Steven Soderbergh

In the last 18 months, Steven Soderbergh has cranked out films with stunning efficiency, bouncing around genres with “Contagion,” “Haywire,” “Magic Mike,” and finally, “Side Effects,” a worthwhile dip into the pool of the psychological thriller. Soderbergh has threatened to retire after “Side Effects,” but the riveting, surprising thriller proves that his voice is as strong as ever.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a mentally bruised woman, begins to spiral after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison. Psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), worried about Emily, prescribes her a rotating regimen of antidepressants. As Emily struggles to get back on her feet, her new meds cause more trouble than they’re worth, with dangerous results for the people in her life.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has collaborated with Soderbergh before on “The Informant!” and “Contagion,” and he stages a twisty, engaging shell game. “Side Effects” overflows with clever dialogue and creates fascinating characters. As the film dives into its plot (the particulars of which are best left unspoiled), the dynamic between Emily and Dr. Banks becomes increasingly layered and unpredictable. However, “Side Effects” suffers from a few storytelling problems, and its final stretch gives into unexpected pulpy instincts a bit too readily, resulting in a convoluted conclusion that reveals very little about the characters or story.

However, director Steven Soderbergh presents “Side Effects” with such unflappable confidence that even when the story is stretched thin, his aesthetic moves things along so smoothly that it’s hard to notice. Soderbergh works with remarkable economy in every frame, keeping his images perfectly sparse. His best work is in the film’s first movement, as he roots the audience firmly in Emily’s perspective by placing her as the only object in focus, while the world around her is blurry and hard to maneuver. It’s evocative, smart direction, and another reason why Soderbergh is one of the most perceptive directors working today.

Rooney Mara surprised everyone with her fearless performance in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and she continues to impress here. As the side effects of Emily’s medication become increasingly troublesome, Mara gracefully skips between charming, dreamy, and icy. Jude Law brings plenty of acumen and determination to Dr. Banks, making him an easy anchor for audience sympathy in the murky waters of the film’s second half.

“Side Effects” starts to falter a bit as things wrap up, but Steven Soderbergh’s assured direction and wry performances from Law and Mara keep things afloat. Soderbergh certainly works enough to have earned his retirement, but his clear, engaging voice and unshakable confidence pair so well with Scott Z. Burns’ strong character work and shining dialogue that it’s hard not to wish for more collaborations between the pair.

Photo Credit: Carlos Pagan | Daily Texan Staff

Magic Mike” is director Steven Soderbergh’s third film in nine months, and it’s remarkable that he hasn’t burned himself out yet. After “Contagion,” a sprawling ensemble piece that released in September, Soderbergh has been building his films around singular personalities, first with MMA fighter Gina Carano in January’s underrated “Haywire,” and now with Channing Tatum in “Magic Mike.” And most surprising of all, “Magic Mike” is a worthy addition to Soderbergh’s filmography, a surprisingly touching and smart examination of a very seedy profession.

Based on Channing Tatum’s past as a male stripper, Tatum plays Mike, an aging stripper at a Tampa, Fla. nightclub with greater aspirations. Mike has a knack for furniture design, but is trying to earn money any way possible, and it’s at a daytime construction job that he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer). Before too long, Adam and Mike are hanging out, and then Mike gets Adam a job at the club where he works, owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey).

What follows is a fairly standard story of an aging star being pushed out of the spotlight by his up-and-coming protege, but it’s Soderbergh’s precise stylistic control that keeps the film from becoming dull. He shoots the strip club scenes with a seductive glamour and sheen, but when Mike and his co-workers venture out into the real world, things take on a washed-out, almost hungover visual grit. Also impressive is the fearlessness with which Soderbergh dives into the male stripper culture, and the depth of the small observations he makes about the sense of community that exists among its inhabitants.

It can be assumed that Soderbegh took an interest in Tatum after his physical, roguish turn in “Haywire,” the first of many impressive performances he’s given this year. However, “Magic Mike” may be his best performance, and he’s an arresting presence in the film. He’s a showman, full of bravado and confidence on and offstage, and it’s a self-aware, deeply charming performance in a film full of them. Mike ends up romantically entangled with Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s protective older sister — Horn’s restrained, coy demeanor makes for good chemistry with Tatum’s energetic goofiness.

I wasn’t really aware of what the audience for “Magic Mike” was until I attended a press screening full of middle-aged women hooting and hollering every time a bare chest or thong came onscreen, but that crowd will certainly find what they’re looking for. However, the film carries unexpected dramatic weight beneath its seductive exterior, and the way Soderbergh juggles sheer entertainment and more complex character development is the most impressive trick “Magic Mike” could have hoped for.

(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

“Contagion” may be the most unexpectedly terrifying movie of the year. It’s not exactly a horror movie in the traditional sense of the word, since there are no axe murderers, ghosts or zombies, but its step-by-step breakdown of the spread of a potentially apocalyptic virus is every bit as unnerving as anything George Romero or John Carpenter has ever accomplished.

The film doesn’t waste a minute, introducing Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s returning from a business trip overseas, and promptly making her one of the first victims of the deadly virus that functions as the film’s villain. From there, “Contagion” takes on a vaguely novelistic structure, introducing the key figures trying to prevent the epidemic and then slowly toppling their every effort. Scott Z. Burns’ script moves deliberately, laying out each government agency and their different actions, never portraying them as right or wrong decisions, but as the acts of people trying to do their best in the situation from hell.

Director Steven Soderbergh has been publicly threatening to retire, and “Contagion” makes it crystal clear what a shame that would be. Soderbergh builds relentless tension throughout the film, weaving in small moments of human decency amongst the large-scale apocalyptic material. It’s refreshing how effortlessly Soderbergh juggles a dozen major characters, keeping the film moving quickly and not feeling the need to have every single storyline intersect and overlap with another, like so many large ensemble dramas.

Every member of the film’s sprawling cast pulls their weight. Matt Damon shines as Mitch, husband to Paltrow’s Beth, and his helpless terror at the plight he and what remains of his family are in is contagious. As an epidemic specialist, Kate Winslet starts off as authoritative and imposing, and Winslet makes her characters’ slow deterioration hurt us just as much as it does her. As a self-righteous blogger, Jude Law is shamelessly smarmy, but his character never quite develops into a very compelling figure. Marion Cotillard is the film’s weakest link, playing another medical specialist whose character arc makes some pretty huge leaps that the screenplay can’t quite justify.

Thanks to its matter-of-fact structure, speedy pace and mostly strong performances, “Contagion” is a reliable, often chilling thriller. But more so, it’s a film that worms its way under your skin in some very subtle ways. It makes you extremely aware every time you touch your face, question every hand you shake and sends a chill down your spine every time you hear a cough or a sneeze. If that’s not the mark of a truly exceptional thriller, what is?