Monday 17 August 2009

Counting Down The Zeros - "Ocean's Twelve" (2004)

Ibe Tolis' awesome Film For The Soul has been working through the best films of the past decade via a series of posts entitled "Counting Down The Zeros". After meaning to contribute for some time, I finally managed to put together the following post regarding one of my favourites of the past 10 years: Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve".

The shifting rainbow of colours over the Warners logo signals the intent right away - Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve" is not going to be a simple heist movie follow-up to "Ocean's Eleven". All the players are indeed back from the original, new stars have been added and there's all those heist components and con games that run through the movie, but the style has been augmented past a simple riff on 60s cool. It morphs into and becomes part and parcel of the story itself. Though by no means realistic, it is at least logically consistent within the world of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) - a world where he and his co-leader Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) are smarter than everyone else, know what everyone else is thinking before they think it (including the audience) and can make things happen in incredibly short turnaround times. Accept that and you'll enjoy the twists and turns of the plot while Soderbergh plays with techniques and creates more than a heist picture. He's made a full bore art film.

The story starts some time after the squad of the first film has divvied up their ill-gotten gains from the big heist of the Vegas casinos. They've begun their lives anew and we get reintroduced to each one in turn. In each case though, it happens right at the moment that casino owner Terry Benedict (played again by Andy Garcia) has tracked them down and given them a single ultimatum - pay back the entire amount that was stolen, plus interest, or suffer the consequences. It comes out to roughly $100 million dollars, so Benedict gives them ample time to come up with the cash: 2 whole weeks. This sets off the plot as the gang reconvenes, figures they need a big score to pay him back and decide to go to Europe to begin looking for "jobs". The only thing they can find pays only a fraction of the full amount, but they can't even collect it since they've been beaten to the punch by The Night Fox - a master criminal who is at the root of Ocean's problems. It turns out that he's the one who ratted out the group to Benedict in order to force them into a position where they would have to agree to his own demands: have a competition to see who is the best criminal mastermind in the world. If Ocean can steal the Faberge Egg, The Night Fox (played in fine fashion by Vincent Cassel) will repay their debt in full. If not, he'll steal it, prove that he is the best and leave Ocean's gang to the hands of Benedict. It's patently absurd of course, but if you accept the reality the movie carves out, the pieces actually fit once all the elaborate schemes, ruses and cons have played out.

Many complaints aimed at the film point out that the audience is left out of the loop. There's no way, they claim, that the viewer has a chance of figuring things out before all is revealed towards the end. True enough, but so what? It's not all about the heist. The enjoyment is the ride and the view from your seat along the way. Soderbergh is a master at creating great looking visuals (the film couleur of "The Underneath", the different film stocks of "Traffic", the recreation of a 40s film in "The Good German", etc.) and he reaches deep into his bag of tricks throughout this entire movie. He uses cinematography, editing and music with controlled abandon to experiment with ways to avoid exposition, create mood, introduce new characters and simply tell his story. Freeze frames, chopped timelines, black and white to colour transitions, on screen titles describing time or location changes (e.g. half second shots introducing the city of Amsterdam), tilted camera angles, colour filters and reference points from film history all take their own turns. An example of the latter is from the opening scene when we get some back story on Rusty Ryan. Three years earlier he was living with an up and coming young detective named Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and as he realizes that she may have found clues that would implicate him in a recent theft, he runs out on her as she sleeps. In a steal from a famous sequence in Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood", the shadows of raindrops are cast over Isabel's face like tears. My favourite visual treat though is Soderbergh's choice to work predominantly with a contrasting colour palette of blues and oranges. It's gorgeous.

Another key element of the film is David Holmes' terrific score. Chock full of wakka-chukka wakka-chukka funky guitars, bongos and other modernized 60s sounds, the music is an essential component linking everything together. Early in the film, there's a great shift from the playful tone of Ocean and his wife (Julia Roberts) chatting on the phone to the desperate on the run situation he finds himself in when Benedict shows up. Holmes' driving rhythm follows him onto a speeding train and it captures the urgency, slight panic and churning thoughts of Ocean as the camera shows him from a variety of angles. It's an "OK, here we go..." moment. The dance through the lasers during The Night Fox's theft of the Faberge Egg is another moment - but this time it's pure art. Orange and blue is the colour scheme of course, but the scene is made by Holmes' accompanying slightly funky tune. It's a great match of the visuals to the music as it truly feels like the master criminal is dancing through those random laser beams while that music plays in his headphones. The scene, of course, is ridiculous if you read the film as a pure heist picture. Physically impossible. And yet it brings a smile to my face every time because it is such a joy to watch.

The characters in the film depend heavily on the performances and the actors themselves. It's hard to separate Ocean from Clooney, Ryan from Pitt and the other team members from their respective famous actors (Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, Bernie Mac, etc.). Soderbergh's not looking to do that though since much of the humour (and there's a good deal of it) consists of in-jokes, specific acting quirks and well-timed pauses and beats. Many have complained that the entire enterprise is just a bunch of friends making themselves laugh. Perhaps, but at least there's no pandering for broad appeal or attempts to explain everything. As well, it gives them the freedom to be relaxed and confident as they work through getting the rhythms of a scene (Matt Damon in particular is very adept at hitting his beats on the nose). If you don't get the "Kashmir" joke that's OK, maybe you'll love the Topher Grace cameo ("I totally phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie") or the Bruce Willis surprise visit or the left in outtakes (Scott Caan cracking up at a tossed off Elliot Gould line while they wait for the bathroom). It's not smarmy - they genuinely look like they're having fun, so it's easy to ride along with them. Is the Julia Roberts storyline a bit too self-aware? Maybe so, but given the nature of the rest of the story, reading too much more into it then the fact that it's just a clever way of playing up her celebrity would be a mistake.

It doesn't matter though. Soderbergh is using the medium and a fun story to play and create a work of art that can be rewatched and enjoyed time and again for all of its style, techniques and compositions as well as its story, script and characters. It's got it all - style AND substance.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Wonderful look at my favorite film from the OCEAN'S trilogy. I am so glad I am not the only one who values this film so highly.

Bob Turnbull said...

You and I are in a small but elite club Jeremy. One that has great taste. B-)