Stephen’s back! Having revisited a number of his recent movies I am beyond happy to see that his retirement was premature, I really do think he is one of the most underrated US directors of the past twenty or so years. This looks like a lot of fun, with an expansive cast, and Daniel Craig looks like he’s having a laugh;
A quick detour into TV courtesy of Mr. Soderbergh, I’m only three episodes into his Cinemax sponsored series The Knick and I think we’ve diagnosed the best series of the year. Set in a turn of the 20th century New York hospital the period design is incredible, with a fantastic coterie of characters with some very promising futures.
I also love the Clint Mansell score which in its seething electronica contortions should be incongruous with the period detail, but it works perfectly, in a very odd way. Soderbergh (who directs every episode of the ten episode run) also manages an absolute miracle, dissecting a charismatic performance from Clive Owen, who so often is something of a vacuum on screen – he plays a brilliant, visionary surgeon, who just happens to be a severe heroin addict. Be prepared through as it horribly gruesome, it doesn’t skimp on the horror of the period when it comes to medicine, racial and social conditions, and thankfully the second series has already been commissioned. Can’t wait to burn through the rest of the season…..
The idiom that in Hollywood ‘nobody knows anything’ is frequently expressed as the ultimate expression of short-sighted producers, culled from the famous expose of noted Tinseltown scribe William Goldman it’s an apt assertion to consider the strange history of Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final film. Originally discussing the role with Douglas on the set of 2000’s Traffic the notoriously profligate Soderbergh has spent the intervening dozen years battling philistine funders and financiers, all of whom remained tepid on the project due to the perceived marginal audience that the project would attract – it’s a gay film. Judging by the crowd I saw the film with, an 80% – 90% capacity crowd in one of East London’s larger screens on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon I expect this to be a modest hit, easily raking in its modest £23 million production budget, and crucially it has seduced critics across Europe following a successful unveiling at Cannes last month, not a bad achievement for a film which supposedly would only appeal to gay dudes and dudettes. The frustration that Soderbergh experienced in setting up and funding Behind The Candelabra appears to be the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back, and he has reputedly retreated to small screen endeavours to feed his storytelling appetite and already he has signed on to direct two HBO TV series if a small piece in this month’s Sight & Sound is to be believed. If so then TV’s gain is cinema’s loss as has consistently been a consummate filmmaker since his incendiary debut Sex, Lies & Videotape back in the deep mists of the late 1980’s, his projects vary in quality but they could always be trusted to deserve a couple of hours of your time, ranging from the big budget antics of the Oceans movies to the experimental alignments of Bubble and Full Frontal in the best tradition of ‘one for the studio, one for yourself’ format of directorial bargaining, I much prefer his more populist movies but admire anyone who could simply churn out product rather than test themselves and their own artistic boundaries, both Out Of Sight and his brave remake of Solaris age and deepen with an unexpected grace, and he’s even made Julia Roberts fairly tolerable in a few movies which is no small achievement. In this his last film – although like Ahnoldt I do think that he’ll be back – Soderbergh has crafted a spirited and oblique love story between two souls who happen to share the same genital designs, but it’s more concerned with the difficulties in preserving a public persona and private perfidy, with ideals of control and infatuation glittering in the background like a Rhinestone inflected tuxedo.
Opening to the throbbing strains of Donna Summers disco dancefloor classic it’s 1977, Southern California, and young animal husband Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) takes a weekend break in Las Vegas with his new boyfriend Bob (a hirsute Scott Bakula). When in Rome as they say they decide to take in a show, and are swiftly entranced by the ivory tinkling and commanding stage prowess of Liberace (Michael Douglas as 2014’s Best Actor Oscar early front-runner), the middle-aged pianist who effortlessly sells out show after show on the chintzy Nevada strip, his elderly fans and audience seemingly unaware of his now with the benefit of hindsight blatant preference for the more ‘fabulous’ side of life. Admitted backstage Scott is coolly besotted with the cabaret crooner, and soon a sexually charged relationship blooms with Scott acting as confessor, chauffeur and lover, moving into Liberace’s gold gilded Hollywood mansion he swiftly finds himself a caged bird in Liberace’s menagerie of glitz, glamour and pearlescent pageantry. Storm clouds begin to gather when Liberace’s obsessions with appearance and aging are deflected to his most recent paramour, with plastic surgery and prescription pills increasingly blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, as other more nubile courtesans begin to materialise on the borders of Liberace’s baroque world….
