KIMI, the latest addition to Steven Soderbergh’s interesting but frustratingly inconsistent filmography, stars Zoe Kravitz as Angela Childs. Angela is an agoraphobic tech worker who is living in Seattle during the COVID pandemic. A sexual assault survivor, Angela spends her days and nights safely locked away in her apartment. She works from home. She always keeps her mask some place near. Occasionally, she’ll have a video session with her therapist. Her mom calls and scolds her for not going outside. She exchanges texts and occasionally more with Terry Hughes (Byron Bowers), an attorney who lives across the street.
And, she’s watched by Kevin (Devin Ratray). Kevin also lives across the street and, throughout the film, he’s occasionally seen watching her from his top floor apartment. It’s creepy but it’s not surprising. KIMI is a film in which everyone is being watched by someone else. Sometimes, they realize it and often they don’t. Welcome to the Surveillance State, where privacy is the ultimate illusion.
Angela works for the Amygdala Corporation. Under the leadership of CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGuado), Amygdala has created KIMI, the virtual assistant that is superior to Alexa because all of KIMI’s errors are corrected not by a pre-programmed algorithm but instead by human workers who are constantly listening to KIMI’s data stream and correcting errors. Angela is one of those engineers. Usually, her job consists of programming KIMIs to play individual Taylor Swift songs as opposed to building Taylor Swift playlists. When one owner calls KIMI a peckerwood, Angela programs the KIMI to understand that peckerwood is an “insult; vulgar.” However, one data stream contains the sounds of what Angela believes to be a sexual assault and a subsequent murder.
Uniquely, for a film like this, Angela’s struggle is not to get people to believe that she heard what she heard. Instead, her struggle is to get the evidence to the people who need to hear it for themselves. Angela is terrified of leaving her apartment and, once she finally does, the outside world confirms all of her fears. KIMI is a film about paranoia, a portrait of a world where everyone can be tracked and no one — from Angela’s too-helpful boss (Rita Wilson) to the man who casually walks by with an umbrella — can be trusted.
As I’ve said in the past, Steven Soderbergh has always been hit and miss for me. It’s remarkable how many Soderbergh films that I love but it’s equally remarkable just how many Soderbergh films I absolutely loathe. At his best, he can be a clever stylist and, at his worst, he can be painfully pretentious. And yet, regardless of anything else, you do have to respect Soderbergh’s willingness to experiment with different genres and styles. Soderbergh never stops working, despite the fact that he announced his retirement years ago. Despite getting off to a slow start, KIMI is one of Soderbergh’s more entertaining thrillers, one that does a great job creating an atmosphere of paranoia and one that is also blessed with excellent performances from Zoe Kravitz and Rita Wilson, who makes good use of her limited screen time. KIMI is a well-made Hitchcockian thriller and, along with No Sudden Move, it’s a return to form for Soderbergh after the two terrible movies that he made with Meryl Streep, The Laundromat and Let Them All Talk. Yes, Soderbergh can be inconsistent but when he’s good …. he’s very, very good. (Sometimes, he’s even brilliant.) Narratively, KIMI may be a relatively simple film by Soderbergh standards but it’s undeniably effective.
Along with being a portrait of our paranoid age, KIMI is very much a pandemic thriller. Angela mentions that her relationship with Terry started during the lockdowns, a time when no one found it strange that someone would be unwilling to leave their apartment. When Angela does finally step out of her apartment, she is, of course, fully masked up and her paranoia about being followed severs as a metaphor for the paranoia that many people felt (and continue to feel) during the pandemic. KIMI is not the first pandemic thriller and it certainly won’t be the last. Still, what’s interesting to me that the pandemic subtext will probably be more noticeable to those who lived in states with mask mandates and aggressively regulated lockdowns than it will be for those of us who live in states that never had mandates and which, for lack of a better term, re-opened last year. Half the people viewing KIMI will nod in recognition as Angela grabs her mask before walking up to her front door and as she quickly dashes down the street, careful not get too close to anyone else. The other half will feel as if they’re watching some sort of dystopian science fiction film. It all depends on where you’ve lived for the past two years.
This morning, I woke up and I thought about the cult of Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh is a filmmaker who is fervently adored by some film and cultural critics. They eagerly devour his every thought. They examine his annual list of the things that he watched during the year with the intensity of theological scholars studying an ancient-but-just-discovered religious text. The Cult of Soderbergh reacts with excitement whenever it’s announced that Soderbergh has secretly filmed an improvised comedy on his phone and that he’ll be releasing it on HBOMax. The fact that the movie itself will probably turn out to be a self-indulgent mess never really seems to concern them.
