Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects is the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh about a young woman’s (played by Ronney Mara) world being turned around when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (played by Jude Law) has unexpected side effects.

Similar to Lian Johnson’s Looper last year, Side Effects is a film that continually mutates its genome and plays its surprises based off the audience’s familiarized expectations of genre convention. I did not know anything about the film going in. In its first act, I thought it was a serious issue-tainment film about the modern practice of prescription medicine. To the end of the first third, it shifted into a new place. By the mid-point, I just stopped trying to guess where it was going to go and decided to just enjoy the ride. I was on the edge of my seat and did not have any grasp of what was to come. Where it ends up is insane and it will divide audiences but I much rather credit the ride more than the final destination.

Rooney Mara plays the pain of depression in a very realistic fashion. At times, it felt like watching a documentary. That’s how real she played it. This performance could have easily fit into a serious drama about having depression if they chose to continue with the first third of the issue-tainment portion.

Jude Law has the heaviest task to do because he balances a lot of the film as it goes through its many tonal shifts. As the psychiatrist character, he is the most reliable character the audience can trust and there is a lot less wiggle room for his character to suddenly change along with the genre shifting or plot twists. He manages them well and does a good job anchoring the film as it gets crazier in the third act.

I haven’t seen Chicago but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ acting in the past has always been distracting to me because she’s constantly preening for the camera. She is too aware of the camera positions and constantly adjusts how much to tilt her head, dilate her pupils or purse her lips for each shot (she’s doing up in the poster! See above). It’s like she’s constantly posing for still-based fashion photography slideshow instead of performing for a time-based forward-motion medium. It doesn’t help the story move forward if you’re constantly asking the audience to ogle over you. Yes, you are pretty, I get it. Kudos to you! I know I am ranting now, but that’s how frustrated it made me.

That aside, she is also playing up a campiness that seems tonally incongruent to the other performances in the film. It’s in her tongue-in-cheek delivery of the dialogue. She’s the odd one out of the entire cast and threatens the overall quality of the movie. Fortunately her part is a supporting one and she manages through the film on wafer thin ice.

Steven Soderbergh says this is his last film. Not that I really ever believe it when any director/celebrity/athlete say they’re retiring anyways. Side Effects is a decent way to go out but I certainly hope this isn’t his last film.

Related Reviews
Behind the Candelabara by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause,” who sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. Freddie takes a liking to “The Cause” and begins traveling with Dodd along the East Coast to spread the teachings.

The fact that the film is a fictitious revision of the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (here they call it “The Cause” to avoid a lawsuit) and John Steinbeck, and the lack of a strong plot makes The Master an odd dodgy animal of a film. I cannot quite grasp what the film’s themes were or its central message – this was probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention. Why PTA intended such a cinematic experience is not entirely clear within the film. It’s surprisingly not interested in the inner workings of Scientology or cult organization. It’s about men wanting to find and heal their souls after a post-war period. One man has no idea how to do it and the other claims to have all the answers. Psychology has not yet established itself with people as recognized science yet and therein arises the cult of The Cause. And somewhere in there is a rite of passage, coming-of-age story. It is fleeting; I cannot exactly pinpoint it.

Having said all that, Paul Thomas Anderson does capture something very engaging- the central relationship between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd is fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly embodies pain of a man who’s been through war. He contorts his body as if he were literally “beaten out of shape”. I read that after a few drafts of the screenplay, PTA decided that it should be Freddy’s story and I do think this is probably the better decision. He is the more sympathetic character simply because he’s trying to work through his past pain and fit in society. That alone almost justifies his frequent bursts of violence.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great and the director presents the character Lancaster Dodd as if he were a salesman. The character would have lost its charm if the film shown him behind the scenes coming up with his questionable methods of healing. I’m glad they didn’t. There’s a interrogation-like healing session between Dodd and Quell where we see his ideas being physicalized that I really enjoyed. Also, I particularly liked scenes where Lancaster Dodd’s theories are questioned and he is forced to justify his theories publicly. It is very truthful how Hoffman presented how people like this never argue properly when their ideas are challenged. They tend to shrimp out of the argument or snap into an aggressive state. And yes, on that note…

There is a violence lurking beneath both men that makes them volatile characters. It becomes the key thing that connects their souls together and in a way you can call this a hetero-love story between two men. It also becomes the key thing that makes them engaging to the audience. I was unnerved about where they were going to end up. If it were not for this strong central relationship, I probably would have tuned out of the film. Both Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances were deservedly Oscar-nominated.

Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling musical score is noteworthy. It is never directly punctuates what is happening in the moment and it does not musically sync to specific cuts or montage. I started asking myself, why was the music unsettling me? How was it serving the film? For me (and I don’t mean this in a reductive way), the music was implying something outside what was happening onscreen and it suggested the idea of “What if Lancaster Dodd’s methods are effective?” “What if he is indeed helping people?” “What are the consequences if Dodd is just making it all up?” It had me thinking about the growing amount of people that were joining The Cause and how joining a cult may have seemed like an intelligent solution to post-traumatic stress at that time. Someone should give Greenwood an award for this.

The Master may frustrate some audiences because it leaves empty space where one would expect something concrete. It’s all very well done and even with empty space, I think most people will get something out of it. It’s masterful how PTA still managed to make it an engaging experience relying on so little. Exiting a film puzzling over it’s themes can be mentally fun, but that experience does not measure up to going through a fully satisfying catharsis. And that’s why, for my money, There Will Be Blood remains the superior Paul Thomas Anderson film.

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

 

 

In a post-apocalyptic zombie world, R (played by Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who is trying to cling onto his humanity, rescues human Julie Grigio (played by Theresa Palmer) from an zombie attack. The two form a relationship that offsets a sequence of events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

When Twilight first came out in 2008, there was a common critique going around that the day-walking glittering vampires depicted in the film were not true vampires. It was an interesting point that I had no answer for at the time, but it got me thinking a lot. Is it okay to change the rules for a movie monster? If vampires can walk during the daytime, does that negate the established rules for a vampire? If zombies can sprint after you, are they still technically zombies? And more so, within in it’s own narrative goals, does committing to the traditional definitions of a movie monster even matter?

Warm Bodies settled this question. We’ll come back to this later…

It is artful how much humanity they were able to inject into Nicholas Hoult’s lead zombie character R. They use every cinematic trick in the book including close-up reaction shots, going into his thoughts and dreams and even a witty dry voice-over device. Furthermore, R does something at the beginning of the film that would have easily lost the audience to care about him but yet the film still had me rooting for him and his romance with Julie.

I never could have imagined a love story being played from this angle. This film is very aware of this and proceeds to guide the audience by drawing from recognizable story tropes such as teen romance, zombie horror, apocalyptic science fiction and a fairy tale aesthetic. In this stir fry chop suey fashion, there is a genuine love story running as a thorough line but the story tropes are tossed around for laughs. It’s a fun experience as you see the film’s play on these different story tropes. I.e. “Oh, it’s the musical montage where they fall in love. Oh, he just did the thing that will make the girl go away! Oh, that’s how he’s going to win her back!”

On a side note, Rob Cordroy is funny as the comic sidekick. As this film is meant to be a parody of Twilight, it’s kind of funny how Theresa Palmer looks like a blonde Kristin Stewart.

So finally, does committing to the traditional definition of a movie monster matter? No, it does not matter. The key is setting up your monster to suit the goals of the story. In this case, it’s humanizing the lead zombie character and making us believe that someone might fall in love with him. The film takes its time to set up its own rules and slowly supports its goals like a well-written thesis paper. The creation of the Bonies (the zombies that are “zombie-er” than the “normal” zombies) is a smart idea and it fits rather neatly with providing a more evil, scarier embodiment to act as the antagonist. Yes, these filmmakers changed the rules, but justifiably so.

In the end, it works. I laughed plenty of times. It’s smart, knows its audience and very clear on it’s goals. Sitting in the theater, I heard separate ‘girl laughs’ and ‘guy laughs’ from different parts of the theater throughout the screening. And that’s a key thing about Warm Bodies, the tone is so mathematically tweaked to a tee that both the girlfriend and boyfriend can enjoy it as a date movie together. There is something fun to enjoy for everybody. Yes, even the horror purists too.