No Sudden Move

Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro at a phone box

On the principle that second-rate Soderbergh is better than no Soderbergh at all, a warm hello to No Sudden Move, a pastiche 1950s crime drama with a Maguffin that insists it’s more than a Maguffin.

Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin and Benicio Del Toro play three prickly guys hired to “babysit” a family (ie hold them hostage) while one of them takes Dad Matt (David Harbour) off to pick up something from a safe. That “something” becomes increasingly important as the story progresses, eventually bathing everything in a Chinatown-style glow as it becomes apparent that behind these no-marks is a vast scheme based on corporate corruption of a sort that makes day-to-day Mob activity look silly.

Talking of mobsters, early on we meet Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), the face who’s hired Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin), but behind him, so the whisper goes, might be Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) or possibly Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke), a pair of local mobsters, though there’s also talk of teams moving in from out of town, from Detroit, Chicago or Illinois, or possibly all three. This thing is big, which should make small-fry Curt and crew nervous but doesn’t, because all three of them are hoping for a quick in and out and also because they’re all a bit dim.

Anyhow, what looks like it’s going to be a straight-up family-hostage drama, reinforced by the fact that it’s excellent Amy Seimetz playing the concerned matriarch, becomes something far less straightforward once – big breath – a) it’s established husband/dad Matt has been having an affair with his secretary, b) they were planning on running off to California together, c) the “something” at the husband’s workplace isn’t in the safe, d) one of the gang unexpectedly dies, e) the police arrive, f) the surviving two set about playing one big gangster off against another, hoping to somehow wriggle through the gaps and come out of this morass as wealthier men.

There are more plot turns, a lot more, involving Matt’s shifty boss Mel Forbert (Hugh Maguire), four-square cop Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) and corporate big wheel Mike Lowen (Matt Damon). And as the actual nature of what was meant to have been stolen becomes clear, it’s as if, somewhere in the screenwriter afterlife, Raymond Chandler (the increasingly unfathomable plot) and Robert Towne (the LA-corruption angle) are duking it out for possession of the film’s soul.

Frankie Shaw and David Harbour
Matt gets no comfort from Paula



Here the screenwriter is Ed Solomon, best known for light-hearted larks really, having written Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels and the Bill and Ted movies, but he’s got his pastiche hat firmly screwed on in No Sudden Move, having clearly binge-watched a lot of movies featuring men in hats talking out of the side of their mouths. Some snappy one-liners occasionally move things towards a comedy precipice, especially as it becomes more obvious that our smalltime criminal heroes are incompetent and/or drunk most of the time.

The dead weight of pastiche extends to Steven Soderbergh, who alternates his usual sparkling shooting style with scenes done very dark, often in impressively big interiors full of wood and with ornate ceilings, plus the odd Edward Hopper-inspired exterior shot to emphasise America at its most American, while David Arnold’s score hums along with drums, bongos and double bass picking out a downbeat jazzy vibe.

The best pastiches (like, say, Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS movies starring Jean Dujardin) aren’t just technically accomplished, they re-orient our attitudes to the original material – they have a political agenda.

There’s no such thing going on here. Instead, Soderbergh gives us an accomplished and very cool exercise in style. If you’re in the mood to roll around in one of those, you’ll probably enjoy No Sudden Move more than I did. On top of that, for all the joys of seeing this first-rate cast and laying a small bet on how underused Ray Liotta is going to be (again), there’s a fatal indecision about how comedic things are actually meant to be. It’s like the Three Stooges without jokes.

As for the postscript insisting that the movie has been about a real-life conspiracy driven by a cartel of US car manufacturers, it’s as good as an admission by Soderbergh and Solomon that they’ve failed. Sumptuously.



No Sudden Move – Get David Arnold’s original soundtrack at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Let Them All Talk

Meryl Streep in spectacles



Meryl Streep, Candice Bergman and Dianne Wiest star in Let Them All Talk and even before it’s started the names alone seem to suggest two possible outcomes.

It’s either going to be an American version of one of those British Dame Dramas, in which various theatrical Maggies or Judis are arranged fragrantly and tastefully, with the odd “fuck” thrown in to show the noble ladies are still down to earth.

