December: Ocean's Eleven
This month I got into the universe that Steven Soderbergh created as a remake of the 1960 movie Ocean's 11. The 1960 movie centered around The Rat Pack and Frank Sinatra as Danny Ocean involves a heist at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve. Last year Soderbergh made a very Ocean's style movie in Logan Lucky and this year he produced a new chapter in the Ocean's universe, Ocean's 8, directed by Gary Ross. This month's movie is Ocean's Eleven (2001) in the context of the 1960 movie, the two sequels, and the movies from the last two years.
Ocean’s 11 (1960)
This is the original Rat Pack movie starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, Richard Conte, Joey Bishop and a few others that don’t really get fully flushed out characters. The heist is to rob three casinos on the Vegas strip at New Years by watching people going in and out of doors and sneaking the money out in a garbage truck. Richard Conte dies during the heist drawing suspicion onto the other Oceans. Cesar Romero tries to horn in on getting a cut or to expose them when he realizes his girlfriend’s son, Peter Lawford pulled the heist with his World War II buddies. All of the money ends up getting cremated with Conte’s body and the Oceans slink off onto the strip back where they were when the movie started.
This was made before the end of the production code meaning that this movie couldn’t have been released if the guys got away with stealing the money. They would either have to be punished or lose the money. In The Killing by Stanley Kubrick, they almost get away with the money only to have the suitcase with the money get knocked open and the main character sees the money swirl around in the wind on an airport tarmac. The loss of the money in the crematorium in Las Vegas is similar to a story line in the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever where the diamonds are hidden in a corpse headed to cremation just outside Las Vegas.
With movies of such large ensemble casts, it’s hard to get everyone in frame and both make it look good and make it look like they are naturally in the same space together. The 1960 movie has a little trouble doing this. When they are planning the heist we see all but one or two of the main crew standing around a pool table. It’s a little crowded and a little too staged looking. The idea that not all of them are together in the same frame might be that they aren’t unified as a group yet, however they should have already been bound by their brotherhood in the same unit in the war. That was the whole point of why they’re getting together for the heist. They finally come together in the same shot at the very end when they have realized the money is lost and they are all walking back to the Vegas strip in a line. It’s the best shot of the movie, but the rest of the movie is not quite as interesting. Maybe it is interesting if you want to listen to the same Dean Martin lounge song over and over again until you need to be as drunk as Dean Martin to make it through the rest of the movie.
Other movies from 1960 were Spartacus, La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura, Psycho and The Magnificent Seven.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Soderbergh didn’t want any character connections to the Rat Pack movie, the only connection really is that it’s a heist of three Vegas casinos at the same time. The team of George Clooney, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, Don Cheadle, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner and Matt Damon plan a heist of the vault during a Heavyweight Championship fight by staging a break in with a fake surveillance video and getting into other high jinks. The whole motivation for Ocean to pull the heist is to get back at Andy Garcia for stealing his wife Julia Roberts, not to be confused with the character of Julia Roberts who unfortunately shows up in a later movie.
Soderbergh went in with the intent to make a movie for the fun of film making. He was a director that didn’t do action movies and was making a movie with an eye toward dramatic movie making. He had been making movies with pretty serious subject matters in the years around the first Oceans like Erin Brokovich and Traffic. He wasn’t strictly a dramatic director, Schizopolis was a heavily satirical movie he made with very little studio interference that he stars in as a comedic character (or two). He shows a natural sense of humor even in the middle of dramatic film making.
There area comedians hidden away in this as he most notably did in The Informant, but also did in Behind the Candalabra with Tom Papa and Dan Akroid. Bernie Mac had just established himself as one of the biggest stand ups in the world in the early 2000’s thanks to the success of The Original Kings of Comedy.