Don’t get me wrong. Steven Soderbergh has directed some very good movies. There are quite a few Soderbergh films — Out of the Past, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!, Logan Lucky, Magic Mike — that I really, really like. However, Soderbergh has directed and otherwise been involved with some truly mediocre films as well, films that would probably be totally forgotten if not for the fact of his involvement. Even his worst films tend to get good initial reviews, if just because people tend to assume that anything Soderbergh directs has to be good even when it’s not. But, in retrospect, many of his films are stylish and ultimately empty. Haywire is a mess. The Laundromat was self-indulgent and pretentious. Let Them All Talk was so dull that it felt as if it was specifically made to troll the type of people who proudly proclaim that they will watch Meryl Streep in anything. Contagion may have predicted a pandemic but that doesn’t make it any less of a drag to sit through. When Steven Soderbergh is good, he’s very good. When he’s bad, he’s incredibly bad. He’s one of the most frustratingly inconsistent filmmakers around. That’s something that many film fans and critics have yet to come to terms with.
It’s also why I kind of groaned a little when, last month, I read that Steven Soderbergh would be producing the Oscars this year. Everyone knows that the Oscars are struggling to stay relevant and that the ceremony needed to be jazzed up a little and, if nothing else, that seemed to be something that Soderbergh could deliver. But, even while the Cult of Soderbergh was celebrating, I was thinking about how the Oscars seemed like just the type of event that would draw out Soderbergh’s worst tendencies.
Now, at this point, I should make clear that Soderbergh did not direct last night’s ceremony. He was strictly the producer and, in fact, he was just one of three producers. That said, from the opening scene of Regina King walking through Union Station to the decision to allow the winners to ramble on for as long as they wanted (almost as if they were Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen shooting an improvised film during an ocean cruise), this definitely felt like a Steven Soderbergh production. Even more importantly, it felt like a bad Soderbergh production. This wasn’t Traffic or even Ocean’s 11. This was Solaris. This was Full Frontal. This was one of those terrible movies that he agreed to executive producer as a favor to George Clooney. This was the type of train wreck that could only have been put together by a genius who no one was willing to double guess.
We all knew that last night’s Oscars were going to be a bit different, of course. And I guess we should be glad that they didn’t make the same mistakes that the Golden Globes made. That said, the ceremony was an endurance test. Last night’s ceremony did away with a lot of the things that have been criticized about previous ceremonies but, in doing so, it only made us realize that an awards show actually does need a host. It does need a cheesy montage. It needs spectacle. It needs live performances of the nominated songs. It needs humor, even bad humor. (Glenn Close twerking after her record-setting eighth Oscar loss does not count.) And, perhaps most importantly, it needs a band that’s willing to start playing the exit music whenever a winner goes on for too long. Who didn’t want a full orchestra to drown out the Documentary Feature winners? Do we really need a filibuster from someone who probably had sex with an octopus? That’s what the Senate’s for.
As I watched the ceremony, I thought about something one of my creative writing teachers once told me. Seriously, this is one of the most important lessons that I’ve ever learned and anyone who knows how much I hate learning anything will understand that’s high praise coming for me. If you want your reader to truly feel as if they know your characters, show. Don’t tell. Show. If you want your readers to understand that someone is good at their job, don’t just say, “She was good at her job.” Instead, write a scene that shows she’s good at her job. For the most part, last night’s ceremony eschewed showing clips of the nominated films and instead, we were provided with trivia factoids about the nominees, the type of stuff that you typically find on the imdb or Wikipedia. But hearing that someone worked in a movie theater when they were a teenager doesn’t tell us anything about why they were nominated. Last night, the lack of clips made it seem as if the Academy ashamed of the films they had nominated. They kept telling us the nominees were good but, at the same time, they refused to show us.
Finally, there was the weird choice to move around some of the categories. It’s obvious what the show’s producers — and I won’t lay the blame squarely on Soderbergh because there were two other credited producers on the show — were trying to do. They assumed Chadwick Boseman would win best actor. They assumed it would be a huge emotional moment, the 21st century’s equivalent of Judy Garland introducing herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine” in the 1954 version of A Star is Born. And so, they moved the categories around.
