Tag Archives: Steven Soderbergh

Bank Vaults & Bullion: Nate’s Top Ten Heist Films

Why are Heist flicks so much fun? Is it the brotherly camaraderie between a pack of thieves out to pull a job? The elaborate ruses and ditch efforts employed to deceive and elude authorities? Gunfights n’ car chases? Safe cracking? Priceless art? For me it’s all of the above and more, this is a rip roaring sub genre ripe with possibilities, packed with twist laden narratives and filled with pure escapism at every turn. Here are my top ten personal favourites!

10. Mimi Leder’s The Code aka Thick As Thieves

This is admittedly kind of a middle of the road, not so amazing film but I really dig it anyways. So basically a veteran jewel thief (Morgan Freeman) hires a skilled rookie (Antonio Banderas) to pull off an apparently impossible diamond heist in order to pay back a dangerous Russian mobster (Rade Servedzija) he owes for another job. Meanwhile an obsessed detective (Robert Forster) watches their every move and waits to pounce while a slinky mystery woman (Radha Mitchell) gets in the way and manipulates everyone. It’s low key and nothing super groundbreaking but as passable entertainment with a terrific cast and some genuinely clever twists it does the job. Oh and a young Tom Hardy shows up too, which is a nice bonus.

9. Spike Lee’s Inside Man

My favourite Spike Lee joint sees super thief Clive Owen break into a high profile NYC bank and streetwise cop Denzel Washington try to figure out what he’s after, a task that doesn’t prove so easy. This is a whip smart, caffeinated and oh so slightly self aware crime thriller that is so watchable even the actors seem to have a small smirk just getting to be a part of it. The narrative does some delicious roper dopes, pinwheels and double turns and by the end of it you’ll find yourself thinking back to the start just to see how it all ended up the way it does.

8. Scott Frank’s The Lookout

Psychological drama combines deftly with criminal intrigue in this tale of a brain damaged ex hockey player (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who gets roped into a rural bank robbery. This is a dark, idiosyncratic story with vivid performances from all including Matthew Goode as the guy who organizes the job and Jeff Daniels as Levitt’s blind roommate.

7. Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast

Ben Kingsley basically grabs this film from the get go and tears it to shreds with a mad dog performance, but in and around his shenanigans is a brilliant London set narrative that sees retired expert Gal (Ray Winstone) jetting back for one last job. With a sharp, acidic script, jet black humour and eccentric performances across the board, this becomes a terrific heist film with a dash of many other things sprinkled in.

6. Jonathan Sobol’s The Art Of The Steal

This one flew right under the radar despite a fresh, funny story and a stacked cast. Ex art thief turned motorcycle daredevil Kurt Russell is lured out of semi retirement by his terminally untrustworthy brother (Matt Dillon) to steal a priceless work along with a highly dysfunctional crew of would be professionals. The story is brilliantly told and leaves plenty of room for actors to improvise and inject their own personality. This deserved way more acclaim that it got and I’ve always wondered why such a slick flick with Kurt Russell in the lead never even got a theatrical release. You also get the legendary Terence Stamp stealing scenes as the world’s grumpiest art thievery guru turned federal informant too.

5. Michael Mann’s Thief

Rain slicked streets, restless urban nocturnes and expert thieves taking down big scores. Mann first distilled his crime aesthetic here in the tale of one master thief (James Caan) looking for one last big job that will allow him to retire with his wife (Tuesday Weld) and kid. Featuring vivid performances from Willie Nelson, Jim Belushi, Dennis Farina and Robert Prosky, a gorgeous synth score by Tangerine Dream and visuals that dazzle with colour, shiny steel and iridescent nightscapes, this a crime classic that set the bar for many to come after.

4. John Frankenheimer’s Ronin

This film is a lot of things; car chase flick, Cold War spy game, battlefield allegory, Agatha Christie style whodunit and yes, a heist flick too although the job itself is kind of just a McGuffin that initiates a deliriously fun Europe trotting action film that sees a rogues gallery of mercenaries for hire make their way from London to Nice in search of a suitcase whose contents are never revealed. Robert DeNiro, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Jean Reno and Natascha McElhone are all on fire as dodgy rapscallions whose moral compasses, or lack thereof, are slowly revealed with each new turn of events.

