“Side Effects” subtly eerie, utterly masterful thriller

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“Directed by Steven Soderbergh”.

Any semi-regular readers of mine know that I have a particular soft spot for films that conclude on this title-card, and alas, if he is to be believed, the new psychological thriller Side Effects is gonna be the last time we’ll see this flash across theater-screens. The most prolific American director since Howard Hawks, with 26 films under his belt in 23 years, is stepping away from cinema in favor of painting, Broadway, and simply, life. He cannot be blamed, and nor can I for my sadness on the matter.

Side Effects is no grand departure from his past work. It is no bold statement. But in its modest scope and delivery, perhaps it’s the most appropriate farewell we could hope for: not reflecting on its own place in its master’s career, but in simply demonstrating much of what makes him an astonishing artist. Which, in this case, are his talents for pure escapist craft. The very indefinable nature of Side Effects is precisely what makes it so interesting, as are its flirtations with many genres and influences.

To reveal the primary influence on Side Effects is to ruin its surprise. In short: Rooney Mara plays a young woman, seemingly elated by her husband’s (Channing Tatum) release from prison for insider trading. But even the brief excitement of his presence can’t mask an overwhelming sense of depression, and she soon makes an attempt on her own life. Two psychiatrists enter the picture (Jude Law & Catherine Zeta-Jones), with conflicting intentions and moral shades. To reveal more is to rob the twisty pleasures of Scott Z. Burns’ script, where motivations, exposition, and even main characters seem to be constantly shifting.

It’s all too easy to appreciate the effortless mastery of which Soderbergh demonstrates over his form: the precise framing and camera movements, muted lighting, subdued use of music, protracted cuts. It’s a style that, if audiences have grown accustomed to it, it’s only because he rarely calls attention to the very nature of the artifice he creates. Thomas Newman provides an exceptional score, one that provides a propulsive thrust to the gradually escalating insanity of Side Effects‘ proceedings.

Rooney Mara’s performance is unquestionably one of the film’s high points. Jumping quickly from stale cash-grabs such as the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot to the utterly incendiary titular role of David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara’s versatility and professionalism has ensured a quick rise through Hollywood’s ranks. Her work here is utterly shattering, peeling away new depths as a character seemingly with each new scene. Side Effects plays it a little fast-and-loose with character motivations in the early scenes — meaning that while we accept their actions at face value, Soderbergh always seems to be hinting at ulterior motives and alternate interpretations. The cool thing? None of them prove to be correct. What begins as tongue-in-cheek pharmaceutical satire eventually evolves into a courtroom-psychosexual-procedural hybrid. This is a film with many restrained pleasures, but perhaps what I most appreciated about Side Effects is its wild, go-for-broke unpredictability. B+

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“The Last Stand” fairly soulless action fare

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To tell the story of my early (or rather, even earlier) years with film is to tell the story of how I’d stay up for hours marathoning Arnold Schwarzenegger films. In a time where I was only beginning to take the form seriously, it ironically took the offbeat presence of a stone-faced, oddly-voiced Austrian ex-bodybuilder to really cement the potential of movies to me.

To tell the story of my recent years with film is to tell the story of sifting through dozens of films from a recent so-called “Korean New Wave”, in which directors from South Korea have demonstrated an intense burst of creativity and vitality, churning out amazing work like The Host, Oldboy, Mother, A Bittersweet Life, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Perhaps my favorite of the bunch? Kim Ji-Woon, an astonishingly versatile upstart who navigates through dissonant genres (western, haunted-house, gangster, revenge) with ease, seemingly topping himself with set-pieces and thematic heft each time.

These two figures have converged. Schwarzenegger and Ji-Woon, in his English-language directing debut, collaborate on the new action picture The Last Stand, a prospect that would have one foaming at the mouth with excitement. Not necessarily because I expect innovative, boundary-pushing work from the duo — but because of both Ji-Woon’s ability to reshape familiar material and Schwarzenegger’s well-known ability to charmingly deliver exactly that. The Last Stand, no doubt, is all the charm and hard-nosed masculinity we’ve come to expect from Schwarzenegger’s shtick, and the man affably transitions back to the screen, despite his decade-long venture into politics following Terminator 3. This said, it’s the way in which the material is shaped that ultimately disappoints, with a structure so formulaic and pandering that the vast majority of the film’s pleasures feel forced. At best.

Schwarzenegger is Ray Owens, the sheriff of a quiet Arizona town whose LAPD/narcotics background means he’s considerably well-versed in combat, weaponry and the like. So when he receives a call from the FBI that a notorious drug lord is barreling towards his town in 220-mph vehicles with a mini-army of henchmen, he decides to take decisive action, alongside a small roster of deputies, charmingly played by Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville of Jackass, and Jaimie Alexander.

The final act of The Last Stand is loaded with technically efficient, fairly exciting set pieces — a cat-and-mouse car chase through a corn maze, bare-knuckle fistfights, Gatling-gun warfare in the middle of a small town. It’s not original stuff but it’s satisfyingly presented. Schwarzenegger fires off some ingenious one-liners, and remains a pretty intimidating physical presence as far as 65-year-olds go. This said, one must truck through the disastrous first hour of the film to get there, in which we spend more time with Forest Whitaker’s bafflingly incompetent FBI agent character, as he tracks the drug lord Cortez and surmises where he’ll end up. The problem is that this film uses a massive amount of our time to convey what we learned in the first 30 seconds of the trailer — and not in a terribly interesting, dynamic way either.

Screenwriter Andrew Knauer simply emphasizes the wrong strengths here, cluttering up what should be a perfectly satisfying, simple actioner. For a film whose premise hinges so heavily on the return of one of our all-time-great action stars, we spend an insane amount of time with bland, nameless cop characters as they dispassionately deliver exposition. With this, The Last Stand betrays its cultural identity as less of a mindless 1980’s throwback and more of an exposition-heavy, neatly-structured contemporary thriller. In other words? It’s bland as hell. Given his Expendables cameos coupled with this, Arnold is certainly back. But it remains to be seen whether that’s worth noting. C-