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Tag Archives: Steven Soderbergh
At one point, late in Steven Soderbergh‘s globe-trotting thriller “Haywire,” two men plan a murder. One is the intended victim’s employer and the other a killer-for-hire with a dangerous past. The killer takes a sip of whiskey, hesitating. He admits he’s never killed a woman before. The employer waves that off. “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a mistake.” That ominous warning works as a joke, but it also works as a real assessment of “Haywire” star Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter the director saw on TV one night while idly channel surfing. As he said at the film’s L.A. premiere, “I saw Gina Carano beat up a woman in a cage, and I thought ‘The only way this could be better is if she were beating up a male movie star.’” He was smiling as he said it. You’ll be smiling as you watch.
When a filmmaker who needs no introduction gives us a leading lady who does, it’s tempting to write the result off as a gimmick, a ruse, a delusion. And Soderbergh, who’s seemed hell-bent on making as many movies as he can before his contemplated “retirement,” is throwing himself into his recent films with a vengeance. Some have said that the director’s recent (digital-video aided) productivity in advance of his retirement is like the alcoholic who intends to walk through the doors of rehab saturated in booze. After his most recent string of films, though, I’m inclined to respond to that the same way Lincoln did when told of Gen. Grant’s drinking problem: Find out what whiskey he drinks, and send his peers a case of it.
It’s been stated for years that Sundance is the premiere launching pad for new talent in American film: the film festival where directors as wide-ranging and as accomplished as Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and Allison Anders debuted their first films; where independent film titans, like John Sayles and Richard Linklater, made their names; where big-budget directors, like Bryan Singer and Neil LaBute, brought personal, shoestring films they made long before even they thought they’d go on to direct “X-Men” or “Death at a Funeral.” A startling majority of this year’s probable Best Director Oscar nominees — a shortlist including Joel and Ethan Coen, Lisa Cholodenko, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and David O. Russell — showed their debut films at Sundance.
Filmmaker Miranda July knows exactly how they felt: Debuting “You and Me and Everyone We Know” in 2005, she says,”was the beginning of a shift in my life. I hadn’t really thought that much about how, by being in (‘You and Me and Everyone We Know’), I was like a billboard for it, everywhere I went. I remember walking down the street and, for whatever reason, because of how I portrayed myself in that movie, people are not — like, when they recognize me, they just want to hug me instead of get my autograph. They think we’re already friends, which is kind of sweet. I think people are not awe-struck; they feel kind of tender. So it was the beginning of that, feeling confused because it was like I had a whole bunch of new siblings or something, people who felt really close to me and almost sort of protective of me, who were total strangers.”
And yet, as much as Sundance launches careers — with its festival hoopla, yes, but also with its less-publicized labs and grants and other development programs — you could argue that Sundance also exists as a parallel universe of filmmaking, where directors can make smaller films and then debut them in an atmosphere slightly more gentle and gracious than the wham-bam-thank-you world of 3,000-plus-screen openings and 3-D Imax franchises.
Many of this year’s Sundance films are from first-timers, and promise the sense of discovery and newness that can be found only at Sundance — like Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s “On the Ice,” a story of secrets and crime in the Inuit community of Barrow, Alaska, or Evan Glodell’s slacker-pocalypse drama “Bellflower,” where two friends avidly hope for the end of the world so they can finally unleash the weird gadgets and personas they’ve been dreaming of.
But there are, as ever, plenty of alumni at Sundance for this year’s festival (running Jan. 20-30), whether it’s Morgan Spurlock, returning years after his 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” with “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” or Miguel Arteta, bringing the big comedy “Cedar Rapids” 13 years after his debut film, “Star Maps.” Even Kevin Smith, whose “Clerks” was a cause célèbre in 1994, is back with a horror film, “Red State” — with a promise to not screen the film for critics, and crowing about how that he’ll auction the film off at the Sunday night premiere — not after, but in the theater itself.
According to Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who had his film “Maelstrom” at Sundance in 2001, and now returns with the Telluride word-of-mouth hit “Incendies,” Sundance isn’t always about gaining distribution. “Incendies,” for instance, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in Toronto last September. For Villeneuve, it’s about launching the film in the right way for the right audience. “It’s a good opportunity to make press up there and to make the film known by a larger public there, to make the film known, to meet people from the industry there. I will have a lot of rendezvous with journalists. That’s what film festivals are for, to meet people.”
Even after Toronto and Telluride, Villeneuve explained, getting into Sundance matters, not just as promotion, but also as pure pleasure. “There’s a French saying, ‘C’est la cerise sur le sundae.’ It means it’s a cherry on top. For me, it was like fall 2010 was like a huge Christmas. I have so many gifts to unwrap. But when I learned we were going to Sundance, I couldn’t believe what my producer was saying to me. I didn’t expect Sundance. It’s a very, very important film festival, one of the most important in the world.”
Villeneuve, of course, is a foreign director taking advantage of Sundance’s unique position as a starting block: more attended and publicized than small, secluded and (some say) snobbish Telluride, but more cushioned and accommodating than simply pouring “Incendies” into 40 theaters nationwide and hoping it gets stumbled across. Miranda July, returning to Sundance with her film “The Future,” had a different experience with her debut film, “You and Me and Everyone We Know,” which went through the Sundance labs prior to its debut at the 2005 Festival.
“I developed through the Sundance labs, so it really felt as homey as a premiere could feel. I didn’t also have anything to compare it to, so I remember sitting there and being surprised that people were laughing so much, because I hadn’t laughed in any of the test screenings that we did. I remember having the thought that, ‘I guess if this was going well, this is how it would sound.’ But this disengaged observations of it, because it was so surreal, watching everything play out. But then again, not totally understanding it until months and even years later — like now, I look back and I kind of understand exactly all the things that were happening a little bit more clearly.”
July also advises first-time filmmakers at Sundance to change their expectations. “Don’t expect to feel fantastic all the time,” she says. “I think it’s pretty brutal, actually. It’s not just one big party. Different kinds of people experience it differently. I think most people making movies — independent movies — are pretty sensitive. I feel kind of protective of a first-time filmmaker and you always feel like you’re doing the wrong thing, or you should be somewhere else. You’re probably doing everything right, so don’t worry about it.” Do first-time filmmakers feel like they should be somewhere else — or, with the dissociating effect of 10 days of sudden success — feel like they should be someone else? “Somewhere else, but someone else, too,” she says. “That’s a good addition. You just made a movie; you didn’t prepare for a festival. You’re not necessarily cut out for that. You’re cut out for making movies. I think most people find it kind of tumultuous. Once you do it, you know that, but I think going in, you kind of expect a party for you. And it’s not exactly like that.”
Film festivals might be about exposing moviegoers to new films. It’s not that for movie makers. As Villeneuve notes, “The thing is that now when I go to film festivals, the truth is, if your movie is a success, then the film festivals are very painful because you just make interviews. You don’t see other movies; you just meet journalists. That is the case since August: I haven’t seen a single film. I just had the chance to see ‘Black Swan‘ at Telluride. That’s the only film I saw since the beginning of this rollercoaster at the end of August last year, because besides that I’m always making interviews, every day. I’m beginning to be a little dizzy about it.”
For Villeneuve, a veteran of the film festival circuit, Sundance is a thing unto itself, but still shares commonalities with other world-class film festivals. “They are all different,” he says. “For me, those are the big ones. Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Venice. They all (have) different personalities. But let’s say that they are all frantic; I don’t know the right word. They are all frantic and huge and scary, but at the same time they are all huge honors. Those huge film festivals, I think they are the combination of the best of filmmaking and at the same time the worst. You have all-you-can-meet, all those nice people that are making films, and meet great journalists and have conversations about cinema. At the same time, let’s say that I’m not a huge fan of glamour. It’s not something that’s important to me. So the huge film festival, there’s always a big thing about star system and that doesn’t touch me a lot. But that’s part of the madness.”
And for Villeneuve, there’s also a class system even at Sundance, where Paul Rudd, Ed Helms, Liv Tyler, Don Cheadle and other stars will be premiering films this year. “I think for international film there’s no more glamour,” he says. “I think the glamour is all for the American films, which is always OK, I understand.” Then again, compared to the red-carpet hysteria and big-money brutality of the other 355 days of the year in moviemaking, Sundance 2011′s 10 days — even with stars in smaller films occasionally overshadowing foreign movies and documentaries — feels like an all-too-brief vacation from the hard work of enduring what the studio system considers fun.
Of course, the irony of Gwyneth Paltrow playing a Grammy-winning pop performer is that she could simply, in theory, ask for advice about playing the part over the breakfast table, considering she’s married to Coldplay‘s Chris Martin. But Paltrow, as she explained, only took a few notes from her husband. “Yeah, he was great,” she said. “But to be totally honest, I kind of picked the brain of my girl singer friends more, because I think it’s a very different thing to be a male in a band as opposed to a female lead, like Beyonce and Faith Hill, there by yourself. They were so generous of spirit, and the only reason I got through the Country Music Awards” — where Paltrow performed live — “was because of them. Beyonce was in London; she helped me so much before I went. When I got to Nashville, Faith helped me so much. Faith had also said to me, ’30 days before you do it, just start singing it; sing it every day so the vocal part is just in your muscle memory and you don’t worry about the vocal.’ And thank God, because if she hadn’t told me all that stuff? I just did everything she said, and she got me through it.”
Paltrow’s performance at the CMAs was a moment she’ll always remember, including a standing ovation: “Oh my God, it was the most surreal, amazing, bizarre, exhilarating experience. I feel like I’ll look back on that always and just be like … what a moment in my life! I can’t believe I was there and I did that. I was very overwhelmed by the standing ovation. It really brought a tear to my eye. It was just amazing that people were so supportive, and it gave me chills.”
Asked about her male co-stars Garrett Hedlund and country-musician-turned-actor Tim McGraw, Paltrow beamed — and sized them up with a laser-focused eye. “(They’re) both total hunks, love both of them,” she said. “Garrett is so sweet. He’s so big and tall and strong, but he’s got such an incredible sensitivity and vulnerability. And Tim is just great. He’s got so much in there, when you look in his eyes, it’s so intense. It was fun to work with somebody who’s discovering how good they are at a different thing. He has real chops, and I love both of them.”
And if the gamble of “Country Strong” pays off, it’s all part of Paltrow’s strategy of trying to avoid being pigeonholed — or worse, being bored: “I want to do something where it’s either short with someone great, like Steven Soderbergh, or it’s one project. I just want to work with good people, I want to push myself and challenge myself. But I don’t know. I’m very open. I feel so grateful and just excited about where I am right now, and I just feel like I’ve had this really surprising autumn where I’ve gotten to do a lot of singing and go on ‘Glee,’ and just … whatever. Just anything that’s fun and different and that is going to be inspiring.”
As interesting as it is to talk with Matt Damon about “Hereafter,” the actor’s crowded resume, past and present, means that any conversation will digress and diverge. I half-kiddingly asked Damon if he, after the success of “The Town” ever wants to yell at his old friend and collaborator Ben Affleck, “Return my calls. Put me in one of your movies, Mr. big-time director”? Damon laughed. “Yeah, I do. I’m sending him e-mails — daily e-mails — reminding him to cast me in his next movie. I was thrilled and not at all surprised to see ‘The Town’ be as good as it was and as successful as it was. I’ve been a big believer in him my whole life, but I’m just happy that everyone else is, too.”
