Tag: Steven Soderbergh

MOVIE REVIEW | ***REMAKE WEEK*** Solaris (2002)

Solaris (2002)

“And death shall have no dominion.”

As a directing and acting team, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney have six team ups under their belt.  Of those that I’ve seen, they have one absolute clunker in Oceans 12, one that’s just OK with Oceans 13, then three really good to great movies.  That’s a pretty great strike rate.  So with one collaboration between these two left to see, did Solaris maintain their impressive average, or bring it down?


Psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) receives a video message from an old friend, Dr Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur).  Gibarian is currently working on a space station in orbit around the planet Solaris.  Some weird stuff is going down onboard and Gibarian believes his two other cremates need Chris’ professional help.  When he arrives on the station, Chris discovers Gibarian dead, and the remaining two crewmates at various levels of sanity.  There’s the creepy but weirdly honest and open Snow (Jeremy Davies), and the defensive, combative Gordon (Viola Davis). (more…)

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** The Good German (2006)

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Steven Soderbergh was never predictable in the stories he chose to tell. He’s also a weird combination of classic Hollywood appreciator, lover and early adopter of all things technology. He was one of the first A-list directors to really embrace filming with digital cameras, yet he has no problem going the in the exact opposite direction in making something like The Good German. Not just an old Hollywood story, but filmed using old Hollywood technology and techniques.


It’s 1945, the war in the Pacific is still going strong, but the Germans are out for the count. The Americans and Russians descend on Germany to divide the spoils of war, and while the officials go about their diplomacy, the men on the ground are quietly looting the country for everything it has to offer. Men on the ground like Toby McGuire’s Tully. Working in the army motor pool, Tully is a big customer of and supplier to the black market. As every German is accused of being a Nazi and waits for seemingly inevitable persecution, Tully tries to secure papers to help is kraut whore girlfriend, Lena (Cate Blanchett), get the hell out of there.

It just so happens that during the war, Lena was the kraut whore girlfriend of George Clooney’s Jake, back in Berlin and stuck with Tully as his driver. Early on, Jake talks about moving on from the war with the Germans that only finished a few months earlier, and preparing for war with the Russians. When Tully shows up murdered in the Russian section of town, the cover ups, twists and double dealings start to pile up.

In true noir tradition, each solving of a crime simply leads to uncovering an even bigger one, and every character is a viable suspect. The twists and turns mount up until it’s almost impossible to keep track of everyone’s allegiances, alibies and motives. But it’s the kind of convolution that works to make The Good German better and richer as each new layer of complications is added.

The Good German opens with stock footage from Germany at the time and plenty is used throughout, but Soderbergh didn’t stop there in going for his authentic, period look. He strictly only used technology from the 40s in filming the movie. Things like camera lenses, lighting and sound recording gear were all from that time and it really does work to give the movie an authentic period feel.

With its wartime backdrop, black market dealings and talks of papers to travel across borders, The Good German has a real Casablanca feel and it’s obvious that’s no coincidence. The whole movie is a perfect example of what I love about Soderbergh. He seems to approach so many of his movies as an experiment in film making. A lot of his movies feel like he did it just to see if he could. And while that approach would feel indulgent or pretentious with most other directors, Soderbergh somehow pulls it off.

The Good German
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Paul Attanasio

 

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** Magic Mike (2012)

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It would be easy to write Channing Tatum off and assume he’s just a good looking beefcake dude. It would be easy to write off a movie about male strippers and assume it’s another piece of campy cheese like Showgirls, but with big old swingin’ dongs. But when Steven Soderbergh makes a movie about male strippers, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. And it kind of pays off with Magic Mike.


Channing Tatum’s Mike is an entrepreneur. He designs and builds custom furniture, he works on construction sites, he helps manage a club, he’s in event management, he has a detailing business… And he’s a stripper. One day, while roofing a house, he meets Alex Pettyfer’s Adam, newly arrived in Florida, broke, unemployed and sleeping on his sister’s couch.

Soon enough, Adam is working alongside Mike at his night job, dancing in a male strip club run by Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. I remember when Magic Mike came out, all the positive talk revolved around two things; The fact that it was way better than anyone expected a movie about male strippers to be, and that McConaughey nailed it. Now that I’ve finally seen it, both things have been well and truly proven.

As Dallas, McConaughey is their boss, their teacher and their mentor. And through all the bravado, fatherly advice and hubris, he lets just enough vulnerability, greed and obvious fear of inadequacy sneak through to make him the most entertaining character in Magic Mike.

