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Legal download: Indie Soderbergh on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, we announce our retirement and then take it all back for a look at the indie productions of director Steven Soderbergh you can find online.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Indie Soderbergh

Though he’s made some of the best mainstream entertainments of the last 25 years, including CONTAGION and the OCEAN’S franchise, director Steven Soderbergh has never forgotten his indie film roots. Throughout his career he’s always found time to mix quirky passion projects with his globetrotting blockbusters. He’s pretty much done it all: thrillers, procedurals, action, crime films, biopics, even long-form monologues. With all that diversity to choose from, it was tough to pick just five of his movies available for legal download and streaming, but here they are:

On SundanceNow
AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE (2010)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
$3.99 to rent or stream; $17.99 to purchase

In 1996, Soderbergh collaborated with monologuist Spalding Gray on the storytelling film GRAY’S ANATOMY (which later went on to in no way inspire the hit television series Grey’s Anatomy). A few years after Gray took his own life following a severe bout of depression, Soderbergh returned to the performance artist’s work and condensed 120 hours of raw footage from his archives into a 90 minute film — essentially a sort of final monologue of summation. AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE bounces between crudely recorded theatrical performances, interview outtakes, and segments from Gray’s other monologue films including Jonathan Demme’s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, and covers everything from his childhood in Rhode Island with his mentally unbalanced mother (she committed suicide as well) to his experiences as a working actor. Here Soderbergh tries to do something Gray spent his whole life working towards: summing up his whole life — and all of life — in one great speech.

On Amazon Instant Video
THE LIMEY (1999)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
$1.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

Not long after GRAY’S ANATOMY, Soderbergh’s career got a major boost from a one-two punch of crime stories: the star-studded (but decidedly eclectic) OUT OF SIGHT and the indie (and also decidedly eclectic) THE LIMEY. Based on a screenplay by Lem Dobbs, who also wrote Soderbergh’s KAFKA and his most recent film, HAYWIRE, THE LIMEY follows a British ex-con named Wilson (a ferocious Terrence Stamp) as he travels to Los Angeles to investigate his daughter’s death. The most likely culprit turns out to be Wilson’s daughter’s record producer boyfriend Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Terry, by the way, pops up frequently in Soderbergh’s films as the name of suave but sinister villains (see also the OCEAN’S franchise); do you think Li’l Steven got wedgied by a dude named Terry or something? Like OUT OF SIGHT, THE LIMEY employs a disjointed chronological structure — something that quickly became a hallmark of much of his later work, including CHE and the aforementioned HAYWIRE. THE LIMEY, though, has a much nastier edge. It’s like a really good pretzel of a movie: twisty and salty.

On Netflix
BUBBLE (2006)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Free for streaming plan members

A lot of Hollywood films are marked by a kind of cookie cutter sameness: everyone is so beautiful, so perfect, and so boring. Soderbergh’s 2005 experiment into super low budget digital filmmaking feels like a pointed rebuke of that kind of mainstream perfection. The sets are drab, the colors are muddy, and the actors — all untrained nonprofessionals Soderbergh found around Ohio and West Virginia, where the movie was shot — look like real human beings instead of underwear models. They’re a trio of employees at a doll factory (another reference to the Hollywood machine and its assembly line of identically attractive products) — older Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), shy Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), and newcomer Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) — who spend their days in an endless cycle of tedious work and awkward lunchtime conversations (all conducted over a stomach churning rotation of fast food wrappers and super sized sodas). BUBBLE eventually settles into the shape of a recognizable genre but Soderbergh’s resolutely uncommercial eye maintains a fascinatingly strange vibe. The film has its flaws — which means it isn’t just another cookie cutter.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (2009)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Free for streaming plan members

Just four years after BUBBLE, Soderbergh returned with another low-budget feature and showed just how far digital filmmaking technology had come. Where BUBBLE had grit and grain, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE has gloss and shine. Where BUBBLE was ugly, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is beautiful. The style fit the substance perfectly: the life of a high-class New York call girl. In true Soderbergh fashion there’s an added twist: the call girl is played by Sasha Gray, a real-life porn star. The film contains relatively little nudity, and no hardcore sexuality, but the presence of a woman who knows what it’s like to sell her body for a living lends her character’s tale an added bit of heft. Seeing THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE in a New York City screening room and being absolutely blown away by the crispness of the images and the richness of their colors was the moment I first realized that film was an endangered species. It’s just too bad Soderbergh had already made that other movie called GRAY’S ANATOMY. The title would have worked perfectly here.

On iTunes
CHE: PARTS 1 and 2 (2008)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
$3.99 to rent, $4.99 to rent HD; $14.99 to purchase (per film).

If you had to nominate just one movie to represent the totality of American independent film, everything it is and strives it be, a very strong case could be made that CHE should be that film. Everything about CHE goes against the conventional wisdom of what makes a commercial film: a two-parter that runs nearly four hours in a foreign language that completely avoids the thing that made its subject a household name: the signature photograph of Che Guevara that became a pop cultural icon (you never see the photo being taken or displayed, much less turned into a T-shirt). In similarly crowd-displeasing terms, Soderbergh’s two CHE films — THE ARGENTINE and GUERILLA — chart the legendary revolutionary’s rise (the former) and collapse (the latter) while spending very little time on his successes. Soderbergh rarely asks why — why one revolution failed where another triumphed, why Che left Cuba for Bolivia — and instead focuses on how — how Communist revolutions were carried out, how they were won, and how they were lost. Soderbergh and his producer/star Benicio del Toro took one of the most cliched genres in the book — the biopic of the great historical figure — and made perhaps the least cliched version of that genre in history. That’s exactly how independents do it.