But Damon’s just as generous toward new co-workers, too, like when I asked him about working with Bryce Dallas Howard, and if she seems as present in the moment during scene work as her demeanor suggests. “It’s funny you should ask that,” he said, “because Clint was just talking about her today at the press conference. He said she’s one of those actresses where you just know it’s going to be the first take, because she’s just right there. I don’t know if that’s a function of working with Clint — because he’s legendary for printing the first take, so actors usually come very prepared because they know he might print the first thing they do — but she definitely treated it like a play. She was ready to go from the moment they started rolling. And those are tough scenes, too. It was interesting, because we shot the main scene in the kitchen; that’s like a seven-page scene, and I think we did it in one day. And that’s a lot, that’s a lot to do in one day. Her whole role was a four- or five-day stint that she did on the movie. That role, in another movie, she would have been there for a month. It was intense. I think going into it, it’s going to be intense, so everyone’s prepared for that. You also know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to be intense for a week, so everybody comes with their game face on. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do in a movie, to show up in a short period of time and do intense stuff. You don’t get any kind of settling into the groove of the movie; you show up and go.”
On “Hereafter,” Damon also got to work with old friend Richard Kind (“A Serious Man,” “Spin City”), and tried to ease his pal into Eastwood’s rhythm. “I know Richard; I’ve known him for years, and I talked to him beforehand,” Damon said. “I said, ‘The only drawback to doing a Clint Eastwood movie is that it ends too quickly.’ We rehearsed together beforehand. We were at the same hotel, and he came over to my room, and we sat down and read through the scene a couple of times so we knew what we were doing, because you show up and it’s “The first take is good — you’re not going to do a second one.”
Finally, I had to ask: Damon’s taken a part in longtime friend and collaborator Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming viral thriller “Contagion,” and I wanted to know just how germophobic Soderbergh’s vision of a superplague was going to make me. Damon laughed. “Dude, literally, (Soderbergh) sent me the script and he said, ‘Read this and then go wash your hands.’ I’m telling you, don’t see it — it’s going to be like a grown-up horror movie. Scott (Z. Burns), who wrote ‘The Informant,’ just researched what really would happen if one of these superviruses got out, and it’s going to be great. But it’s terrifying. We were supposed to go to ‘Liberace,’” — Soderbergh’s long-planned biopic of the famed pianist — “and then Steven put it on hold because when he read (‘Contagion’), he was like, ‘I have to go make this next.’ I think it’s going to be terrific, actually. But it’s one of those things where I’m only working on it for three weeks. All the actors, everyone’s constantly dying in the movie. I don’t think anybody’s on the run of the show.” Damon laughed long and loud, amused by how death on-screen can make an actor’s life easier: “We’re all on three-week contracts.” “Hereafter” is currently playing in limited release.
I’m writing this week’s column from an airplane, half-way in my journey coming back from covering the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Everyone’s had dinner, and maybe watched a movie, and plenty of people are asleep. While it’s vaguely hilarious and mildly sad to think that while coming home after 10 days of movies I checked out the in-flight offerings, that’s exactly what I did. And in a nice bit of synchronicity, there was a small, amusing parallel between one of the films I’d seen on the majestic big screen of the Grand Theater Lumiere at the Palais Du Cinema during the past week and my choices on the small seat-back screen in Row 18 of my Amsterdam-to-Minneapolis flight.
Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Steven Soderbergh’s two new films about the life and times of Che Guevara; Soderbergh’s movies will be released at some future point as two films, The Argentine and Guerrilla, but at Cannes they were shown as a single a four-and-a-half-hour-plus epic called Che. And Che was easily the best thing I saw at Cannes this year — exciting, complex, sad, regretful, beautifully shot and much more. So when I got on my flight and started idly scrolling through the films offered by the Northwest Airlines in-flight entertainment system, imagine my surprise to find Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, a re-make of the Andrei Tarkovsky’s ’70s Soviet sci-fi film that finds a group of scientists encountering strange phenomena while they’re orbiting a new bizarre planet, among the possible selections. (In fact, the in-flight entertainment selections not only included Solaris but also 2001: A Space Odyssey and A.I.; I don’t know who exactly programs NWA’s in-flight movies, but they seem to enjoy depressing science fiction, movies that offer you the dual experiences of looking forward and feeling down.)
But really, Solaris isn’t that science-fictiony at all; there are no ray guns, no bug-eyed monsters, no flying cars. In a future not far from now, the research station Prometheus is circling the planet Solaris, a haunting, beautiful presence mysterious planet. The research team’s leader has sent back a message to Earth, asking psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) to come to Prometheus to help them figure out what’s going on, to help them discern the nature of some unusual events that the crew is facing. When Kelvin arrives at Prometheus, with Solaris flickering and shifting in every viewport, he finds that things have gone very wrong; there are corpses in the lab, blood on the walls. Solaris has, somehow, manifested ‘visitors’ for the crew of Prometheus, reproductions of people from their own lives, and the psyches of remaining crew members Gordon and Snow (Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies) are strained by the bizarre events occurring around them. When Kelvin asks Snow what exactly is going on, Snow is non committal: “I could tell you what’s happening … but I don’t know if that would really tell you what’s happening.” Kelvin goes to sleep … and wakes up next to his wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who died, by her own hand, years ago.
She can’t be Rheya, of course, but she is. And after some resistance (including an amazing, logical, painful scene Soderbergh perfectly executes), Kelvin decides that he will be happy, and he will try again, and he will take Rheya back to Earth. This could be a gift. It could also be a curse. Does having another chance mean you’ll get it right this time, or just find a new way to get it wrong? And if Rheya isn’t Rheya, who is she? Solaris is a depressing film, and a beautiful one, and it went over at the box office like a ton of lead bricks. And that was pretty much to be expected, frankly: Solaris was released in late November, 2002, and even at the time it was hard to imagine movie-planning conversations like “Hey, honey, do you want to go see a movie about the challenges of love, the tragedy of death, lost chances, tough decisions and emotional agony?” “Oooh, sure — can we get frogurt, after?” Solaris bombed, lost a lot of money, and as a cash-recouping follow-up from Soderbergh and Clooney, we got Ocean’s Twelve; I leave it to you whether or not we came out ahead.
But Solaris holds up, and I think it may even be one of Soderbergh’s most under-rated films. Actually, I thought Solaris held up before, but seeing it on a five-inch screen, at cruising altitude on a plane and yet still feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged means it holds up remarkably well. Much like Che, Solaris is a movie about trying to repeat things you’ve done before and not quite being able to. And, like Che, Soderbergh shot Solaris himself, and it’s a beautiful, striking film. Solaris doesn’t make you think of whiz-bang futurism; instead, it makes you think of the past — your past, your sorrow, the people you’ve lost, what you would say to them if you could, what it feels like to know you’ll never get the chance to say those things. I was surprisingly moved by re-watching Solaris — even on a tiny screen, even on a crowded plane — and that wasn’t just travel fatigue or post-festival blues talking. Like I said before, I don’t know who programs Northwest Airlines’s in-flight movies; whoever it is, though, they have my thanks for reminding me of a great film, and for reminding me of a few things other than just films, too.
Watching Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (which I think Mick LaSalle and I pretty much felt the same about), I found myself thinking back on enough movies to make for a four-month long stretch of this column. The French Connection, Prince of the City, Serpico, Scarface … and Traffic.
I remember two things about press-screening Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic at the Camera in San Jose before it opened. One is that I lost my mind a little bit over how good it was; I immediately went back to work at my then-employer and filed a review calling Soderbergh’s drug war drama “…the best American movie since The Godfather.” And while I recall that initial heat blast of hyperbole on my part with a little regret — I can hear many of you out there smacking your foreheads saying “What about Pulp Fiction/Goodfellas/Boogie Nights?” — I think it’s also a natural consequence of the business.
