Mike Nichols, a director with whom I share my birthday- Nov 6. Apart from the personal connect, he remains one of my favorite directors, and a blogathon was due on him from quite some time. I was sort of sad, when I heard the news of his passing away on Nov 19, his last movie Charlie Wilson’s War, was a brilliant satire on the Cold War, US involvement in Afghanistan, add to it fabulous performances by Tom Hanks( in a role much different from his Mr.Nice Guy image) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. In his long career, Nichols has directed movies ranging from the great( Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginian Woolf, Silkwood) to just about good( Postcards from the Edge) to utter meh( Day of the Dolphin). Though Nichols often tried crowd pleasing stuff like Day of the Dolphin or horror like Wolf,, his forte was the personal movie. Of people and their relationships, he was at his best exploring human relationships in all their complexity.
In tribute to one of my favorite directors, I am doing this blogathon on my site here. I had earlier done blogathons on Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Roman Polanski, Howard Hawks, Michael Mann,Steven Soderbergh that turned out quite well. So here is looking forward to contributions for the blogathon, in the form of movie reviews, articles, interviews, anything related to Nichols. Also please request to use the given pictures on your blog for promoting it.
Any one interestd in contributing can please mail me at email@example.com
The Soderbergh Blogathon finally ends with this lovely piece by Critica Restro, on Behind the Candlebra. Critica Restro, is owned by Leticia, a 20 yr old Brazilian with a love for classic cinema, and a cinephile. She blogs in Portuguese, and we have got a link to a translated version. Behind the Candlebra, is a sort of throwback to the earlier classic era of movies by Soderbergh, and takes a look at the relationship between the flamboyant pianist showman Liberace( Michael Douglas) and the poor boy Scott Thorson( Matt Damon). In her own words
Wait a moment: the blog is not about classic cinema? What a telefilm of 2013 doing here? “Behind the Candelabra” can be a modern production, but it has a whole retro feel, and even cites many movies and celebrities from classic movies, it is an important period in the life of the first and only pianist showman: the flamboyant Liberace.It’s 1977 and Liberace (Michael Douglas), has a consolidated creator of spectacles for the eyes and ears, is aged 58. He the young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), relatively poor boy who dreams of becoming a veterinarian is presented. Then begins a relationship that will forever change both of their lives. Scott, who was just 18 when she met Liberace and was raised in foster homes, is introduced to a world of luxury, wealth, jewelry and vanity.
(Spoiler alert: Some key scenes of the movie are discussed in this review, readers please note).
The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.-Global Comission on Drug Policy.
Towards the end of Traffic, when the newly appointed Drug Czar or what is effectively Chief of the National Drug Control Policy, Robert Wakefield( Michael Douglas), is about to give his speech on the 10 point methodology used to combat the illegal drug trade, he stops at a moment. He is unable to continue further, and then mutters “I can’t continue further. If there is a War on Drugs, then our own family becomes the enemy. How can you wage war on your own family”. He walks out, unable to speak further, that one moment, sums up the entire War on Drugs, that has been taking place since more than a decade, a war that has no winners or losers, just devastated families and individuals. Robert should be knowing better, his own daughter Caroline( Erika Christensen) had become a junkie, and he along with his wife Barbara( Amy Irving), had to go through a mental hell, getting her back. Robert had been appointed as Drug Czar, owing to his tough stance on drugs, but the irony was that he would have had to battle the enemy right in his home, his own daughter. Soderbergh’s Traffic, looks at the world of illegal drug trafficking, through various angles. At the top you have people like Robert, with his missionary zeal against drugs, and you have the fabulously wealthy drug lords like Carlos Ayala( Steven Bauer). At a lower end you have the foot soldiers men like Javier Rodriguez(Benicio Del Toro) and Montel Gordon( Don Cheadle), the cops who are actually out there on the ground, tracking the drug mafia, putting their lives on the line, sometimes in vain. Basically Javier and Gordon, have the most thankless job of all, quite often doing the hard work, spending most of their life, in run down cars, equally run down apartments, walking through dead beat neighborhoods. Caught in this war, are people like Caroline, her boyfriend Seth Abrahams( Topher Grace), and Ayala’s socialite wife Helena( Catherine Zeta Jones) who married him for the money, unaware what he actually does.
What’s Washington like? Well its like Calcutta, surrounded by beggars. The only difference is the beggars in Washington wear 1500 dollar suits and they don’t say please re is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.
Traffic is Soderbergh’s most ambitious movie to date, where he explores the illegal drug trade, through 3 different storylines, different backgrounds, different people, but all having their own part to play. From a posh Cincinati suburb to the centers of power in Washington D.C. to the deserts of Mexico, from posh San Diego neighborhoods to the run down back alleys of Tijuana, Mexico, Soderbergh keeps the action flowing back and forth. That he was a visual stylist is always known, but here, Soderbergh goes one step ahead, using different color schemes for each storyline. So when the story shifts to Robert and the posh Cincinati suburb, Soderbergh goes for a cold, blue color monochrome, in a way emphasizing the bleakness of the suburbia too. The bluish, monochromatic tone, fits in well with the Washington DC offices too, where Robert plans his strategies. Javier’s Mexican story is depicted in a dusty , strobe like feel, more brighter, keeping in mind the Mexican atmosphere. For the Ayala- Gordon story, Soderbergh keeps flashing the camera to and forth, with rapid inter cutting, a much more sunny look and feel, keeping in mind, the Californian atmosphere. In fact I would actually say, the cinematography of Traffic by itself, deserves a separate article, Soderbergh’s visual stylization is at it’s best here. He just experiments with everything, dull monochromes, dusty browns, hand held camera shots for a more documentary feel, flashy shots.
We in the legal drug business, and I mean Merck, Pfizer, the rest of my very powerful clients, realize this isn’t a war with a traditional winner and loser, but an organism at war with itself, whose weapons of mass destruction happen to be intoxicants.
Traffic is more than just a visual and technical feast however, it is not just the way Soderbergh seamlessly intercuts from one storyline to another, it is also the way the characters are fleshed out in the movie. Some superb writing by Stephen Gaghan, who incidentally would go on to direct another multiple storyline epic, Syriana, keeps the drama riveting, as you go along with the characters. When you are making a movie with such a vast scope, there is every chance of cramming in too many characters, who ultimately do not add to the overall experience. It is full credit due to Gaghan, that it is not just the main characters, even the supporting acts are well fleshed out. Javier’s partner Manolo Sanchez(Jacob Vargas) or Gordon’s partner Ray Castro(Luis Guzman) are as vital to the storyline, as is Dennis Quaid as the slimy lawyer Arnie Metzger, who seeks to take advantage of Helena’s distress, or Eduardo Ruiz( Miguel Ferrer), the drug dealer, who agrees to testify against Ayala. The movie also shows the perspectives of various interests on the War on Drugs, right from the Big Pharma representative, who feels that the war is pointless, and that tobacco, alcohol actually kill more persons, compared to cocaine, to the economist, who looks at the issue in strictly market terms, stating that all this is going to achieve, is increase the business of the traffickers. Basically the fact that it is a losing war, is emphasized throughout the movie. There are too many interests at work, who would like to see it fail, be it the Pharma industry or the economist lobbies or the numerous drug dealers. It is a fact that Robert’s predecessor, Gen.Ralph Landry( James Brolin) wryly acknowledges, when he hands over the charge.
That is is a losing war is apparent to Robert, when he finds out that, he has to deal with his own daughter. Caroline does not seem to be the kind who would fall to drugs, she is intelligent, an active student, comes from a well to do family, her parents are not divorced, in fact there seems to be no logical reason for her to become a junkie. But the fact that she does not just become a junkie, but goes to the extent of sleeping around with seedy drug dealers, prostituting herself for the next fix. The scenes which show Caroline’s descent into the drug induced hazes are well shot, with the bluish monochromatic color adding to the bleakness. Caroline becoming a junkie is however more of Robert’s failure, as he finds himself totally helpless in dealing with the situation. His wife, feels that this is a phasing phase, she had earlier experimented with drugs herself, and shows a bit more empathy towards her daughter. In a way Robert, feels a loner at home, with both his wife and his daughter, blaming him for the situation. But why exactly did Caroline turn to drugs? Was it just for having a high? Or was it a way of getting back on her father for neglect? We will never really know, as Soderbergh, leaves it to us to figure out.But personally I felt the story line dealing with Robert and his junkie daughter, was the weak link in Traffic. The scenes showing the drug addiction are pretty much rushed through, you really do not feel much empathy, unlike in Requiem for a Dream, that left you totally gutted out. Also the ending parts of the story, go into standard Hollywood territory, with Soderbergh, trying to rush it up, though to his credit, he does not go really overboard.
