Posts Tagged ‘Steven Soderbergh’

It would appear that the Steven Soderbergh collective, having resumed their film-making activities, are back to their usual remarkable level of productivity: it’s not much more than six months since the last Soderbergh movie, Logan Lucky, and yet here comes their new one, Unsane.

The thing that distinguishes Soderbergh, other than a certain breezy stylishness, is his sheer versatility as a film-maker: all-star disaster movie, revenge thriller, martial-arts action film, caper comedy, Soderbergh has had a crack at them all and for the most part been highly successful. The thing about Unsane is that it seems to be playing off this difficulty in pinning Soderbergh down, for at first it’s not at all clear exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

Claire Foy, probably best known for her role in The Crown (and the size of the pay packet involved), plays Sawyer Valentini, an ambitious young financial analyst with a slightly traumatic personal history. (The film does address the fact that she has a fairly unlikely name.) She has issues, to put it mildly, and they are impacting on her life – so, in an attempt to sort herself out a bit, she visits a private psychiatric facility in an attempt to get herself some counselling.

Although the facility is in Pennsylvania, it might as well be called the Hotel California, for while checking out of the place is (on paper at least) quite straightforward, actually leaving it is another matter entirely. To her understandable astonishment, Sawyer finds herself incarcerated in a rubber hospital, her sanity questioned, and declared to be a risk to herself and others. Naturally, this is not what you need when your mental state is already somewhat fragile, and Sawyer finds herself having hallucinations of a man who used to stalk her (Joshua Leonard, still probably best known for The Blair Witch Project). But are they really hallucinations…?

The opening section of Unsane is diligently ambiguous about exactly what is going on, and just what kind of film this is going to be. It could be that it’s going to be a fairly serious and thoughtful drama about what it means to be mentally well, or mentally ill – ‘I get a bit blue sometimes! Who doesn’t?’ cries Sawyer, as the orderlies are bundling her down a corridor. How do you make that call? Who sets the standard?

Or, it could be a fairly bleak comedy-drama about the state of the American mental health system, with the startling and plausibly-presented revelation that some private mental facilities are basically insurance scams, actively seeking a pretext to lock up essentially healthy people so they can claim the cost of their care from their medical insurance providers. It is suggested that this is what may have happened to Sawyer.

Or, it could be that Sawyer’s unfolding nightmare is essentially the stuff of a psychological horror movie. Has her stalker really managed to track her down and infiltrate the hospital? Who can she trust? Can she possibly get anyone to believe her story?

Well, as regular readers (dearie me!) will be aware, we have usually had the film’s poster by this point, but in the case of Unsane it will be appearing shortly. This is because I am going to break with standard blog procedure and talk about the movie in a way which may give away important facts about it. In short, after the poster image I am going to Spoil This Movie. Caveat lector.

(For anyone wanting the Not-Spoiled verdict on Unsane: usual skilful work by Soderbergh, great performance by Foy, but this is one of those movies which gets steadily less impressive as it goes on.)

All right. Last chance to leave… There are many good things about Unsane, chief amongst them Foy’s performance: she’s not afraid to appear damaged or somewhat unsympathetic, and there are moments where you wonder if the shrinks might actually have a point and she does deserve special treatment. There is also Soderbergh’s casual mastery of storytelling. This wasn’t at all apparent while we were watching it, but apparently Unsane was entirely filmed on Soderbergh’s smartphone (needless to say he did all the cinematography and editing himself, too), which if you ask me is just showing off. Minor pleasures include an all-killer no-filler cameo from Matt Damon and some good supporting performances from the likes of Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mum and Juno Temple as another inmate.

But, and oh dear, this is a film which starts off looking like a smart and thoughtful drama-maybe-thriller, and concludes with some proper old fashioned fem-jeop, as the leading lady flees through a darkened forest chased by a psychopath with a hammer (in true slasher movie style, she is running, he is walking, and yet she never seems to get any further away from him). In short, we end up in gonzo B-movie territory with a swiftly unravelling plot and a succession of improbable developments.

As the credits rolled, my companion and I were sitting there actually trying to figure out what had actually happened. ‘So… if the dead body in the trunk of the car was actually Character X,’ I said, feeling like a dullard, ‘then who was that in the shallow grave in the park?’ (I am always careful to avoid using actual character names when out and about.) A passing total stranger paused to explain the plot to us. ‘That was Character Q,’ he said kindly (clearly a man after my own heart). Well, I suppose the film may have made this clear, but I suspect you would have to be really on the ball to have picked it up.

In any case, this general sense of narrative confusion isn’t even the film’s biggest problem. This is as follows: we are required to accept, as the premise of the film, that a young woman will accidentally have herself committed to the very same mental institution which her insane stalker has already infiltrated as an orderly under a false identity. There is, so far as I could tell, no attempt to justify this monumentally improbable turn of events. My companion suggested how this could have happened, but to say I am not convinced is a massive understatement.

Still, you really do have to accept this, as it is the premise for the whole second half of the movie: it’s a bit like Jaws: The Revenge in that respect. Provided you go with it, the concluding parts of the film have a certain manic energy to them, and the performances remain impressive, but I was constantly aware of how much slack I was having to cut the film just to take it seriously.

