Thursday, March 14, 2013

Off-Beat "Ruby Sparks" Transcends Genre

Real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan produce and star in
Ruby Sparks, which Kazan also wrote.
Ruby Sparks is a wonderfully complex and off-beat film that plays like a Charlie Kaufmanesque take on the Pygmalion myth. For a more modern entry point for the film, think Stranger Than Fiction, except darker and far less overtly commercial.

Cleverly scripted by actress Zoe Kazan, the film focuses on Calvin (Paul Dano), an antisocial novelist who writes a treatment for his dream girl Ruby Sparks (Kazan), only to later discover she’s become real. Others can see her and interact with her, and, besides Calvin’s brother Harry (subtle scene-stealer Chris Messina), no one, not even Ruby, knows she’s been manifested by Calvin’s mind.

The marketing for the film plays up the quirky romantic elements inherent in such a premise, while highlighting its connection to the crowd-pleasing Little Miss Sunshine (in addition to sharing Dano, both films were directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). That’s all well and good, but the simplistic approach greatly misrepresents the film.
Chris Messina (right) brings a grounding presence to
the film as Calvin's brother Harry. 

Sure, Ruby Sparks starts out as an indie charmer, and it’s often reminiscent of bittersweet romantic comedies along the lines of (500) Days of Summer. But, there’s also a whole lot more going on here than one would first expect, and the film takes off in some unexpected directions that simultaneously call to mind works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Frankenstein and Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Upon learning about Ruby, Harry astutely notes Calvin can tweak her in any way he wants. Calvin scoffs at the idea, saying he knows and loves everything about her, which makes sense since she’s his female ideal. However, when Ruby starts to flesh out and develop beyond the introverted Calvin’s comfort zone, the temptation for editing proves too great to ignore.

Ruby Sparks winds up making serious statements about the creative process and the way men idealize women. In doing the latter, it offers a critique of the much-discussed Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a stock construct Ruby initially seems to epitomize. But, as Harry tells Calvin, "quirky, messy women whose problems only make them endearing are not real" and "you haven't written a person, okay? You've written a girl."

Kazan is good all the way through, but gets a true showcase once Ruby starts to become her own person and Calvin begins rewriting. She runs the gamut of emotions in this thing, as Ruby oscillates from personality type to personality type culminating in a tour-de-force climax that's shocking in how far it journeys into darkness. 
Antonio Banderas must love dogs.

For his part, Dano is quite impressive. Although he can be overly mannered at times, he’s also an all-in performer who can excel in the right part. Real-life girlfriend Kazan gifts him a great one here. Calvin’s a complicated guy with a lot of issues, reminiscent of a modern-day Barton Fink in the way he’s equal parts timid introvert and smug egotist. And Dano bravely digs in here, matching his career-best turn in There Will Be Blood and simultaneously making Calvin both sympathetic and detestable.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Elliot Gould, and Steve Coogan offering great character moments from the sidelines. Banderas is particularly enjoyable as the hippy boyfriend of Calvin’s mom (Bening).

The film barely blipped on the radar when it first came out, but it’s a great achievement for all involved, particularly Kazan. The granddaughter of legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan, she does her family name proud by delivering a rich performance and emerging as a screenwriter with a strong voice and a real sense of character.

Not everything about the film is perfect. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, partly because I thought it would be stronger if Calvin and Ruby had moved on and partly because it made me wonder too much about how he would explain this craziness to everyone else in his life who’ve already met Ruby. However, it’s not a make or break thing, and ultimately, when a film is this smart, emotionally affecting and thought-provoking, something like that seems like a mere quibble. A

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

“Oz: The Great and Powerful” Provides Good Family Entertainment

The production designers and special effects coordinators brought their
A game to Oz: The Great and Powerful.
I went in to Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and Powerful expecting something awful. Despite the talent involved, the trailers made the movie look annoyingly frenetic, and the flying monkey sidekick appeared to continue the Jar Jar Binks tradition of adding a terrible CGI character to a beloved classic.

Fortunately, the movie is nowhere near the trainwreck I had envisioned. On the contrary, it’s actually a majestically beautiful, involving and even heart-felt film that pays homage to the 1939 classic while still offering a fun standalone adventure.
Although the original L. Frank Baum stories are now in the public domain, MGM owns the rights to many of the iconic aspects most associated with this franchise, and so Disney was unable to include references to ruby slippers or any of the classic musical arrangements and songs. However, Raimi and his crew pay tribute to the original version whenever possible.

