Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raimi Fest Blogathon: The Quick and the Dead


BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Raimi Fest over at the Things That Don't Suck blog. There are all kinds of fantastic submissions going on, check it out!

Ever since Clint Eastwood's film Unforgiven (1992), the western has enjoyed a lucrative revival in Hollywood. That film's success paved the way for a whole slew of new takes on the genre from the traditional (Tombstone) to the gimmicky (Posse), with homages to all the old masters — most notably John Ford. However, no one had tried to pay tribute to Sergio Leone and his colorful Spaghetti Westerns (with the exception of Alex Cox’s surreal ode, Straight to Hell) that were wild, often surreal explorations of the western genre. No one that is, until Sam Raimi's film, The Quick and the Dead (1995) was released.

Raimi, best known for turning the horror genre upside down with his Evil Dead trilogy, was the ideal filmmaker to re-visit the Spaghetti Western. Like Leone, Raimi is not afraid to inject his own unique style into a film with the intention of breathing new life into a tired genre. Leone did this first with the western and later, the gangster film, while Raimi chose the horror film before tackling the western. The result: The Quick and the Dead is a playful, entertaining film that doesn't aspire to do anything more than take the viewer on a thrilling ride.

Essentially a series of shoot-outs, The Quick and the Dead distracts us from this simple concept with a twisted tale of revenge. Enter a mysterious woman (Sharon Stone) who is not only quick with her gun but with her snappy comebacks to snide remarks. She soon finds herself in the sorry excuse of a town named Redemption (you can almost cut the symbolism with a knife) conveniently before the start of its annual quick draw contest.

The competition throws all sorts of colorful characters into the mix: from Ace Handlen (Lance Henriksen), a preening card player and a crack shot, to The Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young upstart who is as cocky as he is fast with a gun. To make the whole spectacle a little more interesting, the town's sheriff, John Herod (Gene Hackman), forces Cort (Russell Crowe), a lethal killer who used to ride with the lawman, into the contest. However, Cort has given up killing and turned into a repentant preacher with his lack of bloodlust adding a bit of variety to the proceedings.

The contest is run by Herod, a truly evil man, who delights in keeping the town under his tyrannical boot heel. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the contest isn't the only reason that Stone's character has arrived in this town. The competition serves as a convenient excuse for her to exact a little revenge and also for us to watch these wild personalities square off against one another.

The Quick and the Dead was a refreshing change of pace for filmmaker Sam Raimi. He had just survived an exhausting and often frustrating battle with Universal Studios over Army of Darkness (1993), the last film in his Evil Dead trilogy. His budget had been cut back considerably, to the point where Raimi and the film's star Bruce Campbell were forced to use their own money to finish the film. To make matters worse, critics and audiences alike subsequently panned Army of Darkness. Raimi viewed his new project as a way of putting this horrendous experience behind him.

But he was not the first choice to direct The Quick and the Dead. Simon Moore, a British screenwriter, wrote the script and intended to direct the film himself. However, the producers had other ideas when Sharon Stone came on board as one of the stars and a co-producer as well. She was great admirer of Raimi's work and recommended him as director. "He was the only person on my list. If Sam hadn't made this movie, I don't think I would have made it," she said at the time of its release.

Raimi accepted the job for a number of reasons. Up until that time, he had always been known primarily as an independent filmmaker working outside of the system. Raimi viewed this new project as his first Hollywood film with big name stars. "So it was time to see what it would be like to make a big Hollywood movie. It had always been a dream of mine, but I'd never done it." On another level, he saw this film as his homage to one of the masters of the western, Sergio Leone. No one had attempted to pay tribute to this particular filmmaker and Raimi thought it high time that someone did. As he commented in an interview with Cinescape magazine, "the current genre cycle, the 'Spaghetti Western,' which was Leone's cheesier, less-classy version of the big studio Western, hasn't really been re-explored. This script really hit upon that, updating it with a female lead and a different set of values."

What could have been just another novelty twist on the western is transformed by Raimi's Gonzo style into a slick film filled with dramatic slow motion shots, adrenaline-fueled zooms, tracking shots with unusual perspectives, and extensive usage of deep focus photography that resembles a demented Orson Welles on speed. This rather showy excess of style playfully sets the tone of the film between parody and seriousness to the point where you are never quite sure which side of the fence the film is on. This was Raimi's intention from the beginning as he saw this extravagant approach "as entertainment for the audience. This is a fun, entertaining Western for a '90s crowd."

Raimi's approach also keeps the film interesting to watch. In what is fundamentally a picture built around a series of shoot-outs, he keeps things fresh and exciting by filming each significant showdown in a different style. Raimi’s wild approach also gives The Quick and the Dead an almost surreal quality: we get an unusual perspective shot through a huge bullet hole left in one gunslinger's head that seems almost cartoonish in nature (only to be recycled in the director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers). The bad guys are photographed at dramatically low angles as they chew up the scenery with their sneering, dirty looks and obvious contempt for anything decent. Pathetic fallacy also plays a large role in the film. When a fierce storm of biblical proportions hits the town, sure enough something rotten is bound to happen. Of course this all seems like some sort of pat cliché, but there is a playful quality and chutzpah on Raimi's part to use every camera trick and technique in the book, that gives the film real charm and makes it worth watching.

Another reason why The Quick and the Dead is so watchable lies in the fine group of actors that assembled to make this film. It’s a good blend of big name, marquee value stars like Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Gene Hackman, mixed with strong character actors like Lance Henriksen and, at that time, Russell Crowe, who just starting out in Hollywood. Even though most critics admired Stone’s turn as a no-nonsense gunslinger that ably holds her own against any man, I found Crowe’s tortured killer turned preacher to be the real standout performance of the film. You can almost feel the pain and frustration boiling inside Cort as Herod forces him to kill time and time again, even though he has renounced his violent ways. Crowe doesn’t have nearly the amount of screen time that Stone, DiCaprio or Hackman have, but he makes every scene that he’s in count by playing against type — his character is quiet and reserved when everyone else threatens to go over the top with their performances.

The Quick and the Dead wasn’t all that well-received by mainstream critics when it first came out. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “As preposterous as the plot was, there was never a line of Hackman dialogue that didn't sound as if he believed it. The same can't be said, alas, for Sharon Stone, who apparently believed that if she played her character as silent, still, impassive and mysterious, we would find that interesting.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “The Quick and the Dead is showy visually, full of pans and zooming close-ups. Rarely dull, it is not noticeably compelling either, and as the derivative offshoot of a derivative genre, it inevitably runs out of energy well before any of its hotshots runs out of bullets.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Suffice it to say that Ms. Stone's one tactical mistake, in a film she co-produced, is to appear to have gone to bed with Mr. DiCaprio's character … This episode has next to nothing to do with the rest of the story. And a brash, scrawny adolescent who is nicknamed the Kid can make even the most glamorous movie queen look like his mother.” In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe also criticized Stone’s performance: “Stone seems to conceive of acting as a series of fixed facial expressions. She goes from one to another — two in all — like someone playing with Peking opera masks … Suffice it to say, there hasn't been acting this mechanical since Speed Racer.” Finally, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Of course, the superficiality of the characters wasn't a problem in Raimi's other films; those pictures reveled in their lurid cartooniness. Perhaps he's trying to outgrow his brazenly adolescent style, but if so, he picked the wrong genre in which to do it.”

The Quick and the Dead has become something of a forgotten film in Raimi’s canon. Not weird enough for his hardcore fans and too strange for the mainstream, it has been relegated to cinematic limbo. I think it is time to re-evaluate this film. The Quick and the Dead may not have anything profound to say about the human condition but so what? That's not the film's goal. It serves as a piece of escapism, to make one forget about the problems of the real world and enter a fantastic realm filled with vivid characters and exotic locales that only the power of film can deliver. And on that level, Raimi’s film is a success.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eerie, Indiana


When Eerie, Indiana debuted on American television in September 1991, it was well-received by critics who favorably compared it to Twin Peaks, albeit for kids. However, I always felt that a better analogy for this clever, short-lived show was that it was actually Friday the 13th: The Series for kids. Like the protagonists in that supernatural-themed program, the main characters in Eerie – two young boys – investigated bizarre happenings and collected artifacts from their adventures. The latter was much more light-hearted in tone than Friday the 13th, but still had a creepy undertone reminiscent of episodes of the classic era of The Twilight Zone.