Considering the zero interest I have in Liberace I went to see this purely on the strength of Soderbergh alone, it’s almost a functional duty for we film critics to support the guy in his final effort considering some of the great movies he’s given us over the past couple of decades, and I have to say I throughly enjoyed the film, it’s a saccharine sweet and tender love story with some terrific performances, which on occasion can be also be staggeringly funny. As usual Soderbergh has mustered an impressive cast, both Damon and Douglas excel as the star twinned lovers lost on the rocky road of lust, with scene stealing support from Vegas royalty in the case of Debbie Reynolds (Liberace’s mother), an unusually good Dan Aykroyd as an exasperated agent but affection has quite rightly been lauded on Rob Lowe’s paralysed plastic surgeon whose clingfilm face positively embezzles every scene he’s in, heck it even has Burke from Aliens in it as a sneery lawyer which makes you wonder which cryosleep capsule Soderbergh defrosted him from. I’m not sure of the Academy rules given that this was shot for and aired on TV in the states – but believe me this has been crafted as a movie through and through with Soderbergh’s fulminous direction, photography and production design – so maybe Douglas won’t be eligible for nomination due to the mystical rules of the secretive Academy. Similarly Damon could even be in for a gong and fair play to him for taking on a faintly controversial role, there is plenty of shall we say ‘affection’ in the film which no doubt will raise concerned eyebrows in the more prejudiced corners of society, even in the 21st century where one hopes that such ridiculous sentiments would be consigned to the same dustbins of history as female inferiority and racial segregation.
I love how Soderbergh subtly deploys his coverage of a sequence, he starts on unusual positions and components (props, the rear of a characters head)before curving around a scene rather than resorting to the usual shot / reverse shot idiom, the technique gives the film a real sense of movement and energy which can closely be attributed as a gay Boogie Nights in both taste and tone, an extravagant journey which deliciously manoeuvres through Scott and Lee’s disordered entanglements. He revels in the gaudy and ostentatious fairy tale design of Liberace’s domicile, decor and flagrantly flamboyant dress, with Douglas taking to the stage as some elusive shimmering creature from planet kitsch, yes it can (and did) elicit occasional titters in the audience but the film plays the relationship angle relatively straight (if you’ll excuse the pun), anchoring the film on Scott’s and Liberace’s turbulent amour, and the inevitable slow disintegration of their initial infatuation. It’s clearly Damon’s movie as he is the central advocate and we see everything through his increasingly jaded eyes, rather than focusing on Liberace’s life as the traditional bio-pic template would follow, with a real warmth and affection for the characters twinned with a prescribed melancholia, all ably expressed through Soderbergh’s sharp use of lenses and lambent colour palette – he even gets to experiment a little with portraying the effects of a narcotic afflicted, drug addled perception toward the films close. If you’re crafting a swan song you always want to go out on a high, and one can’t help but see the final stage sequence as an apt conclusion to Soderbergh’s own idiosyncratic and glittering career, as the king of kitsch ascends to the heavens we can all raise to our feet for a thundering round of applause, to pay respect for a big screen career which is hopefully just suspended and not spent;
It is with a significant pang of regret that we bid a fond adieu to director Steven Soderbergh and his (allegedly) final European theatrically released film Side Effects. If you’ll excuse the pun I don’t wish to get too ‘side’tracked but I think there are a few crucial items to consider before we delve into the movie itself, a concluding episode to his career which is as expected a superb contemporary drama which springboards into other areas with the dexterous ease of a state drilled East German Olympic gymnast, namely what on earth could drive such a prolific and endlessly inventive cinematic soul into potential big-screen retirement? Soderbergh has professed an interest in shifting his muse to painting or perhaps shepherding a HBO style series to living rooms and Blu-Ray players around the world, reading between the lines it appears that his growing frustration with meddling executives second guessing his choices and material coupled with a particularly gruelling phase of creative interference on the likes of Che has completely sapped his creative drive, and like Schrader he grandiosely claims that cinema is ‘dead’ given the fracturing of audiences and ubiquity of alternative and copyright evading technological delivery systems – I disagree but that’s an argument for another time. The rhinestone that broke the proverbial camel’s back sparkles around the controversy swirling around his final work, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra which was denied a US distribution deal, apparently we Europeans will be getting a big screen opportunity later in the year but he has not been so fortunate on his home turf, and the film is destined for a cable screening and no big screen appearances. Now, I’m as cynical as the next critic and I rather foolishly assumed that the almighty dollar would overcome all prejudices, the astounding ROI that Soderbergh’s previous film Magic Mike achieved – a $7 million budget translating into a staggering $167 million global haul – well, I would have that success would have had the chequebooks snapping open faster than a producers zipper at a hooker convention. As a straight dude I’ll admit that a biopic on Liberace really doesn’t hold any interest for me whatsoever, a Soderbergh film however does so I’m minded that the executives comments that only gay people would be interested in such material is just ridiculously short-sighted, as I was under the impression that peoples money was just as bankable regardless of sexual orientation? Apparently not as the project was rejected by every studio despite its miniscule budget, and if a star laden vehicle – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – can’t be snapped up for the very low millions then it’s a sad state of affairs indeed, and one suspects that there is some latent homophobia going on here with a studio nervous to be involved in what you might literally term a ‘gay’ project. In any case we are left with Side Effects, an effective swan song for Soderbergh to bow out at the ripe old age of fifty, perhaps a symptom of an industry sick with introspection and inaction?
