Monday, January 3, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#3) Soderbergh's THE UNDERNEATH

(This latest film had no gliches, in a nice widescreen, with only a little bit of... I wouldn't call it skipping, but it didn't seem to always flow quite as smooth as a DVD might, mostly an affect from it being HD I guess, or something.  But still a good way to see a Soderbergh movie).

Film-Noir, and its more modern off-shoot sometimes dubbed 'neo-noir' (and the likes of which one might also see in Blood Simple or Kill Me Again or Sexy Beast, or in other Soderbergh flicks like The Limey), is dependent on attitude and mood, but also a few characters who we can get alongside with in their despairing condition.  For The Underneath, Steven Soderbergh's first entry into anything close to the crime genre (which it is), is a remake of a 1949 noir called Criss Cross that starred an equally handsome-screen-presency guy, Burt Lancaster, as here it's Peter Gallagher, and both films tell the sad tale of a man who pulls an armored car heist all to try and get squared away with a dame who he once left long ago.  Where it differs is in the emotional details and detours, in a little more sex, a little more violence, and interesting emotional baggage.

Robert Siodmak's treatment of the Don Tracy novel was straightforward, at least with what Soderbergh came up with.  Then again it was a different time, and it was just enough for the movie to show real relationship discord like the kind that Steve and Ann had in that film, where they go off on a presumed get-away and when he tries to get her to go swim they grimace the whole time.  I think that Soderbergh was far more interested in that angle, the dynamic and disconnect between the two would-be romantic leads, and went with that and left the heist as a tease, something hinted at throughout and then finally gviven an "oh, that's where it's going" feel to it).

Indeed I have to wonder if Soderbergh, also co-writer under the amusing and quasi-fuck-you to Universal pseudonym (Brazil protagonist Sam Lowry), wanted to do an experiment that might out-goose Kubrick's The Killing in its narrative puzzle-form.  One can be sure, that is if one isn't on top of things, that time shifts back and forth between when Michael (Gallagher) left not only Rachel (Elliot) but his whole family and everything around him and when he came back for his mother and to take a job with his new dad-in-law with armored cars because, well, he goes between a beard and a shaved jawline.  Unless if there's further confusion and he just has a quick growth, but I'd rather think that the movie is confusing enough.  I mean that as a compliment.

Soderbergh has always been intrigued, nay his primary interest, in bending the rules of form; The Underneath was when he was in a strange transition period between his more independent work (Kafka, King of the Hill) and when he would enter Hollywood with Out of Sight, with the odd-n-end Schizopolis in-between.  Every film that he does, big or small, super-niche or a blockbuster, finds him trying to peer into what the camera, and especially editing, can do to change things.  It may be bittersweet that he's considering retiring after his next, uh, three or four movies are out of the way.  There really are only so many over-the-shoulder shots. 

And yet a film like Underneath is so pleasing to the senses because Soderbergh is, whether he'd ever admit it, a good storyteller who is able to find it in him a personal lever into the material.  It's not so much a remake of the Robert Siodmak film as it's an update of the book, of the noir feel, right down to the nightclub in this film being a rock and roll bar overseen by a gangster (the very icy William Fichtner, again a compliment for every moment he's on screen).  It works because it doesn't feel like a throwaway B-movie, and yet stays true to the spirit of that.  When we see, for example, our very-down-on-his-luck Michael in a hospital bed late in the film Soderbergh resists the conventional impulse to do reverse shots of person talking to Michael and the shot on Michael.  Until about five minutes in, during a crucial moment during a conversation with Michael's brother (or rather a 'talking to'), it's all on Michael, sometimes the camera warbling a bit around, a wonderful but important POV shot. 

The camera hasn't rested this long on Michael until now.  It's a very careful, remarkable move on Soderbergh's part, to make it psychological, even moral, as a camera choice.  Such a similar thing was done with Solaris, and I actually couldn't help but think of that film during Underneath, another story that makes its genre a pure backdrop for the malaise and remembrance and feeling of love, of the 'other' that is so hard to hold on to, which is something I have to think is deeply personal for Soderbergh in some way (otherwise, as the Auteur Crow flies, why would he have it in several of his films, this idea of connectivity and its difficulty).  Why does Michael run away?  Usual guess, money problems, discontent.  But when he comes back all of what was is just fragments and shards, sometimes cast in a blue light like when he tries to get close to Rachel by the water, or how he's framed talking with her- him on the right, her on the left in the cutaway. 

I liked that feel of it, of the personal touch, since not every move was for the best.  Shelley Duvall is given a kind of thankless bit part as a nurse.  The ending has a bit of a satisfying-but-not feeling, only really helped by some really (ironically) upbeast end credits music.  And the actor who plays the brother of Michael, the asshole cop, I'm still not sure of.  He's eithere a very good performer at playing a dick with soulless eyes, or he's just not very good at all (there's one part in the hospital that still keeps me wondering).  But Underneath is remarkable as another of Soderbergh's risks as an artist, if not as high-flying as his others then still appealing for whast he smuggles in within the conventions and the sadness that comes with the intricate plotting.  It is a part of being the form, but it always works for the sake of telling this character's tale, and ultimately we feel for this dude despite his faults.  It's a cool little near-indie that captures film-noir and transposes it to the 90's, without overstepping into that decade too far either.

Oh, and the musical performances in the club are fantastic, for the few and far between moments they are there, with a nifty feel for the night-life and streets of Austin, Texas.  And Peter Gallagher is splendid and alive on screen as always, with a decent co-star turn from Allison Elliot, a real Dame to Kill For so to speak.

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