Seriously, you either go with the premise, in which case this is a reasonably fun piece of high-class psycho-horror, or you don’t, whereupon it simply becomes an absurdly implausible piece of tosh unworthy of the talent involved. I suppose in the end I kind of enjoyed Unsane, because it is well-acted and the ambiguity of the opening section at least is impressively achieved. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is really a wildly silly film which, to my mind at least, makes hugely unreasonable demands on the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

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Even in the rapid-turnaround world of mainstream Hollywood film-making, this is some going: having been miraculously revived by a four-leafed clover he picked up off-screen towards the end of the previous movie, everyone’s favourite mutant vigilante claws his way out of a shallow grave and shreds his way to vengeance, aided by a string of unlikely and serendipitous happenings…

This is not the premise of Logan Lucky, of course. (But if Hugh Jackman’s interested, I’m sure we can work something out.) The actual premise of the film is actually rather secondary to the fact that it marks the reconstitution of the remarkable filmmaking collective which likes to operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (look, have you seen the Soderbergh filmography? It can’t be just one guy). The Soderbergh announced a temporary dissolution – or ‘retirement’ – a few years ago, but now they have reconjugated themselves and, to judge from Logan Lucky, and it’s like they’ve never been away.

Soderbergh favourite Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, who is experiencing some financial trouble after losing his job as a construction worker. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (the bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver), who himself lost a hand in Iraq, thinks this is because the family is cursed. Jimmy is not convinced of this, despite his various misfortunes. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Clyde embark on a rather ambitious scheme to rob a motor racing track on a race day, by breaking into the system the track uses to physically transfer cash to its vault.

The problem is that to do this they need the assistance of an actual bank robber and explosives expert, who goes by the name of Joe Bang (he is portrayed by that most uncomplaining and under-recompensed of movie stars, Daniel Craig), and Joe is currently in prison, where he is likely to remain throughout the window of opportunity for their big heist. And so an already convoluted scheme becomes practically baroque, as a means of springing Joe from the slammer in order to help with the robbery, and then reinserting him without anyone noticing his absence, has to be added to the plan. What could possibly go wrong? Well, given the supposed family curse, just about anything. But, when the dust settles, will Jimmy be able to get to his daughter’s junior beauty pageant like he promised?

Seasoned Soderbergh-watchers – or perhaps that should be sniffers – have apparently smelled a rat with regard to Logan Lucky‘s script, which is credited to one Rebecca Blunt. No-one knows who Rebecca Blunt is, as she is a non-person as far her film-making history is concerned, and the only person who seems to have had any contact with her is Soderbergh himself. Soderbergh has form for doing multiple jobs on the same film under a variety of pseudonyms, and so some people are leaping to the conclusion that Blunt is actually the director or someone close to him, working under a false name. It’s such a polished and casually effective piece of work that this is very easy to believe, if such things matter to you.

One of the hallmarks of the first phase of Soderbergh’s career was the deft way in which he moved between smart, broadly commercial projects, and equally smart niche and experimental ones – thus, a moneymaking hit like Ocean’s Eleven would be followed by an audience-confounding bomb like his version of Solaris. Logan Lucky is definitely one of his commercial movies, being something of a variation on the theme of the Ocean films. It’s essentially another caper movie, albeit a caper executed by hillbillies and rednecks, and with the comic potential of that idea by no means under-exploited: most of the characters, one way or another, are comic caricatures or grotesques, and the actors attack these roles with considerable gusto.

It’s an ensemble piece, obviously, and Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast for it – people like Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston turn out for what are basically quite small roles. And, to be fair, top-billed Channing Tatum recedes into the background for much of the film. Dominating the centre of the film, and delivering as big a performance as I can remember him giving, is Daniel Craig. Is he wildly over the top? It’s possible some people might think so. This is certainly big acting, one way or the other.

And on the whole it’s a rewarding piece of entertainment, although one which works much better as a straight-down-the-line don’t-take-this-too-seriously comedy than an actual comedy thriller. Quite apart from the general absurdity of the plot, there are some pleasingly unexpected jokes – there’s an involved Game of Thrones-related gag which I found particularly droll, though I’m not sure what future generations will make of it – and it is never dull or slow, even if at one point the final act of the movie shows signs of losing focus. On the other hand, there are a few dead wood characters – I’m not really sure what the characters played by Seth MacFarlane and Sebastian Stan actually contribute – and you really have to cut the film some slack in fairly essentially areas – given that Jimmy Logan can’t remember what day he’s supposed to be picking up his daughter, it seems pushing it a little to suggest he is the brains behind a ferociously involved and tricksy prison-break-stroke-robbery-stroke-spoiler-redacted. But this is the kind of thing you either go with or you don’t, and I expect most people will choose to go with it, as that option is much more fun.

There’s also something very slightly Coen brothers-ish about the film’s sardonic view of the details of lower-income mid-west life: it never seems to be outright mocking its cast of rednecks and hillbillies, but at the same time this is a comedy film, and many of its jokes come out of the presentation of this section of society. Mostly it seems entirely good-natured, but at the same time it’s very clear that this is, on some level, a group of well-educated and prosperous artists, some of them not even from the USA, who are choosing to tell a story about a gang of crooks and dimwits from the lower echelons of society, which is absolutely played for laughs. It’s not outright offensive in the way it’s handled, for the film is generally good-natured, but I was aware of it.

In the end, of course, Logan Lucky is simply one of Soderbergh’s more mainstream confections, and was it not for his recent lay-off it would probably be subjected to less critical scrutiny. And as such, there is not much wrong with it – it is consistently entertaining, and beyond that it is frequently interesting (which is not always necessarily the same thing), not afraid to surprise the audience or provide unexpected moments of ambiguity. Nice to have him back.

