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Retrospective: The Films Of Steven Soderbergh

by The Playlist Staff
February 5, 2013 1:03 PM
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"Che" (2008)
Deemed by some to be the director's masterpiece, Soderbergh's take on revolutionary icon Che Guevara (a one-time Terrence Malick project) is made up of two films -- "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla" -- which are each distinct, but at the same time are so closely interlinked that they can only really be looked at together. Each stars Benicio Del Toro, in a career-crowning performance as Guevara, but "The Argentine" focuses on Che's success alongside Fidel Castro, overthrowing Batista's regime in Cuba, while "Guerilla" follows his final failure, a botched revolution in Bolivia. But despite the rise-and-fall approach, and two very distinct visual approaches -- a warm, yellowish vibe mixed with black-and-white Super16 footage for the framing scenes at the U.N; blue-tinged cold for "The Guerilla," with both marking Soderbergh's first time shooting with the RED camera -- the two films are very much companion pieces in being ground-view procedural war films, interested more in the day-to-day tasks of keeping a revolution alive than in heroics and battles. Again, it's that Sodeberghian fascination with process -- how something happens, not so much the why -- that takes precedence, and while some find it to be emotionally alienating as a result (what's new?), the slow-burn makes it one of Soderbergh's most absorbing films, particularly if you were lucky enough to catch the back-to-back roadshow of the two films together. And that's because they really are inseparable -- the triumph and (relative) thrills of Part One are less effective without the fall to earth in Part Two, just as the steadily tightening claustrophobia of part two doesn't work as well without the success of Part One as a contrast. And while the supporting cast are uniformly excellent (Demian Bichir's Castro a particularly highlight), it's really Del Toro's show through and through. The actor resists the temptation to be showy, often happy to fade into the background, but even when Sodebergh's lens focuses on the men, it's the quiet charisma of his "Traffic" star that burns through. It's probably too inaccessible to be known to cinephiles at large as the director's finest hour, but it's hard to think of a film on his resume that's both as ambitious, and as fully realized, as this one, so it certainly makes a good case. [A]

"The Girlfriend Experience" (2009)
The second of Soderbergh's low-budget excursions into the world of non-professional actors (mostly brought to an end after this, though you could argue that "Haywire" completes the trilogy), "The Girlfriend Experience" also serves as something of a precursor to "Magic Mike" -- hooking an audience in with the promise of sex, not least thanks to the presence of famous porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role, and then delivering a film that's more about economics than anything else. The film sees Grey play Chelsea, a high-priced escort who, while she sleeps with clients, is prized for giving the titular 'girlfriend experience.' With the economy collapsing (Soderbergh was shooting as the markets caved), she's not bringing in what she's used to, and despite a long-term boyfriend, the offer from a client of a new life starts to feel a little more tempting. It's relatively slight stuff, especially with a performance from Grey that, while reasonably effective for Soderbergh's purposes, certainly proves that the porn legend isn't going to be doing Shakespeare any time soon (most of the rest of the cast fare about the same, with the exception of film critic Glenn Kenny, who lends an excellently sleazy cameo as a self-styled escort connoisseur). But it's one of the cases when Soderbergh's emotional detachment serves his take on the business of relationships and sex especially well. A minor entry, for certain, but an interesting little experiment. [B]

