Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013) movie poster

director Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 02/09/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Side Effects is a quite entertaining thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, who claims that it will be his final feature film.  Will it be his last?  Who knows.  But it is a good flick, a twisty-turny story of lives lived in and around prescription pharmaceuticals, namely anti-depressants.  To say more in a lot of ways would ruin the movie for you.

It stars Rooney Mara as the depressive wife of a man imprisoned for insider trading.  That man is Channing Tatum, Soderbergh’s current male muse.  Jude Law is the psychiatrist who happens upon Mara after a suicide attempt, the man who becomes her therapist and medicator.  For quite a while, it seems that the film is kind of going after the anti-depressant industry.  But then it turns out to be the aforementioned thriller, trading off on a topical point for its key narrative devices.

Mara, who was so good in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), is both lovely and riveting as the crux of this movie’s manic-depressive heart.  Everybody does well in the film, typical of Soderbergh who has had good relationships with his stars and actors, giving them juicy roles and letting them do their thing.  And this is him hitting all his marks and getting a good, solid film out of the process.

Personally, I hope that Soderbergh keeps making films.  He’s not as daring as all that but he likes to mix it up.  And as much as he likes to mix it up, he likes to make a crowd pleaser, typically intelligent-seeming crowd pleasers.  And of that ilk, Side Effects is a good example.

Haywire (2011)

Haywire (2011) movie poster

director Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 07/07/2012

Director Steven Soderbergh devised the film, Haywire, as a star-making vehicle for mixed-martial arts fighter Gina Carano.  It’s not the first time that Soderbergh has sought to build a film around a non-mainstream performer.  His 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience, employed porn actress Sasha Grey in her first mainstream feature film, building around her own unique qualities.  In Carano’s case, it’s her fighting skills that should make her the most compelling. So an international intrigue is constructed, giving her an action-based role to show her stuff and kick some ass.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as it might have sounded on paper.

Carano is very beautiful and built.  And she can kick ass.  And for the most part, the film doesn’t ask her to work with a great breadth of range.  Really, this is a typical given in the action realm even for male stars.  But then in a typical action film, no holds barred, it’s action, action, action and violence.  It’s not usually trying to be urbane, intelligent, or otherwise meaningful.  Soderbergh is looking to make an intelligent action film at the very least, and Carano needs to have character and be something more than a figure hitting her marks.  There were times in the film that I felt like I could imagine someone coaching her through a scene: “Okay, look down.  Pause.  Look left, look right, step off camera.”  Most likely she hit her marks and it’s not that she’s so much a “bad” actress as much as she seems to be going through these motions.

Quentin Tarantino used stuntwoman Zoë Bell in Death Proof (2007) similarly, but he didn’t try to build the whole film around her (it was bad enough as it was).  There is, especially in action films, something very compelling about someone whose physicality is just presented on screen, doing their own stunts, showing their skills.  But the most successful ones have some larger acting ability or outright charisma/persona that carries them further.  Carano’s performance is understandably understated but also quite muted.  And in the end, Soderbergh doesn’t specialize in fight scenes, especially with someone doing their own stunts.  Those sequences seem very choreographed (of course they are, they just aren’t supposed to look like they are).

The story itself is kind of confusing, told in flashbacks and semi-linear order, I couldn’t completely sort out what was supposed to be going on.  The bottom line is that Carano’s character works in some covert ops for a third party firm working for government and something goes wrong, she gets set up for assassination.  She’s got to figure out too.  Ultimately, you can kind of figure who the bad guys are and even if it doesn’t make total sense, it’s not the biggest problem with the film.  Or at least not the biggest that I had with it.

I had heard that it wasn’t all that great, but I’d liked Soderbergh’s last genre film, Contagion (2011), and held some hope that it might be more worthwhile.  It’s decent, by no means atrocious.  But by no means particularly worthwhile, either.

Contagion (2011)

Contagion (2011) movie poster

director Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 02/18/2012

I have been pretty keen on seeing Contagion.  I guess you’d have to say “how keen?” as I neither managed to see it in the theater and was also patient enough to wait for Netflix to finally release the film (after their embargo on new content expired).  It had a lot of good buzz and it looked to me to be quite the thing to see.  But I guess that I was able to be patient enough to wait for it to come to me.

A disease thriller, this is only science fiction in that it is fiction.  The plot adheres as closely to a believable reality of a modern epidemic.  Think H1N1, but this time, people die by the thousands.  You get a runny nose, you feel like crap, three days later you’re in seizures and then you die.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow (actually, being a big star probably increases your chances of failing to make it through the film alive).

