4 Shots From 4 Films: Happy Birthday, Steven Soderbergh!


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today, we wish a happy birthday to one the early pioneers of independent film, Steven Soderbergh.  Soderbergh was 26 years old in 1989, when he became the youngest director to ever win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  Soderbergh went on to become one of the busiest and most interesting director in Hollywood, working in all genres and inspiring filmmakers the world over.

4 Shots From 4 Films

sex, lies, and videotape (1989, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

Kafka (1991, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

Out of Sight (1998, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

Traffic (2000, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

 

The Things You Find On Netflix: The Laundromat (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


To say that Meryl Streep gives a bad performance in The Laundromat actually does a disservice to your average, run-of-the-mill bad performance.

Meryl Streep instead gives an absolutely terrible performance in The Laundromat, playing not one, not two, but three characters.  One of the characters is Ellen Martin, a middle-class widow from Michigan whose attempts to collect a fair settlement after the death of her husband provides a portal in the world of shady con men and corrupt financial institutions.  One of the characters is a secret, which means that Meryl wears a lot of make-up and frumpy clothes.  That said, from the minute the character appeared on screen, I went, “Oh, there’s Meryl again.”  Then, in her third role, Meryl plays herself, demanding campaign finance reform and striking a Statue of Liberty pose while holding a hairbrush instead of a torch.

Really, it’s the type of horrendous performance that could only be delivered by a truly great actress.  (If Meryl Streep is the modern Norma Shearer, this is her Romeo and Juliet.)  Watching Meryl Streep play the role of Ellen, It occurred to me that Meryl is one of those actresses who is incapable of being authentic but who can certainly act the Hell out of pretending to be authentic.  You never forget that Meryl Streep is acting and that’s one reason why her best performances are usually the ones where she’s playing theatrical characters, whether they’re politicians like Margaret Thatcher, celebrities like Julia Child, or the Witch in Into the Woods.  But when you cast Meryl as someone who is basically supposed to be a member of the “common people,” it just doesn’t work.  Laura Dern, Laurie Metcalf, Allison Janney, even Annette Bening probably could have done a decent job playing Ellen Martin but Meryl is just too Meryl.  As for her other two performances in The Laundromat, they don’t work because one is meant to be a joke on the audience and the other is just a retread of her standard “I’m just a middle class woman from New Jersey and I love the little people” awards show speech.

Of course, The Laundromat itself is a remarkably bad film.  Again, it takes a lot of talent to make a film this bad.  Watching the film, I found myself wondering why, at this point in his celebrated career, Steven Soderbergh would decide to become a second-rate Adam McKay, especially when McKay himself is just a third-rate Jean-Luc Godard?  The film is structured so that, while Ellen is obsessing on why she’s getting screwed over by the insurance companies, we’re also treated to scenes of Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas talking directly to the camera and explaining to use why the poor are always going to get screwed over by the rich.  That’s probably true but the film gets so heavy-handed in its execution that the resulting migraine is going to be due less to outrage and more due to the sledgehammer that Soderbergh takes to your head.

Along with Ellen’s story, we also get to see several other stories featuring people and their money.  Jeffrey Wright is a crooked accountant who has two families.  And then there’s an African businessman who bribes his wife and daughter with shares in a non-existent company and then we take a trip to China, where we learn about cyanide and organ harvesting. And yes, I get it.  It shows how a crime committed in China is ultimately felt by a widow living in Michigan.  But one can’t help but wish that Soderbergh had just focuses on one story, instead of trying to imitate the worst moments of The Big Short.

Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are technically playing the film’s villains but they’re both so charming that The Laundromat at times seems like more of a recruiting film for aspiring money launderers than anything else.  (To continue the Adam McKay comparison, it’s a bit like how Vice actually left audiences feeling sympathy for Dick Cheney as opposed to writing petitions to send to The Hague.)  It desperately wants to leave us outraged but Soderbegh gets so caught up in his own cutesy storytelling techniques that it just leaves us feeling somewhat annoyed.  Watching the film, one gets the feeling that the perfect directors for The Laundromat would have been the Coen Brothers, who are capable of outrage but whose detached style would have kept them from bludgeoning the audience with it.  Soderbergh is too angry to be effective.