The dances and performances of Tatum and the other strippers are just the right level of amateur and bad. If any other director made Magic Mike, the star would have spent months in choreography training and the minor characters would have all been played by professional dancers. There’s nothing professional or polished about these guys. They’re dodgy losers who aren’t qualified to do anything else, so they’ve developed their own half assed routines and characters over the years. Even Tatum, who got famous through the Step Up movies, ads an awkwardness to most of his routines.

The setting is perfect too. From all reports, Florida really does seem to be America’s asshole. On paper, it’s paradise. Great weather, great beaches, great nightlife. But every depiction of the state makes it seem like there’s barely a layer of cheap glitter that only covers the tiniest bit of the grime.

The only real weak spot in Magic Mike is the cheesy and obvious romantic story between Mike and Adam’s sister Brooke, played by Cody Horn. If you don’t predict it the second Adam casually mentions living with his sister, the movie makes sure to shove it down your throat the first time Mike and Brooke meet and don’t like each other. This lazy story device is only highlighted even more by the fact that Cody Horn is a pretty bad actor.

It’s a classic, proven story. Like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights, a young dude is given the keys to paradise, he lives it up until it all comes crashing down, It’s funny to see such a grand structure used to tell such a small, inconsequential story. And I mean that as a compliment, I really enjoyed this version of the story where the stakes are so much lower. The contrast makes for a great new perspective on such an old story.

Magic Mike
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Reid Carolin

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** Haywire (2011)

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Trying to predict the career of Steven Soderbergh is a pointless affair. Not only did he crank out movies quicker than any other a mainstream director (except maybe for Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen), he also jumped around from genre to genre more than other director I can think of. There aren’t many film makers who have such a unique and recognisable voice as Soderbergh, yet can translate that voice to almost anything. It’s already wacky enough to think he made the paranoia filled Contagion before moving to the sleazy male stripper world of Magic Mike. But it gets really wacky when you realise that in between those, he made an action beat ‘em up starring a female Mixed Martial Arts star who’d never acted before. And the result was Haywire.


Opening in a highway side diner, we meet Mallory (Ultimate Fighting ass kicker, Gina Carano). She’s waiting for Channing Tatum’s Aaron. Within minutes, they’ve had a massive punch up, she’s won and is fleeing in a car with innocent bystander Scott (Michael Angarano). In the car, Mallory’s story turns into a series of flashbacks to get Scott and the audience up to speed.

Working for Ewan McGregor’s Kenneth, Mallory is part of some sort of clandestine group of elite, black ops style organisation. After a meeting with government official Alex (Michael Douglas), Mallory is sent on a mission in Ireland where she works with Michael Fassbender’s MI6 agent, Paul. This is about the time when everything in Mallory’s life turns to shit. Double crosses turn into triple and quadruple crosses. All allegiances become suspect and the people she trusted most turn out to be the prime suspects in everything going wrong for Mallory.

The biggest surprise with Haywire is that Soderbergh made a totally non ironic, deliberately B grade genre picture. While Out of Sight could kind of be seen as an action movie, it’s so self aware, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez almost wink at the camera. This is more along the lines of something like The Limey, Soderbergh’s grimey revenge flick. Or Side Effects, an unapologetic thriller. Haywire embraces all the genre tropes of an action movie starring an MMA fighter, with genuine affection, not snarky sarcasm.

When you cast a first time actor in your movie’s main role, I guess there are two ways to go when you build the rest of the cast around them. Either surround the newbie with ringers who can help raise the overall bar of the movie, or surround them with people who are just kind of OK, so you never highlight your lead actor’s flaws. Well, Soderbergh definitely went with option one.

Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas… All of these dudes are overflowing with charisma and have proven themselves to be more than adequately equipped with solid acting chops. And unfortunately for Carano, it does sometimes make her seem a little out of her depth in comparison.

It’s the kind of thing that whenever I think it, I realise I’ve thought it many times, but always manage to forget. But Haywire proves that Steven Soderbergh is a really great director. It seems obvious to say about an Oscar winning, blockbutser making, generation defining film maker, but it’s movies like Haywire that really drive the point home. It’s one thing for him to make a great movie when making something high end like Traffic, or crowd pleasing like Erin Brockovich, but it’s a totally different thing to make a great movie when working with an action beat ‘em up starring a female Mixed Martial Arts start who’d never acted before. And Soderbegh more than makes it work.