Or it’s going to be a female version of one of those Four Old Dudes Go to Vegas comedies, in which the once hip gracefully accept they’re now in the hip-replacement demographic, with the odd “fuck” thrown, possibly of the physical sort, just to show the guys have still got some sort of it.

Streep plays the grand dame writer Alice Hughes, heading across the ocean on a liner even grander than herself, the Queen Mary 2, a modern Cunard ship of the old school, accompanied by two old friends from university days, Roberta (Bergen) and Susan (Wiest), her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and her agent, Karen (Gemma Chan).

It’s not quite as easy as that though. The crossing is paid for by the publisher, hoping that Alice’s current book is going to be a sequel to a monster seller, though Alice is keeping her cards very close to her chest on that front and these days rather favours difficult, challenging work, which doesn’t sell. Karen is on board entirely unbeknown to Alice, more as a spy than an agent, especially once she starts connecting with nephew Tyler on the downlow, who can’t believe his luck, him being a bit dweebie and all. And the friends – who in fact have barely seen each other in decades – aren’t entirely sure why they’ve been invited, especially Roberta, who has an ancient beef with Alice.

Add to that a mystery man who is regularly glimpsed leaving Alice’s suite in the morning and the presence of another author on board, a massively popular Robert Ludlum type (Dan Algrant), and the bones of a farce start to appear, with aspects of both the British Dame Drama and the Four Old Dudes comedy.

Note to self: if you ever for some reason are invited to take a trip on an ocean-going liner, please buy some new clothes before you go. There is opulence and quite a lot of formality on display here. Director Steven Soderbergh shot the bulk of the film on board the actual Queen Mary 2, some guerrilla style, some carefully staged, the paying passengers acting as extras and adding ocean-going authenticity.

A jaunty thriller, Agatha Christie meets Woody Allen in his Manhattan Murder Mystery years, is the result, with most of the characters play-acting a version of themselves while pursuing their own hidden agenda, particularly Bergen’s Roberta and Chan’s Karen, though everyone is at it to some extent, except for Algrant’s Kelvin Kranz, the writer of whodunit mysteries really the only straight shooter on board.

Diane Wiest and Candice Bergen
Diane Wiest and Candice Bergen



The needle between Roberta and Alice – when is that iceberg going to be struck? – is enough to keep the whole thing afloat while we watch exquisite technicians at work. Not just the actors but also Soderbergh, who gives everything that high Soderbergh sheen, Ocean’s 11 style, on an actual ocean, with the chill-lounge soundtrack adding plump luxuriousness. The camerawork and editing (both also Soderbergh, using pseudonyms) – little drop-in sequences of life on board a vast liner – also open up what could just as easily have been staged in a couple of rooms, and would translate fairly easily to the theatre.

Wiest comes into her own more as things go on but is mostly there as a sounding board for Bergen’s bitter Roberta, and as a buffer between the two other women, Bergen unfazed by Streep as a character and as an actor. Lovely to watch, particularly as everyone is improvising their lines as they go. Chan and Hedges must have been sweating bullets against this formidable threesome, but they’re both excellent in tricky roles that demand finesse and downstage playing.

It’s an examination of friendship, blah blah, in the way that all artistic product has to be something deeper than it appears on the surface. But in fact the joy of Let Them All Talk isn’t to be found in any “deep” meaning at all. That’s all left in the realm of the speculative.

In the same way that a Swiss watch, or an ocean-going liner is entirely unnecessary, there is no real need for this film to exist, though it is at the same time a stately example of precision craftsmanship of the highest order.




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The Girlfriend Experience

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

4 August

 

Barack Obama born, 1961

On this day in 1961, Barack Hussein Obama II was born, in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

His parents were Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr, the former an anthropologist from Wichita, Texas, the latter a student from Kenya who would go on to graduate from Harvard before returning to Kenya where he would become a government economist.

Barack Jr’s parents separated when he was only days old and his mother moved, first to Seattle, then back to Hawaii, where she met her second husband, Leo Soetoro, and married again in 1965.

Her husband moved back to Indonesia in 1966 and Barack’s mother moved her family to join him there in 1967, having completed her anthropology degree. The family lived in Jakarta until, in 1971, Barack moved back to Hawaii on his own, aged ten, to live with his grandparents.

