Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: The Girlfriend Experience


It's a perfect example of what not to do when your subject is sex you better deliver what it promises. In Steven Soderbergh's take it offers neither of the above, so it makes it hard to recommend. The take on the material is all business, no fun.

It doesn't work as anything titillating (casting Sasha Grey in the lead is stunt casting without the stunts) but it does work as an examination of how the client / servant relationship 2008 economic climate terms.

This is good stuff to hang a story on, sex in the digital age is a great topic to explore but sadly that wasn't the case. What we get is a passive protagonist looking bored while her clients bitch and moan about the current economic climate.

It's a movie for people who would rather be reading The Economist than be fucking somebody, and that's troubling. Show me some fucking and I'll show you some interest. We get some insights on the business of economy but that's it.

That is so 2008, man. That framing device of the dudes rambling about nonsense (and the horrid color correction) has nothing to do with the movie.

For a more titillating, cerebral, and gutsy look at the life of an escort, I suggest you watch 1991's Tokyo Decadence.

That movie features a truly courageous performance by the lead, with sex scenes that will get your blood running. That character was tragic, made worse by the degradation and humiliation of her work. It was realistic, and cold yet somewhat sexy.

The Girlfriend Experience is more interested in the inner working of the client / provider relationship and that's ok if you like hearing people complain complain complain about the economy, since the movie just happens as a series of scenes there's no connective tissue to warrant much interest. There is a sort of arc to the proceedings but you'll have to get to the end to see it, I didn't and turned it off at the 40 minute mark.

Sex and economy are a shaky business to pull off cinematically, stories need to be relatable on a human level, or offer some insights with fresh characters we don't know about.

Soderbergh chose the least interesting path for this: Economy. The internet has changed all views of sexuality, and how people promote themselves. The interpersonal connection between sex / technology would have been the angle this story would work from, to me it seems more interesting than hearing a bunch of people whose faces we rarely see talk about the economy. You've got a porn star in the lead, use that to turn the expectations on it's head and integrate her baggage into the plot. Sasha Grey did ok, what her character was supposed to do or didn't do.

I think the premise was ok, and given the right set of hands could have turned out a lively, gutsy, and entertaining movie about the inner workings of an escort. Soderbegh just didn't seem very interested in the story, and it shows in the lack of texture and boring dissatisfaction from the way it's mounted. It looks good, shot with the Red and the acting is ok, neither character makes much of an impression. The audio mixing was also a problem, some of the sound sounded terrible.

Others would like it, but if you've ever f**cked an escort you would know a lot more fun is showing than talking.

Had The Girlfriend Experience focused on the inner workings of the character, and cast someone less passive, it would have been ok.

Anyone seen Tokyo Decadence? pop that in.

Michael Mann + Dante Spinnoti = Great, Mann + Spinnoti + HD? Not great

I fucking love Michael Mann. Let's get it out of the way.

I fucking love HD, let's get that out of the way.

Mann and his great DP Dante Spinotti reunite on this summer's public enemies, their last collaboration being 1999's supreme The Insider. Shot on film. This one is shot on HD using the Cinealta camera from Sony and there are issues I'd like to discuss with the medium.

Mann is supreme master conductor of feelings and mood, second only to no one working today. I remember when I first saw Manhunter ages ago and how marvel I was at the deep focus compositions and attention to detail his films have. I recently rewatched Heat and was blown away by details I didn't catch the first few times I saw it.

Even when hit or miss his films exhibit great visuals. When I saw the trailer for Public Enemies, I was dumbfounded. Not that he shot digital, but how cheap the movie looks. It looks really cheap. Budget? 100 mill.

It's not secret that HD has come to revolutionizing the system of image acquisition, with each format having pluses and minuses there is still no concrete way to match the density and quality film provides. Take a look at the shootout bank scene in heat (one of the greatest action scenes ever committed to celluloid) and compare that to the trailer for Public Enemies below.

See where I'm going?

It's not the point to compare the two as greater and lesser, but to use Mann's technique as an evolution of each medium.

Mann's approach to HD vs his Film approach.

HD picks up highlights at night that would necessitate HUGE lighting rights if shot on 35MM. Even if you used a fast stock and lenses it'll still need more lighting than HD. Indeed Mann's films are mostly shot at night (his characters populate their lives at night) so aesthetically this makes sense. Collateral benefit from this approach (he used an early version of Thompson's Viper Camera) and can be seen in the scenes were jamie Foxx calls Jada Pincket from the parking lot. You would have had to light the building not to mention source the garage where he's calling from if you shot that on 35mm. That's an added expense, not to mention the speed to set up is quicker on HD.

In the commentary for Collateral, Mann contends that scene would have been nearly impossible to shoot on traditional film since the location was only available for an hour or so and you wouldn't be able to see the subject in the building unless you lit it. Fair game, it worked for that film.

Now, film schedules are shorter than ever and so does technology facilitate the speed by which things can be acquired. This is part of the reason why the industry is leaning towards HD as the standard: money. Money is saved shooting on tape but the post production costs have risen as a result, since digital image acquisition creates more steps to properly create the show. Color grading, conforming, mastering. These things add cost to what used to be film> lab> telecine> post> timing >finish.

I like the traditional model employed by 100 years of use, it works and the fuzz is minimal on big shows. But I don't edit those, I edit music videos and low budget stuff.

Filmmakers have jumped the wagon to HD (the Red being the most prime example for lower cost digital) and forgot about the beauty of film. You could shoot a piece of shit on 35MM and it'll look dramatic, but on HD it'll look realistic so which one is better?

Neither one is better or worse, just how the evolution of these tools impact storytelling becomes the bigger question.

Mel Gibson shot Apocalypto on HD and the skill by which the cinematographer shot that film made it indistinguishable from 35mm film, that is until you saw frenetic action. The motion artifacts are still a handicap HD does not overcome, although new techniques are invented everyday that fix the problem. Fincher shot Zodiac in HD also, look at the night scenes in that and compare them to the ones in Fight Club. Small potatoes.

Back to Mann. Miami Vice was where the change to HD was most evident, since Collateral shot the daytime scenes in 35 most of Miami Vice was shot digitally, and if you saw that film the case could be made it was the format that took you out of the movie or into the movie, depending on your point of view. It took me out of it. The strobing and jerky motion (the movie cost 150 million to make) just looked cheap.

The future, now or then?

In the next five years, I predict digital would be the dominant image acquisition format. It already is on television, where schedules are tight and tapeless workflow speeds up post production. I can appreciate the latter, being an editor I hate logging tape. The issue is, with digital tools replacing the old tried and true method, does it result in better images and better storytelling? that's a hung jury. Audiences already used to the digital look and don't care anymore. The cameras would get better, cheaper, and more sophisticated and as the creative possibilities expand, so do the storytelling ones. What I would say is this: Film is better, no question about it.

Mann, are you listening?