Reel 70: Love During Wartime

Roughly two-thirds of this show’s life ago, we did an episode titled “Life During Wartime“, in which the war wasn’t always neatly spelled out.

In today’s episode, it’s Love During Wartime, and again the war isn’t quite so obvious, except that it’s referring specifically to the Cold War. We’re looking at a pair of films that each deal with a couple and how they respond to Soviet oppression. In both cases, it’s rather early in that oppression, but they’re still set many years apart.

In Part One we’ll be looking at 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed and co-written by Philip Kaufman. Daniel Day-Lewis is a man who falls in love with a woman and eventually finds it in himself to change, however slowly, for her benefit. It’s a long, convoluted story that will run you through all of your emotions, no matter how cold-hearted you are.

Part Two is a more recent film. From 2018, it’s Cold War, a film about star-crossed lovers who seem to find themselves on the opposite sides of many  different lines throughout their relationship, including the Iron Curtain itself. They’re together, then they’re separated, but they manage to find their way back together.  Was it worth it for them? We’ll leave it to you to decide that part.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 

Episodes 71-73 will be all about spycraft, but for the first one we’re going to keep it light. We’ll start with 1979’s The In-Laws, starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.  From there we go to 1984 and Top Secret!, a spy spoof that stars Val Kilmer as an Elvis-like musician who is recruited to perform in Europe and finds himself mixed up in espionage.  Join us, won’t you?

Insignificance (1985) – Review

The Actress (Theresa Russell) demonstrates the theory of relativity to The Scientist (Michael Emil).

Like many directors who made their mark in the 1960’s and 70’s, Nicolas Roeg hit a bad streak in the 80’s. While I was a fan of BAD TIMING, it wasn’t well received by critics or the box office, and Roeg’s follow-up film, EUREKA, starring Gene Hackman as a prospector, ended up being barely released, to critical and public indifference (after rewatching it recently, it didn’t hold up for me for the most part). However, Roeg managed to recover to adapt, of all things, a play, when he took on a film version of Terry Johnson’s play INSIGNIFICANCE, and delivered yet another one of his best films.

The Ballplayer (Gary Busey) pleads with The Actress while The Scientist looks on.

As with the play, the film takes off from the famous image of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up while she’s standing over the subway grate in Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Taking place over the course of one night, it imagines that Monroe (Russell), known only here as The Actress, goes to a Manhattan hotel where, as it happens, Albert Einstein (Michael Emil, brother of filmmaker Henry Jaglom), known here only as The Scientist, is staying. Einstein is in town to speak at a peace conference, though Joe McCarthy (Tony Curtis), known here only as The Senator, has other ideas; he wants Einstein to testify in front of HUAC and denounce communism. Meanwhile, Monroe’s ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), known here only as The Ballplayer, just wants Monroe to come back to him, but acts crazy jealous around anyone who shows interest in her (we first see him watching and seething during the recreation of that famous shot from Wilder’s film). Monroe, on the other hand, just wants to discuss with Einstein the theory of relativity, the creation and meaning of the universe, and other matters of, well, insignificance.

The Senator (Tony Curtis).

The main subject of Johnson’s story seems to be celebrity, in particular how a public persona can often hide what’s really underneath. Roeg’s contribution to this was, as usual, to show people’s pasts through flashbacks, from Monroe in auditions being ogled by talent agents to Einstein in war-torn Europe, to DiMaggio as a young player and McCarthy as an altar boy. And what the characters talk about, particularly when Monroe is demonstrating the theory of relativity to Einstein, is the clearest way of illustrating the huge gap between what we think we know and what we actually know, whether about the theory of relativity (Monroe admits while she can explain it, she doesn’t really understand it) or about a person in general (McCarthy thinks he can get Einstein to testify simply by either appealing to his intellect or by bullying him, while DiMaggio thinks if he cajoles Monroe enough, he’ll get her to come back to him. Both of them are wrong). And despite the fact most of this (except for the scene recreation and the flashbacks) is set in the hotel room and hallways, Roeg, Lawson, and cinematographer Peter Hannan (who shot, among other films, MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE and WITHNAIL & I) never make it seem stagy.

Because the characters are not really DiMaggio, Einstein, McCarthy and Monroe, the actors are a little more free to play around with the material. Busey, for example, may seem at first to be too energetic and mercurial to play the notoriously aloof DiMaggio, but he carries himself like an ex-athlete, and makes that manic nature work for him as someone who doesn’t like the fact the world no longer acts the way it should now he’s retired. I’m not familiar with Emil’s other work as an actor (I’m not a fan of Jaglom’s films, in which Emil was a regular), but he captures both Einstein’s intellect and his sadness that the world was becoming something more horrible than he imagined. Curtis gives one of his best performances as McCarthy, re-imagining him as if Sidney Falco hadn’t been killed, but had gone on to outdo J.J. Hunsecker in fake charm, intimidation and manipulation, though showing the sweat much more. Finally, while Russell may be nobody’s idea of Monroe, and comes off as a little too affected at first, gradually I warmed up to that once I realized her conception of Monroe was of someone aware of the affectation but resigned to it nonetheless even as she struggled to break free of it. For the movie, Roeg and Johnson added an elevator operator played by Will Sampson who claims Einstein is part Cherokee – meaning he has a deeper understanding of the world than anyone else – and that comes off as borderline patronizing (though Sampson at least plays the part well). And some of the scenes drag at times. Still, overall, INSIGNIFICANCE serves as an entertaining meditation on our knowledge of the world, or lack thereof.

Reel 69: When Icons Meet

In a way, this episode is an unofficial third in our recent series of fairy tales, in the sense that it depicts a couple of “What if?” scenarios, except this time around we’re using people who really existed. First up is Insignificance, from 1985, and then it’s One Night In Miami… from 2020. Interestingly, both films involve four famous people and take place largely in a hotel room, and they’re also based on stage plays. So: a lot of commonality going on here.

In Insignificance, we get four characters identified only as The Professor, The Actress, The Senator and The Ballplayer, but it’s pretty clear that they’re meant to be thinly disguised versions of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio.

Our four characters interact in ways that are at different times frightening, outrageous, charming and endearing. It’s an interesting take on power, fame, and knowledge, and how they can be simultaneously good and bad.