(Often, editors don’t like it when you say things like “One of the ten best American films since The Godfather, with the following provisos and caveats…”)I also think Traffic’s certainly in the running for that honor. The other thing I remember is having been wholly immersed in a movie about the relationship between America and drugs and power and money and walking out into the mid-day sunshine, striding through the parking garage and immediately, unmistakably smelling weed; someone was sparking up a jay at, like, 12:30 in the afternoon. And all I could think was “Perfect.”
Because if American Gangster is a movie about the war on drugs and how it began in the late ’60s/early ’70s, then Traffic is a movie that asks if that was the right metaphor to go with — is it a war, can it be won, who are we really fighting? And it’s truly an amazing film; the fact it lost the Oscar for Best Picture to Gladiator stuns me. (I think that the only possible explanation is that gladiatorial combat, as a social concern, raises much easier questions in the minds of the Academy than drug use and commerce does.)
It’s exciting, thoughtful, extraordinarily well-made, and it also works as a gripping piece of entertainment. Benicio Del Toro had his first big breakout role as a wildly conflicted Mexican drug cop; Michael Douglas played a newly-minted “Drug Czar” who can’t quite get how his new assignment’s closer to home than he thinks; Catherine Zeta-Jones is a San Diego soccer mom who has to face the fact that her privileged life is bought and paid for with drug money; Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are two Drug Enforcement Agency cops doing what they can, all the while knowing it’s not enough.
Interestingly enough, the biggest objection I had to the film at the time — Catherine Zeta-Jones goes from suburban mom to dope-dealing Lady Macbeth with head-spinning swiftness in the print we saw in theaters — is explained by the brilliant two-disc Criterion Collection DVD; all the scenes that felt absent on the screen were, in fact, shot for the movie and wound up on the cutting room floor. (Those scenes are just part of the Criterion disc’s brilliant extras; how many DVDs have commentary from a New York Times reporter and the DEA’s Chief of Intelligence?) And screenwriter Stephen Gaghan may have been adapting a much longer BBC mini-series, but he did a brilliant job of it; the fact that he himself had struggled with addiction for years in the past probably didn’t hurt.
But I think one of the best things in Traffic — and why I was thinking about it as I mulled over American Gangster — is that unlike most other drug war films, Traffic wasn’t afraid to look at the bigger issues of drugs in America. When Douglas goes down to the ravaged inner-city to look for his drug-addicted daughter Erika Christensen, his guide is white-collar junior junkie Topher Grace. Douglas sneers how he can’t believe Grace brought his daughter “…to this place.” And Grace comes back, whiplash-fast: “Ok, right now, all over this great nation of ours, a hundred thousand white people from the suburbs are cruisin’ around downtown asking every black person they see ‘You got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?’ … I guarantee you bring a hundred thousand black people into your neighborhood … and they’re asking every white person they see ‘You got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?’, within a day everyone would be selling. Your friends. Their kids. Here’s why: it’s an unbeatable market force, man. It’s a three-hundred percent markup value. You can go out on the street and make five-hundred dollars in two hours, come back and do whatever you want to do with the rest of your day and, I’m sorry, you’re telling me that … you’re telling me that white people would still be going to law school?” He’s smug, shameless, blunt as a club. But he’s not wrong, either.
American Gangster’s a strong film, certainly, but it’s also so deliberately, self-consciously retro — as if America’s drug problems were as retro as polyester jackets and bell-bottoms. Traffic may be 7 years old (and where does the time go, anyhow?) but it’s most definitely still relevant here-and-now. American Gangster’s about one man who sold drugs; Traffic’s about everyone who sells them, buys them, uses them, and while the movie may come to a close, it doesn’t really end. I’m not the kind of guy who thinks Hollywood has answers to social questions any more than Washington does, but Traffic at least had the vision and guts to question the questions; watch it again (or for the first time) and you’ll be left asking more than a few things, too.