From the Archive: Ocean’s Thirteen

As I’m getting this in just under the wire for it to still officially be a Saturday post, it should be clear that I’m still highly distracted by a bevy of other responsibilities, compromising my ability to transcribe some old review and making the idea of simply cutting and pasting an online offering from my former digital home all too appealing. With this, I come fairly close to having all of my writing on Steven Soderbergh films in one place. Hardly momentous, but it’s nice nonetheless.

The new film Ocean’s 13 abounds with lessons learned from the disastrously smug 2004 sequel that all but eradicated any goodwill developed by the unexpectedly delightful 2001 blockbuster remake that introduced moviegoers to Danny Ocean (or at least his modern variant) and his band of frothy felons. After 12‘s ill-conceived globe-trotting, as if the film franchise was trying to morph into a sleek, chic, over-populated version of the Bond films, director Steven Soderbergh brings the crew back to sin city, U.S.A. for another Las Vegas caper. And after the romantic diversions provided by Catherine Zeta-Jones and the meta-showboating set pieces for for Julia Roberts proved equally momentum deadening in the prior film, the new effort has been brought in at a lean fighting weight. Not only is it a “no girls allowed” zone (nearly, Ellen Barkin does get invited to play), but the actual plot takes mere seconds to kick in with exposition and character moments kept to a bare minimum.

The paring of the character details dulls the impact somewhat–it was Soderbergh’s directorial deftness with the sprawling cast as much as the agreeably twisty plot that really made the first film work–but it does give the film a much needed focus. Everything is about the new crime, an elaborate sabotage of a casino opening as a act of retribution against it owner, played with colossal indifference by Al Pacino. The construction of the undertaking lacks 11‘s spirited panache and engrossing exactitude of pros doing their job well, but when it all comes together it does so with the precision of vault lock tumblers falling into place. In a way, that’s satisfying enough.

Ocean’s 13 isn’t likely to be mistaken for high art, nor does it achieve the glossy heights of expertly made entertainment. It’s a moderately well-constructed digression, not especially memorable but never off-putting or prone to blockheaded wrong turns. It’s a summer movie, made for reheated popcorn and air conditioned theaters, with few aspirations beyond entertaining. It reaches that goal just fine.

Daldry, Eastwood, Moore, Sirk, Soderbergh

Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012). Much as I can understand how this film turned into a stealth hit–it has the musical liveliness of early Glee combined with the knowing spunk of Bring It On–it’s a fairly clumsy endeavor, with strained jokes and haphazard structure that would almost count as daring anti-narrative if it were done intentionally. It’s also one of those films that has absolutely no idea how college works, not just taking liberties for the sake of the storytelling but completely ignoring any attempt to depict its setting in a way that’s at all plausible. It does have Anna Kendrick, though, and that’s very nearly enough. She’s charming and grounded in the lead role, flashing an effortless star presence that doesn’t compromise her attention to the truth of her characterization.

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011). A lumpy, desperately old-fashioned biopic from Clint Eastwood, who doesn’t even prosper with the pulpier elements of the story. That’s usually the part in his wheelhouse, showing off the enduring influence of his old collaborator Don Siegel. Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote the film according to standard issue progressions and leaden conflicts. Given Black’s involvement, many probably expected FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged homosexuality would be a more pressing concern, but it’s simply not that sort of film, less due to skittishness than a general disinterest to dig for anything but the most facile facts. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine in the title role, but neither is he doing anything all that special. Other actors are either stranded with practically nothing to do (Naomi Watts) or obviously out of their depth (Armie Hammer).

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Steven Soderbergh’s string of utterly implausible entertainments continues (and I guess concludes, given the director’s insistence that this will be his last feature-length project) with a beautifully oddball dramatization of the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), the hunky animal trainer who was the entertainer’s conquest, possession and ultimately adversary when the cast-aside lover sued for palimony. Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese extract deadpan humor out of Liberace’s sunny decadence and the sense of bratty entitlement that came with his celebrity. Douglas is a wonder as Liberace, looking more at ease that he ever has on screen, even if he doesn’t exactly disappear into the role. I never lost sight of the fact that this was Douglas playing Liberace, but I sometimes forgot that none of the mannerisms he flashes actually belong to the actor naturally. There’s also a fantastically funny supporting performance by Rob Lowe as a doped-up plastic surgeon who’s clearly given himself over to the scientific advances of his trade, his face reformed into a rictus of glamor.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011). Stephen Daldry received Best Director Oscar nomination for each of his first three films, a streak that stopped with this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, although the expanded Best Picture category made for it, meaning he can still boast of starting his career with nothing but highly honored films. I liked Foer’s novel quite a bit, but Daldry’s film transfers the details while completely missing the spirit of it, becoming a sanctimonious slog. To be fair, nine-year-old Oskar Schell is a probably a character better suited for the page, where his quirks and sideways thinking are more likely to come across as endearing. Realizing the same qualities onscreen is more likely to be aggravating, especially when portrayed by a neophyte actor (Jeopardy! winner Thomas Horn) three significant years too old for the role. Foer grappled with unthinkable tragedy by heightening the confusion in the search for answers. Daldry takes the same story and lathers it with sanctimony.

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947). This bizarrely chipper film noir casts Lucille Ball as Sandra, an American working as a taxi dancer in London who’s recruited by Scotland Yard to be an undercover operative in their efforts to catch a serial killer using the classified to find his victims. While Ball was defined by her pratfall daffiness in her hugely success television career, before that she had a way with a sharp wisecrack in her film efforts. That’s certainly the case here, as she brings noteworthy sharpness to her performance. Douglas Sirk provides lively directing, but the plot is ultimately not all that engaging or interesting, even with the involvement of George Sanders, droll as ever as a famous producer smitten with Ball’s ball of fire. The best bits are the digressions, including one very, very strange sequence with Boris Karloff as a deeply unbalanced man who briefly lures Sandra character to his flat overstuffed with creepy belongings.

Spectrum Check

I had a lot of stuff go up at Spectrum Culture this week, so let’s just tick them off:

–It’s fairly rare that I write for the book section, but it occurred to me late last fall that I just might be able to get myself a review copy of the massive, intimidating and universally adored new outing from Chris Ware, Building Stories. Evidently, I made my request right before our editor-in-chief, inspiring at least a bit of envy. That’s the proper reaction on his part, by the way. This thing is spectacular. In my many reviews for Spectrum, this is only the second time I’ve felt compelled to give something our highest rating, five out of five stars.

–My turn came up in the “Revisit” series on the film side. These are always especially tough for me, as I have a hard time figuring out my angle. Then I was struck by the idea of going back to look at Steven Soderbergh’s first film on the occasion of his announced intention that Side Effects will be his late outing for the big screen.

–I’ve been anxious to see Rodney Ascher’s documentary on film freaks who dive way too deep into Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining ever since I read about its debut at Sundance a year ago. As I note in the review, there are few things I find more entertaining than the Kubrickian conspiracy theorists that flock to that movie.

–Finally, I wrote the latest entry in our ongoing Oeuvre series, surveying the filmography of Brian De Palma. I wrote on what may be his most disastrous movie, The Bonfire of the Vanities. And I did so at my request, which could reasonable be seen as an act of cinematic masochism. This came out in December of 1990, when The Reel Thing, the radio movie review show I co-hosted, was into its first year. It was a movie I should have seen, but I was lucky enough to go on a family vacation to Hawaii for a couple of weeks, and by the time I got back Bonfire was completely gone, theater owners practically rubbing down their screens with bleach to remove the taint of it. I read Julie Salamon’s terrific book about the making of Bonfire and even interviewed her for the radio show, but still never watched more than a couple minutes of the film itself. I liked the idea of taking this opportunity to rectify that. As expected, I was lucky to have missed it all these years.

Well, you burnt my house down, then got mad at my reaction

Much has been made of Steven Soderbergh’s announced intention to retire from film directing–at least for the big screen–now that he’s completed and released Side Effects. There’s a certain wistfulness to all the discussion surrounding the film, and assessments have been couched almost uniformly in observations meant to somehow summarize his nearly twenty-five year career. Funny thing is, Soderbergh has seemingly made a concerted effort to push back against this sort of elegiacal commentary through the projects he’s chosen. There’s been no return to the murmured, twisty relationships of his debut, sex, lies, and videotape, nor an attempt to get the Ocean gang back together to commemorate his biggest box office hit. Similarly, there hasn’t been a lot of material that could be reasonably construed as Soderbergh’s artistic rumination on his withdrawal. Instead, he has wholeheartedly embraced stories that are, on the surface, thoroughly trashy. Before Side Effects, his last three films have been a drama about a worldwide epidemic that recalled nineteen-seventies disaster flicks, an unapologetic action outing and, best of all, a male stripper movie. It seems that none of these was forced on him by a studio as means to get to a more erudite, intellectually honorable project, but were instead exactly the movies he wanted to make. From my perspective, the Best Director Oscar on his shelf has never looked shinier.

