(On Cable TV, December 2018) The really nice thing about writer/director Steven Soderbergh announcing and then renouncing his retirement from moviemaking is the growing conviction that he’s now doing movies for the fun of it—that as a formal experimenter, he’s now free to take on projects because they sound cool, or because they push the envelope of what he wants to do. For instance, shooting a movie using an iPhone. In that context, Unsane is far more interesting than if you’d see it completely cold: At the surface, it feels amateurish, off-setting, simplistic, even far-fetched. In-context, however, it’s a Research and Development effort in greatly simplifying filmmaking—moving fast and using cheap equipment, but informing it with a strong filmmaking artistic intention. Soderbergh isn’t the first filmmaker to shoot a studio-level feature using a cell phone—that would be Sean Baker’s Tangerine—but Unsane is meant to be a relatively accessible thriller for multiplex distribution rather than an arthouse favourite. I can’t say that the experiment is completely successful—the paranoia is cranked up beyond believability, and the nature of the iPhone cameras means that the image does look quite a bit different from what we’re used to—the field of depth alone is a bit disorienting. As a very technical director with considerable cinematography experience, Soderbergh is obviously aware of those issues: the film is mean to make audiences uneasy with a form that follows function. The warped off-kilter perspective reflects the warped worldview of the lead character as she is trapped in an asylum, convinced that she’s being hounded by an obsessive stalker. Unsane doesn’t have a complicated story, but it’s well told thanks to Soderbergh verve behind the camera—or in this case, the phone.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) I’m repeating myself, but the key to enjoy the Magic Mike films if you have no interest in male stripping is to see the series as a particular kind of dance film, complete with good music and exceptional choreography. Through this optics, Magic Mike XXL actually becomes fun to watch, whether it’s Channing Tatum’s character giving himself an impromptu dance treat alone in his workshop, Joe Manganiello’s character charming the smile off a convenience store clerk, or a very clever final mirrored-dance number. It helps that this sequel isn’t as self-consciously showy as the first film: Steven Soderbergh here remains rather discreet as the film’s director of photography and editor, but the film itself seems far more accessibly directed by long-time Soderberg associate Gregory Jacobs. The road-trip format also seems like a natural fit for a series of stripping numbers loosely held together; the interlude at a very particular strip club owned by Jada Pinkett Smith’s character is a bit of a highlight in how it presents an intriguing take on the female gaze (albeit one filtered through a male screenwriter and director) in a film consciously made to appeal to women. It is, in other words, both a fun and fascinating film, minimizing conflict and presenting a unique take on males bonding over art. No, it’s not quite as good (objectively speaking) as the first film. But Magic Mike XXL is entertaining, warm, occasionally joyful and a bit of a welcome change of pace.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Aykroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Director Steven Soderbergh often has very different goals in mind than what the average moviegoer would prefer, but occasionally his artistic impulses align with his target audience and the result can be spectacular. Side Effects may exhibit much of Soderbergh’s usual tics, but it also features his technical proficiency and his ability to play with audience expectations. Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t start out promisingly: As a troubled young woman murders her husband and everyone suspects that her medications are to blame, it’s easy to feel let down by yet another basic anti-pharma diatribe; surely Soderbergh wouldn’t steep to something so basic? But then Side Effects becomes a much more unpredictable film, and we understand why the project attracted the director. It ends up being a fine psychological thriller, shot with Soderbergh’s typical drab pseudo-realism but in increasingly compelling fashion. The film switches protagonists midway through, Rooney Mara’s mopey performance receding in order to favour Jude Law’s increasingly tortured psychologist. (Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones has another small but effective supporting role –she’s been doing a lot of those lately.) A clever script, coupled with capable direction, makes for an effective thriller. Side Effects is easily one of the strongest films of 2013 so far, and it’s a remarkable testimony to Soderbergh’s skills once he sets out to deliver a crowd-pleaser.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) This could have been a disposable film in so many ways. There isn’t much, on paper, to distinguish Magic Mike from countless other similar cookie-cutter films: This may be about a young man’s initiation to the quasi-criminal world of dance (er: male stripping), but we’ve seen variations on that tale so many times that the film could have chosen the tried-and-true dance-or-crime-movie formula. But it doesn’t and it’s not entirely because of director Steven Soderbergh’s steadfast refusal to play by the usual rules. Never mind the long takes, over-filtered cinematography, pseudo-realist camera work or extended dance/strip numbers: Magic Mike is perhaps more interesting in the choices it makes as a script. While this is partly about an initiation into male stripping, the lead character is the one trying to get out. While this may be a romance, it’s one that barely begins by the time the credits roll and all the other subplots remain unfulfilled. While the characters are recognizably archetypes, they defy cliché and transcend their narrative functions by becoming fully-featured creations. Then there’s the drawn-out stripping numbers, which are far more about dance and musical choreography than about bare male flesh. (Ironically for a film about male stripping, the most noteworthy nudity is a topless Olivia Munn. Well, that and a prominent pump thankfully off-focus.) Fortunately, Magic Mike can count upon a few exceptional performances to, ahem, flesh out the characters. Matthew McConaughey extends his range a bit farther by playing a slimy stripper/manager, his usual bare chest covering a darker character than usual. But it’s Channing Tatum, in the wake of the surprisingly-good 21 Jump Street, who impresses the most as a “stripper/entrepreneur” conflicted between easy money and self-respect. Alex Pettyfer also turns in his least annoying performance yet in what is assuredly his best movie so far. Magic Mike certainly isn’t perfect (Soderbergh’s directorial choices easily cross over from “clever” to “showy”, leading one to wonder if he’s even capable of being mainstream) and the inconclusive finale seems a bit too focused to satisfy, but it all amounts to a surprisingly better film than any plot summary may suggest.
