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Retrospective: The Films Of Steven Soderbergh

Retrospective: The Films Of Steven Soderbergh

If there are two things that mark out the career of director Steven Soderbergh, they arguably could be described as a willingness to fail and a constant routine of creative calisthenics. A process-rather-than-results person, he has, over the last 24 years, been one of the most daring, unpredictable and restless filmmakers around. His output has run the gamut of everything from indie relationship drama to star-packed heist movies, from experimental, micro-budget thrillers to philosophical sci-fi, and from melancholy coming-of-age to kick-ass action.

First arriving as a hotly tipped new thing, one of the first major Sundance success stories, Soderbergh spent his first decade delivering poorly-received follow-ups to “sex, lies, and videotape.” And yet, just when many had concluded he was a one-hit wonder, he creatively revived himself with a self-funded indie before making a critically-acclaimed studio picture, which led to a remarkable run of success culminating in a Best Director Oscar in 2001, a particularly impressive achievement given that he was competing against himself in the category (nominated for “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich,” and winning the statue for the former).

Things have been up and down in the last decade (though the films are rarely dull), but Soderbergh had one final trick up his sleeve: a few years back, he started hinted that he was retiring — or at least taking an extended hiatus — from filmmaking. And after a prolific last few years, that’s set to take place after his two 2013 films — “Side Effects” and the HBO Liberace biopic “Behind The Candelabra” — have been released.

Only time will tell if posterity considers them a fitting grace note to his career (this part of it, anyway), but whatever the verdict he’s been behind one of the most fascinating and extraordinary filmographies in recent memory. And with the director recently turned 50 (one forgets that he was only 26 when “sex, lies and videotape” won the Palme d’Or back in 1989), and the release of “Side Effects” this week (our review is here), we thought it was a good time to take a look at his career to date. And once you’ve taken a spin through our takes on this diverse back catalogue, if you’re still hankering for more Soderbergh, why not check out our extensive interview with the filmmaker from this time last year right here

“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989)
Rare are the films that truly exemplify cinematic eras or movements, but rarer still are films that define them. Steven Soderbergh’s debut, the self-consciously navel-gazey but totally brilliant “Sex, Lies and Videotape” is one of those rarest of cases. Winning the Palme D’or at Cannes in 1989 (over Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery TrainJane Campion’s “Sweetie” and Emir Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies,” among other illustrious competition), its success shone a bright, trailblazing light at the dawn of the independent filmmaking movement of the 1990s, and helped bring a certain H. Weinstein of Miramax bellowing onto a scene he’s dominated ever since. And all this for a low-budget talky adult drama about a group of white, middle-class late-20/early-30-somethings and their sexual dysfunctions. Yet the tightness of the film’s premise is the masterstroke, meaning Soderbergh’s writing and the performances he coaxes from his small ensemble (all of whom turn in career-best work) take center stage. In fact, it’s an early mark of the director’s characterising intelligence that he designed the film so craftily: he didn’t just write a story he’d be able to make with the limited resources available to him, he wrote one that thematically demanded to be made in just such an unadorned, lo-fi manner; the fuzzy, flat-lit aesthetic feels less like a budget-dictated compromise than a stylistic decision. The story is simple: sexually maladjusted Graham (James Spader) drifts into the lives of John, his wife Ann, and her sister Cynthia, with whom John is having an affair (Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo, respectively), and Graham’s fetish for taping women talking about sex gradually uncovers the sewn-up secrets each has been keeping from the other, and from themselves. But what saves it from being potboilery, or salacious simply for the sake of it, is the writing: it’s often very witty, sometimes outright funny and, by its close, surprisingly touching for a film about brittle sexual facades. In fact, (much to the disappointment of flesh hounds attracted by the splashiness of the title) themes of voyeurism aside, we’d argue that it’s really a cerebral love story, detailing a strange but powerful and redemptive connection made between unlikely lovers, through the unlikeliest of means. Soderbergh would make bigger films, glossier films, more ambitious films and more complex films, but over the course of an exemplary, varied and eclectic career, we’re not sure he ever made a truer one. [A-]

