Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 8

It’s been twenty long years since Steven Soderbergh took Cannes by storm and proved that independent films could make money with his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape. That loaded title, with all of its scandalous implications, played no small part in the film’s buzz; those who bought a ticket, however, would be disappointed to learn that it wasn’t really about sex at all, but about intimacy and honesty.

The casting of hardcore star Sasha Grey in the leading role of Soderbergh’s new picture The Girlfriend Experience is the 2009 equivalent of that dirty title; it promises more raunch than the movie itself delivers. It, too, is about intimacy and honesty. But the director isn’t repeating himself; much as Scorsese did with The Departed, Soderbergh is making a film that is, in many ways, a culmination of his recurring themes and unique style, and is also something altogether new.

From the opening moments (an intriguing montage of ambient music and striking visuals), we’re watching a mature, accomplished filmmaker who is in absolute control of his material. His confidence and maturity have never been clearer—nor has his efficiency (The Girlfriend Experience clocks in at a brisk 77 minutes, in a stark contrast to his last picture, the two-part, four-plus-hour Che). And the damn thing is just beautifully shot; using the Red high-def video camera, Soderbergh (lensing under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews) creates a series of elegantly composed tableaux; he seldom moves his camera for effect, so when he does, it actually means something.

And yes, it stars a porn star. I’m not sure what exactly the director saw in Grey that made him think she could carry a real drama (something not really hinted at in any of her, ahem, other work). Whatever the reason, his risk pays off big. It’s not stunt casting; she’s terrific, incredibly natural, altogether believable, and this is not a lightweight role. It could just be that old saw about everyone being capable of one great performance (playing themselves), but I doubt it; this is an actor, and a good one.

Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who, improbably, also penned Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13) and editor Mary Ann Bernard (whoops, that’s another Soderbergh alias) scissor their story into shreds, hopscotching around in the timeline, the cuts drawn organically from key words or ideas. They’re shaking up the form here; a fairly standard narrative is being told, but in an unexpected and unpredictable way. As a result, we don’t see the familiar gears of the three-act structure grinding, the strings being pulled; they take the air out of the mechanics of the plot, and manage to skip some of the triter scenes altogether, since we’re not seeing things in order so we can fill in the gaps.

If all of this sounds disorienting, fear not. Yes, there are stretches (particularly towards the beginning) where you’re not quite sure what’s going on and what Soderbergh is up to. But even when you’re in the woods a little, the film always keeps your attention, and the pieces ultimately come together beautifully.

* * * 

Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Wag The Dog) may very well have stumbled into a career renaissance, albeit in a slightly different career—with PoliWood, he’s made a personal documentary that’s better than any narrative film he’s done in quite some time. Levinson wisely puts his cards on the table right up front; the opening credits don’t include the customary “A Barry Levinson Film” but instead “A Barry Levinson Film Essay.” There’s something about that phrase, film essay, which changes our expectations; the last movie that I remember willingly embracing that label was Orson Welles’ wonderful F For Fake, and it was a better picture for it; the connotation of that label is looser, more personal and freewheeling.

He finds a good format for the film, alternating (often non-chronological) documentary footage and interviews—from his work with the Creative Coalition (an organization of entertainer/activists) during the 2008 presidential campaign—with his own, straight-to-camera commentary breaks, which are among the film’s high points.

What’s surprising about PoliWood is that it turns out to be about more than we anticipated; yes, the issue of celebrity-as-pundit is addressed, and thoroughly, but Alterman makes such a compelling case for it early in the film that we don’t require much more in the way of logical argument. What Levinson does that is so interesting and unexpected is his subsequent shift to a larger analysis of mass media and political discourse. There is some frank and astute discussion of how, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, handlers must “create the character” of the politician, just as these actors create the characters they play in their films. From there, it’s no leap to draw parallels between Hollywood and Washington, D.C.—and between the negative connotations of both cultures.

