Monday, April 25, 2011

Take it or "Leave It": Yes 9012 Live

Expectations were low for Steven Soderbergh's feature debut, but 1985's Yes 9012 Live turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Too young to remember the British band Yes in their 70's prog-rock heyday, I associate them primarily with their brief mid 80's comeback, where they produced their one and only #1 single "Owner of a Lonely Heart."  They followed this up with another minor radio hit, "Leave It" (Yes, the title of this post is meant as a pun), and found themselves with a successful comeback album, 90125.  Although Yes would continue to tour and record into the 21st century, they would never again duplicate the kind of commercial success they enjoyed in 1984.  In addition, my research revealed that the pop-rock sound Yes created on 90125 was one they abandoned and never revisited on future projects. 

If you're a Yes fan, this embues Soderbergh's debut feature with an added dose of historical significance, as it would appear to be the only document of this period of the band's history.  But since this is a blog about Soderbergh, not Yes, let's examine what the director did with his first big assignment.

The concert film is a tricky beast, as it's difficult to replicate the energy of a live performance for those who aren't in the room.  From a technical standpoint, multiple cameras and skillful editing are also required to effectively capture a band's live dynamic.  Whether or not Soderbergh was able to recreate the magic of Yes live, is something I'll leave to the faithful to decide(for the record, the film was nominated for a Grammy).  What fascinates, over 20 years later, is how actively the young director tried to put his own distinctive stamp on the project. 

Rather than filming one Yes show from beginning to end, Soderbergh shot the band over two nights at the Skyreach Centre in Edmonton, Alberta. Using a technique that foreshadows some of his later work in The Limey, Soderbergh decided to incorporate footage from A Young Man's Fancy, a short film from 1952 in which a young man prefers household electric appliances to girls.  9012 Live begins with a clip from the film, in which the girl requests her beau to "play something groovy", which then segues into performance footage of Yes in Edmonton.    Additional clips from the film (without sound) are interspersed throughout the band's performance, and Soderbergh clutters things up even further by using 80's tastic video effects from design firm Charlex.  If you remember the villains from Superman II hurtling through space, you'll be pretty close to the effects on display.

These aesthetic touches brought a sharply divided response from Yes fans.  So much so, that when 9012 Live was released on DVD in 2006, Soderbergh agreed to revisit the project.  The result is a bonus feature "director's cut" in which the Charlex effects are removed, and Yes fans can watch Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire, et al, in all their unadulterated glory. 

The DVD also includes a behind the scenes documentary directed by Soderbergh entitled "Access All Areas," but since I watched the film on Netflix Instant Streaming, I...couldn't access it.  If I am able to get my hands on a physical copy of 9012 Live in the future, this entry will be updated.

All in all, how much the viewer takes away from Yes 9012 Live depends on your opinion of the band.  But at just over an hour, it goes by quickly enough, and it offers a fascinating glimpse of a young director eager to get his career off the ground.

One final note: Anyone looking for an 80's group Halloween costume should look no farther than the members of Yes in 9012 Live.

Yes 9012 Live is currently available to watch via Netflix Instant Streaming.  The DVD can be purchased from

Next Up: Soderbergh breaks through with sex, lies and videotape

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's All Downhill From Here: Steven Soderbergh, Film by Film

In 1989, director Steven Soderbergh's debut feature sex, lies, and videotape won the Palm D'Or at Cannes.  The film's distribution rights were acquired by Bob and Harvey Weinstein's fledgling company, Miramax Films, and the movie turned a tremendous profit, especially when compared with its meager production costs.  Not everyone agreed with the Cannes jury's selection.  sex, lies bested a lot of formidable competitors that year, among them Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.  Wim Wenders, who was on that particular jury, admired Lee's film's, but rejected it on the basis that "it didn't have any heroes".  Lee grumbled that he didn't see anything particularly heroic in the actions of Soderbergh's protagonist, who videotapes women discussing their sexual fantasies.  "It's all downhill from here", Soderbergh quipped upon accepting one of filmdom's highest honors. 

