Tag Archive for thriller

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: Zero Dark Thirty (1/12/13)

Movie Poster: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal

Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

How long is Zero Dark Thirty? 157 minutes.
What is Zero Dark Thirty rated? R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

CLR Rating: 5/5 stars

Movie still: Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.
Photo: Richard Olley/©Columbia Pictures

War is hell, and Kathryn Bigelow shows us why in a tense, nuanced new film.

In May of 2011, American soldiers performed a midnight raid of a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, the former leader of Al-Qaeda and the figurehead behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Facebook exploded with graphic photos of his dead body, captioned with celebratory exclamations. Terrorism is dead! America triumphs!

After the 9/11 attacks, finding bin Laden was a decade-long process, a lengthy, complex route punctuated by car bombings, attacks on the world’s largest cities, and hundreds of deaths. Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 movie The Hurt Locker is a film whose overriding message is that war is hell, even for (especially for?) those who literally defuse bombs. In late 2012, Bigelow released her newest effort, Zero Dark Thirty, an account of the hunt for, and eventual death of, Osama bin Laden. This new film, very different in locale and tone from her last movie, is also about war as hell; no one, not even the CIA desk jockey scrutinizing from the relative safety of a computer as tiny men blow up tiny cars, comes out of battle unscathed. Hanging over Zero Dark Thirty is a pall of strident assertions that the Obama administration released classified information to filmmakers in a play to curry public favor. The CIA responded that it provided no such information, and a week ago a senate panel was convened to look into the matter.

Whether or not Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) obtained classified information regarding the hunt for bin Laden, the resulting film is a pièce de résistance. The movie begins on a black screen with real 911 calls from people inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “It’s so hot, I’m burning up!” a woman sobs, as the dispatcher murmurs, “Oh my God, oh my God.” It is a brutal, horrifying punch directly in the gut. It’s also an ingenious move – the next scenes, featuring very realistic torture of detainees (including graphic depictions of waterboarding), are much easier to take once we’ve had a vicious reminder of the crimes these men helped to commit.

As young, pretty CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches, Dan (Jason Clarke) beats and intimidates a prisoner. The camera shifts from Maya’s anguished face to the man’s palpable discomfort; Dan steps outside to inhale a cigarette, his gaunt features and shaggy hair betraying his torment. The movie has been criticized for fetishizing torture, for focusing lovingly on violence. No, that it doesn’t do. Dan and Maya, solid and resilient though they are, do not revel in the acts they commit. “This is what defeat looks like,” Dan sneers to the prisoner, and over the course of the film, you’ll find yourself repeating that line. This isn’t triumph. This isn’t glory. This is what defeat looks like.

Maya is a woman possessed, acting brashly on intuition over the course of eight years. Her slight frame and long red hair are out of place in rooms full of men clad in black suits and ties. Her voice, at a higher register than those of her male counterparts, is jarring when directed toward a bound man. In boardrooms and offices, she leans forward, face stony, refusing to be cowed by a director’s temper tantrum. She introduces herself to the Director (James Gandolfini) as “the motherfucker who found him,” without a hint of a smile. She faces off against the CIA’s top agent, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler, a.k.a. Coach Taylor), threatening his job if she doesn’t get what she wants. In short, this woman has more balls than anybody else in the room. She, like The Hurt Locker’s William, risks life, limb, and sanity to ensure no more lives are lost.

Chastain’s performance is nothing short of brilliant (and very worthy of her Best Actress nomination). Her face, a hard mask of determination, features delicate but sharp, barely betrays her sorrow when colleagues die, her fear (short-lived though it is) when bullets riddle her bulletproof car, her anxiety when she sends a company of men to kill someone for her. She’s a force of nature trapped behind a desk. Chastain herself, who seemed to pop out of the woodwork last year with her Oscar-nominated performance in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, is a force to be reckoned with.

Boal’s screenplay is ingenious; Zero Dark Thirty marks the third two-and-a-half-hour movie I have seen in theaters this week, and of all of them, it is the most compelling throughout (I’ll let you figure out which were the other two). Dialogue is simple, though the characters throw around terms that don’t make immediate sense to laypeople. Characters are simple, static; generally with a film about a female protagonist, there’s a subplot involving romance. There is no romance here, only determination. The climactic raid of the Abbottabad compound, including a black ops helicopter crash and subsequent explosion, is so tense I had to remind myself to breathe, even though we all know how the story ends.

Bigelow, who won Best Director despite ex-husband James Cameron’s best efforts in 2010, is the only woman in Hollywood making war movies. Noted asshole Bret Easton Ellis claimed on Twitter recently that she’s only an interesting filmmaker because she’s a hot woman. I disrespectfully disagree with his assessment. Bigelow is an interesting filmmaker because of her talent and perspective. Certainly, she’s beaten a path through the Hollywood boys’ club and been the first female to win the Best Director Oscar. These things are notable wholly because of her gender. More important, though, is the fact that she continues to produce work that amazes us with its artful tension, nuance, and complexity. In this sense, you may feel, watching Maya face off against the men in suits, barreling a hundred miles an hour toward a seemingly impossible goal, that you’re getting a glimpse at Bigelow’s own struggles.

I am almost always the sole unaccompanied woman in theaters for horror and war films. This isn’t because I’m trying to be part of the boys’ club, but because I actually love film. It’s clear to anyone watching that Bigelow does, too – and her films are different from those of many of her (male) counterparts in that there is no glamour here.

War is hell. Bigelow’s perspective, her focus on lonely, purposeful characters in the midst of chaos and violence, portrays this more eloquently than most of her colleagues could hope for. In the final shots of Zero Dark Thirty, a pilot tells Maya she must be pretty important, and then asks her where she wants to go. Her mask shatters, and for the first time we see her as a person, a human being who’s done and seen nightmarish things, whose only sense of purpose is now gone – and whose triumph actually looks a lot like defeat.

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (8/6/11)

Movie Poster: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay by Pierre Boulle

James Franco as Will Rodman
Freida Pinto as Caroline Aranha
John Lithgow as Charles Rodman
Andy Serkis as Caesar

How long is Rise of the Planet of the Apes? 105 minutes.
What is Rise of the Planet of the Apes rated? PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

An adequate summer movie: big, pretty and little else.

As summer is winding down around us, so is blockbuster season. Studios are prepping audiences for next summer’s big releases and autumn’s crop of horror flicks. Meanwhile, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been released after the last big popcorn movies of the season, Captain America and Cowboys and Aliens. Why we needed another Planet of the Apes movie, I don’t know. That horse kicked the bucket and has been thoroughly beaten for the last few decades. It’s okay, though: this reboot is a perfectly adequate summer movie.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, gifted young scientist Will Rodman (elusive everyman James Franco) struggles to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease while the illness decimates his formerly brilliant father (John Lithgow). Gen-Sys tests Will’s breakthrough drug ALZ-112 on chimpanzees. The drug is built to assist the brain in repairing itself, effectively stopping Alzheimer’s in its tracks. The results, as in any sci-fi scenario, are astonishing. But when one ape becomes aggressive, greedy CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts down the trials. Here’s where everything really starts to go awry: Will ends up with a baby chimp named Caesar who was dosed in utero with the drug. Caesar speeds rapidly through cognitive development living in a beautiful San Francisco home – it’s entirely implausible that anyone could hide a pet chimpanzee in a suburban neighborhood for eight years, but we’ll let that slide. Of course Caesar comes to realize he’s little more than a trapped animal, and when he ends up in the local primate shelter he begins to enlist other apes in his struggle for freedom.

The story is, at the very least, completely silly. But the story isn’t what gets people in theater seats these days (the movie made a solid $1.25 million in midnight shows); it’s the visual effects. Weta Digital, the studio that brought us Avatar, made a bunch of damn dirty apes look frighteningly realistic. The fantastic Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, plays Caesar – and Serkis is a genius. The ape looks exactly the way you’d figure a creature in the midst of a rapid-fire evolutionary jump would look. He moves the way you see chimps move in the zoo, but with an added humanity. His facial expressions, created digitally by Weta, are downright eerie; audiences in 1968 may have been stunned by the makeup effects of the original Planet of the Apes, but that movie (classic though it may be) looks like child’s play in comparison. I’m generally not a proponent for heavily digitized film characters – we seem to be losing the subtle art of makeup. But while Rise of the Planet of the Apes is occasionally distractingly digitized, the effects don’t detract from the tale being told (mostly because the tale isn’t that important).

Franco, whose gig as Academy Awards host earned him jeers, must’ve needed a paycheck. That man is attending college classes full-time, acting on daytime soaps, and continuing in the movie biz. He basically phones it in, but that’s okay. It’s not his fault, he didn’t write this movie or the flop that was Your Highness. He was just doing his job. (If you sense a raised eyebrow, that’s because you should.) The insanely beautiful Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) makes a totally unnecessary appearance as Will’s love interest Caroline. Costume designer Renée April committed a crime against nature in clothing Pinto; a smart woman can still dress in clothing that flatters her. John Lithgow, whose turn as the Trinity Killer on the last season of “Dexter” brought out the fangirl in some of us, is great as always. Harry Potter’s Tom Felton is unfortunately just another version of Draco Malfoy, an unnecessarily cruel bully who gets what he deserves.

The movie’s major flaws are its pacing and its complete superficiality. The story takes place over nearly a decade, and the only character who ages at all is Caesar. There’s too much information squeezed into a tight runtime, and characters remain static in favor of pretty effects. Most of the characters are pointlessly evil – it’s a jab at big pharma and animal research, certainly, but it’s unnecessary to continually shove it down the audience’s collective throat. There’s also a “big scary virus” twist that isn’t fully explored; this leaves the door wide open for a sequel, for better or worse.

Fortunately, what audiences want around this time of year is something big and pretty. The writing isn’t great, the story is quite ridiculous, and the acting is only passable (with the exception of Serkis). But Weta gave us the kind of effects worth drooling over, and if all you’re in search of is a massive, beautiful no-brainer, then this is the movie for you. There’s something curiously triumphant about the apes’ battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, about the way they ascend the enormous redwoods of Muir Woods. It’s uncanny to watch very real human expressions on chimp and orangutan faces. When Caesar spoke, the woman two seats down from me said “WHOA” to the completely silent theater – and that’s a fair way to sum it up. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a good movie, but it will probably make you go “whoa.” Sometimes that’s all you need.