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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Soderbergh’

Dallas Buyers Club

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

 

I have a review of Dallas Buyers Club in the latest issue of Cinespect.

Here’s the opening: “Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor, and Lord knows he’s working enough these days, and he brings real fire and presence to every role he attacks. But with the exception of Steven Soderbergh’s criminally underrated Magic Mike, McConaughey’s films often don’t live up to their initial promise. Such is the case with McConaughey’s latest film, Dallas Buyers Club, based on a true story, and indifferently directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The source material is absolutely solid; homophobic good ol’ boy Ron Woodroof lives a non-stop lifestyle of booze, coke, cigarettes, and rodeo riding, until he discovers that he’s HIV positive after a trip to the hospital.

Initially indignant, and given 30 days to live by his doctors, Woodruff sets out on a one man crusade to prove them wrong, smuggling unapproved drugs into the States as a “Buyers Club,” and befriending numerous members of the gay community in the process, in particular the flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto in a standout performance), as he battles against the ravages of the disease and confounds the medical establishment. Eventually, the sympathetic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) comes around to Woodruff’s way of thinking, and sacrifices her career when she realizes that conventional treatments against HIV/AIDS are far from effective; indeed, they may well be lethal.”

You can read the rest of the review by clicking here, or on the image above; a solid but not perfect film.

Behind the Candelabra

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Steven Soderbergh and Michael Douglas on the set of Behind the Candelabra.

Much has been made of Soderbergh’s supposed “retirement” from filmmaking, but I’m beginning to suspect that the whole thing is just a ploy to make it more of a “coup” when someone snags him for a new project. Yes, Behind the Candelabra wrapped before Soderbergh announced he was stepping down, but now he’s in talks to do a new series for Cinemax entitled The Knick starring Clive Owen — which sounds like a very interesting project indeed, and I look forward to it — but it seems to me that his self-imposed exile just makes him all the more attractive to selective, high profile projects.

Which brings me to Behind the Candelabra — does it work? In a word, no. I was rather disappointed, because at his best, as in Magic Mike (which was on HBO right before Candelabra, and thus offered an immediate and welcome contrast to the the film), he’s a really accomplished filmmaker, both in directing the actors, and staging the entire production — but here he seems content to set it up and shoot it, for as usual, Soderbergh does his own cinematography under the alias of Peter Andrews, and then cuts it together — here, in a really routine fashion — again using an alias, as Mary Ann Bernard.

The resulting film is flat, predictable, and uninvolving, and though Douglas attacks the role of Liberace with gusto, he doesn’t really have the “larger than life” punch that the character requires. The rest of the cast tackle their roles with varying degrees of success: Rob Lowe is a standout, perfectly creepy as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon; Debbie Reynolds is all but unrecognizable as Liberace’s mother, and really doesn’t make an impression; Matt Damon is appropriately wide-eyed as Scott Thorson, and Dan Ackroyd is matter-of-fact as Liberace’s business manager.

I was surprised to see former sitcom star Paul Reiser in a very small role as Thorson’s attorney near the end of the film, and the film is certainly well mounted, with no skimping on production values. But in the end, it feels exploitational and hammered out, as most TV movies are. Magic Mike reminded me just how good Soderbergh can be when he really clicks with a project, but Behind the Candelabra too often descends into clichés and has a really syrupy finish — by the end of the film, I really didn’t care about anyone; the whole thing seemed like an animated waxworks, and little more.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Behind the Candelabra.

Steven Soderbergh’s Retirement?

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Side Effects, is out today.

Soderbergh claims it’s his last film, but as just about everyone is saying, “don’t hold your breath,” and it would be sad to lose him as a working director, when he’s one of the most original voices out there right now, at least in contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. But as Mary Kaye Schilling wrote in Vulture on January 27, 2013, “Steven Soderbergh has directed 26 films since his 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape — the behind-closed-doors portrait of yuppie Louisiana often credited with kick-starting the indie-film revolution of the nineties, released when he was only 26. In the 24 years since, he’s been a remarkably prolific chameleon, managing arguably more than any other director of his generation to successfully bounce between the low- and high-budget, not only directing but often editing and shooting his own films, each, in its way, an audacious experiment.

In one extraordinary three-year streak — 1998 to 2001 — he directed two noirish classics (Out of Sight, The Limey), pulled an Oscar performance out of Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), earned an Oscar of his own (Traffic, the same year he was also nominated for Brockovich), and launched a lucrative franchise (Ocean’s Eleven, followed by Twelve and Thirteen). Then in 2011, the seemingly abrupt ­announcement: He wanted to be done making movies by the time he was 50, to focus on painting, among many other things.

[As Soderbergh noted] ‘when I was growing up, there was a sort of division: Respect was accorded to people who made great movies and to people who made movies that made a lot of money. And that division just doesn’t exist anymore: Now it’s just the people who make a lot of money. I think there are many reasons for that. Some of them are cultural. I’ve said before, I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people … Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success [. . .]

The worst development in filmmaking—particularly in the last five years—is how badly directors are treated [. . .] It’s not just studios—it’s anyone who is ­financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies ­because of being in that audience.

But an alarming thing I learned during Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync. I remember during previews how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking [. . .] People were really annoyed by that. And I thought, Wow, so ambiguity is not on the table anymore. They were angry.’”

Fascinating stuff. You can read the entire interview here.

Magic Mike

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

Here’s a shocker; Magic Mike is a really, really good film.

Can you think of a more uneven contemporary director than Steven Soderbergh? He bounces back and forth between the utterly commercial and the resolutely personal, and has complete control over all his work, which has only increased over the years.

After his dazzling debut with Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1987, he went on to the interesting misfire Kafka (1991), and then to the superb but utterly forgotten Depression era drama King of the Hill (1993), which remains one of his finest films, but didn’t even make it to DVD in the United States.The late monologist Spalding Gray appeared in a memorable support role in that film, and in 1996 Soderbergh tackled Gray’s Anatomy, Spalding Gray’s most famous theatrical piece, which is more or less a filmed record (thankfully) of Gray in performance.

Then came the crime comedy Out of Sight (1998), then the down and dirty crime drama The Limey (1999), using archival footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) to flesh out the narrative’s back-story, then the rather conventional biopic Erin Brockovich (2000), and the overheated and underbaked drug thriller Traffic (2000), for which he surprisingly won an Academy Award as Best Director, and a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (2002), the experimental 40s period piece The Good German (2006), as well as the absolutely commercial and utterly uninteresting Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 (2001, 2004, 2007).

I’m leaving some films out, but starting with Traffic, he also functioned as his own Director of Photography, most notably on the two-part Che, under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews; oddly, he later wished that he hadn’t made the film at all, an interesting public admission to say the least. And since 2006, he’s been editing most of films under the additional pseudonym of May Ann Bernard. In short, he’s all over the place, from the most conventional films to the utterly experimental, as in his 1996 film Schizopolis. When you go to see a Soderbergh film, you literally have no idea what you’re going to get going in.

So it comes as something of a shock that Magic Mike (2012) is so very, very good. This is even truer when one factors in the deliberately misleading trailers, selling the film as nothing more than a male strip show, with beefcake as the primary draw. There’s that, of course, in this tale of Michael “Magic Mike” Lane (the stunningly athletic Channing Tatum), who falls in love with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a young man whom he befriends on a construction site and pulls into “the life” as a male stripper in a sleazy club managed by the Machiavellian Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, who seems to be making a film every five minutes these days, all of them exceptional — Killer Joe, Bernie, Mud, many others).

The choreography is fantastic; when Tatum is dancing, it seems almost like a special effect rather than straight photography; he’s a dazzling performer, clearly using his own history as a male stripper to create an utterly authentic atmosphere, and as Adam, Pettyfer is equally convincing, moving from confused kid (his nickname in the film is “The Kid”) to drug-soaked lifer with skill and ease. Another interesting aspect of Magic Mike is that while most of the action centers on Dallas’ strip club, the audience members fade into the background, and the real interest is not only the backstage story, and the lives of the male dancers, but also Brooke’s reaction to the scene – and Cody Horn is simply fantastic in the role.

What’s also odd is that though Channing Tatum, who also co-produced Magic Mike from a script by his writing partner Reid Carolin, is undeniably the main focus of the film (the script being, at least in some part, autobiographical), Brooke is a major part of the film as well, and Soderbergh, editing as Mary Ann Bernard and lensing as Peter Andrews, hangs on her face for long sections of the film, as many of the key sequences play off-screen – we’re witness to her reaction, nothing more. The film’s soundtrack is also an exceptional mix of dance hits old and new, all of which really fit the images, rather than simply accompanying them, or worse, propping them up.

By the end of the film, Brooke’s brother Adam is lost to “the life” while Mike escapes, and starts a relationship with Cody, which is the one redemptive note in the film. While it’s a somewhat downbeat piece, in which nobody really seems to be having fun, and money rules everything, it also has a solidly moralistic center, and basically does everything it can to demonstrate to the viewer that the whole strip club business is shady, dangerous, and a dead end; the only thing one can do is escape from it, unless you’re like Dallas, a ringleader on the way to Hell. Superbly shot, deftly edited, and remarkably well acted — McConaughey seems to absolutely inhabit his role as Dallas, alternately threatening and mesmeric, dominating every scene he’s in with effortless skill – Magic Mike is so much more than you probably expect, so I urge you to go see it as soon as you can.

Another interesting fact to consider is that Nicolas Winding Refn was originally attached as director, and while he probably would have made a bold, colorful film with the material, I can’t help but think that Soderbergh gave the project greater depth. I try to see everything that opens on the grounds that you really can’t trust anyone’s judgment except your own in evaluating any work of art, no matter what the medium, and so I see a lot of junk. Magic Mike just might be the best film of 2012 so far, which is what I thought about Bernie until I saw this. And Matthew McConaughey’s in both of them.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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