If any major American filmmaker could not only survive but thrive on a global pandemic, it’s Steven Soderbergh. He’s one of the few directors who releases as much as someone in the pre-1970 Hollywood studio system; he works more like a band than a typical filmmaker. Soderbergh has A-side movies—the Ocean’s trilogy, Che, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Logan Lucky—and B-side movies—Unsane, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble, Schizopolis. Since his return from “retirement” (working in television, specifically writing, directing, and producing The Knick), Soderbergh has abandoned all pretense of making “films,” as he told Marc Maron last year. “I only make movies now.” He said the last “film” he made was 2008’s Che. Whatever; I don’t buy the distinction between the two, they’re synonyms, but this guy can say the sky is purple and I wouldn’t care, he makes good movies and he makes them often.
During two of the worst years in the history of cinema, Soderbergh made and released three feature films, all for HBOMax. They are Let Them All Talk, a bitter author drama starring Meryl Streep set on a transatlantic “crossing” on the Queen Mary 2 (filmed before the pandemic); No Sudden Move, a noir in color set in the mid-1950s with a bananas ensemble cast (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Brendan Fraser, David Harbour, Kieran Culkin, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox, and Matt Damon in an uncredited role at the end); and Kimi, a Covid-era thriller starring Zoë Kravitz as an agoraphobic tech worker who thinks she heard a murder on one of her company’s millions of home devices.
The way Soderbergh’s been working since The Laundromat, everything’s felt like a B-side movie, not only because they’ve gone straight to streaming, but he’s lost all interest in story, characters, and even mis en scene. Let Them All Talk should be a better film, but it’s undercooked: Streep plays a writer who brings two old friends who hate her (Candice Bergen and Diane Wiest) and her nephew (Lucas Hedges). Her most successful novel is one she loathes (naturally, the one she loves is the one everyone else hates), and she’s being pressured to write a sequel. It comes out that Streep likely lifted much of Bergen’s troubled life as the basis for her hit novel, and the latter never forgot it. Wiest is on Bergen’s side, and even Hedges can’t get close to his aloof aunt. It’s a great setup and a film that hints towards something deeper, but it cruises by, and I was often reminded of the many episodes of Succession that take place on boats, and how deflated and unrealized Let Them All Talk was in comparison.
There are great performances, particularly by Bergen, but it’s a rush job, and too long at that. Ditto for No Sudden Move, whose main draw (for me and probably Soderbergh) is its wildly distorted anamorphic cinematography, presented in the unheard of aspect ratio of 2:16. The movie might hurt your eyes: whenever the camera moves to the right or left, the edges of the frame bend and stretch, distorting the image far beyond what was typical in early CinemaScope films like The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire. It’s an undulating bend, almost like intestines, rather than the fisheye arc anamorphic cinematography creates. This is clearly the most interesting thing about No Sudden Move, a period movie set in Detroit with a lot of exterior scenes and again, too many scenes to begin with—like classic noirs, this should’ve been 95 minutes or less.
David Harbour, still best known for Stranger Things, gives his best performance yet as the beleaguered and philandering but ultimately good father who handles the home invasion and hostage taking of his family… well, not with grace, but he makes out in the end in time for his final shot, taking a drag off his wife’s cigarette: “It’s only Tuesday.” Like Let Them All Talk, this movie drags and is underdeveloped, a genre exercise that could’ve used far fewer exteriors and location scenes that were clearly in modern-day Detroit. There’s no meta time travel element at play, it’s just fast and loose, not always a good thing. No Sudden Move is sloppier than it should be.
Kimi, on the other hand, is a blast. This latest movie shows that you can rely on Soderbergh for, one average, two really good movies a year. Let Them All Talk and No Sudden Move are far from bad, they just should be better, and Soderbergh’s lightning pace is clearly to blame. Kimi is another story: tight as a whip, immediate, and alive in a way that the former two aren’t. Kravitz plays an anxious, agoraphobic scanner for a company called Amygdala, whose flagship product is “Kimi,” Amazon’s Alexa by a different name. Amygdala listens to all of their users in order to maximize and flag content, and one day Kravitz is going through her pile and finds a woman screaming over death metal. Naturally, it’s an inside job by an Amygdala bureaucrat, the company says they care but they really don’t, and Kravitz’s “history of mental illness” is used against her when she finally summons the courage to leave her impossibly chic Seattle apartment to go see another H.R. head played by Rita Wilson.
This isn’t a “Covid movie” like Abel Ferrara’s Zeroes and Ones, which dealt with the early months of the pandemic in a rigorous but obscure and phantasmagorical way. The pandemic is just part of reality, like the final scene in Drive My Car. Kravitz’s constant hand-sanitizing in her impossibly clean loft apartment made me wonder how dry her hands must be… but as the assassins come for her and even some of the friendly people she’s been watching from across the street come into her life (by force), the movie delivers in a fine final half hour full of stabbings, shootings, and nail guns. It’s a good time—not great, but very good, and at 89 minutes, it’s a good sell. That’s about as accurate an assessment of Soderbergh’s work and his place in our country’s cinema: he’s there, and people might take him for granted, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ll be seeing his movies whether they know it or not.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith