Tag Archive for mystery

Movie Review: Side Effects (2/9/13)

Movie Poster: Side Effects

Side Effects

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns

Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

How long is Side Effects? 106 minutes.
What is Side Effects rated? R for sexuality, nudity, violence, and language.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Side Effects

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in Side Effects.
Photo: Barry Wetcher/©Open Road Films

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Steven Soderbergh goes out in style with classic-style thriller.

Steven Soderbergh has a range unlike most of his compatriots, and he doesn’t buy into the Hollywood bullshit. The man arguably began the indie film craze in the 1990s with sex lies and videotape, coaxed a good performance out of Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, dabbled in ensemble heist flicks with the Ocean’s franchise, and in the last year, has cinematically paid tribute to such varied and fascinating personae as Chippendale dancers and female MMA fighters. This weekend’s Side Effects is apparently his last film; he’s retiring from “cinema.” In a recent interview, he eloquently explained his frustration with making big movies, attracting talent, and the shift in the cultural significance of television. For a man with such impressive range, Soderbergh indicates he’s got his feet firmly on the ground. Most of his work adheres to the Classical Hollywood style, and Side Effects is no exception: it’s a complex but clean vignette in the key of Adrian Lyne.

Side Effects is the twisty story of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a depressive young woman whose wealthy husband (Channing Tatum) has been in prison for insider trading. Upon his release, Emily begins to flounder. After a failed suicide attempt, she starts seeing Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who prescribes a new SSRI called Ablixa. Among Ablixa’s many side effects (dizziness, irritability, dry mouth, all of those enticing terms the announcers in drug adverts list soothingly as the camera pans through a serene emerald field or focuses on a woman happily enjoying a meal with her husband), one stands out: parasomnia, or sleepwalking. The fine print can be a real beast, particularly in the drug world. In a series of gentle but startling twists, it becomes clear Emily has fashioned herself quite a tangled web. Her former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) jumps into the fray, and before long, both doctors and patient are mired deeply in an ethical quagmire.

Overuse of antidepressants is a contentious topic in the medical community. Detractors of SSRIs and other variations of mood-altering drugs have declared these medications make patients feel “not themselves,” while proponents note that they simply even out misfiring brain chemicals. We are a culture of fast food, fast cars, and fast recovery – and what faster way to stop feeling a poisonous fog rolling through your head than to pop a pill? This is perhaps a cultural phenomenon unique to America; as Dr. Banks notes, in the UK it is assumed someone taking antidepressants is sick, but here in the U.S., it is assumed they are getting better.

Soderbergh subtly portrays Emily’s experiments with various drugs (Zoloft, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Effexor) with distorted reflections, mangled silhouettes, and gentle focus pulling. Emily can’t see herself in her own reflection, whether in the soaring glass wall of a Wall Street gala or in the bathroom at her job. Her face is not her own. The question, formed subtly in imagery and then unambiguously in plot, is whether the prescription drugs, piled one on top of another to patch her rapidly fraying mental state, distort and detach her, or if she isn’t at all what she seems.

An early review called Side Effects a “pharmaceutical thriller,” and while catchy, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Although Soderbergh cites Fatal Attraction as inspiration and Side Effects does indeed utilize the sketchy nature of Big Pharma, it’s a clean psychological drama with hints of other genres: there’s a little bit of Psycho in the final reveal, and more than a touch of Rosemary’s Baby in Thomas Newman’s lilting score. It offers a bit of murder mystery a la Dial M for Murder, and a healthy dose of femme fatale. Its intrigue is perhaps a bit too complex; it’ll take you a few moments to sort out what’s actually happening. The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, a frequent Soderbergh collaborator, is subtle, intelligent, slightly hypnotic; when secrets begin to bubble to the surface, you’re left feeling a little dumbfounded.

