Steven Soderbergh

The Quiet Room (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

The Quiet Room really, really, really, relies on its twist. The ending is really predictable too; like, director Soderbergh and writer Howard A. Rodman do way too well on the foreshadowing. Because Room is a slightly exaggerated noir–part of the “Fallen Angels” TV anthology–nothing really needs to be foreshadowed. There’s a twist Soderbergh and Rodman set up in the first third, the end just delivers on it in an extreme way. Two twists for the price (or time) of one.

By the last third, when it’s just the countdown to the reveal, both lead performances softly crater. Soderbergh makes sure the lovely Emmanuel Lubezki and luscious Armin Ganz production design slow the descent. But the descent is inevitable because it’s just a noir TV anthology episode. With a source short story. And a somewhat salacious twist, at least as far as noir goes; if Quiet Room were going for homage, it might work better. Instead, it tries to be something different.

Joe Mantegna and Bonnie Bedelia are dirty cops. They’re having a love affair, which no one knows about; besides them, the only significant character is Mantegna’s teenage daughter, Vinessa Shaw (in the most important performance and the consistently worst). Mantegna is a single dad, out all hours because he and Bedelia have a shakedown racket going. Bedelia collars prostitutes and then beats information out of them about their johns so Mantegna can go and shake down the johns. Peter Gallagher has what seems like a great cameo as one of them, but then J.E. Freeman is one of the other ones and he’s freaking amazing in a much smaller role. Freeman walks away with the whole thing. Especially given how it finishes up.

Mantegna is mostly all right. He really whiffs when he needs to make it work. Bedelia’s better. Neither of them get good roles though. It’s all about Freeman though, performance-wise.

Soderbergh’s direction is fine. He’s got a handful of nice shots and does well with the actors. Sometimes well with the actors. There’s only so much to do with the script, especially as it starts barreling towards the inevitable conclusion. Soderbergh doesn’t do anything to slow its descent, much less stop it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; teleplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on a short story by Frank E. Smith; “Fallen Angels” created by William Horberg; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Stan Salfas; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, Armin Ganz; produced by Horberg, Lindsay Doran and Steve Golin; released by Showtime Networks.

Starring Joe Mantegna (Carl Streeter), Bonnie Bedelia (Sally Creighton), Vinessa Shaw (Jeannie Streeter), Patrick Breen (Doc), J.E. Freeman (Johnny Cabe), and Peter Gallagher (Dr. Yorgrau).


Winston (1987, Steven Soderbergh)

Watching Soderbergh’s first film, Winston, it’s interesting to see what he continued developing and what didn’t exactly make it.

There’s some lovely ambient music here, as Soderbergh opens the film gently, with his two protagonists on the steps of some building at a university. Most of the film is shot around an unnamed university and it’s not quite clear how it figures in to the characters’ lives. Presumably, at least the woman—played by Sherrill Ducharme—attends it or teaches there.

Winston primarily concentrates on one of her suitors, played by David Jensen. She tells him he has a rival and the whole thing starts wearing him down. Soderbergh has a lengthy, beautifully shot (if dramatically questionable) dream sequence in the center of the short.

Soderbergh’s script is better than the performances he gets from Jensen and Ducharme. Both are fine, but the script is even better.

Winston’s nearly perfect.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Steven Soderbergh; edited by Paul Ledford; released by Eighteen Percent Grey Ltd.

Starring David Jensen (David), Sherrill Ducharme (Cynthia), John Mese (Winston) and David Foil (Richard).


Che: Part Two (2008, Steven Soderbergh)

Bolivia didn’t do Butch and Sundance any favors and it doesn’t do Che any either. Che: Part Two isn’t just a downer for Del Toro’s franchising revolutionary (he’s bringing the revolution to Bolivia, whether they want it or not), but it’s an entirely depressing film too. There’s probably not a positive way to tell this story–Che goes to Bolivia and gets killed–but Soderbergh spends the film’s running time (it’s a breezy two hours ten, moves beautifully, probably because the scenes usually are identified with their respective time in relation to the start of the picture) whacking the viewer over the head with bleakness.

The film opens with the kind of text crawl George Lucas would lust for if he cared about doing a good text crawl, then there’s a beautiful televised Castro address on Che’s situation (Soderbergh films the Castro of the first part, Demián Bichir, discreetly, like they didn’t get him back for Part Two). It’s a simple shot of a television playing the address. It’s just great, really implying Soderbergh’s going to be a lot more visually inventive in Che: Part Two than he was in the first part. Fast forward… he isn’t. Che: Part Two is an entirely different film from the first one (not releasing them with their less interlaced titles would have been a fine move… but Part Two is different enough Del Toro didn’t even, necessarily, have to come back for it).

There’s some beautiful shots as Del Toro arrives, in a wonderful disguise, in Bolivia and finds his way out into the wilderness. But the Bolivian countryside is not a good looking place. Soderbergh got Peter Andrews to shoot it grey. The jungles appear devoid of life. The farmers Del Toro and his comrades encounter seem beyond poverty… nothing could grow in Che‘s Bolivia. Not even a revolution.

Che: Part Two‘s a constant downer, as it’s a film about failure. Che goes to Bolivia to inspire a revolution but he can’t. Revolutions, it would seem, can’t be exported. The film’s barely about Che. After opening in a manner to suggest a deeply introspective examination, Soderbergh immediately pulls back. Instead of following Del Toro around, Part Two splits its attention between the government response to Che (they call the United States, who are all too happy to supply military advisors) and the various members of Che’s small group. Franka Potente–identifiable, presumably, because she’s the only woman in the cast, not because she’s a recognizable film personality–gets one group, then some other guys get emphasis. Matt Damon shows up at one point, proving he’s definitely not Johnny Depp. It’s a distracting cameo.

When the film finally does return to Del Toro, it’s a little late. Del Toro doesn’t have much time and he does great work, but it’s not enough. Soderbergh, for the majority of Che: Part Two (or so it would seem, it moves so fast, it’s impossible to properly gauge the time without clocking it), creates this amazing war film. It’s this cat and mouse war movie, with Del Toro and his guerillas hunted by the numerically superior Bolivian army. Soderbergh creates all this sympathy for the supporting cast, just because they’re so terribly outnumbered.

Che: Part Two is a tad more political than the first installment. The Bolivian president–a fine, if underused, Joaquim de Almeida–is not a good guy. The Bolivian army is not good (and not just because they went after Butch and Sundance). Che: Part Two, at its best moments, is about someone so moved with his dream, he can’t see when the kindling’s failing to catch. The film’s a complete downer.

Lou Diamond Phillips is good in a small part. Alberto Iglesias’s music is fantastic.

It just doesn’t connect.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, based on a diary by Ernesto Guevara; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Pablo Zumárraga; music by Alberto Iglesias; production designers, Antxón Gómez and Philip Messina; produced by Laura Bickford and Benicio Del Toro; released by IFC Films.

Starring Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto Che Guevara), Carlos Bardem (Moisés Guevara), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Joaquim de Almeida (President René Barrientos), Pablo Durán (Pacho), Eduard Fernández (Ciro Algarañaz), Marc-André Grondin (Régis Debray), Óscar Jaenada (Darío), Kahlil Mendez (Urbano), Cristian Mercado (Inti), Jordi Mollà (Captain Mario Vargas), Gastón Pauls (Ciros Bustos), Antonio Peredo (Coco), Jorge Perugorría (Joaquin), Lou Diamond Phillips (Mario Monje), Franka Potente (Tania), Othello Rensoli (Pombo), Armando Riesco (Benigno), Néstor Rodulfo (Miguel), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida March), Norman Santiago (Tuma), Rodrigo Santoro (Raul Castro), Mark Umbers (George Roth) and Yul Vazquez (Alejandro Ramírez).


