By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 0 Comments
Steven Soderbergh ignited his career in Cannes 24 years ago by winning the Palme D’or with his first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape, a low-budget gem that set a new template for indie cinema. Today, with the premiere of Behind the Candelabra—which Soderbergh says may be his swan song—the Oscar-winning American director has framed a miraculous comeback performance by Michael Douglas after his recovery from stage IV throat cancer.
As piano legend Liberace, the most flamboyant showbiz queen never to come out of the closet, Douglas sinks his teeth into a role rich in theatricality. But much of the movie unfolds as scenes from a marriage, Vegas-style. Based on a memoir by Scott Thorson, Liberace’s longtime lover (played with deadpan aplomb by spray-tanned, Brazilian-waxed Matt Damon), the film is the most explicit gay love story ever performed by A-list Hollywood actors, with ample smooching. Funny and tender, flashy and fascinating, it gives Douglas the opportunity to pull off the kind of bravura performance that wins Oscars. But that won’t happen. Behind the Candelabra, which is in competition for the Palme D’Or, was financed by HBO, after every Hollywood studio had rejected it as a risky proposition that wouldn’t get an audience beyond the gay community. Dumb. It will air May 26 without an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 11:31 AM - 0 Comments
In an age when Hollywood has turned the movie biz into moneyball—an escalating numbers racket of sequels, franchises, reboots and spin—those of us who watch films for a living feel we’re caught in an endless loop, a Groundhog Day of déjà vu. As marketing and movie-making become indistinguishable, opening weekend is just another iteration of something we’ve seen before.
That’s why Cannes is a thrill. It’s a place of cinematic privilege where the usual rules don’t apply. Every year we make the pilgrimage to the French Riviera not knowing what to expect. Well, with one glaring exception. The festival’s May 15 opening night gala, The Great Gatsby, is by now old news. Weird. I’ve been coming to Cannes for 14 years, and it’s unheard of for the festival not to open with a world premiere. But almost a week after Gatsby’s North American debut, Warner Bros. will use Cannes for its European launch. One can only assume the festival was desperate to have the stars on its red carpet but didn’t have the clout to the force the studio to hold back its North American release. That’s an indication of how regimented global distribution has become. But it also doesn’t bode well for the regal status of the world’s most prestigious film festival.
On the other hand, opening night has always been largely ceremonial. More often than not, Cannes opens with Versailles-scale confections that turn out to be duds; and The Great Gatsby—which few critics have deemed good, never mind great— should at least serve as fodder for a lavish party. Besides, we don’t really come here to see Hollywood movies, but to get away from them. This, after all, is the Olympics of world cinema, and for those who like that sort of thing, nothing rivals the anticipation of watching the Cannes competition unfold from one day to the next. There tends to be refreshingly little advance hype about the films, so each time the lights go down it’s a journey into the dark on every level.
There are 20 features vying for the Palme D’Or this year. As we watch them, we’ll be second-guessing a heavyweight jury chaired by Steven Spielberg, whose eight cohorts includes Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi), and Oscar-winning actors Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
The Academy Award-winning director says Behind the Candelabra is his last film. But he’s only 50.
Steven Soderbergh swears he’s getting out of the business. After he completes his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra—which features a scene of Michael Douglas as Liberace making out with Matt Damon as his lover—the director, who just turned 50, has vowed to retire from movie-making, and focus on directing plays and painting. It’s hard to imagine. There isn’t a major filmmaker in America more prolific, or provocative, than Soderbergh. In the past two years alone, he’s made four movies, a diverse suite that includes a disaster flick (Contagion), an action picture (Haywire), and a $7-million story of a male stripper that grossed $167 million (Magic Mike). His latest film, Side Effects, is a thriller that poses as a cautionary tale about pharmaceutical drugs, then derails expectations with such diabolical mischief you can almost smell the ﬁlmmaker’s impatience with convention.
Soderbergh is Hollywood’s most successful misfit. For all his success as both a director and producer, he still hasn’t found a comfort zone. In an interview in New York magazine, he expresses mounting frustration with “the tyranny of narrative . . . or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it.” He says, “I’m convinced there’s new grammar out there somewhere.” He also complains that “the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television.” In fact, after no Hollywood studio would risk $5 million on distributing his Liberace movie (which he describes as “pretty gay”), he took it to HBO, the promised land for filmmakers aching to break out of the Hollywood straitjacket.