In Part 2 of our episode we’re looking at One Night in Miami… (2020), directed by Regina King.  In this film, it’s clearly spelled out that we’re watching Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali (still in his Cassius Clay days), Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. The four of them come together in early 1964 and spend a rather contentious evening together discussing their roles in the Civil Rights Movement of that era. The evening ends abruptly when they discover that the press has gotten wind of the meeting.

Side Note: One Night in Miami… was produced by Amazon Studios. Doesn’t their opening logo make you think of the intro to Game of Thrones? Or is that just me?

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 

In our next episode, we’re looking at a couple of films that depict Love During Wartime. We’ll start with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, from 1988, and move on to  Cold War from 2018. Join us, won’t you?

Hanna (2011) – Review

“You’re dead. I killed you.” Erik (Eric Bana) approaches Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) from behind.

The following is a slightly re-edited version of a review I wrote for the fanzine CAPRA.

As I mentioned when writing about The Bride with White Hair, along with their action movies, the fantasy movies that came out of Hong Kong in the 80’s and 90’s, from what I’ve seen of them, were real adult fairy tales. With the exception of the Lord of the Rings, few fantasy movies to come out Hollywood were as thrilling as the ones from Hong Kong, and didn’t feel like adult fairy tales, with the exception of  Joe Wright’s Hanna.

The movie even has a fairy-tale beginning; once upon a time, there was a teenage girl named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) who lived in the forests of Finland with her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent now in hiding. Although he’s taught her all kinds of practical things, like how to hunt for food (we first see her shooting a deer, and saying to it, “I just missed your heart”, before killing it for good), how to speak several different languages, and various facts about the world (he uses encyclopedias), the main thing Heller has trained her to do is to be a fighter, and a killer if necessary (in their first scene together, he says she’s dead because he sneaked up on her without her knowing. She attacks him in response), drilling into her the motto, “Attack or die”. One thing she hasn’t any training for is the outside world, and like any girl of that age, Hanna is curious to see it. After some thought, Heller finally agrees, and shows her a box that will signal to the outside world where they are. Specifically, Heller has in mind Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), Heller’s old boss at the CIA. Sure enough, when the CIA picks up the signal and tells Wiegler, she insists she and her team can handle things herself (she also burns Heller’s file). Heller has escaped by the time they get there, but Hanna is there waiting. She’s taken into interrogation at a nearby safehouse, where a doctor asks her questions, and while she answers them in a dry monotone, she asks to speak to Wiegler. Wiegler, no fool, sends a double (Michelle Dockery) in to speak for her. However, even she’s unprepared for what happens next; after confirming “Marissa’s” identity, Hanna starts to cry, the two of them hug, and then Hanna snaps her neck, killing her. Not only that, but she easily subdues the soldiers sent in after her and she escapes.

“Tell me again.” “Adapt or die.”

From there, Hanna is supposed to meet her father at Grimm Park (a theme park) in Germany, and after she escapes, she sets out to do just that. After going through a long tunnel, she ends up in Morocco (the safehouse was nearby). She meets a kind old man in a village, but is unused to the modern world and is freaked out by it (her reaction to a teapot and then a television is memorable). She also meets up with Sophie (Jessica Barden), a pop culture obsessed teen of the same age, who is with her somewhat hippie-ish parents Rachel (Olivia Williams) and Sebastian (Jason Flemyng), and her younger brother Miles (Aldo Maland) as they trek across the country, and befriends them. She’s taken with their closeness as a family, while they are charmed, if mystified, by her earnestness and naivete (her idea of being nice is to kill rabbits for breakfast for them, and when Sophie arranges for the two of them to go on a double date, let’s just say it doesn’t end well). Meanwhile, of course, Marissa is hot on their trail, recruiting Isaacs (Tom Hollander), an assassin who runs a club in Germany, to follow and either capture or kill Hanna and her father.

“Why now, Erik?” Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).

The original script by Seth Lochhead (which twice made the Black List for best unproduced screenplay) was apparently a lot grittier and more realistic, until Wright and new writer David Farr did a rewrite to push it more into fairy tale territory. I have no idea how the grittier version would have played, but the fairy tale aspect work beautifully. Without ever hitting us over the head with it, Wright drops visual fairy tale motifs into the story, even before we get to Grimm Park, what with the seeming rabbit hole Hanna emerges from in Morocco, the fact Hanna uses arrows to kill animals with (and, on occasion, people), the way Marissa is always obsessed with cleaning her teeth, and so on. The music score by the Chemical Brothers also gives the movie a slightly unreal quality; although there’s pulse-pounding music as is their trademark, it’s also slightly otherworldly and exotic, especially the music that plays in Isaacs’ nightclub (the fact he whistles it at one point while on the hunt makes him seem even creepier). Grimm Park, of course, is where all the elements come into play; production designer Sarah Greenwood either built, or located, elements such as a small, old-fashioned cottage and animal structures such as a wolf’s head (which Marissa emerges from at one point), and although it isn’t red, Hanna wears a hoodie during the whole sequence. This movie has compared to Kick-Ass, which I still haven’t seen, but that movie is advertised as more comic-book in tone, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek (with Nicolas Cage as one of the stars, I guess that comes with the territory); this, on the other hand, despite the heightened elements, is played more seriously.

“HANNA!” Rachel (Olivia Williams) reacts when Hanna goes to fight Isaacs and his gang.

I’ve gone back and forth on Wright as a director. His adaptation of Pride & Prejudice was a bit rougher than previous versions, but I thought the tone worked surprisingly well; only the performance of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet didn’t quite work for me (she was fine in the comic moments, but wasn’t able to do the serious moments as well). I liked her much more in Atonement (I also thought Ronan, who played her younger sister, was terrific as well), but the movie itself seemed overdone and forced, and the final revelation didn’t play as well for me as it did in the novel. Considering that, it was surprising once again to find him on a more even keel with The Soloist, taking what could have been a mawkish “heartwarming” tale, and, thanks to restraint and good performances, making it honestly heartwarming. This may seem like strange training for an action director, but he makes the jump surprisingly well. I though his long takes in Atonement were just showing off, but he and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler (who also shot Morvern Caller for Lynne Ramsey and The Claim for Michael Winterbottom) stage one here where Heller is pursued in a train station and fights off a series of attackers that works brilliantly. There’s a lot more to why Hanna is able to fight and kill like she can, and Wright, Farr, and Lochhead are able to piece the information out slowly and achieving the right balance; never making us too impatient, yet making it logical and wrapping it up just right at the end, without making it seem like fan-wanking at the end. Also, while some have griped at the prospect of another girl action figure, Wright never eroticizes or fetishizes Hanna, instead just treating her as a somewhat abnormal girl who has normal wants, desires, fears, and curiosities.