The best part of Traffic I felt was the storyline set in Mexico, which in many ways, showcased the War on Drugs, from different angles. Looking at the viewpoint of Javier, the footsoldier here, fighting a long and dreary war, this part of the movie shows the frustration faced by such men. Of people like General Arturo Salazar( Tomas Milian), who hijacks the War on Drugs for his own selfish, opportunist purposes. Where people like Javier do all the hard work of tracking and capturing the criminals, men like Salazar hijack it for their own purposes, being used as a pawn, by powerful, vested interests. Javier, feels that people get into drugs, due to lack of opportunities for recreation or work. He speaks from his own experience, hailing from a poor background, his parents had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, as they could not afford to fix the gas heater. His working class background, has made Javier much more street smart, enabling him to tackle the gangsters in his own way. There is no other choice consider the war against Drugs in Mexico is much more dirtier, much more messy and much more brutal. But that brutality is considered normal there, as in the scene, where a hitman for the Tijuana cartel Francisco Flores( Clifton Collins Jr) is being tortured, and the other men around laugh it off as just another day. The torture scene is quite gruesome, but what shocks more is the apparent nonchalance, of the men around, who do not seem to be shocked by it.
Salazar’s way of combating crime, are pretty much different, though he pretends that he is concerned about the corruption and brutality of his officers, he is as much part of it. In fact much more dangerous, unlike the thuggish cops and soldiers, Salazar is also manipulative. As in the way he mentally manipulates Francisco into revealing the vital information, pretending to be concerned about him, pretending to be shocked at his torture. In reality Salazar cares for no one but himself and his own selfish interests. This is a fact that is known to both Javier and Manolo, the former, prefers to keep quiet about it, knowing it is futile, the latter however can’t and pays a heavy price. One more interesting scene is the meeting between Salazar and Robert, in a way it also shows up the differences in approach, between Mexico and US. When Robert asks him what does he propose to do with the addicts, Salazar dismissively states “Addicts overdose, and then there is one less to worry about”. Salazar simply sees the addicts as a menace, who have to be stamped out, rehabilitation is the last thing on his mind. In reality, Salazar is as much as a thuggish lout, as the guy who was torturing Francisco, he just hides it under a smooth, deceptive manner.
In Mexico law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity, this is not so true for the USA.Using regression analysis we made a study of the customs lanes at the border and calculated the odds of a search. The odds are not high, and we found variables that reduce the odds. We hire drivers with nothing to lose. Then we throw a lot of product at the problem. Some get stopped. Enough get through. It’s not difficult.
The other footsoldiers in the story, Gordon and Castro, are the undercover DEA agents, tracking down the supply chain in San Diego, men who spend most of their time, eavesdropping, tracking calls, and surveillance of suspects. They really are not too well paid, most of them hanging out in old, seedy hotels. As Gordon wryly observes “When the DEA gets into the narcotics business, we will stay at the 4 Seasons”. Soderbergh depicts the bonding between Gordon and Castro, well, the latter providing a bit of a comic relief, with his quips and quotes. Unlike the Javier-Manolo story, we really do not have much idea about either Gordon or Castro’s background, except that they are cops. The shoot out scene with Gordon and Castro at Ruiz’s office is well shot, depicting the total chaos and confusion, as the DEA and Feds both competing with each other to nab the accused. It is however Gordon who does the real hard work, and grabs Ruiz, who in turn leads them to the big fish, Carlos. Both Gordon and Castro, have a thankless task, spending long hours on tracking and surveillance, trying to make sense of what they are speak. They however relieve that boredom, cracking jokes at each other, making wisecracks be it on Maradonna or “Rich,white people”. Also liked the interrogation scene between Gordon and Ruiz, where the latter gives vital information on the drug business, how the consignment crosses the border and the corruption involved at all levels.
