Archive for the ‘ directors ’ Category

Steven Soderbergh, Meet Sasha Grey

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Steven Soderbergh would seem to have walked a pretty short, straight line from Sex, Lies, And Videotape – released way back when in 1989 — to The Girlfriend Experience. He has, once again, made a film which at first blush would seem to be explicitly about sex but which, viewers will find, shows nothing of the kind on screen. There is, of course, a great deal of talk on the subject, and The Girlfriend Experience being what it is, that talk is something slightly more explicit than in Sex, Lies… For those unfamiliar, The Girlfriend Experience stars Sasha Grey, who made a name for herself initially in hardcore-pornography, while name-dropping Jean-Luc Godard in interviews and displaying a penchant for masochism in her movies. In this film she plays an ultra-high-class call-girl, providing “the complete girlfriend experience” for her über-rich financial-district clients. And in typical Soderbergh style, the film is superbly edited, expertly shot, lushly colored… and colder than a witch tit. But mercifully, the casting of Grey turns about to be less a marketer’s wet-dream than an inspired, essential choice. She gives a surprising warmth to a role that doesn’t present too many obvious opportunities for drama or sentiment. And Soderbergh, who more often than not has struck me as kind of a wuss as a filmmaker, generally seems to have the good sense to stick with his star and the natural energy she carries with her. My biggest gripe would be that Soderbergh spends too much time with the various Wall Street meat-heads who are supposed have had their realities all shaken up by the “Great Recession.” Who the fuck cares? Some of this stuff will seem really dated in just a year’s time.

Kind of a bummer that this guy is what passes for a rebel in Hollywood these days, but I digress… The film is worth seeing, and Ms. Grey might just turn out to be the real deal. Whatever that is.

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The Loveless

the lovelessdafoeFor the past couple weeks I’ve been slowly working my way through the work of director Kathryn Bigelow, whose latest film, The Hurt Locker, has been garnering major praise (I haven’t seen it myself). To be honest, her work left me fairly underwhelmed, but it wasn’t for lack of variety; she’s definitely not a director who works exclusively in just one or two genres. Have a look around Acme and see for yourself: she has a film each in Horror, Sci-Fi, Indy, War, and Juvee, plus three more in thriller (those three are easily the worst of the bunch: Blue Steel is Jamie Lee Curtis doing the female cop thing, with a god-awful Ron Silver as her crazed lover/nemesis; K-19: The Widowmaker is Harrison Ford doing his best Russian accent in the face of one of the most expensive independent films ever made — over $100 million, of which it failed to recoup even half; and then there’s Point Break, which needs no synopsis). All that being said, y’all should really check out her first feature-length, The Loveless.

This was Willem Dafoe’s first film, playing the young leader of a biker gang on their way to Daytona who get waylaid in a small, Podunk southern town. I haven’t seen too many films — especially low-budget, independent films — that have gotten the ’50s biker-flick look so right, and Bigelow deserves major credit for that. The bikes, the cars, the costumes and the sets — everything looks exactly as it should, and it’s all topped off with a totally kickass rockabilly score with original stuff from Robert Gordon and John Lurie. But this isn’t just your typical biker-gang-wreaks-havoc flick, as Bigelow punctuates the film with all manner of disconcerting images: from the boredom and malaise on the faces of the local help, to the vaguely-illegal oil business run by town’s antagonistic alpha-male, to the punchy, nervous atmosphere of the bar in the film’s final scene. Working with just a few set pieces, the photography is thoughtful and consistently original, and Bigelow does a wonderful job of insinuating a great deal about the pain of characters’ lives without beating you over the head with any of it. Dafoe’s performance is the real stunner — and even more so given his age and inexperience. Watching him, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Brando’s early stuff, as he plays the role with a remarkable softness that belies the intensity of his character. Young ‘uns only familiar with the man from his Spiderman role would do well to seek this one out.

Your F*cking Telephone

Thanks to Olivia, who pointed this one out to me.

Three Films By Kelly Reichardt

kelly-reichardtOne of only a handful or so of legitimately independent American directors working today whose films are distributed and seen beyond the realm of film festivals and New York City, Kelly Reichardt (who, according to Wikipedia, is still holding down a day job teaching at Bard college) makes small, minimalist films about cash-strapped, transient people struggling for a sense of place and purpose in contemporary America. None of her films are startlingly original in terms of camera work or content, but Reichardt is really a superbly careful storyteller, and she has an exacting eye for the crucial, sudden turns of plot and character that drive these kinds of tales. Acme carries three of her titles, all of which are worth checking out —

riverofgrasscoverRiver Of Grass: Her debut, and actually the most stylistically adventurous of the three reviewed here, it’s essentially a crime/noir-cum-existentialist-roadtrip, wherein a young mother of two goes on the run from the law — while simultaneously fleeing the ennui of her new motherhood. The main character, Cozy (played by Lisa Bowman), narrates throughout, musing on boredom, fear of growing old, the ‘why’ of existence, etc. And while it wears its influences on its sleeve (Jarmusch, Godard) this is still a pretty cool little film, with solid performances from its two main leads, and loads of beautiful, vaguely eerie photography of the Florida Everglades.

