Sundance Film Review: sex, lies, and videotape (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, which won both the Audience Award at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and the Palme d’Or at Cannes!

The directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh, sex, lies, and videotape is considered by many to be one of the most important independent American films ever made.  Not only was it a  success at the box office and nominated for an Oscar but it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  According to Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, the success of sex, lies, and videotape is what convinced Hollywood that independent films could be big business.  The marketing of the film would set the template for almost every independent release that followed.

(One person who was definitely not a fan of sex, lies, and videotape was director Spike Lee.  When Lee’s Do The Right Thing lost the Palme to Soderbergh’s film, Lee was informed that the Canne jury felt Lee’s film wasn’t “socially responsible.”  “What’s so socially responsible about a pervert filming women!?” Lee reportedly responded.)

sex, lies, and videotape tells the story of four people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Ann (Andie MacDowell) has a nice house, a successful husband, and an absolutely miserable marriage.  When the film opens, she’s having a session with her therapist (Ron Vawter) and talking about how unfulfilled she feels.  When the therapist asks her questions about her sex life, Ann laughs nervously.  She says that she likes sex but she doesn’t like to think about it.  She says she doesn’t see what the big deal is.  Later, she reveals that she’s never had an orgasm.

John (Peter Gallagher) is Ann’s husband.  He’s a lawyer.  He’s also a materialistic jerk and … well, that’s pretty much the sum total of John’s entire personality.

Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) is John’s mistress.  She’s a bartender at a rather sleazy little establishment, where she apparently spends all of her time listening to a local drunk (Steven Brill) do a Marlon Brando impersonation.  She is uninhibited and fiercely sexual.  She’s the opposite of Ann, which is why John likes her.  Of course, she’s also Ann’s sister.  Cynthia and Ann have a strained relationship.  Ann describes Cynthia as being “loud.”  Cynthia views Anne as being judgmental.  Secretly, both wish that they could be more like the other.

And then there’s Graham (James Spader).  Graham was John’s friend in college, though it’s difficult to understand why.  Graham has recently returned to Baton Rouge and John, without talking to Ann, has invited Graham to visit them.  Graham is apparently a drifter.  (Ann describes him as being “arty.”)  While Ann is helping him find an apartment, Graham informs her that he’s impotent.  He can’t get an erection if anyone else in the room.

Ann subsequently discovers that Graham deals with his impotence by videotaping women discussing their sex lives.  The video camera allows Graham to keep his distance and not get emotionally involved.  (Of course, it also serves as a metaphor for directing a movie.)  Ann is freaked out by all of Graham’s tapes.  Cynthia is intrigued.  And John … well, John’s just a jerk.

sex, lies, and videotape is a film that’s largely saved by its cast.  Graham is a role that literally only James Spader could make intriguing.  Meanwhile, Peter Gallagher actually manages to bring some charm to John, who is the least developed character and who gets all of the script’s worst lines.  That said, the film really belongs to MacDowell and San Giacomo, who are totally believable as sisters and who, again, bring some needed depth to characters that, as written, could have been reduced to being mere clichés.  (In the scenes between MacDowell and San Giacomo, it was less about what they said than how they said it.)

As I already stated, this was Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut.  Soderbergh was 26 years old when he made this.  Seen today, it’s an uneven but ultimately intriguing film.  There are a few scenes where Soderbergh’s inexperience as a filmmaker comes through.  For instance, John is written as being such a complete heel (and, in his final scene, he wears a ludicrous bow tie that practically screams, “EVIL,”) that it occasionally throws the film off-balance.  You never believe that Graham would have been his friend, nor do you believe that Ann would have spent years putting up with his crap.  The film’s final scene between Cynthia and Ann also feels a bit rushed and perfunctory.  That said, this film shows that, from the start, Soderbergh was good with actors.  Visually, Soderbergh takes a low-key approach and allows the cast to be the center of attention.  It’s an actor’s film and Soderbergh wisely gets out of their way.  In particular, Spader and San Giacomo have a way of making the most heavy-handed dialogue sound totally and completely natural.

It’s hard to imagine Soderbergh directing something like sex, lies, and videotape today.  If the film were made today, Soderbergh wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to use overexposed film stock and to give cameos to George Clooney as Ann’s therapist and Matt Damon as the drunk.  sex, lies, and videotape is a film that Soderbergh could only have made when he was young and still struggling to make his voice heard.  It’s a flawed by intriguing film.  If just for its historical significance, it’s a film that every lover of independent cinema should see at least once.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Alpha Dog
  8. Stranger Than Paradise

A Movie A Day #88: Where The Day Takes You (1992, directed by Marc Rocco)


This month, since the site is currently reviewing every episode of Twin Peaks, each entry in Move A Day is going to have a Twin Peaks connection.  Where The Day Takes You is a movie that has not just one but two connections to Twin Peaks.

