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The Soderbergh Threepeat

Out of some strange, unplanned coincidence, I happened to have seen three movies within the span of a couple of days that just so happened to be the latest three films from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.  So, I figured, what the hell, what a perfect time to revisit the blog and lump this batch together.  And they are quite the batch.  Each film almost completely different from each other in style, substance, and themes but all coming within the span of the last two years from the same great filmmaking eye.

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First up, purely at random, is The Girlfriend Experience, starring porn actress Sasha Grey as a high class escort who provides a bit more than the average hooker.  She offers, as the title suggests, the complete girlfriend experience.  Someone to talk to, cuddle with, and, sure, with most of her clients, eventually have sex with.

But it’s not a world of underground criminality that Soderbergh is offering here.  What I find most interesting about this film is the representation of a woman running her own small business.  This film is set at a very specific place in time.  Throughout the film, there are constant references to things that are happening in the news at that time as the financial crisis hits and the presidential debates begin to fire up, this is a film entrenched in the Wall Street reality of Autumn 2008.  It’s what the film tries to say that I found compellingly interesting about the struggle of the small business in a country that values the largess of almost criminal corporations as seen through the lens of a criminal (in this case a very high end prostitute) just trying to make a little something for herself.

Shot on a shoestring budget in the same vein as Soderbergh’s previous experimental drama Bubble, the film is strikingly beautiful at most times and is a technical dream.  Soderbergh’s deft cinematic eye stretches the canvass of a small film to feel intimate while allowing the beating heart of New York during incredibly uncertain times.  However, in the end, the film left me cold.

Porn star Sasha Grey comes off as almost hollow and one note throughout but there’s always an inkling that maybe this was purposeful.  The character of Christine is emotionally closed off from those all around her, even her understanding to a point boyfriend, played by Chris Santos.  There are a couple of brief moments where the script allows her to be vulnerable and Grey actually shines fairly well in these scenes, but these moments are all too brief as we are left to this stonewalled character.

The central themes of the film and the technical brilliance that Soderbergh brings to the story is what elevates this film just slightly but the script with much of its bland, lifeless dialogue and a story with very little in the way of forward momentum or connective tissue, loses the viewer in the shuffle.  I certainly felt listless as the movie went on, not a good sign when the film’s runtime is less than an hour and a half.  There is some conflict with the boyfriend and his personal training business and Christine finding a connection with a client but all of this comes far too late, which is strange considering the jumbled timeline of the narrative.  Unfortunately, it all comes across as a bit too scattershot with little narrative boost given in.  This was certainly the weakest of the three, by far.

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Next up, the two part epic story about the Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara.  Separated into two films, Che Part One: The Argentine and Che Part Two: Guerilla, Soderbergh does not attempt the standard biographical picture here.  Segmented here into two separate pieces of his life, the films follow Che Guevara the guerilla fighter.  Part One follows Guevara through the successful Cuban Revolution of the 1950s intercut with scenes of him giving an address to the United Nations in 1964 in New York City.  Part Two follows his failed attempt to bring the revolution to Bolivia and his eventual death.

First off, just to get this completely out of the way, it is absolutely criminal that Benicio Del Toro was not recognized for any major awards for his incredible performance here.  What Del Toro brings to this role is an incredible magnetism and a truly powerful spirit, an important aspect considering the many people he got to follow him through his guerilla escapades.  Benicio fully embodies not just the man but the spirit of Che Guevara from his fiery speech to the UN to the dirt and sweat in the battlefields of Cuba and Bolivia.  It’s just spectacular and I don’t really have the words to give it justice.  He is at times both warm and giving while at the same time fierce and dangerous.

Moving on, these films are very deliberately separated from each other.  Just to save me some headaches, I have lumped the two part Che into one whole movie and I will view it as such but make no mistake, these are very much two separate movies, in approach, execution, and style.  Part One almost plays out as a more traditional war picture.  The beginnings of the revolution in Cuba are shown as Che travels by boat with Fidel Castro and much of the battle scenes have a more open, cinematic feel to it.  There is also a bit more optimism as the success of the revolution becomes an inevitability.  This is a striking difference from the dark, isolated jungles of Bolivia as the failure of Che’s mission becomes as inevitable as his Cuban success.  Che’s dark, violent demise looms over the entire second half.  In this way, Part One certainly contains more in the way cinematic sweeps and brushstrokes but both films do share the feeling of being there in the jungles alongside Che and his soldiers.  The feeling and reality of fighting this way is a grand achievement as seen through the lens of Soderbergh.

