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Steven Soderbergh is on fire. Fresh from his box-office triumphs, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, the 39 year-old Director has shifted his focus to a film that is just plain fun. And he picked his mark impeccably well.

The 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven was merely an excuse for the Rat Pack to belt out some tunes and party hard after filming was done for the day. If Sinatra, Martin, Davis et al poured as much energy into the production as they did their after-dark performances the film would’ve been a massive hit. Sadly it wasn’t, with the undeniable charisma of the stars the only thing preventing it from being a total flop. Enter Steven Soderbergh in 2001 to give us the film that should’ve been made in the first place. The star power is retained, but this time there’s a killer story and some seriously slick production values to go along with it.

George Clooney was the key. With so many characters involved in the story there needed to be a talented ensemble to pull it off properly. So our boy George slashed his pay cheque so that others could be paid to jump on board. Ironically he and Soderbergh went about recruiting members of the cast in much the same way as Danny Ocean enlists his fellow crooks during the film. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clooney slipped into character, looked Brad Pitt in the eye and said, “Are you in, or are you out?”

And the rest is casting history. Big name stars got on the Ocean’s Eleven bandwagon, most with a reputedly smaller pay packet than their market value demanded. All to be able to make the film they wanted to make. Now that’s what movies are all about.

Steven Soderbergh has an incredible eye for telling the story with some complicated shots. There are quite a few instances where he takes in several characters and several situations in one continuous movement. The need to fit in eleven men into the scene at the one time wasn’t a burden for him, merely a chance to make the film look even more slick by moving the camera around and showing all of the personalities in action. Brilliant stuff.  

Clooney and Soderbergh weren’t the only ones pulling strings to bring out the best in the story. Veteran producer Jerry Weintraub was using his Vegas connections to good effect, securing unparalleled access to the big casinos that feature in the film. What we see is the result of Jerry’s early involvement in the Las Vegas casino scene. He secured the Bellagio for filming and probably did more publicity for the place with this film than any marketing campaign ever could. Ironically, Weintraub was around when Sinatra and the like were lighting up Vegas in the 60’s so it was fitting for him to play the fatherly role behind the scene of this film.

"Are we cool or what?"

Movie

The actual heist, which forms the basis of the plot, is as complicated as it is entertaining. Con-man Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney, of course) has been released from jail on parole but he’s got another plan up his sleeve. Millionaire casino boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) is now dating his ex-wife, so Danny decides to exact more than just a little revenge. He plans to rob three of Benedict’s casinos on a fight night, netting around $150 million in cold, hard, casino cash. This isn’t a one-man job so his first port of call is old friend Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), now consigned to teaching young Hollywood starlets how to play poker. Look for very amusing cameos from Joshua Jackson, Holly Marie Combs and Shane West among others. And Rusty’s a hungry boy too, seen feeding his face in most of his scenes. Together these two look through their little black books of crooks and find the best men available for the task required. Here’s where the fun begins.

Danny ropes in Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), a gifted yet nervous young pickpocket who blindly agrees to the job almost on the spot, which is apparently how Soderbergh and Clooney signed Damon to play the part in the first place. Linus is joined by cockney explosives expert Basher (Don Cheadle), tough old man Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) and disgruntled ex-casino boss Reuben (Elliott Gould) as the financier. But wait, there’s more! Throw in circus performer and human rubber band Yen (Shaobo Qin), nerdy technology guru Livingston Dell (Edward Jemison), childish drivers Virgil and Turk (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) and Frank Catton (Bernie Mack), the croupier and inside man. Together these guys have just enough criminal nous to pull off the greatest casino heist in history.

What ensues is one of the slickest, coolest and most entertaining heist films in history. The dialogue is absolutely spot on and the delivery can’t be faulted. Clooney and Pitt give an effortless touch to their quick-witted banter, while the performance of Matt Damon is brilliantly self-restrained to give the character of Linus Caldwell just the right amount of vulnerability. Don Cheadle is hilarious with his incomprehensible cockney accent, while Casey Affleck and Scott Caan are surprisingly effective. Those two must have been ecstatic when they heard who had joined them in the flick. Reiner and Gould are perfectly cast, with Reiner proving he’s still got the ability to pull off a difficult character. Bernie Mack and Eddie Jemison are great and even Shaobo Qin fits in with the A-list cast, even though he’s more of an acrobat than an actor.

Andy Garcia is an inspired choice as Terry Benedict, becoming the perfect villain we love to hate. Watch closely as he uses his eyes more than his words to show us that Benedict is as sly as they come.

I’ve never been a fan of Julia Roberts, save for Erin Brockovich, but there’s no doubting her unbelievable screen presence. She’s got a small role but still manages to deliver her sharp-edged retorts to Danny Ocean with aplomb. This is the cast that dreams are made of. They’ve got charisma, panache, flair, screen presence, nous and any other cool-sounding adjective you can throw at this talented bunch.

There’s something about a film with a bunch of characters teaming up that really perks up my interest. Everything from Sneakers to Gone In 60 Seconds has that sense of being able to witness a conglomeration of personalities working together for a goal. Heck, even The Mighty Ducks has some of that mix which makes it mildly enjoyable.

With an impressive list of accomplished actors that even Woody Allen would be proud of and a story that outstrips a poor man’s heist like The Score by a million to one, it’s hard to think that anyone would find this film any less than pure entertainment. Like the Rat Pack before them, you can tell that the cast is having a ball. This time, however, they have managed to channel that enthusiasm into bringing us good, clean fun that has been seriously lacking in films of late. Let this movie shift the focus back to providing audiences with simple enjoyment rather than trying to shock or depress them into appreciating the story.

Everything Steven Soderbergh touches turns to gold. Think of Ocean’s Eleven as the biggest cinematic nugget of fun man has ever seen.

Benedict being royally screwed

Video

The first thing you notice about the look of the film is that it is incredibly slick, much like the way the production turned out on the whole. Presented in 2.35:1 and 16:9 enhanced, the transfer is pretty darn stunning. It’s a little on the soft side at times, but this is due more to the choices made by the cinematographers (and Soderbergh, who was again the principal cameraman on his film). The print is quite dark yet the colours are extremely vibrant, giving it the after-dark Vegas look that was obviously what was needed. There are only a couple of minor imperfections, namely Danny’s shirt as he travels up the escalator and some of the bright lights of the Vegas scenes which were always going to be difficult to get exactly right. Nevertheless this is a very good-looking film and the transfer does it full justice. Top stuff.

Audio

The best thing about this soundtrack is the awesome work by David Holmes on the background music. There’s a bass guitar-driven music track that runs throughout the film and is quite incredible in its effectiveness. It gives off the clean, jazzy feel that is spot on with what the film is trying to achieve. The story is moved along at a great pace due in part to one of the simplest and most effective music tracks going around. And with the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in full swing it’s a pleasure to hear the deep bass coming out of the speakers. There’s also a couple of contemporary tracks, including an inspired use of the song Take My Breath Away and the obligatory Elvis track which is the staple soundtrack diet for this kind of film.

There’s not a great deal of surround use save for the bells and whistles of a thousand poker machines in the Bellagio but the dialogue is always very clear and easy to understand. A great listen if only for the brilliant choice of music by David Holmes who, incidentally, worked on the previous Clooney hit Out Of Sight.

Extras

Roadshow have put together a decent extras package without going over the top, all of which are top notch in quality. First up is the commentary track with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Andy Garcia which, if nothing else, gives us an insight into exactly how much fun these guys had shooting the flick. Pitt is the most vocal of the bunch but seems to disappear around three quarters of the way into the film, leaving Damon and Garcia to take up the flack. He then magically re-enters some time later, laughing at Bernie Mack calling Linus a “cracker”. There are a few quiet moments and a lot of the time is spent talking about how much they admire so-and-so, but these guys are still a joy to listen to. Damon’s impression of producer Jerry Weintraub is very amusing, as are Pitt’s constant jibes at George Clooney.

The second commentary is from Director Steven Soderbergh and Writer Ted Griffin, who give more of a technical view of the film. They include details about their casting choices, the differences between the original script and the final product and the filming conventions used to create the intended look of the film. These guys are good to listen to and have a decent rapport so it’s well worth a listen.

Also included on the disc are two documentaries about the making of the film. The first is a featurette called The Look Of The Con which takes a look at the costumes and personalities of the characters. Conducted mainly through an interview with costume designer Jeffrey Kurland this piece is almost as slickly produced as the film itself. While Kurland is talking we can see early development sketches of the characters’ costumes as well as the finished product taken from clips of the movie. Steven Soderbergh also chips in with a few words, making this fifteen-minute doco pretty worthwhile to look at. The other featurette is a standard sort of documentary entitled, oddly enough, The Making Of Ocean’s Eleven. This one is also pretty slickly produced, using a split-screen technique like in the actual film for the majority of the time. There are interviews with all the key cast and crew and it’s a pretty good watch. There’s not all that much information given to us that is new but there’s some good behind the scenes footage mixed in with clips from the movie.

The carol singers looked a little different this year

Rounding off the disc are the theatrical trailer which is very effective and two teasers, the first of which makes the film out to be much more of a comedy than it really is. There are also cast & crew biographies and a special surprise which comes in the form of a DVD-ROM based game entitled In Or Out? Usually the computer stuff on most discs isn’t all that flash (pardon the pun) but this one is a pearler. You go through a series of stages involving answering questions, cracking codes and picking locks. It’s a bit of a challenge until you get the hang of it so the game won’t be over in five minutes. A really good addition to the disc and a lot of fun.

Overall this is a pretty good package of quality extras. Soderbergh hinted in the commentary that there were very few deleted scenes of any significance mainly because they were so tight with what they were shooting and that the script was extremely solid so they didn’t need to cut too much out during the editing stage. This bunch of extras will satisfy even the toughest of fans like me.

Overall

I can’t recommend this DVD enough. The film is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in a long time and really makes for a great night’s entertainment. Watching all those A-list stars on screen is absolute candy for the eye and it’s clear that they were enjoying themselves just as much. Soderbergh’s talent is undeniable and it’s very pleasing to see him hone these qualities into a film that aims at pure fun. Couple that with great video and audio and a quality extras package and you’ve got yourself a must-have for any DVD collection. Let’s hope for more of the same in the future.


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