Helena on the other hand, seemingly ditzy and dumb, at the start actually turns out to be the smartest of the lot. Carlos arrest has shaken up her cozy, little, rich, San Diego world. She makes no bones about the fact that she married him for the money, for the socialite life, and everything seems nice and pretty, until Carlos is arrested. Her world is turned upside down, in fact she was not even aware of Carlos real business. Add to it, the social ostracism by neighbors, members of her club, the fact that they do not have the money to pay, with all funds frozen and her son getting threats. It would have driven any one else nuts, but Helena, turns out to be much more manipulative and smarter. She uses her situation well, feigning helplesness to manipulate just about everybody, be it Gordon and Castro,when she asks them for help, or her rather slimy defence lawyer Arnie Metzger(Dennis Quaid). Arnie is the typical opportunist, who sees Carlos arrest as an opportunity to encash on and need be, get closer to Helena too. With his rather glib talk, and smooth demeanor, he feels that he is indeed impressing Helena, cashing in on her vulnerability. And when he does realize that he was the one being manipulated, it is a bit too late.
Traffic works not just because of it’s depiction of the drug trade and war on drugs, it is also a large part due to the characters and the relationships shown between them. Be it the bonding between Gordon and Castro, or Javier and Manolo, or the strained relationship Robert has with his daughter, or the way Helena fights back to survive for the sake of her son, Soderbergh, brings the human touch, at every level. The movie is also helped by some great performances from an ensemble cast, my personal favorite though being Benicio Del Toro, as Javier, always rated him as a brilliant actor, and he shows it in this movie, with a performance that deservedly won a Best Supporting Oscar. For all her drop dead gorgeous looks, somehow never really took Catherine Zeta Jones seriously as an actor, but hers is the second best performance in the movie, as the seemingly vulnerable Helena, who turns out to be the most manipulative of the lot. Her real life husband Michael Douglas, is good as always in the role of Robert Wakefield, loved him in the scenes, where he is searching for his daughter. Another Soderbergh regular, Don Cheadle, once again delivers as the undercover agent, Gordon. The supporting cast of Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Erika Christensen do well too. To conclude I felt Traffic was the movie that deserved the Oscar over Gladiator, it is by far Soderbergh’s best movie ever.
After covering first two parts of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy here and here, J.D.Lafrance, looks at the concluding part of the trilogy, in his piece on Ocean’s 13. Soderbergh retains the same cast of the earlier Ocean’s series, and this time as a bonus, he has Al Pacino playing the bad guy. I mean Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Pacino in the same frame, does not get better than this. Playing the bad guy is a walk in the park for Pacino, who relishes it, having a whole lot of fun. Like most Soderbergh’s movies, again this is visually brilliant, some great cinematography, a cool music score and some good fun. In J.D’s own words.
Like Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen pays tribute to the classic era of Vegas as Danny and co. restore Reuben’s honor. He’s an old school player who still believes in following a code and prides himself in being part of a select group of insiders that got to shake Frank Sinatra’s hand back in the day. Like Benedict, Bank represents the current corporate mentality of making money over the personal touch that the Mob-run casinos used to provide. If the first two films were about Danny and Rusty’s respective relationships with the loves of their lives, then Ocean’s Thirteen is about their friendship with Reuben. He mentored them when they were just starting out and taught them about respecting history as well as those who came before them. Like with the previous films, going after the bad guy is a matter of personal honor and hitting them where it hurts – in Bank’s case it’s his monster ego. Ocean’s Thirteen ends much like Ocean’s Eleven did thus bringing the trilogy full circle and with a truly satisfying conclusion as the bad guy gets what’s coming to him and Reuben’s honor is restored. Likewise, the film did very well at the box office and garnered fairly positive reviews going out on a well-deserved high note. It serves as an example of a star-studded big budget Hollywood film that entertains without insulting your intelligence.
In his exploration of Soderbergh’s Ocean trilogy, J.D.Lafrance, covers the second part, Oceans 12 here. In his earlier post on Oceans 11, JD, had looked into how Soderbergh, remade the original Ocean’s trilogy, and made it an iconic one. Ocean’s 12 in a way bought some respite to Soderbergh after the twin failures of Solaris and Full Frontal in 2002. While Oceans 12, more or less retains the same cast, it brings in a welcome addition in form of Catherine Zeta Jones. It did not earn as much as Ocean’s 11, and critical opinion was divided too, neverthless still has it’s favorites. In JD’s own words.
Like its predecessor, Ocean’s Twelve is beautifully shot with atmospheric lighting and saturated color as evident in the bright yellow that permeates Isabel’s Europol lecture or the green lighting that illuminates the underwater sequence during a heist that Danny and his crew pull off, or the red lighting that dominates the nightclub where Rusty and Isabel meet. Most of the film takes place in Europe and Soderbergh adopts the look of a European film from the 1960’s, which also applies to the eclectically groovy soundtrack from David Holmes that evokes a ‘60s Euro-lounge vibe. The director even described the film’s aesthetic as “the most expensive episode of a ‘60s television show ever.” He and Holmes agreed that the score would be completely different from Ocean’s Eleven in order to complement the different look and feel. Soderbergh is an excellent visual storyteller and this is evident in several scenes that he depicts without any dialogue, instead resorting to music married to visuals that conveys exactly what’s going on. He understands the kind of movie he’s making and doesn’t try to be too cute or wink knowingly at the audience, instead focusing at the task at hand: making a confident, entertaining movie. Granted, Ocean’s Twelve is no Traffic (2000), and it’s not meant to be, but you could do a lot worse with two hours of your time.
After an excellent post on Soderbergh’s K-Street, J.D.Lafrance, again returns with a 3 part series on the Ocean’s Trilogy. In Indian terms, Ocean’s Trilogy, would be termed a masala flick, our equivalent of pop corn entertainers. And that is what Ocean’s series is all about. It is a hard core entertainer, filled with big stars( George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts) and surrounded by capable actors( Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle). Add in a heist plot, some eye catching locales, great camera work, and tense scenes, you have your matinee entertainment ready. In J.D.’s own words
This film oozes cool right from the opening credits that play over a fantastic shot of the Atlantic City skyline at night accompanied by funky trip-hop type music by Northern Irish disc jockey David Holmes. We meet Rusty wasting his time teaching young movie stars (Holly Marie Combs and Topher Grace among others making fun of themselves) to play cards. We meet him in Hollywood with a cool groove playing over his establishing shot. This sequence is a bit of meta fun as we see Pitt, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, teaching other movie stars playing a parody of themselves being totally clueless at playing poker only to eventually be hustled by a bemused Danny. Soderbergh even slides in a few sly inside jokes, like Danny asking Topher Grace if it’s hard to make the transition from television to film, which, of course, is exactly what Clooney did. Or, how Grace gets mobbed by autograph hounds while Clooney and Pitt are completely ignored.
After Out of Sight, Haywire seems to be the most discussed Soderbergh movie. Liked by critics, but given a thumbs down by audiences, the movie like most other Soderbergh movies, has become a cult favorite of late. It has one of the hottest action stars in the form of Gina Carano, who is the woman on the run here, in a tale filled with intrigue, double crossing, deception. Add to it an ensemble cast that has Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton and Ewan McGregor, actors who on their day can just chew up the scenery. After his review on Out of Sight, William Johnson looks at Haywire, as part of the Soderbergh blogathon. There was a much detailed, post on Haywire, earlier by Niles Schwartz too as part of the blogathon. In his own words.
Soderbergh’s throwback approach to the film (a mixture of older Cold War espionage thrillers brought back to popularity with the Bourne films and something knocking on the door of a 007 film) requires little actual to be said. His objective is to show what happens when people who can kill each other turn against each other. Unlike the more grandiose action films we see, this film tries to make it blue-collar, quick, fierce and sort of uncomfortable. I mean, in the end, when is it fun to actually see people die outside of a popcorn flick that doesn’t take death seriously?
After some excellent posts on Haywire and Side Effects, Niles Schwartz, this time, explores Soderbergh’s look at high end prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh has this habit of getting actors, who are not really mainstream Hollywood, for roles, so in Haywire, he choose real life mixed martial arts proponent Gina Carano, in the lead role. And for The Girlfriend Experience, he brings in former porn star Sasha Grey for the lead role. Niles explores the Wall Street collapse, how it ties into the protagonist’s own life and business, her relationship with her boyfriend. A movie that was slammed by critics and audiences alike when it was released, of late though becoming a cult favorite, like most Soderbergh movies. In his own words
Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is not merely a realistic portrait of a high-price escort in Manhattan, or a facile critique of capitalism captured during the height of economic panic from last fall. The first notes of the musical score, along with an indiscernible tracking shot along what seems like a steel wall, designate a sense of utter dread. The landscape that these chic and successful wafer thin characters trudge within is pretty and neat, but with its lack of dimension and undeveloped psychologies (the proper sense of artifice at the neglect of anything symbolic and transformative), it’s also nightmarish. This is a gorgeous landscape painted in colored electricity, vainly sculpted flesh, and automaton personalities.