Most obviously, the film starts in a black-and-white Kansas and concludes with a presentation of gifts. In addition, our hero goes on a journey to kill a wicked witch to get what he desires, during which he encounters several characters reminiscent of people from his life back in Kansas. There are even nods to the melting effect of water, flight via bubbles, and the Gale family, as well as the cowardly lion and scarecrow (but no tin man as far as I could tell).

The narrative basically presents origin stories for both the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West, and while it succeeds with the former, the film’s handling of the Wicked Witch is half-baked at best.
Somehow, both CGI sidekicks prove to be positive elements of the film.
As the titular character, Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) gets the bulk of the screen time, and the film effectively portrays his evolution from selfish scoundrel to sacrificing savior. Although he is an egotistical manipulator and two-bit magician, he also looks up to Thomas Edison and aspires to his level of accomplishment. “I don’t want to be a good man,” he says. “I want to be a great man!”
Once in Oz, Oscar meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch whose father once ruled the land before being betrayed and killed. Theodora falls in love with Oscar instantly and takes him to the Emerald City, proclaiming him to be the wizard prophesized to restore peace in Oz and become king. Once there, Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tells Oscar that he must find and kill her “evil” sister Glinda (Michelle Williams) to claim the throne. However, when he finally finds Glinda, Oscar realizes things are not as they first appeared.
The acting is mostly strong. Weisz and Williams fair best, which is hardly surprising given their impressive credentials and the fact that they basically each have one note to play. Franco, who was only cast after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp both turned down the role, proves a good fit for the character. The actor has received a lot of attention for his avant-garde career choices and incessant desire to be a Renaissance man with some praising him for his ambition and others criticizing his actions as phony and self-aggrandizing. That dichotomy is perfect for the role of Oscar, and Franco proves a solid anchor for the film.
The miscast Kunis doesn’t fair as well. I’m a fan, but the actress doesn’t excel at portraying menacing evil. That being said, she’s been saddled with an impossible character, whose motivations and mood swings are laughably presented.

Despite that developmental misstep, the rest of the project is a fine-tuned engine. The opening scenes in Kansas are filled with foreshadowing, and the film earns many of its best payoff moments due to the pipe work laid in those early scenes. The production design, score and 3D effects are uniformly excellent. Even the CGI sidekicks – a winged monkey (Zach Braff) and an amazingly rendered china girl (Joey King) – effectively avoid all the possible pitfalls and prove to be integral reasons for why the movie works. B-

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Twilight Saga Ascends to Mediocrity In “Breaking Dawn – Part 2”

Meet Renesmee, the needlessly CGI-enhanced baby.
Breaking Dawn – Part 2 marks the end of the five-movie Twilight saga, and, like its predecessors, the film features a slew of horrendous scenes, terrible effects and creepy implications. However, after the shaky first 30 minutes or so, it offers a satisfactory experience due to a welcome dose of forward momentum, legitimate conflict and a cool fight scene were a bunch of heads get ripped off.
This series has been an easy mark for criticism based simply on overt problems like awful CGI, wooden performances and angst-ridden dialogue, and all of these issues are present in this final installment. Running scenes, constant green screen sequences, and wolf effects continue to look cheesy, and the unfortunate decision to use CGI enhancement on the baby and child playing Renesmee, the rapidly aging spawn of Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella (Kristen Stewart), results in some really weird sequences.
The dialogue and performances remain awfully stilted, especially during the opening scenes in which Bella first awakens to her vampire powers and feuds with Jacob (Taylor Lautner) over imprinting on Renesmee. Stewart has some talent, but even the most gifted of actresses would have trouble communicating believable rage while delivering a line like “Nessie? You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster!”
However, the major issue with this series so far has been the total lack of tangible content beyond the original film. It’s amazing to consider just how little happened in New Moon and Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn – Part 1 probably could’ve been condensed into about 45 minutes since so much of that movie was basically sitting around and waiting for a potentially dangerous birth to occur.
Breaking Dawn – Part 2 doesn’t suffer from this problem, because it poses a central threat (the Volturi are coming to kill Renesmee) and then builds toward it by competently embracing the familiar trope of many action films – bringing a team together. In an effort to survive, Edward and his family call on friends from around the world, and these scenes play like a poor-man's X-men (which, to be clear, plays better than a rich man's Twilight).The aforementioned fight scene is a whole lot of violent fun and far better than anything else in this entire series (even if it is a cheat), and the emotions play a bit better when there are real stakes as opposed to a annoying barrage of territorial bickering.
The best that can be said about the werewolf at this
point is that he's not exactly a pedophile.
Despite this improvement, Breaking Dawn – Part 2 actually ups the ick factor of the series. I’ve long taken issue with the fact that this is ultimately a love story between a 100-year-old man and a teenager, and this one compounds the creepiness by pairing Jacob with a child. The story tries to mitigate the grossness by implying he will dutifully wait until Renesmee “fully matures,” but that is revealed to occur at 7-years-old, so, yeah, creepy.
The three principles seem comfortable in their roles and fair better due to reduced angst, but it’s still Billy Burke as Bella’s father and Peter Facinelli as Edward’s “father” who least embarrass themselves among the regular cast. Michael Sheen and a nearly dialogue-free Dakota Fanning sufficiently suppress their talents as members of the Volturi, but, on a positive note, Lee Pace (fresh off a prime supporting role in Lincoln) provides ample charisma as a friend of the Cullens.

