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.

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street (2012), directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

This summer is my ten year high school reunion. Which, to me, is unbelievable. I graduated in 2002, three years before these supposedly old characters in 21 Jump Street are said to have graded (never mind the fact that Hill graded in 2001 and Tatum in like 1998). Also, ever since I graduated I have had recurring dreams about going back to high school. I have very few recurring dreams, maybe two, and this is the most common. I have no idea why.

So a movie about two guys who went to high school in the early aughts now going back is pretty much right up my hallway. I have never seen an episode of the original 21 Jump Street but I heard they filmed it in Vancouver and I watched a couple clips on the interweb and it seems pretty cool. That’s of course the show that launched Johnny Depp’s (Nick of Time) career and has now spawned this remake/reboot/whatever.

I came in with high hopes and for the most part the movie fulfilled them. This is three quarters of a very funny movie with an enjoyable frenetic energy and a great gimmick. I can’t imagine how much being in high school has changed since I went, but considering none of my friends really had cell phones until maybe the grade 12, (let along iPhones, iPads, iCars, iCondoms, iWhatevers) I can imagine things have changed. And that’s the main joke of the film.

This is a movie really made for people around my age. Even the opening music, “The Real Slim Shady”, which is supposed to be from 2005 is from when I was in high school in 2000. Not a criticism, I’m just saying that I think the guys who made this movie are hovering closer to 30 then 25. Even Dave Franco, who plays a real high school student, graded in 2003.

But the premise and its delivery work. Tatum (I always want to write “Drederick” before that) and Hill are perfect as the two lousy cops (one is dumb, the other wimpy) assigned to pose as high school students to take down a drug ring. They’re told not to get involved, but of course, as we all would, one wants to relive his glory days as a jock and the other wants to be the cool kid that he never was. The police work almost takes a backseat to those lofty goals.

And all this works. I loved when they first arrive at school and instantly realize they’re in a different world then the one they knew. Tatum pulls up in a 1970s Camero (which I think is cool) and the first question he gets is ‘what’s the mileage on that thing?’ The whole role switch, where Hill becomes the cool kid because he’s smart and nice and Tatum, the former jock, is ostracized because ‘sports are so fascist’ is hilarious and even sweet at times. I even liked most of the wink, wink self-referential humour (especially the chicken truck) because it wasn’t overdone.

I did have some problems with the movie. I’m going to sound like a wet blanket here but I don’t find violence, especially this level of violence, particularly funny. I had the same reaction to Pineapple Express, I loved the first three quarters and then the super hyper violent ending left me cold. It honestly makes me really uncomfortable. I’ve been in my seat guffawing at well timed humour for an hour or more and then all of a sudden I’m supposed to have the same reaction to a guy getting shot in the crotch. That doesn’t jive with me, dig it?

I don’t think that realistic, gratuitous violence is funny, but I also think it’s lazy writing. In both those movies we have a really well written lead up and then it’s as if they can’t think of anything better to do then end the film with a whole bunch of people getting shot and some explosions. 21 Jump Street is somewhat aware of its own devices, but it still employs them with relish. It’s as if they think they have to amp everything up and finish with a bang.

Obviously the story needs to wrap up and I have no problem with some action at the end leading to the arrest, whatever, but the near sadistic, unnecessary violence that 21 Jump Street caps off with really detracted from the whole experience.

Regardless, 21 Jump Street is easily the best comedy of the year so far and, for the most part, a heck of a lot of fun. Especially if you secretly want to go back to high school.

21 Jump Street is in theatres now.