Warning: ‘Side Effects’ May Include Astonishment

Steven Soderbergh, who for my money is the most versatile filmmaker of the last 25 years, seems to still be planning that retirement from film.

If I may be allowed to beg and plead otherwise, I’d gladly use his last theatrical film Side Effects as reason for him to hang around a little while longer. But that’s not an option, and I believe an artist should go where they want, fulfill themselves and not others.

And so if the psyco-pharma-thriller Side Effects is the last new Soderbergh film I’ll be able to watch in the cinema for five years, 10 years or longer, I can at least be content and satisfied with what is one of the stylish filmmaker’s best efforts in a long time.

Side Effects stars Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a woman struggling with depression while welcoming her husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) home from a stay in prison for insider trading. Taylor soon becomes a patient of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and begins to receive all sorts of psychological and pharmaceutical treatment.

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in 'Side Effects.'

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in ‘Side Effects.’

The film quickly establishes itself as yet another very Soderberghian production – a phrase that I’ve yet to understand how to explain in words and can only grasp by image and feel. Side Effects, like other recent Soderbergh features ContagionHaywire, The Informant! and Magic Mike, is a very professional, composed, stylish and film enveloped in warm tones. It also is another collaboration with writer Scott Z. Burns.

There’s a lot about Side Effects that I don’t want to talk about for reasons of spoiling plot. It’s a film that, while not utterly dependent on its plot and character maneuvers, is certainly structurally all about them. Through Burns’ screenplay and Soderbergh’s direction, the viewer ends up in a completely different place at the end of the film than they were in at the middle of the film and certainly the beginning of the film. A dynamic, rousing story that critiques the health care system and pharmaceuticals is the blistering reason for this. Burns writes key characters into well-developed human begins, all with faults and glimpses of evil. In that way, it is one of a kind.

The characters in 'Side Effects' are sometimes thinking more than they're saying.

The characters in ‘Side Effects’ are sometimes thinking more than they’re saying.

But perhaps most key to hanging on to the astonishing, exciting and gripping story that Burns and Soderbergh document is to have fun with it. The characters do a lot of quiet thinking and decision-making, that is to say, things are done and decided without the audience being privy to it. As the film has more than one “main character” we are more observers of a depressing and troubling interaction between multiple than being given any single person’s point of view. These are wonderful, fun characters in the most morbid and morally corrupt way. They are conniving, controlling and convincing. It’s more than just Burns screenplay, it’s Soderbergh’s way of showing, not telling, and the performances that key us in to a lot more than what is just on the outside and shown through their actions.

Soderbergh dominates every genre he touches. He seems to retain originality by approaching all of these different kinds of films with no hang ups and no idea about what a psychological thriller has to be or needs to include. All of the films, as different as they sometimes are, share things and lend bits of themselves to the other ones. Side Effects is certainly a great example of that.

I sat through this Soderbergh film like I’ve sat through all of them. I’m overcome by the beautiful pictures and taken by the strong storytelling tactics. Only this time, I was saddened by the idea that this could very well be the last film from Soderbergh, one of my favorites in the business, that I get to watch in the cinema for a long time.

Mara and Tatum in 'Side Effects,' the last theatrical Steven Soderbergh film...for now.

Mara and Tatum in ‘Side Effects,’ the last theatrical Steven Soderbergh film…for now.

Like A French Heist Film, Just Less Cool

Steven Soderbergh went big with Ocean’s Eleven.

It came in 2001 near the tail end of his big time breakout that began with Erin Brokovich and was cemented by Traffic. The series as a whole are probably the most viewer-friendly films he’s ever made and that’s not just because of the star power behind them.

A lot of Soderbergh’s films have had star power. His Solaris remake had George Clooney and The Informant! had Matt Damon, yet those were two more challenging films that found less response than Clooney, Damon and Brad Pitt all together did. Ocean’s Eleven is a combination of Soderbergh unique intricacies and Hollywood’s glossy finish.

Like the greatest of great heist films, some of which Jean-Pierre Melville put his name to, Ocean’s Eleven is a bold plan. The cavalcade of star power plans an unprecedented heist – to steal from Las Vegas casinos. With Clooney and Pitt as ringleaders, the plan formulates and off we go.

The entire film kind of follows three interesting steps to the heist. Step one: the collection of rag tag individuals dumb enough to risk the heist. Step two: planning with those individuals to make sure things go off smoothly. Step three: the heist.

