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Tim Grierson on the Brilliant Career of Steven Soderbergh

Steven-Soderbergh

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When people list their favorite filmmakers, their choices are obviously based partly on liking those directors’ movies but, beyond that, I would guess it’s also because they identify with the themes and attitudes expressed in those films. To be entirely stereotypical, most fans of Quentin Tarantino probably don’t behave or dress much like fans of Woody Allen — or of Jon Favreau, Michael Haneke, Kelly Reichardt, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like picking a favorite Beatle or declaring oneself Team Edward or Team Jacob, we’re telling the world less about the people we’re choosing between and more about who we are and what we value.

I haven’t liked all of Steven Soderbergh’s films, but his career — the way he conducts himself artistically and professionally — is something I greatly admire. More than his movies, I really just love him. So, as you could imagine, I’m very sad that he’s serious about retiring from filmmaking. He’s releasing the thriller “Side Effects” on Friday, and then his Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” will come to HBO. And then that’s it.

Soderbergh arrived on the scene in 1989 with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” which famously wowed Sundance in January of that year and then won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. He was all of 26 and was quickly embraced as the Next Big Thing. In a Rolling Stone profile from that time, he came across as something of a hot shot: the outsider who had moved to Los Angeles, found little success, returned home to Baton Rogue defeated, decided to give Hollywood one more chance, and wrote the “Sex, Lies” script in a week while driving back West. Now the conquering hero, he called “Top Gun” producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer “slime” and “just barely passing for humans” in the Rolling Stone piece. He made disparaging comments about another up-and-coming director, Phil Joanou, who had segued into soft commercial movies like “Three O’Clock High.” (“Soderbergh has given instructions that he be shot on sight if he ever makes a movie about high school,” wrote profiler Terri Minsky.)

But you also got the sense that Soderbergh’s criticisms of others were a way to keep himself grounded amidst all the hoopla surrounding “Sex, Lies.” “I’m still a schmuck like everybody else,” he said. “I have problems, just like anyone. There are people who get to make movies who are fucking assholes, who are terrible people. Okay, I know I’m not a terrible person. It’s just that this attention — it’s potentially harmful, and it has so little to do with sitting in a room and trying to write, trying to make something good and make something work. It has nothing to do with that.”

“Sex, Lies” made almost $25m — an impressive total for a low-budget indie — and Soderbergh seemed well on his way. But after all the hype, he struggled. His follow-up film, “Kafka,” was a commercial and critical disappointment. The period drama “King of the Hill” was lovingly told but made no money. (It did, however, open the door for young stars Adrien Brody and Katherine Heigl.) And his thriller “The Underneath” was a misfire that had brains but sank like a stone at the box office. At 32, Soderbergh seemed to be in danger of being forgotten, just like all the other Next Big Things he had lamented in that Rolling Stone article who had come before him.

Then, Soderbergh did something incredibly nervy. Rather than committing to a sure career-revitalizing project, he made “Schizopolis,” a bizarre, surreal little comedy (starring him) that satirized suburban malaise, office politics and its own irrelevance. It felt like a stunt — the sort of thing you do when you decide that you’re ready to burn every bridge and alienate everybody who ever liked you. And for that reason, it’s fascinating, although at the time it seemed like this clearly smart and talented filmmaker was walking away from Hollywood for good.

Of course, that didn’t happen — he was merely gearing up for his second act. In the summer of 1998, he returned with “Out of Sight,” which helped put him back on the map but also launched George Clooney. We forget this now, but this thriller (adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel) was equally important for both men: If Soderbergh was trying to reverse his trajectory, Clooney was trying to prove that his post-“E.R.” film career was viable. (He’d been in the very mediocre “The Peacemaker” and the truly awful “Batman and Robin.”) I have to confess that, at the time, I didn’t get “Out of Sight.” After my first viewing, I thought it was too clever for its own good — certainly stylish and confident, but lacking much soul. Seeing it again a few weeks later, I embarrassingly realized I’d missed the boat. Coolly elegant and expertly paced, it was far smarter than I’d realized. I vowed never to underestimate Soderbergh again. (And I kept an eye on him and Clooney, who went on to form a production company together, Section Eight, which oversaw great films like “Far From Heaven,” “Insomnia,” “Syriana” and “Michael Clayton.”)