3. Danny Boyle’s Trance

This film begins with a London art heist that is straightforward and takes place in our physical world and then delves into another one that takes place decidedly within in the mind to steal hidden information. Boyle’s best film kind of blindsides you as it progresses, exploring concepts of hypnotism, morality, psychological conditions and eventually even relationships, all existing around the theft of a painting whose whereabouts remain a tantalizing mystery. This is mature, unexpected, affecting, dynamic, trippy and altogether unique storytelling and is one of my favourite films of the past decade.

2. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

The rat pack got an update in this impossibly cool ensemble piece revolving around the complex, brazen and often hilarious heist of three Vegas casinos by veteran thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his motley crew. The easygoing, laidback hum of Vegas is a relaxing atmosphere for Soderbergh & Co to make this breezy, brisk caper come alive and never outstay it’s welcome nor pass too fleetingly. The character work is sublime too, from Brad Pitt shovelling junk food in to his mouth in every scene to Bernie Mac causing HR drama to Carl Reiner masquerading as a middle eastern businessman and, my personal favourite, Elliott Gould as a fussy Jewish teddy bear of a casino kingpin.

1. Michael Mann’s Heat

Score two for Mann! This masterful LA crime saga is pretty much the granddaddy of heist flicks as bird of prey super-cop Al Pacino hunts down elusive master burglar Robert DeNiro in an expansive showdown that moves all over the city and has many players and moving parts. There’s a near mythological grandiosity to this film, as well as meticulous detail employed in all the ballsy scores taken on by DeNiro and in Pacino’s ruthless efforts to bring him down. From an explosive armoured car hijacking on the tangled LA overpass to one of the most spectacular bank robbery turned firefights and a moody, mournful final showdown this thing soars of wings of pure craftsmanship and aesthetic mastery.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!

-Nate Hill

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Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Jennifer Lopez Performances

Jennifer Lopez has long been a powerhouse across many different genres, mediums and forms of artistic expression. Her gritty urban vibe laced with an angelic tenderness always rules the screen whenever she shows up in cinema, as well as a heaven sent singing voice, unbelievable dance skills and charisma for days. I’m not altogether familiar with her music career but I’ve greatly enjoyed her work in film for decades, she’s intense, varied, heartfelt and always completely focused. Here are my personal top ten performances:

10. Gabriela in Bob Rafaelson’s Blood & Wine

Essentially a thankless side chick role, she expertly plays demanding mistress to Jack Nicholson’s narcissistic petty thief in this pitch black crime drama that’s filled to the brim with contemptible characters. She makes the most out of an early career turn here and makes as vivid an impression as the rest of the prolific cast, almost all of which are cast against type.

9. Grace Santiago in Joseph Ruben’s Money Train

This is a terrific buddy action flick that sailed right under everyone’s radar and these days remains overlooked. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson are the two cops, also adoptive brothers and Jennifer is the fellow officer caught between them. It’s interesting because both the script and her performance shirk the usual love triangle tropes and although there is romantic interest, she serves a much more functional part in the story than just that and ends up being smarter and tougher than both of them.

8. Harlee Santos in NBC’s Shades Of Blue

Many of the cop shows these days blur together, don’t last long or just aren’t all that memorable but this was something special due in part to Lopez and costar Ray Liotta, whose chemistry is incredible. She plays a big city cop who gets deep into corruption almost by accident with her trouble prone, hotheaded boss, friend and mentor (Liotta). It’s a tricky wade through urban quagmires of moral distress and bad decisions, she anchors it beautifully with a performance that elicits sympathy despite the crimes committed and has you feeling like you’re right there beside her.

