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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Free Radicals, Side Effects

FREE RADICALS  (Three Stars)
U. S. : Pip Chodorov, 2011 (Kino Lorber)

Maya Deren in Meshes in the Afternoon

Pip Chodorov’s very loving documentary on experimental film (a.k.a. avant-garde cinema) divides its screen time between compelling examples of  the cinema itself, including Hans Richter‘s playful Ghosts Before Breakfast (with its flying derbies), Maya Deren’s lyrical and haunting Meshes in the Afternoon, and some gorgeous images by Stan Brakhage — and interviews or encounters with a number of the filmmakers themselves, including Richter, Brakhage, Robert Breer, Maurice Lemaitre, Peter Kubelka and Jonas Mekas (who reminds us of the great glory days of The Village Voice), It’s a felicitous mixture. The abstract or surreal images contrast richly with the very human, matter-of-fact presences of the filmmakers themselves. Chodorov obviously adores his subjects, and he does very well by them.

I’m not very find of abstract painting (which obviously helped inspire experimental filmmaking), so I can’t really explain my fondness for the movie avant-garde, ranging from the non-abstract surrealists Bunuel and Dali to largely non-narrative people like Hollis Frampton. to a splatter guy like Norman McLaren. Maybe I think, probably a superficial notion, that it’s too  easy to fake an abstract painting, but to make an abstract film, even a bad one, you have to have at least some technical skill. Aactually, you can fake a film too, or a film review.) Maybe I‘m just still mad that my mother Edna, who was a brilliant realist artist, was treated like crap by the pretentious abstract artist/educators of her college and day.

In any case, it makes an interesting companion for the provocative avant-grade film anthologies that Kino put out a few years ago. (They were from the Raymond Rohauer prints, which some people dislike.) Anyway, art is art, and since I’m generally on the side of artists, especially artists without a lot of money behind them, I liked Chodorov’s tribute. You may like this little moving picture gallery too. It’s a surreal, avant-garde, experimental, underground blast. An abstrct one, too. (In English and French, with English subtitles.)

SIDE EFFECTS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

 U.S.: Steven Soderbergh. 2013

The fictitious drug Ablixa in Side Effects — an intelligent but unpleasant movie thriller by director-cinematographer-editor Steven Soderbergh — is  supposed to handle depression.

But what it actually creates here (or reveals) is a kind of  hell on earth, wrapped up in slick movie thriller trimmings. Our guy at the center, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) lights up that hell by giving Ablixa to troubled patient Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara). Emily was married to hedge fund crook Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) and once was a psychiatric patient of icy-edged  Doctor Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The other actors in the drama, all affected by Emily, include Emily’s seemingly compassionate office boss (Polly Draper), hardball NYPD cop Beahan (Victor Cruz) and Banks’ unhappy wife Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw).

The consequences of all this are dire. But we’ll keep them to ourselves for the moment, because,we’ve been requested to conceal this movie’s beginning and first main twist (a doozy) by the film’s representatives.  The movie is no masterpiece, even though it defies a taboo or two. But, if the people who made Side Effects, many of whom are Steven Soderbergh, want me to shove their cards up my sleeve — well, it’s their movie.

What Side Effects is trying to do — courtesy of that intelligent and unpleasant script by Scott Z Burns (the writer of other Soderberghs, like Contagion and The Informant!) —  is tell an old-fashioned cynical James M. Cain-style erotic crime thriller yarn, like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, about sex and murder and the dark side of the American dream. But they also wanted to update it with good-looking contemporary people and backgrounds and a nerve-jangling electronic score (by Thomas Newman of the celebrated musical Newmans) and a steady stream of twists and surprises. It’s a modern neo-noir with more old-fashioned noir roots than usual.

But though the movie is certainly done every well (the norm for Soderbergh), and though it’s exactly the kind of movie (brainy, unsentimental, ready to go all the way) that we’re often starved for, I can’t say I liked it very much — or disliked it very much either, for that matter. It’s not a very likable film, unless you’re keen on watching pretty people do ugly things — which usually needs either a sharp sense of humor or a talent for terror to come off strong.

The acting is good. But while Law teases out the contradictions in Banks, Mara needs more acid for Emily. As an actor, Law can play callous and selfish and obnoxiously handsome (like the playboy murder victim in Minghella’s film of  The Talented Mr. Ripley), or earnest and upright and likable (like his version of Dr. Watson opposite Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes), or sometimes as a mixture of both (like his best role, the android gigolo in A. I.). Here he evolves from a sympathetic character to one less so, partly by letting his initially guileless seeming smile mutate into something thinner and meaner.

As for the others, Rooney Mara has another role that, like her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which paled next to Noomi Rapace’s), may be too dark for her. Catherine Zeta-Jones was born to play neo-noir types and I wish the studios would cast her more often, in films worthy of her most poisonous inspirations. Channing Tatum, stripped well for Soderbergh in Magic Mike and he suffera dies well for him here.

Soderbergh — who photographs his films under the alias “Peter Andrews,” edits as “Mary Ann Bernard” and directs as himself — has caused a rumpus  by declaring this as his last film, or at least his last theatrical release. I find that hard to believe. He‘s only 50, which is often the beginning of the prime decade for movie directors with long careers, like Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock. Soderbergh already has his  Liberace TV biopic Behind the Candelabra. in the can (it’s been shown at Cannes and broadcast on HBO).  TV is porbably a good place for him right now, because the scripts are so much better.

Ingmar Bergman, a great gloomy  Swede (perhaps like Soderbergh’s ancestors), once declared that the 1983 Fanny and Alexander would be his last film, and he went on to make (to directe or write or both) quite a few more, including his real last film, the 2003 Saraband. Bergman shouldn’t have kept that pledge. Neither should Soderbergh.


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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs: Free Radicals, Side Effects”

  1. Scotty Pelk says:

    Dude: Soderbergh’s not 59.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon