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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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Hat in the Ring

Marc Maron Will Wrestle With Alison Brie in New Netflix Series

Catch up on the final season of Maron now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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With barely enough time to catch an exasperated sigh since the series finale of Maron, star and creator Marc Maron is heading back in front of the camera for a new Netflix series focused on the heavily hairsprayed world of female wrestling in the ’80s.

Penned by Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, G.L.O.W. will star Alison Brie as a struggling actress who chases the spotlight into a weekly series about women’s wrestling. Maron will play Sam Sylvia, a has-been Hollywood director who winds up coaching 14 women in the art of lady-grappling. Much like the Marc we know and love from Maron, his character on G.L.O.W. (which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) has a “very complicated history with women.”

And as we wait for Marc to dislodge himself from a turnbuckle, catch up on episodes of Maron on IFC.com and the IFC app.

The Matrix Revolutions Cast

Wooden Spoons

10 Rotten Moments From the Matrix Sequels

Strap in for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions Friday, September 2nd starting at 5P.

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Photo Credit: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

A stylish mix of action, philosophy and cutting-edge special effects, 1999’s The Matrix represents the rare feat of a Hollywood movie getting everything right. But while the original film dazzled the eye and sparked imagination, the follow-ups, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, generated colossal disappointment by delivering wasted opportunities, forgettable characters and lifeless action sequences.

This Friday, September 2nd, at 8P, IFC is airing The Matrix Revolutions  (36% on Rotten Tomatoes!) as part of our “too rotten to miss” movies. (The less rotten installment The Matrix Reloaded kicks things off at 5P.)  Why are the Matrix sequels so “rotten”? These moments could be part of the problem…

1. Every moment spent in Zion

Detractors of Reloaded and Revolutions are quick to point to the infamous Rave Scene as the de facto reason why the sequels are sub par. But we’ll do you one further: Every scene in Zion is a drag. On paper, a subterranean stronghold of humanity’s last survivors pitted against the surface-level machines sounds like a pretty darn interesting place. It isn’t. It’s drab and charmless, filled with dull characters, and yes, that Rave Scene is interminable.


2. Neo the Almighty

The original film ended with a perfect bow: After seeing the Matrix for what it is, Neo vows to save humanity and takes flight, effectively making him as powerful and invincible as Superman. From there, where can you go? Apparently, watching this invulnerable character battle foes who have no hope in defeating him — unless he’s in flesh-and-blood form in Zion, and we all know how fun that is. That leaves the only interesting setting in the franchise (the actual Matrix) as a place without peril for Neo. So to keep viewers invested, the risk has to fall on mortal characters who aren’t The One, and even that’s taken away when…


3. Neo resurrects Trinity with the greatest of ease

As if becoming a bulletproof superhero wasn’t enough, Neo swoops in and saves Trinity’s life like an all-powerful deity. What was first foreshadowed as a free fall to certain doom, Trinity’s double-Glock header out of a high rise is revealed to be all in the day’s work for Neo. He casually sweeps a bullet out of her heart, restarts it like a defibrillating Miyagi, and they embrace as if nothing had happened. And in terms of risk or consequence, truly nothing did.


4. The Burly Brawl: CGI Gets Lapped

In 1999, The Matrix set the bar for how innovative CGI could be and how well it could supplement, rather than supplant, a story. And in the four years between then and Reloaded, movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter expanded on those principles and left the bar higher than the sequels could clear. In a post-Gollum 2003, Reloaded’s special effects packed less of a punch, didn’t heighten what was already visually possible, and certainly couldn’t drive or substantiate the plot. So a fight between Neo and a hundred Agent Smiths meant absolutely zilch if it’s shoddy in both drama and technical specs.


5. Diabolical laughter and cake orgasms

The first Matrix had its lighthearted moments (the Wile E. Coyote fall and “I know kung fu” come to mind), but they fit tonally and didn’t verge into “goofy” territory. (We’ll do our best to forget the “Kansas is going bye-bye” line.) Then came the sequels. Between Hugo Weaving’s over-the-top villain (“Me, me, me.” “Me, too.”), Commander Lock’s Rambo scream and cake orgasms, the sequels were silly in all the wrong ways.


6. Muddied philosophies

Whereas the original movie deftly moved between different schools of thought and theology, the sequels threw a bunch of unconnected and uncoordinated philosophies together like a toppled rack of CliffsNotes. Causality gets an awkward demonstration by the Merovingian (the aforementioned cake orgasm), the Architect stumbles through Buddhist reincarnation without substance, and Revolutions practically foregoes all philosophical subtext (save martyrdom) in favor of a live-action Mechwarrior game. Speaking of which…


7. Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots

It all comes down to this. This is what the whole franchise was leading up to: The battle for Zion and the future of humanity. And for the grandest set piece in the entire trilogy, giant mechs shooting at whirring sentinels isn’t enough to generate a shred of interest, concern, or suspense. In the real-world, real-stakes counterpart to the Neo vs. Smithland Fight, the Wachowskis sacrificed story for spectacle and intimacy for scope, leaving the audience unfazed when Lock is killed and a teen opens a gate.


8. Trinity dies in an afterthought

Even in the first Matrix, the Neo-Trinity romance never does feel right. But the relationship completely falls flat in the second and third movies by failing to justify itself at all in terms of character and chemistry. And that’s no better illustrated than the dry and halfhearted send-off Trinity is given midway through Revolutions. Without a meaningful sense of loss, there’s more emotional resonance when the Keymaker is killed.


9. The Final Fight

Increase the Burly Brawl by thousands and yet somehow reduce the feeling of conflict, and you have the recipe for the final battle between Neo and Agent Smith(s). Hundreds of millions of dollars and countless man hours were devoted to spinning wheels before reaching an inevitable conclusion — one which could’ve happened at any point for equally arbitrary reasons. Neo is defeated and absorbed because that’s the only way Smith can be defeated. Why? Doesn’t matter. Now watch this slow-motion punch!


