Steven Soderbergh

1989
sex, lies, and videotape 64
[ Peter Gallagher cheats on wife Andie McDowell with her sister Laura San Giacomo. Long-haired yuppie scum James Spader comes to town with a camera and a near-clinical interest in women’s sexuality and voilà: sex, lies, and videotape. Palme d’Or winner, one of the most lucrative and influential independent pictures ever made, the debut of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh… That’s a lot of baggage for such a small film. The way it turns on the audience only through suggestion is something special and the writing, direction and performances are good enough, but ultimately this just isn’t that deep or affecting a movie. It’s intriguing and worth seeing, but don’t expect the masterpiece it’s reputed as. ]

1991
Kafka 68
[ Jeremy Irons stars as Kafka, an office clerk (and writer on the side) who stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy while inquiring the disappearance of a co-worker. This is a taut psychological thriller, establishing a paranoid mood through expressionistic B&W photography and an ominous Cliff Martinez score but daring to occasionally break out of it for bits of acerbic comic relief and even a colorful (literally!) sci-fi set piece. This is like a waking nightmare, full of “petty tyrants”, anarchists and mutants. Some of the film puzzled me, but only inasmuch as to make me want to read Kafka’s actual writing. ]

1993
King of the Hill 75
[ Whoa, quite the change of pace! After the B&W fear and loathing of “Kafka”, we go into the sunny St. Louis childhood of a 12 year old Aaron Kurlander as he dreams of adventures with Charles Lindbergh, plays marbles, breeds canaries, collects cigar bands, dances with girls for the first time and interacts with the other residents of the hotel where his rapidly shrinking family lives, notably Adrien Brody, Spalding Gray and Lauryn Hill. The third act is a bummer, with suicide, eviction, sickness, police raids, hunger and more combining to drive Aaron nearly crazy. This gorgeously photographed and scored slice of lyrical whimsy is sort of a pit stop between 1970s Terrence Malick and 2000s David Gordon Green and, while it’s not quite on that level, it is a heartwarming little movie impressively carried by Jesse Bradford, endearing as the Fred Savage to these Depression-era “Wonder Years”. ]

1995
Underneath 71
[ Peter Gallagher plays a former gambler who unwisely rekindles with his ex-girlfriend, who’s now engaged to a shady club owner (William Fichtner), and somehow winds up getting involved in an armored car robbery. In the commentary track to the “Schizopolis” DVD, as Soderbergh talks about the movies he directed previously, his only mention of “Underneath” is as “a fourth film that I can’t remember the name of.” Wow, the film is underrated even by its own director! This might not be a major work, but this mood piece disguising as a thriller (a remake of the 1949 noir “Criss Cross”) displays all the stylish craftsmanship and deft storytelling we expect of Soderbergh. ]

1996
Gray’s Anatomy 80
[ It starts like an educational documentary. One after the other, various people tell the camera about how they injured their eyes. This is like the most terrifying horror for me, as I have problematic vision already and I’m paranoid about going blind. Then we get to Spalding Gray, who starts telling his own eye story from hell, with tangents about Christian Science, Indian sweat lodges, Nutritional ophthalmology and Filipino psychic surgeons. It’s really hard to define the overall experience. It’s not quite a documentary, not quite a filmed one-man show… Whatever it is, it’s fascinating. Gray is a genius storyteller, funny and depressing at the same time, not unlike Larry David. “Gray’s Anatomy” is not what one usually thinks of as a movie, but it’s definitely cinematic, with Soderbergh using all kinds of lighting and editing techniques to illustrate Gray’s monologues. ]

1997
Schizopolis 85
[ “Ladies and Gentlemen, young and old. This may seem an unusual procedure, speaking to you before the picture begins, but we have an unusual subject. Turn. When I say that this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend, my motivation is not financial gain, but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price not some bargain matinee cut-rate deal. Turn. In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing; please bear in mind that this is your fault not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything. Turn. In closing, I want to assure you that no expense was incurred bringing this motion picture to your theater. And now, filmed in its entirety, and proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions, we proudly present… Schizopolis!”

No wonder Soderbergh (mostly) abandoned artsy indie cinema for Hollywood flicks after this film. You just can’t get more unrestrained and out there than this. It feels like Soderbegh put every idea he’s ever had in this film, even the stupidest – ESPECIALLY the stupidest! This is almost punk rock in its anti-conventions attitude, as meta as anything Charlie Kaufman would ever write (Soderbergh plays two different characters as Nic Cage does in “Adaptation”) and filled with more non sequiturs than a Burroughs-penned, Godard-helmed Monty Python movie would be. Self-indulgent? You bet, but “Schizopolis” is also more entertaining than it has any right to be.

“Dear attractive woman number 2, only once in my life have I responded to a person the way I’ve responded to you, but I’ve forgotten when it was or even if it was in fact me that responded. I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I’m standing near an air conditioner. I know that your hair sits atop your head as though it could sit nowhere else. I know that your figure would make a sculptor cast aside his tools, injuring his assistant who was looking out the window instead of paying attention. I know that your lips are as full as that sexy french model’s that I desperately want to fuck. I know that if for an instant I could have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants. I know all of this, and yet you do not know me. Change your life; accept my love. Or, at least let me pay you to accept it.” ]


1998
Out of Sight 92
[ review ]


1999
The Limey 84
[ review ]


2000
Erin Brockovich 65
[ review ]


2000
Traffic 90
[ review ]


2001
Ocean’s Eleven 92
[ review ]


2002
Full Frontal 28
[ review ]


2002
Solaris 60
[ review ]


2004
Ocean’s Twelve 43
[ review ]


2006
Bubble 93
[ What a deceptive film! It was announced as an ultra low-budget experimental flick with amateur actors, which sounds awful. But right from the first few minutes, you can tell that this is Soderbergh at the top of his game, both visually (he shoots almost all of his movies himself under the alias Peter Andrews) and in the way he handles actors – this is no “Full Frontal” jerk-off side project. And while small town factory workers seem banal as opposed to the smooth criminals that often populate Soderbergh’s movies, the fact that they’re manufacturing dolls instantly adds this wholly creepy vibe. Making human-like artefacts out of plastic? Definitely creepy. Thematically, this ties into how the characters are like humans stuck in plastic, shopworn existences… Most moonlight at other jobs as well, plus they have folks to take care of at home. This is a heartbreakingly sad story, with an understated love triangle that, again, is deceptive: the sadness doesn’t come from where you expect. I can’t say what it is exactly that’s so goddamn brilliant about this movie, and I don’t wanna oversell it by invoking Kubrick or Hitchcock. But I would definitely say that this is like the best film Haneke has never made. You got the same deceivingly simple mise en scène, the constant underlying tension/creepiness and the balance between grand tragedy and everyday routine; this is basically the Americana answer to “Caché”. Or a fully realized execution of what Van Sant’s been aiming at lately. The somewhat sedated performances from Debbie Doebereiner as Martha, Dustin Ashley as Kyle, Misty Wilkins as Rose, K. Smith as Jake and the rest of this small cast all work towards making you feel that this is a chronicle of nothingness but then, when something does happen, the relative void that came before becomes fascinatingly mysterious and you genuinely have no idea where the hell this is going. ]


2006
The Good German 77
[ The B&W cinematography, art direction and score are all a flawless throwback to the filmmaking style of the 1940s. While Tobey Maguire delivers an intense but contemporary seeming performance, George Clooney is right at home as the Bogart-like protagonist and Cate Blanchett perfectly channels Dietrich. The movie isn’t just an exercise in style, though. Soderbergh mixes things up by being franker in his handling of sex, violence and profanity. More importantly, the film uses the benefit of hindsight in its exploration of a key moment in history, the 1945 Peace Conference around war-torn Berlin and the backdoor dealings surrounding it. “The Good German” is a complex morality play in which things are far from black and white – the Germans and Russians are not necessarily all bad, and the Americans are certainly not all good. The muted tone, deliberate pace and staged feel might turn off moviegoers who don’t care that these are part of an intentional attempt to make an old-fashioned talkie. But, even though the love story is nowhere near as involving as the one in “Casablanca” and there is no presence as powerful as Orson Welles in “The Third Man”, Soderbergh’s homage to those classics should still be pure pleasure for fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age. ]


