"I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place."
Every now and then, everyone wants to let their hair down and have a little fun. I suppose director Steven Soderbergh is no exception. So the man who is one of the best directors of his generation gathered up a top drawer collection of actors and got them together to do nothing more than cut loose and have a blast. Ocean's 11 is one of those movies where all a person has to do is unplug their brain, kick back, and marvel at the style, wit, and humor that can be produced by a big, extravagant Hollywood movie. Ocean's 11 makes its DVD debut courtesy of Warner Brothers and it's solid little disc. So place your bets and let's see how cards fall. Are you in or out?
Facts of the Case
Recently released from prison, Danny Ocean (George Clooney, Three Kings) does what comes naturally and begins to plan his next score. Assembling a rag tag crew of players, Ocean has his sights set on multiple goals. First on his list is ripping off casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, The Untouchables) of $160 million. Plus, there is the happy coincidence that Benedict's current girlfriend is Ocean's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts, Flatliners). It's a dangerous proposition that is going to take razor sharp timing and a lot of nerve, but if any group can pull off the ultimate score, its Ocean's 11.
When I was asked a couple years ago of who I thought was the best American director out there, my answer was simple and quick: Steven Soderbergh. At the time he was coming off Out Of Sight and The Limey, which for my money was the strongest one-two punch by any director in a long, long time. Then came Erin Brockovich, followed later that year by the movie that would win him his Best Director Oscar, Traffic. With Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh would score his first big smash hit at the box office. To be sure, the film is well made and it manages to hit all the buttons, but as I said in my review, the whole thing felt so constructed that it really didn't feel like a Soderbergh film. Traffic…well, Traffic was a different can of worms. I'm going to hold back on judgment until I see the upcoming Criterion release of Traffic, but as it stands, for all the great things about Traffic (and there were a lot of very good things), at the end of the day the movie ended up feeling disjointed, without focus.
So here I sit with Ocean's 11, and I've got to say I'm pretty pleased. With this effort, Soderbergh is back on track. I don't doubt the honesty that went into either of the previous two films, but somewhere that honesty got muddled and lost. With Ocean's 11 the goal is to tell a fun action yarn and that is what ends up on the screen. It's a simple goal, but like most things, ease is never easy to come by. To pull off this caper movie a lot of factors needed to be in the right place. A solid script was needed, and writer Ted Griffin (Ravenous) delivers the goods. Acting as if he were channeling Neil Simon by way of Elmore Leonard, Griffin has written a film that is endlessly quotable. Yet, the witty banter never seems forced or showy; rather, it almost acts as a smoke screen diverting attention away from the tightness to be found in the scenario's construction. In a movie full of cons and slights of hand, Griffin's breezy screenplay allows the plot points to unfold quietly and with maximum effect when revealed.
If everything begins with the word on the page, then the actors speaking the words need to be the right ones as well. On his death bed, Edmund Kean is reported to have said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Truer words have rarely been spoken and the tools needed to play style are sometimes difficult to come by. To that end, Soderbergh has the very good fortune to have hooked up with George Clooney. If modern movies have an equivalent to Cary Grant, then Clooney is it. Acting as if he owned everything around him, Clooney takes charge of Ocean's 11 and leads it everywhere it needs to go. Moving with an ease and charm too seldom seen in today's cinema, Clooney has grown into every inch the leading man. No slouch in the star power department himself, Brad Pitt (Fight Club) gets to act as right hand man, and he too shows great skill mastering the difficulties that are the light comedic role. Clooney and Pitt have a great onscreen chemistry leaving me hopeful for future collaborations. I could literally spend hours writing about all of the actors in this movie, but in the interest of brevity, there are but a few I want to make further mention of. First up is Elliot Gould (The Long Goodbye) as Reuben Tishkoff and Carl Reiner (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid) as Saul Bloom. Together these two men have a ton of movie and television experience and they move with the practiced ease of true professionals. I'm kind of a geek when it comes to Gould and I'll watch almost anything with him in it. Neither he nor Reiner disappoint here. It's just great too see them both onscreen with a bunch of the "new" guys doing what they do so well. Gould is especially funny, while Reiner manages to convey a bittersweet sense of pathos in his limited screen time. Also worth noting are Bernie Mac (The Original Kings of Comedy) as the inside guy, and Eddie Jemison (Schizopolis) as electronics experts Livingstone Dell. Both men more than hold their own and both have some really funny moments. Rounding out the cast is Julia Roberts (who does what she can in the movie's only really underwritten role), Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Shaobo Qin, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, and a uncredited Don Cheadle.
So we have covered the acting and the writing; now let's turn to the behind the camera stuff. First off, hats off to producer Jerry Weintraub for having the connections to get this movie filmed in the actual casinos where the movie is set. It obviously took someone with a lot of well placed friends to obtain this kind of access and the film is better for it. Special note should also be made of David Holmes' score for Ocean's 11. It's funky in a '70s kind of way, but lush and modern when it needs to be. In a film that features as many characters as does Ocean's 11, a musical identify is needed to tie everything and everyone together. Holmes' music does just that. He is a composer to always listen for. Stephen Mirrione's (Swingers) editing takes everything into account and gives Ocean's 11 a constant forward momentum that never allows the viewer to question many of the movie's leaps of faith or lapses of logic. In other words, it does exactly what it is supposed to.
