doing with his life, despite being at a career peak. Through interwoven interviews with Sutherland and Deluca, interspersed with substantial concert performance footage, we're taken along for the occasionally bumpy ride.

Unlike the always in command Jack Bauer, Sutherland is an earnest, if ill-equipped, manager whose seat-of-the-pants methods always have the band on the edge of an ersatz Spinal Tap catastrophe, though no miniatures of Stonehenge are in danger of being trampled by dwarves. When they arrive at the Dublin date to find that only two tickets have been pre-sold - due to an outlandish ticket price of 20 Euros - Sutherland manages to avert catastrophe by calling radio stations to plug the show on the air and taking to the streets and pubs, offering free tickets, until he's managed to pack the club.

While this scene caught a lot of sneering comments in reviews upon the film's theatrical run, those critics missed the point entirely. As a label owner and tour manager, Sutherland's first obligation is to get people into the shows to see his artist and by hook or crook, he does. Just as Madonna's rage at faulty monitoring in Truth and Dare may've seemed uncalled for to civilians, musicians and those who work with them will understand the justification for such behavior.

Using a mix of austere B&W and color videography Boyer segues between segments with snippets of Deluca's effected Dobro guitar and it keeps the proceedings flowing with a minimum of arty pretension though the unexplained recurring presence of a guy in a bunny suit made me wonder if he would rather have been filming The Flaming Lips. As a profiler, he's weak at digging below Deluca's tender surface. Deluca speaks about jamming with John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash, but how he was able to get in those situations isn't explained. His father is described as a sideman for many blues artists, but is never named and the usual online reference sites didn't have anything more than what is here. (For someone so experienced, he hasn't left many footprints.) The parallels between his and Sutherland having tenuous relations with mostly absent fathers are interesting, but not really explored.

As for Deluca's music, I must confess that his style with its yowling, overwrought emotionalism and wailing angst-drenched songs and vocals are not my cup of tea. Sounding like a cross between Dave Matthews, Jeff Buckley and Jack White, he frequently set my teeth on edge and it comes off as precious, as if the world contains too much pain for such a tender soul and we should all want to take him home and feed him soup. (Granted, there is a substantial audience for precisely this sort of music, so please take my comments as more descriptive than critical.) When the Burden gets cooking, they percolate nicely in a polyrhythmic groove, but every college town in the world has at least one band just as good; they just don't have the power of Jack Bauer behind them. (They also don't get to stay in nice hotels across Europe; fans' living room floors and Red Roof Inns more their lairs.)

The most remarkable aspect of I Trust You To Kill Me is Sutherland's low-key manner of leveraging his fame in order to promote Deluca's music. Unlike the many actors who dabble in the music business, he's less on a rock star ego trip vacation than quest fueled by a genuine passion for Deluca's music. Anyone can fund a band's record, but to have "I Trust You To Kill Me" tattooed in big black Norse runes on your forearm bespeaks volumes more commitment to the cause, though the irony of the star's figure occupying more cover space than Deluca and the Burden combined isn't overlooked.

However, the fact that we're even discussing Rocco Deluca and the Burden is due to Sutherland's presence here and by offering a glimpse into the "play hard" yang that goes with his "work hard" yin - the notorious Christmas tree tackling incident is shown - it serves as Trojan Horse within which the music is delivered to an audience that may've been otherwise unreachable. I Trust You To Kill Me may not be a great documentary, but as an extended commercial it is better than you'll get from watching VH1 for the same amount of time.

Shot on DV video, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is at a natural disadvantage due to the realities of its source format. The largest problem is noticeable noise and graininess, partially from the low lighting levels in the locations and whatever post-processing may've been done. Some aliasing on angles and instances of interlacing were noticed, but they're forgivable. Color and detail is as good as can be expected, though shadows tend to get murky.

Audio choices are English Dolby 5.1 Surround and 2.0 with subtitles in English. Belying the seemingly lo-fi vibe of the documentary and the small venues they play, the recording of the all-important concert scenes is very good. The instruments are clear and musically well-mixed.

There isn't much low-end action, so it doesn't rock as hard as it could, but you'll be able to experience the songs well enough to enjoy (or be annoyed by) them. Dialogue scenes are naturally rougher, but whenever the levels get dicey, subtitles are provided to ensure audience comprehension. Surround activity is limited to some reverb during the musical performances.

On the extras tip, we get a trio of videos - for "Swing Low" (3:54), "Gravitate" (2:56), and "Colorful" (3:03) - which.are low-budget, low-gloss clips presented mostly in gritty B&W except, appropriately, "Colorful". The songs are OK, but not as distinctive as the title track is, and the video production is Spartan.

The I Trust You To Kill Me: "How It Started" - Japan 2005 featurette (12:44) featurette shows Sutherland on a 24 press junket to Japan that he brought Deluca along with. While Sutherland goes from one interview to another, Deluca wanders around playing blues guitar in cafes and markets, mostly attracting little notice. Toward the end Sutherland says to Boyer (who's filming) that maybe he should come along and shoot the upcoming tour. It's a mildly interesting bit, but not very insightful.

Peter Schorn
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