Eerie, Indiana was the brainchild of Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer, both relatively inexperienced in the realm of T.V. at the time (Rivera had done a handful of episodes for various sitcoms, while Schaefer had even less experience) but they capitalized on the flood gates of weirdness that Twin Peaks broke open during its brief tenure to push through a quirky show reminiscent of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries but if written by Stephen King. However, the look and feel of the show is indebted to filmmaker Joe Dante who not only directed the first episode (and four others) but also acted as creative consultant for the series. It is easy to see what drew him to the project as the suburban setting, with child protagonists encountering fantastical events, are all hallmarks of his career.

NBC originally aired Eerie Indiana on Sundays at 7:30 pm. Unfortunately, network executives didn’t know what to do with the show and after 13 episodes and rescheduling it was retooled, lasting only six more before being cancelled. It has been 20 years since the show first aired and it still holds up well while also providing nostalgic memories for anyone who can remember a time when fairly adventurous programming managed to find its way on the air if only for a short time.

Dante really sets the overall look and tone for the series with the first episode, entitled “Forever Ware” (a sly nod to the classic science fiction novel The Forever War by Joe Haldeman perhaps?). Marshall Teller (Omri Katz) is a 13-year-old boy whose parents have moved from New Jersey, “just across the river from New York City,” where he loved that it was “crowded, polluted and full of crime,” to the wholesome, squeaky clean suburbs of Eerie, Indiana. Sure, it looks like a cross between the all-American Lumberton in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and the cookie cutter neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands (1990), but Marshall isn’t fooled. He can see past the façade and realizes that the town is in fact the “center of weirdness for the entire planet,” where the local mailman is packing a firearm, a lady hangs her laundry to dry which includes a strait-jacket, and a graying Elvis Presley emerges from his home to pick up the daily newspaper. And in a nice Lynchian touch, a crow can be seen perched on the town sign with an eyeball in its mouth. And this is all conveyed in the prologue!

Marshall’s family is introduced to the neighborhood by Betty Wilson, an AVON lady/Stepford Wife hybrid with two sons (Bert and Ernie – har, har) that peddle ultra-efficient Tupperware called Forever Ware. Betty’s eager to not just sell Marshall’s mother (Mary-Margaret Humes) some of her containers but invite her to become part of a small circle of friends. However, when one Betty’s sons slips Marshall a cryptic note, he decides to investigate with the help of his next-door neighbor Simon (Justin Shenkarow). They soon uncover a rather sinister plot that won’t make you look at vacuum-sealed plastic containers the same way again. Of note is Dante’s trademark mix of horror and humor through the eyes of young kids.

Part of what makes Eerie, Indiana work so well is how it takes things that kids deal with while growing up and give them a slightly sinister, supernatural spin, like going through the ordeal of getting braces in “The Retainer,” which sees a hapless kid beset by a prototypical retainer created by an orthodontist cum mad scientist (played with relish by Vincent Schiavelli) that allows the wearer to hear what dogs are thinking and it ain’t pretty. Marshall and Simon uncover a canine revolution where dogs demand, “Down with Kibble!” and “No more Stupid Pet Tricks!” and “No more neutering!” The only thing that appears to be stopping them is “the mystery of the doorknob,” as one dog puts it. While these scenes are played for laughs because of the sheer absurdity of the concept, it does remind one of how poorly dogs (and animals in general) are treated in pounds/shelters and are regarded in our society.

Omri Katz plays Marshall like a budding Fox Mulder, anticipating the inquisitive FBI Agent and his show, The X-Files by two years. He is smart and able to jury rig gadgets to help in his investigations. He also does all kinds of research with Simon’s help and what they find out only confirms their suspicions. For example, in one episode they discover that the shape of the Bermuda Triangle perfectly mirrors the shape of Eerie. Marshall and Simon have the passion of conspiracy theorists only their paranoid fantasies turn out to be true! Katz and Justin Shenkarow play it straight most of the time as the bulk of the show’s humor comes from the outrageous people they encounter and the darkly comic situations they find themselves in.