Haywire
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Lem Dobbs

 

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** Contagion (2011)

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Until his supposed retirement after Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh was one of the most prolific film makers in the business. He was cranking out movies at a rate that was hard to keep up with. Even the high profile ones with great reviews, like The Informant and Magic Mike took me a long to time to get around to, because there was just so much Soderbergh out there to see. Then there are the other ones, the ones that didn’t seem to make a big splash, ones like Contagion.


Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at an airport, waiting for a flight home to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon). She’s a bit fluey, and not long after getting home she has a seizure and pops her clogs. Meanwhile, people all over the world start exhibiting similar symptoms and similar clog popping. Doctors played by Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne are first responders, trying to figure out what this mystery, killer disease is, while also trying to stop word getting out and panic spreading.

Determined to spread that news and panic is Jude Law as Alan, a blogger with a dodgy accent that I think is supposed to be Australian. At the same time, there are various other organisations all over the world, all working in different ways to either stop the disease, or at least figure out where it came from. The cast is huge, and the story is sprawling, but never in a convoluted or messy way.

In fact, that sprawl works to intensify the paranoia and fear. Seeing this world threatening event from so many perspectives only makes it that much scarier. There’s the clinical approach of the scientists, the military logic of Bryan Cranston’s high ranking officer, there’s the dismay of Matt Damon’s everyman. And even when they’re actively working against each other, often without even knowing it, it’s hard not to see merit and logic in all of their actions.

Contagion might be the scariest movie l’ve ever seen. Soderbergh has always been one of the best directors out there for conveying reality. For every over the top piece of cool like Out of Sight, or the Oceans franchise, he’s made just as many grimey, so real you can smell them movies, like The Limey and Magic Mike. In Contagion, that feeling of reality makes the idea of this disease seem more than just possible, it comes off as pretty much inevitable.

Apart from Law’s dodgy accent, every one really delivers. And despite the huge ensemble, each character gets their own moment or two in the spotlight. With such a big cast of A-listers, I don’t know why Contagion didn’t get more attention when it came out. Before watching it, all I knew was that Soderbrgh had made it. l had no idea about Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes or the half a dozen other people I’m probably forgetting right now. Even with this pretty full on, very dark subject that could be a bit confronting, the cast list seems like more than enough to get people interested.

“Effective” is a word that can sound a bit wanky when talking about a movie. But it just seems really appropriate in regards to Contagion. I’m no germaphobe and sickness isn’t something I ever really worry about. But now, having just finished watching this movie, it seems like something I should worry about more often, if not all the time. I wonder if sales of hand sanitizer went up when this movie first came out?

Contagion
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Scott Z. Burns

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** Che: Part 1 – The Argentine (2008)

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Biopics are a tricky business. If someone is interesting enough to have a movie made about their life, they’re probably too interesting to do that life justice in a couple of hours. Something like Walk the Line covers decades, but it still focused mainly on Johnny Cash’s relationship with June Carter, so it never felt like it was rushing through things. On the other hand, there was Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar, where he tried to cover so much, it never really gave enough attention to anything. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for a Steve Job biopic has apparently gone in the complete opposite direction, having only three scenes in the entire movie covering three very specific events in Jobs’ life. Then you have Steven Soderbergh’s Che. Two movies, totalling around four hours.


Che: Part 1 – The Argentine opens in 1956 Mexico. In an unassuming apartment Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (Bencio Del Toro) meets with a group of Cuban dissidents, including Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir). They soon form a revolutionary army and begin their attempts to overthrow dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Cutting back and forth between a visit Che made to the United Nations in New York, and the story of the Cuban revolution, The Argentine follows Che and Castro as they go from leading a handful of under equipped soldiers, to a well trained army, big enough to fight their war on several fronts.

More than just the physical resemblance, Del Toro seems like he is the only person who could have played the title role. I have no idea how accurate his portrayal is, if it’s anything like the real dude, but Del Toro really delivers on the charisma that a man like Che Guevara would have no doubt had. When Del Toro is leading his troops into almost certain death, I totally believed they’d follow. When he’s taking down the entire UN with an accusation filled speech, it’s totally believable that even the people who hated him, wouldn’t have been able to help respecting him at the same time.

