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One For Everyone

Soderbergh’s style as a filmmaker, not just in his reliance on dry humor, is equally evident in this scene. As we hear Linus cajoling Tess to fly out to Rome on the next available flight from New York City, we see what would usually be a traditional establishing shot: an airplane descending from the air to land on the runway.

But Soderbergh, famous for being his own cinematographer, doesn’t just include a static shot of a plane landing; instead, the camera is positioned on the ground facing to the left, then pans from left to right, tracking the plane tracks the plane as it skids to a halt. From the 15-second shot, it’s obvious that Soderbergh literally laid down on the ground near the runway in question, angling the camera to the left as a plane landed and following its arc to the right. Even this inversion of a basic establishing shot is a striking reminder that Soderbergh’s “one for them” kind of filmmaking is still very much “one for me.” As much as the film was criticized for feeling like it had no stakes, like it was just about a lot of famous people hanging out for a couple hours, there’s never a sense that anyone’s just doing this for the paycheck; there’s genuine effort expended in even the simplest moments.

Outside of the Julia Roberts-as-Tess-as-Julia Roberts sequence, which is genuinely one of the great farcical moments in modern cinema, Ocean’s Twelve is still a breathlessly exciting, shrewd, and fast-paced piece of entertainment. It’s not as classically structured as the first film, but its pleasures are many. There’s the running joke about how Danny is horrified to learn that most of his team thinks he’s a lot older than he is; the goofily stylish scene where a rival thief (Vincent Cassel) dances his way through a series of lasers to steal the Faberge egg; the cheeky cameo from comedian Eddie Izzard; the way everything triumphantly works out for our criminal heroes in the final 20 minutes; and so on. There’s a lot to love in Ocean’s Twelve, even if the overriding argument is that it’s a big step downward qualitatively.

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Oh, and Ocean’s Thirteen is Pretty Great, Too

And there’s a lot to love in Ocean’s Thirteen, the final entry of the series, which could be seen as a form of course correction. It’s just like the original film: a heist in Las Vegas! They’re up against a greedy casino owner! Played by someone from the Godfather films! There may be a kind of back-to-basics feeling throughout Ocean’s Thirteen, but the same sense of playful fun is as present in the 2007 film as in the 2004 sequel. As the second film has the specific stakes of each member being on the hook financially and physically, the third film’s stakes are even more personal. The selfish Willy Bank (Al Pacino, in a role and performance seemingly modeled on Steve Wynn) suckers Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of being his partner in a new casino, causing Reuben to suffer a debilitating heart attack.

So this time, as they say, it’s personal for Danny and his crew. They aim to sabotage the opening night of Bank’s flashy new casino, from rigging dice to manipulating slot machines to introducing a fake new game fronted by Frank Catton (Bernie Mac, whose cruelly untimely passing in 2009 ensures we won’t get an Ocean’s Fourteen). As with the other films, there’s a series of thrilling payoffs, from the identity of a pushy federal agent played by Bob Einstein to the weirdly joyous final bit when a put-upon hotel critic (David Paymer) finally gets a victory at a rigged airport slot machine. There’s even a wonderful, warped reprise of the gorgeous scene at the end of Ocean’s Eleven where the criminals stand in front of the Bellagio fountains to the tune of Debussy’s “Clair De Lune.” There aren’t as many standout moments here as in Ocean’s Twelve, but even the way that Garcia’s oily Benedict is involved with Danny’s crew and gets played once more after he tries and fails to screw them over feels gratifying.

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The Singular Soderbergh

Ocean’s Eleven is a hell of a film, and a hell of an affirmation of the talents of Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker. He’s proven time and again that he’s one of the more eclectic auteurs in the business. Think of the time on his website, Extension 765, when he de-colorized Raiders of the Lost Ark and turned the sound off to highlight how incredibly the film is staged, just because he could. Soderbergh is equally as capable of making a classy, sophisticated piece of entertainment as Ocean’s Eleven as he’s able to make a gritty thriller like Haywire or a period TV show like The Knick, and so on.

All three Ocean’s movies prove the same thing. Steven Soderbergh, despite the earlier presumptions, doesn’t make movies just “for him” or “for them.” The Ocean’s trilogy, by all rights, should be a “for them” proposition, a franchise with huge movie stars based on a pre-existing title. The Ocean’s trilogy could have easily been driven by the star wattage of Clooney, Damon, Roberts, Brad Pitt, Cheadle, and others. The Ocean’s trilogy could have been an excuse for a bunch of A-listers to hang out in Vegas, around Europe, and back to Vegas. What Soderbergh was able to crack with the Ocean’s trilogy was simple. He was able to deliver something “for the studios” that just skims the surface, while also making three films that are decidedly “for him,” as unique and weird and giddy and delightful as anything else in his filmography.

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