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Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013)

by Steve Habrat

Rumor has it that Side Effects, the slinky, sexy new psychological thriller from busybody director Steven Soderbergh (Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike) will be his final motion picture. If this is true, Side Effects is certainly a high note to bow out on. An edge-of-your-seat exercise that would please Alfred Hitchcock, Side Effects threatens to take aim at prescription drugs and the long lists of side effects that may come with taking them, but half way through, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns decide to double cross the viewer. What comes next is a glossy, upper-class murder mystery that creeps up behind you and sends a chill down your spine. It certainly isn’t the film you expect it to be, mostly because Side Effects has been advertised as a hazy tale of prescription drug side effects spiraling those who pop the anti-depressant Ablixa, the fictional drug prescribed to those suffering from depression within the film, into a murderous daze. You will be surprised by what the filmmakers have in store for you and, more importantly, you will not be able to resist the sensual pull of the story. And then there is the haunting performances, mostly from the unpredictable Rooney Mara, who constructs another firecracker of a character.

Side Effects follows 28-year-old Emily Taylor (Played by Rooney Mara), the wife of Martin Taylor (Played by Channing Tatum), who recently returned home after serving a 4-year prison sentence for insider trading. As Martin figures out a way to get their lives back on track, Emily suddenly attempts to commit suicide. After recovering, Emily is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Played by Jude Law), a psychiatrist who puts Emily on a number of anti-depressants that appear to do nothing for her. With every option exhausted and Emily still contemplating suicide, Jonathan decides to put Emily on the experimental drug Ablixa. Ablixa appears to be helping Emily and her life with Martin seems to be getting back on track, but one evening, Emily viscously attacks Martin in a daze. Emily is arrested for the attack and the police begin an investigation that could threaten Jonathan’s practice. Growing desperate to get to the bottom of the mysterious attack, Jonathan seeks out Victoria Siebert (Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily’s former psychiatrist who offers up disturbing new information. As Jonathan digs deeper into Emily’s past, he stumbles upon secrets that will not just destroy his career, but also shatter his happy marriage.

Side Effects turns out to be a very difficult film to review, as the second half of the film is ripe with surprises, some being very clever and some flirting with silliness. The film really gets by on its element of surprise and its best you don’t know much about the story going in. Despite some far-fetched touches to the script, the film does keep you intrigued with where it is going to slither off to next. If Side Effects turns out to be Soderbergh’s last film, he can retire knowing that he delivered an extremely well-made film. Some scenes begin out of focus, with characters or objects slowly revealing themselves to the viewer. It is a nifty touch that subtly mirrors the secrets of the plot slowly becoming clear to the viewer. It also gives the film a surreal feel, making the lavish New York City penthouses, offices, and apartments seem chillingly distorted or generally off-putting. Soderbergh then drenches the sets in a warm orange glow with plenty of ominous shadows creeping over the characters, their lavish worlds slipping into a darkness. Then there is the inescapable erotic atmosphere that hangs over the shady events, a seductive mood complimented by sexy trip-hop tunes on the soundtrack. It certainly is a hip and pretty package that is eager to compliment its four photogenic leads.

Side Effects (2013)

Bringing the sexual sparks she brought to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara sizzles once again as the glassy-eyed Emily, a woman drunk on wealth and distraught over it disappearing in the blink of an eye. She is bone chilling as she descends into bizarre sleepwalking spells that find her fixing dinner for three even though she has no children with Martin (another plot twist that rattles the viewer). When she blankly jabs the knife into Martin’s stomach, more than a few people in the showing I attended jumped and erupted in horror and disbelief at what was occurring. It is clear that Mara is aware that she is very good at doing crazy and she really brings the crazy here. It is said that Blake Lively was originally up for the role of Emily but thankfully it went to someone with more talent. Tatum does a fine job as the confused yet understanding husband, who is well aware of the grief he has brought on Emily. He is given a supporting role here but he doesn’t resort to phoning the performance in. Law wins us over as a victim caught up in a web of lies and deceit. You really feel for him as his life crashes down around him and you’ll smile to yourself as he devises way to stay one step ahead of those trying to bring him down. Zeta-Jones is as vampy as ever as the sinister Victoria, a woman who acts as if she wants to help the troubled Emily any way she can yet conceals disturbing behavior in the past.

