Side Effects

Side Effects (2013), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Dear Mr. Soderbergh,

I am writing to ask on behalf of my readers, my fellow filmgoers and the world at large that you not retire from filmmaking and continue your eclectic and delightful career.

Your latest and last film, Side Effects, reminded me once again why you are such an essential presence in our contemporary cinema. For one thing, at a very basic level, it seems as though most directors have forgotten how to tell a story and make it, you know, interesting. They think they have a decent story, with characters and a conflict of some sort, and that’s enough. They don’t understand that the real storytelling is in the medium, in the way the camera is used, in the editing and the music and the cinematography. They have forgotten what separates film from theatre.

You have never forgotten this. This is why Haywire is one of the best action movies we have seen in some time, and certainly the most thoughtful. It’s why Ocean’s Eleven is one of the best Hollywood popcorn movies of the modern era. It’s why Traffic is so much more than a story about the drug trade.

And it’s why Side Effects is a top-notch thriller and one of the best films of the year so far. It could easily have been a passable psychological thriller, even a decent neo-noir. What makes it both of those things and more, is your touch. It’s the dreamlike lighting and colours that add atmosphere and a sense of discomfort to the entire proceedings. It’s the pacing, the vignette-like sequences, the concise dialogue that forces the viewer to work to figure out just where your movie is going. It’s your talent that makes us care. It’s very rewarding as a viewer.

Listen, no one is perfect. Side Effects outstays its welcome and there is at least one too many twists at the end. It could have been tightened up. Watching Jude Law’s character crack the case is captivating, but by the end I doubt there were many who understood each twist and turn, and unlike a film like The Big Sleep, there’s not enough atmosphere to justify a senseless plot. Simple it up a bit, is all I’m saying. I like that you trust your audience to be intelligent, but we still like that sense of being effortlessly entertained.

But this just goes to prove why you should keep up with the filmmaking. You still have more to learn, more to offer. The greatest thing about your career has been the variety of your projects and your unwillingness to be categorized. Sure this has resulted in misses (I’m sorry Steven, but Full Frontal was terrible), but it has also ended up with some of the most interesting films out there, such as Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, along with some of the most entertaining movies on our big screens, like Contagion or Magic Mike. And each, whether art house or multiplex fare, gave us something unique, something that looked and felt different from the other movies, and had your stamp on it.

It’s just a shame to lose that, is all I’m saying.

I’m sure you will enjoy painting. I’m also, despite not being a betting man, willing to put a few dollars down on seeing your name up on that big screen again someday. You’ll be back. And we will be the better for it.

Yours,

CineFile

Side Effects is in cinemas now.

Haywire

Haywire (2012), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Now this is my kind of action movie, I have to say. People have been going ballistic over The Raid: Redemption this year, and while I sort of get why (sort of) I’ll take a stylish, tense, slick film like Haywire over the balls-to-the-wall insanity of The Raid any day. Straight up.

Haywire is a fabulous action movie. It’s got this great combination of an international spy thriller, but mixed with genuinely impressive hand-to-hand fight sequences and thrilling chase scenes. It’s moody and tense but knows how to amp it up when needed.

Helping “amp it up” is its star Gina Carano, who is a former MMA champion. She kicks ass. She has great screen presence and is extremely deadly. There has been admission that her voice was altered post-production to make up for somewhat stiff delivery of dialogue, but that’s not noticeable in the film and her deadpan style fits the material. She’s a no-nonsense, deadly serious, kicking ass, taking names dynamo.

Soderbergh likes to take risks on unknown actors, or more specifically, people who aren’t actors. He got a great performance out of former porn superstar Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, and non-actors in Bubble. Those choices worked out there, and they work out here too, with Carano playing Mallory, a gun for hire. Carano isn’t some actress pretending to be hardcore, she is hardcore. She could beat the living hell out of any of us, and that really shines through.

Being surrounded by some of the best of the business helps. Along with Carano the film features Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender. It’s like a who’s who of modern male actors. And Soderberg turns them, especially Fassbender and McGregor, into action stars.

The fight sequences are fantastic. They are well shot, avoiding that post-action, motion sickness, handheld thing that is all the rage. You can actually tell what is happening in the fight scenes, and can appreciate the complexity and execution of the choreography. And they’re thrilling, and have that match-up feel to them. Who wouldn’t want to see Fassbender fight an MMA star? I mean, really.

I also like how Soderbergh approached the kick-ass woman action genre. I like exploitation films with sexy girls with guns, I admit it. Obviously I don’t dig them if they’re overtly sexist, but, although I’m sure many would disagree, there’s an empowering aspect to them. But I also appreciate this approach. Carano is obviously gorgeous, and quite curvy, something that could have been easily exploited. But Soderbergh takes the high-road and just lets her be her character, not some sexpot for the male viewer’s enjoyment.

The best line in the film is when McGregor’s character tells a would-be assassin that he shouldn’t think of Mallory as a woman. That would be a mistake. I like that, and it characterizes how the film approaches that tricky bit of business. Not that thinking of her as a woman is a bad thing, but the line means that you shouldn’t think of her as being weak (as a “woman” in an action film typically is). Because she is anything but weak and the film treats her with the same respect as any of her male costars.

Let’s talk about Steven Soderbergh. My approach to film, and directors in particular, is a little heavy on the auteur side at times. This means that I follow certain directors and enjoy learning their style, their themes, their tell-tale trademarks. I totally believe in it, but sometimes it means that amazing directors have trouble getting on my radar if they happen to have an eclectic approach to their films.

So i want to rectify this now and say that Steven Soderbergh is really one of the best directors of the last twenty years, even if I haven’t really noticed. I haven’t noticed because the guy can do everything.

Really, I mean look back on his career. He basically started the early 1990s indie film wave with Sex, Lies and Videotape, his first movie. He’s directed cult classics like Out of Sight and The Limey. Into impressive, edgy art films? Well, there’s Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. How about an Oscar-bait films? There’s Traffic and Erin Brokovich. Or maybe you’re up for a huge, profitable Hollywood film. Well, he’s got you there too with the Ocean’s Eleven series and Contagion.

When you look at that list of films it’s hard not to be blown away by what this man has achieved. I think Traffic is an absolute masterpiece, and Bubble is one the best small indie films of the past decade. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t seen it. And who can resist Out of Sight, or even Ocean’s Eleven. I could have done without Oceans Thirteen, but they can’t all be home runs.

And now he’s made a top-notch action film. I’d highly recommend this. It’s a great blend of story, action and impressive performances. It’s slick and action packed but never gratuitously violent or sadistic. Just like it’s main character it kicks some major ass but with style and grace.

Haywire is avialable on DVD and Blu-ray.