7. Teri Flores in Luis Llosa’s Anaconda

Ahh, one of the ultimate 90’s nostalgic B movies. JLo plays it sexy and dangerous here in high adventure mode, holding her own against tough guy Ice Cube and creepy poacher Jon Voight. There’s been so many horrendous TV movie creature features in the last ten years (Pirahnaconda comes to mind as some bastard offspring of this) that people forget how legitimately fun this one is. J makes it so too in a performance that’s never too campy and never to straight faced.

6. Slim Hiller in Michael Apted’s Enough

A royally abusive, psychotic husband (Billy Campbell) gets an epic beatdown from Lopez’s Slim, the battered housewife and mother who has had, you guessed it, Enough. This film gets a bad rep but fuck the people, it’s a terrific star vehicle, effective thriller, stunt showcase and cathartic revenge story that is engaging, affecting and re-watchable. Jen makes a dynamic, sympathetic lead and you really feel every punch and kick when she fights back. Supported by an eclectic cast including Juliette Lewis, Jeff Kober, Noah Wyle, Dan Futterman, Bill Cobbs and Fred Ward, this has always been one of my favourites and stands as an example of how good Lopez is in a starring role.

5. Jean Gylkyson in Lasse Hallström’s An Unfinished Life

Maybe the most complex performance on this list sees her yet again play a victim of abuse, on the run from her nasty ex husband (Damien Lewis). She takes refuge on the ranch owned by her estranged father (Robert Redford) and their complex, stormy past relationship is explored meditatively by both as well as director Hallström who always has a way with challenging dramas. Jen really shows the deeply etched hurt and regret in her work here, one gets the sense that she maybe blames herself for certain things, the fascination is in seeing a slow but steady recovery and reconciliation for her as well as Redford.

4. Selena Quintanilla in Gregory Nava’s Selena

She brings light, warmth and beauty to an inspirational yet heartbreakingly tragic true life story that earned her a Golden Globe nomination and established her as a force to be reckoned with as both an actress and singer. The real life Selena rose to chart topping levels almost overnight and delivered a knockout solo performance at the Houston Astrodome, and here JLo paints a breathtaking picture of these events and embodies the artist with grace and charisma to spare.

3. Grace McKenna in Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Here she plays the only First Nations femme fatale on record (or at least the only one that comes to mind) in Stone’s wild, edgy and ultra violent sun soaked neo-noir. It’s the tale of one one wayward man (Sean Penn) who comes to town and wishes he hadn’t as it seems every local, yokel and their mothers all have it in for him. Grace is a manipulating, slutty, sociopathic, dangerous little brat who plays him and her tyrannical husband/stepfather (Nick Nolte at his slimiest) against each other to deliberately cause chaos for everyone. There’s a wounded bird vulnerability she displays as a lure that switches into conniving mind games before her targets can even react, it’s a deadly piece of work from Lopez that nails both the past trauma in this damaged girl’s psyche and the hard, amoral edge that it has cultivated in her.

2. Karen Sisco in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight

She rocks the Elmore Leonard dialogue like no other as smart, sexy and uncompromising federal marshal Sisco, who becomes conflicted when her feelings for slick ex-con Jack (George Clooney) threaten to derail her job. This is another performance that shows off her toughness and vulnerability, sometimes in the same scene. There’s one part where she’s sitting quietly having a drink in an airport bar, minding her own business. A couple hapless businessmen take turns trying to pick her up with increasingly pathetic tactics, and it’s a joy to see her firmly shut each one down with equal parts class, stealth and just plain magnetism. Don’t even get me started on the multitude of scenes between her and Clooney, they’re pure magic.

1. Catherine Deane in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell

A child psychologist who enters people’s dreams to learn about their mental state and help them, she’s forced to navigate the subconscious of a comatose serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) and find hidden truths in his threatening world. Jen finds the complexity and compassion in this character, it’s her innate empathy with the human beings around her that drives the work she does, and she radiates light and resilience. As the cops around her express judgment when she adopts the killer’s dog when all is said and done, you can feel that a combination of seeing people’s private worlds inside their minds and her intuitive nature has made her this way, and the performance from Jen to back that up is remarkable.

