Side Effects a tricky prescription, Sheen is Swan, and John Dies At The End

by Mark Burger

Side Effects initially seems a timely treatise on the perils of prescription medicine before taking a rather unexpected, although not unwelcome, detour into a legal thriller.

This is the latest film from director Steven Soderbergh, who vows it will be his last for at least some time. He recently wrapped the HBO bio of Liberace  (starring Michael Douglas), and the prolific Soderbergh has averaged more than one film a year since his breakout debut sex, lies, and videotape in 1989. Not all have been winners, but some have been truly great, and all bear its maker’s distinctive imprint. Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers seemingly incapable of making an uninteresting movie. (Ocean’s 13 wasn’t good, but it was surely interesting.)

Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara play Martin and Emily Taylor, the young couple initially at the center of Scott Z Frank’s story. Martin has recently been paroled from prison after being convicted of insider trading, and his attempts to rebuild their lives has Emily descending into severe depression.

Jude Law plays Jonathan Banks, the sympathetic but self-assured psychiatrist who prescribes a new antidepressant for Emily, not taking into accounts its possible side effects — hence, of course, the film’s title. Said side effects turn out to be unexpectedly lethal, and Jonathan finds his career thrown into jeopardy as a result.

Not unlike any number of Alfred Hitchcock’s heroes, Jonathan is something of a fall guy in a larger, darker conspiracy. Attempts to extricate himself from his dire situation yield a satisfying, engrossing yarn that Soderbergh clearly revels in, both as director and cinematographer (under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews). Side Effects isn’t a deep film, although it touches upon some heavy issues, rather an enjoyable exercise in narrative sleight of hand.

Charlie Sheen plays the title role in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III , a likably inconsequential, stylishly retro-friendly farce from writer/producer/ director Roman Coppola (son of Francis).

Having been dumped by his girlfriend Ivana (Katheryn Winnick), Swan’s life falls calamitously apart — mirroring, to some extent, aspects of Sheen’s very own (very public) life. There’s an “anything goes” approach to the proceedings, with daydreams, fantasies and even dance numbers thrown into the mix. Occasionally the film takes potshots at the Hollywood lifestyle, a la Blake Edwards or Albert Brooks, but more often it takes a freewheeling, fanciful approach to its story and its characters.

A star-studded cast includes Bill Murray (as Swan’s equally heartbroken business manager), Jason Schwartzman (as Swan’s best bud, a Lenny Bruce-type comic), Patricia Arquette, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Richard Edson and Stephen Dorff. As for Sheen, who never doffs his shades, he’s appealing even when misbehaving. Art imitating life? Could be.

John Dies at the End is the wild, wacky screen version of David Wong’s story as adapted and envisioned by filmmaker Don Coscarelli, rightly renowned for Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) and the Phantasm franchise.

As narrated by protagonist Dave Wong (smoothly essayed by Chase Williamson), the irreverent and almost indescribable story involves an alien invasion in which the nefarious interstellar interlopers plot to enslave humankind by a hallucinatory drug known as “soy sauce.”

Dave doesn’t find many believers in his wild story, except perhaps his best friend John (Rob Mayes in the title role), although he does his best to convince Arnie Blondestone (the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti), a skeptical writer whose eyes are eventually opened to the possibility of Dave’s weird tale being the absolute truth.

Inventive throughout, the film proceeds on its own unique trajectory, with plenty of gory and loony moments throughout. Making matters even funnier is that the entire cast — including Glynn Turman, Clancy Brown, Daniel Roebuck, Doug Jones and Phantasm favorite Angus Scrimm — play it completely straight.

As for the title, which would seem to be a spoiler of the first (and worst) order, be aware that much like the film itself, death isn’t necessarily finite. Nothing is.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is currently playing exclusively at the Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema, 2134 Lawndale Drive, Greensboro. John Dies at the End opens there Friday.

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