As I said, there’s a lot of talented people involved in The Laundromat.  It’s full of people who have done great work in the past and who will do great work in the future.  As for The Laundromat, it’s a legitimate contender for the biggest disappointment of the year.

Horror Film Review: Unsane (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


Oh, Steven Soderbergh.

Seriously, I know that everyone in the world is always going on about how brilliant he is but I have to admit that I always approach his film with a bit of trepidation.

I mean, yes, Soderbergh can be brilliant.  He’s made some legitimately great films, some of the best that I’ve seen.  The Informer! holds up brilliantly.  So does Traffic and The Girlfriend Experience.  Even a film like Logan Lucky remains amusing on a second viewing.

And yet, at the same time, he can be one of the most annoyingly pretentious directors around.  Contagion was a raging bore and, with Haywire, Soderbergh squandered the potential of Gina Carano.  Che started out strong before turning into a dull Marxist tract.  With the exception of Out of Sight, his friendship with George Clooney always seems to bring out the worst instincts in both men.  And don’t even start with me about the Ocean’s films.  Have you tried to rewatch any of them lately?

Whenever I start a new Soderbergh film, I find myself wondering which Stephen Soderbergh am I going to get.  Am I going to get the Soderbergh who is a crafty storyteller and a good director of actors?  Or am I going to get the pretentious Soderbergh who always seems to think that he’s doing all of us favor by lowering himself to make a genre film?

With Unsane, which was released way back in March, I got both.

Claire Foy plays Sawyer Valentini.  A year ago, Sawyer was working at a hospice when the son of one of her patients became obsessed with and started stalking her.  Fearing for her life and realizing that the police weren’t going to be much help, Sawyer moved away from home and tried to restart her life.

Seeking help for dealing with her trauma, Sawyer makes an appointment with a counselor at the Highland Creek Behavioral Center.  What she doesn’t realize is that Highland Creek is a scam.  The papers that she signed at her appointment allow her therapist to hold her for a 24-hour evaluation.  When Sawyer resists and attempts to call the police, her stay is extended by seven more days.  Every time that Sawyer demands to be released, she’s judged to be a threat to herself and others and more days are added to her stay.  As another patient explains it, Highland Creek basically holds onto its patients until their insurance runs out.

If that wasn’t bad enough, things get worse when Sawyer meets the new orderly (Joshua Leonard).  He says that his name is George Shaw but Sawyer swears that he’s David, the man who has been stalking her.  Of course, no one listens to her when she tries to tell them.  After all, she voluntarily committed herself to Highland Creek….

Unsane received a lot of attention because Soderbergh shot the film in secret with an iPhone.  The end results of Soderbergh’s experiment were mixed.  At its best, this technique gives the film a gritty look and it visually captures the shaky state of Sawyer’s sanity.  At its worse, it’s a distraction that leaves you feeling that you’re supposed to be more impressed by how Soderbergh made the film than by the story being told.

Fortunately, Soderbergh gets two wonderful performances from Claire Foy and the reliably creepy Joshua Leonard.  Foy brings just the right combination of fragility and strength to the role of Sawyer and she gives such an empathetic performance that you get involved in her story even if Soderbergh’s style is often distracting.  As for Leonard, you’ll recognize him as soon as you see him.  He’s a character actor who specializes in playing off-balance people and he’s memorably menacing in this film.

I probably would have liked Unsane more if I didn’t always have the feeling that the movie was mostly made so that Soderbergh could show off.  Whenever I see one of Soderbergh’s “genre” films, I get the feeling that he’s looking down on the material and that my reaction is supposed to be one of, “Soderbergh’s such a genius that he can even make crap like this entertaining!”  (You get the feeling that Soderbergh might be willing to make a B-movie but he’d never be caught dead actually watching one.)  That said, regardless of the motives behind it, Unsane was actually an effective and twisty psychological thriller.

If nothing else, it was better than Haywire….

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

Review: The Girlfriend Experience


The Girlfriend Experience

In 2009, Steven Soderbergh released a little independent film called The Girlfriend Experience starring, who at that time, was one of the adult industry’s biggest stars in Sasha Grey. The film explored and dealt with the life of a high-class escort by the name of Chelsea as she navigated the world of powerful men and the effect of money in monetizing something as intimate and personal as being someone’s girlfriend. It wasn’t a film that had many supporters. Most saw the inexperience of Sasha Grey as a dramatic actress hamstringing what was an interesting look at the dual themes of sex and capitalism.

