DID YOU READ

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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Ghost World Thora Birch Scarlett Johansson

Graphic Fiction

10 Offbeat Comic Book Movies You Need To See

Catch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

When we think of movies based on comic books, our minds tend to drift towards tights, spectacular powers and origin stories about how those extraordinary powers come with great responsibilities. But not all comic books star superheroes, and not all movies adapted from them do either. In fact, there are a diverse array of films based on graphic novels and comic book titles, telling stories about everything from sexual awakening to cold blooded revenge. Here are a few comic book flix that are worth checking out while you wait for Captain America and Spider-Man to return to the big screen.

10. Persepolis

Persepolis
Sony Pictures Classic

Marjane Satrapi codirected and cowrote the screenplay for this acclaimed animated film, based on her autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. Through vivid animation and moving voiceover, the film tells the tale of Satrapi coming of age as a punk rock-loving kid during the Iranian revolution. A revolution itself, Persepolis scored the 2007 Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and further pushed the boundaries of what a comic book movie can accomplish.


9. Mystery Men

Mystery Men
Universal Pictures

Despite a fun script and an amazing cast (everyone from Ben Stiller to Eddie Izzard to Dane Cook is in this thing), Mystery Men never got much credit for spoofing the superhero genre way before the comic book movie glut. Based on Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot comics, Mystery Men came and went when it was released back in 1999. It’s worth a second look, if for no other reason than to see Paul Reubens as a superhero with the power of explosive flatulence.


8. The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer
Disney

Released in 1991 on the heels of Batman and Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer was poised to be the next big comic book blockbuster. But the movie fizzled at the box office, eventually finding a much-deserved cult following on home video. Directed by Joe Johnston with the same mix of heart, humor and action-packed thrills that he brought to Captain America: The First Avenger, The Rocketeer is a throwback to classic pulp adventures presented with zero camp. A faithful adaptation of the late Dave Stevens’ graphic novel, it’s a franchise that Disney should consider rebooting. Maybe a Rocketeer/Captain America crossover?


7. Snowpiercer

Weinstein Company
Weinstein Company

Yes, that insanely awesome movie where Chris Evans fights his way through a futuristic train is based on a series of French graphic novels. Directed with visceral style by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer developed buzz when it was released in 2014 thanks to its twisty plot and intense action sequences. The graphic novels are worth checking out, though you’ll have to supply your own bizarre Tilda Swinton accent.


6. Ghost World

United Artists
United Artist

Indie filmmaker Terry Zwigoff adapted this film with the help of Daniel Clowes, the writer and artist of the anthology comic Eightball, where the “Ghost World” story first appeared. The film, like the comic, tells the story of two oddball teenage girls making their way towards adulthood. For the film, Zwigoff and Clowes expanded the role of the middle-aged loner (Steve Buscemi) that Enid (Thora Birch) pranks before eventually befriending. The graphic novel helped put Clowes on the map, and the film went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002.


5. A History of Violence

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

This paired down thriller was a perfect example of respecting the form and brevity of the source material and translating it to the screen. Genre icon David Cronenberg helped steer this adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel to an Oscar win for William Hurt, and a triumphant screening at the Cannes Film Festival.


4. Road to Perdition

Dreamworks
Dreamworks

Sam Mendes followed up his Oscar-adored film debut, American Beauty, by helming this adaptation of the 2002 comic by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. The story of a mob enforcer who seeks revenge on the men who killed his family, it was notable for casting Tom Hanks, aka America’s nicest movie star, as the heavy for once.


3. Art School Confidential

Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes reunited for this largely autobiographical story of Clowes’ early days in art school. The original comic was just four pages long, meaning much of the material covered in the movie was original. Still, you should watch it for John Malkovich’s trademark bizzaro performance as a pompous professor, and then stick around for the serial killer subplot that feels like it’s from a different movie. This isn’t a classic like Ghost World, but it’s worth seeing just for the singular talents behind it.


2. American Splendor

HBO Films
HBO Films

American Splendor is an autobiographical film, based on an autobiographical series of comics about the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who also appears in the film as himself, talking to his fictional counterpart, played by Paul Giamatti in a career defining performance. It is idiosyncratic, bizarre and something that has to be seen to truly grasp, but with a Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival under its belt, it certainly did its source material proud.


1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sony Pictures Classic
Sony Pictures Classic

Based on the semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, this recent indie favorite is about one teenage girl’s sexual awakening by way of an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. The movie, like the comics before it, mixes the moody angst of teendom with a certain magical realism to create an immersive world of sexual delights and snarky comebacks. Frank and funny, the film was an awards season favorite, and took home Best First Feature at the 2016 Spirit Awards.

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Kylo Ren

Use the Farce

Kylo Ren Outtakes, Maron’s Advice for Millennials And More of This Week’s Funniest Videos

This week we're laughing at Beyonce covers, Ab Fab: The Movie trailer and more.

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As another week ends, it’s important to blow off some steam with some hilarious videos. An entertainment appetizer, if you will, that’ll make the transition from work to play a little easier.

From a bumbling Kylo Ren to a perfect take on every white guy who covers Beyonce, here are five funny things from this week you need to watch.

1. Kylo Ren Outtakes


Exceeding fans’ expectations and being better than it had any right to be, Star Wars: The Force Awakens revitalized an ailing franchise from its abominable sequels. And a large part of the recent film’s appeal is its captivating villain, Kylo Ren. But as Auralnauts present in their YouTube video, the antagonist had a little trouble with negotiating his mask. Check out Kylo’s “outtakes” from the film and hope that director J.J. Abrams de-tints the visor for the next installment.


2. Marc Maron’s Advice for Millennials

The prospect of entering a tough job market with a soaring cost of living and a college degree of diminishing quality is enough to discourage any young millennial. Thankfully, IFC’s designated curmudgeon Marc Maron has some helpful advice for the young men and women to find some solace in an increasingly unfeeling word. Sure, it mostly involves swallowing your pride and accepting misery, but the intention is pure. (Find out how Marc digs himself out of his own personal hole when Maron returns on May 4th at 9P.)


3. Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” Covered By Animals


If you got somebody’s answering machine in the early-to-mid ’80s, you might’ve been greeted by a chorus of pups barking “Jingle Bells”, “Grand Old Flag”, or another royalty-free tune. In that vein, YouTuber Insane Cherry assembled the bleats, grunts, and meows from a veritable barnyard of animals into a rendition of “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies. Yes, the cats sound like they’re stressed, but to their credit, they’re really nailing Frank Black’s voice.


4. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie trailer

If you’re like us, you probably have fond memories of watching Patsy and Edina’s drunken adventures back when Comedy Central aired AB Fab reruns in the ’90s. Thankfully the gals are back in a new movie, still sloshed and living a fabulous life. (And this time out, they might have killed Kate Moss.) Considering all the hard living they’ve done, we have to echo Jon Hamm (playing himself in the film) and say we’re surprised they’re still alive and kicking. (For more on the film, visit our pals over on BBC America.)


5. White Guy Covers Beyonce’s Lemonade

Beyonce broke the Internet with her Lemonade album and companion music videos, inspiring a slew of covers and tributes from fans. Funny or Die offered up a perfect spoof of earnest white guy YouTubers who cover Beyonce’s #relatable songs.

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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off the moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


2. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


1. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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