The film starts off running, with its pantheon of stars, several sets of mini-narratives, cross-cutting one another, attempt to tell this global story at a pace and immediacy of the now.  Much is made of the “fomites,” the many objects or touches that can swiftly pass a pathogen on from one human to the next or the many.  Director Steven Soderbergh lets the camera linger just long enough on the peanut bowl at the bar, the handles on a bus, the number of times a person touches their face and then touches a public object.  It’s a germophobe’s nightmare deluxe.

And for that matter, it’s an incredibly timely nightmare for the world.  In our increasingly global universe, the right contagion could sweep the human populace like the Black Death, taking down immense numbers of people, a significant percentage of the human race.   Some say it’s just a matter of time.  Perhaps the movie is perfectly prescient.

The movie is really quite good through the first hour or so.  The zeitgeist thriller really taps into something and moves with alacrity and with some deadly power.  The only thing is that the last half hour or so, the film loses some of its potency.  It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly, what happened, but it sort of sputters to the finish line.  I found the Jude Law character the weakest of the bunch and the kidnapping of Marion Cotillard seemed to veer off from whatever track had the film moving so well.  This hardly ruins the film, just diminishes what starts out as a top rate flick.  A popcorn movie that will keep you from sharing your popcorn.

The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 10/26/09

There was a period, right after director Steven Soderbergh had released Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), and The Limey (1999), that I thought he was the most under-rated director in Hollywood, reeking of promise.  Of course, that is when a great deal of the media picked up the same belief, not to mention Soderbergh himself.  Then his commerical rise to prominence began: Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), and his re-make of Ocean’s Eleven (2001).  And while I still liked his work, he was no secret, but quite the opposite, a Hollywood darling, with stars fawning over working with him like Julia Roberts (who got her Oscar for Brockovich) and George Clooney, who seems to have become his better-looking best pal.

And then I saw Full Frontal (2002), his first attempt in several years to make an “indie” film, but making an “indie” film with lots of celebrities slumming for him on the cheap so that he could shoot something less commercial and involve them in a project that “felt” different from their gilded movie sets.  And it wasn’t entirely wrong-minded, but it also was.

And after that, not Ocean’s Twelve (2004), nor Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), nor his re-make of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), nor nothing, had really made me want to watch another Soderbergh film for a long time.  And I hadn’t.

When The Girlfriend Experience came out earlier this year, it got a lot of positive buzz.  Yet again, Soderbergh was returning to his “indie roots”, making a film “on the cheap” by Hollywood standards, using none of his stable of nameable, bankable stars, and using a style that was non-linear and vaguely pseudo-documentary to tell the story of a high-priced call girl who specializes in creating a “girlfriend experience” with her dates, being interactive and interested and creating a pseudo relationship beyond the sex.  And I was intrigued.

The Girlfriend Experience is in essence more true to the spirit of independent filmmaking, not relying on stars or anything very commercial, but leaning on a more thoughtful subject matter and a more complicated approach to storytelling.  It’s non-linear enough that it takes quite a while to realize that there is not only a story arc, but that we’ve been glimpsing segments of the arc out of order already before it fully comes together.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is how contemporary it tries to be, keeping in topic with the 2008 election issues and a slant toward the financial present of the film’s creation.  There is much said in relationship to commodities, the economy, the marketplace, transposed through a lens of the relationship between Chelsea/Christine and her boyfriend.  They are two people trying to “make it” in New York.  Chelsea as a high-priced call girl, and her boyfriend, also in a job related to the human flesh, a physical trainer, who is striving to develop more of a career and a paycheck.  And Chelsea gets a lot of advice from her clients in passing, to invest in gold, how to manage her money, how to develop her career.

And there is the rub.  The other experience is the “girlfriend experience” which she fakes for pay, yet plays out in her regular life with her boyfriend.  But then again, she doesn’t.  She’s built a solid wall around herself, seems immensely emotionally detached all of the time, shows her boyfriend a complete lack of commitment, falling for a client because of some personality algorithm or astrological/numerological system in which she believes.  While not entirely so, in many ways she comes off as a cipher, a shallow or unknowable soul, whose depths are never registered.  And the relationship analysis, the commoditization of her relationships, the parallels in her boyfriend’s work, it’s all out there, but it’s not clear really, what Soderbergh thinks of it all.

What I think is both oddly strange and vaguely disturbing is that in casting porn actress Sasha Grey as Chelsea, there has been, at least in the marketing and critical reception, and perhaps in the casting as well, some sense of verity from a person who is a sex worker (though of a different sort), who carries the gravitas and “realism” of person.  And the thing about Grey is that she does make an impression in the film, her flat manner of speech, her simple pretty-ness if not beauty, and her blandly detached character are key to the power of the film.  But what does her other experience have to bring to that that another actress or even herself could have brought to the role without having experience as a sex worker?  Why does she carry more weight in this in other than projected ways?  Would you not be able to see the film and not need to know that she was a well-known porn actress?

