Steven Soderbergh and friends take a working holiday in Las Vegas for this entertaining reworking of the Rat Pack’s heist comedy. George Clooney fills Sinatra’s shoes as Danny Ocean, the recently paroled con-man who assembles a motley crew to take down Andy Garcia’s ruthless casino owner while simultaneously nabbing his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from his clutches. Brad Pitt is the Dean Martin sidekick while Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, and Elliot Gould among a couple of others complete the rest of the gang. A party-mode Soderbergh unleashes every bit of his directorial panache to craft the entire affair into an interminably slick feast for the eyes and ears – with a production budget to match (not content with taking over actual casinos, they even staged a title fight between Wladimir Klitshcko and Lennox Lewis). Playing the coolest versions of themselves, the cast cruise their way through the complicated and very well executed heist in a manner befitting the project’s ambitions with David Holmes’ repetitive but impossibly suave compositions providing the most complementary soundtrack imaginable. If it sounds, like a “can’t-miss” type of movie, allay your excitement somewhat because, though eminently fun, its lack of depth ensures that it’s a little cold. In the final analysis, Ocean’s Eleven is what you get when a bunch of talented movie guys spitball a movie concept around a poker table at 3 am. Lots of well conceived but ultimately stand alone moments in desperate need of some serious screenwriting to bind them together.
Rating: The Good – 63.3 Genre: Crime Duration: 104 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren
Steven Soderbergh’s film about a British gangster who travels to LA to kill the rich music producer who killed his daughter is edited in a supremely frustrating style akin to that which Soderbergh used in the key romantic scene in Out of Sight – when Clooney and Lopez meet in the hotel bar. Dialogue and shots are desynchronised as time is stretched out and condensed simultaneously. It works wonderfully in Out of Sight because it came at a transitory point in the movie, lasted only a couple of minutes, and was accompanied by David Holmes’ lovely score. In the Limey, all it does is irritate because it is employed recurrently throughout the movie and almost entirely for the first 20 minutes. On top of that, having Terrance Stamp stopping to translate his cockney wide boy slang to the various Americans is nauseating, unrealistic (surely he just wouldn’t use it to save time), and suggests that the inclusion of said slang was merely a gimmick.
Having said that, about 50 mins in this film rights itself and the story becomes more viewer friendly. The main characters are finally established and the remaining 50 mins is really entertaining. Stamp is decent as the grieving tough guy, Luis Guzmán is good support, Peter Fonda amuses, and that man Nicky Katt pops up (as he typically does) in an interesting if under-exploited cameo. If you’re in the mood for a revenge story with a twist this is worth sticking with.
Terrific adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in top form as a serial bank robber who breaks out of a Florida prison so that he can pull a diamond heist with the help of his regular accomplice (Ving Rhames). While doing so, he is forced to kidnap a beautiful but tough federal marshal in the form of Jennifer Lopez and an unlikely relationship between the two develops. As you’d expect from a Leonard-Soderbergh project, Out of Sight is a slickly crafted and worded film with all the style of Soderberg’s Oceans films but with more restraint and a better story. David Holmes chimes in with an equally slick and well weighted score. The highlight of this synthesis between dialogue, look, and score comes during the central romantic moment of the film which is full of playful innovation. Lopez and Clooney are brilliant together displaying palpable chemistry as they woo and zing each other in equal measure.
Rating: The Good – 76.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 106 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum
The only thing more impressive than the number of films Steven Soderbergh has churned out these last few years is the quality of those films. In Side Effects, Jude Law stars as a psychiatrist whose professional reputation is put in jeopardy when one of his patients (Rooney Mara) murders her husband (Channing Tatum) while taking a new anti-depressant he prescribed. When the prosecution ask him to declare that she was legally aware of what she was doing he takes the riskier option of supporting her defence that she was in fact sleepwalking in a medicine-induced state. But as his personal life and practice begin to crumble under the weight of outside scrutiny, his own investigations reveal something else.
Side Effects is a deep black psychological thriller immensely sophisticated in its construction and elegantly directed. The plot is sharply devious twisting away from the audiences’ expectations right up to the final scene but maintaining a fascinating edge of mystery that thoroughly engrosses the audience. However, what’s most impressive is how Soderbergh manages to delve into the mindset of his female protagonist and paint a chilling picture of depression as he goes. That the script is (by Hollywood standards) informed and respectful of the different dimensions to the disorder makes this all the more substantial and that he and Scott Z. Burns seamlessly weave each of these dimensions into the plot is just plain showing off. The film even manages to take an oblique look at the culture of psychopharmaceutical use by tying a rather perceptive commentary into the main trust of the narrative.