“ATM With a Heart of Gold” places more of an emphasis on Simon as he befriends an intelligent ATM machine that Marshall’s father (Francis Guinan) invented. The machine’s interface features a computer avatar that’s a cross between Max Headroom and a Ken doll known as Mr. Wilson. Simon is just a kid who wants to belong and have friends because his home life is so crappy. In one scene, we see him walk towards a drab, earth-toned colored house where we can hear his parents arguing and fighting within. No wonder he wants to hang out with Marshall and investigate flights of fancy. Shenkarow does a nice job of conveying the longing Simon has for friends and how this leads him to befriending Mr. Wilson. This also blinds him to the machine’s creepy malfunctions. Pretty soon Simon learns that you can’t buy friendship and that money won’t solve all your problems.

Robert Altman regular Henry Gibson and Dante regular Dick Miller make an appearance in the Dante-directed episode, “The Losers,” and seem to be having a blast playing men responsible for all the recently disappearing items in Eerie. There are some nice visual gags in this one as we get a look at a few rather famous missing items found in their lair, chief among them a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the sled from Citizen Kane (1941). This is definitely a more playful, whimsical episode and it is great to see veteran character actors like Gibson and Miller playing such pivotal roles.

I always enjoy Halloween-themed episodes of T.V. shows and Eerie, Indiana does not disappoint with “America’s Scariest Home Video,” which pays homage to the Boris Karloff 1932 horror film The Mummy as Marshall and Simon are stuck babysitting Simon’s little brother only to have the mischievous tyke transport himself into a horror film on T.V. and the Mummy in the film appearing in the house. The fog-enshrouded night and decrepit monster always make me think of John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) minus the scary pirates from beyond.

In 1990, co-creator Jose Rivera was working on an idea for a horror anthology show set in a high school that would have been a teenage version of The Twilight Zone. Meanwhile, co-creator Karl Schaefer had an idea for a modern-day Tom Sawyer story. An agent got the two men together and they merged their ideas to create Eerie, Indiana. Schaefer described the show as “a twisted, modern fairy tale.” Rivera grew up loving fairy tales and wanted to impart notions of magic realism into suburbia, “that beneath the veneer of malls and crossing guards there lurks a deeper reality of something just slightly off-centre.”

He and Rivera picked Indiana because it had the image of “being a benign, harmless place to live.” They also asked Joe Dante to direct the pilot episode and with him convinced the executives at NBC to air the show. Schaefer said that the network liked the central character Marshall but they had to be convinced that the concept of the show would work because it was so different from NBC’s usual fare. In retrospect, Dante considered Eerie, Indiana a dream project because he was there at its inception and was then asked to stay on as a creative consultant. As a result, he even had a hand in casting Omri Katz. The producers originally wanted “this geeky kid,” according to Dante, but he felt Katz was more authentic and the young actor was cast. Dante was obviously taken with Katz as he subsequently cast him in his next film, Matinee (1993).

Eerie, Indiana was well-received by critics when it first debuted on television. Entertainment Weekly gave it a "B" rating and Ken Tucker wrote, "You watch Eerie for the small-screen spectacle of it all — to see the way, in the show's first few weeks, feature-film directors like Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) oversaw episodes that summoned up an atmosphere of absurdist suburban dread. The Hollywood Reporter’s Miles Beller wrote, "Scripted by Karl Schaefer and Jose Rivera with smart, sharp insights; slyly directed by feature film helmsman Joe Dante; and given edgy life by the show's winning cast, Eerie, Indiana shapes up as one of the fall season's standouts, a newcomer that has the fresh, bracing look of Edward Scissorhands and scores as a clever, wry presentation well worth watching." USA Today described the show as "Stephen King by way of The Simpsons," and Matt Roush wrote, "Eerie recalls Edward Scissorhands and even – heaven help it – David Lynch in its garish nightmare-comedy depiction of the lurid and silly horrors that lurk beneath suburban conformity." Finally, the Washington Times David Klinghoffer wrote, "Everything about the pilot exceeds the normal minimal expectations of TV. Mr. Dante directs as if he were making a movie, and a good one. In a departure from usual TV operating procedures, he sometimes actually has more than one thing going on on screen at the same time!"

