The Films of Steven Soderbergh
Sex, Lies, and Videotape
King of the Hill
Out of Sight
Erin Brockovich (January 8/00)
Erin Brockovich casts Julia Roberts as the title character, a provocatively-dressed human rights crusader who takes on a case involving the poisoning of a small town by a big company. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich tells a familiar David vs Goliath story, but it's the characters and the performances that really make this movie stand out. Roberts, of course, essentially steals the spotlight from everyone else - she's in virtually ever scene - but she's very good here. She's taken her ingratiating persona and flipped it. She's still ingratiating, but now she's using it to her advantage. Witness, for example, the scene in which she flaunts her uplifted bosom for the sole purpose of gaining access to key files. It's hard to imagine another actress pulling this off without appearing sleazy. When Julia Roberts does it, it's endearing. Director Steven Soderbergh's refusal to be pigeonholed continues here, as the director infuses the proceedings with a vibrant, almost peppy sense of style that's essentially the antithesis of his work on The Limey. Predictable yet engaging, Erin Brockovich would not have been as compelling had a less edgy director helmed it (ie the film, in the wrong hands, could've easily played like a lost rerun of L.A. Law). It's ultimately Roberts' consistently stirring work that cements Erin Brockovich's unexpected success, as the actress effortless transforms her character into an underdog that the viewer can't help but root for - thus ensuring that the case at the center of the story becomes increasingly enthralling as the movie unfolds.
Full Frontal (July 28/02)
Though he stopped making microscopically-budgeted movies a while ago, Steven Soderbergh has nonetheless been applying techniques honed during his early days as a filmmaker to his more recent projects. Out of Sight and Traffic contained a wide variety of film stocks and filters, while The Limey and The Underneath played around with time. Now, with Full Frontal, Soderbergh has essentially gone full circle and made his artiest flick yet. Trouble is, it's just not terribly interesting. Like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, Full Frontal follows several characters over the course of one unusually pivotal day. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a frustrated writer, is forced to re-evaluate his life after getting fired from his job at a prominent Los Angeles based entertainment magazine. It doesn't help that his marriage to Lee (Catherine Keener) is on its last legs, with neither having the time or energy to simply to talk to one another. Across town, a play written by Carl is set to debut that night, with a temperamental actor starring as Hitler (Nicky Katt). Meanwhile, Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack), a masseuse, spends the majority of the film wandering around depressed because she's never had a relationship last more than two months. Finally, there's the movie within the movie, starring Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood as a reporter and actor that fall in love. Full Frontal's been shot on digital video and according to Soderbergh, the image has been played around with to such an extent that it's virtually unwatchable. To make things worse, whenever sequences from the movie within the movie pop up, they're shot with normal film - which, after watching the grainy digital footage, is akin to finding water in a desert (treasure it, because it doesn't last long). But besides the aesthetic problems with Full Frontal, the lack of storyline prevents it from becoming anything more than an actor's showcase. Which is fine, I guess, but from someone like Soderbergh, you expect a heck of a lot more than that. The acting is uniformly fantastic, with Frasier's David Hyde Pierce giving a performance that comes as a total shock to anybody who's only seen his work on that sitcom. As this miserable character, Pierce has to run the gamut of emotions and proves to be up for the task. If the film itself wasn't so weak, he'd be a strong contender for an Oscar nomination next year. Keener's playing the usual sarcastic and sardonic character she always plays (she can currently be seen playing a similar person in the still-playing Lovely and Amazing), which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does lessen the impact that her character should have had. Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts, but Blair Underwood - as a big-time Hollywood actor - gives a performance that should open doors for him. Specifically, there's one sequence in which he goes through this rap bemoaning the lack of parts available for African-American actors, and it's easily the highlight of the film. For that brief two or three minutes, the movie finally becomes alive and exciting. Though Soderbergh insists Full Frontal is a comedy, it's not particularly funny. Nicky Katt, as Hitler, provides the film with its scarce laughs but that's about it. The movie might appeal to those with a skewed perspective on what makes a movie enjoyable, but really, this isn't anything more than a filmed experiment. Do you really think that if Soderbergh hadn't just come off a string of hits, any of these well-known actors would have wanted to perform in this? Not likely.