Rooney Mara’s standout but tiny performance in The Social Network impressed David Fincher so much he cast her in the American version of the Swedish Millenium series. She proved a chameleon able to more than hold her own against Daniel Craig, Robin Wright, and Stellan Skarsgaard. Emily Taylor has a touch of Lisbeth Salander, a veiled fragility tinged with psychosis and startling intelligence. Mara’s talent is in her ability to play tough and delicate in tandem. In Side Effects Mara again holds an entire film on her shoulders, outshining veterans Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones; the Hollywood standbys are more than adequate, but neither puts in a breakthrough performance.

On a long trip over the holidays, I listened to the audiobook of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a distinctly American murder mystery gone awry. By the time I reached my destination, halfway through the book, I was absolutely certain whodunit. By the time I returned home a week later after finishing the tale, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched by the novel’s series of sudden twists. Side Effects isn’t quite as shocking or astonishing, but the numerous plot corkscrews and loop-de-loops may leave you feeling a bit tired. Soderbergh prefers ambiguity over pandering, and something tells me if critics have problems with the complexity of plot, he’d respond like this.

The film opens with a long, Hitchcockian zoom into an apartment building; it closes on a slow zoom out from the window of a mental institution, neatly shutting the metaphorical window. Ambiguity be damned, this is what you get. Soderbergh, says a friend and collaborator in the Vulture interview, favors style over substance. That can certainly be said about Side Effects. Stylistically it’s a classic, well-made Hollywood psychological thriller. It lacks a bit of the depth and substance you might wish for, but if you’re in the mood for something smart, clean, and thought-provoking, it’s just the remedy.

Movie Review: Shutter Island (2/20/10)

Movie Poster: Shutter Island

Shutter Island

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

Teddy Daniels – Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule – Mark Ruffalo
Dr. Cawley – Ben Kingsley
Dr. Naehring – Max von Sydow
Dolores – Michelle Williams
Rachel 1 – Emily Mortimer
Rachel 2 – Patricia Clarkson
George Noyce – Jackie Earle Haley
Warden – Ted Levine

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Shutter Island

Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two detectives sent from the mainland to investigate a mysterious disappearance on an island prison for the criminally insane.
[Photo credit: Andrew Cooper, Copyright © 2010 by Paramount Pictures.]

A Spooky, Nuanced Thriller That Plays Like a Forties Noir

Martin Scorsese’s newest picture Shutter Island is a creepy cinematic passage into paranoia, guilt, and insanity—a classic thriller with undertones of gothic romance and the failed American dream. The trailers, which anyone who’s taken in a movie in the last year has seen, reveal little but hint at a lot. Fortunately, the movie is a great watch even if the conclusion may leave some audiences grumbling. Its tone, script, cinematography, and acting are laudable at worst and pitch-perfect at best.

Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, penned the novel on which Shutter Island is based. The book and film are set in 1954 in the Boston Harbor Islands, one of which houses the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The movie opens on a ferry carrying Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, having a slightly different reaction to the open sea than he did in his “king of the world” days) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to Ashecliffe to investigate the disappearance of a patient. As Teddy dives headfirst into the inquiry, twists, switchbacks, and surprises take him on a disturbing spiral into the human mind.

Director of photography Robert Richardson and extraordinary production designer Dante Ferretti fashioned a creepy, physical manifestation of the inner workings of the psyche—and the result is a film that makes you feel like you might be going a little nuts yourself as the layers unfold. The island is a foreboding and utterly spectacular landscape of jutting cliffs, black shale, and eerily stormy skies. The hospital itself is a set of beautiful red brick buildings that scream New England. Vivid green landscaping and lovingly pruned trees cradle them, creating an ominously safe haven in a forbidding setting. The film looks like a Lovecraftian nightmare with a touch of the haunted, gothic feel of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It feels classically Old Hollywood; each shot, every scene, is choreographed perfectly, the subjects centered and lit beautifully. The composition of each frame is skillfully rendered (the storyboards are probably a sight to behold), and the editing is completely invisible. The script, adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, is stylish and gripping. Despite its length (two hours eighteen minutes), most viewers will be rapt throughout as the narrative unravels enigma upon mystery.

