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Tara vs. Sarah
Soderbergh’s worth the price of admission
‘Ocean’s Twelve’ director can get a good performance out of anyone
Warner Bros.
Sarah and Tara can't quite agree about Catherine Zeta-Jones, but they adore director Steven Soderbergh.
COMMENTARY
By Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting
MSNBC contributor
Updated: 3:13 p.m. ET Dec. 6, 2004

It seems at times like acclaimed writer/director/producer/Roberts-wrangler Steven Soderbergh can do no wrong. After more or less inaugurating The Indie Era with the James Spader-rific “sex, lies, and videotape,” Soderbergh furnished one of the few genuinely likable performances of Jennifer Lopez’s career in “Out of Sight”; double-dipped best director nominations in the same year for “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” (and won for “Traffic”); and remade “Ocean’s Eleven” about a hundred times better than the in-jokey Rat Pack original. Soderbergh is like Sara Lee: nobody doesn’t like him.

Based on the admittedly impressive track record above, Soderbergh has apparently bulletproofed himself; neither “Full Frontal” nor “Solaris” did very well, critically or financially, and his recent foray into television, “K Street,” didn’t get renewed by HBO. Still, it’s as though we all just sort of agreed to look politely away from those disappointments, reminding ourselves instead how much we enjoyed “The Limey.”

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But the hotly anticipated “Ocean’s Twelve” may put Soderbergh’s apparent invincibility to the test. Will the follow-up to “Ocean’s Eleven” amaze and delight – or will he succumb to sequelitis as so many have before him? And if he does, will it harm his reputation as a gifted filmmaker?

Sarah D. Bunting
I don’t know what to predict for “Ocean’s Twelve.” I loved “Ocean’s Eleven,” in the sense that I want to marry it, I loved it so much — it’s so funny! It’s so charming! Everyone in it is so handsome! Brad Pitt is snacking in every single scene! I can quote most of it from memory, probably, and the minute it ended, I started praying for a sequel.

But maybe I should manage my expectations a bit, because it’s…still a sequel, and sequels are so often underwhelming. Also underwhelming, at least to me: Catherine Zeta-Jones. “Get more,” my foot.

Tara Ariano
Zetamax isn’t my favorite actor in Hollywood, but let me just say this for her (as I have for others in the past), girlfriend is pretty. And also, I saw “America’s Sweethearts” (in the theatre…full price...I KNOW), so I know from firsthand experience that nothing makes renowned husband-stealer Julia Roberts look like a pile of dog mess faster than putting her next to Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Plus, as you know, I do have a thing for the Welsh. They’re so cute with all their crazy consonants!)

Sarah
The Welsh also know how to walk in high heels. If I have any nit to pick with “O11,” it’s that we’re supposed to buy Tess Ocean as this drop-dead beauty when she’s clomping around in her stilettos like she’s got two dislocated knees. Julia: You have an Oscar. It’s time to learn to manage a pair of Manolos. It’s also time to get a facial moisturizer that works, because maybe it’s the way they lit her, but girlfriend looked rough in the first one.

I know that has nothing to do with Soderbergh per se. It just bugs me that Roberts needs a Chapstick in every damn scene. Anyway. Please continue.

Tara
You don’t see the Coen brothers busting out “Miller’s Next Crossing” or “The Even Bigger Lebowski.”

…Thanks. It’s true that Soderbergh seems kind of invincible at the moment, and also that making a sequel isn’t the most obvious move for a director of his stature. You don’t see the Coen brothers busting out “Miller’s Next Crossing” or “The Even Bigger Lebowski”; sequels are for your Richard Donners and your Jay Roaches, not Oscar winners.

Having said that, though, if there’s a group of artists — yeah, I said it — that I trust to make a sequel that doesn’t suck, it’s the minds behind Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven.” I know, it’s not the same screenwriter, but — good as it was — I have a sneaking suspicion that Ted Griffin’s script would have been nothing special if it hadn’t gotten into the hands of this particular group of actors, and the director with a strong enough artistic vision to wrangle what is, after all, a baker’s dozen of superstars.

Roberts alone has trampled lesser directors to fulfill her own artistic vision of making utter crap (“Mary Reilly” much?), but in “Eleven,” Soderbergh wrung out of her some of the least bad work of her career. And some really excellent performances out of everyone else; I freely admit that it was the film that changed my opinion (for the better) of Matt Damon forever.

My point: it takes a strong leader to corral that many big egos and create a result as nearly flawless as Soderbergh’s “Eleven.” So, go Sodie.

Sarah
Although, let’s face it, if Don Cheadle is in “Bride of Gigli,” I’ll see that too. The man is that attractive.

Another reason that “Ocean’s Twelve” might be a sequel that works: it actually has a reason for existing. Casino boss Terry Benedict basically vowed revenge in the first installment; not everything got tied up in a neat little bow. Soderbergh and the screenwriters left themselves room to continue the story, so it won’t seem as contrived as sequels often do.

Although, let’s face it, if Don Cheadle is in “Bride of Gigli,” I’ll see that too. The man is that attractive.

But even if “O12” is a flop-a-roony, I don’t think it’ll affect Sodie’s stature as an “it” director. First of all, “K Street” didn’t take the bloom off his rose, and if giving James Carville more unwarranted attention didn’t send Soderbergh to the blacklist, nothing can — because it’s not just that people like (most of) his movies. It’s that people respect what he’s trying to do, even when it doesn’t quite work. He surrounds himself with top-notch talent and tries to tell good, compelling stories, and it doesn’t always play out that way — I took one of the soundest naps of my life during “Solaris” — but he’s always aiming high, and audiences know that about him, so they’ll forgive him the “Underneaths.”

He’s shooting a Che Guevara biopic starring Benicio Del Toro and Javier Bardem. Whatever your opinion about the consistency of Soderbergh’s career, the guy is obviously not kidding around.

Tara
Gotta say, that one sounds like a total snooze. I’m not going to front; I definitely don’t love everything he does, and I’ll be skipping over that one — much as I did “Solaris” — so I can continue liking him without having to acknowledge the thinkier corners of his filmography.

But Soderbergh’s definitely got my money, opening night, for “O12.” And I appreciate that, even as he takes time to challenge himself with the artsy fare, he hasn’t forgotten that there’s no shame in pleasing a crowd.

Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting are co-creators and co-editors of Television Without Pity

 © 2004 MSNBC Interactive

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