At an hour and forty-five minutes, Side Effects is practically over in the blink of an eye because, frankly, there is never a dull moment. Soderbergh is constantly framing a fascinating image, capturing a spine-tingling performance, or making the hair on your arm stand at attention when Emily slips into a daze. You can’t shake the feeling that the film would have fared better if it would have kept its attention on prescription drugs and their seemingly never-ending list of side effects. Still, Soderbergh and Burns refuse to dumb themselves down in the second act even if they do get a bit carried away with a certain relationship (you’ll see what I mean). Overall, Side Effects is a surprisingly beefy film that is glaringly out of place for this time of year. A handsomely made and clean-cut thriller that isn’t afraid to send the viewer away deep in thought. Side effects may include your stomach twisting into knots, a desire to see it twice, an unwillingness to take any medication you may be on, and an incurable fear of Rooney Mara. See it before all the surprises have been spoiled.

Grade: B+

Attack of the Remakes! A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

by Steve Habrat

It may be blasphemous as a die-hard fan of horror to say this but I’ve never particularly cared for Freddy Kruger. I know, I know, how can I dislike one of the most iconic slashers every projected on the big screen? I guess I saw Wes Craven’sA Nightmare on Elm Street at an older age and Freddy Kruger just came off as a clown in a Christmas sweater. I was so used to seeing campy versions of him that I was never really able to get swept up in the love of the character. Considering Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees had all undergone the remake treatment, Freddy Kruger was expected to be next monster off the horror remake assembly line. Infinitely better than the Friday the 13th remake but still an artificial bore, A Nightmare on Elm Street does find Freddy Kruger shedding his comedic aura and retreating to the ominous shadows that spit him out and I couldn’t be happier about that. It was great to see someone other than Robert Englund step in as the iconic burn victim and put a fresh spin on the character, something that was greatly needed. Handed over to music video director Samuel Bayer, he works hard to earn the respect of Craven and the fans of the original but the problem is that Michael Bay is on board as a producer and it is incredibly obvious considering the lack of mood and abundance of rubbery special effects.

A Nightmare on Elm Street begins in the Springwood Diner where Kris (Played by Katie Cassidy) meets up with her sleep-deprived boyfriend Dean (Played by Kellan Lutz), waitress Nancy (Played by Rooney Mara), mutual friend Quentin (Played by Kyle Gallner), and Kris’s ex-boyfriend Jesse (Played by Thomas Dekker). It turns out that Dean is afraid to go to sleep because when he does, he dreams of a horrifically burned psychopath who launches gruesome attacks against him. After Dean appears to cut his own throat, the teenagers begin to investigate the ramblings of their deceases friend. As their search continues, they discover that they all may have known each other longer than they thought. They also uncover information about a deceased gardener named Freddy Kruger (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who was believed to be a pedophile. As this information comes to light, Kris, Nancy, Jesse, and Quentin begin to suffer from the same bizarre dreams that Dean complained about. These dreams are particularly horrific for Nancy, who was always Freddy’s favorite. While more and more teens die of unusual circumstances, Nancy and Quentin race to figure out a way to pull Freddy from the dream world and into the real one so that they can destroy him.

While director Bayer and Bay do very little to rework Craven’c classic story, they do tinker with Freddy’s back-story, which has him a full-on pedophile rather than a child killer with a knife-glove. This swap does make your skin crawl when he creeps out of his hissing boiler room toward one of his victims. Funny enough, Freddy’s favored boiler room was something that could have undergone a bit of a change. It worked okay in the original film but it would have been cool to see Freddy’s lair undergo a bit of a change to match the character’s back-story and appearance. As far as looks go, Freddy certainly looks horrific even if he is largely kept in the shadows for much of the movie. I have to give the filmmakers credit for keeping the monster largely in the dark because that does ratchet up the spooks but when Haley is reveled in the hellish glow of his boiler room, the effects applied to his face look sort of obvious and, dare I say, cheap. The rest of the dream world that takes hold when the characters doze off look familiar, like music video sets reused with buckets of fake blood thrown around. Bayer tries to make them creepier by throwing in little girls who jump rope, play hopscotch, and chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you!” Frankly, I found these scenes to feel more staged than surreal.

