“HAYWIRE” (2012) Review

“HAYWIRE” (2012) Review

Director Steven Soderbergh has directed his share of film genres, which range from the caper flick to a complex drama about the drug trade. The director finally set his sights on the action genre in a movie called “HAYWIRE”

Starring mixed martial arts fighter, Gina Carano, “HAYWIRE” is about a free-lance black operations agent who seeks revenge against her boss, after he sets her up to be framed for the death of a journalist and murdered. The story begins with Mallory Kane arriving at an upstate New York diner. After encounter with a fellow colleague named Aaron, in which a fight ensued, Mallory forces another diner to drive her to safety. During the drive, she recounts what led to her being hunted down by her employer. A week ago, Mallory and Aaron were tapped by their employer to rescue a Chinese journalist named Jiang in Barcelona. Following the success of the mission, Mallory is recruited by Kenneth to pose as the wife of a British agent named Paul in Dublin. Mallory agrees and accompanies Paul to a party at Russborough House, where they meet with his contact, Studer. When she sees Paul and Studer meet from afar and stumbles across Jiang’s dead body, Mallory realizes that she had been set up by Kenneth. She has a fight with Paul in their hotel room before she shoots him dead. After evading Kenneth’s agents and the Dublin police, Mallory leaves Ireland and makes it to the United States, and the roadhouse diner in New York. Mallory manages to evade the American police and more of Kenneth’s agents before making plans to seek revenge against him and his co-conspirators.

When I first saw the trailer for “HAYWIRE”, I must admit that it caught my interest, especially since Steven Soderbergh was the movie’s director. The positive reviews from film critics increased my anticipation to see the movie. But when I finally saw it in the theaters, my only reaction was SHEER DISAPPOINTMENT. I am sorry, but “HAYWIRE” proved to be a very disappointing movie for me. And for the likes of me, I cannot understand how it managed to earn so many rave reviews from critics.

I cannot deny that the movie had potential. Steven Soderbergh served as the film’s director. “HAYWIRE” possessed a first-rate cast that included Ewan McGregor, Antonio Bandaras, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Michael Fassbender, Mathieu Kassovitz (from 2005’s “MUNICH”), Channing Tatum and Michael Angarano. And although the movie’s lead, Gina Carano, is not an experienced actress; her experiences as a mixed martial arts fighter made her fight scenes look very realistic. Somewhat. So, what went wrong with this movie?

One, I had a big problem with Lem Dobbs’ screenplay. I found it very unsatisfactory. Using flashbacks in the first half seemed unnecessary in a movie that allegedly possessed a pretty linear story. The reasoning behind Kenneth’s conspiracy with Studer and his betrayal of Mallory seemed lacking in any substance or logic. What was the conspiracy? Kenneth discovered that Mallory planned to quit his firm. Fearing that her departure would mean a major loss of customers, he plotted with a Spanish middle-man named Rodrigo, who had a client – Studer – who wanted to stop the journalist Jiang from exposing his criminal activities. Their plan? Get Mallory and Aaron to snatch Jiang in Barcelona. Get Mallory to Ireland, where she gets framed for Jiang’s death (he had been murdered by Paul) and killed by Paul. This plot seemed so fucking lame. Really. Why bother framing Mallory for Jiang’s death? It was soooo unnecessary. What is even worse about this movie is that while the movie revealed Mallory’s search for revenge against Kenneth and even Rodrigo, any attempt to go after Studer never materialized. I left the theater with one sentence ringing in my head –“Was that it?”

And I found the fight scenes seemed to lack even less logic – especially her fight with Paul in the Dublin hotel and Kenneth in Mexico. If Paul had been recruited to kill her, why do so in that ridiculous manner? As they were entering their hotel room, he was behind her. All the man had to do was shoot (with a muffler) or stab her in the back, as he was following her into the room. Instead, Paul behaved like a real amateur by striking from behind . . . and with his bare fist. ‘Amateur Hour’ continued with Mallory’s fight with Kenneth. Like Paul, she was behind her prey – her former boss – on a Mexican beach. And like Paul, she attacked Kenneth from behind with bare fists. What ensued was the lamest fight scene I have ever seen on film. Poor Ewan McGregor. A man with his grace and physicality for on-screen fighting deserved better than this.

Oscar winner Michael Douglas portrayed a U.S. government agent in “HAYWIRE”. But I never could understand the purpose of his role in the story. What was his purpose in this movie? Why was he needed? I could not tell whether he was part of Kenneth and Studer’s plot or simply their patsy. And finally we come to Gina Carano. Look, I cannot deny that she is great as an on-screen fighter. Her experiences as a mixed martial arts fighter made this possible. But she is no actress. The odd thing is that her lack of acting experience is not a problem. There have been others with very little acting experience who have proven to be pretty good in front of the camera. She is simply not one of them.

What else can I say about “HAYWIRE”? If Lem Dobbs had written a better script and if Carano’s fight sequences had been staged with a little more logic, it could have become a promising film. And while I admire Gina Carano’s martial skills, the role of Mallory Kane should have gone to someone who could both act and convey solid on-screen fighting. I have not been this disappointed by Steven Soderbergh’s work since 2004’s “OCEAN’S TWELVE”.

“CONTAGION” (2011) Review

“CONTAGION” (2011) Review

When I first saw the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, “CONTAGION”, it brought back some old memories. I found myself remembering Wolfgang Peterson’ 1995 film, “OUTBREAK”, which starred Dustin Hoffman; and the influenza pandemic that terrified the world’s population two years ago. With those in mind, I decided to check out Soderbergh’s new movie. 

“CONTAGION” is a medical thriller about the rapid progress of a lethal contact transmission virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving pandemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. And as the virus spreads around the world, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart. The movie began with a Minnesota woman named Beth Emhoff returning home after a business trip to Hong Kong and a side trip to Chicago to cheat on her second husband with an old flame. Two days later, she collapses from a severe seizure before dying in a hospital. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff, returns home and discovers that his stepson – Beth’s son – has died from the same disease. Other people who have had contact with Beth eventually die in China, Great Britain and Chicago, leading medical doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the disease.

While watching “CONTAGION”, I noticed that its narrative bore a strong resemblance to the one featured in Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar winning movie, “TRAFFIC”. I noticed that “CONTAGION” had failed to generate the same level of interest that the 2000 movie managed to do. And I find this ironic, considering that I seemed to prefer this movie over the Oscar winning film. I do not mean to say that “TRAFFIC” was the inferior movie. As far as I am concerned, it was a superb film. But I simply preferred “CONTAGION” more. It could be that I found a viral pandemic to be a more interesting topic than drug trafficking, due to the events of 2009. And I found that particular subject scarier.

And I cannot deny that “CONTAGION” scared the hell out of me. The idea that a new disease could spring up and spread throughout the world’s population so fast practically blows my mind. And I have to say that both Soderbergh and the movie’s screenwriter, Scott Burns, did a great job in scaring the hell out of me. What I found even scarier were the various reactions to the disease. Soderburgh and Burns did a great job in conveying factors that drove mass panic and loss of social order, the difficulties in investigating and containing a pathogen and the problems of balancing personal motives and professional responsibilities. Another amazing aspect about “CONTAGION” is that Soderbergh and Burns avoided the usual cliché of portraying the pharmaceutical industry or the military as the villains. Instead, everyone – the government agencies, politicians at every level and even the public at large – are portrayed in an ambiguous light. Looking back on“CONTAGION”, I realized that I only had one minor complaint – Soderbergh’s direction did come off as a bit too dry at times.

Soderbergh and his casting director managed to gather an exceptional job for the cast. Cast members such as Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle John Hawkes and Enrico Colantoni gave very solid performances. But I found at least five performances truly memorable. One came from Jude Law, who portrayed an aggressive freelance journalist named Alan Krumwiede, who convinces some of his readers to use a a homeopathic cure based on Forsythia, on behalf of companies producing the treatment. I found Law’s character so annoying that I did not realize how skillful his performance was, until several hours after I saw the movie. Kate Winslet gave a very poignant performances as Dr. Erin Mears, a CDC doctor who is forced to face the consequences of the political agendas of a local government and the disease itself. Laurence Fishburne did an exceptional job in conveying the ambiguous situation of his character, CDC spokesman Dr. Ellis Cheever, who found himself torn between his duties with the agency, keeping certain aspects about a possible cure from the public, and his desire to ensure his wife’s safety. But I believe the best performance came from Matt Damon, who portrayed the widower of the doomed Beth Emhoff. Damon was superb in portraying the many aspects of Emhoff’s emotional state – whether the latter was grieving over his wife’s death, dealing with her infidelity, or ensuring that he and his daughter remain alive despite the increasing chaos and death that surrounded them.

I did not know whether I would enjoy “CONTAGION”, but I did . . . much to my surprise. Not only did I enjoyed it, the movie scared the hell out of me. And I cannot think of any other director, aside from Steven Soderburgh, who can do that with such a dry directorial style. In the end, I enjoyed it more than ever when it was finally released on DVD.

“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “THE INFORMANT!”, Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film: 

 

”THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

As a rule, I am not particularly fond of whistleblower films. I find them rather boring and unoriginal. Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie, ”THE INFORMANT!” and realized there might be one whistleblower film that I do like.

Based on true events and the 2000 non-fiction book, ”The Informant”, by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, the movie is about Mark Whitacre, a rising star at Decatur, Illinois based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s who wound up blowing the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics, only after his wife forced him to. Soderbergh cast Matt Damon as Whitacre and Scott Bakula as FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard, the man to whom he ratted out ADM.

The movie began in 1992 when the FBI was brought in to investigate a possible case of corporate espionage against ADM. The espionage case later was found to be groundless, but during their investigation, Mark Whitacre, under pressure from his wife, told an FBI agent named Brian Shephard that he and other ADM executives were involved in a multinational conspiracy to control the price of lysine. So far, this plot struck me as no different than any other whistleblower movie. But what made”THE INFORMANT!” unique to me was the character of said whistleblower – Mark Whitacre. The movie’s first half portrayed him as an eccentric man and enthusiastic executive who seemed reluctant to expose his superiors at ADM. But he eventually dedicated himself into assisting the FBI into spending years in gathering evidence by clandestinely taping the company’s activity in business meetings at various locations around the globe such as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, eventually collecting enough evidence of collaboration and conspiracy to warrant a raid. Following the raid, it all went downhill for Whitacre. The stress of being the FBI’s mole for three years led him to react to the media in a bizarre manner. More importantly, the FBI and the public discovered that Whitacre had embezzled millions of dollars from ADM.

When I first saw the billboards for ”THE INFORMANT!”, I thought it would be some kind of espionage film like the Jack Ryan novels or something like 1974’s ”THE CONVERSATION”. I eventually learn that the movie might have more to do with industrial espionage . . . and the fact that it was another whistleblower film. Why I did not bother to skip this film upon hearing this, I do not know. Perhaps I was willing to give it a chance due to the fact that Soderbergh and Damon (who did the three”OCEAN’S ELEVEN” movies) were working together, again. And you know what? I am so glad that I gave it a chance. What started out as an amusing, yet detailed account of Whitacre’s years as a whistleblower for the FBI, ended in a chaotic character study of a very intelligent man who turned out to be a chronic liar and embezzler. As much as I enjoyed the movie’s first half, I really enjoyed the second half that exposed Whitacre’s crimes. The plot – or should I say Whitacre’s character – began to spiral out of control once the whistleblower tried to deflect himself from fraud charges in hilarious ways. By the time the movie ended, I did not know whether to be astounded or amused by how it all fell apart for Whitacre.

”THE INFORMANT!” featured a pretty good solid cast that included Scott Bakula as the long suffering FBI agent Brian Shephard who had recruited Whitacre to act as an informant for his agency . . . and lived to regret it. Joel McHale portrayed his partner, the more outgoing FBI agent Robert Herndon. It was interesting to see comedians like Thomas F.Wilson, the Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dick, Allan Harvey, Patton Oswalt and Scott Adsit all in serious roles. I enjoyed Tony Hale’s performance as Whitacre’s first attorney, James Epstein. Watching his reaction to the growing chaos that seemed to surround Whitacre was rather funny. And Melanie Lynskey gave a strong performance as Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, who seemed to act as the whistleblower’s conscious and backbone. But who am I kidding? The movie is owned lock, stock and barrel by Matt Damon’s brilliant performance as Mark Whitacre. I cannot even describe how good he was in capturing this complex, deceiving and yet, sympathetic personality. I thought it was criminal that he failed to snag an Academy Award nomination for this film.  Well . . . at least he managed to earn a Golden Globe nomination.  Someone was paying attention.

Do I have any quibbles about ”THE INFORMANT!”? Uh . . . I can only think of one or two complaints right now. I found Soderbergh’s cinematography rather uninspiring. Yep . . . that is what I had said. The film’s director had also acted as the photographer. And I found it dull and slightly metallic at times. If Soderbergh honestly considers himself a genuine cinematographer . . . well, I would suggest that he stick to directing and producing. And I must admit that right before the FBI had decided to arrest some of ADM’s executives, the pacing became so slow that it nearly dragged the film. Aside from those complaints, I really enjoyed this movie. But I must warn you . . . if you are expecting it to be another ”THE INSIDER” or”DEFENSE OF THE REALM”, you are going to be sadly disappointed. ”THE INFORMANT!” struck me as possessing an unusual and highly original story for it to be viewed as another whistleblower film.

