Cinema Reviews Thoughts


The most eclectic director working in Hollywood tries his hand at a spy thriller.

Steven Soderbergh is the resident chameleon of US cinema, who thrives on jumping between genres and styles.

Since his mainstream creative rebirth in the late 1990s he has mixed mainstream commercial success (the Ocean’s trilogy) with more challenging fare (Solaris, The Good German, Che) and digital experimentation (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).

Most recently he made an all-star disaster movie Contagion and now he employs a similar trick here with an illustrious supporting cast recruited from his impressive contacts book.

But the real surprise here is the casting of mixed martial arts star Gina Carano in the lead role.

She plays a hired government ‘contractor’ (a veiled reference to Blackwater) who we learn in flashback has been set up by her bosses after jobs in Barcelona and Dublin.

The impressive supporting cast includes Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender.

There aren’t many directors who could pull off this trick – casting a former American Gladiator in a spy thriller alongside some of the most recognisable actors in the world.

But Soderbergh has become highly proficient in navigating the fringes of the mainstream, with occasional leaps right into it.

This on the surface is a very mainstream subject story – essentially a Bourne movie by way of the Ocean’s trilogy.

Old-school action is blended with a knowing globe-trotting humour and a smart script by Lem Dobbs.

There’s nothing too heavy here as it is basically an experiment to combine the breezy style of 1960s spy thrillers like Charade (1963) with the pulp literature of something like The Baroness series from the 1970s.

But a closer examination reveals a more interesting formal experiment to subvert the action genre from within.

Not only do we have a female lead in a movie that isn’t about weddings, but she regularly outsmarts and beats the crap out of every man in sight.

(Mysteriously, the global locations – Ireland, Catalonia and New Mexico – also coincide with places that offer generous tax rebates).

Whilst the basic narrative owes a lot to Bourne (US government assassin goes rogue) there is a deliberate attempt to avoid the ‘chaos cinema’ that has been so influential on the modern action genre.

Serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under his regular pseudonyms) quick edits are rejected and the fights are refreshingly reminiscent of those in 1960s thrillers, when killing another human being didn’t involve slow motion.

Going for a more realistic approach, it rejects the post-Matrix wire ballet or frenzied editing style of the later Bourne films in favour of a more composed and leaner approach.

Keep an ear out too for more believable slapping sounds you actually hear in fights, rather than the overcooked punching effects so beloved of Hollywood.

Soderbergh also apparently altered Carano’s voice in post-production, which makes it an intriguing project from an audio perspective – was the lead actress his very own creative ‘recruit’ to mess with the action genre down to the last detail?

It remains to be seen if she can make the breakthrough into acting full-time, but here she impresses with her imposing physicality and easy charm.

As for the supporting cast, it is something of a slam-dunk for all of them as the screenplay gives each of them plenty of dry humour on which to feast.

There has always been a James Bond influence on the Ocean’s films (e.g. casinos, smooth charm, glamorous locations) and it is here too, although the neat trick is having what essentially amounts to a female 007.

At times the groovy score by David Holmes is a little too close to the vibe he established on those films, but it largely proves a good fit for the material.

In many ways it is reminiscent of The Limey (1999) – another Soderbergh film scripted by Dobbs – which also dealt with revenge, a father-daughter relationship and villains who got beaten up or killed.

Over the last few years Soderbergh has been at the forefront of the A-list directors using digital cameras (others include David Fincher and James Cameron).

Here he has gone for a slightly different look, going for a digital version of the rich anamorphic look beloved of certain ‘classical’ action movies since the 1960s.

The digital workflow used by the production again set new boundaries in producing imagery for relatively low cost, prompting a colleague to say:

“If digital cinema had its own country, Steven would probably be President”

In the week Kodak announced that it had entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this feels significant.

It should also be noted that Soderbergh has essentially created a crafty commercial film from inside the system.

With financing from Relativity Media he has managed to make a more audience-friendly counterpart to his artier experiments like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.

It is this range that makes him one of the most interesting directors working inside the system.

