Soderberghopolis #3: TV, HD, CHE, and Gray

Moisés wraps up his Soderbergh retrospective.

Before we jump to the next film, we’ve got another producing signpost.

Producing Interlude 2: At the Most Prolific

Between Ocean’s Eleven and Full Frontal, five movies carrying Soderbergh producer credits hit screens, including Naqoyqatsi, Far From Heaven, Clooney’s brilliant directorial debut Confession of a Dangerous Mind, Welcome to Collinwood, and Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. The fact that his fingers touched all of this stuff on top of making his own films is pretty amazing, but he’ll do roughly the same output again a few years later.

#15) Full Frontal (2002)

“Fuckin’ Goebbels, thinks it’s a toy. ‘Gone to get haircut’, what an asshole.”

“You could eat the asshole out of a dead wolf.”

Soderbergh decided that if he was going to make Ocean’s Eleven, he had to make something like Full Frontal, the “karmic sequel” to sex, lies, and videotape. Soderbergh gave the actors a set of rules for this movie that was shot in 18 days. They are the following:

  • 1. All sets are practical locations.
  • 2. You will drive yourself to the set. If you are unable to drive yourself, a driver will pick you up, but you will probably become the subject of ridicule. Either way, you must arrive alone.
  • 3. There will be no craft service, so you should arrive on set “having had”. Meals will vary in quality.
  • 4. You will pick, provide, and maintain your own wardrobe.
  • 5. You will create and maintain your own hair and make-up.
  • 6. There will be no trailers. The company will attempt to provide holding areas near a given location, but don’t count on it. If you need to be alone a lot, you’re pretty much screwed.
  • 7. Improvisation will be encouraged.
  • 8. You will be interviewed about your character. This material may end up in the film.
  • 9. You will be interviewed about the other characters. This material may end up in the finished film.
  • 10. You will have fun whether you want to or not. If any of these guidelines are problematic for you, stop reading now and send this screenplay back where it came from.

I’m going to incorporate rules 3, 4, 5, 7, and 10 into this capsule review. You’ve been warned.

The movie jumps right in with bits of voiceover running over still frames of info about the main characters we follow through the multi-multi-layered narrative that leads to a party that most of these people have been invited to by bigshot Hollywood producer Gus (David Duchovny). The main people are played by Julia Roberts, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood, Nicky Katt, Enrico Colantoni, and Mary McCormack. McCormack pops back up in the handheld, DV-shot K Street. It’s interesting that he used Duchovny and Pierce here, since they both read for the James Spader role in sex, lies, and videotape.

The movie is about artifice, Hollywood, and the question of what authenticity really is. This movie went so far up Hollywood’s ass that it gets all the way to what it really is, as well as what “is” really is.

In the film’s world, there’s a movie inside the movie (Rendezvous) being shot. The world of one of Soderbergh’s other films intersects the world of the movie inside the movie. Or does it? Is the David Fincher movie shooting within the reality of the Steven Soderbergh movie shooting inside Full Frontal’s reality? Who is really real? What is really real? He shoots on different film stock and cameras with different filters to indicate what is “real” and what is real. Or does he? Doesn’t he?

Rainn Wilson pops up for a moment, as do Sandra Oh and Harvey Weinstein, who does a dead-on Jeff Garlin. Brad Pitt’s cameo is fun, especially since he manages to say so little with so few words. Without him , this film would be nothing. My favorite nod in the film is the poster for Godard’s Contempt that appears briefly. On second thought, maybe I prefer David Fincher re-taking the same line 49 times.

Whenever I find myself telling a friend that Full Frontal is worth watching, but maybe not re-watching, I quickly find myself questioning whether I should re-watch it. I mean is it me, or what the fuck was really going on with the guy who dresses as a vampire?

Best Translated Title
In Turkey, it’s called Very Special.

How to Find Full Frontal on Video
It’s on DVD with a pile of extras including deleted scenes, commentary with Soderbergh and the screenwriter, an interview with Soderbergh, in-character interview footage, and a couple of other little featurettes. Amazon has two different versions, both the original 2003 release and a 2011 reissue that only has Julia Roberts’ face on it, which makes the potential buyer think they’re getting a different look at Roberts than they actually will. I ordered the original DVD, which bizarrely carries little blue stickers on the cover and spine with “Steven Soderbergh” in white Comic Sans lettering. It’s $7.21 at the time of this writing, whereas the Julia Roberts’s Face Through a Blue Filter Version is $6.99. I voted with my extra 22 cents folks, and so can you.