"The Informant!" (2009)
Having already succeeded with a fairly straightforward character-based whistleblower picture in "Erin Brockovich" and wisely realizing "The Insider" is still an untouchable milestone in said genre, Steven Soderbergh realized the only logical entry point for the story of agricultural price-fixing tattle-tale Mark Whitacre was through comedy. Indebted to the '70s in more ways than one -- the hilariously goofy Marvin Hamlisch score, the groovy font title cards throughout and the non-traditional narrative filled with minor character crises --"The Informant!" is an amusing homage to that era. Featuring a portly Matt Damon in the lead as a cheerful, bi-polar, Midwestern bio-chemist, the picture doesn't follow a three-act structure as much as it just layers whopping fib on top of gigantic lie wrapped up in ridiculous fabrication; soon enough it's impossible to tell what's fact or fiction. Aside from the score and wickedly sly off-topic voice-over, Soderbergh plays it all deliciously straight and matter-of-fact, and Damon seems to relish playing the apogee of unreliable narrators who actually thinks he's some sort of spy. The whole thing is rounded out by a strong supporting cast that conveys various levels of disbelief and ridicule -- Melanie Lynskey in particular does a subtly strong job as Mark's supportive wife. Unorthodox enough to be generally out of step with modern-day audiences (it didn't exactly clean up at the box-office), nevertheless, "The Informant!" is a devilishly funny little riff and another picture in a long line of Soderbergh-ian experiments in a sub-genre. [B]

“Contagion” (2011)
With his retirement already announced by the time it premiered at Venice in September 2011, an air of finality permeates "Contagion," Soderbergh's modern take on 1970s disaster movies by way of George Romero's socially conscious horror films. The fact that "Contagion" turned out to be such a thrilling, emotionally sound exercise makes his impending retirement even more bittersweet and hard to swallow. The tale of a globetrotting virus, and the hard-working scientists that rally to stop its spread, it's an economically told epic, clocking in at a little over 100 minutes but featuring over a dozen central characters (played by Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and, the pick of the bunch, Jennifer Ehle) and set on several continents. While not openly emotional, the film does find time, particularly in its last act, to punctuate the proceedings with moments of heart-tugging warmth, particularly involving Fishburne's selfless CDC official and Damon's newly widowed (and completely immune) suburban father. The film is scary and its politics slyly leftist – this is, after all, a movie where an organized government body actually succeeds in stopping an out-of-control disease. (The Tea Partiers would be the first to kick the bucket.) Supposedly an hour of fully edited footage was trimmed at the final stages, and we'd kill to see that stuff; it would have given "Contagion" an even grander scale but probably rendered it less human. Still, what remains is probably one of Soderbergh's most satisfying mainstream pictures, which also let him tick "disaster movie" and "horror flick" off his genre bucket list. [A-]

"Haywire" (2012)
Unless you count the "Ocean's" movies, "Haywire" marks Soderbergh's first bona-fide action movie, one envisioned as a contrast to the rapid-fire cutting of the "Bourne" series and similar, while also seeing him follow in the spirit of "The Girlfriend Experience" by hiring a first-time actress better known for her work in other fields -- in this case MMA fighter Gina Carano -- to lead the film. It was a fairly enticing prospect, especially given that it marked a reunion with "The Limey" writer Lem Dobbs, and had a cast also including Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender, but it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The film's hardly lacking in style, thanks to some sharp cutting, and a funk-fuelled David Holmes score, but 'Peter Andrews''s RED camerawork is starting to run a little thin at this point; the color-palette is similar to what we've seen in earlier films, and it's all a touch dispiriting. While the way the director lenses the action with such clarity and clear-headedness is refreshing, the film is rarely particularly thrilling, and Dobbs' script, intriguing gender issues aside, never adds up to more than an unusually verbose, unnecessarily complex direct-to-video actioner elevated by a starry cast. And of that cast, most -- presumably inspired by their not-so-great-with-the-line-readings leading lady -- are somewhat flat, leaving Tatum to be the surprising stand-out. [C+]

