by Steve Habrat
Rumor has it that Side Effects, the slinky, sexy new psychological thriller from busybody director Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike) will be his final motion picture. If this is true, Side Effects is certainly a high note to bow out on. An edge-of-your-seat exercise that would please Alfred Hitchcock, Side Effects threatens to take aim at prescription drugs and the long lists of side effects that may come with taking them, but half way through, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns decide to double cross the viewer. What comes next is a glossy, upper-class murder mystery that creeps up behind you and sends a chill down your spine. It certainly isn’t the film you expect it to be, mostly because Side Effects has been advertised as a hazy tale of prescription drug side effects spiraling those who pop the anti-depressant Ablixa, the fictional drug prescribed to those suffering from depression within the film, into a murderous daze. You will be surprised by what the filmmakers have in store for you and, more importantly, you will not be able to resist the sensual pull of the story. And then there is the haunting performances, mostly from the unpredictable Rooney Mara, who constructs another firecracker of a character.
Side Effects follows 28-year-old Emily Taylor (Played by Rooney Mara), the wife of Martin Taylor (Played by Channing Tatum), who recently returned home after serving a 4-year prison sentence for insider trading. As Martin figures out a way to get their lives back on track, Emily suddenly attempts to commit suicide. After recovering, Emily is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Played by Jude Law), a psychiatrist who puts Emily on a number of anti-depressants that appear to do nothing for her. With every option exhausted and Emily still contemplating suicide, Jonathan decides to put Emily on the experimental drug Ablixa. Ablixa appears to be helping Emily and her life with Martin seems to be getting back on track, but one evening, Emily viscously attacks Martin in a daze. Emily is arrested for the attack and the police begin an investigation that could threaten Jonathan’s practice. Growing desperate to get to the bottom of the mysterious attack, Jonathan seeks out Victoria Siebert (Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily’s former psychiatrist who offers up disturbing new information. As Jonathan digs deeper into Emily’s past, he stumbles upon secrets that will not just destroy his career, but also shatter his happy marriage.
Side Effects turns out to be a very difficult film to review, as the second half of the film is ripe with surprises, some being very clever and some flirting with silliness. The film really gets by on its element of surprise and its best you don’t know much about the story going in. Despite some far-fetched touches to the script, the film does keep you intrigued with where it is going to slither off to next. If Side Effects turns out to be Soderbergh’s last film, he can retire knowing that he delivered an extremely well-made film. Some scenes begin out of focus, with characters or objects slowly revealing themselves to the viewer. It is a nifty touch that subtly mirrors the secrets of the plot slowly becoming clear to the viewer. It also gives the film a surreal feel, making the lavish New York City penthouses, offices, and apartments seem chillingly distorted or generally off-putting. Soderbergh then drenches the sets in a warm orange glow with plenty of ominous shadows creeping over the characters, their lavish worlds slipping into a darkness. Then there is the inescapable erotic atmosphere that hangs over the shady events, a seductive mood complimented by sexy trip-hop tunes on the soundtrack. It certainly is a hip and pretty package that is eager to compliment its four photogenic leads.
Bringing the sexual sparks she brought to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara sizzles once again as the glassy-eyed Emily, a woman drunk on wealth and distraught over it disappearing in the blink of an eye. She is bone chilling as she descends into bizarre sleepwalking spells that find her fixing dinner for three even though she has no children with Martin (another plot twist that rattles the viewer). When she blankly jabs the knife into Martin’s stomach, more than a few people in the showing I attended jumped and erupted in horror and disbelief at what was occurring. It is clear that Mara is aware that she is very good at doing crazy and she really brings the crazy here. It is said that Blake Lively was originally up for the role of Emily but thankfully it went to someone with more talent. Tatum does a fine job as the confused yet understanding husband, who is well aware of the grief he has brought on Emily. He is given a supporting role here but he doesn’t resort to phoning the performance in. Law wins us over as a victim caught up in a web of lies and deceit. You really feel for him as his life crashes down around him and you’ll smile to yourself as he devises way to stay one step ahead of those trying to bring him down. Zeta-Jones is as vampy as ever as the sinister Victoria, a woman who acts as if she wants to help the troubled Emily any way she can yet conceals disturbing behavior in the past.