Che: Part One (2008, Steven Soderbergh)

There’s a majesty to Che: Part One, the endless, blue Puerto Rican (I think) sky standing in for Cuba. Soderbergh loves that sky. Soderbergh’s Panavision frame doesn’t allow for much in the way of lyricism–I think the first shot of that nature comes in the last twenty minutes of the film. It’s a great looking film throughout, but Soderbergh lets the subject matter control the viewer’s perception. When he finally does throw in this wonderfully composed shot, it gives the viewer pause, reminding him or her it’s just a filmic narrative.

It should be hard to forget Che‘s a narrative–Soderbergh applies some of those masterful filmic pseudo-non-fiction skills he used in Traffic (to a similarly dispassionate result)–since it opens in a rather traditional manner. A (temporarily) unseen Julia Ormond is interviewing Benicio Del Toro about the early days of the Cuban Revolution, the planning days, and–on cue–the film flashes back. This interview–Ormond finally shows up visually following her introduction in the regular narrative–frames the entire film. It’s a traditional move and probably not a good one. Che‘s an epic biopic–it’s essentially the Lawrence of Arabia treatment, if a tad shorter–it doesn’t do anything to break the format. Like most biopics, Che keeps the viewer outside Che’s head. Del Toro gives a great performance, especially since his character is the least dynamic in the entire film.

Che’s a passive character in the film, certainly not as charismatic as Demián Bichir’s Castro. Del Toro infuses the character with a righteousness–there’s never a moment of doubt the man isn’t fully committed to doing what he says. I’d heard the film doesn’t paint Che in a positive light, but I must have had water in my ears. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman tell the film from a viewpoint where there’s no way not to see Che as a hero. Che: Part One‘s Communist propaganda to be sure–it’s no wonder it didn’t get a real American distributor–but it’s impossible to imagine it told in any other way. The only time the film ducks out on any responsibility is in terms of Che’s marriage. There’s a big, “I’m married,” revelation scene with adoring revolutionary Catalina Sandino Moreno… immediately followed with Del Toro flirting with her every few minutes. It’s a cheap move–the film goes far to avoid giving too much background on Che, instead letting Del Toro do incredibly heavy lifting creating the character with little story support–the scenes where he’s acting as a physician are incredible, since this element’s introduced early on, so watching the soldier back down in an internal struggle to the physician… it’s lovely.

Soderbergh hasn’t fired Peter Andrews yet and Andrews’s cinematography is beautiful. It’s not just that blue sky, it’s the lush greenness. The last quarter or so of the film is a big urban battle sequence and it’s absolutely amazing. Che‘s never really a war movie, but Soderbergh’s direction of the city-set battle is peerless.

The film’s got a large cast and lots of characters have nicknames, lots have distinctive physical characteristics (so the viewer can recognize them immediately). At times, it feels as though Che wouldn’t be about Che if the film didn’t have the framework (there’s more than the interview, it also covers Che at the United Nations). The film doesn’t do anything to lionize the character in a general sense (it’s impossible to reconcile that iconic image of Che with Del Toro’s creation)–he’s a hero, but because of the way the film’s story is told.

Soderbergh films like Che: Part One always make me forget he’s capable of real emotional depth. It seems like he reserves such explorations of the human condition for his lower budgeted projects. I wish, just once, he’d try the reverse.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Peter Buchman, based on a memoir by Ernesto Guevara; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Pablo Zumárraga; music by Alberto Iglesias; production designer, Antxón Gómez; produced by Laura Bickford and Benicio Del Toro; released by IFC Films.

