Tag Archives: Steven Soderbergh

Contagion

Returning home from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) goes from coughing to dead on the kitchen floor, foaming at the mouth in very short order. As husband Mitch (Matt Damon) accompanies her to the hospital, their young son is dying at home, though not before infecting a few people at school. Mitch, however, seems to be immune. There are similar pockets popping up in China and Japan, as well as elsewhere in the U.S.. The particular strain of contagion is new, and scientists from the Centers for Disease Control are racing to identify and stop it.

Director Steven Soderbergh masterfully creates wonderful tension with this tightly scripted (by Scott Z. Burns) horror film where infection is the monster and everyone is a potential victim. You start looking at rather innocuous things – a doorknob, a packed bus, a water-eyed child – as awfully threatening and suddenly the movie is packed with dread and danger.

Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard play scientists with boots on the ground who suffer for their work in their own ways, while a little higher up the chain, Laurence Fishburne grapples with the more ethical side of the equation. In a race to save lives, whose lives will be saved first? There are lots of fine performances but no real stand-outs and Soderbergh seems determined to cast every celebrity he’s ever had drinks with. Because it’s packed with so many characters and perspectives, it’s not a very intimate story, rather, it’s more like a disaster movie where the threat is invisible but no less deadly.

Of course, in a scenario like this, disease is only part of the problem. With thousands dropping dead every day and no cure in sight, society begins to break down. Quarantine laws shuts down even essential services. Life as we know it ends rather quickly, and the world’s greatest cities are quickly shadows of their former selves. It truly doesn’t take much, which is the scariest reminder of all.

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Logan Lucky

Jay-Z announced his retirement from the rap game in 2003 with his Black Album. He was back three years later. Barbara Streisand retired from public performance in 2000 but has since toured the world not once but twice. Clint Eastwood declared his intention to retire from acting after 2008’s Gran Torino “You always want to quit while you are ahead” — then appeared in the forgettable 2012 movie Trouble With the Curve. Alec Baldwin wrote “Goodbye, public life” in New York Magazine but made three movies the following year. Shia LaBeouf infamous marked his 2014 retirement with his “I’m not famous anymore” campaign, then signed up for a movie role 3 weeks later. Cher embarked on a 3-year farewell tour, then signed up for Las Vegas residency as soon as it ended. Michael Jordan retired from basketball, played a little baseball, then went back to basketball. Point being: fools keep retiring, then unretiring. Director Steven Soderbergh belongs on the list, after telling everyone in 2013 that he’d lost his passion for film making, and that was it for him. Logan Lucky is the movie that brought him out of “retirement” – was it worth it?

loganluckybros.0Having directed Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve AND Thirteen (and producing the upcoming Eight), Soderbergh is no stranger to heist movies, but considers this one to be their “anti-glam” cousin. Logan Lucky’s characters are gritty, the setting low-rent, the heist a lot less slick – but not uninteresting.

The Logan family consists of brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), and little sister Mellie (Riley Keough). They’re known locally for the Logan family curse; Clyde believes the bad luck sets in just as things start to pick up for them. He recently lost an arm just as his deployment was ending in Iraq. Jimmy, meanwhile, has just lost his job at the mines where he uncovered a bunch of tubes that blast cash money from a NASCAR speedway to an underground bank vault. You can practically see the light bulb go BING! above his head. Soon he’s plotting an elaborate sting that will reverse the family’s fortunes. The one little hitch in is plan is that the heist requires the expertise of Joe Bang, bomb maker (Daniel Craig). And it just so happens that Joe Bang’s in prison. Which means to pull of the heist, they first have to break Joe out of (and then back into) prison.

The caper’s afoot! Logan Lucky has a fun ensemble cast that keep things spicy. The film works because Soderbergh reaches for his familiar bag of tricks: a zippy pace, an almost zany plot. These characters are perhaps not the cleverest, they’re reaching above their pay grade. Half the fun is watching things go wonky. Instead of plot twists, Logan Lucky is peppered with…shall we call them mishaps? Small calamities that keep you groaning, and guessing. It’s almost farcical, and to that end, it’s well-cast. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Daniel Craig is its shining, absurd beacon, stealing all the scenes he’s in and making you anticipate his next one when we’re following someone else.

Unfortunately, the movie really loses steam during its last act. Introducing Hilary Swank as the detective pursuing the case feels both rushed and drawn-out at the same time, somehow. Plus she’s kind of awful. But you know what? The film’s final 10 seconds save the whole damn thing, the cinematic equivalent of a smirk and a wink, and I fell for it.

Welcome back, Mr. Soderbergh.