OldJoy_DVDOld Joy: For what it’s worth, this is one of Acme’s more popular titles. Kind of amazing, right? I mean, here you have an 80 minute film about two old friends who go on a camping trip, get a little lost, and go home. That’s pretty much it. Very little in the way of dramatic tension. The most it can claim in terms of pedigree is that Yo La Tengo scored the soundtrack, and Will Oldham stars. Not exactly a sure fire recipe for indie-film success. And yet people rent this movie all the time. And this is where – for those of us who are interested in these sorts of things – Reichardt’s work becomes a kind of case study for the current state of independent cinema in America. My theory is that this is one of those films that lots of people who are interested in cinema have heard about — either through word-of-mouth, online forums, or film columns — but that almost no one got to see because the distributor just didn’t have the cash to really get it out there (I do recall it playing at The Cable Car for a week or two). If you’re at all interested in Reichardt, this is probably the best place to start. And make sure you stick with it to the end — the film’s coda is its most dramatic moment, frightening and beautifully shot.

wendy_and_lucyWendy And Lucy: Remains to be seen if this will prove to be Reichardt’s breakout film. It was certainly written up more than any of her previous work, and deservedly so — it’s (probably) the best thing she’s done so far. Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, it tells the story of a temporarily homeless woman who gets stuck in a small railroad town (as with Old Joy, this one is set somewhere in the Northwest) while trying to make her way up to Alaska. Two things, in my mind, raised the bar on this one. Reichardt gets legitimately great turns from all her actors — Michelle Williams won high praise for her role as the lead (she continues to prove a versatile, able actor), and Will Oldham, Wally Dalton and Larry Fessenden all turn in visceral, if brief, performances. And tonally, it’s a triumph: there’s a constantly looming sense of ruin, with the main character Wendy teetering perilously close outright financial and emotional collapse as a series of mishaps keep her stuck in this one small town. The character, in many ways, feels like a more clearly drawn version of Oldham’s Kurt from Old Joy — both characters are wandering and disillusioned, but Raymond’s story puts more pressure on Wendy, forcing her further and further from her comfort zone. One hopes this film is evidence of a further maturation of Reichardt’s style; American cinema is fairly starved for this kind of filmmaking right now — or anyway, even if those films are out there, we’re not seeing them.

andrew bujalski

mutalappreciationFinally got around to seeing Funny Ha Ha the other night. It’s the first feature work of director Andrew Bujalski, a Boston-native and Harvard grad whose latest film, Beeswax, will make its U.S. theatrical debut this month (limited release, I’m sure). Bujalski is considered by some to be the leading light of the ‘Mumblecore’ film movement; the term refers the super-low-fi production style of a number of independent films released starting at the beginning of the decade (think: LOL, The Guatemalan Handshake, Hannah Takes The Stairs) many of which were shot with handheld digital video cameras and employed non-professional actors. The term was apparently coined by a friend of Bujalski’s; he himself has said he doesn’t feel the movement ever really even existed.

Bujalski’s two films to see U.S. release thus far, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, both highlight the post-collegiate lives of a trio of friends. Neither one sounds particularly interesting on paper: in Funny Ha Ha, a twenty-something woman loses her job, drinks too much, has trouble communicating her feelings, finds another job, and has relationship problems; in Mutual Appreciation, a twenty-something man trying to make it as a musician has trouble communicating his feelings, doesn’t making enough money to support himself, and deals with relationship problems. Malaise, ennui, and snarkiness reign throughout; the characters’ defining trait is their near-total inability to say anything sincerely. And this is really what makes both films so interesting and yet so frustrating at the same time: that the main characters can be so annoying, so pathetic, and yet so dishearteningly familiar. I found both films maddening – I hated how gutless the characters were, but I thought their depiction was fair and true. What I wonder is, even if it’s true that this is what a lot of young people today sound like, does simply portraying that on film make for a good movie?

Worth noting, however, is Kate Dollenmayer’s stellar performance in Funny Ha Ha, and the nicely done black and white cinematography of Mutual Appreciation. I’d be very interested to hear what other people thought of both these films.

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