Over twenty years and thirty films later, Soderbergh has successfully disproved his infamous words on the croissette.  He has stubbornly followed his own artistic insticts, made films of all shapes and sizes, dabbled in television, won an Oscar, and produced a handful of bona fide Hollywood blockbusters.  Sensing, perhaps rightly, that he had nothing left to prove, Soderbergh recently announced that pending the completion of his current projects, he would be retiring from filmmaking.  This seemed like a perfect opportunity to embark on a careful examination of his body of work.  Whether his biopic of Liberace and big screen adaptation of the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will be brilliant, subversive works along the lines of Schizopolis and The Limey, or well intentioned failures like Full Frontal or Kafka remains to be seen, but the goal will be to take as complete a look at his body of work as time allows before Soderbergh walks out of the editing room for the last time. 

Of course, many people threaten retirement, then change their mind, and Soderbergh may prove to be no exception.  If he stages a comeback, this project will resume.  Until then, we'll begin at the beginning, pre-sex lies, with a look at Steven Soderbergh's direction of Yes: 9012Live.


Soderbergh has already un-retired.  Or at least he won't retire until after he directs Channing Tatum's male stripper movie, Magic Mike:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

True/False 2011 Lives Up To Its Name

After finishing my second go round at the recently concluded True/False Documentary Festival in Columbia, Missouri, one consistent theme emerged.  Filmmakers LOVE this festival.  Festival "co-conspirators" David Wilson and Paul Sturtz not only work hard to ensure that every film is presented by someone involved in its creation, but also throw a special "filmmakers fete' each year to honor those who make the trip.  At the 2011 installment, nearly every filmmaker began their introductions by proclaiming how much they loved True/False.  Robert Greene, director of the affable regional pro wrestling doc Fake It So Real, took things one step further.  Not only did he claim that True/False was his favorite festival in the U.S., but added that Ragtag Cinema was also his favorite theatre. Greene was screening at the festival for the second year in a row, after 2010's engaging Kati with an I

Greene wasn't the only director at the fest who was happy to be playing a return engagement.  James Marsh, the Oscar winning director of Man On Wire, which screened at True/False early in its festival run, was back this year with his new film Project Nim.  Marsh also was the 2011 recipient of the festival's True Vision award, which is one of only true prizes given out at this noncompetitive festival.  Upon accepting the award on the stage of the Missouri Theatre, Marsh could scarcely contain his enthusiasm.  Forget about the Oscar for Man on Wire.  Marsh holds True/False in such high esteem that he called the award "the best thing I've ever gotten."

While the town of Columbia always puts its best foot forward for the festival, the real draw of True/False is the films themselves.  As the name would indicate, the festival programmers search far and wide for works that push the boundaries of what we think of as non-fiction film.  There were activist documentaries like Blood In the Mobile,  which borrows heavily from Michael Moore's muck racking attempts to combat corporate injustice, archival works like The Black Power Mix Tape, which adds contemporary reflections to interviews conducted decades ago, and avant garde constructions like The Arbor, which employs actors to lip sync to the audio of interviews the filmmaker conducted.  If that sounds like too much truth for you, consider Troll Hunter, which apes the hand held mockumentary style of  The Blair Witch Project and adds a liberal dose of CGI trolls.

Columbia's not easy to get to from LA, but considering that three of the Oscar nominated feature length documentaries this year also screened last year at True/False, it's a great place for documentary fans to get ahead of the curve. Here's ten solid docs to look forward to in 2011:

The Woman with Five Elephants
Dir. by Vadim Jendreyko

Fighting an uphill battle with the inherently uncinematic subject of literary translation, this film nonetheless succeeds due to the remarkable life story of its central figure, Svetlana Geier.  The Five Elephants in the title refer to Dostoyevsky's five most famous novels, all of which Geier has translated into German.  With a tale as dramatic as any the great Russian writer created, Jendreyko smartly gets out of the way of his subject as she explains how a Ukrainian Jew could be employed by the Nazis and somehow become a preominent figure in the literary world.

