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The Naughts: The Director of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Director of the ’00s (photo)

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Steven Soderbergh had a remarkable 12 films in theaters between 2000 and 2009. That includes two shiny Oscar winners, “Erin Brockovich” (which nabbed Julia Roberts a statuette) and “Traffic,” and a potential third, “The Informant!”; all three installments of the blockbuster “Ocean’s” franchise; three fast-and-loose video experiments (“Full Frontal,” “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience”); an anti-period piece period piece (“The Good German”); an anti-biopic biopic (“Che”); and a sorely underrated remake/distillation of a sci-fi classic (“Solaris”).

And that’s not even counting his contribution to the 2004 omnibus “Eros,” or the ten episodes of HBO series “K Street” he helmed. By virtue of unstoppable output alone, Soderbergh’s made more of a mark on the ’00s than any other working director. But that’s not why he’s my pick for director of the decade.

Back in 1989, Soderbergh kicked off the giddy golden age of independent film with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and while the following ’90s days of Park City wine and Miramax roses weren’t as immediately good to him as to other now brand name filmmakers, he remained, as Roger Ebert put it, the “poster boy of the Sundance generation,” the kid who showed studios that the world actually wanted to watch talky, low-budget relationship dramas, provided they were, you know, really good.

12112009_Bubble.jpgIn the Naughts, the floor creaked, sagged and eventually fell out from under the film industry, leaving only those perched on the edges — blockbusters and microbudgets, everyone says, are the safest future if you want to stay in business. Well, Steven Soderbergh, king of the one-for-me, one-for-them career, has been making variations of both for years now.

Actually, “one-for-me, one-for-them” makes it sound as if he shuffles like Persephone from colorless stints in the commercial underworld to brief bursts in the bright daylight of unfettered creativity. There’s no sense that his studio work is any less his own, less distinctive, or less invested in than his more overtly personal projects — as A.O. Scott put it, “Soderbergh may have zigzagged in and out of the movie-industry mainstream in the course of his career, but he has remained, throughout, to an extent matched by very few of his peers, an experimental filmmaker.”

That Soderbergh’s an auteur there’s no doubt, but he’s one whose foremost identifying quality is a quicksilver versatility — the artist as journeyman-for-hire, just as ready to test out new technology and non-professional actors as he is to command a budget in the tens of millions and the biggest stars in the world. You may not like every one of the dozen features he’s turned out in the ’00s, but you can’t deny that they’re all interesting.

He stretches the constraints of genres until they’ve bent into something new, and tests, in a similar way, the limits of the industry’s unwritten rules. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the uproar over “Bubble”‘s 2006 day-and-date theatrical and VOD release — it’s now in no way unusual, but at the time, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners called it “the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today.”

The same goes for his toe-dips up and down the production scale — if you want to make a movie free of outside oversight, you deal with the constraints of budget, and if you want to make a movie with more resources, you deal with the different constraints that come with them. An innate understanding of those facts, of how to work the system, and of film’s place between art and commerce, seems to underline his career. Not to paint that career in too rosy a financial light — “Che,” while a relative success domestically for a four-hour foreign language film, still only made back half its budget worldwide, and Soderbergh was booted off “Moneyball” days before it was slated to begin shooting because of script disagreements, making it seem like the director’s era of sneaking a more challenging approach into a seemingly standard project might be coming to an end.

12102009_OceansTwelve.jpgIf it is, that’d be a shame. For me, honestly, it’s films like the “Ocean’s” trilogy, collectively light as a feather, that have the most intriguing underlying push and pull to them between what’s prescribed and what’s possible when you color outside the lines. There’s the unexpected delight in the movie stardom of their leads, a hedonistic joy in taking in their glow, beautifully wardrobed, traveling high-end settings — don’t they look good on camera? — the blurring of public persona and character as the films continued a more interesting examination of our concept of the famous than, for sure, “Full Frontal.”

But there’s no doubt that Soderbergh will keep working. It’s what he does best. He’ll be headed back to Park City next month with a new documentary, “And Everything Is Going Fine,” and not to Sundance but to its punkier cousin Slamdance, where he’ll also participate in a summit on new models for content distribution. I’d listen to what he has to say — he’s done pretty good so far.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

[Additional Photos: Debbie Doebereiner in “Bubble,” Magnolia Pictures, 2005; Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and George Clooney in “Ocean’s Twelve,” Warner Bros., 2004]

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

The Naughts: The Romantic Pair of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Romantic Pair of the ’00s (photo)

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    I knew what she looked like by heart this time.
    That scrap of newspaper she was on should
    have been worn ragged by now, the number of
    times I’d pulled it out and looked at it when I
    was alone in the place.

        — Cornell Woolrich, “The Black Angel”

It’s the fear as much as the tenderness. It’s the desperation in the way they clutch hands in a darkened theater, and the sensuousness in the way they caress each other in bed. It’s the contradiction of having found yourself by stepping into a mystery, and the cruelty of discovering that the heaven of love is a gossamer skein stretched over a black hole. “And the mysteries of love come clear,” is the way David Lynch put the paradox in the song he wrote for “Blue Velvet.” Those mysteries have never been as heartrending in Lynch’s work as they are in his 2002 dreamtime noir “Mulholland Dr.”

Love, for David Lynch, is convulsive or it’s nothing. Adolescents, and those capable of living with the adolescent’s self-dramatizing intensity, are the characters for whom he has the greatest affinity — think of Donna and James in “Twin Peaks”; Jeffrey and Sandy in “Blue Velvet.” If surrealism is the way Lynch naturally sees the world, then the kind of romance that makes you feel so alive you think your heart is going to stop, the kind lived out by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in “Splendor in the Grass,” is the natural way Lynch thinks of love.

And because that kind of love doesn’t last, every pair of Lynch’s lovers is threatened. In their self-constructed world they’re like Moses’ burning bush, awash in flame and not consumed. They’re hunks-a, hunks-a burnin’ love, and yet it’s not Elvis’s voice we hear watching them, but a far quieter, more worried one, that of Gary Troxel, lead singer of the two-girls-and-a-boy trio The Fleetwoods. “Outside my window/You’re walkin’ by with someone new/Outside my window/The way I used to walk with you,” Troxel sang in 1960, a spectator doomed to seeing his perfect love unravel.

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The Naughts: The Song of ’00s

The Naughts: The Song of ’00s (photo)

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The film industry may be currently going through a crisis, but it’s got nothing on the music biz. Over the past decade, there was a paradigm shift in the industry and huge, fundamental changes in the way people discover, buy and listen to music. Ten years ago, the idea that everyone would cease going to record stores to flip through plastic discs and would instead buy music digitally, completely devoid of a physical medium, only existed in a fringe world called Napster.

Now record stores are all but gone, and the album as an art form exists only in the fringe world of purists. We’ve become slaves to the mp3 single and the little sweatshop-produced devices we rely on to listen to them. The new Luddite is just the poor iPhoneless wretch who manages to get by with only a BlackBerry.

The volume of music has changed too, in both decibels and quantity. Bad recording habits created a culture of one-upmanship and ever increasing levels of compression during mastering — that’s why CDs and mp3s sound like crap next to a good LP (on a record player with a decent needle). With the rise of digitized delivery, the way we hear music has become the auditory equivalent of a traffic jam, a deafening pile-up of Ford F-150s all adorned with a deafening pair of rubberized truck nuts, each louder than the next.

When Radiohead sang “Anyone can play guitar and they won’t be a nothing anymore” in the early ’90s, many of us took that to heart. Maybe too many — it sometimes seems like everyone under the age of 35 is either in a band, starting a band or quitting a band. What stands out above all the noise of the Naughts and captures its tone all at once? What tune, chosen to play on some future soundtrack, would sum up exactly what post-millennial era the movie we’re watching takes place in?

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