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Retrospective: The Films Of Steven Soderbergh

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist February 5, 2013 at 1:03PM

If there are two things that mark out the career of director Steven Soderbergh, they arguably could be described as a willingness to fail and a constant routine of creative calisthenics. A process-rather-than-results person, he has, over the last 24 years, been one of the most daring, unpredictable and restless filmmakers around. His output has run the gamut of everything from indie relationship drama to star-packed heist movies, from experimental, micro-budget thrillers to philosophical sci-fi, and from melancholy coming-of-age to kick-ass action.
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Clooney Out of Sight
“Out of Sight” (1998)
Are we the only ones who have asked our significant others to role play in the trunk of a car after watching “Out of Sight”? Given how incredibly sexy that (and a few other scenes) are in this well-scripted film based on an Elmore Leonard novel, we can’t be alone, right? Beyond solidifying our sexual fantasies, “Out of Sight” elevated the careers of its three principals: Soderbergh, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. After the initial success of “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” Soderbergh hadn’t again realized that level of attention and critical recognition across the preceding nine years. Clooney might have played Batman, but he wasn’t yet the A-lister that we’ve come to know and lust over, instead a TV star with a questionable taste in big-screen projects ("The Peacemaker," "One Fine Day," et al.). Even though Lopez had gotten plenty of buzz for “Selena,” this offered her additional exposure (and her last good film role). Watching her appear in this level of film isn’t necessarily surprising, but given subsequent performances in “Monster-in-Law,” “Gigli” and “The Back-Up Plan,” the real shock is how good she is. But beyond the toplining talent, “Out of Sight” also included solid performances from Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames and Luis Guzman, and even features an early appearance from Viola Davis. Crucially, Scott Frank's script remains the best Leonard adaptation to date, even against some stiff competition ("Jackie Brown," with which Soderbergh's film shares Michael Keaton's character, "Get Shorty," "Justified"), smartly mixing things up from the novel but capturing the spirit of one of America's greatest writer. And Soderbergh, reinvigorated by "Schizopolis," finally seems to have the bit between his teeth, debuting the scrambled but coherent chronology, mixed aesthetics and sprightly editing that would become recurring features of his next few movies. Surprisingly, “Out of Sight” wasn’t a box office champ when it was released in theaters, but it’s aged remarkably well, and the air between Clooney and Lopez still crackles. [A]

The Limey
“The Limey” (1999)
At a crossroads in his career, Soderbergh somehow got the major studio gig in “Out Of Sight.” But when that film failed to pan out at the box office, it was back to smaller pictures. But it was clear the hyper-articulate filmmaker had vastly expanded his cinematic vocabulary, and he called upon the influence of '60s crime films, particularly 1967’s “Poor Cow,” to fuel his latest, a daytime noir with distinctly New Wave storytelling. Serving as something of an unofficial sequel to that ‘67 Ken Loach drama (which Soderbergh even uses clips from for backstory sequences), Terence Stamp lends his withered, fascinating visage to his strongest role in years, a Cockney thug named Wilson, released from prison into a world he knows nothing about. With minimal fuss, this man out of time makes a beeline to the west coast, where his daughter was last seen in the arms of an unscrupulous record producer (Peter Fonda, who reportedly referred to his character as The Slimey). Soderbergh uses fractured storytelling methods to enliven a threadbare crime story, moving chronology back and forth and still bringing the story in under ninety minutes, showing an appreciation for the quiet moments of Wilson’s contemplation and the cacophony of older men using their toys (guns) to protect their other toys (high living, supermodels). With a jazzy, career-best score from Cliff Martinez, “The Limey” slinks and grooves to its own beat, like its idiosyncratic, often nonsensical protagonist, providing a near-perfect action vehicle for those who like their shootouts slick and economical, but can still appreciate the cinematic weight of getting Barry Newman behind the wheel onscreen once again. [A]

Erin Brockovich
“Erin Brockovich” (2000)
It may have been the “Norma Rae”-ish Oscar trappings that got Julia Roberts involved in this true story adaptation of a lawsuit involving polluted water and the highly inexperienced miniskirt-wearing legal assistant who brings the case to light. But while Roberts won the Oscar, she has to thank Soderbergh for taking, on the page, a rote triumph-over-adversity narrative and turning it into a slick but still edifying studio picture. Soderbergh never sacrifices the gravity of the core story, but also never creates a dulling civics lesson, letting the characters’ natural colors bleed out onto the screen in glorious detail, showing an affection for the essential humanity of the sufferers and the sometimes-comic frustration of our heroes. As solid as Roberts is, in a career-best turn, she’s matched by a completely game Albert Finney, who brings crusty warmth to the role of Brockovich’s beleaguered boss, flustered by his hot-to-trot employee and her dogged pursuit of justice. Soderbergh’s influence can be felt throughout in what may be the most humanist film from a director considered “cold” by his detractors -- it’s hard not to be won over when the tacky genre construct of perfect tough-guy boyfriend, here played by Aaron Eckhart, is allowed to have just as human a heart, and just as much of a sense of humor and inner life, as the rest of our heroes. [A-]

Traffic
"Traffic" (2000)
The second of Soderbergh's 2000 double-whammy (and the one for which he won Best Director at the Academy Awards, despite being nominated against, among others, himself), "Traffic" was a remake of a British TV mini-series, penned by former drug addict Stephen Gaghan, which tells the story of the war on drugs through, ostensibly, three different storylines: an honest Mexican cop who discovers that the general he's working for is in league with the cartels; a judge appointed to be a drug czar, only to discover that his own daughter is an addict; and a pregnant housewife who learns that her husband is a drug lord. Widely acclaimed on release as Soderbergh's masterpiece, while patchworky in nature, its color-coded treatment is an innovative way to present its interwoven narrative. Perhaps the best part is the Mexico-set section, anchored by a fierce and charismatic Oscar-winning turn from Benicio Del Toro, one that maybe gives the best sense of the futility of the war on drugs. The Zeta-Jones scenario in which the wife who becomes involved in the business doesn't have as strong a storyline, but gets more fun when it focuses on Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman's cops. While naked in its polemic, the Michael Douglas section is also a bruising reminder of the hypocrisy of politicians and the pervasiveness of drugs into the personal corners of our lives. Consistently gripping, beautifully acted, and notable for truly cementing the aesthetic that would dominate Soderbergh's career in the years to come -- this is the first film on which Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, served as his own director of photography, something that's remained the case for every subsequent film. And while its grainy, textured, over-contrasted and experimental flash-filmed techniques failed to earn a Best Cinematography nomination that year (it earned 5 nominations in total), this unorthodox visual palate is perhaps one of the most bold and unconventional ones to come out of a mainstream Oscar-contender in some time. [B+].

Ocean's Eleven
“Ocean’s Eleven” (2001)
There’s a fantastic moment in “Ocean’s Eleven” where two of the biggest stars in the world, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, walk unmolested past a host of fans who are oohing and aahing... over Topher Grace. It’s the finish to a fantastic, fizzy early scene from a movie that actually deserved  its nine-figure take at the box office -- a rare compliment. Soderbergh had already taken on the sleek, stylish heist movie genre with “Out of Sight,” but here he ups the ante with more and bigger stars in his casino caper: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Elliott Gould, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck and Scott Caan (plus the lesser-known, but equally enjoyable Eddie Jemison and Shaobo Qin). With all that wattage, this remake of the Rat Pack classic was almost certainly a surefire blockbuster, but Soderbergh never solely relies on his cast to carry the weight, not that they’re slacking. Affleck and Caan are hilarious with their I’m-not-touching-you brotherly banter, Clooney and Pitt have better chemistry than most romantic couples, and Reiner and Gould bring the appropriate element of old-school Hollywood. However, the witty, intricate script from Ted Griffin, swinging score from David Holmes, and above all the direction and cinematography from Soderbergh contribute to a film that is almost as much fun to watch as it surely was to make. [A-]

Full Frontal
“Full Frontal” (2002)
Soderbergh's career has been marked by his willingness to work fast and without a safety net -- essentially eliminating and filtering out the noise and innumerable barriers that exist when one has to translate an idea in one's head into an image projected onto a screen in the dark.  Becoming his own director of photography was one crucial part of that filtering equation; shooting digitally was another. While he's become a pioneer of shooting digitally with films like "Bubble" (2005) and the two-part "Che" (2008) that used the RED cameras that David Fincher and Peter Jackson now employ regularly, Soderbergh was well ahead of even his own curve with "Full Frontal." Starring Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pearce, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Duchovny, and character actors Nicky Katt and Enrico Colantoni, 'Frontal' is an ensemble piece about Hollywood via characters all connected to a well-liked film producer who is about to turn 40 (Duchovny) currently making a film called, “Rendezvous.” Underwood is an untested and uncommercial actor who co-stars, and Roberts plays a journalist in the movie-within-the-movie that’s directed by David Fincher and also stars Brad Pitt (both men cameo as themselves briefly). Circling around this hemisphere is Pearce as a struggling screenwriter, Keener as his estranged wife (a film producer falling in love with Underwood), and McCormack as a lovelorn masseuse who gets far more than she bargained for. While it was once described as a spiritual sequel to “sex, lies, and videotape,” given the similar themes of sex, power and voyeurism, it just doesn’t possess the same charge. More a series of encounters than much of a plot -- and perhaps influenced by the Danish dogme movement of the ‘90s that included Von Trier and Vinterberg aesthetically --  if “Full Frontal” is Soderbergh’s “Day For Night” it doesn’t quite click, but there is a new kind of energy within and at the very least it’s another interesting experiment in connecting lives and in quick production. [C]

This article is related to: Features, Steven Soderbergh, Retrospective


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