Dir. by Cindy Meehl

To say that the subject of Cindy Meehl's remarkable debut feature was the inspiration for the novel and the film The Horse Whisperer is to barely scratch the surface of the wonders on display here.  Anyone who says there are no more cowboy heroes has never met Buck Brannaman, who has gone from a childhood career doing rope tricks on the rodeo circuit to traveling around the country nine months out of the year staging horse clinics. Overcoming a childhood filled with vicious abuse at the hands of his father, Buck refuses to repeat the cycle of violence, instead providing a model for sensible, humane treatment of animals.  Winner off this year's Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance,  The film will be released theatrically through IFC Films in June.

The Arbor
Dir. by Clio Bernard

If Mike Leigh were a documentarian, it's not hard to imagine him making films like The Arbor.  An intriguing blend of archive and artifice, Clio Berard's film tells the increasingly bleak tale of UK playwright Andrea Dunbar and her children.  The film is divided into three components: Talking head sequences of actors lip synching to audio of interviews that Bernard conducted with the story's real life participants; A series of re-enactments of pivotal scenes from Dunbar's plays staged in the midst of the project where she grew up, and actual BBC footage of Dunbar herself in the midst of her success.  The effect is jarring at first, but quickly becomes riveting, as Dunbar's complicated legacy of talent spiked with liberal doses of casual racism and substance abuse takes hold.

Project Nim James Marsh

Those familiar with Marsh's Man On Wire will recognize the virtuosity on display here.  Taking the 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human as its source, Nim is the true 70's story of a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother and raised as a human child on the upper west side of New York.  The whole scheme was hatched by a Columbia University science professor who wanted to see if it were possible for chimps to learn sign language. This being the 70's, the professor's freewheeling attitude and penchant for hiring then firing attractive young female assistants seems to be par for the course.  Eventually the study runs its course, and the rest of Marsh's film is devoted to Nim's troubled journey in captivity.  HBO has secured the US television rights to the project.

The Black Power Mix Tape: 1967-1975
Dir. by Goran Olsson

Another great example of a filmmaker knowing when to stay out of the way of his subject, The Black Power Mix Tape is an example of archive filmmaking at its finest.  This treasure trove of 16 mm interview footage from the period was recently discovered in the basement of a Swedish television studio, and it features both color and black and white interview footage of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Louis Farrakhan, and many other important figures of the period.  Contemporary perspectives are added by voiceovers from current pop culture luminaries like Talib Kweli, Questlove, and Erykah Badu. Olsson didn't mention any specific release details at the Q & A after the screening, but the film is well worth seeking out.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
Dir. By Andrew Rossi

Print Media is Dead!  Long Live Print Media!  Taking the much ballyhooed "death of the mainstream media" as it's rallying cry, Rossi's glossy doc largely proves that the Old Grey Lady is alive and well.  While a venerable institution like the Times has had to make some difficult adjustments,  an increasing web presence mixed with good old fashioned stubborn reporting would seem to indicate that the paper will be around in some form for many years to come.  Special props are due to Times media reporter David Carr for lashing out at Times detractors like an erudite junkyard dog.  At the very least, Carr's epic takedown of the young turks at Vice magazine is worth the price of admission.

