Blu-ray / DVD: Studio Ghibli’s ‘When Marnie Was There’ and Channing Tatum in ‘Magic Mike XXL’

Universal / GKids

I hate to think that When Marnie Was There (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) may be the last film to come out of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, the great animation studio created by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). Miyazaki didn’t direct Marnie—Studio Ghibli animator-turned director Hiromasa Yonebayashi helms this lovely tale—but the studio’s dedication to the art of hand drawn animation and quiet, calm, introspective storytelling is present in every frame of this film.

Based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson, it’s the story of a shy schoolgirl named Anna, an orphan who feels unloved and unwanted (all evidence to the contrary from a protective adoptive mother, who she calls “Auntie”) and is unable to forge friendships with others, preferring to lose herself in sketching. Sent away to the country for her health, she meets Marnie, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreign girl who lives in the Marsh House, an abandoned manor on the sea that comes to life when Anna visits it one evening. “Are you real?” Anna asks on their first meeting, a fair question. Anna isn’t sure if Marnie is real, a ghost, or a dream and doesn’t really care. There’s an emotional connection between them and Marnie sweeps her into her world, a fantasy life of magnificent parties and doting parents that turns out to be more idealized fantasy than reality.

The Marnie adventures are an escape from her fears of social interaction and her crippling sense of self-doubt and inability to forgive her parents for abandoning her in death. It’s illogical and that’s the point: Anna can’t confess these terrible, unfair, yet very real feelings to anyone but Marnie, who shares her own disappointments in return. It’s the beginning of Anna’s healing. When a new family buys the Marsh House and their little girl discovers Marnie’s diary, the revelations continue the process in the most emotionally satisfying ways. When Marnie Was There is a gentle, touching story of confronting turbulent emotions that acknowledges that, however unfair, such feelings are real and cause real damage. It is also a delicately-told tale by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously directed The Secret World of Arietty. Yonebayashi hasn’t the sense of wonder or fantasy that define Miyazaki’s films but he gently suggests the gravity of the drama and the turmoil of the emotional storm within Anna.

On Blu-ray and DVD with both original Japanese language and dubbed English language soundtracks (Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, John C. Reilly, and Geena Davis are among the English voice cast) and a wealth of supplements. While the film was co-produced by Disney Japan, the disc is released stateside by Universal under their GKids imprint—it also released previous Studio Ghibli film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)—but they have access to the same extras that Disney’s deluxe editions present. Studio Ghibli films are beloved in Japan and released on disc with featurettes, interviews, and other supplements, all dutifully presented here (in Japanese with English subtitles). One of my favorite extras is the “Feature-Length Storyboards,” which is basically a slide show of storyboards and production art set to the soundtrack of the movie. It plays like an alternate storybook version of the film. There is also 42-minute “The Making of When Marnie Was There” and featurettes on art director Yohei Taneda and the voice cast.

Warner Home Video

In Magic Mike XXL (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD), Channing Tatum reunites with the old gang (minus Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer, who have abandoned them for a new venture in the far East) for one last blast. It’s been three years since Mike left to start his own business and he’s struggling, but when he’s lured to a reunion (thanks to a little subterfuge) he proposes they team up and go out on top at a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C. It’s a buddy comedy, a road movie, and a story about teamwork and creative passion (Mike convinces them to toss out the tried and true acts and create something new that reflects who they are now, not what they’ve done), all in a film about beefy guys who take their clothes off in elaborately-choreographed performances where success is measured in the squeals of female audiences and the showers of folding green that comes raining down (or is slipped into their shorts).

