Skip to main content

You're not feeling like you're in a poison fog?


Side Effects
(2013)

(SPOILERS) At first it appears that Steven Soderbergh’s final cinematic release (for the time being) may be taking the Traffic approach to the pharmaceutical industry. It wouldn’t be a surprise, as the director likes his issue-led films (which also include Erin Brokovich and Contagion). But Side Effects veers from such a path so preposterously that it leaves him with nothing to say on the subject. It ends up as an above average thriller, but completely forsakes discussing prescription dependency for easy twists and cheap thrills.


It’s near to the reverse of how he treated Contagion. There he had a wonderful opportunity to make a truly frightening pandemic horror but instead took such a restrained, clinical approach that it rarely hit home. The director’s always been a bit frosty, emotionally disengaged from his projects and characters, and sometimes this disposition is more appropriate than at others. Here, he shows his usual technical virtuosity in letting us in on the foggy haze of the medicated, suicidal Emily (Rooney Mara), and his detachment means we’re somewhat blindsided when Scott Z Burns’ script starts piling on the unlikeliest and most sensational of revelations.


Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison and soon after she attempts suicide. Her newly appointed shrink Jonathan (Jude Law) prescribes a range of medication, with limited benefits, before her old psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests a new drug, Ablixa. At first this seems great; it perks up her sex drive, with just a slightly unwanted side effect of somnambulism against it. It’s in such a state that she kills Martin one night.


Killing off Tatum 30 minutes into the film makes for a highly effective Psycho moment; certainly, I didn’t see it coming. But I presumed this would go to emphasise the meat of the tale; prescription meds are bad, kids. Emily pleads insanity, and attention shifts to prescription-happy Jonathan and the gradual disintegration of his professional and personal life. He starts to look around for others to blame, and wouldn’t this be just the kind of self-denial we’d expect? Particularly as he has more than one theory; either Emily was faking her episodes or he’s a victim of a cover-up by the pharma company. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t turn out to be the latter. As with Contagion, Soderbergh retreats from anything slightly radical once he has raised an issue (there it was Law’s anti-science holistic conspiracist), to the extent that one suspects the director of a lurking conservatism (small “c”). So not only do the thriller elements engulf any serious discussion of the medicated society, but also he arrives at a polar opposite position; the antagonist, who is not mentally ill, is forced onto drugs at the behest of her triumphant psychiatrist (the beleaguered hero). We’re led to the point where we cheer on Jonathan screwing with a healthy (as much as a murderer can be, anyway) person’s brain chemistry.


Soderbergh is less than scrupulous in his choices throughout, which at least keeps you on your toes. The subjective way he treats Emily’s state of mind during the opening sections is a big fat visual cheat (she’s faking it so she’s not in the “poisonous fog” she describes to Jonathan), but he can’t really be accused of a Stage Fright-esque hoodwinking. It’s just a bit sneaky. By the time we discover that Emily is having a lesbian affair with Victoria, and they hatched their grand plot together (which involved making Jonathan a dupe), he’s keeping things moving so adeptly that we barely have time to stop and think about how far-fetched the whole thing is (be it faking a sodium amatol interrogation, manipulating stock prices for drugs or relying on the duping of a random brain care specialist for the scheme to succeed). 


Which means that, while Side Effects is highly entertaining, the tangent it veers off on is a disappointment given where it started. The sheer blaséness of attitudes to medication during the opening sections promises so much more. Jonathan is dosing his clients at the drop of a hat (he even tells his wife, “It doesn’t make you anything your not, it just makes it easier to be who you are” as he plies her with pills). There’s a great scene of Jonathan and his partners being wined and dined by a pharma rep looking for sponsors for a new product. And Jonathan is not a bad guy; he shows due concern for his patients when he is with them. The problem is that he is there only superficially, and he doesn’t attend to the fine print. As such he has no qualms over the business of dishing out magic cure-alls, favouring wall-to-wall engagements over quality client service. The falling apart of his world initially seems like a judgement on his lack of oversight, but turns round to a point where he is without guilt and emerges victorious. It doesn’t feel quite right.


I’ve said this a couple of times of his recent work, but Law’s gone from an actor I really didn’t care for to one who is consistently turning in strong performances in interesting movies. At first it looks like he’s a bit player here, with Mara as the lead, so it’s another of the film’s clever shifts when he becomes the focus. Mara is commanding in an unsympathetic role and she and Tatum make for a very natural couple (too good to be true); it’s not really her fault that Emily’s motivation for killing Tatum is lacking (her loss of lifestyle really cheesed her off!) Zeta-Jones bears the signs of visiting Nicole Kidman’s plastic surgeon, which lends her an air of supernatural menace. Like Mara, her characterisation suffers in the last third of the film but she does get to wallop Law with a handbag.


One could imagine Brian De Palma being right at home with this kind of material, and he’d certainly have played up its more trashy aspects. Soderbergh lends Side Effects an air of respectability it might not quite deserve, or at least warrant. For all that it shirks saying anything of value this is manages to satisfy as wriggling, writhing thriller that keeps you hooked. It’s just not great brain fodder.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…