 

Side Effects

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is trying very hard to be happy. Her husband (Channing Tatum) is newly released from prison and they can resume their lives together. But happiness isn’t coming easy: Emily is depressed, and suicidal. She begins seeing a new doctor side-effects-A032_C011_0101LT_rgb1(Jude Law) who prescribes an anti-depressant called Ablixa. Ablixa’s causing some strange side effects though. Worrisome side effects. Violent side effects.

Side Effects is a smart, well-crafted thriller by Steven Soderbergh. He’s heavily influenced by Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction and hits all the right marks for a taut, twisty little thing. He’s not big on making a statement about pharmaceuticals or psychiatry or mental illness, any of which might have been appropriate.

I forgot how much I liked this movie. It was supposedly Soderbergh’s last, 37B68FB400000578-3766104-image-a-41_1472601500752and it seemed one he could be proud to go out on. TV stuff notwithstanding. But now, at the ripe old age of 53, he’s “come out of retirement” to do Logan Lucky, the new Daniel Craig\Sebastian Stan\Channing Tatum\Katherine Heigl\Adam Driver\Hilary Swank Nascar-heist movie.

But back to Side Effects. The first half is about guilt and mental health: how they interact in a doctor’s office, and in a court of law. The second half is a little more Alfred Hitchcock than Adrian Lyne. Things come unglued. The second half is less successful than the first but a fun, b4b4cec15c78289caf1c4442df99b616engrossing watch. The anxiety is ratcheted up expertly, with Soderbergh always in control. Rooney Mara is a terrific actress and she coasts ably over any rough terrain. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law keep up. Soderbergh stays at the top of his game as well – true, he circumnavigates truth and exploration in favour of entertainment, but it’s forgivable. It’s always forgivable when it’s this fun to watch.

The Las Vegas Chronicles: Ocean’s 11

When Danny Ocean (George Clooney) puts together his 11-man team of thieves to pull the ultimate heist, he’s got some iconic Las Vegas locations in mind: the Bellagio, The MGM Grand, and The Mirage.

The main action takes place at the swankiest of the hotels, the Bellagio, home of those famous fountains. The Bellagio gave the crew unprecedented access, and even closed down their valet parking during filming, forcing even the high rollers to use underground parking (egads!). When Julia Roberts makes her entrance, it’s  down the beautiful staircase in the Bellagio Conservatory but no, you can’t recreate that scene, because the stairs were soon torn down to make room for a spa wing. The biggest stars all stayed at the Bellagio too, and gambled during their down time. George Clooney says Matt Damon won the most money, while Damon insists it was Brad Pitt. The only thing the whole cast agrees on is that it was George who lost the most: he managed to lose an astonishing 25 hands of blackjack in a row.

We’re writing about movies set in Las Vegas this week because that happens to be where we’re hiding out. It’s often called sin city, and I can only assume that sin is gluttony. Las Vegas is home to some of the most fabulous eateries in the entire world. You could easily find a different 12-course, $1200 meal every night of the week, or, alternatively, you could do all-you-can-eat shellfish for $12.99. Brad Pitt’s character is always taking advantage of Las Vegas’s fine foods – in one scene where he’s spying on Julia Roberts, his character is eating shrimp cocktail, and filming went on long enough that Pitt ended up eating 40 shrimps, which is maybe not all you can eat, but definitely more than you should.

In the movie, the script called for the blowing up of hotel New York, New York. However, in the wake of 9\11, it was thought that this image would be too disturbing, and a fake hotel, the Xanadu, stood in. The Xanadu never exited but it was planned to be Vegas’s first mega-resort in the 1970s. Disputes over sewage disrupted plans and it was never built.

And how can we talking about Vegas without talking about Elvis – or talk about this movie without mentioning the song that was remixed and used so successfully? Producers wanted to stay away from the obviousness of “Viva Las Vegas” so they used Presley’s A Little Less Conversation instead, giving it a modern mix. It soon found traction on the radio and became a hit, decades after it was originally recorded. The King is alive and well.

Ocean’s 11 closes with that shot in front of the fountain. The characters saunter away a little mournfully, one by one – a shot that had to be orchestrated for the movie and wouldn’t be possible in real life. They had to drain one of the fountains so the guys had somewhere to go. In the original Ocean’s 11, the men walked away from the Sands casino, which is where many members of the rat pack were performing at the time (in fact, most of the movie had to be filmed in the mornings since the guys sleep in the afternoon, perform at night, get hair and makeup done in the wee hours, and show up to set as the sun rose). Sammy Davis Jr. was not allowed to stay on the strip with his cast-mates and had to be shuttled to a “colored” hotel, and this man was a bona fide player and Vegas mainstay. Sinatra had to appeal to the casino owners for special dispensation to break the colour barrier. How’s that for some warm and fuzzy Vegas nostalgia?

 

We’re traipsing around Vegas this week, so be sure to follow our adventures on Twitter (@assholemovies) – shenanigans guaranteed.