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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.
8

Clooney Solaris
“Solaris” (2002)
Initially, Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron's take on Andrei Tarkovsky's beloved 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel (Soderbergh directed, Cameron produced) was envisioned as a heady mixture of "2001" and "Last Tango in Paris," featuring graphic sex sequences in a dreamy sci-fi setting. Somewhere along the way this idea was dropped (the finished product features precious little sex) and it is largely remembered now as the movie that was threatened with an R-rating because you could see George Clooney's bare ass for a few fleeting moments. This does a great disservice to both Clooney's performance, as a psychologist recruited by a shadowy corporation to investigate some mysterious happenings on an orbiting space station, and the movie itself, a haunting, super-spooky, ultra-emotional sci-fi classic (or you could call it an existentialist romance picture set in space) that has gone largely unnoticed by audiences. The story unwinds after Clooney's character gets to the space station, where he's confronted by the apparition of his wife who committed suicide several years earlier; it seems the titular planet the station is orbiting has the ability to manifest dead loved ones, which has caused many of the astronauts to go bonkers (or worse). Clooney gets sucked into this pseudo-relationship with willful abandon, and one of the movie's chief virtues is that it beautifully portrays the way that memory works, particularly within relationships, and portrays a tantalizing what-if situation: what if you could have a do-over on a doomed relationship? Soderbergh's chilly photography (and the eerie score by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez) counterpoints the movie's emotionality, embodied by Clooney as a clinical professional giving in to wild desires. The movie is a gorgeous, nuanced take on the material, deftly plotted but luxurious in its exploration of the darker sides of the human heart. One day "Solaris" will be appreciated and remembered, right alongside the original, at about the same time people stop talking about Clooney's butt. [A]

Ocean's Twelve
“Ocean’s Twelve” (2004)
Sadly, much of the “Ocean’s Thirteen” press was devoted to Soderbergh, Clooney and the crew apologizing for “Ocean’s Twelve,” a disheartening mea culpa seemingly forced by studio execs listening to too many Yahoo User reviews. Admittedly, the seams show in “Ocean’s Twelve,” itself based on an unrelated unproduced script called “Honor Amongst Thieves” later re-written to accomodate a much bigger cast. And the entire affair feels rushed, sometimes haphazard, particularly considering its logic-defying final twist. But “Ocean’s Twelve” still works in two vital ways. First, it’s conventionally pleasing in all the right places: the gang’s still back, looking more handsome than ever, and the story, involving Benedict’s (Andy Garcia) revenge taking them to the doorstep of the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel, pure sex), allows for plenty of jokey digressions and rapid-fire banter, not to mention the thrill of a few improbable, and improbably charming heists. But the film also works on a meta-level, with its cast forced into action to produce a sequel to what was so casual and carefree the first time, freaking out in a puddle of flop sweat and heavy financial risks. A lot of it (including the bewilderingly unfunny Julia Roberts segment) would also fall apart were it not for David Holmes returning to provide another smooth jazz score, his best and most free-wheeling of the series. And, like the other “Ocean” films, it’s absolutely gorgeous - the first and third films are drunk on Vegas, but this chapter is absolutely intoxicated with the sights and sounds of Europe, Soderbergh bringing a French New Wave style to the aesthetic of the original. It would be just as pleasurable to watch on mute. [B]

Eros
"Eros" (2004) (segment: "Equilibrium")
Soderbergh was upfront about his participation in this three-part anthology: "I wanted my name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni." Given that Antonioni's segment, "The Dangerous Thread Of Things," is an indefensibly dreadful piece of softcore, Soderbergh comes out well in the comparison, as it turns out, even if his typically intellectual take on the sexual subject matter doesn't quite reach the sensual heights of Wong Kar-Wai's "The Hand," which opens "Eros," and proves its highlight. Soderbergh's section, "Equilibrium," is a black-and-white period piece (a warm-up for "The Good German," perhaps?) about an ad executive (a post-sobriety, but pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr) telling his psychoanalyst (Alan Arkin) about his fantasies over a woman in blue, while the shrink tries to attract the attention of a woman through his window. The pairing of the actors is, as you might imagine, a triumph (it's a shame that the duo, who both seem good fits for Soderbergh's sensibilities, have never worked with the filmmaker since -- though Arkin was originally set to be part of the "Ocean's Eleven" ensemble, in Carl Reiner's role). Their energies bounce off each other nicely, and it's a genuinely smart and very Soderberghian take on the subject matter, one as reminiscent of "Schizopolis" as anything else in his filmography, particularly once it starts to mutate in its closing stages. But the form works somewhat against the content, at least at first, leaving something that ultimately only feels half-formed. But against that Antonioni fllm, it seems like a masterpiece... [B-]