Blood In The Mobile
Dir. By Frank Piasecki Poulsen

Although this film represents the only example I saw at True/False this year of what I would call the "Michael Moore model", wherein an activist filmmaker attempts to affect change by confronting corporate CEO's with the evils perpetrated by their companies, Poulsen displays a set of cajones that Moore himself would have to envy. Upon hearing that his Nokia phone may have been assembled with blood minerals from the war torn Congo, Poulsen decides to go and investigate himself.  Stubbornly working his way through one of the most dangerous countries in the world, he discovers that the reality is much worse than he could have imagined.  Poulsen's attempts to change the minds of Nokia executives meet with somewhat predictable results, but the images of his nightmare odyssey through the Congo aren't easy to shake.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked
Dir. By Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion

Few things are more satisfying in film than, A: a great title, and B: a film where the great title is justified.  The Redemption of General Butt Naked succeeds on both counts.  If a film with that title and the description " a brutal Liberian warlord gives up his murderous ways to become a Christian preacher" doesn't pique your curiosity, then maybe True/False isn't for you.  Not only have Strauss and Anastasion found themselves a subject for the ages in Joshua "General Butt Naked" Blahyi, but they skillfully demonstrate that an evangelist and a general must possess many of the same charismatic qualities. The experience of watching Blahyi, who officially confessed to being in some way responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 people, confronting the survivors of his victims is both visceral and heartbreaking.   Like a Liberian version of that Robert Duvall movie The Apostle, but with an exponentially higher body count, and a corresponding schedule of atonement that will keep Blahyi busy for the rest of this life and into the next. Oh, and "General Butt Naked" means exactly what you think it means.

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
Dir. by Matthew Bate

Proving that their youthful hijinks did indeed become an international phenomenon, Australian Matthew Bate brings us the story of two Wisconsities who moved to San Francisco in their twenties and got famous by recording their drunken belligerent neighbors.  In those halcyon pre-internet days of the 90's, listening to a bootleg tape of Peter's signature takedown,"Shut Up, Little Man", was cutting edge entertainment at its finest.  Bate's documentary examines the cult phenomenon, and ultimately displays that their dystopian magic was often imitated but never surpassed.  There are a lot of questions raised here about copyright, and whether or not Pete and Ray should've gotten a piece of the action.  The points are mostly moot, as all the principals have been dead for some years, but one thing remains clear.  If you've never been exposed to any of this material, you owe it to both yourself and Peter and Raymond to check it out. It's priceless.

 The Troll Hunter
Dir. by Andre Ovredal

A film that sounds much more ominous when referred to by its original Norwegian title, Trolljegeren, this is by far the most puzzling selection of this year's festival.  I suppose enough time has passed for someone to try to invoke a new wave of Blair Witch nostalgia, and a case could certainly be made for the mockumentary as a viable variant of the doc genre.  The problem is that the True/False fest, which occasionally gives off a whiff of wacky mischief in the way it presents itself,  is mostly very earnest about programming work which works to advance the genre of non-fiction film.  The overarching ethos seems to be that most films are in some way both true and false.  The Troll Hunter is all false.  It makes an embarrasingly half assed attempt to present itself as true, and then proceeds to unfold something completely ridiculous.  All that being said, there's some fun to be had here, and the CGI trolls on display are actually pretty cool to behold.  The director wasn't able to appear with the movie to shed light on any of this, but I would say that the film is more enjoyable if you think of it as living outside the documentary world.  Unless you believe in trolls, in which case, Ovredal's film will give you a lot to talk about.

Note: This article originally appeared on

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sebastian Bach's Power Ballad for The University of Oregon - Music - Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

What better way to begin a new year of blogging than with this incredible yet tender salute to the soon to be National Champion Oregon Ducks:

On to victory urge the heroes of the mighty Oregon!

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Christmas Query

Dear Producers of E!'s new reality show "Bridalplasty",

Why do you make the Baby Jesus cry?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exclusive No More: Review of The Social Network

It was the Summer of 2006, and I found myself in the position of needing to sublet a room in my apartment.  After an impassioned plea on his behalf, I rented the room to a young college grad who had just moved to LA in the hopes of working for an agency.  The arrangement was congenial enough, and when he found himself permanent housing, I suggested that we stay in touch. 
"Are you on MySpace?" I asked, not knowing that I had just betrayed my age.
"I'm on facebook", he corrected me.
The message was simple.  facebook was cool, and I was not.