As a result, Chloe Zhao won Best Director in the middle of the show. Zhao is only the second woman to win best director and the first woman of color. It should have been a great Oscar moment but instead, it was just randomly tossed in there, with no build-up or anything else. Best Picture, which is traditionally the joyous end of the ceremony, was moved so that the final award could go to Chadwick Boseman. Of course, that didn’t happen. The final award went to Anthony Hopkins for The Father. When presenting the award, Joaquin Phoenix read the name of the winner so quickly that it actually took a few minutes for me to realize that Hopkins had won. Phoenix read the name and the end credits rolled so quickly that you got the feeling someone in the control room panicked. It was an odd moment. Obviously, Hopkins couldn’t come to L.A. for the ceremony but he was also apparently so convinced that Boseman was going to win that he didn’t even bother to stay up for the ceremony. (According to People Magazine, he was asleep when his name was called. Actually, that was true for a lot of people in America as well.)
It was an anti-climatic end to the ceremony but, putting aside the question of who should have won best actor, it was hard not to feel some schadenfreude. The show’s producers basically messed up the show’s entire momentum for a big moment that they assumed was going to happen and then it didn’t. They got a bit too clever for their own good. As more than one person pointed out on twitter, last night was proof that the producers do not know, ahead of time, who is going to win. I know some would say that it’s easy to be critical in hindsight but that if Boseman had won last night, we would be talking about what a moving moment it was. Yes, we would but it would been just as moving if Boseman had won at the end of the ceremony or at the beginning of it or in the middle. Instead, the producers took a risk that only succeeded in making Boseman’s loss the defining moment of the 93rd Academy Awards.
(Incidentally, I watched The Father on Sunday, before the ceremony. Hopkins is amazing in the film and I feel he deserved the award. At the same time, I’m also very aware that Boseman was very good in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and that this was literally the Academy’s last chance to honor both his performance and his legacy. So, when I say that it’s unfortunate Boseman loss, that should not be taken as criticism of Hopkins. Nor should my praise of Hopkins be viewed as criticism of Chadwick Boseman.)
Many of the changes last night felt less like they were the result of seriously considering what would improve the ceremony and more like change for the sake of change. It felt like the people in charge basically said, “This is our show and we have to do something to show that we know better than everyone who has come before us.” There was a lot of hubris involved in last night’s ceremony. There was a definite lack of understanding of why people watch the Oscars in the first place. Watching the ceremony, I was reminded of the experiencing of listening to countless Steven Soderbergh commentary tracks where he got so caught up in discussing dry technical details that he didn’t actually bother to comment much on what it was like to actually make the film and work with the actors. (One gets the feeling that Soderbergh is more comfortable talking about lenses than about human emotions.)
I’m not going to get into an argument about what the Oscars are “supposed” to be. Obviously, there’s no set rule that says the Oscars have to take place in a giant theater or that there has to be a host or a live musical performance. But I will say that, for me, the most memorable Oscar ceremonies have been entertaining to watch, even if they did inspire a bit of snarkiness on the part of many viewers. (The snarkiness, let’s be honest, is a part of what we all look forward to.) The show’s producers were so busy patting themselves on the back for not being tacky that they failed to consider that shameless tackiness is actually one of the things that makes the Oscars the Oscars. Last night’s show was boring. And beyond everything else, that was the main problem. People want to have fun. They want to escape for a few hours. They want a little spectacle. If the Academy and Hollywood at large can’t remember how to deliver that, I don’t know how much longer this yearly tradition of watching the Oscars will continue.
Ever since the COVID lockdowns started roughly 12 months ago ago, there have been people saying that we should cancel all of the big events that usually define the year. Sometimes, the argument has been that it’s just simply gauche to celebrate or indulge in sort of distraction while the world is suffering. Other times the argument has been that doing anything other than staying inside and feeling miserable will lead to a superspreader event. Over the past 12 months, there have been efforts to cancel everything from football and baseball to Halloween and Christmas.
My response to these efforts has always been to proudly yell, “No! People need some sort of normalcy, now more than ever! Traditions are important and we all need something to look forward to. The show must go on!” Even though I’m not into football, I was happy that the regular NFL season went forward as scheduled. I was happy that, even with everything going on, there was at least a Super Bowl. Even though I’ve never cared that much about the Emmys, I was still glad that they made it a point to hold some sort of ceremony. And when it comes to Oscars, I’ve been looking forward to them for a year now. The show must go on, right?
Indeed, ever since the lockdown started, I’ve been saying that the show must go on. It’s a belief in which my faith was unwavering.
Until last night.