> Official site
> Reviews of Haywire at Metacritic
> Lengthy Box Office Magazine interview with Soderbergh
> Detailed post on the digital workflow used by the production


Steven Soderbergh plans to retire

Director Steven Soderbergh recently spoke to Kurt Andersen of Studio 360 and confirmed that he wants to retire.

When I first heard this story, it was hard to believe.

Why would an A-list director who has succesfully criss-crossed the indie and studio worlds just throw in the towel?

It first surfaced when Matt Damon said in December:

“He’s retiring, he’s been talking about it for years and it’s getting closer. He wants to paint and he says he’s still young enough to have another career.He’s kind of exhausted with everything that interested him in terms of form. He’s not interested in telling stories. Cinema interested him in terms of form and that’s it. He says, ‘If I see another over-the-shoulder shot, I’m going to blow my brains out.’ “

It turns out Soderbergh said this to Damon after a few drinks and he wasn’t expecting it to get out.

But in the recent discussion on US radio show Studio 360, he has confirmed that after making his current projects (which include Contagion, Haywire, and upcoming Liberace biopic) he plans to stop making films.

You can listen to the section of the interview where he talks about his retirement here:

I’m guessing he felt somewhat burned by his experiences on Che (2008), an ambitious project which didn’t find an audience, and Moneyball (2011), the film which fell apart before being made by Bennett Miller.

Maybe he needs to recharge his creative batteries?

You listen to the full 45-minute conversation:

> Steven Soderbergh at Wikipedia
> Studio 360


Trailer: The Girlfriend Experience

The trailer for Steven Soderbergh‘s new film The Girlfriend Experience.

It opens in the US on May 22nd but a UK release is TBC

> The Girlfriend Experience at the IMDb
> More about Sasha Grey at Wikipedia

Cannes Festivals News

Cannes 2008 Reactions: Che (Guerilla / The Argentine)

Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious two film project about Che Guevera screened at Cannes last night as Guerilla and The Argentine were shown back-to-back in competition.

Would critics get cranky at sitting through 4 hours and 18 minutes of Che or could we see a repeat of 1989 when a young Soderbergh scooped the Palme d’Or for Sex, Lies and Videotape?

Just a quick note about the film – I doubt very much that it will be commercially released as a four hour double bill. Surely two separate movies released within a reasonable time frame is what’s going to happen.

Here is a summary of what the critics thought:

Todd McCarthy of Variety calls it ‘intricately ambitious’ but ‘defiantly nondramatic’:

No doubt it will be back to the drawings board for ‘Che’, Steven Soderbergh’s intricately ambitious, defiantly nondramatic four-hour, 18-minute presentation of scenes from the life of revolutionary icon Che Guevara.

If the director has gone out of his way to avoid the usual Hollywood biopic conventions, he has also withheld any suggestion of why the charismatic doctor, fighter, diplomat, diarist and intellectual theorist became and remains such a legendary figure; if anything, Che seems diminished by the way he’s portrayed here.

Neither half feels remotely like a satisfying stand-alone film, while the whole offers far too many aggravations for its paltry rewards.

Scattered partisans are likely to step forward, but the pic in its current form is a commercial impossibility.

Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere thinks differently, calling the two films ‘incandescent’ and ‘gripping’ :

The first half of Steven Soderbergh’s 268-minute Che Guevara epic is, for me, incandescent -a piece of full-on, you-are-there realism about the making of the Cuban revolution that I found utterly believable.

Not just “take it to the bank” gripping, but levitational – for someone like myself it’s a kind of perfect dream movie.

The second half of Che, also known as Guerilla, just got out about a half-hour ago, and equally delighted although it’s a different kind of film — tighter, darker (naturally, given the story). But I’ve been arguing with some colleagues who don’t like either film at all, or don’t think it’s commercial.

What does it say about people who see a film like this and go “meh” ? You can’t watch a live-wire film like Che and say “give me more.” It is what it is, and it gives you plenty. Take no notice of anyone who says it doesn’t.

James Rocchi of Cinematical is also a big fan, calling the two films ‘a rare pleasure’:

There will be arguments about the politics of the films; there will be discussions of whether or not the films have any emotional center; there will be questions of if, when the film gets some kind of U.S. distribution deal, exactly how they should be released — two films released staggered throughout the last half of the year or cut down to one three-hour film or shown as a long, big double bill that presents the separate films back-to-back.