After Eerie, Indiana’s demise, co-creator Karl Schaefer stayed in the genre, writing and producing T.V. shows routed in fantasy and horror, like Stephen King’s Dead Zone, Eureka and The Ghost Whisperer. Jose Rivera also continued to dabble in the supernatural, writing episodes for Goosebumps, Night Visions and Shadow Realm before moving on much acclaim with his screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and adapting Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road for the big screen. Omri Katz worked again with Dante in Matinee and starred in the fun family film about witches, Hocus Pocus (1993) before going back to T.V. with the short-lived but critically-acclaimed, The John Larroquette Show. Aside from a couple of one-off guest spots here and there, he’s largely dropped out of the business, which is a shame. Since Eerie, Justin Shenkarow has worked steadily in T.V. and movies, most notable a regular on the show Picket Fences while also doing a lot of voice work. Joe Dante has found it increasingly harder to get his kind of films made and has also gone back to T.V., directing two episodes apiece for the horror anthology shows Night Visions and Masters of Horror. He has made a new film called The Hole (2009), which is still without a North American distributor (?!).

Eerie, Indiana takes the trials and tribulations of a teenage boy, like his first crush on a girl, and gives them a supernatural spin – said girl gets a heart transplant from another boy that liked her and begins acting like him. The otherworldly aspects allow the show to deal with heavy topics like life and death while still aiming it at kids. However, there are plenty references for adults to recognize and enjoy, like the numerous visual cues to classic horror films and guest stars, like John Astin, from classic film and T.V., that elevates it above typical kiddie fare. Eerie’s influence can still be felt in more recent kid shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, and the more recent House of Anubis. However, none of its offspring could quite duplicate the diversity of Eerie, which wasn’t afraid to end some episodes on a whimsical note, or on an ominous one, or even in a poignant way. And I think this is down to the presence of Joe Dante, who instilled that X-factor missing from other shows of its ilk. Much like what David Lynch brought to Twin Peaks, Dante gave Eerie, Indiana the look and feel of cinema with each episode having his personal touch regardless of whether he directed it or not. This is why the show still holds up today and works whether you’re a young kid or simply young at heart.



SOURCES

Farrell, Peter. “Imagination Runs Wild in Eerie, Indiana.” The Sunday Oregonian. September 15, 1991.

Fitgerald, John. “Off-Centre.” Globe & Mail. October 12, 1991.

Mink, Eric. “Strange Goings-On in Eerie, Indiana.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 19, 1991.

“New T.V. Show Set in Mythical Indiana Town.” Associated Press. June 13, 1991.


Sharbutt, Jay. “Eerie Follows Twin Peaks Lead.” Boston Herald. November 2, 1991.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DVD of the Week: Black Swan

Let’s be honest, there aren’t many ballet-centric films out there and even fewer that are good, with notable exceptions like The Red Shoes (1948) and the underrated Robert Altman film The Company (2003). So Darren Aronofsky had his work cut out for him with Black Swan (2010), a ballet film reimagined as a psychological horror tale reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s early work. Aronofsky is a filmmaker that strives to make genres his own – edgy science fiction (Pi) and a gritty sports film (The Wrestler). He even incorporated aspects of the horror genre in his harrowing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). Black Swan tackles the genre head-on with the kind of intensity we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker.


In a bold move, Aronofsky cast Natalie Portman, an actress known mostly for appealing characters in films like Where the Heart Is (2000) and Garden State (2004), against type as an aspiring yet psychologically conflicted ballerina trying to land the part in a production of Swan Lake. However, the gamble paid off in a big way as she delivered a complex, powerful performance that garnered a multitude of awards, most notably the Oscar for Best Actress.