Side Effects is right in line with the prior output, delving into a lurid tale that exploits the modern trend of a heavily medicated society without really offering all that much commentary on it. Working from a screenplay by his Contagion and The Informant! collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh brings characteristic understatement and exactitude to a story that, aside from some more current trappings, feels like it belongs in the stretch of the early nineties, when the success of The Silence of the Lambs led to a bounty of psychological thrillers like Final Analysis and Whispers in the Dark. In the film, Rooney Mara plays Emily, a young woman whose husband (recent Soderbergh stalwart Channing Tatum) is getting released from prison after serving a few years for insider trading. Emily begins exhibiting symptoms of depression, which her husband finds familiar, culminating in an apparent suicide attempt in a parking garage. That brings her under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who treats her in part with a fairly new pharmaceutical. From there, things start to get really problematic for all involved.

The less said about the remaining plot the better, but its worth noting that Soderbergh has great fun with a simple truism about madness and obsession: the more someone protests that they’re sane and lucid, the crazier they seem. Mara, in her first major role since that famous dragon tattoo was etched onto her, is terrific, quietly committed to the intensity of the part and shrewdly playing the character with a coiled in reticence that heightens the mystery. Law is also very good, effectively shaping his character’s subtle shifts from desperation to determination. And as has long been the case with Soderbergh, there is special attention paid to giving the character actors room to make an impression, notably Polly Draper and Vinessa Shaw, who both get a lot out of relatively small roles.

Side Effects may lack the trappings of a prestige project, but that doesn’t mean that Soderbergh panders or condescends. Instead, he does all that can be asked of him: he gives it everything he’s got. If the ambitions of the film are modest, that doesn’t necessarily apply to Soderbergh’s own intent. He clearly wants to make the best movie he can, one he can be proud of, one that speaks up to the presumed intelligence of his audience. It’s certainly not perfect–all the tangles of the plot morph into a clumsy snarl by the end–but it exhibits a honorable commitment to an approach to American cinema that sometimes seems irretrievably lost: the sense that anything can be made into a exceptional movie if its consistently formulated with evenhanded artistic integrity. If Soderbergh exits the soundstage as one of the last practitioners who deeply believed that, at least he leaves with a filmography overstuffed with evidence that proves the soundness of the theory.

Top Ten Movies of 2012 — Number Eight

I hedged a bit when I first wrote about Magic Mike, noting that the final act had problems. I stand by that, but as time has passed, I find I care less and less about where the movie sags and more about its thrilling thrust. Inspired in part by star Channing Tatum’s own experience as a male stripper, the film makes this hedonistic world appear both unbearably sleazy and wickedly intoxicating, often in the same gasped breath. In that way, it races along the same track as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, but Anderson’s vivid sprawl is replaced by director Steven Soderbergh’s trademark understated intimacy. Soderbergh’s determination to treat every project, no matter how ludicrous it may seem on the surface, with assured dignity enlivens the entire film, coaxing nuance out of the most tried-and-true aspects of the plot: the neophyte who gets corrupted, the bad boy finding his better self through falling in love with the good girl, the charismatic impresario whose acts of exploitation are masked by effusive geniality but still practically gives off a whiff of sulfur every time he appears. For the latter element, Soderbergh has a stealth weapon in Matthew McConaughey, finally liberated from a parade of dismal romantic comedies and allowed to turn his natural onscreen magnetism towards salaciously entertaining ends. Soderbergh has made a lot of surprising turns across his career. Magic Mike is new, compelling evidence that no matter how doubtful his choices may seem, he always does seem to know exactly where he’s going and he has a good reason for taking that route.

I feel the magic like I never felt before, I imagine that it’s always been there

I don’t have a signed document to this effect or anything, but I do believe I have previously pledged to follow director Steven Soderbergh anywhere. That has brought me some undue misery over the years, but I’ve largely stuck by it. And I now have a ticket stub for Magic Mike to further ratify my commitment to Soderbergh’s ongoing (or potentially drawing to a close) cinematic cause. This film about male strippers, loosely based on star Channing Tatum’s own experiences in that odd corner of the entertainment field, has been a perplexing addition to Soderbergh’s filmography ever since it was announced. Every description of the project made it sound like Coyote Ugly with the gender roles reversed and the skeezy New York bar replaced by the sort of disco-lit facility where bachelorette parties go to scream, stuff dollars into speedos and puke up a night’s worth of sugary shots. And that’s exactly what it is.

I think the key to understanding the appeal of the project to Soderbergh (beyond the mysterious wager he seems to have made that challenges him to turn any wild concept thrown at him into a movie) can be found in Matthew McConaughey’s description of his character, the randy, half-crazed club owner Dallas, in a recent New York Times article: “He’s this poet-capitalist-warlord-messiah of the male revue world. None of that’s funny until you say ‘of the male revue world.'” Through much of Magic Mike, that’s the vibe that Soderbergh is dipping into. The story involving a neophyte plucked to become part of the big, garish show might be clichéd, but the uncommon setting gives it a goofy appeal. The screenplay credited to Reid Carolin is proudly steeped in the world of backstage pick-me-ups and frank, unfazed discussion of the built-in salaciousness of the habitat these characters exist within. Soderbergh similarly basks in it proudly, shooting the stage performances to emphasize their impressive athleticism and coaxing the actors into easy, naturalistic performances that prevent the film from becoming a cartoonish mess. Against all odds, Soderbergh turns the first portion of Magic Mike into something like Showgirls with redemptive self-awareness, and it’s remarkably entertaining.

While it should be no surprise from the guy who somehow managed to make Andie MacDowell look like an Oscar-worthy actress in his very first film, Soderbergh’s work with the actors is especially impressive. I can make no claim to exhaustive knowledge of the film work of Channing Tatum, but what little I have seen surely didn’t convince me he was anything more than a pretty-boy dullard with shockingly little screen presence. That perception started to shift a bit after Soderbergh’s Haywire earlier this year, and I’m forced into reconsidering it altogether on the basis of a charismatic, shrewdly lived-in performance here. There’s also a very nice supporting turn from Olivia Munn and a performance by Cody Horn that deserves to have “star-making” affixed to it as a descriptor. Finally, there’s McConaughey, dropped into a role so perfectly suited for his brashly confident but slightly oily and even off-putting charm that he should seriously consider tossing his cowboy hat into the crowd and calling it a career; he may do more admirable acting in the future, but he will never again be so clearly in his element on screen.

Alas, it’s all too good to last. Although one of Soderbergh’s sharpest, most consistent skills as a filmmaker involves finding the freshness and truth in well-worn story patterns, the last act of Magic Mike finally piles on too many tired elements for even him to overcome. As what had been fun turns sour for the characters, the same sad erosion of spirit infects the movie itself. It slumps to the finish, tired out by its own unsustainable frothiness. Before that, though, it does improbably live up to its title: it’s magic, all right.

But how can I help it, if they break then they break, when my hands are untied they’re entitled to shake

Steven Soderbergh has made it clear that the movie Haywire exists solely because he saw Gina Carano in one of her mixed martial arts fights on television. I’d like to think he also spent part of that particular evening hitting the PREV button on his remote control to check in on a screening of Salt on HBO, and that the contrast between the abject phoniness of Angelina Jolie as an ass-kicking action hero when compared to Carano’s real deal qualifications is what stirred him to creative motion. Now I think Jolie is a gifted and, thanks to her towering fame, somewhat underrated actress, but when I see her racing through one of the roles that earn her the biggest paychecks, I can’t help by think her skinny arms look like sapling branches straining hungrily towards the sun. I have a hard time believing she can tear open a bag of tortilla chips, much less sock hulking beefcakes into submission. There are no such suspension of disbelief issue watching Carano play a brutality machine formidable enough that another character warns a hitman being dispatched to take her out, “Oh, you shouldn’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.”

Carano plays Mallory, a powerhouse agent who specializes in shady dealings that require a certain fidelity with both gunplay and fisticuffs. She’s actually on her way out of the agency she works for when she’s drawn in for cinematically popular “one last job,” and that naturally sets into motions all sorts of circuitous double-dealings that set her on the lam from brutes who are trying to eradicate her. Mallory, however, does not go gentle into that good night. Appropriately, the hand-to-hand combat seen on screen is fierce and bruising, highly physical in a way that both feels utterly natural and hints at intricate, inventive fight choreography. Mostly, Soderbergh continues with the quality that has been predominant in his career at least since the point he revived it in 2000 with the Erin Brockovich and Traffic: he takes the overly familiar patterns of Hollywood filmmaking, strips them down to their essence and find ways to make the hackneyed freshly invigorating again, largely by finding the hidden key to unearthing and emphasizing the most believable elements. Soderbergh wants the audience to marvel at Carano’s strength and power, but he wants to heighten the impact by making it clear that everything she’s doing is difficult. It’s physically taxing, and, importantly, it’s damn hard to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B when there’s a small army of men standing in the way. There’s no time for glib one-liners (well, maybe a couple) because this is hard work, dammit.

Carano delivers mightily for Soderbergh, and it’s not hard to see why he wanted to build a film around her. Not only is she clearly tough as can be, but she’s striking on screen in every way. The camera may not love her, but it’s surely smitten, and she’s attractive enough that she looks like a version of Catherine Zeta-Jones who was slipped some Super Soldier Serum. Great as she is at punching, she’s not very good at acting, but then neither is her co-star Bill Paxton, and he does it for a living. She’s got presence to burn, of the sort that all the acting classes in the world can’t teach. She belongs on that screen. And I dare you to tell her otherwise.