(On-demand video, June 2012) Director Steven Soderbergh likes to tinker with established formulas and he also seems to be increasingly fond of casting coups. This explains why Haywire is a lot like his previous The Girlfriend Experience in casting a non-professional actress in the leading role –this time, martial artist Gina Carano as the tough heroine of this revenge film. Small touches everywhere make it clear that this is an artful take on a stock exploitation premise: The rhythm of the film is a bit slower than most revenge thrillers, the script makes use of a half-hearted framing device; the direction tries to avoid most of the prevailing action clichés. But it’s Carano’s odd performance that sets the film apart: she’s both unpolished and convincing in ways that leap out of the usual Hollywood mode. She’s not from the same acting schools as other female performers, and Soderbergh seems perfectly happy to indulge in the rough edges of her acting. It makes for a thriller that’s less slick and perhaps a bit more intriguing than similar offerings such as Colombiana or any of the half-dozen female-assassins films of the past decade. The script could have been polished to a more accessible whole (the dialogue seems self-consciously cryptic at times), but Haywire is definitely a Soderbergh film in how it refuses to take the safe, broadly-accessible choices. Viewers coming in with set expectations of a run-of-the-mill thriller may find themselves bewildered by what makes it on-screen. On the other hand, viewers with some appreciation for genre experiments will, much like last year’s Hanna, find intriguing things in the result even as the film doesn’t succeed in being conventionally entertaining.
(In theaters, September 2011) There are many things to admire about Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, but the one that sticks in mind is his attempt to tell a story about something that’s basically unstoryable. Modern-day epidemics do not lend themselves to the kind of heroics best shown on-screen: They involve many people doing their job, they turn into public policy debates, they don’t spare the righteous or punish the guilty, they peter out rather than climax and they present a diffuse threat rather than a clear antagonist. Faced with those constraints, most movies about epidemics crank it up to zombies (28 Days Later, etc), borrow from science-fiction (The Andromeda Strain), or can’t help but throw in car chases and explosions (Outbreak). No such narrative sleigh-of-hand here, as Contagion keeps to a fairly realistic depiction of a massively contagious and highly deadly epidemic. Hopping all around the globe, bringing together half a dozen narrative strands, Contagion adopts a quasi-documentary look without forgetting to indulge in the occasional spectacle of a world gone wrong. It doesn’t take that many shots of people touching things to let the film unnerve viewers, and Soderbergh’s assured direction does the rest. Among other not-so-subtle touches, he not only kills off two characters played by Oscar-winning actresses, but has a graphic autopsy scene featuring the head of one of them. Much of the script feels reasonably credible, with enough technobabble to set the tone. Of course, trying to tell an unstoryable story eventually takes its toll. Not every subplot is equally compelling (The second half of Marion Cotillard’s trip to China feels dull, whereas Jude Law’s character is annoying enough to create resentment when he escapes death) and the third act gradually diffuses itself as the epidemic runs its course. Soderbergh’s tendency to tell a story in selective bits and pieces can occasionally be frustrating, given the potential here for a slicker film. (Although the anti-chronological coda is a nice ironic touch.) But given the film’s success in so many areas, in telling a familiar story in a way that sticks closer to the real world, Contagion ends up being a modest success; it’s perhaps Soderbergh’s most accomplished melding of art-house instincts in the service of broadly popular entertainment. Amusingly for a filmmaker who’s been known to push for day-and-date direct distribution, at a time where movie theater attendance is dropping and video stores are closing, there may be no better argument for internet streaming/downloading that seeing Contagion and indulging in a bit of paranoia at the thought of human contact.
