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SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

 

Stars: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 100 Minutes
Release Date: July 17, 2018

ďThis isnít supposed to happen. Iíve spent nine years structuring my life so this didnít happen.Ē

Film ****

At only 26 years old, a then unknown writer and director named Steven Soderbergh would end up not only making a name for himself but helped to reshape the independent film scene with his first feature, sex, lies and videotape. With a script he penned over the course of a week, a film crew that was mostly inexperienced and a cast of mostly unknowns with the exception of one, little did anyone at the time have any speculation that this would end up being that little movie that could. And here we are nearly 30 years later, where the film is just as potent today as it was then.

In spite of a production laced with limited means, Soderbergh was sure to make the most of it. And despite a title that promised titillation, the film managed to deliver a more striking effect by having nearly no sex at all but by characters talk about things associated with the issue as opposed to showing acts of passion. Itís almost as if Soderbergh himself was making a comment that films had gotten away from this, and wanted to illustrate that films consisting of conversations can strike just as huge an impact as those that thrive on showing racy scenes.

The story centers on a marriage that, right away, shows signs of one slowly falling apart. Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher) appear to not be the slightest bit intimate. She seems rather reserved, while he works constant long hours at a law firm where heís just been made partner. But a crucial factor in the marriageís current state is that John is having an affair with Annís sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).

Adding fuel to fire in unexpected ways is the arrival of Graham (James Spader), an old college friend of Johnís. Ann finds herself somehow drawn to him. One day, she visits his place and is curious by a collection of videotapes in his possession, each of which is labeled with a womanís name. He is quick to admit to her that itís part of a personal project heís been working on for the past nine yearsÖin which he videotapes frank discussions of sex with different women.

We learn that Graham is impotent, and pretty much has been since he broke up with his college girlfriend years ago. The videotaped discussions are a way to cope with it. Ann is at first turned off by this notion. But she is quick to tell Cynthia about it, who then decides to become an interview subject herself, as she is the more wild nature of the two sisters.

Grahamís presence ends up unraveling quite a bit in just about everyone. This is especially true of Ann, whoís turned a blind eye to her husbandís lying but when sheís confronted with the truth once and for all, she throws all her reservations out the door and decides to bare all her truths on video for Graham. And it is all revealed in a harrowingly effective manner by Soderbergh, who displays his unique approach for unfolding revelations that would later be used in many of his later films.

The four main performances are all completely stellar. Iíve long felt this was James Spaderís most effective work to date, in what is a grand example of pure understated acting perfection. And Andie MacDowell, in addition to being one of my longtime celebrity crushes, makes quite a first impression with her breakthrough role here.

In terms of making the most with limited resources, I donít think any filmmaker has surpassed what Soderbergh accomplished with this film. It is hard for a film to get by simply on extended conversations, but this (along with In the Company of Men and My Dinner with Andre) is one of the very few that manages to pull it off and leaving viewer struck with just a powerful effect as if they had watched an extended action sequence. Soderbergh has gone on to become one of our most treasured filmmakers, and this film perfectly illustrates how he earned such a status.

Video ****

Criterion marvels yet again with a stunning 4K restoration that will floor you. And this is one case where I had seen the film on its previous Blu-ray release, which was also great and thought couldnít ever be toppedÖbut now it has. The restored picture is nothing but first-rate pristine quality as only Criterion can bring! Colors and image detail are rivetingly displayed throughout, with the right amount of grain left intact. Dark levels are also remarkably strong!

Audio ***1/2

Itís rare that I give such a high rating in this field to a film that is powered by nothing more that dialogue, but Criterion found a way to make me do so with this astounding 5.1 mix that they have supplied here. Every bit of the dialogue is delivered to perfection here to the point that the most potent moments in the film deliver an even bigger effect than before. The music score from frequent Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez also gets a most effective performance as a result!

Features ****

First off, the packaging on this release is one of the best you will see all year. Itís a digipak packaging that comes with a most unique slipcovers in a long time. In addition, Criterion delivers an excellent supplemental lineup for this release, combining old and new extras. We get a commentary with Soderbergh and director Neil LaBute, which makes for a most interesting listen, as well as a new introduction by Soderbergh. We are treated to terrific interviews with Soderbergh from 1990 and 1992, in addition to a new documentary about the making of the film featuring Peter Gallagher, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo. We also get an interview from 1989 with James Spader, as well as a new conversation between sound editor/re-recording mixer Larry Blake and composer Cliff Martinez, a deleted scene with commentary by Soderbergh, a demonstration of sound restorations on the film through the years, Trailers for the film and a great booklet featuring an essay by critic Amy Taubin and excerpts from Soderberghís 1990 book about the film.

Summary:

In terms of first time features, sex, lies and videotape deserves to be in the hall of fame, as Steven Soderbergh helped to reshape the independent film scene into what it is today. It is just as effective today as it was in 1989! The new Blu-ray release from Criterion is one of the best all-around discs to surface this year, and demands to be part of your collection!

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