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Great Directors: Steven Soderbergh

The fifth entry in my Great Directors series profiles Steven Soderberg best known for his work with for his work with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels and Erin Brokovich.  He was born January 14, 1963, in Goergia, in the US.   Steven’s interest in film began at least in high school and, upon graduation, he moved to Hollywood to begin his career.

His first cinematic break was very dramatic and came in the form of sex lies and videotape, which was released in 1989, which received the prestigious Palmes d’Or  at the Cannes Film Festival, the independent spirit award for Best Director, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, with the screenplay having been written by Soderbergh himself, and in 2006 was inducted into the US National Film Registry for preservation. He is prone to casting Julia Roberts, Topher Grace, Don Cheadle, and George Clooney along with many others.  A little known fact is that he often works as his own director of photography under the name of Peter Andrews, which is the first and middle name of his father.

The List:

(These are presented ranked in order of their overall quality in my opinion.)

1. Solaris (2002)

In the near future a psychologist named Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is called to a space station in orbit around a newly discovered planet and when he arrives he finds a group of paranoid and terrified personnel and the man who initially summoned him, missing. Bizarre things are occurring to those who spend time on the space station, like dead loved one appearing in the flesh and blood sense, ready to return to times of happiness.

The crew, including Kelvin, are understandably shaken by this and do not know how to react, if the planet is using these creatures as weapons, or if this may be something more mystical, like heaven. Deep philosophical underpinnings are interspersed throughout Solaris including the nature of death and the nature of life and about religion and the nature of love and loss.

Combine all of this with a meditative and almost hypnotic visual representation and an soundtrack that only reinforces it and the audience is drawn hypnotically toward this film until its wonderful conclusion. A fantastic re-make of the 1972 Solyaris by Andrei Tarkovsky and very much worthy of the borrowed title and plot.

2. Erin Brokovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich’s real-life story brought to film by Steven Soderbergh centers around her life and her work with a law firm that specializes in torts.  Julia Roberts stars as Erin Brokovich, a poor single mother who is uncouth, loud-mouthed and, for lack of a better term, white trash.  Her boyfriend, a neighbor who is into motorcycles and dresses like a stereotypical biker is played by Irina V. Passmoore.

She finally finds a job as a legal assistant at a small-time law firm where she begin investigating claims against Pacific Gas and Electric regarding the possibility that their toxic wastes may have poisoned nearby poor families to whom Erin has an immediate connection and for which she has a great deal of sympathy.

It is a battle pitting the white collars as evil against the blue collars as innocent victims and one can’t help but cheer on Brokovich in her fight against the evils perpetrated by this large behemoth of a company who can’t admit their faults without exposing themselves to massive amounts of further lawsuits filed by everyone who was ever near the facility in question , whether or not they suffer from the consequences. But in the end it is a movie with a happy ending a sweet, if unrefined quality to it that is captivating to its audiences.

3. Traffic (2000)

One of my favorites of Soderbergh’s work, Traffic tells four simultaneous stories, from every angle of the American War on Drugs.  First we have a conservative judge who is being appointed to the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and unknowingly has a daughter who experiments with all manner of drugs, including hard drugs like crack and cocaine.

Secondly we have a pair of Mexican police officers who are honest, which in the world of their contemporary policeman is an extreme rarity who begin working for General Salazar, the military man put in charge of fighting the war on drugs for the Mexican government.

Thirdly we have a wealthy Southern California businessman with a socialite wife who is indicted for cocaine trafficking, much to the surprise of his wife.  Finally, we have the story of two DEA officers who make a drug bust in Southern California and detain the leader there to force him to testify against the members of the cartel whom he knows. Soderbergh uses a great deal of clever editing, film colorization, and other cinematic techniques so that these four narratives can continues interweaving with each other without it becoming confusing to the viewer.

What does become troubling is that Traffic illustrates both the absurdity of the war on drugs and its absolute ineffectiveness in combating the problem. The innocent wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the indicted businessman is forced into the cocaine trafficking business when one of her husband’s debts comes due and it is made clear that unless it is paid, her children will be killed.  She hires a hit man from the cartel to kill the man being detained by the DEA agents to prevent him from testifying against her husband, but the hit goes awry and the whole mess blows up in everyone’s face.

Based upon the miniseries from Europe, Traffic is perhaps Soderbergh’s greatest film with the most powerful imagery, a fantastically powerful message that is something that the medium of film is best suited to tell, and casting and writing that are impossible to beat.  It features an all-star line-up in its cast, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney, Dennis Quaid, Salma Hayek, Benjamin Bratt, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Miguel Ferrer, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, Michael Douglas, and Benicio Del Toro. It won a number of awards and deserved to win a number more.

4. The Limey (1999)

This is considered the first mainstream independent film directed by Soderbergh since sex, lies and videotape in 1989 and tells the story of an Englishman (Terence Stamp), recently released from prison in Britain, who comes to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter (Melissa George) and exact his revenge upon the people whom he believes killed her.

It is a deeply meditate movie with a lot of dialogue and visual shots played out of sequence to effectively tell the story, but also to provide the best example of a film-maker trying to show his audience what the character is truly feeling and thinking about while these things are going on. Fantastic performances by Terence Stamp and Luis Guzman in particular help this film along.

The Limey is fabulous and apparently flew under the radar of most of the viewing public, so if you have a chance, pick it up and give it a watch.  It is an absolutely unbelievable ride that will make you feel what film has the potential to do.

Read Nathan Thoms’ full review of The Limey.

5. The Good German (2006)

Full of 1940s-style filming and lighting techniques, The Good German tells the story of a journalist named Jake Geismer (George Clooney) who arrives to cover the Potsdam Conference and is issued a captain’s uniform so that he can more easily travel in the immediate aftermath of post-war Berlin.

Once he arrives he is captivated by a woman named Lena, who has her own secrets.  When a body washes up on shore, the army seems completely disinterested in discovering the murderer and it is up to Jake to investigate while the US Army and the Red Army are frantically looking for former Nazi scientists to help with each country’s rocket programs.

Meanwhile, a mysterious and seductive woman named Lena (Cate Blanchett) seems caught up in all of this and Jake must investigate her too to discover the terrible truth. So fully was the feel of the 1940s en-grained into every aspect of film-making the movie was made with a 1.66:1 ratio which most modern theaters are unable to accommodate.

To allow for the movie’s ratio to continue, black bars were added to bring the movie up to the standard 1.85:1, while retained the aspect ratio Soderbergh sought.  Only studio backlots, sound stages, and Los Angeles were used in filming and in keeping with the styling, professional lighting was not used.  Instead, as in 1945, only incandescent lighting was permitted and period lenses were used.  Soderbergh went so far as to coach the actors to deliver their lines in a stage style, which is again, in keeping with the earlier film-making techniques when body mikes had yet to be developed and all sound had to be captured by overhead boom mikes.

Soderbergh crafted an artful film with an enormous amount of authenticity and, unfortunately for both viewers and the director and cast involved, the film went largely unnoticed by the general public.  It is, nonetheless, a masterpiece and something which I fully expect to find its way into the National Film Registry in a decade or so.

6. sex, lies and videotape (1989)

Director Soderbergh’s premiere onto the world stage was the award-winning sex, lies and videotape, which was released in 1989.  It is a psychological dramas about a couple and the problems in their sexual lives.  Ann (Andie MacDowell) is the wife of John (Peter Gallagher).  John is having an affair with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) while Ann, despite being a quiet and mousy character, proclaims that she doesn’t need sex anymore.

When Graham (James Spader), an old friend of John shows up to see them, their lives take a very unexpected change as Graham likes to film his interviews with women privately and talk to them about their sex lives.

With both Ann and John married for basically the purposes of portraying a good imagine and John captivated by his lover Cynthia, Ann delves deeper into the fascination that she has for Graham and his hobby.

Certainly worth noting is that despite its title and the protests its screenings caused, the film itself is really not that much about sex so much as it is about the problems people have with sex and the problems people have discussing sex openly.  It has been compared to Easy Rider in that both were very low budget and very much filled with evidence on the director’s stylistic tendencies.

7. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

The first of what is quickly becoming a franchise was a remake of a movie made in the 1960s, but adapted for the modern world.  Ocean’s Eleven is about a recently paroled ex-convict named Danny Ocean (George Clooney) who joins up with his partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) to assemble a crew of eleven men to rob three casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) including Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck), Turk Malloy (Scott Caan), Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), Yen (Shaobo Qin), Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), and Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) for $150 million.

Aside from that reason, Danny also wants to win back his wife Tess (Julia Roberts) who is now in a relationship with Benedict and in doing so exact a significant revenge upon her lover by robbing him personally of such a large sum of money.

Ocean’s Eleven is filled with twists, turns, and an enormous amount of cinematographic styling which allows is to remain stylish and clever throughout its duration.  While its sequels may not be anything approaching its quality, it remains a shining jewel in Soderbergh’s rapidly growing film crown.

8. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

The much ridiculed sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve brings the cast of the original film across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) finds them, along with his ex-lover Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts) and offers them a deal: return the money with interest to the tune of $190 million or face the very unpleasant alternative of a Benedict’s very storied, painful revenge.

The crew, without a plan to the recourse of knowing of targets where they can make such a score, take on an accomplice known  plus a thief known as the François Toulour (Vincent Cassel), plan and exectute three robberies in Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam before their time, and subsequently their lives, run out.

It is a reasonably enjoyable film and, if it weren’t taken as a sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, might have garnered much higher reviews, but when reviewed together Ocean’s Twelve comes across as a cheap knock-off that is simply not that well done.

9. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

After the dismal response to Ocean’s Twelve, little was expected of Ocean’s Thirteen since adding an additional character and doing a sequel to what was already a bad sequel of a good film seemed like a bad idea, Ocean’s Thirteen provided a nice surprise to critics and viewers alike.

The third installment in the series brings back the usual characters, but this time it is a story of avenging their wronged friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) who has partnered with a seedy character named Willy Bank (Al Pacino) who ends up cutting Reuben out of the business; Reuben suffers a heart-attack soon thereafter.  Loyal friends Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew decide that this will not stand and decide to exact revenge upon Bank on the opening night of his new enterprise and bankrupt the scum of Las Vegas in the process.

Nothing is out of the question in their question to right the wrong which has been perpetrated by Banks, including hiring former enemies of the crew to help with their plot, which if you’ve watched the other movies is reasonably predictable: they will plan and execute a heist against Bank and destroy his business and him as a man in the process.

Ocean’s Thirteen is funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  The cast and crew have fun making the movie and the story itself is filled with jokes and things meant to be taken lightly.  Still, it is a warm submission after the dismal Ocean’s Twelve by Soderbergh to bring this fun group of characters together for one more heist, one more tryst into their world of fun and almost magical tricks of illusion and deception and ultimately it is about righting a wrong that has been to done to one of their dearest friends.  Who can’t relate to some part of such a story?

You can buy any one of the Ocean’s-series films by clicking on their links, or buy the entire Ocean’s Trilogy here for a deep discount.