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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Side Effects

SIDE EFFECTS (Three Stars)
U.S.: Steven Soderbergh. 2013

Drugs can alter our world, sometimes in ways we want (good, perhaps ), sometimes in ways we don’t want (often bad), sometimes in ways that rob us of  our right minds and our very souls (very bad). Sometimes, the movies can do something similar — though I’m not necessarily thinking of Side Effects.

The fictitious drug Ablixa in Side Effects — an intelligent but unpleasant thriller by director-cinematographer-editor Steven Soderbergh — is  supposed to handle depression. But what it actually creates (or reveals) is a kind of  hell on earth, wrapped up in slick movie thriller trimmings. Our guy at the center, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) triggers that hell by giving Ablixa to very troubled patient Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who was married to hedge fund criminal Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) and once was a psychiatric patient of icy Doctor Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The other actors in the drama, all affected by Emily’s drug-induced change  include Emily’s seemingly compassionate office boss (Polly Draper), NYPD cop Beahan (Victor Cruz) and Banks’ unhappy wife Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw)..

The consequences of all this are dire. But we’ll keep them to ourselves for the moment, because, as critics, we’ve been requested to conceal this movie’s beginning and first main twist (a doozy) by the film’s representatives. Fair enough. I remember my anger as a young moviegoer when Hedda Hopper (I believe it was) gave away the kicker revelation of Psycho in her column — her way of giving Hitchcock a big tssk-tssk for his taboo-defying masterpiece. Soderbergh‘s movie is no masterpiece, even though it defies a taboo or two. But, if the people who made Side Effects, many of whom are Steven Soderbergh, want me to shove their cards back up my sleeve — well, it’s their movie.

SPOILER ALERT (There’s no avoiding it.) ROLLOVER TO REVEAL

What happens in the film, the stuff we’re not supposed to know ahead of time, is that Ablixa, which  Dr. Banks gives Emily (and to which he has business/research ties), apparently effects her in such a drastic way that she stabs her ex-con hedge-fund hubby, in the midst of his campaign to get back in the money game, and that Banks then becomes more deeply involved with Emily as her doctor, and eventually we discover—Well, we’ll keep that one under wraps, because it’s a further surprise nd a juicy one.

END OF ALERT

What Side Effects is trying to do — courtesy of that intelligent and unpleasant script by Scott Z Burns (the writer of other Soderberghs, like Contagion and The Informant!) —  is tell an old-fashioned cynical James M. Cain-style erotic crime thriller yarn, about sex and murder and the dark side of the American dream, but update it with lots of good-looking cotemporary people and backgrounds and a nerve-jangling electronic score (by Thomas Newman of the celebrated musical Newmans) and a steady stream of twists and surprises. It’s a modern neo-noir with old-fashioned noir roots.

But though the movie is certainly done every well (the norm for Soderbergh), and though it’s exactly the kind of movie (brainy, unsentimental, ready to go all the way) that we’re often starved for, I can’t say I liked it very much — or disliked it very much either, for that matter. It’s not a very likable film, unless you’re keen on watching pretty people do ugly things — a performance that usually needs either a sharp sense of humor or a talent for terror to come off strong.

The acting is good, but, in some cases, not inspiring. While Law teases out the contradictions in Banks, Mara needs more acid for Emily. Both of  them start out seeming to be one thing and then (maybe)  become surprisingly another, but Law’s metamorphosis is the more engrossing.

As an actor, Law can play callous and selfish and obnoxiously handsome (like the playboy murder victim Dickie Greenleaf in Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley), or earnest and upright and likable (like his version of D. Watson opposite Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes), or sometimes as a mixture of both (like his best role, the android gigolo in A. I.). Here he evolves from a sympathetic character to one less so, partly by letting his initially guileless seeming smile mutate into something thinner and meaner.

As for the others, Rooney Mara has another role that, like her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which paled next to the original by Noomi Rapace), may be a little too dark for her — though her Emily is enough of a cipher to let the story work. Catherine Zeta-Jones was born to play neo-noir types and I wish the studios would cast her more often, in films worthy of her most poisonous moments.

SPOILER ALERT  ROLLOVER TO REVEAL

Channing Tatum, stripped well for Soderbergh in Magic Mike and he dies well for him here.

END OF ALERT

Soderbergh — who photographs his films under the alias “Peter Andrews,” edits as “Mary Ann Bernard” and directs as himself — he has caused a rumpus of sorts by declaring this as his last film, or at least his last theatrical release. I find that hard to believe. He‘s only 59, which often signals the rime decade for movie directors with long careers, like Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock. Soderbergh already has a Liberace TV biopic in the can called Behind the CandelabraIngmar Bergman, a great gloomy  Swede (perhaps like Soderbergh’s antecedents), once declared that the 1983 Fanny and Alexander would be his last film, and he went on to write or direct quite a few more, including his real last film, the 2003 Saraband. Bergman shouldn’t have kept that pledge. Neither should Soderbergh, who has been one of the most prolific and versatile and admirable American filmmakers of the past several decades.

He‘s only 50 and he‘s worked a lot and he may be tired or frustrated. Frankly, Side Effects looks a bit like the work of a guy who’s a little tired and frustrated  — which is what sometimes happens when you work hard and often, in many capacities, and keep trying to make something new and different each time out. It’s one of the penalties of productivity and keeping off the beaten path — or at least one of their side effects.

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Wilmington

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas