Haywire (2012) Soderbergh succeeds again, in that he has crafted the most realistic spy thriller I have ever seen, uses yet another ensemble cast effectively, and manages to bring MMA fighter Gina Carano convincingly to the forefront. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a very skilled spy who has been betrayed and burned by her boss, played by the always-great Ewan McGregor. Not exactly breaking any new ground, but the execution is flawless. All, and I mean all of the action scenes are done wonderfully, from beautifully choreographed fights, to amazing chase sequences. Kudos to the supporting cast as well. Channing Tatum (improving) and Michael Fassbender are very good as agents who find out that it isn’t always smart to follow orders. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas excel as suits who you never know exactly what their intentions are. Bill Paxton is also very good as Mallory’s father who is still working on coming to terms with his daughter’s profession. Finally, Carano fares well against her skilled co-stars and will have you routing for Mallory all the way. Very re-watchable and adding to the awesome factor is that all the actors did their own stunts. Awesome.
JV: This was outstanding - pure adrenaline from start to finish. I can't quibble with anything he wrote here, and I'd love to see another installment at some point.
The Informant! (2009). A good film but not a great one, The Informant! isn’t completely lacking. Matt Damon is Mark Whitacre, a super-white, naïve, goofy executive at a lysine processing plant, and is wonderful. Damon gained thirty pounds to play doughy Whitacre and is completely believable in the role. Also great are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale as the FBI agents who are constantly exhausted by the energetic Whittacre. Where the film falters is that it can be a bit boring at times and is kind of confusing until the end. Whittacre does serve as the narrator after all. What I will say about Soderbergh is that he is great at making all his characters, no matter how minor, believable, and he can bring out a good performance in most actors. I would go as far to say that he rivals the Coen brothers in that his minor characters are that good. Not his best but far from his worst.
JV: "Super-white?" Yeah, I guess that describes Damon's character accurately. For me, this one suffered from an identity crisis - it wasn't quite sure it wanted to be a satire, a comedy, or a straight drama, and ultimately ended up being a little less than the sum of its parts.
Traffic (2000). Falling under the category of long ensemble dramas (that’s a genre right?), this film manages to be engaging at all times. And when I say ensemble, I mean ensemble; flippin’ everyone is in this movie: Michael Douglas, Amy Irving, Topher Grace, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Catherine-Zeta Jones, Luis Guzmán, Dennis Quaid, Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis, John Slattery, EVERYONE. Even better (and more surprising) is that they’re all fantastic. Soderbergh is incredibly skilled at making all his characters believable and intriguing. The film follows three storylines all involving the illegal drug trade. One of them is from the perspective of Michael Douglas as the U.S. drug czar who discovers that his daughter has developed a serious drug addiction; his sections are especially haunting. The next storyline involves Catherine Zeta-Jones as the wife of a drug lord who is being prosecuted, so she is forced to take the reins of an empire she was unaware of. At the same time, Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán are DEA agents trying to put her husband behind bars and take away her life of luxury. Zeta-Jones’ transformation is remarkable. The final storyline has Benicio del Toro, in a much-deserved Oscar winning role, as a Mexican police officer who tries to be a good cop while surrounded by corruption. The stories are all linked in some way and all have satisfying conclusions. Soderbergh won Best Director, an award I believe was equally well-deserved.
JV: I haven't seen all of his films yet, but so far this is clearly Soderbergh's masterpiece. According to Wikipedia, Soderbergh's original cut clocked in at 3 hours, 10 minutes, and I would love to see that version. Each of the stories is compelling, and even given its length (even with the studio cuts, 2 hours, 20 minutes) it never flags for a moment. I liked "Gladiator" a lot, but this should have won the Best Picture Oscar.
The Good German (2006). One of Soderbergh’s experiments, this one is basically his own version of "Casablanca," and ends up being hit-and-miss. The presentation is beautiful; Soderbergh used filmmaking techniques of the 1940s and succeeds in crafting a film that looks like it could have been made during the time period. George Clooney, in his usual top form, plays a war correspondent who is thrust into a mystery involving the murder of his driver and an old flame whose actions are questionable. They are played by Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett, respectively, who also are very good. Maguire plays "angry young officer" very well while Blanchett shows us the nuances of a wife who simply wants to save her husband. Beau Bridges is also memorable as a general who doesn’t really seem to care what’s going on. Unfortunately, the film falters because it ends up being boring, confusing until the exposition, and we feel no connection to the characters. Style seemed to be what Soderbergh favored in this instance.
JV: OK, I admit it - I slept through most of this one. But none of what I saw during my waking moments made me want to watch it again. Not every experiment works, after all.