Friday, August 2, 2013

Film Friday: Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

I should hate this film on so... many... levels. Half the actors are jerks. The writing is nonsense. The whole film is nothing but a product placement. Wow. I should be railing against this sucker. Yet, I really enjoy this film. This is one of those rare films where style trumps everything else. This isn’t a film, it’s an experience, and if you’re using your brain, then you’re doing it wrong.
Willy Bank (Al Pacino) is an evil man. He dominates the Vegas casino industry and he just cheated his partner, Reuben, who just happens to be good friends with Danny Ocean (George Clooney). This was wrong. See, Bank shook Sinatra’s hand, as did Reuben, and that means Bank broke the code by cheating Reuben. So Danny and his crew set out to bankrupt Bank’s new casino to set things right. From there, the film becomes a Rube Goldberg heist plan in which Ocean and the boys need to break Bank’s security, rig the games to cheat in favor of the guests at a specific time, and then get all the guests out of the casino before they lose the money back.
Why This Film Works
To understand why this film works, let me explain why the original Ocean’s 11 worked... not the Soderbergh remake, but the original 1960’s film staring Frank Sinatra. Ocean’s 11 worked because of a form of nostalgia. Ocean’s 11 is like an invite to spend time with the hippest cats America has ever produced... the Rat Pack. When you watch Ocean’s 11, you aren’t watching to see if they pull off the heist, nor are you watching for plot or to see the acting. No. You are watching to get a glimpse of Frank Sinatra playing around with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. You are watching to get a sense of what it was like to go to Vegas in 1960 and sit in the audience as all these guys showed up and clowned around for a couple hours right in front of you... these singers and comedians who advised presidents and ran with the mob, married the most eligible women of the era, stormed Hollywood on their own terms, and dominated the music world. These guys represent an entire era in American culture.

What does this have to do with Ocean’s Thirteen? Well, Ocean’s Thirteen is the second sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, which is a sort of remake of Ocean’s 11. Only, whereas Ocean’s Eleven really was never more than just a heist film that borrowed characters from Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s Thirteen captures the spirit of Ocean’s 11.
Like Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s Thirteen is entirely about the experience, not the story. It is about accessing a world you will never access on your own, no matter what you achieve in life. It is a world of casino whales and high rollers at a fantasy casino that is so ornate and stylized that it is the very essence of the image we have of “the casino experience,” an image that wasn’t true in the 1960’s when it was created and certainly isn’t true today. Indeed, nowhere in this film will you see slovenly tourists in Bermuda shorts placing one dollar bets in this casino. There are no rooms the size of closets and no employees who don’t speak English. The hotel staff here look like models or Hollywood butlers, not fat, lazy SEUI members. The guests are models dressed to the nines. The rooms are like mansions decorated by the best designers. Everywhere you look there are designer brands, premium alcohol, luxury cars, beautiful people.
Within this world you find yourself among a huge group of friends: Danny and Rusty and Linus and Reuben and Terry and the rest. And these aren’t like any friends you know. No, these people are all highly educated, clever, funny, beautiful, athletic... celebrities. They have amazing skills you can only dream of – gymnastics, computer hacking, super scheming, card sharping, etc. They are classy too, and they live by a code... a code of infinite loyalty, the kind of loyalty that makes you spend every penny of your millions of dollars to set right an insult made against one member of your crew. Even beyond that, they have amazing chemistry. In fact, they finish each other’s thoughts all the time and any one of them can completely screw up the entire plan without a hint of reproach from the others, because loyalty comes first and they never give up and never lose hope.

They have a good time too. In fact, despite the film being about a heist, it really isn’t. To the contrary, this film is about a chess match played against the ultimate fantasy casino for amazing stakes with no prospect that you will lose and played in a consequence free environment.

To put it simply, this is a fantasy world as much as if it had dragons... it is the American consumer vision of Heaven, and it lets you in completely. That’s why this film is so great. It offers you more and better friends than you’ve ever had, a playground you can never experience, and a game you can never really play in real life. It’s a hell of a ride.
What’s interesting to me is how the film builds this, because there are some fascinating little tricks that other writers should examine closely. First, to create the environment, the director essentially made a study of what works in the luxury advertisement world, and then he brought it to life. If you drive a Rolls, then hot chicks will get out of the car with you. If you drink Gray Goose, you will be rich and respected. If you wear the right clothes, you will be hip. This film takes all of American high-end consumerism and distills it to the images that appeal to us and injects them directly into your brain.

