“Side Effects” – 3 STARS

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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.

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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.

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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”.

THE TOP 5 MOVIES OF 2012…SO FAR

2012 has been an interesting year at your local theater. We’ve had our share of big budget, target audience pictures, some pointless and some amazing sequels, some highly anticipated films, and some smaller surprises. We’ve also seen several trends that mercilessly continue – a bombardment of raunchy comedies and the typical assortment of sub-par romantic comedies. I could point several other negatives about the 2012 movie year but this is all about the positive.

It’s July which marks the half-way point of the movie year. So in place of the normal “Phenomenal 5”, I’m going to look at my top 5 movies of 2012 so far. Mid-year lists do carry with them a disclaimer. Things can change throughout the movie year and when my year-end top 10 list is done, all of these could be in still here or left out. Second viewings always help in determining my overall feelings about a film and I’m really anxious to see some of these again. But, all have made an impression on me thus far so they have earned their spot on the list. With that, here we go….

#5 – “HAYWIRE”

I was stunned that I liked an action thriller starring a mixed martial arts fighter. But such was the case with “Haywire” and it’s largely due to the fantastic Steven Soderbergh. His direction, editing, and cinematography gives the film a slick stylish look which perfectly matches the unorthodox action movie vibe. Also surprising is the movie’s star, Gina Carano, who works in large part to her tremendous physical ability but also due to the measured way she is used. And how can I not mention the fantastic supporting cast featuring Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewen McGregor, Michael Douglas, and an even decent performance from Channing Tatum. “Haywire” went largely unnoticed by audiences but it’s a movie that I had a blast with.

#4 – “THE KID WITH THE BIKE”

From the Belgian filmmaking duo the Dardenne brothers, “The Kid with the Bike” is a foreign picture that debuted overseas in 2011 but made its US opening earlier this year. It’s an emotional drama that completely grabs you from its opening moments. The Dardenne’s use a visual style that pulls you into the story and that also engages the audience with the characters on pretty personal levels. Young Thomas Doret’s performance is quite good but it’s Cecile de France that really blew me away. Her character’s acts of grace combined with the personal void in her own life is a key component to what makes the movie work so well. It’s a great little movie with a punch and it’s one more people need to see.

#3 – “PROMETHEUS

Many have voiced their problems with Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated return to the science fiction genre. And while I don’t deny the second half of the film isn’t as polished as the first and there are a few storytelling issues, I really responded to the film. The visual presentation is astounding and Scott’s mix of top-notch CGI and elaborate set  pieces make the futuristic world believable. For my money Scott asks enough questions to challenge the audience and his intentional ambiguity, a turn-off for some, worked for me. The cast is strong particularly Michael Fassbender who is already on my short list for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. I’m a huge Ridley Scott fan and “Prometheus” does nothing to change that. It may not have met everyone’s expectations but it certainly met mine (and they were high).

#2 – “CORIOLANUS

Coriolanus” is a movie that could also be considered a 2011 film but it made its limited premiere here earlier this year and I loved it. The film marks Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut and he really shines. He takes the Shakespeare story and throws it into a more modern setting while keeping the original language intact. It’s tricky material and the movie nails it. Fiennes also stars in the film and his towering performance is mesmerizing from his first appearance on-screen until the last scene. “Coriolanus” also features a fantastic supporting cast including Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, and Brian Cox. The movie’s choice of language can be a bit jarring at first but it quickly becomes perfect for what the movie is shooting for. Fiennes’ first shot at directing is incredibly good and his performance reminds us that he’s one of the better actors in the business.

#1 – “THE AVENGERS

Speaking of high expectations. In what may be one of the most ambitious projects in movie history, Marvel Studios not only succeeded in bringing their superhero team together on the big screen, they gave us an incredibly funny and action-packed movie that took the movie world by storm. What’s great is that “The Avengers” is actually a genuinely good movie. It’s not all explosions and spandex. One of the reason it works so well is because of Joss Whedon’s script. His familiarity with the characters and the injection of just the right amount of humor makes everything gel nicely. Whedon also had the challenge of taking the previous movies that have led up to “The Avengers” and giving them all a harmony. Mission accomplished. The cast, led by Robert Downey, Jr., is simply wonderful and Whedon (who also directed the film) uses them perfectly. “The Avengers” is a blast and Marvel Studios accomplished their goal. I think the over $1 billion box office proves that.

So what did I miss. There are a few other movies that were right there but just fell short of my Top 5. What are your top 5 movies of the year so far?

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE TOUGH GIRLS

There’s plenty of action pictures featuring movie tough guys. In fact, an entire action genre centered around muscle-bound movie tough guys in the 80’s and early 90’s. But we do a disservice if we fail to recognize that there have been some tough-as-nails women that can hold their own against any of the guys. So I thought it would be fun to give the ladies their due by listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Tough Girls. It may surprise you but there are a lot more tough girls to choose from than you might think. So after much deliberation here are my top five. As always, this isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 Movie Tough Girls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – ALICE (“Resident Evil” Series)

While the movies are far from great, Milla Jovovich’s Alice has evolved into a very recognizable movie tough girl. Through several sequels she has punched, kicked, sliced, and shot her way through hordes of zombies and creatures. Jovovich has used shotguns, rocket launchers, swords, and special powers and she does it with the same sneering gravitas that many of the better male action stars used. Even though she doesn’t have the best material to work with, there’s just something too cool about watching Alice in action.

#4 – MALLORY KANE (“Haywire”)

Gina Carano blew me away with this year’s “Haywire”. She plays a government black ops agent who is double crossed and on the run. Director Steven Soderbergh puts Carano’s MMA background on display as she kicks butt from New York to Barcelona to Mexico. She has attitude to spare and her ability to fight is undeniable (just ask the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas). If you doubt that Mallory Kane belongs on this list, check out “Haywire”. It just came out on DVD.

#3 – SARAH CONNOR (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”)

In the first Terminator picture, Sarah Connor was your basic girl on the run from danger. Boy how things change in “Terminator 2”. Linda Hamilton bulks up and gives Sarah a harder edge and an almost militaristic personality. Knowing the war that’s coming, Sarah fights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than holds her own. Whether it’s with her fists or with machine guns, she blasts away at anyone who gets in her way including the new T-1000 terminator. This new Sarah Connor certainly qualifies as a movie tough girl.

#2 – PRINCESS LEIA (“Star Wars” Series)

When watching the original “Star Wars”, it doesn’t take long to see that Princess Leia is as tough as they come. We see her open rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and her unwillingness to compromise with them in the movie’s first scenes. It also doesn’t take Han and Luke long to see that she’s a no-nonsense woman who tells it like it is. She’s handy with the laser blaster and she doesn’t mind putting herself in danger. She plays an intricate role in saving Han’s life and it was Leia that kills Jabba the Hutt. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is as surly as any tough guy and she has the smarts to make things happen. Leia is the quintessential tough girl.

#1- ELLEN RIPLEY (“Alien” Series)

It’s been argued that Ellen Ripley is the best female movie character of all time. I don’t know about that but I do think she’s the toughest female character of all time. And regardless of what other role she may play, anytime I see Sigourney Weaver, I automatically think of Ellen Ripley. In the first Alien picture she was the only survivor of her ship’s crew and she single-handedly killed the alien. In the second film we see just how tough Ripley is. She uses grenades, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, and even a robotic crane to kill a load of aliens and even the queen. In the third film she even kills herself to keep the alien inside of her from getting out. Throughout the series Ripley encounters a variety of so-called tough guys. Isn’t it interesting that she is the one that actually survives. Sounds like she’s the one that’s truly tough.

There you have it. There were several others that I considered but these were the five that stood out the most. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you see someone who I left off? Who would you include on your list? Please take time to comment and share who is your favorite tough girl.

“HAYWIRE” – 4 STARS

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.

REVIEW: “Contagion”

Whether it be “Twelve Monkeys”, “Virus”, “Outbreak” or the new Steven Soderbergh project “Contagion”, I’ve always had an affection for end of the world, deadly virus movies. In “Contagion”, Soderbergh takes a much different approach than most of these types of films, choosing to give it a more realistic and clinical feel. I’ve heard it described as a “medical thriller” and that’s pretty accurate. We spend a lot of time with scientists and doctors from The Centers for Disease Control and The World Health Organization as they try to identify and find a cure for a ravaging epidemic. Soderbergh fills his film with an incredible cast most of which are perfectly utilized. None of them play the one key protagonist. Instead each are cogs in Soderbergh’s greater machine.

The movie wastes no time getting things started. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a mysterious virus while on a business trip in Hong Kong. Before the symptoms set in and on her way home to her husband (Matt Damon) and children in Minneapolis, she stops off in Chicago where she not only has a quick fling with an old flame but passes on the highly contagious virus. After arriving home, Beth develops a cough and a high fever which results in her being the first casualty of what becomes a  worldwide epidemic. Damon’s storyline gives the movie it’s biggest injection of humanity. It brings the seriousness of the threat to a household level and for the most part is very effective.

Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the CDC teams up with Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to find the origin of the virus which they hope will lead to a cure. This is where the movie really takes off. Fishburne and especially Winslet are convincing as doctors who are well versed in science but caught completely off guard by both the nature of the disease and the rate of it’s spread. In fact, it’s a professor (Elliott Gould) defying direct orders from the CDC who gives them their first lead towards a viable vaccine. What makes this work is Scott Burns’ incredible dialogue. It’s crisp, intelligent, and filled with all sorts of medical lingo. But it never gets bogged down in the terminology. Instead it feels like we’re sitting in on these intense and urgent conversations.

Soderbergh also introduces us to Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), sent to Hong Kong by the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the virus. Me also meet Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger who is actually more of a conspiracy theorist. He believes that the government is hiding information and threatens to reveal it regardless of the consequences. We even get John Hawkes in a minuscule role as a janitor at the disease center. Each of these character’s stories branch off from the main narrative and each offer some interesting angles. But there are huge gaps in Dr. Orantes’ story that I wished had been filled in a little. Also Hawkes’ character is terribly underwritten. I also didn’t find any of their individual endings all that satisfying.

“Contagion” moves at a sharp and steady pace, never letting the audience feel as though the threat has let up. Soderburgh throws us plenty of curve balls and no character is too big  to fall victim of the virus. Knowing this had me constantly questioning how the movie would end. The first part of the film is the strongest and it does a great job of setting up the threat. It also got in my head as it showed the numerous ways germs can spread. Soderbergh’s closeup shots of door handles, drinking glasses, and handshakes had me developing my own personal phobias. The second half of the film features some riveting sequences showing the chaos brought on by the quarantines and shards of misinformation that was spreading throughout the cities. The great thing is that Soderbergh doesn’t milk these scenes. He gives us just enough of them to set the proper tone.

“Contagion” is a movie that starts a lot stronger than it finishes but it never goes off the rails. It’s biggest problem is that it branches out in too many directions and ends up shortchanging a few of the characters. But it’s still a high quality film that doesn’t give in to any one single formula. It develops the threat, raises the stakes, and lets a remarkable cast tell the story. Soderbergh puts together a really good film here.

VERDICT – 4 STARS