One of Soderbergh’s secrets to his success might just be that he forces himself to read the script start to finish every week of production so that he maintains focus in the movie and the themes. It’s essential to have a grasp of all the intricacies of involved details in a story when the heist is built on reveal and is a step by step plan. The team comes together for the first time to watch a PowerPoint presentation of the heist. We don’t get to see much of the plan in this scene, we don’t see all of it until it is already playing out, that is, unless one could understand the nonsense jargon that the characters throw against each other. Perhaps with a movie-specific thesaurus the plot of the movie would be given away in real time.
Soderbergh modeled the utilization of the large cast on ensemble movies from the ‘60’s that used all of their characters like Magnificent 7 and The Great Escape. He liked those more than the Dirty Dozen or the 1960 movie because he liked how they gave fuller stories to all of the team members instead of just brushing over them as background scenery. This 1960’s inspiration lent itself to the retro styling of the David Holmes score.
The heist ends with the team enjoying a quiet moment watching the fountains at the Bellagio. The movie opens and closes on prison, Clooney returning to the clink because the casino knew he was in on it the whole robbery somehow and he gets his three to six months of punishment for involvement. Clooney is greeted out of prison by his wife (Roberts) and his work wife (Pitt).
Other Soderbergh movies around this time would be Erin Brockovich and Traffic from the previous year. Soderbergh was nominated for Best Director for Brockovich and won the award for Traffic in a rare instance where he was nominated against himself.
Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Julia Roberts’ “Tess” character joins the gang, and Catherine Zeta-Jones kind of toes the line of trying to catch them and also joining into the gang. The crew goes to Amsterdam to try to earn back money they stole from Andy Garcia who has tracked them down and demanded satisfaction. This movie of failures, both written for the characters and in the film in general, has Vincent Cassel facing off against the Oceans to steal a Faberge Egg.
Soderbergh was working on Solaris when he was coming up with ideas on Ocean’s 12. This isn’t an excuse for how either movie turned out because the guy is always working on more than one project at a time as well as being his own editor and cinematographer. This is a movie about failures of all the characters involved. They’re working off the debt of the first movie in a plot based on the story Honor Among Thieves.
Ocean’s 12 is one of the rare film commentaries where a filmmaker knows that the movie didn’t succeed and a lot of people had problems with it. Soderbergh had already been questioned at length by critics and fans about “what happened?” He doesn’t concede that it fully works as a movie or is especially good. Talks about enjoying the Oceans movies even if the process of making them might not be enjoyable 100%, he’s making movies that he wants to see.
There was some trepidation on the production about the risky story choice of having Julia Roberts playing an impostor of herself. Julia as Julia said “there were a lot of nervous people when this was talked about and done… there was a worry that it would open up a vortex. Is it going to tear the fabric of the movie apart and her career with it… It’s not a new idea, it comes from My Girl Friday.” She’s playing that she’s pretending to be pregnant when in reality she was pregnant and hadn’t told anybody (the real Julia). “She’s a movie star, she’s not the pope,” from the screenwriter about why the character can be uses, Catherine Zeta Jones character says the same thing about why the character can’t touch the MacGuffin.
There are some good things to this movie. The David Holmes score is absolutely dynamic, Soderbergh says that even if you didn’t enjoy the movie you had to enjoy the music. I got a kick out of seeing that there is a scene in a night club where the night club is named The Night Club Scene. I might have only enjoyed that so that I could write that sentence.
The ending is also quite enjoyable set at a poker game party in a little reception room at a hotel. The final shot is a great still frame of Catherine Zeta Jones laughing in a blur after she has joined into the fun of the gang after investigating them in the main plot. This is echoed by the FBI agent in Logan Lucky crashing the impromptu party at the end leaving it open ended whether she is joining them, busting them or just observing. Soderbergh said that he sees Oceans 11 and 12 as parties and he wants you to get to enjoy the other party goers.
Other Soderbergh movies around this time would be Solaris two years before, and a segment in the movie Eros that was also directed by Wong Kar-wai and Michelangelo Antonioni the same year as Ocean’s 12.
Ocean’s 13 (2007)
Amsterdam seemed to be a mistake so the Oceans were back to Vegas. This time they add Andy Garcia as one of the Oceans, even if if they eye-roll their way into accepting him, and maybe Eddie Izzard. It’s not really clear that that the 11, 12 and 13 suffixes to the movies relates to the sizes of the gangs or just that they’re playing with suffixes with sequels. Soderbergh wanted to name it something like “Ocean’s 30” or “Ocean’s 50” as a joke that they keep adding characters in the gang. My favorite joke on sequel suffixes comes from the movie The Independent starring Jerry Stiller, where one of the fake movies his character had directed is titled “Word War III… II.” We lose the ladies in this movie, Soderbergh said that he and Clooney just wanted this movie to be the boys because it would be about the fraternal bond that they have. Al Pacino is the villain, nearly killing Elliott Gould by crushing his dreams. Pacino covets his trophies for hotels so the team sabotage his chances at another award and steal his other awards.
The production designed a fictional casino for the skyline of Vegas to be the setting for the heist. Soderbergh and the writer hoped that people would see the movie and look for it to be real on the strip. The casino embraces the new market of Vegas of catering to Chinese and Japanese tourists. Vegas is the only city in the US with master chefs from China who are brought in for tourists so they aren’t subjected to Americanized Chinese food. Al Pacino’s casino opens with a Sumo event.
It’s an unrealistic casino in the sense that you wouldn’t be able to have two open floors of gaming and not have a serious risk of cheating. The impossibility of cheating inspired some of the sequences in the movie. The brothers are sent to the dice factory because the writer’s research showed him that the dice are watched at every moment after they are created. They would have to be fixed before they were finally made.
When the magnetron was brought in as an aspect of the heist to knock out the power on the strip, engineer and indie filmmaker Shane Caruth was consulted for what that device would do and how it would look. These kinds of things are never exact to real life but the science fiction does have to capture the essence of reality. This kind of consulting seems to be Caruth’s expertise in not-too-indie film making thanks to the acclaim of his micro-budget film, Primer. He was also Rian Johnson’s time travel consultant on Looper to the extent that we’re supposed to suspend disbelief. This Caruth connection might add Looper and Primer into the same universe.
There’s a little closer of a connection to the Oceans movies right from the movies of Steven Soderbergh, Clooney and Cheadle. Out of Sight is an odd mixture of a rom-com, heist, and prison movie with some pretty brutal violence sprinkled in. Clooney plays a bank robber in for one last heist of Albert Brooks’ home in Detroit to steal uncut diamonds. That Clooney character is a little less refined version of Ocean, he could be the same guy as he has a good track record for his heists and does end the movie in custody. It’s very much not the same Cheadle character as Ocean’s, but it is a world filled with doppelgangers. The Albert Brooks inclusion makes some sense connecting to Ocean’s because Brooks’ real life brother Bob Einstein (yes, Brooks’ birth name was actually “Albert Einstein”) plays Damon’s father in Ocean’s 13. That would mean that Clooney could have met Damon’s family through his uncle in prison.
The heist ends on fireworks at Elliot Gould’s house. It’s the closest ending to the fountains at the end of Ocean’s 11, although because they are at Gould’s house, they do no need to casually flee each other. The team had gathered together for the first time here in the first movie for the pitch of the heist and they gather there for the last time at the end of this movie. Bernie Mac had suffered health problems during Ocean’s 12 and had a limited number of scenes where he was available and just a year after Ocean’s 13 he died at the age of fifty.
Other Soderbergh movies around this time would be the post-war movie The Good German the year before and the two part epic Che the year after Ocean’s 13.
Logan Lucky (2017)
The team of Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, the garbage truck diver Charles Halford, kind of Sebastian Stan and maybe Hilary Swank. They steal concessions earnings from the Charlotte Motor Speedway while Seth MacFarlane doesn’t like what they’re doing at all, even though it’s not really his money. The heist is in Charlotte, but the team has to go back and forth to the track from West Virginia.
