“Side Effects” – 3 STARS


Steven Soderbergh has always been a hit or miss filmmaker in my book. He has an impressive resume but the two movies of his that I truly love are more recent efforts, “The Informant” from 2009 and “Contagion” from 2011. His new film “Side Effects” looked like the new “Contagion”, that is if you went by the trailers and TV spots. But other than the small medical connection, these two films couldn’t be more different. At its core “Side Effects” is a straight up modern day thriller. It’s the first of two Soderbergh movies in 2013 which will lead into what the director is calling his filmmaking “sabbatical”.

“Side Effects” is really broken into two halves. The first half of the movie focuses on a young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara). Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving a 4-year sentence for insider trading. It seems like it would be a good time for the couple but Emily begins showing signs of depression. Martin tries to help her but things only seem to get worse leading to her attempting suicide by driving her speeding car into a wall. At the hospital she is examined by a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). She convinces him to let her go home as long as she agrees to regular counseling sessions with him.

Side Effects 2

The movie moves along like a clinical procedural throughout the first half. We watch Emily’s struggles with depression and we sit in on her meetings with Jonathan. We watch as he prescribes numerous medications, none of which work for her. We find out she has a history with depression and once saw another doctor named Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Jonathan meets with Victoria who recommends a drug called Ablixa. Jonathan finally agrees to give it a try and prescribes it for Emily. Things seem to get better for her except for the one side effect – sleepwalking. It’s during one of her sleepwalking episodes that she takes a knife and commits a shocking murder.

The second half of the film focuses more on Jonathan and the fallout from the murder and the court case that followed. It takes a heavy toll on Jonathan’s career and home life so he sets out to clear his name. It’s here where the movie finally starts to feel like a thriller. Soderbergh starts leading us in several different directions and causes us to question and reflect back on things we’ve already seen. At some point you’ll have suspicions of every character and their motivations. These are all things that you want and expect from a good thriller.

So considering all of these things, why didn’t I have a stronger response to “Side Effects”? It’s certainly not the acting. Everyone gives strong performances even the usually stone-faced Channing Tatum. Rooney Mara certainly answered my question of whether she could handle the lead role. But I thought it was Jude Law who was the real standout. He’s really, really good here. It’s also not the visual presentation that’s the problem. Soderbergh knows how to shoot a picture and his particular visual style of camera cuts and closeups works nicely here.


I think my problems lie in the way the story itself is structured. As I hinted at, this never feels like a thriller until well over halfway through the film. It’s only then that different threads of plot begin to branch out. But by that time the movie has but a little time to put all the pieces together. Soderbergh certainly manages to do this competently. I don’t remember there being any gaping plot holes or oversights. But I also don’t feel his ending is all that satisfying and the catalyst behind the big twist feels a little out-of-the-blue. For me the best thrillers are able to put the truth out there while causing the audience to look at it in a different and wrong way. At the end of “Side Effects” I didn’t feel it accomplished that at all.

I don’t want to be too hard on the movie because it’s a good watchable film that’s easy to digest. The performances are strong and Soderbergh has a visual style that perfectly fits this type of film. But underneath the veneer of clinical depression, pharmaceutical lingo, and legal proceedings lies a movie that never reaches its full potential. Its buildup is slow, its surprises feel arbitrary, and overall it’s underwhelming. It’s unfortunate and I still feel that somewhere offscreen lies an ending with more power and punch than the one we’re given – an ending that would give me the satisfaction I hoped for from “Side Effects”.


There have been several movies about Rome’s powerful Ninth Legion and their annihilation in the British territories in the 2nd century. The newest addition is “The Eagle”, adapted from the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion taking his first command in a dangerous and isolated part of Britain. Aquila seeks to restore the honor of his father who was leader of the powerful Ninth Legion when they mysteriously disappeared along with the sacred golden Eagle of Rome. After their fort is attacked, Aquila gains the trust and admiration of his legion by leading them to victory but is injured in the battle resulting in his honorable discharge. But with his father’s name still held in contempt and the Eagle still missing, he sets out on a quest past the Northern Wall, accompanied only by his newly acquired slave Esca (Jaime Bell), to find the Eagle and redeem his father’s reputation .

While “The Eagle” does start off promising, it’s an inconsistent and uneven film that falls into mediocrity. The first act is encouraging. The attack on the fort features the film’s best action sequences. They are furiously shot and edited and bring reminders of films like “Gladiator”. Later, as we’re introduced to Esca, the relationship between wounded Roman hero and Rome-hating slave offers up potential even though it’s built upon pretty familiar grounds. But it never goes very far. Nonetheless the movie still has some pretty decent moments early on.

But then the picture bogs down in numerous scenes of tedious exposition and a quest that lacks any real sense of urgency or peril. These problems can be traced back to a very lackluster script. Other than a few bits of text in the opening, there’s no real effort to develop the film’s historical setting. There is no real explanation of the importance of the Eagle other than “The Eagle is Rome”. The relationship between Aquila and Esca is underdeveloped and hard to buy into. The ending is flat and lacks any real punch or emotion. These are all issues that could be resolved with better writing.

Channing Tatum does a better acting job than in many of his previous films but the verdict is still out for me. He gives a good effort but he just can’t carry a picture like this. His scenes involving interaction with his soldiers early on are his best but he struggles elsewhere. Then you have Donald Sutherland who is laughably bad and terribly miscast as Marcus’ uncle. He appears to be just going through the motions and he’s impossible to take seriously. Jamie Bell gives the better performance of any but even he is handcuffed by the weak screenplay.

“The Eagle” is a very “ok” movie. It’s best parts are experienced early then the movie falls off considerably. It starts off as a poor man’s “Gladiator” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But then it loses it’s identity and heads off into a different direction becoming a very mediocre action picture. The characters and the story are underdeveloped and in a movie like this you have to buy into the quest and the stakes must be high. The stakes weren’t that high and I was never sold enough on the story to really invest in it.


“THE VOW” – 1 1/2 STARS

Some movies are released that really leaves me scratching my head. I ask myself “How on Earth did this movie get made?” Such was the case with “The Vow”, yet another poorly acted and poorly written entry in the hurting romantic comedy genre. I was honestly dumbfounded that “The Vow” saw the light of day. But after seeing the movie rake in almost $200 million worldwide, I was reminded that there is an audience for this type of shallow and unoriginal storytelling.

“The Vow” offers nothing original. It almost comes across as a slightly better looking mid-day soap opera. Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) are a happy young married couple. While heading home after a movie the two are involved in a car accident. Paige is thrown from the car and experiences severe head trauma. As she recovers, Leo stays by her side waiting for her to regain consciousness. When she does, as you can probably guess, she has amnesia and doesn’t recognize Leo. Yes, they really went there.

Things are complicated when her parents enter the mix. In pre-amnesia times, Paige’s relationship with her parents was nonexistent. They use her memory loss as an opportunity to jump back into her life. This pits them against Leo in an attempt to win her affection while she struggles to remember her old life. Throw in Scott Speedman as Jeremy, her ex-fiancee who she split up with prior to meeting Leo. Of course he wants back in her life and sees Paige’s memory loss as his ticket in.

Most of problems with “The Vow” can be traced back the shoddy writing. There’s not one single character mentioned above that feels authentic. They are all paper-thin versions of characters we’ve seen so many times before. The movie hinges upon the love between Paige and Leo. Unfortunately I never bought into them as a couple. Their dialogue is so silly and tripe and neither of the performers are believable. A lot of people like Channing Tatum as an actor but I’m still not sold on him. He delivers so many flat, stone-faced lines and I often found myself laughing at scenes not intended to be funny. McAdams tries her best but the material she is given is so incredibly slight and superficial.

There are instances where “The Vow” teases you into thinking it’s going in a more unconventional directions. But that’s never the case. Sure the ending isn’t the straightforward run-of-the-mill mush that we usually see, but it’s also not enough to save the film which labors from start to finish. Weak material and Tatum’s poor lead performance end up killing the movie before it even gets going. So I find myself again lamenting the status of the romantic comedy, a genre that I actually like but that is bombarded with poor movie after poor movie. But I guess as long as people keep paying money to see them, this is what we can expect.


One the surface, a movie advertised as an action film starring a female MMA fighter and one time American Gladiator doesn’t exactly raise my anticipation level. But seeing the name Steven Soderbergh attached to the movie changed that. Many moviegoers who are unfamiliar with Soderbergh and who go see “Haywire” strictly due to the movie trailer may go away a little disappointed. I found the movie to be an entertaining and stylistic action thriller tightly wrapped in a snug 90 minute package.

Soderbergh’s fingerprints are all over “Haywire” and that’s one of the main reasons the movie works so well. Not only did he direct and shoot the picture but he also edited it and it doesn’t take long to notice his sharp visual style. While Lem Dobbs’ story is smart and concise, it’s Soderbergh who engages the audience with clever camera angles, several tension-filled long takes, and his strategic use of music and sound. He tells the story without many of the contrived devices we see in most modern action pictures. There aren’t loads of blood and constant gunfire. But there are some great hand-to-hand fight scenes where the camera pulls back, the music stops, and the audience is allowed to take it all in. It’s the perfect approach.

Another huge plus is the impressive and memorable lead acting debut of Gina Carano. Her character is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require a lot of range, but Carano holds her own with the strong supporting cast featuring Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, and Bill Paxton. She plays Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine who does contract black-ops work for Kenneth Jay (McGregor) a slimey character with government contacts. Kenneth teams her up with a suave British Agent (Fassbender) for a mission in Dublin. It would spoil things to go much more into detail but let’s just say things don’t go as planned.

The supporting cast is strong and polished, just as you would expect. But it’s Carano who gets the bulk of the screen time and she nails it. One of the best things is that she actually sells her character. Unlike many of the fashion show runway models we often see in lead roles, I had no trouble believing the more full-formed Carano was an ex-Marine or that she could kick some serious butt. And while she is larger than life in many respects, there are certain touches that made her more believable. There is one particular chase scene where she is running on the rooftops and she actually gets turn around. She doesn’t know which way to go and has to backtrack. It’s a small and subtle detail but the film is filled with them.

“Haywire” isn’t your typical January release. Often times January and February movies are those that get pushed back after awards season. But this a really fun and well crafted picture. It’s a film that causes the audience to think and stay focused from start to finish, yet it’s a thrilling and fun ride that uses style over cliche. It’s a fast moving and compact story and Soderbergh’s direction keeps everything running smooth. I enjoyed “Haywire” and it’s a really good way to start the movie year.