I’m glad this series is now in the rear-view mirror, mostly because of its terrible female role model but also because these films were just unrelenting black holes of awfulness. Still, in fairness, it’s worth noting some of the glaring issues facing the franchise were corrected in this finale, and they do have all the head ripping. Overall, Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is a pretty pedestrian effort, but given the bar set by this series, that’s an admirable accomplishment. C-

Friday, March 8, 2013

Polley Delivers With Affecting "Take This Waltz"

Although I'm not a fan of the Scrambler, it's used
expertly by writer-director Sarah Polley.
After successfully proving she could step behind the camera with the Oscar-nominated Away From Her, actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley continues her hot streak with Take This Waltz, an honest, expressive examination of longing, infidelity and the restlessness that can accompany settling in.

The movie focuses on Margot (Michelle Williams), a 28-year-old freelance writer who finds herself yearning for something more after five years of marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), a sweet aspiring cookbook author. Margot is chock full of insecurities and desirous of steamy spontaneity, and, not being a passionate man, the contentedly oblivious Lou just doesn’t get it. Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), a charming artist and neighbor, whose new energy and sexual openness attract Margot to consider an affair.

Polley impressively instills specificity to this universal tale of temptation. Set against a colorful and sweat-drenched hipster locale in Toronto, the film perfectly captures what In Contention’s Guy Lodge aptly termed the “mind-melting fug” of summer. Although the jobs of the principles seem a bit too precious (Lou’s cook book focuses solely on chicken and Daniel is a poor artist who makes rent by hauling a rickshaw), these feel like living breathing people.

A lot of that is courtesy of the actors. Williams is her typically excellent self, expertly conveying the flaws and fears of a woman who’s equally silly and somber. Rogen proves once again that he can play a role mostly straight when given the opportunity. As in Funny People and 50/50, he’s mostly just riffing on his everyday personality, but there’s also something else there, a more focused calm. Kirby is also good as the tentative and seductive Daniel, and Sarah Silverman gets a chance to show she can act as Lou's alcoholic sister Geraldine, particularly in her last appearance (the film tests credibility to get Margot in that scene, but the catharsis is worth it).

The film depicts a life filled with domestic hipster
bliss that nevertheless has a gap in it.
What Polley accomplishes here is all the more impressive given a rocky start that includes a contrived meet-cute and two overly transparent and neurotic speeches by Margot – one about a fear of “connections” and another concerning “momentary melancholy.” Polley stays on-the-nose throughout, with Geraldine acting as a pseudo Greek chorus and underlining thematic points outright, but those instances are far better modulated than these early missteps.

To be fair, Polley more than makes up for these issues with several expertly done sequences, including an carnal scene in which Daniel describes what he’d do to Margot if given the chance and a tour de force time-lapsed shot in a loft apartment. Even better is Polley’s decision to marry the evocative imagery of the scrambler ride to The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in two sequences that say quite a bit about Margot’s elusive desires.

