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Ellen Barkin

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Bed-Stuy Flow’s Malicious.

So, in an attempt to get the unfortunately atrocious Alice in Wonderland out-of-mind as quickly as possible, I pulled an audible last Friday night and decided to follow it up immediately with Antoine Fuqua’s conflicted cop saga Brooklyn’s Finest. And, well, I’ll give Fuqua’s film this: At least it turned out to be weirdly lousy, rather than just straight-up lousy like Alice.

Still, despite some quality performances throughout, Brooklyn’s Finest is not a movie I can really recommend. In its gritty street rhythms, shades-of-gray plotting, and all-star cast of dirty cops with streaks of nobility, the film clearly aspires to the greatness of The Wire. (In fact, Michael K. Williams (Omar), Hassan Johnson (Weebay), and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Clay Davis) are all in this movie, the latter prompting an hilarious chorus of “shheeeeeeeeeits” at my late-night showing.)

But, for all its admirable ambition, this movie ends up feeling a lot closer to Crash. Like that film (and like another considerably over-praised film of the same type, Babel), Brooklyn’s Finest tells three disconnected stories, seemingly in the hope that they might add up to more than the sum of their parts. But, other than the fact that some of these cops work in the same precinct, and all of them rather implausibly end up in the same apartment block in the climax, they don’ t really have anything to do with each other. Unlike The Wire, where actions on the street (say by Bubbles, or Herc) will reverberate through the system and have unintended consequences that affect the highest levels of the Game (say, the Mayor’s office), nothing that happens in any of these stories has any effect on the other tales being told. In other words, these dirty cop vignettes are basically stovepiped, and, as such, they’re somewhat redundant.

So, instead of one story, you get three. And, also like Crash, the writing’s pretty ham-handed in all of them. For an excellent example of this tendency, look no further than the opening minutes, as — message alert! — Vincent D’Onofrio gives an on-the-nose speel about there being no right or wrong, just “righter and wronger.” Alrighty then. (Speaking of D’Onofrio, between he, Will Patton, and the Wire guys, Brooklyn’s Finest sometimes feels like a Recovery Act-funded jobs program for cop and robber actors. I spent much of the movie half-expecting Michael Rooker to show up.)

So, with the writing dropping the ball rather egregiously, the actors involved have to carry Brooklyn’s Finest on their own for its two and a half hours. And, as it turns out, they’re mostly up to the task. As the working-class Catholic cop in desperate need of some drug money to fix his mold problem (yes, you read that right), Ethan Hawke gives a variation on his twitchy loser from Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and is better than the material warrants. (Strangely enough, he’s also once again paired up with Brian O’Byrne.) Meanwhile, Richard Gere is miscast as the lousy, alcoholic peace officer a week out from his pension — I would’ve gone Fred Ward — but he struggles through, despite some excruciatingly embarrassing scenes involving his hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend. (One involving fellatio, the other the Honeydrippers.)

And the best third of Brooklyn’s Finest involves Don Cheadle as the Departed-style cop “lost in the Game,” i.e. so deep-undercover he’s forgotten which way is up. This is not only because Cheadle is great, as per the norm, but also because he’s got the ablest supporting cast to work with — the aforementioned Will Patton as his handler, Wesley Snipes in a nod to his New Jack City days, Michael K. Williams as the anti-Omar, and a couple of scene-stealers in Hassan Johnson (who, outside of a well-placed Busta Rhymes track, has the funniest line in the movie) and Ellen Barkin (who aims to prove she has the biggest cajones in the film, by a country mile.)

Still, even tho’ I recently made the case for “actors workshop”-type movies with 44 Inch Chest, actors can only do so much. And, despite the occasional well-performed scene, Brooklyn’s Finest is just too fumbling and Haggis-y in the writing department to really warrant the time investment. Put briefly, Brooklyn’s Finest is to cop movies what Milwaukee’s Best is to beer — only a worthwhile option if you’re intentionally slumming it.

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.

Simply put and for better or worse, Steven Soderbergh’s breezy Ocean’s Thirteen is two hours of sheer froth. The film attempts to dial back some of the in-jokes and meta-ness that marked the slack, sprawling Eurotrip of Ocean’s Twelve (which I actually enjoyed the most of the three) and tries to fuse it with the narratively leaner Vegas-centric heist flick that was Ocean’s Eleven (which I enjoyed the least.) The resulting film, like its gaggle of leading men (no women here, basically — Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are written out in the first five minutes of dialogue), is cool, unruffled, occasionally razzle-dazzle, and, frankly, beginning to show its age. If you liked either of the first two or enjoy watching this collection of actors suavely goof around on camera, Ocean’s Thirteen is good for a mindless, moderately engaging two hours. But, even with Soderbergh’s considerable expertise on display, there’s really not much here. All in all, I was entertained during the film and forgot about it almost immediately afterward.

Ocean’s Thirteen wisely foregoes much of the “let’s get the band back together again” grandstanding of the last film to dive right in to the problem: Avuncular team member and scion of Old Vegas Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) has been screwed out of his partnership in a towering new casino on the Strip by the Wynn-like impresario Willie Bank (Al Pacino), despite them both being among the rarified elite who once shook Sinatra’s hand. To avenge this slight, Danny Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Pitt) reassemble their team of con-men, scoundrels, n’er-do-wells, roustabouts, and acrobats to take down the new hotel (The Bank) via a “Reverse Big Store,” i.e. break The Bank by having every guest win big on the casino’s (soft) opening night.

Unfortunately for them, Bernie Lootz is not on hand, and The Bank boasts many formidable defenses, from the world’s greatest Artificial Intelligence (“The Greco,” devised by Julian Sands, no less) in the basement looking for gambling anomalies to the well-preserved Ellen Barkin as Pacino’s sexy, take-no-guff majordomo Abigail Sponder. And thus the Ocean team’s foolproof plan instead involves, among other things, myriad disguises, lots of cybernetic and electronic doodads, more than a few random accomplices and compatriots, moles in Mexican factories, simulated natural disasters, making David Paymer’s life a living hell, and multimillion-dollar underground drills, at least one of which may force the team to involve their old nemesis, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) in the takedown. (Oh, and, to constrain Barkin’s Dragon Lady, they resort to some drug that amounts to a cross between Axe Body Spray and Roofies, which seems like sort of a nasty turn for our otherwise gentlemanly near-dozen to take in their quest for revenge, I thought.)

All of which is to say, the heist makes very little sense, which is part of the problem here. I confess, while I really enjoy a caper flick like Spike Lee’s Inside Man, I get irritated with films that show criminals spending $29 million in order to steal $30 million, even if, as it is here, the motive is revenge. In Ocean’s Twelve, of course, the heist didn’t much matter — it was clearly just a flimsy excuse for Soderbergh & co. to fool around in Amsterdam and act like movie stars on vacation. Everything from Shaobo Qin getting lost in the luggage (“He’s the Modern Man, disconnected, frightened, paranoid for good reason“) to Pitt referencing Miller’s Crossing to Topher Grace “totally phoning in that Dennis Quaid movie” to all the breaking-the-fourth-wall shenanigans with Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis made that clear.

But by focusing so relentlessly on the plot contrivances here in Thirteen, we’re forced to recognize several times over that, frankly, the plot makes very little sense. There’s no danger here at all (with the possible exception of Vincent Cassel’s return as the Night Fox from the last film, but even he turns out to be a dud of an X-factor.) Even in Vegas, that veritable boulevard of broken dreams most of the time, we know this gang of Hollywood high-rollers are all going to come up aces…so why focus so relentlessly on the mechanics of a totally implausible scheme? Given this problem, my favorite moments of Ocean’s Thirteen were the ones where, as in Twelve, the gang just dropped the tired old rules of the caper flick and let their freak flag fly: Casey Affleck and Scott Caan unionizing a Mexican dice factory, Pitt channeling a hippie seismologist, Cheadle liberated, however briefly, from that godawful British accent, Matt Damon (for awhile) in that goofy Soderberghian nose. The nose, and its ilk, play — the actual heist here doesn’t.

Lucky Number?

It looks like the rumors are true, and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen is a go, with everyone returning (except possibly Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones) to shoot this summer for a 2007 release. Also joining in the fun this go ’round is Ellen Barkin, who will have something to do with Matt Damon’s character.

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