FILM FORTNIGHT: Ocean’s Eleven

Any film with ‘Eleven’ in its title is giving itself rather ambitious goals; eleven of anything, be it targets, bad guys, explosions or, as in this case, lead characters, is always going to be difficult to fit into a film without at least the last four losing any touch of something special. Even the original Ocean’s Eleven, made back in 1960 (did you know this film was a remake? I sure as hell didn’t) apparently made do with just five main leads and a few bit-part players to act as manpower for the con, and by introducing eleven distinct characters each with a well-defined role, the risk of the whole film turning into a screen time contest is ever-present. Thankfully, everybody knows their place; the film is plenty long enough for everyone to get their five minutes of character definition so we know who the hell this guy is when he shows up an hour later, and the film has the good sense to be plot- rather than character-driven to allow it to stick to what it’s about; the heist.

Yes, it’s another organised crime/massively-overblown-way-of-nicking-a-ton-of-money film; our protagonist this time is George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, recently released from prison and instantly deciding to go back into business as a career criminal (because laying low is for wusses). His partner in crime is old friend Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and their plan is hardly lacking for ambition; rob the vault that serves three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas when at its fullest. This is a typical feature of modern big-budget film-making; building tension and a sense of ‘this really means something so I should care about it’ by virtue of sheer scale, rather than emphasising the importance of the con itself.

But ho-hum, the film tells us, this is not merely an exercise of scale; this con does have a special meaning for our characters. This comes in the form of Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) and Rather Unnecessary Romantic Subplot™ which, since it takes the form of a ‘big reveal’ halfway through the film I shall choose not to spoil here. Not that it matters especially, since it is a rather extraneous feature; it doesn’t serve to make the protagonist’s actions any more realistic since it is so bloody stupid, and its only real reason for being is so that the filmmakers could put Julia Roberts’ name on the promo material. In 2001 Roberts was the undisputed female star of the film industry, the first woman ever to be paid $20 million for a film, and her name sold cinema seats.

Anyway, back to the actual con, where the film now tries to build scale through complexity; to pull it off, Ocean and Ryan decide to build a the stereotypical ‘crack team’ to handle the job. To this end, they recruit nine fellow crewmembers, each with their own special skill and stereotype revealed in their scheduled two minutes of exposition. We have the socially awkward pickpocket (Matt Damon), the incredibly cockney explosives nut (Don Cheadle, executing what is often regarded as the worst British accent in cinema history), the gifted but infighting brothers (Casey Affleck/Scott Caan) and the Oriental super-acrobat (Shaobo Qin), to name but the most interesting, and all have their requisite one moment of usefulness in the resulting con itself.

However, even if the film has the good sense not to focus on its protagonists, the sheer number of them still presents issues. Of the film’s two hour running time, what feels like three-quarters of it is made up of pure setup, with no action, no fun, no heist; nothing to keep the pace up and the film interesting. In a genre where pace and tension are everything, having no actually interesting subplots to keep the ball rolling for the first hour or so is sheer directorial madness. It seems as if the film was relying on the Clooney/Roberts romantic subplot to cover this period, but since this whole dynamic never feels either especially real nor purports to be meaningful it’s not enough to carry the whole shebang. Steven Soderbergh is not exactly delivering a vintage directorial display here.

The number of actors presents problems in other ways too; there are some pretty good bits of acting on show here, with Clooney being realistic if not particularly emotional and Pitt bringing some characteristic personality to his role. Carl Reiner’s Saul, an old-school con man with one of the more significant roles in the film, also works as a consistent and compelling character, helped by a generous portion of screentime, but these turns are so restricted for space that none of them are ever able to mean anything, only serving to highlight the flaws in the film’s plot. It doesn’t help that pickpocket Linus Caldwell has the misfortune to be played by Matt Damon, who doesn’t appear to function terribly well when not leading a film. His performance here is somewhat uninspired, which would be more forgiveable were his character not meant to be particularly significant. Between these character flaws and those in the film’s storyline, by 80 minutes in I was getting positively bored.

Soderbergh does manage to, somewhat belatedly, partially redeem himself with the execution of the film’s central con, when it finally turns up; the deception employed is as multi-layered, clever and effective as a good on-screen heist should be. It also manages to be totally unexpected without resorting to any of the deus ex machina that inexplicably turned up in the sequel, instead relying on a supremely well-set up piece of criminality that would be far more effective if it had the good grace to turn up at the end of a film I was actually emotionally invested in.

In my review of The Sting, I described it as ‘Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations’. Whereas The Sting is a proper old-fashioned crime film, Ocean’s Eleven only tries to be one for the last half-hour, and is significantly poorer for it. Still, could be worse; Ocean’s Twelve proved that.

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.