And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the gym shower sequence, which features Williams, Silverman and a slew of less-than-desirable woman going about their business while discussing the idea of new things getting old. It’s the second time in a two-movie span that a director has chosen to put a room’s full of naked woman on screen (the first being The Master) to, highlight the objectification of women, albeit for vastly different purposes. But, don’t worry – for those who want their nudity to be a bit sexier, there’s some of that as well. B+

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Polarizing "The Master" Doesn't Quite Connect

Following the most intense, emotionally cathartic scene in
the film,the two stars of this "love story" share a cigarette.
Insert comparison to sex here.

Half-way through Paul Thomas Anderson’s polarizing The Master, someone tells Freddie Quell (a transformative Joaquin Phoenix), our gnarled, disturbed and sex-obsessed protagonist, "He's making all this up as he goes along. You don't see that?"

This accusation is directed at Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of The Cause, a fanatical cult that is fighting a trillion-year-old battle to purify and free the soul by submitting members to a process that addresses trauma from past lives. It suggests that this man has no answers, no specific insight. But, having seen the film and read just a few of the vast array of interpretations, it's hard for me not to infer an unintended meta commentary.

Here we have a film focused on a man looking for answers in post WWII America, willing to suffer extremes to find salvation. And so this man stumbles upon a charmingly playful and seemingly wise "Master" whose Cause many damaged souls have fully adopted, assumedly because they are captivated by his salesmanship and because they so desperately want to believe. All this, despite the fact that the Master himself is increasingly losing conviction in his own rhetoric, as evidenced by his being drawn to a primal silly animal and a late-in-the-game modification that suggests members "imagine" not "remember" prenatal past during processing sessions.

I would make the case those words of critique can be levied at the film itself. Like Dodd, the film is undeniably compelling as it suggests great truths can be found via submission to its all encompassing greatness. And it too seems to lose conviction as it embraces malleability in a catch-all attempt to maintain some sort of mythic status, while proving to be as hopelessly inquisitive as its titular character.

Extending the comparison, the film also has a number of ardent followers who claim to see deeper meanings beyond the showy surface. They’ll claim those who don’t see the genius aren’t paying close enough attention and argue for multiple viewings that would, I can only assume, beat enlightenment into someone the same way repeatedly walking from a window to a wall might.

Amy Adams gives a frightening and thought-
provoking performance as Peggy Dodd, wife 
and master of Master.
If the film is Dodd, viewers like me are like Freddy Quell. I too attempted to give myself over to uncover a deeper meaning. As a die-hard Anderson fan I wanted to see it, and I can’t deny I was enthralled by the style and the craft. But, in the end, I just couldn't buy into it.

Nevertheless, I can’t quite shake the film, and though I won’t submit, like Freddy, I am still drawn to it. I am in awe of the acting prowess on display and was left amazed at some of the shot compositions and long takes Anderson nestled into the film. I loved how Johnny Greenwood managed to build on his work in There Will Be Blood, offering up an alarming, percussive score that intrudes and unnerves in even the most mundane scenes.

And this thing has a number of indelible sequences, most obviously the don’t-blink examination between Dodd and Freddy, but also a plethora of ambiguous ones that have inspired so much thoughtful analysis from fans (both of Hoffman’s singing scenes, anything with Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, and the sex scene at the end, to name a few). I like that and see value in it, but ultimately the film is entirely impressionistic, with no more definitive meaning than the Rorsarch inkblots Freddie keeps sexualizing.

If you squint and grit your teeth, you can see all sorts of deeper meanings in The Master. You can project thoughts of repressed homosexuality on the part of Dodd and suggest it’s all really a wonderfully complex super ego/id love story. And that’s all well and good, and I’m certainly intrigued to consider such interpretations, but to me those things aren’t so much remembered as they are imagined. A key difference, I think. B

Monday, March 4, 2013

Lawless Underwhelms Despite Ingredients for Greatness

The Bondurant boys don't lay down for nobody.

As a big fan of the elegiac and uncompromisingly grim poetry director John Hillcoat wrought with The Proposition and The Road, I was massively anticipating his latest film, Lawless.

