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Cinema Blind Spots: Out of Sight (1998)

by on May 4, 2015
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Out of Sight - inside

We all have films we really, really want to see, but many of them never make it from our Blu-ray shelves to the television, and simply remain on a list for years. As an aspiring film historian, I have read so much about, and seen so many signature scenes from, several important films that, honestly, I sometimes forget to actually watch them from beginning to end. And in other cases, there are pop-culture hits that I have yet to make a priority. So I have decided to use this column as motivation to check off many of the titles I’ve wanted to see for so long. These are my Cinema Blind Spots.

For this week, I thought I would focus on contemporary filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. I’ve seen a large portion of his filmography, but little from it prior to, arguably, his finest masterpiece, “Traffic” (2000). Soderbergh is a filmmaker whose entire catalog is a blind spot if you haven’t seen one. Do I like all of his films? No. However, like Martin Scorsese, for example, you can learn something from each and every one of them. Since I didn’t have a film in mind, I made this a writer’s choice. Thus I scanned his list of works and decided “Out of Sight” was the right decision … a choice I now believe to be false.

Soderbergh broke into cinephile consciousness with his 1989 classic “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” — another blind spot of mine that will be remedied over the course of this column. He has won many awards for his work, including a Best Director Oscar for “Traffic”. Soderbergh is one of the many successful contemporary directors that skipped film school, falling into the true independent category with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, to name a few. Honestly, I have overlooked him many times, but he is often overshadowed by more popular directors, like the ones mentioned above. Conversely, Soderbergh is one of the great filmmakers of his generation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the future proves that to be an undisputed truth.

So, now you may be asking, “Out of all of his notable early works, why ‘Out of Sight’?” Well, I was also looking for a film with George Clooney in order to celebrate his upcoming birthday on May 6. Admittedly, it’s an excuse to watch another Clooney film that could potentially be great. I have heard so much about “Out of Sight” in the last few years, all positive, which was surprising because I hadn’t heard much about it at all before then. The Filmspotting podcast seems to mention it often, bringing many good arguments to back its apparent greatness. And almost any article I read about a Clooney or Soderbergh film mentions it. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and watch this Soderbergh/Clooney collaboration based on that praise, not to mention it’s based on a book by Elmore Leonard, the author who brought us great sources for films including “Jackie Brown” (1997), “Get Shorty” (1995), and “3:10 To Yuma” (1957).

“Out of Sight” follows Jack Foley (Clooney), a notorious bank robber who breaks out of jail with plans to perform a heist that will set him up for the straight life. Sounds cliché, right? Well, we quickly see how he and his partner, Buddy (Ving Rhames), juggle US Marshals, the heist and other interested parties. It’s more akin to Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) — which I’m a big fan of — rather than those in the vein of “Traffic,” but it had enough to keep my attention overall.

One of the major issues with “Out of Sight” is the love story between Jack and one of the US Marshals, Karen (Jennifer Lopez). There is a problem when one of the cornerstone components of your story involves a most unbelievable concept. The film wants to provide fun. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously but rather deliver an entertaining journey for its viewers to enjoy. Despite popular belief, I can have fun, I promise, but my suspension of disbelief ends here. Had the love story been given enough time to blossom, sure, I could have gone along for the ride. Had the characters been developed to a point where I could truly understand their motives, I’d have been game. But it wasn’t and they’re not, and I had such a hard time swallowing the pill  because it lead me to such frustration. I was unable to accept almost everything related to this plot point; it simply pulled me out of the film every time.

Out of Sight - inside2

Yet again Soderbergh showcases his knack for obtaining large, notable casts. Beyond Clooney, Lopez, and Rhames, you will find Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks and Luis Guzman, along with cameos by Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s huge! Everyone does well; nothing exceptional and nothing poor, just good all around. Their characters are well portrayed, which is more than I can say about how well they’re written, but I have nothing more than unmentionable nitpicks regarding the performances. This neutrality makes discussing “Out of Sight” so difficult.

The film’s technical aspects also find a comfortable pocket just above mediocrity. It looks fine, sounds decent and provides an appropriate soundtrack. There is one element, however, that shines above the rest, and that’s one of Soderbergh’s major strengths, editing. The editing is very self-aware, accomplished through techniques that force the mind to question its existence. Freeze frames and jump cuts are used here in very interesting ways, adding a much-needed element to spark the film to life. It forces us to look at characters and search for motives even when they’re difficult to find. This approach is not always the most appropriate choice in my opinion but simply the creator’s use of creative license. At the very least, I found it interesting, and something that actually set it apart.

So does it hold up 17 years later? For what it is, absolutely, but for Soderbergh, not at all. Soderbergh has grown so much since 1998 that this film is certainly a lesser work. It has its positive qualities, which lie in its tone, editing, and overall visual representation. However, I can’t help but wonder what “Out of Sight” would look like today, particularly with a different writer. The adaptation by screenwriter Scott Frank is quite underwhelming. I don’t blame the cast, and I don’t even blame Leonard — having not read the novel — but if I had to blame anyone, it would be Frank. It’s unfortunate because the film is fun. It possesses many qualities I look for and value in a film, but in the end, it’s just above mediocrity. I still look forward to seeing other early Soderbergh, like “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Schizopolis” (1996), and “The Limey” (1999). Until then, I’ll just rewatch “Traffic” and leave this blind spot out of sight.

Next week, I will talk about Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969). Feel free to get caught up and let us know your thoughts on “Out of Sight,” “The Wild Bunch” or movies you would like to see me check off the list in the comments below.

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