Surprisingly, the performances are much better than in the previous Platinum Dunes offering. I certainly think that the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Kruger was inspired and he does attack the role with his fangs bared. He ditches the countless one-liners and instead growls loudly over the soundtrack. The flashback sequence that finds him without all the prosthetics and CGI is effectively creepy, mostly because anything dealing with pedophilia is creepy. Then there is Rooney Mara as Nancy, a promising up-and-comer that seems well aware that she is better than the movie she is in. The filmmakers twist Nancy into an angsty teenager who hides away in her room with headphones crammed into her ears and huddles over her paintings she enjoys doing. It seems like Bayer had a hard time trying to work her in front and center in the film, as she almost seems secondary to Kris in the opening sequence. About a half hour in, Mara is the star of this bloodbath, which in turn perks the film up. Cassidy and Dekker are forgettable as disposable teens there simply to die by Freddy’s favored glove. Gallner puts in 110% as Quentin, an equally angsty teenager who has feelings for the arty Nancy.

Considering A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is largely drawing from the original film’s storyline, the film lacks any real surprises, which is immensely disappointing. While Bayner certainly has plenty of gore to go around, I found some of the violence to be watered down a bit, a shocker because I figured that the filmmakers would fall back on it. There still is no question that the concept is bright but failure to take it in a new direction stalls the film almost instantly. Let’s be honest here, Bay is certainly not the most creative in the story department. Predictability hangs low over our heads as characters we figure are going to get the knife do and twists we figure are coming fail to get the gasp they are hoping for. Then there is the ending, which I was less than impressed with. It consists of Freddy tossing Nancy around a room while he utters repulsive lines of dialogue her way. Having a monster lick the face of the freaked out heroine can only make us squirm so many times before it seems recycled. Much like Friday the 13th, Bayner tacks on a GOTCHA! moment before fleeing off into the end credits, but it feels like a cheap shot jolt. Overall, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is a lousy film because it never gets off the ground. It feels like it was shot on Hollywood sets with tasteless CGI painted over it to make it more interesting. It never scares us although it does repulse us with its subject matter in a few places. It only grabs a recommendation for Haley’s commanding performance.

Grade: D+

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Feature: Steve reacts to the 69th Annual Golden Globes

Ricky Gervais hosting the 69th Golden Globes.

by Steve Habrat

Last night, cinema fanatics, fashionistas, and celebrity gossip gurus tuned in to the 69th Annual Golden Globe awards eager for the lax, unbuttoned atmosphere the awards show is known for. I for one was excited to see what host Ricky Gervais would unleash upon the hoards of celebrities that showed up for a few glasses of champagne and to bullshit with one another. What we were treated to was a lukewarm show that for the most part failed to entertain its viewers and had a handful of winners that were even less dazzling. It didn’t help that the Hollywood Foreign Press ignored films that SHOULD have been nominated. Seriously, where the hell was Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Instead, we watched as the silent French film The Artist, a film that has yet to receive a wide release and mainstream audiences have not seen, cleaned house and Meryl Streep was handed ANOTHER award for The Iron Lady, another film NOBODY has seen. Can you say yawn inducing?

The show looked bleak from the get go. Uninteresting films, mediocre performances, and a slacking awards season were mostly to blame for the bland show. But it was infuriating to watch as Drive, a blood-soaked art house thriller that managed to be multilayered and boast a handful of stellar performances was waved off. It was nice to see Albert Brooks get a nod for his sinister performance of a gangster with the shortest temper known to man and a thing for stabbing forks into eye sockets but what about Ryan Gosling? Gosling had a nod for his suave turn in Crazy Stupid Love but his Drive performance was the one to talk about. And furthermore, what about Cliff Martinez’s retro score for the film? The soundtrack climbed the iTunes charts, had everyone who saw the film buzzing about it, and was the epitome of cool. Despite glowing reviews, the film was noticeably absent from the show.

