REVIEW: Side Effects

21 08 2013

Steven Soderbergh may have saved the best for last with his supposed final theatrical release, the chillingly cerebral “Side Effects.”  A successful re-teaming with “Contagion” scribe Scott Z. Burns, the film recreates all the unnerving hysteria of the 2011 apocalyptic thriller on a much more micro scale.  Soderbergh, acting as his own editor and cinematographer (under false names), creates a cooly fluorescent-bulb lit environment in which a crazy tale of criminal insanity can realistically unfold.

In this setting, Burns’ cat-and-mouse tale takes on an eerie and haunting dimension. His script is full of unexpected twists and turns, rife with crossed alliances and false appearances, and topped off with plenty of intrigue from the fields of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals.  His “Side Effects” starts off thoroughly convincing us it’s one kind of movie … and then pulls the rug out from underneath us, ultimately leaving us with a surprisingly different end result.

The suspense is amplified by a finely-tuned cast of performers, led by a viciously versatile turn from Rooney Mara.  Her character, the moody Emily Taylor, is a character playing multiple games simultaneously.  She’s mad, moody, depressed, longing, conniving, and manipulative – often all at once.  Mara commands the screen with the same force as she did in her Oscar-nominated role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” although it’s a more quietly resolute performance that adds another layer of tension to an already taut film.

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REVIEW: Contagion

3 01 2012

While talking to a friend who was on the fence about seeing “Contagion,” I threw out the following selling point without really even thinking: “It’s a Steven Soderbergh movie.”  Then I recoiled for a second and actually thought about what that meant.  Granted, I haven’t seen his watershed indie “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” but when I look back at his filmography, I wouldn’t label many of them directorial triumphs.  “The Informant!” succeeds mostly because of Matt Damon, “Erin Brockovich” is 100% Julia Roberts, and the slickness of the “Ocean’s” series is what made them popular.  “Traffic” is, I suppose, although I don’t think I would recommend that.

So a Soderbergh movie with a cast of eight Oscar nominees (so many that two didn’t even make the poster) had no shot at being a director’s movie … or so I thought.  Surprisingly, this is a movie where Steven Soderbergh is the biggest and most brightly shining of all the stars.  He’s in total control of this vehicle, setting the mood from the first frame and then keeping it an even-keeled movie even when Scott Z. Burns’ script goes a little haywire.

In a time where hyperlink cinema has become a hackneyed plot device, Soderbergh, one of the pioneers of the style with “Traffic,” reminds us why it’s even around in the first place.  These stories can be linked across countries because technology and globalization has made us linked into a common destiny. Yet in the decade since “Traffic,” several events have linked us as well: 9/11 and various disease threats, such as SARS and the swine flu scare.  A thin thread of paranoia connects us all, and Soderbergh gently reveals to us that this link exists in the opening stages of the film.  And then he proceeds to vibrate that thread at pulse-pounding frequencies with his unflinching realism to then make sure we feel that uncomfortable pit in our stomach every single second of the film.

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