Those contradictions—a drama about appreciating the erotic delights of playing a sexual fantasy for women hungry for such ideals while also acknowledging that such a fantasy has its limits (both as a mode of personal fulfillment and as a profession limited by the inevitability of age)—are part of what makes the film so engaging. Tatum and the cast (returning colleagues Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, and Adam Rodriguez, new additions Stephen Boss, aka tWitch, and Donald Glover) bring an easy-going camaraderie to the reunion and infectious energy to their performances. They are good company and sustain the film, which rides a wisp of a plot to explore male friendships and aspirations while enjoying one last fling as performance artist-as-sex object. It really shouldn’t be as good as it is, but there you go. Gregory Jacobs, a longtime producing partner of Steven Soderbergh (who directed the first Magic Mike) makes his directorial debut on the film and Soderbergh keeps his hand in as cinematographer and editor (under the pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard) as well as producer.

On Blu-ray and DVD with two featurettes and an extended dance sequence.

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘King of the Hill’

King of the Hill (1993) is the third feature from Steven Soderbergh, who jumped to the head of the American independent scene when sex, lies and videotape took the Audience Award at Sundance 1989 and went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes before getting a wide release in suburban multiplexes. His second film, Kafka (1991), wasn’t a success but it revealed a serious filmmaker who wanted to explore different subjects and genres. King of the Hill continued that tradition in that is was yet again a complete change of style and subject matter for the director: an adaptation of the memoir by A.E. Hotchner about life as an adolescent during the Depression. It was also his first studio production, made for the fledgling Gramercy Pictures, and it gave him the biggest budget of his career. He was able to craft a rich recreation of early thirties St. Louis as seen through the eyes of a hopeful boy in an increasingly desperate situation.

Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a smart, creative, generous high school kid who spins stories to hide the fact that his family is broke and living out of a hotel, where they are behind in the rent. To stay in his high school, a well-maintained school filled with affluent kids (Aaron is “a charity case,” as one of his affluent classmates describes him), he and his kid brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) have to keep up the fiction that they reside in a nearby apartment house. His dad (Jeroen Krabbé) is a salesman hawking “wickless candles” that no one is buying while he waits for one of his many applications to pay off with a better job. Aaron picks up odd jobs as he can with the help of Lester (Adrian Brody in his first major role), an older kid who looks over Aaron like a big brother. Lester knows the angles and hustles his way to survival and his mentorship gives Aaron the skills and strength to survive when he’s force to take care of himself.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

How Steven Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’ Still Influences Sundance After 25 Years

“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball but with another thrown baseball.” – Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2013

'sex, lies and videotape'

Did the Sundance Film Festival make sex, lies and videotape or did sex, lies and videotape put Sundance on the festival map? The debut feature by Steven Soderbergh, modestly budgeted at $1.2 million and starring a cast of recognizable but hardly famous actors on the rise, lost the Grand Jury Prize to Nancy Savoca’s True Love (even as it eventually won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) but took home the Audience Award. More importantly, it landed a deal with Miramax, who broke the film out of the limited arthouse circuit and put it into suburban theaters. The confluence of Sundance and sex was a seismic shift in American independent film culture: the “big bang of the modern indie film movement,” in the words of industry historian Peter Biskind.

Soderbergh’s feature debut was a startling adult film about, yes, sex and lies, but also love, commitment, aggression, retreat, and the terror of true intimacy. The only nakedness on display is emotional, and Soderbergh, with the earnest seriousness of a passionate young filmmaker, confronts uncomfortable issues with frank talk and uncomfortable directness.

Continue reading at Indiewire

New Release: ‘Magic Mike’

Magic Mike (Warner) is one of the success stories of 2012. While megabudget spectacles and potential tentpole films collapsed under the weight of heavy productions over flimsy scripts, Steven Soderbergh took a story inspired by actor Channing Tatum’s early experiences as a male stripper and a budget that wouldn’t pay for the reshoots on “Battleship” and delivered a film that took in over $110 million, over 15 times its budget.

Tatum’s Magic Mike is a hard-working guy in Tampa, Florida, constantly on the hustle, working under-the-table construction by day, headlining a male strip club on weekends, and working the angles in between, and Alex Pettyfer is his protégé, you might say. This is a world of tawdry glamour, street hustle, and working class desperation, and Soderbergh, star/co-producer Tatum, and screenwriter Reid Carolin do a great job of showing us how it works as a business and how it seduces as a lifestyle.