In 1979, he moved to Los Angeles to go to college and in 1981 made his first political speech, urging his college to cut its investment ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

 

 

 

The Girlfriend Experience (2009, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

The first proper credit crunch movie out of Hollywood is also one of the first to mention Barack Obama. Just casually, early on, as a bunch of guys are discussing the President’s bail-out package.

It’s not the point of the film, which is about other types of packages – the tumescent one that a male client wants to insert into the woman he’s bought by the hour, and the emotional one the female offers in return.

Director Steven Soderbergh’s casting coup is to get Sasha Grey, a real porn star, to play the high end hooker in well tailored suits and designer shades who offers “the girlfriend experience” to men who have the $2,000 a night to pay for it. This involves her going around with them, to fancy restaurants, to art galleries, all the time behaving as if she is in fact their loving girlfriend. Sex might be involved, but it’s not necessarily.

Watching Chelsea (her working name) on the job is one of the fascinations of the film. She gives nothing of herself away, always asks open questions, is constantly steering the conversation away from herself. You might get “the girlfriend experience” but that doesn’t mean you get real intimacy, only a simulacrum.

What Chelsea actually offers is a sales experience and the men on the whole seem to go for it, because they want to be seen out on the town with a great looking high status woman.

I’m not convinced that Soderbergh and writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman have thought too far past this high concept, but they’ve gone far enough to include other interesting scenes in which everything has a price but no real worth. At one point the camera casually includes a homeless man drumming on the street. He is clearly a real talent. No one pays him the slightest bit of attention, because he’s a bum. Later, at an art gallery, where Chelsea and one of her clients are trying to buy art, the dealer has an offhand almost dismissive attitude to what he’s selling. When forced to offer an artistic evaluation of the painting they’re standing in front of, he says “it kind of looks like a clown”.

As you can imagine, in 2009, with world economies teetering, pointing out that consumerism is so rampant that it extends into personal relationships was like trying to sell a surfing holiday after a tsunami. Was Soderbergh being brave, or was he just too rich to notice what was going on outside his golden bubble?

Setting so much of the film in hotel lobbies and bland corporate spaces, opting for an almost affectless, bored performance from Grey, Soderbergh has been accused of making a boring film, a flat, uninvolved one. This is to miss the subtlety of his camera, which repeatedly focuses not on where we expect it to, but somewhere else – while characters are talking the camera is not on their faces but on the bar behind, where transactions are going on. He follows the money. And you can’t accuse the film of not being good looking, Soderbergh matching the cool elegance of Grey with seductive cinematography worthy of his biggest budget efforts, such as the Oceans movies.

And in the end, what does he say? Not much. That humans shouldn’t live like this. There’s more to life than money. What men really want is comfort and love. And so do women. If there is such a thing as a stealth tragedy, The Girlfriend Experience is it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Sasha Grey’s fascinating performance
  • Soderbergh’s cool camera
  • Hollywood’s first credit crunch movie
  • Surprisingly lacking in sex

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Girlfriend Experience – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Side Effects

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

19 February

 

 

Damages for thalidomide children, 1968

On this day in 1968, the High Court in the UK presided over a settlement to 62 children born with deformities caused by the drug thalidomide. Thalidomide had been first marketed in 1957 in West Germany as a sedative and was later sold over the counter as a cure for morning sickness in pregnant women. Within months there was a huge increase in the number of babies born with missing and deformed limbs, deformed eyes, bowels, and hearts. Around 40% of these children died. The story repeated itself in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and other countries where it had been claimed that it “can be given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without adverse effect on mother or child.” It was this claim for “complete safety” that would lead to a claim against The Distillers Company, who marketed the drug in Britain. The drug was never licensed for use in the USA, largely because one woman at the FDA, Frances Oldham Kelsey, refused to grant a licence without evidence of safety trials. In the UK the trial and compensation award largely hinged on whether Distillers had a duty of care to unborn children. English common law was silent on the issue. It was essentially down to the distinction between “fault” and “responsibility” – Distillers might not have knowingly done what they did but should they have taken responsibility. The out-of-court award negotiated on the steps of the High Court was made thanks in part to a campaign by The Sunday Times, but Distillers’ largesse came with the understanding that all allegations of negligence be withdrawn. Eventually, partly goaded by a share price suffering from negative publicity and a campaign against it in the USA, Distillers substantially increased their payment. Thalidomide is still in use today, as a cancer growth blocker.

 

 

 

Side Effects (2013, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

One of the fascinating things about watching Side Effects is trying to work out what sort of a film it is. It kicks off with a depressed Rooney Mara getting put on a series of SSRIs, happy pills, after a suicide attempt, by her doctor (Jude Law), who eventually gets her on to a new wonder drug, Ablixa. She goes home to her husband, just out of prison for insider trading, who is taken aback by the fact that she wants rampant sex with him, all of a sudden. The fact that the husband is played by Channing Tatum being an obvious sign that she really was depressed, because what woman wouldn’t normally want to … etc etc. But then things take a turn and the side effects of Ablixa start to exert themselves spectacularly. Mara winds up in prison for a crime that might have been caused by the pills she’s on. Somewhere round here the film starts to switch focus, from the patient to the doctor, who starts digging further into the case, uncovering as he goes a toxic Big Pharma advocate in the shape of Catherine Zeta-Jones (who seems to have decided that poisonous is what she’s best at as an actress). We’ve been diverted slyly into a whodunit, with Law as the not-entirely-righteous searcher for truth in a murky world controlled by mega corporations who spend vast budgets convincing the gullible they need what’s on offer. The slide into something much more recognisably 1940s continues with two further twists which won’t do anything for the promotion of women but do allow both Mara and Zeta-Jones to really let rip as actors, Mara in particular. It’s true that Side Effects has its faults – Law’s transformation from passive doctor to active investigator never quite stacks up. But as I said the real joy here is watching Soderbergh making the film change track as if it were a train running across a mammoth set of points. As for Scott Z Burns’s script, it deliberately invokes the 1940s femme fatale in an attempt to say something salient about the 21st century sense of entitlement – First World Problems, in other words.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A twisty dark thriller
  • Another great Rooney Mara performance
  • The associated spoof website for Ablixa
  • Thomas Newman’s jangly mood-setting score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Side Effects – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Erin Brockovich

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

 

 

After Sex, Lies and Videotape, director Steven Soderbergh’s career starting sliding and looked like it was going to go from thumbs up to belly up. Then he came back hard with two great movies in two years and laid down the template for his working practice in the future. Which was more or less “one for me, one for them”. The Limey bore the marks of the personal film: offbeat casting (Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda), whacked-out situations, experimental structure. Then there is this. Erin Brockovich tells the David and Goliath story of the busty legal assistant (Julia Roberts plus chest prosthetics) who takes on a corporation that’s polluted a small town’s water supply and ruined the health of nearly everyone in it. It’s classic Hollywood in every sense: a big-name star in a straight-ahead story told without tricks. But what marks out Soderbergh as master of all he surveys are the brilliant performances he wrings from Roberts (not always everyone’s fave, but here she’s a rave) and Albert Finney (always great, here perfect, though it’s not much of a role) and his absolute insistence on subsuming everything – you can almost hear the stars’ agents whining in the background – to the plot. It works, completely. As I write Soderbergh has just announced his retirement from film-making with Side Effects, though on closer examination it seems he’s just decided to stop making films for the Hollywood system. Erin Brockovich reminds us of the time when Hollywood and Soderbergh were a perfect fit.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Erin Brockovich – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traffic

 

 

 

Traffic started life as Traffik, a 1989 mega-mini-series following the heroin trail from Pakistan through Germany and into the UK. It was brutal, it was gruelling and it was a cracker. The decision to remake it as a leg-knotting 2hr 20 min single film, and transfer the action to Mexico and the US, delivers an extra hit, a political one. After all, the US government advocates free trade and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable principles while at the same time banning the importation and enjoyment of drugs. It’s this fault line that Traffic patrols, as it follows four interwoven stories: the drugs czar (Michael Douglas) with the addict daughter; the feds trying to bust a dealer; the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) taking up the reins of her husband’s trafficking business; and the decent Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) falling foul of the drugs barons. No one comes out smelling of roses, or poppies for that matter, in a masterfully shot film that doesn’t finger-wag, preferring an it’s-all-a-mess shrug. Result: both sides of the drugs debate count director Steven Soderbergh as one of their own. Two-way Traffic, I suppose.

 

Traffic – at Amazon