In Side Effects, Soderbergh casts Rooney Mara, that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as a girl with a lethal prescription in a thriller so perversely deceptive it should come with a list of side effects all its own. The movie’s time-release narrative is a jagged little pill of retro noir, coated with a smooth, contemporary glaze of pharma politics. Emily (Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum), a New York couple who once owned a yacht and a mansion, are struggling to rebuild their lives after Martin comes home from a four-year prison term for insider trading. A suicide attempt leaves Emily in the care of a shrink (Jude Law), who puts her on a new anti-anxiety drug called Ablixa. As her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) enters the picture, lies are unravelled and we’re pulled down a very different rabbit hole from the one we signed up for.
At the heart of each characer is a haze of moral ambiguity—something Hollywood abhors and Soderbergh adores. He seems to delight in aiming curveballs at his audience. But then this is a director who made his name by breaking the rules. He was just 26 when he won the Palme D’Or in Cannes with the first of his 26 features, Sex, Lies and Videotape, a brazen feat of minimalist style that helped launch a new wave of American indie cinema. He’s since won an Oscar for Traffic, which he accepted with barely a flicker of emotion. He turned George Clooney into a movie star, by stubbornly casting him until the notion stuck. And he has mastered the art-commerce shuffle, switching between studio blockbusters, like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, and experiments on film’s wild frontier—such as casting porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced hooker in the Godard-like verité of The Girfriend Experience (2009).
In the spirit of Godard, Soderbergh toggles between stylistic subversion and political expression. His “issue” movies range from whistleblower dramas (Erin Brockovich, The Informant!) to his Communist opus, Che. But all his films are inflected with dissent. And in a movie culture that thrives on lush sentiment, Soderbergh frames stories with a clinical, dispassionate eye—literally, given that he serves as his own cinematographer.
Along the way, he has built a cohort of loyal actors, notably Douglas and Damon, who agreed to take the plunge as gay lovers in the Liberace film. “It was great to see Michael and Matt jump off the cliff together. They just went for it,” says the director, apparently content to finesse his career with another end game of truth or dare.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, January 20, 2012 at 8:10 AM - 0 Comments
As Jolie steps behind the camera, an MMA fighter busts out as an action heroine
The heroine of Haywire, a new spy movie from director Steven Soderbergh, is a role that could have been written for Angelina Jolie. She’s distaff 007, a femme fatale with a cold gaze and a dominatrix flair for putting men in their place when not beating them to a pulp. It would be a typical assignment for Jolie, a warrior queen who has played secret agents in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted, Salt and The Tourist. But Soderbergh was aiming for a realistic upgrade of the spy genre. And as he says in Haywire’s press notes, “I knew there had to be a woman other than Angelina Jolie who could run around with a gun.”
So just as he recruited a real-life porn star to play a prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience, the director cast a real-life warrior in Haywire—but with more spectacular results. Gina Carano, a top-ranked fighter in the brutal sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), makes an explosive screen debut as hard-boiled heroine Mallory Kane, a ruthless black-ops agent working for a private security firm. She not only performs her own fights and stunts, but carries the movie in what feels like a landmark role. Outside the Asian martial arts genre, she must be Hollywood’s first female action star drawn from the ranks of real-life gladiators.
Just as Carano has left the MMA cage to step in front of the camera, Jolie has broken out of her gilded cage to step behind it. She has written and directed an ambitious drama that frames atrocities in Bosnia with a star-crossed romance between a prisoner and his captive. In the Land of Blood and Honey is a foreign-language film with an all-Bosnian cast that tackles a still-controversial subject. Although reviews so far have been mixed, Jolie’s directorial debut (it opens this week, along with Haywire) is surprisingly strong.
By macleans.ca - Monday, March 14, 2011 at 2:09 PM - 2 Comments
The Oscar-winning filmmaker says he’s done with making movies
He’s only 48 years old, but Steven Soderbergh says he plans to retire after wrapping his next two films—Liberace, starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., starring George Clooney. Soderbergh burst onto the scene 22 years ago with his debut feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and triggered a new wave in indie cinema. Since then he has proved to be one of America’s most versatile directors, swinging from Hollywood hits like Oceans 11 and the Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich to daring experiments like Solaris and The Good German. Soderbergh, who worships French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, has never seemed satisfied with commercial success. And lately he’s shown more verve with a low-budget outings like The Girfriend Experience and his recent documentary on Spalding Grey than with big-budget features. The director is incredibly prolific. With two star-driven studio pictures on his plate, and another two movies in the can (Contagion, Haywire), perhaps he’s just suffering temporary burn-out. Or longing to flee to the fringes of the avant garde. But even if he makes good on his promise to stop directing movies, he’s highly active in producing them—and he hasn’t said he’ll stop doing that. Or, he could always follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s lead, and try to become a pop star.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 5:09 PM - 1 Comment
Chinatown is one of Roman Polanski’s most celebrated pictures. But the ‘auteur’ who tends to be most closely associated with it is screenwriter Robert Towne, who won the only Oscar among the movie’s 11 nominations. In screenwriting classes, Chinatown is often held up as a model script, which is ironic considering that anyone trying to pitch something that dark and complex in today’s Hollywood would be told to forget it. Towne’s dense plotting requires you to pay scrupulous attention, yet the mechanics of the plot seem less important than the mystery they evoke. The story is like a mobius strip. You have to keep turning it around your mind: it’s impossible to hold it all in your head at once. And the film is even darker than Towne had imagined it—Polanski famously changed Towne’s ending to make it more downbeat.