2007
Ocean’s Thirteen 52
[ review ]


2008
Che 94
[ review ]


2009
The Girlfriend Experience 61
[ Last year, I put Soderbergh in my personal pantheon of the 10 most important filmmakers of the past decade, and that was before I even saw “Che”, which ended up being my favorite movie of the year. One thing I pointed out at the time was that Soderbergh is one of the most productive directors around and even though his output can be uneven, you always feel that he’s trying to challenge himself. So after making one of the most epic pictures of this era, we find him going back to making an ultra low budget, spontaneous little indie flick, in which a high-end escort (porn star Sasha Grey, in her first “legit” role) goes about her daily routine of entertaining rich men and, the film being set in late 2008, hearing them worry about the financial crisis and various business issues. This juxtaposition of interpersonal matters and economic concerns is rather Godardesque, which can be a mixed blessing (the line is thin between thoughtful and tedious). Likewise, as much as I enjoy Soderbergh’s use of fractured storytelling and impressionistic cinematography, I didn’t really get anything out of the protagonist or out of any of the other characters, unlike in “Bubble”, which managed to be both understated and extremely moving. This? Not so much. ]


2009
The Informant! 73
[ In the most superficial, reductive way, I suppose one could connect this new Soderbergh film to his “Erin Brockovich”, as both are about an individual taking on large-scaled corporate malfeasance. Now, this is where the comparision stops, because “The Informant!” just might be the filmmaker’s most peculiar, oddball flick since “Schizopolis”. Like that underrated picture, this loose adaptation of the Kurt Eichenwald nonfiction book follows a neurotic, somewhat goofy protagonist and is filled with non sequiturs, to the point where the actual plot, which involves a price-fixing conspiracy in the agri-business industry, barely matters. The interest of the film lies in the fact that the man who blew the whistle on it, played here by a pudgy Matt Damon sporting a mustache, glasses and a hairpiece, might think that he’s a character in a Crichton novel or Tom Cruise in “The Firm”, but he in fact turns out to be either a complete idiot, a compulsive liar or both at the same time! Add to that voice-over narration by Damon that’s mostly made up of stream of consciousness random thoughts and a wonderfully old-fashioned, ridiculously upbeat Marvin Hamlisch score and you get a movie that’s the farthest thing from an earnest, straightforward based-on-a-true-story drama. ]


2010
And Everything Is Going Fine 83
[ In this follow-up of sorts to “Gray’s Anatomy”, which was made after Spalding Gray’s death, Soderbergh assembles a “new” monologue out of excerpts of 20 years’ worth of archival footage of live performances and interviews. The result is impressively fluid, as if it was really all the same story Gray is telling, which makes sense since his material is autobiographical – this is is the story of his life, more or less. It’s all very captivating, alternately troubling and amusing, with all kinds of insights and clever asides… There’s also a self-reflective level to it, what with storytelling being a way of imposing order to the chaos of everyday life, of fictionalizing things somewhat, one way or another. And the fact that Soderbergh is mix and matching all these little bits and pieces out of context further makes this an artificial construction, in an interesting way. ]


