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Column Fri Feb 08 2013

Side Effects & John Dies at the End


Side Effects

Director Steven Soderbergh is a man of many talents who likes nothing more than to defy expectations by treading in many different genre pools, sometimes in the same film. It seems only fitting that what he claims will be his last feature film (his Liberace biography, Behind the Candelabra, airs on HBO later this year) incorporates different styles, tones and storylines that come together rather beautifully, if not perfectly. Side Effects is a relationship drama, psychological thriller, social commentary, mystery, and a sleazy film noir all in one messy and wholly entertaining package.

The film starts out with insider trading convict Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) being released from prison. His beautiful wife Emily (Rooney Mara) is there eagerly awaiting him, but something about her is off, and it turns out that she's suffering from anxiety and a deep depression that leads her to attempt suicide. In the aftermath, Emily goes to see psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who puts her on a series of anti-depression drugs that don't quite do the job. After being hooked into doing clinical trials (for a great deal of money) for a new drug, Dr. Banks soon puts Emily on the drug, which does improve her mood and her sex life, but also causes her to have fairly active, sometimes dangerous sleepwalking incidents.

I don't want to say too much more about the plot, but let's just say that something really bad happens while Emily is sleepwalking, and she must go on trial. What's fascinating is the way Side Effects transforms into a courtroom drama that isn't about whether Emily committed a crime or not but whether this new drug and Dr. Banks are to blame. And while some may say the film is (among other things) an attack on the pharmaceutical industry, what it really becomes is a statement about psychiatrists who jump right to meds for treating their patients rather than intensive therapy. I've seen this theory put forward in regard to treating children with behavioral disorders, but rarely is it handled so well in regard to adults. But none of that matters, because before too long, the movie shifts direction again.

Now the film goes from being about Emily to being about Dr. Banks, whose home life has become a wreck as a result of these claims against his practice. To save his reputation, he begins to investigate the drug's history, which leads him into revealing conversations with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and then back to exactly what went wrong with Emily's treatment. Twists and turns — some predictable, some totally out of left field — begin to pop up, so much so that you almost have to laugh at the places this film goes. But I never stopped enjoying the sleazy, b-movie journey Soderbergh and his occasional writer Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion).

Do I care if sometimes they stray into "Law & Order: SVU" procedural territory? Hell, no. The film is handled with Soderbergh's usual combination of sophisticated filmmaking, technical know-how and intelligent handling of his actors, but all you're going to notice is how much fun you're having as Dr. Banks goes down the rabbit hole that is this case. While not Soderbergh's finest achievement, Side Effects is undeniably watchable, works as a sharp guessing game, and features a handful a tightly wound performances, especially from Law and Mara (and if you don't blink, Compliance's Ann Dowd does some nice work as Tatum's mother). Add this film to Haywire and Magic Mike, and you have a hell of a last year or so for a prolific filmmaker for whom quality is never in short supply.

John Dies at the End

Writer-director Don Coscarelli is a filmmaker who is never satisfied unless he's smashing genres together into a goopy, frothy mixture that defies being pushed into a category, such as horror, science fiction, fantasy, comedy or adventure. Coscarelli is more of a "all of the above" kind of guy. Keeping that in mind, his latest, John Dies at the End, which is finally trickling its way into theaters across the country this year, is classic Coscarelli, taking apocalyptic horror and adventure and throwing it into a blender with drugs, trippy monsters from other dimensions.

Adapted from the long-believed unfilmable novel of the same name by David Wong (real name: Jason Pargin), the film begins about a drug called Soy Sauce, which takes its users to another dimension (literally), but also gives the users psychic powers and eventually leads to an invasion by the aforementioned monsters whose mission is to take over the earth. Got it? Good. A pair of users, the titular dead man John (Rob Mayes) and Dave (Chase Williamson), are college dropouts who become the unlikely possible saviors of mankind. Or something like that.

The film's pièce de résistance is Paul Giamatti as run-ragged journalist Arnie Blondestone, who is attempting to make sense of the drug's influence and significance by interviewing the modern-day David in a Chinese restaurant. It may go without saying (but here goes anyway) that Coscarelli didn't have a big budget to make John Dies at the End. If something this ambitious had been attempted by a studio, it would have cost $250 million and taken years to get made. Instead, Coscarelli (who also adapted the book) embraces the discount look of his production (which actually looks pretty good considering).

The director also relies heavily on the book's philosophies on existence, perception, fate and what exactly life is showing us. It's also a hoot at times, tapping into stoner comedies of the past, classic horror scares, and old-school sci-fi paranoia and delusional visions. For those who worship at the feet of Coscarelli's Phantasm film (as well you should), there's a similar dreamy vibe, but with higher stakes and maybe a bit less atmosphere. Combined with some absolutely stellar supporting work from the likes of Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones, Clancy Brown and Glynn Turman, and you have yourself one hell of a ride that takes our heroes right up to the brink of the world's end, one that may not be for the faint of heart or the narrow of mind. After a couple of drinks (or a hit of Soy Sauce), John Dies at the End will probably make a whole lot more sense.

The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre, with Coscarelli presenting the 7:20pm screening. The film will be followed by a Q&A with Coscarelli (moderated by yours truly), who will then introduce a 9:45pm showing of his previous film, Bubba Ho-Tep. On Saturday, Feb. 9, Coscarelli presents another 7:20pm screening of John Dies at the End (with post-screening Q&A), followed by a 9:45pm screening of his horror sequel Phantasm II.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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