Solaris (December 7/02)
Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, is a science fiction masterpiece. Most films of the genre (as of late) lean more towards the action/adventure side, like this summer's Minority Report. But it's been a good long while since there's been a sci-fi flick that's more internal than anything else; those looking for a Star Wars-type adventure will be deeply disappointed. But viewers prepared for a slow moving and thoughtful exploration of loss will be rewarded with one of the best films of the year. Set in an undetermined point in the future, Solaris stars George Clooney as Chris Kelvin - a therapist who comes face-to-face with the apparent embodiment of his dead wife (Natasha McElhone's Rheya) after embarking on a mission in deep space. If nothing else, Solaris is one of the most astoundingly gorgeous movies you're likely to see in a while. From the stainless steal decor of Kelvin's apartment to the cold and impersonal blues of the space station, the set design of Solaris is simply breathtaking. Soderbergh's cinematography (yep, once again he's acting as his own director of photography) perfectly captures the stunning sets and for once, Soderbergh restrains himself regarding handheld camera usage. The sets demand slow pans, and Soderbergh delivers. Cliff Martinez's score perfectly complements the spare, glossy look of the film. Solaris is that rare movie in which everything has come together seamlessly. But more than that, Solaris requires an attentive viewer. This isn't a movie for the Jackass generation. Like 2001 before it, Solaris unfolds at a deliberate pace, which allows the viewer to make discoveries along with Clooney's character. A lot of questions raised by the movie are left unanswered, but that's certainly not a bad thing. Solaris is bound to provoke discussions, mostly about what the end means, and its images will linger long after the final credits have rolled. It doesn't hurt that the movie features Clooney's best performance to date; as Kelvin, the actor must convey a lot of anguish and confusion, and Clooney leaves behind the mannerisms we've come to expect from him and delivers a fully realized character. As his wife, McElhone brings an air of mystery to the movie - and also manages to turn her character into someone we're not sure we should trust (is she going to flip out and kill Kelvin, or become his lover? It's impossible to tell). Jeremy Davies and Viola Davis are just as good as Kelvin's increasingly wary shipmates, with Davies giving yet another enjoyably quirky performance. Inexplicably, Solaris isn't just doing badly at the box office, but most audiences seem to actually dislike the film. Finally, there's a movie that's not only incredibly entertaining, but one that makes the viewer think - but does John Q. Public want anything to do with something like that? Apparently not. But for those who are looking for something more than big explosions and bawdy jokes in their films, Solaris fits the bill.
Ocean's Twelve (December 9/04)
If not for a really bizarre, completely unexpected twist midway through Ocean's Twelve, there's little doubt that this casino movie would've come off just as poorly as the original. And for a while there, the film undeniably does feel like a carbon copy of Ocean's Eleven - complete with introductory sequences for each of the characters. This time around, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his cohorts must pull off another job after Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) blackmails the crew into stealing a rare and extremely valuable Faberge egg. Ocean's Twelve features the return of Steven Soderbergh in the director's chair - along with, of course, virtually every performer that was in the original - and he's clearly paying homage to the French new wave films of the '60s, as well as various old-school Hollywood thrillers such as Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. As a result, Ocean's Twelve is peppered with a variety of unusual stylistic touches that effectively reflect the free-wheeling vibe of George Nolfi's screenplay. And while one has to admire the complete left-turn the story takes about midway through, everything leading up to that point is woefully dull. Just like the original, the various performers aren't really allowed to establish genuine characters; rather, they're all working off their established personas. As a result, it's impossible to shake the feeling that these are chess pieces being moved around a board more than anything else. Still, the upside is that the banter feels authentic and is undoubtedly one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film. Among the newcomers, only Vincent Cassel, playing an enigmatic master thief nicknamed The Night Fox, makes any kind of an impact, though it would've been nice if he'd been given more to do.
Click here for review.
The Good German (December 14/06)
While it's certainly not difficult to see just what filmmaker Steven Soderbergh set out to accomplish with The Good German - ie a '40s movie filtered through a contemporary sensibility - there's absolutely no overlooking the various deficiencies within Paul Attanasio's unreasonably complicated screenplay. Based on Joseph Kanon's novel, the film follows American military journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) as he investigates a murder that directly involves his ex-girlfriend (Cate Blanchett) and her new lover (Tobey Maguire). Soderbergh has successfully replicated the look and tone of a 1940s drama - the movie even opens with a vintage Warner Bros. logo - but the almost total lack of character development ensures that the novelty wears off all too quickly. The film's various positive attributes - including Soderbergh's lush cinematography and Blanchett's surprisingly effective performance - are subsequently rendered moot, particularly as the storyline becomes increasingly convoluted and flat-out baffling. Attanasio's refusal to offer up any elements designed to draw the viewer in ultimately transforms The Good German into an awfully tedious experience, and there's little doubt that classic movie enthusiasts would be better served by an umpteenth viewing of Casablanca.