I wish I had more to say because the full Che experience here is quite an overwhelming cinematic achievement.  It’s not so much a traditional war picture or bio picture but more of a film that washes over you.  Of course, the film shies away from the darker underpinnings of Che the man such as the executions that were held in Cuba but those aspects stand in defiance of the film’s overall themes.  These movies are designed more as a testament to the guerilla spirit, the fortitude of the revolutionary spirit.  What these men would do with it afterwards, either in success or defeat, is almost irrelevant in the film’s grand scheme.  It’s a film more about the procedural reality of using guerilla warfare and why Che does what he does.  Rather than go through character building monologues or providing a standard beat by beat bio picture, Soderbergh shows who this man is and what his ideas were about through his actions in trying to bring revolution to Latin America.  The film never passes judgment allowing the camera to linger on the people and jungles that surround him, rather than trying to pontificate on any grander meaning through overwrought dialogue or the usual dramatic arcs.  Some would say that omitting the specific parts of his life that the film does, the film therefore does pass a favorable judgment on an interesting but controversial figure.  What I think he does is segments his life into two events that ultimately shape what this man truly was, or at least, what he tried to be.

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And, finally, there’s The Informant!, certainly the most straight up entertaining of the three films presented here and the second to be based on a true story.  Starring Matt Damon, the comedy follows an upper management employee of a lysine developing company who turns informant for the FBI in a widespread price fixing scandal.

A jumpy, happening little comedy it’s a film filled with quiet subtle laughs filled with the kind of slick filmmaking that’s become very familiar to anyone who’s a fan of the Ocean’s movies.  It’s certainly the lightest of the movies as well but it’s incredibly fun to sit through and timely as well with its themes of corporate malfeasance and it’s constantly lying lead character.

Matt Damon is obviously having a ball here as the hapless fraud Mark Whitacre who fumbles and stumbles through one lie to the next to the point that he’s telling lies about the lies immediately after admitting to lying.  He’ll be lying about lying.  It comes to the point of such a twisted thread of chicanery and fraud, that there’s literally nothing you can believe about what comes out of his mouth.  Damon’s great here keeping things light and moving while alluding to deeper depths in the man as he navigates from one lie to the next.  The voice-over throughout the film is also hilariously entertaining as he more often than not is talking about things not directly related to what is happening on screen, seemingly unawares of the hole that he is constantly digging deeper and deeper for himself.

I thought it was a very interesting choice to fill out much of the supporting cast with these great comedians such as Tom Papa, Joel McHale, and Patton Oswalt in these deadpan serious roles as Damon, the more dramatic actor, is able to bounce off these guys with a great comedic energy.  Everyone’s great with their roles, especially Scott Bakula who starts off as kind of an FBI buddy for Whitacre but who becomes more antagonistic as he sees the kind of deep sociopathic lies Damon’s character tells.

I don’t have much more to say about this one other than it’s a fun, lighthearted flick with a great cast and a fun score that hearkens back to movies of the seventies and sixties.  The film does drag at points towards the beginning but once things start clicking in the latter half, the film kind of barrels through in fun and interesting ways.

So, after all that, what connects these three movies?  Besides the great, exacting eye of Steven Soderbergh?  Three movies of complete stylistic and tonal 180s from one another, they each have their own separate character explorations, thematic cores, and overall auras about them.  What I see when I look at these three movies, are pieces of himself, Soderbergh trying to get across in as varying ways as possible the plight of the filmmaker.

The filmmaker as the rough and tumble guerilla fighter, the filmmaker as the small business man (or woman) just trying to navigate through a corporate owned Hollywood only to face their harshest critics at the end of it all, the filmmaker as the constant liar, juggling so many threads of non-truths and shades of grey that he can lose himself within his own web of lies (stories).  I see all of these incredibly different characters put together, as kind of the maverick filmmaker that I believe Soderbergh to be in my eyes.  Even when I’m not a complete fan of whatever movie he makes, I always know it’s always at least worth watching and these past three movies are certainly perfect examples of a busy filmmaker hard at work putting just that little bit of himself in every one of his works, or at least very vague representations of such.

Needless to say, I’m a fan.  So cheers to you Mr. Soderbergh.  I anxiously await your next feature.

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One response to “The Soderbergh Threepeat

  1. mcarteratthemovies ⋅

    I haven’t seen “Che” or “Girlfriend Experience,” but I really enjoyed “The Informant!” — it’s probably one of the funniest character studies I recall seeing lately. Matt Damon did such a great job making Matt Whitacre a character we (somehow) care about despite all his nuttiness and inadequacies. Maybe that’s because Damon lets us see this guy’s boredom with life, with his 9-to-5 existence, and who among us can’t relate to that?

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