"Magic Mike" (2012)
Added to his pre-retirement slate after a conversation with Tatum on the "Haywire" set, "Magic Mike" turned out to be Soderbergh's greatest success in years. And rightly so; in the spirit of some of his recent films, but with a fresh enough take that the filmmaker seems particularly energized, it's a smart and terrifically made picture that belongs in the top-tier of the director's filmography. The film focuses on the titular Mike (Tatum, who commissioned the script based on his ownexperiences in his early 20s), an aspiring furniture maker who subsidizes his dream business by being the top attraction at the Xquisite Strip Club, owned by the semi-retired former stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike befriends Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old kid, and brings him into the fold, while also finding himself drawn to his sister (Cody Horn). But the summer can't last forever... Once again, Soderbergh is setting up a flashy, audience-friendly exterior (as $100 million of girls'-nights-out attests to), and sneaks in a look at economic collapse and the American dream, with the fun, light life of Mike & co becoming increasingly tarnished by drugs and greed. But while the bait-and-switch might be familiar, this is a a more playful Soderbergh at work, embelleshing the film with a loose, Altmanish energy that's entirely winning, thanks in part to excellent performances from the unlikely sources of Tatum, Pettyfer, Olivia Munn and Matthew McConaughey, in a turn that seems to combine every performance the actor ever gave into a surface-charming, rotten-hearted whole. In the dance sequences, the filmmaker demonstrates that he'd be a dab hand at musicals (we still mourn his "Antony & Cleopatra" musical, which was to have featured music by Guided By Voices, and starred Hugh Jackman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ray Winstone), and a sun-kissed Florida setting gives a nice break from the strip-lighting feel of much of the director's late-period pictures. We hope it's not the directors' last great film, but great it is nevertheless. [A-]

- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Kimber Myers, Gabe Toro

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  • Clay Castille | February 6, 2013 8:40 AMReply

    I for one think Ocean's 12 is underrated. I'm not calling it Top Tier Soderbergh, not at all, but within the context of the series, I'm happy to see the Playlist give it even this much love. Yes, the seams begin to show, but any phony feelings are purged by the magnetism of the cast. I remember reading interviews with Pitt and Damon during filming and it didn't sound pressured at all (for better and for worse). They spent a lot of time at Clooney's home on Lake Cuomo, boating, swimming, etc. Having a blast. The chemistry shows on screen and in my eyes makes it the most honest of the Ocean's films. It is the only one of the three that comes close to acknowledging what they are, a one big 2 hour long A-list wankfest. Forget 13 with its earthquake machine, a bizarrely bed-ridden Elliot Gould and Matt Damon's fake nose. 12 was the cast and Soderbergh at their loosest and wildest without descending into parody (and also saccharine nostalgia). A strange, kooky meta-movie in which our world's biggest movie stars weren't just paid to look like they're having a blast with each other, it's up on the screen, the heist is on all of us.

  • Stephen B | February 6, 2013 11:36 AM

    Agreed. It's the most rewatchable for me because it's fun. It reminds me of a '60s film like Gambit. There's a few things that don't work, but overall it's Soderbergh throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks, which is what this kind of movie should be. Ocean's 13 played it too safe for my taste.

  • Richard313 | February 5, 2013 10:01 PMReply

    It should also be said, Soderbergh provides some of best director commentaries ever on his films. Each one is a master class in filmmaking. Its a shame we did not get commentaries on Contagion or Mike.

  • Glass | February 5, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    Holyshit!! Awesome retrospective. That's a shitload of work, guys. Soderbergh will always be one of my favorite directors, and I'm really glad he's retiring, in a weird way. I'd rather he stop now instead of making the work of an obviously bored artist. So happy he's on twitter now, too.

  • rodie | February 5, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Great summary of Soderbergh's career. I'll just add that anyone who hasn't seen Schizopolis, do so now. There's a great Criterion version. It's such a hilarious movie. Incredibly low budget, shot completely in Baton Rouge. If someone like Bill Murray had starred in the film, instead of Soderbergh himself, then it would be a cult classic today! To us Soderbergh fans, it still is. Thank you Playlist.

  • jp | February 5, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    Still think Matt Damon's turn in The Informant is his finest and one of my favorite performances of recent memory.

  • Stephen B | February 5, 2013 2:23 PMReply

    Although no DoP is credited, Schizopolis was Soderbergh's first time serving as cinematographer.

    The Underneath has a couple of great scenes, especially the sequence with the is-he-or-isn't-he? hit man in the hospital room. Also think Haywire is better than a C+, but everything else is pretty dead-on.

  • Damian | February 5, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    Ellen Barkin is in Ocean's Thirteen, not Burstyn...

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