Friday, September 23, 2011

Review: Schizopolis (1996)

Find me another film that makes you say the words ‘Ker-fuck?’ every ten minutes. Yeah, there’s probably plenty… but shut up.

Called an “artistic awakening” in interviews, Schizopolis is a celebration of half-baked ideas and sight, sound, and editing gags, most of which are related directly to film as a storytelling medium. Built around it is the tiniest semblance of a plot tying together the few characters with actual names. Explaining what that is makes brain hurty so I won’t try. I’ll just say that the actual “story” part of the film begins to drag and fall apart on the asphalt as the third act rolls around.

Wielding the power of editing trickery and Python-like non-sequitors, Soderbergh constructs a film that says… something. Maybe about the uselessness of dialogue? Or the power of editing over a practically nonexistent story (he learned that in the last two films!). Or that film in general is dumb, real dumb, and can mean anything at any given time for any given person. Does he hate film? Possibly in a Terrence Malick sort of way. He does keep trying to retire.

For you meta-whores out there, attempting to interpret this scattershot film is exactly “the joke,” and might excuse its own failure to be coherent. It would delight Soderbergh to know that, in addition to enjoying the gags in the film, you attempt to navigate the quagmire and string together a structure that holds. Which would on one hand be a fool’s errand, the other giving him the power to state that you DO NOT GET IT.

Without the strength of its jokes, I could possibly hate this movie. I am frequently frustrated by “the setup is the whole joke, dummy, no, no, fuck you, I don’t need a punch line!” thing… sometimes it strikes me as laziness. Here, I have little doubt that the filmmaker at least knew what he was making, i.e. not inventing scenes on the fly the day-of-shoot, or sitting on his ass and filming the actors at a flat angle as they act “real,” like certain Sofia Coppolas out there. There’s drive and vision behind it, with about 40% of Soderbergh’s subconscious yapping at us. And there’s something satisfying about a narrative that doesn’t feel the need [FINAL THOUGHTS MISSING]


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Gray's Anatomy (1996)

Keep your mind away from that awful show for a moment and try to remember that guy from The Paper, the one who tried to hire Michael Keaton away from his small time news rag. Yeah, he wasn’t too great in that… Okay, he’s Fran’s psychiatrist in The Nanny. That’s him. Him.

Spaulding Gray commits one of his stage monologues to film; a commentary on his search for a cure for his eye condition. He recounts advice from various sources and methods from various countries. Most end in some sort of full-circle punch line that is either amusing or sad, depending on the context. While Gray yacks at the camera, some set and compositional tricks move behind and around him, portraying the story in shadow or putting Gray in facsimiles of real settings.

Creativity credit goes to either Gray or Soderbergh for the staging; in Swimming to Cambodia, Gray sat in the same chair the entire time, which I’m more inclined to blame Jonathan Demme for doing because I hate that arrogant hackjob. Here, Anatomy’s crew gets all kinds of creative with set movements, shadow-play, projected backdrops, and changes in lighting. Also, Soderbergh breaks up Gray’s continuous monologue with interviews with people mentioned in Gray’s story and anecdotes from real people recounting unrelated eye injuries that frightened the shit out of them and by proxy, me, because eye injuries are fucked up.

Ultimately, enjoyment from this is inverse to how annoying Gray comes across. Anatomy works within a low maximum and high minimum, being One Thing for 80 minutes. But it’s a good Thing.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: Underneath (1995)

This is much closer to what one would consider Modern Soderbergh -- color saturation, non-linear storytelling inspired heavily by Point Blank, time-saving jump-cuts. Instead of a gradual ascent we can clearly see a watermark for techniques that Soderbergh will use throughout the rest of his career. It makes it all the more tragic that the movie isn’t very good.

Through two different timelines, we learn of Michael Chambers’ (Peter Gallagher) past as a compulsive gambler and his burgeoning future as a co-conspirator in a bank robbery. Think about every heist film’s inside man and this is his story. Cornered by a desperate set of circumstances, Michael decides his only recourse is to help his ex-girlfriend’s crime lord boyfriend rob the bank Michael and his father-in-law go to sometimes so that he can take the money and save his ex-girlfriend from the crime lord’s clutches. Surprising revelations intersect with the plans too late in the game to avoid, causing predictably tragic outcomes.

Tarantino’s meteoric rise with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs opened the flood gates to this type of modern gangster film, or Modern Noir with New Wave sensibilities. It’s why Danny Boyle got to make Shallow Grave, Paul Thomas Anderson got to make Hard Eight, why Suicide Kings exists and why Soderbergh got to do this (and later Out of Sight and the Limey). Basically, diverting strengths away from directors with other schemes in mind.

Soderbergh hides a weak story better in other cases. There is fun to be had in piecing together a linear narrative and seeing parallels in Michael’s psychology past and present; otherwise, there are no compelling reasons to like him or to empathize with the tragedy of his life because the story is funneled towards a foregone conclusion. There always seems to be a more sensible way out, or at the very least quicker way to get to his goal. As such, we are watching a man who cannot escape failure by “sheer velocity of mischief,” like in other movies. We get an impulsive, impotent coward who lives off of the charity of others until the urge to gamble his life away comes along. A man who right up to the end refuses to learn from his mistakes. A man who “should have never come back.”

There could be a good film in there somewhere; a lot of core ideas that drive a given scene are still visible, so without being emotionally involved, one can appreciate the creative decisions from afar. Using the Sex, Lies and Videotape method of characterization (documenting tiny nuances) ultimately doesn’t suit Underneath, and late-in-the-game suspense sequences that go nowhere aren’t helpful either. Oh and also the final scene of the film is stupid.