“I just missed your heart.” Hanna at the end.

Of course, the performances also go a long way towards making this work. Williams and Flemyng don’t get much to do as the couple, but they are convincing as a couple. Barden played a similar role to Sophie in the previous year’s Tamara Drewe, if with slightly more depth, and she steals every scene she’s in here. Hollander, doing a 180-degree turn from his somewhat clueless government minister from In The Loop, is memorably creepy here, as mentioned above. Bana does his best work in years as Hanna’s father, especially in the scene where Hanna finds out the truth about how she became to be how she is. But the two who make it work are Blanchett and Ronan. As I alluded to above, Marissa is sort of playing the Big Bad Wolf (though in interviews, Blanchett has also half-joked about how she sees the story as a somewhat twisted version of Kramer vs. Kramer), and Blanchett does employ a southern accent throughout, but she never camps it up, playing a straight version of a cold and steely agent willing to do whatever it takes (although she lets some vulnerability creep through in the scene where she’s asked about ever having children, and she says, “I made certain choices”). Ronan is not only convincing in all of the fight scenes, but she also makes every aspect of Hanna convincing, from her steeliness in fights to her cluelessness about the outside world and her touching desire to want to connect with Sophie and her family. She delivers the first line of the movie (“I just missed your heart”) again near the end, but she gives the movie its heart, and its power.

Note: As it turns out, Farr ended up making a TV series (for Amazon) that was done with a more realistic tone, and while Esme Creed-Miles did a fine job playing the title role, the series ultimately didn’t measure up to the movie.

The Bride With White Hair (1993) – Review

Brigitte Lin (Lian) and Leslie Cheung (Zhuo).

Ronny Yu is probably best known in this country for directing horror movies in America, particularly Bride of Chucky (among the most popular of the Child’s Play sequels, not least of which because of the voice performance of Jennifer Tilly as the bride) and Freddy vs. Jason, the crossover between Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, he’s worked on different types of films, including Phantom Lover (perhaps my favorite version of “Phantom of the Opera”) and Fearless (not to be confused with the 1993 Peter Weir film starring Jeff Bridges, this is a combination of docudrama and martial arts film starring Jet Li). My favorite of his, however, is The Bride with White Hair, based on the novel Bai Mao Nu by Yusheng Liang (also inspired the 1982 film Wolf Devil Woman).

Elaine Lui and Francis Ng as the Wushuang twins.

In 17th century China, Zhuo (Cheung) is sitting alone in the freezing cold on a mountain, guarding a red rose. A group of men from the emperor show up, wanting the rose for the emperor, who’s ill, since the rose supposedly will heal him, but Zhuo fights them off. As he tells us in a voiceover introducing the flashback that makes up the bulk of the movie, the rose is meant for someone else. As a boy (played by Leila Tong), Zhuo was brought up to be the leader of the Wu Tang Clan* (which led the Eight Big Clans of China), but though he was skilled enough (when his master throws a sword at him, Zhuo catches it easily even though he was playing with a grasshopper at the time), he was never interested enough, or cold-blooded enough, to be the leader. Even when the evil cult the Clans are always battling – led by psychotic conjoined twins Ji Wushuang (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) – attack a village near clan territory, Zhuo’s first instinct is to help a pregnant woman and her husband caught in the crossfire. He’s also drawn to Lian (Brigitte Lin), a woman raised by wolves (in the early part of the flashback, we see her playing a flute, which soothes the wolves the young Zhuo is afraid of) who has become an assassin for the evil cult (she uses her hair as a weapon). When Lu Hua (Yammie Lam), daughter of a general with the Wu Tang Clan, and who has been in love with Zhuo since they were younger, sees Zhuo with Lian, she shoots Lian with a poison arrow. Zhuo takes Lian back to the lake where she lives (he had followed her there before, and she attacked him), and gets the poison out. Zhuo and Lian then fall in love, but the enmity between the clans and the cult, as well as the twisted desires of the twins (the male twin lusts after Lian) threatens their relationship.

Lu Hua (Yammie Lam).

The original novel apparently concentrated more on the swordplay than the relationship, but Yu wanted to bring out the love story. To that end, he gives the movie an operatic tone, and treats the love story in an adult way; there’s nothing coy or voyeuristic about the sex scenes, but they feel organic, as does the love story. Cinematographer Peter Pau (who also worked with Yu on Phantom Lover, as well as with John Woo on The Killer and Ang Lee on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) uses familiar elements of the genre – low-angle shots, zooms, and slow motion – but in an imaginative way, and not just for the fight scenes. Cheung is more subdued here, but it works for him, and he’s also convincing in the action scenes. Lin had proved her mettle in action scenes in such films as Peking Opera Blues, and she does so again here, but she also retains an air of mystery, she accomplishes a lot with just the expressions on her face (as when she’s starting to develop feelings for Zhuo and is taunted for it by the twins), and she and Cheung have great chemistry together. There was a sequel to this, The Bride with White Hair 2, that takes up right from where the first one left off, but while it has its good parts, it doesn’t measure up to the original. Of all the films that came from Hong Kong during this time period, outside of John Woo’s best films, The Bride with White Hair is perhaps my favorite.

*-The Wu Tang Clan is a martial arts group that’s appeared in several works of wuxia fiction and films, including the 1983 film Shaolin and Wu Tang, which is where the hip-hop group took its name from. Click here to go back whence you came.

Reel 68: More Modern Fairy Tales

In this episode we continue our theme of Modern-Day Fairy Tales, even though in one case it’s not necessarily set in the present day. So let’s just call it a present-day telling of a fairy tale and leave it at that.

And that’s where we start this time around, with 1993’s The Bride With White Hair,  directed by Ronny Yu. This is a Wuxia film with a kind of Romeo and Juliet overlay, as our main characters find themselves trying to balance fate, duty and love. In addition, it’s a film that definitely has overtones from Western film sensibilities. It might be a little hard to follow at first, but if you stick with it, you’ll be well rewarded.

From there we move to 2011 and Hanna, directed by Joe Wright and starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role. This film is lodged in the present, with some of the fairy-tale elements coming from its overall structure. There are also a couple of scenes which explore it a little more overtly.