Chinatown is a paradox of style. It’s written with hard-boiled inflection of Raymond Chandler, but Towne’s script, which originally ran to 300 pages, is so elaborate that Nicholson had to speed up his usual laconic delivery just to keep the movie from turning into an unwatchable marathon. And although the film’s style is deeply noir, Polanski dragged it into the unforgiving light of the Los Angeles sun, which makes sense because the city’s landscape is in the end the central character. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, September 18, 2009 at 11:54 AM - 3 Comments
Jennifer’s Body: Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), and starring Megan Fox as —who acts like Angelina Jolie in her Billy Bob Thornton phase—Jennifer’s Body throws a feminist kink into the old blonde/brunette, saint/slut high-school horror movie formula. Evil arrives in the form of an indie rock band called Low Shoulder, which comes to the town of Kettle Falls and commits a cult murder to achieve stardom. Fox is, well, a fox, and teenage boys all over North America will be trying to sneak in under the film’s R rating to drool over her. The sex is strictly soft-core (no nudity, boys). But there’s a long, lingering lesbian kiss, framed in profile as extreme-close-up, between Fox and co-star Amanda Seyfried. And while Fox devours her flesh-eating role with great gusto, Seyfried’s performance is the film’s revelation. She plays the good-girl heroine opposite Fox’s carnal cannibal. But in a modern twist on the formula, this sweet blond is far from virginal. She knows her way around a condom, and may even be having more sex than the bad girl. Seyfried also stars in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, where she gives a dynamite performance in a shape-shifting role as a hooker that allows her to demonstrate remarkable range. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 3:20 PM - 0 Comments
Toronto’s film festival launches a new fashion in male heroism ready-made for the recession
You forget you’re watching Matt Damon. He’s playing a spy. But with a dorky moustache, a toupée and an extra 20 lb. puffing out his features, there’s no trace of the dynamic secret agent from the Bourne franchise. In Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, an off-kilter comedy based on a true story of corporate corruption, Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an agri-biz honcho who became the highest-ranking whistle-blower in U.S. history during the late ’90s. But unlike most whistle-blowers—such as the one in The Insider or Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich—he is no straight-arrow hero. Far from it. While spending years wearing a wire to help the FBI expose a price-fixing conspiracy, Whitacre spins an elaborate web of lies, and embezzles millions from the company he was ratting on.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 10-19) and opening commercially next week, The Informant! is one of a new breed of movies about men of influence in dire straits who invent their own cracked ethical code. Each year, TIFF showcases the fall line of serious films that vie for Oscar glory, pictures that presume to tell us something about the human condition. And whether by accident or design, many of this year’s most prominent titles reflect a new fashion in heroism that seems tailor-made for the recession: moral bankruptcy.