“OCEAN’S THIRTEEN” (2007) Review

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“OCEAN’S THIRTEEN” (2007) Review

After the rather disappointing 2004’s ”Ocean’s Twelve”, I really did not expect to even like this third entry into what became a trilogy. I more than liked ”Ocean’s Thirteen”. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only was it better than the second film, I found it just as enjoyable as the first – namely 2001’s ”Ocean’s Eleven”

Directed by Oscar winner, Steven Soderbergh, the movie starts out in a series of flashbacks in which Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), one of Danny Ocean’s associates from the first two films, makes the mistake of building a hotel with one of Las Vegas’ most hated businessmen, Willy Bank (Al Pacino). He gets cut out of the deal and ends up in the hospital after a heart attack. In an attempt to help his old friend Reuben, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) approaches Bank and asks him to restore Reuben’s share of the hotel. In their exchange, Ocean appeals to the code of honor that applies to those people who have shaken Sinatra’s hand – both Reuben and Bank have done so. Bank glibly denies Ocean’s request saying of Reuben, “He’s made the right choice: roll over and die. Let him be.” Ocean and his crew decide to bring down Banks by rigging his new hotel and casino – The Bank – to lose $500 million dollars on the night of its Grand Opening, six months later. When they run out of money, they enlist the help of former nemesis – casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who wants to settle a score against Bank for creating hotel/casinos that have been taking the spotlight from his casinos.

I could go into detail about the movie’s plot, but I rather not. It happens to be a complicated plot. Don’t get me wrong. Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s (”Rounders”) plot is not convoluted. Aside from one or two plot points, I perfectly understood what was going on. But I feel that it is too complicated for me to spell it out in details. Instead, I will simply point out the moments that I truly enjoyed:

-I found the gang’s initial plot to kill Willy Bank and dispose of his body in retaliation for Reuben’s condition rather funny and a great moment of ensemble acting from the cast:

-Another moment I enjoyed was when Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) caught Danny watching an episode of Oprah.

-I loved Linus Caldwell’s (Matt Damon) impersonation of a ”mouthpiece” for an Asian real-estate mogul (Yen in disguise); especially when he is called upon to seduce Bank’s assistant, Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin), using artificial pheromones, which act as an aphrodisiac to maximize her attraction to him. Apparently, Linus needed her to get him inside Willy Bank’s Diamond Room.

-There is a great sequence of scenes featuring a hotel reviewer who is treated as “the V.U.P.” (the always great character actor David Paymer) or “Very Unimportant Person”, when Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner) is mistaken as the reviewer. The V.U.P.’s discovery of bed bugs in his room is part-hilarious, part-creepy.

-Don Cheadle as the group’s mechanical genius Basher Tarr gets to shine in a scene in which he impersonates a motorcycle stuntman in order to distract Bank, while Virgil and Turk Malloy (Casey Afflect and Scott Caan)

-Another great moment is when the plot to financially ruin Bank comes together with many of the hotel’s patrons winning large sums of money at most of the gaming tables in the casino. Actually, this entire sequence was done within a montage.

-But my favorite sequences feature featured Virgil Malloy’s (Casey Affleck) efforts to load the casino’s specially designed dice at a factory in Mexico. Virgil is sent there to infiltrate the factory. Instead, he loses sight of his mission when he sees the working conditions at the factory. Instead of fixing the dice, he decides to fix the problem and lead his co-workers in a revolt.

As usual, the cast is great. I especially enjoyed Al Pacino’s performance as the backstabbing casino owner, Willy Bank. He managed to be flamboyant, without going over-the-top. I also enjoyed seeing Ellen Barkin in a memorable role, after all of these years. But I must admit that I especially enjoyed Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, David Paymer, Don Cheadle and Elliot Gould in this film. And Steven Soderbergh did a great job in maintaining the movie’s pace, drawing out memorable performances and especially capturing the flash and glitter of early 21st century Las Vegas. In fact, I think that ”Ocean’s Thirteen” is just as good as the first movie, ”Ocean’s Eleven” . . . and thankfully, a great improvement over the confusing ”Ocean’s Twelve”.

9/10 stars