#16) Solaris (2002)

I’m sure the fact that I like this film is sacrilege to those who think that the Tarkovsky film is the only one that ever needs to exist. This is a re-adaptation much like True Grit was, rather than a remake.

The source material, a novel by Stanislaw Lem, was re-adapted by Soderbergh himself. James Cameron was originally planning to direct the movie himself, but as is often the case, he got distracted by something else. Soderbergh leapt at the chance to tackle it. Coming right off of Ocean’s Eleven, Clooney campaigned for the main role after it had already gone out for Daniel Day-Lewis (who turned it down). Clooney is probably glad he got it, but so am I. It’s some of the best, most vulnerable acting he’s ever done.

All efforts to evacuate a crew orbiting a planet-like mass called Solaris have failed. A member of the crew is a friend of Chris Kelvin (Clooney). Kelvin’s wife has died recently, and someone makes use of that information once he gets out there. I’ll leave it there so as to not get into spoiling things. If you like the specific breed of sci-fi that includes 2001: A Space Odyssey (rather than just saying you do to sound hip), then this is for you.

How to Find Solaris on Video
It’s unfortunate it isn’t on Blu-ray, since they talk about how they composed all the VFX shots at 4K resolution. They’d look great at Blu-ray resolution (around 2K) without any additional work. The DVD came out back in 2003, before HD formats existed, and it’s under seven bucks most days on Amazon. It includes a couple of featurettes and a solid gold Soderbergh/Cameron commentary track wherein Cameron says “see, I like her already, she’s a tequila girl!” at one point. More interesting is a discussion between the two about how great it’d be to have Soderbergh’s original cut on a future home video release at some point. The tenth anniversary is coming up next year…

#17) K Street (2003)

After polling some friends, I realize I may be one of the only people left who remembers and loved Soderbergh’s shows for HBO, K Street and Unscripted. They are more “reality TV” than reality TV has ever been, if you ask me, since they don’t hide the artifice. This all harkens back to the arguments in Schizopolis most obviously, but it goes further down that path. It expounds on the overriding question of who or what is really authentic, one of the most predominant themes in all of Soderbergh’s work going back to sex, lies, and videotape.

The series follows James Carville and Mary Matalin, real-life political consultants who are on opposite sides of the political divide, but also happen to be married. The series invents a fictional firm that employs Mary McCormack and John Slattery, actors in real life, but here playing the parts of two of Carville and Matalin’s top people at their firm.

The series is best-remembered as causing a bit of controversy for Howard Dean when he used a “then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King” joke that Carville used in a sequence used in the first episode. The show was a huge hit in D.C. itself, but didn’t really blow up. Unlike network shows, I don’t think it was designed to go on and on, but rather, to take advantage of cheap production costs and the then-current 2004 election cycle. It’s a spiritual sibling to (though less farcical than) The Thick of It, the British series that spun into the 2009 film In the Loop. If you’re a political junkie, this is a great fix you probably haven’t tried.

How to Find K Street on Video
No joke, the entire five-hour series is available on DVD for five bucks. Find me another HBO DVD that cheap, I dare you.

#18) Eros (2004) “Equilibrium” segment

“It’s not a sex dream……exactly.”

There are worse things than being paired up with Michaelangelo Antonioni and Wong Kar-Wai. It’s an anthology film that revolves around sensuality and love. Regardless of what country anyone saw the movie in (Wong’s segment came first in Asia, Antonioni’s in most of the rest of the world), Soderbergh’s segment is the meat in the sandwich. It’s difficult for me to call a favorite between his and Wong’s (I don’t really care for Antonioni’s, gratuitous nudity or not), since they’re fundamentally quite different even though they were sparked from the same themes. Soderbergh uses some of the same out-of-focus camera technique he used in Full Frontal’s sex scene here.

“Equilibrium” is set in 1955, and Robert Downey, Jr. plays an executive trying to work out issues he has with both selling alarm clocks and a recurring sexy (not sexual) dream. Alan Arkin plays his shrink. It’s an interesting little nested narrative, and not just because this is the last film Soderbergh has written (and may ever write).

How to Find Eros on Video
It’s six bucks to own it on DVD, which includes a 20-minute Antonioni featurette, and three bucks to rent it on Amazon VOD.

#19) Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

“Who’s that sexy phone voice? Very early Bond.”

The band gets back together to pull a job in Europe when Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) catches up to them and they have to repay a debt to him.

I enjoy the light, carefree fun of Ocean’s Eleven, but Ocean’s Twelve is my favorite of the series without question. It pulls together so many elements from so many Soderbergh films, from the fractured timeline found in The Underneath to the visual dynamism of The Limey and Traffic to the slick look and temp of Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven. His absurdist side from Schizopolis makes a short appearance during the run-in with a celebrity at the museum.