Bubble 2
“Bubble” (2005)
Initially conceived as part of a low-budget six-film series that would showcase nonprofessional actors and be released concurrently in theaters and On Demand, "Bubble" is a small-town character study that slowly turns into a micro-scale thriller, and one of the director's most unheralded successes. Lead actress Debbie Doebereiner was discovered while she worked the drive-through at a local KFC and is amazing to the point of nearly being hypnotizing, as a woman who begins to obsess over a much younger girl -- in the most practical terms it's a classic love triangle except much, much weirder. At a svelte 73 minutes, it's incredibly re-watchable (especially thanks to a killer home video presentation, which has a commentary track by Soderbergh and Mark Romanek), succeeding in all of the ways that the similarly free-form "Full Frontal" failed (both were written by Coleman Hough). It's nimble, sharply focused, and atypically warm and heartfelt, but without the now-usual star wattage, and thanks to its idiosyncratic release (it was the first film to receive a simultaneous VoD release), it faded into obscurity, with many thinking it's a footnote, an odd doodle, a burst "Bubble." But not taking the film seriously is a big mistake – it's a mesmerizing little movie, and if you're one of the many who skipped over it during its initial roll-out, well, it's never too late to catch up. [B+]

The Good German
"The Good German" (2006)
A tribute to, and recreation of, the kind of films that Soderbergh's hero Michael Curtiz made in the 1940s ("Casablanca" in particular, though there's plenty of the DNA of Carol Reed's "The Third Man" in there too), "The Good German" probably marks Soderbergh's greatest commercial and critical failure of the post-"Out Of Sight"-era; its reputation among cinephiles hasn't -- yet -- been restored in the way that even "Solaris" has been. But while we'd acknowledge that the film is far from satisfying, it's probably been unfairly overlooked by many. A post-WW2 noir, the script (by "Quiz Show" writer Paul Attanasio) sees a military correspondent (George Clooney), sent back to Berlin to cover the Potsdam peace conference, drawn into a murder mystery involving his ex-lover (Cate Blanchett), her husband (Christian Oliver), a missing former SS officer, and his psychopathic driver (Tobey Maguire). The ever-restless Soderbergh uses the setting as a chance to pay homage to Curtiz and his ilk, shooting the film in black-and-white (added through grading, it should be said), with out-of-favor wide-angle lenses, matte painting, and a cutting style reminiscent of that of the studio system. One senses that this stylistic homage is the reason he made the film in the first place; otherwise the direction seems a little distant and chilly, even by his standards. But at the same time, the most fascinating aspect of the film is the way that Sodebergh melds the old-school techniques with a modern, cynical sensibility; this is a deeply grubby world, where every character is compromised to one degree or another, and the film neatly reflects the way that the Allied authorities overlooked the crimes of certain Nazis for their own gain. And the performances from the central trio of stars, including a revelatory Maguire (though it's a small role), are among their finest. Whether or not Soderbergh's formal experimentation is what makes the film somewhat uninvolving in places, it's also what creates the fascinating dichotomy at its heart. [B-]

Ocean's Thirteen
“Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007)
After what was seen by the critical consensus as the misstep of "Ocean's Twelve," which was a completely different script retrofitted to accommodate the "Ocean's Eleven" characters (and Soderbergh's love of European film), the filmmaker bounced back with "Ocean's Thirteen," again setting it in Las Vegas, but this time wrapping it around a nifty revenge story. Yep, this time it's personal, not just for the crew, but seemingly for Soderbergh too; as Danny Ocean (George Clooney, looking comfy to the point of sleepiness) and his old-school guard are forced to adapt to new and confounding technological shifts, so too was Soderbergh changing his approach. In fact, "Ocean's Thirteen" was his last movie to be shot on good, old-fashioned film. It may lack the emotional resonance of the first film, but it could be argued it's the most fun film in the trilogy, between the cast that overflows with game new participants (among them: Ellen Barkin, an admirably and surprisingly restrained Al Pacino, David Paymer, and Julian Sands), a number of go-for-broke stylistic embellishments (like a cascade of split-screens towards the end, inspired by the original "Thomas Crown Affair"), amazing production design and the single-best subplot in the whole series, when Casey Affleck's character leads a rebellion of Mexican dice manufacturers. The last film in the series has a grander, cartoonier feel, with a candy-colored color pallette to match. It might not be high art, but it's pretty delicious popcorn. [B]

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


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