This film was the basis for the Amazon Prime TV series of the same name.  The TV show, of course, had to run a slightly different story arc, because it has to sustain the basic setup over several years. I think the series did manage to do it while remaining faithful to the basic premise. Some characters had to naturally change to make this possible. But I do think it works. What say you?

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 

In our next episode, we look at a pair of films where, for lack of a better term, Alternate History is going on. In those histories, a few iconic people get to meet one another. First is Insignificance, from 1985 and directed by Nicholas Roeg. From there it’s on to One Night in Miami… a 2020 film directed by Regina King. By the end of these films, you wish all of the events depicted had actually happened! Join us, won’t you?

Mona Lisa (1986) – Review

George (Bob Hoskins) and Simone (Cathy Tyson).

Neil Jordan has made a number of different kinds of films, from biopic (Michael Collins) to literary adaptation (the remake of The End of the Affair) to comedy (the remake of We’re No Angels) to revenge film (Angel, aka Danny Boy, his first film, and The Brave One). However, there have been two consistent strands in his career. One is how he’s tried to give many of the movies he’s made a fairy-tale like atmosphere. The other stand is of a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be something different than the man thought she was. Mona Lisa was the first example of the latter type of story, and while it’s not my favorite example – The Crying Game remains my favorite – it’s a terrific film nonetheless.

George visits Mortwell (Michael Caine).

Playing someone far removed from Harold Shand, the gangster character he played in The Long Good Friday – except for his working-class roots and his explosive temper – Bob Hoskins is George, a man just out of prison for an unspecified crime. He’s estranged from his ex-wife (Pauline Melville) and his daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson), though he eventually makes up with the latter, and he goes to get a job from Mortwell (Michael Caine), a vicious gangster whom he did time for. George eventually gets a job driving a car, but to his initial disgust, he’s meant to drive around Simone (Cathy Tyson), a call girl. It doesn’t help Simone is black (George is prejudiced), and that she looks down on him, considering him ill-mannered and lower-class (Simone’s clients tend to be upper-class). After some initial tension, however, they soon develop a wary rapport, and she tells him she’s looking for another young prostitute, named Cathy, because she wants to protect her from a pimp named Anderson (Clarke Peters, best known today from TV’s The Wire). George agrees to help find her, and as he does, he starts to fall in love with Simone.

George and Thomas (Robbie Coltrane).

As I mentioned at the top, this is partially a fairy tale, as Jordan wanted to bring the simplicity and romanticism of fairy tales to the movies, as well as the danger and darkness of them. Along with the real-life inspirations (a news item about a man who was arrested for assault and who claimed he was trying to protect prostitutes from their pimps, and a TV documentary about a wealthy Soho sex entrepreneur who resembled a middle-class businessman more than anything else), Jordan’s main influence here was the tale of the Frog Prince (George even tries to tell Simone the tale early on). There are fairy tale motifs throughout the movie – George brings a white rabbit when he tries to see Mortwell for the first time, George’s friend Thomas (Robbie Coltrane, Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies, and also TV’s Cracker) has sculptures that could come out of a fairy tale – and also story motifs in general (George and Thomas talk about mystery novels Thomas always lends George to read, and George tells Simone’s tale as if it’s a story). Jordan also brings together both the romantic elements – George is constantly listening to the Nat King Cole version of the title song, especially when he starts falling in love with Simone – as well as the darker elements (when George is driving down the street looking for Cathy, or going around various adult clubs, Jordan and cinematographer Roger Pratt (best known for his work with Terry Gilliam, though he also shot Jordan’s remake of The End of the Affair) make it look like George is entering something out of Dante’s Inferno). Of course, Jordan ends up subverting the Frog Prince tale in that Simone does not fall in love with George, even though she does grow to like him; it turns out Cathy (Kate Hardie), whom George does eventually find, is Simone’s lover.

Anderson (Clarke Peters).

Hoskins was apparently not Jordan’s first choice for the role – Jordan wrote the part for Sean Connery, who wanted to work with Jordan but wasn’t fond of the part – but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it. George has to be rough yet naïve and ultimately romantic, and Hoskins pulls all of that off brilliantly. Take the scene when he finds a scene of an old porn movie Simone appeared in (he got it when he delivered a package to an adult video store). He tries showing it to Simone, who, naturally, is pissed, and starts slapping him. George gets angry and hits her as well, but immediately apologizes, and they hug each other while crying. Hoskins goes through a lot of emotions through the course of that scene, and yet makes them all work. Tyson has the tougher role, as we have to see what draws George to her, yet she also has to remain someone mysterious and opaque, and considering this was her first film role*, she pulls it off beautifully. Coltrane brings warmth, likability, and intelligence to Thomas. Finally, while Caine is only in a few scenes, he perfectly captures someone who maintains a veneer of respectability but who is slimy through and through. Caine once told Hoskins, who co-starred with him in four other movies, that Mona Lisa was one of only three great British gangster films (the other two being Get Carter, with Caine, and The Long Good Friday). I don’t agree with that, but it’s definitely one of the great ones.

*-Denis O’Brien, who helped provide the money for the film through his company Handmade Films (which he co-owned with George Harrison), objected to the casting of an unknown like Tyson, preferring Grace Jones for the role, as she was just off the Bond film A View to a Kill. Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley both successfully fought O’Brien on that issue, as well as the ending of the film – O’Brien wanted to end it on the violent shootout, when Simone shoots and kills Anderson and Mortwell, and almost shoots George, while Jordan and Woolley were eventually able to get the ending they wanted, with George reminiscing with Thomas, and finally reunited with Jeannie – though O’Brien did win one battle. During the scene where George visits various strip clubs to find Cathy, we hear Genesis’ “In Too Deep”, which Jordan objected to because he wanted something more like what would have played in those clubs, but O’Brien insisted on because of how popular lead singer Phil Collins was. It does play a little too on-the-nose (“All that time I was searching, nowhere to run to”), and Jordan’s objections make sense, but I do think the song works overall.

Ball of Fire (1941) – Review

Sugarpuss (Barbara Stanwyck) shows Bertram (Gary Cooper) and the other professors what they’re missing.