A New York ballet company’s lecherous director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that his take on Swan Lake is going to be a stripped down and visceral affair. He’s looking for a fresh new face to play both the Black and White Swan, which doesn’t sit too well with veteran ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) who is effectively pushed out, or “retired,” at the beginning of the film in order to make room for aspiring dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She is eager to get the role but not only has to battle her own self-doubts but strong competition from rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), a newcomer from San Francisco who is everything Nina isn’t: confident and uninhibited. Nina has her technique down cold but she lacks Lily’s passion and the ability to lose herself in the role.

Early on, we see the cracks beginning to show in Nina’s façade. Near a subway stop she passes someone on the street that looks exactly like her. At home, she notices a strange, small rash on her back. Are these symptoms of stress or something else more sinister? As if she didn’t have enough pressure, her overbearing stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) treats her daughter like she’s still a little girl. This extends to the décor in Nina’s bedroom – awash in pink and populated with stuffed animals. When she’s not painting creepy portraits of her daughter, Erica tries to control every moment of Nina’s home life. However, Nina is able to escape her clutches once she starts hanging out with Lily. The rival dancer takes Nina for a walk on the wild side, giving her drugs and taking her clubbing, which loosens up her inhibitions and that’s only for starters.

Like he did with The Wrestler (2008), Aronofsky shows us the tricks of the trade, the minutia dancers do, like how they break in a new pair of dancing slippers or tape up their ankles and feet in preparation. He also shows the punishment Nina’s body takes from dancing – she is scarily thin, has busted toe nails, endures a seemingly endless number of rehearsals, and pushes herself to the point of exhaustion.

Initially, Natalie Portman plays the prim and proper character we’ve seen her do before but the actress soon reveals Nina to be a deeply flawed person gradually coming apart at the seams as she tries to cope with the pressure of taking on the lead role in a high profile production. Portman displays some serious acting chops as she brilliantly conveys the mental disintegration of her character. The actress gives all sorts of intriguing nuances that make us wonder just how much of what is happening to her is real or in her head. She commits herself to the role completely and this is particular evident in the climactic sequence where Nina finally performs Swan Lake in front of an audience on opening night.

As if casting Portman was a risk, in comes That ‘70s Show’s Mila Kunis. Now, she’s shown her “serious” acting chops in Max Payne (2008), but the jump from a supporting role in that film to a much more substantial supporting role in Black Swan is a quantum leap for the actress. Vincent Cassel plays a Svengali-like ballet director who pushes Nina by manipulating her emotions and playing on her insecurities about the Black Swan role. Winona Ryder has a juicy role as a disgruntled aging dancer on her way out. She has a memorable scene in which she confronts Nina in a boozy, vengeful haze. There is a delicious irony here as in real life Portman now gets the high profile leading roles that Ryder used to get in the 1990’s.

Black Swan is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) in that they all depict a protagonist’s nightmarish descent into madness. Aronofsky’s film is a terrific showcase for Portman’s talents, challenging her like no other role before as she finally fulfills the promise showed very early on in her career with Leon: The Professional (1994). For Aronofsky, he only improves as a filmmaker, adding another self-destructive protagonist to his roster. He has arguably made his best film to date and it should be interesting to see what he does next.

Special Features:

Black Swan Metamorphosis” is a three-part making of documentary about the film that can be viewed separately or altogether. There is all kinds of fascinating, fly-on-the-wall, on-set footage showing several scenes being shot. Various crew members talk about their respective roles in the production. This doc provides some insight on how they shot Black Swan on a small budget with little time. Natalie Portman talks about the rigorous training schedule she went through in order to pull off the dance sequences. This is quite a good look at various aspects of the production.

 



Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ocean's Thirteen

Despite its impressive box office returns, Ocean’s Twelve (2004) was considered something of a disappointment by its director Steven Soderbergh who felt that the plot was too complicated. While not quite as fun as Ocean’s Eleven (2001), it was a fine film in its own right – one that had a more satisfying emotional pay-off and doesn’t deserve the lousy reputation that it seems to have. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) was seen as a return to the fun, breezy vibe of the first film by bringing it back to Las Vegas with style. The result was a very satisfying conclusion to the Ocean’s films.

As the revenge picture cliché goes, this time it’s personal. When Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) is muscled out of a business deal by slick businessman Willy Bank (Al Pacino), resulting in a heart attack, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew reunite for one last job: to ruin the opening night of Bank’s casino, The Bank, by making sure he loses a huge amount of money, which involves rigging all the games and slot machines. Bank wants the Five Diamond Award – the top accolade for hotels and will do anything to get it. Danny and the boys use this as a way to get at Bank. To this end, they devise an elaborate plan with the help of their arch-nemesis Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who bankrolls the operation. They also bring in Roman Nagel (Eddie Izzard) from Ocean’s Twelve to crack a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence security system.

Soderbergh kicks things off rather stylishly as we get a beautiful shot of Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) walking across a runaway tarmac to an awaiting plane at dusk with the sky an impossibly deep dark blue that, accompanied by David Holmes’ groovy score, is absolutely breathtaking. Once again, the director shoots the hell out of the film by employing all sorts of zoom ins and outs, pans and split-screens that, along with a saturated color scheme, keeps things visually interesting.

This time out, Matt Damon gets a juicy subplot where he goes undercover as Lenny Pepperidge, the assistant to a Mr. Weng (Shaobo Qin as The Amazing Yen, also undercover), a very high roller, in order to get close to Bank’s lovely assistant, Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin). Part of his disguise involves wearing a ridiculous fake long nose – a sly fuck you to Harvey Weinstein who wouldn’t let Damon wear said nose for his character in Terry Gilliam’s The Brother’s Grimm (2005) because he felt it would obscure the actor’s good looks and hurt the film’s box office potential. Well, it didn’t hurt Ocean’s Thirteen box office as the film went on to gross a very respectable $311 million worldwide.

It is also a lot of fun to see Ellen Barkin reunited with her Sea of Love (1989) co-star Al Pacino. She appears to be having a good time playing a confident businesswoman succumbing to Damon’s “seductive” charms. It is also fun to see Pacino go off autopilot for a change and sink his teeth into a juicy bad guy role. Who else could Soderbergh get to pose as a credible threat to the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt but someone of the legendary star caliber like Pacino? He plays Bank like the offspring of his take on Ricky Roma from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) – a smooth-talking unscrupulous bastard. In another nice bit of casting, the inventor of the artificial intelligence security system is played by none other than Julian Sands, an actor whose big break through came in A Room with A View (1985) but whose career settled into mostly direct-to-home video fare so it was a pleasant surprise to see him appear in a big mainstream film like Ocean’s Thirteen.

Another amusing subplot involves Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck, sporting a ridiculous-looking mustache) organizing a revolution/strike among the workers at a dice-making factory in Mexico. He goes from complaining about a lack of air conditioning to tossing Molotov cocktails on the strike lines. At one point, he and his fellow co-workers drown their sorrows at a local bar and Virgil asks them, “Have all of you forgotten Zapata?” He goes on to offer inspirational words that fire them up. How this whole subplot plays out is quite funny. In another nice twist, Terry Benedict is helping Danny out albeit with all kinds of conditions. After all, he resents Bank’s lack of taste and the competition he represents. There can only be on top dog in Vegas and Benedict clearly feels that he is the one. Andy Garcia looks like he relished the opportunity to be in on the joke instead of being the target as he was in the last two films.

While working on Ocean’s Twelve, Steven Soderbergh began thinking about Ocean’s Thirteen. He thought about how fun it would be to set it back in Las Vegas. The motivation to make the film was a desire to work with everyone again but all eleven cast members had to want to do it. Producer Jerry Weintraub contacted them 18 months before hand and told them filming would take place during the summer of 2006 and to clear their schedules. He was able to find a way to juggle all these movie stars’ busy lives and add Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin into the mix.