The meta-referential elements from within and outside the world of Soderbergh’s movies reward fans. They expand on the code names for types of jobs rattled off in the first movie. Brad Pitt’s Rusty references the scene in Miller’s Crossing where John Turturro begs for his life. There’s a conversation with Robbie Coltrane that makes me and any other fan of Schizopolis think “meat diaper”.

How to Find Ocean’s Twelve on Video
If you are going to buy it, get the Blu-ray. The DVD doesn’t include the commentary, which is bullshit, but there it is. As far as I can tell, the track was recorded after the DVD release (which preceded the Blu). If you’re buying this or Eleven, just get the trilogy Blu-ray set. It’s usually around $25.

Soderbergh briefly talks about ‘60s TV shows on the commentary, and writer George Nolfi brings up The Man From UNCLE all on his own.

Producing Interlude 3

Rumor Has It… is the cinematic equivalent of a Marvel What If? comic. It’s a curiosity. Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, however, are great films. Syriana owes its existence to the success of Traffic, and Good Night, and Good Luck wouldn’t exist without the boost that collaborating with Soderbergh gave to Clooney’s career.

#20) Unscripted (2005)

In the same rough, handheld style as K Street, Soderbergh tackled the world of being an actor in L.A. and trying to make it. His lead actors popped up in minor parts in films around the same time, which was cool to see simultaneous to the run of Unscripted. It stars Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg, and Jennifer Hall. Allen is best known for playing Emmanuelle in a series of mid-90s softcore movies, in addition to being George Clooney’s ex-girlfriend. She’s got a young kid here, and keeps trying to be taken seriously instead of only getting offered roles with boobs attached. Greenberg gets taken advantage of by friends and generally dicked over, and Hall is prejudiced against in the same way but from the other angle as Allen.

How to Find Unscripted on Video
Like K Street, it’s less than ten bucks at $7.49. Struggling actors (or aspiring struggling actors) should spend the money on it. I promise it’s a much more useful primer than acting school.

Producing Interlude 4

In an extremely varied producing career, the most diverse run of films Soderbergh has been attached to is probably Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, the Bob Dylan surrealist biopic I’m Not There, the traditional thriller Michael Clayton, and the brilliant doc Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.

#21) Bubble (2005)

Who could forget this, the movie that destroyed the theatrical exhibition business and made traditional cinema extinct? Ah yes, none of those things the doomsayers said would happen ended up coming to pass. Bubble was released in theaters, on VOD, and DVD on the exact same day.

Soderbergh’s first all-digital film accentuates the stillness of digital moviemaking and uses non-actors to refreshing effect in telling a very quiet, much more authentic crime story than most movies and TV shows I’ve seen in my whole life. The motivations are simple, as are the storytelling and trappings. People describe movies as “unvarnished”, but this one actually is.

This was the kickoff title in a six-movie deal with Magnolia, which as far as I can tell, has only been supplemented by The Girlfriend Experience. I gather that either Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s eyes were bigger than their stomachs in giving Soderbergh the loosest leash imaginable, or that they’ve been planning to make fewer movies for longer than they recently indicated by shopping Magnolia Pictures around to prospective buyers.

How to Find Bubble on VideoThere is an enormous price gulf between the regularly-$18 Blu-ray and the $7-ish-dollar DVD. At first glance, $11 is a hefty price premium to pay for HD visuals and audio. The movie is six years old for cryin’ out loud, why does it cost almost $20?

What if I told you that I recommend the DVD over the Blu-ray…because the DVD has loads more extra features?

The Blu-ray includes a commentary with Soderbergh and Mark Romanek as well as an embarrassingly “synergistic” episode of the HDnet show Higher Definition that features an interview with Soderbergh. He appears visibly bored with as the interviewer as he’s asked questions about how this movie’s release is going to change everything and what a genius he is and blahblahblah.

The DVD adds an alternate version of the conclusion of the film (which is a can’t miss), a whole other commentary track with the actors, a featurette on their real lives, interviews with the three stars, and a stills gallery. In short, buy the DVD and only add on the Blu-ray if you’re a sucker.

It’s absolutely worth owning for completists and special feature hounds who like to know how the sausage was made, but not as much for folks who want fireworks like you find in the Ocean’s movies.

#22) The Good German (2006)

This one did so poorly at the box office that the DVD has absolutely no extras, not even a trailer. I really enjoyed it when I watched it recently, but I don’t have a lasting impression or set of emotions attached to it.

