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Review: ‘Side Effects’ Sends Chills Down the Spine

Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects' (Open Road Films)
Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’ (Open Road Films)

Absolutely absorbing and diabolically clever, Side Effects serves as a fitting theatrical swan song for Steven Soderbergh, who has announced his retirement from directing feature films.

Soderbergh has developed a wonderful mastery of visual storytelling, consistently experimenting with the boundaries of commercial cinema so as to deliver distinctive films that tease any limited definitions of “mainstream” vs. “arthouse” works. Within his films, there is often a battle between the warmth of the colors and the coolness of the characters; sometimes that’s flipped, so that the colors cool off and the characters heat up.

His distinctive approach is entirely appropriate for Side Effects. Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) empathetically emobodies the troubled Emily, a 28-year-old woman who is suffering from depression. After a brief, ominous prologue, the story begins with the release from prison of Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who served four years behind bars for insider trading.

Martin is properly remorseful, yet determined to quickly regain the comfortable, prosperous lifestyle that he and Emily previously enjoyed. During his prison term, Emily moved to Manhattan and got a low-level job in an advertising agency, where her boss is sympathetic to her troubles. Still, Martin’s return does not cure Emily of her sadness, and an apparent suicide attempt brings her in contact with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a kind, sympathetic doctor.

Dr. Banks consults with Emily’s previous doctor, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who treated Emily when she lived in Connecticut. Then Dr. Banks prescribes a series of drugs for Emily, none of which are effective. Finally, he presents her with the opportunity to try Ablixa, a drug available only on a trial basis to qualified patients.

Now, the complicating factor there is that Dr. Banks has accepted a healthy consultant’s fee from the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug. There’s nothing illegal about what he does; he discloses his financial interest to Emily aforehand, and the choice is hers. But, but, but … the drug is available without cost to Emily and is recommended by her trusted physician. What choice does she really have?

Up to this point, Side Effects has developed an uncomfortable degree of tension. It’s as though everyone is holding their breath, waiting for something bad to happen. That’s accomplished by the complex structure of the original screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), Soderbergh’s direction and photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), the pinpoint-strong editing, and Thomas Newman’s discordant music score.

Add to that the layered performances by Mara, Law, and Tatum, and the story feels like the tragic tale of good characters who are caught up in a very bad situation. There are no villains; instead, the movie feels like a good-faith effort to depict a mental affliction that affects a great many people across all social classes and ages.

And then, something happens, and then something else happens, and we have a very different movie altogether.

Mind, it’s still a vastly entertaining movie, one that seeks to tear up the carpet and expose the underpinnings of similar dramatic thrillers, as if to boldly proclaim, ‘No, this is how to tell this kind of story.’ And, of course, it highlights Soderbergh’s delight in tearing apart something built with solid genre construction and remaking it in his own, cool, intelligent, post-modern image.

In the end, it’s all a bit ridiculous, but by the point that “something else happens,” I was so caught up in the film’s narrative rhythms that I was happy to follow wherever Soderbergh and his collaborators wanted to take me. Side Effects deserves to be treasured, analyzed, and appreciated as a rare, fresh take on “mainstream” cinema.

Side Effects opens wide across the Metroplex today.

Review: ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Wins With Cool Graphics, Warm Hearts

'Wreck-It Ralph' (Disney)
‘Wreck-It Ralph’ (Disney)
Super happy fun-time joy joy! At first blush, Wreck-It Ralph swims in a pool of video game goodness, threatening to drown anyone who doesn’t share its nostalgia for the golden era of the early 80s, a time in which arcades, quarters, and pixels ruled the minds and wallets of young people. Yet even if you’ve never been tempted to pick up a game controller, the movie turns out to be built around a very sweet father-daughter relationship that reaches far beyond the constraints of its environment.

Setting aside my own personal connection to the video gaming setting that is celebrated uncritically, it’s the characters who emerge with winning personalities, despite their two-dimensional nature. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by basso profundo John C. Reilly) is the villain in an arcade game called Fix-It Felix, (the reedy-voiced Jack McBrayer) a Donkey Kong knock-off whose 8-bit graphics fit perfectly with that period. The movie imagines that all the characters in video games are “real,” living lives that are restricted to a degree by their pixellated nature, yet still able to leave their particular environment and visit other games and characters via electrical wiring and gathering in their version of Grand Central Station.

Well, Ralph is tired of being the bad guy, spurned by all the other characters in his game, who party like it’s 1999 and make clear that they don’t want to be friends with Ralph, who has giant hands and an oafish nature. He attends a support group for video game villains, but it’s not helping him deal with his continuing sadness. One night, a misunderstood remark leads him to believe that he he can only win a medal, the other characters will be nice to him and he won’t be so lonely.

So Ralph goes renegade, sneaking into another game, an ultra-modern military fighting game, where he encounters Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and is pursued by Felix, who wants him to come back to the game. (Without Ralph, the other characters suddenly realize, the game is considered defective, and they run the risk of being unplugged and hauled away to oblivion.) Eventually they all end up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game, where Ralph becomes friends with young Vanellope (the scratchy-voiced Sarah Silverman), who has been ostracized much like Ralph, and tries to stay positive, even though she is lonely too. Meanwhile, she harbors a not-so-secret desire to qualify for The Big Race.

All of this set-up may sound a bit laborious, but the movie slides effortlessly from one story point to the next, driven by the sad-sack antics of Ralph and the chirpy enthusiasm of Vanellope, and enlivened by the performances of actors well-chosen for their vocal talents. Alan Tudyk practically steals the show as King Candy, who rules Sugar Rush with an iron fist big candy cane.

Director Rich Moore got his feet wet with 17 episodes of The Simpsons back in its golden era of the early 90s, before moving onto other shows, most notably Futurama, so he’s well-versed in making every frame count, stuffing the film with visual jokes as well as more video game character namechecks and product placement than would fit in a normal-sized grocery store. The witty dialogue and story supplied by writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids, in which Reilly played a starring role) — with additional story material credited to Reilly — keeps the jokes flying, though time is also carved out to develop a most atypical, and unexpectedly touching, father-daughter relationship between Ralph and Vanellope.

Granted, Wreck-It Ralph hits many of my personal sweet spots, over and over again, and frequently threatened to overwhelm my system with pleasure, so it’s difficult for me to be entirely objective, but I think the movie is a rare treat, one that works its magic on both children and adults.

Wreck-It Ralph opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, November 2.