Starring Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto Che Guevara), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Santiago Cabrera (Camilo Cienfuegos), Vladimir Cruz (Ramiro Valdés Menéndez), Alfredo De Quesada (Israel Pardo), Jsu Garcia (Jorge Sotus), Kahlil Mendez (Leonardo Tamayo Núñez), Elvira Mínguez (Celia Sánchez), Andres Munar (Joel Iglesias Leyva), Julia Ormond (Lisa Howard), Jorge Perugorría (Vilo), Édgar Ramírez (Ciro Redondo García), Victor Rasuk (Rogelio Acevedo), Othello Rensoli (Pombo), Armando Riesco (Benigno), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida March), Roberto Santana (Juan Almeida), Norman Santiago (Tuma), Rodrigo Santoro (Raúl Castro), Unax Ugalde (Vaquerito), Roberto Urbina (Guile Pardo) and Yul Vazquez (Alejandro Ramirez).


Criminal (2004, Gregory Jacobs)

Chris Rock once lamented Jim Carrey’s attempts at drama, pointing out Hollywood has plenty of actors who can do the Tom Hanks roles, but only one who can do Ace Ventura–and I agreed with him. Seeing John C. Reilly in one of last actor roles, I finally realized Rock’s wrong, at least somewhat. Yes, there are other actors for the Tom Hanks roles… but there aren’t for the John C. Reilly roles. Criminal is one of Reilly’s most dynamic performances, maybe because the role gives him more to do–and Reilly’s had some amazing parts–than ever before.

Lots of Reilly’s performance is monologue, as he explains the con man trade to protégé Diego Luna. These sequences given Reilly the opportunity to shock, yet endear himself to the viewer. The later scenes, when Reilly thinks and feels… those are his best moments in Criminal, since he’s playing a despicable person who discovers it doesn’t feel good to be despicable.

Being a con movie, Criminal has a big surprise at the end. I wasn’t actually expecting it at the beginning, simply because Criminal‘s got a weird narrative format. It’s a continuous present action–not real-time, but it takes place over about twenty hours. The format allows for the film to distract the viewer from examining it as a con movie, having to follow certain rules. After a while, it becomes clear there’s going to be some twist at the end. Then, in the denouement, it goes through three periods (the final being the actual revelation). By generalizing, I can avoid spoilers (I hope). The first period is a beautifully paced three minutes–the film only runs ninety minutes and it’s very tight–when it’s entirely possible, while there’s obviously a twist, the viewer might never find out what it’s going to be. Then is the period where Criminal, for about ninety seconds, hints it might never have been a con movie, but a young man becoming an adult movie, also rather strange. Both these periods suggest Criminal as an innovative, singular entry into the genre. Then the actual conclusion. It’s a good conclusion, maybe not as cool as the second period… but it’s solid.

Besides Reilly, the cast is excellent. Luna is good, especially given how he’s responsible for keeping the audience interested in the narrative. Peter Mullan is great (little shock there). I was surprised by Jonathan Tucker’s fine performance, given he’s usually unimpressive. Maggie Gyllenhaal, however, is only okay. She has some fine moments–in terms of craftsmanship–but her character is in the story too much to be so poorly drawn.

Gregory Jacobs mostly works as co-writer Steven Soderbergh’s assistant director and it shows a little. There’s a minor Out of Sight reference and Jacobs masterfully applies some of Soderbergh’s vérité techniques to the film while still making it his own. Jacobs never lets Reilly run the show, which is a major achievement, given Reilly’s fantastic, mesmerizing acting.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Jacobs; screenplay by Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh, based on a film by Fabián Bielinsky; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Philip Messina; produced by Jacobs, George Clooney and Soderbergh; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring John C. Reilly (Richard Gaddis), Diego Luna (Rodrigo), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Valerie), Peter Mullan (William Hannigan), Zitto Kazann (Ochoa) and Jonathan Tucker (Michael).