Soderbergh devotes a lot of time to the final two steps (but mostly the heist) and it draws comparisons to films like Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Jules Dassin’s Rififi, two of the greatest films you’ll find in the genre. In those films, the heists are intricate and carefully thought out. But what stands out in both of those films are the actual heist scenes. Both Melville and Dassin film them like art inside of art. Rififi is famous for its 30 minute heist scene shot in pure silence, with no dialogue between the men and no music faking nerve. Le Cercle Rouge has a similar motive in its heist.

Of course, there was no way Soderbergh could have pulled that off with Ocean’s Eleven, even if he wanted to, and gotten the same response from modern culture that he ended up receiving. Despite that, his heist scene is also impressive. It revolves more around the winding bits and pieces of the team of men pulling off the heist than the anticipation and nerve that Dassin and Melville formulated their burglaries off of.

Differentiating from the more tragic heist films of the past, you kind of get the feeling all along that Ocean’s Eleven isn’t going to end tragically and that it is predetermined success. Even with that thought imprinted in my mind, I thought Soderbergh maintained a sense of dignity and honesty in his heist by throwing his audience off just as much as the men robbing the casino threw off the casino’s security.

I’ve yet to watch the second and third films in the series but I really look forward to them both. I suspect Soderbergh will be giving more of the same and I can’t really think of a reason to believe otherwise. But with how cool Ocean’s Eleven actually was, I can’t see that being such a bad thing.

Soderbergh, Not An Action Director, Shows Action Directors How To Direct Action

I’ve said this about a dozen times on this blog before, but Steven Soderbergh really has proven to be a jack-of-all-trades behind the camera.

From the looks of the trailer for his next film, Magic Mike, it looks like the least Soderberghian film yet. Channing Tatum plays a male stripper, but instead of being the Boogie Nights of this decade, it looks more like a formulaic flick that doesn’t even have Soderbergh’s touch. And the top 40 song that plays in the trailer has me wanting it less. But I will still give it a shot.

Most recently Soderbergh broke from his mold with action flick Haywire. While action certainly hasn’t been his forte, you can see how his career has led to the point where he finally made a true one. He stuck to his mold by taking another non-actor like he did with porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Here, female UFC fighter Gina Carano stars as kickass badass black ops agent/soldier/whatever Mallory Kane. Soderbergh’s ability to successful stick these inexperienced people into lead roles really gives credence to his ability to direct an actor (especially a new one).

Carano doesn’t need to rely on her verbal abilities to win an audience over here though. It really comes down to her fists and feet and how hard they can punch the ever living shit out of another person. She holds herself really well in Haywire, with the best moments coming when Soderbergh is directing her through lengthy action scenes and sequences.

I could talk at length about how certain action films ruin themselves for me by editing their fight scenes and chase scenes into sequences where shots don’t ever last for more than a few seconds. Soderbergh isn’t that kind of director. He maintains a watchful eye over his action, which is choreographed so well that all he needs to do is figure out a nice, constrained way to capture it. Which he of course does.

Haywire features a number of unique, well thought out ways of filming a fight scene or chase scene. The simple placement of a camera in an unsuspecting place and the patience to not chop your film up into edits of one second, where every punch and kick is the signal to cut to a different angle, really has me holding Haywire in high regard among other similar films.

Soderbergh does well to place accomplished actors like Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor in the film to really hold down the fort. Michael Douglas could have used more scenes, but it wasn’t a surprise that his involvement was limited in this film. They all do a nice enough job to hold together an okay story about being screwed over by people who thought you could trust, but probably shouldn’t have. It’s a nice little ensemble cast that really provides an unexpected bonus to the rest of what is good about the film.

Haywire really is another nice achievement for Soderbergh. He is clearly an artist who likes to challenge himself whenever possible. His careful eye does wonders for the film’s action and Carano is surprisingly able to handle herself as someone brand new to film and acting. Those expecting any other sort of action flick than what I’ve described will be sorely disappointed.

Soderbergh Experiment #22: Contagion

How many good films can Steven Soderbergh churn out before he retires? Is he still planning on retiring? I can’t answer these questions. However I can tell you that Soderbergh, who dips his hand in just about any genre he can, is one of our generation’s best, with Contagion giving me further evidence to present that case.

Throughout his whole career, Soderbergh has given change and experimentation a chance. Which might be why he is so keen on “retiring” and putting his brain to new artistic tests. In the last few years Soderbergh has done a lot: he’s used porn star Sasha Grey as a leading actress, turned a female UFC fighter into an action star, made a daunting and masterful two-part biopic about Che Guevara and returned to a favorite subject of his – Spalding Gray – to document his life.