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Christmas is coming on apace (drop me a line via the comments if you would like my gift wish-list) and I am aware that some people are harder to buy presents for than others. What do you get, as the saying goes, for the person who has everything?

Well, here’s an idea (i.e. a cheap gag is en route) – get them a piece of card with ‘YOU ARE HERE’ written on it, and when they ask you what it is, tell them it is a fabulously rare and precious gift – nothing less than a life-size map of the world!

Oh well, it’s a bit Zen, perhaps, but I like it. I was reminded of this dubious old gag while watching Traffic, a 2000 movie from the peak period of the Steven Soderbergh collective. This was the year in which the Soderberghs managed to get Oscar-nominated twice in the same category (which I would interpret as meaning that at least one loss was guaranteed to be on the cards, but then again I’m not known for looking on the bright side). This is one of the Soderberghs’ most sophisticated and complex movies, as befits its topic – this is a film attempting to deal seriously with the realities of America’s so-called War on Drugs.


It’s impossible to deal with a topic this broad and complicated using only a single viewpoint, and the movie doesn’t even try – instead, it has three parallel plotlines, which are only loosely linked, and together they offer a slightly more rounded perspective.

The movie opens with the realities of drug enforcement in Mexico, as careworn cop Benicio del Toro finds himself sucked into the darker side of the struggle with the cartels. Recruited by a high-ranking army officer for some, er, off-the-books work, he finds himself forced to confront the realities of torture and corruption, and the dawning realisation that one of the most active and vicious areas of the entire drugs conflict is the struggle between the various cartels themselves.

Taking place in a more familiar milieu is the story of affluent housewife Catherine Zeta Jones, who doesn’t look too hard at where her husband’s money is coming from. This changes when DEA agent Don Cheadle arrests Miguel Ferrer’s dealer. Ferrer gives up his boss in exchange for immunity, said boss being Zeta Jones’ man. She rapidly find herself not only having to accept her husband’s career choice, but actively involve herself in the business if she’s going to preserve anything of her family and its lifestyle.

Finally, the political angle is considered in a story concerning Michael Douglas’ judge, recruited by the President to head up the War on Drugs. He is, as you’d expect, full of high principles and strong rhetoric, but entirely unprepared for the revelation that his daughter (Erika Christensen) has a serious drugs problem of her own, and her descent into addiction and eventual prostitution compels him to reassess all of his assumptions.

Well, let’s not be under any illusions here: this is a movie featuring numerous mob executions, personal degradation of an intimate kind, torture (both psychological and physical), and very nearly industrial levels of hard drug use. This is not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a relaxing or escapist two and a half hours, as it is a gruelling and fairly demanding watch.

Now, the Soderberghs do their best to make the proceedings accessible – one of their touches is to, effectively, colour-code the three different storylines so you know (broadly speaking) which one you’re watching at any given moment – most of the scenes in the Douglas plotline are tinted a muted blue, while the one set in Mexico is primarily a hellish yellow-orange. This is reasonably helpful, but doesn’t really make any difference to the fact that this is a film attempting to cover an immensely big and complicated topic.

The individual storylines of the main characters are compelling and engaging enough, which is the film’s great strength, but it is also notable for the way in which it refuses to be just a character-based drama or thriller – it insists on addressing the wider issues of the topic. The internecine conflicts of the drugs cartels are just one, as equally under consideration are the effects of drug-related stereotyping on ethnic minorities, the essential futility of everything the DEA, as embodied by Cheadle’s character, are trying to do, and many other issues.

The result is not quite intellectual and sensory overload, but neither is it very far from it. The War on Drugs is a highly complex and potentially controversial topic, surrounded by questions to which there are no easy answers, and by dealing with it so honestly and fully Soderbergh has come up with a film which is highly complex and potentially controversial, full of questions to which there are no easy answers. In this respect it sort of resembles the life-sized map of the world I mentioned earlier.

This should not detract from the impressiveness of Soderbergh’s narrative achievement in making such a sprawling project cohere so well as a piece of storytelling, nor from the strength of the various performances. However, this isn’t a film you would watch for pleasure, nor really for information or a particular perspective on the problem. I think, to be honest, it’s a film you’d watch simply in order to be able to say you’d watched it, and thus capable of discussing it in an informed manner. As sophisticated talking-point movies go, though, it has a lot going for it.

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Time for yet another installment of New Cinema Review (it’s the summer, I’m living away from home, it’s inevitable) – this time, the Vue in the Westfield Centre (one of those big zombie malls you need a map to navigate around) in Shepherd’s Bush. I know I seem to be particularly partial to Vues, especially when there are lots of independent cinemas around that barely seem to get a look in, but Vue seems to be the best of the major UK multiplex chains and their website is extremely user-friendly.

Although perhaps not quite as good at flagging up the key information as it should be. I arrived in plenty of time for my film, which didn’t seem to appear on the main information screens behind the ticket desk. Nevertheless, when I reached the front:

‘One for Behind the Candelabra, please,’ I said.

The ticketeer checked his rinky-dinky little screen. ‘It’s showing in the Scene area,’ he informed me. ‘That’ll be nineteen pounds.’

‘Nineteen pounds for one ticket! Dearie me,’ I said, unprintably. Nevertheless, changing my plans for the day would have been a pain in the neck and possibly involved going in to see another film blind, which I didn’t much fancy. So I fished out my debit card.

‘Where do you want to sit?’ the ticketeer enquired.

‘On a throne, if I’m paying nineteen quid for it,’ I said. (The shocking news of this outrageous pricing policy had affected my usual courteous good temper in a negative fashion.) However, the ticketeer had been through the Multiplex Staff Personality Obliteration Process and just dumbly showed me the little screen with icons of seats on it.

