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Movie Review

Soderbergh: A man with true passion for film in all its aspects

By Rob Rector | May 12, 2013
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star in "Behind the Candelabra."

It's fitting that the subject of Steven Soderbergh's supposed last film (to debut next week) is pianist Liberace (called "Behind the Candelabra," and starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas). For the story of the flashy, larger-than-life musician could not be further from that of the genre-hopping director.

Sure, he's had his brush with acclaim, earning an Oscar for "Traffic" and garnering box-office clout with the "Oceans" trilogy, but he has made a career out of his ability to change his style to fit the picture and is far more interested in working behind the scenes than showboating.

When Soderbergh announced that he will be retiring from directing, I thought it only fitting to look back at his career behind the lens, as it is not merely all over the map in terms of style and genre convention; sometimes it just ditches the map altogether.

The results have been as eclectic as the films themselves. His 22-film career has ranged from films barely noticed by anyone to those that receive heaps of praise and high honors. But he has always been interested in pushing the boundaries of film in all its facets.

Whether or not his "retirement" is just a break to recharge his batteries or a true cinematic sayonara, his legacy so far deserves reflection for his commitment to challenging the establishment.

"Sex, Lies and Videotape" (1989), the director’s first break into the big time, nabbed the Palm D’Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. The lives of four people intersect over the titular words in an intimate tale that is equal parts amusing and emotional.

He followed up this as any newly minted director superstar would, with a drama based on the life of author Franz Kafka ("Kafka," 1991), a Depression-era family drama ("King of the Hill," 1993) and a film noir filled with double- and triple-crosses ("Underneath," 1995), in which the director explores filming with different color stocks, inventive framing and an overall tone that is coolly detached and left many underwhelmed.

He then tackled a documentary ("Gray’s Anatomy," based on author/monologist Spalding Gray) and absurdist experimentalism (the truly unique "Schizopolis," 1996, which defies categorization). While most of these films aired on the positive side with critics, it wasn’t until 1998 that he would connect again with a larger audience.

"Out of Sight" (1998) not only demonstrated to the world that George Clooney was destined for big-screen stardom, but perhaps provided the world with the sole piece of evidence that Jennifer Lopez could be regarded as a legitimate actress. It was followed by his most critically acclaimed work to date, "The Limey" (1999), a revenge thriller that all fans of the "Taken" films should watch to witness how it's done.

The following decade began with a double-barreled bang, with both films he directed earning Oscars: "Erin Brockovich" (2000) catapulted Julia Roberts from romantic leading lady to Oscar-winning actress, and the drug-war drama "Traffic" (2000) which tackled with urgency the United States’ tenuous Mexican ties, starring Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Don Cheadle, Topher Grace, Albert Finney and Dennis Quaid, among others. It earned him Oscars for writing and directing, and one for actor Benicio Del Toro.

His roll continued with his most successful mainstream crossover to date, "Ocean’s Eleven" (2001). Reunited with Clooney and Cheadle, Soderbergh enlisted Brad Pitt and Matt Damon to recreate the Rat Pack-era cool with charisma to burn. But that streak would be fleeting, as the following year, he released "Full Frontal" (2002), an arty little film-within-a-film that many consider to be his nadir.

Soderbergh brought back his buddy Clooney for the sci-fi remake "Solaris" (2002), which moved far too slowly for some, but still managed to simmer with style and add yet another genre to his checklist. After a forgettable follow-up to his "Oceans" film, he went truly experimental yet again, creating "Bubble" (2005), a small drama that was released simultaneously on cable, DVD and in theaters to test the markets of each.

Aside from the final installment in the "Oceans" trilogy, the latter half of the decade was not commercially kind to the director, but he ventured undeterred into unfamiliar territory, from sweeping, two-part epics ("Che," 2008) to small-scale drama ("The Girlfriend Experience," 2009), and irreverent comedy ("The Informant," 2009).

But even though stars flocked to be a part in his films ("Contagion" alone featured Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston and Marion Cottilard), he was unafraid to gamble, casting as leads everyone from MMA fighters (Gina Carano, "Haywire") to porn stars (Sasha Grey, "The Girlfriend Experience").

There was also a fascination he had in working in every aspect of filmmaking (he often served not only as director, but producer, cinematographer, writer, editor and even composer in some of his films) and in every genre.

So even if "Candelabra" does indeed mark his swan song as a director, he leaves behind a legacy of a man with a true passion for embracing film in all its aspects.

Trailer for HBO's "Behind the Candelabra"
(Source: HBO )
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