Logan Lucky

“Logan Lucky” is Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 7/11,” a sly heist movie with a hilarious Southern drawl and character that makes it a true surprise.

Logan Lucky PosterI was tinkering with an expression like “Backwater Ocean’s Eleven” or “Blue Collar Ocean’s Eleven” to describe Logan Lucky, but then sure enough, Steven Soderbergh, self-aware as ever, comes up with “Ocean’s 7/11.” It may look stupid and quaint, but just like the characters in this movie, it’s actually a lot smarter than you.

Logan Lucky is a pure heist movie, but set in Appalachia with a group of Good ‘Ol Boys subbing in for George Clooney and Brad Pitt. They’re planning quickly, we’re learning the stages of the heist on the fly, and just as in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s, the film slyly withholds the twist details of how they dunnit until everyone’s in the clear. But listening to these hicks talk and strategize, it’s as if they’re all stuck in molasses. It’s a hilarious departure from the Rat Pack slick act. Continue reading “Logan Lucky”

Cinema Isn't Dying; The Business Is

Big Data could be poised to help the movie industry stay afloat, and it can do so without damaging the integrity of the art.

“Ack! You can’t make movies out of statistics! That’s not art! AARRGGHHH!”

That’s my impression of a filmmaker or critic reading an article about Big Data, a currently buzzy, business-y tech term that every industry is currently figuring out what to do with, including Hollywood.

Now, I understand that most of the people who got into making movies or writing about them did so because they never wanted to have to learn about something like Big Data. But as a struggling movie blogger, I’ve had no such luck, and Big Data makes up a big chunk of the articles I’ve been reading for the past few months.

So it came as a shock to me to hear about this panel called “Big Data and the Movies” at the Tribeca Film Festival and see my worlds colliding. It happened to coincide with Netflix’s release of “House of Cards,” this New York Times article about a man using analytics to give notes on screenplays, and then of course two wonderfully insider and apocalyptic discussions about the state of cinema, one by A.O. Scott and David Denby at Tribeca, the other by allegedly retiring filmmaker Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

With all those things together, I began to wonder: How does the movie industry innovate? Continue reading “Cinema Isn't Dying; The Business Is”

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh’s movie “Side Effects” may just be his last film. Hopefully that’s not true, as this coldly clinical, but limp conspiracy thriller would be a disappointing way to end a great career.

“Side Effects” is supposed to look like a Zoloft commercial, correct? Steven Soderbergh’s film, which I hope is not his last despite his hints, sustains a flat, picturesque aesthetic resembling a medicine ad in a magazine or on TV. It’s designed to make the characters appear phony or untrustworthy, but the unfortunate side effect, for lack of a better term, is that the whole film falls limp in the process.

That you can’t trust these people or their actions is about all the hint I can give you without treading in spoiler territory. It involves the months after Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from a white-collar prison to his wife Emily (Rooney Mara). His presence, though loving and supportive, causes her to try and commit suicide shortly thereafter. A doctor named Jonathan (Jude Law) agrees to release her from the hospital on the condition that she come in for treatment and therapy, both of which will eventually lead to Emily’s mental breakdown, a lawsuit, some jail time and a conspiracy.

“Side Effects” is a film about the unexpected consequences of trying to do good. We look for a fix, or a cure, and more problems are borne out of it. Jonathan will drive himself insane trying to mend this problem he’s created in Emily, and he’ll eventually become a slave to his own medicine. Continue reading “Side Effects”

Magic Mike

Careful ladies. Girls’ night out just turned into evening at the art house.

Along with the equally stylish “Haywire” earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh has again taken a no-nonsense genre picture that in another director’s hands would just be sugary fun, if not forgettable, and transformed it into something with intellect and class.

Now if you ask me, if you wanted to make a movie about male strippers, you couldn’t have a better director behind the helm than Soderbergh. The guy is the master of the mid-range shot and can make even the simplest exchange look like a sexy music video set piece. Soderbergh isn’t coy enough to cast Sexiest Man Alive Channing Tatum and former Sexiest Man Alive Matthew McConaughey and not include some juicy fun erotic dances. But even an average watcher only in this for the physical pleasures will see the film’s canted lens and intense low angle shots and sense there’s something disturbing going on here, not entirely an empty montage of sexy fun.

Tatum plays Mike, an independent construction contractor, entrepreneur and male stripper, in case you thought I was kidding about his business ventures. He builds custom furniture when he’s not dry humping a cougar’s face for money, so all around he has this keen understanding of women and people in general. He meets the 19-year-old Adam (Alex Pettyfer) on the job and instantly ropes him into this noisy, colorful underworld of tough, yet spotless characters and seductive environments of booze, drugs and girls.

Mike develops a crush on Adam’s older sister Brooke (Cody Horn) and reveals he’s more than just a stripper with a heart of gold. Tatum’s performance is confident, yet subtle enough that even amidst Soderbergh’s elaborate cinematography, he still looks somewhat like a guy in distress.

“Magic Mike” is an art house bromance in a lot of ways. It’s an identity crisis movie between two male strippers, one entering into the world at his lowest point and the other trying to leave it. Both Mike and Adam become friends and rivals, and their chemistry is thankfully more than skin (or leather chaps) deep.

But it does have its visceral pleasures. McConaughey is on fire as the flamboyant gangster type in charge of the stripper joint. He seems to know how to use a prop or wear a skimpy workout outfit better than anyone else. He commands an extended take in which he instructs Pettyfer to take off his clothes like a man and make love to a wall.

There are only so many times a stripper routine can be sexy before it looks sad. “Magic Mike” recognizes that and makes for a colorful film that acts accordingly and will surprise in ways you didn’t expect.

3 stars

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Steven Soderbergh takes the heist movie to the art house with his “Ocean’s Eleven” remake.


“Ocean’s Eleven” was when Steven Soderbergh took the art house to the mainstream. It wasn’t Oscar bait like “Traffic” and “Erin Brokovich,” and it wasn’t gritty and experimental like “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” It was just pure Hollywood fun in the biggest way possible, which is probably the reason why most critics were unkind to it. To see such a gigantic studio picture with no lofty ambitions come from an otherwise serious director was like a concert pianist pounding out a little honky-tonk, as Roger Ebert put it in his 2001 review.

But to see how much it gets right, how different it feels and how unique it looks at every moment in comparison to similar Hollywood capers like it is to realize that “Ocean’s Eleven” is a great film after all, and a fun one. Continue reading “Ocean’s Eleven (2001)”

Rapid Response: sex, lies and videotape

Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood said in a discussion of “War Horse” that films look less and less like Spielberg and more like Soderbergh, implying an attention to realism in cinematography over gorgeous, unnatural lighting and landscapes.

Could Steven Soderbergh and his debut feature “sex, lies and videotape” really revolutionized cinematography in the last 20 years of filmmaking?

Although his film came before the advent of digital, Soderbergh adheres to the same principles in 1989 as he does today. He said in an interview with the A.V. Club (a must read for directors) that if he can help it, he won’t use things like establishing shots that clutter the film’s tight editing and cinematic language. And here in “sex, lies and videotape,” we see hardly any establishing shots, no pretty “money shots,” (the first image is of a gravel road for God’s sake) and if he can tell us about two simultaneous moments with only showing us one, he does.

The film’s opening scene is a great example, in which Ann (Andie MacDowell) speaks to her therapist about how her husband John (Peter Gallagher) is distant from her just as he’s having an affair with her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

And throughout the film Soderbergh plays with these dual meanings and conflicts. Ann is a woman of simple pleasures, innocent behavior and self-conscious attitudes, and she’s the polar opposite of her forthright, one-dimensional husband. John is more drawn to Cynthia, who is equally demanding and arrogant, going as far as to be openly vindictive of her sister.

The balancing force, strange as that may seem considering his character, is Graham (James Spader), John’s old college roommate who now seems dark and introverted (I’ll point out that John criticizes his clothing choice as though he were in a funeral, and he’s merely wearing a black shirt and blue jeans, for anyone looking for a way in which this film is horribly dated). His sexual fetish is to videotape women just talking about sex, a blunt metaphor for how something like a perverse confessional can be more deeply intimate than anything sex can accomplish.

The last key then, now that sex and videotape are out of the way in the story, is lying. John never overcomes his one-dimensionality, but by the end he’ll realize that his entire existence has forced him to lie to himself. As for Graham and Ann, the two share their personal problems honestly in a way that seems Earth shattering. The scene in which this occurs has John watching the pair on tape, but we realize that honesty goes both ways in getting at what’s behind and around the camera, which for film buffs like me, is a nerdy, meta statement about what’s outside the frame is as important as what’s inside it.

“sex, lies and videotape” won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1989, beating out titles like “Do the Right Thing,” “A Cry in the Dark” and “Cinema Paradiso,” and James Spader went on to not only win Best Actor but win the right to star in more complex roles than he had previously been given credit for. One could say that his creepy turn in Soderbergh’s film led him to his creepy turn on “The Office,” but that Soderbergh’s character obviously has more depth and is less awful.


“Haywire” is a no-frills action movie that measures what can be accomplished in a genre film.

Something with as many ass kickings as “Haywire” couldn’t possibly be called an experimental film, can it?

Steven Soderbergh built one around porn star Sasha Grey, so why not for martial arts fighter Gina Carano?

“Haywire” is a no-frills action movie that measures what can be accomplished in a genre film.

It minimizes on sweeping photography or handheld queasy cam effects and produces a stylized, precise and expertly choreographed film. Its simplicity is compelling just in admiring the craft of it all.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a secret agent betrayed by her private contractor (Ewan McGregor), but the plot too is stripped to its bare bones to the point that the cryptic details are just filler for “Haywire’s” artsy combat set pieces.