Where The Day Takes You is an episodic film about young runaways living on the streets of Los Angeles.  Led by 22 year-old King (Dermot Mulroney), who ran away from home when he was 16, the runaways form a surrogate family.  While being constantly harassed by both the police and well-meaning social workers, some of the runaways get addicted to drugs while others turn to prostitution in order to survive.  Some find love.  Some find death.  They all go where the day takes you.  (Not sure if that was the movie’s tag line but it should have been.)

Where The Day Takes You is a gritty and often tough film, though it’s effectiveness is undercut by a predictable ending and the presence of too many familiar faces in the cast.  The runaways are made up of a who’s who of prominent young actors from the 1990s.  Balthazar Getty plays King’s second-in-command.  Sean Astin plays an obviously doomed drug addict.  Alyssa Milano and David Arquette play prostitutes.  Ricki Lake and James Le Gros play comedic relief.  Will Smith, in his film debut, plays a wheelchair-bound runaway.  Christian Slater and Laura San Giacomo show up as social workers while the police are represented by Rachel Ticotin and Adam Baldwin.  Everyone gives a good performance but the film would have worked better with unknown actors or even real runaways.  No matter how good a performance Sean Astin gives as a heroin addict, he is always going to be Sean Astin and it is always going to be difficult to look at him without saying, “I might not be able to carry the ring but I can carry you!”

The movie’s first Twin Peaks connection is that Lara Flynn Boyle, who played innocent Donna Hayward on Twin Peaks, plays innocent runaway Heather in Where The Day Takes You.  The role is cliché but Boyle shows the same charm that she showed while playing Donna.

The movie’s second Twin Peaks connection is more unexpected.  Kyle MacLachlan is effectively cast against type as Ted, the drug dealer who keeps most of the runaways hooked on heroin and who is perfectly willing to leave an overdosed junkie in a garbage bin.  Ted is about as far from Dale Cooper as you can get.

Insomnia File No. 4: Nina Takes A Lover (dir by Alan Jacobs)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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Last night, if you were having trouble getting to sleep at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched Nina Takes A Lover, a movie from 1994.

Nina Takes A Lover is such a typical 90s Sundance film that it could have just as easily been called Independent Movie From 1994.  Everything that we tend to associate with American independent cinema is present in this film.  It’s a relationship drama with moments of quirky comedy.  It’s set in the city and no, it doesn’t matter which city.  It could be New York or it could be Seattle or it could be Los Angeles or San Francisco.  The important thing is that it’s a city on one of the coasts, the type of city where people engage in witty banter while sharing an apple in the park or over cups of coffee at a cozy cafe that was probably replaced by a Starbucks after this film was released.  This is the type of film where the characters tell their stories in flashback while being interviewed by a bespectacled journalist.  Characters alternate between artificial small talk and sudden statements of portentous wisdom.  Of course, all of quirky drama leads up to a sudden twist.  I figured out the twist after watching about 10 minutes of the film.  Maybe audiences in 1994 were a bit more surprised.

About the only thing that keeps Nina Takes A Lover from being the most stereotypical indie film ever made is the fact that there’s no quirky criminals and nobody spends any time talking about their favorite childhood TV shows.  If Nina had only shot someone while taking a lover, this would have been the most indie film ever.

I imagine that I’ve probably made the film sound totally unbearable but I actually enjoyed Nina Takes A Lover.  Once I realized and accepted that Nina Takes A Lover wasn’t exactly going to reinvent cinema, I discovered that it was actually a very likable film.

Nina is played by Laura San Giacomo, who owns a shoe store.  Nina meets a man in the park.  The man (Paul Rhys) has no name and is merely identified as being “Photographer.” (And, of course, he’s British because this is an independent film and, in the world of indie cinema, all ideal lovers are British.)  Soon, Nina and Photographer are having a passionate and very physical affair.  However, Nina explains that she’s married and her husband will be home in three weeks.  Photographer says that he has a wife as well.  As Nina and the Photographer talk about love, marriage, and sex, they also try to figure out what they should do when the three weeks are up.

And, of course, it all leads to a twist that you’ve probably already figured out but you know what?  It doesn’t matter if the film is predictable because it’s just so likable.  Laura San Giacomo and Paul Rhys both give likable performances, they have a lot of chemistry, and the sex scenes are well-done and genuinely erotic.  The film may tell a familiar story but it tells it well.

Nina Takes A Lover is a good film to watch when you’ve got insomnia.  It won’t put you to sleep but it will definitely make the hours of darkness a little more pleasant.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun