Side Effects (B)
U.S.: Steven Soderbergh, Open Road Films, 2013
The fictitious drug Ablixa in Side Effects -- an intelligent but unpleasant movie thriller by director-cinematographer-editor Steven Soderbergh -- is supposed to handle depression.
But what it actually creates here (or reveals) is a kind of hell on earth, wrapped up in slick movie thriller trimmings. Our guy at the center, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) lights up that hell by giving Ablixa to troubled patient Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara). Emily was married to hedge fund crook Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) and once was a psychiatric patient of icy-edged Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The other actors in the drama, all affected by Emily, include Emily's seemingly compassionate office boss (Polly Draper), hardball NYPD cop Beahan (Victor Cruz) and Banks' unhappy wife Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw).
What Side Effects is trying to do -- courtesy of that intelligent and unpleasant script by Scott Z. Burns (the writer of other Soderberghs, like Contagion and The Informant!) -- is tell an old-fashioned cynical James M. Cain-style erotic crime thriller yarn, like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, about sex and murder and the dark side of the American dream. But they also wanted to update it with good-looking contemporary people and backgrounds and a nerve-jangling electronic score and a steady stream of twists and surprises. It's a modern neo-noir with more old-fashioned noir roots than usual.
But though the movie is certainly done every well (the norm for Soderbergh), and though it's exactly the kind of movie (brainy, unsentimental, ready to go all the way) that we're often starved for, I can't say I liked it very much -- or disliked it very much either, for that matter.
The acting is good. But while Law teases out the contradictions in Banks, Mara needs more acid for Emily. Law can play callous and selfish and obnoxiously handsome (like the playboy murder victim in Minghella's film The Talented Mr. Ripley), or earnest and upright and likable (like his version of Dr. Watson opposite Robert Downey's Sherlock Holmes), or sometimes as a mixture of both (like his best role, the android gigolo in A.I.). Here he evolves from a sympathetic character to one less so, partly by letting his initially guileless-seeming smile mutate into something thinner and meaner.
As for the others, Rooney Mara has another role that, like her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which paled next to Noomi Rapace's), may be too dark for her. Catherine Zeta-Jones was born to play neo-noir types, and I wish the studios would cast her more often, in films worthy of her most poisonous inspirations. Channing Tatum stripped well for Soderbergh in Magic Mike and he suffer and dies well for him here.
Soderbergh -- who photographs his films under the alias "Peter Andrews," edits as "Mary Ann Bernard" and directs as himself -- has caused a rumpus by declaring this his last film, or at least his last theatrical release. I find that hard to believe. He's only 50, which is often the beginning of the prime decade for movie directors with long careers, like Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock. Soderbergh already has his Liberace TV biopic Behind the Candelabra. TV is probably a good place for him right now, because the scripts are so much better.
Ingmar Bergman, a great gloomy Swede (perhaps like Soderbergh's ancestors), once declared that the 1983 Fanny and Alexander would be his last film, and he went on to make (to direct or write or both) quite a few more, including his real last film, the 2003 Saraband. Bergman shouldn't have kept that pledge. Neither should Soderbergh.
Free Radicals (B)
U.S.: Pip Chodorov, 2011, Kino Lorber
Pip Chodorov's very loving documentary on experimental film (a.k.a. avant-garde cinema) divides its screen time between compelling examples of the cinema itself, including Hans Richter's playful Ghosts Before Breakfast (with its flying derbies), Maya Deren's lyrical and haunting Meshes in the Afternoon and some gorgeous images by Stan Brakhage -- and interviews or encounters with a number of the filmmakers themselves, including Richter, Brakhage, Robert Breer, Maurice Lemaitre, Peter Kubelka and Jonas Mekas (who reminds us of the great glory days of the Village Voice), It's a felicitous mixture. The abstract or surreal images contrast richly with the very human, matter-of-fact presences of the filmmakers themselves. Chodorov obviously adores his subjects, and he does very well by them.
I'm not very fond of abstract painting (which obviously helped inspire experimental filmmaking), so I can't really explain my fondness for the movie avant-garde, ranging from the non-abstract surrealists Bunuel and Dali to largely non-narrative people like Hollis Frampton to a splatter guy like Norman McLaren. Maybe I think, probably a superficial notion, that it's too easy to fake an abstract painting, but to make an abstract film, even a bad one, you have to have at least some technical skill.
In any case, it makes an interesting companion for the provocative avant-grade film anthologies that Kino put out a few years ago. (They were from the Raymond Rohauer prints, which some people dislike.) Anyway, art is art, and since I'm generally on the side of artists, especially artists without a lot of money behind them, I liked Chodorov's tribute. You may like this little moving picture gallery too. It's a surreal, avant-garde, experimental, underground blast. An abstrct one, too. In English and French, with English subtitles)