Thursday, June 13, 2013

Soderbergh Syndicated

There is really no meaning behind the title, other than the purpose of using the lovely tool of alliteration. This post, if you haven't deduced already, is about the indistinguishable director Steven Soderbergh. In the past week, I've seen two of his films for the first time, each distributed in the same year Two-Thousand. Why use numbers when you can spell? Beyond being the same age, these two films (which I will reveal in a moment) have the honor of being nominated for Best Picture, as well as winning a statuette each. Another nomination went to the director himself. That's right: Steven Soderbergh was nominated twice in the same category in the same year. And he even went home with an Oscar that night for one of his films--the superior one, clearly. Alright, now to share what you will be reading about, or won't be reading about if you decide the topic is not to your palette of amusement. The first is Traffic, an intense drama surrounding the drug world and the many pawns that play in this seedy, grimy stratosphere; then there is Erin Brockovich, a serious yet predictable (due to age) drama about a white-trash single mother who lands on a golden goose of a criminal case.

Traffic - Everyone is privy to the war on drugs. That should really be surrounded by quotation marks: "war on drugs" is simply a device created by the government, and proliferated by the media, to smother the cries against drugs. If the government wanted to "defeat" drugs, they would be annihilated; but as this remarkable film shows, the government does not want drugs to disappear. It stands as one of the most profitable markets in the world, and the United States most certainly does not want to miss that monetary action. Look at me, the wee rebel, speaking out against The Man. Not God. It's raining. Anyway, this is about a movie, not the real world, although it is a movie about the real world. The film is an outstanding collage of stories about individuals immersed in the seedy drug world in some way, whether directly or indirectly, and their interconnectedness that so superbly resonates within itself. In other words, Steven Soderbergh managed to mesh each story together in such a wonderful way that makes the entire production a soothingly flowing piece of cinema. One may even call it masterwork. Why not? The casting is great, and the acting is even better. This fine director formed a sensational cast and instructed them beautifully, making for acting excellence. This is the director's duty, of course, and when their film is enhanced by the presence of sheer talent--which is amplified by the director's own vision--needless to say magic is being done. Dear me, I am quite the flatterer. Let's take a glimpse at the talent. Michael Douglas portrays a conservative judge who has been given the demanding title of "drug czar" as he is embroiled in the "war on drugs" that involves a first-hand encounter with drugs in the form of his daughter. Indeed, the irony would be humorous if it weren't so heartbreaking. His daughter (played by unknown Erika Christensen) becomes hypnotized by the supposed allure of drugs in such a devastating process, from harmless experimentation to undeniable necessity. The actress's performance was phenomenal, for an unknown, I might add. Watching her spiral down into the depths of drugs is agonizing to behold, yet I am mesmerized. Sympathy, most likely, but maybe also curiosity as to how drugs assume control over a human being, an honors student no less.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is the center of another story, playing the very pregnant wife of a drug lord. As bloated and sensitive as she must be in her condition, she demonstrates inexorable tenacity as she supports her own family while also endeavoring to have her husband exonerated. She does this by ordering a hit on the star witness against him, which is not exactly proving his innocence but it is working for the release of a father and a husband. All the more impressive is Catherine Zeta-Jones herself, pregnant as she is, providing a marvelous performance through solemn determination and, quite simply, talent. It's a crime that she was not nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year, but she'll luck out two years from then. Seeing her true talent here stirs feelings of longing and disappointment as I consider what she has become now; referring to her most recent turn in Playing for Keeps, I must say that Catherine Zeta-Jones has lost something. Another story surrounds two DEA agents as they protect that star witness that is targeted by the drug lord's wife. Not as interesting as the other segments of the film, this portion takes a look into the effects of involvement in the drug business and what can happen when you try to abandon that identity. The lesson here is that once you're in, death is the only exit.
The last story takes place in Mexico with Benicio del Toro as the centre. He portrays a corrupt cop with a conscience who is pulled into the "war on drugs" by a seemingly legitimate government official. Of course, he isn't, and Benicio del Toro slowly learns that fact as he discovers the keen connection between government and drugs. Morality struggles ensue. I admire the authenticity of this segment, as everyone speaks Spanish and not English with an accent. Also, the tint of these segments are a grimy yellow, which distinguishes American scenes from Mexican ones. (Scenes in Los Angeles are a normal tint, while scenes in Ohio with the drug-addicted minor are a morose blueish hue. Another appealing aspect, thanks to Soderbergh.) For his performance, Benicio del Toro received the Best Supporting Actor award, and I wouldn't be honest if I said I agree with that assessment. Throughout the film, he sulks around in a way that suggests that he doesn't have a hold on his surroundings; if he were playing a drug addict, I would be convinced. But that is not the case. Critics applaud his performance, calling his character "the heart of the film" and basically a shining gem of Hispanic craftsmanship. Mentioning his ethnicity was crucial, for he is Hispanic, is he not? No racism here. I just watched Malcolm X, mind you. All Benicio del Toro proves to be in the film is a nice guy with slurred speech and a disturbing beer belly, and that does not warrant Academy prestige. In its entirety, Traffic is magnificent from its heated exposition to the intense chaos during the climax--then again, altogether, the film is a climax of sheer entertainment, keeping you engrossed in all benign details. And, of course, the main attractions. Steven Soderbergh demonstrates, once again (since I've said it before), brilliance in the role of the director, illustrating the immersive screenplay by Steven Gaghan onto the screen, much as a painter caresses his canvas with art. Now, how many times has that expression been used? What we have here with Traffic is a distinction of a script, for the same director in the same year will prove to produce an entirely different movie, in more ways than content.