Guest Editor Tom Parkman's Note: "The major plot point in the movie is ruined a little if you do too much research. There are no underground tunnels under the track and there are no tubes for transporting money. Other than some drainage areas, there are only 2 tunnels...one under turn 3 and one under turn 4. They are access tunnels to get into/out of the infield. They aren't very big, basically 2-lane roads that go under the track for a hundred yards, maybe.The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race of the year. It is the only NASCAR Cup race that is schedule at more than 500 miles (it is 600 miles/400 laps)."
Tom has some special expertise for this track, formerly working for the track and a current employee of Fox Sports working on the auto racing team.
Channing Tatum had already been a favorite actor of Soderbergh, starring in Magic Mike and also acting in Haywire, both in 2012, but Adam Driver has a tendency to work with directors as though he’s catching Pokemon. He wants to collect them all. And he has collected a lot of the great directors that have been active in the 2010’s, working with Clint Eastwood, Noah Baumbach, Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Jim Jarmusch, Scorsese, Soderbergh, Rian Johnson, Spike Lee and Terry Gilliam, all since 2011.
Oddly enough, Tatum and Driver were involved in one of the stranger movie connections to come out in the same year. Tatum also had a sizable role in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a movie that also has a main plot point of a character intentionally losing a prosthetic arm, and has a character singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in the movie.
There are parallels to the Oceans movies. Seth MacFarlane tries to channel Don Cheadle’s bizzaro cockney accent. Cheadle’s character was originally written as a British character, then changed when Cheadle was cast only to have him show up in accent. He contributed the colloquialisms and Soderbergh let him run with it. MacFarlane still looks like an American who is doing an accent rather than a strange British guy.
This has one of the few direct connections to the 1960 heist is the use of a garbage truck to get the money out of there. The Logan Lucky garbage escape is a late movie reveal. Other similarities are crossovers with actresses. Tatum’s daughter is going to sing a song in “Lucky” and Katie Holmes plays Tatum’s ex-wife. Rihanna is a member of the Ocean’s gang in Eight and the “as herself” Holmes sits at the Met Ball table with Anne Hathaway. These all seem to fit with the “Julia as Julia” theme from Twelve.
Logan Lucky diverges from Oceans by being unglamorous in the gang and the setting. These are people from Appalachia and they’re pulling a heist on a NASCAR event. Members of the gang are dealing with injuries from military service, dealing with unemployment, lack of education or incarceration. The cast of the Logan family is interesting, Driver is a former marine, Channing Tatum was a male stripper in Florida and Riley Keough comes from American royalty, the grand daughter of Elvis Presley.
The landscape of the movie is populated by it’s own kind of rural royalty, NASCAR drivers. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are state troopers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are security guards, Kyle Larson is a limo driver and Ryan Blaney is a delivery boy. These are all roles that play on either the speeds that they drive, or NASCAR’s roots in prohibition.
One of the biggest mysteries of this movie surrounds the screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt. Daniel Craig (who does a convincing reverse-Cheadle) and other actors claim to have emailed with her and that she is a British woman. Some have claimed to have met her when she visited the set although a visit isn’t verified, in fact it is mostly reported that she never visited the set.. She doesn’t have any other credits, nor are there any records of pictures of her nor interviews. She doesn’t seem to exist, at least the Rebecca Blunt from this movie. Some inside sources say that Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner wrote the movie, although she has never worked in film nor has she worked on any of her husband’s TV projects. She did have a well received novel in 2008. It’s probably just as likely that Soderbergh wrote it himself. When he is the cinematographer on his own films he works under the name “Peter Andrews” and when he is his own editor he is credited as Mary Ann Bernard. Although… he didn’t use pseudonyms for editing or cinematography on Logan Lucky. Another candidate is Asner’s friend and former co-worker at the E! Network, John Henson, who was said to have been working on a script with Soderbergh for years. It is pretty widely believed that Jules Asner wrote the movie. She originally comes from West Virginia and it’s said that she is a distant relative of “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virgina” who share her maiden name. The Whites are a real life notorious family from the area of the film who are more involved with prescription drug abuse and welfare fraud whose history and current exploits were shown in a documentary produced by Johnny Knoxville in 2009.