Last night, I watched The Golden Globes and, as I’ve already said on this site, it was an amazingly depressing experience. While I knew that the Globes would be different this year and there would undoubtedly be a few awkward moments, nothing could have prepared for me for just how terrible last night’s show truly was. The entire show felt weird and creepy and vaguely dystopian. Even the jokes about the HFPA’s lack of diversity and the nominations for stuff like Music and Emily In Paris felt less like speaking truth to power and more like officially sanctioned dissent, delivered in smarmy fashion by officially approved messengers. It felt like watching a carefully rehearsed roast of a corrupt politician, where all of the jokes are carefully written so that the subject of them can later say, “See, I can laugh at myself!” in between looting the treasury and putting dissidents in prison. It was depressing not just because it reflected what’s currently going on in the world but also because it seemed to indicate what we had to look forward to in the future.
Awards show have always been vapid, of course. For the most part, the humor has always been smarmy and self-congratulatory. (There’s a reason why Ricky Gervais will probably never be invited back to host another Golden Globes ceremony.) The political statements have always lacked self-awareness. The winners have often been regrettable. But, in the past, we could at least focus on the glamour. We could distract ourselves with the clothes and the hair and the gossip. There was no glamour last night. There was just an overwhelming blandness.
Traditionally, the Golden Globes are the “fun” awards ceremony so, if the Golden Globes were that bad, can you imagine what the Oscars are going to be like? The Oscars, after all, are the staid and, at times, painfully formal ceremony. If the Globes represent your shady, self-destructive, but always unpredictable uncle, the Oscars represent the rich uncle who awkwardly shows up at the annual family reunion out of a sense of obligation and who never seems to be having as much fun as he should. (That said, you’re still always happy to see him and you know you’ll miss him if he ever stops coming.) If the Globes were that depressing, it’s frightening to imagine the depths of despair to which the Oscars could potentially descend.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether the show must really go on! I mean, technically, there’s really no need to have a big Oscar ceremony. The show gets terrible ratings, with less and less people watching each year. In fact, it’s only a few of us awards fanatics who really care about the ceremony. One could just as easily post the names of the winners online and then everyone could just upload their acceptance speeches to YouTube, where people like me could watch the speeches we care about and ignore the rest. At this point, even those of who love the show understand that it’s rare that the best films actually win. The appeal of the Oscars is not really to be found in the results of the contest. Instead, the appeal of the Oscars has always been the glamour of the ceremony. If there’s no glamour, what’s the point? One could just as easily take the money that’s usually spent on the ceremony and instead donate it to the communities that are still recovering from last month’s winter storm.
It’s a legitimate question. Must the show go on?
Despite the way that I found my faith wavering last night, I still ultimately think that the show should go on. I still believe that, psychologically, it’s important to have some sort of normalcy. I think that if the world could survive the lack of good Super Bowl commercials, it should be able to survive the Oscars. But, seriously, let’s hope that the Oscar producers learned something from last night’s disastrous ceremony. Let’s hope that the producers give some serious thought to what went wrong for the Globes and that they make an effort not to repeat the same mistakes. Somehow, the Oscars have to keep glamour alive. They can’t repeat the mistake of the Golden Globes of allowing themselves to just become a tepid zoom conference call. The Oscars are many things, both good and bad. But they should never be depressing.
This year, Steven Soderbergh is one of the Oscar producers and, while I’m not really a huge fan of some of his more recent films, I think he does understand the importance of glitz and glamour. (Let’s hope we get the Ocean’s 11 Soderbergh as opposed to the Soderbergh who makes self-indulgent Meryl Streep films.) I’m looking to you, Steven Soderbergh, with hope in my eyes. Don’t let me down.
Well, it’s nearly February so I guess it’s time for me to start listing my picks for the best and the worst of 2020.
It’s pretty much a tradition here at the Shattered Lens that I always end up running behind as far as posting these lists are concerned. I always think that I’m going to have everything ready to go during the first week of January but then I realize that there’s still a host of movies that I need to see before I can, in good conscience, post any sort of list. In fact, as I sit here writing this post, I’m watching some films that could very well make it onto my best of 2020 list.
Of course, the list below is not my best of 2020 list. Instead, below, you’ll find my picks for the 16 worst films of 2020. Why 16 films? Because Lisa doesn’t do odd numbers!
It probably won’t be a surprise you to see some of these films on the list. For instance, I don’t think anyone will be shocked to see The Grudge or After We Collided mentioned. However, I imagine that some people will be surprised to see The Trial of the Chicago 7 on the list. What can I say? The more I thought about it, the more it represented everything that I dislike about mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. The fact that it’s probably going to be a major Oscar contender made it even more important to list it. I’m sure there’s a lot of critics, for instance, who wish they had found room for Green Bookwhen they were compiling their 2018 lists.