Reteaming with Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for a crime drama about a mythic family of moonshiners during the Prohibition era just seemed like the perfect fit for Hillcoat’s sensibilities. And then, on top of that, he landed a stacked cast, including Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman and regular collaborator Guy Pearce, to name just a few.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t come close to reaching the epic heights of my expectations, or, more importantly, its own straining ambition. And believe me this venture is ambitious, as it reaches to cover similar themes to those explored in films as diverse as The Godfather and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (two personal favorites).

Externally it has all the trappings of a classic – an authentic milieu, great archetypes, a distinguished style, and immersive music (courtesy of Cave and Warren Ellis) – but it’s mostly hollow otherwise, and so it ends up coming across like a somewhat tired version of a familiar story.

In some ways it reminded me of an inverted Gangster Squad, another recent take on the crime genre that was also clichéd, but had the good sense to be fun and bubbly besides. Here, the craftsmanship, authenticity and scope are so keenly evident that you’re forced to take the enterprise at face value, which more apparently exposes the shortcomings.

Set in 1931, Lawless focuses on the Bondurant brothers, a trio of Virginia moonshiners comprised of the taciturn Forrest (Hardy), the hard-living Howard (Jason Clarke), and the sensitive Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Thanks to Forrest and Howard, the family has become legendary as indestructible forces of nature, but, as the runt of the litter, Jack seems made of different cloth… until, well, he doesn’t.

The Bondurant’s use their gas station/diner as a front for their illegal activities, but the times are changing, and soon shady government officials are trying to force their way into getting a piece of the pie from all area moonshiners. Unlike their scared compatriots in distillery, the Bondurants resist the shakedown, drawing the ire of Charlie Rakes (Pearce), a fiendish deputy brought in from Chicago to make the locals toe the line.

Guy Pearce brings a fey creepiness to his villainous role.
It’s a great shell for a narrative, but the film is largely limited by half-baked characterizations. Jack and Forrest are the leads of the film, but they come across as pale versions of Michael Corleone and Bud White (Russell Crowe’s LA Confidential character), respectively. Both men are given love interests (Mia Wasikowska as the preacher’s daughter and Chastain as a dancer from Chicago), but the relationship are superficially drawn at best, and the actresses are largely wasted.

Nevertheless, the cast, which includes a cameo from Oldman as gangster Floyd Banner, is uniformly solid. Pearce gives the most memorable turn as the perversely grotesque Rakes, a man who greatly overestimates his ability to dominate the locals because he considers himself above their hick way of life. His scenery chewing expressly contrasts with the more measured approach of the rest of the cast, which is supposedly a stark change from the more grounded heavies in the source material, The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant (Jack’s grandson).

One wishes one or two other liberties had been taken in an effort to better flesh out what plays like an awfully ordinary and telegraphed tale. As it is, this is an assured film brimming with rich atmosphere, but, unfortunately, it’s not much more than that. B-

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Les Misérables Fails to Garner Emotional Investment

The casts' Oscar performance was more enjoyable than the film itself.
Steve already provided a thoughtful and in-depth analysis of Les Misérables, so I’m going to cut straight to the point with my assessment. I found the film to be the weakest of the 2012’s Best Picture contenders. Part of that has to do with this year’s strong slate, but, outside of that, I just wasn’t into the film, which left me pretty cold and uninterested (a major problem for a production that relies heavily on emotional investment).

To be fair, I’m not the biggest fan of the stage production anyway, so the deck was stacked against the movie. I think Les Mis has a fantastic soundtrack, and the strength of the music can make for quite an emotional rollercoaster on the stage, but as a narrative, I’ve never been all that impressed. Other than two martyrs and a hardhead, every character is woefully underdeveloped. This is especially obvious in the case of Cosette, who’s nothing more than a plot device despite being the connecting tissue that binds most of the major characters together. In other words, she’s basically the human equivalent of a macguffin in an Indiana Jones film.

Getting back to the film itself, director Tom Hooper is a major part of the problem. Although I admire his decision to have the actors do all the singing live on set (a call that led to a well-deserved sound mixing Oscar), his cutting of the film is almost nonsensical at times, especially during the first hour or so. He makes the interesting choice to use extended close-ups during solos, but more often than not, that results in the whole affair seeming small when what he’s really going for is intimate (if that makes any sense).

