DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on the Brilliant Career of Steven Soderbergh

Steven-Soderbergh

Posted by on

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.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

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

Posted by on
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.

Tim Grierson on the Return of Arnold Schwarzenegger

the-last-stand-film-images-b

Posted by on

The Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback begins in earnest on Friday. That’s when his new movie, “The Last Stand,” opens. It’ll be the first film in 10 years in which he’s the primary star and leading man. Even when he showed up in the “Expendables” movies or had his likeness used in “Terminator Salvation,” he was merely a periphery player. If people pay money to see “The Last Stand,” it’ll be because of Schwarzenegger (with all due respect to fans of Johnny Knoxville and Luis Guzman, of course). It’s been a long time since that was the case.

Schwarzenegger’s comeback is unique among Hollywood stars because he’s not coming back in the usual way. He hasn’t recently recovered from addiction. He isn’t trying to rebuild his image after a tabloid scandal. He didn’t make himself a pariah by spewing scathingly inflammatory and offensive comments about minority groups or women. No, he’s just been busy serving as the governor of California. (Although, yes, he has had to apologize for some of his past behavior. And he’s no stranger to the tabloids. The man is certainly not a saint.) He’s not coming back in a kinder, gentler, changed form. He wants to be the same Arnold, albeit (as his character jokes in the “Last Stand” commercials) a slightly older model.

Before Schwarzenegger took office thanks to the fall 2003 recall election of then-Governor Gray Davis, he remained a popular star — a faded one, but a star nonetheless. Before that summer’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” — the year’s eighth-biggest hit — he had been in a series of box-office misfires (“Collateral Damage,” “The 6th Day,” “End of Days”), and even the $100-million hit “Batman & Robin” was seen as an underperformer, not to mention a campy fiasco. It would be incredibly simplistic and glib to suggest that Schwarzenegger’s move into politics was a savvy career transition. (Becoming the governor of the country’s most populous state brings with it far more stress, challenges and real-world consequences than anything faced in Hollywood.) But from a movie-business perspective, it allowed him to potentially bypass the commercial-wilderness years that eventually befall all action stars. No lame reality show, no halfhearted stab at showcasing his “serious side.” He just left.

But you got the sense that he never fully closed that door: His cameo in 2010’s “The Expendables,” which opened five months before he would leave office, proved that. And then when he was free of the governorship in early 2011, he made it be known that he would immediately start considering movie projects, including proposed remakes of “Predator” or “The Running Man.” At 63 and after seven years as governor, he wasn’t going to slow down and enjoy life. He clearly wanted back in to Hollywood.

Of course, that plan got derailed when it was revealed that he fathered a child with his family’s maid a decade earlier. But that derailment was brief: Soon, he was signed up for “The Last Stand,” the English-language debut from South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon, who previously had made “I Saw the Devil” and “A Tale of Two Sisters.” He also came aboard “The Expendables 2” for a larger role than in the original. And “The Last Stand” isn’t his only upcoming film: He’s going to be in “The Tomb” with his “Expendables” costar Sylvester Stallone in the fall; and “Ten,” with Sam Worthington, is set for an early 2014 release. He seems incredibly determined to make up for lost time.

Clearly, Schwarzenegger is hoping to hit the reset button with his fans after many years away. It’s difficult to find an analogous Hollywood star to compare to his situation, so it might be more appropriate to look to the music world. In the last few years, several rock bands who were big in the late 1980s and early ‘90s — Jane’s Addiction, the Pixies, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots — have reunited, finding success with concertgoers who are happy to revel in a little nostalgia. It’s worth pointing out that none of those bands have delivered much in the way of compelling new material — they’re just recycling the past. It seems to be the same for Arnold: His comeback isn’t some kind of redemption story like so many of his peers’. He just wants back into the limelight, offering the same bill of goods as before.

As the “Expendables” films have proved, there’s definitely an audience for bygone action heroes who are willing to crack skulls and blow stuff up like in the old days. So why not Schwarzenegger? The early reviews of “The Last Stand” haven’t been so good, and it seems unlikely that this movie on its own will catapult Arnold back into the ranks of the A-list. But considering how unusual his comeback scenario is, it would also be foolish to predict just how it’s going to play out.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

Tim Grierson on the Oscar Nominations That Will Never Happen (But Really Should)

liam-neeson

Posted by on

About 20 years ago, writer Danny Peary published “Alternate Oscars,” a book in which he went back and second-guessed every Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Actress, and Actor since the Oscars’ early days of the 1920s. To Peary’s mind, there were plenty of instances when Oscar voters had gotten it wrong, and so he proposed who the real winners in those categories should have been. For people who love to argue about what constitutes the “best” in filmmaking, it’s a smart, terrific read.

This year’s Academy Award nominations will be revealed early Thursday morning, January 10, and I’d like to offer my own variation on Peary’s book by selecting the nominees I’d love to hear announced, even though I know they have no chance. In each category, I’ll pick one deserving individual or movie that, currently, isn’t part of the Oscar conversation at all. I don’t think my picks should win, but in a better world, they’d at least get to be part of all the Academy Award hoopla on February 24.

Best Supporting Actress

Anna Kendrick, “End of Watch”

I was tempted to go with Kelly Reilly, who’s terrific as the drug addict who falls for Denzel Washington in “Flight,” but because she’s still considered a bit of a dark horse, I’ll go with another performance that’s been even more overlooked. Anna Kendrick has proved to be a sharp, effervescent presence in movies like “Pitch Perfect” and “Up In the Air” (which earned her an Oscar nomination), but in “End of Watch,” she plays a very different character: a tougher, less adorable woman who falls in love with Jake Gyllenhaal’s LAPD cop. Kendrick’s sweetness, as always, is on display, but she responds to the harder-edged tone of “End of Watch” by delivering a performance that’s grittier and sadder than anything she’s done before. It’s crucial for showing us how the wife of a cop never can relax, always knowing that her husband’s work carries with it enormous risk.

Best Supporting Actor

David Oyelowo, “Middle of Nowhere”

Character actor David Oyelowo has been showing up in everything recently, appearing in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Help,” “Red Tails,” “The Paperboy,” “Lincoln” and “Jack Reacher.” But in the little-seen character drama “Middle of Nowhere,” he really gets a chance to shine, playing a Los Angeles bus driver courting a woman (Emayatzy Corinealdi) whose husband is in prison. The film focuses on Corinealdi’s struggle to go on with her life while staying true to her man, and the excellence of Oyelowo’s performance is such that while we root for Corinealdi, we can’t help but wonder if this charming, sensitive driver might not ultimately be a better match for her.

Best Actor

Liam Neeson, “The Grey”

Because Liam Neeson rose to prominence in the 1990s starring in acclaimed movies like “Schindler’s List,” “Husbands and Wives” and “Kinsey,” there can be a negative kneejerk reaction to his recent transition to action movies like the “Taken” films, naysayers accusing him of “selling out” or compromising his art. But Neeson’s performance in “The Grey” reminds us that “serious” acting can occur in supposed popcorn films as well. Playing an oil-field worker stranded in the Alaskan wilderness who must fend off ravenous wolves and inhuman cold, Neeson gives us a portrayal of a lost soul who turns his ordeal into an unlikely chance at redemption. “The Grey” may be “just” an action-thriller, but the nuance and feeling in Neeson’s performance suggests what a superior actor can do with gripping material.

Best Actress

Kara Hayward, “Moonrise Kingdom”

There’s a very good chance that Quvenzhané Wallis, the lead in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” will be among the Oscar nominees for Best Actress. If that happens, she would be the youngest nominee ever in that category, beating out Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was almost 14 when she got a nomination for “Whale Rider.” (Wallis turns 10 in August.) I’d like to spotlight another young actress, 14-year-old Kara Hayward, who was wonderful as the dark, melancholy Suzy who runs off with her beau Sam (the equally fine Jared Gilman) in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Though director Wes Anderson’s bittersweet coming-of-age romance features a slew of big names like Bruce Willis, Ed Norton and Bill Murray, the movie revolves around its two adolescent protagonists, and Hayward (in her first film role) is the sort of stormy, mysterious beauty that would bewitch the heart of any young dreamer.

Best Picture

“Compliance”

Ann Dowd, who’s fantastic as the fast-food manager duped by a prank caller in “Compliance,” has put up her own money to mount an Oscar campaign for Best Supporting Actress. I wish someone would have done something similar for this controversial psychological thriller, which examines how (and why) a group of employees do progressively more demeaning things to one of their coworkers (Dreama Walker). “Compliance” is not an easy film to sit through, but writer-director Craig Zobel uses provocation to ask sincere questions about power, class and gender that are just as upsetting as anything you see in the movie. Blessed with a sharp, precise script and a superb cast, “Compliance” is too divisive to ever have a chance at a Best Picture nomination. But I humbly suggest it might be one film from 2012 that we’re still discussing (and debating) in 2032.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

Powered by ZergNet