2011
Contagion 91
[ It starts with someone coughing, over a black screen. Then we see a sick-looking Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in an airport bar, with a red title stating that this is DAY 2 – day two of a deadly epidemic, we’ll soon find out, an epidemic threatening to kill millions of people, and fast. As the days roll by, the film takes us back and forth around the world, introducing tons of characters, none of which could really be construed as a lead… No, the lead is the virus itself, which we follow as it spreads at an alarming rate, while scientists, government officials and others struggle to find a way to stop it. Steven Soderbergh directs all this masterfully, achieving to scare the shit out of us just by showing us people getting sweaty and dizzy, coughing, and touching things, goddammit – and then it’s off to another victim, and another, and another… The storytelling is remarkably fluid, we never feel lost – disturbed, uncomfortable and anxious, for sure, but we can always follow what’s going on all too well, even though the chain of events is complex and involves a whole lot of people, not to mention tons of technical jargon. Kudos to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for that, and again to Soderbergh and his almost clinical attention to detail. Also of note are the extra-sharp digital cinematography (the film was shot on Red One cameras), the typically brilliant electro-industrial score by Cliff Martinez, and what may very well be the best ensemble cast of the year (Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demetri Martin, etc.). Here is a flawlessly crafted film depicting the worst-case scenario that thankfully never materialized when the H1N1 and SARS outbreaks happened, an unnerving, “really grim” paranoid thriller with elements of horror, apocalyptic science-fiction and 1970s disaster movies… And maybe just a touch of gallows humor (“When did we run out of body bags?”). One of the year’s best pictures, no doubt about it. ]

2012
Haywire 92
[ From the ever prolific and versatile Steven Soderbergh comes this early contender for the best action flick of 2012 title, starring MMA champion Gina Carano as an ex-Marine turned black ops agent who’s been double-crossed by her former employer. The smart, fast-paced, chronologically jumbled script by Lem Dobbs (“The Limey”) takes us from the U.S. to Spain, Ireland and Mexico as we’re introduced to a gallery of shady characters played by a stellar supporting cast (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, etc.), which the super badass Carano spends the film punching, kicking and shooting her way through in a series of jaw-dropping fight scenes. A slick, sly spy thriller that’s more “Bourne” than “Mission: Impossible”, with artful digital cinematography by Soderbergh himself and a jazzy score by David Holmes, “Haywire” is thoroughly enjoyable. Laced with sexy and funny bits, with further compelling turns by the likes of Michael Douglas, Mathieu Kassovitz, Bill Paxton and Michael Angarano, it just keeps moving forward and throwing twists and turns at us, leaving us almost exhausted by the end. ]

Magic Mike 80
[ When I went to see Magic Mike on opening night, in a theatre full of groups of giddy ladies with just a few gentlemen sprinkled throughout, I was probably not only the sole straight male spectator in there, but also most likely one of the only ones who was there not to see hot guys work it, but to see director Steven Soderbergh continue his streak of great filmmaking. I must sound like a broken record by now, but I just can’t get over how prolific and versatile the man is. There’s really no one else like him, at least as far as contemporary American directors go. Following two astonishing genre movies – 2011’s sci-fi/horror/disaster thriller Contagion and this January’s badass action flick Haywire – we find him seemingly going back to doing a lower-budget, character-driven film. Then again, even though it has Soderbergh’s cinematographer alter ego Peter Andrews interestingly playing around with filters and oddball angles while editor Mary Ann Bernard (another Soderbergh alias) gives the film a somewhat atypical stop-and-start rhythm, Magic Mike is actually one of the most entertaining movies he’s ever made, further blurring the line between indie and Hollywood, auteur and commercial. It’s not Ocean’s Eleven-slick, but it’s certainly not a Godardesque experiment à la The Girlfriend Experience. And unlike that peculiarly sexless Sasha Grey-as-an-escort film, Soderbergh’s male strippers joint delivers the goods, skin-wise! I’m not gay, but I still have to admit that the stars of the film are incredibly cut and, for the most part, they certainly know how to move. Channing Tatum, whose own experiences as a stripper back when he was an 18-year-old in Tampa, Florida, is particularly impressive. He was the star of the first Step Up after all, so imagine that, but with him taking his clothes off! More importantly, Tatum oozes with easygoing charm as the title character of Magic Mike, getting a lot of laughs and also making us care for his character. In a way, it reminded me of Mark Wahlberg’s performance in Boogie Nights, and Soderbergh’s film in general reminds a bit of that early Paul Thomas Anderson directorial effort, in the way the first half conveys the excitement of the sex-industry lifestyle (“Women, money and a good time,” as Mike puts it) and the second shows the darker side of this world. Now, Magic Mike never gets all that dark and right up to the wonderful final scene, it remains a really enjoyable romp, notably thanks to the unforced quality of the flirtatious relationship Mike has with Cody Horn, who plays the no-nonsense sister of his protégé (Alex Pettyfer). The camaraderie between the strippers is also tons of fun, the whole ensemble (Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez, Joe Manganiello, etc.) grooving nicely together, on and off the stage. And then there’s Matthew McConaughey, who almost steals the film as Dallas, the owner/MC of the strip club, with his “all right, all right, all right” Texas drawl and Frank T.J. Mackey-style predatory machismo. At the risk of losing my comic book geek credentials, Magic Mike is so much more satisfying than The Amazing Spider-Man (Emma Stone notwithstanding) it’s not even funny. ]