In an earlier post on Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, by William Johnson, he explores how the movie actually made the careers of George Clooney, Soderbergh and Jeniffer Lopez. Well Lopez, in spite of giving one of her career best performances, never really went on to do anything much greater later on, but the movie was a turning point for George Clooney. He was already a TV star thanks to ER, but his movie career was not really going great guns. After a series of dud movies, Clooney’s first major breakthrough came in Robert Rodriguez’s cult vampire hit From Dusk to Dawn in 1996, followed by the rom com One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer. His action thriller The Peacemaker with Nicole Kidman, however tanked, and Batman & Robin, was slammed by critics, while doing just about average business at the box office. It was Out of Sight in 1998, that put Clooney firmly on the road to stardom, while Jennifer Lopez, achieved mainstream recognition, it is another thing that she did not really build on that. And more than anything else it was a comeback of sorts for Soderbergh himself, who after bursting on the scene with Sex, Lies and Videotape, in 1989, did not really achieve commercial success, in spite of some really good movies like Kafka, King of the Hill and The Underneath. Out of Sight bought Soderbergh back into mainstream reckoning again, and he cemented that later on with the Ocean’s series, as well as wowing the critics with Erin Brockovich, Traffic.
Soderbergh was from the South, coming from a family of Swedish immigrants, who had settled here. Born in Atlanta, his growing up years were in Baton Rouge, an industrial city, located on the Mississippi, where his father worked as the Dean of Education at the Louisiana State University. So when he was drafting the story for his first movie, it was not surprising that he would choose to set it in that city. Incidentally, Andie McDowell, was not Soderbergh’s first choice either for Sex, Lies and Videotape, it was Elizabeth McGovern, who had already made her name in Ragtime and Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. However with McGovern’s agent rejecting the offer, Soderbergh had to look for Andie McDowell, albeit reluctantly. He had his own apprehensions, Ms. McDowell, was seen more as a “pretty face, super model” who could not really act, more famous for her Vogue covers. In fact in her debut movie Greystoke:The Legend of Tarzan, Ms.McDowell’s lines had to be dubbed by Glenn Close, as her Southern accent was deemed a misfit for the role of a typical prim and propah Englishwoman. However she did well in the audition, and the movie dispelled the notion of her being just a pretty face, who could not act. And above all, the movie was a turning point for the Mecca of Indie movie makers, Miramax, which had a winner in this, along with My Left Foot, in 1989. So in efect, apart from Soderbergh making his debut as a director, Sex, Lies and Videotape, also launched the careers of Andie MacDowell as well making Miramax, the go to address for all aspiring Indie movie makers in the 90’s.
Well, this weekend John was taking out the garbage, and he kept spilling things out of the container, and I started imagining a container that grew garbage, like it just kept filling up and overflowing all by itself, and how could you stop that if it started happening?
Sex, Lies and Videotape, has no grand title credits, movie starts off in a low key fashion, with the camera panning over a road, and then zooming up to the car, where we see Graham Dalton( James Spader), driving along. With his blonde locks, jacket, laid back demeanor, Spader is every inch the drifter, who walks into town. The voice over from Ann Bishop Mullany( Andie McDowell), keeps cutting back and forth, with shots of her, speaking to her therapist, and Graham, dumping the garbage, walking along. Ann is clearly not happy with her life, but she seems to have compromised with it, stating that being happy is not that great anyway, and her figure goes out of shape when she is happy. Her husband John Mullany( Peter Gallagher), a succesful lawyer, agrees with her. He feels being a married guy makes him that much more attractive to the opposite sex, “as soon as you start getting a ring, on your finger, you get serious attention”. From the voice overs of Ann and John, and the frequent cutting back and forth, it is clear that both of them are in a marriage that seems to be going nowhere. Ann is somehow not too enthused about sex, she does not hate it either, but is not really wanting it, but she finds it odd that John does not try to get her interest or even touch her. With good reason, for John, is having a steamy affair with Ann’s own sister Cynthia( Laura San Giacomo) , a more free spirited bartender. In a very ironic twist, we have Ann’s voice over, explaining the reason for why her sex life, was not doing too great and on the screen, both John and Cynthia are making it out passionately. Cynthia is the opposite of her sister, living on her own, working as a bartender, loves getting hit on by guys and is much more passionate. She feels her beautiful, popular sister, is pretty much a lousy lay in the bed. In fact while Ann is worried about John, bringing in his friend Graham into home, to stay with them for a while, Cynthia is actually relishing that prospect. She feels he could be the guy she was looking for and then would not have to waste time, sleeping around with worried husbands.