While it appears that the work never seems to stop for Soderbergh, none of those films, or any of his films, were rush jobs. One of his latest attempts at distorting common film notions is Contagion, a look at how disease travels and what a worldwide outbreak would mean for us all. Assembling a cast of stars (Laurence Fishburn, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Kate Winslet), Soderbergh has a lot of moving parts and puts a lot of ideas into motion in just under two hours.

What works so well in Contagion is its loose narrative. This isn’t a typical way to tell a story. In fact, there’s not much of a story being told, but more so an example of a world breaking down because of the way a virus has spread. Sure, there are important moments for each characters – terrible sadness, death, curiosity and a dash of humanity – but none of it matters more than the bigger picture: how did this virus start, how did it spread and what can be done to stop it. The death of Paltrow’s character Beth Emhoff in the film’s first 10 minutes and its impact on her husband (Damon, who plays Mitch Emhoff) doesn’t matter as much as what the world does to brace for the outbreak. In fact, some of the top-billed actors don’t even interact in the film. They’re in totally different worlds of their own inside one trembling, panicked world. It’s rather unique and fascinating to observe how Soderbergh took advantage of his star power.

Soderbergh presents us with chilling moments galore and its all heightened by a level of plausibility that exists because of how simple things are kept. But what’s more important is how much time the narrative goes through. Beginning on day two, the film takes laps through time, bringing us through the stages of an outbreak: panic, fear, research, trials, errors and calm, which is then followed by more fear. The film doesn’t leave us knowing what happened to certain characters, and it doesn’t have to. That’s not the point. Contagion is at times nothing more than a glossy, star-filled public service announcement about how you should wash your hands more often and stop touching your stupid face.

But that idea that Contagion is weak in certain areas is fully transcended by just how sharp Soderbergh is. The film is thrilling, chilling and other related -ing words.  Good performances by the entire cast help propel the film into another area, while the pulsating score combined with the invading fear of germs and death obviously keep you hooked.

Soderbergh will move on to release a few more films in 2012 and 2013. And surprise, there’s more experiments! First he will try to change Channing Tatum’s image – Tatum will star as a male stripper in Magic Mike this June. Then he teams back up with Scott Z. Burns – who wrote Contagion‘s screenplay – for The Side Effects, a psychological thriller starring, once again, Tatum and recent newly-christened star Rooney Mara.

It’s not a secret that almost every Soderbergh film is a challenging watch. He expects more out of his audience than most filmmakers and shows it. If you’re curious, go back to his most creative film Schizopolis and take that ride. He creates his own language and realities for parts of that experience.

With a number of other classics in his pocket (TrafficSex, Lies and Videotape) and a blockbuster series (Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13) it seems fitting that Soderbergh will try everything he can before he’s too old to think. Here’s to him experimenting forever and keeping us thinking too.

Damon Leads Strong in Soderbergh’s Quirky Tattle-tale

Steven Soderbergh rides along on a wavelength that is all to himself. It’s impossible to directly liken him to another name in cinema. In fact, the one constant that runs along all the films in his filmography is that outside of the Ocean’s series, no one film is truly like another.

And Soderbergh’s quietly funny satire The Informant! is only an extension of the variance his films have contained ever since he broke into the business with his industry changing film Sex, Lies and Videotape.

Based on a true “tattle-tale”, The Informant! is the story of a lysine price-fixing conspiracy centered on the company ADM. High-ranking Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) plays whistleblower on the whole situation, but things just don’t work out the way the bipolar executive envisions them to.

Certainly nothing about a man’s turmoil in life due to a bipolar disorder is funny, but this film, which happens to focus on such a thing, certainly is. Damon’s performance as antihero Mark Whitacre is a charismatic and indulging turn, and probably one of the actor’s best ever. And this perfect portrayal of a delusional, reckless-with-words man that Damon had to gain 20 to 30 pounds for is one of the reasons the film has such a high level of satirical, ironic and subtle sense of humor. Most of the funny business here flies low under the radar and the facade of the whole thing.

While I remain true to my no two Soderbergh films are the same mantra, those that have seen Soderbergh’s earlier comedy about office plight, Schizopolis, will know better than anyone else what to expect with this film. While not as strange as the experimental Schizopolis, the film is certainly not straight on its rocker, much like the main character. This goes for the film’s pacing and interludes of Whitacre’s random bipolar induced thoughts, which makes for some of the funniest dialogue in the film. “How do polar bears know their noses are black?” Whitacre wonders mid conversation.