Another film that was overlooked in the Best Motion Picture-Drama section was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a bold and unflinching serial killer thriller that, despite the lengthy runtime, was a chilly adult mystery. Instead, The Ides of March filled a spot just so more people could line up to kiss George Clooney’s ass. Mara received a nod for her jaw dropping performance and we watched as the award was handed (naturally) to Meryl Streep. Streep has won three other times! There was also the absence of Fincher in the Best Director category, his spot filled by Clooney. I would have been content if Fincher OR Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn had filled the spot. At least they had the good sense to give Martin Scorsese the award for the wonderful Hugo.

Another glaring omission was Gary Oldman’s performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Oldman displayed grace, restraint, and eyes that were filled with heartbreak. The film may not have been one of the best films of the year but it was also loaded with expert performances. Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, and Colin Firth could have also nabbed a supporting actor slot. And am I the only one who loved Sasha Baron Cohen in Hugo? He was a villain who worked his way into our hearts, even if he did get a bit lost in all the action of that film.

Most of my disappointment comes from the sweep by The Artist, a film that Hollywood seems reluctant to give a wide release but has been subtly generating buzz throughout 2011. My suspicion is that they assume there most likely isn’t a wide audience for this type of film but they have showered it in awards and praise. Critics have placed it at the top of their Best of 2011 lists and raved about it since early last year. Lets see what the fuss is about! Even if I had absolutely no interest in silent films, I would want to know why everyone is giddy with it. Do not take this as I’m downing the film before I see it. Oh no, I’m excited to see this French gem but come on, a wide release before the Golden Globes would have been nice.

Overall, it was a major disappointment to see Gervais pulling punches with his hosting. I expected there to be a few more cringe worthy comments from the British funnyman. It was nice to see Scorsese make off with the directing award and it was great to see Woody Allen snag the screenplay award for Midnight in Paris. It was a nice welcome back for Woody. Streep and Clooney grabbing up the Best Actor and Best Actress awards came as absolutely no surprise whatsoever. I still have yet to see The Descendants so I cannot comment on its win of Best Picture-Drama. There is no one to blame but myself for not having taken a trip to the theater to see it. As a big fan of The Adventures of Tintin, I cheered when Spielberg accepted the award for Best Animated Picture. There was really no competition as there was a disturbing lack of quality animated films last year.

I certainly hope that the Academy Awards embraces some of the films that the Globes overlooked. The problem with last night was there was no hold your breath moment. There seems to be no competition like last year’s battle between The Social Network and The King’s Speech. I doubt that Drive will get a Best Picture or Best Director nod when nominations are announced but I could be wrong. Maybe it was the lack of excitement throughout the season but I hope that there is a spark of life in the next few weeks and that we can finally get to see The Artist so that when it cleans up at the Oscars, we can actually be familiar with it.

 

Let us know what you thought of the 69th Annual Golden Globes by voting in our poll attached below or leaving us a comment! We’d love to hear from you.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

by Steve Habrat

American fans of Stieg Larsson’s webbed murder mystery novels now have a reason to celebrate with the arrival of David Fincher’s fiercely loyal The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an frigid film that proudly embraces graphic rape scenes, torture, and fits of bright red gore on white tile. Fincher promised the film would earn its hard R rating and he sure as hell made good on that promise. Being someone who read the novel and was left underwhelmed by it considering all the hype that surrounds the books, the movie clipped the drier moments and kept the pace swift and forthright, even if it did sometimes feel like the Cliff Notes version of the book. As far as this film being the follow-up to Fincher’s praised The Social Network, it is a worthy follow up, if a bit of an epic one at that. But this isn’t The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Social Network Fincher. Oh no, this is Fincher in the vein of Zodiac with a touch of Seven and the camera flips of Fight Club. This is down and dirty Fincher. His choice for his punk rock hacker heroine, Lisbeth Salander, who is tackled here by the immersive Rooney Mara was a wise one and she gives one of the finest performances of the year.

Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Played by Daniel Craig) is hired by the retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Played by Christopher Plummer) of Vanger Industries to help him solve the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece Harriet Vanger. Henrik promises Mikael that if he discovers anything at all about Harriet, he will give him information on Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, the businessman who brought the libel charge against Mikael and ruined his career. As Mikael digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Vanger family (You practically need a family tree to keep up with who all of them are), sinister secrets start to emerge that some of them want to keep quiet. Mikael also finds himself in need of a secretary and he gets more than he bargained for when he is brought Lisbeth Salander (Played by Mara), an anti-social computer hacker and punk rocker who is a wizard at research and has been doing some digging on her own.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes with a lot of baggage. It is a psychological scorcher, equipped with a heavy plotline and more characters than you can shake a piece of IKEA furniture at. It also has some fits of black humor that will lighten the tension that is caused by not one, but two stationary rape sequences. Yet the film is fearless, tackling issues of trust, solitude, and the drive to prove oneself. Both Mikael and Lisbeth have been disgraced and they both are eager to bring honor to their name. It should be noted that they go about drastically different ways of doing it. Fincher edits the action together with quick, precise cuts that cause a few scenes at the beginning to feel a little too brief. He is very anxious to get to Hedeby Island and focused on igniting the web that is the disappearance of Harriet Vanger. At two hours and forty minutes, Fincher could have slowed it down a bit, but I also understand that he has a lot  of material to tackle to satisfy fans. I’m fairly convinced done right by them.

If the length and strong subject matter turns you off, the performances will surely wet your appetite. Rooney Mara, who had a bit part as Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in The Social Network, looses herself in the role of Salander. She apparently took up smoking for the role, got everything from her eyebrow to her nipples pierced, and bleached her eyebrows. She has a slight alien look to her but it is also beautiful in bizarre way. She can be devastating (Just watch her at the hands of guardian Nils Bjurman, who tortures her mentally as well as sexually), resilient, haunted by her past, and in the blink of an eye, stare daggers right through you. For a film this fearless, it needs a heroine just as fearless and it is without question one of the most confident starring roles I have seen all year. Craig is overshadowed by Mara but she does deserve the attention she is getting for her work. Craig’s character is altered from the book, less a womanizer and a not quiet as confident. He has a sense of humor, sometimes at himself, and it appears as if he gives himself some room to have fun with the role at times. This isn’t clean cut Craig, but a coarse “detective” roaming a snowy film noir. Fincher couldn’t resist making another one (Seven, anyone?) and he even gives us a femme fatale. Plummer is also award-worthy in his own way, a fatigued old man just looking for the truth. He has the second greatest line of the movie. Everyone else is background performance good, no one being the weak link in the chain. Stellan Skarsgard gets the chance to play a slippery part, the mysterious current CEO of Vanger Industries.

Fincher applies some chilling artistry to the film, mostly in the creepy, alien-like biblical readings from Harriet that slink in every now and then. These will make your arm hair stand on end, I promise you. Fincher goes on to paint an uninviting portrait with a craggy background and spitting snow. Everything has a slight decayed and dusty look, more in the vein of Zodiac and Seven. He trades his trademark amber glow and rich colors for cool, faded tans, whites, and shocking blues. Fincher puts the mystery right out in the open and tells us to have at it. The twinkling score from Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is sometimes dreamy and sometimes keenly aware of the pulsating evil and doom coursing through the film’s vein. Fincher must have wanted to emulate his own success, the score never being as ear grabbing as The Social Network, but it adds a foreign sound to a film that takes place in a foreign land.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the best mainstream films to come out in 2011. A hearty crime thriller that isn’t afraid to leave the audience rubbed the wrong way and a performance that will join the ranks of great movie performances. The film was released during head-scratching time and I wonder if releasing it at Christmas was the smartest move by the studio. I know it tried to embrace and poke fun at the season it has been released in, but the studio has to understand that this isn’t everyone’s cup of Wayne’s Coffee. The film, just like the book, many demand a few views for all the action to really sink in and to give the audience the opportunity to learn who all these characters are. In a way, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is decently timed by the studio, a chilly film to compliment and enhance the chilly weather. And trust me, this one will chill you to the bone marrow.

Grade: A-

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