King of the Hill (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

Two major things about Soderbergh’s approach to a memoir adaptation. They’re somewhat connected, so I might not manage to separate them out. King of the Hill has no frame, it has no narration. It has no context. It does not feel, at all, like a “true” story because there’s no attempt to classify itself as a true story. It drops the viewer right in, gives he or she a subtitle notating the setting and time and nothing else. Soderbergh creates, at times, a stylistic euphoria–starts right at the beginning doing it even, maybe the third or fourth scene–and the approach makes King of the Hill different. Even though it’s based on a memoir, by never involving “reality,” Soderbergh makes the plot’s conclusion unsure. Anything could happen.

As innocuous as the story might sometimes get–since Jesse Bradford’s protagonist is so self-sufficient it’s hard to remember he’s thirteen–Soderbergh infuses the film with a constant danger. Sometimes the danger is age-appropriate, sometimes it’s a lot bigger. Around the midway point, I had to remind myself Soderbergh was not telling a story about his youth. I had to remind myself Soderbergh wasn’t alive during the film’s time period, it wasn’t based on his childhood–the film envelops the viewer. Soderbergh immediately establishes his characters and then everything else is experienced at Bradford’s pace. Characters enter and leave the story, with the entire story through Bradford’s perspective. The viewer occasionally gets other things, very brief glimpses from other character’s perspectives, but the whole show is Bradford, which might be why he’s never been able to follow it up.

The other performances are excellent too, with Adrien Brody in the film’s flashiest role. Soderbergh’s cinematic storytelling here is accomplished, there’s no other word. He incites the viewer to figure things out by a character’s presence, not to be cute, but because a successful King of the Hill viewer is a participatory viewer. It might by with the film did so terribly. Also good are Cameron Boyd as Bradford’s brother; Amber Benson as his friend–I find I’m not enumerating the adults as much, which is because of the way the film portrays them. It’s difficult to put them, having just watched the film, in an easy to discuss context. Spalding Gray is quite good in his small part as is Kristin Griffith in her two scenes.

The film’s character relationships are complicated and hard to unravel. Soderbergh manages moments of severe gravity with silence from the characters and Cliff Martinez’s delicate score. Martinez and Soderbergh seem to take some of the tone–and the music’s effect on the tone–from Badlands, which is an odd influence for a movie about a kid–King of the Hill is not a kid’s movie at all. It isn’t a feel good movie. It’s a sometimes unsettling film about survival and self-sufficience. Without ever using the word “depression,” Soderbergh has made one of the best films about the Great Depression.

It’s kind of like Maugham with kids (and in America and during the Great Depression).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Soderbergh, based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner; director of photography, Elliot Davis; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Albert Berger, Barbara Maltby and Ron Yerxa; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Jesse Bradford (Aaron), Jeroen Krabbé (Mr. Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan Kurlander), Adrien Brody (Lester Silverstone), Joe Chrest (Ben), John McConnell (‘Big Butt’ Burns), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. McShane), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Peggy Freisen (Mrs. Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian) and John Durbin (Mr. Sandoz).


Bubble (2005, Steven Soderbergh)

I’m not sure who’s odder, Soderbergh for making it or Coleman Hough for “writing” it. Since much of the actual scene content is improvised, I think I’m going to have to go with Soderbergh. Bubble leaves one with quite a few thoughts–especially if the viewer knows the cast is nonprofessional and turn in better performances than professionals and if the viewer also knows the story behind the film’s release (it was a simultaneous theatrical, DVD, and cable release)–but the primary thought is about Soderbergh. He’s an odd duck. There’s no better description.