As expected, Ocean's Thirteen possesses precisely the sort of light-hearted vibe that the series has come to be associated with - ensuring that, while generally entertaining enough (if undeniably overlong), the movie is ultimately as forgettable as both of its predecessors. The metaphysical hijinks of Ocean's Twelve have been eliminated this time around, and it's clear almost immediately that director Steven Soderbergh - working from Brian Koppelman and David Levien's screenplay - is looking to ape the feel and tone of the original. The usual cast of characters - including George Clooney's Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt's Rusty Ryan, and Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell - must team up once more after old friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) is double-crossed by a vicious casino owner named Willie Bank (Al Pacino). Infused with Soderbergh's expectedly off-kilter visuals and a number of genuinely funny sight gags and one-liners, Ocean's Thirteen generally comes off as nothing more than a mindless and breezy affair - with the viewer's interest held primarily by the effortlessly engaging performances (Pacino smarmy, downright sinister work is certainly a highlight). And though the gang's caper seems particularly inconsequential this time around (surely there are easier ways to get revenge), the movie is ultimately a welcome respite from the effects-heavy and egregiously over-the-top fare that usually dominates multiplexes this time of year.
Click here for review.
The Girlfriend Experience (December 10/10)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, The Girlfriend Experience follows a high-priced call girl (Sasha Grey's Chelsea) as she goes about her business over the course of a few ordinary days - with the film primarily detailing Chelsea's encounters with clients and friends alike. Soderbergh has, as anticipated, infused The Girlfriend Experience with a lush and consistently captivating visual sensibility that initially compensates for the film's unapologetically uneventful atmosphere, and there's little doubt that the almost total lack of context or exposition is, for a little while, not quite as problematic as one might've feared. There does reach a point, however, at which the relentlessly meandering narrative becomes impossible to overlook, with the progressively less-than-enthralling vibe exacerbated by the central character's underdeveloped nature - as scripters David Levien and Brian Koppelman are simply unable (or unwilling) to get inside Chelsea's head to a satisfactory degree (ie what makes this girl tick? why does she do the things she does? etc, etc). It's subsequently rather difficult to work up any interest in Chelsea's mundane exploits, and although the movie does boast an admittedly authentic feel, The Girlfriend Experience's few positive elements are inevitably rendered moot by its needlessly non-linear structure and an ongoing emphasis on small-talk-type conversations. It's finally impossible to label the film as anything more than yet another failed cinematic experiment from Soderbergh, and it's impossible not to wish that the director would pay as much attention to story and narrative as he does to visuals and atmosphere.
Crushingly dull and relentlessly pointless, The Informant! tells the true-life story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) - a high-ranking business executive whose decision to turn whistleblower sets in motion a series of progressively unbelievable events. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh's refusal to even fleetingly infuse The Informant! with conventional elements ultimately cements its pervasive downfall, as the movie boasts an aggressively off-the-wall sensibility that effectively holds the viewer at arm's length from start to finish. It's consequently not surprising to note that the narrative is consistently overwhelmed by Soderbergh's ostentatious directorial choices, with the aggressively quirky atmosphere reflected in everything from Doug J. Meerdink's garish production design to Marvin Hamlisch's thoroughly grating score to Soderbergh's obnoxiously retro cinematography. Scripter Scott Z. Burns offers up a talky, surprisingly convoluted storyline that remains seriously at odds with Soderbergh's cartoonish sense of style, with the inclusion of non-sequitors within the central character's voice-over narration (ie “I like my hands. I think they're probably my favorite part of my body") an apparent concession to the filmmaker's frustratingly off-kilter modus operandi. The Informant!'s failure to elicit laughs is compounded by its lack of dramatic tension, and the viewer is inevitably forced to walk away from the proceedings wondering just what Soderbergh originally set out to accomplish here (ie the movie doesn't work as a drama or a comedy or a thriller, so what exactly is the point of all this?) The end result is nothing less than a colossal misfire, with Soderbergh's increasingly erratic tendencies essentially tarnishing the overall impact of his filmography (ie the duds are starting to seriously outweigh the successes).
And Everything Is Going Fine
Contagion (October 15/11)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion details the chaos that ensues after a deadly virus begins making its way across the globe - with the film following several disparate characters as they doggedly attempt to identify and, eventually, cure the virus. Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns, has infused Contagion with an extremely fast-paced sensibility that proves effective at immediately capturing the viewer's interest, with the hit-the-ground-running atmosphere initially compensating for the curious lack of context and character development. There inevitably reaches a point, however, at which the overtly clinical bent of Burns' screenplay becomes somewhat oppressive, as it's increasingly clear that Soderbergh and Burns have designed Contagion to play like a garden-variety medical procedural - which, as a result, ensures that the all-star cast is left with little to do but spout complicated jargon and run frantically from one location to the next (ie there are no actual characters here). Soderbergh's decision to increasingly emphasize the minutia of the investigation only exacerbates the movie's hands-off, less-than-engrossing feel, and though the narrative is admittedly punctuated with a few electrifying moments, Contagion is, by and large, about as enthralling and compelling as a typical episode of CSI: Miami. (And this is to say nothing of Jude Law's ineffective, oddly distracting turn as a muckraking blogger.)