Based on a 2001 novel of the same name, it’s shot with vintage, era-appropriate equipment and in black and white. The actors use the stilted, melodramatic style of acting popular then, pre-Method. Soderbergh describes it as the post-WWII film they couldn’t make back then due to censorship and standards restrictions. It plays with the reality of post-war Berlin rather than the gauzy, idealized, and sanitized version shown in films from the decade after the end of the war all the way to the present.

George Clooney plays Jake Geisman, an American military journalist who returns to Berlin to find Lena (Cate Blanchett), a German girl he shacked up with during the war. He arrives and is driven around by Tobey Maguire, who takes the goody-two-shoes image he is better known for, demolishes it with a sledgehammer, sets it on fire, and blows it up. Beau Bridges and Leland Orser put in really solid supporting performances. The Thomas Newman score perfectly evokes the films of the period. Everything looks and sounds amazing, from the world of the film down to the actors themselves.

It’s hard to attach to Clooney’s Jake as your audience surrogate since he’s a hopelessly impotent hero when compared to what you expect out of him or any actor in the protagonist role of “this kind” of movie. The movie itself is a fake-out in that it evokes a sensibility and story type that it’s completely subverting. It doesn’t help that the through-line of the movie is about what hollow, uncaring, and selfish assholes people can be and were back in those days.

It never has the rah-rah moment you find yourself waiting for thanks to the sense memory you have on account of watching other WWII-era movies. It’s uncomfortable like a shirt that never quite fits, no matter how you shift it around on your shoulders. I love it because it keeps you awake while other movies covering the same subject make you want to go to sleep.

Soderbergh has since expressed regret about making a movie like this for $32 million with such a narrow potential audience, most recently in an excellent interview with Jeremy Smith at AICN. To tell you the truth, if this hadn’t been positioned as just having to be an “awards season movie”, everything would be just fine in terms of expectations. Then again, I’m not the guy looking at or responsible for the balance sheet. If everyone else gets a movie that wastes hundreds of millions of dollars like Transformers 2 (or 3, or the first one for that matter), then me and the other twelve of us who like it get this one.

How to Find The Good German on Video
It kills me that there are absolutely no extras in existence for this, if only on the technical side of things. Since it’s a Warner Bros. movie that didn’t do well, there probably never will be. The DVD is generally around six bucks.

#23) Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

“He’s doing an Irwin Allen!”

“…I believe the term is cougar. It is not my term, I read it in Maxim magazine.”

This one isn’t as great as the first two by any stretch, but it caps off the series nicely. You never get the feeling that the team is under as much of a threat. The addition of Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin is nice, as is the slightly enlarged role of Eddie Izzard. Appearances by David Paymer and Bob “Super Dave Osborne” Einstein are welcome as enjoy both of them a great deal.

Best Alternate Title
In Brazil, it’s called Thirteen Guys and a New Scam.

How to Find Ocean’s Thirteen on Video
Just like Twelve, the commentary is only on the Blu-ray. Soderbergh talks about Jacques Tati movies on it. Not kidding. If you’re a fan of this, I’d be very surprised if you didn’t like the other two. In that case, as before, I recommend the trilogy Blu-ray set.

#24) Che (2008)

I wrote a big huge review of the Blu-ray that Criterion put out back when I wrote for Hollywood Elsewhere. I’m adapting and reprinting a lot of that content here, but adding to it as well.

Che is a movie that will grow exponentially in esteem over time. In choosing to withhold partisan judgment of its subject, it stands as a unique testament to the power of the cinema in an era full of throwaway junk. I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that the most dismissive and unsophisticated critical opinions on the movie have come from those who never saw the final version or never saw the movie at all. Yet others have declared war on movies that last more than 100 minutes.

I have nothing but respect for those who dislike something after having done their work, but the dereliction of duty on this picture was truly stunning to me. The most worthless criticisms of all were issued by otherwise respectable critics and journalists who reviewed their anticipation of public reception rather than their impression of the work itself. Such is the curse of anything tied to Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

He is a man whom I do not idolize. At the same time, I cannot renounce him. As a Cuban-American, that means everyone on both “sides” of that cultural debate hate me. The movie isn’t about whether Che was right, wrong, or trusted the right people. It’s about the boiling point of revolution inevitably having to cool. It’s a huge movie about big ideas. Unfortunately, big ideas writ large are outta style. In one of the supplements on Criterion’s brilliant two-disc set, Soderbergh says the following:

“It made me consider the issue of whether movies matter or not anymore…at all. I think there was a period when they did matter, culturally. I don’t think they do anymore. So that added to this sense of ‘what was the point’ of eight years of work when movies have become so…disposable, and don’t seem to be…there aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously the way they were in the late 60’s and 70’s here in the United States.”