The friendships are interesting too because of how they’re built. First, no one has friends like this. Name one friend of yours who would throw away ten million dollars, everything they own, just to avenge an insult made to another of your friends. Moreover, no one has this many close friends. In fact, management studies have found that humans aren’t capable of monitoring more than about eight relationships with any level of attention, which is why companies don’t put people directly in charge of hundreds of people. Yet, here you are literally surrounded by dozens of loyal-to-the-death friends who are closer to you than any real life friend... these are people you’ve adventured with.
Even more interestingly, to give you the feeling that they are in fact close friends, the writer uses a dialog trick to make you believe there’s a long-time relationship there. Specifically, the writer has the characters speak “in their own language,” by having them reference things you don’t know, and has them constantly finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts, as people who are long-time friends often do. Just as interestingly, the writer starts each scene with one character telling the end of a story involving people the two characters know. Not enough information is given to tell you the story, but enough information is given for you to guess what they are talking about. For example, a character might say, “So I jumped out the window as her husband chased me,” which is enough to let you understand what happened even if you don’t know any of the actual details. What this does is it gives you the feeling that you are in on their relationship because you can understand what they are talking about even as you think other people couldn’t understand because it’s an insider story. In effect, they trick you into thinking that you share their special language, which makes you part of the relationship. This is actually pretty brilliant writing.
Finally, the film rushes all of this past you in a bombarding montage of sound, colors and stylized images, sometimes even being shown in split-screen images. Essentially, the film runs at such a quick pace that you never get a chance to focus on anything you are watching. Adding to this intentional confusion, the film shows a good deal in quick flashbacks, which keep you disoriented, and it often requires you to keep track of the dialog between cuts, as the last line in one scene becomes the first line in the next scene. The result is a film that keeps you from focusing on the plot itself and makes you just “live in the moment.”

Ultimately, this film works not because it’s a good film, but because it immerses you into an idealized, stylized world of intense friendship and camaraderie, unimagined wealth, and an impossibly-high party atmosphere, all wrapped up in a thick sense of adventure. That’s why this film works and that’s why the original Ocean’s 11 worked: because it sells you a trip into a fantasy world with friends you could never have in real life. And for a brief moment, you can be buddies with the coolest people on earth.


Tennessee Jed said...

A nice review, Andrew. I did see this film, but I can't remember the circumstances. I think I was watching it "live" rather than on a DVR. As sometimes can happen, I was tired or distracted, or both. Point is, I couldn't get into it. And yes, I was predisposed to not like it, because of Clooney, Damon, and the gang. So, I suspect, I'll try and give it another chance if the opportunity arises (which it probably will.) Your premise seems sound. If the characters are compelling enough, one can get drawn in, and care about what is happening.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I was predisposed not to like it as well. Their politics angers me. I don't like sequels and sequels of sequels of remakes. The whole thing is shockingly packed with product placement and it's aggressively hip.

Yet, I found that once I just leaned back and let it do it's thing, I really came to enjoy it. It just felt like pure escapism of a really high order.

shawn said...

I like the new Oceans movies. I think part of it has to do with the fact that even though they are thieves, the people they steal from are bad people and so you can justify that they had it coming.

And there is a great chemistry between the male cast members. Clooney and company seem to genuinely be friends.

And when these flicks were coming out, I think only Clooney was on my political radar. Since then, Damon has really become politically aggressive.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I had a similar reaction. When the first one came out, only Clooney seemed political to me. Interestingly, by the time the third one came out, I no longer saw Clooney as that much of a politico as he mainly seemed to spend his time dating women and dumping them, but Damon really came on strong as a Grade A Asshole. I can still overlook that in these films because they are 100% politics free, but it's still a bit of an annoyance.

You make another interesting point... "male cast members." I have to say that I absolutely do not like any of the women in these films. They just don't have any chemistry with the others and they come across as nasty and cold. Whenever Roberts is on screen in particular, the movie feels like it stops cold.

Anonymous said...

Re: politics, Clooney seems to have mellowed over the years. Maybe that's the wrong word, and maybe I'm wrong, but I always felt, of all the celebrities who are overtly political, that he was the most sincere in his beliefs.

I enjoyed Ocean's Eleven very much. I never saw Ocean's Twelve but I've heard it wasn't very good.

As for this one, I enjoy it but it seems rather... small in comparison.

Funnily enough, I was living in LA and working as an extra on the WB lot and they were shooting this film on the next soundstage. I could see all the extras decked out in their dresses and tuxedos. A friend of mine was an extra in the film - she's visible on the right side of the frame in a shot of Pacino getting out of a car.

tryanmax said...

I'm a total sucker for heist movies, which you say this isn't, and yet it is. Thing is, I can't keep one straight from the next. I know I've seen this one, but I couldn't tell you a thing about it!

I think what reels me are the things you describe. It seems like all good heist movies share them in common: fast pacing, Rube Goldberg plots, opulence, luxury, "cool," tech, and of course, fierce loyalty.

Heist movies, for me, carry the same excitement as the old larger-than-life swashbuckler serials of the early talkies. It's really interesting when you look at the progression of film. It's a common complaint that films today have gotten too fast-paced. But that early stuff moved FAST! No, they didn't have smash-cuts and shaky-cams, but there is never a lull. I think what really happened is that cinema slowed down for a few decades mid-century.

tryanmax said...

Scott, I can tolerate wacko leftism if it's sincere. At that point, it's a genuine difference of worldview. Oddly, it's almost easier to find common ground with that sort. What irks me are the celebs (and regular folk) who pick their politics to be trendy. Criticize someone's genuine beliefs and they'll engage you. Criticize their fashion and they'll go apeshit.

5minutes said...

I'm a pretty big fan of this franchise, but for me, Thirteen was definitely the least of the group. I'm one of those oddballs who adores Twelve (for all its meandering nonsense) more than I love Eleven... and I do love Eleven.

Thirteen, for me, seemed more like an afterthought. It felt forced - like they had to do a sequel but they didn't really know why - and the addition of Terry as #13 really didn't sit right with how the character had been developed up until that point. The whole heist kinda made sense, but not really and the whole thing ultimately fell apart.

Plus, God help me, Al Pacino was the most boring villain this series could've come up with: a petty little powerbroker with no other motivation than self-interest (oo... how shocking!). I like Al, but here... no.

Call me nuts if you so desire.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think Clooney has toned down his politics as well. You almost never hear him talk about it these days. I think he probably realized that it mortally wounded his film career when he was openly political.

In terms of the film, it is less. There is little action and no travel in this one. It's just these guys standing around talking about what will happen and then BANG... it happens. If you're looking for plot, this film won't work. As I say, this one is like the original Ocean's Eleven, things happen, but what you're supposed to enjoy is just being part of the group.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I am too, and I think you're absolutely right about what make a heist film.

That's a good point about older films. I'm a big fan of films from that era and they are very fast paced. Things happen at lightening speed. Scenes are short and direct and end up in everyone racing somewhere or a fight. I think it's not until the 1960s that you started getting "contemplative" films, where the camera spent a lot of time staring at things. This film is very fast paced, like older films, its scenes are pure substance and very direct. What I think this film adds to the older formula is the hip camera work and the opulence.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Strangely, I agree. It's a lot easier to deal with a doctrinaire leftist than it is to deal with someone who just adopts the part. I think the difference is that the believer can discuss their views and thinks they'll win you over. The adopter can't discuss them and just tries to shut down debate.

AndrewPrice said...

5Minutes, I enjoy all three, but they are very different movies. This has become my favorite, with Eleven being my second favorite, and then Twelve, which I like but don't love.

As a pure film, Eleven is easily the best of the three. It has a strong plot, twists, turns, solid action and interesting characters. This one really just has interesting characters and the veneer of a plot. That said, when it comes to pure entertainment, I really enjoy this one the best. This one to me, just offers the most in terms of fantasy and escapism. There are no "down moments" here because the writer actually skipped them. There are no transition moment... again, they were skipped. It's just pure "up" all the way through. It's like a two hour ad that is actually enjoyable.

I have no problems at all with Terry Benedict, because I think this fits his character perfectly -- he's still a scumbag and he's doing it to take down a guy who has been a thorn in his side... "His hotel casts a shadow on my pool."

I also think Pacino is motivated by ego rather than money. His goal is the 5-star rating and to be KING! The money is just a vehicle to let them take that away from him.

Anonymous said...

Well, Clooney has two very interesting (and mainstream) films in the works: Gravity, with Sandra Bullock, and Brad Bird's Tomorrowland.

It's a shame he's past the point of no return for a lot of people. (Though he's obviously not interested in money, given the esoteric films he's been starring in. I can respect that.)

James Cagney was once suspected of being a radical and went on to do Yankee Doodle Dandy to repair his image. If that happened today, I doubt such a move would be seen as sincere.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The American public, a few ideologues not included, are remarkably forgiving. If you stop being an ass, they will forget pretty quickly. Clooney can fix his career with most people.

I don't know much about Tomorrowland, but Gravity hasn't caught my eye. It looks like a scant premise stretched to fill the length of a movie. I could be wrong, but that's my sense at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I hope so. :-)

Speaking of politics, every so often I see a comment on a conservative blog, something to the effect of, "We don't want to be preached to, just tell an entertaining story!"