Rooney Mara sheds the makeup and accent from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but retains some of that fragile, anxious beauty as the porclean skinned Emily Taylor, married to sensitive miscreant and Soderbergh regular leading man Channing Tatum whom is released from a 4 year stretch for insider trading as the film anxiously opens. Emily has been suffering severe depression following the disintegration of her perfect life and a possible suicide attempt or at least a cry for help lands her in the ER where Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned as her distantly concerned, state mandated psychiatrist. Professional smitten with this wounded creature Banks takes an interest in her plight and prescribes her a phalanx of pharmaceutical crutches, including a programme of treatment with Ablixa, the new wonder product which he has been convinced to trial with his patients via a $50K fee which fiscally sweetens the deal given his ballooning financial responsibilities – private school for his stepson, a new apartment in one of the more desirable enclaves of New York. Initially her transformation is welcome, Emily regains focus of her life, her energy and her sexual drive, but the titular side effects of this chemical regime sparks a new series of neuroleptic activities, as one problem is surpassed others blossom in their wake. Soon disaster strikes – and I haven’t heard an audience react so strongly to a certain plot pivot for quite a while – and the film takes a horrendous turn into a parallel arena, as Banks consults with his colleague and Emily’s previous shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta Jones) her past psyciatric history suggests all is not as it seems…..
There is no small pang of depression as the credits rolled and yet another finely honed thriller was prescribed, heck I even stayed until the lights came up as a small and quiet tribute to Mr. Soderbergh’s terrific quarter century career. Side Effects isn’t simply a searing indictment of a chemically frayed society, looking for answers and solace in the wonderful sterility of international pharma who perhaps have their eyes on the bottom line and are not even remotely interested in the mental well-being of their hordes of punters, there is also a vague sense of unease with corporate mandated happiness, where even the beautiful and wealthy people find themselves afflicted with a distant and elusive ennui as the intangible pressures of modern life ravage the spirit – you must raise the pefect children, progress the perfect career, have the beautiful and successful partner. It’s certainly a smart exercise in genre manipulation, as a film which begins as a contemporary melodrama before shockingly transforming into a legal drama, then pulling the rug out once again for a left turn down to other nefarious realms which I’ll keep schtum for fear of spoilers, it’s a convincing blend of storytelling styles which Soderbergh transmits without shifting his visual style or palette, and as such it is a neat encapsulation of his entire genre flirting career. I’ve had my issues with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law in the past with some of their occassionaly horrendous acting styles and choices, but in Side Effects they convince as fully rounded creatures of their profession, Law in particular transforming from a not entirely likeable ambitious medical professional to a beleaguered and trapped figure, he feels like a shaded character with his own specific qualities and foibles, rather than a simple black or white, good or bad guy.
I loved the little nods to Psycho which appropriately enough bookend the film with those gods eye pans into the drama, like Hitchcock’s masterpiece Side Effects also has an unexpected shift in allegiance and empathy early in the movie which slightly confoundingly should keep you on your toes in terms of character motivations and veiled intentions, the ability to be kept guessing at where the film will go next is one of its most compelling qualities. From destabilised establishing shots and unconventional focus decisions the film is invested with a nervous, jittery infrastructure, textured with Thomas Newman’s unobstrusive, seething score. Supporting player Ann Dowd who rose to attention in last years Compliance superbly sketches out her character as Martin’s mother in an economic half-dozen scenes, she looks to be joining the matriarchy of terrific middle-aged actresses who actually look like normal people rather that perfectly sculpted Hollywood stars, alongside the likes of Patricia Clarkson, Margo Martindale and Kathy Bates. Simply put this is another great thriller from Soderbergh, a film which feels very current and contemporary on a sequence of levels,with a solid cast, discrete but excellent direction – just what the doctor ordered.