One of the reasons that David Fincher's new film, The Social Network, has touched a nerve with so many people is that all kids want to be cool, and facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was no exception.   The opening scene of the film lays out the dramatic stakes in no uncertain terms.  Unaware that he's about to be dumped, Zuckerberg condescendingly informs his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) that she'll have the privilege of being his date when he's invited to join one of Harvard's most exclusive final clubs.   Wanting more than just to be arm candy around Cambridge, she informs him that their relationship is over.  When Zuckerberg reacts with anger and confusion, she elaborates.  She wants it made perfectly clear that she's not leaving him because she's a nerd.  She's leaving him because he's an asshole. End of story.

Except for Mark, it's just the beginning.  He returns to his dorm room, and drunkenly blogs some very mean things about his ex, and then uses his computer brilliance to hack his way into the Harvard computer system,  where he creates a program called the "facemash" where students can rank the attractiveness of their female classmates.  That's right.  According to The Social Network, the only thing that separated the early facebook from sites like "hot or" is that all the women involved were Ivy League.  Like all great ideas, things evolved.  The facemash became the facebook, which eventuallyjettisoned its definite article to become the ubiquitous site we know today. 

On paper, The Social Network seems an unlikely candidate to be an end of the year awards front-runner.  David Fincher has a distinctively dark vision, which has resulted in an output that's exciting, but uneven.   Fortunately, his style meshes well with the machiavellian workings on display here, and the end result is more Tyler Durden than Benjamin Button.  Whether this would mesh with the aesthetic of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who had a smash with The West Wing and crashed and burned with Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, was anybody's guess.   Add an eclectic cast which leans heavily on Justin Timberlake and a story which attempts on examine the incredibly volatile world of the internet, and you have a project not without risk.

But everyone's at the top of their game here, and The Social Network turns out to be a thilling examination of an intriguing twenty first century tale. Jesse Eisenberg somehow manages to make the facebook founder's maneuverings understandable, if not exactly endearing, and Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake make excellent adversaries.  Sorkin also acquits himself well, turning in a tight but nuanced adaptation of Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires without sacrificing his fast paced pithy dialogue.  Add in a subtly menancing score from Trent Reznor, and the film appears formidable indeed.

One of the ironies on display is that in designing a site that's all about connecting with people, a site that made him rich beyond dreams of avarice, Mark Zuckerberg forces out the one true friend he has.  Edward Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who helped Zuckerberg launch facebook with a modest, but important investment on the ground floor, finds himself pushed aside in favor of the more charismatic Sean Parker (Timberlake).  Parker comes sniffing around facebook when his own internet venture, Napster goes under.  In spite of a business track record that's shaky at best, Parker talks a good game, and he effortlessy exploits Zuckerberg's insecurities until he finds himself owning nearly 10 pecent of the company.  Meanwhile, Edward trusts that his friend will do the right thing, and finds himself having to sue his friend to get what he deserves.

The biggest irony, of course, is that in 2010 facebook is the farthest thing from cool.  It has long since given up any pretense of exclusivity, and everyone from your mom to your local Subway has a page.  It has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over privacy concerns, and it's a multi billion dollar concern which allows advertisers to salivate over the oceans of demographic information gushing from its users.

The Social Network has drawn more comparisons to Citizen Kane than any modern film in memory.  While it's not hard to see the parallels, it's also more than a little difficult to see Mark Zuckerberg as a tragic figure. Orson Welles begins and ends Kane with death, with Charlie Kane clinging desperately to memories of his youth; Fincher's film gives us a character who's changed the world with his whole life still ahead of  him.

In real life, Zuckerberg has been making the talk show rounds in a slightly defensive, but mostly good natured fashion. The world's youngest billionaire obviously knows a mountain of free publicity when he sees it, and ultimately the film doesn't exactly make him look bad.  He also just announced that he was donating $100 million to aid Newark public schools, which puts him in a way more exclusive club than the ones he craved at at Harvard.

Monday, September 20, 2010