Side Effects Review – Addictive Formula

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Stars: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Release date: February 8th, 2013

Distributor:  Open Road Films 

Country: USA

Running time: 106 minutes


Best part: Soderbergh’s direction.

Worst part: Cartoonish supporting characters.

It’s ironic that acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh has made several movies about drugs, because his filmography is startlingly addictive. Soderbergh has made some of the best movies of the past two decades. His filmography features such hits as Out of Sight, Traffic, The Ocean’s trilogy, The Informant! and Erin Brockovich. Side Effects is his last feature film. Thankfully, his swan song may be one of the most intelligent films of his career.

Rooney Mara.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a sweet, young woman. She has waited four years for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison. Unfortunately, she is struck down by her long-term bi-polar disorder. Her shaky mental state causes a failed suicide attempt. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned to treat her on-going and dangerous condition. He prescribes Emily a new drug called Ablixa, recommended by Emily’s former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug seems to work wonders for Emily. That is until the side effects kick in. She begins to sleepwalk incessantly around the house. Her erratic behaviour suddenly, and violently, transforms Emily into a legal nightmare for Dr. Banks. His life soon begins to fall apart. Having lost everyone’s trust, he becomes obsessed with discovering the real cause of Emily’s condition.

Jude Law.

Jude Law.

Soderbergh has a very distinctive and experimental style. He can fleetingly go from a mainstream production with a huge ensemble cast, to an indie flick with porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role (The Girlfriend Experience). He creates temperate character studies instead of typical Hollywood fodder. He will cap off his screen career with Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic for HBO starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. Afterwards, he will focus on painting and directing plays. He will be sorely missed. His latest film is an eclectic mix of influences and trademark flourishes. Soderbergh instantaneously flips the narrative; turning this sensitive character study into a Sex, lies and Videotape/Les Diaboliques-style drama, and then into a legal/journalistic thriller in the vein of Michael Clayton and Zodiac. Every twist and turn hits with a knock-out punch as egos and motivations are tested. However, some of the third act plot twists are a bit hokey. An adjective that is thrown around way too often is ‘Hitchcockian’ (thanks for nothing, Brian de Palma!) I will say, however, that the term fits Side Effects like a glove. From the opening shot of a bleak cityscape, you can pinpoint winks and nudges to such Hitchcock films as PsychoVertigo and Dial M for Murder. Soderbergh, much like Hitchcock, has a visual style that places him above other prominent directors. It’s very easy to identify his cool and moody style. He is a true A-list artist that is known to play with indie film-making sensibilities.

Channing Tatum.

Soderbergh, much like Hitchcock, has a visual style that places him above other prominent directors. It’s very easy to identify his cool and moody style. He is a true A-list artist that is known to play with indie film-making sensibilities. Nowadays, it’s hard to find directors with a taste for creating visual flourishes. His camera angles and movements, for example, are both unique and indelible. With just a few distinctive shots, he can make likeable characters seem peculiar. His use of depth of field is another important aspect of his direction. The camera comes in and out of focus at odd points, putting pressure on the viewer without using excessive force. His colour-coded scenes also paint an emotionally charged picture. His earthy and unsettling green and yellow tones (prevalent in many of his films) bring every scene and situation down to a real world level. His touch is not just in the visuals. The swift editing and pulsating jazz/electronica score help to create a cracking pace for this low key, atmospheric thriller. Soderbergh is certainly an opinionated director. Throughout his career, he has discussed many important issues (world-wide panic, economic crisis etc.). Traffic delved into the US/Mexico drug trade whilst Contagion, written by Side Effects writer Scott Z. Burns, depicted a world-wide epidemic. Side Effects, on the other hand, explores Soderbergh’s stance against prescription drugs and pharmaceutical companies.

“I won’t be able to tell the truth if I take anymore pills.” (Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), Side Effects).

Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In the first act, Soderbergh and Burns objectively and meticulously set up the conflict. Ever so slowly, however, the film turns into an all-out assault on America’s most profitable drug companies. It becomes an in-depth examination of pharmaceutical industry wheeling and dealing. Dr. Banks and his colleagues almost become drug dealers, dishing out meds for a quick and hefty profit. This film thrives on its winning performances and intensifying characters. Mara continues her scorching run after the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She conveys the full range of mental and emotional states, becoming a true Hitchcockian lead character. Her china doll look is in stark contrast to her failing mental and moral state. Law gives a passionate performance as a sympathetic man on the edge in more ways than one. Scarily determined to find the truth, Dr. Banks’ search for answers is a neo-noir-like race against time and injustice. Tatum, capping off his ‘Soderbergh hat-trick’ after Haywire and Magic Mike, impresses in a small yet dignified role. Unfortunately, Zeta-Jones delivers an unconvincing performance as a vindictive she-devil. Sporting more make-up than the Joker, she hams it up to a cartoonish extent. Many of the supporting characters are one note. Dr. Banks’ wife, for example, is nothing but a shrill obstacle. Their relationship is just too shaky to be believable.

Whether you like it or not, Soderbergh has closed the curtain on his film-making career. In my opinion, he couldn’t have done a better job. Warning: Side Effects may lead to multiple viewings and an addiction to Soderbergh’s previous works. With a stellar cast and dynamite narrative in tow, Side Effects varies between mesmerising and upsetting. Ironic, really.

Verdict: An intense and stylish drama-thriller.

Oz the Great and Powerful Review – Franco’s Feverish Fantasy

Director: Sam Raimi

Writers: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), L. Frank Baum (novels)

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams

Release date: March 8th, 2013

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 130 minutes


Best part: Raimi’s direction.

