Steven Soderbergh is the original indie kid. His debut feature, the seminal Sex, Lies and Videotape not only brought renewed attention to the Sundance Film Festival but won him the Palme D’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. This film paved the way for the new wave of discursive, independent filmmaking looking at everyday situations – we may not have seen the likes of Wes Anderson if it wasn’t for Steven Soderbergh. He himself is a magpie, Soderbergh that is, he’s borrowed heavily from new wave French cinema, Godard, picking only the choice bits and putting his own unique spin on it. With his soon to be released, Logan Lucky again he is pushing the boundaries and paving a new way for film production and distribution without the need to rely on the studio system.
His observations and eye for detail lifts all his films and allows for the audience to forgive secondary characters who are sometimes sketched rather than fully formed. There is more to Steven Soderbergh than meets the eye not only is he a writer & director but also a director of photography ( he uses the pseudonym of Peter Andrews) and this is reflected in his films. At first glance some of his films’ subject matter can appear vacuous, glitzy with little substance but scratch beneath and there is a complex story lurking there.
Love and amorality are themes that run throughout his films along with his enduring collaborations with actors notably George Clooney and Channing Tatum who’ve both appeared in a number of his films.
Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
If you want to make an unforgettable debut of your film prowess then you could do no wrong with this exploration of love and repression – Soderbergh said he wrote the award winning script in just 8 days.
Ann Mullany (Andre MacDowell) is stuck in a sexless marriage, void of emotion with her husband, John Mullany (Peter Gallagher). We know this because the opening scene shows Ann relaying this to her therapist. She thinks her husband is sexually stunted when in actual fact, we the audience know it’s quite the opposite. He is having a very torrid affair with his wife’s sister, Cynthia Bishop (Laura San Giacoma). All of their lives are turned upside down when John’s friend, Graham Dalton (James Spader) comes to visit. Graham is impotent and gets his sexual kicks from recording and making videotapes of others revealing their sexual encounters. The women are also turned on by revealing their sexual secrets.
Soderbergh is ahead of his time in showing video as a way of putting distance between people. Graham uses this to keep people at arms length and therefore reinforces the emotional suppression he feels. The themes in this film are even more relevant today with the advent of social media that renders people distant and unable to connect with others on an emotional level.
Sex, Lies and Videotape also paved the way for more discursive films that talked about feelings and the mundane in everyday life. Before this, for the most part independent films didn’t really exist, if there was no studio backing there was quite simply no film. Along comes this film with a small budget, simple script and wins the most prestigious prize at Cannes and in one foul swoop legitimises independent filmmaking.
Out of Sight (1998)
Jack Foley (George Clooney) is such a successful bank robber that he has lost count of how many banks he’s robbed all without needing to use a gun. On the day he is to break out of prison he unwittingly crosses path with a US Marshall, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). Along with his accomplice, Buddy (Ving Rhames) he kidnaps her. What ensues is a cat and mouse chase with a robbery and sexual tension thrown in for good measure. The scene of Clooney and Lopez in the trunk of her car is still one of my all time favourites.
This is a caper based on an Elmore Leonard film of the same name. Soderbergh managed to keep the pace at just the right speed without it feeling too frenetic or that it is trying to cover up holes in the plot. I think it is a much better adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book than that of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
Soderbergh draws out captivating performances from both lead actors whilst maintaining the caper style of the film. It is fun and enjoyable with great cinematography that adds to the atmosphere.
Magic Mike (2012)
As with his other pictures, this isn’t a film about what it looks like on the DVD cover – stripping.
There is a lot of stripping, glistening torsos dripping with baby oil and sweat and thongs, however what we get to see is the amoral, seedy side of someone trying not to be defined by what they do and being trapped in a seedy, drug fuelled world of stripping. It is not glamorous but depressing and the weak are used, abused and thrown out in the trash.
The film tells the story of the titular Mike (Channing Tatum), and is loosely based on Channing’s life before A-lister stardom arrived. By day Mike works constructions & upcycles old furniture but by night he is the lead dancer of the male stripper dance group xquisite. He crosses paths with college drop-out, Adam (Alex Pettyfer) who he leads into this world. Mike is trying to get out and hopes that with the money he is making he’ll be able to run his own business – Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) keeps promising equity in the club. There are echoes of Boogie Nights with Adam turning from innocent kid to something altogether sad and damaged by this world.
Soderbergh allows the viewer to watch this amoral world understanding that there are no winners just survivors. Add to this the fierce choreography and camera direction which allow the viewer to forgive the script’s failure to add more depth to some of the secondary characters.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
This could have been a very dull biopic, but with a gutsy, powerful and fierce performance by Michael Douglas as Liberace which lifts it into a sincere, thought provoking and at times sad portrayal of the man. During Liberace’s life he remained, as hard as it is to believe, enigmatic to his hoards of female fans. However behind the flamboyance he was very different as this film shows.
Behind the Candelabra focuses on the six year relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). It follows Scott as he falls down the rabbit hole into the world of Liberace – glitz, glamour and face lifts. What works in this film particularly well are the supporting characters – we get to see just enough before the script goes back to the central relationship of Scott and Liberace. Rob Lowe as Dr Sturtz is terrifying as it is absurdly funny. Douglas captures Liberace’s mannerisms and voice to perfection and portrays him as the complex and conflicted man that he was. He was power hungry, enigmatic yet the impression we get is that he just wanted to be loved.
If there is any criticism to be made it’s that there isn’t as much music as one would expect of a biopic of a musical genius but there is more than enough glitz to forgive this faux pas. Also, no doubt as a nod to his musical past Debbie Reynolds plays Liberace’s mother.
Soderbergh with the help of a tightly written script and hugely talented cast manage to show the life of Liberace – flaws and all without taking away from his genius. That is a triumph.
Side Effects (2013)
Non linear storytelling again at play here. This time he shows the ugly side of love. The film does suffer from the characters not being fully drawn out and this is shown to full effect when final twist is revealed by the central character it fails to deliver the desired emotional punch. The pace of the thriller is good and does have some interesting and unexpected surprises. The influence of Hitchcock is apparent in the way the central character of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is beautiful but emotionally repressed and fragile.
Emily Taylor is married to Mark Taylor (Channing Tatum), a married couple who appear to have it all when Mark, a trader who is found guilty and convicted for insider trading. Four years later upon his release and Emily struggles with life whilst her husband is locked away explode in spectacular style when she crashes their car. It is an unsuccessful suicide attempt and this is when Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes the fateful anti depressant that will turn the Taylor’s lives upside down.
Side Effects explores the murky world of drug lobbying and as the name suggests the unexpected side effects of prescription drugs. It poses the question: who is to blame if there are unexpected and life changing side effects.