Erin Brockovich - Almost as iconic as Pretty Woman, this film, also starring Julia Roberts, is among the ranks of notoriety when it comes to performance. Otherwise, there really is nothing unique or even magnetizing about Erin Brockovich. It begins and ends with a real estate case involving the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, a true story by the way, and the woman who investigates it: Erin Brockovich. That name singularly has a familiar ring. I once thought that it was the name of the very same Pretty Woman, the prostitute in the movie. But that was Vivien. The only similarity these two characters share is a penchant for revealing attire, but other than that, Erin Brockovich is a no-nonsense woman with a vivacious drive. Once she grasps that pro-bono case, she abandons her role as mother and even human being just to "crack" the case. What the case entails is inconsequential, but needless to say it was an enormous deal at the time. She did manage a movie deal after all. While the case is unbelievable (as in I cannot believe that it actually happened), it is not enough for even a foundation of the two-hour movie. Here is where we encounter the distinction of the director. In one year, a director makes two movies, both incredibly different from the other in matters of not only plot but acting and feel. By feel I am referring to the reaction of the viewer, how they feel, which in turn determines their overall reception of it--whether they enjoyed it or not. With Erin Brockovich, I found myself scoffing in ridicule of how simple everything was, from the susceptible victims of the real estate case to Erin Brockovich's bumbling superior, who proves to be a mediocre lawyer. The actor himself--Albert Finney--is abominable in nature, meaning that I just do not like him. This stems from my viewing of Murder on the Orient Express, where he portrayed Hercule Poirot as a repulsive swine. As the only lawyer at his own law firm, he dwindles in comparison to Ms. Brockovich, shadowing her throughout as if he were learning, which he probably is. Albert Finney was, also, nominated that year for Best Supporting Actor, which brings me to slightly accept Benicio del Toro's win.
The sole cynosure of the picture lies in the actress who portrayed the titular character: Julia Roberts is the glowing centerpiece of this production, and she alone carries the film from the very beginning. As a single mother, she accurately portrays the effects of the labors of being hard-working white-trash in her brazen demeanor and ability to stand her ground in notable defiance. (I'm faltering in my choice of words, but you can form a coherent image of her character yourself.) Julia Roberts is, truly, a sensational actress. For some reason, there was a period where she was not so appealing to me, but now, without question, she is one of the greatest. And one of my preferred actresses, along with Michelle Pfieffer and Kate Winslet. There is just some likable quality about her; when she graces the screen with her presence, she dominates the screen in a way that allows herself to shine and her talented cast (if they are talented) to cooperate with her, and shine themselves. She, undoubtedly, received the Best Actress statuette that year, and, by golly, she deserves it! Overall, the film was merely adequate for it lacked an enduring quality that allows films, like Traffic, to remain relevant and entertaining years later. In only thirteen years, Erin Brockovich has grown stale and predictable, engaging my father and I to mock several elements of the film. If anything, watch the movie for Julia Roberts, as she, unlike her background, has not faded with age.

Two films. One director, one year. How can they be so strikingly different? Aside from the obvious factor of plot and genre, there really should be no excuse as to why one movie is incredible in comparison to the other, which is bland. This study has drawn me to the importance of the script. That is the only considerable variable. Steven Gaghan composed a fantastic story with energy and a power of context that brought the film to life on the screen; Susannah Grant, however, seemed to be writing a newspaper article, for Erin Brockovich severely lacked a factor that lures its viewers to the drama unfolding on the screen. The script is important, despite myriad oppositions, and this comparison reveals that significance. As the director, Steven Soderbergh outlined each scene with the ingenuity of a cinematic wonder. The evidence of his feat is evident in the acting: with his guidance and vision, Julia Roberts and the ensemble of Traffic were able to perform to the utmost of their talent and give the audience someone to watch in awe.

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