And I think that this was my problem with the film (though on the outside of the film, not within the film itself), and I don’t know whether to attribute that to the marketing or perhaps the concept in casting her.  In the film itself, she is good, as a character, the character that she is, whether she was being herself or acting the emotionless, disconnected beauty.

But her character is a strong contrast to her boyfriend, who loves her and cares for her, in full knowledge of her career.  He is only hurt when she chooses some random guy as more important than him, showing that she, in a sense, is playing her role throughout her life with everyone.  Is there someone beneath the veneer?  And her boyfriend seems more sympathetic and genuine.  Is Soderbergh making some reference about femininity?  One of his characters consulting the boyfriend describes all women as “evil”, their “species”.  And while the boyfriend discounts this, he doesn’t raise a rhetorical argument.

The film is interesting, and it’s interesting as well to see Soderbergh making something not purely marketable.  It has a weird vibe of this sort of pseudo-experimental, off-beat, disjointedness, that is then intercut with some rather interesting music, some from street musicians, but giving a more produced sound to the soundtrack.  It’s an odd, mixed bag, with some vaguely troubling issues.  I’m interested in seeing The Informant! (2009), his latest film, which also received good reviews.  So, maybe my little lag from him is over.

Full Frontal

Full Frontal (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 03/29/03

This film, which seems like Soderbergh’s flaccid attempt at regaining some “indie” credibility now that he has become one of Hollywood’s “made men,” having garnered a directorial Oscar for Traffic (2000). Having discovered that his sensibilities for filmmaking seem to thrive in mainstream production, perhaps he felt that he had to get back to lo-fi basics and try shooting with a somewhat Dogme95-inspired approach.

The fact that Soderbergh made a set of rules (“The Rules”) for all his Hollywood buddies who participated in this film (rules like doing their own make-up, getting and caring for their own clothes, and driving themselves to filming locations), seems sort of Dogme-like, though in application to the biggest, overpaid moviestars on the planet, including Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. There is a sense of pretention in the attempt at forgoing the pretentions of a big Hollywood production. Shot largely on digital video and with most of the celebs working for “scale,” the film tries to pretend that it didn’t come from a big studio.

The film itself reads almost like Robert Altman “lite,” featuring a number of intersecting narratives and a myriad of characters. There is a whole self-reflexive “film-within-a-film” thing going on, too, which I had a hard time fathoming the nuance of. All this said, the film is not awful. It’s not very good either, though. I’d be willing to posit that even a pretty hardcore fan of Soderbergh’s would cotton to this film particularly. Though, based on its marketing, you might guess that hardcore Soderbergh fans (how many of those can there be?) would be the only ones really interested in seeing this.

I have to say that after Schizopolis (1996), Out of Sight (1998), and The Limey (1999), I was thinking that Soderbergh was the most under-rated director in Hollywood. His rating rose up and now he may be one of the most over-rated. His actual quality may have stayed the same overall, but this little vanity project, trying to make a quick film on the cheap, isn’t his metier.

Ocean’s Eleven

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 06/15/02

Steven Soderbergh has mastered many aspects of making poppy, popular Hollywood fare, and Ocean’s Eleven exemplies the style and character of his last four or five films. It’s entertaining, stylish, and more intelligent than at least 90% of the rest of the stuff that the Hollywood machine cranks out. It seems an ironic spot for a former “Indie” director to have worked himself into, but he definitely seems to be thriving as one of the current name directors in American mainstream cinema.

Out of Sight (1998), his previous teaming with George Clooney, was similarly up-tempo and fun to watch and was certainly less overtly a “social issue” film, like Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000). Soderbergh does seem interested in the conventions of genre in these films, and in Ocean’s Eleven, the film is almost unabashedly a “caper film” in which the storyline’s entertainment value far outweighs its need for plausibility.

And it is entertaining, though not spectacular. Though Soderbergh’s films tend to be up-tempo, they also play a little low-key (I guess as opposed to “over-the-top” or somewhere in between).

Ocean’s Eleven certainly played with the surveillence theme, envisioning the casino as panopticon and Andy Garcia’s casino operator as the all-hearing, all-knowing being behind it all. His control stems from his ability to know everything that goes on in his casino. And ultimately he is duped when the images that his equipment projects are pirated and falsified. And he is, without a doubt, the heartless villain behind the machine.

But I digress into an analysis that would definitely take some more thought and probably as second view to work up. And after all, this is just good plain fun mindless entertainment, right?