Eventually I was allowed to trundle off to the VIP Scene area, which had a bar. (I initially thought this programme might be called Seen, as in ‘They Must Have Seen Me Coming’.) To be fair, the seats in the VIP screens are nice, and you do get a little table to put your soft rolls and lemonade on, but the screen itself wasn’t fantastically better than the one I saw Hummingbird on later that day. And even after paying nearly twenty quid, you still have to sit through the ****ing adverts: the annoying animated one for a carbonated orange drink, the weird one about the French social climber who prefers beer to women, the one with the talking Spanish beer, they were all still there. There was also one where the Cirque du Soleil play pelota on a bridge between a glacier and a volcano: this, obviously, is to advertise coffee. Honestly, sometimes I think civilisation has already collapsed into a decadent mire and we’re all just too self-absorbed to notice.

None of which is really very informative when it comes to Behind the Candelabra, which I suspect is what you’re actually reading this to find out about. This is another offering from the Soderbergh Collective – technically they’ve already retired, of course, and this film actually originated as a TV mini-series in the USA a few years ago.


The reason why it didn’t make it into American theatres despite having a big-name director and two A-list stars in the lead roles is the subject matter. Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, a young Californian working as an animal trainer in the late 1970s. He is gay, and through a friend is introduced to the entertainment superstar Liberace (Michael Douglas).

(Do people these days need to be told who Liberace was? I suspect so. Basically, Liberace was a virtuoso piano-player and showman, who by the 70s had become a massive international star and an institution in Las Vegas. His act and public persona were noted for a degree of – er – ostentatious flamboyance, but such was the level of control he exerted over these things that when the Daily Mail printed an article revealing he was homosexual, he was able to sue them for libel and win.)

Well, Liberace and Scott hit it off almost at once, especially when Scott is able to procure some medicine for one of the star’s poodles. Very much at Liberace’s instigation, Scott moves in and takes on a job as his paid companion, confidant, driver, and wig-keeper. Their romantic relationship continues apace in tandem with this.

And what follows is essentially the story of their relationship over the next decade, until Liberace’s death from an AIDS-related condition in 1986: its development, which takes some decidedly odd turns, its decline, and its fractious ultimate collapse (although there was apparently something of a reconciliation prior to the very end).

Now, one thing you can say about the Soderberghs is that they are a fair-minded bunch who play by the rules: if they do an action movie, it’s going to have proper set-piece fights in it. If they do a movie about male strippers, it’s going to have some male stripping in it. And if they do a movie about a gay relationship, it’s going to have various scenes of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in bed (or a bubble bath) together. The movie walks the line between prudishness and prurience rather well, although some of the dialogue is still quite explicit – this is always a film focussing on the central relationship, the fact that it’s between two men is almost incidental.

As a movie about what I can only call an assymmetrical relationship (one of the participants is much older, wealthier, and more powerful than the other), there isn’t a great deal that’s very novel here – Scott’s falling more and more under Liberace’s sway (even to the point of having plastic surgery to resemble him) somehow doesn’t feel as peculiar or (in the circumstances) unsettling as it should. The eventual slide into drug addiction, infidelity, and an ugly legal wrangle feels rather familar too.

That said, there are some amusingly bizarre scenes with Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon who has, perhaps, partaken rather too much of his own wares, and some of the fashions and hairstyles on display inevitably have a certain charm. On the whole, though, this is a movie which succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the central performances. And Damon is simply very good in what’s probably the easier and certainly the less showy role. Douglas is by no means bad, but it’s his replication of Liberace’s stagecraft and particularly his piano-playing which is most obviously impressive. Some of the rest of the time, his performance is almost that of a stereotypically needy and possessive older gay man.

The Soderberghs direct with their customary verve and skill and this is an entertaining and involving movie. But, once you take away all the rhinestone trappings and period styling, there’s nothing tremendously innovative going on here in terms of either characterisation or plot. The actors are very good, but they’re big-name stars in what ultimately boils down to quite a standard and formulaic bio-pic. Worth watching by all means, just not particularly essential.

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In recent years I’ve come to look upon the Steven Soderbergh collective as one of the safest pairs of hands in the business: I turn up to a new Soderbergh picture in the firm expectation of a slick, stylish, and thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable piece of work, whether that’s a genre movie or something more off the wall. However, it’s easy to forget that, following a striking debut, the first ten years or so of Soderbergh’s career were marked more by misfires than successes: this is the period when Soderbergh’s name was appearing on obscurities like Schizopolis, Kafka, and The Underneath, none of which really troubled the box office much.

The Limey comes from the time when Soderbergh was turning this around, following Out of Sight and preceding Traffic and Erin Brockovitch. This is one of those films which does a good job of looking like several other movies simultaneously – most of them quite good ones, but still.

Terence Stamp plays Wilson, a professional criminal from London who arrives in sun-drenched Los Angeles on a personal quest. His daughter has recently died, apparently in a car accident, but one of her friends (Luis Guzman) gives him reason to believe otherwise. She was involved with record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a man not without some shady connections of his own. As any caring father would, Wilson vows to take Valentine out – but decides that his target must first understand why, which complicates matters a bit.

So, you’ve got a mildly existentialist LA thriller, somewhat in the vein of Point Blank. At the same time, the gangster-on-a-family-vendetta plotline can’t help but bring to mind the original Get Carter, one of the greatest British crime movies ever. And this film being a product of its time, the shadow of Tarantino rests across it (so we get lots of slightly tedious conversations about peanuts and playing pool from small-time criminals).

