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Steven Soderbergh

Streamers: See Orson Welles’ ‘Too Much Johnson’ and Amazon’s Third Pilot Season for Free

Too Much Johnson, the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor.

I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe: “This would all be interesting but academic if it wasn’t also entertaining and Too Much Johnson is a hoot. The prologue was designed to open the play, introduce the characters and situations, and set the racing pace for the stage scenes with a wild slapstick chase through the streets of New York to the ship that carries the story to Cuba. It plays just fine on its own (with an assist from intertitles added by NFPF), like an open-ended Mack Sennett farce that races through German Expressionism and Russian Formalism on the way to the docks. The subsequent sequences, both much shorter and apparently incomplete, are not as self-contained or coherent but they do feature some eye-opening moments for Welles fans.”

‘Too Much Johnson’

The third wave of Amazon Prime Instant Video Pilot Season shows will be available to sample on Thursday, August 28. As in previous waves, Amazon has made the pilot episodes of five new shows available to all Amazon customers (you don’t have to be a Prime member to watch them), and they will decide which shows move forward to full series based on audience feedback.

This time through, they have enlisted some interesting directors to create for the small screen. Whit Stillman heads to Paris for The Cosmopolitans, a continental romantic comedy, David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express and HBO’s Eastbound and Down) stays home in New Jersey for Red Oaks, a coming-of-age comedy set in 1985 (it’s produced by Steven Soderbergh), and Jay Chandrasekhar offers the sitcom Really, about a tight-knit group of married couples in Chicago. Each of these are in the half-hour format.

There are also two hour-long shows: Marc Forster (World War Z) takes the helm on Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman as a judge of dubious morals who goes vigilante after receiving messages from God, and writer / producer Shaun Cassidy delivers Hysteria, with Mena Suvari as a neurologist faced with virtual virus spread through social media.

More streaming options at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘King of the Hill’

King of the Hill (1993) is the third feature from Steven Soderbergh, who jumped to the head of the American independent scene when sex, lies and videotape took the Audience Award at Sundance 1989 and went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes before getting a wide release in suburban multiplexes. His second film, Kafka (1991), wasn’t a success but it revealed a serious filmmaker who wanted to explore different subjects and genres. King of the Hill continued that tradition in that is was yet again a complete change of style and subject matter for the director: an adaptation of the memoir by A.E. Hotchner about life as an adolescent during the Depression. It was also his first studio production, made for the fledgling Gramercy Pictures, and it gave him the biggest budget of his career. He was able to craft a rich recreation of early thirties St. Louis as seen through the eyes of a hopeful boy in an increasingly desperate situation.

Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a smart, creative, generous high school kid who spins stories to hide the fact that his family is broke and living out of a hotel, where they are behind in the rent. To stay in his high school, a well-maintained school filled with affluent kids (Aaron is “a charity case,” as one of his affluent classmates describes him), he and his kid brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) have to keep up the fiction that they reside in a nearby apartment house. His dad (Jeroen Krabbé) is a salesman hawking “wickless candles” that no one is buying while he waits for one of his many applications to pay off with a better job. Aaron picks up odd jobs as he can with the help of Lester (Adrian Brody in his first major role), an older kid who looks over Aaron like a big brother. Lester knows the angles and hustles his way to survival and his mentorship gives Aaron the skills and strength to survive when he’s force to take care of himself.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

How Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’ Still Influences Sundance After 25 Years

“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball.” – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013

‘sex, lies and videotape’

Did the Sundance Film Festival make sex, lies and videotape or did sex, lies and videotape put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca’s True Love (even as it eventually won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) but took home the Audience Award. More importantly, it landed a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and sex was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.

Soderbergh’s feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat, and the terror of true intimacy. The only nakedness on display is emotional, and Soderbergh, with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker, confronts uncomfortable issues with frank talk and uncomfortable directness.

Continue reading at Indiewire

Soderbergh’s Eleven: The Best of Steven Soderbergh

Remember when Steven Soderbergh announced imminent retirement a few years ago? Well, he’s apparently holding himself to his promise. Warner Bros. is promoting “Side Effects” as Soderbergh’s final film (apparently the upcoming “Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t count because it’s made for HBO).

Hard to believe, given the way he’s been turning out an average of two features a year, a terrific pace in a filmmaking culture where many directors spend years getting projects off the ground. You’d think that would take a toll on quality, but it’s been just the opposite: His track record has been solid as he hopscotches across genres and subjects. But, then, that’s been the very definition of his career all along.

Not just prolific (25 features in as many years as well as a couple of cable series), Soderbergh has been adventurous and ambitious. Since his debut feature, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” helped turn the American Indie imprint into a cultural force, he’s tackled everything from big-budget capers (“Ocean’s Eleven” and sequels) to experimental exercises (“Schizopolis” and “Bubble”) and plenty in between.

He’s shot most of his own films since “Traffic” (under the name Peter Andrews) and edited almost as many (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), perfecting a particular visual aesthetic and rhythm that underlies his films. And he has earned the loyalty of a group of collaborators who return again and again for his projects, including George Clooney (with whom he formed the production company Section Eight), Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Channing Tatum and many others.

I fully expect Soderbergh to return to filmmaking at some not-so-distant point in the future — how could someone who has shown such a passion for making movies give it all up? — but until then, here’s a survey of Soderbergh’s best to tide you over.