It’s now 2016 and the premium cable channel Starz has released a new dramatic series inspired by the very same Soderbergh film mentioned above, but not beholden to it’s characters and storyline. Where Sasha Grey’s character of Chelsea seemed more like an on-screen cipher the audience was suppose to imprint whatever their expectations onto, this series has a more traditional narrative of a young woman whose attempt to balance in her life a burgeoning career in law (she’s just earned an internship at a prestigious Chicago law firm) with her discovery of her inherent sexuality while dipping her toes into the high-end sex-workers trade of the so-called “girlfriend experience.”

Riley Keough (last seen as the Citadel wife Capable who both romanced and mothers Nicholas Hoult’s War Boy Nux) plays Christine Reade as a struggling law firm intern who has worked hard to get where she’s at and continues to do so both as an intern and as a continuing law student. Yet, she also has the same problems many young people the past couple decades have had when it comes to earning their degrees. Debt has become a major issue and finding ways to make ends meet while still holding onto their dream profession becomes more and more difficult. Christine, at the encouragement of a close friend (played by Kate Lyn Sheil), tries her hand at becoming a high-price escort.

Girlfriend Experience 01

Just like the film it’s loosely based on, the series tries in the beginning to paint the high-priced escort profession that Christine gets herself into as very glamorous. Christine’s clients are white men who are older, rich and powerful. Men whose own interpersonal relationships with those close to them have been left behind in their quest for power. They see in Christine a sort of commodity to help fill in a need missing in their life even if false and just a transactional role-play experience.

Showrunners Amy Seimetz (who plays Christine’s sister Annabel) and Lodge Kerrigan (independent filmmakers and writers of renown) have created a show that explores not just the dual nature of how sex has become just another commodity in a world that’s becoming more and more capitalistic, but also a show that explores the nature of a professional woman in a world where they’re told that in order to fit in with the “men” they must suppress their sexual side. It’s a series that doesn’t hold back it’s punches in showing how the patriarchal nature of the professional world (it could be law, business, Hollywood, etc.) makes it difficult for women like Christine to try and be a successful professional and still retain their sexual nature. It’s a world up-ended and shown it’s cruel and ugly nature by Christine with every new client she meets and entertains.

The show and it’s writers (both of whom took turns directing each of the 13-episodes of the first season) don’t pass any sort of judgement on Christine’s choice of working as a high-paid escort. This series doesn’t look at these sex-workers as beneath what normal society expects of it’s women, both young and old. They instead want to explore the why’s of their decision to enter into such a career even if it means hampering their initial chosen profession. They’ve come up with some intriguing ideas of this world of escorts and powerful men walking through their lives always pretending to be one thing then another. A world where half-lies and made up personas have say much about the true natures of each individual as it does of the world around them.

Girlfriend Experience 02

Christine enters this world of becoming a “girlfriend experience” as a rebellious, adventurous lark, but finds out that her keen, observant and adaptable mind which has served her well in her rise as a law student and intern also serves her well in her new side-career. While her friend Avery who first introduces her to the world sees it all as a rush and exhilarating experience to be done here and there, Christine finds herself drawn deeper into the world as she goes from being represented to finally going off on her own as a freelancer. She’s her own boss and she controls what goes on with this new life.

Yet, The Girlfriend Experience is not all about the glass and steel, cold and calculating glamour of Christine’s new world. Just as she’s reached the heights of her new found power over the very system which tells her what she can and cannot be, outside forces that she thought was in her control brings her back to the reality of her choices throughout the first half of the series. For all the money, power and control she has achieved her old world as a law student and intern begins to fall apart as it intersects with her new one. It’s to the writers credit that they don’t give Christine any easy outs, but do allow her character to decide for herself how to get through both her professional and personal crisis.

While both showrunners Seimetz and Kerrigan have much to do with the brilliance of The Girlfriend Experience it all still hinges on the performance of it’s lead in Riley Keough. She’s practically in every scene and she grows as a performer right before out eyes. From the moment we see her we’re instantly drawn to her character. Hair up in an innocent ponytail and dressed very conservatively as she starts her internship, we still sense more to her character and we’re rewarded with each new episode as Keough’s performance with not just her acting both verbal and silent. Whether it’s the subtle changes in her expression as she transitions from an attentive “girlfriend”, supportive “confidant” and then to a calculating and all-business “escort” and all in a span of a brief scene.

Girlfriend Experience 03

Even the scenes where some audience may find titillating (even for premium cable like Starz, the sex in The Girlfriend Experience are quite eye-opening without being exploitative.), Keough manages to convey her true feelings with her eyes, while her body language convinces her latest client that it’s all real. She’s able to slip into whatever fantasy her client pays for and, in the end, whatever fantasy she wants to insert herself into in order to escape the terrible reality which has hardened and prepared her for the “real world” that all young people in college aspire to join.

The Girlfriend Experience might have been born out of an cinematic experiment by the icon of independent filmmaking, but it more than stands on it’s own take on ideas and themes (while adding and introducing some of their own) that Soderbergh tried to explore. With Sasha Grey’s performance as Chelsea proving to be a divisive reason whether Soderbergh’s film was a success or a failure, with Seimetz and Kerrigan they found in Riley Keough’s performance as Christine Reade a protagonist that engenders not just sympathy but at times frustration. Her Christine Reade doesn’t conform to what society thinks women should be when out and about in public and, for some men, when in private, as well.

The same could be said about this series as it doesn’t fit into any particular narrative and thematic box that we as a viewer have become trained to. It’s both a series exploring the existential idea of sexual identity and the commodifying power that capitalism has had on things intimate and personal. It’s also a series about a young woman’s journey of self-discovery that doesn’t just highlight the high’s but also shows how precipitous the fall can and will be when the traditionalists object. The show also performs well as a thriller due to the exceptional score composed by another brilliant indie-filmmaker. You may know him under the name of Shane Carruth.

The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t have the pulp sensibilities of such shows as The Walking Dead or the rabid following of Game of Thrones, but as of 2016 it’s probably the best new show of the year and here’s to hoping that more people discover it’s brilliance before it goes away.

Trailer: Magic Mike XXL (Teaser)


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I will be the first to admit that Soderbergh’s journey into the world of male strippers wasn’t on my radar when it was first announced and even when it finally premiered. Then again I don’t think I was the core audience.

Now, Lisa Marie did go see Magic Mike and to say that she enjoyed it would be an understatement. Her brief (no pun intended) but succinct review of the film could be summed up by it’s introduction:

“After me and my BFF Evelyn saw Magic Mike, I hopped on twitter and I tweeted, “Memo to single guys.  Go hang out around the theater when Magic Mike gets out.  You will get laid!”  Yes, Magic Mike is that type of film…”

So, we’re now three years removed from Soderbergh’s film. A sequel has been filmed and ready to be unleashed on the millions out there waiting to get back to the world of Magic Mike. While Soderbergh doesn’t return as director (he does go behind the camera as the sequel’s cinematographer and editor) the sequel does get Gregory Jacobs in the director’s chair. He was first asst. director during the first film and a frequent collaborator with Soderbergh (he pretty much has been Soderbergh’s asst. director in all his films).

Will Lisa Marie enjoy this sequel or will she return with a reaction of “seen it before” ennui? We’ll find out in a couple months.

Magic Mike XXL unveils for all this July 1, 2015.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


Traffic2000Poster

I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.

 

6 Films That Are Not The Dark Knight Rises: The Girl From Naked Eye, Magic Mike, Rock of Ages, Ted, 21 Jump Street, and Underworld: Awakening


Right now, everyone seems to be heading out to see The Dark Knight Rises for the first, second, or hundredth time.  By my own personal count, the  various writers here at The Shattered Lens have seen the film a combined total of 12 times since it opened on Friday.  (Myself, I’ll be seeing it on Tuesday.)

But what if you don’t want to see The Dark Knight Rises this week?  What if you just don’t want to deal with the big crowds?  Maybe you want to wait a few months so that you can see it for a dollar.  Or maybe,  you showed up at the theater and discovered that the showing was sold out or perhaps you’re just not into the whole Batman thing.  What then?  Well, believe it or not, there are other movies out there and below, you can find 6 reviews of films that came out this year but are not The Dark Knight Rises.  Some of them are worth seeing and some of them definitely are not.  But all six of them are alternatives for those of you who want to see a movie but, for whatever reason, don’t want to see The Dark Knight Rises.

(Even better, they’re six films that I saw earlier this year but, until now, still hadn’t gotten around to reviewing.)

1) The Girl From Naked Eye (dir by David Ren)

Jake (Jason Yee) is the driver for a sleazy escort service that’s headquartered out of a strip club called Naked Face.  Jake ends up falling in love with Sandy (Samantha Streets), an escort who writes poetry in her spare time.  (Yes, one of those…)  When Sandy is murdered, Jake goes on a violent search for her murderer.

The Girl From Naked Eye is a pretty uneven and rather predictable film but I actually enjoyed it.  It’s obvious that director David Ren is a fan of the same old film noirs that I love and, at its best, Girl From Naked Eye is a loving tribute to those films.  Streets is likable as the ill-fated Sandy and Gary Stretch brings some unexpected depth to his villainous role.  Perhaps best of all, Girl From Naked Eye is only 80 minutes long.  Sometimes, you just don’t need that extra 30 minutes to tell your story.

The Girl From Naked Eye is very much an independent film so it might be playing near you or it might not.

2) Magic Mike (dir. by Stephen Soderbergh)

After me and my BFF Evelyn saw Magic Mike, I hopped on twitter and I tweeted, “Memo to single guys.  Go hang out around the theater when Magic Mike gets out.  You will get laid!”  Yes, Magic Mike is that type of film…

“Magic” Mike (played by Channing Tatum) is the most popular attraction at Xquisite, a male strip club that’s run by Dallas (a wonderfully sleazy performance from Matthew McConaughey).  Mike ends up serving as a mentor for Adam (Alex Pettyfer) while pursuing Adam’s disapproving sister (Cody Horn) and saving up his money so that he can start his own business.  However, the life proves a lot more difficult for him to leave then he originally thought…

There’s actually a lot of plot in Magic Mike but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  The film knows that we’re all here to watch Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, and Joe Manganiello shake everything that they’ve got and the film does not disappoint.  Director Steven Soderbergh’s directs in such a way that the film’s dance numbers are both exciting and, at the same time, distancing.  By taking a rather documentary approach to otherwise salacious material, Soderbergh reminds us that, ultimately, Tatum is just doing a job and fulfilling the requirements of fantasy as opposed to reality.

When Christy Lemire of the Associates Press gave a less than positive review to The Dark Knight Rises, all of the fanboys on Rotten Tomatoes became obsessed with the fact that she had previously given a positive review to Magic Mike.  Many of them left comments complaining that the only reason Lemire enjoyed Magic Mike was because it featured naked men.  While all one has to do is read Lemire’s review to see that’s not the case, so what if it was?  Films have been objectifying women for over a century.  What’s wrong with a little fair play?

Magic Mike is still in theaters.

 3) Rock of Ages (dir. by Adam Shankman)

In this adaptation of the hit Broadway show, Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is an innocent girl from Oklahoma who dreams of finding super stardom in Los Angeles.  She gets a job working as a waitress at an incredibly filthy-looking club run by Alec Baldwin and she also gets a boyfriend (played by Diego Boneta) who is an aspiring musician himself.  Everything’s great except for the fact that the mayor’s puritanical wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) hates rock and roll and wants to close the club down.  Luckily, alcoholic rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is willing to help out.  Did I mention that Russell Brand is in this film as well?  Because, he like totally is…

Rock of Ages gives you a chance to watch your favorite actors and actresses shake it to some of the least danceable music ever written and it’s just about as bad you might expect.  Between the vanilla performances of Hough and Boneta and the film’s rampant sexism (every female in the film is either a shrew or a whore and apparently, the only thing that can redeem them is allowing Tom Cruise to drunkenly cop a feel), Rock of Ages is a combination of the forgettable and stuff that you wish you could forget.  For a director who specializes in musicals, Shankman seems strangely lost here and the majority of the big numbers feel lifeless.  The one bright spot is Mary J. Blige who shows up in a minor role and quickly reminds everyone what singing is all about.

Rock of Ages opened with a lot of hype but that hype didn’t translate into box office success.  You can probably still catch it at the dollar theater but you might want your money back afterward.

4) Ted (directed by Seth MacFarlane)

Ted tells the story of a lonely 8 year-old boy who, one night, wishes that his beloved teddy bear Ted might come to life.  Well, Ted does come to life and ends up proving to the world that magic does exist.  Briefly, Ted and his owner are celebrities but soon, Ted’s fame fades and, 28 years later, Ted (voiced by director Seth MacFarlane) and his owner (now played by Mark Wahlberg) are slackers who spend their time smoking weed, watching TV, and obsessing over pop culture. (At times, it almost felt as if the film was a documentary about life here at the TSL Bunker.)  However, Wahlberg’s girlfriend (Mila Kunis) feels that Ted is holding him back and eventually, Wahlberg is forced to make a choice between childhood friendship and adult love.

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Seth MacFarlane’s.  I hate the Family Guy and I’ve never gotten through more than 2 minutes of The Cleveland Show.  However, I also have to admit that I enjoyed Ted for what it was.  It’s a massively uneven film that pretty much tells the same joke over and over again but that joke (i.e. a cute toy saying or doing something incredibly crude) turns out to be surprisingly resilient.  For their part, Wahlberg and Kunis are a likable couple and Kunis does a good job generating some much-needed sympathy for her thinly drawn character.  Add to that, Joel McHale is in this film and how can I not enjoy a film that features Joel McHale?

Ted is still playing at a theater near you.

5) 21 Jump Street (dir. by Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Morton (Jonah Hill) and Greg (Channing Tatum) have been unlikely friends since high school.  Greg was a jock and bully while Morton was a guy who looked and acted a lot like Jonah Hill.  When Greg and Morton graduate high school, they both enter the police academy together and, upon getting out of the academy, they find themselves assigned to hazardous duty like patrolling the local park.  However, it turns out that there’s a new designer drug out there and Hill and Tatum are both sent back to high school.  Only now, they’re working under cover…

21 Jump Street was a real surprise when it came out earlier this year, a laugh-out-loud comedy that managed to both satirize and celebrate the conventions of the American cop film.  Hill and Tatum had a lot of chemistry together and there was something oddly touching about watching Hill return to high school and discover that he was now considered the cool guy while Tatum was now the outsider.  21 Jump Street has kinda gotten forgotten in all the hype surrounding The Avengers and the Dark Knight Rises but ultimately, 21 Jump Street can stand with those two films as proof that occasionally a big-budget studio production can turn out to actually be a good film.

(Plus, James Franco’s look-alike brother, Dave Franco, is in it!)

21 Jump Street is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray but it’s also still playing at a few dollar theaters across the country.

6) Underworld: Awakening (dir by Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein)

Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is back and this time, she’s searching for Michael, who has gone missing.  The plot doesn’t make much sense and the film has one of the most disappointing endings ever but it does provide the viewers with everything that they’ve come to expect from an Underworld film (with the exception of Scott Speedman, who does not return to the role of Michael in this film).

Underworld: Awakening opened at the beginning of the year, got terrible reviews, and made a decent enough amount of money that there will probably be yet another installment in the series come 2014.  That said, Underworld: Awakening is probably the most vapid of all of the Underworld films (and that’s saying something) and, following the releases of both The Avengers and the Dark Knight Rises, it looks like even more of an empty exercise in CGI and action than it did when it was originally released.  That said, this film does star my girl crush, Kate Beckinsale, and, after watching her in this film, I spent a few hours looking for monsters to fight.  I will always recommend any film that features a women kicking ass and that’s about the only reason I have to recommend Underworld: Awakening.

Underworld: Awakening is currently available on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

Poll: Who Should Direct Catching Fire?


With the recent announcement that Gary Ross will not be directing Catching Fire, the second film in The Hunger Games trilogy, there’s been a lot of online speculation has started as to who will take his place.  Since I was bored at work, I spent an hour or two reading some of that speculation.  Needless to say, a lot of names are being tossed around and some are a lot more plausible than others.  However, a few names seem to be mentioned more often than others.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think that the loss of Gary Ross is going to really hurt the sequel, financially or artistically. 

