Like The Perez Family, Steven Soderbergh's new film, The Underneath, ultimately underachieves despite flashes of brilliance. Soderbergh tries his hand at film noir with disappointing results, largely because all the clever editing, time-frame juggling, droll dialogue, and unconventional camerawork cannot conceal a pencil-thin narrative that boils down to this: A compulsive gambler cooks up an armored car heist to win back the gal he ditched years before. Complications arise, the heist does not go as planned, double-crosses ensue. End of story.
If that sounds like something you've seen before, maybe it is. Soderbergh adapted his film from Robert Siodmak's 1949 production, Criss Cross. Siodmak's film starred a young and very raw Burt Lancaster; The Underneath reteams Soderbergh with sex, lies, and videotape's Peter Gallagher (who, on more than one occasion, appears in the raw). The strapping Lancaster may have been miscast as the hapless lead in the former film, but asking a rough talent to tackle an ill-fitting role is preferable to building your movie around a glorified talking mannequin like Gallagher. Soderbergh seems to sense this; gratuitous shots of Gallagher's bare butt serve the dual purpose of distracting audiences from the actor's superficiality while simultaneously showcasing Gallagher's best asset. Despite his willingness to uncover his booty, however, Gallagher fails to expose his recovering compulsive gambler character's presumably complex inner turmoil. The actor never reveals what makes his character tick, and consequently never engages the audience's sympathy. His most amusing scenes not involving posterior nudity find the actor drugged-out and woozy in a hospital bed. Following Gallagher's stint as a comatose mugging victim in While You Were Sleeping, could this mean filmmakers have concluded that the only way to make audiences care about the vapid pretty-boy is to incapacitate him? What a great career trend.
Soderbergh's stylish 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape, won the Palme d'Or (Best Film) at Cannes and put the Sundance Film Festival, which since has evolved into the nation's hottest showcase for homegrown independent cinema, on the map. The director followed up with 1991's pretentious but visually striking Kafka, and then won back many of the early supporters that Kafka alienated with 1993's King of the Hill, a vivid adaption of A.E. Hotchner's colorful memoirs of growing up during the Depression. In keeping with this one-step-forward, one-step-back pattern, The Underneath fails to approach its predecessor's lofty standards.
The film is not without its charms, however. Even on a bad day Soderbergh still knows his way around a camera better than most of his peers. Here he uses color both ingeniously and obtrusively, and has big fun breaking the cinematographer's ironclad "rule of 180" when he deliberately positions his camera on the "wrong" side of a two-shot. Snappy dialogue almost obscures the film's larger flaws: "Mother's getting married." "To who?" "Good guy." "Never heard of him."
But, in the words of Gallagher's unlucky protagonist, "There's what you want and there's what's good for you, and they never meet." Soderbergh emphasizes atmospherics over substance, clever lines over character development, and an ornamental leading man over a skilled actor. It isn't good for him.
The dozen or so short films spotlighted at a recent Movie Mavens screening sponsored by the Alliance Film/Video Co-Op at the B.A.R. space off Lincoln Road were about as far removed from Soderbergh's glossy commercial product as imaginable. The venue itself -- dark and foreboding as a bomb shelter, complete with concrete floor, unfinished walls, and candles providing flickering illumination -- contrasts radically with the usual sterile cineplex environment. The gothic atmosphere and spartan furnishings -- 50 folding chairs that were quickly gobbled up by the crowd of about 80, leaving latecomers to line the back and sides of the room A created a heightened air of danger and suspense, as did the occasional projector malfunction. It felt more like a clandestine gathering of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris than a mere showing of some novice filmmakers' work.
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Of course, in a way, this was the Resistance. The Movie Mavens are novice women filmmakers who meet regularly to discuss new projects and pitch in as crew members on each other's films. They've formed an unofficial support group for local women serious about realizing their individual visions on celluloid. Commercial appeal is not high on their list of priorities. At least not yet.
The B.A.R. space screening was the first exhibition of the Movie Mavens' work, and attendees were, to put it mildly, supportive. The quality of the dozen or so productions displayed ranged from amateurish to surprisingly accomplished. There were two or three duds and a handful of interesting but inconsistent efforts. The surprise was not in the number of so-so films, but in the fact that a few of them showed real promise.
Amy King's Scratch, a music video with hand-painted animation, kicked off the evening's festivities on a high note. Although the filmed footage of one guy cool-dancing and mugging for the camera grew a bit monotonous, the animation that surrounded, encased, and occasionally obscured him pulsed with life and vitality. King's shorter, straight-animation P.C. Man also evinced a unique and compelling visual flair. Susanne Boswell's Fleisch juxtaposed meat and flesh, eating and sex, in a bizarre, dreamlike rumination. Sell-out Hollywood sucker that I am, I sometimes had trouble keeping the metaphor straight, but Boswell's images were both fresh and disturbing. (Plus, Fleisch featured nudity. You can't stage an underground film exhibition without that.)
But for me the highlight of the evening had to be Angela Terrell's Horizon. While projecting a blurry, out-of-focus multiple image of a ship at sea, Terrell provided live a cappella vocal accompaniment. By itself the visual would have grown tiresome quickly. But combined with Terrell's unadorned and plaintive singing, you didn't want it to end. When was the last time you could say that about a commercial film?