Back with his rival/writer Lem Dobbs of The Limey and Kafka, but I don’t see much point in celebrating the reunion since this was a straightforward double-crossed super-spy story. If not for the Soderbergh name and the A-list cast that always follows the Soderbergh name, this would be filler content on HBO starring Edward Furlong or the like. I’m starting to think that I’ve been suckered into believing that Soderbergh is some important auteur, when really he just makes slick entertainments rather well. But I guess he goes back and forth – some turns out better than others – and this one is firmly on the slick-entertainments side of things.

The reviews focused entirely on whether action hero Gina Carano can act in the non-action scenes, and the answer is “well enough”. More surprising is that the stars (particularly Fassbender and Tater) can keep up with Gina in the fighting scenes, also well enough.

Gina is a spy/mercenary/thing working for Ewan McGregor’s private organization, rescues a Chinese fellow from kidnappers along with her buddy “Tater” Channing, then accepts a quick follow-up assignment with British agent Michael Fassbender at the house of Mathieu Kassovitz (Amelie‘s photo-booth boyfriend), where she finds the dead Chinese guy, realizes she’s being framed, gets jumped by Fassbender and shoots him dead after a struggle.

But wait, the movie starts in the middle, where she’s met by Tater in a diner while being tracked by Ewan’s people, kicks Tater’s ass but does not kill him, then kidnaps a dude named Scott (the kid who was shot by Stephen Root in Red State) to escape. Now she’s off to clear her name, tracking down Ewan (traitor with a bad haircut who gets left to drown Ted Danson-style), Tater (killed by Ewan), Michael Douglas (gov’t good guy who helps slightly). We know the big baddie at the end will be Antonio Banderas, since we saw him with a Castro beard early in the film then he never came back, and he wouldn’t just have the one cameo. Help also comes from her dad Bill Paxton (his first movie since 2007, and the first I’ve heard of since ’04).

According to the IMDB, shot and edited by Soderbergh under pseudonyms, well enough.

On the surface this was terrific, an expertly plotted thriller, more tensely captivating than any of the Ocean’s movies, with terrific music and excellent editing. But after giving it some thought and pitting it against Super 8, Contagion is starting to feel like slimy propaganda. The bad guy in the movie is Jude Law’s blogger, supposedly a whistleblowing, truth-seeking outsider but actually a treasonous scam-artist, eager to sell out. Government agents working for the CDC (headed by Laurence Fishburne) and some local labs (headed by Elliott Gould) are the good guys – not just good but angelic. They sacrifice themselves, working extremely hard and always putting others ahead – Fishburne gives his own dose of the long-awaited vaccine to the child of poor CDC janitor John Hawkes (because in Atlanta all our janitors are white guys), Jennier Ehle uses herself as a vaccine test subject to speed the process, and Kate Winslet dies trying to discover the virus’s source. So most of the way through the movie when some anti-government protesters appear outside the CDC, the viewer has automatic hatred for them. What sort of mindless malcontents would protest against these selfless public servants?

Heroes behind the scenes, Ehle and Martin:

Hero Fishburne with regular non-hero Hawkes:

The emotional Minnesota civilian center of the movie is Matt Damon, whose dead cheatin’ wife Gwynyth Paltrow was patient zero (as amusingly illustrated at the end of the movie). Marion Cotillard is a CDC researcher gently kidnapped in China by Chin Han, held for (fake) vaccine ransom. Bryan “Malcolm’s Dad” Cranston works for FBI I think. Demetri Martin, strangely, is Jennifer Ehle’s coworker. Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns (The Informant, Bourne Ultimatum) should’ve been hired for those 9/11 movies, or some kind of corporate response film to the Occupy movement (if anyone in power felt that Occupy required a response).

Jude Law in puffy suit:

Soderbergh made a sort of Spalding Gray autobiography, stitching together monologues and interviews from across Gray’s career into a new monologue – not one Gray would have scripted himself in precisely this way, but thoroughly captivating. The picture is nothing special, lots of 4:3 video sources – Gray’s story is everything.

The open is perfect, revealing the out-take nature of the film, a rough videotape of Spalding sitting down, attaching his microphone and beginning a story. Lots of talk about death – maybe that was always present in his stories, but you really notice it now.

Topics: childhood, christian science, his parents, his mother’s suicide, beginnings in acting, sex, conversations with audience members, his movies (three of them anyway – nobody ever mentions Terrors of Pleasure), his two wives and his children, and the car accident a couple years before he died, with mentions of R.D. Laing, Gray’s work in pornographic film, “poetic journalism,” dancing to Tubthumping and the meaning of life. It’s like the best Inside the Actor’s Studio episode, with no interviewer.

I don’t know why, but for a whole segment he is holding up a Playboy.

While Soderbergh’s studio movies with George Clooney and Matt Damon have been humming along at a regular pace, he’s been inconsistent with his smaller, more personal movies: Bubble and Girlfriend Experience were kind of crappy, no fun to watch, but Che was overwhelming. So yeah, Katy and I are glad we didn’t save this one for a hot date movie, since it was neither hot nor very good. A couple of unappealing actors play a story that doesn’t seem to matter, told in random-ass chronology with camerawork alternating between intriguing, decent and appalling.

Bored-looking “bona fide porn star” (as Netflix proclaims her) Sasha Grey (of Grand Theft Anal 11, Meet the Fuckers 7 and Fox Holes) is a professional escort, dating muscle-bound personal trainer Chris Santos. She is into astrology, takes notes on her encounters read to us in voiceover. He is considering going on a trip to Vegas with his work buddies. The only two scenes I liked were when he somewhat awkwardly requests a promotion from his boss and when she reads a negative review of her services online.

From the writers of Ocean’s 13, surprisingly. In fact I’m half-surprised that it had writers at all. At least it was short.

Sodie’s fifteenth film of the 2000’s. I like a filmmaker who can be good and productive, and there aren’t many of those left. And this was good for sure. Steven and the actors and production designers and music composer Marvin Hamlisch all seem to be having a good time, turning a low-key piece of mid-90’s corporate intrigue into a light comedy – the comedy being provided by Matt Damon’s character Mark Whitacre, his odd behavior and agent Scott Bakula’s incredulous reactions, as set forth in the trailer. We never do meet the “real” Mark, figure out exactly what’s going on in his mind – I suppose that’s because of the non-involvement of the real Mark, now out of jail and president of a biotech firm. The filmmakers taunt us by offering a voiceover of Mark’s thoughts, but only the most irrelevant non-sequitur thoughts.

Damon with wife Melanie Lynskey, who played one of George Clooney’s sisters in Up in the Air – and I didn’t realize she also starred in Heavenly Creatures:

The payoff is when the movie strays from the light tone at the very end. Whitacre is prosecuted for embezzling and lying to the feds, and ends up serving far more time in prison than the executives he had been working to successfully convict. The sleight-of-hand here at the end makes the movie more interesting than the straightforward hero story of Erin Brockovich (or Flash of Genius, I’m guessing). The supporting cast is peppered with comedians (Scott Adsit, Patton Oswalt, Dick Smothers, the little lovesick poet from Waitress) – strange, since there doesn’t seem to be any improv and no one gets to be funny except for Damon.

Paul F. Tompkins:

D. Kasman:

To hit a target as broad as a barn – American corporate atmosphere – Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who adapts Kurt Eichenwald’s book) narrow the subject as much as possible, getting just so the exacting blandness of 1990s corporate culture. … But a brief picture of The Informant!’s genre parody does little justice to the closet character study that emerges from Damon’s performance and the story’s deadpan plot twists. The crackling humor of the film—which comes from a myriad of sources—then builds off the inane, if not legitimately surreal impossibility that someone so high up and so well off would ever dare expose the horrible mechanisms behind their success and others’ suffering.

Good to see Scott Bakula, even if he’s under some very silly hair:

An absolute monster of a movie. No longer called The Argentine and Guerrilla, it’s been simplified to Che part 1 and Che part 2 then run together into a “roadshow” with a 15-min intermission, a printed program, and no trailers, credits or titles.

Part one has flashbacks (or flashforwards, depending on your point of view) to Guevara speaking at the U.N., epic movie music, and titles telling us when and where (within Cuba) the action is taking place. Emphasis on Che’s medical skills and on all facets of the revolutionary struggle: weapons training, psychology and ideology, strategy and inter-group politics. Far as we can tell, it’s Fidel Castro who is leading the men, and Che is going where he’s told – though he gets the final glory of capturing the capital himself (against orders, which were to wait a couple days for the main group to arrive).

Part two: no flashbacks, no narrator, less obvious music, and titles simply number the days since Che’s arrival in Bolivia. Starts out a crafty spy tale, with Che in a master disguise to get into the country with everybody looking for him, then meeting the countrymen who yearn for revolution and think the time is right. Alas, the time is not right… the highly organized military government tracks the men, bombs their camps with help from the U.S., and most damning of all, turns the local citizens against the revolutionaries.

Part one is too much of a hero-portrait with too much of a classic film-history-reenactment trajectory, but part two is too dark, too gritty and hopeless with not enough signposts for the audience. The combination could’ve made for two so-so movies, but it doesn’t – not at all – instead, the weaknesses of each disappear in the presence of the other, forming one extremely strong work, probably Soderbergh’s best.

From the writer of Eragon and Jurassic Park III… I’m serious! Besides Cannes-winner Del Toro and hundreds of unfamiliar faces, we had Catalina Moreno (of Fast Food Nation, Maria Full of Grace), Gaston Pauls (star of Nine Queens), Lou Diamond Phillips (who I didn’t recognize; only place I’ve seen him in 20 years is Bats), Jsu Garcia (Traffic, Nightmare on Elm Street) and a cameo by Matt Damon.

“You’re out there sellin’ love you don’t have.”

Modern black-and-white movies with awesome photography (Man Who Wasn’t There) or at least very good photography (Good Night and Good Luck) are great to watch (though it might be greater to see a non-period piece for a change, to watch modern people in modern clothes doing modern things shot in nice b/w [but not crappy and worthless people/things, as in Woody Allen’s Celebrity]), but that’s not what this is. The filmmaking is capable of course (it’s Soderbergh) but he’s using the b/w to attempt to recreate a movie from that period; not to shoot a modern film set in the 40’s but to shoot a 40’s film set in the 40’s.

Some part of Bloodshot Records’ company manifesto (or maybe I read it in the liners of one of their tribute compilations) says that they don’t choose artists who wish to pay “tribute” to an older artist by treating the songs as sacred, precious and remote objects, but rather artists who feel the joy and heartache of the originals and then play the songs as if they wrote ’em. Artists who practice the former method, who play “sacred cover songs”, may see the latter artists (“Bloodshot artists”, if I may generalize) as disrespectful, but actually it’s the sacred ones who are being disrespectful by acting as though a classic song is a historical artifact to be reverently studied rather than a still-relevant piece of music, as though adding their own passion into the mix might somehow damage the original. The Bloodshot artists realize that the original recordings of this song still exist and won’t somehow be injured by one more cover version. A Bloodshot artist isn’t playing the song to pay his (or more often “her”) dues to songwriters of olden days who paved the way for the new guys to achieve his current success… instead he’s admitting that he’s found a song with a better tune and better lyrics than he could hope to write, and so he plays it as wish fulfillment, working and sweating to assure that he can convey the passion he feels from the original, to prove to the listener that this was a song worth revisiting.

If Bloodshot was a film distributor rather than a record label, Steven Soderbergh would not be on their roster. As much as the man seems to love movies, his idea of “covering” a 40’s movie is dry and dull, accurately rendered but with no life or spirit to it. He’s the anti-Guy-Maddin. Here Soderbergh recreates historical cinema in such a way that makes you want to never see the original (“old movies are boooring”). Maddin sees more than was even there, glorifies, even fetishizes old movies, wants to crawl up inside them and wishes he could cast stars of the 20’s and 30’s in his modern movies as they were back then. Soderbergh, just happy to use George Clooney for the umpteenth time, tries to capture that film-noir feeling that he must consider lost from today’s cinema, meticulously recreating his idea of a 40’s film, draining it of all fun in the process. Someone needs to watch Confessions of a Dangerous Mind again.

Clooney (One Fine Day) is some kind of military investigator who falls for Blanchett (Charlotte Gray), who is the ex-girl of Tobey (Duke of Groove). Tobey gets killed, and I think maybe Cate kills him? She’s protecting her ex husband, thought to be dead but alive and hiding in the sewers because he saw Welles do it in The Third Man. Everyone gets killed or implicated in the end. Katy didn’t watch it.

Written by a woman named Coleman, who unsurprisingly wrote Full Frontal.

Martha and Kyle work at the doll factory. Big order comes in, Rose is hired. Rose has a baby, an angry ex, a tendency to steal, and a thing for Kyle. They go on a date, Martha watches the kid, then kills Rose when she gets home. Martha is easily caught, Kyle’s mom joins the doll factory part time, life goes on.

Shot on HD: big deal. Released on video same time as theaters: big deal. Non-professional actors: sort of a big deal, cuz it’s a small quiet enough story that some bigtime actor might’ve wrecked it with a “performance”.

But that’s also the problem. Not much performance, except by Martha who’s quite good. Nothing to perform to. Short, nothing of a movie. What’s up, Steven? Why was this story begging to be told? It’s not even his usual style-over-substance since there’s little style. And the Bob Pollard acoustic instrumentals are crappy and out of place (as if Steven wanted us to think he hired only non-professional musicians). Why make this? Why call it Bubble? Bring back The Limey, Kafka and Solaris!