Steven Soderbergh

Review: Side Effects

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Side EffectsThe Pitch: You may be about to suffer severe withdrawal symptoms…

The Review: If you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word eclectic, you’ll see that it was updated a couple of years ago to read simply “Steven Soderbergh’s career.” Not content to be like namesake Spielberg and to successfully straddle the multiplex and more thoughtful fare, it’s as if Soderbergh deliberately sets out to distance himself from as many elements of his previous work as possible. Even his Ocean’s sequels varied wildly in tone, style and content, with Thirteen almost feeling the odd man out for being a little reminiscent of the original. When you use a phrase like “Soderbergh’s career” it has a certain finality to it and if the rumours are to be believed then Side Effects is the last time we’ll see a new film from Steven, at least for a fair while, so that Side Effects proves to be a surprisingly efficient and taut thriller and a fitting valediction for one of the last two decade’s most distinctive cinematic voices.

That his films are so recognisable may be down to the sheer level of work he puts into their production; over the years he’s written, produced and even composed and Side Effects sees him working as editor, cinematographer and director on the same film for the sixth time in his career. It’s a refined, almost cold visual aesthetic but one that is subject to deliberate rhythms and pacing, and this might just the the most effective combination of those three skills yet. It’s a slow start as regular Soderbergh scribe Scott Z. Burns sets out the playing field, with Rooney Mara’s Emily struggling to deal with the return of husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after a stretch for insider dealing. When she attempts to deal with her onset of depression in dramatic fashion, she comes under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who attempts to find the right drug to help her deal with her difficulties. It’s not the first time that Emily’s needed help, and her previous counsellor Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests a new drug, Ablixa, might be the best option of those not already tried, but it may just be the start of Emily’s real problems…

Soderbergh’s back catalogue is written through Side Effects like a stick of rock: as well as the crisp digital photography and the economy of the script, which never wastes a word even during the deliberately paced set-up. He’s got form in the political arena, and for the opening stretch Side Effects seems to be setting itself up as a thorough examination of the cynical and profitable pharmaceutical industry that’s practically spoon fed to most of America. (There’s an interesting, and telling, line where Jude Law comments on the difference between his practice in the US and how different it would have been in the UK had he stayed.) But it’s also never that simple in a Soderbergh film and there’s enough twists and turns packed into the second half to keep even the sharpest audience on their toes. The more the film progresses, the more the narrative takes on a classic feel, and it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine Bernard Herrmann coming up with a similarly jittery score to Thomas Newman’s nervous stylings, or indeed the likes of Cary Grant or James Stewart taking on the Jude Law role had this been made fifty years ago.

Soderbergh’s always been an actor’s director at heart, ultimately as concerned with performance as he is with image, and most of the cast have become regular collaborators. While Zeta-Jones and Tatum are both on their third outing with the director, it’s Jude Law’s sophomore turn that anchors Side Effects, and it’s around 1000% more effective than his embarrassing Australian from Contagion. Where Contagion was chilling but sprawling and at times unfocused, Side Effects coils itself more and more tightly and it’s a showcase both Law and first-timer Rooney Mara, utterly believable as the depressive Emily. It’s undoubtedly a film of its time, with much to say about modern lives and current struggles, but it’s possibly writer Burns’ most effective script to date and it’s hard to imagine anyone except Steven Soderbergh working today being able to play it out so effectively, especially in the way that possibly sensitive themes such as depression and the financial crisis are not only handled, but then not undermined when the narrative takes one sharp turn after another. It’s maybe fitting that someone so focused on the image of his films is supposedly taking his break to work on his painting, but given that he’s still got cinematic treats like this within him, let’s all hope that it’s just a sabbatical and not the last we’ll see of him.

Why see it at the cinema: Soderbergh is a master of his art and every image and sound is lovingly crafted. The darkness of the cinema will also help focus you into the tightly wound tension that Soderbergh crafts, especially in the second half.

What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, sex and violence. No argument, and it’s certainly a more effective film at this rating as it’s really one pivotal scene that earns this rating, which would have lessened the overall impact had it been cut to 12A.

My cinema experience: Saturday morning at my local Cineworld in Cambridge; having pre-booked my ticket I thankfully sailed through to the cinema, to be joined by the usual crowd of single men taking in a Saturday morning film with clearly nothing better to do. Thankfully we weren’t submitted to any projection problems.

The Corridor Of Uncertainty: The film started twenty-three minutes after the advertised time, which for me was a complete relief; having struggled to find a parking space I arrived in just as the BBFC title card appeared on screen.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Haywire

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The Pitch: Of Woman Bourne.

The Review: Steven Soderbergh films are like buses; you wait ages, then two come along at once. In some ways they’re actually better than buses, as if there’s one you don’t like the next one will probably be completely different. So it should be no surprise that after last year’s taut but slightly underwhelming Outbreak-remake Contagion Soderbergh has arrived on an entirely different bus, but actually one that left the depot two years ago. (I think I’d better park this bus metaphor now.) The difference between Contagion and Haywire is a prime  example of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental and varied nature, but it also means that you can’t guarantee that you’re actually going to like every Soderbergh film. This time, the Soderbergh experiment is to take a female mixed martial arts star and to attempt to make her a movie star; but does this attempt to put the fair fight in My Fair Lady actually work?

