Role Players and End Games

Ocean's Eleven is just about the perfect project to remake—at least from a director's point of view. It must have been a relief for Steven Soderbergh to know that whatever he did, it could not possibly be lamer than the 1960 original, an inflated yet perfunctory caper in which Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack cronies successfully short-circuit the Las Vegas metropolitan area and knock over five casinos in the three drunken minutes it takes everyone to sing "Auld Lang Syne."

With nowhere to go but up, Soderbergh has retooled the action for a less flamboyant, more amiable crowd—George Clooney passing himself off as suave mastermind Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt lazing through his role as the affable Dino to Clooney's visionary Frank, Don Cheadle playing a Cockney detonation expert (a riff Sammy Davis Jr. would have died for), Matt Damon impersonating the kid, and Carl Reiner coming off the bench as the debonair old-timer, recruited for the heist at the greyhound track. Julia Roberts, her hair piled up like Angie Dickinson's, has the comparable part of the ex-Mrs. Ocean, a trophy whom the fiercely grinning Clooney must retrieve from the villainous control-freak casino mogul played by Andy Garcia.

Basically, Soderbergh has contrived a circus-stunt rififi with a robotic Mission: Impossible backbeat. Ocean's Eleven occasionally quotes from its precursor, though almost always in jest. The new film lacks the original's sense of rancid narcissism. Las Vegas was something of a holy shrine to the Rat Pack. A city of lights in the land of make-believe, Soderbergh's Vegas is more like a ready-made soundstage in the desert. He gets maximum mileage from the location—camera hovering over the strip as the gang dutifully works every funhouse angle—but he doesn't take it quite so seriously.

Circus-stunt rififi: Cheadle, Shaobo Qin, Clooney, and Casey Affleck (from left) in Ocean's Eleven
photo: Bob Marshak
Circus-stunt rififi: Cheadle, Shaobo Qin, Clooney, and Casey Affleck (from left) in Ocean's Eleven

Details

Ocean's Eleven
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Ted Griffin
Warner Bros.
Opens December 7

No Man's Land
Written and directed by Danis Tanovic
United Artists
Opens December 7

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The original Ocean's Eleven only comes to life when rolling through the casinos—pausing to feast on coins, cleavage, or Frank giving Sammy a playful karate chop on the shoulder—accompanied by brassy Cahn-Van Heusen songs with lyrics like "We're gonna live, live, live until we die" or "Tell me quick, ain't love a kick . . . in the head." Lackadaisical as it is, the Sinatra vehicle was imagined as a military operation—a "mission to liberate millions of dollars" staged by a bunch of disgruntled World War II vets. Perhaps decoding that as a mission to get a studio to fund a glorified home movie, Soderbergh's remake is largely a coup de théâtre where conning is synonymous with acting. Pitt's character is introduced teaching poker to a tableful of idiotic movie stars. The robbery itself is predicated on all manner of elaborate role-playing and disguises. To add to the self-reflexive quality, several members of the Eleven are always watching the whole operation on TV.

Ocean's Eleven is jazzy and insouciant, if not quite what Frank would have called classy. The jokes are there, but they only intermittently flower. A series of flashbacks to failed Vegas robberies, each with its own period piquance, suggests what Soderbergh might have done. So does the spasm of casino pandemonium induced by the blackout. The movie is slick and studiously cool—with plenty of visual flourishes but not too much soul.


No Man's Land, by Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic, is a mordant battlefield allegory with an absurdist edge. Two Bosnian soldiers (one of them played by the popular comic Branko Djuric) are trapped together with a Serb adversary in a trench between their respective lines. The situation is rendered all the more delicate in that one of the Bosnians is lying atop a land mine that will detonate if he moves.

Winner of the screenplay award at Cannes last spring, this French-Belgian-Italian-Slovenian coproduction is a debut feature whose eagerness to hit its marks accounts for its considerable calculation and no small amount of cuteness. Sentimentality, however, is not one of its flaws. Initially the stalemated enemies have nothing to discuss but whose side started the war. Eventually they discover that they knew the same girl in Banja Luka. But this is no Grand Illusion—these little guys are never going to transcend their enmity. On the contrary.

Outside the trench, meanwhile, the Serb and Bosnian commanders both call for the UN peacekeeping forces to help extricate their men. It's the first time the two sides have agreed on anything, and the officious UN general (Simon Callow) can't deal with it. The fastidious French unit dispatched in a spotless white tank to the scene is also baffled—creating the potential for a bit of ethnic vaudeville with the ever voluble Yugoslavs. An international news crew, fronted by a self-serving reporter (Katrin Cartlidge), gets involved and the story becomes breaking news. "The absurdity of war continues," she reports as the UN general choppers down in advance of their German mine-defusing expert.

Tanovic is sometimes glib, but he makes his points with admirable visual restraint. The war is being waged in a peaceful valley. The camera is quiet, the compositions uncluttered. No Man's Land has a deadly trajectory—its logic has been distilled by experience.


Related Article:
"Danis Tanovic at the Front Lines" by Aleksandar Hemon

 
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