When classic movie lovers discuss what year is considered the best ever in Hollywood cinema, 1939 is usually the one that gets chosen, as it was the year of such films as Gone with the WindMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonStagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. However, you could make a very good case for 1941 being the best year Hollywood had to offer, given that was the year of such films as Citizen KaneThe Lady Eve and The Maltese Falcon. And Gary Cooper, who won his first Best Actor Oscar in 1941 with Sergeant York, might have agreed 1941 at least was a banner year for him personally. In addition to that film, Cooper also appeared in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, and worked again with both Howard Hawks (his director on Sergeant York) and Barbara Stanwyck (his co-star in Meet John Doe; she also was having a banner year, with that and The Lady Eve) on Ball of Fire, a delightful comedy.

Despite the array of talent involved in the movie – in addition to Hawks, Cooper and Stanwyck, the film had a script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (a year before Wilder became a director), and the film co-starred Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, S.Z. Sakall, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, and Charles Lane, among others – it doesn’t quite have the reputation it deserves. In his biography of Howard Hawks, critic Todd McCarthy found it utterly charming, but not up to Hawks’ other comedies, while in his critical study Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, critic Richard Corliss thought the script was marvelous but that Hawks had trouble pacing it. And Wilder himself, in Cameron Crowe’s book-length interview with him (Conversations with Wilder), dismissed the movie as “not very good”. All due respect to Wilder (one of my all-time favorite directors and writers), Corliss and McCarthy (two critics I like quite a bit), but I love the film, and always have.

Sugarpuss performs “Drum Boogie”.

Wilder had originally thought of the idea for the story in Germany, but when Samuel Goldwyn, who distributed the film, wanted a hit movie for Cooper (who was busy being in hits for other studios, such as Meet John Doe and Sergeant York, which were both made at Warner Brothers), and Wilder agreed to write one last screenplay for someone else (he would make his directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, the following year), he and Brackett dusted off the idea for this film. Originally, the main character was a British professor, but Wilder changed it to American to fit Cooper. Hawks had been fired from a Goldwyn film several years previous to this (Come and Get It) for going over schedule, but Cooper, who had been friends with Hawks ever since working with him on Today We Live, insisted. And when Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard turned down the role of Sugarpuss, Cooper was the one to suggest Stanwyck, since they had gotten on so well during Meet John Doe.

The story, loosely based on the story of the Seven Dwarfs, follows Professor Bertram Potts (Cooper) and his seven colleagues – Professors Gurkakoff (Homolka), Jerome (Travers), Magenbruch (Sakall), Robinson (Tully Marshall),  Quintana (Leonid Kinskey), Oddly (Richard Haydn) and Peagram (Aubrey Mather). They live in a house in New York City and are putting together a comprehensive encyclopedia set under the patronage of Miss Totten (Mary Field), daughter of Daniel S. Totten, who (in the movie, anyway) invented the electric toaster and was so angry about being snubbed by the Encyclopedia Britannica that he started the project in the first place. Each professor has their specialty; for example, Professor Jerome is in charge of geography, Professor Oddly is an expert on botany, Professor Peagram knows history, and Bertram, who is the head, is a language professor. Despite the fact Miss Totten (who has a crush on Bertram) and her lawyer, Larsen (Lane), would like them to hurry the project, Bertram is sure they are all on the right track. That’s when the neighborhood garbageman (Allen Jenkins) throws a wrench into their plans. He comes in asking for help on a radio quiz program, and the slang he uses (describing a woman he wants to make it with as “a real dish”) makes Bertram realize his article on slang for the encyclopedia is hopelessly outdated. So Bertram goes around the city conducting field research, listening to people talk, and inviting them to a workshop so he can do even more research. This eventually leads him to a nightclub where Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck), a “dance hall hostess”, is performing (the song “Drum Boogie”, with Gene Krupa and his orchestra; Martha Tilton dubbed Stanwyck’s voice).

Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews).

It turns out Sugarpuss is in a jam of her own. Joe Lilac (Andrews), a gangster who is her employer/boyfriend, is being investigated for a murder one of his associates committed under his orders. His henchmen Pastrami (Dan Duryea) and Asthma (Ralph Peters) tell Sugarpuss the district attorney and police are looking for her as a result (there’s also the matter of a pair of customized pajamas she had made for Joe, which are evidence in the case), and she needs a place to hide. Naturally, she gets this news right before Bertram comes to her dressing room asking if she’ll join his workshop. At first, she brushes him off, but she then realizes it’s the perfect hiding place, and shows up at the professors’ house late that night. She insists on staying at the house (she claims she can help Bertram more that way), and while she ends up delighting the other professors, she does delay work on the encyclopedia (to say nothing of upsetting the housekeeper Miss Bragg (Kathleen Howard)), and so Bertram eventually asks Sugarpuss to leave. Naturally, in order to stay there (Joe is arranging to marry her so she can’t be forced to testify against him), she seduces Bertram, and he falls in love with her. Naturally, when she realizes this, she falls in love with him too.

All of the movies Stanwyck made in 1941 more or less followed the pattern of her playing a smart, tough-as-nails woman who ends up using a not-so-streetwise man for her own ends but who ends up falling for him and not wanting to see him get hurt. Admittedly, compared to those other two films, Ball of Fire isn’t as complex on either a narrative level (The Lady Eve) or a thematic one (Meet John Doe). Sugarpuss simply wants to stay out of jail. But “simple” shouldn’t be confused here with simplistic. Stanwyck is one of my favorite actresses both for the authenticity she brought to her roles and her unaffected acting style, and both are ever present here. The scene where she seduces Bertram is a good example.

Sugarpuss seduces Bertram.

Bertram has seen her teaching the other professors how to dance (right after Miss Bragg tells him, “Either she (Sugarpuss) goes, or I go”), and is so disturbed by what he sees that he sends Sugarpuss out so he can scold the others (conveniently, this is when Pastrami and Asthma come by to tell Sugarpuss about Joe’s scheme to marry her). When Bertram is done, he sends the professors out to call Sugarpuss to the library. She acts unconcerned, even at Bertram’s manner of addressing her as a school principal would a trouble-making student (Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland shoot the scene at the beginning with the camera pointing upward, as to accentuate Cooper’s height advantage; also, we only see part of the chair Sugarpuss is sitting in, as if she’s sinking in it). Bertram going full speed ahead in comparing the encyclopedia undertaking to a voyage, and how Sugarpuss has disrupted it, but when he gets to the part of her ankles being a disruption (particularly compared to Miss Bragg’s), he starts to falter, only to reassert himself when Sugarpuss jokes about sitting on her ankles (in view of the voyage metaphor, she also calls him “Admiral”), and firmly tells her she must leave. First, she appeals to his intellect, telling him there are still things he needs to learn about slang, like “Ameche” for “telephone”, because he invented it “in the movies” (Wilder was fond of referencing other movies like this; Hawks didn’t do it as much, but had the occasional one like this), which leads to Bertram confessing, “Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind. Unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.”