This all works on a number of levels because not only does it capture the nuances of depression but through Mara’s insightful and penetrative performance, it sets a comprehensively dark and haunting tone to the proceedings. These tones are mirrored in the equally impressive Jude Law’s desperation as the mysterious net closes in on him. Alongside the two strong central performances, is a devilish Catherine Zeta Jones whose delicious cadences and overall presence lends to Soderbergh’s angular approach in rich and rewarding manner.
From a directorial point of view, Side Effects has all the hallmarks of Soderbergh’s slickest films as he overlaps dialogue and scene repeatedly in the early stages to tell the backstory more swiftly and again in the later stages to let the audience catch up. Burns’ script is his usual brand of personally and technically informed dialogue and he moves the complexities of the plot forward with deliberate pace. Despite this, Side Effects is a far slower movie than most will expect and though it accentuates the moodier tones to the story, it will not float everyone’s boat. Furthermore, the darkness of the earlier scenes while also integral might repel those looking for a straightforward thriller. But if you stick with it and take Soderbergh and co. up on their invitation to dig deeper, there are unconventional rewards to be unearthed. Clever in its simplicity, powerful in its execution and respectful of its subject matter, Side Effects is a tour de force in movie thrills and directorial class.
The story of drug trafficking from Mexico to the United States is explored from all sides in Steven Soderbergh’s hugely impressive adaptation of Simon Moore’s miniseries. Moore’s miniseries was groundbreaking in its own right and Soderbergh’s feature does it justice and then some. Michael Douglas leads the star studded ensemble cast as the new US drug czar in Washington whose daughter is a drug addict. Benicio Del Toro is a Mexican state police man caught between his desire to see the drug cartels smashed and the inherent corruption of his country. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the wife of a wealthy drug distributer in San Diego who has been arrested by DEA agents Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman. Soderbergh used different gradings for each of the interlinked vignettes with each colour grading reflecting the dominant theme of the location. All perspectives are sewn together with Cliff Martinez’ soft score (recorded in mono) and Steven Mirrione’s equally soft editing. At two hours and twenty minutes, it’s a long watch but if anything it needed to be slightly longer to better account for Zeta-Jones’ character. However, Traffic is nonetheless an outstanding achievement in story telling but more important is its bravery as it attempts to show the cold hard reality of the drug world while explicitly choosing not to provide any token answers.
Rating: The Good – 77.1 Genre: Drama Duration: 100 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher
Steven Soderbergh’s debut is a low-budget and languidly paced drama about four people, their relationships, and their intertwined attitudes towards sex. It’s a well crafted exploration into voyeurism and works very well as a meta-analysis given the conversational/confessional nature of that exploration and the purposeful lack of nudity or any explicit sex scenes. Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher are just about good enough as the estranged couple but given that both have never been great at imbuing their characters with personality, it’s difficult to relate to either. Adding James Spader’s typically skewed performance was risky in that it could have alienated the audience further but it’s in his soft and meditative performance that the other characters are tied together. That and Soderbergh’s intricately connected constructs of loneliness, deception, and sex. Of course, Soderbergh’s delicate craft in combining visuals and sound is the primary driver of this film and it’s a remarkably insightful piece of film-making. It’s through his talent that an ostensibly simple story develops the thematic layers it does and it’s that quiet complexity that allows the film to be appreciated more with each viewing. Though controversial on its release, Sex, Lies, & Videotape has lost much of its edginess but it did pave the way for even more intense explorations of the subject such as Cronenberg’s Crash which also starred Spader.
Rating: The Good – 67.3 Genre: Thriller, Disaster Duration: 106 mins Director: Steven Sodernergh Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Steven Soderbergh has recently announced his intention to retire from directing and given the rate at which he has been churning them out over the last few years, one can understand his desire to step back. The calibre of these films is also impressive with every one of them proving interesting in their own way. Contagion is certainly no exception as it’s a uniquely sleek take on the “outbreak” movie. It follows the outbreak of a lethal hybrid strain of the swine and bird flus from “patient 0” to the point of near apocalypse with specific focus on the attempts of the various scientists and experts to culture, sequence, and kill the virus.
Contagion has many admirable qualities. Laurence Fishburn and Elliott Gould give standout performances as respectively a government and private scientist. Kate Winslet is even better as Fisburn’s “person on the ground” while Matt Damon as the beleaguered husband of Gwenneth Paltrow’s “patient 0” is strong despite the movie’s overall problem with personal subplots (more on this below). Soderbergh combines much of the exposition (of which the film has a lot) with Cliff Martinez’ energised score and overlaps the scenes with his usual verve. This gives the film a solid momentum despite the majority of the action being dialogue-based. Scott Z. Burns’ script is polished and technically informed which emphasises the authentic vibe which his director’s style naturally brings. The film is also full of striking imagery such as Jude Law’s subversive blogger wandering through the deserted streets tacking his propaganda flyers to walls and lamp posts while kitted out in an oxygen suit which evokes memories of Bruce Willis’ sample gathering expeditions in Twelve Monkeys.