And what cultural subtext message about big business sent by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who adapted the story to screen from the book The Informant, by Kurt Eichenwald. Here we have this mentally perturbed man, who if not for criminal involvement of his own, would be seen as a national hero for his exposure of his own corrupt corporation. And this “everyman” who absolutely earns his title of antihero, is one of the most likeable characters in the film and a man who appears to be one of the good guys, but in the end still comes out as corrupt.

It is true that people who aren’t in the same strange stratosphere as Soderbergh might not understand what there’s to take out of this film. But without Soderbergh’s consistently ironic tone or Damon’s outrageous performance that builds and builds and pulls the audience back into the story with each additional lie, what’s left is a rather average business web of intrigue story. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a few people feel left out. The Informant! could end up being comedy’s best kept secret.

The Informant! isn’t going to be remembered as a masterpiece mostly because it won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s fine, but for Soderbergh-ites like me, it truly is what’s expected and wanted when he attacks humor. If this film doesn’t successfully sneak up on everyone else by surprise, The Informant! is likely destined for cult status, much like most of Soderbergh’s past catalog has already been resigned to.

The Girlfriend Experience A New Experience For Cinema

Steven Soderbergh has always been known for his experimental filmmaking. Whether it is the non-linear plot construction of The Limey or the ultra strange and seemingly very personal Schizopolis, Soderbergh is not afraid to toy with structure and the way stories are told.

Soderbergh’s newest film, The Girlfriend Experience, continues the director’s fresh and unique way of presenting his films. The Girlfriend Experience stars porn starlet Sasha Grey, venturing into uncharted territories as he acts in her first non-adult film and is the look inside the life of a call girl, Chelsea (Grey) and how she deals with work and life outside of it with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos).

What makes the film so experimental is the use of Grey as the leading lady of the cast. When people see Soderbergh’s name, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he can create art. He was behind the Oscar-nominated film Traffic and rejuvenated independent American cinema with sex, lies, and videotape. The attachment of a porn star’s name to his, while odd, isn’t all that strange when you consider the body of his work over the years. Where other “serious” directors might think of using Grey in a film as a joke, Soderbergh seemed to embrace the chance to direct her, and it shows.

The Girlfriend Experience is an extremely minimalistic film. By that I mean there isn’t all that much to it. The shooting locations are rather straightforward – just a bunch of restaurants, penthouse apartments and hotel rooms. The camera is often stagnant. At times it simply sits and observes the conversations between characters, almost similar to a documentary.

The film is also minimalistic in the sense that while there is indeed plot, it doesn’t move very far. The film does offer a rather intriguing look into the life of this escort by touching on the drama she goes through with her accepting boyfriend. The most climatic moments of the film involve their discussions. The story is also told in typical Soderbergh experimental and non-linear form. It might swap from Chelsea’s conversation with a nosy journalist, who is rather symbolic of the viewer’s point of view, as he pushes for the same questions we do, to one of Chelsea’s appointments. It’s nothing confusing, but the film isn’t a straight timeline of events.

What I do love is that Soderbergh never once exploits Grey’s porn star side. The few times Grey is completely naked she is cast in shadows. And for a film that deals with a lot of sex – there isn’t any to be seen here. It might be ironic to think that a porn star playing a call girl doesn’t visibly perform the act of sex once in the film, but I found to be a gentle touch by Soderbergh. He didn’t turn this character study into a vapid, sleaze-filled exploitation film.

The one thing I haven’t touched on so far that everyone is probably wondering about is Grey’s acting abilities. From the standpoint of an open mind, she wasn’t that bad. He character is kind of a dolt to begin with, and Grey at times is very wooden. It’s hard to argue whether that it’s her bad acting, or the result of Chelsea being a very uninteresting character. Even at her most dramatic she is still rather tame. The rest of the cast performs rather authentically in what was a very neo-realistic brought together film. One of the actors, who plays a blogger, was an amateur actor who actually is a blogger in real life. You won’t find a bigger name in the cast than Sasha Grey’s.

The Girlfriend Experience might leave you with a dull taste in your mouth for its low sense of excitement, but I found the film to be intriguing on the basis of experimentation. It isn’t pretentious for a film to be enjoyed on a purely art level so long as one is aware of the thin film around it.

Not Soderbergh’s best work, but it’s still more intriguing and fulfilling than what other filmmakers can put their names to.