Lesser actors would telegraph on their face, or in their voice or body language, how much that line would be an invitation to go in for the kill. Stanwyck merely whistles, shrugs her shoulders, and seems to acquiesce, not even looking at Bertram. She does perk up when he further confesses how he’s been aware of her presence, but even then, Stanwyck never oversells her seductiveness. She does do a sexy walk when she goes over to the window (Bertram mentions how she looked while standing in the sunlight), but when she gets there, turns around and stands there (which has the desired effect), Stanwyck just stands there looking at Bertram with a normal expression on her face. Of course, she pulls out her last weapon later in the scene, where she lies to Bertram that she’s “wacky” about him, leading to the “yum yum” scene. She has to take a couple of books lying around in the room just to be able to stand up on his level and kiss him, but that she does, and Bertram (or, as she calls him, Pottsy) is a goner.

Pastrami (Dan Duryea) holds Bertram and the other professors at gunpoint.

Arguably, Stanwyck’s most famous role was as the femme fatale in Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity, a character with no heart (or, if there was one, extremely well hidden), but as she showed in Ball of Fire and in other movies, she was equally adept at showing that heart, and her change of feelings towards another character. When Bertram gives her an engagement ring, and recites the quote from Richard III alluded to in the inscription (Act I, Scene II), all she does is say, “Unquote, I suppose,” and lets her eyes show us how deeply affected she is by Bertram. Later in the movie, of course, Bertram finds out about Sugarpuss’ deception, by which time she’s fallen completely in love with him. She gives a speech to that affect to Joe, explaining why she won’t go through with marrying him: “Yes, I love him. I love those hick shirts he wears with the boiled cuffs and the way he always has his vest buttoned wrong. Looks like a giraffe, and I love him. I love him because he’s the kind of guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk, and I love the way he blushes right up over his ears. Love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk!” Once again, she doesn’t overdo the moment, delivering the speech in a flat, unaffected voice, except for the slight catch in her voice at the last line.

Of course, this wouldn’t work if she didn’t have Cooper to work off of. Cooper first became a star in 1929 with The Virginian (with the immortal line, “If you want to call me that, smile!”), and became one of the actors most identified with westerns (High Noon, his most famous one, also gave him the role he won his second Best Actor Oscar for), as well as playing strong, silent types (Marlene Dietrich, who worked with him on Morocco and Desire, claimed he was a star merely because of his physique. Yet only around one-fifth of Cooper’s movies were westerns, and he had played in quite a few comedies before Ball of Fire, most notably Design for LivingMr. Deeds Goes to Town, and the highly underrated (for me, anyway) Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (and he even shows comic timing in The WesternerSergeant York and Meet John Doe, though none of them can be classified as comedies). More importantly, he played his share of well-spoken characters (as in Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, the two films he did for Lubitsch), and handled them with elan.

“I believe this is what is known as an up-stick.”

But then, Cooper was always being underestimated; there have been numerous stories of directors and other actors working with Cooper who, while the scene was being shot, didn’t see him doing much of anything, only to realize, once they watched it on film later, just how much he was doing. While the film uses the naïveté that was often part of Cooper’s on-screen persona (as in his Capra films, Mr. Deeds and Meet John Doe), it’s balanced with his intellect, which Cooper manages to sell. He also pulls off some speeches of his own, as in the scene late in the movie when he confesses the depth of his feelings to Sugarpuss (he doesn’t know she’s in the room at the time; he thinks he’s telling Professor Oddly about it). And while it may seem to stretch credulity to have Bertram have to speed-read a book on boxing in order to match up against Joe at the movie’s climax – given not only Cooper’s past roles but his imposing physique – Cooper is able to make that work as well.

Another reason the movie stands out is the portrayal of the professors in general. They may have shut themselves off from the world voluntarily to finish the encyclopedia, but that doesn’t mean they look down on it. When the garbageman comes by the first time, they don’t treat him as if he’s an idiot, but are completely engaged with what he’s asking them. Bertram, who may seem more standoffish than the others at times (he’s constantly correcting Miss Bragg’s grammar), is genuinely open with the garbageman and others he recruits in his quest to learn slang, saying that they all speak a living language. There’s no condescension there, just a genuine thirst for knowledge, which all the professors share. And while they may not seem to have much experience with women (we only hear about Professor Oddly, who’s a widower, and seemingly old-fashioned with women), they don’t look down on romance either. At the beginning, they know Miss Totten’s feelings for Bertram, and try to play up on that, making him look more presentable, and Gurkakoff poking Bertram in the back when he falters in his speech to Miss Totten when he’s talking about her (the gasp he gives at that excites her enough she decides to continue the encyclopedia, which she had thought of stopping). And they are delighted by Sugarpuss as well – especially when she’s teaching them to dance – and are further delighted by her and Bertram coming together (when Sugarpuss does go off with Joe and Bertram is of course desultory at this, it’s Professor Oddly who points out she left Joe’s ring for Bertram, and the others, Gurkakoff in particular, say this is showing her true feelings for Bertram). Finally, while you might think the professors are being stereotyped as kindly but slightly out-of-it old dears, there’s a scene late in the movie where, after Oddly has given Bertram romantic advice and remembered his late wife, he and the other professors sing “Sweet Genevieve”, and it’s a lovely but melancholy moment.

Sugarpuss confesses she loves Bertram.

Wilder is often accused of being too cynical or sour, and admittedly, the sourness would take over some of his later work (like Kiss Me, Stupid or A Foreign Affair, my two least favorite movies of his). But most critics at the time – and some even today – seem to overlook the romantic ardor that could surface in his films. Mostly, it’s in the films he did with Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon), but it’s in other pictures as well, including some well-known (The Apartment) and less-known (his two most underrated films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti). And Wilder is able to balance it with genuine humor and melancholy, which is also true in this film. The melancholy, of course, comes out in that scene I mentioned in the above paragraph, but it’s also there in other scenes (as when Bertram finds out about Sugarpuss and Joe). And the humor comes out in some of the moments I mentioned above, as well as in much of Sugarpuss’ dialogue, particularly the innuendo when Sugarpuss is trying to get Bertram to let her stay at the house in the beginning (“I figured on working all night”).