Under his long utilised pseudonyms Peter George (cinematographer) and Mary Ann Bernard (editor) the man was born to make movies, mastering the core essential functions of the profession as he shifts from one genre to the next with a dexterous amd almost effortless skill, the dude can make you sick with envy. Sure some of them have been more successful than others in both the entertainment and box office areas but he consistently delivers compelling fare, not necessarily clustering to a repetitive miasma of themes or obsessions but certainly adhering to a consistent cinematic style, not just in his use of filters and cool (as in temperature, not street-cred)cinematography but also how he breaks down and covers scenes, every composition and cut is there for a reason yet it doesn’t yell or draw attention to the growling engine throbbing beneath the chassis. If I’m honest I have found his more ‘arty’ material difficult to enjoy, I don’t wish to sound like a philistine as I think I’ve proved by the breadth of material that I review here that I’m not exactly hostile to movies which employ divergent narrative patterns or obtuse plotting, or movies which portray less formal ‘mainstream’ treatments of themes or subjects, but the likes of Bubble or Full Frontal just did not connect in the way that simply, commercially attuned and ‘clear’ fare such as Erin Brockovich, the Ocean Movies or even last year’s Haywire managed. If we’re going to opt for a top five, and I guess now is the best chance we’ll ever have if his retirement is permanent, then I’ll have to opt for Kafka (which is also getting a restoration next year with reinstated excised scenes, plenty of featurettes and a digital scrub) Solaris (which he has kinda disowned as a failure but I still like it as a rare moment of moody, cerebral US SF), the first Oceans Eleven, Out Of Sight and Haywire, I also liked The Underneath, The Limey and the Che duo. So here is a little round up of the Soderbergh’s we’ve covered on the Menagerie, a not insignificant parade of movies over the past five years, I think if permanent this is a real loss to the art form, like Ahnoldt we can only hope that he’ll be back…..
Whilst I can’t promise to see ’em all due to fluctuating work commitments here’s what’s on the schedule as we move into the third month of the year, Danny Boyle’s new thriller looks c’est plus interestamt, particularly the final shot of this red band trailer which is distinctly Cronenbergian, no?
This looks energetic at the very least. There’s quite a few films on the horizon, before Trance at the end of the month I shall finally be seeing Cloud Atlas at the weekend and may try to slip in another cinema viewing of To The Wonder, just the process of throwing my review together has made me want to really see it again and decipher some of its divine depths. In any case I’m shattered and don’t really wish to do much this coming weekend, so perhaps five hours in the dark will do me fine. Then I’ll go to the cinema;
Of course on the coming Sunday I also have tickets to a top-secret BFI event, I’m actually going to see something loosely Star Wars related for my sins, so that should be something different. Speaking of the BFI I’ve had the April prospectus through and again I ain’t promising anything, but a triple bill of John Boorman films is the current plan, I just need to see if some of the screenings will clash with some other commitments. Finally Stoker opens next weekend as well, and there was me thinking that March would be traditionally quiet so I could make some progress with my Universal’s Blu-Ray Monsters series as at the moment we’re at two down, twenty-four (gulps) to go……
I think, if I’m honest, I’ll have to give Mama a miss as I’ve also been invited to a couple of press screenings of horror films which I’d quite like to attend, but I think I’m already reacting to some of these opportunities like it was last year when I had the time and inclination to build 20+ article film seasons – and one has to be realistic as the week after that we get Sam Raimi’s visually gouging Oz reboot;
Then after that gruelling voyage, as if a film a weekend wasn’t enough to contend with there are also a couple of other essentials which I need to see at the flicks if I’m to retain any credibility.Soderbergh is of course essential vas one of the most regularly excellent and eclectic American directors working today, and this could be his final film given that the Liberace bio-pic is having trouble getting a distributor;
Is he really going to turn his back on the cinema? I hope he reconsiders after a few years off, the man is hellishly prolific so maybe he could just do with a break, the nightmare he had shooting and editing the Che movies almost made him retire then so perhaps he just needs a few months on a beach somewhere to recharge the batteries. Finally, a film which chainsawed its way onto many gorehounds films of the year lists after its festival screenings in 2012, this looks like it could be gory fun;
New Soderbergh, looks solid as always;
Praise The Lord, I concede defeat to my ambitious review of The Master which of course I saw earlier today, I’m halfway through my report and as usual it’s getting a little
unwieldy/pretentious/ridiculous delete as applicable. I’ll give it a fresh look tomorrow but suffice to say its an incredible film and is highly recommended as one of the unmissable films of the year, and yes it is brilliant enough to be worthy of some pregnant digestion, or alcoholic percolation. It’s more than worthy of the Venice plaudits and Oscar nominations are certain, one of these rare beasts that requires a couple of viewings to fully grasp on its initial introduction. Anyway, what’s this new creature;
Hmm, another ‘I’m quitting’ Soderbergh. Him that is, not me. I thought he only had that Liberace movie left then he was hanging up the monocle? Well, whatever, I also have another date with the Necronomican on the London South Bank tomorrow, story of my (undead) life…….