Finally, we have the contribution of Steven Soderbergh himself, which, as with Traffic, is twofold. As a director, what I think makes him special is his obvious intelligence as well as his love of cinema. This guy loves making movies and loves what film can do. This passion for the medium translates to every frame he touches. I may not agree with the final outcome of every picture, but I always see the passion for the craft. As such, I think that he brings that zeal to the way he deals with actors. It would appear that he really creates a comfort zone for his performers to work in. If you look at the movies George Clooney has made, I don't think he has ever been more assured than when he had Soderbergh calling the shots. The second area where he makes his mark is using the name "Peter Andrews." With that, Soderbergh has taken to becoming his own director of photography. Based on the two times he has shot his own movie, it would seem that he favors a slightly over-saturated, highly contrasted feel while utilizing a great deal of handheld camera work. It's a method that would seem to favor perfect pitch in the acting department while allowing the film to be released with a less that perfect shot. This method gave Traffic an almost guerrilla style look of filmmaking and while he cleaned up things a little bit here, it is easy to feel the immediacy of this way of working. There is a documentary feel to his method and it's an interesting counterpoint to the slickness found in the writing and acting of the movie.
It is also this "imperfect" way of working that could give the video transfer fits. Hard-core videophiles are always looking for perfection, and movies like this and Traffic raise interesting questions of what we should expect from video transfers. Should the engineers go back and tweak an image for home video consumption, or are we better served staying completely true to what was seen in the movie theaters? I suppose if you are George Lucas or even David Fincher the answer would be to tweak, but thankfully, Soderbergh maintains the image that was released, warts and all. Shot 2.35:1 and given anamorphic enhancement, this is a first rate transfer. The parts that are borderline over-contrasted are handled with relative ease, while black levels are rock solid. There are some minor problems with shadow detail, but the on the plus side, the print used is of pristine quality. There is the expected grain to be found with a movie shot in scope, but I found it to be a little overly aggressive at points. Thankfully, compression artifacts are slight and the dreaded edge enhancements are rarely noticeable. All in all, it's a faithful transfer of the movie, and that's a good thing.
Sound is the expected 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix and at its best, it is also faithful to the original source. This is not a mix that is going to have the old folks next door pounding on the walls. It is a mix that is primarily front driven with little heard in the way of rear surrounds or the rumbling of bass. If it has any weakness, it is that dialogue occasionally sounds a little flat or canned. Things are always clear but it is sometimes lacking that bloom that is associated with the best mixes. The upside is that David Holmes' score is heard to very good effect. The sound services the movie. It certainly doesn't distract from the experience but it rarely adds anything special to it either.
It's been a while, but finally we have another Soderbergh commentary track to listen to. Soderbergh likes to work with another person (generally his writer) and it was reported the reason Erin Brockovich had no commentary track was because Universal refused to pay the writer to lay down a track. Pity. Traffic will have a couple of commentaries when it bows in its second DVD incarnation courtesy of Criterion later this spring. So, with Ocean's 11, we have our first Soderbergh commentary track for one of his movies since The Limey. This one takes him a little while to get rolling, so for the beginning of it, writer Ted Griffin seems to get center stage, but as things move forward Soderbergh gets equal time. It's obvious that both men think highly of their work and of themselves, but this ego never gets too strong, making this an informative and witty audio option. It's a pretty easy listen and mandatory for fans of the film. The second audio commentary is with actors Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Andy Garcia. I'll be honest, I don't generally enjoy actor only tracks, but I had high hopes because of actors that do this sort of thing out there, both Pitt and Damon have a pretty good track record. Unfortunately, this track falls flat. There are witty moments, but overall it's a pretty boring affair. The rest of the extras are basically fluff. There is HBO First Look piece that is basically a 15-minute commercial for the movie, while the other feature is a look at the costuming for the movie. Without a doubt, it is the latter piece that holds more interest. Some theatrical trailers and some DVD-ROM features close out the disc. Unless of course you count interactive menus, subtitles, and scene access as "special features."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I really liked the movie, even more than I thought I would, and the disc is presented with high technical marks. One of the two commentaries is worth listening to, so as a disc it's not too bad. I do wish there were more substantial documentary features though. Every time I see a lost opportunity like this, it makes me appreciate what Criterion, and to slightly lesser extent New Line do with their products on a regular basis. Granted, Criterion has the benefit of historical perspective, but both those companies produce well made features that actually inform me about the movie itself and filmmaking in general. This is would certainly be true with a movie like Ocean's 11. As I mentioned earlier, making something look this easy requires a great deal of work, skill, and hard labor. I just would have enjoyed a deeper look into that effort. The disc is worth getting for the movie itself, but I would have liked to have seen something besides an electronic press kit. Plus, some sort of deleted footage would have been nice as well. Just me. I could be wrong.
Big stars in a fun romp of a movie directed with style and zest by one of the best filmmakers working today. Moderate extras wrapped up in a good looking and sounding disc all for under 20 bucks. This leads me to disagree with Blockbuster—buying is better than renting, especially when the movie is this much fun. Just be careful when picking up Ocean's 11, because there is a full frame edition being released at the same time and we all know how good a movie shot 2.35:1 is going to look panned and scanned now, don't we?
Innocent of all charges. After watching this movie several times, I'm still grinning. The bench is pleased to see director Steven Soderbergh back on track with Ocean's 11 and is looking forward to Full Frontal, his quasi-sequel to sex, lies and videotape, as well as his next project with George Clooney, the remake of the classic Soviet era science fiction movie, Solaris. Bearing that in mind and looking eagerly ahead to the future, this court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Director Steven Soderbergh and Writer Ted Griffin
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