Contagion tries its best to show snippets of the wider “outbreak” story. That is, it covers both the technical and medical efforts to contain the virus and the personal trials of the average Joe Citizen. The problem is that Soderbergh’s quasi-documentarian direction and Burns’ (the Bourne Ultimatum) slick writing style are both excellent at capturing the former but not always great at the latter. A better balance was needed on this project to prevent the sharp procedural and dispassionate quality of the scientific investigative scenes carrying over into the subjective drama thereby neutralising it. Thus, despite a considerable amount of time looking at the changes and stresses to the domestic life of many of its protagonists, there’s a distinctly impersonal feel to the story. This is particularly the case with Damon’s subplot which is almost entirely emotionally framed. The film would be better served if they had of discarded the personal stuff and focused exclusively on the technical and bureaucratic drama which in truth the film needed more of.
A second major issue concerns Law’s greedy blogger. Though there are some nice attempts to invert typical notions of conspiracy caricatures (including a nice nod to 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), such is the extent of his paranoia and his influence that it comes across as a little unbelievable. As such, this potentially fascinating subplot feels a little out of kilter with the rest of the film and only serves to distract from the extremely clear and even surgical focus of the main drama. Another subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organisation agent and some Chinese kidnappers is equally daft.
Contagion is a laudable effort from a great director and top cast and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Fukasaku’s Virus and maybe even Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. As it is, it will probably please most mature science fiction fans though it certainly feels like it tried to do too much and got caught between two stools. Thus, those with a broader interest in film appreciation will be frustrated by the missed opportunities.
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: Action Duration: 93 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Gina Carano, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas
Steven Soderbergh turns his hand to the action genre and combines the staples of that genre (fights, chases, guns, and lots of colourful bad guys) with his arty style of desynchronised dialogue, angled shots, delayed cuts, and general polished production. Think Oceans Eleven with knuckledusters! The good news is it works like a charm and given this entire project is a critique of the brainless modern action movie template, it’s all the more satisfying to hear the popcorn brigade deride it for having the temerity to interrupt action sequences with something a little more pensive.
Muay Thai champ Gina Carano headlines as an elite black ops mercenary fighting, kicking, and running for her life through Europe and the US while trying to piece together the clues to who in her agency has set her up. The plot is well developed and populated with terrific characters, each one tougher than the next. Furthermore, shot as it was on location in Dublin and Barcelona where the actual backstreets of those cities are used to splendid effect, Haywire counts as a hugely authentic and grittier action bonanza than anything we’ve seen since the Bourne trilogy (purposefully not counting the fourth film). The plot is explicated with a technocratic dialogue even more opaque than in those films but this gives it a Kuleshov-like functionality allowing the audience to project all sorts of intrigue onto it and the wider plot. There are also some genuinely funny and unique moments of physical comedy lightly sprinkled throughout the film and acting as well timed breathers from the ass-kicking roller coaster.
Of course, set up as an alternative to your more typical 21st century mind numbing actioneer, Haywire was always going to stand or fall on its action sequences. To simply say it does the former would be to vastly understate the case because the action choreography and execution is jaw dropping. Carano is outstanding with the physical stuff but it’s the design, pretext, and shooting of those sequences that’s so special. Soderbergh intrigues the audience with a disciplined and ultra composed build up to each fight with the various spies sent to work with and/or kill Carano and the actors who play them, enriching the drama no end. These amount to a series of tasty cameos with Michael Fassbender’s blistering appearance as Carano’s Dublin contact being the show stopper. Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Aragano do very well given their even more limited time though Channing Tatum’s endless muttering makes hard work of his speaking scenes. Ewen McGregor returns to form as Carano’s slimy boss and counts as the only other cast member with a significant amount of screen time.
Haywire isn’t perfect. Soderbergh tends to over-edit some of the Barcelona and New Mexico segments so as to unnecessarily truncate them. This ironically makes them feel longer, dragging as they do in a similar fashion to the director’s earlier feature The Limey. These annoyances are brief in the context of the overall film though and that same directorial patience when channeled in less ponderous ways during the Dublin and New York segments gives us some thrilling set-pieces including one of the most inspired chase sequences we’ve seen in years.