Schnooks on a Plane

In-flight movies — perhaps these are the ultimate justification for Hollywood pabulum. Anesthetic for the tense traveler. When you’re cramped in your seat and anxious about your untenable position hurtling through the stratosphere, it would be nice to be rapt out of yourself by dramatic catharsis, but it AIN’T HAPPENING (although I would welcome with keen interest and incredulity any stories of mid-air catharsis you have to offer) so you settle for the numbing tedium of badly thought-out genre bullshit —


Not only have they made a Harry Potter rip-off based on a rip-off novel, they’ve got Christopher Columbus who made the first two HARRY POTTER films to direct it. That’s just like stamping the word SAP on the forehead of every child who buys a ticket, isn’t it?

Terrible dross, and all I can say in my defense is that I’m working on a project with some mythological elements so I wanted to see what the kids are thinking about myth these days. Some cute moments — using an i-phone camera to observe the Medusa without getting petrified is neat. Uma Thurman has gone from Venus in BARON MUNCHAUSEN to Medusa in this — a pithier charting of the leading lady’s career arc than even Sondheim has given us.

There’s something irresistibly hilarious about the idea of Pierce Brosnan as a centaur, something the film is completely unaware of. None of the actors playing gods make much impression except Steve Coogan, doing what he does. Zeus is Sean Bean, who made Tolkien sound credible but is screwed when he has to say “You have done well,” as opposed to “Well done.” Look, it’s Kevin McKidd — as with 300, you can’t do ancient Greeks without casting a Scotsman. Now, I’ve never seen a real ancient Greek but I’ve seen the modern variety, several times, and none of them looked like Scotsmen. “It’s the magic of the movies!” you cry.


Perfectly adequate up to the two-third mark: this Chris Evans fellow is quite sweet, and the wimp-to-ubermensch narrative is engaging, the action lucid (oh, you mock Joe Johnston, don’t you, but in his fight scenes you can SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING — feel the nostalgia!) and the supporting players mainly do what they’ve been contracted for. Tommy Lee Jones is gruff, Stanley Tucci is solemn, Toby Jones is short. For a while, Haley Atwell is suitably prim, but when called upon to restage the start of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, her inability to pull off anything else except pulchritude punctures the pathos. Hugo Weaving provides the entertainment with a Werner Herzog impersonation and hilarious little facial reactions, soon subsumed in a splurge of CG as he rips his own face off to become The Red Skull.


Continental Air likes to provide a couple of oldies and a couple of indies to its transatlantic clientele, so we get this recent-ish Soderbergh (it was this or GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? and I was actually up for that, but then I felt that I wanted to actually do it justice). Matt Damon always seemed kind of a schlub-in-the-making, and here he gets to play an actual Philip Seymour Hoffman role, and he’s splendid. I haven’t followed Soderbergh religiously — asides from his Spalding Gray bio last year, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, I haven’t seen anything since half of THE GOOD GERMAN (it wasn’t good) and bits of OCEAN’S TWELVE. I should catch up sometime, this was funny and clever. Soderbergh’s ludic side (cf SCHIZOPOLIS) is allowed just enough room to breath by the quietly demented voice-over, a calm recitation of delusions, non-sequiturs and stray pub facts.

24 Responses to “Schnooks on a Plane”

  1. Soderbergh’s CONTAGION is a pretty good movie.

    Getting the weight back into myth is hard these days with these top-heavy blockbusters where everything feels flat and nothing feels anything. The key is to ignore everything out there.

    As bored as I am of superheroes, I find Captain America offensive. I’m surprised why real veterans don’t take offense at a drug-addled steroid jockey guy who supposedly stands for the American veteran during the War.

  2. I would have REALLY loved The Informant! if Soderbergh had eased up on the ironic musical scoring (basically if the film had lost that exclamation mark). Matt Damon really is the bee’s knees it turns out, and his performance was more than a joke. I did like the drafting in of eighties heavies like Clancy Brown and Thomas Wllson as his immediate superiors (and comedians as lawyers). And there’s lots to enjoy in Contagion (odd to watch an ambient disaster movie) not least Jennifer Ehle effortlessly acting her way out of a biohazard suit, but I found the film’s take on the internet (a single, self-serving source of misinformation played by Jude Law with Ken Cambell’s teeth) more irritatingly silly the more I think about it. Oh, I also gave Ocean’s 13 a go a few months ago when it was on the telly. It seems Soderbergh really can’t help but make a beautiful film.

  3. The Ocean’s films are handsome, but so insubstantial I find myself getting annoyed. And, interestingly, The Good German showed that his chops as cinematographer don’t extend to b&w in the classic Hollywood style: he has overexposed glare eating away at actors’ outlines, white-on-white and black-on-black clashes, lots of stuff that might work in a Cassavetes movie but don’t fit his stated aesthetic. Guess b&w really does separate the men from the boys.

    Maybe it was the numbing effect of air travel, but the music didn’t bug me in The Informant! and I often dislike Hamlisch’s soupy scores. The exclamation mark bugs me a little though.

    I definitely want to see Contagion… but there are a few things on at present I kinda want to see, so it might have to wait for DVD, alas. I can’t pass up a new Bruce Robinson.

  4. Don’t get the reference to Uma’s connection to Sondheim.
    Being an Orthodox Sondheimian I need to know what you’re talking about ASAP. I’m gettig palpitations.

    Soderbergh is all over the map. He seemsto be trying for the Raul Ruiz award in fast-paced output. Contagion is as good asThe Good German is bad. The Ocean’s films are high-priced piffle. Che is his O Brother Where Art Thou ? (no not the Coens — the Seymour Beckstein.)

  5. So is Haywire his “ants-in-the-pants” of 2012?

  6. “Uma Thurman has gone from Venus in BARON MUNCHAUSEN to Medusa in this — a pithier charting of the leading lady’s career arc than even Sondheim has given us.”

    I would have thought it was a sly nod towards the way Hollywood treats young starlets once they have turned ‘a certain age’, myself!

    It sounds like you’ve caught all of the fair-to-middling Soderberghs so far Mr Cairns! May I suggest The Girlfriend Experience next?

  7. Thinking about it “coming down with a bad case of the Soderberghs” could be the tagline for Contagion (quite a good film, and while it is not officially an adaptation of anything it perfectly fits the image of the kind of film that I was always hoping an adaptation of a Robin Cook novel would live up to)

  8. Oh, I was thinking of “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone’s mother / Then you’re camp” — as filtered through Uma’s journey from Venus to Medusa.

    I’ve been meaning to see The Girlfriend Experience for Glenn Kenny’s appearance: “the liveliest presence in it” according to one friend. It sounds kind of interesting, although I don’t know how it sits with Soderbergh’s self-estimation that he doesn’t work well with cold material. Since I LIKE Kafka much better than sex lies, I always suspected he actually works BEST with cold material. The Informant! kind of confirms that. Well, if it’s not cold, it’s certainly DRY (the Elizabethan humours are making a comeback in criticism, I think).

  9. As of November 19, 2011, Joe Johnstone is the closest thing we have to a high functioning genre craftsman. He’s a throwback action director who can turn in an occasional surprise like October Skies. He has also designed some of the more exciting action sequences (storyboards for The Empire Strikes Back, his own The Rocketeer) in the past three decades. Some of his films are nothing but quickly connected action scenes (Jurassic Park III) – but I hope no one is mocking him.

  10. I saw JJ’s name on a list of worst directors lately, and it seemed quite unfair. None of his films strike me as particularly flavourful, but neither are they obnoxious, ugly or visually incoherent, which puts them above much of what passes for mainstream entertainment.

    As for whether Captain America can represent America in WWII, I think he can — as an idealized portrait of the best of America, he makes sense. Peace-loving but determined, he uses modern technology to become a formidable military force… I just wish they’d managed a cameo for the REAL Captain America, Peter Fonda.

  11. My reaction to Oceans 11 was, “I made it, I sat through the whole thing.” It may have been better than its predecessor, but it was as unnecessary a remake as any I’ve seen. At least Milestone’s (dull as I found it) had a reason for being i.e. the ascent of Vegas culture.

    Oceans 12 had me walk away to do laundry or patch drywall or something and I never went back to it. It seems that every Soderbergh film that is disliked or yawned at is one I saw. That is, up until a few years ago when I gave up on current cinema entirely.

  12. He seems a very nice guy. Came to Edinburgh Film Fest in midst of shooting Ocean’s 13 because he’d promised he would. Explained that he hadn’t planned to make a 3rd one but then he had a really great idea for it. Nobody who has seen the film can tell what the great idea was.

    But I really ought to see Che and The Girlfriend Experience and Contagion but today I saw Tintin. More on that later.

  13. Loved Soderbergh’s The Limey; Terence Stamp in Mod throwback gear being Cockney uber cool kicking Californian arse, touching use of Ken Loach clips, a wonderful sparse motif score by Cliff Martinez, Luis Guzman, a pin-sharp crime film of the Get Carter mode, what’s not to love?

  14. …. meant to add…

    One (relatively) recent smart kids’ film with a nod to older film-making sensibilities and a genuine exciting sense of fun is Zathura. It also has one of the best retro robots of recent years.

    I agree with you about Joe Johnstone. He’s closer to the Joe Dante end of the spectrum than the journeyman end filled with people like Chris Columbus.