Worst part: James Franco in the lead role.

Whether you are a spirited youngster, wicked witch or cowardly lion, everyone is fond of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. It was a fantasy adventure that defied expectations and became one of the most quotable and referenced films of all time. Any sequel, prequel or re-imagining would pale in the shadow of the original. But the team at Disney have had a crack at it anyway. Oz the Great and Powerful is a surprisingly modest and charming family film.

James Franco.

It is also stands somewhat proudly next to the original. Disney has brought many things back to life. But was this a good idea? Sure, the budget and hard work is plastered on the screen, but did we need it? I think so. The original gave the viewer some light-hearted thrills shortly before WWII. This return to Oz also provides an enjoyable escape from reality. The story itself is pretty straight forward. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a frustrated, womanising young man trying at true love. Leaving his abused helper, Frank (Zach Braff), behind, a heavy gush of wind picks up his hot air Balloon and sucks him into a tornado (note the similarities to the original). Before you know it, he is transported to the bright and pristine world of Oz. On his journey, he meets the feisty Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). With the help of Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), Oz must overcome his insecurities and rid the land of evil.

Rachel Weisz & Mila Kunis.

It’s been a while since the original was first released. The iconic elements remain with me the same way they do with popular culture. It’s a film that everyone thinks of when they hear the word ‘fantasy’. Recently, many big-budget fantasy epics have focused solely on the visuals; failing to grasp either characterisation or story (Alice in Wonderland, John Carter). Don’t get me wrong, Oz the Great and Powerful has its flaws. But it still defies huge expectations. This prequel has a certain charm to it. This tale diverts, for the most part, from the 1939 classic. It chooses instead to bring L. Frank Baum’s original ideas to life. This prequel looks at where it all began. Unlike most prequels, this movie never throws an excessive number of winks and nudges at you. When the references come, they are swift and clever (take some notes, George Lucas!). There are no glittery red shoes, no tin-men and no dogs named Toto. Having said all that, the script is very clichéd. We have seen is story done a thousand times before. They always have kooky characters, a snivelling villain, a timid hero and a prophecy. However, the dialogue and self-aware humour gives this traditional fairy tale a modern twist. The true magician at work here is the film’s director. Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead series, The Spider-man trilogy) is one of the most respected and creative directors working today. He must’ve known you can’t move the ‘elephant in the room’ that is the original. Instead he creates his own vision out of the many clichéd elements on offer. His sense of wonder and nostalgia shines through every elaborate setting and camera angle.

Zach Braff’s monkey character.

The child in Raimi is fighting its way to the surface here. So is the young director famous for creating the phenomenon that is The Evil Dead. The opening and closing credits alone speak wonders for Raimi’s admiration of the original. His directorial flourishes don’t simply stand out; they push everything magical about this film out into the audience. Speaking of that, his use of 3D is both wonderful and wacky. Instead of subtly immersing the viewer, the 3D jumps out at them. The film starts out in a glorious wash of black and white. Raimi’s camera tracks through a crowd of kooky circus performers and attendees. It’s from this moment that the world of Oz is reborn for a new generation. Raimi is paying homage to cinema itself. Much like Hugo, old and new cinema techniques are smoothly pieced together. He believes that directors are some of the best magicians on Earth. The references to both Thomas Edison and old cinema technology are important to this big-budget extravaganza. Raimi has a keen eye for inventive visuals. The film transitions from black and white colour. At the same time, the aspect ratio expands from 4:3 to widescreen. These touches give the film a true sense of wonder. It discusses the magic of cinema whilst communicating to the young target audience. The movie touches on many popular film-making trends. Hollywood has recently released many films that are either based on nostalgia or popular childhood tales (Snow White and The Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters).

“I’ll put on the show of a lifetime! The likes of which the land of Oz has never seen! Magic! Mystery! Prestidigitation! It’ll be my greatest trick yet.” (Oscar Diggs (James Franco), Oz the Great and Powerful).

Michelle Williams.

This film is a step above many of those. Its visual style is what elevates this film above its competition. The special effects, though unconvincing at points, provide a bright technicolour look. The practical effects and creature designs are also second to none. The Munchkins, Tinkerers, peasants and flying monkeys create lasting emotional impact. Unfortunately, some of the iconic characters are miscast. Franco is, without a doubt, a talented actor. When he’s not stuffing up an Oscars ceremony, he is delivering powerful performances in movies such as 127 Hours and Milk. Having worked with Raimi before, he should be comfortable with his surroundings here. He, however, lacks the emotional range and charisma to pull off this type of leading man role. Actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner would’ve given the character a larger-than-life presence. Having said all that, Franco is still charming at points. His character, for the most part, is thoroughly unlikeable. He never becomes the courageous leader that was promised. Kunis is also miscast. As Theodora, she is given a classic 1930’s china doll look. Her natural beauty and charm stand out when they need to. However, Kunis fails to master the twists and turns of her character. Rachel Weisz is foreboding and sexy as Evanora. I still believe that Weisz and Kunis would’ve been better if they had switched roles. Michelle Williams, in one of her few mainstream roles, steals the show. As the story’s soul, Glenda the Good Witch is a fun character. Joey King and Zach Braff also excel as the China girl and Frank/Finley the Flying Monkey respectively.

Oz the Great and Powerful proves that Disney is a company full of imaginative ideas. Despite its flaws, this movie reaches out and grabs the viewer without letting go. To find a truly exciting family film, all you have to do is follow the yellow brick road. Tim Burton, eat your heart out!

Verdict: A light-hearted and inventive roller-coaster ride.