Blessed with a second chance, Soderbergh didn’t disappoint. He went from low-budget noir thrillers (“The Limey”) to superb, heartfelt mainstream entertainments (“Erin Brockovich”) to possibly his best film of all, “Traffic,” a perfect distillation of his intelligent, emotionally subdued style for a wholly devastating look at a group of characters who are in one way or another trapped in the web of drug addiction. Watching him win the Best Director Oscar for “Traffic” in early 2001, it was impossible not to think that this was the same man who, just four years prior, had put out “Schizopolis,” when everything seemed so bleak.

Armed with an Academy Award, he has hardly slowed down. If anything, he’s only gotten more interesting as a filmmaker. Since then, he hasn’t made one dull movie — he’s made less-than-great ones (“Full Frontal,” “The Good German”) — but he’s never lacked for intriguing ideas. Soderbergh grew up playing baseball — he was once a promising pitcher — and there’s something about that sport’s celebration of the day-in/day-out grind that seems to have stayed with the filmmaker. He just goes out and does the work, treating each project with as much care and thoughtfulness as he can. As he mentioned in a recent New York interview, “Any movie I’ve made has been because of the challenge it offered me as a director, because it provides a new canvas. Even the big-budget stuff like the ‘Ocean’s’ films.” In fact, it was his idea to do sequels to “Ocean’s Eleven” — not the studio’s. “They didn’t care. We kind of had to talk them into it. Those movies provided a really unique set of opportunities visually. They’re not easy for me to make. The first ‘Ocean’s’ was, directorially, a lot harder than ‘Traffic.’ Not even close. But they allowed me to play in a way the other movies don’t. It’s the closest to a comic book as I’ll ever get — I viewed them as like Roy Lichtenstein panels, which was really fun. And I’m very happy with them visually. When you look at what passes for a tent pole now, the ‘Ocean’s’ movies are pretty gentle in terms of their spirit, and I like that about them.”

I do, too. All three of the “Ocean’s” films have a bounce and freedom that you don’t see from big-budget studio movies. Soderbergh is sometimes criticized for his “cold” movies, but how, then, do you explain what fun the “Ocean’s” films are? To this day, Soderbergh comes across as a dry, cerebral fellow in interviews — the braininess of his youth remains — but it’s only helped give his films an undeniably hip patina. Whether it’s “The Informant!” or “The Girlfriend Experience” or “Contagion” or “Che,” his movies give off a sense that they’re trying to rethink their genres, trying to find new ways to express familiar sentiments. And as to this nonsense that his movies are overly chilly or withdrawn, who else could have turned “Magic Mike” into both a really fun time and also a poignant look at a young man (Channing Tatum) finally shedding his Peter Pan complex and growing up?

As Soderbergh’s gotten closer to 50, the age he said he wanted to give up filmmaking for painting and other pursuits, he’s been jumping from movie to movie, worried less about grand statements than crossing genres off his bucket list. What a blast “Haywire” was. What elegant paranoia dripped from “Contagion.” (And if you haven’t seen “And Everything Is Going Fine,” his 2010 documentary tribute to celebrated monologist Spalding Gray, a longtime friend of Soderbergh’s, it’s deeply moving.) This is not a man who should be retiring — he seems at the peak of his powers, making one distinctive film and then moving on to the next. He’s my kind of filmmaker. He just works. He does the best he can at that moment, and then he throws all his energy into the next one. Leave the legacy talk for others to sort out.

If “Side Effects” is his final feature, it’s a fitting sendoff. It’s smart, it’s shrewd, and it goes its own way. I liked it, but in my review I noted my reservations, which included, I now see, a criticism that it’s “ultimately too clever for its own good.” I’ve been here before with Soderbergh. I was wrong then — at this stage of his fine, fine career, I’m not entirely positive I’m not wrong now. But what I do know for sure: I’ll miss his movies. And I’ll miss him making them.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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