10. The Wachowskis can’t match our imaginations

At the very moment a sequel to the first Matrix was greenlit, our collective imagination ran wild. From multi-leveled Matrixes to time paradoxes to a complete upending of reality, fan theories pushed the boundaries of The Matrix universe to endless possibilities. Too bad the Wachowskis chose lackluster paths on the way to a wholly unsatisfying finishing line. The first movie told us to free our minds. If only the creators behind Reloaded and Revolutions took their own advice.

Kick back with The Matrix Revolutions this Friday at 8P on IFC!

Janet Varney -Photo Credit: Kim Simms/IFC

Jan Against Evil

10 Things You Need to Know About Janet Varney

Catch Janet Varney on Stan Against Evil premiering November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes.

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Janet Varney is about to go big time. She’s been on our radar for years, always popping up on that show, Web series or podcast we couldn’t get enough of. Now, Janet’s about to star on Stan Against Evil, the new IFC horror comedy series from the folks behind The Simpsons and The Walking Dead. As a little homework, we thought we’d dig into this talented performer’s past, and see what’s helped make her such a star on the rise.

Bone up on all things Janet Varney below, and be sure to stay tuned to IFC.com for more Stan Against Evil news before the big premiere on November 2nd at 10P.

10. She’s an Animation Voice Acting Superstar.

Korra
Nickelodeon Animation Studio

While Janet might be a new face to some folks, animation fans know she’s been the voice behind some beloved animated characters. Probably best known for bringing the heroic Korra to life on The Legend of Korra, she’s also provided her talents to shows and movies like Norm of the North, Sanjay and Craig and Dante’s Inferno.


9. The San Francisco Sketchfest? She co-founded it.

SF Sketchfest
SF Sketchfest

Now entering its 15th year, the SF Sketchfest started as an excuse by Varney, and friends David Owen and Cole Stratton, to give Bay Area comedians a place to perform. Over the years it has transformed into a comedy hotbed, with everyone from Zach Galifianakis to the original cast members of SNL taking part.


8. She’s Been Known to Perform Old Time Radio Plays.

Shawn Robinson / The Daily Quirk

Shawn Robinson / The Daily Quirk

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a stage show and podcast that performs in the style of the radio plays of yore. Varney began as a guest, popping up in numerous productions, until she finally just went ahead and joined the troupe. Some of the show’s more notable regulars include Nathan Fillion, Comedy Bang! Bang! favorite Paul F. Tompkins and Linda Cardellini.


7. She Nailed a Classic Key & Peele Sketch.

Key & Peele was always at its best when deconstructing race in America. In this classic sketch, Janet Varney and comedian Natasha Leggero starred as two women who vacillated between the good and the bad of having preconceived notions about black people. Are stereotypes always racist? Can you use people’s ignorance to your own advantage? Is it wrong to have sex with a racist girl? No, seriously, is it? Because Key and Peele would like to know.


6. She’s Riffed Movies with the MST3K gang.

Footloose Rifftrax
ColeStratton.com/Rifftrax

From the warped minds behind Mystery Science Theater 3000RiffTrax Presents is a series where comedians are set loose on lousy movies, taking them down one sarcastic comment at a time. Varney, along with longtime collaborator Cole Stratton, are frequent guests on the show.


5. She claims June Diane Raphael is an Amazing Kisser.

Burning Love
Yahoo! Studios

While doing an AMA on Reddit, Janet coughed up some juicy gossip. Varney was one of the stars of the Yahoo! series Burning Love, making it all the way to the end of the parody dating series. At one point, she was fortunate to lock lips with Mrs. Raphael, and gives the experience a big thumbs up.


4. Her Podcast The JV Club Perfectly Captures Our Awkward Years.

The JV Club
Nerdist

A renaissance woman if there ever was one, Varney curates her own art exhibition called Fleeting Immersion, writes music, and hosts her own podcast, The JV Club, on the Nerdist Network. A weekly look back at all of our awkward years, the show is consistently featured in The Onion’s AV Club “Best Podcasts” lists. Guests from all areas of entertainment have stopped by to dish about their formative years, including Portlandia‘s own Carrie Brownstein.


3. She Had Puppet Dreams with Neil Patrick Harris.

Neil's Puppet Dreams
Nerdist

Varney helped bring Neil and his partner David Burtka’s puppet fantasies to life with the Web series Neil’s Puppet Dreams. She raved about working on the Jim Henson Company series, telling Nerdist that “[Neil’s Puppet Dreams is] my baby. I had a baby with two gay men and that’s what came out.”


2. Remember Dinner and a Movie? She Cohosted it!

Dinner and a Movie
TBS

What better way to enjoy a movie than with a delicious dinner inspired by a pun? From “Snow Coens” to “The Hippocratic Loaf” to “The Beets Go On,” if there was an adorably corny food-related joke to mine, the good people behind Dinner and a Movie found it. Thankfully, that was far from the only reason to tune in. From 2005 to 2011, Janet got to stuff her face and flaunt her film knowledge as the host of the late night dinner party. Unfortunately, the show was canceled, but Varney says she’s still extremely close with cohosts Paul Gilmartin and Claud Mann.


1. She Plays Becca on You’re The Worst.

Janet Varney You're the Worst
FX

Prior to signing on to fight demons in Stan Against Evil, Janet was channeling inner demons on the FX dysfunction-com You’re the Worst. Her role as Becca, sister to Lindsay and Jimmy’s ex, is both integral to the show (her wedding is where Jimmy meets Gretchen) and earned Varney rave reviews.

Check out Janet in a clip from Stan Against Evil below.

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