I can’t predict how all of these questions and possibilities will play out, but I can say — and will say — what a rare pleasure it is to have a film (or films) that, in our box-office obsessed, event-movie, Oscar-craving age, is actually worth talking about on so many levels.

Allan Hunter of Screen Daily salutes an ‘absorbing, thoughtful marathon’:

It is hard to imagine another American director of his generation with the clout or all-round ability to pull off a two film, five hour portrait of revolutionary icon Ernesto Che Guevara.

His measured approach eschews grand, crowd-pleasing gestures or any temptation to adopt the sweep of a David Lean-style epic.

Instead, he has created an absorbing, thoughtful marathon in which the focus is firmly on the personalities and the political arguments that forged the revolutionary ideals of the 1950s and 1960s.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian says it is ‘virile, muscular film-making’:

The Cannes film festival now has a serious contender for the Palme d’or. Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half hour epic Che, about the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was virile, muscular film-making, with an effortlessly charismatic performance by Benicio del Toro in the lead role.

…Che was gigantic without being precisely monumental.

It is such big, bold, ambitious film-making: and yet I was baffled that Soderbergh fought shy of so many important things in Che’s personal life.

Of course, it could be that he avoided them to avoid vulgar speculation, and felt that the two spectacles of revolution incarnate were more compelling: a secular Passion play.

Whatever the reason, Che is never boring and often gripping.

Anne Thompson of Variety admires parts of the film(s) but questions Soderbergh’s decision to screen it at Cannes in it’s current form:

Benecio del Toro gives a great performance, but Soderbergh’s roving HD camera keeps its distance as Che trains guerillas in the jungle, leads his troops through various skirmishes and the takeover of Santa Clara, talks to TV interviewers and gives moving speeches at the U.N.

The movie is well made and watchable.

Soderbergh didn’t think he could finish the film in time for Cannes. Why don’t these guys ever learn? Remember Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, and Edward Norton-starrer Down in the Valley?

DON’T TAKE AN UNFINISHED MOVIE TO CANNES!!!! Wait. Give the film the time you need.

The good news: there is plenty of fine material here to be edited into one releasable long dramatic feature and hopefully French producer/sales co. Wild Bunch, which paid for 75 % of the $61 million film, and Telecinco, which came up with 25%, will give the filmmaker the time he needs to find this promising film’s final form.

Jonathan Dean of Total Film says it is ‘superb’:

Che is superb, pretty much a masterpiece, by far Soderbergh’s best film, definitely the greatest of the festival so far and, incredibly, a film that despite being the best part of five hours, leaves you wanting much more.

Yeah. It is that good.

Pete Hammond writing for the LA Times says Del Toro ‘completely inhabits the role’ of Che:

Del Toro completely inhabits the role as you might expect. He was born to play Che.

But immediately afterward one distributor proudly related that he stayed awake thru the whole thing but told us it’s a very tough sell at that price.

‘Che’, if it indeed remains split into two parts, is a true marketing challenge for whoever picks up domestic rights and most of the buyers were there last night to check it out for the first time.

Award season chances clearly depend on critical reaction and how it is presented. Best shot would be for Del Toro who might stand a chance in the actor race depending on which of the two films they push. Overall at this juncture it could be a tough academy sell but the film itself may still be a work-in-progress.

Glenn Kenny of indieWIRE appears to be praises it’s ‘detachment’ and ‘intellectual curiosity’:

Che benefits greatly from certain Soderberghian qualities that don’t always serve his other films well, e.g., detachment, formalism, and intellectual curiosity.

Benicio del Toro, despite being ten real years older than anybody playing the part in any period should be, …works almost demonically at making Che’s appeal palpable. But his performance is just a remarkable cog in Soderbergh’s meticulous examination of process.

…critics of my acquaintance were arguing its merits and faults on the side streets of Cannes even as I dragged myself off to my residence here to write this up.

The film does not yet have a UK or US release date.

> Official link to the film at the Cannes festival site
> Watch the press conference with Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro
> Find out more about Guerilla and The Argentine at Wikipedia