The real Che Guevara is pretty polarising. Was he a hero who fought for the greater good of Cuba? Was he a terrorist and ruthless killer? The Argentine makes an argument for both. Castro and Guevara are fighting for a greater good, but there are times when the movie makes you wonder if the ends justified their means.

As they defeated Batista’s government and took control of Cuba, I wondered how Soderbergh was going to get an entire second movie out this character and his story. I don’t know much about Guevara, so I had assumed the Cuban revolution was where his story ended. But there’s a great line toward the end, after Batista has been defeated. One of Che’s soldiers talks about how easy life will be now that they have won. Che replies, “We have only won the war. The revolution has just begun”. If I wasn’t already pumped to see Che: Part 2 – Guerrilla, that line would have definitely done the job.

Che: Part 1 – The Argentine
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Peter Buchman

MOVIE REVIEW | ***SODERBERGH WEEK*** Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

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Ah, the early 90s, when indie movies were all about the conversation. Very little in action, very little in camera movement or flashy set pieces. Just a series of scenes built around two people talking. The more seemingly mundane nature of the conversation, the better. Because you know, that meant it was artistic. Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith built their careers on early films using this formula. Even Tarantino, with all his bullets and bloodshed, always builds his movies on conversations first, action second. But before Slacker, Clerks or Reservoir Dogs, there was Steven Soderbergh’s talkie debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape.


Ann (Andie McDowell) is a young wife, sexually repressed and in an increasingly loveless marriage with John (Peter Gallagher). And even though his wife isn’t putting out, John’s fine, because he is chock a block up her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Add to that Graham (James Spader), John’s old college friend who comes to town, loaded up with weirdness.

In one of his first conversations with Ann, the wife of an old friend he’s only just met, Graham drops the fact that he’s impotent. That’s one of the more socially accepted normal things the character does. It turns out that the closest Graham can get to sexual satisfaction is through interviewing women about their sex lives, and filming it, then watching these tapes back of women talking about experiences, preferences and hang ups.

McDowell, Gallagher and San Giacomo are all fantastic, but Sex, Lies and Videotape is 100% James Spader’s movie. While decades later his weirdness would reach parody levels in Boston Legal and US version of The Office, here it’s a little more toned down, and all the creepier for it. Alan Shore and Robert California of the afore mentioned TV shows were so over the top, they were almost cartoons. Graham Dalton of Sex, Lies and Videotape is that strange combination of off puttingly weird, yet you totally understand when the women of this movie are drawn to him in a way.

Scenes rarely contain more than two characters at a time. This movie is all about Graham and Ann, Ann and John, John and Cynthia, Cynthia and Graham. All of these individual pairings and dynamics are used to show the different sides of these characters, the different people they are, depending on who they’re with.

Does it get a little pretentious at times, like only a first time film maker in their 20s can be when they think they’ve got it all figured out and have something they really need to say? Sure, but we need those first time film makers in their 20s who think they’ve got it all figured out and have something they really need to say. Because once they grow out of that, they eventually do have something of interest to say. And they make things like Che, or Behind the Candelabra, or The Informant or Out of Sight.

Sex, Lies and Videotape
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Steven Soderbergh

***2013 RECAP*** MOVIE REVIEW | Before Midnight

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The 90s gave us a big wave of new, alt film makers who at their core, were massive movie nerds. Nerds like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. Tarantino has been able to follow his indulgences to some really great places and is possibly more recognisable than any other director working today. The recently retired-from-film-making Soderbergh is one of the most well respected names of the last two decades. Smith rode his train way past the last stop of relevance and film making creativity long ago, easily distracted by whatever bright, shiny trinket he might see out of the corner of his eye. Rodriguez only gets more and more unpredictable (in good and bad ways) as the years go on. And then there’s Richard Linklater, the quiet achiever.

Linklater is the guy who can make crowd pleasing fluff that’s actually really good, like School of Rock. The guy who can actually come really close to translating Philip K Dick to the screen with A Scanner Darkly. The guy who can make genre pulp like The Newton Boys one minute, then turn around and make an art house, philosophical talk fest like Waking Life the next. All that, plus a movie a lot of people see is an outright modern American classic, Dazed and Confused.

He’s also the bloke who’s made a trilogy out of two people doing nothing more than walking and talking. Sequels are usually reserved for action, sci-fi and the odd comedy. With the just released Before Midnight, Linklater has managed to build a franchise on one compelling relationship.