A lot of that rests on Carano’s broad but still delicate shoulders. Coming off somewhere between Jet from Gladiators and Cynthia Rothrock, what she lacks in personality and acting ability and more personality she makes up for with a steely glare,  a slight grumpiness when asked to wear a dress and an unerring ability to beat the senses out of men twice her size. Sensibly, the story constructed is very much designed to show off the sense-beating, grumpiness and steely glares and minimise the need for personality and acting ability. It’s pretty much a Bourne clone; there’s running, fighting, driving, all in the name of Carano finding something about about the people who she’s fighting, driving past or running away from. The fights themselves have a real physicality and heft about them, and when Carano and Michael Fassbender start laying into each other, it’s verging on cartoon violence and quite satisfying, if you like that kind of thing.

In order to draw attention away from any perceived lack of abilities on Gina Carano’s part, Soderbergh has surrounded her with some of the finest acting and action movie talent known to man. Ewan McGregor sports a dodgy haircut and his usual unlikely American accent and does most of the exposition, and the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton also pop up in supporting roles. Here lies the first of two major problems with Haywire: the bits in between the running and the fighting are deathly dull, written as if the Enigma machine had turned its hand to screenplays. There’s lots of obtuse references to lots of things which aren’t stated explicitly, and then in the last ten minutes reams of further exposition turn up to make sense of it all. By that point, if you didn’t enjoy the fighting and the running, you may have also stopped caring.

The other drawback of Haywire is that, for all of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental nature, it actually feels about as fresh as a three day old nappy at times. There’s a little Ocean’s meets Bourne feel going on, thanks to David Holmes’ unmistakably trendy, januty score which creates a familiar ambience, but Soderbergh has been experimental so many times, and often much more so than here, that actually the familiarity of the material can breed contempt in the quieter stretches. There’s a great stretch in the middle of the film where Carano goes on the run across Dublin, beating up security guards and running over rooftops, and somehow an extended version of this sequence, stripped of the babbling exposition and filling the short but overstretched run time, might have actually been an improvement. Soderbergh’s talking about taking a sabbatical after his next two films and on this evidence he might need to recharge his batteries, as Haywire’s a lot of fun when its star is handing out violence like it’s going out of fashion, but the rest of the time you’ll wish you had Jason Bourne’s Swiss-cheesed memory, as the non-violent scenes deserve to be forgotten.

Why see it at the cinema: Yay fighty bits! Yay running about on rooftops! The rest might be a little scrambled, but whenever Carano’s kicking butt or running about in pursuit of some other low-life, then you’ll thank yourself that you saw it on a screen that did it justice.

The Score: 6/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Contagion

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The Pitch: Outbreak 2: Infectious Boogaloo.

The Review: Fear of infections is a fairly modern phenomena. While great crime dramas or romantic comedies have been the subject of movies for decades, our fear of disease in our anti-bacterial, post-MRSA world is only now really starting to provide fodder for the great and the good of Hollywood. (Maybe that great unmade Black Death movie is still out there somewhere). But after three decades of disaster movies laying waste to everything in sight, audiences expect certain things from their movies, and in those respects Steven Soderbergh’s latest delivers – up to a point.

In any disaster movie, the first thing you want to see is a high class array of talent being put in jeopardy. If there’s one thing Soderbergh does well, it’s put a cast together, and he’s obviously given the Filofax a good thumbing before the cameras rolled. As soon as the credits roll, Gwynneth Paltrow appears on screen and she’s the first in a long succession of famous and familiar faces who appear, then start coughing and looking a bit pasty and sweaty. It would take most of this review to list the ones who do well, although Paltrow does get killed off before she has chance to do any damage, but by and large the acting falls into two categories: being asked to cough and splutter before an inevitable bout of death (or, in the case of Matt Damon, standing around while other people do that), or to stand in a room looking at computer screens or a conference table surrounded by stern looking, smartly dressed men while delivering reams of medical exposition about infection rates and worst case scenarios, and everyone does that as well as you’d expect.

The alternating between coughing and general sternness is edited together at a fair lick. Regular Soderbergh contributor and Oscar winner Stephen Mirrione never lets the pace flag, with scenes finely trimmed and the scenario and the constant threat being used to generate mood. The mood itself is very tense, starting uneasily and steadily building as events escalate and the authorities struggle to keep pace with the spread of the infection. If anything, it feels a little too trimmed, and occasionally scenes that need time to breathe or resonate get lost a little as the general pace sweeps along everything in its path. The other obstacle that Contagion has to overcome is Jude Law, who appears to have been taking lessons at the “Physical Impairment and Dodgy Accent” school of acting, his performance consisting of a dodgy tooth and a dodgier accent. If you manage to work out whether his accent is Australian or Cockney, please do let me know.

Contagion has a lot it’s trying to say, about the potential of such a situation, and of how everyone from governments to pharmaceutical companies would react in such a scenario. Consequently it’s not surprise that the pacy editing and the huge number of different narrative threads mean that a few ideas feel a little underdeveloped; some characters disappear for long stretches, and their reappearance often leaves you wondering what they’ve been up to in the interim. The overriding feeling is one of frustration, as while what’s here is great, and will give you chills every time the person next to you starts scratching their head, Contagion feels as if it would have been more effective as a six hour miniseries than the hour and forty-five minutes that is actually presented. The final disappointment comes in the ending, as it feels as if a few punches have been pulled and we get to see an ending that’s already been spelled out in the exposition earlier, like a whodunnit where a signed confession is found halfway through but everyone keeps investigating, just in case. Still, Contagion will get under your skin, even if it won’t leave a lasting impression.

Why see it at the cinema: The crisp digital visuals are definitely best suited to the cinema, but the USP of Contagion is that your paranoia will increase markedly as soon as someone on the other side of the cinema starts coughing. You just don’t get that at home.

The Score: 7/10