Financially, people are going to see the sequel regardless of who directs it and, quite frankly, I doubt many people went to the Hunger Games because they just couldn’t wait to see Gary Ross’s follow-up to Seabiscuit

From an artistic point of view, the main reason that I loved the Hunger Games was because, after years of seeing blockbuster movies where being female was essentially the same as being helpless and insipid, it was so refreshing to see a film about a strong, independent young woman who is concerned about something more than just keeping her boyfriend happy.  In short, I loved The Hunger Games because of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen.  In short, Gary Ross was about as important to The Hunger Games franchise  as Chris Columbus was to the Harry Potter films.

As for who the new director is going to be, here’s some of the more interesting names that I’ve seen mentioned:

Danny Boyle is one of my favorite directors of all time and he’s certainly showed that he can create entertaining films that both challenge conventional and force you to think.  As well, directing the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics and, if that’s not good training for the Hunger Games then what is?

J.J. Abrams is a far more conventional director than Danny Boyle but he’s also proven that he can make blockbuster films that don’t necessarily insult one’s intelligence.  Add to that, he created Alias and he deserves a lot of credit for that.

As the only woman to ever win best director, Kathryn Bigelow is an obvious choice for a franchise that is ultimately all about empowerment.  Plus, she’s proven she can handle action films and I think it would be a neat if, under her direction, Catching Fire made more money than Avatar.

Sofia Coppola, who should have won an Oscar for Lost in Translation,  would bring a definitely lyrical quality to Catching Fire and, if nothing else. her version would be amazing to look at.  Add to that, Sofia Coppola deserves to have at least one blockbuster on her resume.  (Yes, I know a lot of you people hated Somewhere but you know what?  You’re wrong and I’m right.)

Alfonso Cuaron has proven, with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan, that he can step into a franchise without sacrificing his own individual vision.  Children of Men shows that he can create a realistic dystopian future.

Debra Granik is best-known for directing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.  If not for Granik, Katniss Everdeen could have very easily ended up being played by Kristen Stewart.

Catherine Hardwicke is, of course, best known for directing the first Twilight film and a lot of people will never forgive her for that.  And you know what?  That’s really not fair to Hardwicke. Say what you will about Twilight, the film was actually pretty well-directed and Red Riding Hood is one of the unacknowledged masterpieces of 2011.  (No, really…)   Finally, Hardwicke directed Thirteen, one of the best films ever made.  Hardwicke’s Catching Fire probably wouldn’t be critically acclaimed but it would be a lot of fun.

Patty Jenkins is one of the more surprising names that I saw mentioned on several sites.  Jenkins is best known for directing the ultra-depressing Monster  as well as the atmospheric pilot for AMC’s The Killing. Apparently she was also, for a while, signed up to direct Thor 2, which would suggest that she can handle blockbuster action.  Of course, she was also fired from Thor 2.

Mike Newell directed the best of the Harry Potter films (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and has shown that he can handle action and spectacle.  He’s also directed Mona Lisa Smile, which is one of my favorite films of all time.

Sam Raimi would turn Catching Fire into a thrill ride.  While you would lose a lot of the story’s subtext, the film would certainly not be boring.  Add to that, Raimi directing would increase the chances of a Bruce Campbell cameo.

To be honest, I haven’t seen anyone mention the name of Mark Romanek so I’m going to mention him because I think he’s great and that Never Let Me Go was one of the best films of 2010.  Add to that, he actually played an important role in my life in that I can still remember being 12 years old, seeing his video for Fiona Apple’s Criminal, and going, “That’s what I’m going to do once I get to high school…”

Julie Taymor is best known as a theatrical director but her films have all been distinguished by a strong, individualistic vision.  More people need to see her film version of The Tempest.

Susanna White, though not well-known, was a contender to direct The Hunger Games before the job went to Gary Ross.  White got her start working with the BBC before coming over to America to direct episodes of Generation Kill and Boardwalk Empire for HBO.  She was also a contender to director another film based on YA literature, The Host.

With Hanna, Joe Wright gave us the best film of 2011 (regardless of what the Academy thinks) and he’s proven that he knows how to mix empowerment and action.