As for Hawks, I think Ball of Fire tends to pale in light of his other comedies, particularly Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday because it’s more relaxed in tone than those films (according to McCarthy’s biography, Hawks said the relaxed tone was due to the “pedantic” nature of the professor characters), and therefore might not seem to be as inventive (or maybe it’s because admirers of Hawks mostly disdained Wilder, at least at first). But Hawks was working with Toland, one of the great cinematographers of that era (that same year, he shot Citizen Kane), and while the movie doesn’t call for visual flourishes, it’s still thought out well in visual terms. The professors are often shot in deep focus, emphasizing how well they work together as a group. And while credit for this should probably go as much to Wilder and Brackett as to Hawks and Toland, the scene where the professors realize how to turn the tables on Pastrami and Asthma (who are holding them hostage until Sugarpuss agrees to marry Joe) is another example of how well the movie is shot. When the garbageman innocently walks in on the hostage situation, asking about the sword of Damocles (another quiz show question), and he’s shooed into the room to sit with the others, Hawks cuts back to Pastrami, who’s standing behind Professor Jerome. As Pastrami goes to sit in front of a certain painting, Toland pans down as Professor Jerome looks at where Pastrami’s sitting, and then at the painting, subtly showing him getting the germ of an idea. He then walks over to the others (after getting permission from Pastrami to do so and to talk), and begins telling the garbageman about the meaning of the sword of Damocles, and the lesson it imparts. Even before the shot where we see the figurative sword – the portrait picture – hanging over Pastrami’s head by ropes (so a well-placed microscope can reflect sunlight from the sunroof onto the ropes, causing them to burn), Toland and Hawks have therefore subtly set things up.

I honestly don’t want to sound like a member of what William Goldman has called the “Yesterday Was Better” club – I not only think many of today’s pictures can stand with the those made in the past, but also believe many of them could never have been made back then due to the Code restrictions at the time, and it’s good they’ve been made today. Nevertheless, if there’s one way films of today fall short, it’s in the comedies, particularly the romantic ones. Genuine chemistry between the two leads, of course, then and now has covered a lot of sins, but today’s romantic comedies often seem labored, and so intent on following the mechanics of the plot they don’t allow for the human element (not to mention their over-reliance on “fate”). It takes a lot of hard work to make the elements come off right, but in this type of comedy, the result must seem effortless on-screen (Hawks, apparently needing money, remade the movie seven years later with A Song is Born, with the professors this time researching music forms, but despite the presence of able musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, it seemed labored and forced). Ball of Fire is effortless, charming, and despite the simple plot, very human, and that’s why I love it so. Of course, the combined talents of Cooper, Hawks, Stanwyck and Wilder don’t hurt, either.

Reel 67: Modern Fairy Tales, Part 1

Apologies for the delay to this episode, but I got Covid last week at the same time as a sinus infection, and I was definitely laid low for awhile. Not a cool way to spend your birthday week, to be sure. Anyway, thanks for your patience.

In today’s episode we’re looking at two films that are updated versions of classic fairy tales, even if they don’t necessarily look like it on the surface. And we start with Ball of Fire, directed by Howard Hawks from 1941. Barbara Stanwyck is a woman hiding out from the police by staying with a group of scholars who are putting together an encyclopedia. In exchange for the room and board, she offers the men lessons in modern lingo and other forms of popular culture. Of course, there’s a little more to it as she finds herself attracted to one of them. Hijinks ensue as the man who’s benefitting from her being hidden gets the idea to marry her as a means of keeping her from testifying against him. It’s a bunch of screwball fun involving lots of character actors.

In the second half of the episode, we move forward to 1986’s Mona Lisa, a kind of neo-noir film directed and co-written by Neil Jordan. It features Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson as an unlikely couple who have an unlikely adventure together. It’s guaranteed that this film doesn’t end the way you expect it to, but you won’t be dissatisfied by that.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 

In Reel 68, we’ll be checking out another pair of modern fairy tales, but they’ll be foreign-based and a little more esoteric. First we’ll screen The Bride With White Hair (1993), a Hong Kong film directed by Ronny Yu. After that we go to Scandinavia for Hanna (2011), directed by Joe Wright and the inspiration for the 2019 Netflix series.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – Review

“Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.”

In 1997, when he reluctantly (at first) agreed to direct Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh’s career was foundering. Though he had started out strong with his feature debut, sex, lies, and videotape being a box office and critical success (as well as winning the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival the year it was released), his follow-up movies had failed to connect with audiences or critics in the same way (though I like them, especially his third movie, King of the Hill). Soderbergh himself felt dissatisfied with the way his career was going, especially with his fourth movie, The Underneath (which, again, I like a lot), so he had made a documentary (Gray’s Anatomy, Spalding Gray’s third one-man show) and an experimental movie (Schizopolis, which he also appeared in). Still, Soderbergh felt frustrated by the fact he no longer seemed to connect with mainstream audiences, which is why he ultimately decided to direct Out of Sight. Though the movie underperformed at the box office, it was critically acclaimed, which was also the fate of his follow-up film, The Limey. The year 2000 was when Soderbergh finally broke through in mainstream Hollywood, with Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both films did very well with audiences and critics and both films garnered multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay (original for the former, adapted for the latter), and for one of the few times in history, Best Director (Soderbergh won for the latter). Coming from a position of strength now, Soderbergh could have gone back to his more experimental work – and he would do so the following year with Full Frontal and his remake of Solaris – but first, he went mainstream again with Ocean’s Eleven, his remake of the 1960 movie directed by Lewis Milestone and written by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer (from a story by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell – Ted Griffin wrote the 2001 version). This may have seemed like a step backward for Soderbergh, but Ocean’s Eleven turned out to be one of his most entertaining and enjoyable films.

“Ten oughta do it, don’t you think…you think we need one more?…you think we need one more…all right, we’ll get one more.”

In this version, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), just out of prison, goes to Atlantic City and reconnects with Frank (Bernie Mac), who’s a croupier using the alias Ramon. Frank tells Danny Rusty (Brad Pitt), Danny’s partner, is currently in Las Vegas teaching celebrities to play poker (Holly Marie Combs, Topher Grace, Joshua Jackson, Barry Watson, and Shane West are the TV stars who play themselves here). When Danny meets up with Rusty in Vegas, he tells Rusty his plan – to rob three casinos (that share a safe) all owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Rusty thinks the plan is crazy, as does Reuben (Elliot Gould), whom Danny and Rusty approach for financially support, but they both agree to go along with it (Reuben because Terry muscled him out of a casino he used to own). Danny and Rusty end up recruiting Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk Malloy (Scott Caan), two brothers who help with various tasks on the heist, Livingston (Eddie Jemison), the computer expert, Basher (Don Cheadle, uncredited), who’s good with explosives, Yen (Shaobo Qin), an acrobat, Saul (Carl Reiner), an elderly con artist whom Rusty talks out of retirement, and Linus (Matt Damon), a pickpocket. Danny informs the others while there are plenty of obstacles, the take is $160 million. What Danny doesn’t tell them is his other motivation – Terry Benedict is now married to Tess (Julia Roberts), Danny’s ex-wife, and Danny wants to get her back.

“Look, we all go way back, and, uh, I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place, and I’ll never forget it.”

The original version is probably best remembered today as the first Rat Pack movie, with the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop – and a few others (including Richard Conte, Norman Fell, and Henry Silva) playing WWII veterans who decide to knock over five casinos on New Year’s Eve and do so by shutting off the power grid (the power grid is kept for the remake, as was the backer – played by Akim Tamiroff in the original – and the reworked concept of multiple casinos being robbed; the idea of a fixer who knows of any job pulled in Vegas, and played here by Cesar Romero, is alluded to in the remake). Supposedly, when Lawford pitched the idea for the movie, Sinatra joked they should just pull the job instead,* and that lackadaisical attitude, I think, shows throughout this movie. It’s not a bad movie by any means – the robbery itself is executed well, and the Code-mandated ending is pretty clever without feeling like a cop-out – but you get the feeling no one gave a damn about anything but the money and working with old friends when you’re watching it. It doesn’t help Lewis Milestone, a director who had made some terrific movies (the original versions of All Quiet on the Western Front and Of Mice and Men, along with the entertaining noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) was at the twilight of his career, and you get the sense he was playing traffic cop more than anything else. Soderbergh’s version, on the other hand, is genuinely entertaining.

“Oh, leave it out! You tossers! You had one job!”

For starters, he and Griffin pack in a lot of humor. I know a lot of people had issues with Cheadle’s attempt at a Cockney accent, but since it’s a comedy, I didn’t mind, since he was funny, and admittedly, I have a weakness for hearing Cockney slang (which Soderbergh had previously indulged in with Terrence Stamp’s character in The Limey), as Cheadle does here when Basher is trying to explain how they need to find another way to cut the electricity (because when one of Reuben’s old casinos gets demolished, the people behind that inadvertently did away the method Basher was going to use) or they’ll be in Barney – upon everyone else’s blank looks, he elaborates, “Barney Rubble – trouble!” Griffin and Soderbergh also get humor out of subverting conversations, as when Linus has to pretend to be an inspector from the Nevada Gaming Commission, Rusty is telling him how to play the role, and when he gets to what he says is the most important part, Livingston calls Rusty away, leaving Linus stranded. Finally, while I can see how a little of Affleck and Caan’s bickering can go a long way for some people, the movie does have the wit to wink at that, as when Linus gets stuck in a van with the Malloy brothers while Danny, Basher and Yen go steal an electronic pinch that Basher will use to shut the power off briefly so the crew can go about the heist, and he’s so irritated with their bickering he ends up breaking into the place himself, which immediately gets security chasing after him.

“Oh, well you look at that.”

This was the third movie Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer (after Schizopolis and Traffic) under his pseudonym “Peter Andrews” (though he didn’t edit under his other pseudonym, “Mary Ann Bernard” – Stephen Mirrione served as editor here). He gives the movie a sleek look, but he also keeps it moving quickly. As with Traffic, Soderbergh also tries to subvert genre expectations with the look of the movie, and the way the plot unfolds. Even though this is a heist movie, there are no gun battles, except for one that turns out to be staged. Though there are suspenseful scenes, such as when Danny and Linus set off a bomb without knowing Yen hasn’t gotten to safety on the other side, Soderbergh also leavens those scenes with humor as well, as when Danny presses the triggering device, only to find out the batteries need to be changed (which does allow for Yen to escape, though he does have, with his only line in English, some choice words for Danny and Linus when they finally meet up with him). David Holmes’ score also strikes the right tone, keeping the movie light as air. Finally, it may have been a set-up for a sequel, but having Terry Benedict continue to go after what’s been taken from him is another way Soderbergh plays with genre conventions to make this entertaining.

“You lose focus in this game for one second…”

The cast also gives the impression they’re doing more than just marking time. Clooney isn’t stretching here like he did earlier with Soderbergh (in Out of Sight) and would do later with Soderbergh as well (in Solaris), but he’s convincing as a smart and charming thief. Pitt is unflappable cool as Rusty, and he makes the running gag of his character always eating work for him. Bernie Mac is very funny, from when he’s pretending to be sicker than he really is to get transferred to Vegas to when he’s turning on both the charm and intimidation when trying to get a good deal on a vehicle the group needs. Gould, who appeared mostly on TV in the 1980’s and 1990’s, is the best he’d been in years as Reuben, stealing his scenes with a brio he hadn’t shown since his films with Robert Altman. Reiner also shows how crafty he still is as Saul – when Danny asks if he’s up for doing the con, Saul snaps, “If you ever ask me that question again, Daniel, you will not wake up the following morning!” Damon seems a little generic at first, but he’s convincing as a pickpocket and also contributes to the humor. And as I mentioned above, I think Affleck, Caan, Cheadle, and Qin are very good. Finally, Garcia, who can be a ham, dials it down while still being menacing. There were two sequels to this movie (along with an all-female spin-off, Ocean’s 8), but while they had their moments (particularly the spin-off), none of them were as entertaining as Ocean’s Eleven.

 

*-In The Rat Pack, Rob Cohen’s entertaining made-for-HBO movie about the group, it’s Dean Martin (played by Joe Mantegna) who says this when they’re discussing making the movie.