  15. Well, but Dante has a smart attitude and a take on life. Johnston is a very good storyboarder. Columbus is some way beneath that — he should go back to writing and get his enthusiasm back (although for all I know he’s been writing constantly and just can’t get the stuff made). Percy Jackson is tired, tired, tired.

    I never saw Zathura (but I saw Johnston’s Jumanji), maybe because I’d just finished a TV show about a house floating in space and I was a bit sick of the image.

  16. I found Jumanji surprisingly not annoying for a kids film. Then again, my favorable disposition towards it might have been due to when/where I saw it – on jury duty in the waiting room.

  17. Adding to the Joe Johnston love, The Rocketeer was also great (a nice precursor to his Captain America), and I think he did a better job of Jurassic Park III than Spielberg had done with The Lost World.

    He might not reach the heights of a truly great action directors but I would bracket him with Paul W.S. Anderson in at least making something entertaining and making it look deceptively easy, the achievement only truly apparent when their films are compared to others who have tried and failed to do the same.


    I certainly agree on The Limey being one of Soderbergh’s best. I also like Traffic (though I slightly prefer the British TV series Traffik, mostly because Lindsay Duncan is icily brilliant while Zeta-Jones in the same role feels slightly more unconvincing somehow. And the drug scenes with the politician’s daughter are more impactful)

    King of the Hill is fantastic (and makes an interesting period companion piece to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows), The Underneath highly underrated (a thinly veiled remake of Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross and starting to experiment with the timeline shuffling that paid off in The Limey), The Good German is actually quite fascinating once you put aside all of the over-hyped stylistics and Casablanca-posturing (it is more in the tradition of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair with a fascination tension between wanting to ‘uncover the truth’ and wanting to keep war atrocities on more abstract level of just being figures in a book), Erin Brocovich has to be Julia Roberts’ finest hour (a great and inspiring ‘procedural’ film, better than any number of ‘activist’ documentaries).

    I like Kafka (especially that beautiful score) but am still not entirely sure whether it is a successful work. Ditto Full Frontal, which maybe with time could be paired up with Mike Figgis’s Timecode as highly amusing portraits of working actors in L.A. in the early 2000s.

    I’ve only seen the first Oceans film – just hearing Don Cheadle’s cockney accent (about on a par with Guy Ritchies) was enough to send me running screaming from the room.


    We should also note though Soderbergh’s championing of films, which he should certainly be praised for – for example the commentary tracks for the Criteion editions of The Third Man and prompting Lodge Kerrigan with questions on the track for Clean, Shaven (also didn’t Soderbergh produce the alternate cut of Kerrigan’s Keane, also on the DVD?)

    He also got involved as either producer or executive producer on some wildly excletic projects including Naqoyqatsi, the second Symbiopsychotaxiplasm film, and a personal favourite, Suture (a film which feels both inspired by Seconds and, in its bathroom standoff, anticipatory of Face/Off!):

  18. You can also find Soderbergh interviews with directors on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch 22, Point Blank and The Yards. I think he’s behind the relaunch of a forgotten Aram Avakian film soon. Collect ’em all!

    Yes, Jumanji is great apart from the CG animals which are ugly, fakey without being stylised.

    As for Don Cheadle, I invented a backstory for the character where he’s an American wannabe who dreams of being a cockney hard man, hence the name “Basher.” He becomes quite good fun in that light.

  19. Towards the end I decided THE INFORMANT! wasn’t really a comedy at all, that the goofy trailer and silly music were all a distraction from how damned sad it becomes.

    Only movie I’ve watched on a plane that successfully made me unwind and forget about death for a few minutes: Jackass Number Two.

  20. That’d do it!

    Yes, the melancholy at the heart of The Informant! is its reason for being, and retroactively justifies the flipness, I think.

  21. kevin mummery Says:

    Eagerly awaiting the “more” on Tintin, as I’ve been looking forward to seeing it for inexplicable reasons (having never read a single Tintin book, or in fact having any interest whatsoever in European comics) that I’m hoping you can shed some light on.

  22. Well, I hope so too! My interest was basically Spielberg + 3D, which proved a worthy combo, and despite some considerable problems the film delivers a little more than that. More soon.

  23. I’ve been pretty meh on Soderbergh (although I did like ERIN BROCKOVICH well enough), but I liked CONTAGION enough to catch it twice in the theater. Jennifer Ehle really is amazing, and her character is quite interesting: a beatific scientist.

  24. Erin Brockovich is good… My favourite was probably Out Of Sight, which seemed kind of miraculously entertaining at the time, and just made the Ocean’s films all the more disappointing.

    Damnit, I guess I should go see Contagion. Well, if it’s still on after I’ve seen The Rum Diary…

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