For the film’s story, Soderbergh felt that Danny and his crew weren’t driven entirely by money and that they would reunite for friendship and revenge. The director came up with the notion of Reuben being betrayed and his friends helping him out. Weintraub hired Brian Koppelman and David Levien to write the screenplay. They had written the script for Rounders (1998) and created the gambling television cable show Tilt, and so they were familiar with the world of con men and gamblers. Soderbergh and Weintraub were both big admirers of Rounders and the director met with the screenwriters in New York City over lunch. They talked about great con movies, the nature of heists, and how the characters had evolved since Ocean’s Eleven. Within minutes, Soderbergh knew they were who he wanted to write the script and were working on it within minutes: “There was not a long list of people that we thought could step into this specific universe and pick up the language and the sense of humor.”

Koppelman and Levien had spent years exploring Vegas culture and the gambling lifestyle. They had every book they could find about con artists and thieves. Early on, Soderbergh told them that he wanted the film’s focus to be on the friendship between Danny and his crew. They understood that getting revenge on Willy Bank was what drove the entire story of Ocean’s Thirteen. They also wanted to “’flip’ the casino so that the patrons would win every time, which would spell disaster for Bank.” Soderbergh also told them that the bad guy should be a casino owner and they imagined Al Pacino and wrote Bank with him in mind. George Clooney also offered some ideas, mostly things to do with the revenge scheme that reunited the crew.

Some exterior scenes were shot in Las Vegas, but the casino interiors were mostly shot on one of the largest soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles because it would have taken too long to film in actual casinos as they had done with Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh said, “In order to get the shots that I wanted, I needed to completely control the environment.” He instructed production designer Philip Messina to build a hotel and casino that would reflect Bank and his huge ego. Messina decided to go with a quasi-Asian theme and make it visually overwhelming. He purposely broke the rules in Vegas by designing a multi-level gaming floor because the production didn’t have a lot of horizontal space to work with.

Much like with Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen received mixed reviews from critics. In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised Soderbergh’s direction: “Playing inside the box and out, he has learned to go against the grain while also going with the flow. In Ocean’s Thirteen he proves that in spades by using color like Kandinsky and hanging a funny mustache on Mr. Clooney’s luscious mug, having become a genius of the system he so often resists.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “As escapist entertainments go, Thirteen is far from unlucky: It's breezy, clever fun and ridiculously easy on the eyes.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Predictably adolescent and smarmy, with the mix of sentimentality and cynical flippancy that's becoming Steven Soderbergh's specialty (even when he's pretending to make art films), this is chewing gum for the eyes and ears, and not bad as such.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turn felt that it was better than Ocean’s Twelve but not as good as Eleven: “Though it's certainly serviceable as the second sequel to a remake, it lacks the brio and élan that made the 2001 film such a treat.”

On the other hand, Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, “Ocean's Thirteen proceeds with insouciant dialogue, studied casualness, and a lotta stuff happening, none of which I cared much about because the movie doesn't pause to develop the characters, who are forced to make do with their movie-star personas.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “for long stretches of the proceedings, Mr. Soderbergh seems to be trying to distract us from the suspenseless inevitability of the plot with semi-abstract rainbowish splashes of color.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “It's maybe halfway between okay and not bad. If being about average were a sin, it'd be headed straight to Hell on a bobsled.”

Like Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen pays tribute to the classic era of Vegas as Danny and co. restore Reuben’s honor. He’s an old school player who still believes in following a code and prides himself in being part of a select group of insiders that got to shake Frank Sinatra’s hand back in the day. Like Benedict, Bank represents the current corporate mentality of making money over the personal touch that the Mob-run casinos used to provide. If the first two films were about Danny and Rusty’s respective relationships with the loves of their lives, then Ocean’s Thirteen is about their friendship with Reuben. He mentored them when they were just starting out and taught them about respecting history as well as those who came before them. Like with the previous films, going after the bad guy is a matter of personal honor and hitting them where it hurts – in Bank’s case it’s his monster ego. Ocean’s Thirteen ends much like Ocean’s Eleven did thus bringing the trilogy full circle and with a truly satisfying conclusion as the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and Reuben’s honor is restored. Likewise, the film did very well at the box office and garnered fairly positive reviews going out on a well-deserved high note. It serves as an example of a star-studded big budget Hollywood film that entertains without insulting your intelligence.


SOURCES


Ocean’s 13 Production Notes. 2007.