A typically uneven effort from Steven Soderbergh, Haywire follows covert operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) as she embarks on a campaign of revenge after a mission goes dangerously awry - with the film subsequently detailing Mallory's efforts at tracking down (and punishing) the various men responsible for her downfall. There's little doubt that Soderbergh, working from a script by Lem Dobbs, does a superb job of immediately roping the viewer into the proceedings, as Haywire opens with an engrossing fight sequence that effectively sets a tone of minimalist brutality and establishes Carano's character as an absolutely compelling protagonist. From there, however, Soderbergh offers up a dull and surprisingly confusing series of flashbacks that drain the movie of its energy - with the less-than-captivating vibe exacerbated by the filmmaker's reliance on distractingly ostentatious elements (including David Holmes' jarring score and Soderbergh's expectedly off-kilter visuals). The incongruously convoluted atmosphere is, admittedly, broken up by the sporadic (and welcome) inclusion of absorbing fight scenes, and it's not until Mallory embarks on her aforementioned campaign of revenge that Haywire becomes the briskly-paced and thrilling actioner that one might've anticipated. (There is, in particular, an absolutely electrifying duel between Mallory and Michael Fassbender's Paul that in itself justifies the film's entire existence.) By the time the note-perfect conclusion rolls around, Haywire has effectively managed to overcome its rocky opening 45 minutes to establish itself as a solid actioner that benefits substantially from Carano's star-making central performance.
Reportedly inspired by star Channing Tatum's past exploits, Magic Mike follows floundering slacker Adam (Alex Pettyfer) as he's drawn into the world of stripping by the charismatic title character (Tatum) - with Adam's money problems erased after club owner (and flamboyant showman) Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to give the newcomer a spot in his all-male revue. It's an intriguing premise that's initially employed to surprisingly (and compulsively) watchable effect, as director Steven Soderbergh, working from Reid Carolin's screenplay, does a nice job of luring the viewer into this admittedly alien world by showcasing it through the eyes of Pettyfer's fish-out-of-water figure - with the pervasive enthusiasm of the supporting characters' stripping routines going a long way towards cultivating a vibe of irresistible, high-energy camp. There's little doubt, however, that the uneventfulness of Carolin's subdued screenplay becomes more and more problematic as time progresses, with the meandering atmosphere eventually (and perhaps inevitably) exacerbated by a reliance on eye-rollingly hackneyed elements and plot developments. (It's ultimately clear that the most trenchant example of this is the aggressively stale stretch detailing Adam's drug-fueled downfall, as it is, in addition to being entirely needless, the sort of thing that's been done many, many times before to far, far better effect.) The degree to which Magic Mike subsequently fizzles out is nothing short of astonishing, with the movie's abject failure especially disappointing given the effectiveness of the various performances (eg McConaughey's compelling work is alone almost enough to justify a viewing).
Side Effects follows Rooney Mara's Emily Taylor as she attempts to get her life back on track after her husband (Channing Tatum's Martin) is released from prison, with the character's tenuous mental state paving the way for an ill-fated decision to begin consuming an experimental new drug called Ablixa. Emily's decidedly averse reaction to the medication ultimately spells disaster for her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), and the latter half of the movie details Banks' investigation into Emily's history and motives. For the most part, Side Effects comes off as an almost excessively slow-paced drama that's been infused with film-noir elements by scripter Scott Z. Burns - with the movie's arms-length feel perpetuated by Steven Soderbergh's typically cold, almost clinical directorial choices. There is, as such, never entirely a point at which the viewer is able to embrace either the complex storyline or flawed characters, and it's worth noting, too, that the film fares especially poorly as it segues into its procedural-like second half (ie Banks' investigation grows more and more tedious as time progresses). Burns' emphasis on the progressively convoluted storyline ensures that one's attempts at working up any interest in or sympathy for the various characters' endeavors fall increasingly flat, and it consequently goes without saying that the movie's twist-heavy final stretch is unable to pack the punch that both Burns and Soderbergh have clearly intended (ie it's impossible to care about any of this stuff by that point). The end result is yet another disappointing misfire from Soderbergh, which is a shame, really, given the strength of the cast and the potential of the premise.