If you haven’t see 1994’s Before Sunrise or 2004’s Before Sunset, look out, there will be some spoilers. There’s no way to talk about Before Midnight without getting into the movies that preceded it.

Ethan Hawke is Jesse, Julie Delpie is Celine. They met nineteen years ago in Before Sunrise, on a train in Austria. They spend the night walking around Vienna, talking about life, the universe and everything, and falling in love. With Hawke’s character flying back to America the next morning, they have to say goodbye. Until nine years later, when a book he writes about that night leads to a publicity stop in Paris where Delpie’s character tracks him down in Before Sunset. They spend the day walking around Paris, talking about life, the universe and everything, and realising they have stayed in love this whole time, without ever seeing each other.

Which brings us to today, Before Midnight finds them in Greece and these two crazy kids have finally got it all figured out. They’ve spent the last nine years together, popped out a set of twins and the honeymoon period has long since passed. While the long, single takes are still there, Midnight deviates the most from its predecessors in its reliance on an extended cast. The first two Befores focused purely on Hawke and Delpie, with other roles barely more than extras with a line or two. The first half of Midnight however, has them surrounded by their children, friends and colleagues. And then… Then the second half kicks you right in the guts.

When the two main characters argue it feels so real I got uncomfortable watching it. They have the kind of arguments where they are both completely right, but going about everything completely wrong. So it’s hard to want either to win. While Sunrise and Sunset are all about the unlimited possibilities of love and romance and how ultimately, nothing can get in the way, Midnight is about what happens when you get what you want and the novelty wears off.

I wouldn’t call it cynical, there are still plenty of those little moments that make you think Jesse and Celine are the world’s most perfect couple, Before Midnight is just a little world weary. LIke the two earlier films, Midnight finishes at the perfect moment and if the series ends here, no one could complain. But I don’t think it will end here and can’t wait to see where these two characters are in another nine or ten years. And I can’t wait to see what else Linklater makes in between now and then as well.

Directed By – Richard Linklater
Written By – Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke

***2013 RECAP*** MOVIE REVIEW | Behind the Candelabra

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If, like me, you’ve been kept up at night wondering, “What does Scott Bakula look like moustachioed and shirtless?”, the answer is waiting for you in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra…   And the answer is glorious.  Liberace is a celebrity I’ve only ever known as a sketch show punch line, so going in, I was more interested in Behind the Candelabra as director Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final film before retiring from the medium, than I was in its subject.  Which lead to an awesome surprise…  Liberace is an amazingly interesting, tragic and compelling character.

The story of a years long affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Behind the Candelabra is at its core, a cautionary tale built on a famous Liberace quote, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful”.  The movie wastes no time getting to the relationship.  Racing through their initial introduction and quickly moving the story along to Damon’s live-in status with Douglas, it also wastes no time mapping out what’s to come.  No sooner has Damon become comfortable with his lavish new surroundings, than the houseboy who’s seen it all is letting Damon know he’s just the latest in a long line of inevitably replaceable playthings.  But before the unavoidable comedown, the first half of the film focuses on two people very much in love, enjoying a life of extravagance and indulgence.  The second half gives us the flips side, focusing on two people falling (and eventually completely fallen) out of love, in a lot of ways caused by that life of extravagance and indulgence.

Douglas and Damon are both note perfect in the leading roles, but they’re almost outshone by some of the supporting players.  The afore mentioned Bakula is clearing having fun every second he’s on screen and Dan Aykroyd is in form rarely seen these days as Liberace’s manager, that makes you almost forget Blues Brothers 2000…  Almost.  But the MVP of Behind the Candelabra is, without a doubt Rob Lowe, as the plastic surgeon and distributor of his personally developed and fully pharmacological “California Diet” (patent pending).  If I was told Behind the Candelabra 2: The Legend of Liberace’s Gold was in production and consisted of nothing more than Lowe’s stretched face and dead doll’s eyes staring blankly into the distance, I’d be in the cinema opening day.

Will this be Soderbergh’s swan song?  For a filmmaker so prolific, he’s had to compete with himself for an Oscar, I’d be very surprised if it turns out that way.  But if it is, Behind the Candelabra is an impressive, lavish and more than satisfying end to an eclectic, sometimes brilliant (sometimes, not so brilliant) career.  He really has gone out in style.  Gouache, tacky, golden jewel encrusted grand piano, over the top style.

Behind the Candelabra
Directed By – Steven Soderbergh
Written By – Richard LaGravenese