Samantha Barks and her distractingly tight corset.
All of the actors do decent jobs with what their given. Hugh Jackman does most of the heavy lifting in this thing, and he’s solid throughout and has a great voice, so his Oscar nomination was hard won. And Anne Hathaway is fully-committed in the role that won her an Oscar. It’s essentially a one-note performance, and I wasn’t nearly as moved by the portrayal as many critics were, but girl’s a good actress and she sings pretty well, so that’s that.

Meanwhile, despite the plethora of criticism I’ve heard, I found Russell Crowe to be pretty good. Hooper does the man no favors with the way his exit scene was cut and staged, but Crowe lends a sense of gravitas to a relentless role that can get pretty frustrating for viewers at times. As for his singing voice – it’s not all that bad. He’s clearly not a match for his cast mates, but it’s not like he pulls a Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia. He carries the tune well enough, and his voice has a unique quality to it that contrasts nicely with the rest of the cast.

Oddly enough, I thought the film came across as a powerhouse during the Oscar ceremony itself. The clip reel they cut to showcase it was expertly edited, and the entire cast performed a fantastic medley on stage. If I hadn’t seen the movie already, I would’ve have been tricked into thinking this was a truly great movie musical. But regrettably, the spark from that telecast is not in the actual film. C+

Friday, March 1, 2013

Side Effects Offers Engagingly Pulpy Thrills

Need an oily screen presence who can be a patsy and a
master manipulator? Jude Law's your man.
When I first heard Steven Soderbergh was going to tackle a film focusing on pharmaceuticals, I instantly imagined a heavy-hitting exposé in the vein of Traffic. Then, when I saw the trailer for Side Effects, I thought “Oh no, ok, this is actually going to be a more focused ethical commentary on therapists’ increasing willingness to overmedicate patients.” There’s some of that in the opening reel, but Side Effects is ultimately much more concerned with being an engagingly pulpy psychological thriller about a wrongly accused man.

The film focuses on Emily (Rooney Mara), a woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. This causes Emily to sink once again into depression (she previously had a hard time dealing with Martin’s incarceration), leading her to attempt suicide and thus come under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Banks has no misgivings about taking lucrative consulting jobs for drug studies, but he does genuinely seem to care about his patients. He even contacts Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta Jones) in the hopes of learning more facts about her condition. Banks places Emily on a new drug that controls her depression but leads to sleepwalking. Ultimately, it leads to a tragedy that drastically alters the lives of all the principles.
I’d rather not give anything else away – most of the fun comes from watching how things unfold. I will say that Soderbergh follows Magic Mike (read my review here) with another foray into a genre enmeshed in camp only to emerge with a grade-A cinematic experience. Side Effects manages to be a well-oiled character piece and riotous B-movie thriller all at once. It comes from the same general place as Fatal Attraction and Primal Fear, except its far leaner and lived-in thanks to that Steven Soderbergh feeling.
Most girls would not be depressed to have a doting Channing
Tatum return home to them. Rooney Mara isn't most girls.
There’s a great deal of craft in this thing, from the Soderbergh’s deft camerawork to Scott Z. Burns’ delightfully twisted script. Meanwhile, hot off the heels of his Oscar-nominated work in Skyfall, composer Thomas Newman contributes a hypnotically uneasy score. As was the case with their last collaboration, The Good German, Newman’s score may be the only thing about the latest Soderbergh film to be remembered come Oscar time (if, in fact, the Academy goes for it at all).
But it’s the acting that really sets the film apart. Mara continues to show a great deal of range, expertly essaying a tricky character that her Lisbeth Salander would despise. However, it’s Law who steals the show here by brining a whole spectrum of emotions to the table. He’s equal parts compassionate, smug, upstanding, paranoid, self-righteous, and vindictive. It really is a masterful performance, and a case of perfect casting. In Contagion, Soderbergh used Law’s inherent slipperiness to inhabit the bad guy who’s seemingly on the right side. Here, he inverts that setup for even greater results.
Side Effects supposedly marks Soderbergh’s final theatrical release. He’s got one more film to come – an HBO original about Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – but otherwise, he’s headed off into retirement in the hopes of pursuing other artistic endeavors. I’m hoping he takes a few years to refuel and then comes back to us, and great little films like Side Effects are the perfect reason why. A-