There are other names in contention, of course.  I’ve seen everyone from Stephen Soderbergh (bleh, to be honest) to Rob Zombie mentioned.  Arleigh suggested both James Cameron and David Fincher but I think he was mostly doing that to annoy me.  Someone on twitter (may have been me) mentioned Tyler Perry and then laughed and laughed.  However, the 14 names above are the ones that I find to be the most interesting and/or plausible.

So, who do you think would be a the best director for Catching Fire?

As for me and who I would like to so direct the film, I think that the director of Catching Fire should be a woman because Catching Fire is, ultimately, a story about empowerment.  I also think that characterization is far more important than action so I’m not as concerned about whether or not the director has a history of blowing things up onscreen.  Instead, what the franchise needs is a strong, female director with an eye for detail and a strong appreciation for what film is capable of accomplishing as an art form. 

For that reason, my vote goes to Sofia Coppola.

Quick Review: Haywire


Note that this probably won’t be the only review for Haywire. I think everyone at the Shattered Lens is going to see it, so it’ll be cool to see what we all thought of it. For any other reviews that come up, I’ll update this one to link to it.

I didn’t expect a great deal with Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. Walking into it, I thought of Steven Seagal’s “Above the Law”, Pamela Anderson’s “Barb Wire”, Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury”, Antoine Fuqua’s “The Replacement Killers” and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Bloodsport”. All of those films worked to showcase either a martial arts star doing what they do best or a filming technique (in the case of The Replacement Killers’ John Woo love) to audiences. Ultimately, this is what Haywire is. It’s MMA fighter Gina Carano’s spotlight moment, giving her the chance to show what she’s got. In essence, you’re watching an expensive demo reel.

I’ve followed Carano through her MMA fighting career, thanks to a friend who introduced me to the Showtime fighting specials years ago. After her fall to Cristiane Cyborg (who is just as deadly in the ring), Gina kind of stepped away from a bit. I, for one, am happy to see her back in some form or fashion.

And she’s great as an action star, when there’s action happening. There’s just not enough of it, though. Watching Haywire for me was like seeing Jet Li in “Unleashed”. You’re begging for Soderbergh to just let Carano go wild just kick everyone’s ass, but alas, it only happens in short, controlled bursts. Perhaps that’s a good thing, considering that there is something of a story unfolding. When there isn’t any action, Gina’s Mallory Kane makes a brooding face and always looks poised for the next fight.

The movie does two smart things – It lets Carano do her thing, and gives her a cast that tries to help her out.

Soderbergh surrounds Carano with enough talent that you almost forget to concentrate on her and where she’s going. She does okay on her own with her focused stares and cool demeanor, but the supporting cast seems to help out when they can, some becoming human punching bags in the process. No one member of the supporting cast shines, but collectively, they do well.

Like the Bourne films, there’s very little music used during the actual fight sequences. That does help to let you focus on what’s going on in front of you. Musically, I’ll admit I liked it.  Instead of composer Cliff Martinez, who I felt did really well on Contagion, we have David Holmes again who worked with Soderbergh on all three Oceans films. He gives the movie a 70’s spy vibe that hinges on almost sounding like it could be used for the TV show Archer. Make of that what you will. I enjoyed it.

Haywire is the classic tale of a Government Agent on the run from the people who made them what they were. You’ve seen it before. Bourne, every other film like Bourne, and most of the Transporter series. What Haywire tries to bring to the table is someone who happens to be fully capable of taking and dishing the blows that come with the close quarter fight scenes that occur. Carano is easily Haywire’s strongest point.

Here are Haywire’s problems:

– Mallory is cool and all, but don’t expect much in the way of character development. This is an action movie. You’re not going to learn much about Mallory Kane other than she’s lethal and loves her father. That’s about it. If you want character growth spurts, you’re better off watching one of the Awards contenders.

– Don’t expect action all the way through. Haywire has some lull points as with any movie, and at the late night showing I went to, someone was snoring on the left side of the theatre. Be prepared for that.

– The movie has the potential of running a “See Gina Run”, “See Gina Fight”, “See Gina Run & Fight” loop. I personally didn’t mind this at all, but it may see to be a little repetitive to some. The fights are brutal and fantastic and I’d personally like to know if any stunt people were hurt.

Overall, for a January release, Haywire isn’t bad at all. I could easily see Gina Carano doing a few more of these and rising as an action star. Until then, I’ll be heading back to this one pretty soon.