Graham:Do I pay taxes? Of course I pay taxes, only a liar doesn’t pay taxes, I’m not a liar. A liar is the second lowest form of human being.
Ann: What’s the first?
Another excellent scene in the movie, the dinner table conversation between John, Graham and Ann, it is pretty much a talky affair, but the conversation throws up insights on all the 3 characters. Graham, more of the drifter, looking for a job, has a girl friend here, in Baton Rouge. John, the more settled, normal person, somehow does not think too highly of Graham, especially his free spirited Bohemian nature. And then you have Ann, who is by now clearly fascinated with Graham, after she was reluctant in admitting him into the home. Graham’s laid back persona, his cool appearance and his open nature, holds a strange kind of attraction to Ann. Graham ironically feels that lawyers are the worst form of human beings, even though his friend is one.
I remember reading somewhere that men learn to love what they’re attracted to, whereas women become more and more attracted to the person they love.
Matter of fact three of the main characters in the movie, John, Ann and Graham are lying in one way or another. John is carrying out a sneaky affair, with Ann’s sister, lying to his bosses, sneaking out for sexual trysts. Ann on the other hand is lying to herself most of the time. She tries to rationalize her own behavior, feeling that sex is overrated, not really a big deal, a way of trying to deal with her own reluctance towards it. In fact the scene where Ann and Graham have that conversation at lunch, brings out their own neuroses perfectly. Graham in a way is attracted toward Ann, though he does not put it directly to her. He feels she is attractive, and extremely self conscious of herself, believing that people are looking at her. He feels she is truly attractive in an old world way, an indescribable charm about her and add to it that she is a nice girl. Ann is that beautiful, looking, nice girl, whom you want to possess, but are hesitant to approach. And part of that appeal, lies in her own self conscious approach, her constant need to be validated by others, to rationalize her own actions.
Which Cynthia definitely is not, in fact of all the characters, she seems to be the only one really sure about what she wants. She sleeps around with John, but knows that he is not what she is looking for. She has no qualms being hit on by strangers, nor expressing her sexuality. Graham on the other hand for all his drop dead gorgeous looks, blond locks, and hunky appearance is no tiger in the bed. He actually does not get an erection in presence of some one, a confession he makes to Ann. But again like Ann, he rationalizes his own frigidity, stating that it makes him much more clear headed. The sex in the movie is not overtly physical, there are some love making scenes, but nothing really steamy, unlike some of the other movies in this genre. Underplaying and understatement has been Soderbergh’s signature style, and the sexual tension is depicted more through the expressions. As in the scene, where Ann is lying in bed, thinking of the conversation she had with Graham, she gets up and walks to where Graham is sleeping. She stares at him, with a sense of longing, but does not really do anything. There is no Graham getting up suddenly, pulling Ann, and making out, like in a conventional Hollywood flick, but you feel that undercurrent of sexual tension.
“It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time. But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit, thoughts, fears, future, hopes, dreams… that is being naked.- Rob Bell”.
The growing feeling of Ann, for Graham, can be seen, in the scene, with Cynthia, who is eager to meet him up. Ann tries to dissuade her sister in a subtle manner, saying she is not his type. Cynthia on the other hand, feels Ann always underestimates her, she is insecure that Graham will be drawn to her, if she were to put both of them in the same room. As Ann confides to her therapist, later on, she does hate her sister a lot, maybe because of her obsession with sex and guys. Again another well directed scene, with the camera panning in on a grainy home video, showing a woman speak about her sexual fantasies, and Graham watching her, while he is stark naked himself. Graham is a voyeur with a difference, he takes videotapes of women, but not undressing or having sex, he goes much deeper. He takes videos of women, speaking out about their sexual fantasies, in a way, they open up their soul to him, let them into their spirit, they are truly much more naked. Ann is shocked initially when she meets him in the apartment, and learns of what he records on the video tapes, leaving in a rush. Cynthia however manages to find Graham, and in another well shot scene, she literally bares out her soul to him, about her first experience, and later masturbating in front of him.