(On DVD, January 2011) Steven Soderbergh in full indie mode isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart moviegoer. Here, he edits a plotless film with a blender and expects us to follow along as a high-priced escort navigates through a difficult week. Her clients are distant; her live-in boyfriend gets invited to Vegas for a boy’s weekend out; a new client proves uncommonly attractive; a journalist interviews her about her job; a reviewer gives her a bad write-up… and that’s all happening over the background of the 2008 financial crisis and US presidential elections. As a portrait of an upper-class escort offering “the girlfriend experience” of companionship, it’s not uninteresting as we see her take notes, feign interest, seek guidance in astrology, investigate other business opportunities and ultimately confuse business with pleasure. But gee –for all the work we’re asked to do in reconstructing the film’s plot in our heads, there simply isn’t a whole lot of it in the film’s running time. Much of The Girlfriend Experience is a mood piece, and it’s a portrait of a fairly repellent class of people always hustling, always doing what they can to prove themselves, assert control over others and race to the top of the heap. There’s an amusing symmetry in seeing our protagonist-escort living with a personal trainer who uses much of the same language during his day job, in seeing rich clients delude themselves that they are Masters of Universe, in dealing with web consultants, accountants and reviewers just as insecure as she is. Much has been made of adult film star Sasha Gray playing the protagonist, but there simply isn’t much to her performance than a somewhat pretty look and a striking blank lack of affect that even becomes one of the film’s most cutting lines. As with Soderbergh’s other indie films, there’s some value and meaning in the film, but much of it seems unnecessarily diffuse, hazily camouflaged behind technique, striking low-budget visuals and a distant protagonist. By far the most interesting thing about the DVD (film included) is the audio commentary in which Soderbergh and Gray discuss craft, the state of film (both mainstream and adult), ways in which film grammar can be defined, and Gray’s acting challenges as an outsider. The commentary’s quite a bit more enjoyable and coherent that the main feature –in fact, I’d recommend it as its own thing over The Girlfriend Experience itself. Elsewhere on the DVD, you’ll find a fluff pseudo-documentary giving you a short version of what’s worth remembering about the film, and an alternate cut of the movie that, frankly, didn’t seem all that alternate but should delight art-house film students –which may be the film’s best audience.
(In theatres, September 2009) If the essence of comedy is to do something new and poke fun at sacred cows, then Steven Soderbergh’s irreverent The Informant! is well on its way to hilarity. Whistleblowers, obviously, are supposed to be tragic and noble figures. Not, as portrayed by a surprisingly unglamorous Matt Damon, as borderline-moronic eggheads with little sense and vapid inner monologues. The film’s initial structure is familiar, as a scientist with ethical concerns comes to work for the FBI in exposing a price-fixing conspiracy involving his corporation. (It’s all based on real events.) Idiotic protagonist aside, it begins as a reasonably amusing feature that seems to derive most of its comedy from decidedly mundane surroundings: Blatantly taking place in the American Midwest, The Informant! seems mostly concerned with trivia and discomfort. But that too becomes another deception as the final act of the film gets rolling and it turns out that our protagonist has ethical problems that go far beyond being clueless. As the snowball of his lies goes downhill, we come to realize the wisdom of the agents obsessed with figuring out his rationale for turning informant. And, in the process, we end up with a parody of stories in which the whistleblower turns out to be clean as driven snow. Reality, suggest Soderbergh’s film, is always more complicated. And frequently more absurd than we can imagine. While I can’t imagine many people thinking “Yeah, I want to watch this movie again!”, The Informant! a cheeky piece of comic subversion, especially coming from the same director as Erin Brokovich.
(In theaters, December 2004) There are two Steven Soderbergh, and the wrong one directed this sequel. The first Sonenberg is the cheerfully commercial director, the one who did Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven. His movie may not have much depths, but they’re fun and slick. The second Soderbergh is the artiste. He makes Hollywood home movies like Solaris and Full Frontal, which excite film geeks but leave audiences yawning in their seats. And so it goes with Ocean’s Twelve, a wannabe crime caper that looks and feels as if it was a collection of outtakes for a more coherent film. Shot with the usual artistic grain, featuring elliptical dialogue and experimental direction, Ocean’s Twelve is artsy because it thinks it can get away with it. (From the box-office receipts, it sure looks as if it’s right.) But what it really does is screw with a story simple enough to bore schoolchildren. The hook of the “thief’s underworld” is quite nice, as is the developing competition between Danny Ocean and François Toulour. But the rest feels like a waste of time, from cryptic appearances by Robbie Coltrane to a dumb scene with Major Hollywood Stars pretending to be themselves. Imagine our deep and abiding interest as an audience. Catherine Zeta-Jones seems to be working with only a fraction of the charm she has, and that also goes for the rest of the players. Oh, there are enough satisfying scenes here and there to stave off outright dissatisfaction, but one impression remains: We, the audience, are paying for this superstar Hollywood vacation film.