Soderbergh gives us full-bodied fights that lovingly make use of space, his rapid editing still delineating clear angles as though he were photographing Carano in the octagon.

The gorgeous Carano makes for an unusual movie star with how at home she is during the film’s many battles.

She’s the key in a film uninterested with her striking sexuality. But Carano demands presence, and although she could serve as a better feminist icon than Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander, Carano is too tough and impressive for anyone to really notice or care.

3 ½ stars

Beating the modern action movie into shape

“Haywire” looks strikingly different from most other modern action movies. What has the action genre become in the 2000s?

There’s something depressing about watching Gina Carano kick ass in “Haywire” and then watch her lose a fight against Cris Cyborg on YouTube.

Both Carano’s movie fights and her actual work as a martial artist are gut-wrenching in their skill and toughness, but the stylized minimalism of “Haywire” is really nothing like something you would see in the Octagon.

It got me thinking how impressed I was by the craft and choreography incorporated by Steven Soderbergh. He described his style in an interview with the A.V. Club. (read the full interview here)

“We had people who could really fight, so I wanted the camera to be stationary, and through editing and movement with the camera on a dolly,” Soderbergh said. “I wanted to use wide lenses and looser shots than you’d typically see when you’re shooting action.”

But the more I thought about it, I thought about how far back I’d have to go to actually find a modern action movie that looks or feels anything like it. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?” “The Matrix?” “Enter the Dragon?”

What is the modern action movie, and is it any good? Here I’ve described a few styles and the movies that influenced them, for better or worse.

Lord of the Rings Return of the King Oiliphants

“Lord of the Rings” and The Action Extravaganza

In the 2000s there was one action movie to rule them all, and that was “The Lord of the Rings.” Peter Jackson combined brutal but fun and bloodless PG-13 action with J.R.R. Tolkien’s sweeping fantasy scope and had an instant hit.

The wars in the last two films specifically raged on endlessly to great effect, but movies as diverse as “Avatar,” “Star Trek” and “District 9” took that to mean an epic battle could substitute for a third act. Even dramas like the much-maligned “Alice in Wonderland” seemed to forget how to write a satisfying conclusion without every character fighting a pointless war.

V for Vendetta

“V for Vendetta” and The Style Junkie

“V for Vendetta” didn’t just attain cult status because of its rebellious message. Its hyper stylized aesthetic, one that borrowed from “The Matrix’s” bullet-time effects and incorporated explosions of light, color, CGI and more explosions, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

It wasn’t long before Zack Snyder used the look as a template for all graphic novel movies, and even worse copycats started making completely unnecessary and lame CGI universes in something like the undying “Resident Evil” franchise.

“The Bourne Supremacy” and The Grittily Realistic

The first Bourne movie was fun and all, but the series really became popular when Paul Greengrass took the helm on the second and third sequels. His films made use of a handheld camera as a method of conveying dirty, down-to-Earth visuals and jerky, energetic motion. Jason Bourne’s fights were quick and capitalized more on sound than clear visuals to deal the killing blow.

But the queasy cam has quickly gotten out of hand, resulting in hard to process action sequences without a coherent sense of cinematic space. Even Greengrass overused it in his modern warfare film “Green Zone,” and other Iraqi War movies have followed suit. The style has even migrated over into horror movies like “Cloverfield.”

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen

The Bigger Picture

All three of these styles have come to define the modern action movie in one way or another, and it’s strikingly different from “Die Hard,” “Terminator 2,” many of the Bond movies or countless more.

And some movies share all three traits to varying levels of success. When the styles are all combined well, you can get something like “The Dark Knight” or “Inception.” When they aren’t, “Transformers” is the resulting mess.

Superheroes and their batch of special effects driven action are dominating right now, so filmmakers often make a point to distance themselves from those styles. Quentin Tarantino modeled “Kill Bill” off exploitation and Kung-Fu films, “Fast Five” and the latest “Mission: Impossible” go out of their way to avoid special effects, and thrillers like “Drive” and “The Hurt Locker” are occasionally expressions of minimalism.

While some of these films are invigorating reasons to go to the movies, others can be tiresome, so it’s about time someone beat the action film into shape.

Review: Contagion

Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” is a precise, engaging and squeamish thriller about living in the modern age.

In a modern age of Twitter, text messaging and round the clock news, information can spread like wildfire. In the epidemic thriller “Contagion,” it merely takes one blog post to incite riots and one text to put a life in danger. And you wonder why these things are called “viral.”

Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” is a precise thriller that charts the rapid spread of a highly contagious and lethal virus, one that jumps from Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she returns from Hong Kong to quickly spreading across the globe.

It’s an engaging and squeamish thriller that makes you anxious to touch your face or move your foot on the sticky movie theater floor. And it’s because this is the sort of mass panic that would happen today. Continue reading “Review: Contagion”