In the end, of course, this list is my opinion. You’re free to agree or disagree. That’s the wonderful thing about having an opinion.
16. John Henry (dir by Will Forbes) — I actually feel kind of bad for listing this silly B-movie as one of the worst of 2020 but it was just so slowly paced and thematically muddled that I really didn’t have a choice.
15. The Binge (dir by Jeremy Garelick) — Doing The Purge with drugs and alcohol as opposed to murder is actually a pretty cool idea so this movie has no excuse for being so dull. There is one fun dance number that livens things up, which is why The Binge is listed at number 15 as opposed to number 3.
13. Valley Girl (dir by Rachel Lee Goldenberg) — This remake was a boring jukebox musical that featured 30 year-old high school students and unimaginative use of a host of 80s songs. (A girl at the beach says that she just wants to have fun. Can you guess what song the cast started singing?)
12. Ava (dir by Tate Taylor) — Jessica Chastain’s an assassin and …. *yawn.* Tate Taylor was exactly the wrong director to be expected to do anything interesting with this story.
9. Artemis Fowl (dir by Kenneth Branagh) — This was a confusing movie that mixed the least interesting parts of the Harry Potter franchise with the least interesting bits of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
6. After We Collided (dir by Roger Kumble) — This was marginally better than the first Afterbut that’s not saying much. The total lack of chemistry between the two romantic leads makes it difficult to care about whether or not they ever end up together. The cloying cameo from writer Anna Todd (“What have you written?” “Oh, this and that,”) almost made me throw a shoe at my TV.
5. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir by Aaron Sorkin) — I liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance and the scene where Bobby Seale gets gagged in court was powerful and disturbing. Otherwise, this movie represented Hollywood at its most vapid.
2. The Last Thing He Wanted (dir by Dee Rees) — This was the first bad film that I saw in 2020 and it’s remained here, near the bottom of the list, for 12 months. This movie was a muddle mess that thought it had more to say than it did. It did feature a good performance from Willem DaFoe, which saved it from being the worst film of the year. Instead, that honor goes to….
Let Them All Talk is the latest film from Steven Soderbergh. Meryl Streep plays Alice Hughes, a novelist who is traveling to London on the Queen Mary so that she can accept a literary prize. Accompanying her are two friends from college, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest), both of whom have far less glamorous lives than Alice’s. Roberta is also still angry because she feels that Alice used details from Roberta’s life in one of her novels.
Also on board the Queen Mary are Alice’s nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges, who overacts to such an extent that it’s almost as if he’s daring the Academy to take back that nomination for Manchester By The Sea) and Karen (Gemma Chan), who is Alice’s new agent and who is trying to figure out what Alice’s next book is going to be about. (Karen hopes that it’ll be a sequel to her first novel, the one that was full of details stolen from Roberta’s life.) Though Alice keeps insisting that she wants Tyler to keep Roberta and Susan entertained while she works on her latest book, Tyler is far more interested in getting to know Karen.
The film was shot on the Queen Mary, while the ship was actually making the voyage across the Atlantic. Though the actors had a story outline, the majority of the dialogue was improvised and Soderbergh essentially just sat in a wheelchair with his camera and followed the actors around. In short, this is a film that you probably could have shot, the only difference being that you probably wouldn’t have been able to get Meryl Streep to agree to appear in it. I’m tempted to say that the story of the production is actually more interesting than the film itself but, to be honest, Steven Soderbergh shooting an improvised film isn’t that interesting. Soderbergh’s always had a weakness for gimmicks like improv. You may remember that, decades ago, he and George Clooney insisted on trying to produce largely improvised television shows for HBO. Though the shows got a lot of hype before they premiered, both K Street and Unscripted mostly served to prove that improv is often more interesting in theory than in practice.
That’s certainly the case with Let Them All Talk, which is one of the most mind-numbingly dull films that I’ve ever sat through. I think the assumption was that Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest would automatically be interesting to watch no matter what they said but it doesn’t work out that way. Meryl Streep, in particular, is so excessively mannered that she comes across like a retired drama teacher playing the lead in the community theater production of Mame. Candice Bergen does a bit better but Dianne Wiest is stranded with a role and subplot that seems almost like an afterthought. In the end, the film just isn’t that interesting. The “just start filming and see what happens” approach has its limits.
To be honest, as I watched Let Them All Talk, I found myself wondering if maybe Steven Soderbergh was deliberately trolling everyone by seeing how bad of a film he can make before critics stop reflexively praising everything that he does. Let Them All Talk currently has a score of 89% at Rotten Tomatoes so Soderbergh still has a ways to go.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.