Andie Macdowell in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’

“Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989)

Did the Sundance Film Festival make “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” or did “Sex, Lies and Videotape” save the floundering Sundance? Chicken-and-egg question aside, the confluence of the two was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” according to industry historian Peter Biskind. Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat and the terror of true intimacy, all tackled with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker. This was still Soderbergh in raw form, but his honesty, and his ability to tap the cultural zeitgeist, created the first hit to come out of Sundance competition, and it redefined the indie aesthetic. Steven Soderbergh was the new golden boy of the independent scene …

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Magic Mike’

Magic Mike (Warner) is one of the success stories of 2012. While megabudget spectacles and potential tentpole films collapsed under the weight of heavy productions over flimsy scripts, Steven Soderbergh took a story inspired by actor Channing Tatum’s early experiences as a male stripper and a budget that wouldn’t pay for the reshoots on “Battleship” and delivered a film that took in over $110 million, over 15 times its budget.

Tatum’s Magic Mike is a hard-working guy in Tampa, Florida, constantly on the hustle, working under-the-table construction by day, headlining a male strip club on weekends, and working the angles in between, and Alex Pettyfer is his protégé, you might say. This is a world of tawdry glamour, street hustle, and working class desperation, and Soderbergh, star/co-producer Tatum, and screenwriter Reid Carolin do a great job of showing us how it works as a business and how it seduces as a lifestyle.

There is, of course, a cast of good looking men stripping down to g-strings and grinding their oiled hardbodies for a crowd of screaming women (among them Matt Bomer of “White Collar,” Joe Manganiello of “True Blood,” and Adam Rodriguez of “CSI: Miami”). It’s no secret that the film pulled in a cross-over audience of both women and gay men by offering the same spectacle that the movies constantly deliver to straight men. But “Magic Mike” is no exploitation film, nor an exposé of the dangers of this culture, nor a celebration of it. It’s a character drama with some superb characters and a terrific, grown-up romance with a young woman (Cody Horn) who is physically attracted to Mike but wary of his easy lifestyle and constantly-delayed dreams.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Review: ‘sex, lies, and videotape’

[originally published in 7 Days, on August 9, 1989]

Andie MacDowell as Ann (never better), James Spader as Graham

Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotape is an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.

Small wonder that its 26-year-old director took home the Palme d’Ôr for best film at the latest Cannes festival. The movie is a chamber piece for four players, though almost never are more than two of them together at a given time. John (Peter Gallagher) is a Baton Rouge yuppie, eternal frat man, and junior partner in a law firm at age 30. His wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), having given up thoughts of a career, spends her drifty days agonizing over global dilemmas (e.g., where to put the world’s mounting supply of garbage) and parrying her analyst’s efforts to determine why she and John don’t touch anymore. She has a younger sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), a barmaid and compulsive free spirit whose lifelong rivalry with Ann has led her into an affair with John—a liaison of which Ann remains unaware.

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‘Magic Mike’ Bares a Soul

Summer steamrollers like The Avengers sometimes feel like cinematic beat-downs. Good or bad, the mechanics of these big brawls can be numbingly repetitious. Their vulnerable manflesh stuffed into kid costumes and muscle suits, superheroes battle one another bloodlessly, bumping and grinding in the service of saving the eternally imperiled world. Borrrrr-ing! For an antidote and a really good time, go see Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s funny, exhilarating, down-and-dirty celebration of a different breed of costumed superstud — and a much earthier brand of bumping and grinding.

Channing Tatum and the boys

Soderbergh’s footloose movie about Tampa hunks who strip for a living is no Nashville, but this director shares Robert Altman’s eagle eye for the idiosyncrasies of folks who populate a showbiz subculture, as well as his ability to riff on rhythms of half-heard, possibly improvised conversation among guys who share a trade, however infra dig. Drawn from Channing Tatum’s own stint as a stripper back in the day, the script — by first-timer Reid Carolin, the actor’s producing partner — doesn’t aim for big narrative fireworks. The story flows the way life does when you mostly live at night: working up a head of steam onstage, stoned, sleeping around with strangers, your days slipping by in a hangover haze.

The movie’s mornings-after and afternoon delights are drenched in bruised, golden-dirty Florida sunshine. That exquisitely decaying light can wear its denizens down, but it’s also energizing, a real turn-on. Magic Mike catches that alternating beat in hot bursts of physicality and dreamy, drug-fueled languors. A slow-simmering love affair between Tatum and quirky charmer Jody Horn warms up during walks in the sun. As disengaged as a pleasant, vagrant breeze, Soderbergh’s camera drifts around their conversations: casual, intermittent, sometimes inaudible, punctuated by laughter. Nothing’s nailed down in Tampa’s fluid light; Soderbergh’s taking moving pictures of the flux and flow of human experience. (The director shot and edited, under his usual aliases.)

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Interview: Steven Soderbergh and “Che”

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 ½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.

It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself into revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film – the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two – that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment. In Soderbergh’s own words: “Let’s put it this way: when people ask me how many films I’ve made, I treat it as one film.”

Benecio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara

The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as a single presentation and opened in a limited roadshow run, with both films presented back to back (with an intermission) as a single program, in New York and Los Angeles in December. Its success encouraged IFC to expand the roadshow release to ten more cities, including Seattle, on January 16. I interviewed Soderbergh by phone on Friday, January 9, a week before its Seattle premiere.

Benicio Del Toro had been trying to get this film made for some time before you got involved. What was it about the project that made you want to jump on board and do it?

Well, really him [Del Toro], because there was nothing other than his desire and [producer] Laura Bickford’s desire to see it made, but that was it. They were working off of John Lee’s book, but John Lee’s book covered his whole life and they didn’t really have a take on it yet. So I honestly said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to.

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