“Kafka” (1991)
With an initial success like “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” Soderbergh was always at risk of attracting tall poppy syndrome with his second outing, and by making “Kafka” — an offbeat, expressionistic psychological thriller/horror/noir, based loosely on the life and work of the great Czech writer — he seemed to be actively courting attackers. They came in droves, the film receiving negative notices and few audiences (it’s still never been available on DVD in the U.S.), but we’d argue that it’s actually the director’s most undersung work, even if critics at the time were baffled by a piece of work that falls somewhere between Fritz Lang and David Cronenberg. Lem Dobbs‘ script focuses on ‘Mr. Kafka’ (Jeremy Irons), an unprepossessing office drone who, after the disappearance of a colleague, comes across an anarchist terrorist group, and the secret society they fight against. It’s undoubtedly something that works better the more familiar you are with Kafka’s works (“The Trial” and “The Castle” are the key ones to bone up on), and probably suffered at the time due to relative proximity to Terry Gilliam‘s “Brazil,” which owed a huge debt to the writer. But “Kafka” is very much its own beast, from the gorgeous German Expressionist-ish black-and-white photography (anticipating the equally unsuccessful “The Good German” in some ways) from ‘Sex, Lies’ DoP Walt Lloyd — the two never worked together again, and Lloyd’s been working exclusively in TV for the last 15 years or so — to the sci-fi/horror tinges and fine supporting performances from character actor greats like Alec Guinness, Joel Grey and Armin Mueller-Stahl. It’s so odd, and so unfriendly to general audiences, that it’s not surprising that it failed to connect. But as the ‘lost’ Soderbergh film, it’s a very strong and idiosyncratic piece of work, and one that the directors’ fans should seek out without delay. [B+]

“King of the Hill” (1993)
If “Sex, Lies and Videotape” was Soderbergh’s Nevermind, the next three films were akin to Blind Melon records after No Rain; the audience just wasn’t responding in the same way and his sophomore slump lasted about three movies. The director’s always marched to the beat of his own tune and that’s probably never been more apparent in the early ‘90s. While “Reservoir Dogs” was beginning to build the Tarantino brand in 1992, Robert Rodriguez had just delivered the ultra-kinetic “El Mariachi” and filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch were exploring films that tapped into this new slacker/angst Gen-X/disenfranchised energy, Soderbergh was moving upstream and away from the zeitgeist, and tackling a very not-of-the-moment Depression-era coming-of-age story. Based on A. E. Hotchner’s evocative memoir childhood hardships in the 1930s, the film centers on a boy struggling to survive on his own in a St. Louis hotel while his mother is sent to a sanatorium, his absentee father tries to make money as a traveling salesman and he has to parent and feed his younger brother who is soon torn away with him to live with relatives. While ignored because of its out-of-step milieu, “King Of The Hill” is a moving and subtle character-driven tale that’s deeply touching and empathetic. Watching this boy (one of the earliest feature performances by Jesse Bradford) scrape by and the cruel and bleak adversities he must face each day is particularly affecting. Perhaps a non-named cast didn’t help either. While Adrien Brody, Karen Allen and Elizabeth McGovern have supporting roles (plus brief appearances by Lauryn Hill and a very young Katherine Heigl), the core family, Bradford, Jeroen Krabbé, Lisa Eichhorn and Cameron Boyd still to this day aren’t exactly household names. While it was entered in the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and received generally decent reviews, the film barely grossed $1 million in the U.S. [B]

“The Underneath” (1995)
A messy and impenetrable oddity, even by the admittedly looser Soderbergh standards, “The Underneath” was the director’s first foray into straight-up film noir and is worth noting today more as a testing ground for a number of stylistic flourishes the director would refine in later films than a solid film that stands on its own. Apparently it was hell on the filmmaker too, who saw the film as a commercial and creative letdown and, in a fit that would mirror the post-“Che“-pocalypse, followed it up with the insane and insanely personal “Schizopolis” as a way to cleanse himself from the all-around experience of “The Underneath.” The movie itself is pretty simple – a former criminal and gambling addict (Peter Gallagher) returns to his hometown of Austin, Texas, for his mother’s wedding. While in town, he tries to reconnect with his old flame (a very clear femme fatale played by the always-enchanting Alison Elliott), stay clear of various villains (led by William Fichtner) who want him dead, and plot an armored car robbery. There are a number of Soderberghian touches – there’s the chronologically twisty structure, a collection of harsh filters, and a bunch of terse, tough-guy characters less interested in emotionality than breaking off paperback novel one-liners – but these seem embryonic and film school-y, a director working out the kinks in his own genius. Instead of being cool and connective, the editing feels unfocused and confusing, and the central heist lacks dramatic tension or symbolic heft. It’s a testament to its lack of resonance that the only home video version available (on DVD) isn’t enough anamorphic widescreen. But hey, at least it’s on DVD. [C-]

“Gray’s Anatomy” (1996)/”And Everything Is Going Fine” (2010)
Tragically, writer/storyteller Spalding Gray passed away in 2004, a suspected suicide after lifelong clinical depression and a terrible 2001 car crash. But he’d long before been captured on screen, thanks to Jonathan Demme‘s “Swimming to Cambodia,Nick Broomfield‘s “Monster In a Box,” Thomas Schlamme‘s “Terrors Of Pleasure” and a pair of films, the second a posthumous tribute, by Soderbergh. The first, 1996’s “Gray’s Anatomy” (which premiered at TIFF in 1996, alongside “Schizopolis“) is perhaps the best of Gray’s cinematic works, which sees him delving into the world of alternative medicine after being told he needs a minor eye operation. Soderbergh’s eye as an editor has helped turn the original monologue into something tighter and leaner, with Gray performing it with unbelievable energy, wit and wisdom. And while Soderbergh understandably dresses up a film that involves one person in a room with a certain amount of bells and whistles, he walks the line nicely, never distracting from the core of the piece. In his second documentary about the monologuist, 2010’s “And Everything Is Going Fine,” the filmmaker lets Gray do all the talking, literally (even his director credit pops up just once at the end and that’s it). The doc is made up entirely of select monologue cuts (and a few TV interviews) that illuminate the man, his anxieties, preoccupations and fascinations about exploring the world and human nature through his own experiences. Particularly affecting and chilling is Gray discussing his obsession with suicide fantasies in the 1990s, and how he was able to vicariously live them out when Soderbergh (unaware of such fascination) offered him a small part in “King Of The Hill,” as a character filled with regret who later commits suicide. Perhaps “And Everything Is Going Fine” is only for Gray and/or Soderbergh completists, but it’s still a powerful snapshot of the discourse and sermons which enabled Gray (and his audiences) to have a semblance of sanity in this discomfiting world. [B+]/[B]

“Schizopolis” (1996)
More self-aware (and self-critical) them most of his contemporaries, twice in his career Steven Soderbergh has attempted to recharge his creative batteries in a do-or-die manner. The second endeavor won’t technically begin until the spring of 2013 when his final HBO film, “Behind The Candelabra” is released and his promotional duties are complete. Retirement/sabbatical is his latest stab at a forced, creative shift. In the mid ‘90s, his first crack at circulating the creative juices was “Schizopolis,” a film he’s described as a self-imposed “wake-up call to himself.”  After “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” three films followed that the filmmaker wasn’t entirely happy with (and none were successful either). “Schizopolis,” a maddening, form-eroding free-for-all was the would-be cure. An experimental, non-linear narrative broken into three acts, Soderbergh (in his first and only starring role) plays a disillusioned office drone and speech writer for a New Age-y guru modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, in a the film that tells the same story from three different perspectives, with the filmmaker even playing his own doppelganger. Deranged and nonsensical, there’s definitely an air of purging frustrations and anger into one wild vomit of creative ideas that challenge all the structures of film conventions. There’s even a wry warning at the beginning: “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours.” Released in 2000, fans of the movie or the director’s history should also read, “Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw,” which is kind of a companion piece to “Schizopolis” and part journal about his creative breakdown/breakthrough. The book also features reflections from his mentor Richard Lester, and while “A Hard Day’s Night” is nowhere near madcap as “Schizopolis,”  there’s definitely a kindred spirit vibe that is passed down within. [Generic Grade Unavailable At This Time]

“Out of Sight” (1998)
Are we the only ones who have asked our significant others to role play in the trunk of a car after watching “Out of Sight”? Given how incredibly sexy that (and a few other scenes) are in this well-scripted film based on an Elmore Leonard novel, we can’t be alone, right? Beyond solidifying our sexual fantasies, “Out of Sight” elevated the careers of its three principals: Soderbergh, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. After the initial success of “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” Soderbergh hadn’t again realized that level of attention and critical recognition across the preceding nine years. Clooney might have played Batman, but he wasn’t yet the A-lister that we’ve come to know and lust over, instead a TV star with a questionable taste in big-screen projects (“The Peacemaker,” “One Fine Day,” et al.). Even though Lopez had gotten plenty of buzz for “Selena,” this offered her additional exposure (and her last good film role). Watching her appear in this level of film isn’t necessarily surprising, but given subsequent performances in “Monster-in-Law,” “Gigli” and “The Back-Up Plan,” the real shock is how good she is. But beyond the toplining talent, “Out of Sight” also included solid performances from Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames and Luis Guzman, and even features an early appearance from Viola Davis. Crucially, Scott Frank‘s script remains the best Leonard adaptation to date, even against some stiff competition (“Jackie Brown,” with which Soderbergh’s film shares Michael Keaton‘s character, “Get Shorty,” “Justified“), smartly mixing things up from the novel but capturing the spirit of one of America’s greatest writer. And Soderbergh, reinvigorated by “Schizopolis,” finally seems to have the bit between his teeth, debuting the scrambled but coherent chronology, mixed aesthetics and sprightly editing that would become recurring features of his next few movies. Surprisingly, “Out of Sight” wasn’t a box office champ when it was released in theaters, but it’s aged remarkably well, and the air between Clooney and Lopez still crackles. [A]

“The Limey” (1999)
At a crossroads in his career, Soderbergh somehow got the major studio gig in “Out Of Sight.” But when that film failed to pan out at the box office, it was back to smaller pictures. But it was clear the hyper-articulate filmmaker had vastly expanded his cinematic vocabulary, and he called upon the influence of ’60s crime films, particularly 1967’s “Poor Cow,” to fuel his latest, a daytime noir with distinctly New Wave storytelling. Serving as something of an unofficial sequel to that ‘67 Ken Loach drama (which Soderbergh even uses clips from for backstory sequences), Terence Stamp lends his withered, fascinating visage to his strongest role in years, a Cockney thug named Wilson, released from prison into a world he knows nothing about. With minimal fuss, this man out of time makes a beeline to the west coast, where his daughter was last seen in the arms of an unscrupulous record producer (Peter Fonda, who reportedly referred to his character as The Slimey). Soderbergh uses fractured storytelling methods to enliven a threadbare crime story, moving chronology back and forth and still bringing the story in under ninety minutes, showing an appreciation for the quiet moments of Wilson’s contemplation and the cacophony of older men using their toys (guns) to protect their other toys (high living, supermodels). With a jazzy, career-best score from Cliff Martinez, “The Limey” slinks and grooves to its own beat, like its idiosyncratic, often nonsensical protagonist, providing a near-perfect action vehicle for those who like their shootouts slick and economical, but can still appreciate the cinematic weight of getting Barry Newman behind the wheel onscreen once again. [A]

“Erin Brockovich” (2000)
It may have been the “Norma Rae”-ish Oscar trappings that got Julia Roberts involved in this true story adaptation of a lawsuit involving polluted water and the highly inexperienced miniskirt-wearing legal assistant who brings the case to light. But while Roberts won the Oscar, she has to thank Soderbergh for taking, on the page, a rote triumph-over-adversity narrative and turning it into a slick but still edifying studio picture. Soderbergh never sacrifices the gravity of the core story, but also never creates a dulling civics lesson, letting the characters’ natural colors bleed out onto the screen in glorious detail, showing an affection for the essential humanity of the sufferers and the sometimes-comic frustration of our heroes. As solid as Roberts is, in a career-best turn, she’s matched by a completely game Albert Finney, who brings crusty warmth to the role of Brockovich’s beleaguered boss, flustered by his hot-to-trot employee and her dogged pursuit of justice. Soderbergh’s influence can be felt throughout in what may be the most humanist film from a director considered “cold” by his detractors — it’s hard not to be won over when the tacky genre construct of perfect tough-guy boyfriend, here played by Aaron Eckhart, is allowed to have just as human a heart, and just as much of a sense of humor and inner life, as the rest of our heroes. [A-]