There is, of course, a cast of good looking men stripping down to g-strings and grinding their oiled hardbodies for a crowd of screaming women (among them Matt Bomer of “White Collar,” Joe Manganiello of “True Blood,” and Adam Rodriguez of “CSI: Miami”). It’s no secret that the film pulled in a cross-over audience of both women and gay men by offering the same spectacle that the movies constantly deliver to straight men. But “Magic Mike” is no exploitation film, nor an exposé of the dangers of this culture, nor a celebration of it. It’s a character drama with some superb characters and a terrific, grown-up romance with a young woman (Cody Horn) who is physically attracted to Mike but wary of his easy lifestyle and constantly-delayed dreams.

Continue reading at Videodrone

New Release: ‘Haywire’

Haywire (Lionsgate) is Steven Soderbergh’s drive-in assassin action movie by way of a sleek art-house conspiracy thriller. According to the director, the film sprung from his desire to develop a film around the talents and skill of mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, and the finished film — which casts Carano as a covert agent in a shady private international agency that contracts out for government spy ops — gives you no reason to assume otherwise.

Soderbergh’s camera (he serves as his own cinematographer, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) is focused on watching her in action and he designs her scenes to play out in long, unbroken cuts, paced at her reaction time. It’s like watching a dancer in action, only her partners end up beaten and broken by the time she finishes her moves. There’s a plot, of course, a meticulously constructed but still thoroughly conventional script by Lem Dobbs that involves outsourced international espionage, corrupt players, dirty tricks, and righteous vengeance, and gives accomplished supporting players Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas plenty of opportunity to play around in entertainingly stylized performances. Channing Tatum provides able (if colorless) support and Bill Paxton is her protective dad, thoroughly (and correctly) convinced that no one in her circle can be trusted.

It’s not a knock to admit that Gina Carano is a limited actress, because her limitations still surpass those negligible talents of Steven Seagal, Steve Austin, Randy Couture, and most athletes and fighters gone big screen in recent decades. She plays the part close to the vest, making her inexpressiveness part of the character, but really we just wait for her to click back into fight mode. Her body language tells us more about her character than any dialogue exchange.

By the time its over, you may wonder if you’ve just seen the best direct-to-video action movie to ever hit the big screen or a Robert Rodriguez genre mix made with an unusual amount of discipline and attention to detail. Either way, it’s an impressive mix of lean style, physical prowess, and wince-inducing fight scenes.

On Blu-ray and DVD with the featurettes “Gina Carino in Training,” which profiles the film’s kick-ass action lead and her preparations for the film, and the brief “The Men of Haywire.” The Blu-ray also features a bonus digital copy, available via iTunes.

More at Videodrone

New Release: ‘Contagion’

In Contagion (Warner), Steven Soderbergh uses his camera lens as a kind of microscope to study the effects of a fictional pandemic. It’s as much social anthropology as medical thriller, with familiar faces playing out the roles of victims, medical professionals and bystanders, and Soderbergh holding it all at arm’s length, clinical and removed as he observes with a mix of technical detail and swift efficiency. He covers a lot of objective information and subjective experience in 106 minutes.

While Soderbergh favors clinical detachment to human engagement, he has the good sense to offer Matt Damon as our everyman point-of-view, a husband and father who loses his wife and one of his children in the first bloom of the contagion and becomes what would in other circumstances appear zealously overprotective of his surviving daughter.

The rest of the fine cast — notably Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, even Jude Law’s maverick blogger (with questionable motives) — are more defined by their purposefulness and focus. Damon is as close as we get to the human equation and that gives the film a queasy atmosphere so removed from the melodrama and spectacle of the traditional disaster movie. We don’t feel like we “know” these characters and as a result we are more focused on the big picture — the isolation of the virus, the search for a cure / vaccine, the survival of society — than the survival of individuals.