In 1918, fresh from the horrors of the great war, humanity found itself reeling under the effects of a global pandemic of influenza, an outbreak of so-called Spanish flu which is estimated to have slain anything from 50 to 100 million souls almost a century ago. A repeat of this horrific scenario is the central gesundheit of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film Contagion, as many of the miracles of 21st century life come to represent its greatest threat, with an interconnected, globalised world and it’s dense and proficient transport infrastructure, its porous borders and unregulated, relentless hunger for communication accelerate the potential for a planet wide medical catastrophe intensified with a pandemic of panic, as the one of the greatest nightmares of the new century comes to fruition. They say that man is a mere three square meals from anarchy but this is not a proposition that is particularly tested in this curiously aseptic film, as Soderberegh with his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, The Bourne Ultimatium) have opted for a quietly realistic portrayal of society in potential free-fall, as the disease spreads and the infected splutter the narrative darts between the lives of various people stratumed throughout the food-chain, from the average joe to the senior scientists, as a remedy is sought by the global intelligentsia.
Adulteress insurance agent Beth Emhoff (a snivelling Gwyneth Paltrow) is on business in China, after returning home with a rising temperature and flu-like symptoms she is rushed to hospital by her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) where she promptly dies of unexpected causes. Soon her death is being mirrored across the globe, from the business tracts of Bejing to the suburbs of Philadelphia people are dropping dead from a highly contagious epidemic and the scientists and public health officials seem powerless to dilute the virus’s spread. Public health specialist Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) makes a heroic effort to isolate the source of the pandemic whilst contracting the illness, much to the concern of her boss Dr. Cheever (Lawrence Fishbourne). Meanwhile European epidemic boffin Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) travels to Hong Kong in order to investigate the scene of the first recorded outbreak, prompting tourism fears from the foolish, shortsighted local authorities. A conspiracy theorist blogger asserts that the disease is government manufactured and that he can offer a cure (Jude Law with a ridiculously unnecessary accent), and local virologists improvise potential cures, offering themselves as desperate guinea pigs as the death toll rises and civilisation starts to teeter on the brink of total collapse.
Supposedly Soderbergh’s penultimate film before he hangs up his monocle, Contagion recalls the 1970’s disaster films with its star-studded cast of international famous faces, globetrotting travelogue and disarming trust of the government and medical institutions to hold the public’s safety in the highest regard, when the contemporary trust of our rulers and the governing elites at an all time low it’s almost quaint in its central philosophy of good people and efficient institutions struggling in the face of disaster, with the all prevailing power of science and man-made ingenuity able to make amends. As you’d expect from a film-maker of the quality and calibre of Soderbergh it is a well-made, mostly compelling film but it does lack a certain something, there is no overall sense of a true catastrophe or virulent global epidemic, and the film hops from one character thread to another, never fully engaging in anything than a surface glance at its myriad characters. In tandem with this approach the cast are all fine with the exception of Jude Law who feels utterly superfluous, his entire character could have been neutralised from the film and we’d be none the wiser, and perhaps Damon stands out as a slightly more rounded schlub, anxious to protect his daughter from even the merest hint of infection. Soderbergh’s favoured colour palettes (as usual he acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter George) are crisply anemic in one sequence then golden warm in another, and a seething, burpy electronica score shows just how popular Trent Reznor’s Oscar-winning The Social Network soundscapes has been in already infecting the Hollywood scoring chambers. Contagion starts stronger than it ends, with some ludicrous and unearned character choices signalling a deteriorating ailment assaulting its nervous system – how some characters react to certain developments is throughly perplexing – and although it is not a film to be sniffed at this is not a strain of movie that requires inoculation. And with that clumsy sentence I’m off to get a shot….