The terrible shame is that The Limey isn’t as good as any of those films. Not that it’s a full-on clunker, it just feels extremely slight and underdeveloped. The plot is utterly straightforward – the summary just up the page covers just about the whole thing – with only a handful of characters and no subplots worth mentioning. This isn’t necessarily a problem – you could say almost the same thing about Soderbergh’s last movie, Haywire, which shares the same writer as The Limey, but that didn’t feel as obvious as it does here.

And somehow it lacks the polish and verve of more recent Soderbergh projects. A lot of the time it resembles some sort of semi-improvised experimental drama, with two characters in a room rambling on at each other in front of a handheld camera. Given there are some big names in this film, the acting is not that convincing, and some of this must be blamed on the script.

I heard Steven Soderbergh being interviewed a while ago where he revealed that Don Cheadle doesn’t like to visit the UK, simply because of all the stick he gets for the dreadful faux-rhyming slang the Ocean movies require him to deliver. The Limey suggests that Soderbergh’s fascination with Cockney dialect runs deep, as Wilson cheerfully comes out with the stuff all the way through this film too. Even so, he just doesn’t convince as a British heavy abroad – ‘You were the one who wrote me about my daughter,’ he growls early on. ‘Wrote me’? No Englishman of Stamp’s generation would say that: ‘wrote to me’, surely. Then, virtually his next line is ‘Who snuffed her?’ Oh, dear, no. The great mystery to me is why Stamp agreed to say his lines as written, because the dialogue has all the verve and deftness of someone in greasy oven-gloves trying to make balloon animals. But then Stamp seems curiously unengaged throughout: he looks great and has terrific presence, but much of the time he’s a cryptic cipher. On the other hand, sometimes he appears to be trying to play it for laughs, with mixed results.

Possibly in an attempt to make up for the slenderness of the narrative, when The Limey doesn’t look like a low-budget improv project, it opts for a rather avant-garde approach to editing. Fragments of moments already seen and still yet to come briefly appear, the same images appear time after time, dialogue from one scene plays over the visuals of another. The result is a film which veers between naturalism and a fractured, dreamlike quality, and it’s a mixture of styles which never quite coheres – it never feels like the editing is justified except as a device to obscure how linear the plot is.

One gets the impression that The Limey is trying to say something about the way we perceive the Sixties. While it’s true that Terence Stamp has worked fairly solidly in movies for fifty years now, his place in history will – with all due appreciation for his turn in the Superman franchise – be as an iconic face of Swinging London. The same is essentially true of Peter Fonda, who will forever be tied to his starring role in Easy Rider. Fonda goes on about what the Sixties were like in The Limey, too, while we even get to see Terence Stamp in his prime: in another startling creative decision, footage from the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow is used here as flashbacks of Wilson as a young man. But does any of this inform what’s ultimately a rather cold and introspective revenge thriller in any meaningful way? I can’t see how. Once again, it’s tricks and whistles rather than anything substantial.

I thought this film was rather disappointing – and while I’ve been quite dismissive of the arty editing and other off-the-wall choices, I have to say these were the only things that stopped it from being rather dull and boring. The Limey is a coming together of all sort of interesting creative people and storytelling ideas – but somehow they all seem to neutralise each other, with the result being a film which is neither distinguished nor, I suspect, especially memorable.

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It was with some dismay that I learned of the plans to disband the collective of film-makers who operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (it surely being impossible for any single individual to direct so many films as diverse and accomplished as the ones with Soderbergh’s name on them). More than in most cases, the presence of the Soderbergh name on a production is as close to a guarantee of quality as one can realistically expect, regardless of the tone or subject matter involved. The new Soderbergh movie, Haywire, continues this tradition – although, having effortlessly reinvented genres as disparate as the caper movie (Ocean’s Eleven), the true-life drama (Erin Brockovitch), the arty SF movie (Solaris), and the all-star disaster movie (Contagion), the Soderberghs have now effectively invented a unique genre of their own: the pro-celebrity cage-fighting movie.

Gina Carano (a former mixed martial arts fighter, ex-American Gladiator, and pretty much the textbook definition of a strapping lass) plays Mallory, a delicate young flower of womanhood who we first meet going into a diner in upstate New York. Here she meets Aaron (Channing Tatum), a young man of her acquaintance. After Aaron is ungallant enough to smash a cup of coffee over her head and pull a gun on her, Mallory wastes no time in beating him half to death and leaving in the car of another patron, to whom she explains The Story So Far.

Mallory is, of course, an ex-marine specialising in high-risk covert operations – a mercenary, on the books of Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her ex-lover. After returning from a mission in Barcelona, and on the verge of quitting the company, Kenneth persuades Mallory to take on – oh ho ho! – one last job. She is to masquerade as the wife of MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) while he investigates a dubious chap in Dublin. However, it becomes apparent that Mallory has been told a pack of lies, and somebody wants her dead…

When I first saw the trailer for Haywire – tough but comely female lead, heavy action and martial arts content, dubiously twisty-looking plot, lashings of style – my reaction was ‘Crikey, Luc Besson’s really rushed his new movie out,’ so similar to the likes of Nikita, Leon, and Colombiana did it appear. The appearance of Steven Soderbergh’s name at the end rather discombobulated me. But why shouldn’t Soderbergh give us his take on an action movie? He’s done practically everything else.

And yet, there’s a sense in which the highest compliment I can pay Haywire is that it’s exactly like a Besson movie, stylish and exciting, but stripped of all the usual excess and with a startling infusion of taste and restraint added to the mix. Not to mention a very distinguished cast – in addition to McGregor, Tatum, and Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton also show up and do their usual reliable work.

One gets the sense that this gallimaufrey of talent may have been recruited to make up for a perceived weakness in Carano as a leading lady. Given that she was allegedly recruited after one of the Soderberghs saw her fighting on TV, this would not come as a surprise – I’m reminded of the bet one Hollywood producer made his golf partner that he could make the world’s least likely person a major star, with the result being the career of Steven Seagal – but to be fair to her Gina Carano acquits herself perfectly acceptably.

That said, the script is carefully written so that Carano has the minimum to do acting-wise – Mallory’s not the most demonstrative of individuals – and gets the maximum chance to let rip in the action sequences. Just running down the street Carano looks unstoppable, but in the fight scenes she is simply astounding. Haywire almost completely avoids the martial arts movie cliches – hero takes on twelve people in a garage, hero fights giant, hero fights lead henchman – in favour of a series of one-on-one fights between its lead and proper Hollywood A-listers. In terms of realistic action, these are exemplary in every way: the sequence in which Carano and Fassbender kick the living crap out of each other at some length in a Dublin hotel room is one of the most visceral, exciting movie fights I’ve ever seen.

I suppose one could make the criticism that Mallory Kane falls victim to the usual problem afflicting action heroines, in that her characterisation doesn’t extend much beyond ‘man with breasts’ in any positive sense. Certainly, working with a less talented director, Carano as a screen presence could become as clunky a cipher as Van Damme or Seagal, which may be an issue if her career has any longevity.

To be honest the film does a good job of walking the tightrope between working on a cinematic level and simply staying realistic. One friend of mine didn’t like it, saying it was boring, for this reason. And the action is a little thinner on the ground than in some movies of this ilk. You really have to stay with the plot and trust that everything will be explained come the end, which it is – but on the other hand, just when most action movies would start building to a riotously implausible climax, Haywire resolves its story in a much simpler and unexpectedly low-key (but still satisfying) way.

This really didn’t bother me – Haywire is an immaculately made and pleasingly bare-boned action movie. It’s the kind of thing Soderbergh knocks out on a lazy afternoon, managing to surpass genre specialists in the process. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although this was largely due to the Gina Carano-beats-up-famous-actors schtick. My literary advisor and I thought this was a brilliant idea and within five minutes of leaving the theatre had drawn up our own list of people we wanted to see her pound into the earth in the sequel: Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Ryan Reynolds… There’s a lot of potential here. Notable careers have been built on considerably less, and I’ll be very interested to see if Gina Carano can live up to the promise she shows so devastatingly here.

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When I was but a lad one of my favourite stories was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – not Verne’s original novel (which I have since discovered to be a rather wearisomely didactic travelogue), but an illustrated adaptation of the 1954 Richard Fleischer movie. I pored over this time after time and you can surely imagine my excitement when it was re-released to cinemas. However, only trauma was to result as I came down with something nasty in the very same week and our wise old family practitioner advised that, much better though I was feeling, it was still not a good idea for me to go to the cinema while I was still potentially infectious.

Well, I’ve been pretty poorly again recently, but – as luck would have it – health service cut-backs make it actually quite difficult to see a doctor. So the decision as to whether or not it was advisable to go to the cinema this week was entirely down to your correspondent. You know, I take my social responsibilities quite seriously, and would hate to think I had frivolously passed on my particular brand of lurgy to anyone simply because I wanted to see a film. In the end I decided I could justify it as long as I stayed well away from other unsuspecting cinemagoers and went to a sparsely-attended matinee performance, thus absolutely minimising exposure. At least that was what I told myself on the way in on the bus, and again in the pub afterwards.

You’ll never believe it, but all this nonsense proved to be entirely apropos as the movie I ended up seeing was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which was about… well not someone recklessly going to the pictures, but still. Basically, Soderbergh’s scientifically rigorous thriller opens in the aftermath of Gwyneth Paltrow’s visit to an Asian casino, during which she has been inadvertantly exposed to a mutant pig-bat virus. This does not stop her engaging in a little extramarital whoh-ho-ho on the way back home to her something of a dim-bulb husband, Matt Damon. The mutant pig-bat virus turns out to be a) energetically lethal (which is bad news for Gwyneth and arguably Matt), and b) enthusiastically communicable (which is bad news for everyone else in the world).

Pretty soon the authorities are on the case across the world, fortuitously embodied by a flotilla of the Hollywood A-list (Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Elliott Gould, and so on). Someone buzzes off to the Far East in search of the origins of the mutant pig-bat virus, someone else heads to Gwyneth’s neck of the woods to manage efforts to control the disease there, a third someone has to co-ordinate the overall strategy, and so on. Meanwhile Matt Damon struggles to not become a paranoid germophobe and to generally get on with his life despite the fact that, for one thing, he’s not allowed to bury Gwyneth – they’d much rather she was cremated (possibly a case of ‘One flu over – the cooker’s next’).

This is a big old star-studded whopper of a movie, or so it feels while you’re watching it, and that’s by no means intended as a criticism. Soderbergh orchestrates a sprawling, multi-stranded narrative with consummate skill, and for much of its running time this is a really gripping movie. It’s more a collection of vignettes depicting various scenes of courage, integrity, foolishness, and loss, rather than a single coherent story, but on the whole this approach works pretty well. The only subplot that doesn’t quite work focusses on Jude Law, who’s playing an unpleasant and self-serving blogger. I suspect he’s supposed to be Julian Assange, which is the only reason I can think of for the ‘Hello possums!’ accent Law deploys in the role.