Continue reading on Videodrone

DVDs for 1/19/10 – Soderbergh’s Che, Akerman’s seventies cinema, Altman’s Streamers

Rightly respected for its superb presentations of classic and contemporary cinema on DVD (and now on Blu-ray too), Criterion continues it’s relatively recent foray into shepherding select new films to home video in handsome special editions with their two-disc sets (on both DVD and Blu-ray) of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che (Criterion). Starring Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionary leader turned martyred legend and cultural icon, is not a tradition bio-pic. Spanning four-and-a-half hours over two films—Part One on the triumph in Cuba, Part Two on the failure in Bolivia—it’s both two films and a single, unified work that focuses on Ernesto Che Guevara’s experience as a revolutionary soldier and guerrilla leader to the exclusion of almost everything else. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman dispense with the usual trappings of biographical drama—the early life, the intimate revelations, the historical backdrop—and forgo psychological interpretations and motivation. And apart from his enforcement of the revolutionary code on deserters and his confrontational visit to the United Nations in 1964 (a framing sequence shot in black-and-white like a cinema verite documentary), they don’t attempt to confront his controversial actions off the battlefield. It’s all about Guevara’s education as a revolutionary and his development as a leader in the jungles and in battle.

Catalina Sandino Moreno and Benicio Del Toro

Soderbergh photographs the films himself (under the credit Peter Andrews) in widescreen and lush color, shooting in long, deliberate takes that soak in the textures of the experience and the sense of time passing. There’s a romanticism to these guerillas in Eden (even if they are carrying guns) that is more idealized than convincing, but the immediacy of their day-to-day lives—training, working, interacting with local farmers and dispossessed peasants—is as captivating as the battles and skirmishes. The physical world is primary, from the reality of living in the wilds (as beautiful as it is) to the political organization of the guerrilla force and the military confrontations have an authenticity and immediacy of real people under fire. It’s not documentary or even neo-realism, but removed observation. It feels more European than American, with long takes and long shots that keep the characters firmly defined by their relationships to one another and to their environment. In the first film, the image are calmly recorded and the camera movements practical. Even the battle scenes, which have that battlefield photography look of camerawork on the run and under fire, are direct and observational. But where Part One is the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and Che’s part in making it a success, Part Two is the failure of the dream in Bolivia and the desperation and the failure is felt in more jarring camerawork.

Continue reading “DVDs for 1/19/10 – Soderbergh’s Che, Akerman’s seventies cinema, Altman’s Streamers”

New review: The Informant!

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, from the book by Kurt Eichenwald

In 1995, biochemical engineer Mark Whitacre, then the President of Archer Daniels Midland’s BioProducts Division, went public with his role as an informant for FBI in their investigation of international price fixing. “Had it not been for the fraud conviction, he would have been a national hero,” maintains one of the FBI agents who worked with Whitacre. Yes, it turns out the key witness in the biggest antitrust case the FBI had taken bribes and embezzled a few million from AMD.

Matt Damon is The Informant!
Matt Damon is The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, is indeed grounded on true events, but if the exclamation mark at the end of the title doesn’t clue you in, then the credits (in type that could have come from an early seventies pop music album cover) and the groovy Marvin Hamlish score (which sounds lifted from a lighthearted late sixties spy movie) should convince you that this corporate whistleblower is not The Insider. The scope of the fraud is enormous but the disconnect between the scale of the crime and the jaunty tone and bouncy style of the film helps us shift focus to the bizarre true human story beneath the Erin Brockovich tale of social justice and the corporate culture of corruption.

Continue reading “New review: The Informant!”

New reviews: ‘Che’ and ‘Last Chance Harvey’

Che (dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 ½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.

Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto Che Guevara

It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film – the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two – that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment.