At an hour and forty-five minutes, Side Effects is practically over in the blink of an eye because, frankly, there is never a dull moment. Soderbergh is constantly framing a fascinating image, capturing a spine-tingling performance, or making the hair on your arm stand at attention when Emily slips into a daze. You can’t shake the feeling that the film would have fared better if it would have kept its attention on prescription drugs and their seemingly never-ending list of side effects. Still, Soderbergh and Burns refuse to dumb themselves down in the second act even if they do get a bit carried away with a certain relationship (you’ll see what I mean). Overall, Side Effects is a surprisingly beefy film that is glaringly out of place for this time of year. A handsomely made and clean-cut thriller that isn’t afraid to send the viewer away deep in thought. Side effects may include your stomach twisting into knots, a desire to see it twice, an unwillingness to take any medication you may be on, and an incurable fear of Rooney Mara. See it before all the surprises have been spoiled.
by Corinne Rizzo
For a film so packed with disturbing content, Contagion is an awfully quiet display of events. Everything from the colors on the screen to the music and dialogue, this film is just a somber and quiet depiction of the spread of what eventually becomes a SARS like epidemic, a drastically contagious virus that seems to induce comas and seizures on the affected.
Unlike many films of contraction, Contagion lacked that sense of panic one felt during Outbreak or 28 Days Later. The skilled and mature cast of characters lends the film a contained sense of control. Each actor in his or her role is wholly believable and to the viewer entirely professional. Here’s an idea of who we are dealing with here:
Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Lawrence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eliot Gould and Demetri Martin (of all people).
Now if you’re anywhere near my age, you watched Matt Damon play Will Hunting and sort of even swooned after him, if that’s your thing. We saw Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaums and laughed at her cynicism, Kate Winslet—best known for Titantic and the list goes on to Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. If Contagion had anything working for it, it was its cast, as a film on this subject matter has long been a dead horse beaten.
And that is where Contagion is different. It begins with Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returning from some corporate event in Hong Kong, which seems a bit cliché considering the past American paranoia from things like bird flu or H1N1, but the film isn’t so quick to place blame anywhere entirely. In fact, a web is created between the affected persons and the range of distance between the infected is wide. Suddenly, a mystery is being woven and it’s almost undetectable that you’re working toward the solution, as the film takes a drastic diversion from discovering the origin of the disease and containing and curing it.
The web of the infected begins with Paltrow’s character, or so that is where the viewer is introduced to the illness. The film takes the viewer home to Minneapolis where Emhoff calls home. At the same time the virus goes (no pun intended) viral by ways of a character played by Jude Law, Alan Krumwiede, a free lance journalist/blogger bent on exposing what he believes is the truth about anything, no focusing on the virus and it’s cure.
What’s interesting about the film and what makes it different from a plethora of other movies based on epidemic is that Contagion spreads no real panic among the audience. Sure, the audience is aware of the severity of the disease at hand. Within hours of contraction, the illness seems to take entire families down. But, as aforementioned, there is a quiet sense of survival among the main characters. Those who fall victim understand that they took the risk in the first place. Those who watched their loved ones succumb didn’t understand, but still never tried to.
For instance Mitch Emhoff (Damon) finds that he is immune to the virus and works silently and diligently to keep him and his daughter from demise.
As the film progresses we see Erin Mears struggle with her contraction, but handles it with dignity and understanding when, despite her status among the government, she learns that being airlifted is a waste of government resources.
The dignified sense of survival is what creates this quiet feeling among Contagion and it is clear to the viewer that the cast, well chosen and well played, are responsible for that feeling as each cast member is one in good standing with the Academy and moviegoers alike.
A viewer might enter the theater ready for a gory mess of death and mass graves and while death and mass graves are a sure part of the film, it is not those scenes which stick with the audience. It is scenes like a gnarly autopsy of Paltrow’s character followed by a classic line between the two examiners, “Should we call someone?” says one hazmat suited examiner. “Call everyone,” proclaims the other.
The film’s story unfolds between many different scenarios and that is where the viewer becomes distracted. Instead of asking ourselves about the origin of the disease, we find ourselves deep in the discovery of hard working biologists trying to cure it or the lives of those trying to avoid it. The audience understands that the primary question was that of origin, but the film leads us on such a chase that it’s easy to feel caught off guard in the last two minutes when everything changes.
The history of the disease, of the travelers and the scientists unfolds before the viewers eyes and before the audience knows it, the credits are rolling. And the unraveling is just as calm and quiet as the onset of disease.
There is a lot that happens in the film, but keeping ears and eyes open, Soderbergh keeps the audience informed and interested without the gore and total societal breakdown involved in a good portion of other epidemic based films. Granted, there are moments of pillaging and anarchy and downright human survival bullshit that makes a viewer want to yell “that doesn’t help the situation, assholes!” it’s just muted and the viewer is put a distance that is almost voyeuristic.
Top Five Reasons to See Contagion:
1) Demetri Martin plays a scientist!
2) Eliot Gould’s character rocks this line, “Blogging is not reporting, it is graffiti with punctuation.”
3) You get to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s cranium sawed off.
4) You’ll never guess the combination of crap that has to happen to incubate such a disease.
5) The tagline “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone,” is badass.