America was a strange place to live in the ‘50s, and Shutter Island’s Teddy is emblematic of the paranoia, fear, and guilt that plagued the American public. Although it’s a suspense thriller, the film is also a sort of history lesson, a journey into the bizarre world of the Red Scare, H-bomb anxiety, and the aftermath of World War II. From the way the guards treat Teddy, he says, “You’d think insanity was catchin’.” In a sense, in 1950s America it was. McCarthyism and the atom bomb were at the forefront of news, and Americans never knew what was coming next. The filmmakers rely on the tension of the period to provide a clever, nuanced narrative.

The movie boasts a cast full of A-listers: DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, and Max von Sydow. Scorsese and DiCaprio, friends who have worked together four times, have a kind of symbiosis that allows each to do his best work. Michelle Williams, an Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain, is incredible in her role as Teddy’s wife Dolores, who appears to him mostly in nightmares and hallucinations. Williams imbues each of her scenes with a haunting vulnerability. The supremely underrated Patricia Clarkson (The Green MileVicky Cristina Barcelona) plays a soothsayer residing in a cave, lending a mythological ambiance to the film. Von Sydow and Kingsley, both complete pros, are perfect in their respective roles.

Robbie Robertson, a Scorsese confidante and veteran of The Band, was charged with compiling already existing tracks into a suitable score. The result is heavy on thrumming violins, discordant horns, minor chords, and shuddering bass. Scorsese knows his movie music, and frankly it works here. The director’s affinity for Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) is clear, and Robertson managed to use the same principles that make Herrmann’s music incredible to meld a series of classical pieces into an effectively spooky ensemble piece that elevates the movie without distracting.

Shutter Island was originally scheduled for release in October, and when it got pushed back to February, everyone wondered why a Scorsese movie would miss prime Oscar season. It’s certainly one of the year’s most heavily advertised movies, and from the full twenty minutes of trailers that play before the movie gets underway, one imagines studios jostling in the figurative line to get their trailers in the peak spots. It’ll undoubtedly be lucrative, and may see Oscar nominations next year. The coup de grace, which may not be a surprise to canny moviegoers (and may leave some disappointed), is fraught with enormously eerie imagery. At its heart, the movie is made with the classics in mind. It’s a brilliantly made and enjoyable film that owes a lot to its predecessors, and if not for its sense of homage it might have been cloying. If you go in expecting a great story told in the compelling fashion of films noir, you won’t be disappointed.

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (12/26/09)

Movie Poster: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg

Sherlock Holmes – Robert Downey Jr.
Dr. John Watson – Jude Law
Irene Adler – Rachel McAdams
Lord Blackwood – Mark Strong
Inspector Lestrade – Eddie Marsan
Mary Morstan – Kelly Reilly
Sir Thomas Rotheram – James Fox
Lord Coward – Hans Matheson
Mrs. Hudson – Geraldine James

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie still: Sherlock Holmes

Jude Law as Dr. John Watson and Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes
in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes
 [Photo by Alex Bailey]

Beautiful Sets, Robert Downey, Jr., and a Smart Script Breathe New Life Into a Whodunit That’s Been Done a Hundred Times Before

Hollywood’s reaction to a dearth of new plots seems to be to reanimate old corpses, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to the shudders of moviegoers and critics alike. This year’s Star Trek managed to add elements of action and adventure to a television show so many see as boring space drama, and Guy Ritchie’s latest movie Sherlock Holmes does the same for the astute, placid literary Englishman. Those who take great pleasure in decadently executed Victorian period pieces, mysteries, logical deduction, or watching Downey, Jr. punch big bad guys in slow motion will love the movie. Others may not be so enchanted.

Holmes is one of the world’s most enduring figures, literary or otherwise. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective has seen hundreds of incarnations and dozens of copycats, and has become more than a household name. Ritchie, whose previous films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are cult favorites, brings a violent and adventuresome sensibility to the often sedate Holmes. Conan Doyle’s legend left behind a mental image, compounded by pop culture, of a rather mellow English gentleman in a deerstalker hat, puffing on a pipe and wandering about a crime scene with avidly shining eyes. Ritchie’s version of Holmes, played impeccably by Robert Downey, Jr., is these things but also much more: a bare-knuckle boxer, a martial artist, a loyal friend, and an occasional lover of women.

The film follows the famous duo of Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) as they work to solve a series of ritualistic murders, then to explain the resurrection of the murderer, Lord Blackwood, after his hanging. The movie takes place at a time when superstitions and science clashed raucously (this has been explored before in movies like Sleepy Hollow and From Hell), and when Blackwood appears to practice the black arts, London’s masses respond with frenzied hysteria. Holmes and Watson’s mission is to discover the truth behind his apparently supernatural resurrection and to uncover the plot of the secret society that wants a stranglehold on the city. Up pops Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an old love interest and nemesis of Holmes (Watson posits that Holmes’ fascination with her stems from the fact that she’s outsmarted him), to complicate and speed the process. Each step of the way reveals obstacle after debacle, sometimes resulting in injuries to person and pride, and as the duo wade through the mounting evidence, it becomes clear just how science weighs in against superstition. Unfortunately the whodunit has been done so many times that, even in a new light and with wonderful new effects, the movie seems overlong and a mite predictable.

The story takes place in dingy, dreary, nearly monochromatic 1890s London, which is rendered beautifully by combining various locations with CGI—the movie was shot in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, and the result is a genuine sense of Victorian England. The costumes and sets are flawlessly detailed and genuine, from Holmes’s dingy parlor to Watson’s impeccable suits. The action sequences are built around the time period, and though they are at times so overdone as to be cartoonish, they do compound the truly dirty sense of a London swimming in mud and poverty. The shipyard at Chatham Historical Docks and the half-finished Tower Bridge (a nice symbol for a London begrudgingly plodding into a new technological era) are backdrops for some action scenes. Ritchie has a penchant for slow-motion violence, and that’s present in Holmes’ bare-knuckle boxing; the interesting touch is the way his ferocious logic works in tandem with such inherently chaotic violence.

Downey, Jr. is something of a phoenix; his career fizzled in the 90s with drug addiction and criminal mishaps, but soared in the last few years with hits like Iron Man. He’s a rare actor who seems to become his character while still retaining a bit of himself, and he plays slightly-nutty-and-fiercely-intelligent better than almost anyone. He’s a witty, fast-talking, and wide-eyed version of Holmes, and it works wonderfully in Ritchie’s update. Jude Law, playing trusty friend and sidekick John Watson, is the perfect foil and comrade to Holmes, taking his eccentricities in stride and stepping up to bat when it’s his turn to fight. In pop culture representations, Watson is often an inept foil to Holmes’s brilliance. Not so in Ritchie’s version (nor in the books). Interactions between the two are truly enjoyable. Rachel McAdams’s Adler is a secondary character, strong-willed and tough but secretly vulnerable; she doesn’t contribute much to the plot, but hovers at the outside of the impenetrable Holmes-Watson dichotomy.

At two-plus hours, the film is overly lengthy, with a few scenes that offer explanations avid viewers won’t need. Exposition, though, is part of the Holmes legend, and his fierce mind and logical deductions are of course the most important part of the character. The fun of watching the film doesn’t come from solving the mystery, but from the action scenes (cartoonish though they may be), the gorgeous feel of Victorian London, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In this new take on Holmes, Ritchie succeeds in adding some rock and roll to a familiar story. It’s probably not a major addition to Ritchie’s oeuvre, nor to the countless action films of the decade, but it’s an enjoyable movie with a good new twist on an old plot.