“Traffic” (2000)
The second of Soderbergh’s 2000 double-whammy (and the one for which he won Best Director at the Academy Awards, despite being nominated against, among others, himself), “Traffic” was a remake of a British TV mini-series, penned by former drug addict Stephen Gaghan, which tells the story of the war on drugs through, ostensibly, three different storylines: an honest Mexican cop who discovers that the general he’s working for is in league with the cartels; a judge appointed to be a drug czar, only to discover that his own daughter is an addict; and a pregnant housewife who learns that her husband is a drug lord. Widely acclaimed on release as Soderbergh’s masterpiece, while patchworky in nature, its color-coded treatment is an innovative way to present its interwoven narrative. Perhaps the best part is the Mexico-set section, anchored by a fierce and charismatic Oscar-winning turn from Benicio Del Toro, one that maybe gives the best sense of the futility of the war on drugs. The Zeta-Jones scenario in which the wife who becomes involved in the business doesn’t have as strong a storyline, but gets more fun when it focuses on Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman‘s cops. While naked in its polemic, the Michael Douglas section is also a bruising reminder of the hypocrisy of politicians and the pervasiveness of drugs into the personal corners of our lives. Consistently gripping, beautifully acted, and notable for truly cementing the aesthetic that would dominate Soderbergh’s career in the years to come — this is the first film on which Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, served as his own director of photography, something that’s remained the case for every subsequent film. And while its grainy, textured, over-contrasted and experimental flash-filmed techniques failed to earn a Best Cinematography nomination that year (it earned 5 nominations in total), this unorthodox visual palate is perhaps one of the most bold and unconventional ones to come out of a mainstream Oscar-contender in some time. [B+].

“Ocean’s Eleven” (2001)
There’s a fantastic moment in “Ocean’s Eleven” where two of the biggest stars in the world, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, walk unmolested past a host of fans who are oohing and aahing… over Topher Grace. It’s the finish to a fantastic, fizzy early scene from a movie that actually deserved  its nine-figure take at the box office — a rare compliment. Soderbergh had already taken on the sleek, stylish heist movie genre with “Out of Sight,” but here he ups the ante with more and bigger stars in his casino caper: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Elliott Gould, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck and Scott Caan (plus the lesser-known, but equally enjoyable Eddie Jemison and Shaobo Qin). With all that wattage, this remake of the Rat Pack classic was almost certainly a surefire blockbuster, but Soderbergh never solely relies on his cast to carry the weight, not that they’re slacking. Affleck and Caan are hilarious with their I’m-not-touching-you brotherly banter, Clooney and Pitt have better chemistry than most romantic couples, and Reiner and Gould bring the appropriate element of old-school Hollywood. However, the witty, intricate script from Ted Griffin, swinging score from David Holmes, and above all the direction and cinematography from Soderbergh contribute to a film that is almost as much fun to watch as it surely was to make. [A-]

“Full Frontal” (2002)
Soderbergh’s career has been marked by his willingness to work fast and without a safety net — essentially eliminating and filtering out the noise and innumerable barriers that exist when one has to translate an idea in one’s head into an image projected onto a screen in the dark.  Becoming his own director of photography was one crucial part of that filtering equation; shooting digitally was another. While he’s become a pioneer of shooting digitally with films like “Bubble” (2005) and the two-part “Che” (2008) that used the RED cameras that David Fincher and Peter Jackson now employ regularly, Soderbergh was well ahead of even his own curve with “Full Frontal.” Starring Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pearce, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Duchovny, and character actors Nicky Katt and Enrico Colantoni, ‘Frontal’ is an ensemble piece about Hollywood via characters all connected to a well-liked film producer who is about to turn 40 (Duchovny) currently making a film called, “Rendezvous.” Underwood is an untested and uncommercial actor who co-stars, and Roberts plays a journalist in the movie-within-the-movie that’s directed by David Fincher and also stars Brad Pitt (both men cameo as themselves briefly). Circling around this hemisphere is Pearce as a struggling screenwriter, Keener as his estranged wife (a film producer falling in love with Underwood), and McCormack as a lovelorn masseuse who gets far more than she bargained for. While it was once described as a spiritual sequel to “sex, lies, and videotape,” given the similar themes of sex, power and voyeurism, it just doesn’t possess the same charge. More a series of encounters than much of a plot — and perhaps influenced by the Danish dogme movement of the ‘90s that included Von Trier and Vinterberg aesthetically —  if “Full Frontal” is Soderbergh’s “Day For Night” it doesn’t quite click, but there is a new kind of energy within and at the very least it’s another interesting experiment in connecting lives and in quick production. [C]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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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