I've been thinking and this is pretty much code for "Tell me a story that doesn't offend my fragile sensibilities!"

Because any story, no matter how good and well told, will offend someone. The presence of a gay character, or a woman in a position of authority might reek of an agenda where none exists. And too many people attribute to politics what can easily be explained by simply laziness or ignorance.

In other words, as I recently said, it's a lose-lose, and it can discourage otherwise apolitical folks from dipping their toes in creative waters. Why bother when some blogger is gonna make a mountain out of an unintentional molehill?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't respect the people who make mountains out of molehills, but it's something both side do. Women, blacks, gays do it just as much as conservatives.

That said, there is a point where it's done simply to stir the pot and I have no desire to defend those people either.

Basically, if it isn't necessary for your story, then you're on thin ice if it's a controversial thing. If you then go further and try to make a political point with it, or you have a history of doing that, then you get whatever backlash you deserve. Just because you have the right to say something doesn't deny others the right to tell you to go f** yourself and to refuse to listen.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I know it's both sides. (To wit.)

This is also why I can't blame filmmakers and actors for not listening to critics... but that's another story. :-)

tryanmax said...

OMG! Okay, new rule. If you have to stop the conversation to provide a history and etymology for a term to explain why you are offended by it (à la "brown bag"), then you are definitely being overly sensitive.

AndrewPrice said...

Definitely a good rule. In fact, I wonder how you could legitimately claim to be offended by something you can barely explain?

tryanmax said...

I'm not sure either, but if you keep your eyes out, you'll see a lot of it, that is, people spreading esoterica on virtually any topic to give it offensive over- and/or undertones.

AndrewPrice said...

Oh, I know. In a related aside, I still remember some of the arguments I got into when I was posting the Star Trek articles and how people would come along and tell me with an absolutely straight e-face that Star Trek was actually pushing the philosophy of an obscure 12th Century monk who taught proto-communism blah blah.

Yeah, when you find yourself digging that deeply for meaning, you're the one reading into things.

Rustbelt said...

Hey, a discussion about the 'Ocean' movies! Great! Truth be said, I've never seen them, except for clips here and there.

But when am I going to get another chance to post THIS?

AndrewPrice said...

"That's Microsoft Casino Breaker." LOL! Nice! :)

Rustbelt said...

My favorites: "This change machine brought to you by Barack Obama." and...
"It cannot be beaten." "Like Battletoads." Ah, so many memories. NES. 8-bit games. Re-doing levels like crazy. Yelling at the TV. Trying to destroy the controller. Planning the cartridge's destruction...well, they couldn't all be Super Mario Bros. 3, could they?

AndrewPrice said...

I never had an NES. I had the Atari 2600... the original. Then just PCs until I got a PS2.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I do remember the Atari 2600. My older cousin had one. I was a child of the 16-bit wars. While all the kids I knew converted to Sega when the Genesis began preaching, I remained loyal to the Super Nintendo. Who needs blast processing when you're already playing with power?
I kinda dropped out of the gaming world at the end of the cartridge era and only venture in occasionally these days. Depends on the game.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I stick with PC games mainly, when I play -- Railroad Tycoon and Civilization.

I did get a PS2. Some of those have been quite good and some are a waste. Too many games are fake -- you just press buttons and no matter what you do, the game does it for you. But there are some good ones.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, last game I really got into was the 2009 'Ghostbusters' game. What can I say? -other than it's great! Almost the entire original cast does the voice acting, the attention to detail is unbelievable, and the story fits in perfectly. The PS3 version is also quite dark, keeping the original film's premise of a few funny guys having a adventure against a genuinely creepy backstory. (This version isn't likely intended for children. The Wii/PS2 version is more kid-friendly.)

AndrewPrice said...

The last one I really loved was Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Wererabbit. That was just a fun game with hours of play.

tryanmax said...

My first video game was my dad's old pong station hooked up to a black & white. No kidding! Then I had some iteration of Atari. Went through several iterations of Nintendo. But the last video game I got into was the GTA:III series on PC. Still play it regularly, in fact.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Interestingly, I've found most modern games are really just the classic games with better graphics which disguise the fact the game play itself is the same.

PikeBishop said...

Another "I can't believe I liked a George Clooney film" is "Up in the Air," a great little gem of a movie.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That's a good one too. I actually like Clooney as an actor, he just goes off the rails at times. And now that he's mellowed a lot more, it doesn't bother me as much as it used to.

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