Soderbergh photographs the films himself (under the credit Peter Andrews) in widescreen and lush color, shooting in long, deliberate takes that soak in the textures of the experience and offer the sense of time passing. There’s a romanticism to these guerrillas in Eden (even if they are carrying guns) that is more idealized than convincing, but the immediacy of their day-to-day lives — training, working, interacting with local farmers and dispossessed peasants — is as captivating as the battles and skirmishes.

Throughout, Soderbergh keeps an emotional distance from Guevara, and Del Toro’s Guevara never breaks character: Once he embraces the role of revolutionary leader, Guevara leaves his personal life behind to be the teacher, the healer, the exemplar of the revolutionary code, forever setting an example.

Read the complete review in the Seattle P-I here. My interview with Steven Soderbergh is running on Parallax View here.

Last Chance Harvey (dir: Joel Hopkins)

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson play lonely singles who meet as strangers and spend the film getting to know one another. It may not be the last chance for Hoffman’s Harvey, a divorced man who lost his family out of sheer neglect and now writes jingles for an ad agency in a job he hates, but it’s pretty close and he responds to this chance at forming a relationship with the openness of a guy who has spent the last couple of decades utterly closed. I have to say, I quite liked their company and I enjoyed seeing a film about mature people acting like adults.

The second feature from Joel Hopkins is not quite “Before Sunrise” for the over-40 crowd, but the comparison works. Both are understated and introspective romantic dramas, focused more on people than plot and built up out of shared moments of people getting to know one another.

Hoffman and Thompson make real (or at least relatable) people of these characters who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Hopkins directs with warmth, affection and a simple respect for all the characters, and he adds touching grace notes to their story.

Read my review at the P-I here.

Steven Soderbergh talks about ‘Che’

As IFC prepared to release Steven Soderbergh’s Che in a special roadshow edition – both films, back-to-back with an intermission – in ten cities (including Seattle), I had the opportunity to interview Soderbergh in a phone interview last week. An abbreviated set of highlights from the interview is running at the Seattle P-I. The full version is at Parallax View.

Benicio Del Toro had been trying to get this film made for some time before you got involved. What was it about the project that made you want to jump on board and do it?

Well, really him [Del Toro], because there was nothing other than his desire and [producer] Laura Bickford’s desire to see it made, but that was it. They were working off of John Lee’s book, but John Lee’s book covered his whole life and they didn’t really have a take on it yet. So I honestly said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to.

Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara

Was there even a treatment?


So when you became a collaborator on the project, where did you begin?

Step one is research, going to Cuba, talking to people, reading everything that was available, and there is a lot, just trying to collect a lot of information and see what stuck. I guess I started gravitating toward… First, the movie was just going to be Bolivia and I think that’s mostly because that part of his life was the most unknown to all of us. So initially we were just going to do that but then we began to feel like, if you just see Bolivia, you’d just be sitting there saying to yourself “Why doesn’t he leave?” You don’t understand why he thought this was going to work, and that’s when we started thinking about Cuba. And it was about that time when I found out about the New York trip and suddenly I thought, you’ve to have that, that’s really good stuff. That’s the way to address that other part of Che that a lot of people have an issue with. And the thing just started to balloon at a certain point and then it got so distended that I decided we had to cut this thing in half. It’s not going to work as one piece, it needs to be… Like I said, to me it was still one movie, it just needed to be in two parts.

You focus directly on two distinct parts of his life. The film leaps over his entire life between the military triumph in Cuba and leaving for Bolivia: five years of his life.

That was a personal choice on my part. I just wasn’t that interested in his life as a bureaucrat, frankly, and like I said, the New York visit was a way to address his ideology, the criticisms that people had of him and of Cuba and the image of him. The more I heard about what he did on the trip and reading the transcripts of the speeches at the U.N., imagining that, thinking of it already in terms of black and white, I just felt that cutting back and forth to the jungle from the concrete is going to be very nice.

Read the complete piece here. The shorter “A Moment With Steven Soderbergh” is at the Seattle P-I here.