Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lem Dobbs

My alternative canon #6: The Limey

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Terence Stamp in The Limey

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

The Limey, like many of the films of Steven Soderbergh, works brilliantly despite its best intentions. Not much happens, at least not by the standards of the average crime movie: it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, clever locations, canny music choices, and the electric charge of a willing and able cast. Yet every frame pulses with life. It’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of, say, Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everybody involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and the rest. And for all its ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character, or how the film uses archival footage from the vintage Stamp vehicle Poor Cow to show the protagonist in flashback—it isn’t afraid to deliver juicy set pieces, including the single best scene in Soderbergh’s work. I’ll go even further: I don’t think there’s a more exhilarating moment in all of movies than when Stamp, beaten up by goons and dumped on the sidewalk, staggers to his feet and totters back inside to wreak an unseen revenge. (It’s a sequence that turns, crucially, on Stamp’s age: you can almost feel his bones creaking as he straightens up.)

What’s funny about the scene, of course, is that it’s an immensely satisfying moment in a movie that seems otherwise determined to frustrate our expectations. It’s as if Soderbergh inserts it here just to prove that he can, in much the same way that he tosses off a genre piece like Contagion every few years simply to remind us that he’s better at it than pretty much anyone else. As a matter of narrative strategy, though, it’s a shrewd, even essential choice: once the scene is over, we’re willing to follow the movie wherever it wants to go, no matter how much misdirection and digression it throws at us in the meantime. As it stands, we barely even notice that this is a revenge movie without the revenge, or that its stylistic innovations, as delightful as they are, don’t have much to do with the bones of the story. (The writer Lem Dobbs wasn’t pleased with the result, and he airs his grievances in a famously combative commentary track with Soderbergh, which hasn’t stopped the two men from working together again.) Yet that’s also Soderbergh’s greatest strength. He knows how to use star power and conventional narrative payoffs to enable his loonier experiments, and he’s constantly looking to see how much or how little he can get away with using. When it misfires, it’s usually because the proportions are wrong, which is often in the eye of the beholder: Ocean’s 12, for instance, strikes me as a fascinating effort to spin a feature film out of as little substance as possible. If you make twenty movies like this in a row, eventually, you’ll end up with one in which the balance is perfect. Viewers probably won’t agree on which one it is. But for my money, it’s here.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

Haywire and the two sides of Soderbergh

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The frustrating, and exhilarating, thing about the films of Steven Soderbergh is that you never know which Soderbergh you’re going to get. There’s Soderbergh the impeccable craftsman, playful, slightly remote, but still invested in giving the audience a good time, as in Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11, and the brilliant Contagion. Then there’s Soderbergh the deconstructor, the creator of the chilly, often perversely uninviting experiments that dot his filmography from Kafka to The Girlfriend Experience. (One of my favorite Soderbergh movies, Ocean’s Twelve, lies on the uneasy dividing line between the two.) As a result, seeing a Soderbergh film without advance preparation is one of the few real gambles left in moviegoing: sometimes entertaining, sometimes perplexing, but rarely uninteresting. I’ll admit, however, that I went to Haywire hoping to see the former kind of film, a riff by a great director reveling in his own virtuosity, and that it was with a slightly sinking feeling that I realized that the movie would fall squarely in the latter category. I like my Soderbergh chilly, but here, he’s glacial, and in more ways than one.

Of course, the idea of a clinical and narratively austere art house film featuring former mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano is intriguing in itself, and in many ways, Haywire is more fun to think about than to watch. Throughout the film, the reasoning behind Soderbergh’s peculiar choices is always clear, even if they don’t always work. Take the lack of music during the fight scenes. As Soderbergh says to the A.V. Club:

Because we had people who were really doing it, and really could do it, I felt like to drown those sounds out with music, or have them competing with music, would really diminish the fights. It was never intended that we would have music over those fights.There was some pushback over that. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn’t.

As it turns out, both Soderbergh and his critics at the studio were right: the lack of music does highlight the skill and physicality of the performers, but it also saps the movie of momentum whenever it stops for an action sequence. It’s a perfectly justifiable decision, and an oddly principled one, that comes at the expense of the messy compromise between vision and execution that nearly every good movie requires. The same comes with the lack of backstory. Regular readers will know that I hate backstory, but even I wanted slightly more information to ground my understanding of these characters. Haywire is a story of betrayal, with Carano as a private contractor on the run from her own employers, but without any sense of who these people are, it’s hard to care beyond the level of Spy Vs. Spy. As before, it’s a gutsy narrative decision that incidentally undercuts the entire movie. Here, as elsewhere, Soderbergh is just a little too smart for his own good.

None of this would matter if we enjoyed watching the actors, but while Soderbergh stages his fight scenes with panache, he doesn’t devote nearly as much attention to the dialogue or performances. Part of the problem is Carano herself: she’s a striking presence, but with her blank affect and limited range, she’s like Sasha Grey as an action star. Soderbergh surrounds her with capable ringers, but of the supporting cast, only Michael Fassbender, as a treacherous British agent, seems like he’s doing more than dropping by the set for the day. One late sequence, between Ewan McGregor, as Carano’s conniving boss, and Bill Paxton, as her father, is a particular disappointment: Soderbergh strands these two excellent actors together in a remote house, with the promise of a juicy scene to come, but has no idea what to do with them. As the iciness of Soderbergh’s conception drains the life from his cast, it grows increasingly frustrating to watch these actors denied their fair chance to connect with the audience. Soderbergh has always been a director who needs the viewer to meet him halfway, but here, he doesn’t even seem willing to allow that.

The day before seeing Haywire, my wife and I rewatched Soderbergh’s The Limey, one of my favorite movies, and an example of everything Haywire is not. (The same screenwriter, Lem Dobbs, also wrote both films, although you’d never be able to guess it.) Not much happens in The Limey; it’s ninety minutes of scrambled footage spun from little more than style, atmosphere, and the electric charge of a willing cast. Yet every moment of the movie pulses with life: it’s impossible to believe any of it, any more than we can believe in the plot of Haywire, but what’s real enough is the obvious pleasure of everyone involved. Terence Stamp is sensational, of course, but so are Peter Fonda, Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, Barry Newman, and many others. And for all the film’s ravishing tricks with editing and time—as when Fonda is introduced with what amounts to a miniature trailer for his character—it isn’t afraid to deliver big moments, including the single best scene in all of Soderbergh’s work. When Stamp picks himself up from the street, dusts himself off, and pulls a second gun from his waistband, we’re suddenly at the heart of movies: pure cinema and pure storytelling. Soderbergh, as much as any director alive, has shown that he can do both. Let’s hope that he does so again.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2012 at 9:28 am

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