Thanks for reading!

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

I’m usually a nut for anything that Steven Soderbergh has made, but Side Effects was a big ol’ dud. I think it had something to do with expectations, really; I was sold on a smart, scary psychological thriller that explored the unnerving fallout behaviour of trial drugs and shady products snuck into consumerism by Big Pharma. What I got turned out to be a lurid, trashy exercise in deception and Basic Instinct shenanigans, the kind of back end to a film you’d find Eric Roberts or Mark Harmon starring in on HBO back in the day. Not that that’s a bad thing per se, it was just definitely not what I expected from a filmmaker as thoughtful as Soderbergh, but I guess this was his playful side taking over the wheel in the third act. Rooney Mara plays a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, an event which seems to coincide with her recent depression and suicidal behaviour. Her psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes her an experimental new drug, likely not yet even approved by the FDA, and things go from bad to worse when she kills hubby in a freaky sleepwalking episode. The drug is shelved, Law is disgraced, the trial stops right there. End of story, right? I wish. The good doctor just has an inkling that something else is going on, something involving both Mara and another shady practitioner played by Catherine Zeta Jones. If I had some idea going in that this was inevitably going to ditch the ideas it claimed to be making a film about and get cheap and sleazy I might have been more receptive, but as is the plot gets so steamy and ridiculous I couldn’t believe I was watching the same film that I started out with. There’s a few twists too many, a lack of believable character action and and a kinky subplot that had me laughing, and not in the good way either. Hard to say much more without spoiling it, but it’s one outlandish turn of events, like a car on the way to a college conference that suddenly veers off an exit to the strip club without warning. I expected more from everyone involved.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky

After a sort of slow opening act, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky becomes a sweet, funny, raucous, touching and unexpected film, the most enjoyable thing he’s made after a series of dead serious dramas. Kind of like Ocean’s Eleven for the Monster Truck crowd, this is popcorn fare with brains, but it’s not afraid to get loopy and mess around in the sandbox either in terms of comedy and characterization, especially that of Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang, the world’s most aloof safecracker. Joe’s help is needed when brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) Logan take it upon themselves to stage a heist during NASCAR mania when times of financial woe befall them. Jimmy is laid back and affable, Clyde is old school idiosyncratic to the point of hysterics and their dynamic is something hilarious. Throw in Joe with a Bang and the thing takes off, once the gears of the plot start grinding, mind you. Like I said, the opening dilly dallys a tad. Despite being a screwball comedy of sorts, this never goes too far off the rails into, say, Cannonball Run territory and never feels *too* light or inconsequential. Soderbergh is an alchemist in complete control of every element and this thing unfolds deliberately, intricately and always playfully. Surrounding them is a delightfully eclectic supporting cast including Seth McFarlane, Riley Keogh, Katie Holmes, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Katherine Waterson, Macon Blair, Sebastian Stan and Dwight Yoakam as a breezy Prison Warden. The heist is a blast, full of screw ups, diversions and delirious suspense as these ill prepared, lovably hapless goofs try to do right by their families and each other. Craig must be broken out of jail where he’s “in-car-cer-ated” for the duration of the job and then stealthily returned once the mission is accomplished, and Jimmy has to be done with it all in time for a beauty pageant that his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie, wonderful) is appearing in. It’s fairly random but it just somehow works, from left field character choices to specifically nutty set pieces to third act twists that come out of nowhere. Just when you think you can relax, a federal agent (Hilary Swank in full shark mode) shows up to stir the pot again. The film ends on a narrative cliffhanger and with perhaps one of the best and most enticing zoom-out shots I’ve ever seen that had me both wishing for a sequel and wanting the magic to remain bottled just there at that perfect penultimate moment. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris

Concept: Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is not a remake of the 70’s version but a separate adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem, existing as its own vision of that story. Many people ripped on this as being an inferior retread of Andrei Tarkovsky’s strange, deliberately slow film (which didn’t work for me). Now bear with me: in my humble and frequently disputed opinion, Soderbergh’s is not only the better film but the definitive version of this story. It’s shorter, less theatrical, far more accessible but in the end it’s timbre simply struck a far more resonant chord with me, and I never argue with that intuitive barometer. This version is also slow, but finds a hypnotic, mesmeric cadence to the story of psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), his deceased wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone) and the mysterious sphere of luminescence, the planet Solaris. Kelvin has been called there by his friend and colleague Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur) after some… odd things start happening to the astronauts aboard, and it’s here on this quiet, near abandoned space station that he undergoes an intense, otherworldly and very personal metaphysical journey that is catalyzed by the forces of the planet sparkling below them and deepened further by the difficult, unexplored regions of human psyches and behaviour. The planet below has a habit of resurrecting Kelvin’s wife who died years before and placing her on the station with him. Why? Who can say, but it certainly provides everyone involved with all sorts of dilemmas both internal and external, starting with the nature of love, loss and grief. This version of Rheya is clearly not Chris’s wife, but a copy made by the planet based on his memory, mental images and unresolved emotions surrounding her. He struggles at first to see this, then he does. She too struggles at first with existential confusion, and comes to a similar realization, with heartbreaking results. This film is thoughtful and ponderous even by Science Fiction standards, there isn’t a single action scene or anything like that, it is solely character based, atmospheric storytelling that draws you in ways some people have forgotten film is capable of. Clooney is at his most vulnerable here, the charm, affability and mile wide smile nowhere in sight. This is a man whose grief has come back full circle to him, and the haunted, staggered reaction upon seeing his wife again for the first time is my favourite work he has ever done. McElhone is an actress who rarely gets the chance to exercise her full potential, but this is a career best for her, she goes to some places that are hard to get to, and her methods of getting there in her obvious scene prep and meditative focus are beautiful to behold. The scenes near Solaris are interlaced with their complicated, stormy yet devoted relationship years prior, which is the lynchpin and mapping schematic that Solaris later draws on for… whatever it thinks it’s doing. Composer Cliff Martinez often works with Soderbergh, and their collaboration here is succinct and tandem, the soft, rhythmic electronic beat pulsing along to images of sleek, still hallways of the station and the vividly coloured planet below, holding secrets that seem just out of reach. The film questions not only love and life but the way human beings perceive each other, whether a tangible person can exist based only upon someone’s dimming memory of them, and what part exactly does the soul play in all of this. “We don’t have to think like that anymore”, Rheya lovingly reassures Chris when he worriedly questions the semantics of Solaris’s plan. Opaque is the nature of this story, but through it we are invited to feel our way to truths that hide behind the swirling pulsars adorning Solaris and the ongoing relationship between these two lovers who are star crossed in more than just a metaphorical sense. Complex, difficult themes to be sure, but it’s all dealt with in organic, rapturous fashion as Soderbergh lets glances, body language, music and affection tell the story instead of heaps of dialogue or obvious beats. A love story wrapped up in a gorgeous musical tone poem gilded by an intelligent, thought provoking science fiction story that questions the essential, reaches for answers in unconventional ways and does things with film that the medium was meant for. One of my top ten favourite films ever made, and up there with the very best Sci Fi’s out there.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic

I feel like the one thing to take away from Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is that the war on drugs isn’t working in any sense. That’s the short answer, but at nearly three hours runtime, Soderbergh isn’t interested in any kind of short answers, let alone clean cut, definitive or resolute ones that help anyone sleep at night. It’s a sprawling, complex international labyrinth of a film that scans every faction from the loftiest echelons of American politics to the poorest slums of Mexico, not necessarily looking for answers but digging up new questions and conundrums. In Washington, the president elects a straightforward family man (Michael Douglas) as the new drug czar and face of the crusade, except that his daughter (Erika Christensen) is knee-deep in hard drug addiction and heading down a dark path. Across the border, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro, fantastic) tries to prevent corruption from eating away at his country and the soul of his partner. Back stateside, two undercover narcs (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle) prep a captured mid level smuggler (Miguel Ferrer stealing scenes like nobody’s business) to testify against the higher ups. The wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) of an imprisoned kingpin (Steven Bauer, sadly only glimpsed briefly) deals with her husband’s enemies while his slick dick lawyer (Dennis Quaid) eyes her up for the taking. A scary Mexican military General (Tomas Milian) fights drug running for his own mystery goal, and many other stories play out both in the US and Mexico. Soderbergh gets together a treasure chest of cameos and supporting talent that includes the likes of Clifton Collins Jr., Emilio Riveria, Topher Grace, Peter Riegart, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Viola Davis, John Slattery, Yul Vasquez, Jack Conley, Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek and more. This isn’t a tunnel vision action flick or even your garden variety ensemble crime piece, there’s a distracted, fractured feel to the narrative that no doubt mirrors the very difficult nature of how this all works. Opinions and alliances shift, people die, others prosper and it all kind of seems for nought, except that almighty dollar. Del Toro and Douglas fare best in terms of bearing witness to it all; both are changed men by the time their final scenes roll around and the arcs come full circle. They anchor the vast network of people from respective sides of the border, showing the multilayered damage that such a problem, and the ‘war’ against it unleashes. Endlessly fascinating film.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve

I enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve for a number of reasons, chief among them how decidedly different it is from Eleven. It’s like they not only chose to set it in Europe, but also to stylistically change the glib, cavalier Vegas aesthetic for an oddball, impenetrable Euro vibe that’s a lot weirder and more dense this time, and as such we have fun in a new fashion than the first. There’s also not just the laser focus of one singular, do or die heist but rather a string of robberies, betrayals and loose subplots flung around like diamonds, as well as a few cameos buried like Faberge Easter eggs. Good old Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) has tracked down Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Tess (Julia Roberts), Rusty (Brad Pitt) and their merry band of thieves across the pond to Europe, and he wants his money back from their epic Bellagio/Mirage/MGM Grand heist. This sets in motion an impossibility intricate, knowingly convoluted series of mad dash heists and classy encounters with the finest arch burglars Europe has to offer, including legendary thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) and hilarious fence Eddie Izzard in full fussy mode. Everyone from Danny’s original team returns, from the scene stealing, cigar devouring Elliott Gould to the bickering brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan. Hell, even Topher Grace as himself is back, and that gigantic Vegas tough guy that fake brawled with Clooney the first time turns up for a spell. There’s fresh faces abound too, including sultry Catherine Zeta Jones as a cunning Interpol agent who’s on to their trail, no thanks to Pitt who happens to be dating her. Oh, and how about the surprise cameo which I won’t spoil except to say it’s tied into another pseudo cameo that’s so ingenious it can’t be explained, you just gotta see it. To be honest, the whole heist plot is one fabulously befuddled bag of nonsense, tomfoolery and monkeyshines, made no clearer with flashbacks, gimmicks, ulterior motives and cinematic trickery until we’re left wondering what in the fuck exactly happened. More so in Twelve though it’s about the journey, and not the destination, whereas Eleven made it clear that sights were set on completing that heist with dedicated tunnel vision. Here one is reminded of a bunch of Italians sitting around having coffee and chatting amongst themselves while they’re late for a meeting; they’ll get there eventually, but right now all that matters is how good the conversation and camaraderie is. Speaking of sitting around and talking, my favourite scene of the film is with Danny, Rusty, Matt Damon’s Linus and Robbie ‘Hagrid’ Coltrane, who plays an underworld contact. They’re sat in a Paris cafe talking, and they use nothing but a nonsense gibberish vernacular that seems to make sense to them all but Damon, but probably doesn’t to any of them, but the key is that they all remain cool, bluff each other out and have fun. That sums up the film in one aspect, a breezy blast of silliness that shouldn’t be examined too hard, but rather enjoyed at a hazy distance with a glass of fine wine. Good fun all round.

-Nate Hill