The heist ends after the authorities seem to have given up the chase. The gang celebrates in Driver’s bar and Hillary Swank’s character who had previously been investigating them crashes the party as a fly on the wall. She is either just curious about them and paying respects, breaking the case on her own, or kind of joining the gang by letting them get away at the very end. The only one missing at the end is the Bear in the Woods, who plays with explosives while donning a fur suit that helps him disappear into thin air.
Other Soderbergh projects around this time would be The Knick on Cinemax as well as executive producing the shows Red Oaks, the Girlfriend Experience and Godless from 2014 to 2017. Logan Lucky was his first feature film since the 2013 movies Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra.
Ocean’s 8 (2018)
Sandra Bullock spins off from her brother from space, George Clooney to pull a heist with 73% of the people the guys needed. She enlists Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter and they later bring in Anne Hathaway to make it a round eight. The villain isn’t who they are stealing the jewelry on display at the Met Ball in New York, it’s Bullock’s ex who is being set up for the heist, Richard Armitage.
Opens on Debbie Ocean in front of the parole board, much as the first Soderbergh movie does with George Clooney. We learn early on that Danny Ocean is dead signaling the definitive end of the Soderbergh trilogy of movies. It would only make sense to not give hope that those movies would return because Bernie Mac has passed away and Carl Reiner is in his nineties. This is executive produced by Soderbergh but not directed by him and he doesn’t have any of his pseudonyms at work on the picture.
There are little character nods to the Soderbergh movies. Cate Blanchet watches Judge Judy during the day while George Clooney and Brad Pitt watched Oprah in their movies.There are scenes in Ocean’s 8 of brief conversations between the women either rehashing things we know or talking about stuff not related to the heist. These are like comedic cut-aways giving a taste of the characters outside of the lines of the job to show they are just oddballs like everyone else. These movies are filled with close relationships even through the ribbing. There are pairs of work husbands and wives: Sandy and Cate, George and Brad, Casey and Caan.
Instead of pitching the heist at a pool table or with a power point or with a list of a fridge, Sandra Bullock’s pitch comes in front of projected video of the Met Ball in their hide out warehouse space. Almost nothing is given away in this rat trap and some of the pieces of the plan have to be seen on rewatch, not even in a recap or a reveal. One part that is hard to catch is the Banksy picture that is put up in the museum We get a brief look at Sandy walking by with a portfolio then we are distracted by the same woman that distracts the guard. This is set up as their way into getting security to change and reveal their own plans to guard the ball. It’s never really clear if the painting really was made by Banksy.
The celebrity cast mixed with real life celebrities of the Met Ball. The host of the gala, Ana Wintour is a huge tennis fan and the ball is peppered with tennis stars. She is a fan of both men's and women’s tennis but the stars of the game we see are Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova because this movie is about the the ladies.
The heist ends with the women hanging out in the warehouse hide out one more time to lounge and laugh together. Sandra Bullock goes back one more time to her brother’s grave, seeming to give a nod that he might not really be dead, but it sure would step on her toes if he were to come walking back around the corner of the mausoleum.
In 2018 Steven Soderbergh produced Ocean’s Eight and also directed the movie Unsane entirely with iPhones. He has two movies in production with release dates to be announced.
Next month and next year: I'm probably not going to stick with the plan 100% so that guest posts and posts on new releases find their ways in here. The plan is going to write about film pairings where I take a Hitchcock movie and a movie by another great director and write a little something on that. they might not always have the closest relationship, but it's an excuse to talk about great directors and great movies. Up first will be The Coen Brother's film A Serious Man and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.