Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017)

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Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.


Magic Mike XXL (2015)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Gregory Jacobs | Writer Reid Carolin | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 2016

Out of Sight (1998)

I’d like to say that I rewatched this film adaptation on learning the sad news a few days ago of author Elmore Leonard’s death, but the truth is that I had got home after watching Michael Bay’s hypersaturated Floridian-set Pain & Gain and wanted something of a palate cleanser: a heist movie set in Florida that did not make me despair of my fellow humans. As it happens, though, it’s also my favourite of the many Elmore Leonard film adaptations over the years, though Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — almost contemporaneous and featuring Michael Keaton playing the same role — gives it a close run to my mind.

The film has many strengths. The plot may be high concept — a bank robber falls in love with a federal agent is at its core, though the film is structured around a big concluding heist — but it hardly seems to be much more than a skeleton on which to hang the elements that really make the film. There’s the setting I’ve already mentioned: the warm saturated colours of Florida are contrasted with the cold grey surfaces of Detroit (allowing Soderbergh another opportunity to use his favoured coloured filters on the camera). Then there’s the pop-culture inflected banter of the dialogue, which seems to fall with easy grace from the actors’ mouths.

Most of all, though, there’s the excellent acting ensemble that Soderbergh has assembled. George Clooney plays bankrobber Jack, and Jennifer Lopez is federal agent Karen, and neither seems better suited to a role than here, but then Soderbergh’s camera is rose-tinted to a fault. In some ways, the techniques used here are not hugely different from those in Michael Bay’s film, but are just used more judiciously — there are freeze frames and jump cuts, slow-motion and some nice use of reflective surfaces, all seemingly in the service of making these two characters as gorgeous and glamorous as possible. At the heart of the film is a strikingly tender scene when Jack and Karen get together, and the editing is largely lifted from Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a loving hommage indeed.

Of course, the story of these central characters would never have the same impact without the depth of character actors featured here. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle play Jack’s friend and antagonist respectively, while Steve Zahn has a stand-out performance as slow-witted accomplice Glenn, competing with the similarly-slapstick Luis Guzmán for the film’s comedy relief. There’s Albert Brooks as the prickly trader whose wealth is the heist’s target, while Dennis Farina (who also sadly died earlier this year) has a small role as Karen’s dad, but he invests it with far more warmth — and biting sarcasm when Michael Keaton’s FBI agent Ray is around — than such a small role would usually warrant.

It’s that generosity of Soderbergh’s film and Scott Frank’s script (presumably taking its cue from Leonard’s novel) — the willingness to give the same fond attention to even the smallest character as is lavished on the leads — that makes me especially fond of it. In fact, it ranks among my favourite films, and somehow renews my faith in humanity (while still presenting a range of murderous and criminal behaviours) even under the heaviest of assaults.


© Universal Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard) | Cinematographer Elliot Davis | Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 1998 (and at home on other occasions, most recently on Blu-ray, London, Sunday 25 August 2013)

My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see

Magic Mike (2012)

Steven Soderbergh has been a very prolific director over the couple of decades he’s been working, and this film from last year is one of his most satisfying recent efforts. It deals with an understandably favoured milieu among filmmakers — the entertainment industry — but puts enough of a twist on it to make it interesting, eliciting excellent performances from its male leads.

Continue reading “Magic Mike (2012)”

Behind the Candelabra (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (as “Peter Andrews”) | Starring Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds | Length 118 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 11 June 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© eOne Films

If Side Effects earlier this year was billed as Soderbergh’s last film, it seems as if Behind the Candelabra may actually turn out to be. Perhaps it didn’t ‘count’, what with being made for the cable subscription channel HBO, but it holds up well as a cinematic work. By the nature of the central characters’ lives, it’s a bit of a chamber piece, being restricted largely to interior sets — Liberace’s stage at Las Vegas, and his ornately kitsch home — but like all Soderbergh’s films, it boasts an excellent ensemble of actors.

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Side Effects (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Scott Z. Burns | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (as “Peter Andrews”) | Starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 106 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 13 March 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Open Road Films

I find this latest (and apparently last) film of Steven Soderbergh to be troubling, but it’s difficult to locate quite how without invoking that ever-present spectre of “spoilers” (I may do it later; I shall warn appropriately). It’s set up as a medical thriller, dealing with the effect that prescription drugs can have on people. The opening shot shows blood on the floor of a swanky apartment, before the film backtracks by three months to introduce our heroine Emily (Rooney Mara) and, after a bit of backstory and a series of personal setbacks, her psychiatrist (Jude Law). This is all firmly set in upper-middle class territory, with cocktail parties on ships, expense accounts, nice clothes, comfortable living situations, the whole deal. Our heroine’s partner (Channing Tatum) is a disgraced former investment broker, recently released from prison. Our heroine has some kind of job in a design firm, while the psychiatrist is having to take extra jobs (including $50k from a pharmaceutical company to help with their drug trials) to make ends meet, what with the Manhattan apartment and a kid and a wife out of work.

Continue reading “Side Effects (2013)”