Sex, Lies and Videotape is about sex, but not the physical part, here Soderbergh, goes beyond into the human mind, and brings out their inner feelings. Soderbergh, makes the camera a voyeur, but not into the physical zones of the body much, it goes straight into the human mind and brain. The sexual tension is more in the intricate interplay, between the characters minds and feelings, than in the actual physical sense. You can sense that feeling in the encounters between Graham and Ann, when the former, gets into her mind, trying to convince of her own repressed desires, and the latter, is attracted to Graham, more for his thoughts. Soderbergh lets the movie unfold slowly, at a leisurely pace, keeping the music low key, as he lets the atmosphere envelop over you. This is not 91/2 Weeks or Basic Instinct, in fact there are no shots of nudity, and even most of the sex scenes, are pretty much short, so if you are expecting that fare, do not watch this. The voyeurism is into the mind here, into the characters motivations, and that is where it comes out with all the searing honesty. And yes the movie works, with some top notch performances. James Spader till then mostly playing the nasty bully sort,is first rate in the role of Graham Dalton, the drop dead gorgeous hunk, who in reality is not a stud, and stimulates himself, watching videos of women speak on their sexual fantasies. Andie McDowell, has that classic, old world charm, the graceful lady, whom you desire,and she is brilliant, as Ann, who represses her own sexual desires, add to it that lovely Southern accent. Peter Gallagher as the philandering, yuppie husband, is fairly competent, and Laura San Giacomo is suitably sultry as the free spirited, bartender, living life on her own,not afraid to express her own sexuality.
Following his excellent take on Soderbergh’s Haywire , Niles Schwartz this time looks at his other thriller, Side Effects, starring Jude Law, Catherine Zeta Jones and Rooney Mara. For me the best part about Niles, is that his reviews are not merely just dry analysis he intimately explores the mind of the director, connecting it to the real world, the director’s earlier work. Like his earlier post on Haywire, Niles here again explores Soderbergh’s previous work, and brings up the issue of how his post 2008 movies, tie in with the feeling of depression, loss, following the Wall Street bust. He also explores how Soderbergh has traveled a long way from his indie debut Sex, Lies and Videotape to Side Effects, not just technically, but also theme and narrative wise. In his own words.
And now Soderbergh is bidding us farewell, retiring from cinema with the twisty, gorgeous, and deliriously entertaining thriller Side Effects, a puzzling big-screen bookend (an HBO Liberace movie is still on the way) reminding viewers how film has changed over Soderbergh’s curious trajectory. He’s been working in a medium that’s evolved from analog to digital, and where independence, along with ambiguity, has been safely quarantined to its special, miniature play-pin behind the amusement park of Hollywood blockbusting. The changes aren’t only apparent in the crisp Red camera picture when contrasted to the 1989 celluloid stock of cinematographer Walt Lloyd (and Graham’s videotape in Sex, Lies, and Videotape), but in a story where therapeutic talking cures are replaced by immediate pharmaceutical modification.
“Being happy isn’t all that great,” Ann says to her therapist at the beginning of Sex, Lies, and Videotape. She’s living a dull and kept existence while her husband is being promoted in his law firm (and having an affair with Ann’s sister). Ann is endlessly curious about the world, which may be the source of her anxieties, being that her focus is on problems over which she has no control. For instance: where does all the garbage go? Ann is so mindful of her surroundings that she can’t even masturbate without wondering if her dead grandfather is watching her. Her life is shit, “nothing what I thought it was,” she eventually realizes, but she’s a character who grows in the discourse with people surrounding her. Compare Ann to Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) in Side Effects, another dutiful housewife with a dopey husband, Martin (Channing Tatum). She may be suffering from depression — or she may not be. A suicide attempt lands Emily in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who’s quick to prescribe various anti-depressants. These characters, 25 years after Soderbergh’s first film, struggle to think outside of their selfish bubbles.