2013
Side Effects 72
[ Right from the opening moments, I was into the very Soderberghian nature of it all… The cinematography, the tone, the rhythm… Steven Soderbergh has explored various genres these past few years and told different kinds of stories, but his touch always remains distinctive. His films maintain a balance between indie and Hollywood, mainstream and artsy, visceral and thoughtful… I was also grabbed by Rooney Mara’s performance. I adored her in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and in a more low-key register, she once again proves to be an exceptional actress. Her character here suffers from depression and she conveys this in all these subtle little ways. It notably has to do with how she’s not like super-sad all the time… She smiles, she goes along with things, she seems fine… And yet there’s this grey cloud hovering over her, this fleeting vulnerability in her eyes, this occasional sense that she’s slightly askew (there’s a shot early on of her looking in the mirror that depicts that exactly) . The cast also features Soderbergh’s recent BFF Channing Tatum as Mara’s husband, who is released from jail in the first few scenes after serving time for insider trading, plus Jude Law and Catherine Zeta Jones as, respectively, Mara’s new and former psychiatrists. Which brings us to the seemingly casual way drugs are being prescribed in the film. Antidepressants, to be precise, which can work, but can also have all these, well, side effects. Plus, there’s the fact that it’s not always clear whether doctors are prescribing them for the right reasons… Without spoiling anything, I can mention that “Side Effects” ultimately works in some thriller elements, but interestingly, it kind of goes in and out of them… Like, you’ll get the feeling it’s becoming this twisty plot thing, but then it turns back on itself and returns to being a rather down to earth thing. It’s hard to describe without going into specifics, but it’s captivating the way it plays with your expectations until the very end. ]

Behind the Candelabra 86
[ “It’s funny this crowd would like something this gay.”
“They have no idea he’s gay.”
It’s unbelievable that this could ever have been the case, what with Liberace being so wonderfully flamboyant, but hey: different times, I guess. In this made-for-HBO film (which also showed in Cannes), Mr. Showmanship is played by an amazing Michael Douglas, who completely disappears into the role and delivers one of his most charismatic performances. I also loved the impossibly flashy clothes and the “palatial kitsch” of the sets, it’s all so over the top, just like the legendary pianist himself. “Behind the Candelabra” isn’t a conventional biopic that tells its protagonist’s story from childhood to death. It only focuses on a specific time period, beginning in 1977, when Liberace is already a superstar in Las Vegas and he takes under his wing a young man played by Matt Damon. Their somewhat unusual relationship – Liberace wants to be his protégé’s “father, brother, lover, best friend, everything” – drives the story and it remains fascinating throughout. You can understand what the “crazy old queen” is getting out of it, but what’s more puzzling is why Damon’s character goes along with it. Is it just about the money or is there really love involved? One of the oddest parts is when a hilariously freaky looking Rob Lowe shows up and starts doing plastic surgery on the two of them and… Well, you’ll see! Also striking is the way Damon becomes a drug addict and how his relationship with Liberace crashes and burns. If this does end up being Soderbergh’s last feature, it’s certainly a fabulous finale to his filmmaking career. ]