The Damon subplot also looks a little bit superfluous to start with, as it doesn’t really appear to be going anywhere – it’s established early on that Matt is totally immune to mutant pig-bat viruses. A lot of it is to do with the extramarital excursion Gwyneth enjoyed shortly prior to her death, which gives Damon the chance for a lot of histrionic soul-searching. (The danger here is that it could almost look like Gwyneth was struck down as a judgement on her adulterous lifestyle, a rather reactionary impression for this kind of film to give.) However, as the story of the film unfolds over weeks and months, the ‘human interest’ story with Damon’s character becomes increasingly important and it’s clear this is why his character’s been built up.

Joking apart, Scott Burns’ script really works hard to seem horribly plausible and do new things with a well-established scenario. There’s a lot of pleasingly crunchy-sounding epidemiology and virology along the way, and the progression of the crisis and the coming apart of society is, on the whole, credibly presented.

That said, most lethal-mutant-virus-threat plots conclude one of two ways – the virus never properly gets loose at all and everyone goes ‘phew’, or it does its stuff, kills 99% of the world’s population, and the handful of survivors set off to the countryside to form communes and rebuild society in a new and better form (this is often the point at which the story-proper gets going – for example, the BBC’s original Survivors, which this startlingly resembles at one point).

Except, apparently, viruses that lethal really don’t come along very often and a fatality rate of even 5% of the global population is practically unheard of. This leaves the film the problem of how to find a proper climax, given all the most dramatic stuff happens in the opening stages of a pandemic – the latter stages of the film have novelty to commend them, but there’s no substitute for proper storytelling structure! The solution Soderbergh opts for is a little dismaying – moments of jarring sentimentality start to appear with increasing frequency (many of them involving Damon’s character), until by the end they’re practically all the film has to offer. Soderbergh is too smart and classy to let his film degenerate into nothing but a schmaltzfest, but it’s a shame that the pace and tension and intelligence of the early sections of the film couldn’t have been sustained throughout.

And I suppose we must wonder what the purpose of this kind of film really is. Panic and misery and the death of millions is an odd topic for a piece of entertainment especially when the story isn’t as big on crowd-pleasing spectacle as, say, 2012. I suspect it may largely be a simple case of a ghoulish impulse of delight in seeing all the walls falling down and things becoming just about as bad as we can conceive. As a catastrophe movie, Contagion is highly intelligent, thoroughly gripping, masterfully directed and (on the whole) very well played. It’s not really a conventional story, but it’s an impressive piece of film-making – even if it’s a little short on practical advice on how to survive a global pandemic. I for one was only able to discern three such suggestions –

  • use your hand-sanitiser frequently and thoroughly
  • get your panic-buying out of the way early
  • watch out for mutant pig-bats.

Don’t have nightmares, folks.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 6th 2003:

‘According to… the British Board of Film Classification… the latest Clooney release contains “a moderate sex scene”. Can we expect them to tell us when there is a really good one?’ – Letter to The Guardian, last week

The inappropriate sequel or remake has long been a staple of the film industry’s attempts at self-parody – think of Good Will Hunting 2 from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for example – and one that’s occasionally made all the more ironic by the sequels and remakes that they genuinely seem to think are a good idea. Most Hollywood attempts in this department make a bad film out of a good one, but there are a small but significant number of instances where they’ve taken a bad film and improved it no end. The number of good remakes of good movies is even smaller. So it was with rather mixed feelings that I learned of the news that James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney had joined forces to remake Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic SF movie Solaris.

The day will eventually come when it will not be obligatory for descriptions of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to contain the phrase ‘the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey‘. But obviously not yet. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful, all these words apply to the Russian Solaris in exactly the same way that they don’t to anything James Cameron has worked on in the past. But to be honest he appears to have taken a definite back seat on this production, which seems much more typical of Soderbergh’s filmography.

George Clooney plays psychologist Chris Kelvin, who leads what looks like a fairly miserable existence on a near-future Earth. But a message from his old friend Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) leads him to the space station Prometheus in orbit over the mysterious planet Solaris. The surviving crew are suffering from a wide range of psychological complaints, all due to one thing: by night, ‘visitors’ from Solaris materialise out of nowhere on the station, taking the form of the crew’s loved ones – as Kelvin learns for himself when he awakens next to his wife, who back on Earth had been dead for years…

Conventional advertising for Solaris hasn’t really caught the essence of the film. This is mainly because all the trailers and so forth either show one important scene or lots of significant and/or striking moments in quick succession. What they don’t, and can’t express to the viewer is the fact that these important and striking bits are invariably separated by long passages where not much of anything at all seems to be happening. I’m not saying I agree with the German critic who asked Soderbergh at a press conference why he made such a boring film, but I can certainly see where he’s coming from. Cerebral, glacial, thoughtful – yup, the new Solaris is all these things too, but at least it’s only an hour and a half (-ish) long and not three hours like its predecessor (even if this does mean it achieves the startling feat of somehow managing to seem slow yet rushed simultaneously).

I was going to say the new Solaris isn’t a conventional SF film, but I may as well just broaden that out and say it’s not a conventional film, full stop. It’s wilfully oblique and impenetrable in places, it offers no easy explanations for the events of the story, it has very little in the way of ‘plot’ – a major revelation about one of the characters, which would be a crucial moment in a different film, here is passed over almost without comment. This is in no way a dumbed-down version either of Tarkovsky’s film or Stanislaw Lem’s original novel.

