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Side Effects – Always read the label

The drugs don't work: Jude Law in Side Effects

The drugs don’t work: Jude Law in Side Effects

Allegedly Steven Soderbergh’s last film (I for one won’t believe it ’til he’s dead), Side Effects is an adept, twisty work that ranks among the prolific director’s more interesting and unexpectedly strong films.

More familiar to audiences for his straight, often stripped-back genre pieces such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike and Haywire (the latter was so stripped back it even forgot to add character, dialogue or story), Side Effects exists on a plane closer to his tongue-in-cheek heist movie Out of Sight, in terms of toying with genre. Almost an hour into this film you still can’t quite predict which turn it’s going to take, into what kind of movie.

Evoking Hitchcock in its first frames, Side Effects leads with one of the most stylish scenes of foreshadowing in recent memory; a mysterious toy sailboat, a dead body and fresh bloody footprints on the floor. While the mind digests these images, we turn to a few months earlier, as Emily (Rooney Mara) awaits the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after a stint for insider trading. Martin’s return has a surprisingly negative effect on Emily, whose longstanding depression begins to consume her. A suicide attempt lands her in the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

Playing on fears of prescription addiction in modern America, Side Effects sees Jonathan prescribe Emily a series of pills to calm her, help her sleep, give her energy, kick-start her sex drive, etc. Each pill has a side effect cancelled out by the next. When Emily begins to crack, the answer seems to come from her previous shrink, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), now a pharmaceuticals rep. The shifty Victoria recommends a new partially tested drug, Ablixa, which helps Emily get her life back in order. But soon a shockingly violent incident, apparently a side effect of the drug, lands Emily in hot water and Jonathan, who prescribed her meds, fighting for his career.

Prescribed a heavy dose of sexy: Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum

Prescribed a heavy dose of sexy: Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum

The twists come fast in this psychological thriller, which often threatens to veer into increasingly unexpected territory. An early shot of Emily’s distorted reflection in a barroom mirror hints at a Cronenbergian metamorphosis. An undercurrent of sexual tension constantly shifts Emily and Jonathan between the roles of hero and villain.

While these twists are welcome, it is a shame that Side Effects goes down the least ambitious route it could. Writer Scott Z. Burns, who scripted Soderbergh’s Contagion and The Informant!, chooses to weave his tale around the use and abuse of anti-depressants, rather than draw analogies that might make the same points with more inventive imagery and less subtlety.

Soderbergh’s editing is tight and he shoots his film finely, although his excessive toying with focal depths to recreate sensations of drug use grows old long before the film’s end.

Mara, in her first mainstream appearance since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, carries much of the weight of the film on her teeny shoulders, and does not disappoint. Jude Law drifts between slightly seedy and panicked fall guy in one of the best performances he’s given in years. Zeta-Jones plays it perfectly coy, while Tatum continues to impress, however miscast as a Wall Street big shot.

Stylish and clever, but undemanding of both itself and its audience, Side Effects is a fine, twisty thriller, and a decent swansong for Soderbergh. But then no amount of drugs could make us believe for a moment that he’s really done.



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Magic Mike – A little something for the ladies

Channing Tatum – Naked ambition

It’s been a rough couple of years for Steven Soderbergh, and an even harder few for fans of Steven Soderbergh. Once a darling of the American indie scene, his career has slipped since the critical success of Traffic and the financial success of Ocean’s Eleven in the early 2000s. Solaris, The Good German and Che were all minor disasters, while the Ocean’s sequels and The Informant! didn’t live up to promises. Earlier this year he delivered Haywire, perhaps the most misjudged and frankly boring film of his career.

Thankfully Magic Mike is here to save the day. Sort of. Certainly on the fluffier side of the director’s work, it wades in far shallower waters than Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But well crafted and to the point, and with enough man candy to make it a box office smash amongst female and gay male audiences, Magic Mike is probably the director’s most notable film in 10 years. That’s not necessarily saying a lot, but still.

Based on his own experiences as a male stripper, Channing Tatum plays ‘Magic’ Mike, a talented, crowd-pleasing ladies’ club performer with aspirations to “greater things”. While set on his goals, he is far from selfish, and soon takes stripping ingénue Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing. Adam takes on the role of the inexperienced newcomer for the sake of the audience (think Ariadne in Inception), and the film’s focus on his rise and fall is an unfortunate distraction from the central drama. However, it is through their friendship that Mike meets Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn), whose relative resistance to Mike’s charms becomes as big an obsession for him as his entrepreneurial dreams.

Tatum gives it his best as Mike, carrying the character’s internal dilemmas, though never quite finding the right amount of heartbreak when things don’t go his way. But his physical performance is eyebrow-raisingly athletic, with some truly Olympian talent on display during his dance numbers, and not a body double in sight. The rest of the stripper team provide ample back-up, though characterisation-wise they are little more than “the hairy one” and “the one who worries his penis isn’t big enough”, etc.

As the troupe’s leader and owner of the establishment, Dallas, Matthew McConaughey gives another of his recent badboy turns, as sex and money-obsessed as Killer Joe, though sans menace. One of the film’s biggest successes is how it captures Dallas’s ego, not just through McConaughey’s performance, but through his costumes (in training he dresses like a gay aerobics instructor like he’s making it be in style) and even lighting (a Fourth of July performance makes an American flag out of Dallas’s face – he is literally the American dream).

Matthew McConaughey – Killer Abs

There’s very little to dislike in Magic Mike, but there’s not much to love either (unless you love looking at oily men, in which case there’s something). Mike is almost too much of a Mr Nice Guy for there to ever be much concern for him. The business he wishes to set up, selling furniture made from hurricane debris, is problematic too. The film seems to be uncertain as to whether or not his furniture is supposed to be any good (characters in the film seem to differ on it), so the audience gets no clear cues to see Mike as a tortured artist or deluded daydreamer.

The dialogue is for the most part very run of the mill, and the awkward conversations between Mike and Brooke are often just that; awkward. But the script has a flavour for man-banter, and the scenes between Mike and Adam, Dallas and the other strippers crackle at times. Alas, the best line of the film comes at the end of Mike and Adam’s first night of partying – the film never quite reaches that level again.

Shot in sunbathed yellows, Magic Mike is a pretty film about very pretty people. Those pretty people don’t do very much, but the film keeps the attention until it all begins to drag in the final 20 (predictable) minutes, when its bountiful energy runs out.

For the most part it is an entertaining feature. Its major fault is its moralising; for all his talents Mike clearly sees stripping as a lesser profession, and the film seems eager not to judge those who do it, but those who want to it until they’re too old to do it anymore.

The film never quite tackles the issues behind the female gaze; why women want to look at men the way men traditionally look at women. In some ways, the queues outside cinemas to see Magic Mike say more about the matter than the film does itself.


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