Late in the film, the cameras follow Levinson to a “focus group with celebrities” that he has organized with the help of Fox News’ Frank Luntz (who gained a bit of notoriety for his “independent” focus groups during the campaign, but never mind that). He and several other coalition members sit down with a group of regular folks, and for a while, it is tough and uncomfortable to watch—they let these actors have it with both barrels. And the actors listen, but then they all start to talk and listen to each other, to have an honest debate and an attempt to find some ground. It’s the closest thing to a happy ending that we could hope for in a culture this polarized, and Levinson’s thought-provoking and entertaining documentary is a valuable part of that kind of conversation.

* * * 

Amir Nedari’s Vegas: Based on a True Story tells a difficult story in a difficult way. Most audiences won’t have the patience for it. I admired its refusal to compromise, to make its characters (one, in particular) relatable or even alterable. But as much as I found admirable in it, I didn’t like it all that much.

It’s done in a quiet, slice-of-life style; there’s a homemade feel to the film, and its diners and bars and trailers feel inhabited and populated by real people (the cashier at Tracy’s job has, I believe, one line, but there’s not a hint of artifice to her). Nedari’s pace is leisurely, if not lethargic, and he looks this story right in its eye. There is a point in the film where the characters do some digging (okay, it’s quite a lot of digging) and most movies would have covered that in a 90-second montage that would have been rapid, but dishonest.

Moments like that are important because they don’t let the audience off easy (which plenty of audience members won’t cotton to). But that exhaustive chronicling of the process is vital, because Vegas is ultimately not a film about money, or recovery, or any of its other ostensible topics. What it turns into, in that uncompromising back half, is a riveting examination of compulsive behavior. Like addicts and alcoholics, gamblers have addictive personalities, and when they can’t gamble, they act out their compulsions in other ways. Eddie and, to a lesser degree, Tracy do that here. Boy, do they.

The screenplay (credited to Nedari and three other writers) has some weak spots; some of the dialogue is a little worn-out, and Eddie and Tracy have that peculiar screenwriter’s dialogue affectation where they say each other’s names in nearly every sentence. But the actors manage to cover much of that (particularly Thomas, who is a startlingly accomplished young actor). Nedari’s compositions are sometimes odd and sometimes arresting, but his blocking within those frames is occasionally awkward and unnatural. And as much as I liked the ambiguity of his ending, the closing shots are more than a little heavy-handed.

Those are momentary lapses in judgment (though it’s a shame that one of them is the last thing we see). Nedari makes plenty of other smart plays. The one I admired most comes at a key, difficult moment between Eddie and his son; Nedari pulls the sound all the way out, and then shoots it at a rather oblique angle. It’s a distancing effect; frankly, he doesn’t want to get too close to this. We can’t blame him.

* * * 

Anders Banke’s Newsmakers is a slick, sleek, professional thriller with all the trimmings—chases, car crashes, explosions, and shoot-outs. Lots and lots of shoot-outs. It was also made in Russia. That’s worth mentioning right off the top, since it’s sturdily constructed and plenty entertaining, but I can’t help but wonder how much attention it would get if it were English.

Director Banke has got a great eye; his picture is handsomely photographed with an abundance of gloss and style. And, refreshingly, it has a sense of humor; there are all kinds of little verbal and visual jokes (my favorite was the lunchtime sequence, with the scores of cops in their riot gear, enjoying their take-out sushi). 

He also has a sure hand with action; the violence comes fast and frenetic, exploding in bursts of furious energy. But the fact of the matter is, he’s aping countless cops-versus-killers action/comedies, throwing in chunks of gang war pictures and hostage movies into a blender and pureeing, and while there’s nothing shameful in that, let’s also not make it more than it is. If it were, in fact, the glib Hollywood actioner that it looks so much like and may very well still be remade into (I’ve got a feeling Angelina Jolie may have already been rung about stepping into Katya’s high heels), it certainly wouldn’t be playing at Tribeca and other film festivals.

And it’s not a matter of doing what other foreign directors have done with American genre pictures; when Truffaut and Godard paid homage to the old Warners gangster movies, they mated them with their own unique ideas about character and construction, and when John Woo did his Hong Kong action flicks, he amped up the gunplay and choreography into the realm of the surreal. Anders Banke made a fine, sturdy action picture in a hard, cold, efficient way. It gets the job done. But let’s not go mistaking it for art.

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