Where new Solaris differs from old is in its emphasis. Old Solaris was much more about the nature of the visitations from the planet and what they truly represented – new Solaris concerns itself much more with the relationship between Kelvin and his wife (Natascha McElhone) – their past relationship is depicted in flashback, as Kelvin comes to terms with the simulacra Solaris has created for him. (And, yes, you do get to see George’s bum, albeit dimly lit and in medium-shot.) For all that it’s about a romance, it’s not actually that romantic, nor does it really want to be – it’s more interested in question such as the subjectivity of memory, the division between the self and the world, how well one can truly know another person, and so on. At the time McElhone’s rather mannered performance irritated the life out of me but on reflection she does a remarkable job, modulating effectively between the ‘real’ Rheya and the replica of her. (Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, is just plain annoying as surviving crewmember Snow.)

And as for Clooney himself… well, I think we’re in danger of underappreciating one of the most ambitious and charismatic leading men in current cinema. Sure, he made a few mistakes early in his career, but since then – and more often than not with Soderbergh as his accomplice – he’s made some of the most interesting and classy films of recent years – Out of Sight, Three Kings, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Spy Kids (well, maybe not the last one). His performance here is dedicated and serious and largely successful.

This being a Soderbergh movie, it naturally looks gorgeous throughout, mixing earthy tones for the Earthbound sequences with metallic blues and greys for those set on the station. Soderbergh chooses to shoot much of the film in very long, static takes, which contributes to the continental-drift-like pace. Admittedly, though, the effect is rather hypnotic and the film has a dream-like quality. But at the same time it’s cool and uncompromising: a demanding film to watch, and not a very cheerful or immediately rewarding one. This is probably reflected in the film’s poor box office in the States (where, according to a cheerful Clooney, ‘it bombed’) and by the fact that, at the end of the showing I attended, I was the only one left in the theatre.

But just because something is utterly uncommercial doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad and Solaris is probably a very good film, just one pitching to an extremely limited target audience. I would probably go and see it again if the opportunity arose and nothing else was on. As it is, Soderbergh has made the perfect date movie for depressed philosophy PhD laureates.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 21st 2002:

All truly great movie stars have in common a quality of darkness – the ability to suggest that they have had Pasts, and that in them they may have made Dark Choices – and may yet do so again. It adds enormously to the depth and appeal of their performances, even – or especially – when playing a whiter-than-white clean-cut hero. Of the current crop of leading men George Clooney has it more than most and while he’s playing a self-confessed liar and thief in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven it still gives his performance a vital little edge.

Ocean’s Eleven has a simple story but a complicated plot. Professional criminal Danny Ocean (Clooney) gets out of jail and promptly begins planning the biggest job of his career – the robbery of three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (the welcome return of Andy Garcia to A-list film-making), the man who stole Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts).

To carry out his audacious raid Ocean assembles a diverse team: amongst them cardsharp Rusty (Brad Pitt), veteran con-man Saul (Carl Reiner), explosives expert Basher (Don Cheadle) and novice pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon). Will the guys succeed in their insanely convoluted scheme? Or will Benedict rumble them and get medieval on their collective asses?

This has all the hallmarks of a Soderbergh picture: quirky, inventive compositions, cool, clean exteriors, and warm, lustrous interiors. Vegas is displayed as a fabulous neon wonderland, and the Nevada tourist board should give the director a hefty tip. The film has a ‘classic’ feel to it as well, in a way it could have been made at any time in the last thirty years – there’s nothing to date the clothes or sets, although Lennox Lewis does appear as himself in a non-speaking cameo role.

Soderbergh gets great performances from his ensemble of actors and they all get at least one big moment. Garcia is ruthless and gimlet-eyed as the bad guy, Elliot Gould has some fun as the guy bankrolling the raid, and even Brad Pitt – an actor I’ve never really warmed to – gives a terrifically neat and droll performance. The only wrong note is struck by Cheadle’s gratuitously Cockney munitions expert, whose accent is pure Dick van Dyke and whose take on rhyming slang is, to say the least, bizarre. But it’s Clooney’s film, and he manages to be arrestingly cool yet engagingly warm throughout.

The plot is mainly concerned with the intricacies of the scheme: first establishing the scale of the challenge and then detailing exactly how the gang try to do it. To me it seemed to owe a lot to the old Mission: Impossible TV series (and indeed at the conclusion Garcia wears the ‘I’ve-been-had’ expression familiar from many a villain off the show), but this sort of caper-plot, when done well, is always satisfying to watch. And it’s done extremely well here.

I was unsure to begin with about the subplot involving Clooney’s attempts to woo Roberts back. Julia Roberts gets very little to do other than stand around looking like Marina off Stingray, and at first I thought Soderbergh was overloading the film to damaging effect. But as the film goes on it becomes clear that this plot element is crucial to its plot, characterisation, and the source of nearly all its genuine emotion.

Every once in a while – not nearly often enough, alas – I sit down to watch a new film and within two minutes become totally assured I’m watching a piece of work of the utmost quality. It happened in Magnolia, it happened in Lord of the Rings, and it happened with Ocean’s Eleven. It’s not deep, it’s not profound, it’s not Great Drama. It’s pure entertainment, but as such it’s virtually flawless. It’s smart, slick, stylish and very, very cool. The best bet for a fun night out at the flicks there’s been for quite a while.

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