The new Hollywood hero is a high-flying master of the universe who’s losing altitude as fast as the ground vanishes beneath his feet. He’s a liar, a fraud, a womanizer, a drug addict, a nutcase, or all of the above. He’s Michael Douglas as a disgraced car magnate with a wrecked marriage and a runaway libido in Solitary Man. He’s David Duchovny as the head of a model family that turns out to be an utter sham in The Joneses. He’s Nicolas Cage as a crack-smoking cop who hallucinates reptiles in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Or Peter Sarsgaard as a smooth con artist who seduces a 16-year-old English schoolgirl in An Education, soliciting her father as a gullible accomplice. Or Ricky Gervais as a screenwriter who discovers the marvel of dishonesty in The Invention of Lying—a comedy set in a world where everyone tells the truth.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, June 26, 2009 at 2:17 PM - 1 Comment
This weekend offers a choice between two beguiling films about professional lovers who lose their bearings in a gilded age that’s on the verge of ruin—one stars a 51-year-old Oscar-nominated screen siren, the other a 21-year-old hard-core porn star. In Chéri, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an aging courtesan who falls in love with a young man half her age amid the lavish friperie of La Belle Epoque in Paris. In The Girlfriend Experience , Sasha Grey makes her mainstream film debut as a high-priced Manhattan call girl servicing anxious businessmen in the early months of the current recession. Both characters are cool, calculating beauties who treat sex as liquid currency, and get into trouble when they break their cardinal rule of remaining emotionally uninvolved. Chéri is a baroquely scripted adaptation of two Colette novels, adapted by director Stephen Frears and playwright Christopher Hampton, the team behind Dangerous Liasons. The Girlfriend Experience features a cast of non-actors bluffing their way through improvised dialogue under the crafty direction of Steven Soderbergh essaying Jean-Luc Godard-lite. But both are slender, observational narratives, melancholic comedies of manners that view the world’s moral bankruptcy through a needlepoint scrim of taste and fashion. Between Pfeiffer and Grey, of course, there’s no question as to who is the better actress. No contest. But by merely staying afloat as Soderbergh’s lead, while sustaining a vacant intrigue, Grey gives the more startling performance. Pfeiffer is immensely watchable, and Chéri offers all the idle pleasures of a well-decorated period confection, but The Girlfriend Experience is the better, and more interesting, film. Continue…
By Michael Petrou - Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 5:40 PM - 8 Comments
Those who have defined Guevara have picked his idealism over ruthlessness
In his final moments, at least, Ernesto “Che” Guevara lived up to the reputation his name and image would command after his death.
Following his capture in the mountains of Bolivia by CIA-backed soldiers, Guevara stood up to face CIA agent Felix Rodríguez, who told him he would be executed. “It’s better like this . . . I never should have been captured alive,” he said. Guevara told Rodríguez to “tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America . . . And tell my wife to remarry and to try to be happy.” Moved, Rodríguez embraced his enemy, then walked out of the dingy schoolhouse where Guevara was held. Bolivian Sgt. Mario Terán, his face flushed from drinking, walked in. Guevara struggled to his feet. “I will remain standing for this,” he said, and, “know this now, you are killing a man.”
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, February 20, 2009 at 6:35 PM - 2 Comments
Opening this weekend are three very different movies that try to seduce us with history. At the centre of each is a heroic male engaged in a romantic struggle: in the marathon docudrama of Steven Soderbergh‘s Che, a t-shirt icon is brought to life; in Charles Martin Smith‘s whimsical romp, The Stone of Destiny, a guerilla prankster tries to steal back a relic of Scotland’s birthright; and in Benoît Pilon‘s feature debut, The Necessities of Life, an Inuit hunter suffering from tuberculosis in the 1950s is shipped from Baffin Island to Quebec City, where he fights to escape an alien culture. The latter two pictures qualify as Canadian, although there’s not much trace of Canuck pedigree in the soft-headed Scottish nationalism of The Stone of Destiny, which is a Canada-U.K. co-production. It’s a cute caper film with picturesque locations and charming actors, who do their best to make up for a slack drama. To call it a pleasant, watchable picture is to damn it with the faint praise that it seems to solicit. The other two films fall into the opposite category—they are easier to admire than to enjoy. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Which of these social-justice films will catch fire? A) 4 1/2 subtitled hours on Che Guevara or B) a Jolie melodrama.
For 12 days each May, Cannes plays host to the world’s most extravagant film festival, and those of us who enter its champagne bubble on the French Riviera become temporarily deluded that nothing on the planet matters more than movies. Yet there’s a special kick in encountering luminaries in Cannes who are not movie stars, as if their real-world celebrity comes in a harder currency. In 2006, Al Gore relaunched his career at the festival for the premiere of An Inconvenient Truth. And this year, two of the more exotic apparitions on the red carpet were American boxing thug Mike Tyson and Argentine soccer god Diego Maradona. As subjects of adoring documentaries, these two fallen superstars both burned out in a cocaine-fuelled blaze of bad behaviour, sought redemption as champions of Third World revolution — and by bizarre coincidence, both now have the face of Che Guevara tattooed on their bodies.
The guy has been dead for 40 years, but in Cannes this year no star was more talked about, or elusive, than Che. The hero of the Cuban revolution, and the world’s most ubiquitous T-shirt icon, is now the subject of a controversial 4½-hour movie by American director Steven Soderbergh.