“I guess the point of some art is to illuminate. I guess…I just don’t see any evidence that it’s…happening. [he grimaces] Or, you know, it happens for ten minutes and then, you know…everybody’s thinking about where they wanna go eat.”

This is Soderbergh’s masterpiece, and in my opinion, the greatest of his films. I bet that it’ll go into style to like it around ten years after his death.

If there’s one movie that drained him to the point he felt this period of “recalibration” was necessary, I guarantee that this was it.

How to Find Che on Video
I know it’s $36, but the Criterion Blu-ray set is the only way you should experience this. Don’t do something stupid like grabbing a barebones Blockbuster rental DVD at a secondhand store for $3.

#25) The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Soderbergh made a low-budget digital movie starring Sasha Grey as a call girl. She was a porn star at the time, and is a former porn star as of earlier this year. Her character wants to move up in the world of prostitution. She seeks help from a call girl blogger, played by total sleazebag Glenn Kenny, a real-life film critic and acquaintance of mine. In the alternate cut on the Blu-ray, he tells her exactly what he wants done with those q-tips.

The ripped-from-the-headlines content found in K Street and Unscripted makes a return, with current events still relatively current in this movie that got shot and turned around in barely any time. It’s brilliant, depressing, and refreshing. I remember a bunch of movie bloggers drooling all over themselves trying to figure out clever ways to tell Grey that they were “familiar” with her work when interviewing her on her press tour for the film. It would have been great to see any of these guys ask her about how big a fan she is of really arty cinema.

How to Find The Girlfriend Experience on Video
Just like Bubble, this is another ridiculously big price gap between DVD ($8) and Blu-ray ($18). If the alternate cut and commentary with Sasha Grey and Soderbergh were available via VOD, at least there would be another option.

#26) The Informant! (2009)

I’m glad Warner Bros. let Soderbergh make another movie for them after losing them tens of millions on The Good German.

Matt Damon plays a less-than-sharp whistleblower (based on a real guy!), flanked by government agents Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. A ton of the funniest comedians working play a bunch of other government officials throughout. Patton Oswalt, Tony Hale, Paul F. Tompkins, and others. Watching all of them play gravely serious and against type is one of my favorite parts of a very funny movie. The Marvin Hamlisch score is wonderful.

How to Find The Informant! on Video
It feels like this movie came out twelve seconds ago. Go rent it on iTunes or something and see if you like it enough to own it forever. The commentary between Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns is really sharp, but is exclusive to the $15 Blu-ray. Shame on WB for requiring people to buy the better home video format if they want all the extras. The additional scenes on the disc are take ‘em or leave ‘em.

#27) And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)

And here we are at the last film in our series. Up until this year’s Contagion and Haywire, this is the last thing Soderbergh has done, aside from direct a play out in Australia.

And Everything is Going Fine follows up on Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy from 14 years before. Instead of merely recording one of his cycles of monologues, this is a documentary eulogy and tribute to one of the great American monologists told in his own words. Eschewing title cards, voiceover narration, or talking heads of any sort, Soderbergh and editor Susan Littenberg instead drew exclusively from video recordings of Gray’s performances, interviews, and a few select home movies.

The doc progresses chronologically through Gray’s life with occasional jumps backward and forward. I had never seen video of most of his performances, just interviews here and there. I was to have seen Gray perform live in 2004 while I was a student at Florida State University, but his body was found shortly before the event was supposed to have happened. I joked with a friend who still works at FSU that Gray had gone to extraordinary lengths to get out of his contractual obligations to the school and that hopefully they could show this film so that he would no longer have that outstanding debt.

Gray’s now-17-year-old son Forrest composed the score, and it’s really solid, unobtrusive work. Gray’s widow Cathy said during the Q&A at SXSW in 2010 that Soderbergh made the film as a gift to friend he felt he wasn’t there for when he was needed the most (after a terrible car wreck in Ireland). I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute to Gray than letting him eulogize himself, and he does an excellent job thanks to the selections made by Soderbergh and Littenberg.

How to Find And Everything is Going Fine on VideoIn that same SXSW Q&A, one of the producers answered a question about plans to release Gray’s performances on DVD by saying, “We hope to see a box set come out through The Criterion Collection in 2011, but the deal’s not done yet.” Gray’s widow Kathie Russo added “it’s a real shame that not even Swimming to Cambodia is out on DVD, so this is a great opportunity to finally get this stuff out there.” And Everything is Going Fine still isn’t on video in any format.

Concluding Things

I’ll be back tomorrow with a short piece that includes some final thoughts. Thanks to everyone who’s commented so far, and please keep the feedback coming!