Jan. – Early Feb. (Reviews)


The Girlfriend Experience (Soderbergh, 2009)

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t work as a poignant commentary about contradictions in consumerism, nor is it a particularly engaging character study about a call girl (Sasha Grey) adrift in turmoil. In fact, none of the main characters or themes are very interesting (Glenn Kenny’s uber-freak critic aside), and they exist in shades rather than full complex entities. The film is unforgivably dull at times, watching characters sidestep emotions and motivations in favor of manipulative rhetoric (Wall Street anyone), riding for long stretches on Soderbergh’s blatant halos of grey/blue hues and metallic infrastructure sheen.

But there is a saving grace. Soderbergh makes up for the overall mundanity with some brilliant non-linear editing, fragmenting the story by overlapping images, colors, and shadows in challenging ways. Scale and lighting mold the cuts, and the temporal gaps continuously confound the surface level narrative. Unlike the atrocious Bubble, Soderbergh’s other recent foray into focused HD filmmaking, The Girlfriend Experience creates a shifting cinematic world with potential for subtextual returns. Yet Soderbergh’s vision turns up little, a fickle cynic that is many things – incredibly hollow, savagely impersonal, and altogether silly (Hollywood anyone). Grey breaks the film’s back with some atrocious acting, leaving only the ambitious disjointed montage in her wake. And maybe not ironically, we are left with anything but an experience.

The Informant! (Soderbergh, 2009)

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A tragic comedy without laughs, Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! purposefully poses as a genre film to shroud the multi-faceted character study hiding at its core. But what genre exactly is indeed a tough question to answer. Lead chameleon Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a scientist/VP for a giant corporation now turned whistle-blower, fuels this battle between surface and subtext, perception and reality with his relentlessly shifting personality. This is best represented by a stream of consciousness voice over vitalizing the sense of random purpose inherent to the man’s personal self-worth. For Whitacre, playing coy and deceiving is his equivalent to James Bond’s lethal PP7.

The rise and fall arc never achieves a grandiose sense of emotion, and it’s not supposed to. Soderbergh deliberately manipulates the viewer throughout with fascinating asides, overemphasized scenes of dialogue, and cunning moments of action, allowing Damon’s layered performance to reveal itself slowly and surely. He frames the entire film within a blinding yellow haze of a world, a purgatory of sorts between the economic hell of one decade and the expansive globalization of the next.

The Informant! is a deceptively poignant film, tough to pin down in many respects as it peels away the personality of man protected by a thick wall of lies and compromises. Even if the extremely ambitious story structure and critique of big business are not always  successful, Soderbergh’s strange and hypnotic film is about as audacious as Hollywood comes, challenging the viewer at every turn to unravel an anti-mystery worth solving and contemplate what kind of man and system would allow such folly to exist.

Che (Soderbergh, 2008)

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Che, Steven Soderbergh’s beguiling 4 1/2 hour epic on revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, purposefully avoids advancing the psychological or “controversial” motives behind its subject. Instead, throughout both the grandiose myth-making of the film’s first halve entitled The Argentine, which follows Che’s involvement with the Castro brothers in the Cuban Revolution, and the second, more brutally constrained Bolivian segment entitled Guerilla, Soderbergh contemplates Che as a man driven by a private, unseen motivation often only expressed through the volatility of his environment. Soderbergh sees this particular modern history as a series of doubles, structuring binaries which compliment and contradict each other. Whereas The Argentine and it’s fragmented set-pieces charting the gradual invasion of Cuba hints at an almost romantic vision of revolution, Guerrilla shows a failure of equal proportions – an entrenched Che surrounded and hunted by Bolivian special forces. This pattern persists, and whether it’s the jungles of Cuba juxtaposed with the forests of Bolivia or the hint at love in The Argentine promptly smashed by the absence of it in The Guerrilla, Soderbergh documents Che as an idealist defined by his lasting commitment to his beliefs and not by romantic notions of change. Unlike the countless other biopics of recent years, Che portrays a man convinced of his path, never swayed by outside forces for better or worse. This fortitude comes close to zealotry, but Benicio del Toro’s haunting performance enables a fascinating mix of ambition, sincerity, and honor to emerge making this fictional impression a fascinating onion to peel one layer at a time. Che comes close to capturing the indescribable beauties of historiographical study, the back alley’s and cul-de-sac’s of history at odds with popular culture, preconceived notions, and historical record. Soderbergh’s vision opens a window into the intimate and intricate procedures of a revolution, and the contrasting colors of success and failure that inevitably define such a complex process.