Bubble is exceptional because I’ve never seen a film change so much. It’s only seventy-three minutes long and for the first thirty, I wasn’t sure. The great experiment (also from Soderbergh’s perspective, as he’s planning on doing more of these small films with nonprofessionals across America) was failing. It’s a beautiful looking film–Soderbergh shot it in digital Panavision, it’s got a great score and perfect sound design–but it doesn’t work. Then, all of a sudden, it works. When the film synopsis first appeared, it played up the mystery angle (undoubtedly for the theater-goers) and once the mystery shows up, Bubble comes together. But calling the film a mystery would be misleading. Bubble is a film about nothing, where not much happens. Given how much was out of Soderbergh’s control–the improvised scenes, the location shooting–it’s amazing he pulled it off. Unfortunately, once a film becomes so finely tuned, one or two things can knock it down from the perfection pedestal. In Bubble’s case, one is the end credit sequence (stills of doll factory rejects–Bubble finally becomes a “Steven Soderbergh” film instead of a… film). But, more importantly, there’s a shovel scraping against concrete and Soderbergh didn’t cut right after the shovel left ground. Really.

The nonprofessional cast is fantastic, with the best performance being from Debbie Doebereiner, who’s the lead. Second best is the police detective, Decker Moody. The other two really good ones are Dustin Ashley as the male lead and Kyle Smith, who’s only got two scenes, but one of them–between him and Moody–is amazing.

I frequently forget about Soderbergh. I think it’s because he’s not one of those one-a-year guys. He needs to do more films.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Coleman Hough; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Mary Ann Bernard; music by Robert Pollard; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Starring Debbie Doebereiner (Martha), Dustin James Ashley (Kyle), Misty Dawn Wilkins (Rose), Omar Cowan (Martha’s father), Laurie Lee (Kyle’s mother) and David Hubbard (pastor).

Kafka (1991, Steven Soderbergh)

I wonder how the producers sold Jeremy Irons on the film. It was his first major role after his Oscar and it immediately followed, so he probably hadn’t won when he started filming Kafka… however, imagine if they’d advertised the film as “Academy Award Winner Jeremy Irons running through the empty streets of Prague.”

Kafka’s Soderbergh’s first film after Sex, Lies, and Videotape and it’s an exceptional disappointment. All Soderbergh has to do in Kafka is set-up German impressionist shots to match the script’s built-in references–there’s a doctor named Murnau, a town called Orloc (from Murnau’s Nosferatu) and I think I saw a Metropolis poster. Soderbergh is a filmmaker concerned with the human condition and it’s entirely absent from Kafka. Kafka is a gimmick within a gimmick… There’s a certain cuteness–wink-wink–of Kafka in a Kafkaesque adventure, but the adventure is so incredibly lame–and derivative–watching the film is a chore. I suppose it did lead to Dark City–writer Lem Dobbs took whole ideas from Kafka and put them in that one–but it’s a lot like The Element of Crime.

Kafka did remind me–in its aloof and blatant humanity–a lot of Soderbergh’s Traffic. There’s a visible disconnect in some of Soderbergh’s films, when it’s obvious the material isn’t engaging him, so he just busies himself with the camera. Kafka has a lot of such busying. It does have some nice performances–Jeroen Krabbé is excellent, Joel Grey is mildly amusing, it’s one of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s good performances. Jeremy Irons is fine too (he doesn’t have to do an accent). Still, I knew there was major trouble from the beginning… Theresa Russell is the female lead and she’s terrible from her first scene.

I wonder if Kafka would have gotten a better critical response if it had come out before Barton Fink instead of after it. Lem Dobbs’s script–with its goofy characters and particular humor–is an obvious Coen mimic. It’s just a useless film… and, while I realize it’s not supposed to be a historically accurate portrayal of Kafka’s life, apparently, in the film’s world, the First World War never happened. That historical omission is much more interesting than anything else going on and it really shouldn’t be.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Harry Benn and Stuart Cornfeld; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jeremy Irons (Kafka), Theresa Russell (Gabriela), Joel Grey (Burgel), Ian Holm (Doctor Murnau), Jeroen Krabbé (Bizzlebek), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Grubach), Alec Guinness (The Chief Clerk), Brian Glover (Castle Henchman), Keith Allen (Assistant Ludwig), Simon McBurney (Assistant Oscar) and Robert Flemyng (The Keeper of the Files).


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